Given that this is a holiday weekend here in the US and that I’m having a bit of a staycation right now, I had thought of simply not posting today or of rerunning a “classic” (if you want to call it that) blast from the past. But the topic I wrote about last week has only festered and grown bigger since Monday; so at the very least I felt obligated to do a post updating you, our readers, on the twists and turns that have occurred in the saga of the so-called “CDC whistleblower.” For those of you familiar with the story (not to mention following my not-so-secret other blog), much of this will be familiar, but, given that this is SBM, I felt that this material should be on record here for your edification and (hopefully) education. I’ll take (more or less) a chronological approach since last Monday and then finish up by trying to put this whole mess into perspective. This is going to be longer than even my usual posts, but I want to be authoritative. So, if you’re very familiar with what’s happened, you might want to skim everything before the “backlash” and “conclusion” sections to fill in what you might have missed. If you’re less than completely steeped in what happened, read every scintillating word!
But first, for those who might be entering this saga right now, let me recap a moment. I’m referring to a conspiracy theory, which has been flogged to death by the antivaccine movement for nearly two weeks now, that there is a CDC whistleblower who has made “devastating” reports that the CDC hid data that showed a 3.4-fold increased risk of autism in African American males, based on an incompetent “reanalysis” of a 10 year old CDC study that found no evidence that children with autism were more likely to have received their first MMR vaccine earlier than neurotypical controls. As I (and others) have discussed, Hooker used howlingly bad statistical methodology (for instance, analyzing case control data as a cohort study and using risibly bad statistical analyses) to torture the data until they confess that vaccines cause autism. As I said at the time, when it comes to data, call Hooker the Spanish Inquisition. Such was the weakness of what he found that, even after forcing the data to sit in the comfy chair for extended periods of time, the most damning “confession” he could get from them was a correlation between age at MMR vaccination and autism diagnoses in one small subgroup: African American males.
Based on this utterly incompetent data torture and Hooker’s apparent budding relationship with a “CDC whistleblower,” Wakefield first made a video in which this “whistleblower’s” voice was electronically altered (not to mention edited into such selective snippets that it was impossible to glean any context from his seemingly-damning statements. This video, released through Andrew Wakefield’s and Tommy Polley’s Autism Media Channel, despicably likened this CDC “cover-up” to the Tuskegee syphilis study, and finished with a flourish of Godwin-y nonsense that included Adolf Hitler (of course!), Pol Pot, and Josef Stalin, implying that the CDC’s “crimes” with respect to this alleged cover-up were just as bad. It was a breathtaking demonstration of pure stupid hyperbole. Then, a few days later, Wakefield replaced the video with the alterations in the “whistleblower’s” voice with his real voice and revealed his real name: William W. Thompson, PhD, a psychologist and senior scientist at the CDC, as well as a co-author of the study being “reanalyzed,” DeStefano et al. Now, on to the update!
The CDC reponds
Remember how last week I wondered why the CDC hadn’t responded yet? Well, on the afternoon of August 26, after having let this mess fester over the weekend plus Monday, the CDC finally did respond with a statement:
CDC shares with parents and others great concern about the number of children with autism spectrum disorder.
CDC is committed to continuing to provide essential data on autism, search for factors that put children at risk for autism and look for possible causes. While doing so, we work to develop resources that help identify children with autism as early as possible so they can benefit from intervention services.
CDC’s study about age at first Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccination and autism, published in Pediatrics in 2004, included boys and girls from different ethnic groups, including black children. The manuscript presented the results on two sets of children:
- All children who were initially recruited for the study, and
- the subset of children who had a Georgia birth certificate.
Access to the information on the birth certificates allowed researchers to assess more complete information on race as well as other important characteristics, including possible risk factors for autism such as the child’s birth weight, mother’s age, and education. This information was not available for the children without birth certificates; hence CDC study did not present data by race on black, white, or other race children from the whole study sample. It presented the results on black and white/other race children from the group with birth certificates.
The study looked at different age groups: children vaccinated by 18 months, 24 months, and 36 months. The findings revealed that vaccination between 24 and 36 months was slightly more common among children with autism, and that association was strongest among children 3-5 years of age. The authors reported this finding was most likely a result of immunization requirements for preschool special education program attendance in children with autism.
The data CDC collected for this study continue to be available for analysis by others. CDC welcomes analysis by others that can be submitted for peer-review and publication. For more information on how to access this public-use dataset please go to the this [sic] webpage.
Additional studies and a more recent rigorous review by the Institute of Medicine have found that MMR vaccine does not increase the risk of autism.
Vaccines protect the health of children in the United States so well that most parents today have never seen first-hand the devastating consequences of diseases now stopped by vaccines.
However, our 2014 measles count is the highest number since measles was declared eliminated in 2000. We do not want to lose any opportunity to protect all of our children when we have the means to do so.
I was actually rather torn by this statement. When I first saw it, it annoyed me. It was so milquetoast, so vague. It didn’t address the heart of the attempt at a manufactroversy, namely what on earth is going on with CDC senior scientist William Thompson, who was represented by Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker as having “confessed” to grave malfeasance and fraud with respect to this study using cherry-picked sound bites with no context claimed to be by Thompson himself intermingled with Hooker making all sorts of claims of suppression of the “real” results. On the other hand, this antivaccine manufactroversy hadn’t hit the mainstream press much yet, having at the time been confined to the antivaccine and quack crankosphere. So maybe it wasn’t such a horrible idea not to mention Thompson, Hooker, or Wakefield. Certainly Hooker and Wakefield don’t deserve to be considered on the same level as someone like Thompson, even if he did somehow make the huge mistake of speaking with Hooker. Stick to the science. However, if this is all that the CDC was going to come out with, it boggles the mind that this statement wasn’t released on Friday, when the social media storm first really erupted. In any case, it struck me as too little, too late, but for what it is it does have some positives, particularly the statement that the data continue to be available for analysis and that the CDC welcomes such analyses by others that can be submitted for peer reviewed studies. That hardly suggests a “cover-up.”
On the other hand, I really wish that Frank DeStefano, the lead author of DeStefano et al., hadn’t agreed to be interviewed by antivaccine crank reporter Sharyl Attkisson (remember her?), where he doesn’t come across that impressively. In this case, the CDC is losing the PR war.
Mike Adams and antivaccinationists try the “drip, drip, drip” technique
Meanwhile, Mike Adams, thinking himself some sort of “investigative journalist,” decided that he’d try to get the press’ interest by releasing e-mails and letters in dribs and drabs. First up in Adams’ “leak parade,” most likely fed to him by either Brian Hooker or Andrew Wakefield was a letter from William Thompson to the then-head of the CDC, Julie Gerberding, dated February 2, 2004:
Going along with this letter was this interview with Adams:
First off, can’t antivaccinationists understand that a 3.4-fold increased risk is NOT a 340% increased risk? It’s a 240% increased risk. These people are numerically illiterate. The rest of it is nothing new, nothing that I haven’t discussed before. The only difference is more race-baiting despicableness added to Andrew Wakefield’s and Brian Hooker’s race-baiting despicableness. Oh, and libeling Julie Gerberding. Adams charges that she definitely had been offered a quid pro quo for allegedly having quashed the finding that the MMR vaccine causes autism in African-American children. Oh, and totally misinterpreting Thompson’s letter.
Second, do you see a hint of a conspiracy or desire to cover up data in Thompson’s letter? I don’t. Indeed, as I read this, all I could think of was: Is this the best Wakefield and Hooker have got? What I see in this letter is a scientist begging his boss to respond to an antivaccine legislator’s rabble rousing. In fact, these letters from Rep. David Weldon, MD, to Julie Gerberding can be found online on various antivaccine websites. For instance, here is Weldon’s letter dated October 31, 2003. Here is the second letter, dated January 21, 2004.
If you read Weldon’s letters, you’ll note that they have nothing to do with Destefano et al. They’re both about the Verstraeten study, which is the study at the heart of what has been referred to as the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement (at least in the US) and has been deconstructed in detail. Basically, Weldon, even though he’s a physician, fell for the Simpsonwood conference conspiracy theory, promoted a year and a half later by antivaccine crank Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., hook, line, and sinker. The first letter basically regurgitates the “concerns” being promoted by the antivaccine movement at the time. The second letter turned up the heat, trying to persuade Gerberding to postpone the Institute of Medicine conference until the “concern” about the Verstraeten study had been addressed. As we all know, the IOM conference did go on and the IOM report strongly stated that there was no correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism.
I can understand why Thompson, if this first letter is genuine, was concerned. David Weldon was making hay with the antivaccine underground, which back in 2003 and 2004 hadn’t yet been completely revealed to be the total cranks they are, such that they could be safely ignored. Thompson sounds as though he were concerned that he was being thrown to the wolves without adequate backup, a not unreasonable concern at the time. He sounds as though he were pleading for the CDC to come out more strongly on the science of vaccine safety, disagreeing that letting the science showing vaccines to be safe speak for itself is enough. He was right. Science and medicine communicators are needed, because the antivaccine movement will do everything in its power to make sure that the science doesn’t speak for itself.
The next day, Mike Adams published what he described as “Bombshell email from CDC whistleblower reveals criminality of vaccine cover-up as far back as 2002“:
Taken out of context, it’s rather hard to know what to make of this e-mail. Apparently in 2002, there was a Department of Justice request for documents relating to the MMR vaccine, thimerosal (which, I note, is not in the MMR and never has been), and autism. Asking around, what I gather is that at this time the discovery phase of the Autism Omnibus proceeding was under way, and requests for CDC documents were coming hot and heavy. Whatever was going on, what I see here is not evidence of a cover-up. Quite the contrary! If you read the letter, you’ll see Thompson relating that he had expressed concerns about some of the “sensitive legal issues” regarding what documents he should provide to the DOJ and was told that he should “apply a very broad definition” to the documents to be provided to the DOJ. In other words, it would appear that Thompson went to the CDC expressing concern about these requests and was told to give the DOJ everything. So that’s what he does, spelling out exactly what he means by that: All his agendas, analysis plans, Excel spreadsheets, SAS programs, draft manuscripts, edited manuscripts, and sensitive results from the MADDSP/MMR Autism study (the study that was ultimately published as Destefano et al. and “reanalyzed” incompetently by Brian Hooker). He also said he would be providing any other documents he had related to autism/MMR studies. In other words, he seemed to be saying to the CDC, if you tell me to apply a “broad definition,” I’m going to give the DOJ everything I have. As far as we know, the CDC did not object. If it had and Mike Adams had the “smoking gun” e-mail, you can bet he’d have used it by now, given that this e-mail was “revealed” several days ago.
Most of the issue here appears to be requests for documents from the DOJ, which clearly spooked Thompson, if this letter is any indication. I can understand. If I were an investigator at the CDC and the DOJ were requesting documents from me, I’d be nervous too, particularly after seeing my collaborator raked over the coals in front of the committee of the grandaddy of antivaccine congressional representatives, Dan Burton, as Thompson did Coleen Boyle in 2002. As an investigator in vaccine safety, you don’t expect to be the target of investigations of politically minded antivaccine loons. You expect to do good science and let the science speak for itself. Unfortunately, given the antivaccine movement, anyone who works for the CDC in vaccine safety is a target, something that’s been true for 15 years now.
Mike Adams (and the antivaccine contingent lapping up his stuff) wants you to think Thompson was expressing fear that he and his collaborators had done something wrong. To Adams, it’s always the “cover-up,” whether there is any cover-up or not. I just don’t see that, though. To me, it looks as though it’s probably panic at having the DOJ breathing down his neck and demanding documents. What I see is a plea for help, an attitude of, “WTF? I didn’t sign on for this legal stuff when I became a scientist. Take my name off the manuscript if I’m going to have to put up with this to be part of it.” He then took the step of hiring a personal attorney to protect himself, which is also not an entirely unreasonable step to take. After all, institutional lawyers exist to protect the institution, not the individual. Physicians inherently know this, which is why we don’t generally use hospital attorneys to defend ourselves in malpractice cases. We hire our own. In this case, it looks as though Thompson was simply informing the CDC brass that he was covering his own posterior. In other words, this e-mail is very much of a piece with his previous e-mail. Thompson was freaked out at dealing with the DOJ and didn’t want to take any chances. Barring more information, that’s what it looks like to me.
In other words, the “document dump,” such as it was, orchestrated by Mike Adams with (presumably) Brian Hooker and Andrew Wakefield, was utterly unimpressive. What amazes me today, as it did last week, is just how…mundane…these “bombshell” e-mails are. There’s no real indication of a cover-up. In fact, it sounds as though the CDC ordered its investigators to be maximally open with the DOJ after Thompson asked for guidance. If this is the best Adams, Wakefield, and Hooker can come up with, it’s thin gruel indeed. Meanwhile, antivaccine activists tried to get the attention of the mainstream media through a Twitter party orchestrated by the cringe-inducingly named Thinking Moms’ Revolution that failed.
Two real “bombshells”
Wednesday was an eventful day in that there were two developments. First, in the morning, Hooker’s paper was 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.
As of last night, the same message is there. When I first heard of this, 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 bad 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 (and, no, CNN iReports do not count as mainstream news reporting, the efforts of antivaccinationists to claim otherwise notwithstanding).
That changed somewhat after the next major development, but not, in general, to the antivaccine movement’s liking. This next development, was the issuance of a press release by William Thompson through his lawyer, Rick Morgan.
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 to straddle the fence a bit, 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 very likely destroyed his scientific career, and it’s not because he 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 (expressed “regret”) not just for himself (which he has every right to do if he thinks he’s done something wrong) but has in essence also apologized 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. So Thompson has turned a scientific disagreement into 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 in the scientific community. 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.
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 (remember J.B. Handley?) start up a Twitter account:
#CDCWhistleblower scrubbed by lawyers and still ugly, biggest shit-bomb CDC has ever seen http://t.co/pefeWFphzc
— 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 that anything untoward occurred. 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. In the statement, Thompson accused Hooker of having recorded him without informing him, a massive violation of the trust Hooker had nurtured between them.
In light of this new information, what do I now think happened? I think I can make a reasonably educated guess now. Both Hooker and Thompson agree that they had many phone conversations over that period of time. Likely, Hooker reeled Thompson 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. Ultimately, somehow Wakefield found out and proposed making that video, promising not to reveal Thompson’s identity, a promise he broke. Betrayals within betrayals. 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.
There’s no doubt about it. The antivaccine crankosphere is fired up about this. They’ve been pounding a hashtag they invented, #CDCwhistleblower, for almost a week now. Antivaccine activists are so fired up about this that they’ve lost their usual sense of caution with respect to commenting on pro-science blogs like this one and my not-so-super-secret other blog. As I write this, the number of comments after my first post is fast approaching 1,000, largely because of an unprecedented influx of antivaccine posters. Meanwhile, I haven’t been at the receiving end of such an intense series of attacks by antivaccinationists since four years ago, when Jake Crosby accused me of a nonexistent conflict of interest, resulting in an influx of e-mails and calls to my university’s board of governors, my cancer center director, and my medical school dean trying to get me fired. They failed.
These days, the attacks are coming in the form of a potentially libelous CNN iReport regurgitating Crosby’s charges, and, of course, Twitter attacks galore:
@gorskon @brian_sthecobra @DrChrisNorthrup @RobSchneider We're holding all complicit accountable & heads will roll. The ax is coming down!
— Marsha McClelland (@Mofmars333) August 31, 2014
@JBHandleyjr @gorskon @snopes Gorski & others been working years for pHARMa to hold children in harms way #CDCwhistleblower @RobSchneider
— Marsha McClelland (@Mofmars333) August 31, 2014
@gorskon @brian_sthecobra @DrChrisNorthrup @RobSchneider They're lies? You & others to be named were warned to stop. Time to pay the piper!
— Marsha McClelland (@Mofmars333) August 31, 2014
@gorskon @JBHandleyjr your words and actions will come back to haunt you on your deathbed #CDCwhistleblower
— Blaze (@autismeradicato) August 31, 2014
@gorskon @JBHandleyjr #CDCwhistleblower Many hold rage in our hearts due to this Dr. Gorski.& his several partners in crime @RobSchneider
— Marsha McClelland (@Mofmars333) August 31, 2014
This all sounds rather…threatening. One wonders if Ms. McClelland thinks it’s wise to post such Tweets.
And, of course, J.B. Handley is at it as well:
My take on Dr David Gorski aka Orac #CDCwhistleblower http://t.co/217iIpfMVc — JB Handley (@JBHandleyjr) August 31, 2014
@JBHandleyjr @gorskon @snopes did you see the TV coverage !! Kreipske made audito, finds fraud gets fired http://t.co/Nq7muYbo8y
— Eben Plettner (@EbenPlettner) August 31, 2014
I must be oblivious to what’s going on at my medical school, because I hadn’t heard about this. So I did a little Googling and found the University’s response:
Having now reviewed a copy of the complaint provided to us by the Free Press, our preliminary conclusion is that there is no substance to the suit. For example, five of the six grants discussed by the plaintiff were simply grant applications that the plaintiff himself helped prepare. The applications were never funded, making it impossible for fraudulent spending to have occurred. For the one grant that was actually funded, federal auditors performed an audit and there were no findings or recommendations; the audit was completely clean.
In addition to Wayne State’s own scientific misconduct investigation, this former Wayne State employee was also investigated by the Federal Office of Research Oversight, which imposed a 10-year ban on further grant funding to him by the Veterans Administration. He has challenged his termination from Wayne State three times and the findings of research misconduct by federal agencies multiple times. Each of these challenges has been unsuccessful. During that time, he never once brought these latest allegations of fraud to the attention of anyone in Wayne State’s administration.
In other words, this whole lawsuit sounds quite dubious.
I can say is (1) this is an accusation and has not been proven in a court of law (and really doesn’t look as though it will be) and (2) even in the unlikely event WSU lost this lawsuit, it’s nothing more than the logical fallacy of guilt by association, a type of ad hominem fallacy. If that’s the best J.B. Handley has, he’s pathetic indeed. However, I now expect that I’ll be seeing that story thrown at me a lot, along with Jake’s old discredited post. Others who have spoken out against them have received the same treatment to a degree not seen in a while about anything.
There was a time when such vilification would have bothered me, but I’m used to it now. Indeed, I wear it as a badge of honor. They don’t have anything else, and the intensity of the vitriol directed at me is proportional to my effectiveness in dismantling antivaccine claims.
A reality check: So what was Thompson thinking, anyway?
The biggest unknown in this entire misbegotten saga is William W. Thompson, the “CDC whistleblower.” Over the last week and a half, I’ve wanted to ask him time and time again, “What on earth were you thinking?” Thompson now writes in his statement that he is 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 he ever contact Brian Hooker? Brian Hooker? Just a cursory Google search of Hooker’s name and the word “vaccine” would have easily revealed to him 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.
Thompson thus failed miserably in even the most cursory due diligence. And now he’s surprised that Hooker betrayed him? Now he thinks that true “unbiased and objective” scientists might want to collaborate with him on vaccine safety issues? Real “unbiased and objective” scientists are going to avoid Thompson like the plague. I don’t know what personal guilt or issues drove Thompson to think that confiding in Hooker was ever a good idea. I’d say he deserved what he is 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 his ill-advised pseudointellectual dalliance with Brian Hooker. There are mothers out there who will not vaccinate their children with MMR, thanks to Thompson’s ill-advised dalliance with the antivaccine movement. I guarantee it.
Oddly enough, there are some Tweets that ask the key questions about Thompson’s motivations that echoed my own questions:
@gorskon Im gathering opinions from both sides. Im not an expert. Why would a seemingly respectable Dr tank his name&career on a study done
— marcos magaña (@mm3813) August 31, 2014
@gorskon 10 yrs ago? Why would he chose of all people Hooker to tell this to? (When its obvious hooker is not respected in the scientific
— marcos magaña (@mm3813) August 31, 2014
Excellent questions. At first, I thought we were left with two potential explanations. One was that Thompson had gone antivaccine. I don’t think he has, but some selected quotes publicized in which he criticized recommending the thimerosal-containing version of the flu vaccine for pregnant women, stating that it causes tics in children and tics are “autism-like” sure do sound antivaccine. So, although I don’t think he’s gone antivaccine (yet), he’s clearly imbibed at least some of that world view from Hooker. The other possibility was that Thompson had an unresolved scientific disagreement with his co-authors, a “beef,” if you will, that he is now resolving. But if that were the case, then surely there must have been better ways to resolve that than cozying up to an antivaccinationist who has been trying to get first Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and then Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) to hold hearings looking into a vaccine-autism link.
Friday, I was made aware of a possible third reason.
Based on some of my previous posts over at the not-so-secret other blog, I was unexpectedly contacted by Rick Morgan, William Thompson’s lawyer, who wanted to speak with me. So I gave him my number, and he called me on Friday. It was a brief, but very strange conversation. Morgan didn’t tell me much, but I didn’t expect him to, although he stated that he understood that I thought Thompson either had a beef with his co-investigators or had gone off the deep end. However, he wanted to “plant a seed” that maybe—just maybe—there might be another explanation, that this had been torturing Thompson all these years and he just had to do something because he couldn’t take it anymore.
And maybe that is true. I have no way of knowing. I do know that, whatever his motivation, Thompson had done horrible damage and almost certainly endangered African American children to suffer from measles who might not have contracted it otherwise.
Assuming that what Mr. Morgan told me in that brief, cryptic conversation is true, it just goes to show how a guilty conscience, whether justified or not, can drive a man to do some really stupid things. Make no mistake, there is no doubt that what Thompson did was incredibly naive and/or stupid. Maybe his conscience was torturing him for a decade. Again, who knows?
That thought led me to another thought, though. The central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement states that scientists and bureaucrats at the CDC are involved in a massive cover-up of The Truth, undeniable scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism, all done in the service of big pharma. Now think about Thompson again. If what Morgan says is true, then Thompson’s conscience has been torturing him over a relatively minor scientific disagreement in which he didn’t really believe, based on the data presented in DeStefano et al., that there was a true correlation between MMR vaccination and autism, but he did believe that further studies should be done. Now his conscience has led him to ruin his scientific career and reputation over just that.
Now imagine if there had been a real conspiracy to suppress compelling evidence indicating that vaccines cause autism. In that case, there wouldn’t just be a single man torturing himself over decisions made, as Thompson, if we believe Morgan, apparently has. It would be men and women at every level of the CDC. If the CDC couldn’t “keep Thompson quiet” over this, if Thompson was willing to risk destroying his career over a small subgroup analysis with almost certainly spurious results that weren’t followed-up on when he thought they should be, imagine what would happen if real data demonstrating a strong link between vaccines and autism had been covered up. There would be Bill Thompsons crawling out of the woodwork everywhere, beginning not long after the cover-up began.
And that, my friends, is why the entire CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory is so incredibly implausible. Indeed, it reads like a bad movie script.