Ben Swann’s long-awaited report on the “CDC whistleblower” goes over like a lead balloon of antivaccine misinformation

Ben Swann, anchor of the evening news for the local Atlanta CBS affiliate and the face of his Truth In Media series of videos, thinks himself an investigative journalist and a truth teller, but much of what I see him reporting more closely resembles reporting as though done by a cross between Ted Baxter, Ron Burgundy, and Alex Jones. For one thing, Mr. Swann sure does love him some conspiracies, and he sure is susceptible to antivaccine nonsense, no matter how nonsensical. I first saw him in action nearly three months ago, when he credulously regurgitated the antivaccine talking points on display in the antivaccine protest in Atlanta in which Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Barbara Loe Fisher, and whole gaggle of the usual antivaccine suspects converged on Atlanta and the CDC with Scientology-allied Nation of Islam minister Tony Muhammed to protest…well, what the protest was about wasn’t exactly clear. Ostensibly, it was about the so-called “CDC whistleblower,” a CDC scientist named William Thompson who was involved with a number of CDC studies that failed to find a link between vaccines and autism back in the day. Yesterday, he published the culmination of his “investigation” (and I do use the term loosely) on his Truth In Media website as a story, CDC, Vaccines and Autism. As was the case with Swann’s previous reports on this issue, it’s largely a load of misinformation, shoddy reporting, and lying by omission, only stretched out to 25 minutes. In fact, I was rather disappointed by it, after having looked forward to it for two weeks after Swann had announced it, so much so that I wondered whether it was even worth blogging. Then I realized that this sort of stuff needs to be countered, and as a fairly high profile medical blogger I had an obligation to address this specific video, even though there really is nothing new in it. But first, some background.

I’ve discussed Thompson (a.k.a. the “CDC whistleblower”) and his claims in considerable detail on multiple occasions since his existence was first revealed by the antivaccine tag team of Brian Hooker and Andrew Wakefield in a truly despicable video in which Wakefield likened the vaccine program to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Why did he make this claim? Why has Thompson been trumpeted as the “CDC whistleblower” since Wakefield’s video was released in August 2014? I like to think it’s because antivaccinationists think that he’s revealed actual evidence of what I like to call the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, namely that there is “smoking gun” evidence out there that vaccines cause autism but the CDC (or government or big pharma or all of them in cahoots) is covering it up. In this case, for whatever reason, William Thompson had a number of telephone conversations with biochemical engineer turned incompetent antivaccine epidemiologist Brian Hooker over many months, in which he apparently ranted against his colleagues at the CDC and claimed that a finding had been suppressed in a paper by DeStefano et al on which Thompson was also coauthor that was published in 2004. Apparently with Thompson’s advice, Hooker undertook a reanalysis of the data in this paper that was so incompetently performed that epidemiologists everywhere mocked him mercilessly. Let’s just say that Hooker analyzed a case control study as a cohort study and ignored one major confounder, which left him with the almost certainly spurious finding that receiving the MMR vaccine before the age of 36 months was correlated with a 3.4-fold increased risk of autism in only one subgroup, African American males. Of course, as I put it at the time, other than that spurious result, Hooker had just proven Andrew Wakefield wrong when it comes to all children other than African-American males.

In any case, it wasn’t long before Thompson lawyered up and claimed whistleblower status. Around the same time, he gave a number of documents to Representative Bill Posey (R-FL), who made a pointless speech on the House floor a few days before summer recess about them when few were listening and otherwise did basically nothing with them. Meanwhile, as more and more of Thompson’s statements were made public, it was hard not to get the impression that he had turned antivaccine. In any case, Ben Swann swallowed the CDC whistleblower story that claimed those documents held a “smoking gun” in which Thompson’s colleagues had altered the research plan for DeStefano et al after the study was underway in order to “hide” the result in African-American boys and had destroyed a bunch of data in order to prevent that from becoming known. Two months ago, we learned that Swann had obtained all the CDC whistleblower documents from Rep. Posey’s office and was planning on doing a report on it. Unfortunately for Swann, Matt Carey beat him to the punch, obtaining all the documents himself and doing an excellent analysis that shows that there was no coverup. For your edification, he even provided a link to download all the files yourself if you wish. It’s right here. I myself also reviewed the CDC whistleblower documents and agreed with Matt that there’s a whole lot of nothing going on there, noting from the documents’ contents that even William Thompson doesn’t appear to believe that the result in African-American boys was real.

 

I'm very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany. That's why you'll have to watch the video on my own website to see my awesomeness.

I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany. That’s why you’ll have to watch the video on my own website to see my awesomeness. Well, that, and the fact that the CBS affiliate in Atlanta where I anchor the evening news wouldn’t touch it with a 10 foot cattle prod.

 

So when I learned that Swann was going to post his CDC whistleblower report on January 26, I was actually looking forward to it. Maybe he’d come up with a new antivaccine spin on the story that I hadn’t heard before. Alas, it was not to be, as you will see if you watch Swann’s video, which unfortunately doesn’t allow embedding. Before I get to the video, there’s one thing I noticed in the text:

For over two years, Truth In Media has explored the allegations of Dr. William Thompson, a CDC scientist who came forward in 2014, hired a whistleblower attorney, and claimed that important data regarding a study on vaccines and autism was eliminated.

For over two years? The CDC whistleblower was unknown to the public until August 2014, a mere 17 months ago. Either Swann is clueless (quite possible), or Swann was in on the scam with Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker before Wakefield went public (also possible, although I tend to doubt it). It’s not a really important point, just interesting and worth a quick mention. A second thing worth mentioning is that it’s hard to tell whether the documents made available for download by Swann are all the same as the ones Matt Carey obtained. When I first downloaded Swann’s files, I was annoyed to find multiple files and ZIP files within ZIP files. I also noticed that the overall size of the files was at least 50% greater than the files in Matt Carey’s. The next thing I noticed is that Swann has placed “Truth in Media” watermarks on all the pages of all the PDF files (at least all the pages I’ve looked at so far). Certainly, that could account for an increase in size. Finally, Swann has rearranged the folder structure and renamed a lot of the files, making figuring out whether he has included all the same documents as Matt, left some out, or included additional documents difficult to tell without taking more time than I had last night to go through them all. (Gee, one wonders if that was the reason Swann did it, to make it difficult to directly compare the two sets of PDFs and determine if they all contain the same documents.) It’s annoying, and Matt and others have been discussing it in the comments section of another post. I guess we now know why it took Swann two months to regurgitate Brian Hooker’s talking points basically verbatim.

So let’s go to the video. When hyping his story, Swann claimed that he would be having doctors, journalists, authors, and former CDC specialists assisting in his analysis of “every document that was handed over.” The amusing thing is that Matt Carey went over every document, and I went over most of them in far less time. In any case, Swann starts his video as you would expect, falsely labeling vaccines as highly controversial, complete with excerpts of Brian Hooker, who appears to have been Swann’s main “expert” who helped him. It also doesn’t bode well that Swann starts out with Andrew Wakefield’s Lancet study and another study of his, basically reported without skepticism. For instance, he fails completely to mention that Andrew Wakefield was basically paid a large sum of money by a trial lawyer seeking to sue vaccine manufacturers and that Wakefield’s work was later shown to be fraudulent.

Perhaps the absolute dumbest part of the video occurs around 3:45, when Swann compares Wakefield’s Lancet case series with DeStefano et al. Before that, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the hackneyed device Swann used, showing a scientist making colored solutions, when the epidemiological study to be discussed had no wet lab work. Oh, well, I guess nothing says science like some dude in a white coat swirling beakers of colored solutions for the camera. In any case, check out these screenshots:

 

Wakefield

 

Next, Swann says that the CDC did a case control study in which they didn’t look at any actual children, as though to imply that a case control study was not as good as a small case series:

 

casecontrol

 

This is, of course, nonsense. It’s scientific ignorance of the highest order. Indeed, in the hierarchy of evidence, small case series are near the bottom, just above single case series, and well-designed epidemiological studies are much higher. Wakefield’s crappy case series was in no way a better study than DeStefano et al. Swann also claims that people viewed the case as settled after DeStefano et al; that is, until 2014 when the CDC whistleblower arose. That’s utter nonsense, too. The case that MMR doesn’t cause autism was settled based on many studies. No one study is definitive, including DeStefano et al, and no one study is indispensable. If DeStefano et al were never carried out, we’d still have plenty of evidence to demonstrate that the MMR isn’t correlated with autism. Heck, it every lie Swann regurgitates about DeStefano et al were true, all it would mean is that DeStefano et al was not a study we could rely on and there’d still be plenty of studies to reject a causal link between MMR vaccination and autism. Of course, it wouldn’t serve Swann’s story to tell the truth about this because for the CDC whistleblower story to matter, DeStefano et al must be portrayed as the be-all and end-all of studies failing to find a link between vaccines and autism, which, if discredited, reopens the scientific question. Again, science doesn’t work that way, although conspiracy theories do.

Next up, is a segment on the claim that the research protocol had been altered. This has been discussed several times before, both here and by Matt Carey. I’m not sure I want to go through the details again. If you’re interested, compare Swann’s timeline to these discussions, which show that the documents do not support the claim that the protocol was changed (particularly given that the first date in Swann’s timeline is October 15, 2001), which is after the final protocol had been published. No, DeStefano and colleagues did not break protocol. There’s no evidence that they did in any of these documents.

Perhaps the most hilarious part comes right after this, when Swann claims that he got together the aforementioned team of journalists, scientists, and ex-CDC staffers to analyze the documents and then supplemented it with an “independent” investigation by Brian hooker. Let me say that again. Swann calls Hooker’s investigation “independent.” Try not to laugh too hard. (I do hope you weren’t drinking anything when you read that.) Hooker is an antivaccine loon. More pertinently, he’s an incompetent epidemiologist, as has been demonstrated time and time again. The very fact that he analyzed data collected for a case control study as a cohort study ought to tell you that.

Perhaps the most curious segment is the segment in which Swann interviews what appear to be two retired CDC scientists (they’re both old and advertised as having between them many years of experience). One is Stephen Fitzgerald. What he talks about appears to have little to do with anything related to the CDC whistleblower story. Ditto David Newberry, billed as a former head of the CDC Immunization Branch for 45 years. A Google search on him showed him as being with the CDC infectious disease unit for 25 years. Fitzgerald and Newberry have also done lectures together on epidemiology. What they ended up discussing was not the documents, but rather what both of them perceived as the politicization of the CDC during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the implication being that vaccine studies are just as politicized and just as much guesswork, when they aren’t. One has to wonder whether Fitzgerald and Newberry knew their interview would be used in an antivaccine report, because what they were interviewed with was only related to what Ben Swann was reporting by coincidence and conspiracy mongering.

This segment then segues into the claims reported by Rep. Posey, which I’ve dealt with before, which segues into Hooker describing Thompson’s e-mail to Julie Gerberding, who was the director of the CDC at the time. I’ve dealt with this too more than once. Basically, Thompson e-mailed the CDC director, and not much happened. Swann tries to make it sound as though Thompson was suspended for that e-mail, but as we know from the documents it was a lot more than that, including a verbally violent confrontation in the parking lot with his superior, Walter Orenstein, refusing to cooperate in modifying a PowerPoint presentation when requested, and sending e-mails to Dr. Orenstein demanding an apology and e-mails to senior staff accusing him of harassment. He also neglects to note that this was not a suspension. Rather, it was an administrative leave with pay granted because his superiors were concerned that he was under extreme pressure and needed a break.

When the video was over, I was stunned. No, I wasn’t stunned by the revelations or by Swann’s willingness to lie and distort the contents of the documents. I expected that. What I was stunned at was just how unimaginative Swann was. I was also stunned at how Swann didn’t even really attempt to do real journalism. He basically took Hooker’s misinformation, prettied it up with some graphics, and reported it as true. Hooker was the only “scientist” directly addressing the documents. Other major failings that didn’t really surprise me included failures to disclose: the retraction of Wakefield’s Lancet paper and his later being struck off; Hooker’s NVICP claims, which are a conflict of interest; and that Hooker’s reanalysis was retracted by the first journal it was published in. Other than the retired CDC scientists (who didn’t comment on the documents) and Hooker (who, unfortunately, did), Swann doesn’t identify any of the other journalists, writers, etc., who helped him out, although he does thank Mark Blaxill in the credits.

No wonder the station where Swann works at his day job wouldn’t take this report. There’s nothing there, and Swann has to distort, selectively report, and leave out information in order to spin it into a story of CDC corruption and malfeasance. Will it work as propaganda? I don’t know. I’m sure it will be shared widely on social media by antivaccine activists, but most likely they will just be preaching to the choir. Whether anyone “on the fence” will believe this propaganda is harder to predict, but right now Ben Swann is sure trying to give Sharyl Attkisson a run for her money as the journalist most susceptible to antivaccine conspiracy theories in the US.