The Blessed McTaggart has been appearing in pantomime, and now she’s joined the “debate” about the CDC whitleblower nontroversy, the teapot tempest whipped up by antivaxers who found that the CDC – gasp! – failed to publish a statistical artifact.
At the point just before it all began to unravel, White House chief counsel John Dean, warning his boss about the difficulty of keeping the lid on all these clandestine activities, famously referred to them as a ‘cancer on the presidency’.
One of the striking differences between real conspiracies and the fake ones beloved of cranks, is that real conspiracies leak like sieves. The Watergate conspiracy was blown wide open, the idea of the CDC’s “conspiracy” relies on the idea that data which have been provided to any qualified researcher on request, and which have been published in peer-reviewed journals, are somehow being suppressed.
Compare and contrast: Nixon’s White House tried to hide data and failed, the CDC placed data in full view for peer-reviewed analysis and someone chose to interpret things in a way that others rejected. Naturally, since that interpretation suits the agenda of antivaxers in some small regard, it has been seized and blown up beyond all proportion, but the nontroversy is essentially over by now as (a) the paper that sparked it has been withdrawn following concerns over concealed conflicts of interest in the author and potentially the reviewers, (b) the purported source has rejected the interpretation placed on the data and (c) the data in any case refutes the claims of antivaxers.
A cancer on the CDC
A similar kind of malignancy now engulfs America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—the US government body invested with protecting the nation against infectious diseases—after fresh revelations of alleged data-tampering in vaccine studies.
No, not fresh allegations, stale ones teased out of a CDC employee by a man who is financially and emotionally invested in antivaccination claims.
In 2004, scientists at the CDC’s then National Immunization Program carried out a study intended to settle all the questions surrounding the measles–mumps–rubella (MMR) vaccine (produced by drug company Merck) and a possible link to autism. They’d compared the ages of 624 autistic children at the time of their first MMR vaccination with some 1,800 children who’d developed normally and claimed to have found no significant link between the vaccine and the development of autism, nor any statistically significant increased risk for any racial or ethnic group.
This is what the study found, and the finding has been replicated in many other data sets – totalling over 20,000,000 children by now. The CDC’s is only one of a mountain of studies showing no link between MMR and autism – but of course even that is requiring science to prove a negative; in fact it is for the vaccine-autism cranks to provide evidence that it does, and this they have consistently failed to do ever since Andrew Wakefield‘s fraudulent study was retracted.
When the study was published in 2004 (Pediatrics, 2004; 113: 259–66), it was considered a definitive refutation of the work of British gastroenterologist Dr Andrew Wakefield, whose research had first uncovered a possible link between the triple vaccine and the development of autism and gastrointestinal disorders.
One of several, yes. And it still is, even if Brian Hooker was right – which he isn’t.
Statistical jiggery pokery
A perfect description of Hooker’s paper, yes. But you didn’t mean that…
There the story stood for nearly nine years until Brian Hooker, associate professor of biology at Simpson University in California, decided to take a fresh look at the data. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the original data and, while reanalyzing it, he got a call from CDC epidemiologist Dr William Thompson, who’d been a co-author of the 2004 paper and who now felt compelled to set the story straight by offering to collaborate on the new paper.
Why did he need to file a FOIA request? The data has been available to researchers since it was published. Oh, wait, qualified researchers. Hooker, of course, is not a qualified researcher: he is an antivaxer but has no background in statistics or epidemiology.
And the idea that Thompson felt “compelled to set the story straight” is debatabvle: that’s Hooker’s spin, but Thompson has publicly distanced himself from Hooker’s now-withdrawn paper, and this has been known for a week or two now.
During multiple phone calls, Thompson revealed some of the statistical jiggery-pokery that had been used to hone the sample size of the children to allow manipulation of the data. The CDC investigators had in fact discovered a 3.4-fold (or 340 per cent) increase in autism for African American boys in the study. However, this risk was never published because, according to Thompson, he and his fellow researchers cherry-picked which participants they wanted to include in their analyses.
This is what is called a lie. Thompson seems rather confused about what did go on, but the subgroups are all there in the original 2004 paper and the only thing Thompson takes issue with, is the failure to highlight what everybody else thinks is likely an artifact – one subgroup that shows an association (not necessarily causal) when vaccination is done outside the normal timeframe. In other words, a group that is atypical of the population.
And of course as Thompson has acknowledged, the rest of the population undoubtedly does show no association at all, just like in every other study. In other words, even with the subgroup highlighted, the paper would still have refuted Wakefield’s fraudulent work. Just like all the other studies do.
As the new study says, the original study by DeStefano et al. limited the total African American cohort to include only those individuals who possessed a valid State of Georgia birth certificate, which decreased the statistical power of their analysis. This reduced the study sample by a whopping 41 per cent, virtually disqualifying most of the African Americans originally included and ultimately skewing the final results to make it appear that the vaccine carried minimal risk.
The reasons for this have been stated and are not sinister. The study is centred on a Georgia data set, and in order to include only those children for whom full information was available, those with Georgia birth certificates were selected, avoiding the need to get long-form birth records and medical data from other States. That’s all there was to it.
After numerous discussions with Thompson, Hooker published his re-analysis in early August (Transl Neurodegener, 2014; 3: 16). This time, it clearly shows that the African American boys in the study given the MMR vaccine before 24 months of age were more likely to develop autism.
Thus proving Churchill’s adage that there are lies, damned lies and statistics.
The problem is that the statistical tests he used are invalid for this purpose. Statisticians have gone on about this in tiresome detail elsewhere, but basically Hooker took a data set designed for a case-control study and analysed it as if it were a cohort study. That would require fundamentally different statistical methods, but he did not use those. Hence the paper is withdrawn. Oh, that plus his undeclared conflict of interest.
A competent statistician would not have made this error. That’s probably also why the finding did not make it into De Stefano, since the authors of that paper were competent statisticians.
The CDC’s deep throat
Thompson’s whistleblowing offers shocking evidence of deception and fraud at the heart of the US government agency charged with vaccine safety.
Not quite. It offers shocking evidence of deception by Brian Hooker, who was not given permission to quote or name his source. Actually Thompson has made a statement that rejects pretty much everything the antivaxers have said about Hooker’s (incompetent, conflicted, withdrawn) paper.
A “deep throat” requires rather more than someone who whines that a subgroup he thought was significant, was not thought significant by his co-authors. Deep throat was former Associate Director of the FBI, Mark Fett. The informaiton he provided showed systematic malfeasance by a group of conspirators linked ot the President, not a documented dissent by one member of a group of authors over the inclusion or ootherwise of a subgroup in an analysis that overwhelmingly showed no link between vaccines and autism.
And let’s not forget: with the exception of the subgroup of African-American boys vaccinated early, no association was apparent in any group, nor was it apparent overall. So the take-home message of the study is that vaccines definitely do not cause autism, but a quirk in a subgroup might bear further investigation to see if it holds out, or whether it’s just P-hacking. God forbid that an antivaxer would represent a statistical artifact as evidence of vaccine harm, eh?
He decided to leak the original correspondence he’d had with Dr Julie Gerberding—then head of the CDC—dated February 2, 2004, sent one week before a pivotal meeting at the Institute of Medicine on vaccine safety and autism. In the letter, Thompson laments the fact that his findings weren’t good news: “I will have to present several problematic results relating to statistical associations between the receipt of MMR vaccine and autism,” he wrote.
And that correspondence shows a patient, respectful response to querulous demands.
He also urges her to respond to questions raised by Congressman David Weldon in two letters regarding “issues surrounding the integrity of your scientists in the National Immunization Program.” And he hints at a cover-up of the truth concerning the safety of vaccines: “I’ve repeatedly told individuals in the [National Immunization Program Office of Directors] over the last several years that they’re doing a very poor job representing immunization safety issues and that we’re losing the public relations war.”
Well, that’s interesting: in saying that they are “doing a very poor job representing immunization safety issues” and that “we’re losing the public relations war”, he would appear to be chastising CDC for failing to take a lead in informing the public that vaccines are safe. At the time, this was a valid concern. CDC have got better since then.
In a separate 2002 email to CDC officials after their study had been done but before it was published, Thompson also hints at the possibility of a multiple cover-up when writing of his discomfiture over documents being sent by the CDC to the Department of Justice investigating MMR and vaccine damage.
Really? I don’t think we have a good source for this. Thompson’s statement makes it pretty clear he has significant differences with Hooker’s interpretation, and it’s equally clear that the video released by Hooker is very heavily edited – Thompson barely gets a word in edgeways. As he says:
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.
Does that sound like someone whose views were fairly represented by an honest broker?
Regardless, so what? He had concerns, they were not seen as significant. Only in the crazy world of antivaxers is every single claim or concern a golden nugget of truth simply because (a) it is expressed and (b) it is unsupportive of vaccines.
“I don’t think anyone has broken the law,” he says, but the testimony of one of his report’s co-authors before a Congressional committee in 2002 about MMR and autism makes him uneasy, particularly after discovering that the co-author was being represented by a lawyer from another government department—the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD)—which presumably also claims no association between vaccination and autism.
He also said:
Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information.
That’s an important point. McTaggart and her fellow really-not-antivaxers-honest, will always pick sides, and their side will always be the one least flattering to vaccines, an intervention that Thompson says he believes have saved countless lives.
In the email, Thompson announces that he’ll be hiring his own lawyer to assure that all the appropriate documents are provided. “My level of concern has also caused me to seriously consider removing my name as an author on the draft manuscript,” he wrote.
And did he? No, he did not. So, as he says, reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information.
This is not the first time the CDC has been caught in the act of questionable activities.
True, in the same way it is not the first time that pigs have sprouted wings and taken flight.
For six years, Hooker—himself the father of a 16-year-old with autism who he claims is ‘vaccine-damaged’, and an advisor for the Focus Autism Foundation, which funded his re-analysis—doggedly filed requests through the Freedom of Information Act for the original data on studies supposedly demonstrating that the preservative thimerosal, the mercury-based preservative used in numerous vaccines, was not implicated in autism. After the CDC repeatedly stalled in handing over these supposedly public documents, he was forced to file a lawsuit against them. Ultimately, he discovered that numerous studies supposedly proving the safety of thimerosal were similarly, seriously flawed.
Riiiight. So when McTaggart says “this is not the first time CDC has been “caught in the act of questionable activities”, what she mesna is that this is nto the first time that Hooker has made querulous complaints to the CDC based on his financial interest in proving a non-existent link between vaccines and autism.
The media black-out
But that’s only the beginning of the cover-up. In the 1970s, when news of the Watergate burglary first broke, the press was instrumental in exposing the lies and deceit at the heart of the US government. Today, in the age of corporate-run media, the press is largely in collusion.
Oh puh-leeeeze. If the media is in collusion, it is to promote crackpots and nonsense. Every kind of bullshit under the sun, even things that appear in WDDTY, have been punted by The Daily Mail as health advice. There is no conspiracy, there is just a report written by a crank with concealed conflicts of interest.
There has been a virtual press blackout of a major act of conspiracy by a government agency—a scam potentially as big as Watergate—and it’s been left to the alternative press, including parent-led autism and vaccination sites, to run with the story.
A “major act of conspiracy”? Omitting cherry-picked subsets with a different demographic from the communities claiming to be victims of vaccine-induced autism is hardly a “major conspiracy”, even if it’s a conspiracy at all. Actually it looks like a perfectly normal piece of science: omitting statistical artifacts for brevity.
When news about Hooker’s findings and Thompson’s whistleblowing were posted on the CNN website as an iReport (news posted by viewers), it got more than 45,000 views and 178 comments, largely from people requesting that the channel formally cover the story. Not only did CNN not cover the story, but it also deleted the iReport.
I wonder why that might have been? It’s not as if a legion of anti-vaccine cranks seized on it as a “CNN report”, thus giving the impression that CNN were backing a piece of highly questionable anti-vaccine activism, is it? Oh, wait, that’s exactly what happened. So CNN took action to protect its reputation. Hint: your right of free speech does not confer an obligation on every commercial entity on the planet to host your ravings.
What’s more, once the story began to emerge in the alternative press, the journal Translational Neurodegeneration, which published Hooker’s paper, added a red warning box stating that an “expression of concern has been published for this article”. The box redirects readers to a comment showing that the journal publisher “has serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions”.
I wonder why that might have been? It’s not as if Hooker had failed to declare the fact that he has a vested interest in a vaccine-autism link, and is a director of the foundation that funded the study, is it? Oh, wait, that’s exactly what happened. Still, I am sure this will be the first time in history that there have been undeclared conflicts of interest in a paper suggesting a link between vaccines and autism. Oh, wait, no, there was ex-doctor Wakefield wasn’t there?
Modified limited hang-out
On September 15, 1972, Nixon congratulated John Dean for his role in what another of the President’s men called “the modified, limited hangout” in “containing” the Watergate cover-up: “The way you’ve handled it . . . has been very skilful . . . putting your fingers in the dikes every time that leaks have sprung here and sprung there.”
Which is wholly irrelevant. Bear in mind that Thompson is still a senior scientist at CDC. He clearly did not consider this a matter of conscience, or he would have resigned. The reason the cranks seize on Thompson’s example of the normal process of scientific debate, is precisely that there are no leaks in the purported conspiracy (or rather, conspiracies, since the data sets establishing that vaccines do not cause autism span multiple continents).
These new revelations suggest that data tampering is business as usual inside the CDC, but that its members are beginning to run out of fingers to plug the leaks.
No, they show that statistical skulduggery is business as usual for antivaxers, but we already knew that.
Nixon himself never entirely atoned for his sins. He had to resign the presidency, but was ultimately pardoned by his successor. And Dr Gerberding, the head of the CDC at the time of the study? She’s got a new job—as president of Merck’s vaccine division. No doubt she’s been replaced by a whole new group of all the president’s men.
Well, nobody likes the “revolving door”, but where else is a senior vaccine scientist supposed to work? There’s no evidence that Merck were recruiting her at the time – this is not Smiley’s People with moles and sleepers and the Red Menace, though you could be forgiven for thinking so from the paranoid tone of the antivax rhetoric.