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David Kirby’s suspension of disbelief

December 3rd, 2008 · 21 Comments · Critical thinking

Autism blogger ThoJ has written this open letter to anti-vaccine blogger David Kirby which perfectly captures how the former war correspondent has twisted the journalistic enterprise into something is was never meant to be.

But first some context. Kirby is the author of Evidence of Harm, an anti-vaccine page turner that has arguably discouraged thousands of parents from vaccinating their children. The book alleged that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative once found in scheduled pediatric vaccines, is responsible for a precipitous rise in autism diagnoses since the 1980s. The thesis is flawed in several ways. First,  there is no compelling evidence that the increase in diagnoses is due to anything more than a broadening of diagnostic criteria, increased physician and lay awareness of the disorder, wider availability of services and other factors apart from vaccines. Second, even though today’s five year olds are far less likely to have ever received thimerosal than kids born 10 years ago, the incidence of autism has not declined

But Kirby soldiers on, aided and abetted by the mob mentality he helped create. And though he left journalism long ago for the green pastures of public relations, he still carries a scent of the ink-stained scribe, the tireless investigator, seeker of justice. It’s an astonishing performance made possible by the willing suspension of disbelief of his fans, and the news media’s easy addiction to fabricated controversies. ThoJ’s letter is in response to this November 28 entry on Huffington Post, where Kirby tries yet again to link vaccines to autism.


Believe it or not, this is meant as constructive commentary.

You need to reformulate your approach, and this post proves it.  You have slipped entirely from journalism into public relations and low-grade blogging.  Looking over this post, it should be clear even to those who don’t already know it that you aren’t working from sources anymore.  You aren’t quoting sources at all in the above.  The reason, which you should make clear, is that your sources are so annoyed with the way that you have garbled the message of mitochondria and autism that they don’t return your emails and calls.  You have not only muddied the water, but you have made it more difficult for real journalists to work with the experts in this field.

Your weak attacks on Dr. Offit are made from a position of considerable weakness.  Yes, you’ve given disclosure of how much money you’ve made from your autism related activities–but you’ve given only partial disclosure.  Who is paying you?  You left that part out, David.  Who is paying you?  Is it enough to make a difference in the way you present your messages?  Why do you go on the radio and state that autism takes away from your day job, and then claim that autism has been paying your rent for many years?  Something that pays your rent *is* your day job.

When you present your mangled version of the facts to congress, why don’t you have a conflict of interest statement discussing who is paying you?

Your mish-mash of poorly understood facts and past interviews are pieced together to continue a message that you don’t have the scientific acumen to put together, let alone lead others into believing.  You really need to leave the world of yes-men and yes-women and ask some real experts in the field to give you a blunt assessment of your efforts.  It will be difficult to listen to, but the stakes for our community (not your community – our community) are too high.

If you want to talk about retractions, how about a really strong, clear post devoted to the fact that your book of the rise in autism diagnoses being linked to thimerosal is bunk, plain and simple. How about apologizing to all those kids who have been and are being needlessly chelated based on a message promoted by you and your team of scientific illiterates?

I am sorry to put this so bluntly – but you don’t know what you are talking about.  Seriously, you don’t know what you are talking about. The experts aren’t talking to you because they’ve seen how you can take on this topic as your own personal hobby horse and make massively irresponsible statements.

David, you left real journalism many years ago.  Maybe it could be in your future again, but  it surely isn’t in your present.

I recall a Seinfeld episode that reminds me of the position that Kirby finds himself in. George Costanza had proposed marriage to Susan, and her parents were meeting their future son-in-law for the first time. Susan’s parents are rich, and talk about their cottage in the Hamptons. Not to be outdone, George says that he, too, has a place in the Hamptons. The parents are skeptical, and in the ensuing back and forth George commits to driving his future in-laws to Long Island to see his house, which of course doesn’t exist. Toward the end of the show, there’s a very funny exchange in the car. Susan’s mother sees a fruit stand and says “George, we should stop and get some flowers if we’re going to be staying at your house in the Hamptons!” George replies, “OK, you want to take it up a notch? We’ll stop and get some flowers!”

In 2005, Kirby wrote that if autism rates don’t decline among 3-5 year olds by 2007, then he would have to reconsider his hypothesis. Of course 2007 came and went, Kirby said Chinese industrial pollution and crematoriums keep California’s numbers from falling, and he’s moved the date to 2010, or 2012, or 2020. It doesn’t matter. He placed his bet and he lost.

However, like George Costanza, Kirby will keep taking it up a notch. He only has two choices, really: admit that the centerpiece of his recent career is based on a big mistake, or “take it up a notch”, hoping we won’t notice.



21 responses so far ↓

  • 1 ThoJ // Dec 3, 2008 at 1:51 pm


    thanks for hosting this. I posted a short comment on David Kirby’s blog noting this blog post.

  • 2 ThoJ // Dec 3, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    David Kirby is being very selective in which of my comments he allows.

    I hope this recent one get’s through:

    “David Kirby seems to be implying that all mitochondrial autism is vaccine-damage.

    If Mr. Kirby were in touch with the community, or even keeping up on public comments by the very researchers he used to use as sources, he would know that is definitely not the case. He would know that the term “rare” is used for vaccine injury in this subpopulation.

    Yet another example of why blogging on very specialized subjects without a medical background or access to good sources is dangerous.”

  • 3 alyric // Dec 3, 2008 at 7:25 pm

    I didn’t know that David had been a journalist. Lord, when he spoke about investigating the autism rate in Somalia, I had him pegged as a PRflack and a pretty second rate one at that. How ignorant can you get?

    Pity ThoJ’s post didn’t make it through the censorship. I really dislike that. It’s a cheap shot but a pretty accurate guide to the overall confidence in their own arguments. There’s not that much confidence there apparently.

  • 4 autblog // Dec 3, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    I sense panic.

  • 5 John Fryer // Dec 4, 2008 at 11:09 am


    So what is your take on the cause of autism and the current 12 million children in USA with permanent health problems?

    It would seem a good idea to leave the experts to sort out this mess but then again if they were experts how come 1 in 3 suddenly is unhealthy?

    Mercury is a catalytic destroyer of brain cells at the concentration of just one vaccine evenly diluted through the body.

    Mercury is currently in 17 of the USA vaccines given to the infant even before birth via shots for the mother and further can receive his first mercury shot direct at age 6 months.

    Not even the doctor, regulators and goverment think this is good. So why do it?

  • 6 autblog // Dec 4, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Mercury is all around us. A child consumes 400 mics of methyl mercury from breast feeding during the first six months of life. According to you, most children are brain damaged.

  • 7 ThoJ // Dec 4, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Mercury is currently in food. For example, the food that JB Handley’s company manufactures and sells.

    Has Mr. Handley ever addressed the problem of distributing mercury to children and pregnant women? Has he come to terms personally and/or publicly with the idea that there is a threshold value below which mercury is not toxic?

    Obviously his company has, as they still distribute the food and no mention is made of attempting to rid the foods they sell of mercury.

    As to my position on children (AND ADULTS) with autism–they deserve respect and support. In many cases, they need a lot of support.

    So, what is your take, Mr. Fryer, on the strong possibility that there are a large number of undiagnosed adult autistics? If you want to act as though they don’t exist, please start with a reference to an actual prevalence study on adults indicating that there is a low incidence amongst adults.

  • 8 Joe // Dec 4, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Why anyone want to risk the exposure to Mercury humans, no less children, and dogs and cats, considering it is the second most toxic element on earth, next to plutonium, is the question that those who want a complete ban thimerosal ask. They point out that the dirty little secret the vaccine producers don’t want you to know is that no safety studies have been performed on the chemical, as required by Federal law, for any proposed drug now entering the market because the regulatory agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or rather its ancestors, did not regulate drugs for safety at the time of its introduction as a vaccine preservative. What happened was that thimerosal was grandfathered, along with other pre-FDA approved drugs, into FDA era drugs. The only evidence indicating that thimerosal might be safe is the results of epidemiological studies (i.e., population studies) in which data are extracted from medical records and the massaged data are used to calculate statistics, which claim the mercury detractors, may be of dubious quality.

    I believe that the safety issue would be resolved by conducting a double-blind human safety study, required by the FDA for new drugs entering the market for, on thimerosal (treated) vaccines involving tens of thousands of subjects, ages from birth to five years.

    Such a safety study, in my opinion, would put the thimerosal controversy to rest once an for all, one way or another.

  • 9 isles // Dec 4, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Joe, I’m delighted to learn you’re looking to avoid all mercury exposure. Have fun on the Moon. We promise to miss you.

  • 10 alyric // Dec 4, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    Maybe on the moon, Joe can access pubmed for all the safety studies done on vaccines. There are apparently 1800 plus.
    That of course ignores the many in kind safety studies there have been – like no link between vaccines and autism full stop. Take the thimerosal out and would you look at that – the autism rates went up.

  • 11 ThoJ // Dec 4, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    The moon is also going to have mercury also.

    It is also not the second most toxic element. One need only do a little more than read “Evidence of Harm” to find that out.

    But, if Joe wants to call for a ban on, say, the soy-based products that JB Handley’s Genisoy company produces (which, like everything on earth, contains mercury), I’d like to see him post the response he gets from the good Mr. Handley.

  • 12 ThoJ // Dec 4, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    For what it’s worth:

    the Huffington Post deleted my comment linking to this post and discussion.

    I guess direct criticism was OK for whoever approved the comment at first–but someone decided it was too much to leave on the website and deleted it.

    On his blog, only David Kirby is allowed to ask the tough questions.

  • 13 Patrick // Dec 5, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    I wouldn’t call any of his questions tough, rhetorical bovine excrement,Yes, but tough? No.

    Disinformative, Yes, almost always.

    Nice to see the usual whiners trying to go off topic with their Hg phobia.

  • 14 passionlessDrone // Dec 6, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Hi AutismNewsBeat –

    I’m still waiting for you to provide some pre and post licensure trial information for Prevnar, Pediarix, or ProQuad that shows a less than 5% fever rate. As someone who complains about being censored on Huffington Post; I’m sure you won’t censor this post, and in fact, you can’t say that people are keeping you from posting a response to your own blog. I look forward to reading your references.

    – pD

  • 15 autblog // Dec 6, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Hi pD –

    Sorry to hear you are being censored on HuffPo, but how is that relevant to whether I allow or disallow your comment? As long as you remain reasonable, and avoid dangling your participles, you are welcome at ANB.

  • 16 Joe // Dec 7, 2008 at 6:26 am

    That mercury defender is so stupid that he is an insult to stupid people. I do feel sorry for his one and only brain cell. He needs to give it a rest.

  • 17 Prometheus // Dec 10, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    I’m curious. Where would Joe put uranium, polonium and beryllium on the scale of “toxic elements”? Does he even know the toxicity of plutonium?

    I suspect that poor Joe is just parroting what he’s heard on the Internet.

    This is just the usual pretzel-shaped argument made by the mercury-causes-autism cultists – that since mercury is a known toxic element, it can cause pretty much any disorder we decide to blame it for.

    Yes, mercury is a toxic element – that’s why only very small amounts were ever allowed in vaccines and part of the reason why the FDA decided to remove it from children’s vaccines.

    However, mercury has never been shown to cause autism. It has been shown to cause a lot of other disorders (in sufficient doses), but never autism. If you want to blame mercury for autism, as David Kirby has, you need to show that it can actually cause autism.

    In addition, the removal of mercury from children’s vaccines has had zero effect on the rise of autism prevalence, as reported by various educational and social services agencies. Surely that suggests that the mercury in vaccines had little or nothing to do with the rise in autism prevalence.

    Even if Joe and his fellow flock-mates squawk “There are still trace amounts of mercury in children’s vaccines!” or “Children are being exposed to mercury when their mothers are vaccinated!”, they still can’t argue with the fact that the mercury exposure (from vaccines) to young children (and fetuses) is far less now than it was prior to 2000.

    And even if the mercury exposure from vaccines has only gone down by 90%, we should still have seen a drop (or at least a leveling-off) in autism prevalence. We haven’t. So what does that say about David Kirby’s favorite hypothesis?


    That seems simple enough, even for a parrot like Joe.


  • 18 Joe // Jan 21, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Prometheus, you have been sniffing too much mercury vapor.

  • 19 HCN // Jan 22, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Wow, Joe, it took you a whole month to come up with that pithy reply. Perhaps you should spend the next month trying to understand what Prometheus actually wrote.

  • 20 kat // Jan 31, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    As with radiation, there is no “safe” threshhold for mercury. There is always damage, it is simply a question of how much.

  • 21 autblog // Feb 1, 2009 at 9:21 am

    If there is no “safe” threshold for mercury, then why is there life on Earth? Mercury is everywhere.

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