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Advice Worth Following - Be Wary of "Experts"

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"I think that parents ought to get some idea of how the so- called 'experts' have changed their advice over the decades, so that they won’t take them deadly seriously, and so that if the parent has the strong feeling, 'I don’t like this advice,' the parent won’t feel compelled to follow it. . . . So don’t worry about trying to do a perfect job. There is no perfect job. There is no one way of raising your children." - Benjamin Spock

"We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts." - Harold MacMillan

Obviously, no one can know everything, or even close to it.  That's why we need experts and their expert advice.

But even the most expert advice is imperfect, and the most expert advice, rare.  We are left with having to judge such advice with inexpert knowledge.

Case in point:  Experts on the safety of vaccines abound.  Almost to a man/woman we hear from them that the benefits of vaccines (far) outweigh their risks.  More recently, we keep hearing that the connection between vaccines and autism has not been proven.

Notwithstanding the fact that failure to prove something does not mean it is not true, what grounds do these experts have for even suggesting such a thing?  For what would it take to prove such a connection?

To "PROVE" such a connection one would have to conduct long-term, double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled studies. 

To "PROVE" a connection between autism and vaccines containing thimerosal, for instance, some children would have to receive vaccines containing thimerosal and others would have to receive identical vaccines which did not contain thimerosal (or anything else - i.e., the vaccines could only differ in this one way).  Given that any vaccine is an intervention in itself, the children receiving vaccines with or without thimerosal would have to be compared to children who received vaccines containing nothing at all (i.e., placebos).  To "PROVE" such a connection, neither the persons evaluating or administering the intervention nor the subjects receiving it (vaccines or placebo) would know who had gotten what. To "PROVE" such a connection, the subjects would have to be randomly selected, in order to avoid any possible selection bias.  To "PROVE" such a connection, study participants would have to be followed over enough time that any autism that might result could develop and be diagnosed.

If you think any such study has ever been done, well, you are wrong. 

Yet, in a recent article titled "Iowa expert rejects mercury, autism link", the state's top Public Health Department disease expert, Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, blithely testified that "there is no proven link between exposure to mercury compounds and autism."

Of course there is no proven link.  But that proves nothing.

Her statement does prove one thing, though. It proves that experts aren't always expert and we are always ill-advised to uncritically follow their lead.

Sandy Gottstein

Date: 4-4-2003

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." - Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), paraphrasing John Philpot Curran (1808)