kitchen table math, the sequel: Citizen Journalist Hit With Subpoena Intended to Intimidate

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Citizen Journalist Hit With Subpoena Intended to Intimidate

Childhood vaccination is one of the great public health successes of the last 50 years. However, a miniscule fraction of children and adults do have an adverse reaction to vaccines, so in 1988 the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) was established.

While in the late 1990s, responsible people proposed a hypothesis that the rise in incidence of autism was somehow correlated with the rise in the number and kind of vaccinations infants and young children received.

That's how science works, after all: noticing changes in the environment and wondering why the changes are occurring. Then there's the next step: conducting rigorous experiments to determine the relationships, if any, between the two observed phenomena. Then, if the predictions the hypothesis made are borne out by the experiment(s), then the hypothesis can be kept (and/or expanded). Otherwise, a responsible person must reject -- throw out, give up -- the hypothesis.

One hypothesis was that a mercury-derivative vaccine preservative, thimerasol, somehow contributed to, or caused, autism. Arthur Allen's 2002 article, The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory, explains some of the factors and the timeline. By March, 2003, researchers concluded:

On the basis of current evidence, we consider it improbable that thimerosal and autism are linked.

The research continued, however, investigating possible links between autism and exposure to mercury via vaccination. No correlation has ever been found. As David Gorski wrote in Mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): A failed hypothesis

The scientific data, taken in totality, do not support a link between mercury in vaccines and autism.

In other words, there's no "controversy" any more -- there is no link between vaccination and autism. There's no valid "debate" about the role of vaccination in autism.

However, there is still a large and vocal claque that proclaims "never mind the science, there is too a connection."

One of the people opposing the claque is Kathleen Seidel, a citizen journalist at the website, "honoring the diversity of human wiring". Lately, she has been closely following two related topics, litigation that claims that autism is a vaccine injury, and unresearched and dangerous "treatments" for autism that address the alleged vaccine injury. About the former, one attorney finds Seidel writes "fearless, systematically researched, and frequently brilliant ongoing critique of autism vaccine litigation."

It turns out that vaccine-injury litigation is a lucrative field, as pointed out in Seidel's March 24, 2008 post: The Commerce in Causation. In the last eighteen months, one attorney, Clifford Shoemaker, has been paid $584,449.28 by the VICP. Shoemaker's website continues to push the thoroughly disproved hypothesis that autism is related to vaccination.

Shoemaker also represents Rev. Lisa Sykes and Seth Sykes in their $20 million dollar personal-injury suit, seeking compensation for alleged harm to their son.

While Seidel has written several blog posts about the Sykes' suit and the scientific validity of treatments they have sought for their son, she has no other connection with the case. However, shortly after Seidel published The Commerce in Causation, Shoemaker served her with a wide-ranging and invasive subpoena in the Sykes case.

Walter Olson, writing at Overlawyered:
Instead, the first phrase that occurred to me on looking through the subpoena was "fishing expedition", and the second was "intimidation". Several clauses indicate that Shoemaker is hoping to turn up evidence that Seidel has accepted support from the federal government, or from vaccine makers, which she says she hasn't.
Olsen went on to say,
Should the subpoena somehow be upheld and its onerous demands enforced, it could signal chilly legal times ahead for bloggers
Seidel has entered a motion to quash the subpoena, and a number of bloggers have voiced support for Seidel and have condemned Shoemaker's actions.

What does the Seidel subpoena have to do with Kitchen Table Math? A couple of things. One, some of us have loved ones on the autism spectrum. Two, one of the mottos for KTM might be: show us the evidence. ABFF, writing at Whise Planet Is It Anyway?, defines "neurodiversity advocates do not object to reasonable diets and vitamins, but rather to harmful products and quack therapies." Isn't that what we do here, object to harmful products and quack...educational approaches?

Footnote: if you would like reliable commentary on recent findings on autism, you should read the blog Translating Autism: "Autism Research demystified: A summary of the latest scientific findings in the causes and treatments of Autism."


lefty said...

Thanks for this post.

In my own experience, the most outspoken autism parents so fervently believe in the vaccine theory that you're wise to keep your mouth shut--unless you don't mind the nasty barrage that often follows.

So it's gratifying to see how many people have posted support for Seidel at neurodiversity.

Makes me think there's silent minority (majority?) of parents out there who simply aren't comfortable outing themselves within the autism world as vaccine skeptics. Perhaps if we all speak up more..

SteveH said...

"Isn't that what we do here, object to harmful products and quack...educational approaches?"

Yes, but unschooling approaches could work for some kids, and Everyday Math could work for some kids. For education, it's not so black and white.

The real problem is that public schools assert their control over all content and teaching methods. There is no basis for this control when it comes to content, assumptions and expectations. This is a political battle rather than a scientific one. Some of the major problems of education can't be solved by research. They are value-based trade-offs.

People can do all of the research they want, but first give the control and money to the parents.

Liz Ditz said...

@lefty--I divided up my list of Seidel supporters by date rather than by autism parents & vaccine rationalists, but if you visit some of the autism blogs on that list, or some bloggers on the Autism Hub, you will find some like-minded folks.

@steveh--I agree that in the world of education, it's not so black and white. BUT -- for a democracy, we need to (a) fund public education; (b) make public education be the best it can be; and (c) make it possible for parents to educate their children outside of public education if they so desire.

SteveH said...

"make public education be the best it can be"

Who decides this? How do you define this? Is this done on a statistical basis or an individual one?

"make it possible for parents to educate their children outside of public education if they so desire."

... without forcing them to pay out of their own pocket. Charter schools might be a way to keep it in the realm of public education, but states have to eliminate the restrictions.

My main point is that this is not strictly a scientific debate. Since it isn't, parents (not just the affluent ones) must be allowed to assert their own authority.