Did the “CDC whistleblower” William W. Thompson apologize to Andrew Wakefield in a text message?

Orac post-publication note: There is reason to believe that one point I made below could well be incorrect. However, even leaving that point out, there are still many reasons to doubt the authenticity of the text exchange I discuss below. See the first 10 comments for a discussion. Unlike AoA and other antivaccine groups, if I am wrong about something, I will admit it and discuss what might have led me to an incorrect conclusion. Oh, and I missed something obvious (see comment #11). D’oh!

There’s something that’s been bothering me the last couple of days. I tried not to blog about it, but the more I looked at it the more it bugged me. It didn’t help that it’s also about this whole “CDC whistleblower” issue that’s been consuming about 90% of this blog’s posts for the last two weeks, thus risking tiring my readership (not to mention me) of the whole topic. So, when I noticed what I noticed, I sat back and waited, hoping that someone else would write about it, so that I wouldn’t have to. So far, as far as I can tell, no one has. I even hinted about it on Twitter, but no one took the bait. So here we are, once again, revisiting the story of CDC senior scientist William W. Thompson, who apparently helped biochemical engineer turned incompetent antivaccine pseudo-epidemiologist Brian Hooker produce an execrable “reanalysis” of one of a paper on the safety of the MMR vaccine on which Thompson was a co-author ten years ago that allegedly showed that there was an increased risk of autism in African-American males. It didn’t. For all his trouble Thompson was “outed” as the “CDC whistleblower” by Andrew Wakefield in an incredibly vile video likening this “deception” to the Tuskegee syphilis program and the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot all rolled into one in a piece de resistance of race baiting combined with Godwin. Later, Thompson issued a statement that is being trumpeted as “proof” that the “CDC lied,” when it is nothing of the sort.

The latest salvo from the antivaccine crank contingent came two days ago, when HIV/AIDS denialist Celia Farber published on her “Truthbarrier” website an article entitled BREAKING NEWS: CDC WHISTLEBLOWER TEXT MESSAGES TO ANDY WAKEFIELD: STUDY WOULD HAVE “SUPPORTED HIS SCIENTIFIC OPINION.” In it there was a grainy photo of what is purported to be an iPhone screen with the following text exchange:

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A bigger version can be found here. (Why waste my benevolent overlords’ bandwidth by hosting a 4.6 MB file, when I can host a small version of it and waste Farber’s instead if you want to see the full size version?) In any case, here’s the alleged exchange:

AJW: “Is the press release real?”

WT: “Yes”

AJW: Thank you. This was the right and honorable thing to do. Andy.

WT: I agree. I apologize again for the price you paid for my dishonesty.

AJW: I forgive you complete and without any bitterness.

WT: I know you mean it and am grateful to know you more personally.

Although there is no text exchange shown, it is also claimed that Thompson texted Andrew Wakefield’s wife Carmel on August 20, saying:

I do believe your husbands career was unjustly damaged and this study would have supported his scientific opinion. Hopefully I can help repair it.

One notes, however, that there are no visuals of this particular text. One wonders why.

In any event, it all sounds damning, doesn’t it? Thompson actually apologized for everything to Andy and his wife? If true, it would indicate to me that Thompson was—shall we say?—less than sincere when he issued his press release in which he stated that Brian Hooker had recorded their conversations without his knowledge and that Andrew Wakefield had released his name without his permission, given that this text exchange is supposed to have come from the evening of August 27, which is the day that Thompson’s press release was issued. Having spoken to William Thompson’s lawyer, Rick Morgan, on Friday, I figured I’d send him an e-mail asking if he could confirm or deny whether his client ever had such an exchange. I figured that he’d be annoyed if his client were communicating with Wakefield after having issued that press release or would be anxious to deny the authenticity of the exchange if not. Rick Morgan never responded. I presume he had gotten whatever message he had wanted to get to me and then, not needing me any more, decided to ignore future communications. He’s a lawyer. I expect little else.

But something about that text exchange, more specifically the image of that text exchange, bothered me. It even bothered some antivaccinationists, because I saw complaints about it. Why is it a photo of an iPhone? Doesn’t Andy even know how to take a screen shot on his iPhone? (Just press the Home and Sleep buttons at the same time and release. There’ll be a fake camera shutter noise, and you’ll have a screenshot. So, not long after, a real-seeming screenshot appeared:

wakerscreenshot

Better, right? (The full size original is here.) Well, no. Something kept bothering me about this screenshot. Something didn’t look right. No, it wasn’t necessarily just that there were apparently 130 unread text messages still on Wakefield’s phone, as indicated by the number 130 in parentheses. (Either Wakefield doesn’t check his texts that often, or he’s got a lot of groupies he communicates with.) It was something else. Something odd. So I looked at my own iPhone. Then I looked at this screenshot. Then I looked at my iPhone again. The iPhone in the screenshot is clearly running some version of iOS 7, as is mine. Then it hit me. Take a look at this part of Wakefield’s screen shot, the top of the screen:

photo-3 copy

Now take a look at the same header from mine. (I blocked out the name of the person texting me.) Notice any difference? Take another look:

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Now, do you notice the difference? I did? Notice how in Andy’s screenshot, the word “Back” appears by the arrow in the upper left hand corner. Notice how, in mine, the word “Messages” appears in the upper left hand corner. That’s what had been bugging me when I first looked at the screenshot and it didn’t look quite right to me! I had finally put my finger on it!

So does this anomaly mean that these text messages are faked? I don’t know. That’s why I waited two days to say anything about it. I was asking around to see if there were any versions of iOS 7 that displayed the word “Back” instead of “Messages” to indicate going back to the main list in the Messages app. (Maybe the UK version of iOS used “Back” instead of “Messages,” although Wakefield’s lived in Austin so long that I highly doubt he’d have a UK-sold iPhone or, if he did, that Thompson would be texting it. Oh, wait. Nope.) I couldn’t find any, but, even though I’m a pretty major Apple fanboi in many respects and have used an iPhone since I got the very first iPhone a few months after it had been released (I waited until my previous contract was up), I don’t claim encyclopedic knowledge of the iPhone. I could be wrong, and I’m sure one of you in the comments will tell me so if I am. If I’m not wrong, to me this anomaly strongly suggests that this screenshot in which Thompson allegedly “apologizes” to Andrew Wakefield is a fake.

Of course, even if the screenshot isn’t a “fake” (in that it was created on one of those text message generator apps or something like that), it could still be a fake, if you know what I mean. All it would take to make a “real” screenshot that is in reality faked would be for Andy to put a friend’s iPhone number into his Contacts app, give that contact the name “William,” and then have that friend text Wakefield whatever texts Wakefield wanted him to, to create the exchange. We have nothing other than Celia Farber’s and, apparently, Andrew Wakefield’s word (given that Wakefield Tweeted a link to Farber’s article) for it that this is really William Thompson texting him, and, as we’ve learned from his long history, anyone who relies on Wakefield’s word alone for anything is taking a huge risk of being burned.

So in the end, we’re left with three possibilities. First, this text exchange might legitimate, all the anomalies of not using a proper screenshot at first and “Back” instead of “Messages” appearing in the upper left hand corner notwithstanding. I doubt this possibility very much, because, for all his foolishness, naivete, and gullibility Thompson appears to be honest to a fault and his having communicated with Wakefield after accusing him of “outing” him without his permission would imply that Thompson was less than truthful—to put it mildly!—in his press release. Also, I doubt very much that his lawyer would be happy with his having communicated with Wakefield in a manner that could be publicized; my guess is that Morgan has Thompson under very strict instructions not to communicate with Brian Hooker, Andrew Wakefield, or anyone associated with them. Even if that weren’t the case, why would Thompson, having been burned once, give Wakefield a chance to burn him again? If Thompson really did communicate with Wakefield after becoming his client, I can see Rick Morgan tearing his hair out over the extreme stupidity of the move. Still, given Thompson’s past behavior, this possibility cannot be entirely discounted.

The other two possibilities are either that this screenshot was faked (which seems possible, although I could be mistaken, given that, despite extensive Googling I haven’t been able to find a screenshot that uses “Back” instead of “Messages” my search is not comprehensive) or that Wakefield faked a text exchange and made it appear to be someone named “William,” the implication being that that’s William Thompson, something that is incredibly easy to do. All you need is a friend with an iPhone to do it. There’s no concrete evidence to argue for or against this last possibility, but I also note that there’s no concrete evidence (just Farber’s and apparently Wakefield’s word) that the screenshot represents a real text exchange between William Thompson and Andrew Wakefield, either. That doesn’t even take into account the content of the text exchange, which is bizarre and stilted, to say the least. Even if it is real, it’s no doubt highly cherry picked.

Whatever the true case, this whole “CDC whistleblower” thing just keeps getting stranger and stranger. Now can the developments stop for a day so that I can write about something else tomorrow?