Arthur Allen-David Kirby Debate: All about a story with “legs”

Well, it’s finally been posted, video of the debate between Arthur Allen, author of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver (a book that I am about 2/3 of the way through and plan on reviewing before the end of the month if possible) and mercury militia vaccine fearmonger David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm and arguably one of the two people who have done more than anyone else to bring the bogus claim that mercury in vaccines is the cause of the increase in the number of diagnoses of autism over the last 15 years or so to a wider audience. (The other is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) Direct links to the video can be found here (low bandwith video; high bandwith video). Those who have an interest in this debate may want to watch the video, or at least as much of it as you can tolerate.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the whole thing, mainly because it’s two hours long, but I can tell you that the beginning irritated the hell out of me right from the opening montage, where they clearly cherry-picked quotes from interviews with both David Kirby and Arthur Allen, a couple of which made it sound as though Arthur Allen was sympathetic to their views. This was accompanied by irritating graphics and ominous music, with text stating “The Medical Controversy of the 21st Century Is Debated.” To call this a bit hyperbolic is an understatement. For one thing, it’s not really a controversy anymore. It never really was that much of a controversy, scientifically speaking, more like a concern that scientists had several years ago that has since been assuaged by multiple epidemiological studies that show no link between mercury in thimerosal in vaccines and the rise in autism, most recently in Canada. Indeed, the evidence has been falling hard and fast against the the claim that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism, so much so that there has been some backpedaling and David Kirby has been reduced to shifting goalposts for what would convince him that mercury does not cause autism and hand-waving about “environmental mercury” and pregnant mothers getting flu shots as potential “causes” of the “autism epidemic” (which doesn’t really exist, of course).

From what I’ve seen thus far of the video, it looks as though he indulged in more of the same sort of pathetic arguments and obfuscation that he did in his brief segment on the local Fox News affiliate the morning of the debate. Right from the beginning, he made a big point out of the government recommendation that thimerosal be removed from vaccines, ignoring the fact that this recommendation was made more in response to the fearmongering of the mercury militia as a way of reassuring the public about vaccine safety. (Not surprisingly, it backfired, enabling David Kirby and his ilk to say, “See, the stuff must be dangerous; the government recommended that it be removed from vaccines!”) Arthur Allen described the debate thusly:

The day before our debate David and I appeared on a morning TV news show in San Diego. I mentioned the new California data, along with a survey of several hundred medical offices conducted by the CDC in February 2002 that showed that of the three pediatric vaccines that contained thimerosal in the 1990s, only 2 percent continued to contain the preservative by then. In other words, the data present a pretty clear schematic: thimerosal goes from 100 percent to 2 percent in two cohorts of children. Autism cases, meanwhile, increase by 60 percent in the two cohorts. For me, this is killer evidence, open and shut–the thimerosal thesis doesn’t fly.

David is a clever guy. The next morning, in our debate, he’d already come up with a series of explanations for the California data. First, he tried to ridicule the CDC numbers by describing them as a “convenience sample”–meaning, I presume, that no scientific methodology had gone into the data collection. The audience was 95 percent sympathetic to the mercury hypothesis and many of them chuckled at his dismissal of the CDC figures. David had no data of his own that would contradict the CDC numbers, but he had something else–a handful of fabulous new explanations for why California’s figures were so hard to conform to his hypothesis.

The explanations went like this:

1) California has lots of HMOs. Because HMOs buy large lots of vaccine, they probably keep around some of the old stuff.

1) A gigantic plume of coal smoke from Chinese power plants has settled on California, depositing lots of mercury and therefore causing the autism numbers in the state to continue to grow.

2) Bad forest fires have put tons of mercury into the air, depositing lots of mercury etc…

3) Cremations (!). The burning of dead bodies with mercury amalgam in their mouths has added even more mercury to the air.

(Read the rest, which is well worth your time, and, besides, the antivaxers have predictably shown up.)

And indeed you can see that this is exactly what David Kirby argued. For example, #1 is just handwaving. Allen had the evidence and a description of the methodology of the study that showed that by February 2002 only 2% of childhood vaccines continued to contain thimerosal. Kirby couldn’t refute that; so he came up with obvious handwaving like excuse #1 above and then, despite the fact that the debate was billed as being about whether it was mercury in vaccines that cause autism. He was just trying to muddy the water, knowing that the evidence was against him. Although I haven’t gotten to that part of the video yet, particularly bizarre is a series of slides in Kirby’s talk showing that the number of cremations in California is on the rise (really, I’m not kidding; see slides 99-101) and clearly tried to link this to environmental mercury causing autism. He was fairly smooth, very glib, and the audience, most of whom were sympathetic to the thimerosal blaming hypothesis ate it up.

From what I’ve seen thus far, Arthur Allen did as well as anyone could be expected under the avalanche of cherry-picking and deceptive representation of data and pseudoscience, but this sort of thing is exactly why it is usually not a good idea to agree to such debates. Moreover, the moderation was so piss-poor that David Kirby got away with wandering entirely off topic to mention things like cremations and forest fires as sources of “environmental mercury” that, by the way, conveniently started “rising” just as thimerosal was being taken out of vaccines, just in time to keep the number of cases of autism/ASDs in the 3-5 year old cohort in the California Department of Developmental Services from falling as would be expected if thimerosal did cause autism. Never mind that there’s no evidence of increased rates of autism near, say, crematoria or after forest fires. The debate was supposed to be whether mercury in vaccines causes autism, the whole point of Kirby’s book. Yet Kirby spent a rather large amount of time dwelling on other sources of environmental mercury, some of them quite ludicrous and unlikely. As Kevin Leitch puts it:

So David Kirby, all by himself, has abandoned the agenda and decided to stop talking about vaccines in particular and start talking about mercury in general. Did anyone stop him? Didn’t this debate have moderators?

[…]

This is getting ridiculous. Why are ‘we’ talking about four different types of mercury. This debate is about vaccines (or that’s what I once thought – that’s what the PDF advertising said – it did, didn’t it? I didn’t hallucinate it did I?) and that means just one type of mercury. Thiomersal . Thimerosal. Ethyl. That’s it. One. Not four. Hello?

(Kevin also included bite-sized excerpts of critical parts of the debate, for your edification and shows Kirby doing the backpedal over his previous statement that if cases of autism in the CDDS didn’t start falling by 2007 it would deal a “severe blow” to the mercury-autism hypothesis. While you’re at it, Mike tore apart the epidemiological fallacies that Kirby spewed, and Joseph has piled on David Kirby’s multiple dubious claims.)

I may blog some of the points that the debate covered later this week, but for the moment I’m more interested in a point that Arthur Allen made about the the whole mercury-autism claim in his blog:

In most forums, I like to think that listeners would have brushed aside these points as creative, but completely unfounded twaddle. But the audience for the mercury message is different. These parents are convinced that mercury is behind a substantial part of their children’s problems. Some of them feel that chelation, which removes mercury and other heavy metals, has helped their children, ergo that their problems have to do with mercury and heavy metals.

Many of the scientists who have glommed onto the thimerosal thesis are people whose hypotheses about the neurological damage caused by mercury amalgams in teeth have long since been rejected by their colleagues. But just as the drug companies now sell their drugs directly to the public, skirting the skeptical discretion of doctors, people peddling untested theories and therapies can go round their colleagues and straight to the public, using Internet marketing.

This story has legs because tens of thousands of parents of autistic children continue to believe that vaccines gave their children autism. In June, the federal vaccine court is going to review the evidence in a trial of several weeks. If the court finds in favor of the 5,000 petitioners whose cases are pending there, it will bankrupt the vaccine compensation program and could severely undermine the vaccine program. If the petitioners lose, some of them will take their cases to civil courts. Their chances there will be damaged by the vaccine court loss, but the whole mess will probably drag on for years.

And no matter how much evidence piles up against the thimerosal theory, it will die hard. It’s a story with legs.

Indeed it does, and, sadly, Allen is probably correct. But what he has said, unfortunately, doesn’t just apply to the mercury-thimerosal scare. It applies to so many other forms of pseudoscience and woo. For example, why, after all the evidence that it’s almost certainly worthless against cancer, are there people still claiming that high dose vitamin C is a miracle cure? Why does vitamin C have “legs”? Why are there so many people who believe that the planes didn’t cause the World Trade Towers to fall, that there were explosives there, and that the government (or the Mossad, or whatever) was the real cause of 9/11? Why does this conspiracy theory have “legs”?

My guess is that the reasons that people persist in believing in such pseudoscience are threefold:

1. The human mind is exquisitely set up to seek patterns and correlations. Even if none exists, it will still manage to latch on to even highly improbable ones. Parents see the number of autism diagnoses increasing in the 1990’s at the same time that the number of thimerosal-containing vaccines increase the number of diagnoses of autism and ASDs also increase. Never mind that it’s because of a broadening of diagnostic criteria in 1992 and increased awareness; it seems as though the two are correlated. Couple that with the fact that diagnoses of autism often fall around the age children receive vaccines and thus appear to correlate with when a child is vaccinated, and it’s not hard to see why this particular story persists. One reason science and controlled clinical trials exist is because correlations are so often confused with correlation, making it easy to make incorrect conclusions about causation. Many have done (and continue to do) this with vaccines and autism, not to mention with chelation therapy as well, where they interpret natural improvement in verbal skills, for instance, as being due to the chelation therapy, when in fact many autistic children develop these skills later without pharmacologic interventions, making it impossible to tell if such improvement is actually due to chelation therapy or would have happened anyway. Given the emotional investment these parents have, when their “experience” conflicts with the science, they tend to discount the science. After all, they can see the cause and effect for themselves! They don’t need no stinkin’ science to tell them that mercury in vaccines causes autism or that chelation therapy improved their child’s symptoms! Besides, it’s all just a conspiracy between the CDC and big pharma anyway, which brings us to…

2. When something happens that is beyond a person’s control, when people feel helpless, the tendency is to look for someone or something to blame. The mercury-thimerosal fear-mongering is perfect for this. Parents think: Something must have caused my child’s autism. It couldn’t have “just happened”. Then they look at correlations and erroneously fall for the fallacy of believing that correlation must equal causation. It must have been the vaccines! In this light, the reassurances by the CDC are seen as sinister, as just another example of the government “covering up” the “real” cause of autism, “protecting” big pharma , and “hiding the truth” from the parents. It’s not dissimilar to 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and is also reminiscent of people who think that the government or big pharma is somehow “keeping a cure for cancer from them.”

3. Another cause is money. As Arthur pointed out, there’s a lot of money at stake. Mark and David Geier, for example, make their livings as “expert witnesses” for parents of autistic children suing the Vaccine Injury Compensation Board; that is, when they’re not chelating autistic children or injecting them with Lupron to “treat” their autism. There’s a whole cottage industry that’s sprung up to support the mercury myth and sell “cures for autism” to desperate parents willing to try almost anything, not to mention to encourage them to file lawsuits in which–surprise!–they serve as “expert witnesses” for the plaintiffs. Money’s involved with Kirby as well, as he has sold the rights to Evidence of Harm to Participant Productions. If the idea (I will no longer dignify it by calling it a “hypothesis”) that mercury in vaccines causes or contributes to the development of autism is utterly refuted and discredited, the entire premise behind the movie would be nullified, and the movie would likely never be made. No movie royalties for Davey! Consequently, Kirby has a strong financial incentive to keep the mercury-autism myth alive, not to mention that he seems to have gotten his self-image as a guy who bucks the system all mixed up in this and seems to lap up the adoration of the mercury militia. Similarly, there’s lots of money in woo like vitamin C for cancer and in 9/11 conspiracy-mongering.

Basically, Allen’s right: Unfortunately, the thimerosal story, like so many dubious health scares and other conspiracy theories, has “legs.” even if those legs are becoming increasingly wobbly even for the true believers. As he points out, the scientific community has moved on because the mercury-thimerosal hypothesis is just not panning out; as more and more studies fail to suggest any link between mercury in vaccines and autism, on a scientific basis the claim that there is a link is harder and harder to take seriously. However, long after the science has rendered the idea that the mercury in thimerosal in vaccines was the cause of the “autism epidemic” so implausible that scientists have moved on to other more fruitful avenues of research, a small hardcore cadre of believers will not let the story die. They see themselves as heroic underdogs fighting against big pharma, the CDC, and the media (as represented by reporters like Arthur Allen). Unfortunately, in reality they are wasting time and money that might be better sought in helping their children develop to the highest potential of which they are capable.