Robert F. Kennedy Junior has learned nothing in the last five years. Back in June 2005, Kennedy wrote a scare piece linking Thimerosal to autism, stating that scientists at a CDC meeting had spent days covering up this supposed link. I blogged then about how Kennedy’s article was totally dishonest, and followed up with a post about how Kennedy had quote mined the minutes of an Institute of Medicine meeting to make it appear that scientists were trying to cover up this same supposed link, although as I proved at the time, they were doing the opposite. (If you don’t want to read that whole post, just scroll down to the “Walt wants” section – the sleaziest piece of all of Kennedy’s sleazy quote mining, and worth a re-read in my totally unbiased opinion.)
Well, he’s back, and as nuts as ever. Last week he wrote Central Figure in CDC Vaccine Cover-Up Absconds With $2M – a headline that just by itself contains two falsehoods and an unproven assertion. Here’s what Kennedy is saying, in summary:
- Danish scientist Poul Thorsen was the central scientist behind studies showing that autism is not linked to Thimerosal or MMR
- These studies (by Thorsen) are the key studies the CDC relies on to disprove a link between vaccines and autism
- Thorsen has stolen a large amount of money
- Point 3 above means that the studies referred to in 1 and 2 above, are no longer valid.
Unfortunately for Kennedy, points 1, 2 and 4 above are demonstrably false:
- Thorsen was not a leading figure, but a junior author on the papers in question
- There are numerous other studies, apart from the Danish ones, that support there being no link between vaccines and autism. (In addition, Thimerosal was removed from vaccines in the US in 2002 and yet reported autism continues to rise.)
- The alleged fraud has no bearing on the studies anyway. Even if Thorsen stole money, and even if he were the lead author on the studies (which he wasn’t, but even if he were) this would not suddenly alter the studies so they now point to a different conclusion. (It’s a basic ad hominem fallacy.)
Also, point 3 is just an allegation. It may be true, but right now we really can’t say. Kennedy is talking nonsense.
It says a lot about the anti-vaccine crowd that when a leading figure in the MMR causes autism world (Andrew Wakefield), whose study really was the only one (the original, and not replicated) that supposedly implicated MMR – when that person is actually found guilty of medical misconduct in the actual study they are associated with – in that case the response of the anti-vax nuts is of course to support the proven unethical Wakefield. In that case, the guy clearly must be innocent and his studies must still be valid and good. However, when a relatively insignificant junior author of one paper among many replicated studies around the world is accused (just accused mind you – not proven yet like Wakefield) of dishonesty in a matter totally unrelated to the study in question – in that case, this puts the conclusions of all such studies into doubt. You have to wonder at the cognitive dissonance these people must suffer. Although that would at least explain the hysterical tone of Kennedy’s latest piece. While his 2005 article did at least give the impression it was written by an adult (albeit a dishonest one), Kennedy’s latest offering is astonishing in its lack of any attempt at a measured or even lawyerly tone. The falsehoods start in Kennedy’s first sentence:
A central figure behind the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) claims disputing the link between vaccines and autism and other neurological disorders has disappeared after officials discovered massive fraud involving the theft of millions in taxpayer dollars. Danish police are investigating Dr. Poul Thorsen, who has vanished along with almost $2 million that he had supposedly spent on research.
This is, of course, pure hyperbole (to be polite). The truth is that Aarhus University has recently detected a significant shortfall in their CDC grant money, and Thorsen is suspected of being to blame. Apparently, authorities are investigating the shortfall, but it’s a little early to be calling it a “massive fraud.” Right now, we just don’t know. And Thorsen has “disappeared”? Actually, no, he has just been unavailable for comment. (Hardly surprising.) But Kennedy won’t let this lack of a real scandal prevent his lawyerly mind from making this a prosecution. Watch how he runs with it:
Thorsen was a leading member of a Danish research group that wrote several key studies supporting CDC's claims that the MMR vaccine and mercury-laden vaccines were safe for children. Thorsen's 2003 Danish study reported a 20-fold increase in autism in Denmark after that country banned mercury based preservatives in its vaccines. His study concluded that mercury could therefore not be the culprit behind the autism epidemic.
Er, no, Thorsen was the sixth named author of one study relating to MMR and the fourth named author of a study on Thimerosal. I’m not sure what your definition of “leading” would be, but for me it wouldn’t be sixth out of a team of eight.
Also note Kennedy’s hysterical “mercury-laden” wording. No, they weren’t “mercury-laden,” they contained Thimerosal - a preservative that metabolizes to (amongst other things) ethyl mercury, an organic derivative of mercury. Kennedy writes like a 12 year old.
His study has long been criticized as fraudulent since it failed to disclose that the increase was an artifact of new mandates requiring, for the first time, that autism cases be reported on the national registry. This new law and the opening of a clinic dedicated to autism treatment in Copenhagen accounted for the sudden rise in reported cases rather than, as Thorsen seemed to suggest, the removal of mercury from vaccines.
This is wrong on many levels.
First, “Thorsen” didn’t suggest anything – he was a junior author of the paper, remember? Funny how, according to Kennedy, “Thorsen” is now the author, the one suggesting things. The others (including lead author Madsen) haven’t been accused of a crime, so they don’t count, I guess.
Second, the authors of the study did not fail to disclose the new way of counting. What Kennedy is talking about is that in 1995, the Danish registry added "Outpatient Clinics" to their count of autism cases – and since outpatient cases are supposedly where 93% of Danish children are diagnosed with autism, that would inflate the reported number of cases after 1995. But, the authors wrote in the “Results” section of their study (that I’ll link to, although Kennedy doesn’t):
In additional analyses we examined data using inpatients only. This was done to elucidate the contribution of the outpatient registration to the change in incidence.
So they didn’t fail to disclose this factor (as Kennedy claims), they actually specifically mentioned it. They also attempted to allow for it by doing a separate analysis that excluded the increase due to the outpatients. And even with this analysis, they still found an increase in autism.
As it happens, reported autism was increasing before 1995 anyway:
Kennedy just hopes you won’t read the study that he didn’t link to (and see that graph), so you won’t notice this.
(As an aside, I find it ironic and hypocritical that Kennedy says the Danish increases in autism don’t count because they’re the result of diagnostic changes and increased availability of services, and not a real increase in autism. When skeptics give the same reasons (increased diagnosis) for reported autism rising in the US, Kennedy writes (in his 2005 article) that this is “a theory that seems questionable at best.” Consistency was never one of Kennedy’s flaws.)
Third, the authors never suggested that the increase in autism was “accounted for” by the removal of Thimerosal, as Kennedy claimed. What they actually concluded was:
Our ecological data do not support a correlation between thimerosal-containing vaccines and the incidence of autism.
I guess that’s a bit too “sciencey” for Kennedy to understand.
Despite this obvious chicanery, CDC has long touted the study as the principal proof that mercury-laced vaccines are safe for infants and young children.
Again er, no. The CDC has not “long touted” the study (or even short touted it, for that matter) as its “principal proof” as Kennedy puts it. The Danish studies are just one of many. For example, here are some more peer reviewed studies from around the world:
And one more from Denmark.
Of course, none of these studies has Thorsen as an author so I suppose they don’t count either.
Mainstream media, particularly the New York Times, has relied on this study
This is a good one. Kennedy must hope that his readers won’t click that link because it takes you to a New York Times page that does not discuss Thorsen, Denmark, or anything related to that story at all. The link is actually to a story about Andrew Wakefield and the Lancet’s retraction of his terrible paper. Go figure.
as the basis for its public assurances that it is safe to inject young children with mercury -- a potent neurotoxin -- at concentrations hundreds of times over the U.S. safety limits.
Clearly not, or it wouldn’t be allowed now would it?
Thorsen, who was a psychiatrist and not a research scientist or toxicologist,
Unlike Kennedy, who is a fully qualified medical doctor and toxicologist. Oh wait, no he’s not.
parlayed that study into a long-term relationship with CDC. He built a research empire called the North Atlantic Epidemiology Alliances (NANEA) that advertised its close association with the CDC autism team, a relationship that had the agency paying Thorsen and his research staff millions of dollars to churn out research papers, many of them assuring the public on the issue of vaccine safety.
Wow, the CDC paid them to do some work for them. What a scandal.
Of course, we all know that lawyers work for free. As did Andrew Wakefield.
The discovery of Thorsen's fraud
Correction: alleged fraud. Come on Bobby – I know the science is a bit complicated for you to grasp, but you should know the lawyerey bits at least.
And even if the fraud accusation were true, it would still bare no relation to the study Kennedy is talking about.
[Repetitive accusations snipped]
Thorsen's partner Kreesten Madsen recently came under fierce criticism after damning e-mails surfaced showing Madsen in cahoots with CDC officials intent on fraudulently cherry picking facts to prove vaccine safety.
Kennedy gets even more sleazy here. Note that the lead author on the papers where Thorsen was a junior author, is now “Thorsen's partner.” From this very thin connection, Kennedy seeks to connect this story to some supposedly damning emails from Madsen. But even here, Kennedy can’t be transparent. The link Kennedy provides is to an article describing numerous things, the Madsen emails being only one. You have to read the whole article to find the link to the actual email within the article (strangely, linked twice, as though there were two sets of emails, not just one). To save you the time, I’ll link direct to the email in question. I’ll also save a copy on this blog too, just in case. Now, if you read the actual email (as I encourage you to do), you’ll be hard pressed to find what’s “damning” about them. As I read it, it’s just a CDC researcher asking Madsen for data on autism rates in Denmark (“did the rates increase dramatically from the late 1980’s into the 1990s”), and Madsen replying that no, they did not increase in the 1980s. Madsen goes on to say that they did increase after 1993 but that the aforementioned change in registration procedures could account for it. To repeat, this was something they reported on and attempted to control for in their paper anyway so it’s not at all “damning” except in Kennedy’s fevered imagination.
Leading independent scientists have accused CDC of concealing the clear link between the dramatic increases in mercury-laced child vaccinations beginning in 1989 and the epidemic of autism, neurological disorders and other illnesses affecting every generation of American children since.
Which leading independent scientists and what clear link? Surprise - Kennedy doesn’t say.
Also, note the pejorative “mercury-laced” wording. This is one of Kennedy’s favorite phrases. Of course the word “laced” has connotations of adulteration – secretly adding something improper. I guess it would be too much for Kennedy just to say “vaccines containing Thimerosal.”
Questions about Thorsens's [sic] scientific integrity may finally force CDC to rethink the vaccine protocols since most of the other key pro vaccine studies cited by CDC rely on the findings of Thorsen's research group.
As I showed above, no they don’t.
These include oft referenced research articles published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the New England Journal of Medicine and others. The validity of all these studies is now in question.
Nonsense. The validity of these studies is not in question.
There have been numerous other posts from the anti vax world (eg this post at the crank Age of Autism blog) crowing about this, but Kennedy’s piece is the most absurd (and that’s saying something) of them all. Of course, Orac wrote an excellent post on this yesterday - Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on Poul Thorsen: The fine art of distraction from inconvenient facts, that you should read. Journalist Brian Deer left a comment that is better than anything I could write to summarize Kennedy’s juvenile style, so I’ll just finish with it:
What struck me about the Kennedy article was the poor calibre of the person who wrote it. I'd naturally assume that someone with those family connections would have some sense of measure in their language, and a general demeanour of intelligence and professionalism. I believe he may have been to law school, also, and have some sense of the difference between, say, a falsehood and a lie, or between "missing" and "couldn't be contacted". Little things, which you find, for example, in the Philadelphia Inquirer report, which was, plainly, the work of an intelligent professional.
But there was none of that. It was like it was written by a college sophomore. Oozing malice and prejudicial, unsupported assertions, it was just of such poor quality. Like you, I've no idea about this Thorsen guy, who is plainly not a major player in the relevant research, but I was shocked by the hysterical tone of this man Kennedy's contribution. It's plain that neither Olmsted nor Kirby are professional journalists, but I'm just left wondering why the heroes of vaccine-autism believers are all of such meagre talent. It's kind of sad really.