What we’re up against: Aluminum as the new mercury and end of expertise

Forgive me, dear readers.

I realize that I’ve already subjected you once to the contagious supernova of stupidity that is an Olmsted on Autism blog post. I broke my usual rule about not directly linking to the crank blog Age of Autism unless there is a compelling need. One reason is that I hate to drive traffic there, Even though I do always make sure to use a rel=”nofollow” tag whenever I link to AoA or any other blog whose Google ranking I don’t want to contribute to, increasing AoA’s traffic risks letting its “management” (such as it is) charge higher rates for advertising for the supplement hawkers and compounding pharmacies selling various forms of woo. More importantly, I do fear that the hypernova of stupidity that is the entire AoA blog (of which Olmsted’s supernova of stupidity is but a small part) might actually be contagious and infect this blog. True, I hope to make this blog a vaccine against such contagious stupidity, but no vaccine is 100% effective. Exposing myself to the infectious agent too many times or at too large an inoculum is a bit risky, aside from the neuron-necrosing ignorance routinely served up there.

I’m about to go back to the well more time.

The reason I thought I’d go back to the well again is because there is a post there that demonstrates just what we’re up against when it comes to the antiscience of antivaccinationism. Yesterday displayed an seemingly intelligent man who is a scientific ignoramus plumbing depths of ignorance difficult for those of us who are scientifically trained to comprehend and doing it in as unequivocal a manner as I’ve ever seen. He even went so far as to claim that he knew “plausible” links between parents’ occupations and autism when he saw them, science and epidemiology be damned. If there is a better definition of the arrogance of ignorance, I’m hard-pressed to find it, other than Jenny McCarthy. After all, Olmsted’s been at it for years; Jenny, only a little more than a year.

Yesterday, AoA served up another example of the arrogance of ignorance that was almost on par with one woman’s “gut feelings” led to some ludicrous inferences a couple of weeks ago, and I thought taking a look at it would be instructive. Specifically, what it demonstrates is an all too common attitude that expertise doesn’t matter, that the “inferences” or “discoveries” made on the basis of studying at the University of Google should be taken as seriously as those based on science. In other words, those who don’t know what they are talking about demand that those who do know not only give them a fair hearing (reasonable) but actually act on what they demand. It also demonstrates something that I’ve been saying all along about antivaccinationists, namely that now that mercury has been scientifically exonerated as the cause of autism another ingredient in vaccines would replace it as the all-purpose toxic bogeyman that antivaccinationists fear. Not surprisingly, that ingredient is aluminum, to the point where I hereby declare that aluminum is the new mercury.

The post in question, Stunning New Link Between Vaccines and Autism Rates, is yet another by a mother of a child with “strange reactions” to vaccines and a cousin with an autistic child. Big surprise, she blames vaccines. She also requested to remain anonymous, which is something that I have no problem with at all, but I can’t help but point out the hypocrisy of AoA regarding her request. After all, if I were to find out who this mother is and “out” her the way that AoA “outs” me periodically or has outed one of my readers in the past, you can bet there’d be a firestorm of righteous indignation. I’d never do that, of course, barring knowledge of criminal activity or some imminent threat that might override my respect for anonymity, but I point this issue out as yet another example of the hypocrisy that runs rampant over at AoA. I also realize that my not-so-Respectfully Insolent deconstruction of this mother’s statements about vaccines risks yet another charge that I’m “mean” or even “hate mothers.” I’m not and I don’t, but if you’re going to post such a load of tripe on an antivaccination blog, I’m sorry, but gentle just won’t get the message across. I don’t blame this mother so much. She doesn’t know better and was apparently encouraged through an e-mail exchange with Olmsted. I do, however, reserve my contempt for Dan Olmsted, whose scientific ignorance is such that it breeds (or at least encourages) scientific ignorance in his less sophisticated readers.

A contagious supernova of stupidity, indeed.

I also don’t intend on spending a lot of time doing a line-by-line rebuttal, anyway, because the whole post is such a–shall we say?–“target-rich” environment that my post would end up being even longer than the typical tome that I write. After all, the entire post is one large example of confusing correlation with causation and making a whole lot of really ignorant statements that a bit of education about science might have prevented. Of course, the ever-credulous, ever-antivaccine Dan Olmsted doesn’t see it that way:

This very compelling data is well worth looking at and we welcome thoughts about its significance. Below are excerpts from several e-mails she exchanged with us. The charts and notes (HERE) are dy-noh-MITE! As we’ve said before, smart, concerned and informed citizen-scientist-parents are the CDC’s worst nightmare — and the best hope for getting to the bottom of the epidemic of autism and related disorders. We hope this low-key stay-at-home mom continues to match her very sharp wits against the vaccine apologists.

Dan’s showing his age, and unfortunately I have to show mine by recognizing the “dy-no-MITE!” reference. Back to the 1970s, which was still a more sophisticated time, at least in terms of scientific understanding, than anything you’ll ever find at AoA. In any case, I’m sorry to have to disabuse her and Dan of their mutual admiration. This mother may be a citizen, and she may be a parent, but she’s no scientist. No scientist would fall for this sort of obvious trap:

I used the “Autism Rates by Birth Years” data from TACA Now and compared it to public records about vaccine histories. I found that since the DTP vaccine in 1949 the ONLY time period with NO increase in autism cases is also the only time period with NO vaccines added to the CHILDHOOD schedule. The hep b was licensed during this time but it was not given to children until 1990. Also, the Hib was reformulated for infants in 1987, but due to a shortage, it was not added to the schedule until 1990 (There was a HUGE jump in autism rates in 1990). See for yourself.

Mr. Olmsted’s “scientist” even goes so far as to declare this to be The Correlation that Does Indicate Causation.

It’s not.

Actually, the graph is just plain silly. For example, it divides up the time from 1946 to 2004 into different time periods ranging from a decade to only two years. The decade periods of time are too long to correlate to the introduction of individual vaccines, but that doesn’t stop our intrepid “scientist” from trying. It includes the time period all the way back to even before 1943, which is when Leo Kanner reported his characterization of the first cases of autism. Since then, the diagnostic criteria for autism have changed considerably over the decades, in general broadening. Indeed, many children now labeled as “autistic” or on the autistic spectrum were previously diagnosed as schizophrenic or mentally retarded all the way up into the 1980s and even early 1990s. That’s because in the 1990s, the diagnostic criteria were greatly expanded, which, coupled with increased awareness and funding for the study and care of children with autism, resulted in the huge increase of diagnoses we have today.

Of course, the monotonically increasing curve from the 1940s to present could be correlated with a lot of things, not just vaccines and not just aluminum-containing vaccines. For example, television first became commonly available in the 1940s, but really took off in the 1950s and 1960s. One could just as easily plot the number of televisions in the U.S versus the number of cases of autism, and I bet you’d get a pretty similar correlation. Ditto suburbanization of the United States. I bet autism is caused by suburban living. Or how about computer use? Generation Rescue makes much of the increase in autism diagnoses since 1983. I pointed out that that was the year that the PC was introduced, with the original Macintosh introduced in 1984. Obviously computer use causes autism, although it’s hard to tell if it’s computers or CDs because the CD was introduced in the U.S. in 1983, too. Its use took off. However, analogous to thimerosal, CD usage has been plunging since 2001, the year the iPod was introduced, Everyone seems to get their music as MP3 files rather than as CDs, but autism rates have not fallen. That’s pretty powerful evidence it’s not CDs.

Unless, of course, MP3 players also cause autism.

I’m being facetious, of course, but unfortunately this “mother-scientist” is not. She’s making exactly the same sort of confusion of correlation with causation common to all scientifically naive humans (and all too many scientifically knowledgeable ones, as well). To her, it’s absolutely, positively got to be the vaccines; so she just looks for any information to cherry pick that she can to support her idea. Because she doesn’t have the scientific background to evaluate these snippets of information, she weaves them together into a ludicrous meshwork of pseudoscience and antiscience almost as hilarious as those of Cynthia Janak a couple of weeks ago. So how did she come to these conclusions? First, she says:

Also FYI, according to Wikipedia, mercury thermometers are not even allowed on some airliners because mercury reacts with aluminum. Many childhood vaccines contain(ed) both aluminum and mercury. Sounds dangerous to me.

Here’s what Wikipedia actually says:

Mercury readily combines with aluminium to form a mercury-aluminum amalgam when the two pure metals come into contact. However, when the amalgam is exposed to air, the aluminium oxidizes, leaving behind mercury. The oxide flakes away, exposing more mercury amalgam, which repeats the process. This process continues until the supply of amalgam is exhausted, and since it releases mercury, a small amount of mercury can “eat through” a large amount of aluminium over time, by progressively forming amalgam and relinquishing the aluminium as oxide.

Aluminium in air is ordinarily protected by a molecule-thin layer of its own oxide, which is not porous to oxygen. Mercury coming into contact with this oxide does no harm. However, if any elemental aluminium is exposed (even by a recent scratch), the mercury may combine with it, starting the process described above, and potentially damaging a large part of the aluminium before it finally ends.[48]

For this reason, restrictions are placed on the use and handling of mercury in proximity with aluminium. In particular, mercury is not allowed aboard aircraft under most circumstances because of the risk of it forming amalgam with exposed aluminium parts in the aircraft.

Perhaps this “scientist” is worried about the formation of amalgam in vaccinated babies. In fact, she is and in essence says so in response to the observation that autism rates have not fallen in the nearly seven years since thimerosal was removed from most childhood vaccines:

Here’s my best response to the thimerosal argument: While definitely it’s not good to inject children with mercury, I think that’s only a part of the problem. I think that thimerosal can make the aluminum even more toxic because the two metals are reactive, and if it’s true that thimerosal reduces glutathione (I found this study on TACA), then children’s bodies would be less capable of excreting the aluminum.

I hate to break it to this mother, but there’s a huge difference between two raw metals coming in contact with each other on the surface of aluminum and ethyl mercury (thimerosal) at minute concentrations in the body, rapidly excreted, and tiny amounts of aluminum that are considerably smaller than what a baby receives from breastfeeding and other environmental sources. Unless someone’s putting mercury metal directly on aluminum, not much is going to happen. Certainly, there’s no evidence that aluminum “reacts” with mercury in the body to become more toxic. Here’s a sample of more of this sort of “reasoning”:

I also read the Wikipedia entry on aluminum and found out that you shouldn’t mix it with mercury, and this article also stated that aluminum damages the blood brain barrier. That could explain why adding the live virus measles vaccine to the aluminum-containing DTP vaccine would cause problems. Without the blood-brain barrier there would be no protection against the live measles virus which can cause brain damage.

I don’t really want to keep beating on this poor mother’s scientific ignorance. There are many more examples of it in her post, examples that any chemist (with the possible exception of that promoter of autism quackery, Boyd Haley) would laugh at or just shake his head, complete with worries that because some have claimed to have linked aluminum with Alzheimer’s disease (a dubious link at best) that she’s really worried. She also thinks she’s found the reason why boys are affected with autism (to her produced by vaccines) than girls:

This link also says, “Furthermore, aluminum increases estrogen-related gene expression in human breast cancer cells grown in the laboratory. [39] These salts’ estrogen-like effects have led to their classification as a metalloestrogen.” I don’t really understand what a metalloestrogen is, but the definition on Wikipedia is, a hormonally active agent. Could this help explain why one gender would be affected more frequently? That’s not something I know anything about, but it seems like it’d be worth looking into.

No, it’s really not, and it almost certainly couldn’t. This is the sort of mechanism that’s been invoked to claim a possible link between the use of aluminum-containing antiperspirants and breast cancers in the upper outer quadrant of the breast, close to where antiperspirant is applied. That’s a questionable link, and even if true it would be the result of a daily application of aluminum over the course of many years–not an analogous situation. Context matters. That’s one thing a scientific education teaches.

The reason I highlighted this particular post is not to make fun of this mother (although I do make fun of Dan Olmsted and AoA for breathlessly treating it as though it was some sort of brilliant scientific insight that those dreaded “close-minded” scientists missed). There’s a reason why they missed such “insights.” They go against chemistry and physiology; in short, there’s no plausible mechanism. Again, context matters. Indeed, the reason I highlighted it is because the antivaccination movement shows how much expertise has become devalued. By way of Sullivan and Andrew Sullivan, I became aware of an interview with Harry Collins that encapsulated this phenomenon, in which the observations of untrained and ignorant people, who see their observations derived from the University of Wikipedia and Google as brilliant insights and don’t even realize why their observations aren’t considered seriously by scientists, are treated as equivalent to the knowledge and experience of scientific experts. Key quote:

I would say that the danger to democracy that my own discipline–social studies of science–is not doing enough to combat is the collapse of the idea of expertise. Current social studies of science has difficulty with the notion of expertise. The attitude that anyone’s opinion on any topic is equally valuable could spread, and there are some indications, such as widespread vaccine scares, that suggest it is happening. A world in which there is said to be no difference between those who know what they are talking about and those who don’t is not one that anyone who thinks about it wants. Such a society would be like one’s worst nightmare, exhibiting many of the characteristics of the most vile epochs of human history.

Philosopher-king fascism won’t work, but a reaction to it that creates technological populism is just as bad. It is very hard to work out how to find a rationale for a middle position which does not replace one extreme with the other.

This is exactly what is happening in our society, and rabid antivaccine activism is but one symptom of it. There are many other strains of this very phenomenon, including the entire “complementary and alternative” medicine movement and its postmodernist attacks on evidence-based medicine (science is just a “narrative,” you know, one that’s “equally valid” as that of shamans, reiki practitioners, and various practitioners of woo), 9/11 Truthers, “intelligent design” creationists, and a wide variety of other pseudoscientists. They are not merely content to attack science, but they attack the very concept of expertise. Given the how much egalitarianism appeals to the general public, these attacks on expertise are very seductive. Who do those pointy-heads think they are, anyway? Why can’t anyone learn enough to have an opinion as valid as the scientists? For highly technical areas, it may be possible that “anyone” can–if that person wants to go through the years of training it takes to master the disciplines and background knowledge. That’s not to say that a technocracy would be a good thing, either. There needs to be a balance, but unfortunately the balance has shifted too far to the side of the know-nothings. Antivaccinationists are perhaps best example of this phenomenon, not to mention the one most endangering public health.

There are two famous lines from Dirty Harry movies, one of which goes, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” the other of which goes, “Well, opinions are like assholes… everybody has one.” The problem with this false elevation of incompetence and the arrogance of ignorance is that those who don’t know what they’re talking about but confidently contradict those who do don’t know their limitations or that their arguments stink.

And aluminum is the new mercury.