Antivaccine nonsense Autism Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

Closing the year on a great note: The mercury militia’s “experts” slapped down

What better way to finish off 2007 than to look at a most amusing judicial ruling on the admissibility of some of the favorite “expert” witnesses trotted out to try to demonstrate a link between mercury in vaccines and autism. It was issued on December 21 in the case of Blackwell v. Sigma Aldrich, Inc. et al. (Circuit Court for Baltimore City, Case No. 24-C-04-004829). As you might expect, this is a case in which the plaintiffs claimed that their son’s autism was caused by thimerosal-containing vaccines.

Kathleen Seidel, as usual, has the details, but I can’t resist grabbing a few tidbits about everybody’s favorite (American) antivaccination pseudoscientists Drs. Mark Geier and Boyd Haley, among others:

“Dr. Geier is not qualified by his knowledge, skill, experience, training or education to render the opinions he proffers in this case… [T]his Court does not find that there exists a sufficient factual basis to support [Dr. Geier’s] proffered testimony…”

“[Dr. Haley’s] lack of expertise in genetics, epidemiology and child neurology make it impossible for him to supply the necessary factual basis to support his testimony.”

“Dr. Deth is neither an epidemiologist, a neurologist nor a geneticist… [I]n light of his expressed reliance on Dr. Geier’s studies, this Court finds that he lacks a sufficient factual basis to support his testimony.”

“Dr. Geier’s epidemiological studies purporting to show an association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism were not conducted in accordance with generally accepted epidemiological methods.”

“…Dr. Geier’s methodology of differential diagnosis is fundamentally flawed, because he improperly “rules in” thimerosal as a potential cause of autism, and he cannot rule out the high likelihood that autism in any given individual was caused purely by genetic factors that do not require an environmental trigger.”

“[T]he plaintiffs… have failed in their burden of proving that the bases of the expert witnesses’ testimony are generally accepted as reliable within the relevant scientific field… [and] have failed to show that the methodologies underlying their expert witness’ opinions are generally accepted to be reliable in the relevant scientific community.”

You know, this restores a bit of my faith in the American judicial system.

If you doubt that the luminaries of the mercury militia movement are die-hard antivaccination loons, there’s copious evidence to support that contention here. For example, here’s Boyd Haley on the CDC:

On cross-examination, he acknowledged that he conducted only studies of hair, and did not measure urinary, fecal excretion or blood. He accused the IOM committee of dishonesty and asserted that the CDC are bureaucrats that should be charged with criminal activity. He further stated that he had no respect for the science that was reported, and that the goal of the CDC was to find that thimerosal was not toxic. Therefore, he concluded that the goal was not to find the truth about the connection between thimerosal and vaccines.

Whenever I hear rants about the “criminal” CDC (or FDA or FTC, or whatever), I know I’m in the presence of some most excellent crank rhetoric. But here’s a great one on Mark Geier:

Although not at all binding of this Court, it is noteworthy that many courts have strongly criticized Dr. Geier’s testimony as a purported expert witness in cases involving alleged vaccine injuries. Dr. Geier has never been qualified to testify as an expert in a thimerosal case. One of those cases involved Rhogam, an immunoglobulin preserved with thimerosal (Doe 2 v. Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics, Inc. (M.D.N.C. 2006)). Another of those cases involved a thimerosal-containing over-the-counter nasal spray (Redfoot v. B.F. Ascher & Co. (N.D. Cal. June 1, 2007)). In those proceedings, Dr. Geier’s causation testimony failed to satisfy the Daubert standard, and Dr. Geier’s credentials were found to be inadequate and his qualifications to not be aligned with the subject matter of his intended testimony.

That one’s going to leave a mark.

Yes, 2007 was a bad year for the mercury militia and the “vaccines cause autism” crowd in both the scientific and legal realms. It started right from New Years’ Day 2007 with the revelation that Andrew Wakefield had accepted large sums of cash from lawyers interested in suing vaccine manufacturers. It didn’t take long after that to see a serious case of sour grapes from David Kirby over the continuing failure of autism rates to fall in California after the removal of thimerosal from vaccines, shortly after which during a debate with Arthur Allen over whether mercury in vaccines causes autism he backpedaled so furiously, going so far as to start invoking mercury due to pollution wafting over to California from China (grasping at straws) or even mercury from the fillings of corpses being cremated (hilariously grasping at straws–I couldn’t make stuff like this up). It continued with the Supreme Commander of the Mercury Militia, the man who was so wedded to the idea that mercury in vaccines is the cause of autism that he formed Generation Rescue, which until recently said on its website “that childhood neurological disorders such as autism, Asperger’s, ADHD/ADD, speech delay, sensory integration disorder, and many other developmental delays are all misdiagnoses for mercury poisoning” joining David Kirby in starting to back away from the “mercury in vaccines causes autism” dogma and invoking vague “causes” such as “overload of heavy metals, live viruses, and bacteria.” So desperate was the mercury militia to blame vaccines for autism that Generation Rescue commissioned a truly execrable telephone survey disguised as a legitimate scientific study that was so full of holes that it didn’t prove anything, although, amusingly enough, it could very well have been interpreted that in some groups vaccination is protective against autism.

As the year continued, we were treated to even more signs of the failure of the hypothesis that mercury causes autism, the Autism Omnibus proceedings, for which the first test case was so embarrassing for the entire concept that the very fact that the proceedings weren’t stopped right there is strong evidence that the government is not only being fair to vaccine litigants, but is bending over backwards to make it as easy as possible for them to prove their cases. It’s like the judges spotted them two touchdowns in a football game.

And they’re still failing to make their case.

As we approached the end of the year, the ridiculousness of the entire antivaccination movement became almost surreal. We were treated to the spectacle of an ex-Playboy Playmate declaring that her son “is her science” to Oprah and going on and on about “toxins” in vaccines that she clearly has no clue about, while claiming that she’s “cured” her son of autism. Meanwhile, the latest large study failed to find any link between mercury in vaccines or vaccines in general and neurodevelopmental disorders. Then, just when I thought the year couldn’t get any more surreal, The Donald himself decided to bring the stupid home by pontificating out of his toupee that his theory (and, he assures us, he’s studied the issue) is that mercury causes autism.

We can only hope that 2008 brings more of the same.

I like to view all of this strangeness as evidence for the desperation of antivaccinationists. Against their will, deep down, they’re slowly being forced to realize that they are wrong and that neither vaccines nor thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. It’s a case of wishful thinking finally smacking into cold, hard, scientific reality. Unfortunately, they’re so invested in the concept that they simply can’t let it go. Perhaps 2008 will be the year that sanity finally starts to prevail when it comes to the pseudoscientific claims that mercury in vaccines (or vaccines in general) cause autism.

A guy can dream, can’t he?

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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