Representative Dan Burton’s last antivaccine hurrah is scheduled for November 29

Whenever I blog about atrocities against science like the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), I’m frequently asked how just such an edifice designed to promote pseudoscience could have come to be as a full-fledged center in the National Institutes of Health. The answer is simple and boils down to woo-loving legislators. In the case of NCCAM, the primary driving force to create it, promote it from an office (originally the Office of Unconventional Medicine and then later renamed the Office of Alternative Medicine) to a full center, and protect it from all attempts to impose scientific or to defund it was Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). Indeed, the first OAM director resigned under pressure from Harkin when he objected to Harkin’s OAM council nominees who were involved in cancer scams such as laetrile and various “alternative” cancer clinics in Tijuana. Oddly enough (or perhaps not so oddly), I’ve learned from my interactions with NIH researchers that Harkin is viewed very favorably by the NIH because he’s been a tireless advocate for protecting and increasing NIH funding. In other words, he’s viewed as a defender of science, even though he’s inflicted one of the worst injuries on the NIH ever by inflicting NCCAM on it. It would be an interesting philosophical discussion to debate whether the damage he’s done by creating NCCAM outweighs the good he’s done by championing the NIH and the real science it does.

Be that as it may, there is another powerful legislator who has been a champion of quackery for more than 20 years. He’s from the opposite side of the aisle and in the House of Representatives. I’m referring, of course, to Representative Dan Burton (R-IN). Where Harkin is probably the foremost promoter of quackery in the Senate (with the possible exception of Orrin Hatch, whose pitbull-like defense of his state’s supplement industry from anything resembling responsible regulation that might impede its ability to make huge profits is a depressing wonder to behold), Burton is arguably the foremost champion of quackery in the House. Back in his heyday, he was able to inflict expensive and unethical clinical trials such as TACT on NCCAM and the NIH, but most prominently he was known as the most powerful antivaccine activist in the U.S. Congress. Say what you will about Tom Harkin, I’ve never been able to find any evidence that he is antivaccine. Burton, however, is antivaccine to the core, believing that his grandson’s autism was due to the mercury in thimerosal-containing vaccines. Back in the day (say, ten years ago) when Burton was chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Burton held showboating kangaroo court-style “hearings” about thimerosal=containing vaccines, in which he hectored CDC and FDA officials, even going so far as to propose bringing criminal charges against these officials. A few years later, Burton tried to insert himself into the Autism Omnibus hearings on the side of the “vaccine-injured,” using typically awful antivaccine studies as his “evidence.” As I’ve pointed out before, Burton is excellent evidence that antivaccine fear mongering is a form of quackery that transcends political boundaries, as Burton is about as conservative politically as they come.

Fortunately, earlier this year, Burton announced that he was not going to run for reelection and would be retiring from politics after 30 years in the House. As a result, come January, Susan Brooks will replace Dan Burton as the Representative of Indiana’s 5th Congressional District. Unfortunately, not long after he announced his intent to step down, Burton had to have what I thought to be one last antivaccine hurrah, publishing typically fallacy-filled bit of antivaccine nonsense on his blog, later calling for new “vaccine hearings.”

Who knew that his call would come to fruition?

Although I’ve been receiving notices from various antivaccine groups like Safeminds for a couple of weeks now about this, I didn’t really feel like blogging it, at least not until now. Maybe it’s because my tryptophan-laden body isn’t quite feeling up to doing a heavy-duty analysis of science today. It is the day after Thanksgiving, after all. Lucky for Dan Burton, this story provided me with the perfect topic. What I’m referring to is a hearing that Burton’s committee, on which he still sits even though he is not its chair anymore, will be holding on November 29 at 2 PM:

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is planning a hearing later this month on rising autism rates and the federal government’s response.

The panel, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (D-Calif.), has invited witnesses from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as Autism Speaks and other advocacy groups.

Autism rates are rising quickly. One in 88 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by age 8, the CDC reported in March, a dramatic increase from its previous estimates.

The Oversight Committee’s witness invitations say the Nov. 29 hearing “will address the federal response to the recent rise in ASD diagnoses, as well as the allocation of government resources for ASD. It will also review research and treatment options for those diagnosed with ASDs.”

While it’s true that Burton is no longer chair of this committee, Darryl Issa is not exactly known for his adherence to science. When last we encountered him, he was meddling in NIH peer review of NIH-funded grants on HIV/AIDS prevention by passing a bill to rescind funding of these grants because he viewed them as being spent on “foreign alcoholics and prostitutes.” In essence, a man with zero qualifications to do so tried to use his power to second-guess peer reviewers.

So pardon me if I’m—shall we say?—less than optimistic about the science that will be presented at this hearing. After all, it’s a meeting of a committee that was known for being hijacked into serving an antivaccine agenda, one of whose members, a former chairman of the committee, has only a few weeks left to serve in the House. I can see how the discussion probably went. Burton called for hearings six months ago. Issa probably saw no harm in granting his request, but safely after the election, the better to keep the hearing from adding yet more fodder to the growing narrative of a “Republican War on Science.” In this respect, it’s important not to get too excited over this hearing, as it is unlikely to result in any legislation. On the other hand, it’s a mistake to think that it can’t do much, if any, harm. After all, as I’ve noticed over the last couple of weeks, the antivaccine movement is taking full advantage of the propaganda opportunity for crank autism groups whose purpose is to promote the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism. For instance, the Autism Action Network sent out this mass e-mail:

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) will hold the first hearing in more than a decade regarding the federal response to autism on Thursday, November 29th at 2:00 pm, in the Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2154.

Autism Action Network will be focusing on these hearings as a way to pressure Congress to take the autism epidemic seriously and begin a federal response commensurate with the scope of the public health catastrophe we are suffering.

We will be asking you to take a series of actions to pressure your Representatives to attend the hearing, respond appropriately and change the wholly inadequate federal response to the epidemic.

Today we would like to call or write to your Representative and simply and politely ask them to attend the hearing, and if they cannot personally attend the hearing to send a staffer to attend for the full duration of the hearing. Let them know that you will be checking in later to discuss the hearing and what your Representative has to say about it.

Yes, the AAN doesn’t mention vaccines, but given its past history, its use of vaccine/autism causation crank code language (“autism epidemic”), and more that I’ll discuss later, it’s obvious what is intended, particularly in light of the sorts of things antivaccine crank organizations and blogs have been writing to promote this hearing. Now that it’s scheduled, they’ve gone into high gear. For instance Ann Dachel, the “media editor” for the antivaccine crank blog (whose job seems to consist mainly of setting up Google Alerts for vaccine- and autism-related terms and then descending upon any news stories or posts that present a science-based perspective on the manufactroversy in order to flood the comments with cut ‘n’ paste antivaccine propaganda talking points), wrote a post entitled Will Congressional Autism Hearings Be Different This Time?, in which she flogged the “autism epidemic” talking point and bemoaned how so many people had “raised concerns” about vaccines but it didn’t result in any change. Of course, the reason is that the vaccine-autism connection is a hypothesis that has been so thoroughly discredited scientifically that even most congressmen recognize it. None of this stopped Dachel from presenting this very highly biased account:

Other well-credentialed experts raised serious concerns about vaccines and autism and the failure of health officials to address vaccine safety thoroughly. Wakefield had his critics at the hearing and representatives of the Centers for Disease and Prevention were there too attesting to the benefits and safety of their vaccines. Dr. Paul Offit was in attendance and he criticized the committee for even holding the hearing because it could shake public confidence in vaccinations. Offit was put on the defensive about his financial ties to Merck. Other notables in the autism community included Dr. Bernard Rimland. Numerous aspects of the controversy were discussed at length. It was clear twelve years ago that there were experts on both sides with strong arguments for each of their positions. Back in 2000, the autism ratewas one in every 500 children.

And repeating a whine about a hearing in 2010:

We could have also heard about the levels of toxins like mercury and aluminum found in these kids.

Why didn’t anyone ask why millions and millions of dollars have gone into genetic research when clearly the answers aren’t there?

Where were the DAN doctors? Why didn’t we hear about biomedical treatments and recovering autistic kids? There could be some great before and after videos there too.

Where were the expects who’ve done the vaccine research? Why weren’t people from SAFEMINDS testifying?

Why weren’t we told that untested chemical additives are nothing new? Deadly mercury is still allowed in vaccines and declared to be safe even though it was never tested or approved by the FDA….

Perhaps we didn’t hear from DAN doctors because they’re a bunch of quacks pushing their antivaccine quackery on parents desperate to do anything for their children. Be that as it may, Dachel also flogged the usual bunch of bogus studies (for instance, this unethical study) as “evidence” that there’s a huge conspiracy to cover up The Truth and protect The Man.

Meanwhile, Safeminds has been flogging this issue since before August, trying to get its readers to pressure their Representatives to support such a meeting, even going so far as to provide helpful talking points:

Ask Congress:

  • Why the CDC pretends that autism isn’t an epidemic even though it affects almost 2% of boys.
  • Why the Department of Justice refuses to admit a vaccine-autism connection in vaccine court – even though they have been compensating vaccine-injured children with autism for over 20 years.
  • Why encephalopathy gets compensated in vaccine court and autism doesn’t even though the symptoms are often the same.
  • Why the CDC impedes research on the causes of the autism increase – what are they afraid of finding out?
  • Why the CDC manipulated studies to cover up any connection between vaccines and autism and haven’t pursued Poul Thorsen, the Danish researcher who stole a million of the taxpayer dollars they paid him to do those studies?

The stupid, it burns. In these talking points, you see what sorts of “JAQ”-ing off questions will be asked at this hearing and see just how little value it will have. I’ve seen that movie, too, as has Autism News Beat, who points out that Burton chaired six separate Congressional hearings on vaccines and autism between 2000 and 2003, featuring such “luminaries” of the antivaccine movement as Boyd Haley and Jeff Bradstreet. Indeed, Burton’s tenure as chair of the committee corresponded to the high point of antivaccine movement influence in the U.S.

In any case, I went to the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform website to find its entry for the hearing. As of the publication of this post, there’s really nothing there, other than the name, title, location, and time of the hearing. There’s no list of witnesses. I can’t confirm it and could well be wrong, but the grapevine tells me that witnesses will include representatives from the NIH and CDC on the pro-science side and people like Mark Blaxill and Bob Wright on the autism quackery side.

In a way, this hearing is rather pathetic and sad. It’s basically a sop to a once-powerful Congressman a few weeks from retirement. It’s one last chance for him to trot out the usual suspects promoting vaccine-autism quackery, let them spout their pseudoscience and “JAQ-ing off”-style questions leavened with conspiracy mongering, and present them as legitimate scientists with “serious concerns” over autism causation, advocacy, and treatment. Fortunately, there’s still time for the pro-science side to be heard. Sullivan tells you how. Emily Willingham asks Will Science Be In Attendance At Latest Congressional Autism Hearing? Here’s one way to make sure that it at least has a tiny voice. It would also be great if pro-science autism advocates would attend en masse. You know the antivaccine cranks will be there. The major antivaccine blogs and organizations have been asking their members to attend for a couple of weeks now.