Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Listing Attic

Before it went mainstream and lost its hipster edginess, Medical Hypotheses was a boon to lazy bloggers on account of its regular supply of hilarity. In the opinion of the journal's founder (shared by his successor), a peer-review system for screening contributions would just pile another pelion of risk-averse conformity upon the ossa of medical-science mediocrity. Or conceivably the other way around. The whim-based selection criteria preferred by Horrobin was what kept Med.Hyp. on the forefront of nescience production for so long. To pick a few examples totally at random:

Autism: a novel form of mercury poisoning (Bernard et al., 2001).
The potential importance of steroids in the treatment of autistic spectrum disorders and other disorders involving mercury toxicity (Geier & Geier, 2005).
Conjugate vaccines and autism (Ross, 2011).
Hypothesis: conjugate vaccines may predispose children to autism spectrum disorders (Richmand, 2011).*
So it was a surprise to encounter a list of "24 PEER REVIEWED SCIENTIFIC Studies from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health that link AUTISM to VACCINES", and recognise those same four instances from Med.Hyp. -- that is, explicitly not peer-reviewed. I would take that as an enormous slur on my professional conduct if I had been one of the journal's non-reviewers.

"Paper" #6 on the list -- "The role of mercury in the pathogenesis of autism" (Bernard et al., 2002) -- was in fact a summary of a conference production, with the authors reprising their 2001 Med.Hyp. paper for a second bite of the cherry. Which to say, it wasn't peer-reviewed in 2002 either. The subtle clue that it appeared in a Conference Proceedings Supplement, rather than in the regular pages of Molecular Psychiatry, is the pagination "S42-S43".

The very next presentation was Andy Wakefield with his "Enterocolitis, autism and measles virus" fraud, so you know that this was a very classy conference, admirably eclectic and ecumenical.

I am open to the possibility that the list of 24 PEER REVIEWED SCIENTIFIC Studies was put together as a sting, to expose the intellectual bankruptcy of the antivax movement. In particular, the vacant incuriosity of people who forward it without investing a second or two to check any of the entries. It does not take a complete mastery of the relevant literature to notice that there is no attempt to link anything to anything else in #9 ("The potential importance of steroids", see above) or #8, "Reduced levels of mercury in first baby haircuts of autistic children" (Holmes, Blaxill & Haley, 2003). IT'S IN THE SODDING TITLES. The authors of #8 assumed that maternal exposure to mercury is the cause of autism, then found less mercury in their autistic sample, causing them to conclude that their test must be unreliable.

But before progressing further through the list, we should invest a second or two to check whether the wheel has been already invented. Another occupant of the Listing Attic is Marcella Piper-Terry, of 'VaxTruth'; on one of her visits to reality, she provided her own list, also with 24 entries. It overlaps considerably with the present version, but there are differences.

Marcella's version received the piñata treatment from 'Kathy', and from Liz Ditz.

There's a version with 33 entries:

50 published studies which show vaccines cause Autism. PEER REVIEWED SCIENTIFIC Studies from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health that link Autism to Vaccines-

It is aimed at the wokest of anivaxxers who have no sense of numerosity and will not notice that 33 < 50. Confident in the knowledge that the consumers won't follow entries that are bare PMC accession numbers, and in fact they won't even notice repetitions, the compiler has taken the opportunity to duplicate nine of the entries. In fact it's just Marcella's list again.

Evidently, though, that's not enough. Versions of the List stretch out towards infinity like the VR armory in 'The Matrix', stacking up 124 131 142 bricks in the wall of antivaccine scientific consensus. Many of those bricks do not belong there (lacking anything to do with 'vaccines' or 'autism' or both); they were caught up in the number-boosting round-up and just want to go home. In other words, these lists are as bogus as crowd-size claims for a Trump Inauguration Rally. Liz Ditz seems to have taken on the onus of Bogus List Scrutiniser and I am happy to out-source to her.

It is possible that all these different lists have evolved from a single original Ur-List in the manner of multiple copies of a medieval codex, variously extended or corrupted by different chains of copyists. The task of tracing the evolutionary tree and reconstructing the lost original is left as an exercise for the reader, because bored now.

Still, you don't have go all William-of-Baskerville Cosplay to notice the friendliness of the lists toward exploitative grifting. They advertise the predatory oeuvres of Boyd Haley (noted for selling an industrial-waste metal chelator as a "food supplement" to "cure" autism) and the Geiers père and fils (with their chelation-and-Lupron chemical-castration racket). Not to mention the dated nature of the lists, with their focus on the mercury-based disinfectant Thiomersal as the putative autism-causing neurotoxin, whereas antivaxxer rhetoric has shifted to aluminium-based adjuvants as the scapegoat of choice (on account of the removal of thiomersal from almost all vaccines, with no effect on autism incidence). That underlines the central role of these lists as advertisements for scams.

Anyway, when eight of your 24 papers turn out to be from the Geiers, it is time to think about your life and where it went wrong.

* In fairness to Richmand, he explicitly renounced any vaccine / autism association in the Introduction of a much more recent paper (still antivax, and statistically-incompetent).

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