Almost exactly 13 years ago, Andrew Wakefield addressed a group of reporters in a conference room at London's Royal Free Hospital to discuss a 12-child case study he and some colleagues had written up positing a theoretical connection between the measles-mumps-rubella virus and gut disorders and then between those gut disorders and autism. Before the news conference began, Wakefield and four other experts had agreed that because the paper was so speculative, they'd deliver one overarching message: Further research needed to be done before any conclusions could be drawn, and in the meantime, children should continue to receive the MMR vaccine.
As I write in The Panic Virus (Simon & Schuster, 2011), once the tape recorders began to roll, however, Wakefield went dramatically off-script:
"With the debate over MMR that has started," he said, neatly eliding over the fact that he was, at that very moment, the person responsible for igniting the debate, "I cannot support the continued use of the three vaccines given together. We need to know what the role of gut inflammation is in autism. …My concerns are that one more case of this is too many and that we put children at no greater risk if we dissociated those vaccines into three, but we may be averting the possibility of this problem." [A short excerpt describing this news conference and detailing why case studies cannot be used to draw broad conclusions can be found here.]
The reporter and writer David Kirby uses a similar rhetorical trick in today's Huffington Post, in an article titled "The Vaccine-Autism Debate: Why It Won't Go Away." In the six years since Kirby published his book Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic - A Medical Controversy, he's become one of the main reasons this "debate" won't "go away." He's promoted the theory that vaccines might cause autism on Don Imus's radio show, he's appeared on Larry King Live, and he's debated public health officials on Meet the Press.
Again and again and again, Kirby has changed the "proof" he says is needed to demonstrate that vaccines are safe. In the epilogue to his book, Kirby quoted a parent saying that if the thimerosal theory was correct, autism rates should start to go down by 2005, which was four years after thimerosal had been removed from childhood vaccines. Then in 2005, he told Imus, "It's going to take another two years before we know whether [thimerosal] has been causing the rise." In 2007, autism diagnoses were still going up; since then, he's advanced an array of new theories. In his piece today, Kirby says that "the ranks of the devastated but convinced" who believe vaccines are to blame for their children’s autism will continue to grow because "there is nothing that anyone can do or say — not you, not me, not any scientist on earth — until definitive proof of all the true causes of autism is found." That, of course, is completely nonsensical: We don't need to know what does cause each and every case of autism to feel confident saying that certain things are not the cause. (By that logic, the long-discredited "refrigerator mother" theory — that autism was the result of emotionally frigid mothers — would still be in play.)
Kirby begins what is being billed as part one of a two-part series by describing how he’s "been speaking to young parents in my neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, lately about vaccines and autism. ...These are highly educated, affluent and politically progressive people—doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, writers and other successful professionals." Why is it, he asks, that "so many educated, successful parents still believe that the current vaccine schedule can hurt a small percentage of susceptible kids, and that some of those injuries might result in an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?"
One reason, of course, is that they keep reading stories that don’t acknowledge that the conclusions of hundreds of scientists who have studied data from millions of children is that there is no connection between vaccines and autism. Another is, as Kirby says, that many of these parents hear "evidence…from friends, family and business associates whose children had an adverse vaccine reaction, got sick, stopped talking and never recovered. It's a fact that many children with ASD regressed following normal development just as they were receiving multiple vaccines at regular doctor visits."
To state as fact that the children of these "friends, family and business associates" had "an adverse vaccine reaction" is irresponsible and untrue. What is true is that there are many parents who believe that their children had an adverse reaction. What is also true is that in many cases in which there is actual evidence—contemporaneous medical records, videotapes, etc.—as opposed to the anecdotes that Kirby is referring to, what parents remember occurring and what actually occurred are two different things.
Kirby has been employing similar sleights-of-hand for years. On May 23, 2009, I heard him speak at a conference sponsored by AutismOne, a group whose mission statement reads, "The great majority of children suffering from autism regressed into autism after routine vaccination. …Autism is caused by too many vaccines given too soon." He began his speech by telling the audience they were under siege. "This conference was described by The New York Times as 'an anti-vaccine conference,'" he said. "And, you know, when I read that I actually laughed out loud." That label, Kirby said, "is used as a weapon. It is used as a tool against people like me. And even though it’s a lie, it is so much easier to dismiss somebody if you think that they’re anti-vaccine."
Kirby's opening confused me: I'd been monitoring the Times for coverage of the conference and hadn't seen any. When he repeated his claim in a Huffington Post story, "Notes From the Big 'Anti-Vaccine' Conference," I decided to dig into the archives to figure out what I had missed. To my surprise, the Times had never mentioned the organization or its conferences by name in any context. Kirby's reference, it seemed, was to a sentence that appeared in the 36th paragraph of a 41-paragraph March 17, 2009 story about the offer by one activist to pay for some Somali immigrants living in Minnesota "to attend an anti-vaccine conference."
In today’s Huffington Post piece, Kirby once again creates an us-versus-them dynamic in an attempt to draw anyone who has ever worried about vaccine safety to his side. "Parents who say the vaccine-autism link has not been debunked are, like me, hardly 'anti-vaccine,'" he writes. "Why on earth would anyone not want to protect children from dangerous diseases? That is the epithet hurled upon most of them anyway. And it's what people will say about me as well, even though, as I said, I think parents should vaccinate their kids." Of course, he also "believes" that more than 7,500 Americans under the age of 21 suffer from "a vaccine-associated ASD [autism-spectrum disorder]" – and if that’s true, Kirby says, "their parents would be neither anti-vaccine nor lunatic fringe. They would be right."
Kirby, who worked in politics and public relations before he became a journalist, is an extremely persuasive messenger, but he seems not to understand that to engage in science is not to be ‘pro-’ or ‘anti-’ anything. By obscuring the difference between anecdotes and evidence, fomenting unfounded fears, and disguising tendentious tracts as objective analyses, he might be influencing public opinion, but he’s not helping the search for verifiable truth.
About the author: Seth Mnookin’s most recent book, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, examines the controversies surrounding autism and vaccines to explore how we decide what counts as truth. You can follow him on Twitter at @sethmnookin. His blog, as well as regular updates about the book and his public appearances, can be found on his website, www.sethmnookin.com.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.