Jun 02 2009

More Backpeddaling from David Kirby

Published by under Uncategorized
Comments: 30

Maybe David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm and one of the major proponents of the notion that thimerosal in vaccines was largely responsible for the recent increase in autism diagnoses, is sincere when he claims he is not anti-vaccine. I say that because he has backed so far off from his stance that vaccines are the culprit – not completely, and without overtly acknowledging his past errors, but has put some significant distance between him current position and his prior certainty.

In his 2005 book Kirby asks the question:

Did the injection of organic mercury directly into the developing systems of small children cause irreparable harm? It’s a plausible proposition, and a hugely important question. If the answer is affirmative, someone will have to pay to pick up the pieces.

He coyly insists he was just asking questions, but the book makes a strong and, in my opinion, one sided case that there is “evidence of harm” – specifically evidence that thimerosal was a major contributor to autism. It also builds a case for a grand conspiracy to hide this fact from the public. Kirby then made a career out of promoting the notion of a link between vaccines and autism with government and professional malfeasance. He became a hero of the anti-vaccine movement.

Yet he insisted, implausibly, he was not “anti-vaccine.” As recently as December 2007 Kirby was writing this nonsense in the Huff Po:

But if thimerosal is vindicated, or shown to be a very minor player, then what about other vaccine ingredients? And what about the rather crowded vaccine schedule we now impose upon families of young children? And what about reports of unvaccinated children in Illinois, California and Oregon who appear to have significantly lower rates of autism? Shouldn’t we throw some research dollars into studying them?

By this time the handwriting was on the wall – thimerosal in vaccines is not linked to autism.  After moving the goalpost several times on the evidence, it could be moved no longer. The removal of thimerosal from the routine vaccine schedule by 2002 was followed by a continued increase in autism disgnoses – without even a blip. The predicted (by Kirby and others) precipitous decrease in autism diagnoses never came.

Kirby and the anti-vaccine crowd moved quietly over to the other ingredients in vaccines, in what has been called their “toxin gambit.” This move, more than anything else, is what convinced me that this was all really about being anti-vaccine. The MMR vaccine was vindicated. Now thimerosal was vindicated. So there must be something else in those vaccines that’s the problem – even though there is no evidence to link vaccines at all to autism.

Now Kirby has quietly backed off even more. He writes:

I believe that most ASD cases have environmental triggers (probably more than one) that activate certain genetic predispositions (again, probably more than one) and create some of the symptoms that we call “autism.” I also believe that vaccines may have played a role in triggering some – though certainly not all – cases of regressive autism. Even if that number is a small minority, it seems sensible to me to study the mechanism of action, in hopes of finding clues to the development of autism in all those other children.

Kirby is slowing moving over to the position of the scientific community he has so long criticized for not listening to parents and being blind to the true causes of autism.  He’s not quite there yet, but now it is mostly a matter of emphasis. His position now seems to be that autism is a complex set of disorders with many genetic and environmental contributions. Congratulations – that is what scientists have been saying for years.

But Kirby has gone from – it’s the mercury, stupid to OK, mercury is bad, but there are other toxins in vaccines too, to scientists need to focus more on environmental triggers (but don’t forget about vaccines).  Even though vaccines “may have played a role” in “some” cases of autism, even if a “small minority” Kirby wants to make sure scientists are aware that this could be an important clue to the mechanism of autism. Thanks for the tip, Kirby.

That sure is a long way from claiming that thimerosal in vaccines was responsible for an autism epidemic. Don’t get me wrong – I am not criticizing Kirby for changing his position in response to new evidence. That is a good thing. I am criticizing him for being so far behind the curve while simultaneously promoting an already discredited theory and contributing to unwarranted fears about vaccines that is leading to demonstrable harm. And I am criticism his lack of transparency – slowly changing his position without overtly admitting past error, and arrogantly pretending as if he and the parents he claims to defend are pushing scientists in the right direction.

He writes:

I believe that the study of environmental triggers – other than vaccines – can provide some sorely needed middle ground in what has turned out to be one of the most contentious and vitriolic issues of our day. That doesn’t mean that research into genes – or vaccines – should or would stop. But it might provide for a way forward from here.

So now Kirby believes he is the beacon of light to show science the way forward. The scientific community has done well to just ignore Kirby and his ilk while they continue to do what they do best – think carefully and deeply about the evidence in the context of biological plausibility and let that be their guide. Scientists have been following their noses, and it has been consistently bearing fruit. Kirby and the anti-vaccine crowd have done nothing but provide a harmful distraction.

It is Kirby and others who have made this such a “contentious and vitriolic issue.” How disingenuous of him to decry that now, as if the scientific community had anything to do with it.  Now setting himself up as the peacemaker, Kirby writes:

People who ask questions about vaccine safety are now being called “pro-disease.” Some are supporting censorship of any talk about vaccines and autism. Yet many of these same voices balk and squawk at the very idea of researching potential factors like mercury from coal, live viruses, pesticides, aluminum, formaldehyde, jet fuel and many other toxins.

Calling Jenny McCarthy “pro-disease” is indeed hyperbole, but it is not inaccurate. She herself said:

I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe.

Call that sentiment what you will – she is OK with preventable diseases coming back until her arbitrary criteria for vaccine safety are met.

Further, neither I nor any of my colleagues are supporting censorship. Criticizing someone for expressing wrong and harmful opinions in public (and capitalizing on their fame) is not the same thing as saying they should be censored. This is not and has never been about censorship.

We are also not in the business (unlike Kirby) of telling the research community what they should or should not be researching. That is up to the experts to decide, and it is up to them to get funding for their research by convincing other experts that their ideas have merit. (I am an academic neurologist, and even I would not presume to tell autism experts what to research.) What we criticize is quite the opposite – it’s journalists and business majors telling scientists what they should research based on misinformation and hysteria.

So to summarize – after being a major force in helping create an atmosphere of controversy and distrust between some elements of the autism community and scientists who are honestly just trying to find answers, Kirby now decries that very atmosphere. He has reluctantly moved his own position from thimerosal to other toxins in vaccines to other environmental triggers, and now has the temerity to portray himself as the reasonable middle-ground.

The scientific community is right to just ignore Kirby and the mercury militia, and they would do well to continue to do so. The public interest is best served when science, not politics, determines the direction of scientific research – especially not the politics of fear, division, and conspiracy mongering.

30 responses so far

30 thoughts on “More Backpeddaling from David Kirby”

  1. daedalus2u says:

    It is disingenuous verging on fraudulent for Kirby to protest about “censorship”, when his blog (and all the others in the anti-vaccine cult) routinely censors all opposing viewpoints simply because they disagree with his message.

    It is now a badge of honor to be blocked by Jenny McCarthy on twitter.


    The blogs that don’t censor are all on one side of the “debate”; that would be the side that wants to find the real answer which will only happen by considering all the facts using valid logic.

    The recent murder of a health care provider following years of vicious and violent hate speech directed at him must raise concerns by those in vaccine and autism research who have received death threats. Maybe Kirby’s latest shifting of the goalposts is an attempt to distance himself from something like that.

  2. superdave says:

    The more I read about this issue the more it sounds like creationism. You got the young earth creationists (the 100% anti vaccine people), and the guided evolution people (the people who just want to spread out the vaccine schedule but are not anti vaccine) and everything in between. On the AoA website, people don’t move their goalpoasts, rather, everyone on the site seems to have their own goalpost.

  3. the_skeptical_samurai says:

    Excellent Blog Dr. Novella

    as always thank you for fighting the good fight!



  4. HHC says:

    daedalus2u, Unfortunately healthcare providers performing their legal duties in the U.S. are in receipt of terroristic threats from their fellow Americans. Dr. Tiller died as a true soldier in the state of Kansas. He implemented healthcare procedures allowed by U.S. law in an attempt to reduce harm to women.

  5. Skeptico says:

    FYI, this is the link to Kirby’s article quoted above: Notes From the Big “Anti-Vaccine” Conference

  6. Ack – I forgot to include the link. I added it back in the original post. Thanks.

  7. RickK says:

    I echo d2u’s disgust with the blatant dishonesty of the disease proponents for claiming they’re being censored.

    Superdave is absolutely right. Any movement that actively censors rational opposition from its website comments is simply trying to defend its intellectual dishonesty. The Pro-Disease Quacks (PDQs?) are identical to the creationists in this regard.

    The unwillingness to even hear a dissenting opinion is an all too common characteristic of a cause that is based on faith, not reason.

    I wonder if Jenny McCarthy realizes how much her movement looks like a fundamentalist religion?

  8. KR says:

    I also found that comment interesting: “Some are supporting censorship of any talk about vaccines and autism.”

    There is a Facebook group named “Ban Jenny McCarthy from speaking about Autism” but even that is largely populated by supporters of her position. Comments there are rarely even on the core topic, and I strongly doubt that any of the participation has been removed, censored or even moderated. I’ve been personally researching the topic of the autism/vaccination allegation since the mid ’90s (reviewing for personal reasons, NOT performing research) and I have never heard or read of anyone who wants to censor as described above.

    daedalus2u: That’s an excellent point. It reminds me of the time I decided to try posting to AoA. I was even being relatively polite. I managed to make one pro-vac comment before being ridiculed, banned, and declared a plant from that mythical government/vaccine industry conspiracy. Somehow I don’t think AoA is the censorship Kirby was openly worrying about.

  9. ozzy1248 says:

    So with the new research showing that there are genetic links to autism:


    what are these anti-vac proponents claiming? Vaccines are the catalyst? Vaccines are still a contributor?

    This research by no means closes the door on the causes for autism, but it at least shows a correlation between genetics and the condition.

    I realize that they will rationalize their beliefs/worldview with any nonsense they can (i.e. creationists), but don’t the credible one’s at least have to acknowledge these findings?

  10. eiskrystal says:

    This has another feature of creationism. That is the amazing ability to become more and more wishywashy in your claims until your position cannot be disproved…but by this point it’s so vague it is meaningless.

    When creationists are pushed they go from testable and stupid claims down to…i feel something…in the universe…somewhere…let’s see you disprove that. And when you can’t that vindicates their original stupid claims again for them.

    Kirby is doing the same thing…he has not let go of his original concept at all. He has merely washed most of the stains out for public viewing. The vaccine message is still in there…and will always be there…he’s just playing politics to please others.

    You cannot have respect for such people.

  11. stompsfrogs says:

    Yeah, Kirby’s still at the same level as the creationists who paraphrase the strong anthropic principle. We gotta water him down to deism.

  12. stompsfrogs says:

    I got timed out. Very sorry if this is a double-post.

    O/T but:

    Steve! We’ve lost local ground!! There used to be a billboard on 95N @ exit 40 in Milford that I was so proud of. It read, in big black letters on a yellow background, “DID YOU KNOW THERE IS A RISK OF STROKE WITH CHIROPRACTIC ADJUSTMENT?” and now some asshole bought them out and it says “Discover chiropractic! Live free from drugs!” or some other bullshit. We need to have a fundraiser to buy it back!! You must know some awesome famous people. I can get everybody at my work to go.


  13. mindme says:

    I eagerly await to see this quote mine:

    …the book makes a strong …case that there is “evidence of harm”…

  14. HHC says:

    stompsfrogs, How about a big hazard sign that states ” DID YOU KNOW THERE IS A RISK OF STROKE WITH COCAINE! “

  15. stompsfrogs says:

    Yeah, and see if they do the same thing? “Discover cocaine! Live free from chiropractic!”

  16. HHC says:

    stompsfrogs, Freud did that well.

  17. HHC says:

    By the way, Freud developed a cocaine addiction while it was still legal. During his lifetime, his favorite drug became quite illegal. His medical condition was extremely poor when he died.

  18. artfulD says:

    By the way, HHC, aside from the pointlessness of your cocaine references, Freud’s death had little or nothing to do with cocaine.

    From Wikipedia: A heavy cigar smoker, Freud endured more than 30 operations during his life due to oral cancer. In September 1939 he prevailed on his doctor and friend Max Schur to assist him in suicide.
    Schur administered three doses of morphine over many hours that resulted in Freud’s death on 23 September 1939.

    Now of course if he had come to someone like you for relief, you could have just croaked him with a couple of neck cracks.

    By the way, that last line of yours may become a classic: “His medical condition was extremely poor when he died.”
    Yes, death is one of the poorest medical conditions you can aspire to.

  19. stompsfrogs says:

    I am absolutely failing to see the connection.

    Let’s talk about something more awesome if we’re going down the random path. Like zombies!

  20. HHC says:

    artfulD, My source was a more recent published biographical book. Your addition to the discussion assures us that he had multiple addictions. The results of these addictions leaves a person extremely neurologically impaired.

  21. artfulD says:

    HHC, what the hell did any of that have to do with the price of tea in Austria? Chiropractic as an antidote to addiction? How “more recent” was the source of your information on that? The Uncle Remus Tale of the Snake Oil Salesman, 1881?
    Why don’t you reveal your connection with Chiropractic practice and stop pretending otherwise.

  22. bigfrozenhead says:

    I am no fan of the anti-vaccine hysteria I call the “New McCarthyism,” and I love what you are doing to champion the cause of science and common sense. But I had a little trouble with this part–I don’t think you can draw the conclusion from this particular quote.

    “Calling Jenny McCarthy “pro-disease” is indeed hyperbole, but it is not inaccurate. She herself said:

    I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe.

    Call that sentiment what you will – she is OK with preventable diseases coming back until her arbitrary criteria for vaccine safety are met.”

    What if we replaced the idea with, say, a hazardous intersection and traffic accidents?

    “I do believe sadly it’s going to take some traffic accidents to realize that we need to change and develop intersections that are safe.”

    That doesn’t mean that a person is okay with traffic accidents. Just that they think they recognize a problem.

    It’s not a perfect analogy, I get it. And I don’t even think she’s right when she says that. I’m not defending Jenny McCarthy–quite the opposite. I think we need to do all we can to stop the New McCarthyism and all the fundamentalist anti-vaccination, anti-science wackos.

    But I don’t think you can draw the argument that Jenny McCarthy is pro-disease from that particular quote. I think what you can say is that in her mind, there is a problem with vaccines.

    If their side loses points for sloppy argument, our side does too.

    Am I wrong?


  23. frozenhead – I think that is a false analogy. The purpose of safer intersections it to prevent accidents, not some unintended consequence.

    Here is a better analogy. Someone thinks that seatbelts are not safe and campaigns against their usage. Their concerns are not backed up by evidence. While seatbelts are proven to reduce fatalities from car accidents. They they argue against seatbelt laws, go after big auto, attack anyone who defends the effectiveness of seatbelts, and essentially do everything they can to reduce compliance with seatbelts. Then say – sure more people will die in car accidents but it’s the auto industry’s fault for not making safer seatbelts and listening to our concerns.

    It may be hyperbole – but it is logically accurate to say that someone who is anti-seatbelt is pro-fatality. That is not their intent, but it is the functional equivalent of their position.

  24. Diane Henry says:

    I love the seatbelt analogy and think you can take it a little further (someone has got to have thought of this already)–Using a seatbelt doesn’t guarantee that you will survive a collision. But not using one in a collision generally has pretty bad consequences. Can we not also use that analogy for vaccines? ie Having a shot doesn’t guarantee that you will never get that preventable disease. But not getting the shot has pretty bad consequences.
    Imperfect analogy in terms of herd immunity (and too many double negatives), but maybe pretty good for the individual?

  25. bigfrozenhead says:

    Airbags might be a better analogy, still. When they first came around, many people thought they did more harm than good.

    “It may be hyperbole – but it is logically accurate to say that someone who is anti-seatbelt is pro-fatality. That is not their intent, but it is the functional equivalent of their position.”

    The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think the quote you cite fully illustrates her overall position, and someone who doesn’t know more about Jenny McCarthy and her shenanigans might see this as a gross over-exaggeration.

    But maybe I’m wrong.

  26. kim spencer says:

    Dr. Novella,
    What’s your take on this science?

  27. HCN says:

    The website you pointed to is an anti-vax site, and that particular post is a classic cherry picking. A quick look on PubMed for “Japan vaccine autism” brings up more recent and relevant information. Especially since the graph stops at about the time, 1995, when Japan removed their MMR.

    They stopped using their version of the MMR in 1993, and saw a return of measles (with the death of over 80 people), and an increase in autism. Two more recent papers are:

    J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2005 Jun;46(6):572-9. No effect of MMR withdrawal on the incidence of autism: a total population study.
    Honda H, Shimizu Y, Rutter M…..
    “CONCLUSIONS: The significance of this finding is that MMR vaccination is most unlikely to be a main cause of ASD, that it cannot explain the rise over time in the incidence of ASD, and that withdrawal of MMR in countries where it is still being used cannot be expected to lead to a reduction in the incidence of ASD.”


    J Autism Dev Disord. 2007 Feb;37(2):210-7. Links
    MMR-vaccine and regression in autism spectrum disorders: negative results presented from Japan.
    Uchiyama T, Kurosawa M, Inaba Y. …
    “It has been suggested that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) is a cause of regressive autism. As MMR was used in Japan only between 1989 and 1993, this time period affords a natural experiment to examine this hypothesis. Data on 904 patients with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) were analyzed. During the period of MMR usage no significant difference was found in the incidence of regression between MMR-vaccinated children and non-vaccinated children. Among the proportion and incidence of regression across the three MMR-program-related periods (before, during and after MMR usage), no significant difference was found between those who had received MMR and those who had not. Moreover, the incidence of regression did not change significantly across the three periods.”

    By the way, Japan is still not vaccinating for mumps, so it is now endemic. Which is why there is another survey type study that shows the rate of deafness from mumps is now one in a thousand:
    Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2009 Mar;28(3):173-5. .
    An office-based prospective study of deafness in mumps.
    Hashimoto H, Fujioka M, Kinumaki H; Kinki Ambulatory Pediatrics Study Group. …
    “CONCLUSIONS: The incidence of hearing loss in children due to mumps was 7/7400 (approximately 1/1000 cases), which is higher than previously suggested. Prevention of deafness is another important reason for assuring universal immunization against mumps.”

    Which explains why when mumps was imported to the American Midwest from the UK in 2006, over four people lost their hearing out of an outbreak of less than 3000 reported cases. See:

    It seems that the “childhealthsafety” website is deliberately misrepresenting the real data.

    Japan’s experience with vaccines is often misreported in support of the agenda of those who demonize vaccines. One classic is the notion that the rate of SIDS went down when Japan delayed vaccinating for pertussis until age two. The truth is that more babies died, it was just that since they had not received the vaccine it could no longer be blamed. See:
    Expert Rev Vaccines. 2005 Apr;4(2):173-84.
    Acellular pertussis vaccines in Japan: past, present and future.
    Watanabe M, Nagai M. …
    “An antivaccine movement developed in Japan as a consequence of increasing numbers of adverse reactions to whole-cell pertussis vaccines in the mid-1970s. After two infants died within 24 h of the vaccination from 1974 to 1975, the Japanese government temporarily suspended vaccinations. Subsequently, the public and the government witnessed the re-emergence of whooping cough, with 41 deaths in 1979. This series of unfortunate events revealed to the public that the vaccine had, in fact, been beneficial. Furthermore, researchers and the Japanese government proceeded to develop safer pertussis vaccines. Japan now has the most experience worldwide with acellular pertussis vaccines, being the first country to have approved their use. This review describes the major events associated with the Japanese vaccination program. The Japanese experience should be valuable to other countries that are considering the development and use of such vaccines.”

    I hope you find this information useful when you are evaluating the information you find on various websites. It always helps to go back to the original source by using the PubMed index.

  28. HCN says:

    Oh, rats… I forgot the link to the website on the 2006 American mumps outbreak:

  29. HCN says:

    I am familiar with the “childhealthsafety” webpage from the BadScience forum. I also know that the lawyer who owns it, Clifford Miller, really really hates me.

    So the following quote is not me, from:
    “What is so funny is that Clifford Miller, having done some BsC or equivalent in Physics before he realised there was more money to be made in lawyering and defending antivaxers and helping vaccine damage cases, thinks he knowsmore about clinical medicine than Ben, a qualified medical practitioner, and more about science than one of the doctors who has been instrumental in educating the public about the scientific method (Ben again).

    “Mr Miller’s froth on Child safety site and CiF display the worst forms of “anti-science” I have ever seen.
    He starts with a supposition, selectively looks for corroborating peer-reviewed evidence, finds none and ignores evidence that disproves his hypothesis. So he then looks for other less valid forms of corroborating evidence, finds precious little, but boasts about it as though it amounts to incontrovertible proof. In addition he manipulates data and statistics in a way that would make the Geiers blush, cherry picks data, misquotes authors, deliberately distorts evidence and worst of all, even when shown the error of his ways he continues to repost the same drivel again and again like a whack-a-mole on acid.”

    The cherry picking, the manipulating of data and distorting of data was on that most recent page.

    It is also featured prominently on this blog, which was created because the JABS forum bans folks who do not comply to the groupthink, just like at Age of Autism:

Leave a Reply