Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

That Thimerosal Thing

Some of you have no doubt noticed the full-page ads in major metropolitan newspapers, the letters to the editor, and reports of parent activists and others alleging that use of a preservative containing the compound ethyl mercury in childhood vaccines caused a massive epidemic of autism in the United States. Promotion of this theory has been spearheaded by Robert Kennedy Jr., who published a powerful polemic about it in Rolling Stone magazine. I did a google search on this article's title and after clicking through 15 pages of search results, I found innumerable writers, bloggers and organizations who touted Kennedy's charges, and not a single attempt at refutation or even critical consideration.

If, instead of doing a google search on Kennedy's popular article, one does a PubMed search on Thimerosal and adverse effects, or Thimerosal and autism, one enters an alternate universe, one where this theory has been diligently studied, at great expense over many years, and has been found to be utterly without merit. However, I cannot give you links to most of the relevant literature because it is in medical journals which are available to subscribers only -- and subscriptions cost hundreds of dollars a year. As a medical school faculty member, I have access to on-line subscriptions, but most of my readers do not, and if I give you my password, I'll potentially be in trouble. The scientists who did the relevant studies and reviews
have not, so far as I know, attempted to publish anything in Rolling Stone, have not gone on talk shows, and have not written any letters to the editor of the New York Times. Anyway, most people would not be able to understand the medical journal articles and certainly would find them boring and nearly impossible to read.

As an exercise in public service, for what it is worth, I will in the next day or two put up a comparison of Kennedy's key points with the mainstream scientific beliefs about this, and then perhaps readers can think about these issues for themselves. For now, what I wish to emphasize is simply that we have a major problem of communication between scientists and the rest of the world. This is why the Bush administration can get away with flat earth theories about such matters as global warming, mercury pollution, etc. (in which it is doubtful that they truly believe, but which are convenient to their corporate sponsors), while half of Americans do not believe in evolution. At the same time, because science is not democratic and is not open to citizen participation or input, it fails to serve the public interest.

I truly believe this is one our most critical social problems. What can we do about it?

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