People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals came across my Facebook feed this week… again. With a reputation for using spurious health claims and sexist and degrading imagery to pursue their crusade to eliminate the use of animal products in any form, PETA has done more to sully the reputation of vegans and vegetarians than Arby’s has to sully the roast beef sandwich. So I was less than surprised when I saw this image cross my radar…
Evidently PETA used a similar image on a billboard in 2008 in Newark, New Jersey which was pulled by the billboard company. Here’s their own sob story about it. Fast forward to 2014 when the ad made the internet rounds, making Time Magazine, The Atlantic, Forbes, I09 Health (which may be where it resurfaced as far as I can sleuth out, so kudos to Gizmodo) and of course the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe host Steven Novella’s bailiwick, Science Based Medicine, where Steven gave them a thorough roasting over the skeptical coals.
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has a history of (as the old saying goes) using science as a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination. In that way they are typical of ideological groups. They have an agenda, they are very open about their beliefs, and they marshal whatever arguments they can in order to promote their point of view.
Favoring information that supports our current beliefs is a cognitive bias common to Homo sapiens, but ideology tends to take this simple bias to a new level. It can lead to the systematic distortion or denial of science, and render belief systems immune to logic and evidence.
Novella does a great job breaking down the weak tea science that PETA is employing in defense of their ad so I’ll leave it to the Doc. Suffice to say that there is no scientific link between autism and dairy products. None. Zip. Zero. Nada. Just like there isn’t any scientific link between autism and gluten. Or autism and vaccines.Or to tell the truth autism and almost ANYTHING. According to The Autism Society…
There is no known single cause for autism spectrum disorder, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in children with autism compared to in neurotypical children. Researchers do not know the exact cause of autism but are investigating a number of theories, including the links among heredity, genetics and medical problems.
In many families, there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities, further supporting the theory that the disorder has a genetic basis. While no one gene has been identified as causing autism, researchers are searching for irregular segments of genetic code that children with autism may have inherited. It also appears that some children are born with a susceptibility to autism, but researchers have not yet identified a single “trigger” that causes autism to develop.
Other researchers are investigating the possibility that under certain conditions, a cluster of unstable genes may interfere with brain development, resulting in autism. Still other researchers are investigating problems during pregnancy or delivery as well as environmental factors such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances and exposure to chemicals.
We don’t really know what causes autism. What we do know is that cranks, snake oil salesmen and dishonest practitioners have been using autism as a bogey man to sell everything from gluten free diets, miracle cures (I don’t recommend clicking on any of those links,) and of course famously your own vaccine cocktail. And this drumbeat of panic about autism has negatively impacted the lives of children and adults on the autism spectrum for decades, making it difficult for them to shed the stigma associated with autism and making it more difficult for them or their parents to seek out reliable treatment or therapy options.
And that is the primary reason that I’m dragging this 10 year old meme into the arena for a good smashing, not because I loathe PETA and almost all it stands for… I do but that’s a different topic. It’s because in this case they are still a decade later causing harm. Despite being taken down in meatspace 10 years ago, despite being roundly thrashed up and down the internet four years ago, this meme won’t fricking die! It was still making the rounds this week! PETA’s page from 2008 is still up, with no retraction of it’s baseless claims. If you Google for autism and dairy it’s still one of the first results.
Which makes it a very successful meme because even debunking it has driven traffic to their website and exposed more people to their agenda. And I think that’s the primary point. PETA makes a lot of claims about “advocacy,” but in the end stunts like these are almost completely self serving, using folks with autism as props in their little morality play. People with autism and the parents and friends who love them have enough trouble navigating an allistic world that misunderstands them at best and mistreats them sometimes fatally at its worst. This meme adds to the mountain of pseudoscience that you have to climb over to get straight answers on autism and further alienates the autism community from the rest of society, making breakfast one more place where people with autism feel unwelcome. That’s shitty behavior, even for a shitty organization like PETA.
As always, if you’ve come across a meme that you think needs to be reduced to a pile of smoking rubble, drop us a link in the comments, in our contact form, on the Grounded Parents Facebook page or on Twitter @GroundedParents or @Blotzphoto
Featured Image courtesy of the 2017 Washington County Fair, being held this weekend in South Hurricane, Utah!