The Woo Boat, part 2: Andrew Wakefield versus the skeptics

About six months ago, I was highly amused to discover something called the Conspira-Sea Cruise, which I referred to at The Woo Boat. As I said at the time, file this one under the category: You can’t make stuff like this up. Certainly, I couldn’t.

I’ve never been on a cruise. Quite frankly, the very concept of a cruise doesn’t much appeal to me, at least not an ocean cruise. My wife and I have considered doing a Viking River Cruise, because a river cruise where you get to stop at multiple historic European cities and watch the countryside roll by while on the ship sounds far more appealing to us than an ocean cruise. However, that was before I knew there existed a cruise like the Conspira-Sea Cruise, a cruise custom-designed for people who love Alex Jones and Mike Adams and agree with their rants that there is a New World Order trying to suppress the rights of you sheeple; people who strongly believe that vaccines not only cause autism, sudden infant death syndrome, a shaken baby-like syndrome, autoimmune diseases, sudden ovarian failure, and even outright death but are a depopulation plot hatched by Bill Gates and the Illuminati who support his agenda; people who believe that black helicopters are keeping an eye on those who have discovered this plot. To you, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are part of the same plot, pure poison and pure evil; and—of course!—people who just know that there is a cure for cancer—nay, cures for all diseases—out there but those evil pharmaceutical companies are keeping them from the people, the better to bolster their profits, just as they are preventing Brave Maverick Doctors like Andrew Wakefield, Mark Geier, and Sherri Tenpenny from telling the world the truth about vaccines.

OK, my interest in such a cruise is a bit more—shall we say?—clinical in that I would have been interested far more in studying the quackery, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and paranormal beliefs than in engaging in them. Also, I have a serious problem with keeping a straight face in response to sheer looniness, and it doesn’t help that antivaccine “luminary” Andrew Wakefield knows who I am. Although I have no idea if he knows what I look like, I do know that he knows my name and what I’ve written about him over the years. (Just type his name in the search box of this blog if you’re wondering.)

So, lo, those many moons ago, I had to console myself over the fact that there was no way I could go on this cruise, even undercover, with the amusement that came from reading about the cruise. Fortunately for skeptics, at least two journalists, Bronwen Dickey and Anna Merlan, as well as a skeptic and former attorney named Colin McRoberts (whose wife Jennifer Raff runs the blog Violent Metaphors) were on the cruise, the reporters for the story, McRoberts for the experience and research for a book he is writing about irrational beliefs. I am hard-pressed to think of a better bit of research for such a book, making his appeal on a GoFundMe page worthwhile. I was definitely looking forward to everyone’s reports, particularly about Andrew Wakefield. Who would have thought that Wakefield would have fallen so far, to be doing a cruise like this with a bunch of New World Order conspiracy theorists, crop circle believers, people who think HAARP is a form of mind control, and HIV/AIDS denialists?

On the other hand, it’s totally appropriate.

I haven’t been able to find Dickey’s article yet, but yesterday Jezebel.com published Merlan’s story, entitled Sail (Far) Away: At Sea with America’s Largest Floating Gathering of Conspiracy Theorists. Earlier, McRobert posted a series of posts on Violent Metaphors, most prominent of which (for me, anyway) was an interview with the chief antivaccinationist himself, Andrew Wakefield. Liz Ditz has a running tally of the coverage, including interviews with Colin by April Glaser and Kylie Sturgess.

If you want to get an idea of the vibe of the entire cruise, I can’t think of a better example than the Sean David Morton speaking to the attendees and telling them:

“Conspiracy theorists are always right,” Morton told the room. He spoke with the jokey cadence and booming delivery of his profession; he’s basically Rush Limbaugh, if Rush Limbaugh claimed to have psychic powers (Morton practices a form of ESP known as “remote viewing,” which he says he learned from Nepalese monks). It was a bit of a pander, since the room was filled with conspiracy theorists.

“In 40 years,” Morton added, “as many people will believe a bunch of Arabs knocked down the World Trade Center as will believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” A lot of people nod.

The things that everyone thinks are “crazy” now, he said, “the mainstream will pick up on them. 2016 is going to be one of those pivotal years, not just in American history, but in human history as well.”

This is a phenomenon shared by nearly all cranks and conspiracy theorists, so much so that I have to wonder if it is one of their defining traits, that I even coined a term for it (at least I think I was the first to coin this term), the fallacy of future vindication or, as I sometimes call it, the “I’ll show them” fallacy. Basically, it’s the idea that someday, in some far-off (or not-so-far-off) future, the medical and scientific community will realize that, for example, antivaccine cranks are not cranks at all, that they were right all along and that vaccines are the horrible thing that vaccine-autism conspiracy theorists claim them to be. It’s the fantasy that antivaccine quacks like Andrew Wakefield will cease to be viewed as quacks and cranks and be recognized for the forward-thinking geniuses that the antivaccine movement believe them to be. Yes, this fantasy says, these doctors today are shunned, viewed as pseudoscientists and quacks, but someday their brilliance will be undeniable. You see the same sort of thinking among 9/11 Truthers, creationists, quacks of all stripes, believers in the paranormal, and basically any crank you can think of.

There is also the idea of “otherness,” which apparently leapt to the fore during one of Andrew Wakefield’s talks:

The wider world hasn’t been kind to Wakefield, who lost his medical license in 2010 and is widely described as a one-man public health disaster. Here, though, he was treated as a battle-scarred hero. The room hung on his every word.

“One in two children will have autism by 2032,” he told us, to horrified gasps. “We are facing dark times. The government and the pharmaceutical industry own your bodies and the bodies of your children.”

“There are no [vaccine] exemptions anymore,” Sean David Morton piped in. “Not even if you’re Jewish. But I think Obama made an exception for Muslims.” He switched into what may have been an impression of someone with an Arabic accent: “Ay yi yi!”

Racist much, Mr. Morton? Then:

He dropped back down to his normal register. With vaccines, he said, “They rape your kids. They are literally raping your kids. They literally jam something into their bodies that makes them sick.”

Rape. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Yes, this is a particularly vile metaphor that antivaccinationists have latched on to. In particularly, this particular analogy became more popular during the political battle over California SB 277 (I’m talking to you, Mary Holland), the bill now passed into law that eliminates non-medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, although I had seen it before. Unfortunately, it is part of the violent rhetoric increasingly prevalent among antivaccinationists that leads those of us on the pro-science side to be a bit worried that one day an antivaccine activist will actually act on it.

Obviously, I’m concentrating mostly on Wakefield here, because the antivaccine movement is what I’m most interested in and because it amuses me to no end to see Wakefield reduced to such a state. Merlan’s article acknowledges this, by noting where Wakefield pointed out that he had a promising career but that he “flushed it down the toilet,” which is entirely true. While Wakefield thinks he flushed his career down the toilet in the service of truth, science, and justice, in reality he flushed it down the toilet in the service of pseudoscience. One trait that he shares with a lot of other conspiracy theorists, a trait that could well be another defining characteristic, is an unwavering faith in his own conspiracy theories:

Wakefield’s belief in his own theories has never wavered. He has an intense following among parents who believe their children were injured by vaccines (one told the New York Times in 2011 that he was “Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one”). In a presentation that lasted an hour and a half, Wakefield told the cruise audience that the Centers for Disease Control was ignoring evidence that the MMR vaccine increases autism rates, especially among African-American boys. His main source, a CDC whistleblower, has said in a statement that he “would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race.”

Wakefield disagrees: He predicted a future where “80 percent of American boys” will have autism in 15 years.

This is the sort of prediction we see every time the CDC releases new figures about autism prevalence that are higher than the last time. For instance, when the CDC estimated autism prevalence at 1 in 68, immediately we saw all sorts of apocalyptic rhetoric about how half or most children will be autistic by 2030 or so. Perhaps the most hilarious example of this occurred during a debate I attended to support Steve Novella debating all-around quack Julian Whitaker back in 2012. There, Whitaker showed a graph that showed autism prevalence reaching 100% by sometime between 2032 and 2041. It was a graph so ridiculous that it probably lost the debate for him, as the audience, even though it was full of people sympathetic to the view that vaccines cause autism, was clearly convinced how ridiculous it was by Novella. I personally pushed Whitaker for the source of his figures, as well. Let’s just say that his answers were…unconvincing. That Wakefield parrots a version of this particular idiocy—after all, if 80% of boys will be autistic by 2030, that’s pretty close to Whitaker’s estimate of 100% of boys by 2032 and 100% of girls by 2041—does not speak well of him. Of course, nothing much speaks well of him.

Neither do his statements in his interview with Colin McRoberts. Regular readers will recognize immediately a lot of the misinformation and lies that Wakefield regularly traffics in, but even so it’s worth taking a look. In particular, I was interested in the so-called “CDC whistleblower” documents Wakefield claims to have. Matt Carey and I both have the documents (as do many others now), and we concluded that there’s just nothing there. Even William Thompson (the CDC whistleblower himself) doesn’t appear to believe the spin he tries to put on the documents.

Among the same ol’, same ol’ that we always hear from Wakefield, we do learn some tidbits. For example (question in bold, Wakefield’s answer in normal text):

And then do you know if there are documents you have from Thompson that Posey does not?

I have documents that Posey does not because Thompson and I were in private correspondence.

And when you say that, are they documents that were that correspondence, or were they documents from the DeStefano days?

They are correspondence between us.

So Wakefield and Thompson were in correspondence with each other. Wakefield’s being squirrelly (as he usually is) about exactly when, but given what I saw in the data dump of the “CDC whistleblower documents,” I’m guessing Thompson’s correspondence with Wakefield goes back to the days of the DeStefano et al study that provoked Thompson’s wrath and that he used as an excuse to run into the arms of antivaccine cranks like Brian Hooker and Andrew Wakefield. As you might remember, that led to Brian Hooker’s infamous “reanalysis” of the DeStefano et al data that claimed to find a four-fold increase in autism among African American boys vaccinated before 36 months.

As I pointed out at the time (as did many others) Hooker’s statistical analysis was incredibly simple and totally wrong, not the least of which because he analyzed data collected for a case control study as a cohort study. Get a load of Wakefield’s response to questions about this:

I’ve heard, and again I’m not qualified to even understand the criticism, that Hooker misunderstood how to analyze case control studies. Are you familiar with that criticism?

No I’m not. The criteria for the, if you go to the criteria for the journal, Translational Neurodegeneration, it says papers will be published on the basis of expert peer review. And only when they pass that expert peer review will they be published. The paper went expert peer review which included a statistical analysis and whether he used appropriate methodology. So it passed muster on the basis of the journal’s own rigorous criteria. That gives me cause for concern, because there was nothing in Hooker’s analysis which substantiates or supports the contention that he did not know how to analyze a case control study.

In response to this, Matt Carey speculated about something I now wonder about ever since I wrote my most recent post about peer review. There’s a practice that is widespread among journals that really should be abolished, specifically requests for suggestions for peer reviewers and the whole issue of fake peer review, in which peer review requests, thanks to security flaws in various platforms used for peer review, can be funneled to specific reviewers—or even back to the authors themselves. I agree with Matt; I’m not saying that this is what happened, but given how bad Hooker’s paper was, how incompetent the statistical analysis was, I have to wonder if that happened.

Another interesting tidbit we learn from Wakefield is this:

If you’re comfortable saying so, are you still in contact with Thompson?

No. When we – let me qualify that. I write to Thompson. Updating him on our progress. I do not anticipate a response. Because in getting him or encouraging him to get a whistleblower lawyer, his lawyer advised as any good lawyer should that he should make no further comment until a congressional hearing or the equivalent. And therefore I have not heard back from him.

So Wakefield is informing Thompson of his “progress.” Lovely.

Perhaps the most informative part of this interview is a series of questions near the end where McRoberts asks Wakefield if there is anything that would change his mind about vaccines. After the first question, about vaccines and autism, Wakefield essentially punts, not really answering the question. After that:

The positions and the rhetoric that you’ve taken at this conference make it pretty clear you feel that there is extremely good reason to believe that the MMR vaccine in particular, and possibly vaccines in general, and possibly GMOs as well, have a causative link to autism.

Yes.

What would change your mind?

That is because I’ve sat in this field now for twenty years, and nothing has persuaded me that the science is wrong. And what now convinces me that there is a real cause for concern is William Thompson coming forward and saying that a hypothesis that I put forward in the year 2000 is proven to be correct by the year 2001 and was kept concealed for 13 years. How would you feel in that position? Would you feel that it reaffirmed your concern that the parents’ story was right? Or would you think, well, we can dismiss that because – no. It is quite clear that there is a problem they have covered up. So it makes me feel more strongly than ever that we need good, independent science—and I mean independent, independent of the CDC, independent of influence by government or the pharmaceutical industry—that gives us the answers. Will we ever get that? No. We will not get that. Why? Because the system is so distorted, and that’s very very sad. And I’m a scientist, I’ve published 140 papers and I’ve never committed fraud in my life. And I’ve published papers which suggest my hypotheses is wrong. Very few people do that. I publish them. I publish papers – and you can look them up, in the Journal of Medical Virology, saying “we do not find this virus in these tissues.” Despite that being our hypothesis [inaudible]. So I’m perfectly open to the counter-argument. But nothing so far has persuaded me that there isn’t a link, and Thompson’s revelations have reaffirmed to me that there is a link. There is no question, there is a link, they’ve found it. [inaudible] So there we are.

So basically, Andrew Wakefield is admitting that there is nothing that will change his mind, even as he misrepresents what Thompson said. Thompson, for all the opprobrium I’ve heaped on him that I now believe he deserves, never actually said that vaccines cause autism. He merely thought (mistakenly) that the data published by DeStefano et al supported a correlation that needed further evaluation. But notice this statement, “Nothing has persuaded me that the science [linking vaccines and autism] is wrong.” Will we ever get “independent science” on vaccines? No, according to Wakefield. Therefore, he doesn’t see anything that would make him change his mind and defines the sort of science that might make him change his mind so narrowly that it will never exist.

Reading that interview with Wakefield and the description of the Conspira-Sea Cruise, I must say that I now believe that Wakefield (not to mention Sherri Tenpenny, another truly out there antivaccinationist) totally belongs with the JFK assassination conspiracy theorists, 9/11 Truthers, crop circle chasers, and the like. Indeed, since he was pushing a movie project, he reminds me of this:

After the film, things got weirder: Kane and Horowitz called Litovsky, the photographer, to the front of the room and accused her of taking photos of the wrong parts of the movie, the parts with photos of the websites where they sell their products.

“Why would you take photos of our sponsors?” Horowitz demanded. “HealthyWorldStore.com?”

Suddenly, everyone was yelling. Kane and Horowitz were yelling at Litovsky. Other people were yelling at them to stop. A lady got up and yelled that the flash from the camera made it hard for her to concentrate. The group’s yoga instructor, Abbie, an incredibly nice woman who happens to be Shumsky’s niece, yelled that Horowitz and Kane were guaranteeing a negative article.

“They could’ve written something really nice about this cruise, and now it’s going to be a negative spin, because of what you did,” she shouted. “You humiliated them!”

“Who are you?” Kane demanded.

“She’s a plant!” a woman yelled from the audience.

“She’s the yoga instructor,” Shumsky corrected, who’d come in during the middle of all this and was trying, occasionally, to intervene.

Yes, the sort of person who’s a headliner on a cruise like the Conspira-Sea Cruise always has something to sell. Yes, Wakefield does fit right in just fine, as do most antivaccine heroes.