The CDC whistleblower William W. Thompson: Final (for now) roundup and epilogue

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It is as I had feared. I must do one more post on a story that I’ve been blogging about for one solid week now. Hopefully after this, I will be able to move on to other topics last week, but after spending this whole week writing just about this, I figured, “What the heck? It’s Friday. Might as well make it a solid week and move on next week. I hope.” What am I referring to? Those familiar with the story, as in past installments, can skip the recap (but shouldn’t). I feel obligated to include one because of all the new readers who have appeared for these peerless bits of, in this case, not-so-Respectful Insolence.

This whole story about a “CDC whistleblower,” who, or so the rabid antivaccine contingent hoped, would “blow the lid” off of a massive CDC conspiracy to hide The Truth and bring their conspiracy theory to the mainstream press, is still limping along, even in light of the rather mealy-mouthed and disingenuous statement by the CDC whistleblower himself. This Revelation of The Truth would then build in the mainstream press to the point of leading to investigations of the CDC and the discovery of what they’ve hoped for passionately ever since they became antivaccinationists: Actual scientific evidence that vaccines, or the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal that used to be in most childhood vaccines, cause autism and all sorts of health problems. In this case, they thought that they had found slam-dunk evidence that the CDC had manipulated data to hide an “association” between the MMR vaccine and autism in African American males. At first, in a video by antivaccine hero Andrew Wakefield featuring the antivaccine biochemical engineer turned epidemiologist wannabe, this “whistleblower” was not identified, but then, a week ago, a new video identified him as William W. Thompson, PhD, a psychologist and senior scientist at the CDC, who, apparently, over a ten month period, helped Hooker produce his utterly incompetent “reanalysis” of a ten year old CDC study that had failed to find a difference in age of first MMR vaccination in children with autism compared with neurotypical controls. So incompetent was the analysis that I couldn’t resist titling my post a week ago about it, Brian Hooker proves Andrew Wakefield wrong about vaccines and autism, because that’s basically what he did.

When the expected media storm did not materialize, antivaccine activists lost their collective minds, ineffectively trying the “drip, drip, drip” revelation technique. Even now they are still relentlessly Tweeting the same discredited talking points over and over and over again under the hashtag #CDCwhistleblower, although the Twitter storm appears to be abating as I write this. Unfortunately, in light of Dr. Thompson’s two-edged statement, in which he insinuated that his co-authors on the Destefano et al paper (the ten year old study) had committed scientific misconduct, or, at the very least, very sloppy, ideologically motivated science, while at the same time attacking Brian Hooker for recording his conversations without his permission, which, if true, makes Hooker an utter slimeball in my book, and Andrew Wakefield for revealing his identity without his permission.

It’s all a convoluted mess that basically blew up in Hooker’s face. Hooker played Thompson, gaining his confidence and recording him in the process, while bragging to the faithful that he had an “inside man” who would blow the lid off the CDC. Wakefield played Hooker. We have no way of knowing how Wakefield found out about Hooker and Thompson, but, given Wakefield’s previous behavior, it’s not too far beyond the pale to speculate that Wakefield applied pressure to Hooker to do that video. Then Wakefield betrayed Hooker. Because Wakefield’s reputation is so toxic, he basically destroyed any chance of mainstream media attention to the story, relegating it to the fevered conspiracy swamp of “media” like NaturalNews.com, the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, and a variety of lesser, but no less loony, outfits.

All of this brings us to the question: What now? The story has blown up in Hooker and Wakefield’s faces. It very much reminds me of this:

In this case, I think it’s helpful to go back to the past and then back to the future, so to speak. There have been a couple of odds and ends that I’ve wanted to incorporate into previous posts, but somehow didn’t, and now seems as good a time as any to address them. From the past, let’s look first at Brian Hooker being interviewed at this year’s AutismOne quackfest in May:

For people not long familiar with Hooker and his activities, this is an excellent introduction to the origins of this manufactroversy from the antivaccine point of view. Hooker explains how he used Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to get the CDC dataset. Now here’s where it’s interesting. He says that he used the CDC’s own methods and confirmed its results. Then he claims he realized that the CDC used “very devious, duplicitous statistical methods,” which made me chuckle out loud, given that Hooker used very incompetent statistical methods in his reanalysis. Hilariously, he claims that he analyzed the data correctly, which is utter tripe. As I described, he analyzed data set up to be analyzed as case-control as a cohort study and, as many of you pointed out, used inappropriate statistical tests, all to torture the data until they confessed a relationship between MMR vaccine and autism. However he could only find such a relationship in African American males. As I also described, this relationship was based on very tiny numbers and almost certainly spurious. Basically, Hooker tells the same lies about the study that have been debunked. I wish I had seen this before I saw Hooker’s paper last week.

Hilariously, Hooker laments that most journals don’t want to touch this stuff because it’s so controversial. In retrospect, we know that it’s more likely that the reason journals don’t want to touch papers such as those by Hooker is because, scientifically, they are utter and complete crap. At least he admits that there is such a thing as autism in the unvaccinated. There’s also the usual hodge-podge of “environmental causation” discussed, such as heavy metals, and, of course, GMOs. We do learn, however, that Hooker doesn’t trust the NIH to do a good vaccinated/unvaccinated study, even though one is going on. Of course, what he doesn’t like is that, from every indication we get from other studies, such a study would likely be negative; so instead he weaves conspiracy theories about how the NIH “suppresses” results that support his views and trumpets how he’s going to do a vaccinated/unvaccinated study using a Florida Medicaid database. Of course, given his utter statistical and epidemiological incompetence, there’s no way he could ever properly control for all the potential confounders in such data; so it’s virtually a given that he will be producing another “positive” study. Maybe he’ll get Jake Crosby to do the statistics. I am, however, touched at how much faith Hooker places in “large numbers” as arbiters of the truth in epidemiology. Apparently, he doesn’t realize that analyzing large numbers incorrectly will produce results just as wrong as analyzing smaller datasets.

Next up, hot off the YouTube presses, so to speak, the crank NextNewsNetwork has featured Andrew Wakefield:

I nearly spewed my coffee all over my laptop when the “reporter” described Andrew Wakefield an “international leader” on vaccinations. It’s one of the rare times when words fail me. My dear readers, the things I do for you. Watching the unctuous, arrogant, and smarmy Wakefield for 13 solid minutes induces in me the overwhelming desire to retch and vomit, but I did it anyway, all for you. Notice that, even in light of Dr. Thompson’s statement, the antivaccine talking point remains unchanged: That Dr. Thompson, as the CDC whistleblower, has admitted that the CDC intentionally removed data from Destefano et al in order to hide a relationship between MMR vaccination and autism in African American males. This is not what Dr. Thompson said in his statement. Rather, he insinuated less than scientifically rigorous decision-making at best and scientific misconduct at worst, all trying to temper the insinuation by couching it as “reasonable scientists” disagreeing about interpretation of data. In other words, his statement is far less inflammatory than it is being portrayed. Even Wakefield, cherry picking statements from Hooker’s recordings of Thompson, couldn’t make a case that Thompson had said this.

There’s more race-baiting, in which Wakefield claims that these African American boys were “neglected.” He also claims that this is vindication for him, but, of course, it is not. Notice how he completely neglects to mention that in every other subgroup, even Hooker couldn’t torture the data to make it confess a relationship between age at MMR vaccination and autism in any other population other than a very small population in the study: African-American males. Whenever that happens as you slice epidemiological data finer and finer, you should be alert for the very distinct possibility that what you’re really looking at is a spurious correlation. As I pointed out before, Hooker in reality merely confirmed that Wakefield was wrong about everyone except African-American males, and, given how small this subgroup was in the study, almost certainly didn’t find any evidence supporting Wakefield’s hypothesis (such as it is) for even African-American boys. Yet, Wakefield, as deluded as he is, spins it as “vindication.” He even thanks Hooker for getting a “senior scientist at the CDC” to come forward and “confirm” that some of those “ideas we put forward” are true. Holy hell! Even if you spin Thompson’s statements in the most unflattering manner possible towards the CDC and his co-investigators, Thompson said nothing of the sort!

Hilariously, the interviewer actually asks one pretty good question: Whether Wakefield had ever observed a greater effect of MMR causing autism in black male babies. Naturally, he took the opportunity to spin these results as an excuse to mention his dubious statements about Somali immigrants in Minnesota. Then, while implicitly acknowledging that Hooker’s reanalysis didn’t confirm his belief for white children (I refuse to call it a hypothesis any more) that MMR causes autism, proposes a much larger study to determine if MMR causes autism in non-African American children. No matter what the data show, to Wakefield MMR causes autism. Particularly despicable, however, is Wakefield’s repeated assertion that, because of the CDC “fraud,” for 13 years children have gone “untreated and uncared for.” Translation: Mainstream medicine haven’t embraced my biomedical quackery to treat autism as “vaccine injury” because it doesn’t accept that vaccines cause autism.

In any case, the rest of the interview is the same talking points we’ve heard ad nauseam from Wakefield. He does, however, get one more good question. Near the end of the interview, the interviewer makes the observation that one of the arguments against vaccines causing autism is that correlation does not equal causation and then asks him if there’s been a correlation between low vaccine uptake and spikes in vaccine-preventable diseases in unvaccinated children. (I know! Shocking! Actually another pretty good question that I bet Wakefield didn’t see coming! The answer is yes, by the way.) Wakefield completely ignores that part of the question and tries to convince the interviewer that correlation of autism diagnoses with vaccination is “not a coincidence,” something he repeats multiple times. He doesn’t answer at all about spikes in infectious disease in unvaccinated children, but rather finishes with a flourish of “too many too soon” and the “toxins gambit,” while calling for prosecution of CDC officials.

So at the end of all this, I’m still left wondering: WTF happened with Dr. Thompson? I’m beginning to wonder more and more if he has started down that slippery slope to becoming antivaccine. His public statement makes me wonder, and so does this snippet of conversation surreptitiously recorded by Brian Hooker, in which he states unequivocally that he thinks that thimerosal-containing vaccines given to pregnant women will result in tics in the infant and that there is “biological plausibility” that thimerosal causes “autism-like” features. Of course, his very own study, published in the NEJM in 2007, does not show that, nor do any other reputable studies. True, his followup paper found what was described as a “small, but statistically significant association between early thimerosal exposure and the presence of tics in boys,” but also cautioned that this “finding should be interpreted with caution due to limitations in the measurement of tics and the limited biological plausibility regarding a causal relationship.” There were also significant limitations in the study, for instance:

This study was also limited by the relatively crude measurement of tics. All the other outcome measures assessed in this study used reliable and valid measures that have published manuals, which allowed the researchers to provide feedback to parents of the child. Furthermore, all testers underwent a 2-day training session and required them to reach a specific level of reliability in terms of administering the tests appropriately as documented in the published assessment manuals. The tics assessments, however, carried out by the testers did not require them to meet any reliability criteria and the testers had no prior training in neurology or tic assessments. The only training the testers received for tic assessments was based on viewing a 30-min training video (“Tourette Syndrome: A Guide to Diagnosis of TS,” 1989).

Now, two years later, Thompson has gone from a tentative finding of a slight increase in tics in boys to saying that because tics are more common in autistic children, that there’s biological plausibility to the hypothesis that thimerosal causes “autism-like” features in children when given in vaccines to their mothers during pregnancy? WTF? It’s really hard not to conclude from his statements regarding tics and thimerosal that Dr. Thompson has not gone at least partially antivaccine, which, if true, may explain much.

I conclude as I began, by asking “What now?” It’s obvious that the antivaccine contingent will flog this story for all it’s worth as long as they can, but fortunately the mainstream press doesn’t appear to be getting the message. It’s also clear that Hooker will continue to crank out incompetently performed epidemiological papers that torture the data until they confess a relationship between vaccines and autism. After this kerfuffle, however, he will be even more unlikely to find an epidemiologist or statistician to team up with him, other than perhaps Jake Crosby, who still hasn’t finished school yet. I only wonder whether Thompson will go full antivax now that he’s been outed, perhaps further assisting incorrectly identified “unbiased scientists” like Hooker, or whether he’ll just put his head down and try to ride the storm out, hopefully perhaps to do good work again someday. I don’t know. I do know that Thompson has done horrific harm, but, thankfully, because of Wakefield, that harm is much less than it would have been if Thompson’s allegations had reached the mainstream media untainted by association with Wakefield.

Now can I please write about something else next week?