The antivaccine crankosphere rallies around its hero, and Brian Deer strikes back

When I wrote last week about the latest legal thuggery against an opponent of antivaccine pseudoscience, this time by hero of the antivaccine movement, who sued investigative reporter Brian Deer for defamation, there was one thing about the case that confused me, one aspect that didn’t add up to me. Part of it was why Wakefield sued Brian Deer over an article he wrote for the BMJ a year ago, although in retrospect it’s become apparent to me that it was almost certainly because the statute of limitations for a libel action in Texas is one year. More importantly, the silence of the antivaccine movement in general and the propaganda organ of the antivaccine group Generation Rescue, Age of Autism, was utterly deafening. Usually, AoA is Wakefield’s biggest cheerleader. As I mentioned before, ever since Deer’s BMJ article, AoA has been unrelenting in defending Wakefield and doing its best to slime Deer. Be it John Stone’s half-baked rants, AoA’s one trick pony Jake Crosby doing his one trick (i.e., his painfully tortured “six-degree-of-separation”-style attempts to find or make up financial conflicts of interest for anyone who criticizes Wakefield), or other members of AoA’s merry band of propagandists circling the wagons, AoA’s reaction to this news was in marked contrast to the reaction of its minions on Facebook and elsewhere, who rejoiced. It took until yesterday for the propaganda machine to crank up to full bore.

Meanwhile, in the antivaccine crankosphere, it was nearly two days before AoA provided a perfunctory acknowledgment of the libel suit in the form of a verbatim excerpt from a Guardian article about the suit. With AoA being silent, other antivaccine outlets jumped into the breach. Interestingly, one of these, Gaia Health, actually provided a preview of one line of attack the antivaccine movement is using to try to convince those not knowledgable about Wakefield’s fraud that he has a case in the form of an post entitled BMJ Focuses on Science Fraud, But Is Their Own Exposed by Wakefield Lawsuit? After regurgitating the accusations in Wakefield’s complaint, the anonymous author of the Gaia Health piece turns his attention to the question that’s been puzzling all of us: Why did Wakefield sue in Texas, rather than in the plaintiff-friendly U.K. legal system? Inadvertently, more is perhaps revealed than was intended:

British law favors the well-heeled accuser. It costs money, lots and lots of money, to successfully bring a defamation lawsuit in Great Britain. Dr. Wakefield’s income has been destroyed by the attacks on him. He has been struck off the register and can no longer practice as a doctor, which has prompted his move to the US. It’s hard to imagine that he has bottomless pockets. Therefore, his ability to prosecute a defamation lawsuit in Great Britain is severely diminished.

If Wakefield is broke, which is quite possible given that he lives in a very exclusive area of Austin and that he hasn’t had what could be described as a regular job for nearly two years, this actually makes some sense. This next excuse, however, is pure conspiracy-mongering, so much so that I laughed aloud when I read it:

In Britain, a successful defamation prosecution by Wakefield could stand as a precedent that would harm the government itself, as it knowingly purchased the Urabe MMR vaccine that was in effect in the children Wakefield was studying. (See Andrew Wakefield Speaks to Private US Physicians on the Smear Campaign Against Him.) This vaccine was known to cause severe harm, so the manufacturer, SmithKline Beecham, refused to sell it without a waiver of indemnity, which the UK government granted. Therefore, the government itself is on the hook if it’s officially found that there’s a connection between the vaccine and autism. When you consider the number of children involved and the degree of harm done to them, it’s so large that the financial stability of the government would likely be at risk.

Got it? Wakefield is such a threat to the British government that he can’t sue in the U.K. because the government would make sure he couldn’t win because if he did the government would go bankrupt! Seriously, you can’t make stuff like this up. At least, I can’t.

But the delusion goes even further.

Not only is Wakefield suing in Texas because he can’t sue in the U.K. because the British government can’t let him win, but he’s got such s strong case that there’s no reason he shouldn’t use the U.S. court system, even though unlike the British system, it’s weighted towards the defendants in libel cases. In fact, see if you can resist chuckling out loud as you read this passage:

Finally, there’s the fact that US court settlements, though generally more difficult to obtain, tend to be significantly higher. If Dr. Wakefield’s case is strong–and it seems to me that it’s exceedingly good–then he certainly doesn’t need the ease of the British defamation laws.

Why wouldn’t Dr. Wakefield choose to utilize the American court system? Anyone who has followed this case with an open mind must be aware that Wakefield’s research was excellent and that the claims against him are false. He has suffered hugely, and the autistic children have been left in the dust.

Personally, I favor the explanation that Wakefield knows he can’t win this case but needed to bring it to rally his followers, even the most rabid of whom wonder why he didn’t sue Deer for libel after BMJ published his analysis of how he committed research fraud if, as Wakefield claims, the allegations are lies. Suing in Texas instead of the U.K. allows Wakefield to put on a show of “fighting back” for his followers at the lowest cost. If the case goes forward, he wins. If the case doesn’t go forward, he wins as well, because in this latter case he can cry “conspiracy” or “unfair,” secure in the knowledge that his groupies will eat it up.

Speaking of Wakefield groupies, the next line of argument they make is basically the same as what’s in the complaint in that they trot out “whistleblower scientist” David Lewis. You remember Lewis, don’t you? He’s the putz who provided the BMJ with the original scoring sheets used by one of Wakefield’s co-investigators, pathologist Dr. Paul Dhillon, thinking that they would somehow exonerate his newfound buddy Wakefield, when in fact they did exactly the opposite, as I discussed a couple of months ago. Now that Wakefield has sued Deer for libel, Lewis has crawled out of the woodwork yet again, issuing a press release that AoA has credulously reposted. Basically, it expresses Lewis’ pique that the BMJ didn’t use the documents he provided it in the way that he expected, which he pours out in a 3.7 MB PDF that can be downloaded from a link in AoA’s post. I made the mistake of reading most of it. It turns out, however, that my time would have been much better spent reading Brian Deer’s response to Lewis’s accusations, entitled, aptly enough, David L Lewis: indignant abuse
as complaints turn to nothing
. It’s worth reading every word of Deer’s response, but I can’t resist pointing out a few key points.

Perhaps the most amusing part of Deer’s response is this:

DAVID L LEWIS: “My report, which I have submitted to UCL, UKRIO and HEFCE, includes 72 emails exchanged between me and the BMJ’s editors.”

DEER: I offer the recipients at UCL, UKRIO and HEFCE my sympathy.

It’s funny how Deer zeroed right in on the part of Lewis’s PDF that caught my eye. Here’s a good rule of thumb: When someone badgers people with that number of e-mails, he is almost certainly a crank. I get e-mails from people like Lewis from time to time. I usually ignore them.

In any case, Deer addresses point by point pretty much every one of Lewis’ accusations, many of which are repetitive. For example:

DAVID L LEWIS: “To support their new fraud theory, Godlee rewrote my Rapid Response, removing any evidence that undermined their allegations against Wakefield and others.”

DEER: Lewis’s rapid response was extensively re-written because it was false and defamatory. Legal advice was taken. Two peer reviewers rejected the submitted text. No changes had any effect in supporting any “fraud theory”, whether new or otherwise. Lewis approved the published text.

Deer’s amusing sarcasm aside (seriously, no wonder Orac likes him; he lays down the Insolence, both Respectful and not-so-Respectful while refuting nonsense), he writes a long and detailed response that leaves no doubt that Lewis is an opportunist, cherry picker, and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. For example:

DAVID L LEWIS: “Copies of the pathologist grading sheets and other data from the 1998 study, which I obtained from Wakefield’s personal files, however, appear to show that the diagnosis was not fabricated.”

DEER: The documents Wakefield gave Lewis show nothing of the sort. They evidence that the claim in Table 1 of the Lancet paper of “histological findings” of colitis for 11 of 12 patients is false. Two consultant histopathologists are named in the paper. Both have separately denied making histological findings of colitis, and pathology reports or grading sheets confirm their statements.


DAVID L LEWIS: “To begin with, they cherry-picked a treasure trove of hitherto unpublished evidence from Wakefield’s files, selecting the only set of documents they could possibly use to support their new fraud theory.”

DEER: Nothing was “cherry picked”. It took me, “with no formal training in medicine or science” approximately six minutes to realise that Dr Dhillon’s grading sheets reported overwhelmingly normal findings. I urged Dr Godlee to test my judgment by putting the documents out to peer review. This she did. All reviewers confirmed my impression.

Dr Dhillon’s sheets were raw data from his observations of biopsies which Wakefield claimed evidenced a “new inflammatory bowel disease”, and were hence of significant interest. This was the material which the GMC panel had been told was grounds for changing gut diagnoses from healthy to diseased. It was missing material from a consultant histopathologist. Nothing else from Lewis had anything remotely like the significance of this data.

So thorough is Deer’s evisceration of Lewis’ arguments that it’s a joy to behold. It’s also long, even by Orac standards, but I can’t complain. In any case, Lewis is, as Sullivan points out, a sideshow to the main show of Wakefield’s pathetic attempt to rally his troops and punish his nemesis. It won’t work, but unfortunately, even in the U.S. with its high bar to prove libel, Wakefield might well be able to inconvenience Deer and BMJ editor Fiona Godlee.

I also rather suspect that Wakefield will be able rake in some much-needed green stuff, as his followers have conveniently set up the Dr. Wakefield Justice Fund. That’s the main show. That’s the goal of this lawsuit, to raise funds for Andrew Wakefield. As for Lewis, who knows what his motivations are for joining Team Wakefield? Maybe he perceives Wakefield as someone who’s “persecuted,” which is clearly how he perceives himself. Or maybe it’s just a case of crank magnetism. Whatever the reason, he has thus far failed to impress anyone; anyone, that is, except for the antivaccine crankosphere, which now seems to view him as the Boy wonder to Andrew Wakefield’s Batman. Given his claimed expertise in sewage management, Lewis should fit right in.