Friday, July 18, 2008

Visiting Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor, Michigan is one of my favorite places. I was there on Tuesday, visiting the places that were familiar to me when I was a student at the University of Michigan.

I was a student at UofM for only a year. I had taken some time off from my studies at MIT, and since I was an in-state student, it made sense for me to go there and pick up some credits.

During the summer of 1987, I lived in this dormitory, Mary Markley Hall. I will have to find out later who Mary Markley was; at the time I was living there, I was not too curious about it. I suppose that she was an alumna of the University.

I lived there from May to August of 1987. During that time, I studied Microeconomics, Linear Algebra and Complex Variables. At the end of the Summer, I decided to stay and take some physics courses.

From September 1987 to April 1988, I lived in Oxford Housing. It was an unusual arrangement for a dorm, because they were more like apartments than dorm rooms. Most of the residents were graduate students, but there were a few upperclass undergraduates there too.

Dennison was where most of my classes were taught. Rumor had it that the upper floors were unsuitable for most experimentation because the building swayed too much in the wind.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Does Tylenol + MMR Cause Autism? Really?

Apparently a group at UC San Diego thinks so. Kristina Chew's blog, AutismVox, tipped me off about this in a posting today. The abstract for the article can be found here1. The text of it follows:
The present study was performed to determine whether acetaminophen (paracetamol) use after the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination could be associated with autistic disorder. This case-control study used the results of an online parental survey conducted from 16 July 2005 to 30 January 2006, consisting of 83 children with autistic disorder and 80 control children. Acetaminophen use after measles-mumps-rubella vaccination was significantly associated with autistic disorder when considering children 5 years of age or less (OR 6.11, 95% CI 1.42—26.3), after limiting cases to children with regression in development (OR 3.97, 95% CI 1.11—14.3), and when considering only children who had post-vaccination sequelae (OR 8.23, 95% CI 1.56—43.3), adjusting for age, gender, mother's ethnicity, and the presence of illness concurrent with measles-mumps-rubella vaccination. Ibuprofen use after measles-mumps-rubella vaccination was not associated with autistic disorder. This preliminary study found that acetaminophen use after measles-mumps-rubella vaccination was associated with autistic disorder.

Let us try to break this down:

  • The study was performed to determine if acetaminophen, taken after the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccination is associated with autism spectrum disorder.

  • The data were collected via an online survey of parents over the course of about six months (16 July 2005 to 30 January 2006).

  • The samples were 83 autistic children and 80 control children.

  • This survey found that acetaminophen use after the MMR vaccination was significantly associated with autistic disorder in children under the age of five.

The first alarm bell that went off in my head was the use of an online survey to collect the data. The abstract does not reveal how the survey was presented to the parents, whether the parents selected themselves to participate in the survey, or even where the surveys were conducted. I probably will not find out, since the publishers of the journal Autism allow only subscribers to view the article.2

Childhood vaccination has become a political and emotional issue these days, and there is no doubt that some parents have strong opinions about it. I would think it remarkable to expect parents to put aside their biases and emotions and then fill out survey form in a dispassionate manner.

Next, how were these children chosen? Did the authors post something on a website seeking test subjects? How did they screen for suitable subjects? Did they actually examine the children at any point, or did they simply rely on the parents' word? Can a parent's memory, already pretty biased, be relied on for data on when and how much acetaminophen was administered?

The sample sizes are also suspicious. If we accept the statistic that 6 out of 1000 people are on the Autism Spectrum, why then did they only sample 80 children for their control group? A real control group ought to be much larger.

My thoughts on this are that the researchers were doing a lot of hand-waving and were pretending to be performing a double-blind study. I am very much reminded of Feynman's dismissal of "cargo-cult" science, in which people will use scientific terms and methods in a slipshod manner in order to make their research look "respectable".


  1. S.T. Schultz, H.S. Klonoff-Cohen, D.L. Wingard, N.A. Akshoomoff, C.A. Macera, Ming Ji, "Acetaminophen (paracetamol) use, measles-mumps-rubella vaccination, and autistic disorder", Autism, Vol. 12, No. 3, 293-307 (2008) DOI: 10.1177/1362361307089518

  2. This is another one of the high horses that I sometimes ride: the practice by academic journals of restricting access to their articles. Considering that the vast majority of the research that the articles are based on are paid for with taxpayer money, and that the journals rely on what is essentially free labor by both the authors and the peer reviewers, it strikes me as unjust for these journals to then demand great sums of money to access these articles. This is, however, a subject for a later post.

Heading out...

I will be going up to Detroit this Saturday (2008-07-12) and coming back in a week and a half.

Why Detroit? I agree that nobody vacations there, but I grew up in the suburbs there, and I like to go up there to see places and things that are familiar to me that may have changed. I will be uploading photographs in later entries showing the places I have been during my visit.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

What Makes a Hero?

Some months ago, Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled Some Heroes. Paul gave us a list of his own personal heroes, and their reasons for greatness1. I think I might have pissed him off when I wrote a comment that brought up the allegation that P.G. Wodehouse collaborated with the Nazis. Wodehouse's fans are very protective of his legacy, it seems.

Lately, the notion of what makes a hero has been severely debased. Sports stars, musicians and actors are considered to be heroes by many youngsters (as well as by adults who ought to know better). If you ask someone why Tom Cruise is his hero, he will often cite a role that he played in a film. "Yeah, Tom Cruise was so cool in those Mission Impossible movies, man!" Tom Cruise never did any of the stuff shown in the films, though. Not once was his life at risk: stunt doubles and special effects are what made him look cool. Did he ever actually save someone's life or put his own life on the line for a great cause? Well, no. He is just some guy blessed with good looks who appears in films.

I am not trying to heap abuse on Tom Cruise. It is nothing personal and I am sure that he is a pleasant enough fellow. All I am saying is that he does not quite measure up to what a real hero is.

When I think of what a real hero is, it is someone like Raoul Wallenberg, a man who risked his own life to save the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II. Sometimes, I wonder how I would have acted, were I in his shoes.

Another hero of the War was Douglas Bader. In December 1931, Bader lost his legs in an aircraft accident. Writing about it in his logbook, he simply remarked:
Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.

Bader's understatement serves to show how very English this Englishman was. This minor handicap ultimately did not keep him out of the Royal Air Force. Instead of taking a desk job, he requalified as a fighter pilot and flew the Hurricane and the Spitfire in combat, shooting down 22 German aircraft. After he was shot down in August 1941 over Occupied France, he was captured by the Nazis and held as a prisoner of war. He took the POW's obligation to escape to heart, and made many attempts, eventually frustrating his captors so much that they took away his prosthetic legs. After the war, Bader was promoted to Group Captain (equivalent to a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force) and knighted.

One thing though, is that I believe you really should not meet your heroes, if you want them to remain your heroes. They are human beings, not gods, and will have the same weaknesses and biases that anyone else has. I am sure that even Martin Luther King had his bad days.

I am reminded of a story that I heard once about how Mel Brooks met Cary Grant. Back in the day, when Mel Brooks was starting out, he met Cary Grant at a party, and he invited him out for lunch. Cary Grant was Mel Brook's idol; he thought that he was the coolest guy who ever lived, so of course, he was thrilled to be able to hang out with him.

They went out for lunch at someplace like Sardi's or The 21 Club and they stayed for about three hours. Mel Brooks was entranced by Cary Grant's stories about Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, and so when Cary Grant invited him out for lunch the next day, Mel Brooks enthusiastically agreed.

The next afternoon, they met at the same place and dined for three hours. The only problem was that Cary Grant told exactly the same stories that he told the previous day. Mel Brooks was shocked. "Oh my God, My hero is a bore!" After that, whenever Cary Grant called his office to invite him for lunch, Mel Brooks dodged them, begging his secretary to make up excuses.

I have no idea of whether this story is true or merely apocryphal. But it does sound plausible.