No one can shoot himself in the foot like anti-vaccine hero Andrew Wakefield

Blogging is usually such an instant gratification sort of thing. I see a story or hear about something. I write about it. I almost have to. Most stories in the blogosphere have a really short half-life anyway. Wait more than a day or two, and no one cares anymore. Hell, wait more than a few hours in the case of hyperkinetic bloggers like P.Z. will be all over it. However, sometimes it’s a good idea to restrain myself, not to leap on something right away even when I can.

This is one of those times.

Last week, I was tipped off by the merry band of anti-vaccine loons over at Age of Autism to a press release issued by one of the heroes of the antivaccine movement, the incompetent scientist who, as investigative journalist Brian Deer showed, was not only in the pocket of trial lawyers at the time he did his “research” allegedly implicating the MMR vaccine as a cause of “autistic enterocolitis” but probably falsified much of the original data used in his infamous 1998 Lancet paper. Yes, I’m referring to the (in)famous Andrew Wakefield, whose amazingly incompetent research claiming a link between the attenuated measles virus in the MMR vaccine and “autistic enterocolitis” launched a scare that is still going on to this day and that has lead measles from being practically eradicated to now being endemic again in the U.K. It’s also the scare that launched a thousand quacks. Indeed, the most recent bit of news about Wakefield’s scientific fraud came out during the General Medical Council investigation that was launched against him to investigate the allegations of research misconduct resulting from his activities a decade ago and reported by Brian Deer.

Wakefield was not pleased.

Indeed, he was so displeased that he launched an attack on Brian Deer and lodge a specious complaint against him and his newspaper with the U.K. Press Complaints Commission. Last week, against all odds it appeared that Wakefield might have prevailed, at least if you believed his delusional press release:

(Austin, Texas) – The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) of London, an independent body that oversees journalism fairness in the UK, has issued an interim order calling for the Sunday Times to remove stories written by Brian Deer about Dr. Andrew Wakefield from its web site. Dr. Wakefield had filed an extensive complaint with the PCC regarding errors of fact in Deer’s reportage on the MMR vaccine and its possible relationship to autism. The General Medical Council (GMC) in the UK is presently hearing evidence involving Dr. Wakefield and two of his colleagues following a complaint to the GMC by Deer himself. The PCC decision today appears to indicate there are questions about the accuracy of the Deer stories.

The PCC complaint by Dr. Wakefield provides clear evidence that Deer’s allegations of “data fixing” by him are false. The complaint also accused Deer of an undisclosed conflict of interest since Deer also failed to disclose in his articles that he was the person who made the original complaint to the GMC, misleading the newspaper’s readers over the accuracy of his reporting.

“Given the ongoing nature of the dispute,” Stephen Abell of the PCC wrote, “the articles should be removed from the newspaper’s website until this matter has been concluded. This would not be an admission of any liability on the part of the newspaper.”

I must admit that when I first read this, I found it to be a real head-scratcher. It made no real sense, and, indeed, I wondered if the U.K.’s notoriously plaintiff-friendly libel laws, the ones that ensnared Simon Singh, had had anything to do with this. On the other hand, even the wording of Wakefield’s press release revealed a lot. Notice how the PCC statement explicitly stated that removal of Deer’s story would not be an admission of any liability. From my perspective, this sounded as though the PCC was just being overly cautious more than anything else and that The Times was probably being too accommodating. I chalked it up to a culture difference more than anything else. In the U.S., the newspaper would probably tell any sort of PCC to stick it where the sun don’t shine if it requested the removal of an article before any sort of ruling.

Curious, I e-mailed Brian Deer, who informed me:

All that happened was we pointed out that the PCC was incapable of reaching an adjudication until after Wakefield’s GMC finished, since it covered much of the same ground. We thought this would be just a month away. So the PCC agreed, but said take the February report offline until then, which we did.

As I suspected, the whole agreement was nothing more than a gentlemen’s agreement. Damn that British collegiality!

Of course, if there’s one thing about British collegiality, it’s that the British really don’t like it when someone violates it, and that’s exactly what Wakefield did with his little hissy fit of a press release. As a result, the articles by Brian Deer describing Andrew Wakefield’s scientific fraud are right back up on the Times website where they were before. Go ahead. Click on the link. The story is right there. Indeed, Mike Stanton points out just how badly Wakefield has screwed up, and Brian Deer himself has given permission to repost an e-mail he sent to Dr. Wakefield’s attorney:

Date: Mon, 06 Jul 2009 18:12:00 +0100
To: “Joanna Bower”
From: Brian Deer
Cc: info@thoughtfulhouse.org

Ms Joanne Bower,
RadcliffesLeBrasseur LLP

Dear Ms Bower,

Your client, Dr Andrew Wakefield, has published, and caused to be published, on his website, thoughtfulhouse.org, and on other sites, false claims that the Press Complaints Commission has issued an “interim order” concerning my investigation into his conduct. Dr Wakefield claims that The Sunday Times has been ordered by the PCC to remove my stories about him from its website.

I understand that the PCC has written to your client to point out that these claims are untrue. In fact, all of my stories concerning him are available at the Times Online website.

thoughtfulhouse.org is unquestionably controlled by Dr Wakefield, and his publication there has caused similar untruths to be published on websites either directly controlled for his interests, such as cryshame.org, which, as you may know was set up by Mrs Isabella Thomas, the parent of two of the children anonymised in the now-infamous Lancet MMR paper, or indirectly controlled for his interests, such as ageofautism.com, operated to promote and profit from concern over children’s vaccines.

It is, of course, nothing new for Dr Wakefield to mislead the public, and especially the parents of autistic children. He has faced the longest ever proceedings before a General Medical Council fitness to practise panel, following the GMC’s reinvestigation of my journalism. In due course, I’d expect he will face a hearing of the PCC, covering much of the same ground on a significantly different evidential base.

However, you may feel it advisable to explain to your client that either he accepts the untruth of his latest claims and takes them down, or he maintains them in publication, in which case his conduct would not merely be wrong, but would be dishonest.

With best wishes,

Brian Deer

http://briandeer.com

Ouch. That’s going to leave a mark.

Of course, the irony of this whole situation is that Andrew Wakefield brought this all upon himself. No, I’m not just referring to the fact that he took money from trial lawyers to fund his research and did incompetent science, although both of those are true. No, what I’m referring to what Mike Stanton describes, namely how Wakefield at first suied Brian Deer for libel but, even under the U.K.’s ridiculously plaintiff-friendly laws, gave up before even going to trial and even agreed to pay Deer’s legal costs. As Mike points out, if Wakefield hadn’t done that, it’s unlikely that Deer would have gotten access to the medical records that led to his revealing Wakefield’s falsification of data and the latest report in The Times detailing Wakefield’s misdeeds. Heck, Wakefield even went beyond that. Remember, back in 2004, Wakefield himself called for a GMC investigation, saying that he not only welcomed an investigation but that “I insist on it.” In other words, Wakefield told the GMC to “bring it on.”

How’d that work out for you, Andy?

I love the schadenfreude that comes from observing that Wakefield has gotten in essence exactly what he said he wanted.

So what will happen now that Wakefield shot himself in the foot so badly that nothing more than a smoking stump is left? I predict that the GMC will rule against him on all, or nearly all, charges. I further predict that it won’t matter one whit to Wakefield. These days, it serves his interests far more to lose and remain in Texas. That way, he can continue to paint himself as the poor, persecuted martyr forced into exile from his own country by the uncaring authorities. There, he can continue to play the Galileo Gambit. Of course, to claim the mantle of Galileo, as the saying goes, it is not enough to be “persecuted” by the establishment. You must also be right, and Wakefield is most definitely not right. So there he remains in Texas running Thoughtful House, doing who knows what, given that he does not have a medical license and therefore should not be able to treat patients. I realize that’s no guarantee (after all, David Geier somehow manages to engage in activities that very much resemble patient care, and he doesn’t even have an M.D.), but I have a hard time imagining just what Wakefield can be doing to fill his time, other than cranking out self-destructive press releases like this one.

Unfortunately, Wakefield’s continued fall, which is richly deserved, will only make him more of a hero in the eyes of the anti-vaccine movement. I had originally thought that the revelations that Wakefield had falsified data would cause some of the anti-vaccine movement to desert him. Maybe it did. I can’t tell. What I can tell is that, like all true cranks, the anti-vaccine movement simply can’t leave one of their own. No matter how much evidence there is against him, they have to circle the wagons.

They can’t help themselves. It’s the nature of the crank, and Andrew Wakefield is king of the anti-vaccine cranks.