The Huffington Post: Featuring bad science, facile reasoning since 2005

On Saturday, The Huffington Post published a story titled Autism Research: Breakthrough Discovery on the Causes of Autism. The piece was about a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism,” which, according to the HuffPo‘s Mark Hyman, “discovered a profound and serious biological underpinning of autism.”

This is a big deal because if scientists can identify a biological mechanism that causes autism, they’re that much closer to determining a cure. (Indeed, the study received plenty of attention from all sorts of blogs.) It’s also notable because the vaccines-cause-autism crowd has as of late claimed that vaccines damage mitochondria–and therefore cause autism. But Hyman’s claim is not supported by the actual data presented in the paper he wrote about. The research project, which was described in JAMA as “an exploratory study,” concluded that in its study population of twenty children (ten with autism, ten controls), the children with autism were “more likely to have mitochondrial dysfunction, mtDNA overreplication, and mtDNA deletions than typically developing children.” The study’s authors did not “discover” a “profound and serious” cause of autism–they conducted some preliminary research that provided evidence that a possible interconnection between mitochondrial dysfunction and autism deserves more attention.

Anyone who’s been following the autism debates of the past twenty years knows the danger of drawing vast conclusions from studies made up of small samples: Twelve years ago, Andrew Wakefield launched a worldwide MMR panic when he claimed that his research on a dozen children made him suspect that the vaccine caused autism. Wakefield’s study was based on what’s called a “case series,” which are generally the starting points for serious research and not the ending points. This is a topic I write a lot about in The Panic Virus:

To understand why a case series is a tenuous place to hang your hat, take the example of gender. Even though the population as a whole is split almost evenly between boys and girls, there are countless examples of individual families with all boys or all girls, and there are many more examples of families where a series of children born in a row are of the same sex. Now, imagine that an alien is sent to Earth to learn about what types of human offspring are born to parents living in different states. The first couple he meets, Alexander Baldwin and Carolyn Newcomb of New York, has four children: Alec, Daniel, William, and Stephen. Based on that set of data—which is the equivalent of a single case series—the alien would assume that all Earthling children born in New York were boys (and that they all were actors with a penchant for appearing in the tabloids). If the second couple the alien meets was George W. Bush and Laura Bush, he’d assume that all children born in Texas were, just like Barbara and Jenna Bush, twin girls. Those conclusions would, of course, be incorrect—but the only way to realize that would be to collect more data.

If you’re confused as to why The Huffington Post would run Hyman’s piece — well, I have my theories, but suffice it to say that the site arguably features more scientific quackery than any other mainstream media outlet. As for the motivations of Hyman, who describes himself as a “practicing physician” who is “internationally recognized,” it’s worth pointing out that he claims to be the leader of “a revolution in 21st century medicine that provides a new road map for navigating the territory of health and illness.” What is this revolution? It’s something Hyman invented called Functional Medicine, which I’ll let Hyman describe: “You are the CEO of your wellness. You need to take back health from the disease-care system.” In other words: Don’t trust those bastards in the AMA or the CDC trying to control your body and steal your money; instead, visit Dr. Hyman’s online store, where you can buy “therapeutic-grade nutraceutical” vitamins, “detoxifying” supplements, and books and DVDs that will “empower” you to lose weight, beat depression, reduce stress, and eliminate anxiety.

The “alternative health” practitioners and hyperbaric oxygen chamber salesman and supplement peddlers who have worked to enmesh the autism community with the anti-vaccine movement foment similar anti-mainstream medicine sentiments: How else can they convince people to ignore their doctors’ advice and spend their savings on supposed miracle cures? The next time you read a piece by a writer claiming the “mainstream” is ignoring the truth about this or that medical condition, remember to ask yourself: What’s in it for him?

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12 Responses to The Huffington Post: Featuring bad science, facile reasoning since 2005

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Huffington Post: Featuring bad science, facile reasoning since 2005 -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: Autism Blog - The Huffington Post: Featuring bad science, facile reasoning since 2005 « Left Brain/Right Brain

  3. Lisa says:

    I suppose it would have been too “mainstream” for Hyman to take the time to check his interpretation of the JAMA paper with its actual authors. The Left Brain Right Brain blog, however, did so: http://bit.ly/dKirve

    And they found out that the principal author, at least, makes absolutely no claim that this paper says anything about what causes autism. It is an interesting piece of science, but, as you say, it’s a first step toward understanding, not the triumphant crossing of the finish line.

  4. I note that Hyman’s directive to “take control of your wellness” places him in the school of alt-med that blames the target for any failures of wellness. Gets the peddler off the hook because after all, if the buyer/user/sucker didn’t get better, then they just didn’t try hard enough or take enough control. /offsoapbox

    HuffPo is notorious for publishing these pseudoscientific ramblings, but this one goes farther than most. I can only imagine the doctors having to address anxious queries from parents about testing for mitochondrial disorders/dysfunction based on a set of 10 children. Not unlike, as you note, the unsupported hysteria that Wakefield generated with his bogus, very-much-selected series of children.

    The authors of the JAMA paper do note in the discussion a much higher prevalence of mitochondrial dysfunction in general in the autism population relative to the non-autistic population (not from their specific study), and the connection undoubtedly warrants further investigation, but…that’s all one can say based on their interesting, but quite preliminary, findings.

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  6. Werdna says:

    I agree that I’m no longer amazed how frequently some Googling for pseudoscience ends me up at HuffPo. One thing I found kind of amusing recently though is typically there are a lot of articles vilifyng BPA to wit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/09/bpa-found-on-receipts-and_n_794067.html

    However on that same post there’s a link to one of their bloggers saying that the banning of BPA was mindless caving to public pressure: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-entine/with-the-european-union-a_b_761443.html

  7. Pingback: Autism Blog - Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism « Left Brain/Right Brain

  8. Nona Mills says:

    I agree that I’m no longer amazed how frequently some Googling for pseudoscience ends me up at HuffPo. One thing I found kind of amusing recently though is typically there are a lot of articles vilifyng BPA to wit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/09/bpa-found-on-receipts-and_n_794067.html However on that same post there’s a link to one of their bloggers saying that the banning of BPA was mindless caving to public pressure: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-entine/with-the-european-union-a_b_761443.html

  9. Mae Whitaker says:

    [...] than is often used? If we take this study in context, there may be some value. Unfortunately as Seth Mnookin has already pointed out, this study has already been used to promote ideas that are clearly outside of the study and [...]

  10. [...] than is often used? If we take this study in context, there may be some value. Unfortunately as Seth Mnookin has already pointed out, this study has already been used to promote ideas that are clearly outside of the study and [...]

  11. sheldon101 says:

    I’m quite active commenting at Huff-Po on these issues ( but not this particular entry).

    It appears that Huff-Po doesn’t approve postings one by one. Rather they decide that some writers can blog at Huff-Po and doesn’t seem to control them much beyond that. Hyman may (with a huge amount of doubt) have something worthwhile to say on his specialty. But he had zero expertise when it comes to autism and vaccines. But they let him prattle away.

    In the last few months, they have let a few more rational voices become bloggers.

  12. Pingback: Let me state very simply: HuffPo publishes dangerously ignorant dreck

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