Wrong About Genetic Research & Autism: Teresa Conrick’s “Dear America, You Are Being Bamboozled”

by Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH
Posted: January 7, 2015
Revised: April 20, 2015

Another Antivaccinationist Wrong About Genetic
Research and Autism: A Review of Teresa
Conrick’s “Dear America, You Are Being Bamboozled
Again About Autism and Genes”
(Age of Autism, July 23, 2014)

Executive Summary

A number of organizations as well as bloggers have arisen over the past several decades claiming that vaccines and/or their ingredients cause a number of disorders, foremost among these is autism. The results of their efforts have been a decline in vaccine coverage and a rise in previously rare childhood diseases, resulting in unnecessary suffering, hospitalizations, long-term disabilities, and even death. The following paper will demonstrate, using one article by Teresa Conrick, a contributing editor to Age of Autism, the poor scholarship and science displayed by many antivaccinationists. If people are to decide on whether to vaccinate their children or not, it should be based on scholarly, well-grounded science, and reflect basic common sense, not claims made by people who are deficient in these.

Conrick’s recent post on Age of Autism, “Dear America, You Are Being Bamboozled Again About Autism and Genes,” should raise a number of red flags regarding her scholarship, basic understanding of science, common sense, and, perhaps, even her ethics. Conrick’s article claims that a recent study, looking at genetics and autism, published in the journal Nature Genetics by Gaugler et al., “Most Genetic Risk for Autism Resides Within Common Variation,” reflects an “onslaught of studies and articles to try and persuade [people] that AUTISM is a genetic ONLY disorder,” that the Gaugler et al. study “is completely denying ANY ENVIRONMENTAL OR TOXIC EXPOSURE.”

The conclusions of this paper are:

  1. The Gaugler et al. study, “Most Genetic Risk for Autism Resides Within Common Variation” (August 2014), based on Swedish data, looked at the contribution of various types of genes to the genetic component of autism, which was estimated to be around 52%. No mention was made of environmental or toxic exposure, so, obviously, it couldn’t be denying either.

  2. Conrick contradicts herself by following her claim that “studies . . . try[ing] to persuade that AUTISM is a genetic ONLY disorder” with a follow up statement that the Gaugler et al. study estimates the genetic contribution to be 52%. The math I learned doesn’t equate 52% with 100%.

  3. Conrick partly bases her article on an online article by Paul Hamaker, “Largest Study to Date Shows Majority of Autism is Genetic,” found on the blog “Birmingham Sci-ence News Examiner,” which stated the Gaugler et al. “study included the contribu-tion of environmental causes of autism and found that genetics trumps any environmen-tal cause for autism.”

  4. It appears that Conrick is using Hamaker’s paper together with the Gaugler study as straw men, given her belief that autism is all or mainly environmentally determined, to persuade the reader that there is too much research emphasis on genetics, something I refuted in this paper. However, the Gaugler study did not address environmental factors at all, while Hamaker simply claimed it “found that genetics trumps any environmental cause.”

  5. Conrick's claim that the study “is completely denying ANY ENVIRONMENTAL OR TOXIC EXPOSURE,” is just plain WRONG! If Conrick wants to express her belief that too much research is being devoted to genetics, then she should do so; but not by such hyperbole and misrepresenting the research that has been conducted. What in Conrick’s opinion would be an acceptable division of research funding and what per-centage of genetic contributions to autism would she agree with? And is she capable of supporting her position with good science?

  6. Remarkably, in his article, Hamaker also implies that, by focusing on genetics, Gaugler et al. advocated a discredited eugenics approach. I find it despicable that Conrick would draw attention to anyone advocating eugenics, which was used to justi-fy racism and discrimination against various groups, leading to untold suffering from forced sterilizations to Nazi death camps.

  7. Conrick, apparently, doesn't understand the role that genetics, environment, and their interaction play in just about all aspects of human life nor the extensive research on these and the advances being made in diagnostics, prevention, and treatment.

  8. Though the Gaugler et al. study did not discuss nor discount the environment’s role in ASD, Conrick uses her claim that they did as a straw man to attack genetic studies. She posits the role of pesticides, vitamin D, sunlight and other factors to discount the relevance of the study’s findings. Conrick refers to one exploratory study looking at pesticides and ASD by Shelton et al. published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, “Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Prenatal Residential Proximity to Agricultural Pesticides: The CHARGE Study,” citing the study’s findings. She speculates regarding the role of vitamin D’s affect on the incidence of ASD without any foundation nor evidence that she has even bothered to research the subject. In fact, if further research were to implicate pesticides and/or vitamin D, it would weaken the main claim by Conrick and Age of Autism contributors of the role of vaccines in ASD, given that any effect from either of the above would occur in utero.

  9. Conrick bases her article on a press release of the Gaugler et al. study and a blog post discussing it. She based her mention of the pesticide study on a PubMed Health post about the actual study, giving only the “conclusions” of the study, while failing to acknowledge any inconvenient facts or suggested weaknesses. With regard to either actual study, Conrick gives no indication she attempted to read either of them and/or understood them, though both were available. In addition, she bases her outrage on an obscure bloggist, unethically implying he was reflecting sentiments contained in the Gaugler study.

As stated on the website, Age of Autism: “We are published to give voice to those who believe [my emphasis] autism is an environmentally induced illness.” In my opinion, Conrick mind is made up. They are absolutely certain they are right, despite gross deficiencies in scholarship, science, and common sense. My review of Conrick’s article as well as my previous review of an article by Lynn Redwood of SafeMinds (Harrison, 2014) clearly indicates the desperate lengths they will go to in order to promote their ideologically rigid beliefs. Given that both are major advocates among antivaccinationists, and SafeMinds, Redwood’s organization, is even listed as a sponsor of Age of Autism, why would anyone accord either Age of Autism or SafeMinds any credibility?

The only conclusion for Conrick’s and Redwood’s papers, and Stone’s Comment is “don’t be bamboozled” by people who literally don’t know what they are talking about.

Read Dr. Harrison's full article as a PDF version by clicking here.

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