Autism Speaks carefully about vaccines

by rickcolosimo on August 7, 2009

I finally had time to read the recent statement/interview with Dr. Geri Dawson, the Chief Science Officer of Autism Speaks.

As you know, we’ve discussed this complicated and angst-inducing issue in the past, primarily with respect to the complexities of epidemiology in vaccine research and the nuanced textures of meaning of studies large enough to be reliable for the population as a whole.

This interview, if you read Dr. Dawson’s words carefully, is much more in line with traditional scientific discourse than earlier statements that have been quoted in other places.

I read her statements as saying (1) existing research says MMR doesn’t cause autism, (2) more research might always illuminate anything, and (3) there are studies that could be done to sort out the potential problems that WOULD NOT be revealed by the large-scale epidemiologically reliable studies.

She’s technically right, and it’s clear that she’s taken pains to continue to “value” the concerns of parents. So the question is really now about the use of funds: how much is it, what are they doing, and how else might they spend it? I’m not sure that there are clear answers to any of those questions. At one point, she indicates:

which would mean about $660,000. I don’t know what that buys them in terms of studies. I don’t know what their estimated return on the other research they study is. At $660,000, though, they could sustain 6 full-time Ph.Ds on salary and benefits, which is about 12,000 hours of thinking. Could they use these people to focus on study design and leverage their overall knowledge and position of respect (more or less) within the communities of parents and researchers and government to say something like: “if you want to pursue this research path, here’s a study that would actually be well-received by the community and that we would support.”

To me, that sort of scientific leadership might really “help” folks challenging  vaccines do double-blind studies that would be accepted by scientists as part of the legitimate discourse rather than mere collections of unreliable anecdotes or fuzzy case reports. Good science is hard, but that’s both what makes it good and what makes it science. To paraphrase one very skilled scientist I know, it’s important for people who believe that vaccines are a major part of the problem to do the experiments they should do, not just the ones they can or are willing to do. Bad or weak experiments are seen as not worthy of discussion because they have so many intrinsic sources of error that the “insight” isn’t strong enough to merit the investment of additional resources.

Good experiments speak for themselves.

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