The unbearable lightweightness of being David Kirby

Remember how I speculated that appointing die-hard antivaccinationists to the new federal panel on autism research and policy would be a propaganda boon to the antivaccination movement and the mercury militia? Surprise, surprise! It's already happening. Even less of a surprise, first off the mark to gloat is everybody's favorite whore for the mercury militia appearing (as usual) in his favorite house organ of antivaccination propaganda, The Huffington Post. First, of course, he has to "frame" things to represent himself as the brave, brave iconoclast, fighting against those evil scientists who want to keep our children autistic by vaccinating the hell out of them:

Exactly five years ago, I began research for my book Evidence of Harm, which looked into the possible link between mercury, vaccines and the tsunami of autism that now overwhelms our education system.

Along the way, I have encountered many people -- in the government, in medical circles, in the media, on the Internet - who are furious at my attempts to shed light on this controversy, and utterly contemptuous of parents, doctors and anyone else who supports research into the hypothesized link between autism and vaccines.

Many of these people, incredibly, still insist that autism is purely a genetic disorder with no known "cause" and probably no cure. They blithely claim that autism has always been with us, in the same epidemic numbers we see today, (If you're the parent of a young boy in New Jersey, by the way, you now face 1-in-60 odds of a diagnosis), we just never noticed, or else counted those kids as "quirky," or possibly retarded.

Lovely strawman argument there, as is typical of Kirby. I'm not aware of any scientist who insists that autism is "purely a genetic disorder with no known 'cause' and probably no cure." (It's tempting to point out to Kirby that if an order is genetic it has a cause, but I'll refrain. No I won't.) It likely is, however, largely genetic, a different thing. As for whether or not there is a "cure," it's impossible to know if there is a "cure" if we don't understand the cause yet. As for the autism "tsunami" (can one imagine a more offensive term?), there is plenty of evidence that, yes indeed Mr. Kirby, it is primarily due to increased awareness and broadening of the diagnostic criteria, as one major study by Paul Shattuck showed last year. He then goes on to crow about how all of us presumably blind, dishonest, or pig-headed scientists who have looked at the evidence from multiple large, well designed epidemiological studies and concluded that neither the mercury that used to be in vaccines as part of the thimerosal preservative nor the vaccines themselves are associated with autism. The evidence is quite clear that neither mercury nor vaccines themselves cause autism. Even Kirby appeared to be backing away from that discredited hypothesis about 10 months ago, even going hilariously far in invoking pollution from China or smoke from an increased number of cremations in California as sources of mercury, which to him causes autism. Now he's back on it, and he's gloating:

Some experts, however, are beginning to understand that autism is clearly on the rise and, thus, must have an environmental component, coupled with a genetic underpinning. But they insist that vaccines or their ingredients (ie, mercury, live measles virus, aluminum) have nothing to do with the epidemic.

They really, really want this vexing vaccine chatter to cease. But it won't.

Well, yes, actually we do want this vaccine chatter to cease because there really isn't any scientific basis for it. The reason it won't cease, however, is not because there is any science behind it. Rather, one reason is that a bunch of pseudoscientists have discovered that they can ride this puppy for all its worth selling dubious "cures" for "mercury poisoning." Another reason is a subset of parents who have made the all-too-human mistake of confusing correlation with causation, given that autistic symptoms frequently start to manifest themselves around the same time that children are receiving their vaccinations, and become convinced that it was the vaccines that caused their children's autism. Given the emotional connection with their children, they are almost impossible to convince, no matter how many studies fail to find a correlation between vaccines and autism. Finally, there are the opportunists, like the lawyers who pursue lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers or the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

And like David Kirby, who's ridden this--shall we say?--tsunami of irrationality to fame and fortune.

In his gloating, Kirby cites three reasons. One reason, not surprisingly, is the very thing I deplored, namely including rabid antivaccinationists on the federal autism panel (the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, or IACC):

Among those named to the panel by HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt were Lyn Redwood, president of the Coalition for Safe Minds (and chief protagonist in my book), and a leading advocate of the mercury-vaccine-autism connection, and Lee Grossman, president and CEO of the Autism Society of America, another staunch supporter of the hypothesis.

Which again begs the question: If the debate over vaccines and autism is over, then why did the Feds appoint two people to this important new panel who will relentlessly push for more taxpayer dollars going into research of vaccines and autism?

I speculated why the feds might have allowed such antivaccinationists on the panel. Suffice it to say that it almost certainly wasn't because the government found them in the least bit credible. Rather, I suspect it was because the government was in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't situation" and probably decided to take the path of least resistance. I also pointed out that there would be a price to pay for this decision, and David Kirby demonstrates part of that price quite well. By including antivaccinationist loons on the IACC, the government gives supporters of antivaccinationist loons ammunition to say, "See, there must be something to this whole vaccine-autism thing!" In other words, the government gave its imprimatur to these people as "alternative" viewpoints or as "autism advocates," and Kirby is milking that for all it's worth.

The other incidents that Kirby cites as "evidence" that there is something to his woo include a $6 million study of factors associated with autism:

The CDC granted nearly $6 million for investigators at five major research centers to study 2,700 children over the next five years, in what the Contra Costa Times called "the largest-ever U.S. study aimed at solving one of the most perplexing mysteries of modern times: the cause of autism."


Among the "factors" to be studied are family history, events during pregnancy, maternal medications, parental occupation, ambient pollution around the house, and "a child's vaccination history," the paper reported.


The new study will only study children born from September 2003 to August, 2005.
But the question remains, and I think it's legitimate: If an association between vaccines and autism has been completely "ruled out," then why are we spending taxpayer dollars to study autistic children's vaccination history?

That's easy, David. It's for completeness' sake. A complete health history of a child, such as would be used for such a study, necessarily includes the vaccination history. Then, if you've bothered to collect that information, you might as well use it. Of course, there's no chance that politics played any role in including vaccines, is there?

Finally, David exceeds himself in disingenuous by citing a case in the Autism Omnibus:

According to my source, however, the government is NOT conceding that mercury or vaccines cause autism. "In this case, the DOJ conceded that vaccines significantly aggravated a child's pre-existing autistic symptoms," my source said, "but the autism itself was caused by a congenital mitochondrial disorder that is entirely genetic."

And, the source noted, "By conceding 'significant aggravation,' I think DOJ is trying to avoid ever having this case go to hearing on the underlying causation issue."

In other words, this was likely going to be a slam-dunk, and the Feds knew it. Rather than risk having the case become a "test" for thousands of other claims, it looks like the DOJ opted to fold and pay out damages to the family, without actually admitting that vaccines can cause autism.

First off, any "source" of David Kirby's has to be looked at with a bit of skepticism. Second, it was not conceded that vaccines cause autism, only that there may have been "significant aggravation." Even so, such a concession means little; remember, this is a legal proceeding, not a scientific proceeding, and we all know how well the courts deal with science much of the time. Certainly, for example, decisions as good as the Dover decision over "intelligent design creationism" are not as common as I'd like to see.

Finally, Kirby can't resist finishing with some of his old tried-and-not-so-true rhetorical techniques. For example, there's the old crank technique of shifting the goalposts:

And remember that the CDC, wisely, does not conduct autism prevalence studies on children until they reach the age of 8, to account for any late stragglers entering the database. If thimerosal did not come out of vaccines entirely until 2003, then it won't be until 2011 before kids in that birth cohort are studied by the CDC, so vindicating thimerosal entirely might still be a tad premature.

Oh, goody. Four more years of Kirby's blathering. Actually, it'll probably be more, given that I have every confidence that he'll find another reason to shift the goalposts in 2011 if autism incidence doesn't fall. Perhaps he forgot that he had said:

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.

Ah, the joy of shifting the goalposts so far! Then Kirby plays the Dan Olmsted gambit:

And what about reports of unvaccinated children in Illinois, California and Oregon who appear to have significantly lower rates of autism? Shouldn't we throw some research dollars into studying them?

The problem is that none of this is true. There's no good evidence that any of these unvaccinated children have lower rates of autism. After all, what Kirby appears to be referring to is Dan Olmsted's unscientific "feeling" and a really badly designed telephone poll by antivaccination group Generation Rescue. I suppose some research dollars could be thrown at this question, but I'd put this sort of research project well down the list of priorities when it comes to funding, given its implausibility and how little evidence exists to support the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism.

And Kirby picks up yet another technique of antivaccinationists, namely blaming other ingredients now that thimerosal is no longer in most childhood vaccines:

But if thimerosal is vindicated, or shown to be a very minor player, then what about other vaccine ingredients?

Yep, right out of the antivaccinationist playbook.

Kirby finishes with a flourish, stating that the vaccine-autism debate "has only just begun."

Sadly, I fear that he's right about this one point. As long as we have die-hard ideologues and antivaccinationists like Lynn Redwood, Lee Grossman, J. B. Handley, Mark and David Geier, and Boyd Haley, along with useful idiots like David Kirby, we're likely to have paranoid pseudoscientific claims that vaccines cause autism. One of my dreams is that, a few decades hence, when it's time for me to leave this mortal coil, this myth will have been buried.

I fear I will not see this dream come to fruition.


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Your quote of Kirby regarding the Autism Omnibus case is missing blockquote tags.

I came across a paper on the incidence of autism in the Faroe Islands.…

They did quite an exhaustive study,

"All children born in the 10-year period from 1985 through 1994 and living in the Faroe Islands on December 31, 2002 comprised the target population. There were 7,689 children (3,895 boys, 3,794 girls) who met these criteria. The total population of the 18 Faroe Islands was 47,704 on December 31, 2002."

They found 43, or 0.53%, of whom 8 were closely related.

While they didn't specifically look at mercury levels in these individuals, this cohort does include the cohort tested for mercury.

"birth cohort of 1,022 subjects was formed from consecutive births between 1 March 1986 and the end of 1987 at the three Faroese hospitals (Grandjean et al. 1992)." This cohort had an inter quartile range of 13.1 to 40.4 micrograms/L mercury. That means more than 250 had more than 40 micrograms/L mercury in cord blood at birth. That is more than 200 nanomoles/L.

They break out the autism cases by year of birth, in 1986 and 1987 there were a total of 5 children born that developed an ASD, 2 childhood autism and 3 Asperger's out of 1404 children born.

It looks like there is data on the mercury levels in a large fraction of these children, and I suspect we will be seeing a paper out on the specific incidence of autism vs mercury exposure once the authors with the two data sets collaborate on it. In any case, there can't be much of an effect. We know that at least 250 children had more than 200 nM/L mercury at birth, and at most 5 of them developed an ASD. Unless something happened to them.

Of course the data will simply be dismissed, that methyl mercury is not "the same" as ethyl mercury, that injecting ethyl mercury is not "the same" as receiving methyl mercury via one's placenta.

One of my dreams is that, a few decades hence, when it's time for me to leave this mortal coil, this myth will have been buried.

At this rate, I'll be dead by the time they give this up.

I suspect that the Autism Obmnibus test case children has been determined, by real doctors, to be suffering from a "table" injury, one known and recognized --and rare-- case when vaccines do cause harm.

For Table Injuries, compensation from the Autism Court is swift and straightforward. It has been set up for this very purpose. The money comes from a fund coming from the vaccines price, a few cents of fractions of cents of each vaccine shot goes to this "insurance" fund. All the Autism Court proceedings, all the lawyers and expert witnesses of both parties, are paid from this fund too.

The parents of the test case child, --chosen by the Petitioners amongs their 5000 clients -- have the choice of being compensated for a proved and known injury, or to go ahead with the rigmarole and claim that their kid was injured by new, unproved ways, with the testimony of quack doctors who have already failed to diagnostic the kid properly.

So, apparently, this round at the Autism Court will be delayed, until the Petitioners can come up with a better Test Case, more representative of their 5000 clients, unless they all suffer from a mitochondrial disease ?

Where is Autism Diva when we need her ?

Is it a coincidence that Kirby sounds so much like Wakefield?

RE the Autism Obmnibus test case: It really is all about the money. One of the first of the cases to go to trial was IANNUZZI v. SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, No. 02-780V, 2007 U.S. Claims LEXIS 101 (US Ct. of Fed. Cl., Mar. 20, 2007). OVERVIEW: The parent's case, which claimed that her child's autism was caused by vaccinations, was processed by the special master as part of an omnibus autism proceeding. The special master denied compensation to the parent. Thereafter, the parent filed an application for attorney's fees and costs, requesting fees and costs that were specific to her petition and fees and costs for work done by the same law firm in the process of researching the general issue of autism causation. The court awarded the case-specific costs requested. It was also appropriate to award compensation for the bulk of the hours and costs in question submitted for work on the general issues presented by all the cases. Given the uncertainty concerning when the other pending cases would be resolved and given the complexity of the causation issues, the court concluded that it would be unfair to further delay compensation to the law firm for its work. The fees and costs incurred after the parent moved for a ruling on the record could not be compensated in the current case. The attorneys could recover costs and fees submitted in a supplemental motion for fees and costs incurred in bringing the first motion.

That's right -- the parents lost on the issue of general causation (i.e., there is no scientifically supported evidence that the MMR vaccine or the thimerosal preservative causes autism), and so lost on the merits, and so the parents and child will recover NOTHING from the Vaccine Fund. However, the attorneys and experts were awarded fees and costs for this case, and can seek more awards for the rest of the 4,800 cases.

Generally there are two doctrines on awards of attorneys' fees: The "American Rule" under which each party pays their own attorneys; and, the "English Rule" under which the court shifts some or all of the prevailing party's attorneys' fees to the other party. Experts' costs are generally taxed as court costs to the loosing party.

The Vaccine Court follows a different rule. Iannuzzi's attorneys and experts were award over $6,000 in attorneys' fees and expert costs for work done on just that case (one of the 4,800 cases in the mercury/MMR causes autism suits in the Vaccine Court) and which indicated that the court would award over $300,000 in additional attorneys' fees and expert costs for general work for all plaintiffs represented by the firm (the firm represented less than 700 of the plaintiffs and was not lead counsel on the plaintiffs' steering committee, so the eventual award to all of the plaintiffs' attorneys can be expected to be much higher).

Great work if you can get it -- loose on the merits and be awarded attorneys' fees and experts' costs, plus have the opportunity for additional awards as the other 4,800 cases are decided (even if they also are losses on the merits and NOTHING to the parents and children). Meanwhile, a loss in the Vaccine Court does not bar a suit against the Pharma. Companies, hospitals, doctors, and whoever else you can think of -- meaning the chance for more settlements from them and their insurers.

I think the Cedillos may still have a swing at getting compensation from the Vaccines Court.
2 of the Respondants experts mentionned that the high fever experienced by baby Michelle may have been an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Which didn't help the Petitioners at all proving that the combinaison of the MMR + Thimerosal (in other vaccines received 9 months prior) was the cause of baby Michelle disability.
Had the Cedillo gone before the Master asking for compentation for a plain adverse reaction (a Table Injury) they would probably have received (lesser) compensation without any fuss. I understand that the standard of proof aren't stringent.
Few parents could *PROVE* the degree of a fever in a baby, when the child was not hospitalized and no records were kept. Also difficult to prove is that the vaccine caused the fever, and not a random flu.

The Cedillos family videos were used to show that baby Michelle had numerous symptoms of slow development and autism, before her MMR immunizaton and her fever bout.

If the Petitioners lawyers have trouble both to find clear-cut test cases amongs 4,800 children, and to find Expert Witnesses to make a scientific case, they are wasting their 4800 clients hopes.

But they'll get paid anyways.

Orac, it's not mercury at all, it's glutamate!! You can't trust it - it's an ACID!!!!!

Oh my.

I noticed that one of the HuffPost commenters had all her fillings removed. I wonder if she had pre- and post-procedure blood Hg levels tested. I still have my amalgam fillings - which is the reason my jaw drops when I read posts like Kirby's. I blame it on too much heavy metal. ;)

Speaking of DAN (like) supporters, Kathleen has posted a nice exposition of charges being leveled against mr Buttar:

For various and sundry treatments without merit in treating cancer patients, which I presume are about the same regimen he has been using on patients with other (autism i.e.) conditions.

"Second, it was not conceded that vaccines cause autism, only that there may have been "significant aggravation.""

and not only that, there is absolutely no suggestion at all - other than David Kirby's nameless, faceless source - that the 'underlying condition' referred to was autism. Its entirely possible for autistic kids to have more than one condition. The 'underlying condition' has no definition whatsoever in the Omnibus transcripts. Given Kirby's predilection for bullcrap I don't trust this 'source' story at all.

Kirby went from EVIDENCE OF HARM to "But what if one day, we discovered it had caused, say, one percent of all cases? " after handwaving to forest fires and aluminium (and LIVE VIRUSES in vaccines !)

So far, we have discovered that Kirby is a fraud and a twit, and his advocacy is no help at all to autistic children and their parents, many of which have been chelated (wasteful, dangerous), partly due to Kirby's wrong-headed advocacy

Kirby says that Lyn Redwood being given a seat on the IACC and CDC including vaccines in a broad study of autism etiology are evidence that the government knows vaccines really do cause autism.

What would he be saying if IACC had not included a mercury mom and vaccines had been left off the list of things to measure in that study?

All together now: "They know it's the vaccines and they're keeping the evidence from coming to light!"

Because once you're down the rabbit hole, EVERYTHING is a sign of the Great Vaccine Conspiracy.

Oh, and "CDC wisely does not conduct autism prevalence studies on children until they reach the age of 8" - first of all, this makes it sound like autism censuses are something they do routinely, which they are not, AFAIK, so wtf, and second, what would he say if CDC were only counting 4-year-olds? "They're purposely cutting off all the kids who are diagnosed older to hide the epidemic!"


One thing that hasn't been pointed out yet, and I think it's a highly salient point, is that assuming that a link between an increased risk of autism and childhood vaccination had been proven, I may still choose to vaccinate a child. The well documented risks of some truly nasty childhood diseases outweigh the currently known risks associated with vaccination, and I doubt an increase in cases of autism would do anything by rebalance the risk/benefit equation a little.

My $0.02 anyway ...

By Mysterious Browser (not verified) on 06 Dec 2007 #permalink

I know that social psychology isn't a discipline widely cited on scienceblogs, but I think the concept of cognitive dissonance is an important one here - the finding that when we hold beliefs, attitudes, or practice behaviors that are internally inconsistant, and this inconsistency is brought to our awareness, we are compelled to resolve the dissonance as quickly as possible. After the investment of a decade into the pursuit of a chimerical vaccination-based etiology for autism, it's unsurprising that he's unwilling and unable to accept that his old thesis is incorrect - and in weighing the relative strength of his dissonant investment and recent empirical findings, it's easy to see which belief was the easier for him to maintain, and which to discard. Particularly when it's as easy as doubting the research. Wouldn't it be terrible if the past 10 years were a waste for him? I'd suspect he's well past the point of no return on this issue, along with many other anti-vax folk.

Just for fun, I'd point out there are a number of studies that have found the effects of cognitive dissonance are increased when a view has been previously stated in front of others or in a public venue - enhancing the effort to maintain anti-vax positions allt he more.

By Matthew D. Skinta (not verified) on 06 Dec 2007 #permalink

"I still have my amalgam fillings - which is the reason my jaw drops when I read posts like Kirby's. I blame it on too much heavy metal. ;)"

Several years ago, when I first heard about people having their fillings removed due to the mercury, my grandfather pointed out to me that drilling the fillings out would certainly expose one to more mercury than leaving them in, since it's virtually impossible to drill inside the mouth without some flakes going down the patients throat. He is a retired dentist, and still teaches and supervises the new dentists at the University of Minnesota, so I tend to believe him.

Matthew, I think you're exactly right. I wish I knew how to counteract cognitive dissonance.

the tsunami of autism that now overwhelms our education system.

I hate it when Kirby spews falsehoods like this one. If you look at the total number of children in special education in the US in the last 14 years or so (relative to the entire population) it's essentially unchanged. The trend is practically flat if you look at 8 and 9 year olds.

As a High Functioning Autistic this all bothers me quite a bit. Personally I don't really care if a pack of imbeciles guarantees that they won't be polluting the gene pool. What bothers me is how this all detracts from the proper study of the condition. All this time and money wasted when people need help. Adult people by the way, Autism is NOT a children's disease, we grow up. Children do not get autism around the time of vaccination, we show symptoms when the parts of our brain that make us different are developed enough to show them. This happens to be when our mothers immune systems wear off and we are vaccinated. This is also the time we start to move on our owns and attempt to speak, are they going to blame autism on those as well? I'm lucky, I'm functional. I have the love of an amazing woman , I have learned to play the "Human" game and live just like anyone else. You wouldn't even know I was different unless you got really close to me. Others aren't so lucky and they need our help. These people need to stop wasting time and get on with things.