Compare and contrast

I’ve spent nearly seven years and an enormous amount of verbiage writing about the difference between pseudoscience and science, between cranks and skeptics, between denialists and scientists. Along the way, I’ve identified a number of factors common to cranks and denialists. For example, two of the most prominent characteristics are a tendency to cherry pick studies and evidence and–shall we say?–a major “inconsistency” in how they deal with data. If a study appears to support their viewpoint, it doesn’t matter how small it is, how preliminary it is, how poorly designed it is, or how weak its conclusions are. It agrees with their pre-existing beliefs; so it must be a good study. In marked contrast, if a study, no matter how big, no matter how well-designed and exquisitely executed, no matter how clear cut its results, doesn’t conclude what cranks want it to conclude, to the crank it’s utter crap (at best), the result of unyielding dogma, or the result of a conspiracy to suppress The Truth (at worst). Often it’s declared to be a combination of all three.

We just saw this very phenomenon yesterday in the way that Katie Wright castigated a perfectly fine little pilot study with a provocative result about neuron counts in the prefrontal cortex in autistic children. If you listened to the anti-vaccine contingent, you’d think that the study was not only horrible science but carried out by Satan himself “sacrificing” autistic children to get their brains. In contrast, when a real crap study (namely the “monkey business” study by Laura Hewitson) was published, anti-vaccine cranks treated it as though it were the “smoking gun” demonstrating that thimerosal-containing vaccines cause autism. When the study was withdrawn, it was treated as though a conspiracy had “silenced” Hewitson. Then, of course, there’s the biggest, baddest example of this of all, namely Andrew Wakefield himself. His original study published in The Lancet in 1998 was a 12 subject case series with no control group that later shown by Brian Deer to have been fraudulent. Even before it was known that the study was fraudulent, however, it was obvious that at best this was a small, preliminary study whose results wee not all that convincing. Yet this study was the beginning of the MMR scare in the U.K. that drove MMR uptake rates to levels well below that needed to maintain herd immunity and made Andrew Wakefield a star in the anti-vaccine movement. When this paper was finally retracted due to fraud, the anti-vaccine movement turned Wakefield into a martyr many times over. He remains to this day a hero of the anti-vaccine movement.

Given that background, it’s rather interesting (to me at least) and, I daresay, educational to compare two different scientists in trouble with the law and how anti-sciencecranks have reacted to this situation. The reason this comes up is because a scientist who rose to prominence in the cranksophere due to her highly questionable findings is now finding herself in trouble with the law. I’m referring to Judy Mikovits, a researcher who published a report two years ago linking the XMRV retrovirus to chronic fatigue syndrome. If you click on the link, you’ll note that the study, which was published in one of the highest impact journals there is, Science, was retracted. In July 2011, the editor of Science issued a statement of concern that stated:

In the issue of 23 October 2009, Science published the Report “Detection of an infectious retrovirus, XMRV, in blood cells of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome,” a study by Lombardi et al. purporting to show that a retrovirus called XMRV (xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus) was present in the blood of 67% of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) compared with 3.7% of healthy controls (1). Since then, at least 10 studies conducted by other investigators and published elsewhere have reported a failure to detect XMRV in independent populations of CFS patients. In this issue, we are publishing two Reports that strongly support the growing view that the association between XMRV and CFS described by Lombardi et al. likely reflects contamination of laboratories and research reagents with the virus. In one Report, “Recombinant origin of the retrovirus XMRV” (2), T. Paprotka et al. trace the ancestry of XMRV and provide evidence that the virus originated when two mouse leukemia viruses underwent recombination during experimental passage of a human prostate tumor xenograft in mice in the 1990s. A combination of sequencing, phylogenetic, and probability analyses lead Paprotka et al. to conclude that laboratory contamination with XMRV produced by a cell line (22Rv1) derived from these early xenograft experiments is the most likely explanation for detection of the virus in patient samples. In the other Report, “No evidence of murine-like gammaretroviruses in CFS patients previously identified as XMRV-infected” (3), K. Knox et al. examined blood samples from 61 CFS patients from the same medical practice that had provided patient samples to Lombardi et al. Comprehensive assays by Knox et al. for viral nucleic acids, infectious virus, and virus-specific antibodies revealed no evidence of XMRV in any of the samples.

The study by Lombardi et al. (1) attracted considerable attention, and its publication in Science has had a far-reaching impact on the community of CFS patients and beyond. Because the validity of the study by Lombardi et al. is now seriously in question, we are publishing this Expression of Concern and attaching it to Science’s 23 October 2009 publication by Lombardi et al.

Actually, this sounds a lot like Wakefield in that the XMRV that Mikovits detected in samples of patients with CFS turned out to be a laboratory contaminant, much like the way that Wakefield discovered in a follow up study to his Lancet case series measles virus in gut samples from autistic children that later was shown to be a spurious signal due to plasmid contamination. Sloppy lab technique led to sloppy results that other scientists using good lab technique couldn’t replicate.

Of course, it’s not so much that Mikovits was wrong. Scientists are wrong all the time. Mikovits was very likely wrong about XMRV having a relationship to the etiology of CFS. (Either that, or something is going on that all the scientists trying to replicate her work are missing, which is highly unlikely.) That’s OK, though. That’s part of science. There’s no shame in that. What isn’t OK and is shameful is what Mikovits did with her results and how she behaved afterward. She extended them to autism (even going so far as to speak at the anti-vaccine conference Autism One), blaming XMRV for autism and other conditions. Even worse, she attacked scientists personally who couldn’t replicated their results, accusing them of, in essence, incompetence and of intentionally designing their experiments to minimize the chances of detecting XMRV in their samples. She also accused insurance companies of trying to sully the findings of her study in much the same way that anti-vaccine zealots and alt-med mavens like to claim that big pharma is trying to keep you from finding out The Truth and the government of trying to undermine her research because it fears an outbreak of XMRV. Ultimately, her original paper came into question, and at the request of the editors of Science Mikovits was forced to issue a partial retraction.

But Mikovits went one step further. She joined in the frenzy of putting the cart before the horse. Her lead author, Vincent Lombardi, marketed a diagnostic test for XMRV through his company VIP Dx. His company was bought out by Harvey Whittemore, founder of the Whittemore-Peterson Institute (WPI), which is the Institute that hired Mikovits as director of research in 2006, and Judy Mikovits became the vice president of the company. Meanwhile, there were reports of autism and CFS quacks using antiretroviral drugs, the very same drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS, in an attempt to treat the XMRV that was being claimed to cause CFS and AIDS.

Now, to top it all off, Trine Tsouderos reports that Mikovits was arrested last week:

In a stunning twist, Mikovits was arrested on Friday, and spent five days in a California jail cell, held without bond. She was released Tuesday after an arraignment hearing, according to court records. An arrest warrant issued by University of Nevada at Reno police listed two felony charges: possession of stolen property and unlawful taking of computer data, equipment, supplies or other computer-related property.

She was fired in September, and this month her former employer filed a lawsuit alleging she had wrongfully taken lab notebooks, a computer and other proprietary data. Other researchers have discredited her work, and the journal Science, which published her study, is investigating whether the data were manipulated.

The only constant is the patients who continue to rally around her.

Indeed. If anything the arrest of Mikovits has only increased the devotion of CFS sufferers and the parents of children with autism who have latched on to the XMRV hypothesis, parents such as Kent Heckenlively, who has adopted XMRV as his latest cause of autism, having apparently exhausted all the other common forms of autism quackery. No doubt it’s Heckenlively who’s behind this “expression of concern” posted at the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism yesterday, expressing support for Mikovits, outrage at her arrest, and conspiracy mongering about its timing:

Another curious aspect to this case is that Dr. Mikovits was supposed to speak at a panel discussion the weekend of November 19-20 on chronic fatigue syndrome/ME at Mt. Sinai Hospital where a chronic fatigue/ME center had recently been established under the guidance of Dr. Derek Enlander. It had also been rumored that Dr. Mikovits might end up collaborating with Dr. Enlander.

Dr. Mikovits was unable to attend this conference in New York because she was in a jail cell in California. Is anybody else seeing a pattern?

So, here we have an investigator who did sloppy science and tried to extrapolate far beyond what her findings, even if correct, would justify and whose results scientists were unable to replicate, despite trying several times. Ultimately, she was fired and charged with the crime of taking WPI lab notebooks and data.

And she’s a hero to cranks, both in the CFS community and in the anti-vaccine underground.

Now let’s contrast this to another case that readers of this blog are likely to be familiar with, the case of Poul Thorsen. You remember Poul Thorsen, don’t you? He is the Danish researcher who was a co-investigator in what is now colloquially known as the “Danish study,” which resulted in two famous papers in the early 2000s that provided strong evidence against a link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism. Unfortunately, last year he was indicted on charges of fraud and misuse of federal grant funds. As a result, the anti-vaccine movement tried to paint him as the face of vaccine safety research and argue that his fraud meant that the Danish studies were frauds, too, and that therefore all the research showing no link between thimerosal and autism should be questioned. No, I’m not exaggerating. Not only that, but even though Thorsen was not the first or last author on either paper (his name was, in fact, buried in the middle of the author list), suddenly he became the face of the Danish studies (at least to the anti-vaccine movement). Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for instance, referred to him as a “central figure behind the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) claims disputing the link between vaccines and autism” and did his best to invent a huge CDC coverup. In a move that was completely the opposite of how it is behaving with regard to Judy Mikovits, the anti-vaccine crank blog piled on, posting dozens of screeds trying to cast doubt upon the Danish study based on Thorsen’s legal troubles.

At the time, I expressed hope that he would be captured, stand trial, and, if guilty, be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Does anyone doubt that, if Mikovits’s science went counter to anti-vaccine beliefs, AoA would be calling for her head just as loudly as it’s been calling for Poul Thorsen’s head? Or that if Poul Thorsen had published a Wakefield-like study implicating vaccines as a cause of autism that they’d be representing him as a martyr to the cause in the very same way they’re now representing Mikovits (and, of course, Andrew Wakefield) as martyrs. I don’t.

Contemplating the profound difference in the manner that cranks like the anti-vaccine cranks at Age of Autism have reacted to the news of Judy Mikovits’ arrest compared to how they reacted a year ago to Poul Thorsen’s arrest, I asked myself, “Self, why is there such a difference here?” And my self answered me. You see, if there’s another tendency among cranks and denialists, it’s that they tend to personalize their conflict with the scientific consensus. It can’t just be that science is failing to fall in line with their beliefs. There has to be a reason, and that reason can’t be that they are wrong. No, there must be someone to blame, which is why anti-science cranks desperately want to put a face on the “enemy” and then attack that enemy relentlessly. They also seem to be unable to separate the human being from the science in that, if the science goes against them, they view it as having to be due to people, their enemies, trying to keep them from achieving what they want. They even go so far that, as I’ve noted before, if a pseudonymous blogger criticizes anti-vaccine pseudoscience, rather than addressing the criticisms, the cranks’ first order of business is to “out” the pseudonymous blogger so that they can attack him. The same is true of alt-med cranks and HIV/AIDS denialists. All too often the unmasking of critics leads to intimidation, harassment at their jobs, and attempts to get them fired.

But why do cranks behave this way? I don’t claim to know the answer, but I can provide a bit of educated speculation. Basically, part of the mindset of cranks seems to be a very strong “us against the world” mentality, a personalization of the disagreement. In brief, they seem to need an enemy. Scientists and skeptics, although certainly not incapable of personalizing a disagreement, tend to be driven far more by the science, evidence, and arguments than by the personalities. It’s more of an intellectual battle than a personal battle; so they tend to rely more on evidence and discount the people. Indeed, how many times over the last seven years have I said that one reason I tend to keep the pseudonym is because it forces readers to look at my arguments rather than my qualifications? I don’t want enemies, but I won’t back down from refuting quack and pseudoscientific arguments. In contrast, quacks and cranks seem to think that if they can defeat or silence the person they defeat the idea, and that’s exactly what they try to do. With viciousness and gusto, unfortunately.