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Huffington Post vs. science

December 13, 2010

Although I read Huffington Post from time to time, I have a tendency to avoid the site because of its links to bad science and snake oil salesmen, ‘woo’ peddlers in the current parlance. I find a current example being proudly advertised today on their front page.

A study just published in The Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers from the University of California, Davis called “Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism” (i) discovered a profound and serious biological underpinning of autism — an acquired loss of the ability to produce energy in the cells, damage to mitochondria (the energy factories in your cells), and an increase in oxidative stress (the same chemical reaction that causes cars to rust, apples to turn brown, fat to become rancid, and skin to wrinkle). These disturbances in energy metabolism were not due to genetic mutations, which is often seen in mitochondrial problems, but a condition the children studied acquired in utero or after birth.

I would have to give this article the ‘well written’ weak praise that mom typically gives my letters to the editor.  🙂  I would call it that because the linkage the writer makes — between the JAMA paper on mitochondrial dysfunction and his claims about mercury, detoxification and allergens — is fabricated.

It’s not difficult to follow the writer’s link to the JAMA abstract, but it’s not as if everyone automatically checks every link embedded in an article…I wonder sometimes about the links I include, even, but at least there aren’t many. You might think, just from reading the HuffPost article, that the new JAMA study supports not only this mitochondrial thing, but his detoxification notions as well. Does it? Well, this is the stated conclusion.

Conclusion In this exploratory study, children with autism were more likely to have mitochondrial dysfunction, mtDNA overreplication, and mtDNA deletions than typically developing children.

And that’s it. The intro also mentions that no studies into this premise have been done, hence the ‘exploratory’ study. Suggesting a need for…more study. Is this what the HuffPost writer does with it? Of course not! He launches into a sales pitch.

The causes of mitochondrial dysfunction are well known, specifically as it relates to metabolism and the brain, and I have documented them in my books “UtraMetabolism” and “The UltraMind Solution.” They include environmental toxins (iv) — mercury, lead and persistent organic pollutants(v) — latent infections, gluten and allergens (which trigger inflammation) sugar and processed foods,(vi) a nutrient-depleted diet(vii) and nutritional deficiencies.(viii) These are all potentially treatable and reversible causes of mitochondrial dysfunction that have been clearly documented.

I was tempted here to break the copied links, but I think they well represent the sales pitch: they’re advertising for his books, they’re directing you to his website, with a convenient store for his books, natch. The fact that he typoed his ‘UltraMetabolism’ book name just adds a bit of humor.

They’ll probably edit that out later today, when they find it.

The HuffPost writer, Dr. Mark Hyman or ‘Dr. Mark’ (of course) on his website, is apparently known in the skeptical community. It was not difficult for me to find a post about the fellow amongst the science blogs, with Respectful Insolence chiming in. ScienceBlogs is where Pharyngula can be found, and at least with me, the skepticism and documentation there has built a good reputation. The blogger in question, Orac, correctly identifies the book-selling, the woo-peddling, the weak science…and naturally, the persecution complex.

Perhaps it never occurred to Dr. Hyman that the reason his belief system is not taken seriously by autism scientists is because there’s no credible scientific evidence to support it. But, boy, oh, boy does Dr. Hyman have anecdotes. Actually, strike that. It’s not plural. He has a single anecdote, an “N of 1,” if you will.

So again, you might think from reading the latest offering on HuffPost that JAMA, a scientific journal with some degree of prestige as far as I know, has endorsed this ‘detofixication’ scheme. But even in the latest article you can see the doctor’s employment of a single anecdote. It is the same strategy that Orac wrote about last year.

Then there’s the very same structure to the story that we often see in alt-med testimonials. Rejected by conventional medicine. No hope. Then began the search, and, at the end, the savior is found and that savior is Dr. Hyman, who diligently subjected the child to a hole heapin’ helpin’ of woo. None of this “biomedical” woo was based on any clear science. In fact, it’s a hodge-podge–a grab bag, if you will–of remedies based on metabolic tests finding alleged gluten allergies, amino acid abnormalities, methylation abnormalities, various nutritional deficiencies.

This is why the Huffington Post article appears in a ‘Health’ section…because they have no ‘Science’ section. Because if they did, they might have to answer for the wild claims and the brisk trade in snake oil taking place there. Then again, it might just be taken over by the woo artists and abandoned, if the HuffPo editors and owners favor this sort of nonsense. Which, clearly, they do.

Liberalism is not a vaccine against foolishness. Even if it were, I guess the anti-vax types wouldn’t take it.

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