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Acid flashbacks to antivaccine conspiracy theories from nine years ago

I’m home.

Oh, wait. No. Well, I’m back.

Yes, the grant has been submitted, and I’m ready to get back to my hobby of science, skepticism, and, when necessary, laying down some Insolence, both Respectful and not-so-Respectful. And, it figures, too. While I was distracted with meatspace concerns, such as trying to keep my lab from running out of money, a task that’s a lot more difficult today than it was ten years ago, the quacks and cranks have been out to play. True, they probably would have been out to play regardless of whether I was available to do what I do best. It just feels as though they’ve been taking advantage.

For instance, I’ve been assiduously avoiding a particular meme whose fetid corpse antivaccinationists have been trying to resurrect from the dead. You’ve probably seen it proliferating on Facebook and Twitter, having apparently leapt there from antivaccine blogs. I’m referring to the claim that there has been a “coverup” of data “proving” that the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal that was in many childhood vaccines causes autism. It’s been all over, in press releases, on SafeMinds, on the “boy wonder” Jake Crosby’s blog, and, of course, on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism. The origin of this claim appears to be a document obtained by the boy wonder’s latest hero whose “mistreatment” at the hands of SafeMinds and the antivaccine luminaries at AoA led to his becoming the Frankenstein they could no longer control. I’m referring, of course, to Brian Hooker, whose epic fails when it comes to vaccine science go beyond epic.

Let’s go to the press release, straight from Hooker himself:

Dr. Hooker, a PhD scientist, worked with two members of Congress to craft the letter to the CDC that recently resulted in his obtaining long-awaited data from the CDC, the significance of which is historic. According to Hooker, the data on over 400,000 infants born between 1991 and 1997, which was analyzed by CDC epidemiologist Thomas Verstraeten, MD, “proves unequivocally that in 2000, CDC officials were informed internally of the very high risk of autism, non-organic sleep disorder and speech disorder associated with Thimerosal exposure.”

When the results of the Verstraeten study were first reported outside the CDC in 2005, there was no evidence that anyone but Dr. Verstraeten within the CDC had known of the very high 7.6-fold elevated relative risk of autism from exposure to Thimerosal during infancy. But now, clear evidence exists. A newly-acquired abstract from 1999 titled, “Increased risk of developmental neurologic impairment after high exposure to Thimerosal containing vaccine in first month of life” required the approval of top CDC officials prior to its presentation at the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) conference. Thimerosal, which is 50% mercury by weight, was used in most childhood vaccines and in the RhoGAM® shot for pregnant women prior to the early 2000s.

My first reaction to this claim was a massive, massive yawn. Why is that? Quite simply, I thought I was having an acid flashback to 2005, as this bogus argument dates back at least that far. Go back to my old blog, you know, the old Blogspot blog that I uglified with bad design because I was clueless about web design at the time. If I’m ever forced to bring that blog out of mothballs because our currently benevolent masters at National Geographic and ScienceBlogs turn on me, I’ll definitely have to do something about that, but for now it’s not worth the effort. In any case, search for “Verstraeten” and you’ll find this post. It’s not about the Verstraeten study specifically per se, although it does mention it as an example of how successive iterations of data analysis can result in an effect size seen in preliminary analyses shrinking away to nothing as successive, more rigorous analyses are performed. It’s a common thing in science, particularly clinical science. Physicians know it and expect it. We’re not surprised by it. Indeed, we have an instinctive tendency to be skeptical of large effects reported in early studies because we know they often dissipate in later studies and analyses. Hooker, on the other hand, along with the antivaccinationists who have been hatching all manner of conspiracy theories about the Verstraeten study for the last decade, do not know it and do not expect it. So when they see it, their natural inclination is to assume that it must be a conspiracy.

Hence the yawn.

Indeed, my yawn was so intense that when a reader wrote asking me to take this on or point her to a debunking of this particular bit of antivaccine nonsense, I demurred at first. Basically, I said that the whole matter bored me and that if I were to write about the Verstraeten study again it would be far more out of a sense of duty than out of any real interest. After all, I never thought that, nearly nine years after I first wrote about this particular conspiracy theory when it was first published by everybody’s favorite dim antivaccine crank, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. simultaneously in and Rolling Stone, I’d still be blogging about the same misinformation and distortions. (Actually, at the time, I didn’t think that I’d be blogging at all nine years later, but here I am.) Key to RFK Jr.’s conspiracy theory is the claim that somehow, at a meeting in suburban Atlanta at a conference center known as Simpsonwood, the CDC somehow cooked the numbers to “cover up” evidence that, contrary to CDC assurances, thimerosal in vaccine really was strongly associated with autism. Of course, as explained by Skeptico and myself, RFK, Jr.’s account of what happened at Simpsonwood was shockingly dishonest, as anyone can see for himself if he takes the time to read the entire 286 page transcript.

So, yes, the thought of delving into this topic again bored me to tears. However, with great blogging power comes great responsibility, and, even though I frequently repeat that this blog is all about my interests and that I blog about what interests me, sometimes that rule needs to be broken. Like the stereotype of the Western gunfighter who wants to hang up his guns (at least on this particular incident), I find myself reluctantly strapping them on again to face yet another fusillade of stupid from the antivaccine movement.

So what’s got Hooker and his antivaccine buddies’ knickers in a knot? To understand this, you need to understand a couple of things. First, the Simpsonwood conference was all about examining evidence from the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD), a collaborative effort between the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office and nine managed care organizations (MCOs) established in 1990 to monitor immunization safety and address the gaps in scientific knowledge about rare and serious events following immunization to determine if there really was a reason for concern about thimerosal in vaccines. Although the decision had been made in 1999 to remove thimoerosal from childhood vaccines, the decision hadn’t been fully implemented yet, and the CDC wanted to determine whether there was any cause for concern. It was hardly the action of a group that wanted to “cover up” anything, particularly the bit about publishing the entire transcript. None of this, however, prevented antivaccine activists, particularly the branch known as the “mercury militia” for its affinity for the set of antivaccine beliefs associated with mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism, from dreaming up all manner of conspiracy theories, with the CDC meeting in a “secret” location to cackle over the “autism epidemic,” rubbing their hands together gleefully as they plotted to create a generation of autistic children. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.) Of course, it didn’t help that Verstraeten ultimately left the CDC and went to work for pharma, which only fueled the

Various antivaccine groups, from SafeMinds on, have been filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for well over a decade. Apparently one of Hooker’s numerous frivolous requests finally panned out. Or so he thinks. What he described above in the press release is an abstract presented by four authors, including Verstraeten, at the CDC’s yearly conference in 1999 for the fellows of its Epidemic Intelligence Service. It was a preliminary study, as such abstracts often report, and it reported a relative risk for developing a neurological developmental disorder, comparing the group with the highest exposure to thimerosal at one month compared to no exposure, of 1.8 (95% confidence interval 1.1 to 2.8). In other words, there was a statistically significant difference, but the error bars almost encompassed one. You can get an idea of how preliminary the report is by looking at the 95% confidence intervals for some of the relative risks for some of the conditions reported: autism (RR 7.6, CI=1.8 to 31.5) and sleep disorders (RR 5.0, CI=1.6 to 15.9). These are the preliminary data in which the RR was reported to be 7.6, the original abstract that was said to be “watered down” to a less worrisome abstract to be presented at Simpsonwood. Sounds damning, right?


The Verstraeten VSD study was always intended to be a two phase study, as Emily Willingham and Lindsay Beyerstein reported. They both explain it well, but I think I’ll go to the source, Verstraeten himself, who wrote an letter to the editor of Pediatrics in 2004 about the study:

Did the CDC water down the original results? It did not. This misconception comes from an erroneous perception of this screening study and other epidemiological studies. The perception is that an epidemiological study can have only 1 of 2 outcomes: either an association is found (or confirmed), or an association is refuted. Very often, however, there is a third interpretation: an association can neither be found nor refuted. Let’s call the first 2 outcomes “positive” and “negative” and the third outcome “neutral.” The CDC screening study of thimerosal-containing vaccines was perceived at first as a positive study that found an association between thimerosal and some neurodevelopmental outcomes. This was the perception both independent scientists and antivaccine lobbyists had at the conclusion of the first phase of the study. It was foreseen from the very start that any positive outcome would lead to a second phase. Whereas the original plan was to conduct the second phase as a case-control study, we soon realized this would be too time consuming. The validity of the first-phase results needed urgent validation in view of the large potential public health impact. Did the CDC purposefully select a second phase that would contradict the first phase? Certainly not. The push to urgently perform the second phase at health maintenance organization C came entirely from myself, because I felt that the first-phase results were too prone to potential biases to be the basis for important public health decisions. Health maintenance organization C was the only site known to myself and my coauthors that could rapidly provide sufficient data that would enable a check of the major findings of the first phase in a timely manner.

Because the findings of the first phase were not replicated in the second phase, the perception of the study changed from a positive to a neutral study. Surprisingly, however, the study is being interpreted now as negative by many, including the antivaccine lobbyists. The article does not state that we found evidence against an association, as a negative study would. It does state, on the contrary, that additional study is recommended, which is the conclusion to which a neutral study must come.

In other words, the first part of the study was the screen, to see if there might have been an effect, in which the study was designed to look for associations that, by the design of the study, would need to be, if found, confirmed in the second phase of the study. In this case, it wasn’t. As I said before, this is not an uncommon thing to happen with studies in medicine. Frequently early phases of studies are positive, because they’re designed to look for associations with high sensitivity but with a tendency for a high rate of false positives. Scientists want to see if something might be there. Then they need to test if any associations they find in a first pass-through hold up to scrutiny. In this case, the association between vaccines and autism didn’t, and, because of the design of the study, this meant that the study could neither confirm nor entirely refute an association between thimerosal and autism. The conspiracy mongering RFK, Jr. made it sound as though phase II of the study was tacked on specifically to try to discredit the findings of phase I, but nothing could be further from the truth. Phase II was “baked in,” included in the original design. The only controversial feature was to use an HMO in Massachusetts to crosscheck phase I results, and this was done out of a sense of urgency to get results, not for any nefarious purposes. This happens sometimes; practicality and external exigencies can result in such decisions on the parts of investigators. There was no coverup, no attempt to whitewash an association.

Of course, no antivaccinationist is ever going to believe that because the source is Verstraeten and because they don’t understand how often studies in medicine start out promisingly positive, only to have associations disappear as more and more confounders are controlled for and more and more rigorous analyses are done.

None of this stops our “boy wonder” Jake Crosby from attacking Emily Willingham’s analysis in a fashion that really makes me wonder how on earth he graduated from an MPH program, given how lacking in scientific and epidemiologic understanding it is. He engages in the same sort of conspiracy mongering that Hooker does, only using an e-mail from Verstraeten in which he does what scientists frequently do: Explores different analyses of the data. It even refers to the abstract he had presented.

Of course, since the Verstraeten study, we have multiple other high quality studies that have failed to find a whiff of a hint of an association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. So even if everything Hooker and Crosby says about the Verstraeten study were true, and the CDC did “cover up” a positive study, it wouldn’t matter because it would be an outlier. The fall of the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines causes autism does not depend on the Verstraeten study. It never did. If it were truly positive for an association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism, more study would have needed to be done. If it were correctly interpreted as “neutral,” as Verstraeten puts it, more study would have needed to be done. More study was done and it was negative. The antivaccine movement’s obsessive focus on the Verstraeten study is nothing more than a conspiracy theory, and not a very convincing one at that—except, of course, to the antivaccine movement.

ADDENDUM: Oh, geez. I just noticed that one of the commenters on Jake’s blog calls himself/herself “white rose.” What unmitigated offensive gall! The White Rose movement was a rare political resistance group in the Nazi regime. It passed out leaflets condemning the regime for its crimes and advocated sabotaging the armaments industry. Ultimately its leaders were betrayed to the Gestapo in 1943 and executed by guillotine (a common method used by Germans for executing criminals and political prisoners). Seriously? You’re the equivalent to the White Rose movement resisting Nazis?

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]

101 replies on “Acid flashbacks to antivaccine conspiracy theories from nine years ago”

Quite simply, I thought I was having an acid flashback to 2005

You must have stockpiled.

If the CDC was trying to cover something up, “suggesting further study” was a strange way of doing it.
Precisely what is the outrage here? That epidemiologists 14 years ago were not sufficiently panicky about removing a vaccine preservative which is now known (from the lack of impact from removing it) to be harmless? Needs more Benghazi.

Dr. Hooker, a PhD scientist

Did Hooker mention that he has a doctorate? Sometimes he is too modest about his qualification.

Thimerosal, which is 50% mercury by weight

Ah. So that’s why, these past few days, two visitors brought the topic up, JAQ-style, one of them saying exactly the above quoted sentence. The story was floating around.

Well, now that vaccines are (mostly) thymerosal-free for a decade, we should see a decrease in autism rate among 10-year old and younger children, aren’t we?
Wait, no, still increasing.

I’ve been waiting for Orac to come back to the blog and post about Brian Hooker’s FOIA “find”. Unfortunately, the Forbes websites were hacked…big time…and I am unable to reset my password to post comments on Emily Willingham’s blog//sigh.

How many more studies would it take for Jake, Hooker and the cranks at AoA, to be convinced that Thimerosal is a safe, effective preservative?

@Lilady – that was the problem with Forbes? I knew I had a login, but wasn’t able to use it (or login with alternate credentials)…..interesting.

Oh, some day the preview function will come back, which would have allowed me to add the preface:

Lawrence, here’s the backstory on the problem with Forbes.

And the postscript:

The Syrian Electronic Army appears to be actual Syrians (and others who are ideologically aligned) who support President Bashar al-Assad, and launch cyberattacks on organizations that they perceive as hostile to Assad.

@Liz – thanks for the update. I had no idea (getting really caught up in work, been head down for a while now).

Again with the thimerosal? Did they read too much Lewis Carroll and got to believe for real in “What I say three times is true”?

Lilady @ 5: For most of the woomeisters and their flocks, there’s no such thing as a ‘safe effective preservative.’ The very phrase strikes them as an oxymoron. If you’re in a mischievous mood, you could try asking them which preservatives they consider ‘safe and effective,’ and see how they fume & sputter.

I *like* preservatives. They prevent bread going mouldy and keep biscuits fresh, so you don’t get sick from eating something that’s gone off. If given the choice between a food with preservatives and one without, I’ll take the former.

Re. Orac’s acid flashback: Are you sure that wasn’t an alkaline flashback?;-)

More mischief: Always refer to Hooker as ‘Dr. Hooker, a Ph.D. scientist,’ using that exact phrase. Repetition to the point of annoyance will cause the phrase and its equivalents to backfire when Hooker or his followers use it. It will also turn up in search engine results and alert anyone who doesn’t already know that something is amiss.

“There was no coverup, no attempt to whitewash an association…Of course, no antivaccinationist is ever going to believe that because the source is Verstraeten ”

But he’s an M.D. scientist, and that trumps Hooker, who’s only a PhD scientist.

I’m also amused by the fact that they highlight the delay in responding to their FOIA request as further evidence of the conspiracy. Agencies are late in responding to FOIA requests all the time. Not for nefarious reasons, but because agencies are typically strapped for resources – personnel, time and money – and unfortunately, although it’s a problem, FOIA requests are often not a high priority compared to other things they need to do.

The science is on the side of those who believe there is something to this thimerisol thing. When real scientists study it, the evidence is very strong. Rather than snark on your blog, you should present the actual dispute.

Mercury and autism: Accelerating Evidence?
Joachim Mutter*, Johannes Naumann*, Rainer Schneider*1, Harald Walach*1,2
& Boyd Haley3

Especially, in the U.S., the prevalence of autism became
endemic with an increase of about 5 in 10,000 to 60
in 10,000 after three additional thimerosal-containing
vaccines were introduced for newborns in the early
1990s, whereas in most other countries with a much
lower autism prevalence, like Germany or Denmark,
thimerosal in vaccines was reduced at the same time. In
California, the autism rate increased by 634% between
1987 and 2002, which cannot be attributed to shifts in
the interpretation of diagnostic criteria, migration or
improved diagnostic accuracies [3,4,9]. Other developmental
and behavioural disorders like attention deficit
disorders (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity
disorders (ADHD) have also increased up to 1 out of
every 6 children in the U.S. [10,11]. It should be noted
that in the 1990s, newborns until age of 6 months were
regularly exposed to a cumulative thimerosal dose of
187,5 μg [12].

Against this background it
is interesting to note that several scientists from the
FDA, NIH, and CDC may have been influenced by
vaccine manufacturers or dental boards [15, 20–24].
Despite this information, the Institute of Medicine of
the U.S. concluded recently that there is no relationship
between thimerosal and autism, and that no further
studies should be conducted to evaluate the relationship
between thimerosal and autism [25]. This was done in
spite of several biological studies reporting thimerosal
to have toxic properties that made it a major suspect for
the recent autism epidemic. There were no biological
studies presented that did not show major toxic effects
of thimerosal. Thus, it is pertinent to question why the
CDC committee suggested no further research and
emphasize the importance of carefully paying attention
to published and unpublished data and note pertinent
conflicts of interest.

Another recent study performed by Madsen et al.
[74] reported Danish autism rates of 6 per 10,000
for children born in the 1990s. These Danish rates
are very low in the 1990s compared to the U.S. [12].
Madsen et al. [69] report also inpatient rates for the
pre-1993 “psychosis proto-infantilis” at well below 1
per 10,000. This low rate would contradict the single
published survey of autism rates from Denmark,
which indicated an autism rate of over 4 per 10,000
as far back as the 1950s [75].
Additional confounders were present in the U.S.
with high prevalence of autism that were not present
in Denmark: Between 1970–92, the only childhood
vaccine given in Denmark until 5 months of age
was the monovalent pertussis vaccine. In the United
States, children were exposed to multiple doses of
diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, hepatitis B and
haemophilus influenza B (Hib) vaccines before five
months of age in the 1990s. Additionally, Denmark
did not administer thimerosal-containing Rho-D
immunoglobulin during pregnancy, which may
increase the risk for the development of autism [17].

@Keating – do you have anything more recent than something posted almost 10 years ago?

@ Keating Willcox

It would help if you provided the publication year and journal for the article you copy/pasted.
It turned out to be 2005, and Neuroendocrinology Letters.
Quite prolific in mercury study, this J Muller. Anyone replicated the data?

Anyway, you failed to address a very important point, which I am repeating here:
Well, now that vaccines are (mostly) thymerosal-free for a decade, we should see a decrease in autism rate among 10-year old and younger children, aren’t we?
Wait, no, still increasing.

I look at those huge 95% confidence intervals and see either a low “n” (number studied) or low power in the study. The fact that they come so close to 1.0 (meaning no difference in risk) is also telling. For example, the autism confidence interval is CI=1.8 to 31.5. This means that, if you repeated the same study 100 times, 95 of those times, the relative risk (ratio of risk in the exposed to risk in the unexposed) would be between 1.8 and 31.5. Even to a lay person that should be suspect.

Would you trust a presidential poll that gave that huge a margin of error?

Then again, Hooker is not a real epidemiologist, and, even with his MPH in epidemiology, neither is Jake. You can’t expect them to see the forest for the trees.

It’s intriguing to look into the *dramatis personae* involved in the current re-hashing of mercury madness. Unfortunately I can’t draw here – if I could, you would probably be treated to circles and arrows. Oh well.

-Jake has worked alongside the Geiers for his thesis
-Jake mentions Haley
– Hooker is Jake’s hero
– Hooker had had ties to the Geiers’ CoMed and now is being enabled by Barry and Focus Autism
-Jake and Hooker will present at Autism One.
– Hooker’s PR was read @ PRN. The idiot host expects that Hooker’s and Kennedy’s reports will lead to legal actions.

Now we can guess what Jake’s dissertation will be.

Hey, Keating Willcox!

Why don’t you have Boyd Haley, that chemical genius who’s created a mining chemical that doubles as an autism cure, devise a completely safe and effective preservative to replace mercury? Surely given his previous feats of genius, that won’t challenge him – well, except for the part where, unlike his mining chemical/autism cure, it will have to pass safety and effectiveness tests…

“Additional confounders were present in the U.S.
with high prevalence of autism that were not present
in Denmark: Between 1970–92, the only childhood
vaccine given in Denmark until 5 months of age
was the monovalent pertussis vaccine. In the United
States, children were exposed to multiple doses of
diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, hepatitis B and
haemophilus influenza B (Hib) vaccines before five
months of age in the 1990s. Additionally, Denmark
did not administer thimerosal-containing Rho-D
immunoglobulin during pregnancy, which may
increase the risk for the development of autism [17].”

What’s with this obsession of wanting to compare the US with small European countries. We have over 310 million residents, and growing, in 50 states, over a geographically diverse area, composed of multiple ethnicities and cultures, speaking hundreds of different languages… And we’re supposed to be the same as Denmark as far as our public health interventions and policies?

On interesting question, was Wakefield correct. Now remember, Wakefield was not against vaccinations, just not all at once. He was savaged by a private eye hired by Big Pharma, but he still speaks out. Were there proper studies proving him correct. yes.

What we face unambiguously is an epic of autism; an environmentally driven epidemic of autism now alarmingly affecting one in 31 boys in the United States of America and I saw data from Yale just the other day from South Korea showing that one in 36 children in South Korea are affected by this lifelong severe neurodevelopmental disorder. There is the true epidemic. Do we see attention being paid to that in anything like the same way that the media are applying attention to the measles outbreak in South Wales. No we do not. That is the true epidemic. And that is the one that we really have to deal with as a matter of urgency.


Wakefield wanted to split the MMR vaccine up because he was patenting his own single-version measles and stood to make a killing. It wasn’t motivated by any sort of benevolence, it was greed.

Or are all the patent claims just another part of teh ebil big guvernmint big HARMa conspiracy against Andrew “Altie Martyr” Wakefield? Inquiring minds want to know!

Thimerosal, which is 50% mercury by weight

Technically true, but intended to be alarming. Per Wikipedia, thimerosal has 9 carbon atoms, 9 hydrogen atoms, two oxygen atoms, and one atom each of sodium, sulfur, and mercury. The last accounts for 200 of the molecule’s molecular weight of 404.

To the main point of the article: There are reasons why particle physicists require 5σ significance for a result to be considered positive, rather than the 95% (2σ) level commonly used in epidemiology. One is because they can (accelerator experiments will have millions of shots; epidemiologists must work with far smaller numbers). But another is exactly Orac’s point here: often a result that appears significant at a lower level in preliminary results fails to hold up under closer scrutiny.

Like Ren, I was struck by the width of the confidence intervals quoted in the preliminary study. All of them are just barely different from null results. It wouldn’t take much of a systematic error (selection bias, etc.), or even a statistical fluctuation, to turn those intervals into null results. Which is why it is important to follow up these studies, to see if the results are real.

” (Wakefield) was savaged by a private eye hired by Big Pharma, but he still speaks out.”

Who might this evil supersleuth have been? Are you referring to Brian Deer, who was beloved by Big Pharma after he published multiple exposes of harms attributed to drugs like Vioxx and Bactrim?

Or was there another gumshoe who tormented Wakefield by unfairly revealing his lucrative ties to the plaintiff’s bar and his plans to cash in on a vaccine to replace the MMR?

@Keating Willcox:

Were there proper studies proving him correct? [Y]es.
No. The only studies done that support Wakefield were not “proper” studies, or were done by Wakefield. Oh, and Wakefield and his supporters often put forward lists of studies that, on closer inspection, turn out to say nothing about whether MMR causes autism.

What we face unambiguously is an epi[demi]c of autism; an environmentally driven epidemic of autism…

Citation needed that the increase in autism is environmentally driven.

…now alarmingly affecting one in 31 boys in the United States of America.

Citation needed for the 1 in 31 claim.

Please reinstate the “Preview” facility or introduce edit capability for our comments.

A few questions for Mr. Willcox (who has a habit of dumping a few cuts and pastes, then does a Brave Sir Robin run away):

Which vaccine in the present American pediatric schedule are only available with thimerosal?

What does the MMR vaccine have to do with thimerosal?

What is safer for a baby to get: a DTaP vaccine or a pertussis infection? Support your answer with verifiable scientific documentation.

What’s with this obsession of wanting to compare the US with small European countries

I suppose that those that try to compare the prevalence of ASD in the US to the prevalence of ASD in small European countries should try to keep up.

The prevalence of ASD in Iceland (1 in 83 children in 2009) is comparable to that in the US (1 in 88 children in 2008,) suggesting that thimerosal is not responsible for an “epidemic” of autism: The children in the study were born years after thimerosal was removed from pediatric vaccines in Iceland, yet (as in Denmark, Sweden, Canada, and California) the prevalence of ASD was much higher following the removal of thimerosal than before thimerosal was removed years earlier, and the prevalence continued to climb throughout the study period.

(Note that influenza vaccines, a potential source of exposure to thimerosal, are not recommended for children or pregnant women in Iceland, and HepB vaccine is not used there for children.)

On interesting question, was Wakefield correct.

It was an interesting question c. 1998, perhaps. In fact, rapidly upon publication of his lancet article interest was paid, in the form of multiple large scale studies by independent researchers and agencies operating in different nations.

As a result of all that ‘interest’, we can today stake with absolute confidence “No, Wakefield was not correct.”

Technically true, but intended to be alarming. Per Wikipedia, thimerosal has 9 carbon atoms, 9 hydrogen atoms, two oxygen atoms, and one atom each of sodium, sulfur, and mercury.

it would be better by far to describe the mercury content in terms of Hg being one out of 23 total atoms, or roughly 4% mercury. It would almost be a meaningful observation that way.

The problem with doing so, from the antivax perspective at least, is that “4% mercury” won’t scare anyone…

Keating Willcox
When real scientists study it, the evidence is very strong.

These are “PhD scientists”, right?

Well, given that smaller European nations tend to keep better medical records (and digitize them), it certainly makes it very easy to conduct research…and since those populations aren’t much different in their uptake of vaccines – why not do a comparison?

Oh wait, because it doesn’t give the anti-vax militia the “proof” they are looking for….thus it must be some kind of conspiracy.

Ms Liz, thank you. No wonder KW doesn’t want to provide links to studies that actually…doesn’t support what he’s saying.

Addendum to mine, above:

According to the site linked by Orac ( A Shot of Truth- sponsored by Focus Autism): in addition to Hooker, there is another scientist to help out with theorising , analysing, testing and stuff….
David Lewis.
Yes. THAT David Lewis.

How does a box of blinking lights get grants? Why does a box of blinking lights need grants? And isn’t home wherever the power is?

Which is my way of saying “Are my eyes really brown?”

So, they unearthed a document from Verstraeten’s early work. Again, are my eyes really brown?

(Wakefield) was savaged by a private eye hired by Big Pharma, but he still speaks out.

The image I have is Sam Spade sinking his teeth into Wankfraud’s leg. I think the origin of this myth dates back to 1965 when GM hired a detective to investigate Ralph Nader’s sex life after the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. This book brought about the demise of the Chevrolet Corvair even though the treacherous swing axle rear suspension had been replaced by a multi link system for the 1965 model year. The book even had an instant centre diagram showing the difference in the roll centre heights between the 64 an 65 models.

@ Dorit:

I could tell you ALL about Lewis** but I think that it might be better to go to Brian Deer’s site and search fx his take: it would most likely be funnier than my own. SLIGHTLY.
And I’ll bet that he doesn’t use the words “poo” or “poop” even once. I think he says “sludge”.

** another enlisted into the service of enabling one Andrew J. Wakefield in his life of crime.

@ D.W. @ #19

I see what you did there. You didn’t even have to do the full six degrees, either. What a nice homage to our oh-so-clever friend Mr. Crosby.

A few questions for Mr. Willcox (who has a habit of dumping a few cuts and pastes, then does a Brave Sir Robin run away)

Quite the spam-bot, isn’t he? I notice that the main difference between his own paragraphs and those he has copy-pasted is that the latter use normal English punctuation and capitalisation.

I’m glad to be of service.
I didn’t work today so I have had to find other ways of being useful to society at large. I hope that my scoffing is useful.

I have speculated about doing a chart – complete with circles and arrows- about Who’s Who in Woo: it would of course have a sub-section comprising of anti-vax mavens and the altie prevaricators who enable them.


They describe how treating a mercury toxic kid turns brown eyes to blue.

Didn’t Linda Ronstadt sing about that?

They describe how treating a mercury toxic kid turns brown eyes to blue
They were treating the kid with melange?!

@ Liz Ditz:

I was thinking about a _graphic_ representation of the relationships – many quite incestuous- amongst woo-meisters with a special focus on the antics of anti-vaxxers.
Oddly enough, I can picture it. It’s a network.

More mischief: Always refer to Hooker as ‘Dr. Hooker, a Ph.D. scientist,’ using that exact phrase.

Dr. Hooker. He has a Doctor’s degree – in SCIENCE!

According to the Conrick study (n=1), brown eyes are a sign of mercury toxicity.

So everyone of non-European ancestry has mercury toxicity?

lilady: “What color are your eyes, Matt Carey? According to the Conrick study (n=1), brown eyes are a sign of mercury toxicity”

So most dark skinned folks who typically have brown eyes have mercury toxicity. That sounds a bit racist.

Not only that, Chris, but apparently you can change that by chelation. I guess that’s one way to end racism.

I’m not an epidemiologist, so something has been bothering me about these oft-quoted statistics that 1 out of 88 children ends up autistic or on the autistic spectrum. It seems to me that there is a big difference between children who are on different parts of the spectrum. At one extreme we have children who don’t learn to speak and don’t relate to other people much at all. At the other extreme we have people who are maybe a little different from those who are entirely off of the spectrum, but otherwise fully functional and often of substantial intelligence. The Asperger’s syndrome description sounds like a lot of fully functional television characters. So what does that 1 in 88 number actually mean? How prevalent is the kind of autism that makes parenting difficult, is disabling to the children who have it, and is recognizable to the rest of us? Is the incidence of severe autism any different at all than it was 50 years ago, when it was less recognized and/or called something else?

I recognize that the cause and treatment of autism is not the main focus of this blog, since the evidence is convincing that it doesn’t have anything to do with childhood vaccination. However, it comes up so often that I thought it might be of interest to parse out the incidence of substantial disability vs. the incidence of people who might just as well be characterized as quirky or eccentric. I ask this question because I have no idea what the answer might be, or whether any of my speculative descriptions are at all accurate.

@Bob G,

Amen and Thanks for that question. I’ve been trying to answer that question for years.


Militant Agnostic…you should have opened my second link. I provided that link just for you. 🙂

@Bob G:

Since autism is diagnosed by reactions to one’s environment and behaviour and there is no known test based on biology, there’s no way to know exactly what the numbers mean.

There may be a breakdown by severity available somewhere … but I doubt you can get figures based on consistent criteria. There may be some substitution of ASD for less parentally acceptable diagnoses such as mental retardation.

The number of kids labelled with ASD who also are in separate schools and who never become independent adults might be a useful metric, if you can find such a figure.

Your question is accurate 😉

As to the eye color question: does this mean that Jane Seymore has mercury intoxication on only one side of her body? Or was chelated on the other? Confusing.

Hi Denice, I think that one of the aims Alathea has in mind is an eventual sociogram or similar. There’s so much overlap…. Iti’s really like a small echo chamber.

Any html version with the figures available?

I can send you a so-so export from Acrobat Pro if you want.

Narad: Thanks. This seems to imply that in the recently reported group, there is a little more than a tenth of a percent who are listed as severe, with the remainder in the moderate and mild categories. I would suspect that a prevalence of one or two out of a thousand children could have been the historical prevalence, without the people of earlier times considering it an epidemic. Even a prevalence of one or two out of a hundred children falling into mild and moderate categories could have been the historical prevalence without it being considered unusual. What I do find unlikely are the claims of the anti-vaccine people that autism was almost non-existent in earlier times. I suspect that a study of stories and novels from prior to the 20th century might very well turn up a fairly high incidence of characters eccentric enough to fall into modern day diagnostic categories. Perhaps a search of state records from the earlier 20th and late 19th centuries would turn up some substantial population of institutionalized children.

All this having been said, the real crime in the current day is the failure of the mainstream media to counter the anti-vaccine arguments. I suspect that the reason for this is that owners and publishers don’t want to antagonize any of their customer base, no matter how repugnant they may be. That’s why we were still seeing birtherism and other thinly veiled forms of racism fairly recently.

As a simple liar, I am pretty unfamiliar with the art of statistics (and barely familiar with math in general, as far as it does not concern counting money), so could someone explain in layman’s terms, maybe with some simple and illustrative examples, how the relative risk ratio and confidence intervals work?

Thanks to Ren I managed to get some vague idea, but being able to actually understand it would certainly be nice.

@Bob – and compare those numbers with historical figures for general categories of “mental deficiencies / retardation” and I don’t find them to be unusual at all – as a snapshot of any particular time in history.

Again, Derg seems to define autism at its most severe – which we know isn’t the 1 in 88, since the spectrum is so broad – so what number is he actually talking about?

I seriously doubt that he even knows.

Eric Lund, JGC: In his classic How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff described things like that “50% mercury by weight” claim as “semi-attached figures”: numbers that are supposed to make an impression on the reader, but aren’t meaningfully related to the point supposedly being made.

Bob G @71 —

All this having been said, the real crime in the current day is the failure of the mainstream media to counter the anti-vaccine arguments. I suspect that the reason for this is that owners and publishers don’t want to antagonize any of their customer base, no matter how repugnant they may be. That’s why we were still seeing birtherism and other thinly veiled forms of racism fairly recently.

I think your explanation works for the racism and birtherism, but for science-based stories I think other factors are at work, to wit:

1) Most journalists have at most a superficial understanding of what science is and how it works.

2) Because of that, they fall back on their training and attempt to present “both sides” of a controversy in a “fair” manner.

My scare quotes are intentional, because this practice is famously exploited by all kinds of cranks, and more cynically by PR outfits and their pet scientists. All they need to do is drum up a manufactuversy, and bingo, they can make it appear as if long-settled questions are still open, to wit:

– the causative role of vaccines in autism (real answer: zilch)

– the causative role of greenhouse gases in climate change (real answer: proven beyond reasonable doubt).

@ 76 palindrom
Yes, the scientific ignorance of reporters is widespread. About a decade ago, I wrote a series of articles on just that topic, among others. They are also ignorant of math, to the extent that they use the term “exponentially” to mean fast and large, even though it means nothing of the sort, and they are obviously ignorant of what scientists mean when they say that there is no significant difference between two things. In speaking to young reporters sometimes, I find that they are simply unaware of the idea of using quantitative thinking, other than to insert a few numbers recited in city council budget numbers.

But all this having been said, it would be possible for a newspaper or television station to have one person with a little sense. The Los Angeles Times once had such a person and the New York Times does decent work. I would submit that the science-phobia of modern media, particularly in terms of their advertising policies, is driven by the attempt to be a bland outlet that will be read by all. The history of American newspapers is that there were partisan outlets at one time, sometimes a dozen different newspapers in the same city. Los Angeles had the Mirror News, the Herald, the Times, and a few locals. Eventually they all either died off or were absorbed into one paper, and that paper tries to appeal to liberals and conservatives alike. And if that mega-paper makes a little ad revenue from ads for naturopaths and spiritualists along the way, that’s just business.

One of the local papers used to routinely run stories about what this blog would call woo, and these stories were run above the fold on the front page of the second section. Cringeworthy stuff. Of course it’s also the paper that ran columns by Tom Elias, who wrote the book about Burzynski and then updated it with a second edition.

Setting aside KW’s bad science for a moment, it boggles my mind that someone can claim “no attention” is being paid to the autism “epidemic,” or that the increase in vaccine preventable diseases receives more press coverage. I would say I hear or see autism-related stories at least once a month, whereas outside of blogs like this, I can remember only about two or three reports on vaccine-preventable illnesses (one of which was the episode of This American Life.)

Of course, if KW is defining coverage as stories that agree with his position, that might skew the results.

@Jubilee – if articles weren’t be written about it, AoA wouldn’t be sending their flying monkey squads to fill up the comment sections on all of them….morons.

Darrell Huff described things like that “50% mercury by weight” claim as “semi-attached figures”: numbers that are supposed to make an impression on the reader, but aren’t meaningfully related to the point supposedly being made.

In another thread I was wondering what percentage of mercury by weight a preservative shoud have, i.e. what (non-zero) percentage would make it least frightening… where the required dose of the preservative is not given. Sadly, our interlocutor was too busy Just Asking Questions to provide any answers of his own.

hdb: “Sadly, our interlocutor was too busy Just Asking Questions to provide any answers of his own.”

Since he usually cuts and pastes from dubious sources, I sincerely doubt he has an original thought of his own. Therefore he cannot provide any answers of his own.

The New York Times just published a piece on paternal age correlating with autism and schizophrenia, based on a study of 2.6 million children in Sweden. Paternal age over 45 years seems to be something of a cut point there, which I find interesting, since my nephew, whose father was 46 years old when he was born, was recently diagnosed on the autism spectrum disorder.

I believe there is some other literature on this that is available on Pubmed. One study I looked at briefly found correlations not only with paternal and maternal age, but also with the age of the grandparents. The increase in risk is not huge (less than a factor of 2) but it is there. This study involved more than four hundred thousand births. I also recall vaguely a news story about an older Israeli study that found a correlation with the age of the father. There is an interesting article from the Pubmed search that speculates that mutations in sperm cell precursors that result in higher rates of cellular reproduction end up creating a larger population of sperm cells that carry such mutations. The mutations have a better chance of building up as the father ages, which possibly explains the observed results.

@83 Bob:
I predict the anti-vax interpretation of the recent studies about paternal age & autism will be that the older fathers were exposed longer to MORE TOXINS!

Brian Hooker PhD and his co-sponsor AutismOne have put out yet another news release, this one entirely focused on my Forbes post and accusing me of deliberate deception, among other things and claiming that vaccines are “mercury laced.” As I just tweeted to AutismOne, it requires willful obtuseness to cling to 15-yo preliminary data against tsunami of evidence.

“Brian Hooker, PhD” Does he refer to himself that way? This must be the scientific community’s version of the retired military personnel I (fortunately rarely) run into who insist on still referring to themselves by their rank.*

*almost always senior officers.

I was prevented from posting comments on Emily Willingham’s blogs due to a major hacking incident on Forbes. The blog where Emily masterfully took apart the Hooker FOIA paper, is here, where all the ignorati of the anti-vaccine world came to post:

Emily’s post about the tricks employed to revive dead hypotheses by wrapping them in new conspiracy rants, is a gem:

One thing I’ll give Hooker. He hasn’t laden himself with titles yet. Usually these whack jobs declare themselves to be Director of Research…, or Chairman of the Institute… or something.

I guess it’s a matter of time.

You know, as a chemist, when I see things like, “50% mercury by weight” I tend to snicker a bit, because that means jack-all to the actual compound and what it does.

I would laugh uproariously, except that the chemophobia is so rampant that most people think that “toxins” actually means something in biology/chemistry. That makes me weep.

Water is 8-ninths oxygen, explaining why it is so flammable.

Was an undead brain-eating zombie to blame for the “White Rose” name?

And just when you thought it was safe to go about your business and that acid flashbacks were well behind you…

John Stone manages to resurrect yet another undead meme about vaccine advocates being shills:
It seems that our own Dorit entered the fray in order to keep the heat off of Art Caplan.- she is expendable** whilst he is not. He goes on and on about Emily Willingham, Orac, Liz and Reuben. Reuben appears to have assisted John into again getting his knickers into another knot. Reuben is good at that.

John reminds me of what a fabulous group of shills and minions we have assembled here, mincing and grovelling at the feet of our fearless ( and peerless) leader, Orac. He sends the out the Shill Signal ™ and we come a-running. RI – where the elite meet and greet,
Perhaps I should let John in on some of the inner workings of Orac’s Inner Circle – since I usually in the midst of whatever nefarious goings-on are going on.
Yes. I will reveal ALL. Read my e-book, which will soon be made into an independent film. I think that I should ask Orac to advertise it in the side column of RI- oooh, I wonder hwere I got that brilliant idea?

AoA also published Hooker’s latest PR.
In other news, Jake also publishes Hooker’s PR.

** I certainly think that she is irreplacable.

Stone got his comeuppance on Emily Willingham’s blogs, so the lead story on AoA is yet another (s)hit piece. Does anyone think that it is unseemly for this crackpot journalist to be so fixated on a young female law professor? IMO, it is downright creepy.

@lilady – when you can’t attack the message, attack the messenger…John Stone typifies that.

Perhaps I should let John in on some of the inner workings of Orac’s Inner Circle

Serve him to Lord D…I mean, He Who Must Not Be Named — for lunch. Braised, I think, to take out the bitterness.

Concerning Keating Willcox earlier post #15.
Harald Walach, one of the senior authors is in germany quite “famous” (or better said infamous) for doing a lot of work in all kinds of esoteric scienc.., no correct me, esoteric stuff. He is working at the so called “Hogwarts at the Oder Institute” (Frankfurt/Oder) on such interesting stuff like homeopathy, the Kozyrev-mirror and other Woo. Just check the name, then you know what a “real Scientist” in the eyes of Willcox seems to be.

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