The transgressive medical genius that is Mark Geier

February 24th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, MMR | 58 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday February 24, 2007
The Guardian

It’s hard to know how you’d react in a crisis, and so if there’s one group of people who can’t be blamed for the weirdness around autism, it’s parents. But academic journal editors have different responsibilities. The current issue of Lancet Neurology has a review of a book on autism: the book is for a lay audience, and it flatters the views of the growing fringe autism movement on speculative biological causes and treatments for the condition. The review is by a man with a long and worrying history of working on that fringe – and it’s certainly very flattering.

Now I’m not advocating censorship for one moment, but I do think that in a situation as extreme as this, it’s only fair to give the reader some background.

The reviewer, Mark Geier, is an American doctor, vaccine activist, and highly criticised expert witness in vaccine cases, who promotes the idea that mercury in vaccines causes autism, and that testosterone is somehow also implicated. He performs expensive, drastic, controversial, experimental and unproven treatments on children with autism, including “chelation” to remove this mercury (a procedure from which a child died in 2005, under the care of another activist doctor) and “chemical castration” of children using leuprorelin, a testosterone blocker.

Research on mercury in vaccines and autism suggests no link. And the evidence on chelation therapy and autism doesn’t support its use, nor does the evidence on “chemical castration”.

If you are going to use such radical treatments, then I would argue that you might want compelling evidence, rather than a theory, and also gold standard ethics committee involvement in every experiment you do.

Mark Geier does research with his son, David Geier, who is president of MedCon, a medical-legal consulting firm that helps vaccine injury claimants get compensation. Dr Geier (Mark) was a recipient in the multimillion pound MMR expert witness payout.

In more than 10 of his legal cases, particularly the more recent ones, Dr Geier’s testimony was either excluded, or accorded little or no weight, after it was found he was testifying beyond his expertise. He had “largely irrelevant” qualifications, and acted as a “professional witness” in areas for which he had “no training, expertise, and experience”. His “speculation” was directly contrary to the conclusions reached in well-respected and numerous epidemiologic and medical studies ranging over two decades”. He was “neither board certified nor [had] training in paediatrics and paediatric neurology”.

He was further criticised [PDF] by judges for his work not being “based on scientific validity, valid methodology, peer review or testing, and more than minimal support within the scientific community”.

My favourite of all was the finding that his testimony was “intellectually dishonest” and his affidavit was “nothing more than an egregious example of blatant, result-oriented testimony”.

A recent academic paper of the Geiers has been retracted by the journal without explanation – so far – and some of their published “scientific” work is so laughable you can explain the flaws in a jokey national newspaper column.

In 2003, they published a paper in the journal of a Miami hospital using data from a voluntary reporting system for adverse events. They compared the number of reports of autism after use of the vaccine MMR and the vaccine DTP, and found the MMR jab was more likely to be associated with autism.

But the DTP vaccine was a very odd choice for comparison as it is given to babies at two, four, and six months of age, whereas MMR is given to toddlers at 18 months on. You aren’t very likely to find autism in a four-month-old baby, since it is a developmental disorder affecting things like language – and not a lot of four-month-old babies can speak.

That didn’t stop the Daily Mail from giving the study a glowing write up, and the headline “MMR raises risk of brain disorders say researchers”.

As I say, I’m not hostile to people like Geier having a voice. And the idea that there might be a biological cause, or treatment, for autism is a seductive and interesting one. All I ask is that when you take someone as far out as Geier, and bung him in an academic journal reviewing a slightly maverick book, you owe your readers a tiny bit of a warning.

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58 Responses

  1. manigen said,

    March 1, 2007 at 1:04 pm


    Absolutely, they are the best responses. However you do need to make some allowances; I have trouble not getting angry when I read letters like the one above, and I’m not alone in that.

    I feel sympathy for her, but she is dangerous, and her whole approach to an immensely complex and difficult subject threatens to destabilise the good work done by others. It’s not her alone of course; by herself she’d be harmless. It’s her and all the others. All the others who make sweeping assertions about medical conditions without any evidence, and who shout down anyone who dares to question them.

    It’s really difficult to be sympathetic and angry at the same time. Most of the people on this thread seem to be doing their best.

  2. generaltapioca said,

    March 1, 2007 at 7:28 pm


    I think it’s unlikely that Christine is the mother of a child with autism. Given the context, I’m sure she would have said it explicitly.

    Also, the comments aren’t made at her, but about her.

  3. helensparkles said,

    March 3, 2007 at 1:04 am

    The experience of having an autistic child is one of loss, see Kubler Ross for details, but my experience of their parents is that empirical evidence is extrapolated from personal circumstances which is entirely misrepresentative. There is actually little one can do once the narrative of the MMR (or whatever) is to blame, except wait, because it to will pass.

    I don’t think anyone had really got to grips with causes, only symptoms, which are a useful framework in terms of statementing & other practical issues. I do wonder though, why the fathers of autistic children can often be found on the continuum, that is the autistic spectrum. Genes would be a biological cause right? & I’m not a doctor in case that last bit worried anyone!

  4. three tigers said,

    March 5, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    If her son is 44 he was born in ’63/’64. MMR surely wasn’t available as a vaccine then combined or otherwise and is therefore not a source of “heavy metal poisoning”. As vintage ’61, I certainly had all 3 diseases as a child, and distincly remember measles as the particularly nasty one. Not something you would wish on your kids, so “as a mother” I had both my kids vaccinated against everything I could ‘cos I didn’t want them to go through the same misery and risk of blindness/deafness, sterility (boy) or dying as I had.
    Home video evidence of autistic kids indicates they often show subtle symptoms as young as 3-6 months and these can be distingushed from mental retardation and unaffected kids by both child psycologists and lay people. This runs counter to the “my child was developing normally until (s)he had the MMR jab” argument. I’ll dig out the refs if anyone is interested. Gives mostly a genetic cause lots of support.

  5. hrb said,

    March 6, 2007 at 10:34 am

    i do find it disgraceful how these people feed off the misery of others.

  6. CaptainKirkham said,

    March 6, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    Such amazing excuses for such nasty words.

  7. Antonia said,

    March 9, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    With (any) due respect, Christine’s assertion is incorrect. She opined that Ben should get his “facts right” because “the child who died , who was a doctor’s son was given the WRONG drug.”

    Assuming the Pennsylvania Board of Registration in Medicine doesn’t pull things out of thin air, the Order to Show Cause issued in the Kerry case shows the deceased child was not given the “wrong” drug, but rather was deliberately dosed with Endrate, the disodium salt of EDTA, by IV push:

    And never mind absence of indication for use, or that infusion over less than 3 hours is specifically contraindicated due to the risk of hypocalcemia, the condition the state coroner determined to have been the cause of the child’s death:

  8. Roger Cornwell said,

    May 7, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    Mark Geier has had his medical license suspended by the State of Maryland. This was apparently an emergency action, odd given the number of years this has been going on, but welcome never-the-less.