Antivaccine nonsense Autism Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Politics Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has declared a crank-off!

Has it really been two years?

Amazingly, it has indeed. On June 16, 2005, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. deposited the biggest, steamingest, drippiest (not to mention stinkiest) turd I had as yet seen in my then young blogging career, specifically an article published simultaneously by both and Rolling Stone entitled Deadly Immunity. Along with David Kirby’s Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Mystery, which had been published a couple of months earlier, RFK, Jr. arguably did more than almost anyone else besides the aforementioned David Kirby to popularize the scientifically unsupported idea that mercury in the thimerosal preservative in vaccines was somehow responsible for an “autism epidemic.” He did it using a combination of logical fallacies, distorted data, quote-mining. and conspiracy-mongering on a huge scale, as I documented a day later. About 9 months later, he continued to let his odiferous efflux pour onto the blogosphere with another rank bit of pseudoscientific ranting against the CDC, this time on that repository of antivaccination nuttiness, The Huffington Post. Then he disappeared for a while.

I certainly expected him to show up again, now that the Autism Omnibus is in full swing and the “experts” being presented by the plaintiffs have all had their posteriors handed back to them in a sling. After all, David Kirby is back in a big way, and has sunk to ever lower depths. Why not RFK, Jr., too? Then, on Tuesday, Sharyl Attkisson posted a pièce de résistance of antivaccination crankery to, of all places, the CBS News website. Both Attkisson and Kirby looked very hard to beat in the crankery department. Both showed a lot of talent and moxie twisting data, throwing out logical fallacies, claiming scientific data to support their positions where none exists, and attacking their detractors for “persecution. David Kirby appeared to be ahead by a nose, having invoked Osama bin Laden and claimed that “products derived from pigs” were in vaccines (a little more on that in a future post). Attkisson’s effort looked too little, too late, to beat Kirby’s skillful entry.

Then RFK, Jr. entered the the crank-off. (Get your mind out of the gutter; I’m talking about a crankery contest.) In characteristic fashion, he dove in with both feet with an entry so devastating that even Kirby’s bin Laden reference might not be enough to allow him to claim the title of Most Supreme Vaccine Crank of 2007.

RFK, Jr. tells me (and other critics of thimerosal pseudoscience) that we hate mothers.

The poisonous public attacks on Katie Wright this week–for revealing that her autistic son Christian (grandson of NBC Chair Bob Wright), has recovered significant function after chelation treatments to remove mercury — surprised many observers unfamiliar with the acrimonious debate over the mercury-based vaccine preservative Thimerosal. But the patronizing attacks on the mothers of autistic children who have organized to oppose this brain-killing poison is one of the most persistent tactics employed by those defending Thimerosal against the barrage of scientific evidence linking it to the epidemic of pediatric neurological disorders, including autism. Mothers of autistics are routinely dismissed as irrational, hysterical, or as a newspaper editor told me last week, “desperate to find the reason for their children’s illnesses,” and therefore, overwrought and disconnected.

Invoking motherhood and decrying attacks on the mothers of autistic children in order to distract attention from the lack of science supporting his conspiracy-mongering! Excellent! Truly, there is a reason why RFK, Jr. is a master crank, and we’re seeing it right here! When evidence fails you, it’s always a good idea to wrap yourself in either the flag, motherhood, or apple pie. I’m guessing the flag and apple pie will be next. Kevin‘s right; I’m having trouble coming up with suitably colorful adjectives to describe this latest

As for his invoking of Katie Wright and the attacks against her, I haven’t commented on this before, but she tried to hijack Autism Speaks with antivaccine pseudoscience and got slapped down. Moreover, like many claims of “recovery” in response to chelation therapy, Wright’s claim for her child apparently has no real evidence to suggest that it’s anything more than the improvement that most autistic children demonstrate over time. As Kev put it:

The chelationistas love to claim ‘thousands of cured kids’ but when pressed, cults like Generation Rescue can only display 76 and when one examines those 76 carefully only 6 report their kids as recovered/cured/whatever. The situation with Katie Wright’s mentors is so ridiculous that I got my own daughters details published on their website as a ‘recovered’ kid.

So, Kennedy will have to forgive me if I’m less than impressed with the (unfounded) claim of ‘significant recovery’.

Kennedy also seems unaware that there is no good scientific evidence from controlled trials that chelation therapy produces any improvement in autism. All we have are dubious claims from chelationist and “scientists” like Dr. Mark Geier, who runs an ethically challenged “clinical study” (and, believe me, I’m being very generous in calling it that) in which he treats autistic children with a powerful anti-androgen agent (Lupron) plus chelation therapy, a study that was rubberstamped by an IRB packed with his cronies.

Next, in classic crank fashion, RFK, Jr. takes on the role of the gallant defender of the honor of these women against the slanderous skepticism of people like me, who don’t buy his unsupported claims:

But my experience with these women is inconsistent with those patronizing assessments. Over the past two years I’ve met or communicated with several hundred of these women. Instead of a desperate mob of irrational hysterics, I’ve found the anti-Thimerosal activists for the most part to be calm, grounded and extraordinarily patient. As a group, they are highly educated. Many of them are doctors, nurses, schoolteachers, pharmacists, psychologists, Ph.D.s and other professionals. Many of them approached the link skeptically and only through dispassionate and diligent investigation became convinced that Thimerosal-laced vaccines destroyed their children’s brains. As a group they have sat through hundreds of meetings and scientific conferences, and studied research papers and medical tests. They have networked with each other at meetings and on the Web. Along the way they have stoically endured the abuse routinely heaped upon them by the vaccine industry and public health authorities and casual dismissal by reporters and editors too lazy to do their jobs.

Here’s the problem. As much as I might sympathize with how difficult it is for these parents to deal with their autistic children, as much as I might admire their fortitude, such sympathy does not, nor should it, translate into tolerance when they play on that sympathy to advocate pseudoscience. What’s being dismissed is not the experience of these mothers, but rather the extreme fallibility of human observation, specifically the tendency to confuse correlation with causation and relying on anecdotal evidence. Calmness or being dispassionate does not exempt them from coming to completely incorrect conclusions about the origins of their children’s autism. As Steve Novella put it:

The simple fact is, human memory is fallible, there are numerous observational biases that plague human perception, and anecdotal evidence has been proven countless times to be worse than worthless, it is in fact highly misleading. The parents of autistic children are not magically exempt from these factors because their goals are sincere and their burden great. What RFK Jr. misses is that it is possible for calm, educated, sincere parents to come to a completely wrong conclusion based upon their own experience. Only carefully controlled scientific observation can resolve the question.

On other words, it’s quite possible to be calm and rational–and completely wrong. Moreover, just because being “highly educated” does not mean that a person understands a specialized area of science or that she can self-educate about that science. A few can, but the vast majority can’t. The background knowledge is just too intricate. Also, as much as I hate to admit it, because some of them may be doctors does not guarantee that they understand the science, either. Most doctors are not scientists; when they wander outside of their specialty they frequently embarrass themselves with a combination of hubris and ignorance. I could point out examples of physicians who are creationists or who have fallen into quackery. Ditto PhD’s who wander outside of their fields. They may have more grounding in the scientific method, but they all too often end up embarrassing themselves when they wander outside of their area of expertise. Moreover, “skeptical and dispassionate” investigations (a claim I find difficult to swallow, given the obvious emotional investment parents have in their children), sitting at scientific conferences and meetings and reading research papers are no guarantees of understanding, either, particularly if you don’t have the background in science to put them in proper context. The mercury militia, as they have been called, tend to look for data to fit their idea that vaccines and mercury cause autism, dismissing well-designed studies that fail to find a link. The most important thing that graduate school in science teaches is not a body of knowledge. After all, scientific consensus sometimes changes dramatically. Rather, it’s the scientific method and how to evaluate the scientific literature. Also, it forces a student to become steeped in one area of knowledge, so that he or she knows the background and context behind the data.

Besides, many of these parents aren’t all that “dispassionate”–certainly not as much as RFK, Jr. describes. For example, there’s Christine Heeren, who chelates her son with a mixture containing garlic and vinegar and posts videos of it to YouTube. There’s John Best, who’s infested my blog before and whose own blog (Hating Autism) is so vile that the only reason I’m linking to it here is to show you what a piece of work he is. (Click on the link at your own peril. You have been warned.) There’s J. B. Handley, who so detests me that he did a little cybersquatting on the “oracknows” domain just to get even and who refers to autistic people as “trailor-dwelling coo-coos.” He’s also known for his bull-in-a-china-shop personality when it comes to pushing the “autism = mercury poisoning” fallacy.

Obviously, RFK, Jr. must have met with different people than the ones I’ve become familiar with online.

Most ludicrous of all is RFK, Jr.’s characterization of the science. He cites “hundreds” of research studies from “dozens” of countries showing “undeniable connection between mercury and Thimerosal and a wide range of neurological illnesses.” Notice how he doesn’t mention autism specifically. That’s because there aren’t anywhere near that many studies supporting a link between thimerosal and autism. Actually, if you look at high quality studies showing a link, there are none. As usual, Kennedy is being disingenuous. What he’s probably referring to are studies showing that mercury can be a neurotoxin. There are no studies showing that thimerosal at the doses given in vaccines causes autism or significant neurologic injury of other sorts. What’s left to support Kennedy’s conspiracy-mongering is the shoddiest of science, such as that done by Mark and David Geier. Remember, the very best that the plaintiffs at the Autism Omnibus could come up with were pseudoexperts like Vera Byers, H. Vasken Aposhian, Ronald Kennedy, and Arthur Krigsman, and Marcel Kinsbourne, all of whom put on a truly embarrassing spectacle. The plaintiffs’ attorneys didn’t even bother to put Mark or David Geier or Boyd Haley on the stand, presumably because they are, as hard as it is to believe, even less credible than the “experts” they did put on the stand.

Of course, to bring his crankery to a grand finale, RFK, Jr. plays the two cards that all cranks must play. First, he plays the conspiracy card:

In response to the overwhelming science, CDC and the pharmaceutical industry ginned up four European studies designed to disguise the link between autism and Thimerosal. Their purpose was to provide plausible deniability for the consequences of their awful decision to allow brain-killing mercury to be injected into our youngest children. Those deliberately deceptive and fatally flawed studies were authored by vaccine industry consultants and paid for by Thimerosal producers and published largely in compromised journals that neglected to disclose the myriad conflicts of their authors in violation of standard peer-review ethics. As I’ve shown elsewhere [see], these studies were borderline fraud, using statistical deceptions to mislead the public and regulatory community.

The CDC and IOM base their defense of Thimerosal on these flimsy studies, their own formidable reputations, and their faith that journalists won’t take the time to critically read the science. The bureaucrats are simultaneously using their influence, energies and clout to derail, defund and suppress any scientific study that may verify the link between Thimerosal and brain disorders…The federal agencies have refused to release the massive public health information accumulated in their Vaccine Safety Database (VSD) apparently to keep independent scientists from reviewing evidence that could prove the link. They are also muzzling or blackballing scientists who want to conduct such studies.

Yep, as MarkH put it, the conspiracy has indeed landed, and it’s a doozy! It seems like everybody’s in on this one, just as the 9/11 Truthers would have you believe that everyone was in on the World Trade Center attacks. I wonder who’s orchestrating the conspiracy and how all those “bureaucrats” keep it together and keep anyone from talking. Of course, this does allow RFK to dismiss all those inconvenient epidemiological studies that have failed to show a link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism (or vaccines in general and autism) with a blanket claim of “fraud,” because, obviously, the investigators must all be part of the conspiracy. You know, if I were one of those investigators, I’d be tempted to sue RFK, Jr. for libel. If our legal system permitted it, I’d also sue him for stupidity, because in the same rant he mentions the long-debunked antivaccination canards of the Amish and HomeFirst populations as “evidence” for a vaccine-autism connection.

The stupid, it really does burn.

Finally, we have the Galileo card. True, Kennedy doesn’t actually mention Galileo, but the implication is clear:

Due to this campaign of obfuscation and public deception, Thimerosal-based vaccines continue to sicken millions of children around the world and potential treatments — like the chelation that benefited Christian Wright — are kept out of the hands of the mainstream doctors now treating autistic kids with less effective tools. Like thousands of other mothers of autistic children, Katie Wright knows what sickened her child. Her efforts to spare other families this catastrophe, deployed with a cool head and calm demeanor, are truly heroic. Maybe it’s time we all started listening. Maybe it’s time to start respecting and honoring the maternal instincts and hard work of Katie and her fellow mothers by aggressively funding the studies that might verify or dispute them.

That’s right. Katie Wright and chelationists are like Galileo, and they’re being persecuted just like Galileo, all presumably because big pharma, scientists, and the CDC are in cahoots to keep “effective” treatments away from these autistic children. For what reason they would possibly want to do that, I don’t know; it’s never explained. After all, at present there is no effective pharmacological treatment for autism that I’m aware of; it’s not as though big pharma is making much money selling drugs or other treatments for these kids. In RFK, Jr.’s world, maybe it’s just pure spite that would lead big pharma to keep these supposed cures away until the day that it can finally come up with a patentable drug for autism that it can make money off of.

After careful consideration of the performances of these three, David Kirby, Sharyl Attkisson, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., I have to award the Crank Trophy to RFK, Jr. Yes, Sharyl may have thrown out the largest number of crank canards in rapid succession, and, yes, David Kirby may have gone to the nuclear option of invoking Osama bin Laden to scare us about the outcome of the Autism Omnibus trial, but only RFK, Jr. knew how to skillfully tar critics of thimerosal-autism pseudoscience as being mean and nasty to mothers, all the while painting critics as part of a grand conspiracy to suppress a cure for autism.

Truly, RFK, Jr. is working on becoming One Crank to rule them all, One Crank to find them, One Crank to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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