A warm-up for the David Kirby-Arthur Allen debate

In a warmup for his "debate" later today in LaJolla, CA with Arthur Allen, David Kirby spews the usual pseudoscience again. I can't believe he's still making the long debunked "autism has the same symptoms as mercury poisoning" statement with a straight face, and then continuing to parrot the same old "mercury in thimerosal in vaccines causes autism" and the same fallacy of equating correlation with causation by claiming that, because autism increased in the 1990's at the same time when more vaccines were being added to the childhood vaccination schedule.

I'm not sure why the video is cut off the way it is, but listen anyway. Either way, Arthur Allen pretty easily demolished David Kirby's "arguments," such as they were.

In any case, Kirby is going to have an even harder time arguing that thimerosal causes autism, because, as I mentioned before, the Q4 2006 California Department of Developmental Services statistics for the number of cases of autism/ASDs in 3-5 year olds have been released.

Remember Kirby's statement:

If the total number of 3-5 year olds in the California DDS system has not declined by 2007, that would deal a severe blow to the autism-thimerosal hypothesis.

Well, they haven't declined, as Autism Diva explains:


Note that there has been no decrease since 2002. Note that the rate of increase is not even slowing down, as pointed out by Interverbal and Kevin. Note how the Diva makes fun of the mercury militia cranks Mark and David Geier for trying to show an inflection point in the CDDS data where none exists. It's the same thing they tried to do with the data from the VAERS database, which I made fun of not long after joining ScienceBlogs. In fact, the Geiers' bad math with regards to the CDDS and the VAERS databases even inspired now-fellow ScienceBlogger Mark Chu-Carroll to start his own blog, Good Math, Bad Math. Indeed, Mark's very first post after his introducion post on Good Math, Bad Math was an explanation about why the statistics used by the Geiers were so horribly wrong.

So, I suppose you can thank the Geiers and their pseudoscientific statistical "analyses" for inspiring one of our top ScienceBloggers to start blogging and produced for me my first blogchild.

But I digress.

The main point is that the data is such that even the most die-hard mercury militia members and anti-vaccinationists are having a hard time not sounding increasingly ridiculous as they defend the mercury-autism link. Their wishful thinking leads to statistical idiocy such as demonstrated by the Geiers' increasingly desperate and--shall we say?--creative torturing of the data. Unfortunately, the discrediting of the idea that mercury in vaccines causes autism has also led the Geiers into even more dubious and dangerous "autism cures" than chelation therapy, "cures" such as chemical castration with Lupron coupled with chelation therapy (and trying to patent the procedure as well) and doing ethically challenged "clinical trials" approved by a highly suspect Institutional Review Board packed with friends and cronies.

So, with the epidemiology and science failing to support him, what will David Kirby do? I predicted that he'd shift goalposts again by saying that what he "really meant" was that the CDDS numbers would have to decline by the end of 2007. Joseph makes this prediction:

David Kirby has shifted goalposts before. My hunch is that Kirby will not own up to his prediction. From his latest blog post the strategy seems pretty clear. Autism incidence is not going down, so he's now focusing on a new syndrome he made up that he imagines underwent an "epidemic" and presumably is or was on an downward trend. On EOHarm he's also been expressing interest in the environmental pollution hypothesis, which in my opinion is flawed in exactly the same way the TV hypothesis is.

Here is a recap of other reactions you should expect to see from the mercury militia:

  • Thimerosal in the Flu vaccine is enough to sustain the epidemic on its own. (Unstated: Autism rates are not dose-dependent; there wasn't really an autism epidemic in the 1990s; autism started in 1931 but was recognized much later at current rates).
  • The epidemic was caused by thimerosal in the RhoGAM shot, not that in pediatric vaccines.
  • There is another vaccine ingredient (e.g. aluminum) which is interchangeable with thimerosal as an autism risk factor, and the dose of this ingredient was increased in a precise manner such that removal of thimerosal would not be noticed.

Clearly, it will be very difficult for the autism-thimerosal worldview to survive and continue to be one of interest in the autism community.


He forgot one more dubious rationalization, though, one that Kirby used in the interview: Pregnant mothers are getting flu shots, and the prenatal exposure to thimerosal is much more potent at causing autism than postnatal exposure, which is why the rates haven't declined. Never mind that it's a fairly recent recommendation that pregnant women receive flu shots and, specific to California (since we're talking about CDDS numbers) it is a state law that thimerosal-free vaccines be used in pregnant women. Oh, and another rationalization that I've heard is that the "trace amounts" of thimerosal in some vaccines (thimerosal is still used in the manufacturing process, and trace amounts remain in many vaccines) is enough to cause autism. Of course, as Arthur Allen points out in the interview above, children are now being exposed to a lower level of thimerosal in vaccines than at any time since the 1950's. So why wasn't there an "autism epidemic" 50 years ago? If such a low level of mercury exposure is enough to cause autism, then levels of autism should have been much, much higher 20, 30, 40, and 50 years ago.

Unfortunately, I have a further prediction: Despite their increasing marginalization by the science, they won't stop trying. As I've said before: It's about more than just the thimerosal in vaccines. It's about vaccines themselves. Thimerosal is simply a convenient bogeyman to use to blame vaccines for autism, and the antivaccinationists will soon find another ingredient to blame.

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Just one thought, has anyone tried to measure the severity of the autism? Are there the same numbers of 3 to 5 year olds who are non-verbal, feces smearing, completely out of it? I doubt anyone has statistics on that for older kids so it probably can't be incorporated.

Regarding the trace amounts of Thimerosal in vaccines: maybe it's a homeopathic thing. So by using even less of the thimerosal, we're making the problem worse! And since thimerosal was used in the past, it's been through the water system and been diluted to infinity in the oceans and evaporation is carrying the water with memory of thimerosal into the atmosphere! Rain causes autism!!!!

(Did I use enough exclamation points to make it clear that this was sarcasm?)


Dangit, that should read "maybe it's a reverse homeopathic thing"


That was a little wake up call for Kirby. If he wants to stick to the facts, he'll have his ass handed to him on a silver platter. And it will be all thanks to BJ Handley, who helped pay to make this debate happen.

But really, Kirby will not stick to facts because his wallet can't handle the consequences. He'll be vague. He'll speculate. He'll stick to cute stories about Moms struggling against the black helicopters and the illuminati. He'll talk about the intentional poisoning of China with our exporting of thimerosal. Oh wait, maybe he won't say that stuff on camera, he'll just save it for the EoH list.

By Alarm Clock (not verified) on 13 Jan 2007 #permalink

Mr Best, 'severity' of Autism has no objective measure. There can be measures of skills, strengths and ability but this has little baring on supposed severity of Autism because there is every bit of evidence to suggest the skills Autistics lack often have nothing to do with Autism and no evidence that Autism is a stop-plug on development. The very terms 'high/low-functioning' are subjective ancedotes that say more about those observing Autistics than they do about the observed Autistics themselves.

By Lucas McCarty (not verified) on 13 Jan 2007 #permalink

As Lucas says, regardless of which tests you use, the results at best can only be used as a benchmark. That said, the number of factors and variables that affect performance of the test on that one day / hour, make even that benchmark pretty rickety.

I predict that aluminum will be the next vaccine ingredient that the antivaxers go for, if only because, like thimerosal, it's spelled differently in the US and the UK.

JB: Are there the same numbers of 3 to 5 year olds who are non-verbal, feces smearing, completely out of it?

Has to be John. Without those things they they don't meet your requirements to be called autistic and would easily be missed. You can't invoke severity as it suits the argument.

By notmercury (not verified) on 13 Jan 2007 #permalink

_"Just one thought, has anyone tried to measure the severity of the autism? Are there the same numbers of 3 to 5 year olds who are non-verbal, feces smearing, completely out of it? I doubt anyone has statistics on that for older kids so it probably can't be incorporated."_

Ah John, if there's a point to be missed we can be sure that you'll sail mile-wide of it. Remember that pre-1999 non-autistic China you used to yak about? That was a good one too ;o)

Well, JB, if you're so thoughtful about "severity" come up with a good definition and get to work on the statistics. Or have someone do that for you.

Oh, and make sure the methods involved don't become worthy of a Dubious Data Award.

I do admire Kirby. He packed more falacious arguments in his brief stint that I thought possible. Of course, he lead off with my favorite, i.e., thimerosal is 49% mercury by weight. Anyone who was not comatose and passed high school chemistry should be able to figure out that this is an irrelevant point.

You mean that if I take 1 mL of Thimerosal, that I can somehow split out 0.49 mL of pure mercury? Can you stick thimerosal into a glass tube and use it as a thermometer? Is this how BJ Handley takes his temperature rectally (by glass tube I'm talking a 500 mL Erlenmeyer flask)?

If anyone can help me out with this I'd appreciate it, because my level of understanding of chemistry is restricted to whatever David Kirby tells me.

By The Weigh Boat (not verified) on 13 Jan 2007 #permalink

A can of Coke can be more than half made of sugar and yet water makes up the large bulk of the weight doesn't it? I see how the 'by weight' gambit has some problems.

By Lucas McCarty (not verified) on 13 Jan 2007 #permalink

1 gram of thimerosal should yield ~.49 grams Hg on decomposition.

By notmercury (not verified) on 13 Jan 2007 #permalink

And salt is over 50% sodium by weight, so does that mean you explode if you eat it?

I serve behind the tuck shop at my local youth centre. There's this kid who spends all his money on sherbet dip, ONLY sherbet dip, he buys and eats tons of it.

If someone picked him up and shook him, would be explode, fizz or shoot off like a rocket?

I reckon he's 78% sherbet by weight.

By Lucas McCarty (not verified) on 13 Jan 2007 #permalink

Just one thought, has anyone tried to measure the severity of the autism?

As I have repeatedly told you John, all co-morbidities reported by CDDS have gradually dropped ever since there's data to look at. This is particularly true of mental retardation, which has dropped from about 65% in 1992 to about 25% today.

Dammit, Orac - you took all the points I was going to make.

John, my ad-hoc diagnosis of you is that you are suffering from the Concorde fallacy. You have invested so much in the autism-thimerosal hypothesis (including spending, I bet, your expected take of the legal settlement) that you continue to put more money into the pot despite all rational evidence to the contrary.

I know it's hard to admit that you're wrong, and that you've failed not only yourself but your child as well. But you need to cut your losses now. Stop spending money on bogus treatments. Take a second (or first) job to pay off your gambling debts and the nassaus at the golf course. And rather than punish yourself and your kid for some imaginary insult perpetrated on him by the Illuminati, maybe you should forgive yourself and get your kid the help he needs WITHOUT referring to him as sick and poisoned. Because he most likely isn't.

By anonimouse (not verified) on 16 Jan 2007 #permalink