Paul Offit is the Philadelphia cream cheese of the autism debate -- he smears so effortlessly. It was on page 149 that I finally had enough of his latest smear-fest, Autism’s False Prophets. I put the book down and thought of attorney Joseph Welch’s famous rejoinder to Sen. Joe McCarthy at the Army-McCarthy hearings:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. … Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Here is the passage that brought me to this point. Offit, chief of infectious diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is talking about Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who was telling Don Imus how his concern about environmental mercury contamination led him to look into the mercury used in vaccines.
“In his explanation to Imus, Kennedy had omitted a few facts about how he had became an activist,” Offit writes.
“In 1983, following a conviction for possession of illegal drugs, Kennedy was sentenced to two years’ probation, periodic drug testing, mandatory supervision by Narcotics Anonymous, and 800 hours of community service. He satisfied his community service by working for the Hudson River Foundation, now called the Hudson Riverkeepers. Later, Kennedy became its chief prosecuting attorney.”
Get the picture? Apparently Kennedy cannot be taken seriously because, a full 25 years ago, he got busted for possessing drugs. His entire public career is fruit of the poisoned tree -- drug addiction! Gotcha! Who knew? Never mind that his uncle, and then his father, had been assassinated on national television, that another uncle who has devoted his life to decent health care is currently dying from a brain tumor; never mind that he has since been involved in good works, and that the merits of his argument rise and fall independent of his resume. Nope, it’s good dirt and we’re gonna fling it -- Kennedy “omitted” telling Imus he was a drug addict with a criminal record a quarter-century ago; Paul Offit will be glad to remind you.
This is how the doctor operates -- character assassination. Anyone who disagrees with him, and dares to say so or even let someone else say so, is ripe for the Kennedy treatment. The list of those who violate Offit’s Law is therefore endless, running from the usual suspects like Andy Wakefield to the late Tim Russert (who never should have had David Kirby on, only the IOM president), from Neal Halsey (who never should have pushed to phase out thimerosal from childhood vaccines) to Joe Lieberman (who never should have said parents had an argument worth listening to). Bernardine Healy and the Polings? Nowhere to be found -- that would amount to picking on someone Offit’s own size -- but no doubt they have been dispatched to the dustbin of history as well.
Offit’s approach is not only ad hominem -- against the man, not the argument. It’s also extreme and inaccurate. There is no analogy too wild to wield against those whose scientific crime is holding a different opinion.
For instance, by the time he is done talking about the outrage of removing thimerosal from vaccines, he devolves into describing a woman trying to slash her breast with a razor blade. And what does this have to do with whether ethyl mercury is a good thing to inject into pregnant women? Well, because silicone breast implants were once taken off the market, even though there was nothing wrong with them, and one woman was so freaked out by the irresponsible media coverage that she took a razor blade and … you get the idea.
Then there are the plain old errors. As a journalist, I always look to see whether the things I know most about are correctly characterized, even if the author then goes on to analyze them differently than I would. If the facts I do know are right, that gives me confidence that the author is playing straight in areas I know nothing about.
Based on that, I’ve got no confidence in False Prophets. To start close to home, Offit spells my name wrong -- it’s Olmsted, not Olmstead. Also, I have practically memorized Leo Kanner’s 1943 study of 11 children, “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” So I knew something was wrong when Offit says it starts this way: “There has come to our attention a number of children whose condition differs so markedly and uniquely from anything reported so far …” I checked my dog-eared copy. The first sentence ever written about autism, and arguably the most important, starts like this: “SINCE 1938, there HAVE come to our attention …” Picky, picky? You make the call.
One reason Offit seems to feel free to attack others mercilessly is that it has been done to him. I for one have no personal animus toward him -- I’m sure his views are strongly held, based on what he believes to be the best interests of children and the importance of science versus uninformed and dangerous criticism. While the fact that he is a vaccine inventor and receives money from pharmaceutical companies needs to be taken into account, he’s been reasonably upfront about that (and the veiled and not-so-veiled threats he says he has received are despicable). I’m much more interested in opening up the scientific and advisory process to more sunlight and more groups -- including parents and independent researchers -- than I am in banishing Paul Offit because he invented a vaccine (banishing people from the autism debate is Offit’s strategy, actually).
He’s just wrong, that’s all, and not just on minor things. He says that mercuric chloride -- an inorganic mercury salt -- was used as an antiseptic starting in the 19th century but it was “unfortunately an irritant. Early in the 20th century, a new, more effective, less toxic derivative of mercury came into favor: ethylmercury.”
That is pure fantasy. No toxicologist would assert or agree that an organic alkyl mercury compound such as ethyl mercury is less toxic than an inorganic formulation like mercuric chloride. The two compounds are often used in scientific studies as exemplars of the vastly greater toxicity of organic mercury. This is not an arcane or complicated issue (in Offit’s language, it’s not really subject to question).
Offit in the past has made unsubstantiated statements that ethyl mercury is far less neurotoxic -- in fact, “a gentle bacteriostat” -- when compared with methyl mercury, the kind that gets into fish that pregnant women are warned not to consume. That’s folly, too (see Burbacher et al. about the greater amount of ethyl mercury that settles in the brain, or just recall Boyd Haley’s folksy formulation that the difference between them is “Oink” and “Oink oink”). But this is so demonstrably uninformed that it undercuts Offit’s entire argument. He simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and it’s plain to see on page 62. The guy’s a doctor, not a toxicologist, and the limits of his knowledge are everywhere on display.
Yet armed with a deep sense of outrage and a profound misunderstanding of fundamental facts, Offit believes he’s entitled to shout the rest of us down, smear those who won’t shut up and end the entire debate over autism and vaccines.
Thank God for the First Amendment. I have a feeling it’s one of Dr. Offit’s least favorites, and I bet he’s got enough dirt on the Founding Fathers to make a pretty strong case against it. Did you know Thomas Jefferson owned slaves?
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.