Whacking Monkeys In the Name of Science

Emily Willingham 


Natural News recently resurrected an OLD study about “monkeys with autism” that, when it came out two years ago (for the second time), was so egregious that many autism/science bloggers tore it to pieces. That hasn’t stopped Natural News from presenting it as “new.” So, we are running science editor Emily Willingham’s original reaction to the study, below. We also encourage you to read editor Liz Ditz’s overview of the entire history of this “study.”

I was sitting across from a friend today at a picnic table when she received an email on her smart phone. A local parent who disseminates all manner of autism-related information and misinformation had circulated an email with a SafeMinds headline asserting that “scientific evidence” had emerged linking autism, vaccines, and mercury. Suppressing the impulse to hurl all over the beach towels at the prospect of yet another mole to whack (or, more unlikely, something valid to grapple with), I asked what the gist of the “evidence” was. Then, in a sudden burst of inspiration, I asked if it involved macaques.

Oh, yes. Those poor monkeys, their ever-changing provenance and authorship and hypotheses and numbers and findings, making the rounds like some terrible virus, infecting even my pleasant time at a Colorado water park with my children, my friend, and her children. Gah.

If you don’t know about the macaque story, it began in 2008. I blogged it myself here, and Gorski hammered nails into it here. I took it apart in my post, noting that this was a study looking for a hypothesis. Looks like I wasn’t alone in that conclusion, as the original 2008 version appears to have been withdrawn, deconstructed, and reassembled into a 2010 Frankenstein job that is being paraded around as the real “science” all the antivax folk have been seeking.

I wonder if the publishing journal, based out of Poland, knows this history.

Others have blogged it. Regardless, the deconstructed, reconstructed monkey study still seems to be outcomes in search of a rationale, a hypothesis, a study design, and a decent-sized control group, and it’s this last that is most disturbing — well, from a scientific standpoint, anyway.

Of course, it was The Monkey Study that was the cited “science” in that email about “science linking vaccines, mercury, and autism.” I don’t know how that can be, as the study had a control group of THREE monkeys. Based on these control numbers, I could use my own children as a control group and refer to it as science. Based on the level of actual science present in this study, I could also simply write a paper about my own children as counterweight to its findings, as my offspring did not receive the 1994-1999 vaccine schedule or a single vaccine with thimerosal, yet … here we all are, autism and everything.

In spite of what is almost a total absence of study controls in real numbers and in principle, these authors — a changing cast, I might add — performed a number of complex statistical analyses with findings that should be disallowed from any perspective because of an utter lack of power. It’s inexcusable to report any findings from these kinds of analyses using a control with n = 3. They claim that their multiple measures, etc., validate their findings in spite of the fact that they have only THREE controls: “While, as a pilot study, the size (sic) of the study groups limits the strength of the conclusions that can be drawn, the use of statistical modeling and repeated measures contributed to the study’s power and increased the accuracy of the estimates.” No. Take a look at figure 3 of the paper. Take a look at the error bars. Note the error bars for the “unexposed” group and consider that these represent error for THREE individual data points. One. Two. Three. That’s all. Three monkeys, and their names are “Hear No Science,” “Speak No Science,” and “See No Science.”

It’s egregious that this paper, with all of its noise (it is very noisy), Sturm, and Drang, made it into any journal. Nothing has changed in two years. It’s still indefensible to rely on this study as “scientific proof” of anything more than evidence of the continued desperation of a small, loud group of proselytizers for whom belief is more important than science. SafeMinds actually summarizes the study as finding “increased brain growth” and links that to putative correlations between large brains and autism. Three monkeys. One. Two. Three. That they would juxtapose this flimsy paper against the weight of a mountain of solid scientific findings from several branches of research and consider it a sort of scientific grail for their “side” speaks powerfully to their bias and reliance on belief.

Their belief, by the way, has been pinned to the MMR for, oh, a decade or more now? Except that if you’ll note Table I in this study, the MMR is the one vaccine the authors list as containing no mercury at all. I asked it in 2008, and I’ll ask it again: Which is it people? Is it MMR? Is it mercury? Oh, right. It’s neither, hence the obvious confusion here and a study still in search of a hypothesis. The authors slip in a rationale for MMR-as-autism-culprit in their MRI methods section: “These timeframes for neuroimaging were chosen to determine whether the MMR may have contributed to any observed neurological features.” No rationale. No background. But, must feed the faithful.

I note for the sake of completeness that in spite of the alleged induction of some sort of monkey-autism-via-vaccines, these monkeys appeared to survive on a diet containing casein — 40% casein, as a matter of fact — and biscuits containing wheat gluten. Just wondering why the autistic enterocolitis didn’t afflict these poor macaques in spite of that MMR vax. Poor macaques that, by the way, were removed from their mothers at birth and kept separate from each other with no physical contact. And for what? To test them with the carefully selected — oh, let’s just call it cherry picked, shall we? — “1994-1999 vaccine schedule.” I’d like to see the IACUC justification for this one.

According to the paper, this work with macaques would be in part justified because “there is a paucity of information regarding amygdala growth during non-human primate development.” That would likely be news to these people. And these. And these. And these. And these. I’d suggest a read of that last link, by the way, as it directly addresses the role that the amygdala might not play in the development of social behavior … and notes that social isolation rather may drive some of these findings. In fact, maternal deprivation stress alters amygdala development. Control group of THREE, folks! One. Two. Three. That’s all.

Among anti-vax acolytes, science is a bad word. Good studies are dismissed because they don’t take anecdote and intuition into account. Experts are simply heartless, hearing-impaired automatons who just don’t get it, who won’t listen to parents, dammit, even though parents know more, somehow, than the experts.

Science is a four-letter word, that is, unless they’re name-checking science for their own benefit. Then, suddenly, it’s an altar at which we should all fall on our knees in blind, submissive worship. All of this preamble is simply a long way of getting to this question: Why are people who are so dismissive of almost all scientific findings so anxious to give a shout-out to science when it seems to support their beliefs?

Control group of THREE! One. Two. Three. That’s all.


Published in 2010 at daisymayfattypants.blogspot.com.