Way back in the early days of my blogging career, years before the Private-investigator-detective blog was founded by our fearless leader Steve Novella, I remember coming across a “challenge” by a man named . I didn’t know it at the time, but Doubleday had achieved some notoriety before his “vaccine challenge” as the director or Natural Woman, Natural Man, Inc. and the author of such amazing works as The Burning Time (Stories of the Modern-day Persecution of Midwives) and Lolita Shrugged (THE MYTH OF AGE-SPECIFIC MATURITY). was in the same vein as his previous work, only more so and full-on antivaccine. The reason I’m bringing up Doubleday again after all these years is because just last week, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Robert De Niro teamed up to do something that reminded me very much of Doubleday’s “challenge,” something that is a classic ploy used by cranks to promote their causes. I thus viewed RFK Jr.’s new “challenge” to be what we in the biz like to refer to as a “teachable moment.”
Prelude: Jock Doubleday issues his “vaccine challenge”
It with Doubleday offering a $20,000 cash prize (later upped to $75,000) to “U.S.-licensed medical doctors who routinely administer childhood vaccinations and to pharmaceutical company CEOs worldwide” who would…well, let’s let Jock’s own words tell the tale. The original web page no longer exists, but fortunately the :
Jock Doubleday, director of the California 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation Natural Woman, Natural Man, Inc., hereby offers $75,000.00 to the first medical doctor or pharmaceutical company CEO who publicly drinks a mixture of standard vaccine additives ingredients in the same amount as a six-year-old child is recommended to receive under the year-2005 guidelines of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (In the event that thimerosal has recently been removed from a particular vaccine, the thimerosal-containing version of that vaccine will be used.)
The mixture will not contain viruses or bacteria dead or alive, but will contain standard vaccine additive ingredients in their usual forms and proportions. The mixture will include, but will not be limited to, the following ingredients: thimerosal (a mercury derivative), ethylene glycol (antifreeze), phenol (a disinfectant dye), benzethonium chloride (a disinfectant), formaldehyde (a preservative and disinfectant), and aluminum.
The mixture will be prepared by Jock Doubleday, three medical professionals that he names, and three medical professionals that the participant names.
The mixture will be body weight calibrated.
Because the participant is either a professional caregiver who routinely administers childhood vaccinations, or a pharmaceutical company CEO whose business is, in part, the sale of childhood vaccines, it is understood by all parties that the participant considers all vaccine additive ingredients to be safe and that the participant considers any mixture containing these ingredients to be safe.
The participant agrees, and any and all agents and associates of the participant agree, to indemnify and hold harmless in perpetuity any and all persons, organizations, and/or entities associated with the event for any harm caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly, to the participant or indirectly to the participant’s heirs, relations, employers, employees, colleagues, associates, or other persons, organizations, or entities claiming association with, or representation of, the participant, by the participant’s participation in the event.
The event will be held within six months of the participant’s written agreement to the above and further elaborated terms.
Doubleday concluded by listing the then-membership of the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, whose membership he said that he’d automatically update the challenge to include. After jumping to $75,000 in 2006, it supposedly increased again to . (When Harriet wrote about the challenge in 2008, it was $150,000.)
Obviously, those familiar with antivaccine misinformation, pseudoscience, and tropes will immediately recognize this hoary challenge as being based on what I like to refer to as the “toxins” gambit, a common antivaccine trope that targets the adjuvants and other ingredients in vaccines as horrific “toxins.” For example, there are trace amounts of formaldehyde in some vaccines, which antivaxers will portray as the equivalent of childhood vaccines being laced with embalming fluid when in reality the human body (even a baby’s) produces formaldehyde as a byproduct of normal metabolism and has . Of course, thimerosal wasn’t even in most childhood vaccines anymore by 2006, the year Doubleday increased the value of the prize to $75,000, and thimerosal at the doses contained even when thimerosal exposure due to vaccines was at its height doesn’t cause autism or other neurological or neurodevelopmental disorders.
Of course, anyone with a bit of critical thinking skills can also immediately see that this challenge is not an honest one. For one thing, drinking ingredients is not the same as injecting them intramuscularly. Even if it were, if you control for weight, the amount of thimerosal, acute toxicity with thimerosal only occurs at a dose at than any infant would have received from vaccines.
However, where you can really tell that Doubleday wasn’t sincere is in the various conditions he tacked on to his challenge, which, again, the . Some of them are truly hilarious. For instance, Doubleday requires that participants undergo three thorough psychiatric evaluations, each performed by a different psychiatrist named by Doubleday and paid for by the participant. He also wants participants to submit to him all of their mental health records and to undergo a complete physical examination by a physician of his choice. Then there’s a requirement that the participant read several antivaccine books:
- Vaccines: Are They Really Safe and Effective? by Neil Z. Miller;
- Immunization: The Reality Behind the Myth, by Walene James;
- Vaccination, Social Violence and Criminality: The Medical Assault on the American Brain, by Harris L. Coulter;
- The Sanctity of Human Blood: Vaccination Is Not Immunization, by Tim O’Shea; and
- What Every Parent Should Know About Childhood Immunization, by Jamie Murphy.
Oh, and there’s a test, too! It consists of five separate closed-book exams of 20 yes/no, true/false, multiple-choice, and/or short-answer questions, each based on one of the five books, and the participant has to score 90% or above to proceed to the actual challenge. Well, not exactly. That’s not all. . Obviously, this test was never meant to be carried out. In fact, have ed Doubleday to , but—surprise! surprise!—Doubleday .
It turns out that this is a classic crank ploy: Issue a “challenge” to provide one piece of evidence that “proves” the scientific consensus, be it by not dying after drinking vaccine ingredients or…something else. As you will see, RFK Jr.’s challenge is seemingly more reasonable on the surface than Doubleday’s, but at its heart it is just as full of crank fail.
Robert F. Kennedy and Robert De Niro channel Jock Doubleday and issue their own thimerosal/vaccine “challenge”
I must admit, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., environmentalist and, unfortunately, big time antivaccine crank of the thimerosal fear mongering variety, has been rather busy lately. After having gone mostly silent on vaccine issues compared to his original flurry of misinformation and conspiracy mongering that began back in 2005, several years passed with almost nary a word on vaccines from the lesser scion of a great American family. This was a very good thing. Then, in 2014, he decided to reappear, co-authoring an antivaccine book with functional medicine quack Mark Hyman, a book with mouthful of a title, . Not surprisingly, it was chock-full of antivaccine misinformation and claims that the mercury-containing thimerosal preservative that was in some childhood vaccines until around 2002 caused all sorts of horrible neurological problems in children. It didn’t, nor did it cause autism. The idea that thimerosal-containing vaccines cause autism is a failed hypothesis.
Still, none of this stopped RFK Jr. from throwing himself back into the science fray on the side of pseudoscience that has the potential to lead to the deaths of children. In 2015, he teamed up with the Nation of Islam to “protest” at the CDC headquarters and promote antivaccine pseudoscience. Then, after the election of Donald Trump, who has his own of , Kennedy somehow . What exactly they talked about is not clear, but according to RFK Jr. Trump offered him the chair of a new commission on vaccine safety. The Trump administration denied that any offer was made and said they spoke about autism. Whatever they discussed, from my perspective it’s just bad enough that Trump would meet with someone like RFK Jr. to discuss vaccines or autism, given his utter lack of qualifications on both subjects. Since then, RFK Jr. has been trying to gather stories of “vaccine injury” to use to change federal vaccine policy; that is, when he’s not flogging risibly bad science claiming to find a link between thimerosal in vaccines and neuropsychiatric conditions other than autism. Basically, RFK Jr. has never met a scientific study he didn’t like, no matter how bad or how incompetently designed and carried out, as long as it confirms his idée fixe that vaccines cause serious neurological harm.
Last week, he was at it again. Through his World Mercury Project, he announced a PR scam “worthy” of Jock Doubleday. The video is on Facebook:
Yes, look who was there at the press conference: , who’s been spewing antivaccine misinformation for ; Del Bigtree, one of the producers of VAXXED, an antivaccine propaganda film so overwrought that it would make Leni Riefenstahl urge more restraint; and, from , former NIH director Bernadine Healy, who before her death started to . And that’s just in the first few minutes of a painful, hour-long press conference. I couldn’t help but laugh when I watched Healy say that no one is going to turn their backs on vaccines. Of course they are! They’re doing it now!
Much of the rest of this video was painful to watch and listen to because RFK Jr. is painful to listen to. I laughed again when RFK Jr. bragged about how he read the science “intensively,” because I remember the scientific and his love of an equally bad bit of science just last week. Basically, RFK Jr. wouldn’t know good science if it bit him on his posterior. He also seems unable to understand that, just because the parents who came up to him trying to tell him that mercury causes autism weren’t all raving lunatics, that doesn’t mean that they know what they are talking about. This is an error RFK Jr. has been making for, yes, , characterizing refutations of antivaccine pseudoscience as assaults on mothers and motherhood. In any case, in the press conference, RFK Jr. announced a $100,000 “challenge.” Here’s the image he used to illustrate the challenge:
On the right, he listed 243 scientific papers showing neurotoxicity from thimerosal. In the middle, he listed “over 80” studies allegedly showing a link between mercury and autism. On the left, he claimed to be illustrating that there are no studies showing that thimerosal is safe. Remember what I said about how RFK Jr. is clueless about science? This image, as much as anything he said, demonstrates that cluelessness perfectly. That’s because it’s the quality, more than the quantity, of studies that counts. Sure, there are probably over 80 papers claiming to show a link between mercury in vaccines and autism. I’ve probably read nearly all of them at one time or another. And guess what? They’re all uniformly crappy, done by biased, incompetent “scientists,” such as Mark and David Geier, Boyd Haley, Jeff Bradstreet, Christopher Shaw, and the usual suspects in the world of dubious antivaccine studies. I suppose such an image makes a simple (simplistic, actually) image to illustrate a point, but it’s a profoundly deceptive image and point.
So here’s the actual :
We hereby issue a challenge to American journalists (and others) who have been assuring the public about the safety of mercury in vaccines. We will pay $100,000 to the first journalist, or other individual, who can point to a peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that thimerosal is safe in the amounts contained in vaccines currently being administered to American children and pregnant women.
There was also an to accompany this challenge. Hilariously, RFK Jr. once again claimed that he’s not antivaccine but “provaccine.” I can only be grateful that he restrained himself from using the usual term he likes to use to describe himself, namely “fiercely pro-vaccine,” a lie or self-delusion so flagrant that it threatens to cause a crack in the space-time continuum every time RFK Jr. utters it. Let’s just put it this way. If RFK Jr. were so pro-vaccine, he wouldn’t so completely buy into the latest antivaccine conspiracy theory, that of the “CDC whistleblower” that was at the heart of VAXXED.
We are both pro-vaccine. We need to say this at the outset to contravene the reflexive public relations ploy of labeling every vaccine safety advocate “anti-vaccine.” As the British Medical Journal pointed out last week, that epithet is a derogatory attack designed to marginalize vaccine safety advocates and derail reasoned debate:
“It stigmatizes the mere act of even asking an open question about what is known and unknown about the safety of vaccines.”
Both of us had all of our children vaccinated and we support policies that promote vaccine coverage. We want vaccines that are as safe as possible, robust transparent science and vigorous oversight by independent regulators who are free from corrupting conflicts-of-interest.
Despite the cascade of recent science confirming that thimerosal is a potent neurotoxin that damages children’s brains, the American media has fiercely defended the orthodoxy that mercury-based vaccines are safe. We believe that even a meager effort at homework will expose that contention as unsupported by science. In just the past month, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) review confirmed thimerosal’s profound neurotoxicity and a Yale University study connected vaccines to neurological illnesses including OCD, anorexia and tics.
Of course, RFK Jr. failed to note that the is by Peter Doshi, who’s well known in the provaccine community as someone who’s over the years and tried to on . He’s also given a talk to at least one antivaccine crank conference. So it’s not at all surprising that Doshi would play the victim card and whine about being called “antivaccine.”
What about the CDC review, which RFK Jr. not only mentioned in his letter, but in his press conference as well? He had even tipped his hand two weeks ago with an article on his website with Lyn Redwood, “.” I had meant to blog about it then, but my university didn’t carry the article. I now have a copy, secured the other day, and let’s just say it doesn’t exactly say what RFK Jr. claims it does, but that’s probably a topic for another post, either here or at the old not-so-secret other blog. In the meantime, , which notes in the abstract:
The similarities in mechanisms of toxicity for MeHg and EtHg are presented and compared. The difference in manifested toxicity of MeHg and EtHg are likely the result of the differences in exposure, metabolism, and elimination from the body, rather than differences in mechanisms of action between the two.
MeHg is methyl mercury, and EtHg is ethyl mercury (a.k.a. thimerosal), two different organometallic chemicals. So even from that bit of information, I can tell that, yes, MeHg and EtHg share mechanisms of toxicity, but what RFK Jr. purposely neglects to acknowledge is that the reason EtHg is less toxic than MeHg is because it is eliminated from the body much more rapidly, as the CDC . None of this is a secret. None of this has been hidden. The dose makes the poison, as Paracelsus once said, and, as we’ve learned since then, length of exposure also matters. So if a compound is rapidly eliminated from the body, there’s less exposure.
Also, what about Robert De Niro? Those of you not familiar with certain events that occurred last year might have thought, “WTF?” when you saw De Niro associated with this whole fiasco. The answer is simple. A year ago, De Niro bypassed the usual process for selecting films for the Tribeca Film Festival, which he co-founded, and arranged a screening for the antivaccine propaganda “documentary” VAXXED. There was a huge kerfuffle, in the wake of which De Niro revealed himself to .
Now here’s the part of the challenge where the parallels to Jock Doubleday become more apparent. Look who decides if the challenge has been met:
1. Any individual seeking to collect the award (the Claimant) should submit, to the World Mercury Project (WMP), an English translation of the proffered study and a $50 processing fee (to discourage frivolous submissions from flooding WMP staff), along with a letter explaining why the study qualifies for the reward, and the name and address to which the $100,000 check should be directed.
2. The study and corresponding evidence must have been published in a peer-reviewed journal appearing in PubMed.
3. The claimant should submit a hard copy of the document and accompanying letter to:
World Mercury Project
1227 North Peachtree Parkway, Suite #202
Peachtree City, GA 30269
4. To be eligible, the submitted study methodologies should be sufficiently transparent and the data available, to allow the judges to verify any statistical analysis upon which its conclusions rely. Only appropriately applied scientific recognized statistical methods utilizing reliable data will be eligible.
5. Misters Kennedy and DeNiro will either pay the $100,000 reward check or send back a denial explaining why they believe that the study does not qualify. World Mercury Project will simultaneously post a link to the paper and text of the denial on the WMP website.
So, first, RFK Jr. wants your $50. Second, only his judges decide whether the study submitted meets the criteria to show that thimerosal in vaccines at the doses given is safe. But what if you disagree with RFK Jr.’s rejection? And, make no mistake, he’ll reject all the studies that I could list showing that thimerosal as used in vaccines is safe, because he’s already rejected them. That’s what’s on the posters behind him, claims about all the “deficiencies” of the studies. If you still don’t see the parallel with Jock Doubleday yet, get a load of the dispute resolution procedure for when whatever study you submit is denied:
If the claimant wishes to dispute the denial, he/she should reply with a written point by point rebuttal explaining why the denial is unfounded and why the submission qualifies.
Within 30 days of receiving that rebuttal, Misters Kennedy and DeNiro will respond with a detailed answer. If the claimant still desires to pursue the claim, he/she should notify Misters Kennedy and DeNiro by registered mail. Upon receiving the notification, Misters Kennedy and DeNiro will, within 30 business days, submit all relevant documents- the proffered study, the claimant’s letter, the Kennedy/DeNiro detailed denial and any supporting studies, the journalist’s rebuttal and the Kennedy/DeNiro answer to the rebuttal, along with any additional responses created by or to Misters Kennedy and DeNiro or sent to Misters Kennedy and DeNiro by the claimant – to an independent scientific panel composed of distinguished scientists of preeminent expertise and integrity. The panel and the judging criteria are listed at worldmercuryproject.org/challenge
Misters Kennedy and DeNiro have never met any member of this imposing panel. To our knowledge, none of them has ever taken a position on thimerosal safety.
In order to discourage frivolous or repetitive claims and maintain the independence of the panelists, Misters Kennedy and DeNiro and the claimant will pay the scientists in advance of their deliberations, according to a 50/50 split, at the rate of $400 per hour for their time spent evaluating the submissions. Should the panel decide unanimously that the application qualifies for the reward, Misters Kennedy and DeNiro will pay the $100,000 reward within 10 business days and, in addition, shall reimburse the successful claimant for his/her 50/50 share of the fees paid to the panelists and his/her $50 application fee.
The first thing I note is that the most recent version of the challenge no longer includes the part about the “panel and the judging criteria are listed at worldmercuryproject.org/challenge.” In fact, since last Wednesday, nowhere have I been able find a list of the scientists that RFK Jr. says he’ll use to resolve conflicts or judge the studies, although I’ll go out on a limb and bet I can identify some of these “scientists.” I bet that they include people like Boyd Haley, who was a respected chemistry department chair before he became a mercury crank. I bet they include Mark Geier. I bet they include . In other words, I would be willing to bet that his list doesn’t include a single real, reputable vaccine scientist or epidemiologist.
Jock Doubleday would be proud, but he’s not alone.
The “challenge” gambit: A favorite of cranks everywhere
It isn’t just antivaxers who like to issue “challenges.” I’ve learned of several of them over the years, coming from a wide variety of science denialists. They vary in format. One of my favorites comes from a creationist named Joseph Mastropaolo, who issued what he referred to as his “.” The contest reminded me when I first learned of it of The People’s Court, a bit of a different twist on an old game. The participant has to put up $10,000 as the price of entry, and the debate will be decided through a pseudo-legal proceeding, complete with a judge and bailiff. And . What could go wrong? Well, Michael Zimmerman did take the challenge in its earlier incarnation as the Life Science Challenge, and he pointed out a lot of the same things we see in crank challenges like this all the time, the and who “wins.”
Not surprisingly, creationist Kent Hovind also to anyone who could “prove beyond reasonable doubt that the process of evolution…is the only possible way the observed phenomena could have come into existence.” Of course, Hovind’s definition of evolution was a bit…problematic:
When I use the word evolution, I am not referring to the minor variations found in all of the various life forms (microevolution). I am referring to the general theory of evolution which believes these five major events took place without God:
- Time, space, and matter came into existence by themselves.
- Planets and stars formed from space dust.
- Matter created life by itself.
- Early life-forms learned to reproduce themselves.
- Major changes occurred between these diverse life forms (i.e., fish changed to amphibians, amphibians changed to reptiles, and reptiles changed to birds or mammals).
Nowhere does the theory of evolution state anything like #1-#3. It is agnostic on how the universe came into being or how life arose, and #4 is stated in a rather dodgy manner. Like most cranks issuing scientific challenges, Hovind assured people that a “committee of trained scientists will provide peer review of the evidence offered and, to the best of their ability, will be fair and honest in their evaluation and judgment as to the validity of the evidence presented” but failed to list who these scientists would be or how they would be chosen. In other words, .
Climate science denialists have also gotten in on the act. The scientific evidence that human activity is affecting the climate, resulting in climate change consisting primarily of an overall warming of the climate, is , but climate science denialists in denying this finding. For instance, Steve Milloy, proprietor of the Junk Science website, issued his , which started out offering $100,000 (now allegedly $500,000) to anyone who can “prove, in a scientific manner, that humans are causing harmful global warming. I can’t help but note that Milloy really needs to update his website, as he still has dates in 2008 and 2009 listed as his deadline and the date for results to be announced. Nonetheless, just the other day he bragged about his “UGWC” on Twitter; so I assume it’s still on:
$150K?… it was $500K to prove catastrophic global warming. No winners.
— Steve Milloy (@JunkScience)
No winners by design, of course. After all, Milloy states that entrants “acknowledge that the concepts and terms mentioned and referred to in the UGWC hypotheses are inherently and necessarily vague, and involve subjective judgment and that “JunkScience.com reserves the exclusive right to determine the meaning and application of such concepts and terms in order to facilitate the purpose of the contest”, as well as asserting that “JunkScience.com, in its sole discretion, will determine the winner, if any, from UGWC entries.”
Same as it ever was.
I’ve even seen these sorts of “challenges” from other varieties of cranks. For instance, a 9/11 “Truther” who could “prove the World Trade Center buildings crashed the way the government says.” The worst one that I remember was when the Holocaust denial group Institute for Historical Review for proof that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. In 1981 Holocaust surviver Mel Mermelstein tried to claim the prize based on his personal experiences recounted in his autobiography By Bread Alone, which was supplemented with photos, newspaper articles, and other documents to support his claim. When IHR refused to pay, , and the court issued a judgment ordering IHR to pay Mermelstein $90,000, and write a public apology to him, with Judge Thomas T. Johnson declaring:
This court does take judicial notice of the fact that Jews were gassed to death at Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland during the summer of 1944. It is not reasonably subject to dispute. And it is capable of immediate and accurate determination by resort to sources of reasonably indisputable accuracy. It is simply a fact.
A word of advice to RFK Jr. and Robert De Niro: When you use a technique beloved by creationists, antivaxers as out of touch with reality as Jock Doubleday, 9/11 Truthers, Holocaust deniers, and climate science denialists, you might want to .
The “One True Study” gambit
It’s not just the use of a rigged “challenge” or contest that reveals the depths of RFK Jr.’s science denial and antivaccine views. Indeed, very nature of RFK Jr.’s farcical “challenge” illustrates just how little he understands medical science—and all science. What he’s fallen for is what I like to refer to as the “One True Study” gambit. This is a technique in which a science denialist demands “just one study” that “proves” a scientific consensus, be it anthropogenic global climate change, evolution, the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, or whatever. Of course, not all the challenges above used the One True Study gambit, but they were all obviously rigged. I would also point out that Jock Doubleday’s challenge used a variant of the “One True Study” gambit, namely the “one piece of information” that proves the scientific consensus. In Doubleday’s case, the assumption behind his challenge was that if a physician were to drink the concoction containing all the other ingredients in vaccines besides the proteins meant to use an immune response and not be poisoned, it would prove vaccines are safe. Real scientists would know that such an observation would do nothing of the sort. That’s not how science works.
There is never any one single scientific study or observation that demonstrates a scientific consensus; e.g., that thimerosal in vaccines doesn’t cause autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders. It’s almost never the case that any one scientific study settles a question; so the demand for a single study that shows that thimerosal in vaccines don’t cause autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders is based on a faulty assumption, that there even exists a single study that “proves” the safety of thimerosal-containing vaccines. There isn’t. (Look for that line to be quote mined.) Scientists do not conclude that thimerosal does not cause autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders because of any one study. No! We conclude that thimerosal does not cause autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders because that is what the preponderance of evidence from converging lines of evidence as revealed in high quality scientific studies. That’s how science works. As I said before, the “One True Study” gambit is a classic science denialist trope. I conclude that RFK Jr.’s “challenge” is, in brief, a scam, complete with an entry fee of $50, a ridiculously inflated fee for dispute resolution, and zero transparency (e.g., not listing the names of the scientists on the panel who will judge the entries). Indeed, I contend that it’s a publicity stunt for RFK Jr.’s real effort, asking for $25,000 to “educate the public, Congress, and the media about the dangers of mercury in medicines.” Basically, the “challenge” is a promotion for the Indiegogo campaign, nothing more.
Not surprisingly, the are eating it up.