Respectful Insolence

Time flies when you’re having fun.

Hard as it is to believe, it’s been a year since RFK, Jr. first posted his ridiculous conspiracy-mongering piece on Salon.com. Ever since moving to ScienceBlogs back in February, I had planned on reposting this article on the anniversary of its original appearance. Unfortunately, for some reason I misremembered the date as being later last June than it really was, leading me to forget completely about reposting on the day it should have been reposted, namely last Saturday. Oh, well, better late than never. If you’re curious about how I plunged head first into the whole mercury-autism controversy, join me in a trip down memory lane and enjoy a particularly tasty piece of classic (Not-So-) Respectful Insolence™ entitled:

Salon.com flushes its credibility down the toilet

Damn.

I had been tempted to try to let this cup pass, but I couldn’t, not after Skeptico, PZ, and several others e-mailed me about this article, seemingly expecting a response. I thought about just chilling out last night, enjoying Game 4 of the NBA Finals, and letting a response wait until next week, but the more I thought about it, the harder it was to wait. Thank heaven for laptops and wireless networking.

Believe it or not, I’ve been a fairly regular Salon.com reader for at least the three years. Despite its leftward tilt, I’ve generally enjoyed the writing and features. I’ve even linked to Salon.com articles and features on occasion. Now I’m going to have to reconsider my opinion of the site. Why? Salon.com has just plopped down on the web the biggest, steamingest, drippiest turd I’ve ever seen it publish, an article so mindnumbingly one-sided and uncritical that in my eyes it utterly destroys nearly all credibility Salon.com has had as a source of reliable news and comment. Honestly, the editors of Salon.com should hang their heads in shame for publishing this paranoid piece of fear-mongering and trumpeting it as “investigative reporting.”

The article to which I refer is, of course, Deadly Immunity (which was a “coinvestigation” by Salon.com and Rolling Stone–a magazine whose attempts at investigative journalism I haven’t taken seriously in years). It’s a one-sided account by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. of the supposed link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism that is being promoted by antivaccine activists as an indictment of the government and pharmaceutical companies. For example, the Schaefer Autism Report e-mail list reports that ABC News has cancelled appearances by RFK Jr. on 20/20 and Good Morning America this week. The e-mail invokes the usual conspiracy-mongering, saying, “Our opinion is that they are more concerned about protecting their huge advertising revenues from the pharmaceutical industry than reporting news that could protect pregnant women, infants and children from mercury tainted vaccines.” Personally, I suspect it was because ABC News probably figured out that the article was a biased and shoddily researched piece of crap, but then that’s just my opinion and hope. Certainly, the newsletter does nothing to dispel my suspicion that this was nothing more than a propaganda piece:


Lujene Clark, co-founder of NoMercury and A-CHAMP (Advocates for Children’s Health Affected by Mercury Poisoning), worked extensively with Mr. Kennedy and his office over the past several weeks in preparing the article for publication. The print copy will contain a sidebar from Ms. Clark, providing perspective from her experience as the mother of a thimerosal-injured child and advocate for removing mercury from vaccines.

So the preparation of the article was heavily influenced by an antivaccination activist. Gee, why am I not surprised to learn this? Why didn’t Salon.com just let Lujene Clark write the article? The result would have been the same. In any case, there’s so much misinformation, paranoid conspiracy-theory raving, and one-sided stuff in this article that it’s hard to know where to start. Fortunately, I’ve dealt with this topic a few times before recently. Here are just a few of the major problems with the article:

Quote mining. The article begins by making dire insinuations about a conference that was held at the CDC, known as the Simpsonwood Conference, after the conference center where it was held in 2000. It is not an auspicious start, as RFK Jr. does what mercury-autism activists do best: quote-mining. This meeting was a preliminary meeting about the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD). The entire transcript (warning: big file) of the meeting is over 260 pages long (although there is a version with selected excerpts), and RFK Jr. has carefully chosen a couple of quotes that, when taken out of context, sound like a coverup. I haven’t had time to read the whole transcript (and I can assure you that what I have read of it is incredibly dry and dull), but what I see is a lot of discussion about the consistency and accuracy of the early data collection, sources of potential bias in the studies, and debate about what it means. The quote about how the data have to be “handled” is described by RFK Jr. thusly:

Dr. John Clements, vaccines advisor at the World Health Organization, declared flatly that the study “should not have been done at all” and warned that the results “will be taken by others and will be used in ways beyond the control of this group. The research results have to be handled.”

Here is what Dr. Clements actually said in context (warning, link to a big file):

I am really concerned that we have taken off like a boat going down one arm of the mangrove swamp at high speed, when in fact there was not enough discussion really early on about which way the boat should go at all. And I really want to risk offending everyone in the room by saying that perhaps this study should not have been done at all, because the outcome of it could have, to some extent, been predicted, and we have all reached this point now where we are left hanging, even though I hear the majority of consultants say to the Board that they are not convinced there is a causality direct link between Thimerosal and various neurological outcomes.

I know how we handle it from here is extremely problematic. The ACIP is going to depend on comments from this group in order to move forward into policy, and I have been advised that whatever I say should not move into the policy area because that is not the point of this meeting. But nonetheless, we know from many experiences in history that the pure scientist has done research because of pure science. But that pure science has resulted in splitting the atom or some other process which is completely beyond the power of the scientists who did the research to control it. And what we have here is people who have, for every best reason in the world, pursued a direction of research. But there is now the point at which the research reults have to be handled, and even if this committee decides that there is no association and that information gets out, the work that has been done and through the freedom of information that will be taken by others and will be used in ways beyond the control of this group. And I am very concerned about that as I suspect it is already too late to do anything regardless of any professional body and what they say. (p. 247)

It sure sounds a whole lot less conspiratorial in context, doesn’t it? Dr. Clements was just expressing a quite reasonable fear that lawyers will use very preliminary and unconfirmed studies for their own ends, which is what they do indeed routinely do. Such a concern was not at all unreasonable and is still not unreasonable. In fact, RFK Jr.’s highly selective quoting of Dr. Clements’ words is a perfect example of what Dr. Clements was clearly afraid of!

Confusing correlation and causation. The article repeats the usual canard about how autism was unknown before the 1940’s, which, coincidentally was when thimerosal-containing vaccines were first used. The article even goes so far as to claim:

The disease was unknown until 1943, when it was identified and diagnosed among 11 children born in the months after thimerosal was first added to baby vaccines in 1931.

No, the reason the disease was “unknown” until 1943 was because it was not described as a specific condition by Dr. Leo Kanner until 1943, after which Dr. Hans Asperger described a similar condition that now bears his name in 1944. Before that, although Dr. Eugen Bleuler had coined the term “autism” in 1911, no specific diagnostic criteria existed for the disease. Even for decades after 1943 autism was not infrequently confused with mental retardation or schizophrenia, and over the last two decades the diagnostic criteria for autism and autism spectum disorders have been widened. In any case, if thimerosal in vaccines were the cause of autism, we would expect autism rates in Denmark and Canada to have plummeted recently, because Denmark eliminated thimerosal from its vaccines by 1995 and Canada removed them around the same time. No such decrease in autism rates has occurred in either country, even though there has been more than enough time for such a decrease to make itself apparent if there were truly a link between mercury exposure and autism. I would ask the mercury-autism activists: If this particular correlation does mean causation, if mercury in thimerosal is indeed a major cause or contributor to autism, why is it, then, that autism rates have not started to fall dramatically in Denmark and Canada by now? That there has been no such decrease is very strong epidemiological evidence that there is no link.

RFK then goes on to list a bunch of studies supposedly showing how toxic thimerosal is, berry-picked and without descriptions of the actual doses of thimerosal used. However, the most idiotic statement is here:

In 1930, the company [Eli Lilly] tested thimerosal by administering it to 22 patients with terminal meningitis, all of whom died within weeks of being injected — a fact Lilly didn’t bother to report in its study declaring thimerosal safe.

The patients had “terminal meningitis” in 1930 and died after injection with thimerosal? Imagine that. Given that penicillin had not been discovered yet, I would have been surprised if any of them lived.

Double standards in looking at “conflicts of interest.” RFK Jr. goes on and on about alleged conflicts of interest by vaccine researchers who accept funding from pharmaceutical companies, going so far as to imply that the Institute of Medicine reports of 2001 and 2004 that stated that there is no link between mercury and autism were basically done at the behest of the pharmaceutical companies, never mind the comprehensive review of the literature in 2004 that also failed to find a link. It’s the usual conspiracy-mongering insinuations we hear from antivaccination activists and other types of cranks. However, in marked contrast, RFK Jr. approvingly cites the research of Dr. Mark Geier and his son David, both of whom are activists for the mercury-autism crowd, never once mentioning that Dr. Geier is a professional expert witness for vaccine plantiffs, who has been involved in over 100 legal cases brought against vaccine manufacturers and the government on behalf of parents and whose testimony has been disallowed in some for not being sufficiently qualified. Dr. Geier’s son David runs a company called MedCon, a medical-legal consulting firm that helps vaccine injury claimants to obtain money from both the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program and through civil litigation.

Hmmm. Sounds to me as though the Geiers have a definite financial conflict of interest when it comes to vaccine studies, and they have published several studies that are widely cited by antivaccination activists as “proof” of a mercury-autism link. None of their studies has ever failed to show such a link. I wonder why RFK didn’t see fit to mention that, given his great concern over conflicts of interest in vaccine research. He also didn’t mention that the Geiers have used shoddy study methodology and also engaged in data collection irregularities, drawing a rebuke from the CDC and suspension of Dr. Geier’s IRB approval from Kaiser-Permanente. Overall, RFK Jr. seems pretty selective in his outrage over conflicts of interest and shoddy research, doesn’t he?

The “hidden hordes” fallacy. RFK Jr. cites Professor Boyd Haley, Chairman of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Kentucky, who is an activist and Chair of the Advisory Committee for Toxic Teeth, an anti-amalgam group and whose fallacious reasoning with regards to mercury and autism has been pointed out by Peter Bowditch. This is the same Boyd Haley who got into trouble last year for labeling autism as “Mad Child Disease,” leading to a demand for him to apologize, which he has refused to do. Haley is quoted as saying “If the epidemic is truly an artifact of poor diagnosis, then where are all the 20-year-old autistics?” I’ll borrow Michelle Dawson‘s response to that fallacy, which she was kind enough to have posted in the comments of my blog while responding to David Kirby’s recent book on vaccines and autism:

Mr Kirby deploys the “hidden hordes” to express his disbelief in the possibility that there is no autism epidemic. Were numbers of autistics steady over the years, he argues, America would be clogged with aging hopeless autistics gruesomely burdening society. Mr Kirby cannot find us (I’m one of his “hidden hordes”) how and where he expects (doomed and confined to institutions), so he denies we exist.

Szatmari et al (1989) suggests that Mr Kirby should look for his hordes in university records. In a follow-up of autistics diagnosed as children before 1970, 7 of 16 had university degrees (one was an MBA).

This is in essence a variant of the argument that there is an autism “epidemic” favored by so many advocates favoring a link between autism and mercury. Like many antivaccination activists, RFK also misuses the word “epidemic” by referring to an “autism epidemic,” a concept that the Autism Diva debunks rather nicely. Kevin Leitch agrees that there is no autism epidemic and points it out here and here, concluding:

Just to reiterate – there is no autism epidemic. Diagnostic criteria have widened and reporting methods have vastly improved. There may well be an increase in actual case percentage but epidemic? Hardly.

I could go on, but I’m getting tired and I’ve already failed utterly in my attempt to keep this brief. Besides, I’ve covered nearly all the fallacies, double standards, and selective data mining like that seen in the Salon.com article before here, here, here, here, and here. I also point out that, due to activist pressure, the U.S. has already removed thimerosal from nearly all childhood vaccines, with the last vaccines expiring two years ago. Consequently, the main purpose of trying to “prove” this probably nonexistent “link” now is to provide trial lawyers with “evidence” to use in lawsuits. The next 5 years will tell the tale as the children who have received no thimerosal-containing vaccines reach the age at which autism is commonly diagnosed. I’ll admit it if I’m wrong and autism rates plummet, but don’t expect an apology from the activists when (as is much more likely, given the examples of Denmark and Canada) the rates don’t.

The bottom line is that this article is indeed a humongous runny, stinking turd. Salon.com and Rolling Stone have let their readers down, contributed to the hysteria over a probably nonexistent link between mercury and autism, and utterly trashed their own credibility in the process. They’ve handed the antivaccination activists a significant propaganda victory and an article that they will be citing for years to come, frightening parents who wonder if vaccines are safe and wrongly adding to the guilt that parents of autistic children already feel by making them wonder if they were responsible for their child’s condition.

ADDENDUM #1: Argh! It’s been pointed out to me that Tom Tomorrow, one of my favorite lefty cartoonists, has drunk the thimerosal-autism Kool Aid as well (the June 16 entry on his blog, if the link doesn’t work correctly). Well, my opinion of him has just fallen several notches. It just goes to show, with Dan Burton, Salon.com, and Tom Tomorrow all falling on the same side of the fence in this issue, that mercury-autism junk science is the fallacy that all sides of the political spectrum seem to like to fall for, although my perception persists that it is more favored on the left.

ADDENDUM #2: Bummer. It looks like ABC News will show the interviews with RFK Jr. about this story after all.

ADDENDUM #3: Autism Diva has weighed in and posted the entire A-CHAMP Action Alert that I had quoted. (This piece was more than long enough already, which was why I didn’t post the whole thing myself.) Soapgun has also pointed out that Don Imus is on board the mercury-autism bandwagon big time. Ali at blendor has also castigated Salon.com, beating me to it.

Comments

  1. #1 Skeptico
    June 20, 2006

    Well, today is the anniversary of my first post exposing Kennedy’s garbage journalism – perhaps that’s what you were thinking about (Hee Hee).

    Time does fly. I’m certainly glad I don’t have to read that report again. Or this one.

  2. #2 Kristjan Wager
    June 20, 2006

    Ah…. memories….

    I think that was when I started venturing into the debate as well.

  3. #3 Bazooka Joe
    June 20, 2006

    happy anniversary.

    maybe Jr. could sing you ‘Happy Anniversary Mr. Insolence’ while wearing a blonde wig and a slinky dress… and maybe a gorilla costume to make it a bit more palatable.

  4. #4 Bronze Dog
    June 20, 2006

    Maybe I should fish out [Appeal_to_Ridicule] #0 from Skeptico’s comments to celebrate. Was probably what brought me to Ryan’s attention.

  5. #5 David Edwards
    June 20, 2006

    Can I ask a quick question to begin with?

    Is the posture that these people are taking the somewhat ridiculous one of insisting that ‘mercury causes autism’ and that there is no other explanation?

    If so, perhaps they might like to explain something to me.

    I was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition back in 2002 or thereabouts (somewhere in my attic are the papers with the dates on – I can fish them out later). What matters here is that I was diagnosed, and by a reputable team (Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues).

    Now here’s the rub.

    I’ve never had the MMR vaccine.

    In fact, I’ve never had any of the usual run of childhood vaccines. My doctor specifically warned my mother against this because tests showed that I had inherited a strong natural immunity of my own to several serious diseases from my mother’s side of the family. I’ve never had a TB shot, never had the polio vaccine as a baby, never had the smallpox shot. So, if ‘mercury causes autism’, where did I get my mercury from?

    Oh, you can throw into this mix the fact that I never ate tuna fish as a child either. I was fairly fussy about what I liked and disliked, and pretty wilful about it too. So, where did I get my mercury? Paging the Geiers …

    Oh, listen to that silence …

  6. #6 Prup aka Jim Benton
    June 20, 2006

    Can I please make a dumb request? I haven’t been following this closely. I know it is important, have no doubt that Orac and the rest of you are on the right side, and did, at least once, put a blogger in contact with you to correct his mistake of treating the Geiers and the JAPS as reliable sources. But I can’t keep the various groups straight, and recently heard PSAs for two Autism groups on baseball games recently. One was for the group “Autism Speaks,” I stupidly forgot to mark down the other one.

    Could someone please post the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ groups in the field so that if one of the crackpot groups shows up in similar circumstances I can write or call to make the station running the PSA aware of the group’s nature?

  7. #7 Bazooka Joe
    June 20, 2006

    CAN – cure autism now (http://www.cureautismnow.org), founded by mercury zealots and Hg-focused, but fund other research since the Hg thingee ain’t panning out so well.

    DAN! – defeat autism now (http://www.danconference.com/) – group of doctors, many are Hg freaks, hyperbaric oxygen freaks, sauna freaks, urine-injection freaks, highly motivated to chelate you and your cat if need be.

    NAAR – national alliance for autism research (http://www.naar.org/naar.asp)

    Autism Speaks – gobbled up NAAR, founded by the NBC Wrights, recently have decided that their grandchild is mercury/vaccine damaged goods. The Hg militia used to call it Autism Shrieks, because they hated that it wasn’t Hg-focused… well that’s changing rapidly.

    TAAP – The autism immunity project (http://www.taap.info/) freaks including AIDS/HIV denialist freaks.

    There’s a few others.

  8. #8 Joseph
    June 20, 2006

    Could someone please post the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ groups in the field so that if one of the crackpot groups shows up in similar circumstances I can write or call to make the station running the PSA aware of the group’s nature?

    Crackpot sites:

    generationrescue.org
    safeminds.org
    evidenceofharm.com

    Curebie/quack sites:

    cureautismnow.org
    autismspeaks.org
    danconference.com

    Acceptance/Neurodiversity/Science:

    autism-hub.co.uk
    kevinleitch.co.uk
    neurodiversity.com
    autistics.org
    autismdiva.blogspot.com

  9. #9 Common Sense
    June 20, 2006

    “Could someone please post the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ groups in the field so that if one of the crackpot groups shows up in similar circumstances I can write or call to make the station running the PSA aware of the group’s nature”?

    Translation: I’m too ignorant to know what the hell I am talking about so can you guys please tell me who I should believe and who I shouldn’t believe so that I don’t confuse myself. It would really help so that I can cut down on thinking for myself.

  10. #10 Uncommon wisdom
    June 20, 2006

    The mercury phobes and vaccine lawsuit trial lawyers have infitrated all the mainstream autism organizations in the US. There are very few good sources of information. There is anti-autistic kind of stuff on some government sites, but the gov’t sites are more reliable than, say Cure Autism Now (probably the other org that was involved with a baseball game fund raiser). Quackery is absolutely rife in autism. Applied Behavioral Analysis is frequently held up as cure when it is not. Basically, don’t give money to the big autism organizations. At least not now. Who knows if they’ll get straightened out in a few years. There are organizations for retarded people, for people with specific genetic disorders that commonly have autism as a feature: Fragile X, Angelman’s, William’s syndrome, Rett syndrome … a bunch … where the orgs are more focused on helping live people than on curing them to the point of endangering their lives. There is a feeling of wonder and gratitude along with the sadness of havign a disabled child, among those groups, typically. If you wanted to support “autism” it would be better to support these “non specific” sort of autism groups.

    Avoid like the plague:
    “National Autism Association” – a small organization trying to sound big
    FAIR Autism Media
    TAAP -The Autism Autoimmune Project
    Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!)
    Autism Research International (ARI)
    SAFEMINDS
    TACANOW
    any autism group with “mercury” in the title
    No Mercury
    Moms against mercury
    Dads against mercury

    Almost as bad as the above list:
    Autism Society of America (ASA) the real national autism organization in the US.
    Cure Autism Now (CAN)
    Autism Speaks

    Not bad, but not in the United States:
    National Autistic Society – out of the UK

  11. #11 Lucas McCarty
    June 20, 2006

    The UK National Autistic Society is officially the best Autism society in the world because it is completely neutral and does not propagate ideas about Autism suggesting our existence isn’t worth living.

    It scores four out of ten, it loses six points because by being neutral it is very much commiting the Middle Ground fallacy.

  12. #12 Calm On Scents
    June 20, 2006

    I’m too ignorant to know what the hell I am talking about

    Yep, but you still keep talkin’, Sue.

  13. #13 Kev
    June 21, 2006

    General rule of thumb: if a site that claims to be speaking about autism doesn’t actually have any autistic people on the board then you should be sceptical.

    Also, any group that constantly harps on vaccines needs a closer look. Its actually SafeMinds mission statement to establish a link between vaccines and autism and Generation Rescue claim all autism, now and forever, was/is mercury poisoning with a strong emphasis on thiomersal.

  14. #14 David Edwards
    June 21, 2006

    “…and Generation Rescue claim all autism, now and forever, was/is mercury poisoning with a strong emphasis on thiomersal.”

    Guess the Geiers are going to be even more silent over my above post then. Or perhaps they’ll take out a contract on me. Or perhaps they’ll say that Dr Baron-Cohen and his team misdiagnosed me, and what I have isn’t a genuine autistic spectrum condition. What, no mercury? Oops….

  15. #15 Anonymous
    June 25, 2006

    I thought this might be an interesting thread to comment on:

    http://boards.babycenter.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?nav=messages&tsn=1&tid=1273&webtag=bcus1143871

  16. #16 anonimouse
    July 14, 2006

    I thought this might be an interesting thread to comment on:

    http://boards.babycenter.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?nav=messages&tsn=1&tid=1273&webtag=bcus1143871

    With few exceptions that board is a haven for anti-vaccine loons that make Sue look positively rational by comparison.

  17. #17 Erwin Alber
    June 27, 2007

    To David Edwards who wonders where the mercury which caused his autistic condition came from because he never had the usual vaccines: I suspect it came from your parents’ dental amalgams. Mercury crosses the placental and brain barrier.

    Mercury is indeed getting singled out unjustly as the cause for the autism epidemic. It is obviously the mercury AND the aluminium AND the foreign protein (viral and bacterial matter, minute particles from the cell cultures such chick embryos and contaminating avian=bird viruses, monkey kidneys including contaminating simian=monkey viruses and aborted human foetal tissue) in vaccines which is slowly but surely destroying the world’s children.

    In the US one in every 150 US children is now being diganosed with autism, and latest figures even show an incidence of 1 in every 84 children! Voltaire’s remark that “The world is a mental asylum run by its worst inmates” was probably true in his time but is even more pertinent today.

    People who believe that the neurotoxic metals in vaccines including mercury don’t cause autism are as gullible as people who believe the wild conspiracy theories implicating Arabs including Bin Laden in the WTC collapse.

    US neurosurgeon of 26 years Dr. Russell Blaylock MD has issued this warning concerning the toxic metals in vaccines:

    “The aluminium and the mercury used in vaccines are significant neurotoxins (poisons affecting the nervous system) which play a major role in all neurodegenerative disorders (such as autism, attention deficit hyperactive and learning disosders). It is also important to remember that both of these metals accumulate in the brain and spinal cord. This makes them much more dangerous than rapidly excreted toxins.

    Numerous studies have shown harmful effects when aluminium accumulates in the brain, including Alzheimer’s disease and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). This may also explain the tenfold increase in Alzheimer’s disease in those receiving the flu vaccine five years in a row.

    In both human and animal studies aluminium hydroxide or aluminium phosphate used in vaccines showed a strong causal relationship to macrophagic myofascitis, a condition causing profound weakness and multiple neurological syndromes, one of which closely resembles multiple sclerosis (MS).

    Postnatal brain development – from birth to age six or seven – involves the fine-tuning of synaptic connections, dendritic development and neural pathway refinement, all of which prepare the brain for more complex thinking. These brain elements are very sensitive to toxins and excessive brain stimulation during this period.

    Our society is littered with millions of children who have been harmed in one degree or other by vaccinations. In addition, let us not forget the millions of parents who had to watch helplessly as their children have been destroyed by devastating vaccination programmes.”

    Dr. Blaylock’s article on the Toxic Vaccine Coverup can be accessed from this link: http://www.mercola.com/2004/sep/22/blaylock_vaccine_coverup.htm

    I also highly recommend the ‘Dr Mark Randall interview’ (but avoid abridged Nexus version)and ‘Uganda polio vaccine deaths’ on google.

    Voltaire also observed that “those who believe absurdities commit atrocities.” Parents will continue to maim and kill their children as long as they fall for the absurd claim that vaccines are a safe and effective way of preventing diseases.

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