Back in the 1970s when I started as a full-time journalist, I covered the usual beats – police, fire, the courts, city hall, in my hometown on Danville, Ill. (That's me in a contemporary rendering from, gosh, 40 years ago this new year.)
I’d show up at what we called “the cop shop” at about a quarter to seven in the morning, copy down arrest reports, make the other rounds and then go back and write them up for that afternoon’s paper. If I had time and the cops were in the mood, I’d check in with them on what was going on. There was one detective who always seemed to know. On his office wall, although I didn’t focus on it at the time, was a dollar bill that had been cut up in small pieces and reassembled in the shape of a question mark.
One day, someone came to us and told an amazing story, one that was kind of hard to believe. He said that earlier in the decade, a number of police officers, some of who were still there, had been involved in a burglary ring. They would break in somewhere – backing their cruiser through the bay of an auto body shop, say, or busting out the glass in the door of a drugstore. They’d take what they wanted, and then they’d call in the incident. So not only would they get the dough, or the bottle of Scotch, or the new car battery, they’d get the credit for discovering the break-in.
This was interesting -- in fact, it was sensational -- but how would you prove it, especially at this late date? That’s when “the source” said something that really made me pay attention: One detective who knew about the burglary ring found a way to remind everyone of it, he said. That detective took a dollar that he suspected had been stolen in one of the break-ins, cut it into small pieces, made it into a question mark, framed it and put it on his office wall. Suddenly, I realized he was telling the truth.
I went back and looked at what, if anything, had been written at the time about suspicions that the cops were crooks. The only thing I found was an editorial – from my own paper! – saying that murmurs that some cops were doing bad things were scurrilous, and if anyone had information to the contrary, they should come forward.
It’s a long story, but based on information we developed from this new source, a grand jury convened, called witnesses including the cops under oath, and issued a report. The report named officers who participated in the burglaries – one category – or who knew and had a duty to report it – a second category. The statute of limitations had expired, but the naming and shaming was a necessary purgative, since some of these names were still police officers. It needed to be known.
The upshot: Sometimes, “conspiracy theories” are true. Sometimes, the bad guys get away with it, abetted by the idea that such a claim seems so unlikely and so unfair to those who put their lives on the line every day.
Now let’s talk about autism. We’ve been publishing articles and comments lately about bad ideas that perpetuate the autism epidemic, and one of them is that a vaccines-autism link is a “conspiracy theory,” end of discussion. Daily Kos, as I’ve written, called it a CT and won’t let in any such comments. The idea that vaccine safety concerns are just a fancy name for "anti-vaccine" and are kooky has really become a meme.
This meme links vaccine-autism concerns, 9/11 trutherism and Sandy-Hook-never-happened into one big lump and expect those of us concerned about vaccine safety to try to explain how we got such a crazy collection of counter-factual ideas.
I can’t be responsible for every speculation or hypothesis, but I can tell you this, based on four decades of reporting, the last one centered on autism: Vaccines do cause a major portion of the autism epidemic, and some version of a coverup and conspiracy – not a “conspiracy theory” – is part of the picture. There are people in important places who have “breathed together” (co-inspired; con-spiried) to subvert the public’s right to know.
What conspiracy, you say?
The conspiracy by the CDC-funded National Institute of Medicine panel, whose leaked minutes showed it wouldn’t cross the line to say vaccines were involved, no matter what the evidence.
The conspiracy by the public health and pharma insiders convening at Simpsonwood to bury the already flogged-to-death data showing mercury in vaccines was a huge risk for autism.
The conspiracy by William Thompson and his colleagues dumping raw data into a wastebasket after they had twisted it into obscuring a link between the MMR and autism.
The conspiracy by Wyeth employees distributing DPT vaccines randomly to keep another SIDS cluster from being linked to a bad lot. The conspiracy by Merck scientists using rabbit blood and their own chicken-scratchings to doctor the data that proved mumps vaccines didn’t work any more.
The conspiracy to muddle the fact that the autism rate has soared since 1988.
This is not the generic “conspiracy theory” nuttiness that vaccine safety apologists attribute to us. This is not a claim that “every single pediatrician” involved in a grand coordinated effort to damage children and hide the truth.
This is the real, no-air-quote deal, a conspiracy/conspiracies and cover ups by a relative handful of deeply conflicted and implicated people, working together in formal and informal ways to save their skins, and their precious vaccine ideology, at the expense of everyone else’s and, ultimately, the vaccine program itself.
And just like my old newspaper, the media says that’s all ridiculous and if someone has any evidence, let them produce it (actually, it’s the media’s job to go get it!). My own belief is that the media sneer and slack because they haven’t, for whatever reason, actually seen or recognized what a conspiracy looks like up close. They’re too cozy with the potential conspirators and too keen to get a slice when the dollar is carved up.
It's a failure, among other things, of imagination, of moral clarity, of connecting the dots, a failure that has cost us in so many ways over these past many years.
My point is, it’s not that I see “conspiracies” everywhere. But I do know they can happen where you least expect it, I do know what they look like, and I do know how they can persist. The effort to hide the truth about autism and vaccines involves enough people to bury the data, enough people to know about it and do nothing, and enough people to claim, or be convinced, it’s “a conspiracy theory” that should be suppressed instead of taken seriously. That's not thousands of people.
And it's not a “conspiracy theory.” It’s a conspiracy. One really Good Idea for stopping the autism epidemic is to expose it for what it is, and the new year is a good time to renew our commitment to doing so.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.