Friday, November 03, 2006

Is the TV Hypothesis More Plausible than the Thimerosal Hypothesis?

This is sure to rattle some sensitivities, but that's just too bad. It is on record that I consider the TV hypothesis to be almost certainly false (see my analysis and additional critiques in the comments section). This, nevertheless, does not preclude me from contrasting and comparing this hypothesis with any other hypothesis on their merits.

I have been accused of all sorts of things for doing this. One commenter (Erik) even insinuated I must be in the pockets of the CDC or Big Pharma. The same insinuation has been made about the Cornell researchers who did the TV study, and I have seen that in several blogs and mailing lists. What is the scenario here? Are we to believe that the CDC had a meeting where they decided to pay a group of economists to conduct an epidemiological study involving cable subscriptions and annual precipitation rates? Right! "Shhh... just don't tell anyone Mr. Economist." BTW, did any whistleblowers come forward yet?

This type of conspiracist paranoia is suggestive of something. It is apparent that to many the TV hypothesis is not a laughing stock, but actually very serious business. Its impact has been significant among the more anti-vaccination elements of the community. Hundreds of messages have been posted to the EOHarm mailing list about this study, many of them very angry messages. The researchers have been harassed by email, and probably even by phone. (See Kev's post on the subject).

Well, thimerosal hypothesis proponents should be worried. Here are the areas in which I believe the TV hypothesis is actually more sound and plausible than the thimerosal hypothesis:

  1. Time Trends.- In the last several decades, there is only one period of time when thimerosal exposure increased consistently and significantly in the US. That is the period between the birth years 1990 and 1994. At other times, thimerosal exposure has been either fairly stable or declining. In contrast, the administrative incidence of autism has been on a smooth upward trend for several decades, most notably in the 1990s. Roughly the same could be said of TV exposure.

  2. Regional Epidemiology.- No regional epidemiology exists involving thimerosal and autism, nor is it likely the thimerosal hypothesis could explain both a significant rise in autism incidence over time and the considerable differences in autism prevalence across states and counties. In contrast, the TV study presents a per-county analysis across several states for both cable subscription rates and precipitation rates. The cable subscription analysis even adjusts for time-independent per-county effects.

  3. Credibility of Researchers.- The only thimerosal epidemiology which can be found in the scientific literature has been authored by Mark and David Geier. The scientific conduct of these researchers has come under fire recently amid allegations of affiliation misrepresentation, IRB irregularities, use of dual terminology, misrepresentation and alteration of cited work, apparent plagiarism and use of salami publications, potential breaches of confidentiality, unreproducibility of results, omission of data, a suspect "order of magnitude" error, conspirationism and fear mongering, and assorted fabrications. Their conflicts of interest include having filed a patent application for their "Lupron Protocol", and, astonishingly, a connection to a pharmaceutical company. A quick search reveals nothing comparable about Waldman et al.

  4. Extent of Exposure.- The peak thimerosal exposure in the US from all vaccines combined was about 180 micrograms (in 1994). Each vaccine contained as much as 25 micrograms of thimerosal. A conservative estimate (by Sallie Bernard, no less) suggests an average tuna sandwich contains 12 micrograms of methylmercury. However, if we consider that 6 oz. of albacore tuna has 60 micrograms of methylmercury, a tuna sandwich could have over 30 micrograms. Either way, TV exposure appears more significant. Autistic children can watch TV for hours a time, day after day, sometimes asking to watch the same DVD over and over again.

  5. Strengths & Impairments.- From the very beginning autistic people were described as having areas of strength and impairment. It seems difficult to come up with a model by which brain poisoning would result in cognitive strengths. But it is not impossible to imagine how television might cause certain impairments over time while enhancing other areas of perceptual functioning.

  6. Removal of Thimerosal.- Thimerosal is considered to have been largely removed from vaccines in the US territory by 2001. But it has been removed in other countries too. It was removed in Sweden and Denmark in 1993. It was removed in Canada in 1996. It was removed in the UK (not sure about the year). Yet, no country has ever reported a decline in the incidence of autism, not even anecdotally. No one has ever said, "hey, wait a minute, there are less little ones with autism now" (well, actually, I know a pair of characters who have claimed just that). The TV hypothesis doesn't have something so obviously damning against it (yet).

  7. Anecdotal Evidence.- It's early to draw a controlled comparison, but I'll quote something from Jennifer: "By the way, my child did regress at about the same time as she became very interested in watching TV. I've wonderered for years if it wasn't a factor in her gradual social withdrawl. I was so interested that I set up a survey. I asked parents if they had found various therapies helpful (or not). One of the questions was about 'Cutting back on television/video watching'. That received 24 favorable votes, compared to 4 unfavorable, which compared quite respectably to the top therapies which were speech/language therapy which received 38 votes for and 4 votes against, and ABA which received 31 votes for and 3 votes against. Chelation was much less favored, with only 6 postive, and no negative votes."

Are there areas in which the thimerosal hypothesis looks better than the TV hypothesis? Maybe. But I'll just let readers comment on those.


  1. So does this mean that I can sue the Teletubbies? Reducing television, computer and videogames helps my son focus. I would not say that it reduces his autistic behaviours, we simply see different ones. It is easier to catch his attention as there are fewer distractions.
    I would say that a better study needs to be done by someone in the field and not just a group of economists. I rather liked the one that blamed autism on older fathers, but I will admit to being a mother and I feel that it helps balance out Downs Syndrome. It is only fair if each parent has a potential whammy.

  2. Excellent Joseph

    As bad as the TV Hypothesis is, it's much stronger than the thimerosal hypothesis. Thank god it's a thing of the past now that the thimerosal hypothesis has been completely rejected by all but a few.

  3. Yeah, yeah, but who's going to do the mouse studies? And will the mice get onion dip or guacamole with their chips?

  4. Is there a mouse model for TV watching? There must be. The JAX-Mousketeer strain or something.

    Today at the MIND mini-DAN! this dingaling broad who is an expert in environmental toxicology and children or something, said that there are these ultra clean rooms in some hospitals. Now listen carefully here's her idea: ALL they'd have to do is put an autistic kid in one of these clean rooms, she emphasized that the air is guaranteed to be mold free... and then you do this elimination diet thing where each meal is only one food, organically grown apples, for instance, and the next meal you get an organically farmed trout fillet or whatever... everything is PCB free, of course, and you see if the kid gets better. I imagine that there are lots of blood tests along the way and getting one's temperature taken and blood pressure...

    Uhuh. Suuuuure. Take an autistic kid and shove him in a hospital room for weeks at a time without his familiar stuff (unless it's certified toxin free,) and is mom in there in her all unbleached organic cotton jammies, eating the same stuff? for a few weeks at a time while you figure out if his toxicity is making him autistic then when he gets out you can pump him full of toxic chelators.

    Anyway, in the clean room you could eliminate the mold question and if they let the kid have a tv in there, you can see if the TV causes a regression or something.

  5. ms. clark- I could see my boy starving to death in that room. He comes from four generations of stubborn and trust me, if it came down to the hospital staff caving in or him, he would win everytime. Since his main obsession seems to be challenging authority, I could really see this working- not.

  6. I am sure it won't surprise you Ms. Clark, but your idea is already out there being marketed, by a lovely woman called Karen Slimak

    Oh, and by the way, it's a very VERY expensive program. As she says on her site, "If you have ever said, “I’ll do whatever it takes!” and meant it. This is the program for you."

  7. Do mice from the JAX-Mouseketeer strain try to chew through the TV screen when they see a commercial for Cheetos or Cheez Whiz?


    It's interesting all the claims that are posted up on websites about autism. Apparently, their research shows a lot of stuff that no research shows.

  9. Ohhh- looks expensive. All that careful treatment and you have to buy all the replacement articles from them, as only they have researched what is safe for your child. They sound like a church- put all your faith in us and we will cure your child. It will be as if they were never autistic.
    In order to follow their program and eliminate all the possible off gassing plastics you would have to rebuild your house and NOT to code. You would have to eliminate PVC piping and the insulation on your electrical wiring. I'm not sure that it is physically possible or even legal to take their program to its implied end.
    Scary stuff.

  10. The difference is that you can't make any money off suing the government and/or drug companies if TV is the cause of autism.

    Let's not kid ourselves - the autism/mercury hypothesis is as much about money as it is anything else. The true believers might not see it that way, but I'm sure that hawkers of quack treatments and trial lawyers don't mind if they see a few extra bucks coming in.

  11. That's why I don't worry that anti-TV activism will become a significant political force to contend with in the autism community. I don't think there will be a, as Kev jokes.

    Hypotheses that don't put the blame entirely on government or a specific big corporation are not that appealing to a certain sector of parents. That's why the environmental pollution hypothesis is a little less popular (even though that hypothesis does address regional differences in prevalence). Hypotheses such as breatfeeding and TV are even less popular, obviously. And something like the "old dads" theory is dismissed altogether, even though the "old dads" study is the most methodologically sound study on causation to come out as of late. It is clear that *something* about old dads is a significant factor in autism, but who cares about science and facts, when blame and money are more important to some people.

  12. but who cares about science and facts, when blame and money are more important to some people.

    Exactly. Which has been my point for ages - for all the handwringing about what Big Pharma would have to lose in the thimerosal lawsuits, nobody wonders about what the trial lawyers, plantiffs and quacks have to gain.

    A lot of money, for starters - followed by instant celebrity. Lyn Redwood can be the next Erin Brockovich. The Geiers can pick up their Nobel Prize. When you've invested so much time and money into the cause, it is very difficult to back off even when it's clear you're on the wrong side of science.

    Thus why you're seeing more strident pleas and media pushes by the anti-mercury folks - they're trying to convince the less savvy (and more moneyed) that their theory really does hold water. They know they can't win a real scientific debate, but the court of public opinion is another story. Hopefully a nice, juicy smackdown in the Omnibus hearings will end their dreams and send them back to NVIC-like obscurity.

  13. I think that the increase in chlorinated biphenols or whatever they call them is correlated to the increase in television viewing, figure it out, every new television requires the production of a circuit board, and every new viewer adds to the pollution caused by the TV manufacturing industry, or look at it another way, increase in TV viewing correlates with an increase in electro magnetic pollution of the "ether"

    I think there is simply more autism because there are more people and amongst that more, more of them to see it and categorise.

    The argument that there was no autism before Kanner is like saying there was no Schizophrenia before Bleuler, unsustainable, (or is it) I don't reckon there was any Sz before Bleuler either, merely an undifferentiated and still uncategorised degree of difference which subsequently aquired the wrong lable and a host of bad reserch to back it up.

    Autism is a bit like that, it was there but not as we know it, because we can only know what we have described and given name to.

    Bleuler you have a lot to blame for.

  14. I concur, check out 'the dreaded telly' -

    Cheers, have a giggle.

  15. I think there is simply more autism because there are more people and amongst that more, more of them to see it and categorise.

    That really can't explain the pattern and timing of growth. I think they key to autism diagnoses is that not just anyone can diagnose autism. Pediatricians are often oblivious to it.

    So the answer is in availability of specialists, and availability of information (i.e. growth of the internet).

  16. So do I read this right? TV would cause autisme???

    TV helped my son learning to speak! Ok he spoke almost only in "Disney sentences" but it was a way for him to communicate...

    He used only about 6 words until he was about 2,5 years old. Then suddenly, in about 2 week time, he had this amazing vocabulary, talking in full sentences, although I litteraly recognised these sentences from "The Lion King" and other Disney animation movies.

    He saw these movies over and over and over again. It calmed him and he seemed a lot happier when we let him.

    proud mother of an aspie

  17. No, I think the TV hypothesis is weak, and the results of the study easily explained. What I'm arguing is that, as weak as the TV hypothesis is, scientifically it appears a lot more sound that the thimerosal hypothesis, which is very popular in layperson circles.

  18. And yes, I've heard of autistics who learn to speak from the TV :)

  19. I'm sorry to leave such a late comment on this blog...I didn't read all the other comments so I may be repeating...sorry.

    I don't like television and neither I nor my wife watch television. I have not had a television in my home for at least 10 years and yet my 5 year old son is autistic. I believe that he was autistic...and perfect...the day that he was born.

    It's only anecdotal...and I do regret supporting the TV cause but I thought that I should mention it.