Open-minded to the point of brains falling out: Antivaccinationists appointed to federal autism panel

We’ve had one example this week of people with minds so open that their brains fell out at the Oxford Union, which invited Holocaust denier and British National Party leader Nick Griffin to “discuss free speech.” Now, sadly, I see another, this time it’s the United States government, which has invited die-hard antivaccinationists to be on a major federal panel about autism:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Advocates who believe vaccines may cause autism will join mental health professionals and neurologists on a new federal panel to coordinate autism research and education, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department said on Tuesday.

Parents of children with autism and a writer who has an autism spectrum disorder will also be on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, HHS said.

“The committee’s first priority will be to develop a strategic plan for autism research that can guide public and private investments to make the greatest difference for families struggling with autism,” said Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute for Mental Health and the chairman of the new committee.

The committee was authorized under the Combating Autism Act of 2006. The U.S. government has been under pressure to step up research on autism, which can severely disable a child by interfering with speech and behavior.

And who are these antivaccinationists who will be on this committee, which will play a major role in coordinating autism research, services, and education, along with scientists, educators, and parents? You’ll find it hard to believe:

Some of the committee’s members have been at odds with government agencies in the past. Registered nurse Lyn Redwood, president of the Coalition for Safe Minds, has frequently accused the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of covering up evidence that vaccines cause autism.

Another member, Lee Grossman, is president of the Autism Society of America, which also argues that vaccines can cause the disorder.

The Autism Society of America is bad enough, but SafeMinds? One of the major groups pushing the lie that vaccines cause autism? Heck, why not invite J.B. Handley himself? There’s also Stephen Shore, whom we’ve met before as one of the authors of Understanding Autism for Dummies, which, as both Peter Bowditch and I pointed out, contains credulous discussions of chelation therapy as a useful treatment for autism and of Mady Hornig’s “Rain Mouse” studies.

All sarcasm aside, though, I’m torn between three reactions to this news:

  1. What on earth were they thinking? They seem to be laboring under the delusion that including advocates of pseudoscience and quackery will do anything but cause trouble.
  2. On the other hand, the government was in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of situation. If these “advocates” were excluded from the panel, it would be a propaganda coup that the mercury militia and antivaccinationists would milk for all it’s worth. I can see it now: EXCLUDED! (Not unlike Ben Stein’s idiotic pseudoscientific defense of “intelligent design” creationism EXPELLED!) I could see how the government might have concluded that it’s better to keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. It may actually not be such a horrible ploy. The usual strategies of Lyn Redwood and her ilk might play well in the press, where tugging at the heartstrings with sad anecdotes can be extremely effective in swaying opinion. Among scientists, it’s much less likely to get them anywhere, as scientists know that anecdotes are inherently unreliable and that the plural of “anecdotes” is not “data.” These antivaxers can, however, cause considerable trouble and disruption to the functions of the committee. They might even manage to get the panel to give them minor bits of their quack agenda as a sop to shut them up.
  3. There will be a price to be paid for letting such advocates of pseudoscience onto the panel, and that price is giving cranks the “patina of respectability” to their unscientific and scientifically unsupported view, just as letting David Irving and Nick Griffin speak at the Oxford Union and hosting a debate with homeopaths at the University of Connecticut gave Holocaust deniers and homeopaths an undeserved appearance of of respectability. Expect the mercury militia to milk this connection for all it’s worth–at least as long as it serves its purpose to do so.

Of course, the antivaccinationists will not be swayed by any amount of scientific evidence presented to the panel and will only get frustrated as it becomes clear that the scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause autism is highly unlikely to be overturned. Consequently, here’s my guess as to how this will probably play out. As periodic recommendations of the panel are released, they will make a big deal about trying to publicize their “dissent” from the panel’s consensus. I doubt that they will go as far as Sallie Bernard did in denouncing the CDC study that she participated in designing when it did not show what she wanted it to. Having the appearance of the “government seal of approval” is just too important to them.

There is one other way this may play out. I consider it highly unlikely, but it would be highly desirable if it were to occur. Maybe, just maybe, real science will rub off on the antivaccinationists. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll start to understand why the science doesn’t support their paranoid contentions and why their propaganda could lower the percentage of vaccinated children sufficiently to risk the return of diseases once thought vanquished. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll come to realize that vaccines are safe and do not cause autism.

And maybe the tooth fairy is real.

The problem is that, even if in the end some of these antivaccinationists are led down the path of science, it will likely take millions, if not tens or hundreds of billions, of dollars worth of research to produce the studies that would convince them even in this most optimistic scenario. In the more likely scenario, the same amount of money that could otherwise be spent on more scientifically promising areas of research will be wasted, and the results won’t convince a single member of the mercury militia.

Still, I can always dream of the more optimistic outcome, can’t I?