I must admit, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., environmentalist and, unfortunately, antivaccine crank of the thimerosal fear mongering variety, has been rather busy lately. After having gone mostly silent on vaccine issues compared to his original flurry of misinformation and conspiracy mongering back that began back in 2005, several years past with almost nary a word from the lesser scion of a great American family on vaccines. This was a very good thing. Then, in 2014, he decided to reappear, co-authoring an antivaccine book with functional medicine quack Mark Hyman, a book with mouthful of a title, Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: Mercury Toxicity in Vaccines and the Political, Regulatory, and Media Failures That Continue to Threaten Public Health. Not surprisingly, it was chock full of antivaccine misinformation and claims that the mercury-containing thimerosal preservative that was in some childhood vaccines until around 2002 caused all sorts of horrible neurological problems in children. It didn’t, nor did it cause autism. The idea that thimerosal-containing vaccines cause autism is a failed hypothesis.
Still, none of this stopped RFK Jr. from throwing himself back into the science fray on the side of pseudoscience that has the potential to lead to the deaths of children. In 2015, he teamed up with the Nation of Islam to “protest” at the CDC headquarters and promote antivaccine pseudoscience. Then, after the election of Donald Trump, who himself has a long, sordid history of antivaccine beliefs, he somehow scored a meeting with the President-Elect. What, exactly, they talked about is not clear, but according to RFK Jr. Trump offered him the chair of a new commission on vaccine safety. The Trump administration denied that any offer was made and said they spoke about autism. Whatever they discussed, from my perspective it’s just bad enough that Trump would meet with someone like RFK Jr. to discuss vaccines or autism, given his utter lack of qualifications on both subjects. Since then, RFK Jr. has been trying to gather stories of “vaccine injury” to use to change federal vaccine policy; that is, when he’s not flogging risibly bad science claiming to find a link between thimerosal in vaccines and neuropsychiatric conditions other than autism. Basically, RFK Jr. has never met a scientific study he didn’t like, no matter how bad or how incompetently designed and carried out, as long as it confirms his idée fixe that vaccines cause serious neurological harm.
Now he’s at it again. Through his World Mercury Project, he’s announced a PR scam worthy of Jock Doubleday’s vaccine challenge. Doubleday’s challenge wasn’t sincere, and I highly doubt that this one is either. In any case, RFK held a press conference with several of the usual suspects when it comes to antivaccine conspiracy mongering. The video is on Facebook:
Yes, look who’s there: Sharyl Attkisson, who’s been spewing antivaccine misinformation for at least a decade; Del Bigtree, one of the producers of VAXXED, an antivaccine propaganda film so overwrought that it would make Leni Riefenstahl suggest that he tone it down a bit; and, from beyond the grave, former NIH director Bernadine Healy, who before her death started to fall in with the antivaccine crowd. And that’s just in the first few minutes of a painful, hourlong press conference. I can’t help but laugh when I watch Healy say that no one is going to turn their backs on vaccines. Of course they are! They’re doing it now! She was either naive or clueless (take your pick).
Much of the rest of this video was painful to watch and listen to because RFK Jr. is painful to listen to. I laughed again when RFK Jr. bragged about how he read the science “intensively,” because I remember the scientific nonsense he spewed in 2005 and his love of an equally bad bit of science just last week. Basically, RFK Jr. wouldn’t know good science if it bit him in his posterior. He also seems unable to understand that, just because the parents who came up to him trying to tell him that mercury causes autism weren’t all raving lunatics, that doesn’t mean that they know what they are talking about. This is an error RFK Jr. has been making for, yes, at least a decade. In any case, in the press conference, RFK Jr. announced a $100,000 “challenge.” What that challenge is I’ll discuss in more detail momentarily, but in the meantime, this is the image he used to illustrate the challenge:
On the right, he lists 243 scientific papers showing neurotoxicity from thimerosal. In the middle, he lists “over 80” studies allegedly showing a link between mercury and autism. On the left, he claims to be illustrating that there are no studies showing that thimerosal is safe. Remember what I said about how RFK Jr. is clueless about science? This image, as much as anything he said, demonstrates that cluelessness perfectly. That’s because it’s the quality, not the quantity, of studies that counts for more. Sure, there are probably over 80 papers claiming to show a link between mercury in vaccines and autism. I’ve probably read nearly all of them at one time or another over the last 12 years. They’re all uniformly crappy, done by biased, incompetent “scientists,” such as Mark and David Geier, Boyd Haley, Jeff Bradstreet, Christopher Shaw, and the usual suspects in the world of dubious antivaccine studies. I suppose such an image makes a simple (simplistic, actually) image to illustrate a point, but it’s a profoundly deceptive image and point. He then doubles down on the usual antivaccine trope that “genes don’t cause epidemics,” completely misunderstanding how the fact that autism diagnoses have increased greatly does not necessarily mean that the true prevalence of autism has actually increased. He even cites ridiculous “science” claiming that estrogen somehow “wraps around mercury” and protects the female brain. I wonder if he’s misinterpreting Mark and David Geier’s infamous claims that testosterone binds to mercury as “sheets” and makes it harder to chelate, an idea that led them to propose chemical castration with Lupron as a treatment for autism that allows chelation therapy to more efficiently remove mercury.
So here’s the actual challenge:
We hereby issue a challenge to American journalists (and others) who have been assuring the public about the safety of mercury in vaccines. We will pay $100,000 to the first journalist, or other individual, who can point to a peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that thimerosal is safe in the amounts contained in vaccines currently being administered to American children and pregnant women.
There’s an open letter as well from RFK Jr. and Robert De Niro. Hilariously, RFK Jr. once again claims that he’s not antivaccine but “provaccine.” I can only be grateful that he restrained himself from using the usual term he likes to use to describe himself, namely “fiercly pro-vaccine,” a lie or self-delusion so flagrant that it threatens to cause a crack in the space-time continuum every time RFK Jr. says it. Let’s just put it this way. If RFK Jr. were so pro-vaccine, he wouldn’t so completely buy into the latest antivaccine conspiracy theory, that of the “CDC whistleblower.” I’ve dealt with that conspiracy theory now more times than I can remember, and the actual documents dumped by William Thompson (the CDC scientist and so-called “CDC whistleblower”) showed no conspiracy to cover up evidence that vaccines cause autism. It’s baseless nonsense that was at the heart of VAXXED.
We are both pro-vaccine. We need to say this at the outset to contravene the reflexive public relations ploy of labeling every vaccine safety advocate “anti-vaccine.” As the British Medical Journal pointed out last week, that epithet is a derogatory attack designed to marginalize vaccine safety advocates and derail reasoned debate:
“It stigmatizes the mere act of even asking an open question about what is known and unknown about the safety of vaccines.”
Both of us had all of our children vaccinated and we support policies that promote vaccine coverage. We want vaccines that are as safe as possible, robust transparent science and vigorous oversight by independent regulators who are free from corrupting conflicts-of-interest.
Despite the cascade of recent science confirming that thimerosal is a potent neurotoxin that damages children’s brains, the American media has fiercely defended the orthodoxy that mercury-based vaccines are safe. We believe that even a meager effort at homework will expose that contention as unsupported by science. In just the past month, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) review confirmed thimerosal’s profound neurotoxicity and a Yale University study connected vaccines to neurological illnesses including OCD, anorexia and tics.
Of course, RFK Jr. failed to note that the article from the BMJ he’s citing is by Peter Doshi, who’s well known in the provaccine community as someone who’s parroted more than a few antivaccine talking points himself and try to portray himself as an authority on influenza and the flu vaccine. He’s also given a talk to at least one antivaccine crank conference. So it’s not at all surprising that Doshi would play the victim card and whine about being called “antivaccine.” It’s also hilarious that RFK Jr. seems to think that Doshi speaks for the editors of the BMJ when in fact they probably published his opinion piece to be a bit provocative.
Be that as it may, the Yale University study mentioned by RFK Jr. was a study so full of holes that it could be said to show that vaccines cause broken bones. It was basically an exercise in p-hacking and not accounting for a rather obvious confounder. But what about the CDC review, which RFK Jr. not only mentioned in his letter, but in his press conference as well? He had even tipped his hand two weeks ago with an article on his website with Lyn Redwood, New CDC Research Debunks Agency’s Assertion That Mercury in Vaccines Is Safe. I had meant to blog about it then, but my university didn’t carry the article. I wrote to the first author, and his e-mail bounced. So I wrote to the second author and discovered that the first author had retired. Unfortunately, I still don’t have a copy. If I get one, maybe I’ll do a followup post with more detail.
But what about Robert De Niro? Those of you not familiar with certain events that occurred last year might have thought, “WTF?” when you saw De Niro’s name associated with this whole fiasco. The answer is simple. A year ago, De Niro bypassed the usual process for selecting films for the Tribeca Film Festival, which he co-founded, and arranged a screening for the antivaccine propaganda “documentary” VAXXED. There was a huge kerfuffle, in the wake of which De Niro revealed himself to have antivacccine proclivities. So, yes, Robert De Niro is antivaccine.
In the meantime, here is the article, which notes in the abstract:
The similarities in mechanisms of toxicity for MeHg and EtHg are presented and compared. The difference in manifested toxicity of MeHg and EtHg are likely the result of the differences in exposure, metabolism, and elimination from the body, rather than differences in mechanisms of action between the two.
MeHg is methyl mercury, and EtHg is ethyl mercury (a.k.a. thimerosal), two different organometallic chemicals. So even from that bit of information, I can tell that, yes, MeHg and EtHg share mechanisms of toxicity, but what RFK Jr. purposely neglects to acknowledge is that the reason EtHg is less toxic than MeHg is because it is eliminated from the body much more rapidly, as the CDC points out on its own website. None of this is a secret. None of this has been hidden. The dose makes the poison, as Paracelsus once said, and, as we’ve learned since then, length of exposure also matters. So if a compound is rapidly eliminated from the body, there’s less exposure.
Now here’s the funny part of the RFK Jr.’s “challenge.” Look who decides if the challenge has been met:
1. Any individual seeking to collect the award (the Claimant) should submit, to the World Mercury Project (WMP), an English translation of the proffered study and a $50 processing fee (to discourage frivolous submissions from flooding WMP staff), along with a letter explaining why the study qualifies for the reward, and the name and address to which the $100,000 check should be directed.
2. The study and corresponding evidence must have been published in a peer-reviewed journal appearing in PubMed.
3. The claimant should submit a hard copy of the document and accompanying letter to:
World Mercury Project
1227 North Peachtree Parkway, Suite #202
Peachtree City, GA 30269
4. To be eligible, the submitted study methodologies should be sufficiently transparent and the data available, to allow the judges to verify any statistical analysis upon which its conclusions rely. Only appropriately applied scientific recognized statistical methods utilizing reliable data will be eligible.
5. Misters Kennedy and DeNiro will either pay the $100,000 reward check or send back a denial explaining why they believe that the study does not qualify. World Mercury Project will simultaneously post a link to the paper and text of the denial on the WMP website.
So, first, RFK Jr. wants your $50. Second, only his judges decide whether the study submitted meets the criteria to show that thimerosal in vaccines at the doses given is safe. But what if you disagree with RFK Jr.’s rejection. And, make no mistake, he’ll reject all the studies that I could list showing that thimerosal as used in vaccines is safe, because he’s already rejected them. That’s what’s on the posters behind him, claims about all the “deficiencies” of the studies. Get a load of the dispute resolution procedure:
If the claimant wishes to dispute the denial, he/she should reply with a written point by point rebuttal explaining why the denial is unfounded and why the submission qualifies.
Within 30 days of receiving that rebuttal, Misters Kennedy and DeNiro will respond with a detailed answer. If the claimant still desires to pursue the claim, he/she should notify Misters Kennedy and DeNiro by registered mail. Upon receiving the notification, Misters Kennedy and DeNiro will, within 30 business days, submit all relevant documents- the proffered study, the claimant’s letter, the Kennedy/DeNiro detailed denial and any supporting studies, the journalist’s rebuttal and the Kennedy/DeNiro answer to the rebuttal, along with any additional responses created by or to Misters Kennedy and DeNiro or sent to Misters Kennedy and DeNiro by the claimant – to an independent scientific panel composed of distinguished scientists of preeminent expertise and integrity. The panel and the judging criteria are listed at worldmercuryproject.org/challenge
Misters Kennedy and DeNiro have never met any member of this imposing panel. To our knowledge, none of them has ever taken a position on thimerosal safety.
In order to discourage frivolous or repetitive claims and maintain the independence of the panelists, Misters Kennedy and DeNiro and the claimant will pay the scientists in advance of their deliberations, according to a 50/50 split, at the rate of $400 per hour for their time spent evaluating the submissions. Should the panel decide unanimously that the application qualifies for the reward, Misters Kennedy and DeNiro will pay the $100,000 reward within 10 business days and, in addition, shall reimburse the successful claimant for his/her 50/50 share of the fees paid to the panelists and his/her $50 application fee.
The first thing I note is that nowhere could I find a list of the scientists that RFK Jr. says he’ll use to resolve conflicts or judge the studies. I bet I can identify some of these “scientists.” I bet that they include people like Boyd Haley, who was a respected chemistry department chair before he became a mercury crank. I bet they include Mark Geier. I bet they include Christopher Shaw or his protégé Lucija Tomljenovic. In other words, I would be willing to bet that his list doesn’t include a single real, reputable vaccine scientist or epidemiologist.
Of course, the very nature of this farcical “challenge” illustrates just how little RFK Jr. understands medical science. There is never any one single scientific study that can demonstrate, for instance, the safety or danger of thimerosal. It’s almost never the case that any one scientific study settles a question; so the demand for a single study that shows that thimerosal in vaccines don’t cause autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders is utterly stupid and ignorant. It’s a scam, and, if RFK Jr. doesn’t know it’s a scam, he’s a scientific ignoramus. If he does know it’s a scam, he’s a con artist, just like his new BFF Donald Trump. Scientists do not conclude that thimerosal does not cause autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders because of any one study. No! We conclude that thimerosal does not cause autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders because that is what the preponderance of evidence from converging lines of evidence as revealed in high quality scientific studies. That’s how science works. Indeed, I even have a name for this gambit, the “One True Study” or “Show Me ONE Study!” gambit. Cranks use it all the time. When the “Show Me ONE Study!” gambit is coupled with an offer of a cash prize to “prove” a scientific principle is true, such as evolution, or, in this case, that thimerosal in vaccines is totally safe, you know you’re dealing with a scam because that’s not how science works. Indeed, the “One True Study” gambit is a classic science denialist trope.
And, no, 80+ crappy studies do not trump a smaller number of high quality studies. Nor does misrepresenting existing science to try to claim that thimerosal causes tics. As I described nearly a decade ago when that particular study came out, the tics were almost certainly statistical noise. If you claim that thimerosal causes tics, you have no reason not to accept that it also results in children scoring higher on certain examinations. As I said at the time in refuting a similar argument made by A-CHAMPs:
First off, the study didn’t claim that there was “no causality.” What it stated is exactly what you see in the Conclusions section: That the study does not support a causal relationship. There’s a difference there too subtle for the ideologues who wrote this press release to understand. It’s impossible ever to prove “no causality.” It is, however, possible to conclude from the data that the data does not support a causal relationship. Second, A-CHAMP is cherry picking associations here. It is true that there were some negative correlations found that achieved statistical significance. When running 42 tests, it would be shocking if there were not a few anomalous findings. What makes the study authors fairly confident that the findings are anomalous is that they were divided roughly equally in both directions, good and bad. Consequently, if A-CHAMP is going to insist that the correlation, for example, with increasing mercury exposure and poorer performance on the GFTA-2 measure of speech articulation test, then it must also accept the findings of a beneficial association between mercury and identification of letters and numbers on the WJ-III test, as there is no reason to reject it. Naturally, the mercury militia picks on the associations as being true that they want to be true and ignore the other associations, which, if true, would be arguments for including thimerosal in vaccines. It’s far more likely that all of them are just noise. Again, the reason that investigators can reasonably conclude that the associations found are most likely due to random chance is because of their random distribution between positive and negative.
I said this whole thing is a scam, and here’s another indication that I’m right, besides the demand for a single study, for an entry fee of $50, for a ridiculously inflated fee for dispute resolution. It’s an Indiegogo page asking for $25,000 to “educate the public, Congress, and the media about the dangers of mercury in medicines.” Basically, RFK Jr.’s $100,000 thimerosal challenge is a scam. Like Jock Doubleday’s vaccine “challenge” before, it’s rigged so that there’s no way anyone can ever collect the $100,000 because RFK Jr. has demanded The One True Study To Show Vaccines Are Safe when for such questions it’s never a matter of just one study and he’s rigged his challenge so that no one can ever collect by defining ahead of time the key studies demonstrating the safety of thimerosal-containing vaccines as hopelessly flawed, even though they are not and are of much higher quality than anything the antivaccine movement has produced to demonize thimerosal-containing vaccines. Basically, the “challenge” is a promotion for the Indiegogo campaign, nothing more.