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Irresponsible anti-vaccination idiocy about autism to air on ABC’s “Eli Stone”

It’s times like these that I wish the Hollywood writers’ strike had really and truly shut down production of new dramas completely. A new series on ABC set to premiere on January 31 looks as though it’s going to dish up a heapin’ helpin’ of the vilest antivaccination lies and propaganda that will potentially endanger children’s lives by stoking fears about the safety of vaccines:

LOS ANGELES — A new legal drama making its debut this month on ABC is stepping into a subject that is the source of heated debate among some parents — the relationship between autism and childhood vaccines — and seemingly coming down on the side that has been all but dismissed by prominent scientific organizations.

The drama, “Eli Stone,” scheduled to be broadcast at 10 p.m. on Jan. 31, centers on a lawyer who begins having visions that cause him to question his life’s work defending large corporations, including a pharmaceutical company that makes vaccines.

The title character of “Eli Stone,” adopting the message of his visions to fight for the little guy, takes his first case: suing his former client on behalf of the mother of an autistic child who believes a mercury-based preservative in a vaccine caused her son’s autism.

But it’s worse than that. As the article puts it, the “script also takes several liberties that could leave viewers believing that the debate over thimerosal — which in the program’s script is given the fictional name mercuritol — is far from scientifically settled.” I really must give the reporter, Edward Wyatt, props for how he handled this article. No wishy-washy equivocation; he tells it like it is, pointing out that science does not support the contention that mercury in vaccines is a cause of or contributor to autism. For this article at least, he gets Orac’s praise for good science reporting for this paragraph alone:

Doctors have previously expressed fears that the popularity of the antivaccine movement could have adverse effects. In Britain a widely publicized — and since discredited — research paper published in 1998 started a scare over the safety of the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella, drawing a potential link to autism. Though the premise of the research did not concern thimerosal, vaccination rates plunged in Britain. Over the next two to six years, outbreaks of measles soared in Britain and Ireland, causing at least three deaths and hundreds of children to be hospitalized.

He also points out that, other than the flu vaccine (which most children do not get) no childhood vaccine has contained more that trace amounts of thimerosal since late 2001 and, in a reversal of the usual position where the skeptic gets a token quote, prints the token quote from a representative of Safeminds and mentioning Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. only in passing. The one thing he didn’t do but should have was to cite the recent California study that shows that more than five years after the elimination of nearly all thimerosal from childhood vaccines, to the point where mercury exposure due to vaccines is currently lower than it has been since the 1980s, there has been no decline in autism. The evidence isn’t even equivocal. Still, even the correct science in the article can’t hide just how bad this show looks as though it will represent the “debate”:

The initial episode of “Eli Stone” posits that the child received a flu vaccine containing the preservative; in recent years vaccine makers have produced new versions of the flu vaccine for children that do not contain the mercury-based preservative.

“Is there proof that mercuritol causes autism?,” Eli Stone says to the jury in summing up his lawsuit against the vaccine maker. “Yes,” he says. “Is that proof direct or incontrovertible proof? No. But ask yourself if you’ve ever believed in anything or anyone without absolute proof.”

The script also draws a parallel with research linking smoking and cancer, saying three decades passed between the first lawsuit charging a connection and the first jury award against a tobacco company. After the dramatic courtroom revelation that the chief executive of the vaccine maker did not allow his daughter’s pediatrician to give her the company’s vaccine, the jury in “Eli Stone” awards the mother $5.2 million.

This is not “dramatic license.” This is nothing more than antivaccination propaganda and lies, plain and simple. Particularly galling is the line about asking yourself “if you’ve ever believed in anything or anyone with out absolute proof.” Lots of people believe in alien abductions or Bigfoot without “absolute proof.” By that standard, perhaps Berlanti should do an episode of Eli Stone in which Stone sues aliens for subjecting a client to anal probes, thus scarring the client for life, or maybe in which he sues the government for failing to prevent a Bigfoot attack. Or, as Walter Olson over at Overlawyered puts it:

Maybe next season Stone can sue on behalf of a client claiming that overhead power line emissions triggered recovered memories of autoimmune damage from her breast implants.

Of course, Greg Berlanti, executive producer of the series, dismissess criticism thusly:

With “Eli Stone,” however, neither ABC nor its ABC Studios production unit has expressed any qualms about the story, according to Greg Berlanti, a co-creator and an executive producer of the series, who said he believed that the script showed both sides of the argument. “I think they wanted us to do our homework about all of it, which we did,” he said.

J. B. Handley, David Kirby, Barbara Loe Fisher, or April Renée couldn’t have said it better. I wonder which “sides” he showed. Does he show that autism rates have not declined one iota in the five years since thimerosal was removed from vaccines? Does he show the several large, well-designed studies that have failed to find a link between thimerosal and autism? Or does he simply play the false equivalence gambit and parrot emotional Generation Rescue-style propaganda as though it had anywhere near equal standing with the science that has failed to find a correlation between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism? I wonder. Actually, from the ABC site, we see that the “O” in Stone’s name glows like a halo in the series logo and that Stone is represented as being like a prophet:

As Eli struggles to cope with his diagnosis, he looks to Dr. Chen for his take on the relationship of his revelations to his aneurysm. Dr. Chen suggests there could be a divine answer for why he’s having delusions of grandeur – Eli may be a prophet.

While Eli is skeptical of being a prophet, his visions have helped him to recall what his father once impressed upon him — “You’re meant to do great things… speak inspired words… you’re going to help people.” With his father’s words in mind, Eli redefines his outlook on life and his intent as a lawyer, beginning with a case in which he represents an old acquaintance against one of his firm’s most important clients. Despite opposition from his imposing boss and future father-in-law, Jordan Wethersby (Victor Garber, Alias), and fiancée Taylor (Natasha Henstride, Commander in Chief), he chooses to stay the course.

Ugh. Bad science, bad theology, and a cheesy premise, all rolled into one!

It appears that the only thing Berlanti gets right is that trial lawyers are a major force behind the persistence of the myth that thimerosal-containing vaccines or vaccines in general cause autism, just not in the do-good, crusading manner he portrays. I also wonder if he mentions that, in a real lawsuit, his crusading lawyer would pocket a cool 30% or more of that $5.2 million award, which, by the way, would be a victory for pseudoscience, not a victory for any wronged or injured party.

As much as I enjoy Berlanti’s other series Dirty Sexy Money, which is a deliciously warped soap opera about a fictional “richest family in New York City” whose patriarch is played to perfection by Donald Sutherland, I have to say that, when it comes to medicine and science, he is clearly a pinhead and suffers from both the arrogance of ignorance and an affliction that all too often plagues creative types: a near-complete lack of concern over whether a story accurately represents an issue as long as there is drama to be had. He should have stuck to dysfunctional rich Manhattanites and stayed away from science, because this show, just from the description thus far, looks to be a travesty. Worse, this show appears custom designed to take a dump not just on the science showing that vaccines do not cause autism, but to promote pseudoscience in a number of areas.

I really don’t want to do it, but it looks as though I may have to try to bring myself to watch this show on January 31. I’m afraid to, though. No, I’m not afraid to confront the “other side.” I’m must more afraid that the misinformation and lies will result in my hurling a significant object (which, if I blog about it while the show is on, could be my computer) into the TV screen, thus costing me a lot of money. It’s also probably too late to make a difference, especially since this is the first episode of a new series and pulling it would require the producers to either reshoot or do some serious creative editing to produce a viable pilot episode, but a polite (and I emphasize the word POLITE) letter-writing campaign to ABC might still have an effect.


A reader has forwarded me relevant contact information for ABC:

ABC Media Relations for “Eli Stone”:

Carissa Gilmore
Vice President of Media Relations

Aime Wolfe
Email: [email protected]
Phone: 818.460.7421

ABC Studios Relations for “Eli Stone”:

Nicole Marostica
Email: [email protected]
Phone: 818.460.6783
Fax: 818.460.5636

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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