Bad Science Abuses Autistics

If you have not read them already I urge you to visit Kristina Chew’s and Interverbal’s blogs where they write on an extraordinary technique employed by French psychiatrists to “treat” autism.

And if anybody is fluent in French I would be interested to know what they are saying about it on Forum Autisme My own limited grasp of the language suggests that, thankfully, a lot of French people are outraged by this “treatment” as well.

“A French treatment for autistic children with psychiatric problems which involves wrapping the patient in cold, wet sheets from head to foot is undergoing a clinical trial for the first time, which critics hope will see an end to the controversial practice.

The treatment, known as “packing”, involves wrapping a child in wet, refrigerated sheets in order to produce a feeling of bodily limitation and holding, before psychiatrically trained staff talk to the child about their feelings. Critics have called the procedure cruel, unproven and potentially dangerous, but its proponents say they have seen results.”

This is not quackery from some fringe movement like DAN! This is quackery from the heart of the French psychiatric establishment where Freudian-based psychoanalysis still holds sway. Before we get too smug it is as well to remember that the Tavistock Centre in the  UK is funded by the NHS to treat autism with psychoanalysis. And according to the Lancet

Delion recently gave a course on the technique at the Tavistock Clinic in London, which is part of the UK’s National Health Service. Maria Rhode, a psychotherapist at the clinic, points out that there are currently no effective treatments for autism, and that caring for such children presents a major, long-term challenge to health services.

Thank you to Michelle Dawson for this. Writing on her discussion list, The Misbehaviour of Behaviourists she also informs me that Professor Hobson is a member of the Tavistock Centre. As I understand it Hobson believes autism  results from a failure of interaction between child and caregiver that he regards as “the cradle of thought,” the essential foundation of what it means to be human. Here we are again. Autism is seen as a deficit that makes you less than human. So abuse of these children is OK in the name of science. I am sure scientists who experiment on animals have to follow stricter codes of ethical practise than those that apply to autistics and other victims of psychiatric research.

Patrick Holford – Quack of Quacks

George Elliot’s eponymous hero Felix Holt was a man of principle unlike his father. After his father’s death, 

Felix was heir to nothing better than a quack medicine; his mother lived up a back street in Treby Magna, and her sitting-room was ornamented with her best tea-tray and several framed testimonials to the virtues of Holt’s Cathartic Lozenges and Holt’s Restorative Elixir.

But Felix would not countenance his mother living on the sales of the quack medicines left to her by her late husband.

I know that the Cathartic Pills are a drastic compound which may be as bad as poison to half the people who swallow them – that the Elixir is an absurd farrago of a dozen incompatible things; and that the Cancer Cure might as well be bottled ditch-water.

Felix was determined to earn an honest living.

I shall keep my mother as well – nay, better – than she has kept herself. She has always been frugal. With my watch and clock cleaning, and teaching one or two little chaps that I’ve got to come to me, I can earn enough. As for me, I can live on bran porridge.

Patrick Holford – true believer.

Ah, bran porridge! Patrick Holford would be proud. He is a great believer in bran. Unfortunately, like Holt’s father, he is also a great believer in  pills and elixirs and cures for cancer. In fact Holford thinks he can cure most things including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, alzheimers, arthritis and, of course, autism – hence my interest. And once you are cured he promises to give you beautiful skin and improve your sex life as well!

Patrick Holford – Quack

OK. The guy is a quack. End of story. Unfortunately this quack appears regularly on national TV and is cited as an expert by many national newspapers. As a result his books are bestsellers and he is beginning to gain an international reputation. This makes him a dangerous quack. Fortunately over at Holford Watch a team of bloggers are on his case

This blog uses basic science to challenge the nutritionist Patrick Holford. Holford’s website describes him as “a pioneer…Britains best-selling author and leading spokesman on nutrition and mental health”. Holford’s key qualifications include “being frequently quoted almost weekly in…newspapers”; he also claims to be “a vegan who eats eggs and fish”. With all these credentials, there’s obviously a lot to learn from watching the guy!

Another favourite of mine is Moonflake who wrote this:

Patrick also claims to have miracle multivitamin cures for almost anything. Not feeling mentally acute? Let’s see what his advice is on improving you memory and concentration:

Here are five easy steps you can take now to help keep your mind and memory sharp:
1. Read my book ‘Optimum Nutrition for the Mind’ £12.99
2. Join 100% Health today and you can have this book at a members discounted price.
3. Have a personal nutrition consultation.
4. Attend my 100% Health Weekend Workshop
5. Follow my  Brain Friendly Diet and supplement programme.

He can’t be taking his own advice, or he might have considered swapping steps 1 and 2. But maybe it’s not a trend. Maybe he really isn’t all about sucking you dry of every miserable penny. Let’s see what his advice on avoiding cancer is:

Here are five easy steps you can take now to say no to cancer:
1. Read my book ‘Say No to Cancer’  – £6.99
2. Join 100% Health today and this book can be yours for free.
3. Have a personal nutrition consultation.
4. Attend my 100% Health Weekend Workshop
5. Follow my ‘Say No to Cancer’ Diet and supplement programme.

I think there might be a pattern here.

Ben Goldacre has also used his Bad Science blog and his newspaper column in the Guardian to expose Holford’s quackery, especially his pernicious tour of Africa when he touted vitamins as a more effective rememdy for AIDS than AZT. Incidentally it was in Africa that journalist Tom Eaton coined the immortal description of Holford as an international bowel-whisperer. He is also anti vaccine, unless they are homeopathic vaccines. I kid you not. And we are not talking common or garden MMR or flu jabs here.

Although less well researched, you may wish to investigate homoeopathic immunisations. In one study 18,000 children were successfully protected against meningitis with a homoeopathic remedy, without a single side-effect.

Inevitably, The Quackometer has revealed that Holford is on the advisory board of Safe Harbor, which is a front organization for the Scientologists. So we can add wackery to quackery.

AIDS, Cancer, Diabetes, Meningitis – these are killer diseases and Holford is giving potentially lethal advice to sufferers who eschew orthodox interventions in favour of his quackery. Compared to this are his dabblings in autism a sideshow that we can safely ignore?

I think not. Autism may not be life threatening but quackery often is. And parents who are aware of his outrageous claims  in other areas will be less likely to trust their child’s welfare to somebody like Holford. So I looked at his website (google it if you must. I refuse to link to misinformation) from which all subsequent Holford quotes are taken.

Patrick Holford on Autism.

Autism appears to be occurring more often and while autism used to occur primarily from birth, over the past ten years there has been a dramatic increase in late onset autism, most frequently diagnosed in the second year of life.

Holford is claiming, with no supporting evidence, that regular autism is present from birth but now we have an increase in late onset autism which strikes at 24 months. 

Late onset autism does not exist. Part of the diagnostic criteria for autism is that the symptoms are present prior to 36 months. How  can there be a late onset variation that appears 12 months earlier? I suspect that Holford is referring to regressive autism, a term used to describes the condition in those children who appear to be developing normally but then regress or fail to meet subsequent developmental milestones. Analysis of family videotapes has shown that this is a real phenomenon. But many of the children who regress into autism show signs of atypical development prior to regression and expert diagnosticians can spot subtle signs, indicative of autism, in these children that parents and non-specialist clinicians often miss.

Holford would like us to believe that regression is caused by factors like the child’s diet,  environmental pollution or vaccinations. The fact is that regressive conditions can be genetic. We even know which gene is responsible in Rett Syndrome, a regressive form of autism found almost exclusively in girls.

Patrick Holford on the causes of Autism

As with many conditions there is debate as to whether autism is inherited or caused by something like diet or environment.

Actually there is no debate.  The consensus is that autism is genetic. Lots of factors affect gene expression, including other genes. Environmental factors that begin in the womb and continue after birth also play a part. What we have is a complex interaction of the organism and its environment that defies simple either or explanations. Holford is trying to revive the old genes versus enviroment dichotomy which no self respecting biologist would countenance today.

Parents and siblings of autistic children are far more likely to suffer from milk or gluten allergy, have digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, high cholesterol, night blindness, light sensitivity, thyroid problems and cancer. Being breastfed also increases the risk.

This is nonsense, and badly written to boot. Does the final sentence refer to risk of disorders in parents and siblings or the risk of autism? Whatever happened to “Breast is Best”?

At first glance, once might suspect that autistic children may inherit certain imbalances. However an alternative explanation might be that other family members eat the same food and may be lacking the same nutrients and there is growing evidence that some of the nutritional approaches used to help correct dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD can make a significant difference to the autistic child.

None of this is supported by the data.  It is anecdotal. But there are also many anecdotes from parents about the unusual eating habits of their children. In other words, they do not eat the same food.

Recently there has been a raging debate over the danger of the MMR vaccine causing autism in children. The official line is that there’s no good evidence of such a danger.

The debate is over. Wakefield was wrong.  He thought he had found measles in the gut but it was in fact human DNA not measles RNA. The exchange reported by Autism Diva at the autism omnibus proceedings suggests that he published his results knowing that there was good reason to doubt them. Wakefield ignored the doubts. Real science is built on doubt and it is real science, not the official line that has debunked Wakefield.

Patrick Holford – How to Improve the Symptoms of Autism.

Ensure that any nutrient deficiencies are addressed Research has shown that addressing nutrient deficiencies can dramatically improve symptoms in Autistic children.

Holford is not talking about healthy eating here. There is a lucrative market in selling vitamins, mineral supplements and essential fatty acids. Holford is part of this scam.

Remove Allergens – In addition to nutrient deficiencies, the most significant contributing factor in autism appears to be undesirable foods and chemicals that often reach the brain via the bloodstream because of faulty digestion and absorption.

Actually the scientists who subscribe to this theory regard it as evidence of food intolerance, not an allergy. Allergic reactions are immediate and can range from hives to  anaphylactic shock. The effects of food intolerance build up over time. Evidence for food intolerances causing autism is weak and hotly contested. But, even if his  sources are mistaken, Holford could at least do them the service of reading them properly and making sure he understands them before rushing into print!

The strongest direct evidence of foods linked to autism involves wheat and dairy and the specific proteins they contain – namely gluten and casein. These are difficult to digest and can result in allergy especially if introduced too early in life.

Once more, it is intolerance not allergy. Words matter. Accuracy matters, especially in medical matters. I am reminded of the old joke. 

A man walks into the doctor’s surgery and says, “I want to be castrated.” The doctor tries to dissuade him but finally agrees to do it. After the operation the doctor does his rounds and says to the man, “I am still baffled by your request. It was most unusual. Men normally come to me to be circumcised.”  “Oh,” the man replies, “That was the word I was looking for!”

So, what is the right word for Holford: quack; charlatan; fake; snake oil merchant; conman; exploiter; evil, lying busturd? send your answers to info@patrickholford.com

EDIT

NHS Blog Doctor and Holford Watch have both commented on Patrick Holford today. Support your local quackbusters!

Blogging about Thinking

Kev just nominated me for a Thinking Blogger award.

The official rules for participation in the Thinking Blogger Awards meme are as follows:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

thinking blog

Ilker Yoldas, the originator of this meme, also enjoins us to “Please, remember to tag blogs with real merits, i.e. relative content, and above all – blogs that really get you thinking!” Apart from feeling a buzz because Kev has nominated me in this category, I also feel obliged to choose carefully. This may be a bit of fun. But it is serious fun. It gives me an excuse to think about the themes that have informed this blog since its inception in November 2005.

  • Debunking autism quackery and exposing its exploitation of parents’ fears.
    • This is really about exposing bad science and Ben Goldacre’s weekly BadScience column in the Guardian, also published as a blog, does this and so much more. He has taken down the Geiers, Wakefield, and their media friends like Melanie Phillips. http://www.badscience.net/
  • Championing real parental concerns for their children because when these concerns are dismissed by mainstream practitioners it drives parents into the hands of the purveyors of autism quackery.
  • Educating the professionals about the reality of autism because up to date knowledge is making existing practise redundant.
    • Michelle Dawson is a remarkable autistic adult whose collaborations with Profesor Mottron in Canada and  Professor Gernsbacher in the USA have done a lot to forward this aim. http://autismcrisis.blogspot.com
  • Arguing for neurodiversity and autism acceptance because they can provide the basis for a positive intervention in the lives of of autistic people.
  • Recognizing that within science there are legitimate differences and disputes. We can be on different sides while exercising mutual respect.
    • I would recommend a website but I have already exhausted my quota. Maybe next weekend I will find time to blog about this question exclusively. It does seem to me to be of the utmost importance that, as the cultish believers in anti=science sink into obsurity, we successfully engage with the intellectually valid disputes within the life sciences in which we find giants like Pinker against Rose and, if he had not died before his time from cancer, Gould against Dawkins. Arguments about genetic determinism and autopoeisis go to the heart of the disputes within the autism community about the consequences of seeking a cure versus the potential benefits of respect for the condition of autism.

Scientific rigour, respect and responsibility and autism

I nominate this for the annual “Teaching Granny to Suck Eggs award.”

Rigour, respect and responsibility: A universal ethical code for scientists

Rigour, honesty and integrity

    Act with skill and care in all scientific work. Maintain up to date skills and assist their development
    in others.
    Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest.
    Be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and
    respect the rights and reputations of others.

Respect for life, the law and the public good

Ensure that your work is lawful and justified.
Minimise and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural
environment.

Responsible communication: listening and informing

Seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of
others.
Do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters. Present and
review scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately.

This piece of guff is published by the British Government. Scientists are supposed to sign up to this in order to restore public confidence in science. Chief scientific advisor to the government, Sir David King has been promoting the code in a series of articles in the Guardian. To be honest, if I was a scientist my first reaction would be to feel insulted by such patronising nonsense. My second reaction would be profound disappointment.

This is our government’s response to growing public mistrust in science. There is a common perception that scientists have sold themselves to the big corporations and to government. So the government response is to ask to scientists to promise not to do all the things that they are wrongly accused of. It is akin to the no win situation where a man is asked, “When did you stop beating your wife.” Scientists are assumed to have a case to answer.  The onus is on them to reassure the public by signing up to a code which can be summed up as, “I promise to be good from now on.”

It would be a lot better to actively defend science and point to the undoubted benefits it has brought. My favourite website at the moment is Sense About Science. This is not a government department. It is a charitable trust.

Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust promoting good science and evidence in public debates. We do this by promoting respect for evidence and by urging scientists to engage actively with a wide range of groups, particularly when debates are controversial or difficult.

If the government really wants to raise scientific awareness and understanding it could do worse than reprint this year’s annual lecture from Sense About Science, a spirited defense of science by Professor Richard Tallis, and post a copy to every household in the country.

Meanwhile, the people who really ought to sign up to the government’s ethical pledge are the same quacks and alternative practitioners who are cashing in on the public mistrust of real science and selling them pseudo-science. As Professor Tallis puts it, the problem is

why scientific expertise and science itself is regarded with suspicion; and why nonsense about science and nonsense passing itself off as science seems to be having such an easy time of it.

So let us apply the government’s ethical code not to science, but to those who are selling alternatives to science like ARI/DAN! the Autism Treatment Trust and the rest of the alternative autism treatment industry. How would they cope with this?

Scientists and institutions are encouraged to reflect on and debate how these guidelines may relate to
their own work. For example, acting with rigour, honesty and integrity may include: not committing
plagiarism or condoning acts of plagiarism by others; ensuring that work is peer reviewed before it is
disseminated; reviewing the work of others fairly; ensuring that primary data that may be needed to
allow others to audit, repeat or build on work, are secured and stored. Similarly, in communicating
responsibly, scientists need to make clear the assumptions, qualifications or caveats underpinning their
arguments.

For some intelligent, exciting writing about science and autism please visit these blogs:

http://autismdiva.blogspot.com/2007/03/down-time-or-what-red-queen-needs.html

http://photoninthedarkness.blogspot.com/2007/03/tale-of-two-studies.html

http://photoninthedarkness.blogspot.com/2007/03/tale-of-two-studies-part-second.html

http://www.autismstreet.org/weblog/?p=108

Good News Week

Following on from the excellent TV broadcast featuring Amanda Baggs earlier this week, two more reports have emerged that offer some counterweight to the usual litany of vaccine-damaged-autism-epidemic scare stories.

On the mercury lists parents are complaining about John Stossel’s piece on vaccines on ABC. This is a refreshing piece of journalism that has looked at the evidence and reported that vaccines are safer than the diseases they prevent and that there is no evidence that they cause autism.Fo this he is being roundly condemned on his message board. Readers may wish to go there and restore some balance.

Last week my attention was drawn to a review of Richard Lathe’s book  Autism, Brains and Environment,  in the Lancet Neurology. This book argues that we have an epidemic of ‘new phase’ autism caused by environmental toxins. I have criticized the book in an earlier blog. So has Kev Leitch. It was also roundly condemned by Mike Fitzpatrick in the British Medical Journal. So you can imagine my surprize when I discovered that the Lancet review was by Mark Geier!

The Lancet seemed just as surprized. When I emailed them I received this prompt reply.    

 Dear Mike

Many thanks for your email. The review was commissioned by a junior member of the editorial team who was unaware of Geier’s history. We are planning to publish a counterbalancing view in the next issue of the journal and have taken steps to ensure that this does not happen again.

With best wishes

Helen

Helen Frankish, PhD

Editor, The Lancet Neurology

I was not the only one who noticed. Ben Goldacre in the Guardian has written a withering account of Geier’s credentials and his quackery. It is published in the Guardian Online and in the badscience blog with the wonderful title, The transgressive medical genius that is Mark Geier. I believe this is the first time that the Geiers’activities have attracted serious newspaper attention. Let us hope that the next time it will not be a science writer, but a crime writer reporting on their transgressions.