Is the Truth Expendable?
A series of epidemiological studies have failed to support the contention that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism (here, here, here, here and here). In addition, the very data used to support an "autism epidemic" has come under fire (here, here, here and here). All in all, things are not looking very good for the autism-mercury movement.
Since the members of the autism-mercury movement are really just interested in finding out what causes autism, the leaders of the movement are planning to announce that they are abandoning the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis and will be putting their efforts behind a search for the true cause(s) of autism. They will disband their groups, shut down their websites and donate the money they've raised to autism research.
Did you believe that last paragraph? If you did, you haven't been paying attention lately.
One of the problems with getting emotionally involved with a scientific hypothesis is that they are notoriously dangerous things to love. Hypotheses don't care how much you love them or depend on them - they live or die by the data. And holding on to a dead hypothesis is as pointless (and creepy) as holding on to a dead cat or dog. Once they die, it's time to bury them and move on.
Now that the autism-mercury hypothesis is on life-support, the leaders of the autism-mercury movement have had to switch tactics. Previously, they had relied - at least in part - on scientific studies to support their claims. Many of these studies were of poor quality (see here, here and here) or of questionable application to autism (here), but they were at least an attempt to argue the merits of their hypothesis. But now the emphasis has shifted.
The summer of 2005 has seen an unprecedented media "push" on the autism-mercury connection, with an unabashedly uncritical article by Robert Kennedy, Jr leading the way. This article served as a media magnet (because of the famous author) for the movement and distracted attention from the moribund state of the science supporting their hypothesis.
An ongoing series of articles by UPI's Dan Olmsted (examples here and here) - which served primarily as a carrier for autism-mercury "talking points" - created less of a splash, but were also of invaluable aid to the propaganda arm of the autism-mercury movement. Olmsted's uncritical (some might say unthinking) acceptance of everything the autism-mercury movement says is matched only by his hostility to and rejection of any data that refutes the autism-mercury hypothesis.
So, despite the overwhelming (and growing) amount of data refuting the autism-mercury hypothesis, the movement continues its media and political efforts, trying to convince the public - and its elected officials - that their hypothesis is true. "Ignore the data", they say, "Doctors and scientists who disagree with us are all corrupt or incompetent - bought and paid for by the government and pharmaceutical companies."
To paraphrase advice once given to a young lawyer, "If the data is on your side, pound the data! If theory is on your side, pound the theory! If neither supports your hypothesis, pound the table!" The autism-mercury movement is pounding the table.
Surely the autism-mercury movement must realize that their hypothesis isn't working out - that the data is not going their way. What can possibly be their motivation to push on in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are wrong?
For most in the autism-mercury movement, it is beyond their ability to fully understand or assimilate the scientific data. This does not reflect poorly on them - they simply lack the education and experience to do it, just as I lack the education and experience to repair my car's transmission (or even understand how it works). However, the autism-mercury movement does have people in it who should know what the data mean.
Some of the people in the autism-mercury movement need to keep the autism-mercury hypothesis alive, no matter what the cost. These people have invested too much of their reputation in the autism-mercury hypothesis and will suffer too much if it is abandoned. Some may lose their jobs, others may lose whole careers - all will lose face. For these people, it has become progressively easier to justify "whatever it takes" to keep the hypothesis alive.
To be sure, it is likely that few or none of the movement leaders are consciously trying to keep alive a hypothesis that they believe is false. This would be too cynical even for me to imagine. No, these people are in denial - the psychological pain of admitting defeat is so great that their subconscious mind will refuse to acknowledge the reality in front of them.
Given the psychological pain these people are trying to avoid, it is not too surprising that they are using strategies that, by their very nature, are meant to promote a certain point of view and obscure the facts - propaganda, lobbying, political pressure. In short, they are trying to hide the truth in favor of a falsehood that they are in love with.
So, now that the autism-mercury hypothesis is on its last legs, the truth has become expendable. "Whatever it takes" has replaced "look at the data". The autism-mercury movement has decided that it is more important for their hypothesis to win - to be enshrined as "revealed truth" by the legislature - than it is to find out what causes autism.
How sad for them.