I'm an avowed skeptic. Somewhat cynical, too, but hopefully without the bitter edge that can go along with that.
I've been reading Natalie Angier's The Canon A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. Angier starts at the beginning, with a chapter on thinking scientifically, followed by one on probability. In the latter, she talks about our tendency to confuse correlation with causation. "Just because two traits or events are frequently found in the same package doesn't mean that one is responsible for the other."
Just because I show up for math class every day at 11 am, and George Clooney shows up there at the same time every day and sits in back of me doesn't mean he's stalking me (damn it). Just because we're there at the same time every day doesn't mean he's there because I'm there (damn it, again).
Many people tend to equate correlation with causation, however, a phrase I ran into again today (twice in 24 hours! There must be a reason!)as I read eSkeptic. The topic was whether vaccines (specifically a preservative in some called thimerisol) are responsible for autism. It is a timely topic, as nearly 5000 parents of autistic children have filed suit against the government claiming that vaccines caused their children's disease.
I urge you to click on the link and read the entire fascinating article. While many claim that the incidence of autism rose with the widespread use of thimerisol-containing vaccines, it is quite a leap to prove cause and effect. And in fact, it probably can't be done, because there probably isn't one.
Fascinating information from the article:
There is little in the literature to imply a direct link. For ethical reasons, there are no randomized, double-blind studies, the gold-standard of scientific literature.
One study by Mark and David Geier uses a flawed database to demonstrate a correlation between thimeriol and autism. Much more interesting, shocking, even, is the fact that the Geiers, in addition to publishing data suggesting a correlation, have filed for a patent for two treatments for autism, using drug combinations and chelation. And David Geier is the president of MedCon Inc. (emphasis on the "con"), a legal firm that seeks compensation for people who claim to have been harmed by vaccines. So much for the conflict of interest issue. There is a reason that scientific rigor requires disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.
The article also points out in 1992, in Denmark, thimerisol was removed from vaccines, yet the rates of autism continued to climb.
Finally, compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. It is fine to say that autism is climbing, and to give statistics, but the fact is that many new diagnoses are made based on different definitions. Diagnotic criteria for autism were changed in 1994. Autism is a diagnosis of inclusion and exclusion, with no single scientific marker. Thus it has an element of subjectivity not found in a disease diagnosible by, say, a blood test. The authors even point out the fact that sometimes the only way a family can get help and services is to have a diagnosis, which may make a medical practitioner more likely to give it a name.
This is fascinating stuff and highlights the importance of critical thinking. It is so easy to be swayed and spun into believing something patently untrue.
It will be interesting to see if our legal system can win a major windfall in this case. Harder against the government than it was against Dow-Corning in the silicone implant debacle. But it is alarming that a good lawyer (I use the word "good" loosely) can make a jury completely ignore science, just as our government has done to the people in recent years.
Alarming and sad, this trend of swallowing untruths or partial truths whole when presented by a glib if unscrupulous flimflam artist.
And so I ask: Be critical. Do your homework. Be skeptical. Ask questions. Ask more questions. Read. It's important.
[Image from Amazing Firms, Amazing Practices]