Open-minded to the point of brains falling out: Antivaccinationists appointed to federal autism panel

We've had one example this week of people with minds so open that their brains fell out at the Oxford Union, which invited Holocaust denier and British National Party leader Nick Griffin to "discuss free speech." Now, sadly, I see another, this time it's the United States government, which has invited die-hard antivaccinationists to be on a major federal panel about autism:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Advocates who believe vaccines may cause autism will join mental health professionals and neurologists on a new federal panel to coordinate autism research and education, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department said on Tuesday.

Parents of children with autism and a writer who has an autism spectrum disorder will also be on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, HHS said.

"The committee's first priority will be to develop a strategic plan for autism research that can guide public and private investments to make the greatest difference for families struggling with autism," said Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute for Mental Health and the chairman of the new committee.

The committee was authorized under the Combating Autism Act of 2006. The U.S. government has been under pressure to step up research on autism, which can severely disable a child by interfering with speech and behavior.

And who are these antivaccinationists who will be on this committee, which will play a major role in coordinating autism research, services, and education, along with scientists, educators, and parents? You'll find it hard to believe:

Some of the committee's members have been at odds with government agencies in the past. Registered nurse Lyn Redwood, president of the Coalition for Safe Minds, has frequently accused the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of covering up evidence that vaccines cause autism.

Another member, Lee Grossman, is president of the Autism Society of America, which also argues that vaccines can cause the disorder.

The Autism Society of America is bad enough, but SafeMinds? One of the major groups pushing the lie that vaccines cause autism? Heck, why not invite J.B. Handley himself? There's also Stephen Shore, whom we've met before as one of the authors of Understanding Autism for Dummies, which, as both Peter Bowditch and I pointed out, contains credulous discussions of chelation therapy as a useful treatment for autism and of Mady Hornig's "Rain Mouse" studies.

All sarcasm aside, though, I'm torn between three reactions to this news:

  1. What on earth were they thinking? They seem to be laboring under the delusion that including advocates of pseudoscience and quackery will do anything but cause trouble.
  2. On the other hand, the government was in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" sort of situation. If these "advocates" were excluded from the panel, it would be a propaganda coup that the mercury militia and antivaccinationists would milk for all it's worth. I can see it now: EXCLUDED! (Not unlike Ben Stein's idiotic pseudoscientific defense of "intelligent design" creationism EXPELLED!) I could see how the government might have concluded that it's better to keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. It may actually not be such a horrible ploy. The usual strategies of Lyn Redwood and her ilk might play well in the press, where tugging at the heartstrings with sad anecdotes can be extremely effective in swaying opinion. Among scientists, it's much less likely to get them anywhere, as scientists know that anecdotes are inherently unreliable and that the plural of "anecdotes" is not "data." These antivaxers can, however, cause considerable trouble and disruption to the functions of the committee. They might even manage to get the panel to give them minor bits of their quack agenda as a sop to shut them up.
  3. There will be a price to be paid for letting such advocates of pseudoscience onto the panel, and that price is giving cranks the "patina of respectability" to their unscientific and scientifically unsupported view, just as letting David Irving and Nick Griffin speak at the Oxford Union and hosting a debate with homeopaths at the University of Connecticut gave Holocaust deniers and homeopaths an undeserved appearance of of respectability. Expect the mercury militia to milk this connection for all it's worth--at least as long as it serves its purpose to do so.

Of course, the antivaccinationists will not be swayed by any amount of scientific evidence presented to the panel and will only get frustrated as it becomes clear that the scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause autism is highly unlikely to be overturned. Consequently, here's my guess as to how this will probably play out. As periodic recommendations of the panel are released, they will make a big deal about trying to publicize their "dissent" from the panel's consensus. I doubt that they will go as far as Sallie Bernard did in denouncing the CDC study that she participated in designing when it did not show what she wanted it to. Having the appearance of the "government seal of approval" is just too important to them.

There is one other way this may play out. I consider it highly unlikely, but it would be highly desirable if it were to occur. Maybe, just maybe, real science will rub off on the antivaccinationists. Maybe, just maybe, they'll start to understand why the science doesn't support their paranoid contentions and why their propaganda could lower the percentage of vaccinated children sufficiently to risk the return of diseases once thought vanquished. Maybe, just maybe, they'll come to realize that vaccines are safe and do not cause autism.

And maybe the tooth fairy is real.

The problem is that, even if in the end some of these antivaccinationists are led down the path of science, it will likely take millions, if not tens or hundreds of billions, of dollars worth of research to produce the studies that would convince them even in this most optimistic scenario. In the more likely scenario, the same amount of money that could otherwise be spent on more scientifically promising areas of research will be wasted, and the results won't convince a single member of the mercury militia.

Still, I can always dream of the more optimistic outcome, can't I?


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This is exactly the kind of thing that believers in psuedoscience love to point to as irrefutable proof that their beliefs have varacity and value.

"See, the government ackowledged that austism is directly caused by vaccines! And they're still making kids get vaccines! It's part of their illuminati plan to reduce the global population!"

The state of science literacy in a America is such that we may well be going down some dark paths for a great distance before we ever pull out. And being as incredibly high-strung and nuerotic as I am, I am bolstered by the fact that my wife is finishing off nursing school and every other industrialized nation on Earth that isn't slowly going insane will gladly welcome us as citizens.

Not that I am an alarmist or anything.

"Keep your friends close. Keep your enemies even closer." Perhaps?

I agree with Orac. The dollars wasted will be many and the *gains* small.

"Keep your friends close. Keep your enemies even closer." Perhaps?

I agree with Orac. There will be an enormous amount of money wasted on disproving what has already been disproved.

What likely will happen is that antivax members will invent or take out of context comments by other panel members or commmunications from scientists, and blow them up into claims that evidence against vaccines is being ignored or suppressed.

The end result could be another RFK Jr.-style "Deadly Immunity" article, which will also be bunk but provide grist for the antivax conspiracy mill.

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 29 Nov 2007 #permalink

I saw this yesterday and cringed.

If this is a strategic government move, it's likely to be a losing gamble. We're talking about people whose argument that vaccines = autistic child is something along the lines of "look at my kid! I KNOW it was the vaccines!"

These people are never, ever, ever going to be persuaded by evidence; this is clearly an act of appeasement.

Right or wrong they're an interest group and this is a democracy.

Think how noisy they'd get if they were shut out.


Science (medicine) is not a democracy, all opinions are not worth considering. HHS should make policy based strictly on high-quality, scientific evidence.

"Science by democracy" is what brought us the inherently imbecilic notions of "junk science" and the various "data quality acts." (Read "The Republican War on Science" for details.)

I think the amount that can be wasted doing research on woo is less than what is already being spent on woo. I think that most woo-meisters won't even submit proposals to do research or trials on their particular brand of woo.

It isn't like any IRB under legitimate scrutiny will allow children to be injected with stuff like Lupron, or be given garlic and vinegar via IV, or chelated for years with no evidence of heavy metal poisoning.

"Trying something until the money runs out" is not a legitimate endpoint for a "real" clinical trial. These trials using woo will at least be monitored so the results enter the literature and can pointed to as failures when the same woo comes up again and again.

A fourth option- and perhaps a silver lining, Orac?

We know how the anti-vaxers behave when it comes to good science: They simply plug their ears and ignore it and bemoan the 'chickenshit' points, to use a military term.

However, now the tables have turned: If they are on this panel, I would expect that there would be demand to prove the negative outcome of vaccination from those with opinions counter to theirs. There will be direct pressure from a government committee to prove their nonsense should they want their viewpoints taken seriously and used to shape policy (gulp). Maybe this will help put their complete paucity of scientific evidence in the forefront of this field. No more Jenny McCarthy, no more Joe Kennedy, no more Vaccines Cause Autism tripe because the legs that these people stand on will be swept out by some of their very own.

I think also that if the anti-vaxers on the committee have to read all the proposals they are supposed to comment on, they will have quite an education.

Exactly how many of the members of this panel do the antivaxers comprise? Are they the only people there for some reason other than scientific or medical expertise (i.e. are there any actual parents groups, autism sufferers representatives etc on the panel)? And exactly what does being on this panel entail? Do they have the right to vote to direct policy or are they only in an advisory role?

There is something to what Jesse says-- if the point of the panel is to allow the antivaxers to present a viewpoint and have it documented and critiqued, then this actually is a good thing to some extent. Often movements like this survive only because they exist in the shadows-- they present their messages only in mediums which they control. So sometimes forcing them into the harsh light of real public scrutiny can cause everything they claim to come undone-- witness the Intelligent Design movement at Dover self-destructing on the stand even though they'd once looked forward to that moment, simply because when they were put into a position where they were not able to weasel out of direct questions their world fell apart. Now, given, if the panel does wind up serving this purpose toward the antivaxers, this is not exactly a good thing because it's wasted time and effort on the part of the actual members of the panel, time and effort that could have been spent on actual autism research. But at least something positive will have come out of it.

On the other hand though if this panel actually does have some level of authority of any kind over policy or research funding, then that's horrifying. I would not consider it "democracy" for a small fringe ideological group to be given a voice denied to everyone else, exerting power over policies which affect the entire nation, simply because this one group yelled louder than everyone else.

Coin, essentially the panel is eugenicist parents, "vaccines ate my baby" people (mostly parents), and an autistic on a stick (stephen shore). "Autism Sufferers", incidentally, isn't what autistic people call ourselves, though it may be what I start to call whineyautiemommies.

It's the worst composition of a so called blue ribbon panel I've ever seen. I am cringing. These people don't represent should be autistics with token parents, not the other way around, seeing as it's OUR lives they're talking about.

okay, picture this scenario: you are on an airplane. For whatever reason, the crew have become unable to fly the plane. You have a choice of possible replacement pilots: first, the retired airline pilot, who does not know this specific aircraft, but has thousands of hours of flying time. The other person does not believe that the plane can stay in the air absent a magical incantation and a special pleading to the gods of air travel, but he claims that his gods can keep the plane in the air and land it safely.
Which one do you choose to fly the plane ?


Alas, medicine is not pure science, and has many influences of both politics and industry. Pretending otherwise is also naive.

"Autism Sufferers", incidentally, isn't what autistic people call ourselves
Alright, sorry about that. Is there any particular term you would recommend I use instead?

Actually I guess "autistic representatives" might have been workable, though that sounds kind of odd somehow...


Medicine strives to be scientific. Artificially introducing aberrant notions does not help.

May the Schwartz be with you.

Anti-vax panelist at Day One of the panel: "I would like to enter two statements into the record. (1) Inviting me on this panel imputes credibility to my cause. (2) Your refusal to accept my findings and recommendations proves that a conspiracy exists. I request the chairs permission to go home now. My job here is done."

The Dept could have better achieved its goal by keeping anti-vaxers off the panel but having them appear as witnesses. The conspiracy theorists could present their best and presumably "undeniable" evidence, which the panel could thoroughly fisk in their report. This methodology emulates the successful Dover trial approach.

There's one friend of ours whom I'd LOVE to put on this panel, as he is highly mathematically inclined and defends science and reason with all the fervor granted him by full-on Asperger's Syndrome...

By Antiquated Tory (not verified) on 30 Nov 2007 #permalink

You don't understand. Jenny McCarthy was on Oprah and she said vaccines cause autism, so it must be true. That's what my sister-in-law told me. (Sigh.)