One of the most pernicious medical myths of recent years has been the claim, promulgated by a subgroup of parents of autistic children and facilitated by scientists of dubious repute, that somehow the mercury in the thimerosal (ethyl mercury) preservative used in common childhood vaccines in the U.S. until early 2002 causes autism. Although it had been percolating under the radar of most parents and scientists for several years before, this belief invaded the national zeitgeist in a big way in 2005, beginning with the publication of a book by journalist David Kirby entitled Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. The fires of hysteria were stoked even higher by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who published a truly twisted and misleading piece of pseudojournalism and pseudoscience published simultaneously in Rolling Stone and on Salon.com entitled Deadly Immunity. Relying primarily on quote-mining of the transcripts of both a conference held Atlanta by the CDC to discuss the question of whether autism is related to thimerosal in vaccines and an Institute of Medicine report on vaccines while simultaneously misrepresenting the results of two studies by Verstaeten et al to paint a false picture of a government coverup, RFK Jr. almost single-handedly managed to stoke fears that vaccines were causing an “epidemic of autism.”
I say “almost” single-handedly, because, unfortunately, he had help. Relying on the dubious research of a variety of investigators, such as the father-and-son team of Dr. Mark Geier and David Geier, whose prodigious output of badly designed studies emanating from a lab in their home in suburban Maryland, done using a rubberstamp institutional review board stacked with friends and cronies to approve the studies, and published for the most part in non-peer-reviewed journals, activists loudly insisted that mercury in vaccines was the cause of most autism. Others claiming to demonstrate this link include Boyd Haley, a chemist from the University of Kentucky, and a few other vocal scientists and advocates, who claim that autism is, in essence, mercury poisoning. Facilitating the dissemination of this message were reporters such as David Kirby, activists such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and media personalities such as Don Imus. Indeed, some activists claimed that some vaccines were “poisoning” our children, even going so far as show photos of autistic children with the label “mercury-poisoned” underneath them on placards held aloft at protest rallies. They made quite a splash then, and still do to a lesser extent even today. There’s just one problem.
“Who am I? Why am I here?”
Who could forget that memorable quote from Admiral James Stockdale, candidate for Vice President running with Ross Perot in 1992, during the first Vice Presidential debate? In a way, as the seemingly junior member of the crew of bloggers assembled here at Science-Based Medicine, I feel as though I should be asking that question, although I hope that, in the weeks to come, I won’t end up giving the same impression in comparison to the rest of the august crew here as Admiral Stockdale unfortunately did during his debate with, of all people, Dan Quayle. No, I don’t want to be leading readers to wonder just what on earth Steve Novella was thinking when he invited me to blog here as a weekly regular. It doesn’t matter that I’m an NIH-funded surgical researcher who’s also been funded by the Department of Defense and the American Society of Clinical Oncology. All that says is that I’m pretty good at science and cancer research (or, if you’re more cynical, that I’m really good at persuading study sections that I do worthwhile research). Without a track record comparable to that of my co-bloggers writing about the issues that this blog will highlight, you might ask: Why should I be taken seriously?
“Either homeopathy works or controlled trials don’t!”
—Scottish homeopath David Reilly at the 2001 Harvard Medical School Complementary and Integrative Medicine Conference.
Reilly based that assertion on his own series of four small studies of homeopathic treatments of hay fever, asthma, and allergic rhinitis, the outcomes of which had been inconsistent and largely subjective. (1) Later he explained that small-minded skeptics in “conventional medicine” assume “homeopathy doesn’t work because it can’t work,” a view echoed by conference host Dr. David Eisenberg, then the Director of the Center for Alternative Medicine Research and Education at Harvard Medical School (now of the Osher Center); these comments were met with appreciative laughter from the partisan audience. If such charges were valid, it would indeed be fortunate that Harvard Medical School, several other medical schools, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) are promoting homeopathy, both as a clinical method and as a topic worthy of research.
A recent web feature produced by the New York Times tells the story of Chris Kilham, “The Medicine Hunter.” Specifically it recounts his thoughts on the use of maca, a root native to South America, “said to have energy and libido enhancing properties,” according to the piece. The brief piece reflects the current attitudes popular in the public and promoted by mainstream media reflecting a false dichotomy between medicinal plants and pharmaceuticals. This false dichotomy is extremely counterproductive and ultimately harmful to consumers.
Kilham represents this false dichotomy when he says:
“My goal is to have more people using safe, effective, proven, healthful herbs, and fewer people using toxic, overly expensive, marginally effective, potentially lethal pharmaceutical drugs.”
There are many unwarranted assumptions in this statement. It seems to be implying that herbs are inherently more safe, less toxic, and more healthful than pharmaceuticals. It also assumes that there is a real difference between the two. Therefore Kilham seems to be saying something meaningful when he is actually just reflecting biased assumptions. This is made clear if we simply reverse his statement. Most people, for example, would agree if I said that “My goal is to have more people using safe, effective, proven, healthful pharmaceuticals, and fewer people using toxic, overly expensive, marginally effective, potentially lethal herbs.”
Science-Based Medicine is a new daily science blog dedicated to promoting the highest standards and traditions of science in medicine and health care. The mission of this blog is to scientifically examine medical and health topics of interest to the public. This includes reviewing newly published studies, examining dubious products and claims, providing much needed scientific balance to the often credulous health reporting, and exploring issues related to the regulation of scientific quality in medicine.
The philosophy of this blog, at its core, is simple: Safe and effective health care is critical to to everyone’s quality of life; so much so that it is generally considered a basic human right. The best method for determining which interventions and health products are safe and effective is, without question, good science. Therefore it is in everyone’s best interest for health care to be systematically evaluated by the best science available.
Too often the nature of science itself is misunderstood or misrepresented to the public. Science is not an arcane and privileged discipline. By its very nature it is meant to be transparent and public. Science is nothing more than a systematic and careful use of evidence and logic to evaluate factual claims. And good science possesses certain virtues that are not unique to science but generic to all intellectual endeavors: fairly accounting for all available evidence, using valid and internally consistent logic, using unambiguous concepts and language, proper use of statistics, being quantitatively precise and accurate, and above all being honest.