Kristof on Environmental Toxins and Autism

Over recent decades, other development disorders also appear to have proliferated, along with certain cancers in children and adults. Why? No one knows for certain. And despite their financial and human cost, they presumably won’t be discussed much at Thursday’s White House summit on health care.

Yet they constitute a huge national health burden, and suspicions are growing that one culprit may be chemicals in the environment. An article in a forthcoming issue of a peer-reviewed medical journal, Current Opinion in Pediatrics, just posted online, makes this explicit.

The author is not a granola-munching crank but Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and chairman of the school’s department of preventive medicine. While his article is full of cautionary language, Dr. Landrigan told me that he is increasingly confident that autism and other ailments are, in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed.

Without getting way beyond my knowledge of the relevant science, I wanted to point out a couple of flaws in Kristof’s piece. First, the fact that someone has an important title doesn’t mean that he’s not a crank, or even a granola-munching crank. And even if someone isn’t a crank in general, he might still have crankish opinions on a particular issue. Surely, we have all met someone who is generally non-crankish, but believes, e.g., that Obama was not born in the U.S., or the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks.

I’m not saying Landrigan is a crank—though tips from his “Rodale Organic Style Book” Raising Healthy Children in A Toxic World, like abstaining from using commercial baby wipes, suggest that his views on keeping kids safe from chemical exposure are extremely conservative—just that his title doesn’t mean his views aren’t “crankish.” A cabbage with a Ph.D. is still a cabbage.

Second, Kristof pulls a bait and switch. First, he assures us that the article in question was published in a “peer reviewed” journal (though not a leading one), giving at least some indication of mainstreamness. But then Kristof adds; “While his article is full of cautionary language, Dr. Landrigan told me that he is increasingly confident that autism and other ailments are, in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed.”

In other words, to get published in a peer-reviewed journal, Landrigan had to use “cautionary language.” Meanwhile, his “confidence” is apparently not sufficiently backed by scientific evidence that he can use “confident” instead of “cautionary” language in the peer-reviewed article. The casual reader, in short, might be fooled into thinking that Landrigan’s “confident” views have passed peer review, when in fact they seem to represent his own non-peer reviewed speculation based on the current evidence.

UPDATE: I should add that even one “confident” peer-reviewed article would be just that; many peer-reviewed articles, including ones published in the leading medical and scientific journals, have turned out to be wrong.