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.