The CDC “whistleblower” manufactroversy: Twitter parties and another “bombshell” e-mail

Remember yesterday how, I referenced the ever-awesome bit about the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and how after pulling the pin you must count to three, no more, no less, before lobbing the grenade at thine enemies? The implication was, of course, that I was on my third post in a row about the so-called “CDC whistleblower” and that was enough.

I lied.

Well, no, actually I didn’t lie. (But look for a crank to quote mine that two-word sentence.) Rather, I changed my mind. The reasons are three-fold. First, this is a crank storm that just keeps on giving when it comes to grade-A blogging material. The other reason is that this story isn’t going away, and there are still issues I wanted to touch upon. True, because the story isn’t going away soon, I won’t be blogging about it indefinitely until it finally fades into the background noise of antivaccine conspiracy theories that are always buzzing around us like pissed off bees chasing after someone who knocked over their hive. I do think that one more installment is in order, though, the third reason being an observation last night of just how desperate the antivaccine movement is to have Brian Hooker’s incompetent “reanalysis” of a ten year old vaccine safety study and Andrew Wakefield’s despicable race-baiting video gain traction in the mainstream media. The failure of this conspiracy theory to do so is driving antivaccine activists into ever-greater fits of lunacy online, plus another release of a letter that I’ll discuss after I get through the more amusing stuff.

For those who might be entering this saga right now, I’m referring to a claim, being flogged to death right now by the antivaccine movement, that there is a CDC whistleblower who has made “devastating” reports that the CDC hid data that showed a 3.4-fold increased risk of autism in African American males, based on a “reanalysis” of a 10 year old CDC study that found no evidence that children with autism were no more likely to have received their first MMR vaccine earlier than neurotypical controls. Although the status of the “whistleblower,” senior CDC scientist William Thompson, PhD, is unknown because we have no one’s word for what it is other than Brian Hooker and Andrew Wakefield, we do know that Brian Hooker’s “reanalysis,” which is at the heart of this conspiracy theory, is a fetid pile of dingo’s kidneys, from a statistical and epidemiological standpoint.

Perhaps the most hilarious example of the lengths to which antivaccinationists will go for attention came in the form of a “Twitter party” last night using the #CDCwhistleblower hashtag. Indications that this was going to occur hit social media sites Monday night, but yesterday the Not-So-Thinking Moms laid down the instructions for this “Twitter party,” to hilarious effect. Let’s just put it this way: A mix of antivaccine loons plus antivaccine Twitter newbies = comedy gold! Particularly hilarious were these instructions:

  • Do not use profanity, defamatory language, or make lewd comments.DO NOT engage with nay-sayers, pro-vax people or pharma trolls. I CANNOT EMPHASIZE THIS ENOUGH: DO NOT ARGUE! If you feel the need to reply to them, simply repeat #CDCwhistleblower with no other wording. DO NOT ARGUE.
  • Do not refer to lawsuits, personal or class action. That talk is way too premature.
  • Do not express negativity toward William Thompson. Just don’t.

Naturally, the Moms provided a bunch of prepackaged Tweets with links to antivaccine talking points about William Thompson as the “CDC whistleblower.” Not unexpectedly, try as they might, several of the antivaccine Twitter champions couldn’t resist arguing with pro-vax people. They also Tweeted at a bunch of news organizations, who, I bet, recognize cranks when they see them, and Rob Schneider, who is an antivaccine crank. A lot of the usual suspects were there, as well, spewing the same sort of nonsense we normally see them spewing on their blogs and Facebook pages, such as:

No, Brian Hooker’s “reanalysis” of the Destefano et al study showed nothing of the sort.

Of course, no antivaccine trope was too dumb or discredited to be pulled out, dusted off, and presented as Truth:

You get the idea.

That wasn’t the only bit of craziness going on. You knew it had to happen, but I noticed yesterday that Patrick “Tim” Bolen got into the act with a typical screed of his entitled The CDC Whistleblower…The Story Mainstream Media Doesn’t Want To Run… Perhaps the only amusing thing about Bolen’s tiresome post is just how much he dislikes me. I always say that I know I’m effective when the cranks take the time to attack me personally, and Bolen definitely does that. Unfortunately, he is too uncreative and unimaginative to come up with an insult worse than calling me “big pharma’s bought and paid for man.” (The pharma shill gambit? Really? How disappointingly…predictable.) Also apparently, my commenters are all sock puppets of me trying to generate support for my posts. If there’s one thing about Bolen, he never fails to be an ass. His worst sin, though, is that he is not even a particularly entertaining ass.

Bolen did remind me, however, that there is a quack cancer conference coming up at the end of this week that I should perhaps look into, and Brian Hooker is apparently going to be speaking there. Why? Because two quacks are stronger than one; so combining this quack cancer conference with an AutismOne event appeals to more cranks? I guess that must be the reason.

Finally, Mike Adams is back in the game with a new e-mail from Hooker to CDC officials from 12 years ago. You know, if I were Andrew Wakefield or Brian Hooker and I wanted to get my message out through the channel least likely to be immediately dismissed as unreliable, perhaps the last site I’d choose would be, the crankiest of the crank sites out there, particularly when Adams posts lurid articles with the title Natural News EXCLUSIVE: Bombshell email from CDC whistleblower reveals criminality of vaccine cover-up as far back as 2002. But then, thankfully, I’m not Brian Hooker or Andrew Wakefield. Anyway, here is the letter. It is from Thompson and addressed to Melinda Wharton and several other high-ranking CDC officials:


Taken out of context, it’s rather hard to know what to make of this e-mail. Apparently in 2002, there was a Department of Justice request for documents relating to the MMR vaccine, thimerosal (which, I note, is not in the MMR and never has been), and autism. What I see here, though, is not evidence of a coverup. Quite the contrary! If you read the letter, you’ll see Thompson relating that he had expressed concerns about some of the “sensitive legal issues” regarding what documents he should provide to the DOJ and was told that he should “apply a very broad definition” to the documents to be provided to the DOJ. In other words, it would appear that Thompson went to the CDC expressing concern about these requests and was told to give the DOJ everything. So that’s what he does, spelling out exactly what he means by that: All his agendas, analysis plans, Excel spreadsheets, SAS programs, draft manuscripts, edited manuscripts, and sensitive results from the MADDSP/MMR Autism study (the study that was ultimately published as Destefano et al and “reanalyzed” incompetently by Brian Hooker). He also said he would be providing any other documents he had related to autism/MMR studies. In other words, he seemed to be saying to the CDC, if you tell me to apply a “broad definition,” I’m going to give the DOJ everything I have.

Most of the issue here appears to be requests for documents from the DOJ, which clearly spooked Thompson, if this letter is any indication. I can understand. If I were an investigator at the CDC and the DOJ were requesting documents from me, I’d be nervous too, particularly after seeing my collaborator raked over the coals in front of the committee of the grandaddy of antivaccine congressional representatives, Dan Burton, as Thompson did Coleen Boyle in 2002. As an investigator in vaccine safety, you don’t expect to be the target of investigations of politically minded antivaccine loons. You expect to do good science and let the science speak for itself. Unfortunately, given the antivaccine movement, anyone who works for the CDC in vaccine safety is a target.

Mike Adams (and the antivaccine loons lapping up his stuff) want you to think Thompson was expressing fear that he and his collaborators had done something wrong. To Adams, it’s the “coverup.” It’s always the “coverup.” I just don’t see that, though. To me, it looks as though it’s probably panic at having the DOJ breathing down his neck and demanding documents. What I see is a plea for help, an attitude of, “WTF? I didn’t sign on for this legal stuff when I became a scientist. Take my name off the manuscript if I’m going to have to put up with this stuff to be part of it.” He then took the step of hiring a personal attorney to protect himself, which is not an entirely unreasonable step to take. After all, institutional lawyers exist to protect the institution, not the individual. Physicians inherently know this, which is why they don’t generally use hospital attorneys to defend themselves in malpractice cases. They hire their own. In this case, it looks as though Thompson is simply informing the CDC brass that he is covering his own posterior. In other words, this e-mail is very much of a piece with his previous e-mail. Thompson was freaked out at dealing with the DOJ and didn’t want to take any chances. Barring more information, that’s what it looks like.

What amazes me today, as it did yesterday, is just how…mundane…this “bombshell” e-mail is. There’s no real indication of a coverup. In fact, it sounds as though the CDC ordered its investigators to be maximally open with the DOJ after Thompson asked for guidance. If this is the best Adams, Wakefield, and Hooker can come up with, it’s thin gruel indeed. One can’t help but wonder if this is the best they have. After all, if they had more damning evidence in all those thousands of documents Hooker got through Freedom of Information Act requests, they’d almost certainly have used at least one of them by now. I understand the “drip, drip, drip” approach trying to build momentum with ever more damning leaks, but there’s really nothing particularly damning so far. You have to start out with something that at least catches attention without its having to be misrepresented as something it’s not, as Mike Adams misrepresented the first letter/e-mail from Thompson. Given how spectacularly the antivaccine movement has failed thus far to garner attention from the mainstream press, they’re going to have to deliver something substantive soon, or the “drip, drip, drip” will rapidly fade into oblivion in all but the most fevered conspiracy swamps of antivaccine websites, blogs, and Facebook pages.

OK, I’m going to try to do something different for my next post. I need a break. I don’t know if I’ll succeed or not, depending on what happens today, but I can’t make this the “all whistleblower all the time” blog.

ADDENDUM: Oh, holy hell. Now Brian Hooker’s showing up on the Next News Network regurgitating the same nonsense about his “reanalysis.” I’m too tired to deconstruct it now. Hooker portrays himself as a hero, as the only one who has been able to “reanalyze the data.” (Remember how incompetently he did it.) He calls for resignation of the Destefano et al coauthors, accusing them of criminality.

There’s really nothing new here. Most importantly, there is no direct statement from William Thompson. Well, actually, there is one interesting tidbit. Hooker claims to have gotten a call on his cell phone from Thompson out of the blue. If what Hooker says is only partially true, it’s hard not to conclude that (1) Thompson was either incredibly naive; (2) Thompson has been at co-opted, either partially or completely, by the antivaccine movement (i.e., has gone, either whole or in part, antivax); or (3) a little of both. At least, Hooker tells us that Thompson was not escorted out of the CDC and that he is still going to work at the CDC. So what is going on? Who knows? No one other than Hooker is talking, and his highly unreliable information is being amplified. More importantly, Hooker lays out the antivaccine strategy quite clearly: Reanalyze more data sets incompetently, as he has with the Destefano et al dataset, to produce more “scientific papers” that find spurious correlations and promulgate the argument that, because of the “whistleblower,” nothing from the CDC can be tested, according to the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement.

ADDENDUM #@: Oh, goody. The antivaccine group Canary Party is reporting that Representative Bill Posey will be investigating the whistleblower’s allegations. Remember Bill Posey? He’s antivaccine and has even appeared at the antivaccine quackfest AutismOne.