Legal thuggery, antivaccine edition: Andrew Wakefield sues Brian Deer, the BMJ, and Fiona Godlee

If there’s one thing that a crank, quack, pseudoscientist, or anti-vaccine propagandist doesn’t like, it’s having the light of day shined upon his activities. In fact, so much do they hate it that they have a distressing tendency to respond to science-based criticism not with science-based rebuttals (mainly because they can’t given that they don’t have any science to support them) but rather with legal threats. Sometimes these legal threats progress beyond just threats and into legal action, usually libel suits designed not to be compensated for damage to reputation but rather to intimidate and silence. We’ve seen it before many, many times, directed against journalists, bloggers, and scientists as varied as Simon Singh, Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, Andy Lewis, and others. Sometimes these efforts reach downright comical excesses, as it did when PR flack Marc Stephens threatened bloggers on behalf of the Burzynski Clinic, but they’re only comical to observers. If you happen to be on the receiving end of these legal threats, you have little choice but to take them at least a little seriously, and, like all bloggers, I am not immune to at least a mild degree of worry that some day some crank will decide to take a legal shot at me, too. Fortunately, I live in the U.S., where libel laws make suing much less hospitable, thanks to the First Amendment.

It looks as though an anti-vaccine crank is at it again.

Apparently not satisfied with having taken a run at Brian Deer and lost, even in the libel-friendly venue of the UK, disgraced anti-vaccine “brave maverick doctor” Andrew Wakefield has apparently filed a libel suit against Brian Deer on January 3. A PDF of the complaint can be found here. Apparently, Wakefield is very, very unhappy at the most recent series published by Brian Deer in BMJ almost exactly a year ago today in which Deer characterized Wakefield’s research as “Piltdown medicine.” He explained why, too, in an article entitled How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed, while BMJ editor Fiona Godlee piled on with an accompanying editorial entitled Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine to autism was fraudulent. As is usual for Deer’s work, the articles were well-researched and well-referenced. Clearly, they had an effect, too, continuing Wakefield’s slide from “brave maverick doctor” that the media liked to trot out as a “vaccine skeptic” whenever doing stories about vaccines to a pathetic crank who could only score invitations to speak at antivaccine conferences. Not surprisingly, Wakefield’s admirers immediately started a counterattack.

And the antivaccine movement is still smarting from Deer’s dismantling of the entire basis of its hero’s stature. Indeed, just one month ago, the Boy Wonder of the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism went after Anderson Cooper’s writer/producer eleven months after an interview he did with Wakefield around the time Brian Deer’s story came out last January. It’s another example of the one trick of AoA’s one trick pony, in which its Boy Wonder goes all Kevin Bacon “six degrees of separation” on Anderson Cooper’s producer in order to find a tenuous–fantastical, even–apparent conflict of interest. Throughout it all, J.B. Handley’s happy home for antivaccine propagandists published post after post after post attacking Brian Deer, Fiona Godlee, and the BMJ. It’s become an obsession with AoA’s bloggers and the antivaccine crankosphere.

So what is in Wakefield’s complaint against Brian Deer? Well, it’s the usual stuff, in particular claiming that the content of the BMJ articles by Deer and BMJ editors was not only just false but knowingly false, stating:

The Defamatory Statements were and are false and written and published with actual malice and intended to cause damage to Dr. Wakefield’s reputation and work as a researcher, academic, and physician and to permanently impair his reptation and his livelihood.

Wakefield’s attorney even has the audacity to play the “pharma shill” gambit:

Interestingly, at the time of the editorials and the Deer article were Published, the Defendents failed to disclose the fact that the BMJ received significant revenue from the very vaccine manufacturers whose products need further investigation. It was only monthslater, after the issue was raised by others, that the BMJ posted the following: “The BMJ should have declared competing interests in relation to this editorial by Fiona Godlee and colleagues. The BMJ Group receives advertising and sponsorship revenue from vaccine manufacturer, and specifically from Merck and GSK, which both manufacture MMR vaccines.”

Yes, indeed. Wakefield’s attorneys are actually trying to argue that the BMJ libeled Wakefield to protect its big pharma sugar daddy, the vaccine manufacturers. Seriously, his lawyer, William M. Parrish, should know better. Or maybe he doesn’t. He doesn’t list libel as one of his areas of specialty, which are listed as intellectual property disputes (e.g., trade secret, trademark, trade name, trade dress, copyright and patent disputes) business torts (e.g., unfair competition, deceptive trade practices, tortious interference with actual and prospective contracts and/or business relationships, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, unfair advertising practices, etc.) and breach of contract claims. Yet here he is, suing for libel.

I find it very amusing that Dr. Wakefield claims his “professional reputation” was damaged by Deer’s most recent article The reason, of course, is that Dr. Wakefield’s reputation was destroyed by his having done and publicized his bad science, by his having intentionally consorted with the antivaccine movement and continued (in my opinion) to crank out bad science in the service of smearing the MMR with the claim that it causes autism. Wakefield destroyed his own reputation by doing fraudulent science. That happened years before Brian Deer ever wrote that BMJ article a year ago. Wakefield had already been found guilty by the General Medical Council of “serious professional misconduct,” which included acting in ways not in the clinical interests of disabled children. Shortly after that, he was struck off the medical register, and fired from Thoughtful House. All of this happened many months before Brian Deer wrote his article.

To but it bluntly, Andrew Wakefield no longer had any professional reputation to be trashed. This will be a major problem for him in any libel action, because one has to prove damage to one’s reputation to be successful in a libel suit.

All that leaves to me is one question: Why? And Why now? Not being a lawyer, I can only speculate based on what I know about the Wakefield case. Mr. Parrish must know that his client is incredibly unlikely to win this action. After all, Wakefield has already been tried and found guilty of misconduct by the British GMC and suing Brian Deer for libel, even in the plaintiff-friendly UK, backfired on him spectacularly. There’s little reason to expect that, given how well Deer has put all his ducks in a row in his reporting time and time again, Wakefield will do better in a U.S. court, where the bar for proving libel is much higher than in the UK. So, again, why is he doing this now? Let me speculate a moment. My guess is that the purpose of this libel action is to punish Brian Deer. More importantly, I’d also bet that it’s designed to give Andrew Wakefield a soapbox and a means of putting himself back into the public spotlight again, the spotlight from which he’s faded so much since one year ago. Again, he’ll be the “persecuted brave maverick doctor,” but this time he’ll be perceived as fighting back. I just hope he knows that Texas has a new anti-SLAPP law. Wakefield had better be careful.

In fact, this whole lawsuit strikes me as incredibly ill-advised, as it opens Wakefield up to discovery. Of course, it might well be that part of the motivation for the lawsuit is to subject Brian Deer, the BMJ, and Fiona Godlee to discovery, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see bits of information from discovery show up on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism; that is, if the case gets that far. If I were part of the antivaccine bloggerati at AoA, I might be worried now, because, given AoA’s campaign to discredit Brian Deer, particularly over the last year, it’s likely to be in the defense’s crosshairs. Communications between Wakefield and any AoA blogger might be subject to discovery. Any financial transaction between Generation Rescue and Andrew Wakefield could also be subject to discovery. Wakefield might think that because Deer, Godlee, and the BMJ are in the UK that they won’t engage in a full and vigorous defense to the extent of going whole hog (sorry, the lawsuit’s in Texas; I couldn’t resist) on discovery. Is Wakefield sure he wants to risk that? BMJ is part of a large company, and publishing companies tend not to take kindly to libel actions. Of course, even if the Generation Rescue/AoA/Wakefield connection isn’t a worry, everything else is. After all, everything about the Lancet paper would definitely be subject to discovery, and there’s no question about its relevance to the lawsuit.

Whatever Wakefield’s motivation, this move reeks of desperation. After all, if this was such obvious libel, why did Wakefield wait nearly a full year after the publication of Deer’s BMJ articles until filing this lawsuit? In taking this action, Wakefield is both demonstrating the characteristics of a crank (the need to silence using the courts rather than to refute using science) and showing just how far he’s fallen. In any case, I highly doubt Brian Deer has anything to worry about, other than the irritation this might cause and whether the company providing his libel insurance will go all wobbly on him. After all, the truth is an absolute defense against libel.

ADDENDUM: Be sure to read how the plot thickens!

Also, for those of you who were wondering if this is real, it is.