From the vaults: RFK, Jr. gets his first ever taste of Respectful Insolence™

Time flies when you’re having fun.

Hard as it is to believe, it’s been a year since RFK, Jr. first posted his ridiculous conspiracy-mongering piece on Salon.com. Ever since moving to ScienceBlogs back in February, I had planned on reposting this article on the anniversary of its original appearance. Unfortunately, for some reason I misremembered the date as being later last June than it really was, leading me to forget completely about reposting on the day it should have been reposted, namely last Saturday. Oh, well, better late than never. If you’re curious about how I plunged head first into the whole mercury-autism controversy, join me in a trip down memory lane and enjoy a particularly tasty piece of classic (Not-So-) Respectful Insolence™ entitled:

Salon.com flushes its credibility down the toilet

Damn.

I had been tempted to try to let this cup pass, but I couldn’t, not after Skeptico, PZ, and several others e-mailed me about this article, seemingly expecting a response. I thought about just chilling out last night, enjoying Game 4 of the NBA Finals, and letting a response wait until next week, but the more I thought about it, the harder it was to wait. Thank heaven for laptops and wireless networking.

Believe it or not, I’ve been a fairly regular Salon.com reader for at least the three years. Despite its leftward tilt, I’ve generally enjoyed the writing and features. I’ve even linked to Salon.com articles and features on occasion. Now I’m going to have to reconsider my opinion of the site. Why? Salon.com has just plopped down on the web the biggest, steamingest, drippiest turd I’ve ever seen it publish, an article so mindnumbingly one-sided and uncritical that in my eyes it utterly destroys nearly all credibility Salon.com has had as a source of reliable news and comment. Honestly, the editors of Salon.com should hang their heads in shame for publishing this paranoid piece of fear-mongering and trumpeting it as “investigative reporting.”

The article to which I refer is, of course, Deadly Immunity (which was a “coinvestigation” by Salon.com and Rolling Stone–a magazine whose attempts at investigative journalism I haven’t taken seriously in years). It’s a one-sided account by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. of the supposed link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism that is being promoted by antivaccine activists as an indictment of the government and pharmaceutical companies. For example, the Schaefer Autism Report e-mail list reports that ABC News has cancelled appearances by RFK Jr. on 20/20 and Good Morning America this week. The e-mail invokes the usual conspiracy-mongering, saying, “Our opinion is that they are more concerned about protecting their huge advertising revenues from the pharmaceutical industry than reporting news that could protect pregnant women, infants and children from mercury tainted vaccines.” Personally, I suspect it was because ABC News probably figured out that the article was a biased and shoddily researched piece of crap, but then that’s just my opinion and hope. Certainly, the newsletter does nothing to dispel my suspicion that this was nothing more than a propaganda piece:

Lujene Clark, co-founder of NoMercury and A-CHAMP (Advocates for Children’s Health Affected by Mercury Poisoning), worked extensively with Mr. Kennedy and his office over the past several weeks in preparing the article for publication. The print copy will contain a sidebar from Ms. Clark, providing perspective from her experience as the mother of a thimerosal-injured child and advocate for removing mercury from vaccines.

So the preparation of the article was heavily influenced by an antivaccination activist. Gee, why am I not surprised to learn this? Why didn’t Salon.com just let Lujene Clark write the article? The result would have been the same. In any case, there’s so much misinformation, paranoid conspiracy-theory raving, and one-sided stuff in this article that it’s hard to know where to start. Fortunately, I’ve dealt with this topic a few times before recently. Here are just a few of the major problems with the article:

Quote mining. The article begins by making dire insinuations about a conference that was held at the CDC, known as the Simpsonwood Conference, after the conference center where it was held in 2000. It is not an auspicious start, as RFK Jr. does what mercury-autism activists do best: quote-mining. This meeting was a preliminary meeting about the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD). The entire transcript (warning: big file) of the meeting is over 260 pages long (although there is a version with selected excerpts), and RFK Jr. has carefully chosen a couple of quotes that, when taken out of context, sound like a coverup. I haven’t had time to read the whole transcript (and I can assure you that what I have read of it is incredibly dry and dull), but what I see is a lot of discussion about the consistency and accuracy of the early data collection, sources of potential bias in the studies, and debate about what it means. The quote about how the data have to be “handled” is described by RFK Jr. thusly:

Dr. John Clements, vaccines advisor at the World Health Organization, declared flatly that the study “should not have been done at all” and warned that the results “will be taken by others and will be used in ways beyond the control of this group. The research results have to be handled.”

Here is what Dr. Clements actually said in context (warning, link to a big file):

I am really concerned that we have taken off like a boat going down one arm of the mangrove swamp at high speed, when in fact there was not enough discussion really early on about which way the boat should go at all. And I really want to risk offending everyone in the room by saying that perhaps this study should not have been done at all, because the outcome of it could have, to some extent, been predicted, and we have all reached this point now where we are left hanging, even though I hear the majority of consultants say to the Board that they are not convinced there is a causality direct link between Thimerosal and various neurological outcomes.

I know how we handle it from here is extremely problematic. The ACIP is going to depend on comments from this group in order to move forward into policy, and I have been advised that whatever I say should not move into the policy area because that is not the point of this meeting. But nonetheless, we know from many experiences in history that the pure scientist has done research because of pure science. But that pure science has resulted in splitting the atom or some other process which is completely beyond the power of the scientists who did the research to control it. And what we have here is people who have, for every best reason in the world, pursued a direction of research. But there is now the point at which the research reults have to be handled, and even if this committee decides that there is no association and that information gets out, the work that has been done and through the freedom of information that will be taken by others and will be used in ways beyond the control of this group. And I am very concerned about that as I suspect it is already too late to do anything regardless of any professional body and what they say. (p. 247)

It sure sounds a whole lot less conspiratorial in context, doesn’t it? Dr. Clements was just expressing a quite reasonable fear that lawyers will use very preliminary and unconfirmed studies for their own ends, which is what they do indeed routinely do. Such a concern was not at all unreasonable and is still not unreasonable. In fact, RFK Jr.’s highly selective quoting of Dr. Clements’ words is a perfect example of what Dr. Clements was clearly afraid of!

Confusing correlation and causation. The article repeats the usual canard about how autism was unknown before the 1940’s, which, coincidentally was when thimerosal-containing vaccines were first used. The article even goes so far as to claim:

The disease was unknown until 1943, when it was identified and diagnosed among 11 children born in the months after thimerosal was first added to baby vaccines in 1931.

No, the reason the disease was “unknown” until 1943 was because it was not described as a specific condition by Dr. Leo Kanner until 1943, after which Dr. Hans Asperger described a similar condition that now bears his name in 1944. Before that, although Dr. Eugen Bleuler had coined the term “autism” in 1911, no specific diagnostic criteria existed for the disease. Even for decades after 1943 autism was not infrequently confused with mental retardation or schizophrenia, and over the last two decades the diagnostic criteria for autism and autism spectum disorders have been widened. In any case, if thimerosal in vaccines were the cause of autism, we would expect autism rates in Denmark and Canada to have plummeted recently, because Denmark eliminated thimerosal from its vaccines by 1995 and Canada removed them around the same time. No such decrease in autism rates has occurred in either country, even though there has been more than enough time for such a decrease to make itself apparent if there were truly a link between mercury exposure and autism. I would ask the mercury-autism activists: If this particular correlation does mean causation, if mercury in thimerosal is indeed a major cause or contributor to autism, why is it, then, that autism rates have not started to fall dramatically in Denmark and Canada by now? That there has been no such decrease is very strong epidemiological evidence that there is no link.

RFK then goes on to list a bunch of studies supposedly showing how toxic thimerosal is, berry-picked and without descriptions of the actual doses of thimerosal used. However, the most idiotic statement is here:

In 1930, the company [Eli Lilly] tested thimerosal by administering it to 22 patients with terminal meningitis, all of whom died within weeks of being injected — a fact Lilly didn’t bother to report in its study declaring thimerosal safe.

The patients had “terminal meningitis” in 1930 and died after injection with thimerosal? Imagine that. Given that penicillin had not been discovered yet, I would have been surprised if any of them lived.

Double standards in looking at “conflicts of interest.” RFK Jr. goes on and on about alleged conflicts of interest by vaccine researchers who accept funding from pharmaceutical companies, going so far as to imply that the Institute of Medicine reports of 2001 and 2004 that stated that there is no link between mercury and autism were basically done at the behest of the pharmaceutical companies, never mind the comprehensive review of the literature in 2004 that also failed to find a link. It’s the usual conspiracy-mongering insinuations we hear from antivaccination activists and other types of cranks. However, in marked contrast, RFK Jr. approvingly cites the research of Dr. Mark Geier and his son David, both of whom are activists for the mercury-autism crowd, never once mentioning that Dr. Geier is a professional expert witness for vaccine plantiffs, who has been involved in over 100 legal cases brought against vaccine manufacturers and the government on behalf of parents and whose testimony has been disallowed in some for not being sufficiently qualified. Dr. Geier’s son David runs a company called MedCon, a medical-legal consulting firm that helps vaccine injury claimants to obtain money from both the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program and through civil litigation.

Hmmm. Sounds to me as though the Geiers have a definite financial conflict of interest when it comes to vaccine studies, and they have published several studies that are widely cited by antivaccination activists as “proof” of a mercury-autism link. None of their studies has ever failed to show such a link. I wonder why RFK didn’t see fit to mention that, given his great concern over conflicts of interest in vaccine research. He also didn’t mention that the Geiers have used shoddy study methodology and also engaged in data collection irregularities, drawing a rebuke from the CDC and suspension of Dr. Geier’s IRB approval from Kaiser-Permanente. Overall, RFK Jr. seems pretty selective in his outrage over conflicts of interest and shoddy research, doesn’t he?

The “hidden hordes” fallacy. RFK Jr. cites Professor Boyd Haley, Chairman of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Kentucky, who is an activist and Chair of the Advisory Committee for Toxic Teeth, an anti-amalgam group and whose fallacious reasoning with regards to mercury and autism has been pointed out by Peter Bowditch. This is the same Boyd Haley who got into trouble last year for labeling autism as “Mad Child Disease,” leading to a demand for him to apologize, which he has refused to do. Haley is quoted as saying “If the epidemic is truly an artifact of poor diagnosis, then where are all the 20-year-old autistics?” I’ll borrow Michelle Dawson‘s response to that fallacy, which she was kind enough to have posted in the comments of my blog while responding to David Kirby’s recent book on vaccines and autism:

Mr Kirby deploys the “hidden hordes” to express his disbelief in the possibility that there is no autism epidemic. Were numbers of autistics steady over the years, he argues, America would be clogged with aging hopeless autistics gruesomely burdening society. Mr Kirby cannot find us (I’m one of his “hidden hordes”) how and where he expects (doomed and confined to institutions), so he denies we exist.

Szatmari et al (1989) suggests that Mr Kirby should look for his hordes in university records. In a follow-up of autistics diagnosed as children before 1970, 7 of 16 had university degrees (one was an MBA).

This is in essence a variant of the argument that there is an autism “epidemic” favored by so many advocates favoring a link between autism and mercury. Like many antivaccination activists, RFK also misuses the word “epidemic” by referring to an “autism epidemic,” a concept that the Autism Diva debunks rather nicely. Kevin Leitch agrees that there is no autism epidemic and points it out here and here, concluding:

Just to reiterate – there is no autism epidemic. Diagnostic criteria have widened and reporting methods have vastly improved. There may well be an increase in actual case percentage but epidemic? Hardly.

I could go on, but I’m getting tired and I’ve already failed utterly in my attempt to keep this brief. Besides, I’ve covered nearly all the fallacies, double standards, and selective data mining like that seen in the Salon.com article before here, here, here, here, and here. I also point out that, due to activist pressure, the U.S. has already removed thimerosal from nearly all childhood vaccines, with the last vaccines expiring two years ago. Consequently, the main purpose of trying to “prove” this probably nonexistent “link” now is to provide trial lawyers with “evidence” to use in lawsuits. The next 5 years will tell the tale as the children who have received no thimerosal-containing vaccines reach the age at which autism is commonly diagnosed. I’ll admit it if I’m wrong and autism rates plummet, but don’t expect an apology from the activists when (as is much more likely, given the examples of Denmark and Canada) the rates don’t.

The bottom line is that this article is indeed a humongous runny, stinking turd. Salon.com and Rolling Stone have let their readers down, contributed to the hysteria over a probably nonexistent link between mercury and autism, and utterly trashed their own credibility in the process. They’ve handed the antivaccination activists a significant propaganda victory and an article that they will be citing for years to come, frightening parents who wonder if vaccines are safe and wrongly adding to the guilt that parents of autistic children already feel by making them wonder if they were responsible for their child’s condition.

ADDENDUM #1: Argh! It’s been pointed out to me that Tom Tomorrow, one of my favorite lefty cartoonists, has drunk the thimerosal-autism Kool Aid as well (the June 16 entry on his blog, if the link doesn’t work correctly). Well, my opinion of him has just fallen several notches. It just goes to show, with Dan Burton, Salon.com, and Tom Tomorrow all falling on the same side of the fence in this issue, that mercury-autism junk science is the fallacy that all sides of the political spectrum seem to like to fall for, although my perception persists that it is more favored on the left.

ADDENDUM #2: Bummer. It looks like ABC News will show the interviews with RFK Jr. about this story after all.

ADDENDUM #3: Autism Diva has weighed in and posted the entire A-CHAMP Action Alert that I had quoted. (This piece was more than long enough already, which was why I didn’t post the whole thing myself.) Soapgun has also pointed out that Don Imus is on board the mercury-autism bandwagon big time. Ali at blendor has also castigated Salon.com, beating me to it.