The mummer’s farce that was the Congressional autism hearing last week

Last Wednesday, I took note of an “old friend” and (thankfully) soon-to-be ex-Representative from Indiana’s 5th Congressional District, organized quackery’s best friend in the U.S. House of Representatives, Dan Burton. Specifically, I noted that Rep. Burton appeared to be having his one last antivaccine hurrah in the form of a hearing about the “autism epidemic” in which it was clear that vaccines were going to feature prominently. Fortunately, this quackfest took place a mere five weeks before his long and dismal tenure in Congress. I also noted how antivaccine groups, in particular the merry band of antivaccine propagandists over at Age of Autism, were going nuts over this hearing. I had considered writing a bit about it the day after it happened, but then I thought I’d let things germinate a bit a few days. Boy, am I glad I did, because the antivaccine crowd over at AoA has been in a fine lather the last three or four days. Between trying to convince people that just because an antivaccine crank who happens to be a Congressman managed to persuade the current chair of a committee that he used to chair to hold a hearing right before he leaves office for good it must mean that Burton’s views are something other than pure pseudoscience and conspiracy mongering. In reality, the hearing was more than likely simply a last gesture from a good ol’ boys’ club humoring one of its retiring members.

Be that as it may, there are some fun reactions to read. Before you do that, however, I highly recommend that you first read some highly reasonable live blogging of the event to get an idea of what really happened. If you’re really a glutton for punishment, you can even go here and see video clips of the actual testimony. As usual, what AoA says happened at the hearing resembles what actually happened at the hearing by coincidence only. For example, perhaps the most amusing spittle-flecked “commentary” comes from—who else?—the founder of the antivaccine crank group Generation Rescue, who apparently thinks he’s being clever entitling his post The Unbearable Wimpiness of Being Autism Speaks’ Bob Wright.

Bob Wright’s testimony before Congress was painful to watch. It wasn’t his bald mullet hairdo or the reading glasses he seemingly borrowed from Prince, it was the fact that he opened his conversation by acknowledging that his own daughter thought vaccines caused his grandson’s autism…

His own daughter! The mother of his grandson!

If my parents started an autism organization in my son’s honor and they then spent seven years without remotely pursuing the science or theory that I was sure befell my son…I would disown my parents. I really mean that. I would literally never speak to my parents again and they would have no access to my life or family. How Katie does it…I will never know.

So let’s see. Handley apparently thinks so little of his parents that he would disown them if they disagreed with him about his crank idea that vaccines cause autism. I mean, whatever happened to love for one’s parent’s? For “honor thy mother and they father”? I mean, I can’t think of anything that would lead me to completely disown my parents. J.B. must have been such a good son. Perhaps he’s just being his usual lovable self. On the other hand, even Katie Wright thinks J.B. is a jerk, as she showed up in the comments to basically tell him he was off-base. Of course, J.B.’s always off base.

From an antivaccine standpoint, perhaps the “highlight” (if you can call it that) was Mark Blaxill’s testimony. You remember Mark Blaxill, don’t you? He’s a businessman who thinks he can do epidemiology and science and ends up doing about as well as you would expect; i.e., not very well at all. He’s also a member of the board of SafeMinds, one of the more vocal antivaccine groups out there. There’s a very good reason why I like to refer to him as Mark “Not a Doctor, Not a Scientist” Blaxill. If you want to get an idea just how bad he is when it comes to attempts to do science, you have need look no further to last year, when the not-so-dynamic duo of Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted merrily confused correlation with causation for polio, trying to demonstrate the polio vaccine doesn’t work. (It does.) There are, of course, many other examples, but that one stands out as a particularly hilarious one.

Not surprisingly, his testimony (complete with slides!) in front of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chaired by Darrell Issa (R-CA) was…underwhelming. Actually, from a scientific standpoint it’s even worse than usual, beginning with the tired and long debunked claim that autism didn’t exist before 1930. Apparently someone needs to remind Blaxill yet again that just because there wasn’t a name for a condition before 1943 and apparently Leo Kanner didn’t find any cases before 1930 does not mean that the condition didn’t exist before 1930. Let’s put it this way. If you don’t have diagnostic criteria and name for a condition, you won’t find it. Actually, you might find it, but you won’t call it the same thing that it is called after there is a name. Look at it this way. Before the 1920s, physicians didn’t routinely measure systolic and diastolic blood pressures. Does that mean that hypertension didn’t exist before 1920? Yet that is exactly the sort of argument that Blaxill is making.

Blaxill also trots out the “autism epidemic” canard, claiming that because the prevalence has risen to more than 1 in 100 it must mean that there is a real epidemic, airily attacking a straw man argument that it’s due to “better diagnosing.” That’s not the argument, but this particular straw man allows Blaxill to pour contempt on the idea that the increase in autism is due to “better diagnosing.” A better way of looking at it is that the rise in autism is likely due to a combination of diagnostic substitution (wherein conditions that used to be called something else now fall under the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders), more intense screening, and better awareness. As I’ve pointed out time and time again, it is a truism in medicine that if you look for a condition, you will find more of it, sometimes a lot more of it. It happened with hypertension. It happened with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a premalignant condition that was seldom diagnosed before mammography but is quite common now that mammographic screening programs have become so common. Lots of people don’t understand this concept, including, unfortunately, some doctors. Add to that Blaxill’s astounding tendency to confuse correlation with causation and, failing to find a correlation, to make one up that can be used to claim causation, and you have a perfect recipe for antivaccine wingnuttery blaming vaccines and thimerosal in vaccines for autism:

In the face of a national emergency, government agencies, especially CDC and NIH, have performed poorly and behaved badly. We need accountable, new leadership on autism at the NIH and the CDC. We need an advisory committee that believes in combating autism, not one newly stocked with appointees who oppose the mission, who want us to surrender to autism and oppose prevention and treatment research. We need a Combating Autism Act that truly combats autism. We need to stop investing in the autism gene hunt and identify what has changed in the environment that could have possibly injured so many children.

We need to conduct independent research into the great unmentionables, mercury and vaccines, connections that we’ve documented in the earliest cases. (I have provided to the Committee copies of my book, The Age of Autism which provides this history). These are the only environmental factors identified so far that are plausible causes for the magnitude and timing of this crisis.

And there we have it. No matter how much science has shown that vaccines and thimerosal-containing vaccines are not correlated with autism risk, antivaccinationists can’t accept the data and the science. They believe, against the vast preponderance of evidence, that vaccines cause autism because, well, they just know it. It’s a matter of faith, which explains J.B.’s reaction to Bob Wright. Bob, although by J.B.’s own account, thinks that vaccines might have caused his grandson’s autism, but he doesn’t believe strongly enough, conceding that it could be a “hell of a coincidence.” Moreover, he’s willing to diversify his portfolio, so to speak, by supporting research other than research looking for a link between vaccines and autism or into “biomedical” treatments. Autism Speaks might be a highly dubious autism charity because of its excessive credulity towards the vaccine-autism link, but it tends to straddle both sides of the issue which infuriates someone like Handley.

Fortunately, in the end, Dan Burton’s little mummer’s farce is just that—a mummer’s farce. It’s a kabuki play, stylized, with each actor playing his or her role. There were the requisite cranks complaining about how Congress isn’t funding the crank research that they want funded, in particular their favorite, the “vaxed versus untaxed” study. There were CDC and NIH officials, who were, unfortunately, poorly prepared to deal with antivaccine misinformation, distortions, and tropes, for antivaccine Congressmen to beat up on publicly in classic (and dishonest) political theater that dates back to the Joseph McCarthy era and before. (Hint: If you’re going to testify at a hearing like this, take the time to learn the attacks that will be lobbed your way and how to respond to them.) There was nothing unexpected, and this whole show was put on to entertain antivaccine audiences and to try to sway the undecided. I suspect that even Dan Burton’s fans know that once he leaves Congress there is, fortunately, no one else to take up the vaccine-autism pseudoscience cause in Congress, and that is a good thing indeed. May it be a long time before anyone who is as big of a crank and supporter of quackery finds a seat in the Congress.