Field of Science

Nobel laureate joins the autism cranks at AutismOne conference

If you're reading this from anywhere but Chicago, you just missed the Autism One conference, which ends today.  This conference, run by Jenny McCarthy and Generation Rescue, purports to tell parents "the truth" about autism.

The conference is a veritable festival of unproven claims, offering a powerful but false message of hope to parents who are desperately searching for new treatments for their children.  It's also a nexus for anti-vaccinationists, who run special seminars educating parents about how to get vaccine exemptions so that they can enroll their unvaccinated children in public schools.

A look at the presentations reveals that rather than presenting "the truth," one speaker after another is making unsupported, unscientific claims and then offering their own special therapy.  The one thing that most of these presentations have in common is that the speaker is making money from selling their so-called treatments.  For example, Anat Baniel offers her self-named "Anat Baniel method" and is promoting it through ads in the conference program.  Other speakers are offering special diets, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and in perhaps the most damaging treatment, Mark and David Geier's chemical castration therapy.  Mark Blaxill is there, still pushing the thoroughly disproven link between mercury and autism, and hawking his book on the topic.

The other major theme of the conference is conspiracies: how the government, big pharma, and the scientific establishment are all conspiring to hide "the truth" about autism, which the speaker will reveal to the audience. Coincidentally, many of the speakers also offer treatments, for a fee.

This year's speakers include Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield, as usual, but also a new entry: Luc Montagnier.

Jenny McCarthy has been a leader of the anti-vaccine movement for over a decade.  She's a former Playboy playmate and MTV host, with no medical qualifications whatsoever, who is convinced that vaccines caused her son's autism.  She's been spreading her anti-vaccine message very effectively, with particular help from Oprah Winfrey and Larry King, who gave her prime television exposure countless times.  Oprah even offered McCarthy her own show, until McCarthy ditched Oprah for NBC.

Andrew Wakefield, the thoroughly discredited doctor who falsified data in order to push his false hypothesis that autism is caused by the MMR vaccine - whose medical license was revoked in the UK, and whose famous 1998 paper on autism and vaccines was retracted after it was shown to be fraudulent - claims that his talk "offers solutions [that] will be ignored by those in power and the more dire of its predictions will result."  Too bad I missed that one.

It's no surprise that Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield, leaders of the anti-vaccine movement, are speaking at AutismOne.  Much more surprising is the presence of Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier, co-discoverer of the link between the HIV virus and AIDS.  What is he doing at this festival of pseudoscience?

Well, apparently Montagnier has gone off the deep end into pseudoscience himself.  He claims that his new group, Chronimed, has discovered in autistic children
"DNA sequences that emit, in certain conditions, electromagnetic waves.  The analysis by molecular biology techniques allows us to identify these electromagnetic waves as coming from … bacterial species."
What the heck?  In what seems to be a desperate effort to stay relevant, Montagnier is promoting wild theories with little scientific basis, and now he is taking advantage of vulnerable parents (see his appeal here) to push a therapy of long-term antibiotic treatment for autistic children.

This is truly a wacky theory.  Montagnier hasn't been able to publish this in a proper journal, for a very good reason: it's nonsense.   He claims that quantum field theory - an area of physics in which he has no qualifications - explains how electromagnetic waves emanating from DNA can explain not only autism, but also Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.  Montagnier makes these claims and more in a self-published paper that he posted on arXiv.

This isn't Montagnier's first crazy idea: just a year ago, he claimed that DNA molecules can teleport between test tubes, also based on some kind of quantum hocus pocus.  This crackpot claim should have been ignored, and it would have been, if not for the fact that Montagnier is a Nobel laureate.  He's also endorsed homeopathy, another quack treatment.

This is a sad coda to a brilliant medical career.  Not only is Montagnier espousing junk science and tarnishing his own reputation, but he is lending credibility to the AutismOne conference, which is a festival of hucksters and snake-oil salesman, offering unproven, ineffective, and even harmful treatments to vulnerable children and their parents.

Autism is a complex, difficult disease.  Thousands of researchers are pouring their hearts and souls into understanding the disease and developing new treatments.  AutismOne does a terrible disservice to autistic children by siphoning away time, energy, and money that could instead go into real science.  We can only hope that it will fade away.


  1. It might help if we did more to support parents of autistic children. It cannot be easy coping with children who used to generally be institutionalized. I’ve read that many of these children are in diapers forever. I can see where this would lead to desperation for parents.

    McCarthy, however, seems only to have a mildly affected child (in fact, it is apparently not clear that he has autism at all) and there is little excuse for her involvement in something she really knows little about in the medical sense. Wakefield and Montagnier are pathetic and a disgrace to medicine. It is very sad that the medical profession cannot do more to permanently stop these cranks from spreading their nonsense to the unsuspecting public. I realize a democracy must allow this--or so I’m told, but what about the greater good of innocent children. Mommy does NOT always “know best”.

  2. As the story goes, Robert Gallo which was a co-discoverer of HIV and its relation to AIDS did not deserve to share the prize with the French.

    With hindsight, this may have been a big mistake of the Nobel committee. Would they give the Nobel prize to Gallo instead, we'd not have to see this crank science from a Nobel laureate.

  3. Autism: The Eusocial Hominid Hypothesis

    ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) are hypothesized as one of many adaptive human cognitive variations that have been maintained in modern populations via multiple genetic and epigenetic mechanisms. Introgression from "archaic" hominids (adapted for less demanding social environments) is conjectured as the source of initial intraspecific heterogeneity because strict inclusive fitness does not adequately model the evolution of distinct, copy-number sensitive phenotypes within a freely reproducing population.

    Evidence is given of divergent encephalization and brain organization in the Neanderthal (including a ~1520 cc cranial capacity, larger than that of modern humans) to explain the origin of the autism subgroup characterized by abnormal brain growth.

    Autism and immune dysfunction are frequently comorbid. This supports an admixture model in light of the recent discovery that MHC alleles (genes linked to immune function, mate selection, neuronal "pruning," etc.) found in most modern human populations come from "archaic" hominids.

    Mitochondrial dysfunction, differential fetal androgen exposure, lung abnormalities, and hypomethylation/CNV due to hybridization are also presented as evidence.

    A short video introduction

    The full 2-hour video presentation


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