Ben Swann on the “#CDCtruth” rally: Regurgitating antivaccine talking points

Before yesterday, I had never heard of Ben Swann. Apparently he is the new anchor for the early evening news broadcast of the local Atlanta CBS affiliate, having joined the station in June. Apparently he is also prone to antivaccine conspiracy theories, which is a very bad thing to be prone to as a reporter or anyone working in the news media. I came to learn of Swann because of an article that looks on the verge of going viral (given that relatives have e-mailed me asking me about it) entitled CBS Reporter Ben Swann Tells the Truth About CDC Vaccine Cover-Up. Of course, I can’t help but interjecting here that if Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. thinks you’re telling the truth about vaccines, you really should reassess your reporting skills. Judging from the video from what appears to be the WGCL-CBS46 newscast from Friday night, I don’t think that Swann will be doing that any time soon, given that he calls the story Reality Check: CDC Scientist Admits Data of Vaccines and Autism Was Trashed:


Yes, it’s a news report about the “#CDCtruth” rally protesting the “#CDCwhistleblower” allegations of scientific fraud in a major vaccine-autism study from 2004. It’s also a story rife with antivaccine talking points, an incredibly credulous acceptance of claims made by the antivaccine movement about William Thompson, and outright misinformation, as you will see.

Before we get to Swann’s incompetent story, Thompson, just to remind you, is the CDC scientist who, beginning in November 2013, somehow became chummy with Brian Hooker, a biochemical engineer turned incompetent antivaccine epidemiologist. Why he did it, no one but Thompson knows. Whatever the reason, not realizing that his conversations were being recorded, Thompson spoke to Hooker in several telephone calls in which, apparently racked with guilt over a 2004 study on which he was co-author with Frank DeStefano examining MMR vaccine uptake as a risk factor for autism, he unburdened himself, kvetched about his CDC colleagues, and basically accused the CDC of covering up a finding that earlier MMR vaccination correlated with autism in African American boys. Even if one were to take that finding at face value, it actually was a study that showed that Andrew Wakefield was basically wrong in that no such correlation was found in Caucasians, male or female, African American girls, or any other racial group. That right away should have suggested to Thompson that it’s a spurious finding due to small numbers in the subgroup. It was, of course, a finding that disappeared when proper statistical correction was made for confounders.

As a result of these conversations, Brian Hooker did an epically incompetent “reanalysis” of the paper and managed to get it published in a relatively new journal. What this reanalysis claimed to find was that DeStefano et al. had done some statistical prestidigitation to eliminate a statistically significant difference in African American males correlating with age of MMR vaccination. Of course, as I discussed at the time (as did many others), Hooker, in his love of “simplicity,” had neglected to control for important confounders and imputed way too much significance to a spurious correlation that disappeared when proper correction for confounders was made. As I’ve put it many times, simplicity in statistical analyses of epidemiological data is not a virtue. In any case, so incredibly incompetent was Hooker’s analysis that the journal actually retracted the paper.

Thus was born the “CDC whistleblower.” More of the details can be found in my post about the CDC rally and my review of a book by Kevin Barry that published transcripts of four of telephone calls between Hooker and Thompson. In any case, because Thompson’s allegations appeared to confirm the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement (that the CDC knew vaccines cause autism but were hiding it from the public), the antivaccine movement has been beating this dead horse of a scandal for over a year now, ultimately leading to what even Swann says was only “over a hundred people” showing up to protest by the CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

With that background in mind, let’s take a look at the story, which RFK, Jr. introduces thusly:

Finally, courageous Atlanta CBS reporter Ben Swann tells the truth about the Center for Disease Control (CDC) whistleblower, the most censored story of the millennium. CDC’s senior vaccine safety scientist, Dr. William Thompson, has confessed that the CDC vaccine division has been concealing the link between certain vaccines and brain injuries including tics and autism, particularly in African-American children.

Yep. Swann clearly buys into the whole “CDC whistleblower” manufactroversy, as can be gleaned from the blurb about the story:

Over 100 people gathered outside the CDC in Atlanta demanding transparency when it comes to vaccines. Is there anything to what these people are saying? How about the facts that no one else will share? This is a Reality Check you won’t see anywhere else.

Did it ever occur to Swann that the reason you won’t see this “reality check” anywhere else is because there’s nothing to all the allegations of conspiracy? Sometimes the reason the mainstream press ignores a story is because reporters tend to recognize cranks when they see them. Sure, sometimes it’s because you’re the first reporter to have stumbled on the story, but lack of coverage from the mainstream media does not necessarily (or even often) mean that there’s some sort of conspiracy of silence.

Right off the bat, Swann interviews one of the protesters, who rattles off the usual litany of alleged CDC transgressions in the mind of an antivaccinationist. We see a shot of the crowd (such as it is) with a sign that says “Subpoena Dr. Thompson!” This, of course, makes me wonder what Thompson’s colleagues working for the CDC think of this. After all, in Kevin Barry’s book, the transcripts of his phone conversations with Brian Hooker portray him saying some fairly nasty things about some of them. Then, of course, there is the whole bit about his accusations that Frank DeStefano and the other co-authors on the 2004 MMR paper committed scientific fraud by destroying evidence, a charge he repeated to Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), who got up on the House floor to demand an investigation into the “scandal” and then again when the announcement was made that the book would soon be published, claiming that Thompson had told him that his coinvestigators had “intentionally withheld controversial findings from the final draft of the Pediatrics paper” and had discarded a lot of the primary data in a big garbage can. At the time, my skeptical antennae started twitching furiously, because the story just didn’t sound credible. The federal government has very specific regulations on data retention and woe be to any federal investigator who doesn’t adhere to them.

In any case, Swann claims that what the protesters are saying, namely that the CDC hasn’t been truthful in its vaccine messaging and science, and that these claims hinge on one man “whom you’ve probably never heard of before,” namely William Thompson. He quotes liberally from a statement issued by William Thompson’s lawyer on August 27, 2014, specifically the parts about Thompson “regretting that my coauthors and I omitted statistically significant information” and claiming that the data suggested that “African American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at an increased risk for autism.” Yes, that was his statement, but as I discussed at the time he’s never really shown scientific fraud, only a disagreement over how to analyze and present the data.

Swann reveals that he asked Dr. Thompson for an interview. Not surprisingly, Thompson declined, no doubt at the instruction of his attorney. Swann also didn’t speak to Rep. Posey, although apparently he did speak to someone in his office, who claims that thousands of documents were handed over, although “sources” (unnamed, of course) claim that there were over 100,000 documents. Personally, I wonder where one gets 100,000 documents over a single study. I doubt that the sum total of the documents for every study I’ve ever done comes anywhere near that. On the other hand, I don’t do epidemiology research. Even so, there were less than 2,500 children in the DeStefano et al study; I suppose it’s possible to reach 100,000 documents, depending on how you define “documents.”

Be that as it may, as I related when it happened, the reason Rep. Posey didn’t get much attention when he made these allegations is because he brought it up during what the House calls “Morning Hour” debates, which are usually held on Mondays and Tuesdays and are dedicated to members speaking about whatever they like. It was also the last week the House was in session before its August recess. As I asked at the time: Why give this speech in a Morning Debate a couple of days before everyone in Congress heads back to his district for five weeks? My guess was that Posey was doing a favor for his paying supporters in the antivaccine movement, but doing it in such a way that he’s on C-Span giving a speech asking for an investigation of Thompson’s allegations, but at a time when no one in Congress is paying attention to anything but getting major work done in time to be able to blow out of town. Cynical? If I’m right, yes it’s cynical. But, hey, this is Congress.

I also wondered about the claims, dutifully regurgitated by Swann, that Thompson’s co-investigators destroyed evidence. For one thing, there were data retention policies, as I mentioned above. For another thing, the data for an epidemiological study would be not just be on paper. Much of the data would also reside on computer files, in particular SPSS files used to do the statistical analysis and perhaps spreadsheets and databases storing all the data on the subjects. These would be stored on CDC servers, which are backed up every day, with backups kept for a long time, if not indefinitely. In other words, it’s not that easy to do what Thompson is accusing his co-investigators of doing, Posey is repeating, and Swann is regurgitating mindlessly. There would be both an electronic and paper trail that would be difficult to erase. One notes that Posey quotes Thompson as saying that he retained all the computer files. If he did so, where? The federal government has very strict regulations about where computer data can be stored; my colleagues at the VA, for instance, tell me that you can’t even copy files onto a jump drive without permission. Did our CDC whistleblower violate government data policies? Inquiring minds want to know!

I said that Ben Swann was antivaccine. Near the end is where he proves it by rhetorically asking:

Why is it that you have to be all for vaccines, given in all quantities to all people, or you’re antivaccination? You know, vaccines have probably saved more lives on this planet than any other single medical advancement. Know that. But what you might not know is that all vaccines in all quantities in all people are not safe. Every year, hundreds of children are injured by vaccines here in the United States. Since 1986, the United States government, they have paid out $3 billion to the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. But raise even one question—just one—about why that is, and you get shouted down.

Hoo boy. This guy would be at home on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism.

No, Mr. Swann. You’re not antivaccination if you question the vaccine schedule. Scientists who are very pro-vaccine question the schedule and argue about which vaccines should be on it and when every year as the schedule is reevaluated. As for the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, the reason the program even exists is because the federal government was fearful that a wave of spurious lawsuits would lead vaccine manufacturers to stop making vaccines for the U.S. market. The VICP is also unusual in that, win or lose, complainants have their court costs and lawyer fees reimbursed. Swann sounds like Rob Schneider ranting about the vaccine court, which actually has a pretty lenient standard for awarding compensation, which likely means a significant number of awards were to patients who were not vaccine injured and whose medical problems derived from some other cause. In any case, you can see the statistics right here if you’re interested.

Swann is actually pretty disingenuous, too. “Raise even one question” and you’re “shouted down”? Nonsense! It’s more like: Try to defend vaccines, and the antivaccine movement not only shouts you down but makes death threats (as its members have for Paul Offit) or try to get you fired (as it did with me five years ago). And, hey, Mr. Swann: You’re an anchor on a CBS affiliate in a major city, and you were allowed to do this story, even though it’s chock full of antivaccine conspiracy mongering. Truly, your producers failed miserably in vetting your story; either that, or they share your antivaccine beliefs.

At this point, I wondered whether Ben Swann had any history of this sort of thing. It turns out that all I had to do was to look at his YouTube channel to see that he does. For instance, he clearly is sympathetic for the claims of 9/11 Truthers and “cannabis cures cancer” pseudoscience and doing Google searches I’ve come across several of his videos on the conspiracy site Infowars.com. In fairness, Ben Swann also does some good work, too as he did reporting on government funding of stadiums, work that got him noticed by John Oliver, but scratch the journalist a little and underneath you find a tendency to believe conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

What I want to know is why an affiliate of a major network in a major American city hired this guy in the first place.wg