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Poling turns his back on genetics

Posted Mar 13 2009 3:41pm

It’s been a year since the concession in the Hannah Poling case was made public. I’ve been thinking that we would likely see some discussion on it again—especially since the Bailey Banks case didn’t turn into the media event that the autism-is-caused-by-vaccines groups would have liked.

OK, I’m not that good at predicting events, but I was thinking after a year it is time to write a couple of posts about some issues from the Hannah Poling case for a couple of weeks. So, I wasn’t totally surprised when Dr. Jon Poling came out with an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Blinders won’t reduce autism”.

When I read this last night, I thought “why blog this?” But, one line in there bugged me—it’s a common misconception but one that a doctor, heck a neurologist, should never make: the idea that genetic conditions aren’t treatable.

Here’s the quote:

We should be investing our research dollars into discovering environmental factors that we can change, not more poorly targeted genetic studies that offer no hope of early intervention

Wow. I guess we should tell Dr. Randi Hagerman at the UC Davis MIND Institute and everyone else working on fragile-X (a genetic condition that is on the verge of demonstrating valuable interventions) to stop their work?

And, why is it that people who claim to support “gene-environment” interactions seem to have disdain for the “gene” part? How are we supposed to separate the various autism subgroups without identifying the genes? And, if we identify genes, won’t their function give us some idea of what environmental causes might be worth studying?

OK… I’ve got that out of my system….

As long as we are here, we might as well look at some other fallacies. A good place to start is the Autism Street blog, who covered the poling op-ed. It’s well worth the read, as he covers some things I won’t.

One thing we do both cover—this statement by Dr. Poling:

Public school systems are drowning in the red ink of educating increasing numbers of special-needs students.

Autism Street has a nice graph (again, I encourage you to take a look ), but here I’ll just point out that this assertion by Dr. Poling about the increasing numbers of special education students is just plain false. The percentage of the student population in Special Education has remained remarkably constant over the past 10 years or so. The cost of some of the autism therapies (ABA in particular) has likely driven costs up, but that isn’t what Dr. Poling said.

The main reason I was going to avoid discussing Dr. Poling’s Op-Ed is the fact that is is rather poorly disguised attempt to air his ongoing battle with Dr. Paul Offit.

Dr. Poling writes discusses how Dr. Andrew Zimmerman is a hero to the cause because of a recent book he edited. He then makes Dr. Offit the villain for Autism’s False Prophets:

On the other hand, Dr. Paul Offit, the vaccine inventor whose Rotateq royalty interests recently sold for a reported $182 million, has written a novel of perceived good and evil called “Autism’s False Prophets.”

Frankly, I think Dr. Poling should have listened to that little voice in his head (which I hope was there) saying, “Don’t take the cheap shots”. By which, I think that describing Dr. Offit’s book as a novel was rather silly and just points out that this is a personal attack by Dr. Poling. It doesn’t add, it just detracts.

If you think calling that a personal attack is a stretch, here’s a bit of telling imagery:

In the story, Offit takes no prisoners, smearing characters in the vaccine-autism controversy as effortlessly as a rich cream cheese.

Actually, I thought that Dr. Offit gave people like Andrew Wakefield a lot of respect, considering the low quality of their research and their public actions.

I was struck by the “cream cheese” allusion. Anyone recall this?

Paul Offit is the Philadelphia cream cheese of the autism debate—he smears so effortlessly

—Dan Olmsted, September 13, 2008

It stuck in my mind because it was so bad. Seriously, I had some people outside of the autism world read that bit by Dan Olmsted and asked them what they thought Dan Olmsted was trying to say. The readers didn’t come away with Mr. Olmsted’s message (that Dr. Offit smears others easily). Instead, they came away thinking Dan Olmsted was saying that it was easy to smear Paul Offit! S

My guess is that Mr. Olmsted wasn’t writing for anyone other than the Age of Autism regulars who would overlook his clumsy writing for a chance to poke fun at Dr. Offit, so he probably isn’t bothered.

I guess Dr. Poling thought it was a good analogy.

But, back to my own clumsy writing. Dr, Poling makes this statement:

As both parent and doctor, I cannot fathom turning my back on a child nor science, in order to avoid inconvenient questions about vaccine safety or any other reasonable environmental factor.

For my part, I wonder how a neurologist can turn his back on considering genetic conditions worthy of intervention. I wonder how a scientist who supports the idea of gene-environment interactions can turn his back on genetics.

Dr. Poling closes with this statement:

In the end, logic and reason will prevail over politics and profits.

God, I hope so. Unfortunately, Dr. Poling seems to have allied himself with groups who have abandoned logic. Generation Rescue and David Kirby come readily to mind.

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