When antivaccination pseudoscience turns threatening...

While I'm back on the topic of vaccines again (and that topic seems to me less and less rancorous these days, not because antivaccination "activists" have gotten any less loony but because the smoking cranks, at least the ones showing up on my blog these days, threaten to make antivaccinationists seem low key by comparison), it turns out that one of the premiere journals of medical research, Nature Medicine, has weighed in on the topic. If you want any more evidence that the antivaccination movement is becoming more and more like the radical animal rights movement in its willingness to try to intimidate scientists who speak out against them or publish research findings refuting a link between vaccines and autism, this overview ought to give you something to think about. It's also apparent in their increasingly shrill rhetoric and the scientific beating the hypothesis that vaccines cause or contribute to autism, either by themselves or through the thimerosal preservative that was removed from most U.S. vaccines in 2002 has taken in the Autism Omnibus hearings.

It's good to see such a high profile journal as Nature Medicine take note, as it does in Mercury rising. Here, the harassment directed at Paul Offit, one of the premiere vaccine scientists in the world and public enemy number one among the antivax crowd:

In June 2006, on the first day of the summer meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, more than 100 protesters crowded the sidewalks outside the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Organized by a nonprofit called Moms Against Mercury, the mob was made up mostly of people who believe that thimerosal--a mercury-based vaccine preservative--is responsible for the dramatic rise in autism over the past two decades.

As Paul Offit, a vaccine expert who served on the committee, tried to make his way through the crowd, one of the protestors screamed at him through a megaphone: "The devil--it's the devil!" One protester held a sign that read "TERRORIST" with a photo of Offit's face. Just before Offit reached the door, a man dressed in a prison uniform grabbed Offit's jacket. "It was harrowing," Offit recalls.

This, however, is mild compared to some of the other harassment that Dr. Offit routinely encounters these days:

Offit has been a prime target of these groups for years. In 1996, after he published his first book on vaccines, he received a few negative emails and letters. But by 1999, when the controversy over thimerosal reached its peak, the harassment had "entered a darker place," he says.

He has since received hundreds of malicious and threatening emails, letters and phone calls accusing him of poisoning children and "selling out" to pharmaceutical companies. One phone caller listed the names of Offit's two young children and the name of their school. One email contained a death threat--"I will hang you by your neck until you're dead"--that Offit reported to federal investigators. And he is just one of the many scientists who refute the vaccine-autism link to endure this harassment.

"Scientists have been vilified," says Kevin Leitch, an English blogger who once believed that vaccines caused his child's autism and who now runs a blog, Left Brain/Right Brain, that focuses on "autism-related quackery."

Given that Dr. Offit is an outspoken advocate of vaccination and is willing to speak out against antivaccinationists and religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccination, pointing out that states with easy-to-obtain religious or philosophical exemptions to vaccination have had a decrease in vaccination rates and an increase in vaccine-preventable diseases, it's not surprising that he is such a target.

Does this modus operandi sound familiar? It should. It's very similar to the tactics that animal rights activists use against scientists doing animal research. I also see it as a sign of increasing desperation. As the article makes quite clear in a nice, succinct fashion, there really is no evidence to support a link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism or vaccines and autism, except that now animal rights extremists are becoming more and more willing to use terror tactics to make their point, but more importantly to their purpose to intimidate scientists into giving up animal rights research. So far, antivaccinationists have not, as far as I am aware, resorted to violence. But with the increasingly heated rhetoric, one always has to worry about whether violence will be next.

That's where the Autism Omnibus comes in. As the article points out, if the parents win a judgment, which will necessarily be based on pseudoscience and highly dubious arguments of causation, given how poor quality the testimony and data presented to support a hypothesis of vaccines causing autism and how thoroughly it has been refuted thus far, the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VCIP) could go bankrupt, because the verdict of the Cedillo test case would form the template for many of the 4,800 cases before the special masters. However, if the Cedillos lose, which, no matter how sad their case and sick their daughter, is what should happen based solely on the scientific evidence, because no evidence was presented to demonstrate that vaccines caused their child's condition, there is fear that the "Mercurys" would be inflamed even more than they are now:

But researchers also worry about what will happen if the Cedillos don't win. Anesthesiologist Jim Laidler, who a few years ago was "neck-deep" in alternative autism therapy for his two autistic children, has since turned to mainstream scientists' side. In 2005, after publishing a statistical paper in Pediatrics that rebuffed the idea of an autism 'epidemic', he received about 30 emails and a dozen hostile phone calls from the Mercurys, one of which he reported to the police.

"This stuff is frighteningly violent," Laidler says. "With the Omnibus trial looking like [the Cedillos] are going to go down in flames, I would be appalled, but not surprised, to hear that some act of violence was carried out."

This increasing hysteria is a strong indication of just how non-reality-based the mercury militia is. When I first heard about the contention by some that mercury in vaccines causes autism a few years ago, I thought it sounded like a dubious hypothesis, given that mercury poisoning symptoms do not resemble those of autism, but I considered it as possible, but unlikely. By the time of David Kirby's mendacious masterpiece of misinformation, Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic, A medical Controversy and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s conspiracy-mongering Salon.com article, I had pretty much come to the conclusion that the scientific evidence didn't support a link between vaccines and autism, which is a view that has only been strengthened as more and more studies have been published failing to find a link. Indeed, a careful reading of my posts over the years reveals that I used to use a lot more weasel words of uncertainty and refer to the mercury-autism hypothesis as possible but unlikely. Since then, as the evidence against the mercury-autism hypothesis has solidified, so has my language, which has evolved to include more concrete and emphatic denials of mercury militia and antivaccination nonsense with regards to the purported role of vaccines in causing autism.

The mercury militia has become, in essence a religion. Like a religion, its members have developed a self-contained belief system, namely that mercury in vaccines causes autism and thus that their children are "victims" of vaccines who are "vaccine injured"; that the government, in cahoots with big pharma, has covered it up through the CDC; that scientists are in on the conspiracy because of a fanatical belief in vaccination; and that chelation therapy, along with a lot of other quackery that goes under the rubric of "biomedical treatments" can reverse the "vaccine damage." They are mutually self-supporting. Like pseudosciences inspired by other religions, namely creationism and its "intelligent design" variant, they churn out poor quality papers chock full of bad science to "support" their beliefs, for example, the "science" produced by drivel produced in abundance by Geier père et fils and, most recently the dubious telephone survey by Generation Rescue mentioned in the Nature Medicine news article.

And the mercury militia reacts in much the same way as cults react when their core beliefs are challenged. At the very least, the letters provoked by this article will be interesting, given that Nature Medicine links to the Generation Rescue website, which is like waving a cape in front of a bull.

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The Autism Omnibus is now officially under way, having begun with the first test case, that of Cedillo v. Secretary of Health and Human Services. The Omnibus proceeding is the culmination of the legal cases brought to the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program by nearly 5,000 families who "feel" that…
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Just wondering. When did the term "Vaccination", start to mean all preventative injections, and not a scratch on the arm with a "Cow pox" serum?

Does this modus operandi sound familiar? It should. It's very similar to the tactics that animal rights activists use against scientists doing animal research.

Hmm. My first thought was that it sounded like the sort of thing that "pro-lifers" do to medical professionals involved in women's health. Except that none of the anti-vaxers seem to have acted on their threats. But I agree that the animal rights people use similar tactics. Where do we get all these nuts?

Orac, you wrote:

[T]here really is no evidence to support a link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism or vaccines and autism,...

I recall similar phrasing in some of your other posts. While such statements are true, they don't really reflect the current state of knowledge. I humbly suggest you should phrase this more definitively in the future, e.g.:

The evidence shows there is almost certainly NO link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism, or between vaccines and autism.

The devil?! Terrorist? Oh man. It should be emphasized that only a very small but vocal minority of parents of autistic kids act that way. I would say most do not believe in outright crankery (there are surveys to confirm this).

It's not just that there is no scientifically sound evidence to support a link. It's that the evidence refutes any possible link, with a fairly high degree of confidence.

The problem with the first statement is that it could be true simply because we didn't have sound evidence either way. If that were the case, we couldn't say whether there was or was not a link.

Happily, that's not the case. We do have sound evidence, and it shows there is no link. I think it's valuable to be very clear on that, which is why I suggested the rephrasing.

In 20 years when the roots of autism are understood to a much better degree than they are today and it turns out that many combinations of genetic mutations are responsible for the condition, I wonder what these extremists will do?

Will they express remorse for the threats, the intimidation, and the harassment, or will they just plug along feeling comforted by the fact that it wasn't their fault that all the altie anti-mercury meds they gave their kid didn't work.

Dianne, I had a similar thought: the tactics Orac describes for the Mercury Militia are very similar to tactics used for decades by all kinds of pressure groups. Pro-lifers and animal-rights activists are only two examples.

Where do they come from? We created them. When you reward behavior, you get more of it. Our governments have rewarded such high-pressure tactics in the past, so now we're seeing more groups using them.

By wolfwalker (not verified) on 02 Aug 2007 #permalink

This whole Mercury debate irritates me to no end. My son is Autistic, and I teach Special Ed (Autism) and only a moron would believe that Mercury is what causes Autism. They obviously do not know how to read, and what I find most amusing is that it is so blatantly clear that they are wrong. One wonders if THEY have ingested to much Mercury to explain there behavior.

By Perseveration Nation (not verified) on 02 Aug 2007 #permalink

It's worth considering the possibility that some of the same people involved in animal rights extremism are also involved in the radicalization of the anti-vaccination movement. After all there has been a long association between anti-vivisection and other anti-scientific movements such as anti-vaccination and HIV/AIDS denialism, dating ats far back as the early 20th century when Dr. Walter Hadwen, president of the BUAV and a key member of the National Anti-Vaccination league, who also rejected Germ theory.

Even if there's no direct link these anti-scientific movements tend to share forums and world view so it's hardly surprising that they also sometimes share tactics.

In the UK a major motivation behind the crackdown on animal rights extremism was a perception that if their brand of "direct action" was seen to be successful other causes, even those with very different aims, would adopt the same tactics and the result could be very damaging to society.

So I'd urge scientists and their supporters in the USA to stand up for scientists threatened by anti-viv extremists if you want to stop these tactics being adopted by other fringe causes.

The animal rights activists at least had a kernal of a point: it is important to treat experimental animals as humanely as possible and avoid unnecessary suffering. And, realistically, you can't count on researchers to always do so without some system of accountability. I'm not sure if it is due to the animal rights movement per se that we have animal use and care committees, but if so I'd thank them for that, pain in the butt though IACUC are. The anti-vaccine movement, on the other hand, I don't see as helping anyone much.

Orac, I agree with qetzal. It is not that there is absence of evidence of a connection between thimerosal (or other mercury compounds) and autism, there is evidence of absence of a connection.

The evidence of an absence of a connection is actually quite strong, I find it compelling. There is zero evidence of a connection, and much of what is well known about physiology would have to be wrong for the "mercury causes autism" idea to be correct (it isn't a hypothesis because a hypothesis must be consistent with what is well known).

I have done an analysis of the "mercury causes autism" idea, as have others on the autism hub. There is very good, very strong, and very convincing evidence that there is no connection.


The only "evidence" that counts is "scientifically sound" evidence (there isn't any other type), so the caveat you propose is meaningless.

There are good prospects for further "radicalization" of a group with possibly even more potential for violent looniness than the anti-vaxers.

Imagine the pressures on whatever group the CDC eventually chooses to investigate "Morgellons disease". What would happen (or will happen, one can say with reasonable confidence) when the study group fails to turn up evidence that Morgellons is due to some hitherto unknown pathogen, toxin or chemtrails?
I wouldn't want to have that target pinned on my back.

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 03 Aug 2007 #permalink

Anyone who's dealt with the anti-vaccine loons for a while knows that they're a bit unbalanced and not the kind of folk you want to meet in a dark alley. They're even more dangerous when they have money, like venture capitalist/liar J.B. Handley.

By anonimouse (not verified) on 03 Aug 2007 #permalink