Monday, May 25, 2015

#1375: Sallie Bernard

SafeMinds is an advocacy group dedicated (to a large extent) to antivaxx lobbying and, in particular, to the utterly discredited hypothesis that mercury causes autism. And, for people with little aptitude for scientific evidence, little time for critical thinking, and a stake in the outcome, no study, however rigorous, is going to change their minds (as the name suggests, the group is entirely impervious to evidence).

Sallie Bernard is the executive director of SafeMinds, and a committed promoter of denialism and pseudoscience. A fine case in point is her comments on an article concerning a seven-year study of 1,047 children who received mercury-containing vaccines as infants funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention – which, of course, found no indication of developmental delays. As the authors of the study pointed out, “[a] majority of the selected families declined to participate or could not be located, and we were able to enroll only 30% of the subjects included for recruitment. Therefore, our findings may have been influenced by selection bias.” Bernard interpreted this as meaning that the study was biased and worthless. Of course, as the authors point out, the selection bias would almost certainly have biased the study in favor of harm, but Bernard missed that. And Bernard was, in fact, a consultant for the study and helped contribute to its design; but you know: when it nevertheless failed to show what she had already determined that it ought to show, what can she do?

Most of her errors are, however, even more obvious. When a major report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), entitled “Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality” showed that vaccines are safe, she went full Orwellian (including conspiracy mongering), once again demonstrating that no evidence, study or science will ever, no matter what, make her and her organization change their mind about the alleged causal links between mercury and autism. After all, Bernard herself published a rather infamous paper supporting a link in the pseudojournal (yes!) Medical Hypotheses back in 2001. And yes, her tactics are the same as always: conspiracies, shifting goalposts and pharma shill gambits abound. An illuminating discussion of her and SafeMinds’ techniques can be found here.

Diagnosis: A major player in the anti-vaccine movement, Bernard makes sure to employ all the familiar canards, all the obfuscation, and a complete lack of criticial thinking skills to dismiss any evidence (i.e. all evidence) against what she very zealously believes for reasons that have little to do with evidence. Dangerous mumpsimus.


  1. My question is what the name "SafeMinds," means. Does it mean safe from rational thought, or safe for all sorts of woo or pseudoscience?

    1. SafeMinds stands for "Sensible Action For Ending Mercury-Induced Neurological Disorders" to indicate their belief that mercury (in the form of thimerosal) causes autism.