The zombie anti-vaccine trope of the CDC coverup of vaccines and autism – tied to a so-called CDC “whistleblower” – has risen again from the dead. I thought it was time to bring back my zombie-killing snarky, sarcastic, and humorous debunking of that trope. Let’s have some fun.
I and about 20-30 other pro-science bloggers wrote articles about a strange story, pushed by all of the usual suspects in the anti-vaccine universe (starting with Natural News, Green Med Info, and the Age of Lying about Autism). Despite new information, press releases, claims and counter claims, nothing has changed in the facts about vaccines and autism as a result of this somewhat entertaining story that included fictional claims with real people.
What are the facts? Vaccines do not cause autism according to boatloads of evidence.
Nevertheless, this story is provocative, laughable at some level, and filled with rather disreputable characters – it gives all us bloggers, who focus on the real scientific evidence behind the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, a great subject for writing.
As I surmised when I first wrote this article over a year ago, this zombie trope has risen again!
Since much of this story has strong fictional elements, I think we should examine this story as if it were a synopsis for a screenplay behind a proposed new superhero movie. You know, The CDC vs. the Evil Cult of Antivaccination.
Hey, I ought to copyright that, just in case someone does turn in into a movie. Because this synopsis has all of the important parts of a movie–unsavory characters, a fool, the superhero government agency dedicated to saving lives, and the geeky nerds who think science trumps lies. No cool spacecraft or benevolent aliens unfortunately. I’ll work on that.
OK, let’s get with the story.
Mr. Andrew Wakefield – The villain of this movie, a callous, narcissistic ex-physician who has an intense disregard for human life, specifically children. Known as one of the greatest scientific fraudsters of the last 100 years, he is the de facto demigod of the Evil Cult of Antivaccination. After his article claiming that MMR vaccine (for the prevention of measles, mumps and rubella) caused autism was retracted by the medical journal, Wakefield moved to Texas to plot his revenge on the world.
Dr. Brian Hooker – One of Wakefield’s evil minions is Brian Hooker, an engineer with no background at all in any of the key scientific fields of study involving vaccines: immunology, virology, microbiology, epidemiology, public health, or anything. Ironically, Hooker is on the faculty of Simpson University, a safety school for those who can’t get into an online university, which is well-known as an uncompetitive, low-ranked California based Christian university. It’s biology department is grounded in real pseudoscience, including denial of evolution and pushing creationism. As a one of the antagonists of this story, it’s clear that there is nothing in Dr. Hooker’s background that indicates he knows anything about vaccines, save for being a paid shill for the anti-vaccination group, Focus Autism.
Dr. William Thompson – The clown of this story, Dr. Thompson, has been involved in researching vaccines at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since the late 1990’s. All of his research has been supportive of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and many of his articles have helped debunk the myth that vaccines cause autism. Being a naive and guileless researcher, he was duped by Wakefield and Hooker to make some random comments about an article written by Hooker. The audience has no idea what Thompson said. But the antivaccination forces have claimed that Dr. Thompson is a mysterious “whistleblower” who takes down all of research ever done by the CDC and vaccines.
Autism Media Channel – They are the corrupt producers of a video central to the plot of this story. The Autism Media Channel has a long history of producing videos that allow Wakefield to shill his particularly vile brand of misinformation. One of their most dreadful videos was about Alex Spourdalakis, an autistic child who was murdered by his mother and another caretaker because neither could not handle his Alex’s autism.
Wakefield and his sycophants excused the murder because the poor mother and caretaker couldn’t deal with the “vaccine injuries” that caused Alex’s autism, and “they had no choice.” The movie’s coup de grace is showing Wakefield, in his full narcissistic glory, takes the opportunity to ask for money from the viewers.
The CDC – A government agency whose only goal is to protect public health and safety of Americans (but really the whole world) through the control and prevention of disease, injury, and disability. The CDC is made up of civilians and members of the United States Public Health Service, who have backgrounds in every field of bio-medicine, including immunology, virology, public health, microbiology, parasitology, epidemiology, and many other fields. Many are MD-Ph.D.’s, who have spent nearly two decades in advanced education to be the best and brightest of their respective fields of study. They are scientific professionals who have forsaken huge money in the public sector to dedicate themselves to saving human lives. They are the heroes of our story.
Legion of Science Bloggers – A group of writers, who take time out of their busy lives as researchers, educators, surgeons, physicians, scientists, and good people who reject pseudoscience and the Wizardry of Woo, to fight the good fight in support of vaccinations and to reject the lies and misinformation of the Evil Cult of Antivaccination.
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Scene 1 – The CDC coverup
During the ancient times of 2004, CDC researchers (including William Thompson) published data in a Pediatrics article by DeStefano et al. which concluded that there was no difference in vaccination rates in autistic and non-autistic children in Atlanta.
Since the CDC’s data is open to whomever asks (with certain restrictions for privacy), Hooker decided to rejigger the data to fit his own preformed conclusions – he was going to find anything that “proved” his unfounded belief that the MMR vaccine causes autism.
Taking a cue from his buddy Wakefield, Hooker started this whole manufactroversy of this story by throwing his data into an an article published on 8 August in Translational Neurodegeneration, a journal with such a low impact factor, it doesn’t actually have one.
Shockingly, Hooker’s data allows him to contradict DeStefano’s original CDC study and come to a totally opposite conclusion:
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]The present study provides new epidemiologic evidence showing that African American males receiving the MMR vaccine prior to 24 months of age or 36 months of age are more likely to receive an autism diagnosis.[/infobox]
Most of the pro-science bloggers critiqued Hooker’s article as junk science.
One of the most vilified pro-science writers, who stands stands solidly against the Wizards of Woo, David Gorski, MD, penned a thorough analysis of Hooker’s article. According to Dr. Gorski,
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Hooker did a cohort study. He analyzed data collected for a case-control study as a cohort study. Basically, he looked at the risk of an autism diagnosis in the groups first exposed to MMR at different age ranges. Remember, case control = comparing risk factor frequency in people with a condition compared to controls; cohort = examining risk of condition in people with different exposures.[/infobox]
Apparently, Hooker took data collected in one manner, and chose to analyze it as if it was collected in a way that would work with his analytical methods, just to fit his pre-conceived, a priori, conclusions, that vaccines cause autism (and somehow the CDC criminally withheld this data). Let’s quote Mark Twain: “Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.”
But it gets worse. Hooker’s article cites studies from Mark, and his son David, Geier, minor characters in this particular story, but who are infamous “researchers” who push the “vaccines cause autism” myth. Worse yet, the Geiers used this myth to prescribe the horrific Lupron Therapy to treat children with autism. They are charlatans, who are part of the Cult of Anti-Vaccination, and have zero scientific credibility – their licenses to practice this horrific therapy have been revoked in several states.
Another member of the Legion of Science Bloggers, Poxes Blog, reviewed Hooker’s statistical analyses, and concluded that Hooker’s stats were ludicrous:
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Next come the statistics. Hooker uses Pearson’s chi squared test to see if there is a significant association between MMR and autism in children at different ages. DeStefano et al used conditional logistic regression. For the non-biostatisticians out there, the technique that DeStefano et al used accounts for confounders and effect modifiers, different traits in their population that could skew the results. Hooker’s technique doesn’t really do that, unless you stratify results and use very, very large datasets. Hooker’s approach is more “conservative,” meaning that it will detect small effects and amplify them, and those effects can come from anything.
So why did we not see this in the other ethnic groups or in girls? The answer here is simple, again. Hooker had a limited dataset to work with when he boiled it down to African-American baby boys. In this table, for example, he tells us that he had to modify the analysis to 31 months instead of 36 because he had less than 5 children in that group. It’s the same goddamned mistake that Andrew Jeremy Wakefield wanted to pass off as legitimate science. You cannot, and must not use small numbers to make big assertions…[/infobox]
And so it starts. Hooker uses small, tiny numbers, and makes huge claims that somehow the children in the original study were more susceptible to autism based on five children.
Scene 2 – A demon enters
Mr. Wakefield stars in an Autism Media Channel video that alleges that a mysterious whistleblowing CDC researcher has provided Wakefield and Hooker with evidence that CDC researchers (and by inference the CDC itself) withheld evidence that vaccines cause autism. The movie compares researchers, the CDC, and all of the Legion of Science Bloggers as being Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin wrapped up into one. Wakefield goes full Godwin.
Using Hooker’s “big assertion”, Wakefield, along with his cronies at Autism Media Channel, declare that the suppression of this data is as horrifying to the African-American community as was the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, a travesty in which the US Public Health Service observed young/poor black men with syphilis to study its effects, without telling them they were infected. The study lasted from 1932-1972, and has been widely condemned by modern researchers.
In this fictional story pushed by the Evil Cult of Antivaccination, they invent the “Tuskegee” strawman argument which ends up being both repugnant and racist. And about as ridiculous a strawman comparison as I’ve ever seen in my long life of dealing with anti-science creeps.
First, no experiments were done on the black children in the original DeStefano study–the complete opposite of the Tuskegee experiments. The DeStefano article presented an epidemiological case-control study, that just accumulated data from medical records and birth certificates. No one was harmed in this study.
Second, Hooker and Wakefield present no evidence whatsoever (remember, typical of the Evil Cult of Antivaccination) that African-American children are more at risk of autism after MMR vaccination than any other person. In fact, the better evidence, published by DeStefano, says that MMR vaccines have NOTHING to do with autism.
Fourth, Wakefield and Hooker provide us with NO plausible biological reason that black children would be more at risk of autism than white, Asian, or other children. Only if Hooker and Wakefield are racists and promote racial ideology, they would know that white, black, Native American, Asian, Arabic, or any other children are genetically nearly exactly the same.
There simply isn’t anything biologically difference between these ethnic groups. Well, unless you’re an advocate of the racial laws of Nazi Germany. We can go full Godwin on both sides of this story.
Scene 3 – Here comes the manufactroversy
Mr. Wakefield stars in a new Autism Media Channel video that named Dr. William W. Thompson as the “The CDC Whistleblower. This causes the Evil Cult of Antivaccination to go in full obligatory ecstasy because they now can invent new lies about the heroic CDC and their researchers.
Headlines scream: CDC Whistleblower William Thompson Blows the Lid on Malfeasance and Fraud at the CDC. Breaking: CDC whistleblower Thompson in grave danger now. CDC Whistleblower’s Claims Cause Uproar In Autism Community. Oh noooooooooooooooo. (Picture the Evil Cult of Anti-Vaccination doing a happy dance.)
Scene 4 – The CDC heroes fight back
The CDC study did not present data by race on black, white, or other race children from the whole study sample. It presented the results on black and white/other race children from the group with birth certificates.
The data CDC collected for this study continue to be available for analysis by others. CDC welcomes analysis by others that can be submitted for peer-review and publication.
Additional studies and a more recent rigorous review by the Institute of Medicine have found that MMR vaccine does not increase the risk of autism.
Because the CDC speaks in a scientific, careful manner, we should translate from CDC-ese with subtitles:
- The DeStefano study did not make any representations about race.
- The CDC is open to further analysis of any of its data as long as it is submitted for peer-review and publication in an open manner.
- Rigorous scientific study has shown us that vaccines do not cause autism. Nope, they don’t.
Scene 5 – William Thompson speaks
William Thompson comes out of hiding,
apparently trying to avoid the black-helmeted, jack-booted, hit-squads accepted a bonus from his bosses at the CDC. Then, Thompson, through attorneys rather than the CDC (waiting for some explanation as to why), makes the following statement:
[infobox]FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE-AUGUST 27,2014 STATEMENT OF WILLIAM W. THOMPSON, Ph.D., REGARDING THE 2004 ARTICLE EXAMINING THE POSSIBILITY OF A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MMR VACCINE AND AUTISM
My name is William Thompson. I am a Senior Scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where I have worked since 1998.
I regret that my coauthors and I omitted statistically significant information in our 2004 article published in the journal Pediatrics. The omitted data suggested that African American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at increased risk for autism. Decisions were made regarding which findings to report after the data were collected, and I believe that the final study protocol was not followed.
I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits. My concern has been the decision to omit relevant findings in a particular study for a particular sub group for a particular vaccine. There have always been recognized risks for vaccination and I believe it is the responsibility of the CDC to properly convey the risks associated with receipt of those vaccines.
I have had many discussions with Dr. Brian Hooker over the last 10 months regarding studies the CDC has carried out regarding vaccines and neurodevelopmental outcomes including autism spectrum disorders. I share his belief that CDC decision-making and analyses should be transparent. I was not, however, aware that he was recording any of our conversations, nor was I given any choice regarding whether my name would be made public or my voice would be put on the Internet.
I am grateful for the many supportive e-mails that I have received over the last several days.
I will not be answering further questions at this time. I am providing information to Congressman William Posey, and of course will continue to cooperate with Congress. I have also offered to assist with reanalysis of the study data or development of further studies. For the time being, however, I am focused on my job and my family.
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. There are still more questions than answers, and I appreciate that so many families are looking for answers from the scientific community.
My colleagues and supervisors at the CDC have been entirely professional since this matter became public. In fact, I received a performance-based award after this story came out. I have experienced no pressure or retaliation and certainly was not escorted from the building, as some have stated.
Dr. Thompson is represented by Frederick M. Morgan,Jr., Morgan Verkamp, LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio[/infobox]
Dr. Thompson makes an unfounded statement about failing to report findings pushed by Hooker. In previous scenes for this story, we have already see that Hooker’s analysis was both statistically and scientifically bogus. Nothing was hidden. Nothing was omitted. But as a character, it’s clear that Thompson is a tool of Wakefield and Hooker. A very pathetic, weak character.
But Thompson still says that vaccines save “countless lives.”
Apparently, Thompson is so naive, he didn’t know that Hooker was recording their conversations, and allowed them to be taken out of context.
And it becomes clear that the
jack-booted SWAT team from the CDC isn’t out to arrest Thompson. They seem to like him, since they gave him a performance-based award. But Thompson walks off into the sunset with his scientific reputation in tatters, and probably his career down the drain. Of course, like other scientists who are seduced by the ego-stroking and monetary lure of the Evil Cult of Anti-vaccination, he will go on to a long career of being one of Wakefield’s minions.
Mike Adams, one of the the demon spawn of the Evil Cult of Antivaccination, hyperventilates. Apparently, not reading the full press release, Adams believes that the CDC publishes fraudulent studies. His underlings and lackeys raise their glasses of kale juice and sea urchin urine in celebration. The science bloggers laugh.
Scene 6 – Here comes the truth
Original script: Hooker’s article published in Translational Neurodegeneration is withdrawn:
This article has been removed from the public domain because of serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions. The journal and publisher believe that its continued availability may not be in the public interest. Definitive editorial action will be pending further investigation.
Revised script: On 3 October, 2014, Hooker’s article published in Translational Neurodegeneration was formally retracted by the journal’s Editors:
The Editor and Publisher regretfully retract the article as there were undeclared competing interests on the part of the author which compromised the peer review process. Furthermore, post-publication peer review raised concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis, therefore the Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings. We apologise to all affected parties for the inconvenience caused.
Hooker utilized Wakefield’s amateurish statistical methodology and sample sizes, while following the pattern that lead to Wakefield’s own article being retracted. Maybe they’re the same persons? Has anyone ever seen them in the same place together. Could be a good plot point.
On the other hand, I knew that retracting this paper would simply feed the conspiracy theorists of the antivaccine movement in a way that almost nothing else could, and if this removal does end up being the first step towards retraction it will drive the antivaccine conspiracy contingent into even greater heights of frenzy. But then I thought about it. Everything feeds into the conspiracy theories of antivaccinationists. We don’t care about changing their minds, because their minds can’t be changed. What we do care about is persuading the general public, particularly the fence sitters, and a retraction of a scientific paper sends a powerful message to the public about a study.
The script will reflect what this retraction means–the article was so bad, that even a new journal, one with no reputation whatsoever, needed to defend their reputation by retracting the paper as if it never existed. This is just a modern version of the 90’s story about Wakefield’s fraud.
There is nothing here, from the CDC “hiding evidence of autism” to Brian Hooker’s article (now retracted) to the so-called whistleblower.
The CDC still looks good. They still stand for saving human life. The science-based bloggers still have laser focus on the scientific truth based on scientific evidence. Thompson looks like a pathetic, weak-minded loser whose actions were despicable and idiotic. It sounds like he wanted to whine about some professional disagreement (if that), and decided to call Hooker, a vile human being who lacks any credibility and never had any credibility. Hooker and Wakefield, the sociopaths that they are, probably laughed about how they manipulated Thompson into doing their foul deeds.
But this story, based in both truth and a fictional study, never ends. In a few months, the Evil Cult of Antivaccination will jump on some other story and make someone else their cause célèbre. But most of us will be there, supporting real science over false claims, lies, and manipulating data.
Cue the end credits. Cut to black.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2014. It has been completely revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability and to add current research.