Dec 05 2007

Kirby Moves the Goalpost Again on Vaccines and Autism

We predicted it, and it has come to pass. Now that the evidence has laid to rest the dubious claims that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism, the antivaccine crowd is already planning the next phase of their pseudoscientific attack on vaccines. In a recent Huffington Post article, David Kirby writes:

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?

At least now Kirby is admitting defeat on the thimerosal issue. He writes:

Finally, to all those who are going to post comments about the autism rates in California not coming down, following the removal of thimerosal from most vaccines: You are right. The most likely explanation is that thimerosal was not responsible for the autism epidemic. But that does not mean that it never harmed a single child.

Considering how shrill Kirby was in insisting that thimerosal was the cause of autism, including all the cries of conspiracy and malfeasance, this is quite an admission. It also should make a reasonable person wonder why Kirby should be taken seriously at all. But Kirby is not quite ready to give up on thimerosal completely. He is still holding out that future data will show thimerosal played some role, and he claims that we won’t really know the effects of removing thimerosal until 2011 (even though previously he was citing 2007 as the date).

But as we see, and as Orac and other science bloggers who have been following this issue have been saying, it has always been about the vaccines, not the thimerosal. And now that the evidence has so thoroughly been against thimerosal as a cause of autism the anti-vaccine crowd is beginning to ring the warning bells about the other ingredients in vaccines, whatever they may be.

But the primary focus of Kirby’s most recent rant is to play the conspiracy mongering game of inferring ulterior motives behind the actions of others, and making sinister implications from innocent premises. For example he writes:

Even officials at the CDC, who traced an e-coli outbreak to a single patch of California spinach within months, cannot say if autism is actually on the increase or not.

What is the implication here – that the CDC has very powerful epidemiological muscles, so if they are waffling on the question of the incidence of autism they must be hiding something. Actually, this is also a false premise, the evidence clearly shows that the apparent increase in autism rates is due to a broader definition and greater surveillance – something Kirby and the antivaccinationists simply refuse to acknowledge.

Kirby presents three recent developments that, in his active imagination, are evidence that the government really knows there is an association with vaccines an autism (of note, Kirby has seamlessly shifted from talking about thimerosal specifically to talking about vaccines in general). About an upcoming study of factors that may contribute to autism Kirby writes;

But the question remains, and I think it’s legitimate: If an association between vaccines and autism has been completely “ruled out,” then why are we spending taxpayer dollars to study autistic children’s vaccination history?

The answer is simple – to be thorough. Scientists are skeptical by nature, so they like to be thorough, even including unlikely variables in their analysis. As a physician I often order studies that have a low probability of being abnormal, just to be thorough. Also, since the question of vaccine has been controversial (even if it is a false scientific controversy) it never hurts to put one more nail in that coffin.

Also, Kirby is playing a post-hoc “heads I win, tales you lose” fallacy. If the study did not look at vaccines he would have characterized that as a cover up (in fact he simultaneously makes that argument because the study is not looking at thimerosal specifically – because it is already gone from routine childhood vaccines). So if they study it, that’s an admission of a coverup. And if they don’t study it, that’s a cover up. Kirby wins either way.

About the addition of antivaccine ideologues to a panel on autism research, Kirby writes:

Which again begs the question: If the debate over vaccines and autism is over, then why did the Feds appoint two people to this important new panel who will relentlessly push for more taxpayer dollars going into research of vaccines and autism?

It is misguided to include irrational ideologues on the panel just to appease them – it never works. It didn’t work when the CDC included representation from the mercury militia in conducting this study, as I previously reported. But again Kirby is just assuming what he wants to assume. Including representatives from all sides in a controversy is typical in science – a way to work out differences and arrive at a consensus. Unfortunately, the antivaccinationists are not interested in evidence or consensus, just their anti-vaccine ideology. The Fed’s vice here, if anything, is being naive. But Kirby plays at pot-hoc analysis and again sees what he wants to see.

Finally, Kirby sees much that is sinister in the fact that the Feds conceded one of the cases in the Autism Omnibus Proceedings – test cases for those who have sued the vaccine compensation program claiming that their child’s autism was caused by vaccines. Kirby writes:

And, the source noted, “By conceding ‘significant aggravation,’ I think DOJ is trying to avoid ever having this case go to hearing on the underlying causation issue.”

Kirby is claiming that the Feds are conceding the case because they know they will lose this one. This is simply absurd – the same evidence will be brought to bear on all the cases. There simply is no credible evidence to support the claim that vaccines cause autism. Some cases may be easier than others, where there is evidence of symptoms of autism prior to getting vaccinated – but even in the worst case scenario the Feds have a tight case against these claims.

Kirby notes that the Feds are specifically NOT conceding that vaccines caused or led to autism in this case, only that they aggravated the symptoms. Kirby then treats this legal maneuver as if it were scientific evidence – extrapolating wildly that then the government is admitting vaccines are “associated” with autism, and shouldn’t they be studying it and warning parents.

Insurance companies and lawyers strategically settle malpractice cases all the time, even when they know their client is innocent. Some cases are just not worth fighting. Kirby has absolutely zero reason to assume that the government conceded because the evidence was somehow magically a “slam dunk” for this case. He doesn’t say what that evidence could possibly be.

And this is how Kirby builds his case that the autism-vaccine debate is “anything but over.” First, by swapping “vaccine” for “thimerosal,” while, sort of but not quite, admitting that he was totally and completely wrong about the whole thimerosal causes autism claim. Second by using some creative conspiracy-mongering post-hoc analysis to make it seem like the government is admitting secret knowledge that, despite all the scientific evidence, vaccines really are linked to autism.

What Kirby does not have are any actual facts or scientific data to support his position. He tries to put forward the same discredited nonsense the antivaccine crowd has been using (clearly showing that he is not learning here), citing unscientific phone surveys as if it were evidence.

At least he provides another example for skeptics of what happens when you start with a desired conclusion and then try to work backwards, cherry picking evidence, torturing logic, and white washing the whole thing with conspiracy thinking.

10 responses so far