Gary Taubes pointed to this PNAS paper about climate change and noted that one of the authors, Stephen Schneider, had a big non-financial conflict of interest: If it turns out the whole argument is wrong, he looks like a fool. The accompanying statement (“The authors declare no conflict of interest”) is, if taken to mean the authors have no conflict of interest, wildly inaccurate. Readers unaware of Schneider’s history wouldn’t know this.
I came across a similar example today. A reader of this blog wrote extensive criticisms (here and here) of the idea that prenatal ultrasound may cause autism. He believed Caroline Rodgers, my source for that idea, misrepresented the evidence. In particular, Rodgers pointed to a study that found ultrasound disturbed neuronal migration in mouse fetuses. She said it supported her idea. The reader disagreed, saying,
The bottom line for me is that Dr. Rakic (from the mouse study) clarified, â€œOur study in mice does not mean that use of ultrasound on human fetuses for appropriate diagnostic and medical purposes should be abandoned. Instead, our study warns against its non-medical use.â€ Yes. Okay. No more boutiquey, keepsake ultrasounds. Great. But for Rodgers to skew this data (along with the FDAâ€™s and othersâ€™) into claiming that ultrasounds under the care of an Obstetrics professional (and for medical use) are causing autism is disingenuous at best, unethical propaganda for the Midwifery Way at worst.
The reader is a professor who teaches composition. Maybe an English professor.Â He or she takes Rakic seriously, where I completely ignore his statement because of a conflict of interest. If Rakic questions “appropriate” ultrasound, he will be attacked in many ways, making his life unpleasant. I have no idea whether this swayed Rakic, but he would be only human if it did.
Of course developing neurons are unable to distinguish appropriate and inappropriate ultrasound. Rakic’s statement is ridiculous as Rakic and all insiders (neuroscientists) know, I believe. All insiders know that there are dozens of examples where findings from mouse brains have turned out to be true for human brains, in spite of the many differences between them, and that there are thousands of grant proposals in which mouse brains are claimed to be a worthwhile model for human brains. All insiders know this, realize the pressure on Rakic to say what he said, and, like me, just ignore it. As far as I can tell, Rakic pays no price for misleading outsiders because the outsiders don’t know they are being misled. (Just as with political lobbying: the public doesn’t understand what’s happening.) The composition professor doesn’t know this, as far as I can tell.
Rodgers is not claiming that ultrasounds “are causing autism”. She is saying they might cause autism, that there are several reasons to think so, and therefore (a) the ultrasound-autism idea deserves further scrutiny and (b) ultrasounds should be avoided as much as possible until more is known.