David Kirby and sour grapes

It’s always a shame to see a once confident man reduced to whining. Well, maybe not always. Sometimes it’s immensely satisfying, particularly when that man happens to be David Kirby, who, through his book Evidence of Harm, Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, was one of the two men most responsible for publicizing the pseudoscientific scare-mongering that claims that mercury in thimerosal, the preservative that was until late 2002 used in childhood vaccines, causes autism. (The other was Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) Unfortunately for poor ol’ David, time and science have not been kind to his “hypothesis,” with two large studies since publication of his book having been published that present compelling evidence that (1) there is no “autism epidemic” and (2) neither thimerosal-containing vaccines nor the MMR vaccine are associated with increased rates of autism and autism spectrum disorders.

But is Kirby chastened? Maybe he is. How else do we explain the fact that now Kirby’s back with a condescending and sarcastic article on the Huffington Post, full of straw men arguments, sarcasm, and petulant whining. I was going to do a takedown, but, whether fortunately or unfortunately, Kevin Leitch took on the task before I could get to it and did such a good job that I probably don’t need to add much, particularly since Autism Diva, Joseph, and Kristina Chew have piled on as well.

That parents of autistic children might mistakenly believe that vaccines caused their children’s autism is somewhat understandable, given their personal and emotional involvement and (in most cases) lack of scientific sophistication. There’s no getting around it; dealing with a child with autism is tough, and it’s human nature to want to blame someone for their children’s condition. Kirby, however, is a different bird, an opportunist milking the mercury-autism canard for all it’s worth and who just can’t give up on it and admit that he was wrong. Doing so, besides displeasing his constituency, would also rob him of that feeling of being important. He persists even though the evidence is falling more and more against him. Now that thimerosal has been removed from vaccines and been gone for four years with no detectable decrease in the rates of autism/ASD among 3-5 year olds, the final nail has been pounded into the coffin of that pseudoscience, although the mercury militia will never admit it. I suspect that Kirby is smart enough to know this, and I’m guessing that’s why he’s become so petulant.

The thing that needs to be hammered home again and again whenever David Kirby is mentioned is based on his own words with respect to the statistics about the caseload of autistic/ASD children receiving help from the state of California:

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.

The reason for this statement is that thimerosal was removed from nearly all childhood vaccines in the U.S. at the end of 2002, and autism is most frequently diagnosed before age 5. Of course, one could point out that originally Kirby said that the rate should decline by the end of 2005 and that his changing his criterion to 2007 was a rather obvious shifting of the goalposts, but that might be uncharitable. So might pointing out that there have been large epidemiological studies that have utterly failed to find a change in the increase in autism diagnoses, much less a decrease in them, in the years after thimerosal was removed from vaccines in various countries, the most recent of which was published out of Canada just last summer. But let’s take Kirby at his current word. As of the end of 2006, there was no sign that the total number of 3-5 year olds with autism/ASD in the California DDS system is even leveling off, much less falling, based on Q3 2006 data. That’s why Kirby was reduced to dancing around the California numbers unconvincingly back when the Q2 2006 numbers were released. No doubt, when the Q4 2006 numbers are released in a week or two, Kirby will find a way to shift the goalposts again. Maybe he’ll say that what he really meant was that numbers had to start dropping by the end of 2007.

Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Kirby’s also scheduled to debate Arthur Allen, author of a soon-to-be-released book, Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver on January 13 in San Diego. Remember all the problems with “debating” advocates of pseudoscience that I mentioned yesterday? Expect Kirby to use all the techniques of creationists, HIV denialists, and other pseudoscientists. Worse, besides the main sponsor Talk About Curing Autism (scroll down about halfway), a group that accepts the discredited mercury-thimerosal hypothesis and advocates chelation therapy, other sponsors of the event include Generation Rescue, Safe Minds, and the Autism Research Institute, among others, all of which also buy into the mercury militia line to one degree or other. Given these groups, even the sponsorship of the Cognitive Science Department of UCSD is unlikely to do anything to put a damper on the woo. I hope Arthur’s ready and able to handle it, because the pseudoscience, bad logic, appeals to ignorance, appeals to sympathy for autistic children, and a number of other logical fallacies that do not support the thimerosal/mercury idea, will be flying fast and furious at him, and the audience will be almost certainly stacked with mercury militia faithful, the better to stack the deck in Kirby’s favor.

If you’re a fan of good science and evidence- (rather than hysteria-) based medicine and live in San Diego, you might want to make an effort to show up to provide some balance to the whole proceedings. And, now, even though I’m not a psychic (real or fake), I will make a prediction: No matter what the outcome of this “debate,” look for the mercury militia to be trumpeting it as a “victory.”

OK, that was too easy. Maybe I should challenge Sylvia Browne over who’s the more convincing fake psychic.