The anti-vaccine movement strikes back against Trine Tsouderos and The Chicago Tribune

One week ago, The Chicago Tribune added yet another excellent addition to its recent series of articles exposing the dark underbelly of the anti-vaccine movement and, more importantly, the quackery that permeates the “autism biomedical” movement promoted by anti-vaccine groups such as Age of Autism. The first installment in the series, written by Tribune reporters Trine Tsouderos and Pat Callahan, examined Mark and David Geier’s Lupron protocol for autism (which I had written about three years ago under the title Why not just castrate them?), and the second shone a light under the rock covering a panoply of cranks and quacks promoting dubious “biomedical” treatments for autism, many based on the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism while others hijack legitimate science and yoking it to the service of putting a science-y gloss on rank quackery. The worst part of this second installment is how parents would in essence use their children as lab rats, all with the best of intentions, in a desperate search for a cure for autism. The third part of the trifecta, published a week ago, looked at a particularly egregious example of this tendency. It examined how a disgraced chemistry professor by the name of Boyd Haley, who used to be the chairman of the Department of Chemistry but whose career crashed and burned as he delved deeper into mercury pseudoscience (including his “Toxic Teeth” nonsense), has been marketing a chelator originally developed for industrial purposes as an “anti-oxidant.” I couldn’t resist pointing out the–shall we say?–odd disconnect between anti-vaccine activists who rant and rave that vaccines are not “adequately tested” and are full of chemical “toxins,” but then are perfectly willing to defend the marketing of an artificial chemical without anything resembling complete safety testing having been done. It’s amazing what the anti-vaccine movement will embrace and defend if it perceives it to be done by someone whom it views as being on the side of right.

I had wondered when the counterattack was coming. The history of Age of Autism led me to know that, sooner or later, the anti-vaccine movement would strike back. It’s been getting hammered in the mainstream press lately, elements of which have finally awakened to the good story that exposing the threat to children that the anti-vaccine movement represents as well as the quackery to which it subjects children on a daily basis. Each time, there has been push-back. For example, Amy Wallace, who wrote an excellent WIRED story on the anti-vaccine movement was the subject of misogynistic attacks by J.B. Handley. Around Thanksgiving, Age of Autism published a poorly Photoshopped picture of Trine Tsouderos, Paul Offit, and others preparing to have a Thanksgiving feast with a baby as the main course. That latter prank went too far even for AoA, as the post containing the photo has disappeared, although I and many others have kept a copy around and will be more than happy to resurrect it whenever necessary to rub AoA’s nose in it. At least J.B. Handley and crew do have some sense of shame; I suppose that’s something.

After Tsouderos’ third article on the anti-vaccine movement exposing the very likely illegal marketing of Boyd Haley’s industrial chelator cum “antioxidant,” I was only surprised at how long it took AoA to counterattack. The only thing I wondered about was what form this counterattack would take. Predictably, AoA did what AoA does best. It decided to slime the Tribune and Tsouderos with a hilariously inept version of the pharma shill gambit by Teresa Conrick entitled Tribune Watchdog Or Tribune Skunk? that would have been worthy of nothing but laughter and derision were it not for Conrick’s descent into tactics resembling stalking in part 2 of her “expose.” Conrick starts out with this unbelievably un-self-aware diatribe:

It has been almost two months since the Chicago Tribune did their second malicious and biased report on the biomedical treatments for autism. They have since done a third which also smells suspicious. Many of the treatments that the Tribune incorrectly reported in that November 23rd article are medically based and focus on restoring normal function to organs and systems damaged by chronic bacterial, viral, and fungal infections as well as metals such as lead, aluminum and mercury. Many of these toxins are found in vaccines. The Tribune has appeared to make it a mission of theirs to try and paint a picture of desperate parents doing voodoo to treat children who have some sort of genetic and incurable developmental disorder. Hardly the reality as we now look at 1:100 children developing autism and a 50% increase from just 2 years: Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, United States, 2006.

More like the Tribune has been doing a bang-up job reporting on the quackery to which too many parents have been subjecting their autistic children. Conrick is parroting the misinformation and pseudoscience of the anti-vaccine movement here. The “toxins” in vaccines are not toxic at the concentrations found in vaccines, and there is no convincing evidence that vaccines are associated with autism or any of the ills that the anti-vaccine movement likes to blame them for. Although Conrick exaggerates how the Tribune has portrayed these parents, in reality in some cases what we are looking at really is the equivalent of voodoo. The Lupron protocol, for instance, is based far more on faith than science–as is the myth of the “autism” epidemic. I will say right here, right now, that in my opinion parents who subject autistic children to Lupron through the Geiers are committing child abuse, given that they are administering a powerful drug with powerful side effects that can interfere with their sexual development based on no good evidence that it will help their children’s autism. In any case, although it’s possible that autism prevalence may be increasing somewhat, the apparent huge increase is very likely far more due to the broadening of the diagnostic criteria, greater awareness, and much more intensive screening. In fact, recent studies all seem to be converging on a prevalence of around 1 in 100, with its being controversial whether there has been a true increase.

Next, Conrick, pathetically unable to address any of the science or substance behind Tsouderos’ articles, predictably goes for the ad hominem. She complains about a letter in the Trib about a letter from representatives of Association for Science in Autism Treatment, praising Tsouderos’ report and then decides to do Jake Crosby one better by “investigating” this organization and noting that Drs. Stephen Barrett, Bennett Leventhal, and Eric Fombonne are all on the ASAT’s board of directors–as if that were a bad thing. Obviously, to Conrick, having science-based people on the board of directors must mean that the organization is in the thrall of big pharma:

Quite a mouthful especially since he now also has become an expert witness for Respondents in the Autism Omnibus Cases. He and fellow genetic autism, psychiatry, researcher Dr. Ed Cook, who is also now known for his Respondent testimony in the Autism Omnibus cases, have been a team looking for those elusive autism genes for MANY years

They also have another common bond. It appears that they have each been involved with Eli Lilly (HERE). Dr. Cook reported to receive Consultation Fees (include scientific advisory boards) for Eli Lilly.

Dr. Leventhal is a bit more popular: Dr. Leventhal received “research support from Abbott, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Shire, Pfizer, and Forrest Laboratories; he is on the speaker bureaus of Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Bristol-Meyers Squibb/Otsuka; and he has consulting relationships with Abbott, Eli Lilly, Janssen, McNeil, Pfizer, and GlaxoSmithKline.”

Eric Fombonne is also in on the conspiracy to pump children full of teh toxinz, it would appear:

Dr. Fombonne also has similar interests like Dr. Cook and Dr. Leventhal. Rigorous and unwavering research on genes as the sole cause of autism, also an expert witness for Respondents in the Autism Omnibus cases, and…you guessed it….”In the United Kingdom, Dr Fombonne has provided advice on the epidemiology and clinical aspects of autism to scientists advising parents, to vaccine manufacturers (for a fee), and to several government committees between 1998 and 2001. Since June 2004, Dr Fombonne has been an expert witness for vaccine manufacturers in US thimerosal litigation.”

As far as Dr. Barrett goes, Conrick repeats the same nonsense that pro-quackery apologists have repeated about him for years now. Conrick then asks a question that disintegrated my irony meter:

Now how is it possible that expert witnesses in cases regarding vaccine injury and autism, including thimerosal, could possibly be unbiased when they have received money from these same companies that have been involved in making vaccines or manufacturing thimerosal? How can a paper like the Chicago Tribune post letters from an “association” and doctors who have such conflict of interest on the topic of vaccine injury, autism, and the treatments that are helping those children? Where are all of the other letters sent to the Tribune?

I’ve often alluded to the curious sensitivity the anti-vaccine movement has to conflicts of interest when it comes to anyone or anything they don’t like, which was taken to a risibly over-the-top stupid extreme in their evaluation of Fourteen Studies, J.B. Handley’s propaganda effort from last April. Indeed, they have been known to exaggerate to the point of parody. They look for dark conspiracies and find them, even if only in their fantasies. Don’t get me wrong. COIs are important; indeed, I’ve written about them on numerous occasions. However, undisclosed COIs are far more corrosive than disclosed COIs, and Drs. Leventhal, Fombonne, and Barrett’s COIs, such as they are, are all fairly well known. In marked contrast, anti-vaccine apologists like Conrick turn a curiously blind eye to the COIs of their heroes. Andrew Wakefield, for instance, was in the pocket of trial lawyers when he published his infamous 1998 Lancet study. Mark and David Geier make nice living treating autistic children with Lupron. Laura Hewitson published a truly execrable study trying to implicated the hepatitis B vaccine as a cause of autism but did not disclose the first time around that her daughter was one of the petitioners in the Autism Omnibus. Given that her study would be used as “evidence” to support the Omnibus claim, that’s a pretty huge COI. Indeed, she did not disclose these relationships until forced to by the publicity from the blogosphere. Then there’s Boyd Haley himself. He is marketing an inadequately tested chemical as a “supplement” and anti-oxidant and apparently making money off of it, or at least hoping to. To the antivaccine movement, Haley’s on the side of angels; so his COI, which is exactly the same sort of COI that every pharmaceutical company has, doesn’t matter. To them it’s all good. After all, Haley’s the brave maverick doctor trying to cure children!

It’s in part 2 of her expose, however, that Conrick gets creepy. She sets the stage by doing what all anti-vaccinationists do, painting themselves as the victims of a huge conspiracy to hide The Truth About Vaccines and Autism:

For those who do not know, there are many groups who have been fighting hard to suppress the fact that vaccines can cause autism. They are people in the media, in public health, in medical organizations, in vaccine development and patents, in universities with autism gene chasing grants, in the public sector (NIH, CDC, AAP, et al) in the private sector, (pharmaceutical companies) and many in between.

Yes indeed, The Man is out to suppress The Truth! Big pharma, the government, and anyone else who doesn’t buy into the myth that vaccines cause autism and that “biomedical” woo can cure it are in on the conspiracy, obviously! That includes scientists who quite properly reject the pseudoscience and quackery of the anti-vaccine movement and are not afraid to say so. That Tsouderos concentrated her interviews–quite appropriately–among actual scientists for her articles rather than on Conrick’s preferred pseudoscientists and quacks enrages Conrick to the point where she decided to up the creep factor by trying to rope Tsouderos’ sister into this argument. First, she dug up a report from 2001 listing Tsouderos’s sister as an award recipient in HIV/AIDS research. Apparently she now works for a data management and statistical consulting company that has–gasp!–worked for The Man:

Now that might have some impact on Trine’s obvious anti-biomed slant but I decided to see what that Public Health involvement might be. It seems she worked for a company that did multi-center NIH-funded health studies. Well, autism is part of the NIH studies so that too could sway Trine so I then decided to see who some of her sister’s clients had been.

That proved to be quite a list. Here are some of the names known to the autism community: Department of Defense, Harvard University, National Institute of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, and the US Department of Health and Human Services, to name some biggies. For those of you who also may not know, if someone you love is injured, dies, or receives an autism diagnosis due to vaccines, it is you vs. the US Department of Health and Human Services, so they do play a big part in the current issues dealing with autism causation, especially vaccines.

Oh, the humanity! The horror! The company that Tsouderos’ sister works for does contract work for academic institutions and government agencies, such as the NIH, Harvard, HHS, and the Department of Defense!? Damn! How nefarious can it get? How evil? Clearly, Trine’s sister’s company has used her sister to influence a Trib reporter to make sure that The Truth About Vaccines and Autism is never known, the better to protect its massive profits doing contract work for the NIH, CDC, and HHS. Obviously it is a plot by the Illuminati, who have clearly inducted Tsouderos’s sister into its dark order in order to influence the press through her relationship with a Tribune reporter. It’s so obvious!

Do conspiracy theories get any lamer than that? I think not.

What I do think is that Conrick’s tortured attempt to link Trine’s sister to her work as a Tribune reporter writing excellent exposes of the sort of quackery that Conrick believes in is, in fact, intentional retaliation. AoA has decided that painting Tsouderos as a baby-eating cannibal only made them look stupid (which it did, in spades); apparently the merry crew of anti-vaccine cranks there doesn’t think that trying to drag Tsouderos’s family into the issue on the thinnest of pretexts won’t make them look even more pathetic and desperate. Certainly at best it makes Conrick look desperate, and at worst it makes her look creepy and stalkerish.

Stalkerish or not, I have no doubt that this is an intentional attack, a message to the world that if you go against AoA it will try to drag your family and friends into the argument. It is clearly a message to those who would speak out against vaccine pseudoscience that says, in essence, “Hey, we know where your sister works” and “You wouldn’t want us to cause trouble for your family, now, would you?” In warped view of the anti-vaccine movement, this blatant intimidation tactic appears to be all about “shaming,” as this commenter points out:

I am wondering out loud if we need to shame each and every person in this multi-layered cabal, because they continue their despicable behavior with impunity. They are obviously solidifying their alliances to make their world impenetrable. They maintain the stranglehold by keeping the information secret, inaccessible, because they know the outrageous truths are being known by larger numbers.

Even if Obama was 1000% committed to force a level of transparency in government, VAERS and VSD and everything known about vaccine damage will not see the light of day. There is too much at stake, not the least of which is “the shame”. Protecting vaccinations, protecting the religion, is also protecting them from shame.

I’m all for more transparency in government. However, the fantastical conspiracies imagined by this commenter and Conrick herself boggle the mind; like all such conspiracy theories, they require that so many different people from so many different organizations exhibit a level of competence and discipline unseen in human history. Such conspiracy theories require huge numbers of people to work towards one end and, more importantly, that none of them blab about the conspiracy. Aside from the conspirators themselves, only those Brave Rebel Fighters Against The Conspiracy know about it. They really buy into it and will torture reality to make it fit their vision of a grand conspiracy working to thwart them at every turn, as this commenter does:

I cancelled my subscription in Nov. but trying to think of something more drastic this time. Hmmmmmm… many things come to mind but probably not safe to print.

Thank god for people like you who actually know how to write and report on accurate research. Journalism at it’s finest.

One worries about such rhetoric, one does. What does she mean by “something more drastic”?

But none of that is really the issue main reason why this hit piece was simultaneously so amusing and appalling. The reason is that Tsouderos has brought to the anti-vaccine movement what it really doesn’t want for itself: Transparency. Even though antivaxers have deluded themselves that the quackery they embrace is the One True Hope for Autism, I suspect that, deep down, they realize just how badly, how unethically, some of their luminaries are behaving. Examples include the Geiers doing unethical human experimentation injecting powerful anti-sex hormone drugs into autistic children on the basis of no science, DAN! quacks profiting selling useless supplements to the parents of autistic children, and, yes, Boyd Haley doing an end run around FDA approval by marketing his industrial chelator as a supplement without even being able to meet even the minimal level of evidence required by the government that it is safe and should be considered a food. They want “transparency” for the agents of their imagined conspiracies, but when the light of day is shined upon their activities, they do not like it. Not one bit at all.

And they lash out in retaliation.

All Tsouderos did was what the press should have started doing years ago: Actually investigating the claims of the anti-vaccine movement from a science-based perspective. As a result, AoA is trying to slime her sister. The message is clear. If you speak out, they’ll do the same to you, too, if you can.