Unquestioned faith that something is true, despite contrary evidence. Doing whatever it takes to prove that you are right, including violence. These sound like the traits of a religious fanatic. However, it also describes many parents who believe that mercury has caused their child's autism. Despite reduplicated studies and piles of evidence, these parents will to whatever it takes to make others believe as they do, including threatening those who speak against them.
It is however, hard to blame these parents. A diagnosis of autism can be scary. Although it's not life threatening, it is definitely life changing. Science has not found an cause for autism yet. Parents often feel scared, alone, and frustrated with their inability to change the situation. I'd like to think a parent would do anything for their child. Finding a cause for the condition afflicting their child and fighting it gives a sense that they are doing something. Anything is better than just lying back and taking it.
This leads to the notion that parents should always be listened to. It is hard to argue with a parent about what is right for their child. It is hard to counter a mother's personal anecdotes about how and when their child developed autism. You can't fight it with evidence, just like you can't fight the existence of god.
It is not a surprise then that religion is involved in this thimerosal controversy. Lisa Sykes, a parent and Methodist minister delivers sermons on thimerosal, converting more parents to her opinions. When Wakefield came to America after his practice was ruined in the UK, joined the Good News Doctors Foundation, a religious group aimed at protecting kids from vaccines. Generation Rescue, the group Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey belong to, is an advocate for chelation, and refers to it as a cleansing ritual. "We are helping a child's body do what god intended it to do". British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane said "Beware of him in whole reason has become the greatest and most terrible passions". These parents are convinced their belief that thimerosal plays a role in their child's autism is completely reasonable. Because of their strong belief in this truth they will submit their children to dangerous treatments, otherwise deemed unthinkable. The extremes people go to for their convictions can be dangerous.
I love that Paul Offit refers to some of the greatest freethinkers of all time in his book "Autism's False Prophets". One of those is Bertrand Russell, whose teapot argument relates to the topic at hand. The teapot argument is that one can say there is a teapot in elliptical orbit, but it is to small to be seen, even by powerful telescopes. Because it can't be seen, it can't be disproved. The same can be said about scientists. There are things that scientists cannot know, and there are rare unexplainable events. Russell's argument is referring to god, but anti-vaccines activists are using it in their favor creating an industry of dangerous therapies and multi-million dollar lawsuits. Fortunately, the courts don't favor this argument much.
My favorite quote in the book comes from Robert Park, author of "Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud". I think it sums everything up nicely. "Many people are uneasy standing on such loose soil; they seek a certainty that science cannot offer. For those people the unchanging dictates of ancient religious beliefs, or the absolute assurance of zealots, have a more powerful appeal". The beauty of this quote is that it can be used for both a belief in god, or the belief that mercury causes autism. The unknowable is scary. Putting belief into something is comforting.
I would like to end by channelling the great Carl Sagan. I hope his advice will be heeded. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". Unfortunately, in the case of mercury vs autism, the extraordinary proof just isn't there.