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Tue Dec 4, 2012, 09:11 PM

The mummer’s farce that was the Congressional autism hearing last week



Last Wednesday, I took note of an “old friend” and (thankfully) soon-to-be ex-Representative from Indiana’s 5th Congressional District, organized quackery’s best friend in the U.S. House of Representatives, Dan Burton. Specifically, I noted that Rep. Burton appeared to be having his one last antivaccine hurrah in the form of a hearing about the “autism epidemic” in which it was clear that vaccines were going to feature prominently. Fortunately, this quackfest took place a mere five weeks before his long and dismal tenure in Congress. I also noted how antivaccine groups, in particular the merry band of antivaccine propagandists over at Age of Autism, were going nuts over this hearing. I had considered writing a bit about it the day after it happened, but then I thought I’d let things germinate a bit a few days. Boy, am I glad I did, because the antivaccine crowd over at AoA has been in a fine lather the last three or four days. Between trying to convince people that just because an antivaccine crank who happens to be a Congressman managed to persuade the current chair of a committee that he used to chair to hold a hearing right before he leaves office for good it must mean that Burton’s views are something other than pure pseudoscience and conspiracy mongering. In reality, the hearing was more than likely simply a last gesture from a good ol’ boys’ club humoring one of its retiring members.


From an antivaccine standpoint, perhaps the “highlight” (if you can call it that) was Mark Blaxill’s testimony. You remember Mark Blaxill, don’t you? He’s a businessman who thinks he can do epidemiology and science and ends up doing about as well as you would expect; i.e., not very well at all. He’s also a member of the board of SafeMinds, one of the more vocal antivaccine groups out there. There’s a very good reason why I like to refer to him as Mark “Not a Doctor, Not a Scientist” Blaxill. If you want to get an idea just how bad he is when it comes to attempts to do science, you have need look no further to last year, when the not-so-dynamic duo of Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted merrily confused correlation with causation for polio, trying to demonstrate the polio vaccine doesn’t work. (It does.) There are, of course, many other examples, but that one stands out as a particularly hilarious one.

Not surprisingly, his testimony (complete with slides!) in front of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was…underwhelming. Actually, from a scientific standpoint it’s even worse than usual, beginning with the tired and long debunked claim that autism didn’t exist before 1930. Apparently someone needs to remind Blaxill yet again that just because there wasn’t a name for a condition before 1943 and apparently Leo Kanner didn’t find any cases before 1930 does not mean that the condition didn’t exist before 1930. Let’s put it this way. If you don’t have diagnostic criteria and name for a condition, you won’t find it. Actually, you might find it, but you won’t call it the same thing that it is called after there is a name. Look at it this way. Before the 1920s, physicians didn’t routinely measure systolic and diastolic blood pressures. Does that mean that hypertension didn’t exist before 1920? Yet that is exactly the sort of argument that Blaxill is making.


Fortunately, in the end, Dan Burton’s little mummer’s farce is just that—a mummer’s farce. It’s a kabuki play, stylized, with each actor playing his or her role. There were the requisite cranks complaining about how Congress isn’t funding the crank research that they want funded, in particular their favorite, the “vaxed versus untaxed” study. There were CDC and NIH officials, who were, unfortunately, poorly prepared to deal with antivaccine misinformation, distortions, and tropes, for antivaccine Congressmen to beat up on publicly in classic (and dishonest) political theater that dates back to the Joseph McCarthy era and before. (Hint: If you’re going to testify at a hearing like this, take the time to learn the attacks that will be lobbed your way and how to respond to them.) There was nothing unexpected, and this whole show was put on to entertain antivaccine audiences and to try to sway the undecided. I suspect that even Dan Burton’s fans know that once he leaves Congress there is, fortunately, no one else to take up the vaccine-autism pseudoscience cause in Congress, and that is a good thing indeed. May it be a long time before anyone who is as big of a crank and supporter of quackery finds a seat in the Congress

Two replies below contain two other articles about this farce of a hearing. I am so thankful that the resident woo-pusher in Congress, Burton, is on his way out. May he never be replaced.

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Reply The mummer’s farce that was the Congressional autism hearing last week (Original post)
Godhumor Dec 2012 OP
Godhumor Dec 2012 #1
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elleng Dec 2012 #3

Response to Godhumor (Original post)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 09:14 PM

1. Congress Promotes Dangerous Anti-vaccine Quackery

From http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2012/12/04/congress_hearing_on_vaccines_is_a_farce_of_dangerous_antivax_nonsense.html

Let me be clear right off the bat: Vaccines don’t cause autism.

It’s really that simple. We know they don’t. There have been extensive studies comparing groups of children who have been vaccinated with, say, the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine versus those who have not, and it’s very clear that there is no elevated rate of autism in the vaccinated children.

This simple truth is denied vigorously and vociferously by antivaxxers (those who oppose, usually rabidly, the use of vaccinations that prevent diseases), but they may as well deny the Earth is round and the sky is blue. It’s rock solid fact. They try to blame mercury in vaccines, but we know that mercury has nothing to do with autism; when thimerosal (a mercury compound) was removed from vaccines there was absolutely no change in the increase in autism rates.


Don’t listen to self-proclaimed experts like Kucinich and Burton who throw out years of painstaking science and replace it with conspiracy theories and gut feelings. Instead, listen to your board-certified doctor. If he or she recommends you get vaccinated, do it. The life you save may be your own, or it may be that of a newborn infant living down the street from you.

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Response to Godhumor (Original post)

Tue Dec 4, 2012, 09:19 PM

2. Congress Holds An Anti-Vaccination Hearing

From Steven Salzberg


I was in my car yesterday listening to C-SPAN (yes, I do that sometimes), when to my stunned surprise I heard Congressman Dan Burton launch into a diatribe on how mercury in vaccines causes autism. No, this was not a replay of a recording from a decade ago. The hearing was held just a few days ago by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Congressman Burton used this hearing to rehash a series of some of the most thoroughly discredited anti-vaccine positions of the past decade. Burton is a firm believer in the myth that vaccines cause autism, and he arrogantly holds the position that he knows the truth better than the thousands of scientists who have spent much of the past decade doing real science that proves him wrong.

In a classic political move, the committee called on scientists Alan Guttmacher from the NIH and Colleen Boyle from the CDC to testify, but in fact the committee just wanted to bully the scientists. Committee members lectured the scientists, throwing out bad science claims, often disguised as questions, thick and fast. Alas, Guttmacher and Boyle weren’t prepared for this kind of rapid-fire assault by pseudoscience.


Bang bang, two false claims in 10 seconds. First he (Burton) claims that mercury from vaccines “accumulates in the brain”, a statement with no scientific support at all. Then he claims that chelation therapy is the solution – a radical, potentially very harmful treatment that no sensible parent would ever force on their child. Unfortunately, some quack doctors have experimented with chelation therapy on autistic children, despite that fact that it can cause deadly liver and kidney damage, and one of them caused the death of a 5-year-old boy in 2005.

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