The central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement


Occasionally, there are issues that come to my attention that need more than just one blog post to cover. One such issue popped up last week, and it’s one that’s kept you all very engaged, with the comment count on the original post rapidly approaching 200. I’m referring, of course, to the alleged CDC “whistleblower” who’s supposedly blown the lid on a “coverup” based on Brian Hooker’s incompetent “reanalysis” of a ten year old study (Destefano et al) that failed to find a link between age at MMR vaccination and the risk of developing autism. More specifically, given that Destefano et al was a case control study, there was no difference in the frequencies of ages at which children in the case group and the control group received their first MMR vaccination. In this, he claims to have been using data and CDC documents supplied to him by a “whistleblower” scientist from the CDC, Dr. William Thompson.

Brian Hooker took that data, incompetently analyzed it as a cohort study ignoring at least one major confounder, and reported that receiving the MMR vaccine before the age of 36 months was correlated with a 3.4-fold increased risk of autism in only one subgroup, African American males. the ironic thing, of course, is that, even if Hooker is 100% correct (and there are lots of reasons to to think that he isn’t), he’s just proven Andrew Wakefield wrong when it comes to all children other than African-American males.

That makes memes that have been popping up on Facebook and other social media, such as this, all the more examples of burning stupid:


The idiotic uses of Hooker’s paper aside by clueless antivaccine activists aside, this entire affair and its co-optation by Andrew Wakefield for his own nefarious ends is a useful “teachable moment” in that it lets me remind my readers once again about a basic fact of the antivaccine movement. Specifically, as is the case for virtually all crank movements, conspiracy theories are part and parcel of the antivaccine movement. Indeed, so integral are they to the antivaccine world view that it is not too much of a stretch to conclude that the antivaccine movement needs them. Of course, the specific dominant conspiracy theory varies, depending on location and culture. For example, in Muslim societies in Third World countries, where resistance to the polio vaccine has hampered the goal of eliminating polio as smallpox has been eliminated, the central conspiracy theory is that the polio vaccine is an evil plot hatched by the West to sterilize Muslim youth and decrease the Muslim population. This particular conspiracy theory is of a piece with some of the more loony conspiracy theories that claim that vaccination is a plot to reduce the surplus population of the world through sterilization for purposes that remain unclear.

Perhaps the most common conspiracy theory in the U.S. is the belief that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “knew” that vaccines cause autism. In fact, if you believe these conspiracy theories, the CDC itself has demonstrated that vaccines cause autism but has assiduously covered up all evidence. Of course, as is also the case with conspiracy theories, the conspiracy isn’t perfect in that brave maverick doctors and investigators always find “evidence” of the “coverup,” such as it is.

Indeed, it was just such a conspiracy theory that got me into blogging about the antivaccine movement way back in 2005. Does anyone remember Simpsonwood? It’s one of the hoariest of hoary antivaccine conspiracy theories, dating back more than ten years and first brought to popular attention by that antivaccine crank par excellence Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in his infamously bad “expose” called Deadly Immunity, simultaneously published in both Rolling Stone and I discussed this conspiracy theory in detail way back when it first landed with a plop on a world that didn’t need such fetid dreck oozing down its head and shoulders. So did Skeptico and Lindsay Beyerstein. More recently, both Emily Willingham and, yes, yours truly noted that the Simpsonwood conspiracy theory is truly a zombie that will not die, apparently even with a head shot, because Brian Hooker himself resurrected it six months ago.

So what is the Simpsonwood conspiracy theory? Basically, as I explained both in 2005 and 2014 (and a few times between). If you believe the antivaccine movement, it was all about covering up a link between the mercury-containing vaccine preservative thimerosal and autism. In reality, the Simpsonwood conference was all about examining evidence from the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD), a collaborative effort between the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office and nine managed care organizations (MCOs) established in 1990 to monitor immunization safety and address the gaps in scientific knowledge about rare and serious events following immunization to determine if there really was a reason for concern about thimerosal in vaccines. Although the decision had been made in 1999 to remove thimoerosal from childhood vaccines, the decision hadn’t been fully implemented yet, and the CDC wanted to determine whether there was any cause for concern. It was hardly the action of a group that wanted to “cover up” anything, particularly the bit about publishing the entire transcript. None of this, however, prevented antivaccine activists, particularly the branch known as the “mercury militia” for its affinity for the set of antivaccine beliefs associated with mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism, from dreaming up all manner of conspiracy theories.

In reality, there was nothing nefarious going on at Simpsonwood. It was all rather mundane, actually. A preliminary result of an analysis by CDC epidemiologist Thomas Verstraeten, MD seemed to indicate an elevated risk of autism. However, in further analyses that eliminated confounders, the risk continued to fall until it disappeared, and that’s the analysis that was ultimately published, as I explained in detail not too long ago.

Meanwhile, back in 2013, Hooker was also busy criticizing another study published in the Journal of Pediatrics that pretty effectively demolished the antivaccine trope of “too many too soon.” Let’s just say that Hooker’s criticisms were less than convincing. Actually, let’s just say that convincing and Hooker’s criticisms weren’t even on the same continent, maybe not even on the same planet. They were a lovely example of Gish Galloping, special pleading, and insinuating conspiracies.

So it’s not surprising that the latest round launched by Wakefield and Hooker last week, in which they first revealed that there was a “CDC whistleblower” and then later revealed that this “whistleblower” is William Thompson, PhD, a senior researcher at the CDC, is resonating big time with the antivaccine movement. The Twitter hashtags #CDCwhistleblower and #CDCfraud, set up by antivaccine groups flogging the story, are going wild with Tweets like:

I must admit that that last one cracked me up. Then I thought: Great. Just what we need, the latest Jenny McCarthy wannabe. Be that as it may, no less a luminary of the antivaccine crank underground that Mike Adams himself proclaimed last week:

I’m posting this update to let Natural News readers know we are actively investigating this groundbreaking story which may turn out to be a larger cover-up than the Tuskegee experiments. Much like Tuskegee, this story also involves the suffering of African-Americans at the hands of a corporate-run medical cartel that systematically sacrifices lives for profit.

If what we are hearing so far is true, it means the CDC has deliberately run a decade-long cover-up which condemned tens of thousands of African-American children to a life of autism caused by MMR vaccines. It would also mean the CDC has engaged in a shameless conspiracy to hide the truth about the damage caused by vaccines, confirming the agency’s primary mission of protecting pharmaceutical profits even at the expense of human life.

This story is potentially the greatest scientific conspiracy in the history of modern medicine. Accordingly, you can expect the entire mainstream media to completely censor the story and try to pretend it never happened.

I made fun of Wakefield’s comparing this “CDC coverup” to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, but Wakefield knows his audience. It resonates. Besides, there’s nothing like comparing a fake conspiracy theory to a real conspiracy from history to make the fake conspiracy theory seem less implausible. At the very least, the revulsion everyone feels over the Tuskegee experiment leads to a shut down of even the remnant of critical thinking faculties that might be left, particularly in cranks predisposed to believe the conspiracy theory in the first place.

So what really happened? Nearly three days later, we’re no closer to knowing what happened than we were on Friday. The CDC has not issued a statement. William Thompson has not issued a statement, nor has he or the CDC held a press conference. In essence, the CDC has ceded the public relations front to antivaccine cranks.

Right now, from my point of view, I can imagine three main possibilities for what happened. The first possibility from what I know is that Thompson had some sort of disagreement with his co-investigators, made the incredibly stupid—yes, stupid—decision to unburden himself to Brian Hooker, who, he must have known or should have known, is an antivaccine crank associated with Andrew Wakefield, and is now paying the price for that decision, much like Flounder in Animal House when he trusted his fraternity brothers with his car. The second possibility is that Thompson wanted to correct something Hooker was doing with the data and somehow let himself be drawn into saying things that could easily be taken out of context. The third, and (I hope) much less likely, possibility is that Thompson’s gone off the deep end and gone antivaccine.

Meanwhile, last night Mike Adams released what is purported to be a letter from Dr. Thompson to Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the CDC at the time, dated February 2nd, 2004. The funny thing about this letter is that it doesn’t actually reveal evidence of a CDC coverup in the least. It mentions nothing of Destefano et al. Instead, it expresses concern about Thompson’s having to appear before what he predicts will be a hostile group in front of Representative David Weldon, concern that the CDC is losing the PR war, and a suggestion that Dr. Gerberding respond to Weldon’s letter. None of this supports a coverup, but it’s sure being furiously spun that way.

If Dr. Thompson did say what he is represented as having said on the Wakefield video (I don’t trust Wakefield for a moment to have edited the tape of Thompson’s conversations with Hooker honestly), then Thompson has done enormous damage. This is the sort of thing that antivaccine activists like Hooker have been waiting for for years: A “whistleblower” CDC official of senior rank who gives them a seemingly plausible story of malfeasance and coverup to trumpet to the world. This is not going away. It will become part of antivaccine lore, to be repeated over and over basically forever as evidence that the “CDC knew.” If he didn’t, he really needs to find a way to get out in front of this and give his side of the story now. The longer this festers, the less effective his response will be. The same is true of the CDC. The longer it remains silent, the more antivaccine activists will spin it as being part of the conspiracy.

I can sort of understand why Dr. Thompson might elect to remain silent. If he’s in any sort of legal trouble, speaking out might not be wise. On the other hand, I can’t figure out for the life of me why the CDC hasn’t at least issued a statement clarifying what has happened by now. Failure to do so is utterly irresponsible and only feeds the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement. For the key government agency charged with disease prevention and overseeing of the vaccine program to let such nonsense continue to fester without even an attempt to refute it is a failure to do its duty of monumental proportions.