Respectful Insolence

Longtime readers of this blog know that my original exposure to antivaccination conspiracy theories first occurred in the context of the now pseudoscientific and discredited hypothesis that somehow the mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be used in vaccines was the cause of autism. Despite the backpedaling among antivaccination zealots such as J. B. Handley in the face of overwhelming epidemiological evidence that mercury in vaccines is in fact not detectably correlated with an increased incidence or risk of autism, there still remains a die-hard contingent who insists against all evidence that it’s mercury that causes autism. Just to refresh your memory, take a look at the Generation Rescue website in early 2007, thanks to the Wayback Machine:

Generation Rescue believes that childhood neurological disorders such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD/ADD, speech delay, sensory integration disorder, and many other developmental delays are all misdiagnoses for mercury poisoning.


Here was Generation Rescue about a year and a half ago:

We believe these neurological disorders (“NDs”) are environmental illnesses caused by an overload of heavy metals, live viruses, and bacteria. Proper treatment of our children, known as “biomedical intervention”, is leading to recovery for thousands.

The cause of this epidemic of NDs is extremely controversial. We believe the primary causes include the tripling of vaccines given to children in the last 15 years (mercury, aluminum and live viruses); maternal toxic load and prenatal vaccines; heavy metals like mercury in our air, water, and food; and the overuse of antibiotics.

And here Generation Rescue is now:

We believe these neurological disorders (“NDs”) are environmental illnesses caused by an overload of heavy metals, live viruses, and bacteria. Proper treatment of our children, known as “biomedical intervention”, is leading to recovery for thousands.

The cause of this epidemic of NDs is extremely controversial. We believe the cause includes the tripling of vaccines given to children in the last 15 years (with unstudied ingredients like mercury, aluminum and live viruses); growing evidence also suggests that maternal toxic load and prenatal vaccines, heavy metals like mercury in our air, toxic ingredients in our water, pesticides; and the overuse of antibiotics are also implicated. Generation Rescue’s mission is to support continued research on causative factors and treatment approaches for NDs.

The only reason I bring this up is because David Kirby seems to be no longer down on the whole “mercury causes autism” thing. That’s right, David Kirby. Via Autism Vox, I found an amazing admission from David Kirby. It came in the context of a panel discussion about childhood vaccination held by Deirdre Imus. Yes, that Deirdre Imus, wife of washed up shock jock and mouthpiece for the antivaccine movement Don Imus, the one who’s regularly delivered hot, steaming piles of stupid about vaccines and environmental “toxins” on the Huffington Post. What Hackensack University Medical Center was doing hosting her pseudoscientific nonsense, I have no idea, but it did, and she brought home the stupid right from her opening remarks:

“We will lose faith in the immunization process if we don’t address this now,” said Imus, an environment and child health advocate, who moderated a panel of experts. “There’s a disconnect in vaccine safety. We are ignoring the toxicity of them, the formaldehyde, aluminum and thimerosal.”

Regular readers will recognize the “toxin” gambit here and just how dumb it is. However, Deirdre Imus, as amusing as it is to puncture her status as pseudoexpert and pseudo “health advocate,” is not what caught my attention, although I was surprised that the AAP sent a representative into the lions’ den of this rigged discussion. (Hint: It’s never a good idea for a pro-vaccine advocate to take part in any conference organized by Deirdre Imus.) Neither is the inclusion of antivaccine hack journalists like David Kirby on the discussion panel as an “expert.” That’s par for the course in antivaccine land. What caught Kristina Chew‘s and my attention, actually, was an passage buried in the middle of the New Jersey Star-Ledger article about the conference:

David Kirby, a journalist and author of “Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy,” said he believed that thimerosal, which still exists in trace amounts in some childhood vaccines, was no longer the “smoking gun.” Several national studies have found no connection, and a California study found that, even after thimerosal was removed from vaccines, diagnoses of autism continued to rise.

Let me emphasize this: David Kirby, author of the book Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, has admitted that mercury in vaccines does not cause autism. Remember, Kirby was one of the high priests of the thimerosal cult. His book, along with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s mendacious and misinformation-laden article Deadly Immunity, were arguably the two most significant influences bringing the message that “it’s the mercury, stupid” to the masses. Remember that David Kirby is the man who defended the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines causes autism for four years in the face of mounting evidence in the form of several major epidemiological studies that failed to find any detectable correlation between mercury in vaccines and autism.

Remember that David Kirby is the man who kept moving the goalposts as to how long we would have to wait after early 2002, when thimerosal was removed from nearly all childhood vaccines, for a fall in autism diagnoses if thimerosal was a major cause. First it was 2005. Then when there was no evidence of a decrease in autism diagnoses then it was 2007. Most recently Kirby pushed the goalposts back to 2011. Remember this is the man who went to the ridiculous extreme of blaming mercury from crematoria in California and drifting over from China as the reason why autism diagnoses in California haven’t fallen. Funny how such sources of mercury exactly compensate for the drop in exposure due to vaccines, isn’t it? My point is: David Kirby, the high priest of mercury, has recanted. I wonder what J.B. Handley and the crew of clowns over at the Age of Autism think of this? Odd that I see no mention of David Kirby’s apparent recantation over there.

Of course, Kirby will likely not be excommunicated from the Church of Antivaccination Lunacy. After all, he’s still down with the message that it absolutely, positively has to be the vaccines:

But, he said, the links between vaccines and conditions like autism are still strong and more research is needed. One area to look at is to determine which children might have a genetic propensity for a condition such as autism, for which vaccines may act as a trigger.

No, the links between vaccines and “conditions like autism” are not strong at all. They’re virtually nonexistent, other than in the pseudoscience and poorly designed studies of antivaccine “scientists.” Contrary to what he said, the Hannah Poling case is not the new “smoking gun” that vaccines can cause autism. Of course, just as Kirby moved the goalposts regarding thimerosal and autism, he’s now expanded the playing field, hoping to be proven right on just one issue:

Kirby said environmental factors also were probably involved, pointing to New Jersey’s high rate of autism, one in 94 children compared to one in 150 nationwide.

New Jersey is lousy with mercury,” he said, much of it from air pollution that is spread in rain.

But he also pointed to the “universality of vaccines” as an explanation for so many children’s contracting chronic illnesses.

As Kevin Leitch observes, this is of a piece with the way the antivaccine movement has been realigning itself to proclaim hypotheses of causation of autism by vaccines that are much more difficult to falsify than the thimerosal hypothesis:

We all know the recent makeover the vaccine hypotheses has been getting. Generation Rescue now no longer claim that autism is simply mercury poisoning for which the cure is two years chelation resulting in a child 100% neurotypical, no different from their peers. SafeMinds – an organisation dedicated to Mercury in their very name – attack MMR, a vaccine that has never contained mercury. Jenny McCarthy is now on board and gives credence to the idea that an average parent (such as myself) knows more about the sciences of medicine, epidemiology, toxicology etc etc than specialists who have spent years in their field. Whilst at the same time Ms McCarthy simply cannot keep her story straight about incidents from her book or even when her son was recovered or not.

To antivaccine zealots like David Kirby, J.B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy, et al, it absolutely, positively has to be the vaccines. If it’s not mercury in the vaccines, it must the vaccines themselves. If vaccines don’t cause autism, then they must cause all sorts of chronic illnesses. It’s a can’t-lose proposition for antivaccinationists. No matter how many studies exonerate vaccines as a cause of autism, clever but scientifically ignorant ideologues like David Kirby can continue to call for “more studies.”

Because it’s not any single ingredient in vaccines. It’s not the vaccine schedule. It’s not the desire to make vaccines more “green.” It’s the vaccines themselves that antivaccinationists oppose. Never forget that. Everything else is misdirection.

Comments

  1. #1 Calli Arcale
    October 29, 2008

    The Star Tribune has an article out right now with an anecdote in support of the flu shot: Flu widow’s message: Get your flu shot. A few antivaxxers and “Big Pharma” conspiracy theorists have shown up in the comments, but more rational commenters are handling them, by the looks of things.

  2. #2 Mu
    October 29, 2008

    My guess is that David Kirby is writing a new book, and since you can rarely sell two authoritative books on the same subject, he has to first discredit his prior work to make sure people snap up the new one.

  3. #3 I am so wise
    October 29, 2008

    There needs to be a method developed to punish rank idiocy like this. Something drastic, but comedic, for me at least, like firing out of a clown cannon or the catapult. Otherwise, it’ll continue.

  4. #4 RJ
    October 29, 2008

    Kirby put all of his chips on a controversial hypothesis well over a decade ago. As an investigative reporter, he thought “exposing” the particulars of this “connection” would make his career. Instead, it turned out to be a dismal flop (oh, that pesky science). Since then, he’s impressed a lot of people, including Olmstead and Stagliano, who have voluntarily taken the torch and have been happy aiding their cause (I say their cause because it’s not in the best interest of the public, the best interest of science, and certainly not in the best interest of children).

    Although I worry that this particular journalist that has “revealed” a course correction for Kirby may not be truly representing his position, certainly, he must be getting tired of seeing study after study showing how off he is, and that as he learns (starting with an ‘investigative journalist’s scientific understanding’) more about toxicology, immunology, and developmental biology, perhaps he should take what chips he has an move to a different table.

    Here’s an idea for an investigative journalist with his experience…write a book about the anti-vaccine zealots, their methods, and how the internet and trial lawyers have fostered false perceptions about immunization, even against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Now that might save his career!BTW, Stagliano has a new ‘piece’ up on the Huffington Post. I commented…and wouldn’t you know! The ‘moderators’ decided not to post it! Go figure! Stagliano once again has to stifle opposition to her position by omitting commentary that the paper supposedly invites. Huh, imagine that. One might start to think that honest discussion, different perspectives/opinions, and free exchanges might be something that the Huffington Post doesn’t permit.

  5. #5 Denice Walter
    October 29, 2008

    Orac:( concerning Deirdre Imus and her pseudoscientific panel at HUMC) I don’t know all of the financial “mechanics” so to speak,but she has a “toxinsarebadforkids”*research* center named for her at the hospital, also a “green-the-clean”(No,I did’t make that name up)program there.Don has had his name added to the children’s cancer center .I believe he raises money from his radio audience that is given to the hospital.Gives them a veneer of respectability as they spew their anti-vax drivel.

  6. #6 Catherine Mitchell
    October 29, 2008

    Thank you for this post. What we don’t need right now are half baked theories that steer people away from protecting themselves against these diseases which are on the rise because we have lost our herd immunity, always a struggle.

    As far as seasonal influenza vaccines, I would not want to be the one doing actual harm by hyping something that just is not true. Seasonal influenza vaccine also may have a positive effect on people in fighting pandemic influenza, when that rears its ugly head.

    These anti-vaccine folks really are playing with fire, and many who heed their warnings will be burnt.

    Anyway, I am preaching to the choir.

    Thanks again for your post!

  7. #7 J BradfordHandley
    October 29, 2008

    Orac:

    Your unwillingness to wade into the science that has actually been done on this issue continues to boggle my mind.

    We have a simple fact pattern:

    – Tens of thousands of case reports of children declining into autism after vaccine visits

    – A Vaccine Injury Table at the HHS website that explicitly states the damage vaccines are KNOWN to cause:

    http://www.hrsa.gov/vaccinecompensation/table.htm

    Example: “Chronic encephalopathy occurs when a change in mental or neurologic status, first manifested during the applicable time period, persists for a period of at least 6 months from the date of vaccination.”

    And, and this is the part that drives me nuts about you, we have absolutely no science done that honestly deals with the issue from CDC or anyone else on your side.

    As just one simple example, let’s look at the only study ever done on American children’s data, Verstraeten’s (sp) study published in Pediatrics in 2003. This study:

    – Only considered children who received MORE versus LESS Thimerosal
    – Only considered VACCINATED children
    – Was unable to reach a conclusion, and was neutral outcome

    This is but one example of the kind of science that a completely partisan idiot like you points to and says, “THE SCIENCE shows vaccines do not cause autism.” This, despite the extremely narrow nature of what the study actually looked at.

    You really confuse me:

    – Do you remove your skeptic hat when reading the tobacco science farted out by the CDC trying to cover up the vaccine program?

    – Have you never actually read it?

    You behave like a complete partisan hack on this issue. There are actually a number of issues that you write about that I agree 100% with your POV on, yet when it comes to vaccines-autism, I have never seen you write even one critical comment about the “science” that the vaccine industry has published, despite an unbelievable bias towards never considering one simple question:

    Are vaccines triggering autism?

    With ongoing disdain,

    J.Bradford Handley, Jr.

  8. #8 Joseph
    October 29, 2008

    I wouldn’t make much of it. David Kirby says things like this. In the debate with Arthur Allen he admitted the 3-5 autism caseload in California not dropping was indeed a severe blow to the thimerosal hypothesis. He then proceeded to make up the most outrageous rationalizations to explain this away.

    Wasn’t it last month that he went to Congress to say that all thimerosal studies are no good?

  9. #9 Cleo
    October 29, 2008

    I’ve been having to deal with these anti-vaccine people. I voted for Ron Paul in the primary and joined his forum. He supports health freedom. It has really brought out the nut cases. A few months ago it was the “cancer is a fungus” video. The new post is how the bird flu vaccine is going to SPREAD the bird flu. Read and enjoy :)

    http://www.dailypaul.com/node/70518

  10. #10 Rogue Epidemiologist
    October 29, 2008

    Cleo, the batshitinsane is strong on that site. It’s like dozens of CrazyDawns (not to be mistaken for Michigan Dawn)posting simultaneously.

    Perhaps you need to find a polite Randroid forum and leave the Paulineits to their own (self-destructive) devices.

    Indeed, personal liberty includes the freedom to be stupid.

  11. #11 Regan
    October 29, 2008

    I wouldn’t make much of it. David Kirby says things like this.

    I agree with Joseph, and pretty much anyone who is already familiar with David Kirby and his goalpost shifts and many speculations. I watched the the archived meeting video/Kirby’s presentation, and rather than saying thimerosal is not “the smoking gun”, it sounded more like, from his point of view, thimerosal is not “the” smoking gun, but it’s still in the mix…definitely.

    The rest of the presentation was the same-old-same-old that anyone who has heard talks or read articles by David Kirby is already familiar with–vaccines, vaccine schedules, discounting epidemiological studies, Simpsonwood, Hannah Poling, provoked urine levels, Burbacher, etc.

    Frankly, I would have been pleased if the first read was the correct one, but I thought that I’d report that his full talk might have said something different, just so no one is too surprised when he continues to carry on as usual.

  12. #12 Dangerous Bacon
    October 29, 2008

    Actually, I don’t see how Kirby is backpedaling much, if at all with the “no longer a smoking gun” comment. The way I read it, he’s saying mercury (thimerosal) in vaccines is not the big trigger the way it used to be, but that other “toxins” have taken its place (aluminum, antifreeze, evil spirits etc.).

    Can’t we just get Sarah Palin’s witch doctor to bless all new batches of vaccine and make them safe and “green”?

    I can’t get too excited about this however – my main worry is that by putting too many people like Deirdre Imus and David Kirby in close proximity at these conferences, we’re in danger of creating a black hole of stupidity that’ll swallow up all life for miles around.

    Though if this happens, best it occurs someplace like Hackensack.

  13. #13 Sullivan
    October 29, 2008

    Regan,

    for whatever it’s worth–David Kirby seems to find the term “goalpost shifting” to be insulting.

    I don’t know what to call saying “we should see an effect by such and such a date” and later changing the date would be called then.

    And, is aluminum, and the other stuff shifting the goalposts, or building new ones? Or, as Orac says, expanding the playing field?

    Joseph–he used the same arguments in the NJ talk–toxic plumes from China and forest fires.

    For what it’s worth–David Kirby has backed away from the thimerosal/autism link on his blog at least once already.

    Then again, about a year ago he told us all that he was moving on to new ventures and that autism wasn’t his crusade…

  14. #14 Alan Kellogg
    October 29, 2008

    The primary mistake Kirby made was not saying autism is caused by vaccines, it’s the claim that autism is a childhood disease. That says that only children get autism, and that they recover from it. It’s what gives people the impression that autism can be cured, or if not cured recovered from. It is what justifies claims of successful cures and treatments.

    Even with his repudiation of the vaccines cause autism meme any retention of the children recover from autism meme hurts people who are autistic through unreasonable expectations and denial of services and effective treatment to adult autistics.

  15. #15 StopJenny
    October 30, 2008

    I don’t understand why Handley doesn’t acknowledge that the autism rates are the same for children who don’t get vaccines. What is the proof that vaccines could be a trigger for anything when we deal with antigens (what the immune system reacts to), aluminum (the most abundant mineral on the planet), formaldehyde (review fruit and vegetable digestion), etc. every day all the time. There is nothing in vaccines that we don’t encounter already in the environment all the time, and in higher levels every day. The vaccines don’t even affect the immune system as much as breathing in antigens all day long does. What the heck about them would trigger anything, why would they ever cause autism or anything else? There is no reason whatsoever, and that has been proven over and over again. This horse is dead. Stop beating it.

  16. #16 Frank Herbert
    October 30, 2008

    “Are vaccines triggering autism?”

    Mr Handley, the answer to that is a very simple ‘no’. Not based on current scientific evidence.

    You seem to want to make the claim based on table injuries from a law court. Are you stupid enough to not understand that a tabled injury from a vaccine court and actual scientific evidence are not even close to each other?

    So, lets push the table based claim to one side and argue science – the thing you berate Orac for not using – please show me the science that demonstrates vaccines cause autism.

    Oh and your ‘tobacco science’ comment is hilarious. Are you aware that it was science that established that smoking caused cancers? The people offering the ‘paid for’ science were single issue groups like Phillip Morris etc. The people who proved them wrong were scientists.

    Yours with newly acquired disdain,

    Someone who knows what they’re talking about.

  17. #17 trrll
    October 30, 2008

    So tell me, Mr. Handley, what do you think of the Generation Rescue survey that found that unvaccinated children were more likely to have ASD than vaccinated children?

  18. #18 RJ
    October 30, 2008

    Kirby has clarified his position. it is posted onthe AoA webiste for those who would like to read it. The comments are nifty too, with all sorts giving Kirby the bloggers equivalent to an eReach around.

    I wonder if any of those who believe mercury, as they erroneously put it, is responsible for puberty. I mean, all of a sudden, out of the blue, changes occur in the individual. Hair in funny places, and so on. Or maybe mercury is responsible for sickle cell anemia. Those who are afflicted with this disorder were perfectly normal, with normal blood, up until a certain point when all of a sudden — wham!– the RBCs change and they die. There is no other explanation. It has to be an environmental cause.

  19. #19 RJ
    October 30, 2008

    JB,

    You asked “Are vaccines triggering autism?”. I would ask you what is unique to vaccines that would cause a specific disorder that has been described as autism spectrum disorders.

    So, your task is to define both the unique elements comprising vaccines, including their immunological effects (intended and unintended), define the symptoms and characteristics of individuals with ASD, and clearly differentiate these from other, comparable matter and phenomena, like the actual disease agents or chemicals for vaccines, and diseases like acrodynia for autism. Once you’ve demonstrated you clearly can describe and differentiate them, the answers will be obvious.

    It is apparent that you do not have a grasp on these fundamental concepts because you are erroneously liking them based on a faulty causation plausibility. Discussing the particulars with you is a waste of time until you understand the most basic, fundamental concepts involved.

    If you wish to take the time to do this I would be happy to clear this nonsense up for you.

    Or, you can stick to your conspiracy rants. It’s your choice.

  20. #20 Lucas McCarty
    November 1, 2008

    Does the non-partisan JB Handley still own the Oracknows domain names which re-direct to his GR site?

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