A couple of months ago, I couldn’t help but rejoice when I learned that Indiana Representative Dan Burton had finally, after twenty years in the U.S. House of Representatives, decided to retire after the end of this term. I thought that anyone in the U.S. who supports science-based medicine should rejoice, too, because I’m hard-pressed to think of someone in Congress who is more consistently antiscience, particularly anti-medical science, than Dan Burton. Worse, he put his politics where his beliefs were — big time. Perhaps the most egregious example of Dan Burton’s antiscience is his consistently rabid antivaccine tendencies. He completely bought into the myth that vaccine cause autism; in particular that the mercury-containing thimerosol preservative that used to be in many childhood vaccines (at least until it was removed at the end of 2001), and put his beliefs into action. He was also, along with Senator Tom Harkin, instrumental in foisting that government monument to quackery, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and in stripping the FDA of most of its power to regulate supplements by championing the DSHEA of 1994. It’s not for nothing that Steve Barrett of Quackwatch once referred to Burton as “organized quackery’s best friend in Congress.”
It’s a title well earned. While it is true that there are others in Congress who champion quackery, they are not as egregious as Burton has been. For instance, Iowa’s Senator Tom Harkin might be NCCAM’s Congressional patron, champion, and protector, but if you talk to people at the NIH (and I have), you’ll learn that he is widely viewed as one of the greatest Congressional supporters of the NIH, science, and biomedical research. It’s unfortunate that support for quackery is mixed in with support for real science, but that’s the way it is. None of us are entirely reasonable, and all of us have contradictions in our nature. Another promoter of quackery in Congress, Utah’s Senator Orrin Hatch, appears not to be a true believer, unlike Burton and Harkin. Rather, he appears to be in it for the money and to keep his seat in that he represents a state that houses ground zero for the supplement industry in the U.S. It is an industry that has been very, very generous to Hatch’s campaign, and his family and a former law partner are heavily involved in the supplement industry themselves. Similarly, the new kid on the block, Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, co-chair of the Dietary Supplement Caucus, is a young gun looking to replace Orrin Hatch or to take his seat when he retires.
Burton, on the other hand, appears not only to be a true believer, but he doesn’t have the redeeming qualities that Harkin has that make it almost possible to forgive his creation of NCCAM. Almost. No, Burton’s woo, seemingly, is eternal, whether it be promoting bogus vaccine-autism research and supporting Andrew Wakefield, interfering with the Autism Omnibus hearings, championing unethical clinical trials in cardiovascular disease and pancreatic cancer, or promoting anthropogenic global warming denialism. As I said before, good riddance.
Unfortunately Burton appears to want one last antiscience, antivaccine hurrah. His last hurrah takes the form of a post he made the other day to his Congressional blog entitled It is time to re-engage on the autism epidemic. After taking unjustified credit for “laying the groundwork” for the Combatting Autism act and its $1 billion devoted to autism research, Burton turns to whining a lot about how horribly misunderstood he thought he was when people correctly labeled him antivaccine for his abuse of his committee to investigate an alleged vaccine-autism length. He also lays down huge swaths of stinky burning stupid, seemingly heating up all that formaldehyde that the fevered brains of antivaccinationists imagine to be in vaccines, thus stinking out all reason and science. First, he tries to liken his focusing on mercury back in the late 1990s and early 2000s to recent research, and in doing so delves into depths of ignorance that even I hadn’t expected:
Unfortunately, a great deal of misinformation has been thrown around in public and private about the Committee’s focus on mercury in medicines as a possible factor in the autism epidemic. I’m not a scientist, but the Committee heard from many credible scientists and experts who are convinced that mercury is a contributing factor; and the theory is no less worthy of exploration than the theories being propounded today that the pregnancy weight of the mother or the age of the father at conception influences whether a child becomes autistic. When you have no idea what is causing a disease, policymakers and scientists should never be afraid to investigate any plausible theory. In fact, researching possible environmental factors is a central component of today’s research on autism.
Plausible theory. You keep using that term. I do not think it means what you think it means, Mr. Burton.
Burton is, of course, engaging in blatantly obfuscatory nonsense of the highest order. No, the discredited hypothesis that mercury in vaccines causes autism is not like these other hypotheses, even 10 years ago, before the negative data had accumulated to the point of burying the mercury/vaccine/autism hypothesis so thoroughly that not even a back hoe could dig it up. Actually, maybe I should put it a different way. The mercury/vaccine/autism hypothesis just barely reached enough of a modicum of plausibility ten to fifteen years ago to be worth investigating — then. And, in fact, scientists did investigate it. Multple studies and multiple lines of evidence failed to find a wisp of a hint of a whisper of a link between thimerosol in vaccines and an increased risk of autism. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve discussed this very issue right here on this blog and on my other super, not-so-secret blogging locale. Like the proverbial zombie, though, the vaccine/mercury/autism hypothesis refuses to die, thanks to people like Dan Burton.
In fact, here’s another difference. There is actual suggestive evidence supporting the concept that the age of the father or the pregnancy weight of the mother influences autism risk, but confirmatory studies haven’t been done. Back in the day, there was suggestive evidence that mercury in vaccines might be associated with autism. It was poor quality evidence, and scientists, as scientists are wont to do, investigated, replacing the crappy evidence available at the time with high quality evidence from multiple large epidemiological studies. In other words, ten or fifteen years ago the mercury/vaccine/autism hypothesis might have been worth investigating further. Today, it is no longer worth investigating because since then it’s been falsified to a high degree of confidence. That’s what science does. It investigates questions, and hypotheses that don’t stand up to scrutiny (like the vaccine/mercury/autism hypothesis) are discarded.
But who were these “credible scientists” to whom Burton now refers? I bet you can probably guess. In fact, they were the usual antivaccine suspects. For instance, in 2001, he had Andrew Wakefield and Jeff Bradstreet, testify in front of his committee and referred to highly dubious science to support a vaccine-autism link. He was really on a roll then, because he also brought “toxic teeth” chemist Boyd Haley before his committee to testify about the evils of dental amalgams as a means of supporting the seeming plausibility of the idea that mercury in vaccines somehow causes autism. In another infamous incident, Dan Burton, along with Representative Diane Watson nominated Dr. Rashid Buttar for the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. I kid you not. Rashid Buttar, the same guy who called the North Carolina Medical Board a “rabid dog” and should have had his medical license stripped (in my not-so-humble opinion). Get a load of what Burton said about Buttar:
Dr. Buttar’s unique applications and methods to treat mercury toxicity in very young children has been conclusively shown, demonstrating response and results of treatment of a brain damaged by the insult of mercury in individuals with impaired detoxification pathways. The vast majority of brain injuries result from the denudation of the neurofibrils resulting from mercury. If identified and corrected within the first 9 to 10 days of life, Dr. Buttar has been able to demonstrate conclusive evidence of the entire pathology being reversed with almost 100% resolution. He has shown that regardless of the original cause of mercury toxicity, he can treat and rehabilitate this component of our future generation. The enormous biological burden of mercury within the global economy has is phenomenal and the potential for Dr. Buttar’s therapy to address the magnitude of this previously thought to be untreatable condition has profound world altering implications, providing evidence of the fast approaching paradigm shift in medicine.
Lay it on thick, much, Dan? I also can’t help but note that Dr. Buttar is the same guy who uses chelation therapy to treat autism and has been rumored on various quack-friendly autism boards to use urine injections in the service of eliminating autism, not to mention ozone as well.
Dan Burton is about the best example that I can think of to demonstrate that antivaccine views are the form of quackery that is truly bipartisan. Most of the time, antivaccinationists are portrayed as being crunchy lefties from Berkeley, but in reality there is a strong right wing component to the antivaccine movement, and Dan Burton personifies it.
He can’t leave Congress too soon for my liking. My only fear is that there are all too many other cranks ready to take his place.
ADDENDUM: Sullivan has more.