Sharyl Attkisson is back, and she’s flogging a new-old antivaccine conspiracy theory

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about antivaccine tropes and conspiracy theories over 14 years of blogging, it’s that there’s never really anything new under the sun. The pseudoscience and misinformation rarely changes, and each new conspiracy theory tends to be a variation on a theme of existing antivaccine conspiracy theories. I was reminded of this over the weekend when I became aware of a report being flogged on antivaccine websites by a journalist named Sharyl Attkisson that purports to show that a prominent scientist who was a government expert witness actually believed that vaccine can cause autism in some cases but that his views were “covered up.” Sound familiar?

Since around 2014 when I first recognized a recurring pattern, I’ve referred to the central conspiracy of the antivaccine movement, which I now like to nickname, in essence, “They knew.” (Or mauybe it should be, “THEY KNEW!!!!!!!”) The “they” in the “they knew” conspiracy theory is, of course one or more of the following: the CDC, FDA, big pharma, the government, public health authorities, or pretty much anyone who has anything to do with vaccines. The idea behind the conspiracy theory is that “they” knew (and know) that vaccines cause autism and “they” have covered it up. The “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory resonated so much among antivaxers and even became the basis of an antivaccine propaganda movie and fake news because it basically posited the existence of a “whistleblower” at the CDC who was supposedly saying that the CDC covered up data linking the MMR vaccine to autism. (It didn’t, and not even the CDC whistleblower himself appears to believe the spin, although some credulous journalists did.)

That brings us to the latest variation on “they knew,” which is being peddled by the aforementioned Sharyl Attkisson. She’s a journalist about whom I’ve been writing on and off at least since 2007. Yes, I’m referring to Sharyl Attkisson, who recently published a report The Vaccine Debate on Full Measure, her weekly Sunday news program allegedly focusing on “investigative, original and accountability reporting.” The report alleges that two U.S. Department of Justice attorneys, Vincent Matanoski and Lynn Ricciardella, who represented the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP), otherwise known as the “Vaccine Court”, in the Omnibus Autism Proceedings (OAP). In essence, it is a rehash of the charges made in October by antivaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Rolf Hazlehurst, a father who thought his child was injured by vaccines and took his case to the Vaccine Court as part of the Autism Omnibus proceedings, that a “top government expert” was “silenced,” all (of course) to make sure the government won its case and no admission that vaccines cause autism would be forthcoming.

A little background: The Autism Omnibus

Unless you’ve been following the antivaccine movement a long time, you probably don’t know what the Autism Omnibus proceedings were, given that the cases that were part of the Omnibus were decided in 2009 and 2010. I wrote about these proceedings several times while they were going on, characterizing it as the “mercury militia going to court.” Basically, the Autism Omnibus came about because in the late 1990s and early 2000s, thousands of petitions for “vaccine injury” in which vaccines were claimed to have caused autism were being submitted to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NCVIP) for adjudication by the Vaccine Court. Indeed, the number reached ~5,400. To handle this large number of claims, the Office of Special Masters (OSM) held a number of meetings in 2002 between attorneys who represented many of the autism petitioners (there were and are attorneys who specialize in this and represent a large number of clients), and the counsel for the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who was the defendant in these cases. Unlike the way that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. describes it, as a system mandated by the Special Masters, in reality, as Dorit Rubinstein Reiss describes it, the petitioners’ representatives proposed a system to process the large number of cases efficiently. Here it is from Cedillo vs. HHS:

They [the petitioners’ attorneys] proposed that the OSM utilize a two- step procedure: first, conduct an inquiry into the general causation issue involved in these cases– i.e., whether the vaccinations in question can cause autism and/or similar disorders, and if so in what circumstances– and then, second, apply the evidence obtained in that general inquiry to the individual cases. They proposed that a team of petitioners’ lawyers be selected to represent the interests of the autism petitioners during the course of the general causation inquiry. They proposed that the proceeding begin with a lengthy period of discovery concerning the general causation issue, followed by a designation of experts for each side, an evidentiary hearing, and finally a ruling on the general causation issue by a special master. Then, the evidence concerning the general causation issue, obtained as a result of the general proceeding, would be applied to the individual cases.

Now, it needs to be understood that the Vaccine Court in essence bends over backwards to accommodate petitioners. For example, petitioners need to support a hypothesis of causation, a proposed biological mechanism by which vaccines caused the harm for which they are seeking compensation. Now here’s the thing. They don’t need to provide the same level of scientific evidence as they would in a regular court; they just have to suggest a mechanism and convince the court that it is a plausible mechanism, and, let me tell you, “plausible” can have a pretty wide definition. For example, the Vaccine Court once compensated a complainant for sudden infant death syndrome, even though there is no evidence that vaccines cause SIDS and evidence that vaccines might even be protective against it.

Now, at the time there were two general ideas that antivaxers had about vaccines and autism. The first was that the MMR causes autism (the Andrew Wakefield branch of the antivaccine movement). The second was the idea that the mercury in thimerosal used as a preservative in vaccines before 2002 causes autism (the Mark and David Geier or “mercury militia” branch of the antivaccine movement). The OSM therefore agreed to hold hearings that would address the 5,400 cases through six test cases that would test three hypotheses of how vaccines could cause autism:

  1. Did the mercury in thimerosal used as a preservative in vaccines cause autism?
  2. Did the MMR vaccine cause autism?
  3. Did a combination of MMR and thimerosal cause autism?

These test cases were chosen by the petitioners’ representatives as the very best cases, the most convincing cases, that they had among the 5,400 petitioners, the thought being that if the very best cases couldn’t prevail then none of the others would. Also, as Dorit noted, the second question was not examined, as the evidence for MMR causing autism was included in the third question., and the issue of whether the combination could cause autism was the first question examined. Finally, I can’t help but point out how I noted at the time just how bad the science was that the lawyers for the petitioners had chosen as the test cases. (Yes, it was really bad, given that it was the usual antivax crackpots who were chosen by the petitioners’ attorneys as “expert witnesses.”) U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, who was the friend of antivaxers in Congress at the time, even tried to weigh in to influence the proceedings.

In early 2009. the decisions on the first three test cases, in which the question of whether a combination of the MMR and thimerosal causes autism, were announced and in all cases the Vaccine Court rejected the petitioners’ claims. IN 2010, the decisions of the remaining test cases, which dealt with MMR alone, were announced and were also negative. Rolf Hazlehurst’s son Yates was a complainant in the first group of test cases, ruled on in 2009.

A little more background: Dr. Andrew Zimmerman

One last bit of background: At the time that the Autism Omnibus cases were being adjudicated, the Special Masters compensated the family of a girl named Hannah Poling for vaccine injury that the antivax movement tried to paint as the government “admitting” that vaccines cause autism when it wasn’t anything of the sort. This is the origin of the “mitochondrial autism” idea of causation. Hannah Poling had a mitochondrial disease ultimately found to be due to a point mutation in the gene for the 16S ribosomal RNA (T2387C). Mitochondrial disorders are rare genetic disorders that can make a child prone to developing encephalopathy in response to fever or stress. The idea that antivaxers used in the case was, basically that vaccines caused a stress in these children that led to encephalopathy that led to autism. Never mind that encephalopathy ≠ autism. (Basic science never stopped antivaxers.) Never mind that a fever from an actual disease is far more of a risk to a child with a mitochondrial disorder than any vaccine.

Actually, I lied. One more last bit of background: Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, the expert about whom the conspiracy theory is about, is a pediatric neurologist who examined Hannah Poling and later with her father, in a dubious bit of ethics, wrote up a case report of Hannah’s regression. I wrote about it all ten year ago, and since then it has become gospel among a certain faction of antivaxers that the Poling case is slam-dunk evidence that autism is a mitochondrial disease and that vaccines can trigger it.

On to Sharyl Attkisson’s antivaccine propaganda!

One disadvantage of how antivaccine claims keep recurring is that when they recur after such a long period of time it requires a lot of explanation. Here we are, though. Let’s look at Attkisson’s story:

Now here’s the claim:

Today we investigate one of the biggest medical controversies of our time: vaccines. There’s little dispute about this much– vaccines save many lives, and rarely, they injure or kill. A special federal vaccine court has paid out billions for injuries from brain damage to death. But not for the form of brain injury we call autism. Now—we have remarkable new information: a respected pro-vaccine medical expert used by the federal government to debunk the vaccine-autism link, says vaccines can cause autism after all. He claims he told that to government officials long ago, but they kept it secret.

See why I call this a variant of the “they knew” conspiracy theory, a.k.a. the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement? Here it comes:

In 2007, Yates’ case and nearly all the other vaccine autism claims lost. The decision was based largely on the expert opinion of this man, Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a world-renowned pediatric neurologist shown here at a lecture.
Dr. Zimmerman was the government’s top expert witness and had testified that vaccines didn’t cause autism. The debate was declared over.

But now Dr. Zimmerman has provided remarkable new information. He claims that during the vaccine hearings all those years ago, he privately told government lawyers that vaccines can, and did cause autism in some children. That turnabout from the government’s own chief medical expert stood to change everything about the vaccine-autism debate. If the public were to find out.

I can’t help but note that it was in 2009 when Yates Hazlehurst’s case was decided, but who cares about accuracy if it just “feels” right? (OK, I’ll be nice and concede that the first three Omnibus cases were argued in 2007.) That bit aside, this claim sounds damning, but in reality there’s a lot less there than meets the eye. Why? Well, the most important reason is that it’s a huge exaggeration to claim that the Special Masters’ rulings in the Hazlehurst case and other test cases was “based largely on the expert opinion of this man, Dr. Andrew Zimmerman” is a such a massive overstatement of his importance to the case as to be risible in the extreme. There was lots of other evidence and several other experts. Indeed, Dr. Zimmerman didn’t even testify! He did provide a written opinion, as did other experts. If you want to get an idea of how much weight was given to Dr. Zimmerman’s opinion, just read Cedillo vs. HHS, specifically, this footnote:

Another pediatric neurologist with extensive experience with autism, Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, also filed an expert report for respondent. (Ex. FF.) Dr. Zimmerman stated the opinion that the evidence does not support the proposition that the MMR vaccine can cause autism. (Ex. FF, p. 4.) Thus, Dr. Zimmerman’s report certainly supports the result that I have reached in this case. However, because he did not testify at the evidentiary hearing, his opinion has been far less important than that of the respondent’s experts who did testify, in leading to my conclusion.

Ouch.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Dr. Zimmerman’s submitted opinion certainly helped the government defend its case, but notice how Sharyl Attkisson’s claim rests on grossly inflating his importance in persuading the Vaccine Court to reject the claims made on behalf of the children making up the test cases. As for the decision in Hazlehurst vs. HHS, the decision is 203 pages long, and the only mention of Zimmerman is in a list of experts who submitted reports and this:

As a pediatric neurologist with a particular research interest in autism and with considerable clinical experience with autistic children, Dr. Zimmerman opined that “there is no scientific basis for a connection” between the MMR vaccination, mercury intoxication, and autism. Cedillo Ex. FF at 2, 4 (Dr. Zimmerman’s report).

And:

The undersigned has reviewed and considered the filed reports from these experts and finds that the opinions of the experts lend support to the conclusions reached in this decision. In reaching the conclusions set forth in this decision, however, the undersigned relies more heavily on the testimony and reports of the experts who were observed and heard during the hearings.

Double ouch.

So you can see why my first reaction to Attkisson’s report was: So what? Who cares? Even if everything Attkisson says is true, it doesn’t change the correctness of the rulings for the Autism Omnibus test cases, and the removal of Dr. Zimmerman’s expert report would not have changed the outcome of the Autism Omnibus Proceedings. Moreover, Dr. Zimmerman was only asked to comment on the questions before the Special Masters as part of the Autism Omnibus Proceedings: MMR, thimerosal, or a combination of the two as potential causes for autism.

Of course, key to the whole conspiracy theory is that Dr. Zimmerman was supposed to testify for HHS but in his affidavit claims that, after he told the government lawyers that he thought that there might be some exceptions to the lack of causation, namely in the case of mitochondrial diseases, he was told his testimony was no longer necessary. Whether that’s true or not, who knows? Let’s assume that it’s basically true. The government was under no obligation to bring up new hypotheses of causation, and if the government lawyers thought that putting Dr. Zimmerman on the stand might leave him open to a potentially embarrassing cross examination it wasn’t unreasonable to pull him as an expert witness. One can argue over whether it was appropriate to use his expert opinion, although there’s no evidence that Zimmerman changed his opinion on the core issues in the Autism Omnibus: thimerosal or a combination of thimerosal and MMR vaccine. Dorit discusses this issue in detail here. The bottom line: Maybe the DOJ shouldn’t have used Dr. Zimmerman’s printed expert opinion, but it wouldn’t have mattered to the outcome either way. I agree that it wouldn’t have mattered. Dr. Zimmerman’s opinion was a pretty tiny contributor to the ultimate decision.

I also note that antivaxers appear to have “gotten to” Dr. Zimmerman:

Hazlehurst discovered that later when Dr. Zimmerman evaluated Yates as a teenager. That’s when he partnered with vaccine safety advocate Robert F. Kennedy, Junior—who has a voice condition.

Kennedy: This was one of the most consequential frauds, arguably in human history.

Kennedy was instrumental in convincing Dr. Zimmerman to document his remarkable claim of the government covering up his true expert opinion on vaccines and autism.

One of the most consequential frauds in human history? Seriously, RFK, Jr.? You really need to share what you’ve been smoking. It’s been clear for some time that Dr. Zimmerman, having been flirting with the antivaccine movement because of his involvement with the Hannah Poling case, was susceptible to the blandishments of an antivaccine propagandist like RFK, Jr. Now he’s finally gone “all in.” Or maybe not. He might have produced an affadavit, but he won’t go as far as to appear on a propaganda piece disguised as a “news report” or to let anyone else interview him publicly. It can’t be because he’s afraid of “inconvenient” questions from a journalist. Attkisson won’t offer any because she’s all in as far as antivaccine conspiracies go. So it must be because he doesn’t want to be tainted by association. It could also be that he’s regretting giving in to RFK, Jr., who, if my reading between the lines is any indication, probably badgered him to “go public.” It’s the same sort of thing that happened to the “CDC whistleblower” William Thompson, who, after having spilled his guts (and grievances against various high ranking CDC officials and scientists) for months to Brian Hooker, went totally silent and lawyered up after Andrew Wakefield found out about the recordings and went public with them. Since then, antivaxers have been claiming that “the man” got to him. Maybe something like that is in progress here.

After all, if you lay down with dogs, you might get fleas. Wait a minute. I should never have compared RFK, Jr. and antivaxers to dogs. I love dogs. My wife and I foster litters of puppies from time to time. Dogs are loyal, loving, and intelligent. Sorry, dogs.

Sharyl Attkisson: Spewing antivaccine nonsense since at least 2007

One thing I’ve noticed about the reaction to this story is that far too many people seem to think that Sharyl Attkisson is a reputable journalist. I know better. True, her background was reputable. She was a correspondent for CBS News for over two decades before she resigned in 2014, believing that CBS News had a “liberal bias” and wasn’t giving sufficient credence and coverage to anti-Obama conspiracy theories, such as Benghazi. I’m not sure what happened to her, because until the early 2000s at least, anyway, she seemed to be a talented investigative journalist and has won several awards for her reporting. Then something happened between maybe 2000 and 2010 and she evolved into the crank that we know now, the one unhappy that CBS News wasn’t covering every anti-Obama conspiracy theory with the enthusiasm that she wanted to, the one who came to believe pretty much every antivaccine trope.

I first became aware of her antivaccine proclivities in 2007, when she wrote an op-ed that was published on the CBS News website that I deconstructed in amazement at the level of antivaccine crankery exhibited. I mean, seriously. It as RFK-level antivax.

Since then, evidence of Attkisson’s antivaccine beliefs has been abundant. For instance, in 2008 she published a hit piece on Paul Offit, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Every Child By Two, and the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. That same year, she appeared (to me and several others, at least) to be collaborating quietly with the antivaccine propagandists at Age of Autism to attack Voices for Vaccines after it complained about the hit piece publicly. Then, in 2009, she did a fawning puff piece on antivaccine icon Andrew Wakefield. Indeed, the number of examples of her antivaccine propaganda are too numerous to list, but I do like to mention how she likes to report credulously on particularly bad antivaccine studies and periodically try to convince people that vaccines cause autism.

Oh, and Attkisson also once included me on her list of the top 10 astoturfers, much to my amusement.

Arguably Attkisson’s most egregious behavior with respect to favorably reporting on antivaxers came in 2013, when she did a story on Alex Spourdalakis, an autistic teen who was murdered by his mother, lying by omission about Andrew Wakefield’s involvement in the case. This case was tragic and complex and is too difficult to discuss in depth here (although you can read my typical detailed deconstruction if you are so inclined, a deconstruction that led an antivaxer to complain to my employers), but it became a cause célèbre among antivaxers as portraying the “horrors of autism.” Left out of Attkisson’s reporting was the involvement of Andrew Wakefield, who made a video appeal to help Alex because he was due to be transferred to a longterm psychiatric care facility, where he would, it appears, no longer receive the “autism biomed” quackery to which his mother had been subjecting him.

Attkisson is a victim of crank magnetism as well. It’s not just vaccines or anti-Obama conspiracy theories. It’s breast cancer quackery. It’s the dubious claims that gadolinium used as contrast agents for MRI scans are killing people, including Chuck Norris’ wife. It’s so much more.

Finally, this new “report” is nothing new. Attkisson’s been flogging the Hannah Poling case ever since it hit the news. So it’s not surprising that she’d do it again. As much as she and RFK Jr. are trying to paint this as some horrific conspiracy to hide the evidence that vaccines cause autism and deny the petitioners of the Autism Omnibus their just compensation, there’s really even less here than there is in the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory, which isn’t much. All we have is one witness who, a decade after Autism Omnibus, became somehow convinced that the government lawyers had done him wrong by deciding they didn’t want him to testify and whose importance to the case was nowhere near as critical as it is being portrayed by RFK Jr. and Sharyl Attkisson. Basically, through the Hannah Poling case, he came to believe (erroneously) that mitochondrial disease + vaccines = autism and appears to want vindication, to achieve which he’s now going public with his grievance. In the end, it’s really pathetic.

In the end, Attkisson’s piece is yet more evidence that in the antivaccine universe there is nothing truly new under the sun. There is new bogus science, but it’s almost always a variation of common existing antivaccine pseudoscience, particularly “toxins” and “too many too soon.” There are new conspiracy theories, but they are basically all variations on a theme, particularly variations of the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, while the same old conspiracy theories keep popping up every couple of years, just with new twists added.

Unfortunately, now there is an ecosystem of TV stations that will air “reports” like Sharyl Attkisson’s report as actual news:

Through her promotion of antivaccine conspiracy theories, Sharyl Attkisson was, is, and will continue to be a danger to children and public health.