Skeptico reads the Simpsonwood transcript so that you don't have to (unless you really want to)

I have to hand it to Skeptico. I really do. He's managed to go through the entire 286 page transcript (warning: direct link to big file) of the infamous Simpsonwood Conference in a mere three or four days--over a weekend, yet! Given that it's a big document full of really dull, dry discussion among scientists and that this is June, when many people think of having fun outside on weekends instead of reading hundreds of pages of such tedium, that's a real accomplishment, one I haven't managed yet. (It shames me to admit that, in comparison, I've only gotten about a third of the way through it.)

He's also managed to get me to write one more time about this whole affair, even though I had said that I was going to try not to discuss this particular topic again for a while.

The Simpsonwood Conference was the conference that RFK Jr. opened his article making such dire insinuations about, claiming that it was primarily a strategy meeting to discuss ways to cover up the alleged link between mercury in vaccines and autism. I have discussed before how RFK Jr. used highly selective quoting to make what was in reality a discussion among scientists about the data for and against the hypothesis that thimerosal in vaccines cause autism and determining what studies should be done next seem very dark and conspiratorial when it really was neither. However, for reasons of space (and because there were so few examples of any excerpts that I could find that sounded even slightly conspiratorial), I only cited one example. Now, Skeptico utterly demolishes RFK Jr.'s treatment of this conference. In fact, after reading Skeptico's piece, I've been forced to change my opinion. Before, I just thought that RFK Jr. had simply let his bias and his close contact with Lujene Clark and other mercury-autism activists during the preparation of his article lead him astray. After reading Skeptico's take on the matter, now I reluctantly have to conclude that it is more likely that he was being downright dishonest in his treatment of the entire issue of the Simpsonwood Conference.

But let Skeptico explain it in the money quote from his piece:
When I first read Kennedy’s piece, I was shocked that there had apparently been some kind of cover up about thimerosal. It seemed I would have to re-examine my previous views on the subject as all good skeptics should when new evidence appears. And that was even though I have full knowledge of studies in Denmark and Canada that show autism rates increasing even though thimerosal has been banned in those countries for years. Even though I knew this, the article still sounded convincing. So I can well understand people reading this article and believing it and being livid with the vaccination industry, the CDC and everyone else involved.

But I now know Kennedy’s article is a shockingly dishonest piece of crap from beginning to end. Dishonest and manipulative. He starts with sensationalist language to imply there is something wrong going on, softening up his readers for what comes next. The scene set he, frankly, lies about what happened at the meeting. (Either that or he didn’t read the transcript – your call.) And in the absence of evidence to back up his claim, I suggest Kennedy also made up the bit about the Institute of Medicine whitewashing any embarrassing results. Kennedy wrote his alarmist piece in the knowledge that very few people (in reality – virtually zero) would bother to read the lengthy transcript to find out what actually happened. It’s nothing short of shameful from someone who I had previously believed to have the highest integrity. My only question is, why? Perhaps he’s just losing it, I don’t know.
Contrary to Skeptico's disillusionment with RFK Jr., whom he seems to have respected before this travesty, I never really thought that RFK Jr. ever really "had it" in the first place as an "investigative journalist," although he had never given me this much reason to dismiss him as a hack before. My guess is that RFK Jr. probably didn't bother to read the entire transcript in detail, just the specially berry-picked excerpts. At least, the trusting part of me that wants to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and doesn't want to have to conclude that anyone (much less RFK Jr.) intentionally distorted what was said at the Simpsonwood Conference to serve his agenda would prefer to attribute this level of misrepresentation and manipulativeness to laziness rather than dishonesty. On the other hand, as I discussed here, even a fairly cursory look at his article and the Simpsonwood transcript shows that RFK Jr. did use highly selective quoting to give the incorrect impression that Dr. John Clements, for example, urged a coverup when the full quote in context shows that he did not. Worse, Dr. Clements' in-context words were quoted almost completely even in the excerpts, making it hard to conclude anything other than that RFK Jr. was intentionally quote-mining.

But, as I said before and as Skeptico also points out, you don't have to take either of our words for it, although Skeptico made a very compelling case for intentional distortion of the contents of the transcript by RFK Jr and his making an unsubstantiated claim that the CDC paid the Institute of Medicine to "whitewash" any thimerosal/autism link. Fortunately, if you don't believe us, you are perfectly free to download the complete 11 MB PDF file of the transcript and see for yourself, and I highly encourage you to do so, if you have the stomach for it (or a case of insominia that this transcript could help with).

Just be sure to drink a lot of coffee or caffeinated colas before you start reading.


  1. Thanks for the update - good stuff. I'm definitely taking your word for it. There's no way I'm reading an 11MB pdf. ;)


  2. Yes I know, I need a life. Reduced blogging for me the rest of this week.

    As for RFK - I never saw him as a journalist, but I always thought he had integrity, and a genuine concern for the environment and for what science has to say. I'll have to view any future writings of his with suspicion, I'm afraid.

  3. I'm on a dial up link on Kauai. No PDF, please. I take your word, Skeptico.

    If JFK Jr is like other big names he had a ghostwriter and did some editing. I don't think it's fair to call him a liar based on this piece but I think that it is wise to question the authorship of an article by anyone with a big name.


  4. Autism Diva is reading the Simpson wood report, she has read about 3/4 of it skimming through part of the end.
    She wonders how it is that this bunch of "fat cats" couldn't manage to get a transciber who knew how to spell medical words.

    Hints for beginners:
    there is no such word as "miolionization"
    it's probably "myelinization".
    "high brain" is probably - "hind brain".
    "rental disorders", is probably - "renal disorders".
    "speed delay" is probably "speech delay".

    This whole conference took place 5 years ago and they were struggling with incomplete and confounded data.

    Guess what conspiracy fans?

    5 years have past since that meeting and in this time Canada has been our
    mostly silent and
    mostly well chilled comparison group.
    They have no thimerosal basically, for years and their autism diagnoses keep going up.

    The worst fears of any of the attendees of the Simpsonwood meeting were unfounded.

    The worst fears of the trial lawyers are coming true. There's no good evidence to prove the thimerosal theory.

    As for Bobby Kennedy Jr.s motives, some are saying he wants to be president and so wants to look like a hero.

    Autism Diva has no idea if he wants to be president, she only has one comment.

    Autism Diva listened to Bobby Kennedy Jr. on the Imus in the morning radio show, which is available on the internet in recorded form.

    Kennedy sounds very strange. Perhaps that is unfair, perhaps he just has a strange kind of voice, or perhaps it was the phone line he was on but it gave Autism Diva a kind of chill.

    That might be very, very unfair, but Autism Diva doesn't think it's any more unfair than the quote mining done by Kennedy or possibly by people who fed him the selected quotes and told him,
    "Oh, don't read the whole thing...
    it's boring
    Here look, I highlighted the important parts with a yellow highlighter for you."

    Whoever, introduced him to the Simpsonwood transcript should have also introduced him to the concept of:

    "Canada, our forgotten neighbor to the North".

    (Hey! Canada! Wave or something so Bobby Kennedy Jr. will know you are there!)

    And then to the idea of developmental psychologists and neurologists and genetecists and real life epidemiologists like Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto lead investigator of the CHARGE study out of the MIND institute that is looking at carefelly diagnosed autistic kids and going backward to see what their family was exposed to in the way of common (suspicious) household chemicals,

    and they will test the mom's hair to see if there was mercury in it when she was pregnant if her hair is long enough, and they are taking blood samples and they will compare them with normal kids and just "retarded" kids.

    That will at least tell us all something specific about the environment of young autistic kids in California.

    Until then we have the ever expanding total of autistic kids in Canada to reassure us that it's the improved ability to recognize autism that we are seeing there and at the very least that its not thimerosal!

    Autism Diva
    tired of reading

  5. This in not the first time, of late, that RFK Jr has gone on a charge about the "injustice" of something with cherry-picked information and quote-mining. See his Atlantic Monthly article wherein he personally convicts Ken Littleton of Martha Moxley's murder, while his cousin Michael Skakel sat behind bars convicted by a jury of the crime. See how he tried to tear apart a very fragile person and condemn him to the world on Larry King's show. Further see how he refuted all forensic evidence leading to his cousin's guilt with a wave of the hand and some high-sounding words coming from a somewhat familiar, albeit faltering, voice that can still, sometimes envoke a little nostalgia. One would like to think that Camelot endured, but the years have shown that it did not. If you want to know how shoddy Bobby's "journalism" really is, just ask Dominic Dunne.

  6. Thanks for keeping on blogging on this. I have an 8 year old with Asperger's Syndrome. I also have an 11 year old and a 5 year old neither of whom have any PDD or symptoms thereof.

    I have *never* believed in a definitive link between thimerisol and autism. My husband believes there may be something to it. I might be wrong and maybe there's nothing wrong with single use vials for vaccines, but scaring parents out of vaccinating their children for *DEADLY* diseases so that they won't get what I admit is an incredibly inconvenient and hard to live with disease, is dreadful and in my opinion borders on being criminal.
    Myssi in TN

  7. I can be fairly sure that I wasn't given any thimerosal vaccines, because I'm horribly allergic to the stuff (as is my father) --- yet I have Asperger's. (But, of course, I'm nearly thirty years old and can cope in everyday life pretty well, so of course I don't exist.)

    Half the family are somewhat odd in an autistic direction, from the obsessional grandfather who speaks dozens of languages and proofreads Bibles for fun, through the mother and aunt with peculiar conversational habits, to the father who's so focused on aeroplanes he can pretty much tell what they are from the sound alone. If autism doesn't have a large genetic component, I'm Marie of Roumania. (Luckily it seems to be pretty much a dead cert from twin studies and other evidence that autism does have a genetic component, so I don't have to start cross-dressing and learning a new language just yet.)

    (It's just a shame my identical twin died, or I'd have a potted twin-study anecdote right here! ;) )

  8. I have one correction on your Thimerosal and autism: two questions post. Thimerosal and Mercury are still in some infant vaccines. We checked with our doctor, affiliated with CHOP (the top rated children's hospital in the US) and several of the vaccines our 19 month old son has received since 2004 contain small amounts of thimerosal and mercury (DTaP/HIB, Pediarix and flu). My question is why can't they remove all of the known toxin from the vaccines? They tell you not to eat too much tuna while pregnant/nursing but then go ahead and inject the mercury into your child because it's cheaper to make the vaccines that way...

  9. Any comment on this article? Specifically, the quote by Dr. Steve Goodman of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore who sat on the IOM committee that reviewed the evidence$rec=152176

  10. I've been following this whole issue for a few years. No autistic kids, just an interest and trained in econometrics. I'm definitely pro-vaccine but I'm also open minded. My thoughts:

    In US, true epidemic. The birth cohort data from California (California taxpayers funded a very serious effort to validate data) plus the federal schools data is very clear -- an enormous increase in incidence for kids born in late 1990s. Even if the criteria are slipping, you would see the incidence increase for both 2nd graders and 8th graders. This is not happening -- the numbers for each new birth year are higher.

    Epidemic = environmental trigger.

    The vaccines/ rhogam are the only plausible trigger I have heard -- plausible in the sense that this happened to all US kids and biologically plausible.

    But how biologically plausible?

    Well, mercury is bad and is bad in many different ways and the mercury in thimerasol is an invention of Eli Lilly, not found in nature. Animals don't like it and babies died when smeared on their umbilical stumps. The Russians banned it in the 1970s after their chemists played around with it. The NIH just published its study about the monkeys they injected with the stuff and then "sacrificed". It turns out it is quite unstable. In most of the body this is a good thing -- it turns into something that can be excreted easily- in the brain, its a different story. It crosses the blood brain threshold, breaksdown and then can't get out. Oops.

    Does it cause autism?

    I don't know. Many of the autistic kids appear to have immune system issues (the autopsied ones brains show signs of infection, the immune responses of the live ones are odd).
    Metals elicit an immune system response-- in fact aluminum is included in vaccines for that reason. Could the mercury and/or aluminum and/or anti-biotics and/or antigen in the vaccine be a big problem for kids with some genetic immune system problem and be a small problem for a lot of kids at the right dose and at the right developmental stage?


    But what about the epidemology studies showing no connection?

    For a lot of reasons, virtually no data set is going to tell you whether the vaccines are harmful for some kids. The absolute numbers in Scandinavia are so much lower its hard to compare, plus the science in Denmark was shockingly bad considering what good data they have etc etc. WHen you have something with multiple causes, a population with unknown varying risk factors, little variance in your data during the same time period you will never get an answer.

    Members of IOM have said the same thing: you cannot resolve this one way or the other with this data so lets focus on the biology.
    Why is this still important?
    There are many ways in which kids today are still exposed to Thimersol and the entire third world is being injected with it --

    What about the parents? I think they are crazed, but as they say just because you are paranoid doesn't mean you are not being followed.

    1) Take them seriously. The more mainstream ignores legitimite concerns, the more likely they are to disregard advice on things like chelation and other potentially danagerous treatments. Personally, the credibility of the medical community has been damaged in my mind as they have spouted all sorts of things about Thimerasol that have turned out not to be true (like way metabolized).

    2) They are right about the CDC. The CDC, responsible for getting everyone vaccinated should be very disconnected from the safety research. THis is analogous the problems of the FDA both approving drugs and then following them for side effects (the Vioxx disaster). You know, the old fox in the henhouse thing.

    3) THere is a conflict between societal benefit of an immunization program and individual risk.

    4) The data in this country suck. The inability to really figure out anything (long term side effects from medicines, vaccinations, particular medical treatments ) because we have this crazed healthcare system is a problem.

    my thoughts


  11. On Simpsonwood.

    I actually read the whole thing. I see it differently than either RFK or Skeptico.

    Three thoughts

    1) My impression of the belgian CDC researcher was that he was very reasonable and truth oriented (Thomas Verst???).

    2) The collective knowledge of the US scientific community was incredibly shallow regarding a substance that is a known neurotoxin has been in injected in virtually all living Americans.

    3) Most of the participants were so skeptical before hearing anything that nothing would have changed their minds. After being told repeatedly by someone who had spent a long time on the data that there was a signal that would not go away they all voted that they believed there was no connection. No conspiracy, but not exactly inquiring minds.


  12. I'm not anonymous, I'm Liz Ditz from I Speak of Dreams

    Why it is important to keep hammering away at no link between vaccines and autism: reporters keep reporting there is.

    Long, complete article from Arizona Daily Star:
    (original at

    By Carla McClain

    The decade-long debate over what has caused this country's frightening spike of childhood autism once again is exploding.

    Behind the ongoing tragedy is the face of Lucas Taube, a Marana 3-year-old whose once-joyful, bright, noisy little self vanished into a strange world of silence and isolation - just weeks after getting four vaccinations in one day.

    It is a terrifying scenario now familiar to hundreds of thousands of parents across the nation, most of them still confused - and divided - about what damaged their babies' brains.

    So, as many Tucsonans this week celebrate the opening of the Tucson Alliance for Autism Center - bringing services and support to exhausted, struggling, sometimes bankrupt families - they also are wrestling with why autism happened to them.

    Reigniting the debate is the much-publicized book "Evidence of Harm" by David Kirby, as well as the report titled "Deadly Immunity" by environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

    In brief, Kirby and Kennedy argue that federal health officials, with the help of vaccine-makers and some in Congress, have deliberately downplayed, even covered up, evidence that thimerosal - a preservative containing mercury - in childhood vaccines is the prime trigger behind the explosion of autism in U.S. children the last 15 years.

    Although thimerosal was first added to baby vaccines as long ago as the 1930s, preschoolers typically received no more than three shots throughout the subsequent five decades.

    But, by the early '90s, that exposure changed, with most children getting up to 23 shots against 12 diseases by age 2 all laced with mercury, a metal known to cause brain damage.

    And so was launched the "Thimerosal Generation," according to the Kennedy report - children born between 1989 and 2003, when estimated cases of autism jumped an astounding 15-fold, from one in every 2,500 children to one in 166 today.

    Nationwide, 500,000 children now are struggling with some form of autism - a syndrome of behavioral abnormalities marked by withdrawal from contact, loss of communication and developmental regression. At that rate, more than 6,000 Tucson-area children are believed to be affected.

    Though most pediatricians and public health officials in Tucson and nationwide continue to insist there is no connection between mercury-laced vaccines and the autism epidemic - citing a slew of controversial federally funded studies to back them up - don't try to sell that to Lucas' mother.

    "Absolutely, it was the vaccines. My husband and I have no doubt about that at all," Andrea Taube said. "The changes in Lucas were so huge and so sudden, coming right after all the shots he got that one day, we stopped the shots from then on," she said. "We just asked ourselves, how much damage can we do to him? How much mercury can a tiny body take?

    "We've done our research, and the connection is much more accepted in other countries. America just seems to be in denial about this."

    For most of his first year, Lucas was "an absolutely normal child" - healthy, growing and developing on schedule, his mother said.

    All the while that year, the shots were mounting - at 3 months, more at 6 months. And finally, that day just before his first birthday, when Lucas got four shots all at once.

    "After that, everything went downhill - he was just gone," Taube said. "Within a month, you wouldn't even know Lucas was in the room he was so quiet. He lost all the words he ever knew. He just stared at the ceiling. He just wants to be alone."

    With that came the bizarre behaviors often seen in severe autistics - the flapping arms and odd tiptoeing, along with food allergies and digestive problems.

    Lucas Taube - born in 2002 - may have come close to escaping this harm, if indeed it is linked to thimerosal.

    By late 1997, with complaints from parents pouring in, Congress ordered the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to review mercury in vaccines, drugs and food. Two years later, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Public Health Service issued a joint statement saying "there are no data or evidence of any harm" caused by vaccine mercury exposure," but added, "thimerosal-containing vaccines should be removed as soon as possible."

    With that, vaccine manufacturers began to produce new thimerosal-free vaccines, starting in 1999. However, they continued to market and deliver existing supplies of the old vaccines. And thimerosal remains in most flu vaccines.

    However, the many doctors and studies debunking the mercury link point to a landmark 1994 decision changing the criteria for diagnosing autism as the true cause of the spike.

    Decades ago, only the most severe and dysfunctional cases were counted. Today, the diagnosis includes a wide spectrum of behavioral abnormalities, including milder forms of autism.

    "The increase in autism is all explainable by the loosening of the diagnosis, more awareness of it, more reporting of it," said Tucson pediatrician Dr. Keith Dveirin. "Since most cases are mild to moderate, a lot more children now qualify for the disorder. These are the kids who before were just thought of as kind of odd, not very social, who had peculiarities. Now they're being counted," he said. "There is absolutely no evidence that vaccines or mercury has played any role in this development."

    Dveirin also points to the many babies that show signs of the disorder shortly after birth.

    "I never really thought it was the vaccines," said Melissa Parry, the mother of a mildly autistic son, Gideon. "I had an unusual pregnancy, induced labor and a very traumatic birth - was that it? I really think it was tied to the delivery. I saw symptoms from the very beginning."

    Saying the jury is still out on mercury, a University of Arizona specialist in autism believes "there is enough legitimate suspicion" about it to justify further research.

    "It appears there may be a genetic proponent to this, a genetic abnormality that makes some children prone to it," said Dr. Sydney Rice, a behavioral pediatrician. "The thinking is that it may take an environmental trigger or an illness to set it off."

    Contact reporter Carla McClain at 806-7754 or at

  13. see also:

    James, S. J., Slikker 3rd, W., Melnyk, S., New, E., Pogribna, M., & Jernigan, S. (2005). Thimerosal neurotoxicity is associated with glutathione depletion: protection with glutathione precursors. Neurotoxicology, 26(1), 1-8.


    for published peer reviewed study of a possible link between autism the increasing amounts of thimerosal exposure in children.

  14. I’ve read the full text of the glutathione study you cited. It doesn’t even mention autism.

    In fact, the study only looks at cultured cells. It looks at thimerosal effects on cultured glioblastoma and neuroblastoma cells, both of which are rapidly proliferating cells. It also looks at mercury concentrations in the 0-20 micromolar range and doesn't start to see significant toxicity until the 5-10 micromolar range. That is five hundred to one thousand times higher than the highest mercury concentrations measured in infants receiving vaccines in the study by Pichichero et al published in The Lancet in 2002. In that study, blood levels measured were in the 8-18 nanomolar range.

    Bottom line: The study you cite does not provide evidence for a link between mercury an autism at the levels of mercury observed in infants receiving vaccines according to the standard schedule. Heck, it doesn't even show evidence of toxicity at the levels of mercury seen in infants!

  15. Are you kidding me? I've certainly read the boring 262 page transcript, more than once I might add. I'll start with "diva" commenting first on how RFKjr sounds. That takes away her credibilty immediately. We are here for facts...not discussions on the sound of someones voice. That is a ridiculous way to start what should have been an educated debate on a standing opinion....not a personal attack on the quality of someone's voice.
    Personally I believe that the evidence is there that thimerosal is dangerous. But even if you want to take the stand that it isn't PROVEN have no way to back that up's PROVEN SAFE. WHY inject a child with a known neurotoxin? More than that...the toxin, since it is in question at the very lest, is NOT necessary for the vaccine to be effective. Since that is the shouldn't be used. After all we are talking about injecting 400 times the fda standard for an adult on one day, into a newborn baby. Pregnant women are told not to eat fish. Hello...there is a KNOWN link with Mercury and brain damage to a developing fetus. That is not in question when we are discussing things inutero. But somehow, once the child is born it is okay for doctors to load them with more mercury on the first day of life than is allowed throughout nine months of pregnancy. Hunting for RFKjr has become somewhat of a fashion among the posters here. Have any of you got affected children? If not, please be careful about defending a point of view that you know little about. When one of you watch your child "disappear" immdiately following a multi dose vaccine appointment with your pediatrician then you will have the passion for this fight in a different light. But until the day comes, and hopefully it never will, that you forever lose your child to the dark world of autism IMMEDIATELY folowing these injections...when you literally watch has he loses ability to look into yur eyes FOREVER, then and only then, do you have the right to make these uneducated claims of thimerosal being safe. I'm also guessing after reading these posts that no one here is in the medical field. Proven by pointing out inproperly spelled words. That is a normal typo for stenographers who are not in a hospital setting for their normal routine. The stenographer used for that conference was just that, a non medical typist. Of course there are going to be things spelled incorrectly. And if you do not work in the medical field, I do, then you are not able to understand the language used. That's a strike against your credibility also.

  16. In some places in the world the storage conditions require some kind of perservative. Also, several large scale studies have shown that the microscopic amount of thimerosal is not the cause of autism.

    For someone claiming to be a medical professional, you seem to be arguing the emotional side.

    My oldest son is a teenager who had a seizure disorder as an infant. Because of that he could not be vaccinated against pertussis with what was then the DTP. His health depended on herd immunity... unfortunately due to the efforts of some, the uptake of pertussis vaccine was low and there was an EPIDEMIC of pertussis in the county (to get a sense of the time, it was also the period when the USA experienced a measles epidemic which left 123 people dead). I had to be very careful who he came into contact with, because as it has been shown over and over and over again in the last few years pertussis is deadly to babies:

    You have to look at the REAL risks. Think about what is more dangerous: the vaccine or the actual disease (and with more folks say "no thanks" to the vaccine, the disease is sure to come back --- just like pertussis is now in the USA, mumps in the UK and polio in Africa and Indonesia).

    Also, this webpage has the current amounts of thimerosal in vaccines... including the influenza vaccines withOUT thimerosal (something I goofed on my last OracKnows comment):


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