The CDC whistleblower data dump redux: Even William Thompson appears not to believe the antivaccine spin

Yesterday was kind of busy and a long day in the operating room rather drained me. So I only had time for a quick followup to yesterday’s post on how Matt Carey obtained the entire document dump that the “CDC whistleblower” William W. Thompson gave to Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), who then gave it to Alex Jones wannabe Ben Swann, who promised a story on it over a month ago but thus far hasn’t delivered. Brian Deer, appropriately enough, pointed out some quotes that I hadn’t really elaborated on sufficiently, as did Matt Carey in a followup post.

Back in August, Rep. Posey read an excerpt from a statement by William Thompson that read thusly:

At the bottom of Table 7 it also shows that for the non-birth certificate sample, the adjusted race effect statistical significance was huge. All the authors and I met and decided sometime between August and September ’02 not to report any race effects for the paper. Sometime soon after the meeting, we decided to exclude reporting any race effects, the co-authors scheduled a meeting to destroy documents related to the study. The remaining four co-authors all met and brought a big garbage can into the meeting room and reviewed and went through all the hard copy documents that we had thought we should discard and put them in a huge garbage can. However, because I assumed it was illegal and would violate both FOIA and DOJ requests, I kept hard copies of all documents in my office and I retained all associated computer files. I believe we intentionally withheld controversial findings from the final draft of the Pediatrics paper.


Sounds pretty damning, right? Well, we now have the complete statement by William Thompson, thanks to Matt Carey‘s having made the document dump available to all, and in context it’s not quite the smoking gun that antivaccinationists thought as they started posting various “Garbage Can” memes all over Twitter and Facebook, as though the CDC had destroyed primary evidence. Let’s take a look, as some of Thompson’s statements were cited by both Carey and Deer. Here is Thompson’s complete statement.

First, note that there was a lot of text between Thompson’s description of the “garbage can meeting” and “I believe we intentionally withheld controversial findings from the final draft of the Pediatrics paper.” Posey makes it seem as though the two descriptions were linked, and to some extent they are, but there’s a lot of additional information between the two. Information was also left out. For instance, let’s look at Thompson’s quote in context:

Sometime soon after the meeting where we decided to exclude reporting any RACE effects, also between August 2002 and September 2002, the coauthors scheduled a meeting to destroy documents related to the study. Dr. Coleen Boyle was not present at the meeting even though she was involved in scheduling that meeting. The remaining 4 coauthors all met and brought a big garbage can into the meeting room and reviewed and went through all our hard copy documents that we thought we should discard and put them in the large garbage can. However, because I assumed this was illegal and would violate both FOIA laws and DOJ requests, I kept hard copies of all my documents in my office and I retained all the associated computer files. This included all the Word files (agendas and manuscript drafts), Excel files with analysis and results, and SAS files that I used to generate the statistical findings. I also kept all my written notes from meetings. All the associated MMR-Autism Study computer files have been retained on the Immunization Safety Office computer servers since the inception of the study and they continue to reside there today.

Emphasis added on a key segment Posey left out. Why is this important? Because it has been implied in many antivaccine sites that Thompson was not at the meeting where a bunch of documents were thrown in the garbage can. We know that’s not true. Note the key phrase: “the remaining four authors.” There were only five co-authors on DeStefano et al. If Colleen Boyle was not at the meeting, that means the “remaining four” co-authors must have included Thompson. He was there. Of course, Thompson never actually denied being at the meeting, but his wording sure was a bit ambiguous, at least to me. Colleen Boyle wasn’t there, but the “four remaining authors” were. In any case, his being at that “garbage can” or “shredder” meeting means that he must know the criteria that were used to determine which documents to dump and which documents to keep. As Matt Carey has asked, why has he never commented on this? Why didn’t he comment on this to Brian Hooker in one of his many conversations with him. Or maybe he has commented to Hooker but Hooker, knowing that it would undermine the conspiracy theory that he had concocted, never let it be included in any transcript published.

As Brian Deer also points out, no data were destroyed, because, as Thompson states, “All the associated MMR-Autism Study computer files have been retained on the Immunization Safety Office computer servers since the inception of the study and they continue to reside there today.”

There’s another part of Thompson’s statement that Posey (and Hooker and Wakefield) have never mentioned:

The fact that we found a strong statistically significant finding among black males does not mean that there was a true association between the MMR vaccine and autism-like features in this subpopulation:

The fact that we found a strong statistically significant finding among black males does not mean that there was a true association between the MMR vaccine and autism-like features in this subpopulation. This result would have probably have led to designing additional better studies if we had been willing to report the findings in the study and manuscript at the time that we found them.

This implies that even William Thompson doesn’t believe that those apparent effects in African-American males in which MMR vaccination at a certain age correlated with an increased risk of autism were real. Indeed, in his statement released by his lawyer in August 2014, Thompson said:

Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information. I will do everything I can to assist any unbiased and objective scientists inside or outside the CDC to analyze data collected by the CDC or other public organizations for the purpose of understanding whether vaccines are associated with an increased risk of autism.

So let me summarize what messages I take away from the CDC whistleblower story based on everything that’s come before and the most recent document dump:

  • No raw data were deleted or destroyed.
  • There was a correlation between MMR vaccination and autism in a single small subgroup in DeStefano et al that didn’t hold up to further analysis. It was not reported.
  • Even Thompson doesn’t argue that this initially detected race effect means that the MMR vaccine increases the risk of autism in African-American boys.
  • On the other hand, these are public statements. When Thompson thinks no one is listening, he does imply that these race effects are important and potentially significant, as he did in his telephone discussions with Brian Hooker.
  • Thompson clearly had problems playing well with others and likely wasn’t able to articulate his concerns well enough to convince his co-authors. He also apparently had anger management issues and difficulty dealing with stress, leading to his paid administrative leave in 2004.
  • Thompson was in contact with antivaccinationists as far back as 2004. It’s understandable why he was in contact with Sallie Bernard, given that she had been placed on the committee overseeing one of his studies. It’s less understandable why he was apparently in contact with Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker.
  • Honest researchers can argue whether or not it was a good idea not to report the initial race finding in the way that Thompson apparently wanted to. There are arguments on both sides. From a PR perspective, it was probably a bad idea not to include the data, although I note that at the time antivaccinationists apparently didn’t pick up on the initial race effect, even though it was mentioned in the manuscript but shown to be probably spurious with the birth certificate analysis. From a scientific perspective it was justifiable, at least in practical terms, by manuscript word count limitations. As Matt notes, however, what we’ve never received from Thompson is a good scientific rationale as to why it had to be reported.
  • If Thompson hadn’t personalized his disagreement and gone to Brian Hooker with it, helping him with his incompetent reanalysis, this PR problem wouldn’t have happened.

There’s a final lesson here. No matter how transparent scientists are, antivaccinationists will always relentlessly look for something to use to attack vaccines, some inconsistency or something not reported (or even not reported the way they think it should have been). As I’ve pointed out time and time again, to them it is all about the vaccines. It was always all about the vaccines. It always will be about the vaccines. Thompson apparently didn’t understand this and facilitated the antivaccine message, whether he intended it or not.