One Sunday in Virginia, I met the most prolific defamer the vaccine lobby has ever dumped on the blogosphere: David Gorski, MD, Ph.D., a.k.a. “Science”Blogs' “Orac.” For years, I had known Gorski through his inarticulate, verbose online rants hurling insults and innuendo at anyone who dared suggest any vaccines could cause a particular side-effect while dismissing such concerns out-of-hand, especially safety concerns about the mercury-based, neurotoxic vaccine preservative thimerosal. In Chicago in 2010, he called me out by name and said I was a “young punk” for revealing his connections to Sanofi-Aventis through his university. I certainly never met him before.
Then on March 9th, 2013, the National Capital Area Skeptics hosted a lecture at the National Science Foundation in Arlington County, Virginia titled “Quackademic Medicine.” The speaker was none other than Dr. David Gorski and the subject of his talk was how complementary and alternative medicine (CAM for short) was “infiltrating” academic medicine, a merger he referred to as “quackademic medicine” – the title of his talk, or rant for lack of a better word. He targeted many practitioners and promoters of CAM including Jenny McCarthy, Suzanne Somers, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, Dr. Stanlislaw Burzynski and Dr. Andrew Weil. His talk was peppered with innuendo throughout. Gorski also claimed that a vaccinated vs. unvaccinated study would be unethical – never mind the fact that the vaccine schedule as a whole has never been studied for long-term health outcomes.
Interestingly, I was not the only person in attendance who disagreed with Gorski. During Q/A, someone asked why Gorski defends food derived from Genetically-Modified Organisms (GMOs), noting the lack of safety data in humans. Gorski’s answer was:
“All foods are genetically modified.”
Perhaps Gorski’s simplistically dismissive answer can best be explained by the 30,000-euro grant he received directly from Bayer – a pharmaceutical company that not only used thimerosal in its Rh-immunoglobulins, but also produces GMO seeds.
I was asking an entirely different question, one that pertained to a post I had written in November about David Gorski's failed 2005 promise to acknowledge thimerosal might cause autism if a decline in autism prevalence occurred before 2015.
Remarkably, Gorski later claimed he “completely missed” this post about him. Yet, at the time it ran, he and I had a back-and-fourth exchange on Twitter where he accused me of “quote-mining,” but wouldn't elaborate further.
Eventually, I got to ask my question:
“Going off vaccine denial that was mentioned earlier, you said back in 2005 that if the autism rates went down before the year 2015 that you would admit that there at least would be some pretty good epidemiological evidence that there might be a connection between thimerosal and autism. Now that that’s happened in one of the reported states – states reported by CDC – in 2012, do you believe thimerosal might cause autism or will you admit that you broke your promise.”
As I was saying “...do you believe...,” Gorski started cutting me off:
“Did it happen in the rest of the country? Did it happen in the rest of the country?”
I responded to the first of nine questions that he would ask me in response to my one question to him. “CDC does not track the rest of the country,” I responded. Rather than “handwave” or “Gish gallup” as Gorski claimed I did, I directly answered every serious question he asked. In contrast, he was nervously pacing back-and-fourth and cut me off several times while desperately searching for a question to ask that would stump me. He never found that question.
I stopped answering his questions when he finally asked, in an obvious attempt to belittle me, “What's three years after 2001?”
Someone else answered, “2004,” which elicited laughter.
“What's six years after 2007?”
Another person replied, “We're skeptical about the math,” to which the audience responded with yet more laughter. According to Gorski's later account of this incident:
“Amusingly, Jake Crosby makes an appearance in Q/A. Hilarity ensues as he is totally pwned by speaker.”
In reality, the audience – totally lost at this point but, amused by Gorski's invocation of first-grade math – cracked up.
As with his previous questions, Gorski was unable to connect this back to any coherent point and instead simply repeated what he tried to claim at the beginning of our exchange:
“So, what was it...So...you had...”
“The answer is...no, the epidemiology does not support...you had one state, it's not clear what happened, everywhere else, the rates are still going up or stable.”
“CDC does not track 'everywhere else.'”
Then someone cut me off to ask, “Can we move on? We have a question waiting!”
Ignoring me, Gorski moved on to the next questioner.
After Gorski's talk, I was approached by the questioner who asked him the GMO question. He complemented me on my question, noting how impressed he was with the ease with which I answered Gorski's string of questions. As we were talking, the Skeptics' event organizer came up to us and shook our hands, introducing himself and saying that as a skeptic, he welcomes dissenting questions like ours. He also invited us to come back for future skeptic events and further invited us to partake in the social event after Gorski's talk.
This was a stark contrast to how I was treated by the other “skeptics” group – the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the Center for Inquiry (CFI-DC) – which barred my entry to a book talk that millionaire vaccine industrialist Paul Offit gave for CFI-DC.
I partook in the social event following Gorski's talk, only to see him surrounded by audience members. I decided to give him his space for a while and wait until other event-goers were done talking to him.
Eventually, however, I confronted him again:
“I didn’t know ‘everywhere else’ was a geographic location.”
He just scowled back at me.
I told him that the autism prevalence was not just going down in Alabama, but also Denmark since the authors admitted thimerosal was removed before the paper was published with the opposite conclusion. When I brought up that Poul Thorsen was principal investigator who was indicted on fraud, Gorski denied he was principal investigator.
“It’s on the NANEA website; look it up for yourself,” I told him. NANEA, or the North Atlantic Neuro Epidemiology Alliances, was the research organization Poul Thorsen ran before he disappeared with millions of dollars he allegedly stole.
Gorski disregarded this, responding: “Where is his name listed in the byline? The middle! He’s not the first or last author!”
“But it says so on his own NANEA website!”
“He’s not first or last author on the study! So he was not principle investigator on that study!”
“But when you cited that paper coauthored by Andrew Weil, you said it was clearly him that wrote it, even though he was neither the first nor last author listed.”
“Yes, but I never said he was principal investigator.”
“Poul Thorsen said so himself that he was principal investigator in email.”
Then Gorski changed his argument:
“But that doesn't mean that he played a leading role on the study, which he didn't.”
Then what does “principal investigator” mean but just that, someone leading the research? Gorski had gone from denying Thorsen was principal investigator because of where his name was listed to tacitly admitting that he was and instead said he simply didn't play a leading role because of where his name was listed. Yet, Gorski insisted Dr. Andrew Weil was the brains behind a paper Gorski criticized in his talk, even though Dr. Weil was neither listed as the first or last author.
In retrospect, Gorski said that was a good argument I made, albeit in his usual condescending way. On his blog, he wrote in a comment about me:
“He tried to make hay about an article from Andrew Weil’s group in which Weil was the second of three authors and I pointed out how I saw this as Weil’s paper. I’ll give him that; he was fairly clever there.”
Of course - leading role or not - Thorsen was party to the fact that the latest data in his study implicated thimerosal by showing that autism incidence and prevalence decreased after the poison's removal from vaccines. Furthermore, he was involved in the decision as to not include it in the final, published version.
Since Gorski was clearly losing when it came to dealing with actual facts, he tried to find a quick excuse to dismiss everything I said:
“You don't know what you're talking about. Have you published before?”
“Then you clearly don't know what you're talking about!”
I reminded him of my academic background, affiliation and concentration in epidemiology.
“You know who I am,” I told him. It was not a question, as Gorski claimed.
He replied angrily, “Of course I know who you are! That’s how I know you don’t know what you’re talking about!”
According to Gorski’s account about my response to this insult:
“His only response to that was to tell me I was lying, after which I was done with him.”
In fact, that was not my response, much less my “only response.” Instead, I revisited the relationship between thimerosal and autism, asking him:
“You know, how can you dismiss decrease in Alabama – a state actually monitored by CDC – yet in early 2008 break your promise about waiting until 2015 for any drop in autism prevalence to say mercury in vaccines as a cause of ASDs was a “failed hypothesis” because the autism prevalence did not yet go down in very young children in California's administrative database?”
California's administrative database maintained by the California Department of Developmental Services, it should be noted, is not a real surveillance system for monitoring autism prevalence, unlike the CDC's.
Gorski had nothing left to say. Knowing that he was getting backed into a corner, he responded: “I'm not going to argue this with you!”
Some “skeptic” he is. So I called him out:
“You can't argue this with me because you've got nothing to say. The government has covered up...”
That was when he cut me off and took a giant step away from me, proclaiming:
It was the words “covered up” that got to him, not his fictitious account of me calling him a “liar.” As I previously told him, there was a cover-up of autism incidence and prevalence declining in Denmark after the removal of thimerosal there.
In the meantime, the event organizer who shook my hand earlier witnessed this exchange with a rather embarrassed facial expression.
I told him:
“Well, that didn't last long!”
Later on his blog, Gorski tried to excuse himself from fulfilling his 2005 promise to consider thimerosal’s role in causing autism by citing an extraneous detail of the CDC’s latest report that was pointed out to him in the comments by someone in his fan base:
“In retrospect, I think I was way too generous, but there it is. Now, Jake seems to think that I am a liar because he found numbers showing a 40% decline in ASDs among African-American children in Alabama that is almost certainly due to problems in case ascertainment rather than a true decrease. Based on that, he thought I should retract what I said nearly eight years ago. I, of course, do not.”
Ironically, in the previous CDC report of autism prevalence in Alabama, the prevalence was higher in African-American children compared to Caucasian children. So it certainly does not seem like African-American children were being undercounted by comparison as Gorski suggests. It is quite likely the decline happened in regions of the state that just so happened to be predominantly African-American and may have had nothing to do with the racial make-up of those areas at all.
Regardless, in making his promise, Gorski never specified that autism prevalence must go down in the entire United States, a specific region of the country or across all racial/ethnic groups – just so long as there was a decline in the US. He simply said that if autism rates go down in the country by 2015, he would admit thimerosal might be implicated in causing autism. Not only did he never make good on that promise, but in 2008 he did silently retract that promise without ever acknowledging so when he wrote a blog post for “Science”-Based Medicine titled:
“Mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): A failed hypothesis”
The basis for this blog post was a study from California which showed that autism continued to increase in very young children as of early-2007. In spite of the fact that the database used was not a real surveillance system as Gorski himself noted at that time or the fact that the results were premature and unconfirmed as the study authors themselves admitted, he still proclaimed of the report that:
“It is yet another nail in the coffin of the medical myth that mercury in vaccines causes autism.”
No wonder he refused to “argue” about it with me when I brought up this uncomfortable fact to him after his talk. He can’t logically use what’s happening “everywhere else” as an excuse to dismiss CDC’s surveillance statistics from one US state when he previously proclaimed mercury in vaccines causing autism was a “failed hypothesis” because of premature statistics from the non-surveillance database of just one other US state. He especially can’t say this when the decline in Alabama is the first statistically significant decline in autism prevalence ever reported in any state monitored by the CDC, which occurred in children born during the first year after the government and pediatric academy’s joint statement to remove thimerosal from childhood vaccines as quickly as possible.
Jake Crosby has Asperger Syndrome and is a contributing editor to Age of Autism. He is a 2011 graduate of Brandeis University with a BA in both History and Health: Science, Society and Policy. He currently attends The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services where he is studying for an MPH in epidemiology.