Saturday, October 8, 2016

#1730: Martha Herbert

Martha Herbert is a pediatric neurologist and crackpot with her own view of autism, according to which neuroinflammation is a major cause, and molds and other environmental influences trigger it (which, of course, is not supported but contraindicated by contemporary science – that’s why her supporters liken her to Galileo). In fact, Herbert has her own theory of mental disease and disease in general based on systems biology, which in her case appears to come dangerously close to a New Age religious system of life forces. 

Hat-tip: Rationalwiki
According to Herbert “in order to achieve solutions for autism we need to embed it more clearly in the larger set of challenges of which it is a part,” which include “food that is nutrient-poor, chemical-laden, processed and manipulated” (Herbert is anti-GMO, of course) and – more strikingly – “electromagnetic field and radiation exposures”. Yes. Herbert thinks exposure to electromagnetic fields is a potential partial cause of autism, mostly because various stressors [EMF isn’t a stressor] “may synergize in various ways to keep our cellular systems from functioning at their best.” She is careful to point out that a paper suggesting such a link has been published in a peer-reviewed (bottom-feeder) journal. But yes, Herbert thinks wi-fi and GMOs are involved in causing autism.

Herbert supports biomed treatments for autism, though seems to be aware that such crackpottery is not a career booster and accordingly tends to be a bit more careful than general antivaxxers. She has nevertheless become a central figure in the movement and did for instance write the introduction to antivaxx lunatic Robert F. Kennedy’s book Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: Mercury Toxicity in Vaccines and the Political, Regulatory, and Media Failures That Continue to Threaten Public Health (bets on whether Kennedy got basic chemistry right).
Hat-tip: Destroyed by Science

As mentioned her work has been widely praised by antivaxxers and altmed crackpots (like Mark Hyman and David Kirby) for her revolutionary findings, and has become a respected authority in crackpot communities. Of course, her “findings” haven’t been published in any reputable venues, and a Massachusetts superior court judge summed her work up thusly: “Dr. Herbert’s method is not generally accepted in the scientific community.  Dr. Herbert’s theory of environmental triggers of autism may some day prove true. It has not yet. Her proffered testimony does not meet the standard of reliability required by the case law, and cannot be admitted in evidence at trial.”

She is the author of “Autism: A Brain Disorder, or a Disorder That Affects The Brain?”, which was for instance included on rabid antivaxxer Ginger Taylor’s list of “124 research papers that PROVE vaccines cause autism” (the need to capitalize “prove” should give you a clue), which mostly consist of papers that are completely irrelevant to that (falsified) hypothesis but also rants by other anti-vaxx activists. The list is dealt with here. Herbert’s paper is not a research paper but a review, and it neither says nor suggests that vaccines cause autism.

She is, however, also author of the book The Autism Revolution: Whole Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be (with Karen Weintraub). We haven’t read it, but at least books like that provide a venue to push ideas without the annoying obstacles of peer review or accountability. Apparently it provides recommendations for optimal nutrition, reduction of toxic exposures, how to “shore up the immune system” and reduce stress, and draws from “the newest research, technologies, and insights, as well as inspiring case studies.” If this isn't sheer crackpottery, then at least its promotion strategy is targeted at that community and makes use of all the woo dogwhistles in the book.

Diagnosis: Not one for random capitalization and weird color schemes, Herbert usually comes across as quite reasonable compared to the company she often keeps. She is, however, a crackpot with grand ideas and little evidence to back them up beyond quasi-religious appeals to Mother Earth. Don’t listen to her.

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