Edited January 16, 2011
5½ years after the fact, Salon have decided to withdraw the RFJ Jr. article that this post is about. When you click the “Salon” link below you will be taken to a Salon page headed Correcting our record, where they explain that they have now removed the post in its entirety. (Rolling Stone already deleted it from their website last year without comment.) Salon's reasoning includes:
"…continued revelations of the flaws and even fraud tainting the science behind the connection make taking down the story the right thing to do." The story's original URL now links to our autism topics page, which we believe now offers a strong record of clear thinking and skeptical coverage we're proud of -- including the critical pursuit of others who continue to propagate the debunked, and dangerous, autism-vaccine link.
I’m glad Salon have finally caught up to where the rest of us were over five years ago. Better late than never. I’m fairly sure that RFJ Jr. hasn’t revised his absurd position though (it's still on Kennedy's own website, without even any of the corrections that Salon made to their article), and so I believe this post is as relevant as it was in June 2005 in demonstrating how cluelsss RFK Jr. actually is.
The original 2005 post continues below.
Robert F. Kennedy Junior’s completely dishonest thimerosal article
I’m referring to his scare piece in Salon and Rolling Stone, linking Autism to the Thimerosal (mercury) preservative used in vaccines. Kennedy’s article has been roundly criticized by Orac (also here), Autism Diva, Blendor, Soapgun and no doubt others. I decided to hold off a detailed post until I had read the report in question. Even so, I felt Kennedy’s article had gotten off to a rather inauspicious start:
In June 2000, a group of top government scientists and health officials gathered for a meeting at the isolated Simpsonwood conference center in Norcross, Ga. Convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the meeting was held at this Methodist retreat center, nestled in wooded farmland next to the Chattahoochee River, to ensure complete secrecy.
Note the emotive language – an “isolated” conference center “nestled in wooded farmland… to ensure complete secrecy”. Sounds suspicious, yes? Well, not really. Perhaps Kennedy should have read the actual full 286 page transcript of the meeting because then he would have learned (page 257) that it was only held there because there had been a Super Comp Computer Conference at the same time and that the Simpsonwood center was the only place available in Atlanta at such short notice. He might also have noted the closeted location had “created a spirit that (the meeting) benefited from”. But that would have robbed Kennedy of his sensationalist opening, I guess.
And the conspiracy mongering didn’t stop there. At the end of Kennedy’s first paragraph is:
All of the scientific data under discussion, CDC officials repeatedly reminded the participants, was strictly "embargoed." There would be no making photocopies of documents, no taking papers with them when they left.
Sounds shady, right? Wrong. Again, if you read the transcript you’ll find the participants were actually told:
…consider it embargoed and protected until it is made public on June 21 and 22 at the ACIP. There is a plan to do that. (Page 256)
Completely different: it was only embargoed until official release later that same month. Kennedy seems intellectually dishonest in taking these non-issues and writing them up to make it sound as though there is something fishy going on.
Anyway, having set the scene to his satisfaction he launches into his sensationalist story.
The “Secret” Meeting
The experts were meeting to discuss a CDC study to evaluate if there were health risks from mercury in vaccines. Kennedy quotes scientists at the meeting agreeing that Thimerosal was responsible for a dramatic increase in autism and a host of other neurological disorders among children. He goes on to state:
But instead of taking immediate steps to alert the public and rid the vaccine supply of thimerosal, the officials and executives at Simpsonwood spent most of the next two days discussing how to cover up the damaging data. According to transcripts obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, many at the meeting were concerned about how the damaging revelations about thimerosal would affect the vaccine industry's bottom line.
Wow! Serious charges that appeared to be supported by the selected quotes linked from the article. (And you’ll note, he only has these thanks to the Freedom of Information Act – we should be grateful to relentless investigative reporters like Kennedy, right?) However, having read the full 286 page transcript I am honestly at a loss to understand how anyone could possibly come to that conclusion. In fact, the meeting did not conclude that thimerosal was responsible for an increase in autism and did not discuss any cover up. It did discuss possible future studies.
The actual transcript shows this was phase one of a two phase study. The second phase would be carried out if phase one gave “any hint of an association” (page 30) that needed investigating. The first day of the meeting (pages 1 to 167), consisted of presentations of the data with much questioning and discussion of: the meaning of the results; what evidence there might be (or not) for a causal link; confounding factors (ie other things that might have caused the results). This is an honest group of scientists interested in getting to the truth, not a group “discussing how to cover up the damaging data”. Not even.
Then it gets interesting. On day two, the experts each get a turn giving their view on whether there is a causal link between thimerosal and autism. The participants were asked to rate the possibility of a causal link on a scale of one to six: one being a weak causal link, six strong. From page 189 to 222 you can read of one attendee after another (with just one exception) grading the likelihood of a causal relationship as being either a one or a two out of six. The mean value given by the group (page 253) was 1.8 - very little evidence for a causal link.
There was only one exception (Dr. Weil) who gave it a four. Guess which one Kennedy quoted? (No prizes.) Here are some more representative quotes I pulled from the transcript:
Part one, is there a causal association between ethylmercury and neurological effects noted in the Vaccine Study Datalink project? The answer is no. Why not? From a toxicologists (sic) viewpoint there is no dose response relationship (Page 191)
To me the increasing mercury levels in your population at one month… is so small that it would suggest to me that you have a confounder here. That this is not due to mercury. (page 213)
I gave it a value as 1. I think the strength of the associations are mostly weak and the weaker the associations, the more likely bias might explain some of this. (Page 217)
This is not designed as a study to look at the effects of these vaccines on the different outcomes, but it is using data collected for other reasons, so it is not a carefully controlled prospective cohort study to study. We are using data that was collected for other purposes. (Page 218)
Kennedy’s version is totally inconsistent with the transcript. Quite honestly, only someone with a preconceived belief in a causative relationship and who was fixed in that view no matter what the evidence, would view this meeting as “discussing how to cover up the damaging data”.
The “Paid” Cover-up
But it gets worse. Kennedy continues:
The CDC paid the Institute of Medicine to conduct a new study to whitewash the risks of thimerosal, ordering researchers to "rule out" the chemical's link to autism. It withheld Verstraeten's findings, even though they had been slated for immediate publication, and told other scientists that his original data had been "lost" and could not be replicated.
I have searched Kennedy’s article including the “Thimerosal resource guide” page provided by Salon and I have not found one shred of evidence that the CDC paid the Institute of Medicine to “whitewash” any thimerosal / autism link. It’s certainly a very serious accusation that I am not prepared to take on Kennedy’s say-so (especially considering the dishonesty in the bits of his article I have been able to check).
I presume he’s referring to Institute of Medicine reports of 2001 or 2004 that stated that there is no link between mercury and autism. I guess it would be too much for Kennedy to show what is actually wrong with these studies, rather than making wild accusations of a cover-up. And too much to show what is wrong with this comprehensive review of the literature in 2004 that also failed to find a link. I guess so.
The article goes on to repeat the old “links to vaccine industry” ad Hominem that both Orac and I have debunked before, and also quotes the (flawed) studies by the Geiers (ditto). I won’t labor the point – you know Kennedy is using fallacious reasoning.
When I first read Kennedy’s piece, I was shocked that there had apparently been some kind of cover up about thimerosal. It seemed I would have to re-examine my previous views on the subject as all good skeptics should when new evidence appears. And that was even though I have full knowledge of studies in Denmark and Canada that show autism rates increasing even though thimerosal has been banned in those countries for years. Even though I knew this, the article still sounded convincing. So I can well understand people reading this article and believing it and being livid with the vaccination industry, the CDC and everyone else involved.
But I now know Kennedy’s article is a shockingly dishonest piece of crap from beginning to end. Dishonest and manipulative. He starts with sensationalist language to imply there is something wrong going on, softening up his readers for what comes next. The scene set he, frankly, lies about what happened at the meeting. (Either that or he didn’t read the transcript – your call.) And in the absence of evidence to back up his claim, I suggest Kennedy also made up the bit about the Institute of Medicine whitewashing any embarrassing results. Kennedy wrote his alarmist piece in the knowledge that very few people (in reality – virtually zero) would bother to read the lengthy transcript to find out what actually happened. It’s nothing short of shameful from someone who I had previously believed to have the highest integrity. My only question is, why? Perhaps he’s just losing it, I don’t know.
So does thimerosal in vaccines cause autism? Honestly, I have no idea although I doubt it – the increasing incidence of autism in Canada and Denmark despite bans of thimerosal would appear to falsify a causative link. But I do know that this piece of garbage from Kennedy has not advanced our knowledge. In fact it has probably put us back, as focus will be placed back on thimerosal rather than on looking for what really causes autism.
Update June 29, 2005:
Read the follow up article: Lies, damn lies, and quote mining – an expose of how Kennedy quote mined the IOM report to make it seem that it said the exact opposite of what it really said.