With friends like these...
The whole RFK book-driven thimerosal/autism controversy really hit the media over the last several weeks. I've waited to read as much from the book that I could, without actually purchasing it, before I ponied up to the trough. I'll avoid nitpicking language and sources as that's been done both more eloquently and in great detail (here and here). But I would like to take a look at why relatively famous people, who have no direct interest in autism, are throwing their hats into this fight.
It surprises me that the likes of Don Imus and RFK, neither of whom have autistic children or any formal biomedical training, are actively taking a side. Further, prior to this latest wave of the controversy, both were already quite famous and financially secure. So from the vantage point of a believer in the autism-thimerosal connection, it seems that they are the perfect advocates: just a couple of guys with media-commanding names who strongly believe in the connection.
What if each of these guys were using this controversy to their advange in an effort to further their careers?
Imus has a strong presence on the airwaves, so unless he was panicking about running out of material (unlikely) or trying to actively increase his fan base, I can't see the autism/thimerosal issue as one that would help him professionally. But it also seems that he regularly takes on contentious issues, takes a side, and really hammers the other guy. So as a non-listener, I have to think that he actually believes in his crusade, although I cannot discount the possibility that he cherry picked this issue to generate buzz.
RFK Jr is a lawyer who has made a career working for environmental causes. The mercury connection between thimerosal and the environment then makes some sense. But what bothers me about this guy is the political aspiration possibility. He was born into a political family. It seems he really messed up earlier in life and I can only imagine that he now wants some way to remedy that. One way is to position himself as an environmental crusader who fights for children and against lying, cheating government agencies and multinational corporations. It's perfect. On the other hand, given his family name, just how hard would this guy have to work in order to get elected to a desireable position?
I am left with the bad feeling that these guys are taking up the cause simply for air time. Then what happens if the mercury-autism connection is never proven? What happens to these guys if it's debunked? I think that they're banking that neither one of those possibilities happens in the near future. Even if their names are brought up, they have an out: David Kirby and the parental organizations that fervently believe in the connection.
Assuming that thimerosal is not the cause of autism, does this debate help or hurt autistic causes in general? I submit the answer is hurt. My experience is that the boy-who-cried-wolf phenomenon is a strong one. Many people are going to shut out the claims of possible environmental contributions to autistic disorders simply because they believe the first people who have spoken about a tangentially associated topic are quacks or shysters. I liken this to a more lethal version of the spiderman guy who climbs buildings in the name of fathers' rights. I am a strong believer in a genetic component being the driving force behind autism, but I cannot discount that some environmental variable also plays a role, perhaps actually triggering the disorder.
So my wish for the day is that the thimerosal/autism talking heads claiming to represent parents of autistic children chill on the angry and slanderous rhetoric. Stop labeling big pharma and government officials as liars and nazis. Instead of trying to build their position up by tearing the other side down, I wish their efforts were put into solid research and documentation. I don't think that's too much to ask. Well, maybe it is. -BC