Fox News and Unpublished Comments

Thursday night I noticed the following on FoxNews.com:
Dr. Manny Says Autism Breakthrough Is Real...For Now
By Dr. Manny Alvarez
Published June 09, 2011 | FoxNews.com

…[W]hen you look at a family that delivers twins, and one is autistic and the other is not, as a scientist, I have to believe there is a genetic component to the problem.

The studies, published in the journal Neuron, appear to have proven as much. The researchers examined the genomes of more than 1,000 families in which one child was autistic and the siblings and parents were not. Their findings confirmed a growing body of evidence that autism can be caused by a random genetic mutation that could occur at any one of hundreds of different sites in the human genome.

On behalf of my son, who was born with autism, and my family, I just want to congratulate the men and women who spent years working on this research.
The comments were soon filled with the standard anti-vaccine rhetoric, government conspiracy claims, and general dislike for the medical industry. But what really surprised me was a supposed "Dr." posting the following:
Sorry to rain on your parade, Dr Manny, but twins are GENETICALLY IDENTICAL. If genetics were the cause, BOTH would be autistic.
I wrote a detailed response to this and waited several hours, while the response count went from 20 to 50 to 70. I then write another comment, but not as a reply. Again, it was detailed but in "plain English" (at least as plain as science can be and still be accurate).

Fox News decided not to post either comment. Yet they were quick to approve conspiracy nonsense I am accustomed to reading on the Huffington Post website when it comes to autism. It is as if the one thing left and right wingnuts can agree upon: autism is a conspiracy. What follows is roughly what I posted to Fox, and I've attempted to post similar comments to HuffPost and other sites (CBS) doing a poor job explaining the science.

Genetics and Autism: An Explanation
Much of the recent genetic research concerning autism highlights the likelihood that de novo genetic mutations are at least partially responsible for some variations we call "autism." The challenge in explaining these studies involves misunderstandings of "genetic" and "early stage mutation."

"Genetic" is not a synonym for "hereditary" but hereditary traits are genetic. Genetic merely refers to any situation involving genes -- and there are genetic injuries that occur long after conception. Apparently, even a "doctor" can confuse the two concepts. Genes might pass along traits from our parents, but from the moment we are embryos changes can take place altering those genetic predispositions.

The "de novo" mutations discussed in these three studies refer to errors often found occurring after stage 16 of embryonic development. In the standard "stages" scale, stages 16 and 17 are approximately between 38 and 44 days after conception. During stage 16 and 17 the neurological development begins. Any errors in the replication process during these few days can have critical implications. The parents' genetics might or might not predispose an embryo to genetic errors -- we do not know for certain.

The errors discussed in the papers reviewed by the FoxNews medical correspondent are what we call "copy number variation" (CNV) mutations. Anywhere from 5% to 15% of our genetic makeup contains "errors" compared to the genetic information passed along from our parents. Why this happens is unclear, but that variation is probably beneficial evolutionarily. All species seem to have some CNV mutations, likely allowing traits to emerge with beneficial traits surviving.

CNVs might be swapped, missing, or duplicated genetic information. In any set of 100 nucleotide bases, five or more will likely be "errors" in the replication process. Therefore, even identical twins aren't identical. But, we also know that the CNVs generally affect weakly-transmitted characteristics. For example, hair color or eye color are "strong" genetic characteristics and unlikely to be altered by CNVs.

While we don't know why genes get mixed up, we can demonstrate definitively that no two children, not even identical twins, have identical DNA. Identical twins simply have an overwhelming number of similar genes -- but contrary to popular belief, they cannot be perfect copies of each other. No child is born without at least some CNVs.

We also do not know why some CNVs are serious and some are not. There are many things we do not understand, yet, about genetic contributors to autism and other traits. However, we do know genetics play an important role.

Genetics are complex, but the key is knowing that the complexity seems to naturally result in variations. Some variations, like perfect pitch or a photographic memory, seem desirable. Other variations seem to be less desirable.

We seem unwilling to accept that some things really might be random. We want to believe every event correlates to a cause. Geneticists, however, cannot explain the random mutations that every one of us has.

Comments

  1. Thank you for the pointing out of stages of embryonic/fetal development.

    It's relevant to a lot of things!

    Weakly transmitted characteristics?

    "Genetics are complex, but the key is knowing that the complexity seems to naturally result in variations. Some variations, like perfect pitch or a photographic memory, seem desirable. Other variations seem to be less desirable."

    Yes!

    ReplyDelete
  2. "The comments were soon filled with the standard anti-vaccine rhetoric, government conspiracy claims, and general dislike for the medical industry. But what really surprised me was a supposed 'Dr.' posting the following:

    'Sorry to rain on your parade, Dr Manny, but twins are GENETICALLY IDENTICAL. If genetics were the cause, BOTH would be autistic.'"

    I can definitely understand your surprise at such a statment being made by someone calling themselves a 'doctor': I'd be very shocked myself at such crass ignorance of statistics, probability, neurology and genetics all in one simple idiotic statement.

    "I wrote a detailed response to this and waited several hours, while the response count went from 20 to 50 to 70. I then write another comment, but not as a reply. Again, it was detailed but in 'plain English' (at least as plain as science can be and still be accurate)."

    Reading what you wrote and published here as your comment, I see that it is nothing too difficult for anyone who can read English reasonably well and has a basic science background.

    "Fox News decided not to post either comment. Yet they were quick to approve conspiracy nonsense I am accustomed to reading on the Huffington Post website when it comes to autism. It is as if the one thing left and right wingnuts can agree upon: autism is a conspiracy."

    I cannot see any reasonable basis for not publishing your comment. I can see a good handful of non-reasonable bases: not supporting conspiracies of any sort; too correct to be of interest to the loons who read things like Huff-Po and believe without thinking; etc.

    "What follows is roughly what I posted to Fox, and I've attempted to post similar comments to HuffPost and other sites (CBS) doing a poor job explaining the science."

    Sadden that it didn't get said where it was originally posted. Saddened. But not surprised.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It is hard to get "good" information to the public when the media want "balance" that includes some strange theories. Balance isn't the same as giving air time to non-researchers to talk about research. It is frustrating.

    News media need clear "left/right" and "black/white" binary arguments. That's too bad, because often there really is a "right" and a "wrong" in a scientific discussion. There's no real debate about some issues -- like how genes work or don't work.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "It is hard to get "good" information to the public when the media want "balance" that includes some strange theories."

    Fox News is not a mainstream news source, thankfully. As you know, this is a niche "news" site that unfortunately delivers "news" to a majority of the conservative politically inclined.

    However, what vaccines and the push back against them has to do with autism escapes me. One of my main complaints against ND is that it seems to serve the purpose of a political lobby (the APA) at the exclusion of autistic people. Vaccine support and autistic support have little in common interest. I'm still perplexed why anyone would be distracted by this issue. It has virtually no practical impact on the majority of autistic lives. However, if you live in a bubble of ND and AoA, you might think the vaccine and autism bylines live side by side.

    ReplyDelete
  5. CBS is certainly "mainstream" and along with PBS just as guilty, if not more so, of pushing the ignorance envelope regarding autism and genetics. PBS has embraces vaccine causation, while CBS and CNN keep including various conspiracy theories in their coverage, too.

    It's not a Fox issue. Every major media outlet has to tell with Generation Rescue, Age of Autism, and other groups with incredibly effective media outreach. I'm often stunned by how quickly I receive Gen Rescue materials to my university email accounts. Usually, within hours of any major research press release on a site like ScienceDaily. Heck, it takes me longer to read the articles -- much less than papers involved -- than it does for AoA or Gen Rescue to "respond" to the science.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Blogger needs to add the ability to edit comments for typos. Sorry for the sloppy entry -- but the point was made. The media love the celebrity autism "experts" more then they do scientists and researchers.

    ReplyDelete

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