Yesterday, The New York Times energy and environment blog ran a post titled “Are We Hard Wired to Doubt Science?” The central question posed by the piece — “How, in a rational society, does one understand those who reject science, a common touchstone of what is real and verifiable?” — is also the central question of my book, so it’s obviously a topic I’m very much interested in.
What struck me right off the bat was the use of the following illustration, which described “The cerebral cortex and hippocampus amygdala (in red) in a normal brain.”* The image was credited to Dr. Martha Herbert of Mass General Hospital.
The irony here is that if there one thing Herbert is known for, it’s not her fealty to the scientific method. For years, she’s been cited as one of the most prominent voices supporting “alternative” treatments for autism, and her research has frequently come under fire. She’s given presentations at AutismOne and ARI/DAN! conferences.+
One example of a situation in which Herbert came up in my research for The Panic Virus was in reference to a 2006 Massachusetts Superior Court Case, Sarah MacGregor et al. v. Annette Born et al., in which the family of a young girl sued a condominium owner claiming that exposure to mold had caused the girl’s autism. Herbert was one of the main witnesses for the plaintiffs. (She also testified that “potential environmental triggers under active debate and research” for autism included “mercury, intrauterine viral infections, season of birth, global positioning, and water pollution.”) In his ruling on the case, the judge wrote that Herbert’s research methods were not generally accepted by the scientific community and that her testimony did not meet the standards of reliability required by law. Here are some highlights (the added emphasis is mine):
During one visit with Emilia Dr. Herbert observed that Emilia “got symptomatic from the air freshener in the room”. … Further information of significance, she indicated, was that Emilia “is better when she’s in clean environments and worse when she’s around certain chemicals.” Her basis for that statement was history provided by Emilia’s mother and her own observation that Emilia “f[e]ll apart” upon exposure to a vanilla air freshener in Dr. Herbert’s office. …
Dr. Herbert was asked, “[c]an you say to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that if Emilia Ward had been in a sterile environment, she would not suffer from autism?” She responded, ‘My guess would be, yes, that she probably would not.” The basis for that “guess,” she testified, was “her having regressed after the mold exposure and that she gets worse with exposures.” She added that “I suspect she has a strong inflammatory immune component to her disorder. I mean, it’s hard to prove that, but it’s clinically interesting.” In response to questions she acknowledged that she has never done any research on mold or mildew as an environmental toxin, and is not aware of any published peer review articles that link mold and mildew exposure to autism. …
[N]o means of testing Dr. Herbert’s theory appears, nor is any error rate identified. Although Dr. Herbert refers to publications in peer reviewed literature, the publications cited do not address her method of determining the cause of Emilia’s condition, nor does anything else in the record identify any peer reviewed literature that does so. Clearly, Dr. Herbert’s method is not generally accepted in the scientific community. Dr. Herbert’s theory of environmental triggers of autism may some day prove true. It has not yet. Her proffered testimony does not meet the standard of reliability required by the case law, and cannot be admitted in evidence at trial.
* Based on the very small amount of online searching I did early this morning, there doesn’t appear to be anything called the “hippocampus amygdala” — but lord knows you can’t trust everything you think you learn doing some simple Internet searches.
+ Herbert seems to be quite sensitive to being linked to alternative treatments in the press. In a series on alternative autism treatments in the Chicago Tribune by Trine Tsouderos and Patricia Callahan, Herbert was quoted writing an email that said she would sue the Tribune if she was portrayed as “an uncritical booster and fan of potentially dangerous unorthodox treatments.” In a separate interview, she said, “I’m not defending chelation. I will sue you if you say that.”