Wednesday, December 9, 2015

#1540: Richard Deth

Yeah, there are members of the anti-vaccine movement that really should know better. Richard Carlton Deth is a professor of pharmacology at Northeastern University and has published scientific studies on the role of D4 dopamine receptors in psychiatric disorders. He is also on the scientific advisory board of the National Autism Association, and one of the few among autism’s false prophets with relevant research credentials (that he stands virtually alone against more or less complete consensus doesn’t deter them, since for people with poor critical thinking skills being a lone, maverick doctor is often taken as a reason to think he is right even though it really is evidence for the exact opposite). In particular, Deth has hypothesized that certain children are more at risk than others for autism because they lack the normal ability to excrete neurotoxic metals, in particular thimerosal, which is not present in childhood vaccines. (In particular, he made a bit of a reputation for himself with a paper (of questionable merit funded by SafeMinds, no less.) The evidence is, shall we say, not compelling. Nonetheless, Deth “would like to make a virtual wager that within the next 18-24 months scientific evidence will make the thimerosal-autism link a near certainty. If you are willing, I’ll let you name the stakes.” That was in March 2006. Deth has, before or since, produced little by way of published evidence to back up his hypothesis (one study is demolished here).

And what does Deth himself say about the mountain of evidence that falsifies his hypothesis? “Most vaccine safety studies have been epidemological in nature. […] Epidemiological studies are intrinsically unable to uncover causal mechanisms, even if an association was found.” Of course, the fact that no association is found either means that the search for a causal mechanism is, you know, moot. Deth does not dwell on that point. Instead, he suggests that to establish causal mechanisms you have to look to studies on “individual autistic subjects” (you almost suspects he knows better and is lying through his teeth), which have “revealed the central role of oxidative stress and inflammation” that can be linked to vaccines. They have not.

Given his background Deth has been given the opportunity to testify before Congress, and was an “expert witness” for the complainants in the Autism Omnibus proceedings (the courts were not impressed with his research; apparently they found that [Deth’s research] was “unpublished, unduplicated, or mentioned for the first time during the Theory 2 general causation hearing, was poorly performed and scientifically implausible. Based on in vitro effects of mercury on ‘neuronal cells,’ he claimed that mercury had the same effects on human brain cells.”) He also appeared in the antivaccine propaganda film The Greater Good and has been spotted at the quackery conference AutismOne.

He is also – but of course – an advocate of alternative “treatments” for autism, in particular in the form of special diets and supplements; without drawing any very firm conclusions he has voiced his curiosity over why these treatments, on a cellular level, anecdotally appear to work. He has also, rather predictably, given in to the temptation to present himself as being oppressed by reality the powers that be in medical research: For instance, his research tends to get rejected from the top medical journals – why do you think that would be?

Diagnosis: Yup; at one point he may have had a genuinely scientific hypothesis, but at present it has devolved into pure pseudoscience. But unlike most of the people ranting about their results in weird color combinations and unusual font choices, Deth actually has legitimate credentials and some research background. That doesn’t make his own “research” on the vaccine-autism link more solid, but does provide a sheen of legitimacy to anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists who have little else.

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