Andrew Wakefield: Attracting antivaccine cranks like moths to a flame since 1998

If there’s a story I neglected to mention last week that I should have, it’s that Andrew Wakefield is being a bully again, trying to use legal intimidation to silence his critics, namely blogger Emily Willingham. Of course, Wakefield has done this so many times that the fact that he’s done it once again is hardly newsworthy, but that never stopped me before, because it’s important to document the pattern of legal harassment. The timing was bad. The antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism posted a copy of Wakefield’s letter after I had already finished Friday’s post, and by the time Monday rolled around many of my readers had been discussing it in the comments so much that I had a hard time motivating myself to mention it, particularly given how many other people had already blogged it, such as Liz Ditz, Harpocrates Speaks, and Matt Carey. (That’s what I get, I guess, for self-enforcing a rule that I don’t post on the weekend anymore, except under exceptional circumstances or to crosspost an already written post elsewhere.)

Particularly amusing was how Andrew Wakefield seemed to take the most umbrage at Emily’s point that the noxious cloud of Wakefield’s fraud had tainted any research into gut issues in autism that it makes it difficult to study because of the associations, a point Peter Lipson also echoed later, after Wakefield’s threat. And it’s true. The combination of utter incompetence and fraud, coupled with being paid off by trial lawyers looking to sue the vaccine industry and needed “evidence” to help their case, plus Wakefield’s wanting to patent an “alternative measles vaccine,” is what led to vaccine-MMR fear mongering that at the same time scared away most legitimate scientists from studying GI issues in autism, lest they be tarred with the Wakefield antivaccine brush. But it’s easy to forget that the original Lancet case series (now retracted) examined GI symptoms in autistic children and tried to link them, not so much autism itself, to the MMR vaccine. It was not so much the paper, but Wakefield’s publicity tour around the paper in 1998 that spread the toxic meme that the MMR vaccine might cause autism.

Sadly, Wakefield continues to do his part to discredit any such research. Just yesterday, I learned of an interview he did with someone called “Billy D” from something called CalJam. Billy D happens to be Billy DeMoss, a chiroquackter from California for whom it appears there is no pseudoscience too evidence-free to embrace, be it cleansing, antivaccine nonsense, or thermography (which, currently, when used as a screening tool for breast cancer, is quackery). No wonder he totally gushes over Wakefield, inserting his proboscis so far up Wakefield’s posterior that if you did an esophagoscopy on Wakefield you could easily pick it. Yes, I know that’s a disgusting metaphor, but it’s no more disgusting that this fawning interview. Listen to it if you dare. The things I do for blogging material.

After Billy D fawns over Wakefield a while, calling him his “mentor” and even going so far as to say that all Wakefield was doing was trying to get some useful information out there to save some children’s lives, Wakefield launches right into what is at best a revisionist history of the MMR story and at worst pure fiction. Oh, hell, it’s just pure fiction that’s so blatantly wrong on so many levels that I have a hard time believing that even Andy believes what he’s saying, if you know what I mean. Seriously. You don’t have to listen to the whole thing to realize it’s a fetid pile of dingo’s kidneys. Just listen to the first few minutes, in which Wakefield regales Billy D with the story of how a mother contacted him because she thought her autistic child had regressed into autism after vaccines and described bowel complaints. He then describes putting together a team of the “best pediatric gastroenterologists in the world at the time” and how he found that there was indeed inflammatory bowel disease (there wasn’t) and how treating the bowel inflammation helped the symptoms of autism (there’s no scientifically compelling evidence that this is true). Hilariously, he even claims that they repeated their trials and got the same results, which is also not true, leading Wakefield to intone piously that there is “no doubt” that there is a link between the bowel and the brain in autism that begins in the intestine with an “inflammatory condition that injures the brain” and that “fast forward 18 years” and the U.S Vaccine Court has supposedly “conceded” that vaccines can cause brain inflammation that leads to autism. (It hasn’t.) He even says that it’s not a question of “whether” vaccines can cause autism but “how they do it” and “how we can put it right.”

This is all within the first three minutes of the podcast. Truly, Wakefield has not lost his talent for compressing BS into black hole-level density! The reason I say that is that the “study” to which Wakefield is surely referring shows nothing of the sort and was plagued with serious violations of human subjects research ethics.

Soon after, we have the pharma shill gambit, in which the delayed reaction to Wakefield’s paper is attributed to its message not having been picked up right away, after which the pharmaceutical industry, finally realizing what St. Andy actually said, “crushed” poor, poor Andy’s research program, leading to his “political and professional exile” to Austin, Texas. Of course, Austin, TX is a nice place, and Andy has managed to make quite a nice place for himself. For a while he was at Thoughtful House, an autism quackery center; that is, until Brian Deer’s demonstration that he had almost certainly committed research fraud led the board of directors of even this antivaccine-friendly institution to decide that he needed to go. Of course, to both Billy D and Andrew Wakefield, it’s all the pharmaceutical industry plotting to discredit him. It’s never to Andy’s own malfeasance and research fraud. It’s never, ever Andy’s fault. It’s always, always the fault of the CDC and pharmaceutical companies.

One of the hilarious parts of this interview is that Billy D proudly describes himself as as “conspiracy guy,” after which he launches into, yes, conspiracy theories, in which the pharmaceutical companies are plotting to suppress Andrew Wakefield’s research. Incredibly, Wakefield implies that vaccines are causing a “dumbing down” of the population, shaving 9 IQ points off of it. (I kid you not; although he backs off later and says that there’s “no evidence” that vaccines are shaving nine points off of boys’ IQ. Apparently, it’s just his “fear.”) What is his evidence for this claim? Wakefield refers to going to his son’s graduation ceremony and noting that all the valedictorians were “all girls.”


I kid you not. Wakefield goes on about how there is a “biological basis” for this phenomenon in which boys are more “susceptible” to the evil effects of “toxins” from the vaccines, because “estrogen protects the brain” from all these effects. One thing I can’t believe is that Wakefield actually references the incredible quackery of Mark and David Geier in that he out-and-out says that the effects of mercury on cultured neurons is “potentiated by testosterone” and that “testosterone can exacerbate injury to brain cells caused by mercury.” Seriously, dude. Mercury is not associated with autism. That’s a failed hypothesis. Wakefield even seems to confuse aluminum and mercury in that he says at one point that mercury “boosts the immune response” but then moves on to aluminum as an adjuvant. I couldn’t figure out what the hell he meant, other than that he thought that vaccines are evil.

Perhaps the most telling part of the exchange is where Billy D asks Wakefield if there are any vaccines that have “any efficacy at all.” This leads to Wakefield launching into a meandering bit of blather in which he talks about pharmaceutical companies buying advertising in magazines, promoting a message about vaccinating, and the like. He also claims that it’s all the pharmaceutical companies pushing a message that, if you “question” vaccines, children will die. Of course, one thing that Wakefield forgets to mention is that this is unequivocally true in the sense that anything that leads to decreased vaccination rates will lead to the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Andrew Wakefield, like many antivaccinationists, doesn’t like being called an “antivaccinationist” or “antivaccine.” This becomes evident in a part of the interview where Billy D asks Wakefield if there are any vaccines that are effective; i.e., if there are any vacines that “work.” It’s clear that Billy D wants Wakefield to say that vaccines don’t work. He doesn’t say that—exactly. He does, however, equivocate. Instead of saying whether vaccines work or not, he does say that vaccines result in the production of antibodies against the organisms for which they are designed, after which he questions whether antibodies actually lead to immunity and pulls out the antivaccine trope of questioning how long the immunity from vaccines lasts. He even goes so far as to claim that the mumps vaccine is not needed, that it doesn’t work, and that mumps is a “trivial disease,” which it is not. (If you develop deafness from mumps, to you it’s not a trivial disease.”

Billy D even asks Wakefield if his children have been vaccinated, and Wakefield seems almost embarrassed to have to admit that he did, in fact, have his children vaccinated, even going so far as to question whether he was actually a good father to have done so and apologetically confessing that he hadn’t “done the research.” At this point, I thought my brain was going to explode, because Billy D likened accepting the science that vaccines are safe and effective to believing in the flat earth. Indeed, he invoked this analogy to try to excuse Wakefield for vaccinating his children and, apparently, to assuage his guilt at having done such a “horrible” thing to his children as making sure they were protected against dangerous infectious diseases because, you know, autism and decreased IQ.

I could go on and on, dissecting the nonsense, quackery, and pseudoscience that permeates this entire interview. I could list, point by point, exactly what is wrong with it and why it is wrong. I’ve done so many times before. But why? If you listen to the podcast, you will see that Andrew Wakefield is completely antivaccine, so much so that he even makes the mind-numbingly stupid statement that, extrapolating from the CDC numbers, one in two children will be autistic in 2025. It was at that point that I had a hard time continuing to listen to the rest of the podcast, and my mind started wandering. It didn’t help that it was late at night and I was tired after an unusually long day (for me) in the operating room. Indeed, as the podcast continued, it all started to drone together: Billy D giving Wakefield a colonoscopy with his nose, Wakefield droning on about how persecuted he is by big pharma, random nonsense about vaccines. I couldn’t take it anymore.

As my mind wandered, I idly checked my e-mail and noticed that one of you, my faithful readers, had sent me a link to this post by Adriana Gamondes over at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism. We’ve met Gamondes before. For instance, she’s the one who apparently “created” that infamous Photoshop masterpiece of crankery that supports my view of how “they” view “us” fully, namely the “Thanksgiving baby feast,” in which the heads of pro-vaccine journalists, bloggers, and scientists were Photoshopped onto the heads bodys of people sitting down to eat a Thanksgiving dinner in which the main course was a baby. She’s also known for some rather—shall we say?—far out political views.

Thanksgiving baby eating photo

It was an incoherent rant, even more so than her the previous rants I’ve seen by her. It was beyond Orac-level logorrhea, over 7,200 words. (I usually top out at around 4,000 to 5,000, with uncommon exceptions, and only once or twice in 10 years that I can remember have I ever surpassed 7,000 words.) it had to do with Catch-22, pharma-government conspiracies, attacks on pro-science bloggers, including yours truly, and a bunch of other stuff that made little sense but seemed to center on the concept that the reason the “gut-autism” connection “pioneered” by Andy Wakefield was so thoroughly torpedoed was because, well, the closest to a coherent “thought” (if you can call it that):

While Andrew Wakefield has published his response to the Forbes article, families who benefitted from Wakefield et al.’s more timely warning have our own perspectives and they run more than a tweet long. Aside from the fact that blaming Wakefield for the lag in autism-GI investigations is a bit like blaming Galileo for the church’s lag in accepting heliocentrism, investigators and physicians who’ve been making money hand over fist drugging the bejesus out of affected children with medications that—whoops—often cause gastrointestinal disease, left children in agonizing pain, denied care to and allowed some affected individuals to die while parents frequently lost custody through state child welfare apparatuses which parroted mainstream claims that attempting to treat bowel disorders in autism was tantamount to “medical child abuse”— all because these investigators feared facing the same media assaults as Andrew Wakefield? And these gutless wonders who would put their “good names” above the lives of children have apparently been the dominant force in the same commercial field we’re now supposed to entrust with the task of coming up with a solution?

In other words, there’s so much money to be made in drugging children that pharma isn’t interested in GI issues in autistic children or the fantastical “connections” between vaccines and said GI issues that Andrew Wakefield has championed, not because Wakefield polluted the field to the point that reputable scientists are unwilling to wade in, lest they be tainted by Wakefield’s fraud. Of course, from my perspective, the “quality” of Wakefield’s defenders, like Gamondes, is rather the point. Gamondes’ rambling, pseudo-clever rant that doesn’t even appear to make sense to most of the AoA antivaccine readership has many of the marks of a true crank. (If you doubt this is so, note that John Stone thinks it’s a “magnificent commentary.”) If this were 1999, it would have been published on a web page with garish colors and blinking and rotating letters. This is the sort of person who flocks to Wakefield’s banner. This is the sort of person who is an antivaccinationist. This is the sort of nonsense Wakefield supporters spew, and you can see why just from Wakefield’s interview with Billy D. It basically said the same thing, minus the uninterpretable Catch-22 references and with a smooth British accent to make it sound reasonable.