Mercury Rises, Mercury Falls, and Toto, We're Not in Kansas Anymore

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 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?

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Wow. This post belongs on a science blog?

I read this hoping to see links to .. you know.. evidence. Either supporting or refuting. I hoped to see an attempt at objective intellectual analysis of the subject.

Instead all we see here are cries of "Heretic!" "Unbeliever!" and rather ineffectual, snarky attempts at character assasination and personal attacks.

Certain amongst 21st century 'scientists' seem to be dead set on repeating the Athenian trials of Socrates. They seem to believe that creating and following the status quo is more important than objectivity. They share much in common with the Falwells and Robertsons of the world.

"I read this hoping to see links to .. you know.. evidence. Either supporting or refuting."

Have you read the book under discussion at this book club posting Charles? That would provide you with what you want. Then you could come to this broad book club discussion with a little more ammo than whinging.

That's what I was wondering. What science did Charles add to this "scienceblog" anyway? Nothing, he just slammed Kristina because she was .... uhm... actually REVIEWING a book on the "book club" science blog. We'd all be a little disappointed if she was blogging as a scientist on neurons and all she wrote was stuff about Latin... but Kristina isn't pretending to be a scientist and her points are totally cogent whereas Charles point... points... were not.

By Ms. Clark (not verified) on 02 Oct 2008 #permalink

Charles, I am sure that Kristina is more than able to respond to your comment, but I might suggest reading her first post to see what her approach is to the deconstruction of the arguments forwarded both by the book and by the parties described within. My interpretation is that this post refers to the structuring of chapters 5 & 6, as point-counterpoint, the real-life saga as having elements of the dramatic which were consciously emphasized and the use of science concepts as rhetorical elements which have significantly contributed to the currently muddy waters.

Secondly, rather than not citing, what I see is lots of citing: To the referred to specific passages within the text, and to the other posts on "Autism's False Prophets" which are part of the total discussion.

However, there is a part of me that wonders, from the way that you frame your criticism, is whether you yourself have read, or are reading the book being discussed? If you have, you will know that besides the direct discussion there, there is a substantial reference list which contains those scientific citations and associated references that you request.

One of the biggest issues I wrestled with while reading the book was the antagonistic approach towards the people on the "wrong" side of the debate. Hindsight being 20/20, it's obvious that they are wrong but most, with some egregious exceptions, had only the best intentions.

As laid out in the book, the evidence against vaccines appears compelling. (Particularly to someone like me with limited scientific background). Then, it's fairly obvious that it was incorrect. But that's the nature of scientific progress, not some evil agency on either side.

Are there ways to systematically reduce this type of mis-communication, or is it the nature of the beast? (Note to the science readers out there - it's not reasonable for everyone to just subscribe to the Lancet ;-))

PS - I haven't quite finished the book, so forgive me if you get there. Thanks for a very interesting read.

By Tim Ogilvie (not verified) on 03 Oct 2008 #permalink


In the spirit of Socrates, referenced by yourself, "for truly, I know nothing."

Regarding evidence refuting a vaccine-autism link, and also evidence said to be in support of such a link, chapters 6 and chapters 5 of Offit's book provide numerous references, as Regan and Kev noted. On the 'net, some studies are reviewed here, here, and here.

Autism's False Prophets is not a very long book, but it gathers together a lot of material----especially studies about a hypothetical vaccine-autism link---and puts these into a coherent narrative, and serves as a valuable reference when writing about this issue.

Yes,I believe Kristina's post belongs on a science blog b/c this "science" has affected us civilians, if you will. As previously discussed, Dr. Offit's mechanics of writing the book mirror what has unfolded in our culture as a result of irresponsible "science" and "journalism." As I read first half of the book, I was riding the rollercoaster as one new to all of this data. Dr. Offit simply presented the facts as they occured, and to an individual new to ASD, I was compelled to keep reading to find out how the events unfolded. The reason this book is so compelling is that when one new to a potential ASD diagnosis begins searching for information on the internet, there is quite a bit of old data out there presented as if it is current. So, there is quite a bit of anti-thimerisol rhetoric that seems current when thimerisol was removed from most vaccines in 2001. As we all know, the rates of autism have continued to increase dramatically in spite of thimerisol being removed from vaccines. Obviously, the broad scope of the diagnostic criteria in the DSM IV definition of ASD has contributed to the rise in the rate of autism, but thimerisol has not. In spite of the scientific data that is now available regarding thimerisol, parents who either do not have the time to sift through the preponderence of information out there or who just choose to embrace the conspiracy theory are still espousing that autistic children have been overexposed to thimerisol. I know this first-hand from within my own family. I have a family member who insists that thimerisol is the culprit, that combination vaccines are dangerous and that our children are receiving too many vaccines too soon. I have also had friends not affected by autism suggest that I explore alternative medicine for my son through DAN doctors and remove dairy and wheat from his diet. In Autism's False Prophets, Dr. Offit is speaking to the average, non-scientifically minded individual who is living the nightmare that irresponsible science and journalism has cultivated. If such irresponsibility were thwarted, which I hope this book is able to do, parents new to ASD will be better able to navigate diagnosis and treatment options for their children; we will not be sidetracked by all of the nonsensical barrage of misinformation that is out there; and, perhaps, more money will be directed toward meaningful research to help individuals with autism navigate the world in which they are forced to live with so many people who have no understanding or willingness to understand just how special they are as autistic individuals.

By Ben's Mom (not verified) on 03 Oct 2008 #permalink

One of the biggest issues I wrestled with while reading the book was the antagonistic approach towards the people on the "wrong" side of the debate. Hindsight being 20/20, it's obvious that they are wrong but most, with some egregious exceptions, had only the best intentions.

Funny, but I thought he was incredibly even-handed. It's also not a matter of 20/20 hindsight; it has been clear for several years, for instance, that there is no detectable link between mercury in vaccines and autism, but the mercury militia clings to that view nonetheless. In the chapter about the CDC and AAP recommendation to remove thimerosal from vaccines, Dr. Offit pointed out how admired Dr. Halsey was. He also pointed out that Dr. Halsey was virtually alone in being so alarmed about thimerosal; there was very little enthusiasm for acting NOW because there was no compelling evidence of harm.

In the meantime, those antivaccinationists who are savvy enough to realize that the evidence has gone against the thimerosal hypothesis switch hypotheses on a dime to other, equally improbable ones. Now it's unspecificed "toxins" or specified contents of vaccines that at the level present in vaccines are not clearly harmless. If it's not individual "toxins" it's "aggregate" or "synergistic" toxicity, that, or so antivaccinationists demand, must be tested for by serially testing each vaccine ingredient and then each combination, a clearly impractical and unachievable standard. In other words, they're so sure it's about the vaccines that they are moving the goalposts and demanding impossible standards of evidence for "safety."

Even then, it's not enough. Even if every substance in vaccines were found to be completely safe as administered, then it becomes "too many, too soon" in which it is vaccination itself that is the problem. In other words, so sure are antivaccinationists that vaccines are harmful that they use classic crank and denialist techniques: shifting the goalposts, demanding impossible standards, proposing experiments they are repeatedly told are unethical. Because it's all about the vaccines. The "pro-safe vaccine, not antivaccine" mantra is nothing more than Orwellian Newspeak, as is the whole "Green Our Vaccines" nonsense.

Tim Ogilvie wrote:

Are there ways to systematically reduce this type of mis-communication, or is it the nature of the beast? (Note to the science readers out there - it's not reasonable for everyone to just subscribe to the Lancet ;-))

I've come to think it's the nature of the beast, and a beast it is. Whenever a new study is published that adds to the evidence against a vaccine-autism link, those who believe that vaccines or something in vaccines has to be linked to autism routinely find potential "conflicts of interest," critique the methodology, explain why there are (perceived) flaws in the study, and write letters to the editor of journals to state, or rather restate, their contention that vaccines or something in vaccines can be linked to autism.

Like Orac, I found Offit very reserved and even-handed in his treatment of anti-vaccinationists.

I and others (as on the Autism Hub community of blogs, try very hard and very often to write about autism and everything else. Educational issues are my main focus, along with concerns about long-term supports and services for my son and autistic individuals. Along with studies about educational and pedagogic issues, research about genetics and neuroscience is my primary interest in autism research, as these help me understand more about my son, and how I might better help, teach and understand him.

My main frustration with the anti-vaccinationists is that it seems like a great deal of time and energy gets expended in the service of spreading their views. A recent post by David Kirby raises numerous concerns about the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD); while this post appears on the blog "Age of Autism," the post says little about actual autistic children and individuals (one often starts to feel the "Age of Autism" blog might be more properly named "Age of Vaccines" or "Age of Mercury"). But as I wrote here, it does seem that if you're going to talk about autism today, you've got to at least have a position on the vaccine issue, as it inevitably comes up.

And I have started to wonder: To what end is all this campaigning against vaccines, all this effort to prove that they can be linked to autism? Focusing so much on vaccines and mercury takes the discussion away from actual autistic persons and children, and shifts it to statements about preventing autism in yet unborn-children, in children who have not yet gotten a autism diagnosis. There's so much to attend to, to take care properly of my son and make sure that he and other kids and adults have the services and supports they need, and as good a life as possible----first things first. At least, for me.

Like Orac, I found Offit very reserved and even-handed in his treatment of anti-vaccinationists.

As did I. However, it occurs to me that some of this impression may stem from the fact that the news of the antivax movement I normally receive is delivered in a far more (respectfully) insolent tone. Dr. Offit seems remarkably restrained by comparison :) Not that there's anything wrong with being angry about this issue, by any means. I am certainly angry, as are Orac and many of the book club bloggers, and I can only surmise that Dr. Offit must be angry as well at the needless pain and suffering, the massive drain on resources, and the pure stupidity of this sham 'controversy'. The fact that Dr. Offit could write on this subject and maintain a relatively sanguine and objective is a testament to his excellence as an author as well as a scientist.

Orac and Chew seems to think Offitt is reserved.

Do they believe then in Offitt's idea that you could have all your 69 vaccines and 130 antigens in one go at age day one?

He does say we can take 10 000 and no problem.

I would personally think once twice and three times before getting any of the 2009 vaccines with mercury, rat poison and GMO products.

By John Fryer (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink

Best of luck with the running plans, SW! I am on my way out for one now. But, don't fall into the Mom jean trap, SW. Don't do it!!!!! The Eva bootcut jean at Express have changed my life.

And yet another evidence free rambling from ex-chemist John Fryer.