As Andrew Wakefield’s defenders circle the wagons

If my post today is a bit shorter on the usual Respectfully and not-so-Respectfully Insolent verbiage that you’ve come to know and love (or hate), I hope you’ll forgive me. It’s hard not to sit back, rest a bit, and enjoy the spectacle of Andrew Wakefield being pilloried in the press in the wake of the BMJ’s article documenting his scientific misconduct in gory detail. He’s gotten away far too long with trying to split the difference when credulous journalists “tell both sides of the story” so that to those not knowledgeable about his scientific fraud and incompetence it seems as though there really are two sides to the story of whether or not the MMR vaccine causes autism. I realize that schadenfreude is generally considered a less than honorable emotion, but, you know what? Sometimes it’s not only justified, but necessary.

This is one of those times.

Of course, we all knew that the counterattack was coming. Even though the press was in general far better than it usually is about stories like this, it still couldn’t resist letting some of Wakefield’s defenders make fools of themselves, starting with Wakefield himself. Now, I realize that it would be impossible for any self-respecting journalist worth his salt to ignore Andrew Wakefield after the BMJ published a bombshell story like this, but a guy can hope, can’t he? Worse, as Media Spy points out, even though it gave Wakefield a hard time, CNN still framed the story in the same “he says, she says” way that gives aid and comfort to pseudoscience. Even so, I will say that, in spite of the irritating “tell both sides” framing of the story by CNN, Anderson Cooper did as good a job as I’ve ever seen trying to pin down the slick and slimy Andrew Wakefield, who beamed in via Skype from the anti-vaccine conference he is speaking at in Jamaica:


First, it is gratifying to note that Anderson Cooper would have none of Wakefield’s dissembling. But, first, we’re treated to a “greatest” hits of Wakefield’s favorite whines. For example, Wakefield plays the persecution card, coupled with the conspiracy card, with just a dash of the lone nut card (as he tries to paint investigative journalist Brian Deer as an obsessed lunatic out to get him), as this transcript shows:

ANDREW WAKEFIELD, AUTHORED RETRACTED AUTISM STUDY: Well, you know, I have had to put up with this man’s false allegations for many, many years. I have written a book. And in that book…

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: But this is not just one man. This is — this is published in “The British Medical Journal.”

(CROSSTALK)

WAKEFIELD: No. And — and I have not as yet had a chance to read that, but I have read his multiple allegations on many occasions.

He is a hit man. He’s been brought in to take me down because they are very, very concerned about the adverse reactions to vaccines that are occurring in children.

COOPER: Wait a minute, sir. Let me just stop you right there.

This was an excellent move on Cooper’s part. He didn’t let Wakefield get on a roll with his usual schtick. When Wakefield alleged a conspiracy, Cooper first called him out for referring to Brian Deer as a “hit man,” and then asked Wakefield who he thinks is paying Deer to “bring him down.” Wakefield then goes into a classic pharma shill gambit:

WAKEFIELD: And he’s — you know, who brought this man in? Who is paying this man? I don’t know. But I do know for sure that he’s not a journalist like you are. And…

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Well, he — he’s actually signed a document guaranteeing that he has no financial interest in any of this, or no financial connections to anyone who has an interest in this.

(CROSSTALK)

WAKEFIELD: Well, that’s interesting you should say that, because he was supported in his investigation by the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries, which is funded directly and exclusively by the pharmaceutical industry. So…

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: According to him, he’s received no funding from — from any parties that have interests in this over the last three years.

But let’s just — let’s talk about some of the specifics that he is claiming. You’re basically saying this is a — some sort of conspiracy against you. Is that — is that your argument?

WAKEFIELD: Conspiracy is your word.

What this is, is a ruthless, pragmatic attempt to crush any investigation into valid vaccine safety concerns, not just my concerns. I’m here at a meeting of experts on vaccines from around the world who are very — extremely concerned about the safety of vaccines and the damage that they believe and I believe is being done to children.

So let me get this straight. According to Wakefield, this shadowy cabal of–well, he doesn’t exactly know who but he knows they’re evil and he knows they’re ruthlessly trying to harm children by preventing his brave maverick investigation into finding The One True Cause of Autism That is Vaccines–is trying to take him down because he’s apparently some sort of threat to their nefarious plans to make children autistic. Meanwhile, Wakefield’s down in Jamaica, chilling and playing to his base, so to speak, being feted by the anti-vaccine movement and held up as an “expert” and a hero. Let’s take a look a this conference for a moment. The conference has the delightfully Orwellian name of Vaccine Safety: Evaluating the Science. Its purpose is described thusly:

The “Vaccine Safety: Evaluating the Science” Conference has been organized to address concerns raised by the scientific community about the scientific evidence, policy, law and ethics of vaccination. Fears of global pandemics have been used by the World Health Organization and governments around the world to push for increasingly aggressive vaccination programs. While questions about vaccine safety continue to be raised, concerns have largely been downplayed by governments, regulatory agencies, and the pharmaceutical industry. Contrary to a widespread belief that vaccine safety is completely and unequivocally established, the work of a number of scientists suggests that the opposite might be true.

The conference will bring together leading scientists whose research has raised concerns about aspects of vaccine safety. Several well-established proponents of mass vaccination campaigns have also been invited to present their views and evidence. The participants will include basic and clinical researchers who have studied a range of issues from the toxic potential of various vaccine ingredients to the expression of human diseases. The overall goal of the meeting is to provide a critical analysis of the existing data on vaccine safety and an evaluation of what further research is needed in the future. The conference conclusions can be expected to have a profound impact on the development of health policies concerning vaccines and will serve to provide a science-based overview for the general public.

Uh-oh. The “toxic potential of various vaccine ingredients”? Oh, no! It’s the toxin gambit! I do, however, somehow doubt that the conference conclusions will have any influence whatsoever on public health officials. Nor should they. Look at the list of speakers participating in the conference, if you don’t believe me; they’re basically as bad as the conference from more than a year ago hosted by Barbara Loe Fisher’s National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), as documented elsewhere. Come to think of it, it’s no surprise that BLF is one of the sponsors of this conference as well. As for the speakers, there are Andrew Wakefield, Russell Blaylock (who is as loony as they come), Raymond Obomsawin (whose outright misrepresentation of data is legend) Richard Deth, Barbara Loe Fisher, and other luminaries in the anti-vaccine movement. What, no Dr. Jay Gordon? He must not have been available for a trip to Jamaica in January!

The rest of Wakefield’s defense boils down to, in essence, “Buy my book!” and “Brian Deer is a big poopy pants!” He also repeated the same tired claim that his work has been replicated. It hasn’t. I have to give major props to Anderson Cooper for coming up with the best retort I’ve heard to Wakefield’s nonsense:

But, sir, if you’re lying, then your book is also a lie. If your study is a lie, your book is a lie.

Personally I would have repeated the old joke, with Wakefield as its punchline. How do you know when Andrew Wakefield is lying? His lips are moving and sound is coming out of his mouth, which is pretty much what Brian Deer said in this interview, along with pointing out how Wakefield was in it largely for the money:

It is indeed ludicrous how fast Wakefield is at throwing around false charges against his enemies that they are somehow in the pocket of big pharma when Wakefield was going after money from the very beginning, money from trial lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers, money from a patent for a vaccine designed to compete with the MMR, money from pretty much everything.

Perhaps the silliest attempts to downplay Dr. Wakefield’s perfidy came from our old “friend,” Dr. Jay Gordon, who has been Twittering away on his Twitter account, @JayGordonMDFAAP. Here’s a sampling from Dr. Jay’s Tweets from the last day or so:

  • I changed the way I vaccinate kids in 1980. I saw unusual behavior after the usual combinations. Wakefield changed nothing for me. Relax.
  • I still give shots every day. Just can’t stand the CDC schedule and stopped using it in 1980. (Wakefield was still in med school back then.)
  • Focus on Wakefield is a distraction. So many possible toxins in kids’ lives: flame retardants, plastics and more.Vaccines play a role though

So, basically, we have more data-free, evidence-free, confirmation bias-driven nonsense spread by Dr. Jay to his 7,000 or so followers. Once again, he repeats his belief that vaccines play a role in autism. Once again, he promotes his individual clinical experience as having more weight than science, epidemiology, and clinical trials. Once again, he demonstrates the arrogance of ignorance. Once again, I expect him to show up in the comments again, plaintively whining that Orac is mean and just plain being too hard on poor, poor, pitiful Jay, who likened Deer and BMJ going after Wakefield to, well, here’s the Tweet:

BMJ and Deer slamming Lancet and Wakefield is like GM and Ford coming after Toyota and Volvo: Maybe some truth but read skeptically.

In other words, Dr. Jay is completely buying into Wakefield’s lies about the criticisms directed at him, namely that it’s all about money and trying to suppress Wakefield as a threat to vaccine manufacturer’s profits. For shame, Dr. Jay! For shame!

In particular, for shame for not even being able to maintain even some degree of logical consistency:

Don’t get me wrong, the Lancet’s irresponsibility in publishing the article was tragic. Wakefield has good ideas but study was inconclusive

Huh? If Wakefield had “good ideas” but his study was only “inconclusive,” then why was The Lancet‘s irresponsibility in publishing the article “tragic”? Dr. Jay can’t even make sense in his pseudoscientific arguments! Even worse, he’s mischaracterizing the situation. Wakefield’s study was not just “inconclusive,” it was fraudulent. Dr. Jay also totally misunderstands the nature of peer review, as he demonstrated in the comments of my post:

The Lancet” should not have published a study drawing conclusions from such a small sample size. Medical authors, as we all know, need guidance from editors and from peers. Dr. Wakefield did not get that guidance.

Let me just explain the purpose of peer review from Dr. Jay. Dr. Jay is partially correct, as far as it goes, when he appears to concede that Wakefield’s article should never have been published in The Lancet, given that, even if it hadn’t been fraudulent, small case studies such as Wakefield’s usually are not published in such high ranking, high impact journals. They are usually published in middle to lower tier journals, the proper place for them. Be that as it may, it is not the job of peer reviewers to “give guidance” to medical authors. It is the job of peer reviewers to criticize manuscripts and tell the authors if they pass scientific muster and report results sufficiently compelling and scientifically or medically interesting to be published in their journal. Arguably, in this The Lancet‘s peer reviewers failed utterly. Even so, Wakefield didn’t need guidance from editors and peers. He needed someone to discover his fraud and stop him before he published his fraudulent results. Either that, or he needed someone to convince him that going to the press to promote his view that vaccines cause a syndrome of regressive autism with enterocolitis was irresponsible in the extreme. The reason Wakefield has managed to publish as much as he has and because peer review failed in his case is because the scientific enterprise is largely built on trust. As a consequence, peer review is notoriously awful at detecting outright fraud and fabricated results. When it does, usually it is because of a particularly egregious bit of fabricated results that a sharp-eyed reviewer picks up, such as a doctored autoradiograph. Wakefield’s authors didn’t doubt him because they trusted him. As a result, the reputations of some of his collaborators were seriously damaged. Dr. Jay really needs to learn the difference between incompetent science and outright fraud.

One interesting aspect of the defense of Andrew Wakefield is who isn’t circling the wagon around him. Sure, the usual suspects are there: J.B. Handley, Andrew Wakefield himself, Dr. Jay Gordon, the National Autism Association, John Stone, and a variety of other anti-vaccine activists. Notice, however, who is not defending Andrew Wakefield this time. Believe it or not, Jenny McCarthy refused to be interviewed regarding the latest about Andrew Wakefield. One wonders if she’s finally figured out that her previous defenses of him, such as the one she and her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey published last year, when the GMC ruled that Wakefield committed scientific fraud, is a serious liability.

Or not. I just noticed on her Twitter feed that Jenny McCarthy has posted a link to a J.B. Handley’s interview, in which he defended Andrew Wakefield (deconstructed yesterday). And so it goes.

So it also goes that I ended up writing one of my usual logorrheic epics, even though I hadn’t planned on it as I sat down with my laptop to write. I guess scientific fraud that endangers children has that effect on me.