Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
A Heavy Metal Story
In 1989, a pair of unconventional researchers revealed that they had discovered the cause for this disorder, and that it was related to the use of a particular heavy metal in products intended for infants and small children. Used to prevent one problem, this metal was now blamed for causing a life-altering disorder which was reaching epidemic proprtions in the US, UK and Western Europe.
Realizing the importance of their discovery, these two researchers disdained waiting to publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal and thook their case directly to the public on an television news programme. Needless to say, this caused quite a public uproar and put the scientific and medical "establishments" on the defensive.
Quite soon after the news programme aired, government and academic scientists attempted to reproduce the findings of the two maverick researchers, but were unable to obtain similar findings. These government and academic scientists were accused of attempting a "cover-up".
A panel of scientists convened by the government made a concerted attempt to reproduce the two researchers' findings but were unsuccessful. They concluded that the findings were spurious and that the heavy metal in question was not causing the disorder. This was labeled by many in the public as a "whitewash" and a "cover-up".
A larger panel, led by a major figure in the field, worked for over three years to try to find the truth of the matter. They used more sophisticated tests and larger epidemiologic samples, as well as clinical testing and still were unable to find a connection between the heavy metal and the disorder. Despite the leader's prominence in past efforts to find the cause for this disorder, the results of the panel were alleged to have been "decided beforehand" and dismissed as a "cover-up".
Five years and millions of dollars of fruitless research later, this "explanation" of the disorder has largely receded into the public unconsciousness. A simple change in child care has been at least partially credited with a decline in the incidence of this devastating disorder - a change that had nothing to do with the heavy metal alleged to be the cause. Periodically, an uninformed person (e.g. here, here and here) will "unearth" the hypothesis and have a brief run with it, but the issue is - as far as the scientific and medical communities are concerned - moot. In reality, the two "maverick" researchers had simply failed to eliminate other causes for the results they found.
What was the heavy metal? Antimony, used as a flame retardant in the plastic covers of cot (crib) mattresses.
What does this have to do with anything? Figure it out... Substitute "autism" for "cot death" and "mercury in vaccines" for "antimony in cot mattresses" and it looks like a pretty good fit. Especially the part about the media and non-scientific parent groups taking the lead in promoting an hypothesis that lacks adequate supporting data.
I predict that the end of the mercury-autism story will be similar. The "hard-core" believers will persist unto death in the pathetic faith that their pet hypothesis is correct and the rest of the world will just step around them.
Thanks to John Emsley's book Elements of Murder for making me aware of the elements (pun definitely intended!) of this story.