Harvard expert supports #WDDTY claims. Really

So last week I wrote a moderately widely read blog, mocking “what doctors don’t tell you” for claiming that UK children suffer harm from environmental toxins, and advising parents to avoid tap water and toothpaste. When these claims got reprinted in Families magazine, and ended up in my children’s school bags, I was mortified. Well, this paper https://docs.google.com/file/d/0Bw0QsePOF36RWGRJcmZST0tkX28/edit?usp=docslist_api came out on Saturday in the Lancet neurology. It’s by Grandjean and
Landigran, of the Harvard school of public health, and broadly supports the claims that I’ve been rubbishing when made by “what doctors don’t tell you”. The language is a bit more moderated, and there aren’t any specific lifestyle implications drawn, but the causal link between the presence of these toxins (including fluoride, manganese, and solvents) in the environment, and an epidemic of neurodevelopmental conditions, is repeated claimed. So am I, as our 1980s playground would have it, “sussed”?
Now, I’m not qualified to do a thorough debunking of this paper, but I wanted to make a couple of observations. Firstly, I don’t think we’re in a neurodevelopmental epidemic. The US has an epidemic of ADHD diagnosis, but that’s a different matter, which I’ve explored before.
Secondly, the paper reports papers chiefly from developing nations, with far less stringent restrictions on environmental exposure that exist in Europe and the US. Of course it still matters if Brazilian children are exposed to poisonous concentrations of manganese, it matters immensely, and the authors should be shouting from the rooftops about the plight of the global poor.
Instead they extrapolate their shocking findings to the US, where exposure is far lower, and the testing in the papers they cite is by that notorious source of junk science, hair toxin analysis. I can’t see any UK studies at all. They show no evidence of increased toxin exposure in clinically diagnosed populations.
So to be clear, this paper is claiming that an epidemic that may or may not be happening in one part of the world, is due to a set of toxins which are in vastly higher levels in a completely different part of the world, where this epidemic definitely isn’t happening. Either Brazilian manganese is causing ADHD in Milwaukee, or this is a load of speculative waffle.
So the paper is pretty transparent speculation dressed up as paradigm shifting insight, and WDDTY isn’t off the hook, but there’s a question and an implication here.
Firstly, why did the Lancet publish this? Would they have published the same words if submitted from Streatham technical college, instead of the mighty Harvard? If not, then they are guilty of precisely the “big beast” bias that their editor, Richard Horton, has been so critical of recently.
Whatever the reason, the implication of this for me is this: as with Aric Sigman’s recent pwning of the UK medical establishment over screen time shows, the rationalist cannot stand within the cool battlements of science, hurling studies and evidence dispassionately at her unenlightened opponents: the barbarians, if I can stretch this metaphor a tad further, are thorough the gates and sharing the high table. This makes debunking bad science riskier, tougher and less of a spectator sport. It also makes it more important.

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4 thoughts on “Harvard expert supports #WDDTY claims. Really

  1. “comically diagnosed populations” ?

  2. So, appeal to authority – check!

    Cherry picking – check!

    Goal posts being moved – check!

    Correlation not equaling causation – check!

    Unproven claims about causes of a complex clinical entity/entities – check!

    Do I need to do a blog post about diagnosis of ADHD in the UK?

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