They say that truth is stranger than fiction. I never really necessarily believed it, but yesterday was a day that might well serve as anecdotal evidence to support that adage. Indeed, yesterday was perfectly bookended by two major developments in the case of the so-called “CDC whistleblower,” the senior CDC scientist who, if you believe Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker (always a bad idea), over ten months unburdened himself to Hooker, a biochemical engineer with an autistic child whose autism he blames on vaccines, specifically mercury-containing vaccines. Because I’ve gotten a lot of new readers who might not have been following my posts, I’ll provide a brief recap. Those of you who know what’s going on can skip ahead a couple of paragraphs. (Or you can read my peerless prose because it’s so awesome.)
The claim from the antivaccine movement at the core of this story is that the CDC covered up data from a study (Destefano et al) published ten years ago that allegedly showed an elevated risk of autism in African-American males due to receiving the MMR vaccine early. Supposedly, or so the story went, this “whistleblower” advised Hooker in writing a “reanalysis” of that data, and the perfidy was revealed. Meanwhile, Wakefield and Hooker made a truly despicable video in which they compared this “coverup” to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the Holocaust, Stalin’s crimes, and the killing fields of Pol Pot. I kid you not. The first version of the video obscured the voice of this “whistleblower” and did not identify him, but portrayed him criticizing his colleagues, expressing shame, and in general sounding bad, although it’s hard to tell what, exactly, he was talking about because of selective editing. Then, last Thursday night, a new video was posted that identified the “whistleblower”: William Thompson, PhD, a senior scientist at the CDC.
I told the tale over the course of four posts. In the first installment, I described how vile Wakefield’s video was and how incompetent Hooker’s reanalysis was. I also couldn’t resist pointing out that Hooker had actually proven Wakefield wrong. The second installment put this development into context as part of the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement. In the third installment, I described the increasing desperation of Wakefield’s supporters as the mainstream media, despite their best efforts, did not pick of the story, despite Mike Adams over at NaturalNews.com releasing a “bombshell” e-mail from Thompson that wasn’t. In the fourth installment yesterday, I had a bit of fun with a final desperate gasp in which The Not-So-Thinking Moms had a Twitter party to promote the #CDCWhistleblower hashtag and succeeded only in embarrassing themselves, as well as another “bombshell” e-mail revelation that wasn’t.
So, finally, a week and four blog posts later, we hear from the whistleblower himself. Through his lawyer, Thompson has released a statement, which I shall quote in full:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE-AUGUST 27,2014
STATEMENT OF WILLIAM W. THOMPSON, Ph.D., REGARDING THE 2004 ARTICLE EXAMINING THE POSSIBILITY OF A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MMR VACCINE AND AUTISM
My name is William Thompson. I am a Senior Scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where I have worked since 1998.
I regret that my coauthors and I omitted statistically significant information in our 2004 article published in the journal Pediatrics. The omitted data suggested that African American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at increased risk for autism. Decisions were made regarding which findings to report after the data were collected, and I believe that the final study protocol was not followed.
I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.
My concern has been the decision to omit relevant findings in a particular study for a particular sub group for a particular vaccine. There have always been recognized risks for vaccination and I believe it is the responsibility of the CDC to properly convey the risks associated with receipt of those vaccines.
I have had many discussions with Dr. Brian Hooker over the last 10 months regarding studies the CDC has carried out regarding vaccines and neurodevelopmental outcomes including autism spectrum disorders. I share his belief that CDC decision-making and analyses should be transparent. I was not, however, aware that he was recording any of our conversations, nor was I given any choice regarding whether my name would be made public or my voice would be put on the Internet.
I am grateful for the many supportive e-mails that I have received over the last several days. I will not be answering further questions at this time. I am providing information to Congressman William Posey, and of course will continue to cooperate with Congress. I have also offered to assist with reanalysis of the study data or development of further studies. For the time being, however, I am focused on my job and my family.
Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information. I will do everything I can to assist any unbiased and objective scientists inside or outside the CDC to analyze data collected by the CDC or other public organizations for the purpose of understanding whether vaccines are associated with an increased risk of autism. There are still more questions than answers, and I appreciate that so many families are looking for answers from the scientific community.
My colleagues and supervisors at the CDC have been entirely professional since this matter became public. In fact, I received a performance-based award after this story came out. I have experienced no pressure or retaliation and certainly was not escorted from the building, as some have stated.
Dr. Thompson is represented by Frederick M. Morgan,Jr., Morgan Verkamp, LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio, www.morganverkamp.com.
This is the development that occurred at the end of the day. I start with it because it is the most interesting to me, although by no means am I certain that it is the most important. The first thing you have to remember is that this statement was vetted through his lawyer. Consequently, it is relatively content-free, at least as far as some of the more pressing questions. There also appears to be an effort there not to piss off either side too much, hence Thompson’s saying that he agrees with Hooker that CDC decision-making and analyses should be “transparent.” That’s a statement so generic as to be in essence meaningless. No one—the CDC included—would disagree with that statement. The devil, of course, is in the details. What, exactly, does “transparent” mean?
The next thing that came to mind is this: Thompson has very likely just destroyed his scientific career. I suppose he had probably destroyed it before this statement, but this statement caps it, and it’s not because he’s revealed any scientific fraud. There doesn’t appear to have been any fraud, just a scientific disagreement. Yet, over this disagreement, Thompson has, in essence, apologized not just for himself (which he has every right to do if he thinks he’s done something wrong) but has the gall to apologize (“I regret that” for his co-authors too. One wonders whether his co-authors think they’ve done anything that requires such an expression of “regret.” My guess is that the answer to that question is no, because there’s no evidence that they’ve done anything wrong, other than to disagree with Thompson on how to analyze the data in Destefano et al. So Thompson has turned a scientific disagreement into, in essence, an insinuation of unethical behavior, based on a dubious accusation, given that I don’t see, even now, how “relevant data” were withheld, given that Destefano et al analyzed data for all subjects, as I described.
Sure, the CDC won’t fire Thompson or discipline him, but no one is going to want to collaborate with him any more—and understandably so. Certainly, if I were one of his collaborators, I’d drop him like the proverbial hot potato immediately and refuse to work with him further, if only for the reason that I could no longer trust him not to turn an honest scientific disagreement into a major kerfuffle. Make no mistake, his attempt to recast his behavior as a result of a scientific disagreement by saying that “Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information” will fall on deaf ears around the CDC and in the scientific community in general. After all, he just accused his coauthors, indirectly, of at the very minimum sloppy science in not following the study protocol. Worse, they can’t say anything publicly to counter it, given Thompson’s having lawyered up to assert whistleblower status.
Think of it this way. You have a legitimate scientific disagreement with Thompson about how to account for what is almost certainly a spurious association, given the small numbers. The group comes to a consensus. Thompson still doesn’t agree with the consensus. Would you ever be able to trust him not to slime you? Worse, he has stated that he is providing information to Rep. Bill Posey, Dan Burton’s apparent successor for the title of biggest antivaccine loon in Congress. His statement that he’s willing to collaborate with an “unbiased” scientist won’t help him. After this, the only “scientists” who will want to collaborate with him are likely to be antivaccine “scientists,” like Mark and David Geier or Brian Hooker.
That being said, the antivaccine movement should take no comfort in Thompson’s statement, either. I’ve seen them all over Twitter and Facebook already zeroing in on Thompson’s insinuations, to the exclusion of the rest of the press release. It was enough to have our old buddy J.B. Handley start up a Twitter account:
— JB Handley (@JBHandleyjr) August 28, 2014
Meanwhile, the commenters are going wild over at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism.
Antivaccinationists, however, are quite mistaken in declaring Thompson’s statement to be “vindication.” It is not. For one thing, all we have is Thompson’s word for it. For another thing, it hasn’t been actually proven that there was any sort of malfeasance or scientific fraud at all, and even Thompson’s statement, although it insinuates less-than-rigorous scientific behavior, does not support an accusation of fraud. Even if it did, accusations are not convictions. Here’s the problem. Antivaccinationists, as is usual, are being very selective in what they believe out of this press release. They trumpet Thompson’s statement about the Destefano et al as “proof” that the “CDC lied.” Yet, they’re completely ignoring the biggest part of the statement: How massively enormous (or enormously massive) a slimeball Thompson just revealed Hooker to be—Wakefield, too. Thompson has just accused Hooker of having recorded him without informing him, a massive violation of the trust Hooker had nurtured between them. In fact, it’s quite possible that, if Thompson’s allegation is true, Hooker broke the law. While it’s true that Georgia, where the CDC is located, is a one party state (no, I’m not referring to the domination of its legislature by Republicans but to its law that only one person needs to consent to being recorded in a two-party recording), California, where Hooker works and presumably lives, is a two party consent state. In other words, Hooker could be in a world of hurt if Thompson were to pursue a prosecution and prevail.
Wakefield’s a major slimeball too, according to Thompson (but, then, you knew that already without Thompson’s statement). Basically, if Thompson’s story is true (and I’m more inclined to believe Thompson than Wakefield), Wakefield did not have his permission to reveal his name to the world. I’m intellectually honest; so in this I have to admit that Jake Crosby got it right about Andrew Wakefield, who apparently lied to him blatantly by implying that he had had Hooker’s permission. Of course, one can’t help but note that Crosby assiduously blames it all on Wakefield, ignoring the statement by Thompson that Hooker had recorded their phone conversations without informing him, thus betraying his trust. One wonders whether Crosby will figure out that Hooker has just proven himself as big of a slimeball as Wakefield.
In light of this new information, what do I now think happened? I think I can make a reasonably educated guess now. Hooker states that Thompson called him up out of the blue about ten months ago, and both agree that their communications began around ten months ago. So that’s probably true. Both agree that they had many phone conversations over that period of time. My guess is that Thompson, for whatever reason, called Hooker first, and Hooker reeled him in by offering a sympathetic ear and enthusiasm to reanalyze the data, as well as by playing to his ego and view of himself as a wronged warrior for the truth. It didn’t matter much that Hooker, if his “reanalysis” is to be believed, has the statistical and epidemiological skills of a paper cup. The two men obviously hit it off, and Thompson confided more and more with him, while Hooker taped it all without Thompson’s knowledge. Meanwhile, anyone paying attention to the rumblings of the antivaccine underground knew that Hooker had been claiming he had a “whistleblower” on the inside for quite some time now. Perhaps the CDC found out. Or perhaps the CDC didn’t find out, and nothing more happened other than that Hooker told Wakefield that he had hooked a live one, leading Wakefield to propose making that video, promising not to reveal Thompson’s identity, a promise he never intended to keep. Betrayals within betrayals. This can’t all be laid on Wakefield. Hooker played Thompson by recording him, and apparently Wakefield played Hooker by tricking him into doing that video with a promise not to reveal Hooker’s identity. Either way, Thompson was played, big time.
Ironically, Thompson’s statement was released several hours after we learned that Hooker’s incompetent reanalysis had been taken down pending further investigation, with the following notice:
This article has been removed from the public domain because of serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions. The journal and publisher believe that its continued availability may not be in the public interest. Definitive editorial action will be pending further investigation.
When I first heard of this yesterday morning, I was conflicted. On the one hand, my position had hardened since I had first analyzed Hooker’s sorry excuse for a reanalysis. Then, I wasn’t completely sure that the paper was as bad as all that. Oh, I knew it was bad, but just how had to be further pounded into my head through further thought, further reading, and further analysis over the next few days. So I really thought this paper deserved retraction. On the other hand, I knew that retracting this paper would simply feed the conspiracy theorists of the antivaccine movement in a way that almost nothing else could, and if this removal does end up being the first step towards retraction it will drive the antivaccine conspiracy contingent into even greater heights of frenzy. But then I thought about it. Everything feeds into the conspiracy theories of antivaccinationists. We don’t care about changing their minds, because their minds can’t be changed. What we do care about is persuading the general public, particularly the fence sitters, and a retraction of a scientific paper sends a powerful message to the public about a study.
A great example is Andy Wakefield himself. His reputation was never quite the same after he was struck off as a physician in the UK and then his Lancet paper was retracted. Before that, mainstream news outlets used to routinely interview him about vaccines and autism. Afterward, he was toxic. True, he should have been just as toxic all along, at least as far back as the late 1990s, but for some reason he wasn’t. After his retractions, suddenly he was. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder whether Wakefield’s involvement in this story completely undermined Hooker by guaranteeing that the mainstream media wouldn’t touch this story with the proverbial ten foot cattle prod. Without Wakefield, maybe Hooker would have gotten some traction with major mainstream media outlets over his “reanalysis” and his whistleblower. With Wakefield on board, he got nothing. Indeed, this is one of the uncommon times when the mainstream media should be congratulated for not covering Andrew Wakefield, with only very minor exceptions. None of the major media outlets reported on this story.
Finally, this message is for Dr. Thompson, at whom I remain quite pissed, even as at the same time I feel sorry for him because of the mess he finds himself in after having done some excellent work in the past:
Yes, Dr. Thompson, you were played, big time, by Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker, but WTF were you thinking in the first place? You speak of now being willing to collaborate with “unbiased and objective scientists” to reanalyze vaccine safety datasets. That’s great. But, if that’s the case, why on earth did you ever contact Brian Hooker? Brian Hooker? Just a cursory Google search of Hooker’s name and the word “vaccine” would have easily revealed to you that Hooker was anything but “unbiased” and “objective” about vaccines. Such a search would have quickly revealed obviously that Hooker is an antivaccine activist working to “prove” that mercury in vaccines causes autism. Add to that his obvious lack of any relevant qualifications, and you should have run, not walked, away.
Instead, apparently you contacted him first. You failed miserably in even the most cursory due diligence. And now you’re surprised that Hooker betrayed you? Now you think that true “unbiased and objective” scientists should want to collaborate with you on vaccine safety issues? Real “unbiased and objective” scientists are going to avoid you like the plague. I don’t know what personal guilt or issues drove you to think that confiding in Hooker was ever a good idea. I’d say you deserved what you are getting, were it not for the fact that the children of the U.S. and possibly the world could well suffer as a result of your ill-advised pseudointellectual dalliance with Brian Hooker.