There was a letter in the September 5 issue of Time magazine that irked me when I read it today. The context of the letter was in response to an article about autism that appeared in the August 29 issue, in which is was reported that one possible cause might be genetic. Clearly the letter writer was frustrated and I empathize with that, but it was also clear that she did not grasp the concept of scientific method. She wrote:
I was dismayed as I read Judith Warner’s article [“Autism’s Lone Wolf,” Aug. 29]. I’m a parent of a child with Asperger’s and it seems everywhere I turn there are news stories about what causes autism–vaccinations, genes, environmental factors and now perhaps my choice of spouse. Parents of children on the autism spectrum have enough to deal with. Feeling we are somehow responsible for our children’s condition is just a bit too much. I wish less time was spent trying to figure out what causes autism and more time was dedicated to developing therapies to help the children who have it.
I quote the entire letter for context but the italicized portion is my emphasis. Forget for a moment that she is talking about autism. She could be talking about any kind of medical condition. What I find remarkable about this statement is that is reveals a deep lack of understanding of the scientific process, and implies you can put the cart before the horse. How is one supposed to develop therapies for any condition without understanding what causes the condition?
Without understanding that many illnesses were caused by bacteria or viruses, those illnesses would still be treated with all kinds of medieval methods like leeching and bleeding. It took scientists to understand the underlying cause of these diseases–to realize they were not the result of an imbalance of the humours–that finally allowed us to treat them successfully. I can understand the frustration behind the letter-writer, but it is the lack of understanding of the scientific method that I find scary. This, at a time when many state and local governments want to cut back on investments in education. Well, if you are wondering what will happens if we back off education, this letter is a preview.