3.20.2017

Spotting Autism Misinformation: The Credentials Gambit, and The Cherrypicker's Bluff

Last week, I gave a workshop on How to Find Autism Information That Will Help You. But then I realized I'd neglected to specifically highlight two of the most common ways in which autism misinformation spreads.

Let's call the first one the Credentials Gambit. This happens when a person is affiliated with a respected institution, and as a result people assume that they are trustworthy. Such individuals even get cited in mainstream news stories when media outlets either lack staff with the expertise needed to identify pseudoscience, and/or they prioritize clickbait. Examples include but are not limited to: 
  • Jenny McCarthy's adamantly vaccine-exempting pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon at UCLA 
  • Anti-vax crusader "Dr. Bob" Sears of the Dr. Sears parenting advice dynasty
  • Environmental toxins autism causation researcher Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto of UC Davis
  • Pseudoscience-flogger Dr. Martha Herbert of, somehow, Harvard. 
    • Herbert's latest implausible culprits for autism causation include cell phones and Tylenol. She is responsible for countless eye-roll sprains.
Source: JMU Be The Change
[image: illustration of pants on fire]
We'll call the second the Cherrypicker's Bluff. In this case, a quotation or citation is taken out of context, or used inaccurately. The cherrypicker is banking that their readers will be instantly outraged—yet disinclined to actually read the article, or do any fact-checking. (This approach is also in constant use by the current U.S. administration.) 

For an autism-specific example: Anti-neurodiversity blogger J. Mitchell recently tweeted of Steve Silberman's 2016 Autism Society of America interview that:
"#stevesilberman accuses critics of #neurotribes as either skipping over parts of his book or lying. bit.ly/2mBuoQG"
But if you click through to the article, you'll notice Silberman actually said:
"I’m really puzzled by the notion that my book focuses primarily on “high-functioning” individuals. [Gives examples of high support autistic individuals from book.] These passages in the book make for very painful reading — but I have to assume that the handful of people who accuse me of “whitewashing” autism either skipped over these parts, or have another agenda for lying about my book that way."
Silberman is not therefore not bristling at critics of his book NeuroTribes in general, but rather expressing frustration with people who, well, cherrypick the book to make unsubstantiated claims about its representation of autistic people of all abilities. And rightfully so -- Mitchell was being disingenuous.

This need for constant vigilance sucks, honestly. It is both exhausting and jading to have to verify any autism information you run across. It also sucks to call people out by name, as I have here; my goal is to help you learn how to avoid questionable autism sources, not to provide the folks mentioned above with fodder for dismissing legitimate criticism as personal attacks. But to learn, you need examples. And these folks have worked hard to be just the examples we need.

But, as always: onward! We must remain skeptical, yet empathetic. And we can take heart in being able to rely on reliable autism information resources, too.


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