Two months ago, one of the strangest stories ever to be flogged by antivaccine activists was insinuating its way throughout social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and everywhere else, where antivaccine activists were engaged in a frantic effort to get the attention of mainstream media regarding their belief that there was a “CDC whistleblower” who had revealed a “cover up” that results from a CDC study looking at age of receiving MMR vaccination was studied as a potential risk factor for autism had shown that African-American boys showed a more than three-fold increased risk due to MMR vaccination. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that and details can be found in the links that follow. This story came to after Brian Hooker published a paper that was a reanalysis of the data from that CDC study (DeStefano et al) that claimed to show the correlation between MMR vaccination and autism in African-American boys (but only African-American boys, not any other subgroup).
As I pointed out at the time, in reality what Hooker had done was to confirm that Andrew Wakefield was wrong in claiming that MMR could cause autism. It was further revealed that Brian Hooker had been speaking with a senior psychologist at the CDC named William Thompson, and that Thompson had said some unflattering things about his employer. This all led to the claim that he was a “whistleblower” who was revealing a “cover up” of this data, complete with Andrew Wakefield himself likening this “cover up” to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Pol Pot all in one. More details about how bad Hooker’s study was, how deceptive Andrew Wakefield’s video was, and how nothing Thompson said indicated a conspiracy, fraud, or cover up can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here. Ultimately, Brian Hooker’s paper was retracted, but that didn’t stop Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker from sending a disingenuous, misinformation-packed complaint to the CDC about “research fraud.” Everyone yawned, as well they should have.
One of the weirdest parts of this whole thing was an incident where Celia Farber, a well-known HIV/AIDS denialist, posted a text message exchange allegedly between William Thompson and Andrew Wakefield, in which Thompson appeared to be apologizing and Wakefield appeared to be giving him absolution. It was all very weird and very stilted, leading me to question whether the text messages, sent on iPhones using iMessage, were real or not. At the time, I speculated whether they might be fake or not. Overall, it was not a major part of the story, as far as I was concerned, although if the messages were legitimate it would greatly lower my opinion of Dr. Thompson. Certainly there was nothing in them that “proved” a cover up or research fraud, although certainly the antivaccine movement went absolutely nuts trying to claim that they did.
There was a flurry of commentary, with my post garnering 300+ comments. Then, as is usually the case with blog posts, there was nothing; that is, until a couple of days ago, when Farber showed up in the comments to “challenge” me and posted an article entitled Challenging Orac To Determine Authenticity Of Wakefield/Thompson Exchange: Were The Texts Fake?. She also posted the text of her “challenge” in my comments:
You and your readers have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy speculating about the veracity of the text message exchange I posted to my website The Truth Barrier, seen here:
On your blog, people even Google mapped my building,published my address, and speculated about my son’s age and computer equipment.
But you never thought to contact me, and ask me.
It’s Nov 4, 2014, and this is a matter of public record:
I am inviting you to engage in a resolution of this, so that the questions raised can be answered. Typically, as a journalist. when you want to find something out, you start by contacting people close to the story. You ask questions. Unless, of course, you don’t really want to know the answer.
Journalists don’t rely on comments from readers of their blogs to find things out, nor merely consult their own thoughts and suspicions. They investigate.
So let’s find out of the texts are fake.
I challenge you to go to the source–to write to Dr. William Thompson at the CDC and ask him if he had these exchanges with Dr. Wakefield and his wife.
Then I’d like you to ask me anything you like, about the texts.
Present me with terms of proof that would satisfy you and your readers that they are real not fake.
You want to know that beneath the name “William” on Dr. Wakefield’s phone, there is a cell phone number belonging to Dr. Thompson, correct? We all understand that we are not at liberty to make this number public.
Let us agree that if the texts are proven real, you will publish the results, and apologize to me for the false and slanderous accusations that I published falsified materials.
My question to you is this: If they ARE proven real, what does that mean?
It means that Dr. William Thompson is a real, as opposed to “fake” CDC Whistleblower. It means that he was not at all “taken out of context” by Dr. Wakefield and Dr. Hooker. It means that he stands by what he said in his press release, namely that the CDC significantly altered (falsified) data, and deliberately sought to eliminate the link between MMR vaccines given at a certain time in neurological development, and autism.
If you do not think this is what Dr. Thompson means to convey, please say so here and now, and we will answer that question next. I am inviting you to pose, investigate, and weigh evidence to three questions, publicly:
- Are the texts real?
- Does Dr. Thompson confess to partaking in scientific fraud at the CDC?
- Does Dr. Thompson feel Dr. Wakefield’s career was unjustly destroyed, and that his own study, done right, would have backed up the paper Dr. Wakefield lost his career over?
Your reputation is at stake. I await your reply.
I responded to her in the comments and was going to leave it at that, but apparently Farber is not so easily deterred; so I’m turning this into a full post. I should probably not have allowed this silliness to have intruded into my blogging, so utterly daft is it, but I did. Hopefully, I can be forgiven because, I must confess, rarely have I been so amused by a “challenge.” As you can see, its hilarity is epic.
It’s hard for me not to note that Ms. Farber has things exactly backwards (as usual given her history as a notorious HIV/AIDS denialist). She apparently received an a screenshot of an alleged text exchange between William Thompson and Andrew Wakefield from Andy Wakefield and/or his wife and immediately took it at face value, based only on evidence that, boiled to its essence, consisted of, “Andy says it’s legit.” The image went viral (at least in the antivaccine crankosphere, and the best she could come up with when people noted that she’s sending around a picture of a computer screen showing the alleged text exchange was a screenshot. Then, when I (and others) pointed out reasons to doubt its authenticity and described how it would be incredibly easy to spoof such a text exchange just by having an exchange with a friend and then assigning Thompson’s name to the phone number or e-mail address from which the iMessage was sent (or using various other methods), what did she do? Did she provide corroborating evidence demonstrating the authenticity of the messages? Of course not! Instead, she shifts the burden of proof to me!
Seriously, though, Farber posted it first without bothering to provide evidence that it was legit, even though providing such evidence was her job if she wanted to be taken seriously. At the very least, if she had done additional investigation, she should have described it in order to provide evidence of the text message’s provenance. I can’t repeat this often enough: Andrew Wakefield’s word is not enough, and I’m not going to do her work for her. I’m certainly not going to try to contact Dr. Thompson. Having briefly been in contact with his lawyer, I know that he’s aware of the things I’ve written about him; so it’s highly unlikely that he would agree to talk to me anyway. As for my “credibility,” let’s just put it this way. In my post, I was measured and discussed a lot of alternate explanations, conceding that the text exchange might actually be real. Let me reemphasize the point near the end of my post:
The other two possibilities are either that this screenshot was faked (which seems possible, although I could be mistaken, given that, despite extensive Googling I haven’t been able to find a screenshot that uses “Back” instead of “Messages” my search is not comprehensive) or that Wakefield faked a text exchange and made it appear to be someone named “William,” the implication being that that’s William Thompson, something that is incredibly easy to do. All you need is a friend with an iPhone to do it. There’s no concrete evidence to argue for or against this last possibility, but I also note that there’s no concrete evidence (just Farber’s and apparently Wakefield’s word) that the screenshot represents a real text exchange between William Thompson and Andrew Wakefield, either. That doesn’t even take into account the content of the text exchange, which is bizarre and stilted, to say the least. Even if it is real, it’s no doubt highly cherry picked.
Note the conclusion: I don’t know whether this text message was faked. There’s no slam dunk evidence that it was, but there are lots of anomalies to lead me to doubt its authenticity. More importantly, there’s no slam dunk evidence that it’s real, either. Unless Farber—yes, Farber, not I—can provide really strong evidence for the iMessage exchange’s authenticity, such as a public statement or affidavit by Dr. Thompson that he had that exchange or irrefutable forensic evidence that the message is legit, then I stand by my conclusions, which are that there are plenty of reasons to doubt the authenticity of this exchange. It’s Andy friggin’ Wakefield, fer cryin’ out loud!
Finally, regarding my “reputation,” I was amused that someone who is an HIV/AIDS denialist who has misrepresented the science of AIDS for many years and posted a BS explanation denying that fellow HIV/AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore actually died of AIDS and then took it down after she realized that her “explanation” was actually very consistent with a death due to an AIDS-defining pneumonia, would lecture anyone about “reputation.” Hubris, apparently, thy name is Farber.
In any case, I suggested that Farber go up to comment #59: “Hey, worst case scenario, I get a little mud on my face, but such is life. I’m willing to risk being wrong sometimes.” I’ve already straightforwardly admitted that I might be wrong (although I still doubt that I’m wrong about this exchange’s complete authenticity). And guess what? If you—or someone else other than Andrew Wakefield, whose word is not to be trusted in my opinion, or Brian Hooker, who is complicit with Wakefield and is therefore not to be trusted either—were to provide evidence irrefutable evidence that the iMessage exchange is legit, I’d admit my mistake and move on. The only change I’d have in my opinion is that Thompson has gone antivaccine; it wouldn’t demonstrate that there was a conspiracy to “cover up” the “true” results of DeStefano et al. It would just demonstrate that Thompson has gone off the deep end, which is a conclusion I’ve pretty much come to since September anyway.
Apparently Farber still doesn’t get it. Overnight in my comments, she responded:
You make an assumption that I did not know the veracity of the texts before I published them. I did.
They are real, and you know it, and yes, I did note the third possibility, that the texts are real.
You’re the one who has a relationship with Dr. Thompson’s attorney. The challenge is that you take any steps of any kind to FIND OUT if YOUR OWN published suspicions are valid. You can’t publish wild suspicions and accusations and then expect the recipient of the accusations to jump around and attempt to extinguish all your concerns.
A journalist takes responsibility for trying to find answers to their own questions. The way you do that is by contacting the parties involved and asking for comment on or off the record.
So, we’ve established that you don’t do journalism. That you react with indignation upon being asked to lift a finger to find out whether any of your conspiracy theories are valid. That all your reader’s brain bubbles about the interfaces of iPhones were and are absurd. That the only journalist present here, Brian Deer, tried to set you straight, but even that had no sobering effect on your thought processes.
That you can’t even stick to the point enough NOT to throw Christine Maggiore’s corpse into this. (Her cause of death was renal failure. And she had pneumonia and bronchitis at death.)
I am not in a position to start demanding affidavits from William Thompson.
In two months, he has in no way denied either sending the texts, nor objected to their being published.
Does that tell you anything?
I urged you to contact him, as a means of showing you that I DO know they are real, and inviting you to ALSO learn that they are real.
If you care, if you want to know the truth, try to find out. All I can do is state publicly that were you to unearth a shred of real evidence, from Thompson or anybody else, that the texts are false, I would heartily participate in the process of correcting the record. But they are real, so that won’t happen.
You also have no evidence Thompson ever said his comments were taken out of context. Note the wording: “Taken out of context.”
Where does he say that?
The context is given BY Thompson IN his own press release on Aug 27, in which he states that he regrets partaking in the research fraud at the CDC.
You can hear his voice on those recordings, can’t you?
It doesn’t matter what you think. The matter is moving toward congressional hearings and there are criminal implications in this.
Dr. Thompson expressed clearly that his conscience had become unbearable.
In your mystification about what “motivates” Dr. Thompson, I don’t know how to translate to you what it means to have a conscience. That’s the story.
Read or listen to his own words, maybe, as a start?
Journalism is nothing if not this: Listening.
When I saw this this morning, I couldn’t help but nearly laugh hysterically. First off, as I’ve documented extensively, “Williams’ own words” that we’ve heard are very much cherry picked. If Wakefield and Hooker had quotes from Williams that really were slam-dunk accusations of scientific fraud and conspiracy on the part of the CDC, don’t you think that, given how their initial “drip, drip, drip” strategy of releasing “revelations” failed so utterly, Wakefield and Hooker would have released them by now? The best they could do were some fairly unconvincing comments included in their “complaint” to the CDC. Also particularly hilarious is Farber’s argument that, because Thompson hasn’t said anything or denied the authenticity of the texts, that’s a good reason to think they’re authentic (and, no, that’s not a straw man argument). Come on! Thompson lawyered up and tried to claim whistleblower status. He issued exactly one statement (which, contrary to Farber’s reality-challenged claim, did not even allege research fraud, just a scientific disagreement) and, given the likelihood of legal actions, has issued exactly zero more statements since then, as would be expected given his legal claim of whistleblower status.
More importantly, this whole thing provides an important insight into how cranks think. Farber put out a text message exchange, allegedly between Andrew Wakefield and William Thompson, based apparently on Wakefield’s word alone that it’s real. I and my readers questioned whether it was real or not, listing some pretty good reasons to doubt the provenance of the text exchange, and what did Farber do? Did she produce a statement from Thompson that it’s real? No. Did she present additional evidence supporting the story behind it? No. What she did was…nothing. Well, not quite “nothing.” Actually she did have a bit of a Twitter tantrum first. Then there was nothing for two months, until Farber decided to “challenge” me two days ago. Why did she wait two months? Does she need attention now? (I realize that I’m giving her what she wants, but I was amused enough by the whole exchange that I couldn’t resist. Forgive me.) Does she hope to resurrect the issue, which has been dead for two months? Some other reason? Who knows?
The other insight that this exchange gives is the apparent belief of Farber (and, it seems, Wakefield, Hooker, and the rest of the merry band of antivaccine activists promoting the “CDC whistleblower” myth) that the entire existence of scientific fraud in the DeStefano et al study and an ensuing cover up by the CDC of “real” results showing that vaccines cause autism in African-American boys rests on whether or not Thompson is telling the truth and that the alleged iMessage exchange is slam dunk evidence that Thompson really did accuse the CDC of fraud. Based on that belief, the further assumption on the part of Farber is that I’d be utterly discredited and devastated if Wakefield’s iMessage exchange with Thompson were ever to be shown to be authentic. Neither assumption is true. Seriously. Farber seems to think that my whole argument against the existence of a grand conspiracy by the CDC to cover up research “fraud” would fall apart if Wakefield’s texts were ever authenticated. It wouldn’t. If that were the case, then I might have actually pursued this oddity of a claim beyond one quickie blog post. I didn’t, because I view the whole text message incident as little more than a curiosity, a quirky and strange desperate little sideshow to the whole “CDC whistleblower” affair that piqued my curiosity just enough to write about it.
It really doesn’t matter all that much to me whether the texts are authentic or not, other than the prospect of some mild embarrassment over my previous post, which, given how old it is, wouldn’t be much and wouldn’t last long. As I said before, all that would happen in the event Farber could adequately authenticate these texts is that I’d think a lot less of Thompson, which now, two months later, is largely irrelevant. After all, if there’s anything that’s happened over the last two months, it’s that I’ve already come to think a lot less of Thompson than I did when the first “CDC whistleblower” manufactroversy broke. Finally, Farber should also know (but apparently doesn’t) that I never accused her of falsifying these iMessages herself, only of passing them along as true without providing any evidence that we should believe them. Now I’m pointing out to her that she has the standard of evidence backwards. It is not up to me to prove the iMessages were spoofed. It is up to her to show they are authentic.
In any case, unless Farber can come up with new evidence, I’m done with this curiously amusing little sideshow to the main show of the “CDC whistleblower” gambit. Fortunately, it’s a show that’s bombed massively, both critically and popularly.