The CDC whistleblower William W. Thompson: One last word

I know that when last I commented, I expressed the desire to move on from the topic of the CDC whistleblower case after having covered it for a week. And so was my intent. However, this being a holiday in the US and my having had an odd experience on Friday led me to think that one last update is in order. Those not familiar with the story can recap here:

Over the weekend, there have been a lot of attacks directed at those who have made critical comments about Brian Hooker and his conspiracy theory, or who have, quite reasonably, pointed out that the statement of the “CDC whistleblower,” senior CDC scientist William W. Thompson, does not demonstrate that the CDC engaged in a “massive coverup” of evidence showing that MMR vaccination is associated with autism in African American males. These days, the attacks are coming in the form of a potentially libelous CNN iReport regurgitating Jake Crosby’s unfounded charges, and, of course, Twitter attacks galore:

This all sounds rather…threatening. One wonders if Ms. McClelland thinks it’s wise to post such Tweets.

There was a time when such vilification would have bothered me, but I’m used to it now. Indeed, I wear it as a badge of honor. They don’t have anything else, and the intensity of the vitriol directed at me is proportional to my effectiveness in dismantling antivaccine claims.

Of course, the biggest unknown in this entire misbegotten saga is William W. Thompson, the “CDC whistleblower.” Over the last week and a half, I’ve wanted to ask him time and time again, “What on earth were you thinking?” Thompson now writes in his statement that he is willing to collaborate with “unbiased and objective scientists” to reanalyze vaccine safety datasets. That’s great. But, if that’s the case, why on earth did he ever contact Brian Hooker? Oddly enough, there are some Tweets that ask the key questions about Thompson’s motivations that echoed my own questions:

Excellent questions. At first, I thought we were left with two potential explanations. One was that Thompson had gone antivaccine. I don’t think he has, but some selected quotes publicized in which he criticized recommending the thimerosal-containing version of the flu vaccine for pregnant women, stating that it causes tics in children and tics are “autism-like.” So, although I don’t think he’s gone antivaccine (yet), he’s clearly imbibed at least some of that world view from Hooker. The other possibility was that Thompson had an unresolved scientific disagreement with his co-authors, a “beef,” if you will, that he is now resolving. But if that were the case, then surely there must have been better ways to resolve that than cozying up to an antivaccinationist who has been trying to get first Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and then Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) to hold hearings looking into a vaccine-autism link.

Friday, I was made aware of a possible third reason.

Based on some of my previous posts over at the not-so-secret other blog, I was unexpectedly contacted by Rick Morgan, William Thompson’s lawyer, who wanted to speak with me. So I gave him my number, and he called me on Friday. It was a brief, but very strange conversation. Morgan didn’t tell me much, but I didn’t expect him to, although he stated that he understood that I thought Thompson either had a beef with his co-investigators or had gone off the deep end. However, he wanted to “plant a seed” that maybe—just maybe—there might be another explanation, that this had been torturing Thompson all these years and he just had to do something because he couldn’t take it any more.

And maybe that is true. I have no way of knowing. I do know that, whatever his motivation, Thompson had done horrible damage and almost certainly endangered African American children to suffer from measles who might not have contracted it otherwise.

Assuming that what Mr. Morgan told me in that brief, cryptic conversation is true, it just goes to show how a guilty conscience, whether justified or not, can drive a man to do some really stupid things. Make no mistake, there is no doubt that what Thompson did was either incredibly naive and/or stupid. Maybe his conscience was torturing him for a decade. Again, who knows?

That thought led me to another thought, though. The central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement states that scientists and bureaucrats at the CDC are involved in a massive coverup of The Truth, undeniable scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism, all done in the service of big pharma. Now think about Thompson again. If what Morgan says is true, then Thompson’s conscience has been torturing him over a relatively scientific disagreement in which he didn’t really believe, based on the data presented in DeStefano et al, that there was a true correlation between MMR vaccination and autism, but he did believe that further studies should be done. Now his conscience has led him to ruin his scientific career and reputation over just that.

Now imagine if there had been a real conspiracy to suppress compelling evidence indicating that vaccines cause autism. In that case, there wouldn’t just be a single man torturing himself over decisions made, as Thompson, if we believe Morgan, apparently has. It would be men and women at every level of the CDC. If the CDC couldn’t “keep Thompson quiet” over this, if Thompson was willing to risk destroying his career over a small subgroup analysis with almost certainly spurious results that weren’t followed up on when he thought they should be, imagine what would happen if real data demonstrating a strong link between vaccines and autism had been covered up. There would be Bill Thompsons crawling out of the woodwork everywhere, beginning not long after the coverup began. To believe the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory, you have to believe that virtually everyone at the CDC is either so ideologically blinded that they would have no trouble covering up a definite link between vaccines and autism or that they’re all so terrified that they stay silent.

Indeed, as a commenter this morning put it:

As for the three scientists discussed in the article, we all know full well that these men are NOT performing these experiments alone. There are people working under their direction with direct access to the data and ought to have seen this train wreck coming as well.

This is exactly the reason why, although I have little doubt that large organizations can cover up relatively minor issues, which is what Thompson’s insinuations amount to, they can’t for long cover up something huge, such as intentionally covering up a link between vaccines and autism. Ironically, the case of William Thompson is an excellent example of why such conspiracy theory beliefs are so incredibly implausible. Indeed, it reads like a bad movie script.

Worse for Thompson, even the tinfoil hat conspiracy contingent won’t be giving him much love any time soon. See, for instance, Ken Heckenlively’s post at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism this morning:

I really do want to thank Dr. Thompson for coming forward at this time, although it would have been much better if he’d done it earlier, when his conscience first troubled him. I think of the good scientists, like Dr. Andrew Wakefield, Dr. Brian Hooker, or my co-author, Dr. Judy Mikovits, who held firm to their principles. Wakefield has often said that the MMR controversy has cost him, “His job, his career, and his country.” Dr. Mikovits has endured a similar level of torment as have other honest scientists who have presented inconvenient findings. For me, that is the definition of scientific courage. Scientists like Wakefield, Hooker, and Mikovits would NEVER dream of concealing data. For them, that would be the equivalent of a crime against humanity.

Of course, this statement shows such a breathtaking lack of awareness that it’s hard not to guffaw out loud. After all, Andrew Wakefield almost certainly committed gross scientific fraud far worse than even the most uncharitable interpretation of Thompson’s insinuations of fraud could ever support, and Brian Hooker tortured data in a manner most foul until it “confessed.” If you don’t believe me, take a gander at Hooker’s talk in front of a cancer quackery conference in which he brags at around 17:00 how “simple” the technique he used was and how “simplicity is elegance” in statistics and how he likes to do “simple” things rather than intellectually challenging things. Any statistician will tell you is a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys. He also at around 27:30 basically admitted that he recorded Thompson’s conversations, but claims he did so legally. Finally, arguably, Mikovitz is a bigger fraud than Wakefield. Yet Heckenlively views them as “heroes” because they are on “his” side and support his pseudoscientific quack beliefs.

The bottom line is that the antivaccine movement is very much like a cult. They follow their heros and reject any information that disconfirms their beliefs. There is one good thing, though. Andrew Wakefield’s behavior in this whole sordid affair was so vile, his lies so obvious, that even one of his acolytes realized it. If that can happen with a true believer, maybe that true believer will eventually realize that the rest of the antivaccine world view is built on pseudoscience, quackery, and lies. And if one can come to that realization, maybe others can.

A guy can hope, can’t he?