Antivaccine nonsense Autism Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

Dan Olmsted obliterates yet another irony circuit

Dr. Paul Offit’s book Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure has hit the bookstores, and, as predicted, the mercury militia is going into a frenzy of spin and smear. As is usual, because they have no science to support their viewpoint, they are reduced to extended ad hominem attacks. For example, the clueless wonder of a reporter who couldn’t find the Clinic for Special Children and the autistic children treated there but nonetheless confidently exclaimed that he couldn’t find any autistic Amish children, goes for a full frontal assault in a little ditty called Paul Offit, False Prophet. He’s in a fine, self-righteous lather, too:

This is how the doctor operates — character assassination. Anyone who disagrees with him, and dares to say so or even let someone else say so, is ripe for the Kennedy treatment. The list of those who violate Offit’s Law is therefore endless, running from the usual suspects like Andy Wakefield to the late Tim Russert (who never should have had David Kirby on, only the IOM president), from Neal Halsey (who never should have pushed to phase out thimerosal from childhood vaccines) to Joe Lieberman (who never should have said parents had an argument worth listening to). Bernardine Healy and the Polings? Nowhere to be found — that would amount to picking on someone Offit’s own size — but no doubt they have been dispatched to the dustbin of history as well.

Offit’s approach is not only ad hominem — against the man, not the argument. It’s also extreme and inaccurate. There is no analogy too wild to wield against those whose scientific crime is holding a different opinion.

He just exploded yet another irony circuit, and so soon after Orac replaced it!

What do I mean? Well, here’s Olmsted, all in a tizzy about Dr. Offit supposedly doing nothing but ad hominem attacks (an accusation that is a steaming, stinking pile of rotting feces, by the way; Dr. Offit references all of his criticisms extensively). Yet, earlier the same week, Olmsted wrote a piece for AoA entitled Is Kathleen Seidel Toxic?, which is nothing more than an extended ad hominem attack on Kathleen, chock full of sloppy reporting and dubious “facts,” based on which he makes the astonishing conclusion that, because she worked for an organization that ran a flying ophthalmologic teaching hospital and because thimerosal used to be in a lot of ophthalmologic products, Seidel must have been rendered somehow “toxic” by all that. Be careful as you read the following passage, in case the stupid is contagious. Sadly there is no vaccine against it:

And how was ethyl mercury commercialized? In fungicides and in medical products. I’ve written at length (see Mercury Rising on our home page) about a link in those early cases to ethyl mercury fungicides. Those fungicides were banned long ago for good reason, but thimerosal continues to be used — inexplicably and unforgivably — in vaccines and in many different eye-care solutions…

Offit describes Seidel moving to New York City “where she met her future husband, a guitar player. She worked for Project Orbis, a flying ophthalmalogic surgical teaching hospital. …”

Whoa. A flying ophthalmalogic surgical teaching hospital? I suppose it’s possible she just booked their flights and never set foot on the plane, but assuming she was part of the team, I strongly suspect Kathleen Seidel was exposed to thimerosal occupationally. Just for example, a study from 1970 is titled “Bacterial cultures from donor corneas. A study of eyes treated with thimerosal solutions prior to corneal grafting.” Sounds like an opthalmalogic surgical procedure to me. And in the closed space of an airplane, you have to think anything toxic would circulate and re-circulate almost endlessly. We all know how easy it is to catch a cold on a plane; how much mercury can you catch in an airborne surgical eye hospital that exposes you to thimerosal?

The stupid has gone supernova! (Supernova, contagious, yes I know I’m mixing my metaphors, although Contagious Supernova would be a great name for a band, and certainly Olmsted can lay down a contagious supernova of stupid.) You read it right. Olmsted is seriously claiming that, just because Seidel worked for an organization that did eye surgery on a plane, she must have been exposed to the dreaded thimerosal in aerosolized form, which, I guess, if you follow Olmsted’s “logic,” must have been what affected her in such a way to render her child autistic–or something. Of course, the real implication behind the post is that, because Seidel is “toxic,” she has been somehow affected neurologically, making her judgment suspect, and it’s that “toxic” insult that’s the cause of her dogged persistence in going after autism quacks and cranks and also explains why she resents the mercury militia’s lie that autistic children are “poisoned” or “toxic,” thanks to vaccines. What an incredible smear peace, all wrapped up in supercilious and smarmy weasel words about how Olmsted can “understand” why Seidel might feel the way she does! All I can say is that Mr. Olmsted has a lot of chutzpah to accuse Paul Offit of sloppy reasoning and fact-checking after writing something like his hit piece on Seidel–or this passage in his subsequent hit piece on Dr. Offit:

For instance, by the time he is done talking about the outrage of removing thimerosal from vaccines, he devolves into describing a woman trying to slash her breast with a razor blade. And what does this have to do with whether ethyl mercury is a good thing to inject into pregnant women? Well, because silicone breast implants were once taken off the market, even though there was nothing wrong with them, and one woman was so freaked out by the irresponsible media coverage that she took a razor blade and … you get the idea.

I read that part of the book, and I’ll tell Mr. Olmsted what this has to do with thimerosal. The point Dr. Offit was trying to make was that, just like the hysteria over thimerosal in vaccines, there was no good science behind the hysteria over silicone breast implants in the 1990s. And I agree: When you look at the data dispassionately, it’s easy to see that there really wasn’t any good science, only some weak correlative studies prone to serious confirmation bias. Later, more rigorously designed studies showed that there wasn’t any detectable correlation between silicone breast implants and all the autoimmune diseases attributed to them by activists. Age- and race-matched women with breast implants developed such diseases at the same frequency as women without breast implants, just as scientists have been unable to find a correlation between vaccination with thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. But the damage had been done. Dow-Corning went out of business under a barrage of lawsuits. Some women became so frightened that their implants had “poisoned” them that one of them actually did try to slash her breast to remove her implant herself. The analogy to how some parents think that vaccines have “poisoned” their children and consequently subject them to all manner of quackery, including chelation therapy (which can kill), in order to “remove the toxins” couldn’t be more clear and obvious, as Dr. Offit pointed out. Also, from my perspective as a breast cancer surgeon, I note that the silicone breast implant scare of the 1990s also harmed breast cancer patients by taking one of the best options for reconstruction after a mastectomy off the market, to the detriment of breast cancer patients everywhere requiring mastectomy and desiring reconstruction. Saline implants simply do not produce as good a cosmetic result in terms of contour and sensation; they often feel like wrinkly plastic bags and they even slosh sometimes. Only recently have silicone implants been allowed back on the market after over ten years, a final recognition that the fearmongering of the activists was not justified.

The thimerosal situation is quite analogous in many ways in that, like the case of silicone breast implants, science doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t, at least not to the activists who are convinced that mercury and vaccines are The Root of All Evil (or at least all autism). That’s the point Dr. Offit made, and it was a valid and obvious point to make, apparently too obvious for the Great Journalist Editor of AoA to comprehend. There are many studies failing to find a link between thimerosal and autism, and more come out every year. Each new one puts another nail in the hypothesis that thimerosal somehow causes autism. Yet it means nothing to activists like Olmsted, who can still write with a presumably straight face (I can’t tell what expression was on his face when he wrote this) something as risibly silly as this:

Laugh me off if you want, but I have spent a lot of time looking for plausible links between parents’ occupations and autism in their children, and I know them when I see them. If Kathleen Seidel chooses to talk about her occupational background with Paul Offit, and I pay $25 to read about it, I get to connect dots just like any other observer. Why should I write about everyone else and leave her out?

I’m more than happy to humor Dan by laughing at him. If he says something that dumb, quite frankly, he deserves it. I invite you, too, to join in.

Is there a term for beyond supernova? If there is, Olmsted’s stupid now rates it–and more. That’s right; he’s serious. Olmsted don’t need no stinkin’ science or epidemiology! He knows a “plausible” link when he “sees” it! He’s just “connecting the dots,” no matter how tenuous the connections might be or how far he has to torture science and logic to do it. What destroyed my irony circuit is that, after writing such outrageously ridiculous crankery in his hunt for Truth, Justice, and The Cause of Autism, Olmsted now has the temerity to accuse Dr. Offit of making tenuous connections and championing dubious science in his book. This is especially rich after the way Olmsted plugged the highly dubious Hewitson/Wakefield monkey study, which, if anything else, showed that Olmsted wouldn’t know good science if it bit him on the…you know what. That’s why I say again: Olmsted owes me another new irony circuit!

As for nastiness and ad hominem attacks, which seem to pain him so, I wonder what Olmsted thinks of his co-blogger J.B. Handley’s recent post entitled Is Autism Speaks’ Geri Dawson a Blithering Idiot?. He doesn’t seem to be bothered being associated with that, even though he holds the title of Editor at AoA and could, assuming his title actually means anything other than a ploy to fool Google’s bots into thinking AoA is actually a news source, have quashed such vitriolic attacks. He doesn’t seem to mind enough to use his position as Editor to quash (or even just complain about) the numerous ad hominem attacks launched against Dr. Offit by other bloggers on AoA (not to mention the two all-out ad hominem attacks on me personally). Or what about the numerous spittle-flecked, bile-soaked rants in the comments section of AoA (where the hatred for Dr. Offit is palpable and downright scary)? Perhaps the honorable Mr. Olmsted is appalled by posts like this, which are nothing more than childish ad hominem attacks against Dr. Offit, not even mentioning the death threats and hate mail Dr. Offit’s had to endure. Yet Mr. Olmsted says nothing about these, his most righteous anger reserved for Dr. Offit and anyone who criticizes the pseudoscience championed by AoA. No doubt Mr Olmsted has some lame rationalization.

Finally, poerhaps the oh-so-noble, oh-so-pristine Mr. Olmsted should take a moment to remonstrate with his readers (particularly Kim Stagliano) over their suggestions that their fellow travelers go to bookstores and reshelf copies of Autism’s False Prophets in the wrong location to render them unfindable by people interested in buying a copy. After all, all such actions do is to harm booksellers and inconvenience some poor underpaid schlubs responsible for shelving books. One could imagine the ever-righteous Danny-boy’s reaction if I or, say, Kevin Leitch were to advocate doing such a thing with David Kirby’s book, for example. I bet he’d be in an equally fine lather over it. Of course, if it’s AoA, it’s anything for the cause, right? Never mind his claim that the First Amendment is “one of Dr. Offit’s least favorites.” He doesn’t mind that his readers are actively encouraging their friends to use underhanded tactics to keep people from being able to find and read Dr. Offit’s book. No one of Dr. Offit’s supporters that I’m aware of advocates taking, for instance, David Kirby’s book and reshelving it to keep people from being able to find it. We don’t work that way, but people with whom Mr. Olmsted is tightly associated do.

Hypocrisy, thy name is Olmsted! Actually, hypocrisy, thy name is that of the entire crew over at AoA!

ADDENDUM: How did I miss this? A commenter is trying to out-stupid Dan Olmsted and may have succeeded:

the question of whether or not Ms Seidel ever set foot on this plane may be moot, as I understand it mercury is so toxic that the ophthalmologists who did come into contact with it could carry tiny amounts or vapors on their clothing or body, so that simply being in casual contact could pass the mercury around. We aren’t talking about a substance that needs to be slathered on and rubbed in to cause injury, we are talking about a substance so toxic that minute amounts that would seem undetectable can cause serious injury.

It would be very interesting to see the relative rates of autism and other mercury poisoning issues in ophthalmologists, dentists, others who have worked with mercury, and people whom they have come into contact with.

This is just about getting to the truth, not about making people feel good. The truth has no obligation to be convenient, kind, or inoffensive. Whether or not I am toxic (or anyone else) is purely a matter of biochemical fact that can be established by testing. It is irrelevant how I (or anyone else) may feel about the biochemical reality in my body.

It’s a wonder all the ophthalmologists who worked with Kathleen aren’t either autistic or dead, given the amount of thimerosal this commenter think they bathed in!

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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