Well, that didn’t take long: The knives come out for Paul Shattuck

Yesterday, I wrote extensively about a new study by Paul Shattuck that seriously casts doubt upon one of the key claims of those arguing that mercury in childhood vaccines causes autism, namely the existence of an “autism epidemic.” These claims are nearly always based on rapidly rising numbers of children being classified as autistic for special education. The findings of the paper, boiled down to their essence, is that it was diagnostic substitution that was largely responsible for this apparent increase. Before 1993, autism and autism spectrum disorders were not even one of the major diagnostic classifications for special education. Before 1993, these children would be categorized under various other classifications, such as mental retardation or a learning disability. After 1993, more and more of them were more properly categorized as having autism.

Knowing the proclivities of those who support the now untenable hypothesis that mercury causes autism, I asked at the end of my article: “How long do you think it will be before the mercury crowd starts attacking Dr. Shattuck as biased or a pharma shill?”

The answer: “Not long at all.”

Via Kev and Jennifer, I’ve learned of the first shot fired at Dr. Shattuck.

Kev does a good job taking it down point by point, but I’d like to add to a couple of the refutations he made. First, here’s the blatantly obvious (and surprisingly clumsy) pharma shill attack:

Additionally, Pediatrics failed to disclose a potential or actual conflict of interest. Although the article states that Dr. Shattuck has indicated he has no financial relationships relevant to the article, NAA has learned that he was a Merck Scholar Pre-doctoral Trainee from 1999-2003, and in 2003-2004 he successfully applied for $530,000 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Oooh, Shattuck received money from the evil Merck to support his training! Except that the Merck we’re talking about seems to be not the evil drug company but rather a nonprofit organization, the John Merck Fund, which supports research into a variety of areas, particularly developmental disabilities. (I couldn’t find a Merck Scholarship funded by the actual pharmaceutical company other than this joint scholarship program run by the United Negro College Fund and Merck designed to increase the presence of African Americans in biology and chemistry. Pretty evil either way.) Also, the research that Shattuck did for Pediatrics paper was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Development, not the CDC. Clearly the NAA wants to give the impression that Shattuck’s work was funded by drug companies and the entity that it and other advocacy groups claiming a link between mercury and autism seem to hate even more than drug companies, the CDC. In any case, even if Paul Shattuck’s work had been funded by those entities, that would not make it invalid. To cast doubt on it scientifically, you need to be able to point out why the study was poorly designed or carried out or why the conclusions do not flow from the data, which the press release does not do. All it says is this:

A study published today in Pediatrics, “The Contribution of Diagnostic Substitution to the Growing Administrative Prevalence of Autism in US Special Education,” suggests that autism diagnoses haven’t actually risen over the past two decades, despite growing and credible scientific evidence to the contrary. In addition to the study’s weak methods and erroneous conclusions, questions have now arisen over possible failure to disclose conflicts of interest and recent findings that data from previous autism projects with which current study author Paul Shattuck has been associated were fabricated.

Note that it doesn’t point out or reference the specific “growing and credible scientific evidence” with findings contrary to Shattucks’ work, nor does it point out any specifics of the “weak methods” claimed.

And, of course, the NAA is perfectly willing to over look financial conflicts of interest in people supporting their point of view, as Kev pointed out. Basically they’re saying they don’t like the study’s conclusions but can’t give good reasons.

But what about the charge of scientific misconduct in the past? That, too, sounds fishy to me, given how sketchy the account is:

Although he was not personally implicated, Dr. Shattuck’s former research partner, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin’s Waisman Center, was recently disciplined by the Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity for scientific misconduct due to fabrication of data. Dr. Shattuck and others published several articles and delivered scientific presentations using data from the project in question.

Translation: Although Shattuck was not implicated in any misconduct and we have no evidence that any of the allegedly falsified data was used as the basis for this study that we don’t like, we’re going to smear him anyway by association. We’ll use the ad hominem attack of insinuating that he was somehow involved in research misconduct, rather than actually addressing the methodology used in the research that he did.

I realize that press releases need to be brief, but surely the NAA could have pointed out what data from what study was allegedly falsified and who this “research partner” of Shattuck’s was. My guess is that this incidence of scientific misconduct, whatever it was, had nothing to do with the current study. All you have to do is to look at the description of the raw data used in Shattuck’s paper to see why the NAA’s insinuation is utterly ludicrious:

For the present analyses, annual state-by-state counts of children ages 6 to 11 with disabilities in special education came from the 1984-2003 annual Special Education Child Counts published by the US Department of Education. Corresponding US Census data were used in the denominator for prevalence estimates (note that Oregon included 5-year-olds in its age 6-11 child counts, and the denominators have been adjusted accordingly). Census data for the 1980s were linearly weighted estimates of the 1980 and 1990 decennial census counts. Data for 1991-1999 came from publishedannual population estimates. Denominator counts for1990 and 2000-2003 came from the 1990 and 2000 decennial census, respectively.

In other words, Dr. Shattuck used publicly available data published by the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Census Bureau, which means that the raw data is there for any researcher to look at.

Even though I doubt that there is anything to this charge of Shattuck somehow being associated with scientific misconduct, particularly scientific misconduct related to the Pediatrics study attacked by the NAA, I’d like to know more, just to be certain that my impression from the rhetoric on of the press release is correct. I tried to find out online, but so far have utterly failed to gather more information. Of course, if the press release had simply named this “research partner” who was disciplined, (which should be public information if there truly were a disciplinary action by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity), I could have found out right away what the situation was. I’m guessing the NAA doesn’t want to make it easy to find out what its spokesperson is talking about, probably because it has nothing to do with the current study. The NAA could very easily prove me wrong and shut me up on this by simply citing the sources behind their charges, so that I could investigate for myself the true circumstances of this incident.

Besides, the NAA and other such advocacy groups certainly aren’t disturbed by real and substantive allegations of scientific misconduct directed at their favorite “researchers,” Mark and David Geier. They apparently have one standard for researchers whose results don’t support mercury-autism scaremongering and another for researchers whose “results” do.

ADDENDUM: The misconduct to which the NAA is referring appears to be the case of April Swe:

April Swe, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Based on the report of an investigation conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM) and additional analysis conducted by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in its oversight review, PHS found that Ms. Swe, former graduate student at UWM, engaged in research misconduct by fabricating data on thirty-nine (39) questionnaires of sibling human subjects associated with an autism study. The research was supported by National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health (NIH), grant R01 AG08768.

And here is the only joint publication I could find in Medline:

Seltzer MM, Krauss MW, Shattuck PT, Orsmond G, Swe A, Lord C. (2003). The symptoms of autism spectrum disorders in adolescence and adulthood. J Autism Dev Disord..Dec;33(6):565-81

It looks as though I was correct. The data falsified had nothing to do with Dr. Shattuck’s current study, and he was not involved. The only paper coming from April Swe and Paul Shattuck didn’t even list either of them as first authors.

The NAA press release is an intentionally misleading hatchet-job, pure and simple.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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