The resurrection of David Kirby as an anti-vaccine propagandist

Four days later, I still can’t figure it out. I really can’t.

Remember the other day when I said I was debating whether or not to respond to the latest excretion from one of the first hangers-on of the anti-vaccine movement I ever encountered after I started blogging. I’m referring, of course, to freelance journalist David Kirby, whose book Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Mystery, along with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s unbelievably brain dead Deadly Immunity, helped ignite the anti-vaccine fear mongering about mercury in vaccines back in 2005. My experience with him goes all the way back then as wel, which actually blows my mind because it means I’m rapidly coming up on the sixth anniversary of my first encounter with him. Fortunately, at least on the vaccine front, David Kirby has been pretty silent for a while. I attribute this to his having turned his attention from the anti-vaccine movement for the moment to promote his book on factory farming, which means that Kirby hasn’t written about vaccines and autism since last April.

And there was much rejoicing among supporters of science-based medicine.

Unfortunately, last Friday, like the zombie who, thought to be safely buried in a steel coffin, somehow manages to claw his way back through the earth to the surface to feast on the brains fo his victims, David Kirby’s back, penning a typically unctuously disingenuous bit of pseudoscience entitled The Autism-Vaccine Debate: Why It Won’t Go Away. As I pointed out on Saturday, the short answer is because anti-vaccine loons like those at Age of Autism, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), SafeMinds, and other anti-vaccine groups won’t let this manufactroversy die. They rely on a constant stream of invective against vaccines, big pharma, and the government to keep the fear of vaccines stoked by their pseudoscience alive. Otherwise, science might have a chance to reassure those whose doubts about vaccines have been inflamed by the likes of David Kirby and his fellow travelers at Generation Rescue and Age of Autism. And David Kirby proceeds to begin to weave his slimily disingenuous web of arguments by patting anti-vaccinationists on the back for being so smart:

I have been speaking to young parents in my neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn lately about vaccines and autism, which science and the media have once again pronounced as completely debunked for what I believe is now the sixth or seventh time.

These are highly educated, affluent and politically progressive people — doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, writers and other successful professionals. And like half of the American population in one poll, many of my neighbors (though certainly not all) say that there is, or may be, an association between autism and the current U.S. vaccine schedule.

Although some Park Slope parents refuse to vaccinate their children at all – an unwise and dangerous choice in my opinion — the vast majority makes sure their kids get immunized; although many do so on a schedule worked out with their pediatrician.

Wow. I had wondered if Kirby still had the knack for pushing his nose so far up the anuses of his constituency that he makes them appear to have grown an extra set of nostrils emanating from their mouths. I needn’t have worried! The several months of his absence from the anti-vaccine scene haven’t faded the brownness of Kirby’s nose by even one shade. The self-congratulatory message is truly nauseating, too. Kirby is saying to his constituency, in essence, “You are so smart. You are so brilliant, and you have all the ‘right’ political attitudes as well. No wonder eschew vaccines!” Yes, it’s an idiotic argument. Being affluent and successful in one area does not mean you understand the basics of the science of vaccines. (J.B. Handley and Mark Blaxill, for instance, are excellent examples of this principle at work.) Sadly, this sometimes applies even if you are a doctor, our old friend Dr. Jay Gordon being a perfect example. Indeed, he caters to a population very similar to that in Park Slope. It’s just a continent away, but the affluent, politically progressive, crunchy vibe is much the same in Santa Monica as it is in Brooklyn. The two places are also apparently breeding grounds for the arrogance of ignorance, where, just because people are affluent and educated, they come to conclude that their education applies to different fields where they have no training, that they can just teach themselves whatever they need to know and that the knowledge they thus obtain is equal to any derived by those pointy-headed, uncool scientists and physicians who have dedicated their entire professional careers to studying vaccines or autism. Let’s not forget the enablers, like Dr. Jay, who are there to tell these parents just how smart they are and, above all, to give them whatever they want, lest they find someone else who will.

Then there’s the poll that Kirby cited. As I pointed out less than two weeks ago, that poll is not nearly as impressive as he makes it sound. As Kent Heckenlively did in that post, Kirby conveniently forgets that, compared to the 52% in the poll who responded that they don’t think vaccines cause autism, only 18% believe that vaccines cause autism; the other 30% aren’t sure. Even worse for Kirby, if you break it down more, only 2% believe that the idea that vaccines cause autism (I refuse to dignify it by calling it a “hypothesis”), while 16% think the idea is “probably true.” I also can’t resist pointing out yet again that the poll also found that 69% of respondents agree that schools should require all children to have “received the required shots” before they can attend school. To flagellate the proverbial deceased equine, this poll is not nearly as good for the anti-vaccine movement as it sounds on the surface. Not only do those who accept science outnumber those who believe that vaccines cause autism by roughly 3:1, but those who believe that the idea that vaccines cause autism is “certainly not true” outnumber those who believe it is “certainly true” by 10:1.

That would include the parents of Park Slope, apparently.

Not that any of this prevents Kirby from continuing on:

Why do so many educated, successful parents still believe that the current vaccine schedule can hurt a small percentage of susceptible kids, and that some of those injuries might result in an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? Despite all of the population studies showing no link, high-profile court cases that went against parents, insistence of omniscience by health officials and the public mauling of Andrew Wakefield, I don’t think that many people around here have changed their minds.

That’s because evidence of a vaccine-autism link did not come to them via a 12-year-old study published in a British medical journal, nor from Hollywood celebrities: Not very many had heard of Wakefield until recently.

This is, of course, a straw man argument. Although Andrew Wakefield, through his fraudulent research, was undeniably a critical mover in fueling the fear of the MMR vaccine as a cause of autism in the U.K., Kirby is probably correct that he wasn’t such a factor in in stoking the flames of anti-vaccine fear here in the U.S. As I’ve pointed out before, in this most recent iteration of the anti-vaccine movement, U.K. and U.S. anti-vaccine advocates have different histories, and their movements developed differently. For a time, for instance, Jenny McCarthy was the most prominent voice of the anti-vaccine movement here in the U.S., although of late she appears to have perhaps realized that she was hurting her career and toned down the crazy about vaccines (although clearly not as much as she should). It is therefore not surprising that Andrew Wakefield was not as prominent a factor here in the U.S. That does not make him unimportant, although Kirby might have a germ of a point by implying that discrediting Wakefield isn’t going to make as big a difference here in the U.S., but actually from my perspective it appears to be having, if anything, more of an effect in the U.S. than in the U.K. I’ve heard quite a few Brits on various e-mail lists I’ve been on tell me that the reaction to the latest revelations about Wakefield were a big sigh and a snooze.

Be that as it may, that doesn’t excuse the burning stupid that emanates next from Kirby’s keyboard:

Some of these parents actually keep up with the science, including a new review of autism studies in the Journal of Immunotoxicology which concludes: “Documented causes of autism include genetic mutations and/or deletions, viral infections, and encephalitis following vaccination.”

You know, when I first saw AoA pimping that article nearly a week ago, I contemplated whether or not to do a detailed takedown. Then I actually read the article, and decided not to bother. It’s a greatest hits of crappy, long-debunked arguments, some of them so bad that even AoA doesn’t use them much anymore, as Kev points out. All you really need to know about this execrable review is that it cites it takes Mark and David Geier seriously enough to cite them not just once but numerous times. These are the father-son team of pseudoscientists who advocate chemical castration with Lupron to treat autism because they believe that testosterone somehow binds to mercury and keeps it from being removed from the brain with chelation agents. Seriously, you can’t make stuff like this up. At least I can’t, but unfortunately the Geiers can. Other luminaries of the anti-vaccine movement cited by the review’s author, Helen Ratajczak, include David Ayoub (who thinks that vaccines are part of a population control plot by the Illuminati, along with birth control, women’s rights, and all sorts of other nefarious plots by the government, all complete with black helicopters and everything); Sallie Bernard et al’s infamous Medical Hypotheses article; Dan Rossignol and Jeff Bradstreet; and several others. Ratajczak mixes these pseudoscientific references with references by real scientists, puts them in a blender, and then turns it on, mixing the nonsense with the science, the better to dilute the science. Unlike homeopathy, diluting the science this way does not make it stronger.

I do like the way Kirby shifts the goalposts, though:

It’s a fact that many children with ASD regressed following normal development just as they were receiving multiple vaccines at regular doctor visits. Health officials say the timing is entirely coincidental.

Regression usually occurs between 12 and 24 months, though one study found that some children show signs of autism as early as six months, but never before that age.

By six months of age, most U.S. children have received about 18 inoculations containing 24 vaccines against nine diseases. Over the next two years or so, they will receive another nine shots containing 14 vaccines against 12 diseases.

So whether a child regresses at six months, or 18 months, the tragedy happens during a period of intensive vaccination. In many cases, parents report that the child had an abnormal reaction after being vaccinated (seizures, spiking-fevers, diarrhea, lethargy, high-pitched screaming and/or other symptoms).

Yes indeed. No matter what, it’s all about the vaccines. Always. I bet that if new studies show that signs of autism are detectable at one month of age, Kirby will blame the birth dose of Hepatitis B vaccine. If it’s shown that signs of autism are detectable in utero, Kirby will find a way to blame the vaccines that the child’s mother received. That’s because, although he’s a lot more clever about it than most, Kirby’s all about casting fear and doubt on vaccines, and whenever he says “environmental causes” of autism, his audience knows what he really means: vaccines. Kirby’s right about one thing, though. Scientific evidence doesn’t matter to the anti-vaccine movement, except how it can be distorted and cherry picked to support predetermined conclusions. Unfortunately, it is a very human cognitive failing that we do tend to value anecdotes and testimonials over scientific evidence, and that’s a bias that is exceedingly difficult to overcome.

The rest of Kirby’s article is, like Ratajczak’s review article, a “greatest hits” of the anti-vaccine movement. He cites scientists who have suggested there might be an environmental cause. He even cites Bernadine Healy, who has become the darling of the anti-vaccine movement for her foolishness with regards to the vaccine-autism manufactroversy. As always, the reason he does that is to imply that that “environmental cause” is vaccines, regardless of whether that’s what the people quoted meant. Remember, in anti-vaccine-speak, “environmental causes” of autism is a code word for vaccines. Never forget that. Kirby also lists several favorite anti-vaccine talking points from years past, including confusing correlation with causation, claiming that there is an “autism epidemic” and that it can’t be due to broadening of diagnostic criteria or diagnostic substitution; invoking the “pharma shill” gambit; giving a nod to J.B. Handley-like claims that there haven’t been enough studies; and a number of plausible-sounding but ultimately fatuous arguments, so many that even with my logorrheic tendencies I don’t feel inclined to address each and every one of them, as it would probably cause this post to balloon up to 5,000 to 10,000 words. Besides, I’ve addressed most, if not all, of the nonsense that Kirby lays down in his post before.

Basically, Kirby’s post boils down to a huge whine that, really and truly, he and his peeps aren’t the “lunatic fringe.” Oh, no! They’re educated and affluent, the implication being that they are better, that they couldn’t possibly be as prone to unscientific thinking, normal human cognitive biases, and conspiracy mongering as “lesser people.” At the same time, Kirby perpetuates the nastiest descriptions of autistic children routinely used by the “vaccines cause autism” crowd. Indeed, Kirby even calls them “toxic.” Worse, he promises a part 2 to this article.

I can only speculate about the reason that, after nearly a year away, Kirby has now decided to return to vaccine/autism pseudoscience. Maybe his book on factory farming has run its course. Maybe environmentalists didn’t show him as much love as the anti-vaccine movement. Maybe he’s laying the groundwork for another book blaming vaccines for autism. Who knows?

What I do know is that Kirby’s choice of writing venue demonstrates one thing. The sale of The Huffington Post to AOL hasn’t affected the stream of anti-vaccine idiocy rolling forth from HuffPo’s servers one iota. In fact, Kirby’s post, at roughly 3,800 words, is remarkable in its Orac-ian length because HuffPo normally tends to discourage posts longer than about 1,000 words and certainly anything over 2,000 words is “right out.” (I know this because HuffPo once briefly tried to woo me, perhaps to blunt the charges of pseudoscience.) This dispensation for such a long post by Kirby suggests a special commitment on HuffPo’s part to the sort of nonsense that In fact, Huffington Post’s Senior Health Editor, Alana B. Elias Kornfeld has not only assured Matthew Herper that Kirby’s post went through HuffPo’s vetting process for medical articles, but also said:

Kirby’s piece doesn’t say that there is an autism link for sure, but rather that the jury’s still out. His opinion on the matter is clear: “I know that many people will say the vaccine issue has been thoroughly investigated and debunked. I honestly wish that were the case, but it simply is not true.”

Which has been Kirby’s M.O. since the very beginning. He’s a master of saying, “I’m just sayin’, ya know.” That’s how his propaganda works. That’s how he spreads fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about vaccines. I have no idea whether Kirby really believes that vaccines cause autism, but he does know which side his bread is buttered on, and the anti-vaccine movement has been very good to him. That’s probably why he doesn’t come out and say that vaccines cause autism. Unlike some of the clueless wonders at AoA, he’s too clever for that. Instead, he just cherry picks studies and quotes and uses them to falsely claim that there’s far more of a question about whether vaccines cause autism than there really is. It’s a classic technique of manufactroversy, making a scientific issue that is not controversial among scientists into something that seems controversial among the lay public. Again, think evolution. Think HIV/AIDS denialism. Think anthropogenic global warming.

Think the “vaccines cause autism” claim.

It’s all of a piece with the previous four. Indeed, Kirby’s use of “the jury’s still out” as a means of spreading uncertainty about the science that spectacularly fails to suggest a link between vaccines and autism is also very much of a piece with how tobacco companies would argue that “the jury’s still out” about whether smoking causes lung cancer and still argue that “the jury’s still out” with regards to secondhand smoke.

In the end, what when it comes to medicine, and in particular vaccines, David Kirby has just shown us that HuffPo remains a wretched hive of scum and quackery–nauseatingly smug and self-congratulatory scum and quackery, actually. Advocates of science-based medicine are right to be concerned that HuffPo’s virus of pseudoscience and quackery will infect the rest of AOL.