Mercury and autism: More Huffington Post nonsense

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgThe whole post-Christmas thing left me without time to do anything other than a couple of brief bits. Consequently, given Deirdre Imus’ two recent appearances on the Huffington Post, I thought it would be as good a time as any to resurrect this post from June 27, 2005. For those of you who haven’t been regular readers that long (and I’m guessing that’s most of you), this should be a good primer about why I consider the Huffington Post to have been a bastion of antivaccination misinformation and propaganda since its very inception. With the exception of Arthur Allen’s occasional posts, the message of the HuffPo about vaccines has been shaped by the likes of Deirdre Imus, David Kirby, Dr. Jay Gordon, and that most hysterical of the mercury militia, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. So, without further ado, here’s what I wrote two and a half years ago about this very topic:

A few days ago, I linked to a great article on the Huffington Post by Michael Shermer defending evolution and pointing out the weaknesses in “intelligent design” creationism. Unfortunately, I spoke too soon. Remember how much I bored you all with my broadsides against the antivaccine paranoia running rampant on the Huffington Post (1, 2, 3, 4)? Well, the paranoia is back with a vengeance (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I guess that’s what I get for not looking for this stuff on the Huffington Post for a week or two and for writing my piece about the Michael Shermer article several days before actually posting it.

I should have expected this, though, after RFK Jr.’s one-sided deceptive screed against the pharmaceutical companies blaming mercury in vaccines for autism and crying coverup, the one that I’ve been pounding on for the last 10 days or so (1, 2, 3, 4). In fact, I was sort of wondering why our favorite conspiracy-mongering pediatrician from the Huffington Post, Dr. Jay Gordon, hadn’t yet weighed in on this issue. I toyed with the idea that perhaps he had been so taken aback by the blog tag team slapdown administered to him by myself and Skeptico (1, 2) for his irritating tendencies to take the irrational position of ignoring out of hand any research funded by pharmaceutical companies simply because they were funded by pharmaceutical companies and to give backhanded “compliments” to the principle investigators of such studies by calling them “honest” while simultaneously insinuating that they’re hoplessly biased because of their connections to big pharma without being able to point out any specific flaws in their studies.

No such luck. He’s like the Energizer Bunny on this issue. He keeps going and going and going and going….

In his post, No Conflict of Interest, Dr. Gordon not surprisingly swallows whole all the distortions and conspiracy-mongering that RFK Jr. could lay down and completely buys into RFK Jr.’s complaint that ABC News changed a more positive segment to an attack piece at the behest of its pharmaceutical advertiser masters. Quoth he (with Orac’s pithy comments):

Mercury in vaccines causes autism and other brain injury. [Orac says: There is no good evidence that mercury in vaccines cause autism. Indeed, the most recent experience from Canada and Denmark strongly supports the contention that it very likely does not. The jury’s out on other brain injury, but, based on current evidence, the likelihood of a connection there is also probably low.] The IOM twisted the facts to suit the CDC and the vaccine industry. [Orac says: Care to provide evidence for that assertion that, Dr. Gordon? Certainly RFK Jr. failed to do so and was reduced to twisting facts and misrepresenting the Simpsonwood Conference to make his fallacious case.]
This week, ABC TV (my old employer) twisted the editing and commentary to weaken Mr. Kennedy’s interview. [Orac says: Care to provide evidence that it was intentional “twisting” and “editing” designed to “weaken” his interview? Of course, Orac can’t help but savor the utterly delicious irony of RFK Jr., who proved himself to be a master at selective quoting in the service of making the Simpsonwood Conference seem ominous and conspiratorial, now complaining about his supposedly being selectively quoted by ABC News!] For ABC TV, hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue are at stake and they were irresponsible with the lives and health of children at risk. They should be ashamed of themselves. [Orac says: I have two words for you, Dr. Gordon: Vioxx and Merck. Gee, the mighty pharmaceutical company didn’t seem able to stop the barrage of negative publicity from the press on that story. Yep, the fear of losing advertising revenue really shut ’em up that time. Even in the absence of that example, perhaps you could show us some hard evidence, rather than speculation, that ABC News altered its story for fear of losing pharmaceutical company revenue. Just a little evidence? Even a tiny bit? You can do that for a fellow M.D., can’t you?]
Yes, once again, Dr. Gordon insinuates conflicts of interest and dire conspiracies without showing the least bit of evidence. Of course, the funniest line in Dr. Gordon’s post is this one: “David Kirby’s book, Evidence of Harm is meticulously-researched and a great read.” Just ask Autism Diva, Aubrey Noelle Simola, Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, or Kevin Leitch (1, 2) about how “meticulously researched” it is. A lot of references and a nice index do not necessarily indicate “meticulous research,” just voluminous research. It is quite possible to do a ton of research and come up with an utterly incorrect conclusion if you berry-pick the data and ignore data that does not support your thesis, as certain political pundits have proven time and time again.

Speaking of David Kirby, though, he’s also now over at the Huffington Post blog bellicosely braying, Bring It On to his “naysayers,” gloating, and taking credit for getting this whole media firestorm started in the first place:

We have just witnessed the biggest week ever in the history of reporting on this high-stakes debate and, naturally, I could not be happier. A nationwide discussion about thimerosal and autism was my primary goal in writing “Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic,” and at long last the conversation has begun.

At least Kirby finally admitted his bias openly.

In any case, Kirby also boasts of his media appearances on Don Imus’ show, the Montel Williams Show, and MSNBC’s Connected, bragging about how difficult it has been for him to find someone willing to “debate” him on the issue in a public forum. He’s being disingenuous, of course, as this is a very old tactic frequently used by purveyors of dubious science. Although orders of magnitude more dubious than the science behind the mercury-autism link (which is why I make this comparison with a bit of trepidation), “intelligent design” creationism does provide some guidance here. Creationists have long “challenged” scientists to “debates” on evolution and then used the absence of takers as “proof” that scientists are “afraid” to debate them. Besides the fact that such debates are almost always held in venues sympathetic to the pseudoscience (which is very relevant to the case at hand, given that Don Imus, who has been pushing the mercury/autism link on his radio show, will likely host the proposed debate), creationists know that just standing on the same stage or sitting in the same TV or radio studio with a serious scientist automatically gives the impression that they have something scientifically valid to say and that there is a real controversy. Scientists have been arguing amongst themselves for years whether or not it helps or hurts the case for evolution and against ID in the public’s mind if they formally “debate” creationists in public forums. Many of the same arguments for and against “debate” apply to David Kirby’s challenge. Scientists have learned the hard way that advocates of dubious science like David Kirby and RFK Jr. are often quite good at media-friendly sound bites, whereas debunking those sound bites often requires lengthier (and therefore less glib) responses. As Lenny Flank puts it in reference to creationism:

For this reason, the “debate” is one of the ICR’s [Institute for Creation Research] primary tools. . . Nearly all of their opponents make the fatal mistake of underestimating them. . . They [ICR debaters] are highly educated people who possess enormous personal appeal and charisma. They are also highly skilled orators and polished debaters. . . As master showmen, however, they are very capable of turning an unprepared scientific opponent into the equivalent of a blithering idiot.

I don’t know if David Kirby falls into the above category as far as his public speaking and debating skills go, but any vaccine scientist who contemplates accepting his challenge to debate would do well to heed Lenny’s warning, particularly since the proposed venue (Imus in the Morning) will be so hostile. (At least Imus is on vacation until July 11.) If I were the pharmaceutical executive who, according to Kirby, has accepted his challenge, I’d insist on a change of venue to a show with a more neutral host.

Finally, there was one useful link in Dr. Gordon’s post to demonstrate yet again RFK Jr.’s disingenuousness, a fawning Scarborough Country interview. Check out this quote:

Thimerosal is a preservative that was put in vaccines back in the 1930s. Almost immediately after it was put in, autism cases began to appear. Autism had never been known before. It was unknown to science. Then the vaccines were increased in 1989 by the CDC and by a couple of other government agencies.

I’ve already dealt with this utterly idiotic “correlation does not necessarily indicate causation” canard before, as well as the myth that autism didn’t exist before thimerosal-containing vaccines were introduced in the 1930’s. Shall I repeat myself? Yes I shall:

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.

To which I now shall add: It goes back way further than that. There are published accounts of behavior that resembles autism in the 18th century. In the 18th and 19th century, there were many accounts of idiot savants, many of whom were likely autistic or had Asperger’s. There are even some who speculate that Sir Isaac Newton may have had Asperger’s, although I’m not sure I entirely buy their argument. Does RFK Jr. really mean to argue that autism and ASDs just popped up almost overnight a few years after mercury was introduced into vaccines? These diseases most definitely did not. They’ve probably been around as long as humans have been around; it’s just that before the mid 20th century sufferers of these diseases were relegated to insane asylums, lumped together with the mentally retarded and schizophrenics, used as entertainment in freak shows, or simply labeled as “odd” or even “mad.” RFK Jr. only shoots himself in the foot and makes himself look a fool by constantly repeating such an easily debunked canard.

RFK Jr. even repeated his misrepresentation of the Simpsonwood Meeting:

And we now have the transcripts of the secret meeting that they did in Simpsonwood, Georgia, in the year 2000.

And it’s the most horrifying thing that you can read, Joe. There are scientists there from the government who are saying — who are reading the reports and saying, this is undeniable. There’s no way we can ever deny this. I am not going to give this to my children, but now let’s hide this from the American people. And it’s that clear. And this is what I write about. It’s this language that I write about in the “Rolling Stone” and the “Salon” piece that is so shocking, where we have the guys who are supposed to be protecting Americans` health who are actually conspiring to keep this stuff in the vaccines.

RFK Jr., meet Skeptico and Majikthise. Majikthise and Skeptico, meet RFK, Jr. You should all have a lot to talk about, such as what really happened at Simpsonwood, rather than RFK Jr.’s paranoid account. Finally, RFK Jr. stated that he was going to write an article that would go through “all the science” around the thimerosal/autism issue. I assume it’s this article (which I haven’t had time to read yet, given that it’s 66 pages long). Fortunately, Skeptico and Autism Diva have had time to look at it and begin the necessary deconstruction. It looks as though RFK Jr.’s probably going to be the gift to skeptical bloggers that keeps on giving, requiring periodic debunkings.

Unfortunately, I’m becoming more concerned than ever that we are entering a time when good science is too easily cast aside and ignored. As a a surprisingly good recent New York Times article about thimerosal/autism controversy stated:

Yet despite all evidence to the contrary, the number of parents who blame thimerosal for their children’s autism has only increased. And in recent months, these parents have used their numbers, their passion and their organizing skills to become a potent national force. The issue has become one of the most fractious and divisive in pediatric medicine.

“This is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” Dr. Melinda Wharton, deputy director of the National Immunization Program, told a gathering of immunization officials in Washington in March. “It’s an era where it appears that science isn’t enough.”

Indeed it is, and, sadly, not just for the issue of whether thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. This dubious and excessive focus on mercury as a cause of autism frightens parents unnecessarily about the safety of vaccination and drops a load of guilt parents with autistic children who did vaccinate their children, making them wonder if they caused their children’s condition. Worse, it wastes scientists’ and legislators’ time and effort and diverts money from research that might actually get us closer to understanding the pathogenesis of this disease and offering real hope to parents with ASDs.