The race to flee Andrew Wakefield

What does it take to get an advocate of pseudoscience to change his or her mind? Many are the times I’ve asked myself that question. Over the years, I’ve covered the gamut of techniques, going from what some might call “militant” or even insulting to being as reasoned and calm as can be–and probably everywhere in between. It’s not just the anti-vaccine movement, either, but the anti-vaccine movement provides a convenient example. This is particularly true because of the recently released revelations, both more detailed old and also new, about how anti-vaccine hero Andrew Wakefield not only committed scientific fraud in conducting the “research” that led to his case series in 1998 that sparked the latest chapter in the seemingly never-ending battle between the anti-vaccine movement and science but planned to make a lot of money as a result of his fraudulent research. Indeed, even though the last two weeks were the culmination of the drip, drip, drip of allegations and findings that began after British investigative reporter Brian Deer originally discovered evidence of Wakefield’s massive undisclosed conflicts of interest, that didn’t stop his admirers and followers from circling the wagons and lashing out at Brian Deer. It appeared that not a mind was changed.

But it’s not just the anti-vaccine movement that has trouble admitting it was wrong. It’s basically everyone; indeed, human nature makes it very, very difficult for most people to admit when they are wrong. The more invested they are in a point of view, the harder it is to admit it when that point of view is shown to be wrong. However, even those who might not be that invested in a point of view also have difficulties. Salon.com, for instance. Consequently, we see abuse heaped on Brian Deer over and over and over again by the likes of Katie Wright, J.B. Handley, and Martin Walker, and, of course, Ginger Taylor, whose attacks on Brian Deer are comical in their irrelevance and who blames criticism of the anti-vaccine movement on misogyny, all the while ignoring history of extreme misogyny coming from people on “her side,” such as J.B. Handley himself.

These attacks all basically boil down to insinuations (or outright accusations) that Brian Deer is a pharma shill, that he is an obsessed loner who has lost all sense of proportion as he pursues Andrew Wakefied relentlessly, and that, oh, by the way, Andrew Wakefield’s work has been replicated. (It hasn’t, at least not by anyone not associated with him. Even then it’s debatable, and one attempt that explicitly tried to replicate Wakefield’s results failed to do so.) However, it wasn’t just members of the die-hard anti-vaccine underground who have promoted the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism.

Five and a half years ago, I made my first minor splash in the blogosphere when wrote a post that I entitled, in my own inimitable fashion, Salon.com flushes its credibility down the toilet, because, well, it did just that. The article to which I referred, which was published simultaneously by Salon.com and Rolling Stone, and entitled Deadly Immunity. Written by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., it was a conspiracy mongering pile of nonsensically burning stupid blaming thimerosal in vaccines for the “autism” epidemic. It was an article so chock full of unfounded conspiracy theories, outright misstatements of fact, and misrepresentations of history and science, that I was shocked that Salon.com would publish such tripe. Although Salon.com made minor “corrections” in response to the heated criticism it justly received, for over five and a half years it stood by the article, refusing to remove it from its website.

Until now:

The piece [Deadly Immunity] was co-published with Rolling Stone magazine — they fact-checked it and published it in print; we posted it online. In the days after running “Deadly Immunity,” we amended the story with five corrections (which can still be found logged here) that went far in undermining Kennedy’s exposé. At the time, we felt that correcting the piece — and keeping it on the site, in the spirit of transparency — was the best way to operate. But subsequent critics, including most recently, Seth Mnookin in his book “The Panic Virus,” further eroded any faith we had in the story’s value. We’ve grown to believe the best reader service is to delete the piece entirely.

I can’t help but think that the editors of Salon.com appear to be throwing their colleagues at Rolling Stone under the bus, blaming them for the numerous inaccuracies and the outright pseudoscience in RFK, Jr.’s turd of an article, even though presumably the editors at Salon.com agreed to publish it. It just goes to show what happens when you trust someone else to fact check for you. Even so, the question remains: Why has Salon.com decided to retract Deadly Immunity now? Quite frankly, I don’t think it a coincidence at all that the editors of Salon.com made this decision so soon after Brian Deer’s most recent revelations about Andrew Wakefield’s fraud. I have little doubt that Seth Mnookin’s book had some impact, but, let’s face it, it’s been abundantly obvious that Deadly Immunity was a load of pseudoscientific, conspiracy-mongering crap since right after it was published. Numerous bloggers joined me in dissecting the nonsensical and paranoid claims within days of its release, one of the best being Skeptico. Paul Offit published a book two years ago that demolished the claims RFK Jr. made in his article, but Salon.com didn’t retract his article in 2008. Nothing against Seth Mnookin, whose book I’m reading and enjoying thus far, but Paul Offit is a vaccine scientist and systematically deconstructed the myth that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism in his book Autism’s False Prophets two years before Mnookin took on the same topic. So, the question remains: Why now?

I can’t help but conclude that the answer to that question boils down to Brian Deer’s recent revelations about Andrew Wakefield. True, it might well be a confluence of Mnookin’s book and Wakefield’s further humiliation, but I strongly suspect that Wakefield’s downfall is what did it. Think of it this way. Not only has Wakefield been shown quite convincingly to have falsified his data, but he’s also been revealed as a profiteer who hoped to make rake in millions upon millions of dollars hand over fist. Even though Wakefield’s claims had nothing to do with whether thimerosal has anything to do with autism causation (thimerosal was never in the MMR vaccine, which was the target of Wakefield’s fraudulent research), his actions have been so dishonest, so unethical, so egregiously wrong that he has managed to taint the the entire anti-vaccine movement. Worse, the more Wakefield has fallen, the more dishonest he has been shown to be, the tighter the anti-vaccine movement has embraced him, with the National Vaccine Information Center giving him awards, numerous anti-vaccine groups rallying to cover his back, and the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism spending most of its verbiage over the last week and a half defending him, up to and including its spokesmodel Jenny McCarthy defending him in that wretched hive of scum and quackery, the Huffington Post.

All of this brings me back to one criticism of Brian Deer that I had last week. Basically, Deer criticized Ben Goldacre and Paul Offit for having made statements that said, in essence, that it doesn’t matter whether or not Andrew Wakefield is a fraud; what matters the most is that his science was wrong. I pointed out that, from a scientific and medical point of view, Goldacre and Offit were absolutely correct and that I agreed with them strongly. However, from a societal viewpoint, that Wakefield committed scientific fraud matters. It matters a lot, and I could see how Goldacre and Offit’s statements could be interpreted as dismissing the importance of Brian Deer’s investigation. Yet, now we can see how much it matters that Wakefield committed scientific fraud through how it’s affected the debate. Not only was Wakefield wrong, but he almost certainly falsified his research data. If he had been wrong in an honest fashion, it would have been no harm, no foul. At the very worst, even if the data reported in Wakefield’s Lancet paper had been conducted ethically and accurately, he would have been viewed as a crappy scientist (which he is, regardless of his fraud) for having leapt to such sweeping conclusions and, in particular, promoting them in the press on the basis of such weak evidence. Add fraud on top of that, and it magnifies the offense by orders of magnitide. It also makes at least some people think a bit. Moreover, it can’t be denied that revelations of Wakefield’s professional misconduct a year ago led directly to the retraction of his Lancet paper shortly thereafter, which further led to Wakefield’s marginalization to the point of showing up at sparsely attended demonstrations by anti-vaccine loons, looking pathetic.

I’ll conclude with an example of the “Wakefield” effect, as I like to call it. Craig Willoughby, someone who really, really detests me and appears strongly invested in the idea that vaccines have something to do with causing autism, left this comment after Jenny McCarthy’s post on HuffPo:

Well, after spending the past few days reading over everything I could concerning Andrew Wakefield, the GMC, the TF patent application, and Brian Deer, I have no choice to come to the conclusion that Wakefield is fraudulent in his research. The evidence to this is pretty damning, and I cannot deny it. It is clear that he had COI’s, and I can certainly say that this could have motivated him to do what he did. Do I believe all the charges leveled against him? No. Some of the things Wakefield has said in his own defense line up with the evidence. But yes, I have to agree that Brian Deer’s thorough investigat ion is pretty damned rock solid.

This was not easy to write (I’ll probably have a post on my blog concerning this in the next few days). I defended his research in hopes that it could offer clues to my son’s condition. Even if you try to paint him in the most favorable light, and think that he had the best interests of children in mind, it still does not excuse faking research, and this both angers and saddens me. It angers me that I defended him (I’m mad at myself, mostly), and it saddens me that it will prevent children like my son, who have had real and verifiable reactions to one or more vaccines, will probably not ever be investigated or helped by medical science.

But, as a reasonable person, I can no longer defend Dr. Wakefield.

When I first learned of this, I was flabbergasted, because Craig had become quite militant in his support of the idea that vaccines cause autism and contemptuous of several of the people arguing against this discredited contention, not the least of which myself. True to his word, Craig then followed his HuffPo comment up with a post on his own blog entitled An Assessment of the Wakefield Affair, part 1, in which he wrote:

My evaluation looked at Brian Deer’s BMJ articles, his website, Andrew Wakefield’s defense and those websites that defended him, and finally the GMC transcripts. The transcripts were the most time consuming aspect of this case because it was over 6 million words, and I will admit that some of the things mentioned in there I didn’t completely understand. Maybe it was the language used (I’m only bilingual; I speak American, Texan and a tiny bit of Coon-ass). I’ve spent the past week, both day and night, reading, pondering, evaluating, weighing, and thinking. Sometimes, all night, just laying in bed thinking about it (which is why some of my posts on Jenny’s Huffpo article are so rife with spelling and grammar errors…I’m usually much better about things like that)

I’m not going to lie to you; I’m having a really hard time writing this. I put a little bit down, then have to step away and really think about what I need to say next. Some of my trepidation is knowing that my admission has disappointed many people I consider friends. Some of it is mental exhaustion. Some of it is self evaluation. Some of it is the realization that I don’t really have to try to convince anyone of turning against Andrew Wakefield; I only have to tell you what convinced me.

I will repeat again. I really, really wish that it had been the science alone that convinced someone like Craig that Andrew Wakefield was wrong. But it wasn’t. It was persuasive evidence of Wakefield’s scientific fraud, coupled with shameless profit-seeking behavior as egregious, if not more so, than the most profit-driven pharmaceutical company, and massive undisclosed conflicts of interest that finally persuaded Craig. While it is true that Craig has been distancing himself from the more loony pronouncements of the AoA collective for a while, in particular recently chastising J.B. Handley for claiming that Sullivan is in reality Bonnie Offit, not to mention various AoA minions for their vicious attacks on Skepchick Elyse Anders and even their attempts to get me fired from my job, there is no doubt that he remains strongly invested in the idea that vaccines cause autism. Despite that strong personal and emotional investment, even Craig was susceptible to the evidence presented by Brian Deer that Wakefield committed fraud, and it clearly shook him to his core to have to admit that Wakefield is a fraud. He had the integrity and courage to look at the evidence and, when it did not agree with his beliefs, admit he was wrong. That’s hard, and maybe that’s why it took evidence of fraud, rather than just science, to get him to do it.

In any event, it gives me hope that Craig is ultimately reachable.

Of course, I might be wrong. Craig has demonstrated himself to be resistant to evidence before on numerous occasions. He very well might find a way to compartmentalize Wakefield’s fraud. He might well rationalize it as not affecting the concept that vaccines cause autism. To an extent, that is even true. After all, Wakefield’s work is not the be-all and end-all of anti-vaccine crankery; there’s plenty of pseudoscience out there about vaccines that anti-vaccine advocates use to justify their fear of vaccination. But a seed of doubt has been planted. Whether that seed will germinate or not, I don’t know, but it has been planted. I rather suspect that the revelations of Wakefield’s fraud might also have planted seeds of doubt in the minds of other anti-vaccinationists. I don’t have to like it, but I can still only hope, because the overwhelming quantity and quality of scientific evidence against a vaccine-autism link sure hasn’t succeeded. If these seeds germinate, perhaps they will grow to encompass more than just Wakefield. Maybe they will germinate and lead some in the anti-vaccine movement to look at the other evidence that fails to support their belief that vaccines cause autism. Maybe they will germinate and even lead some anti-vaccine activists to science and reason.

A guy can hope, can’t he?