Orac in his first post about Autism’s False Prophets by Dr. Paul Offit wondered at the book’s chapter 5. Chapter 5 is entitled “Mercury Rising” and is (quoting Orac) a ‘”straightforward and relatively uncritical recitation of the ‘science’ used by antivaccinationists to show that mercury causes autism.” Noting that he has “read and analyzed many of these studies and knowing that they are at best irrelevant and at worst rank pseudoscience” and that he found the chapter, with its uneditoralizing descriptions of studies by the likes of Mark and David Geier, Orac suggests that Offit’s presentation is meant to “show how the steady drumbeat of such studies can give the impression that there is scientific legitimacy to the question fo whether vaccines cause autism,” and the following chapter 6, “Mercury Falling,” indeed does so. But is there not an inherent danger in presenting the “science” of the anti-vaccinationists/pro-vaccine-safety advocates without immediately noting the shaky grounds for their claims?
As Offit noted in response in his 2nd post for the Science Blogs Book Club:
I wrote the chapters introducing Wakefield and thimerosal without providing any evidence to refute those theories because that was the way it played out in the press and to the public. I thought that this would give the reader a better sense of what really happened during the early stages of the controversy.
When I first reviewed the book’s Table of Contents, my eye was drawn to chaptesr 5, 6, and also 7 (“Behind the Mercury Curtain,” which features Neurodiversity.com blogger Kathleen Seidel) for the use of the word “mercury” in their titles These three chapters form a unit—call it the rise and fall of the Mercury Curtain, if you like—in the three-part structured of the book (noted by Orac). Chapter 5, “Mercury Rising,” introduces a cast of characters who constitute the guiding lights in the charge that vaccines can be linked to autism: Lyn Redwood and Sallie Bernard of Safe Minds; the Geiers, father Mark and son David, and their ever-growing arsenal of studies in favor of a vaccine-autism link; Generation Rescue founder J.B. Handley; psychology professor and author Simon Baron-Cohen; Boyd Haley and Richard Deth, a chemistry profesror and biochemistry professor, respectively, who have done research in support of a mercury-autism connection; Mady Hornig, a Columbia University researcher who (in the words of Offit) “believed she had made mice autistic” using thimerosal (p. 90); Thomas Verstraeten, a CDC researcher who conducted a study of the Vaccine Safety DataLink (VDS) that became the subject of more than a little dispute; environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy; David Kirby, whose 2005 book Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy became a sine qua non read for all of those mentioned in this paragraph.
Orac’s first book club post has more details on all of these characters and characters they—or some of them—were to become in a Hollywood movie. As Offit notes at the end of “Mercury Rising,” this was to be the plot, per Kirby’s website:
“When their children descend into the frightening world of autism a group of parents discover a disturbing link between thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative found in vaccines, and the steady rise in autism. One tenacious mother, Lyn Redwood, risks her family to battle the FDA, CDC, and the American government, despite efforts from pharmaceutical companies and government officials to suppress evidence and prevent parents from gaining restitution for their children’s conditions.” (p. 105)
Conspiracy. Government cover-up. Money. Sick children. And, in particular, “one tenacious mother“—it was all supposed to add up to a Hollywood blockbuster of Erin Brockovichian proportions. But as more and more evidence was brought forward—in the form of more and more research studies—refuting a vaccine or something in vaccines-autism link (the subject matter of chapter 6, “Mercury Falling,” plans for “Evidence of Harm: The Movie” disappeared (p. 127), a point that Offit is careful to note just as chapter 6 is ending. The disappearing movie deal is already hinted at in the last sentence of chapter 5:
So dramatic was the evidence against vaccines [if you believed what the studies of the Geiers, Haley, Deth, and Hornig, and what Redwood, Bernard, Handley, Kirby, and Kennedy had to say] that a major, well-respected production company was going to make a movie about it. Everything was coming together. Everything made.
But the next few years would reveal that it was all a mirage. (p. 105)
Just like Dorothy waking up in Kansas, hopes for an Evidence of Harm movie and for proof of the vaccine-autism hypothesis in the form of the autism rate declining after thimerosal was removed from vaccines were revealed to be all a dream, an illusion, a “mirage.” But, as the rest of Offit’s book argues, the anti-vaccinationists still haven’t realized that they’re back in Kansas and that the technicolor splendor of Oz—of a world in which tenacious autism parents reveal the evil ways of dread Big Pharma, which has the CDC in its back pocket—-is so much imagining.
Consider one of the main characters in the rise of the vaccine/mercury-autism hypothesis, Lyn Redwood.
Redwood is the first figure noted by Offit in chapter 5, a nurse practitioner living in Atlanta who in 2000, along with a businesswoman named Sallie Bernard, submitted a paper to the journal Medical Hypotheses (circulation: 200) that linked autism to mercury poisoning. In the same year, Redwood and Bernard founded Safe Minds, an acronym for Sensible Action for Ending Mercury-Induced Neurological Disorders; the group has continued to claim that mercury can be linked to autism. Both Bernard and Redwood, as well as a number of other anti-vaccine advocates, are on the board of Safe Minds. Originally headquartered in Cranford, New Jersey, its website now locates it in southern California.
Offit quotes a number of statements from Redwood who was “angry that children had been and were continuing to be exposed to mercury, and she was angry that the government hadn’t seen her Medical Hypotheses paper as proof that mercury-containing vaccines were the problem.” As she is quoted:
“We are in the midst of an autism epidemic and children diagnosed with learning disabilities continue to increase daily. The statement [by public health officials] that there is no evidence of harm does not equate with no harm having occurred……..The truth is that we have not adequately looked or we just refuse to see. A recent national news article reported that some say we don’t have a smoking gun. But the truth is the bullets are all over the floor.” (p. 83)
“The statement……that there is no evidence of harm does not equate with no harm having occurred.” This sentence with its triple negative (“no evidence of harm”—”does not equate”—-”no harm having occurred”) might have led the Roman orator Cicero to compare Redwood to Hortensia, daughter of the consul Quintus Hortensius Hortalus and known in the late Roman Republic as a skilled orator. Let’s look at that triple negative again:
“The statement……that there is no evidence of harm does not equate with no harm having occurred. [my emphasis]”
That is, to say that (as numerous research studies have continued to show) there is no proof of a child being “damaged” by a vaccine and becoming autistic (the oft-repeated claim of Redwood, Bernard, the Geiers, et al.) is not to say that some harm did indeed happen. Whatever all those research studies, carefully cited by Offit in chapter 6, may say, according to this statement of Redwood, some “injury” has occurred to a child. Harm—that is, injury—-that is, autism—did occur (says Redwood’s statement) and all the evidence that scientists and doctors and medical professionals can provide just can never add up against the fact, the reality, of a “damaged” child; of a “perfectly normal child” become an autistic one.
As Offit writes, “the phrase no evidence of harm would become an ironic manifesto” for Redwood’s cause. The word “evidence” itself has become a sort of mantra among proponents of a vaccine-autism link and is often deployed by Kirby and others with a sort of “where’s the beef” and “show me the money” intent. Redwood’s graphic, and rather histrionic, statement about the bullets being “all over the floor,” implied that the “evidence” was easily to be sought, in the autistic bodies of children who were said to be “shot” and, therefore, damaged with something as bad or worse than those metaphorical bullets: Mercury, from a vaccine.
Since the early years of this decade when Redwood made these statements, there has indeed been mounting evidence refuting a vaccine-autism link. The Vice-President of Safe Minds, Redwood is regularly quoted in the media in articles about a vaccine-autism link. Further, Redwood is one of only five public members of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC), which coordinates autism spectrum disorder (ASD) research and other efforts within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt appoints the public members. At public IACC meetings, Redwood has stated that she believes there is a national crisis and an epidemic of autism; that vaccines and heavy metals are the cause; and that peer review processes should be changed to allow for the funding of “alternative” approaches like chelation and other “biomedical” treatments for autism.
In other words, despite all that evidence that there is no link between vaccines or something in vaccines in the past several years since her Medical Hypotheses paper was published, and despite the fact that an autistic boy died while receiving chelation treatment in 2005 (the same year that Kirby’s book was published), Redwood still holds pretty much the same position.
And you’d think that someone who speaks so highly, or at least so often, of “evidence,” would wish to consider all the evidence. To paraphrase Redwood’s own words, have the anti-vaccinationists “adequately looked” at the evidence or is it that they “just refuse to see”?
Do they know they’re in Kansas, or do they think they’re still in Oz?