It has recently been suggested that since a graph of the historic use of the herbicide glyphosate tracks very well with an appropriately scaled graph of the number of people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) over time, then one must cause the other. This connection cannot be rejected out of hand. However it can no more be adopted as truth since, for example, a graph of sales of organic food in the same time period has approximately the same shape. It remains to define the relationship, propose a hypothesis, and test it by some reproducible method before it can be reported as scientific fact.
When two contradictory claims are put forth as scientific facts the question becomes, what is science? Who is playing the game correctly, and well? Science has aspects of religion at times. That is not a criticism of science in itself but rather a description of human behavior. People often give significance to such things as big buildings, unfamiliar apparatus, long words, and the sheer expense of an endeavor, to such a degree that these trappings are often the first clues of a hidden scam. A simple and direct method such as Richard Feynman’s test of the material used in the tragically lost space shuttle might lose popular credence merely because there was nothing showy about it. It succeeded as a demonstration since there was nothing hidden and no place to hide it.
In the case of autism and related syndromes the absence of long historical record, the changing definitions in the recent past, and the amount of popular culture associated with it render a scientific challenge worthy of the most discerning. Where is the data? A study in Denmark attempted to wring out some of the issues associated with choosing a data set by using information from a national medical reporting system to examine what might be occurring in the entire population, in the environment of a developed nation with a health care system more or less consistent across all cases, over a period of time that covers the recent rapid expansion in public knowledge of ASD. This study assigned 60% of the increase in persons on the ASD to a change in definitions and the fact that some diagnosis took place outside of larger medical institutions.
This result does not answer all questions or relieve all suffering. But, if we can accept that perhaps something like autism has been around for a while, that its incidence is not completely novel and that humanity has flourished in spite of it, perhaps we can go on to learn more about the syndrome now referred to as ASD and, in the process, gain serenity to face other rapid changes in ourselves and our world.
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