This post is a response to a discussion on Respectful Insolence regarding new ‘revelations’ from the anti-vax blog Thinking Mom’s Revolution regarding what Dr. William Thompson, “the CDC whistleblower” allegedly told anti-vax activist Brian Hooker during telephone calls secretly recorded by Hooker. Alleged transcripts of these recording are set to be published in a new book from anti-vax rag mill Skyhorse Press on August 25th, but author Kevin Barry, Esq. (who apparently doesn’t know insisting on the ‘Esq.’ is widely considered a sign of douche-baggery) appears to have given TMR blogger ‘ShamROCK’ an advance copy of at least part of the book, yielding this TMR post.
Trying to parse this on Respectful Insolence, Orac suggests Thompson has “gone full antivaccine wingnut.” Commenter ‘ann,’ noting that Thompson described himself as “profoundly depressed” and “delusional” by goings-on within CDC, suggested that if Thompson indeed ever did have serious psych problems, they could be re-manifesting themselves such that the current kerfuffle “really might not be Thompson’s fault.” To which Orac replied he had previously thought that might be the case, but now is convinced that Thompson is complicit and bears at least “a large part of the responsibility for this fiasco.”
I always took Thompson’s “delusional” to be figurative. I mean, if he’s a psychologist and means to reference an actual SMI, he’s got the vocabulary of the DSM to refer to, and wouldn’t use colloquial speech in that context.
So yeah, IMHO he’s complicit as hell in this mess. After all Thompson sought Hooker out, knowing who Hooker was in terms of anti-vax celebrity and connections. Thus, I’ll suggest Thompson knew his ‘confessions’ would wind up distorted to hell in an Andy Wakefield video, and he consciously feed Hooker material he knew (at some some level) could be distorted in that way. Yet, it’s significant to me that in doing so, he never directly supported Wakefield’s disgraced theory, and retained some sort of ‘out’. Unless Thompson’s just extremely lucky to have a delusion that leaves him a path of retreat, he’s showing the kind of careful walking-a-fine-line that suggests he knows exactly what he’s doing.
As far as the science goes, my hypothesis would be that Thompson is aware that “thimerosal causes tics” + “tics are an autism-like“symptom” (my italics) means exactly nothing. I think he’s got bupkiss for evidence, and he knows it, but he thinks it will sell to impugn his enemies at the CDC, and he’s trying out the sales pitch with Hooker. Or maybe even on Hooker…
When I said Thompson’s ‘gone off his nut’ in a previous comment in this thread, I didn’t mean any kind of serious mental illness (e.g. bipolar disorder) that would let him ‘off the hook’ to any significant degree. To me, he just seems like a guy who suffered burn-out and stress-out from a difficult work situation (perhaps piled on top of home-life stresses) and jumped into a kind of conspiracy paranoia as a result. Spiraling down the stress-funnel, I think he may have become aggrieved to the point where he’d even resort to revisionist history of his own work to get back at ‘Them.’
People say “I WAS delusional,” (PAST tense) to signify present clarity, and sound a note of apology about prior errors. IMHO Thompson is just being overly dramatic in saying “delusional’.
And, IMHO, the drama is all about Thompson trying to get Hooker as pumped up as he is to attack “senior people” at the CDC. With all the stuff Thompson had saved and has handed over, he’s not in this casually at all… He wants blood. And so, it seems to me, if he was ever going to say ‘I have proof vaccines cause autism’, he’d have pulled that triggr by now. All the language is about how unethical the vile unaccountable CDC bigwigs are, not revelations of great discovery. The SEED data is mentioned because it’s ‘hidden’, not because it proves anything….
Perhaps it’s a fine line, but by his words Thompson’s complaint is ‘they have buried data that MIGHT support a link between vaccines an autism’ not that they have buried proof positive of a link. That is, it’s not inconsistent with belief vaccines are safe. He can be outraged at the methods the CDC gang used to make their case while still agreeing with the end finding. (As I might agree capitalism should be tossed into the dustbin of history, but find the Khmer Rouge’s attempts to put that in practice abhorrent.)
In what follows, I attempt to think through some possibilities by framing a scenario that might serve as a treatment for a Hollywood film titled The Whistleblower starring Kevin Spacey as Thompson, and directed by George Clooney. It’s a ‘thought experiment, created with an eye on entertainment value. There is a ‘serious’ point, but I hope you’ll bear with me, and not take the game too seriously…
We meet our hero, Dr. T., as he takes a stand on pure principle that the DeStafo team should include the data on African-American males in the paper on their study to be published in <i>Pediatrics</i>. He argues they are obligated to release any data that might appear to go to the opposing case, and let the anti-vaxers have a shot at it, for the ‘no-link’ claim to be truly credible in the public eye. He tells DeStafano and the higher-ups that the SEED data WILL come out eventually, and when it does, they won’t be prepared to address that additional set of apparently troublesome but ultimately meaningless correlations, and they’ll all look like idiots shilling for Big Pharma’. But our hero’s not perfect. He’s being anal retentive about not wanting the CDC to look bad. And he’s eccentric, and comes off as a bit of a petulant pill. He says to his bosees: “Look! if Thimerosal causes tics. Tics are ‘autism-like’. So, of course, people are going to think Thimerosal causes autism, too, unless we open up the SEED database and get several good studies that prove there’s no actual linkl there either!”
Dr. T. thinks he’s not only just doing his job ‘the right way’, but doing DeStefano and the bosses by warning them they might be undermining their squeeky clean public image. But they just call him a stupid psychologist and tell him to f*** off in so many words. He persists, and they become convinced he’s just a crank, and start to treat him really badly. He becomes the butt of nasty office jokes he overhears. Nobody sits with him at lunch, or says “Hi! Bill!” in the hall. He finds this especially galling since (in his own mind) he was trying to help them, and help the cause. The situation spirals downward as the years go by…
Finally, Dr. T meets Hooker, the engineer who plays at being a biological scientist but has no real clue about how the science works. They have a chat over a few brewskis, in which Hooker floats a variety of anti-CDC conspiracy theories, and Dr. T. – somewhat surprised by his own reaction – finds himself nodding along with a lot of what Hooker says… As he drives home, a wild thought suddenly flashes into his mind. He rushes into his study and starts writing notes. He stops, laughs, and says to himself, “Christ! This is crazy…” But then he keeps writing. He stops again, and says, “This is just <i>wrong</i> damnit!” and puts the notes away in a drawer. In the following days/weeks/whatever the thought keeps coming back to him, and he’s visibly wrestling with his conscience. Finally, he receives yet another cutting slight and work, and that’s the last straw. Things are so bad in his mind that he has to do something, <i>anything</i> to take down those CDC bastards. He goes home, and takes the notes back out of the drawer. He puts his plan into action. He’s going to use the research on tics to bait Hooker into attacking the CDC villains on a line that just might work to wreak vengeance on his tormenters… before the science falls apart, as he knows it must eventually. “It will serve them right to be laid low by the anti-vax nutters,” he thinks. “Maybe they’ll finally see how stupid they’ve been!”
He spends time writing out things he’s going to tell Hooker, making sure they have the maximum appearance of significance without actually being factually false. We see the page as he writes down the final wording of the ‘money quote’ after several drafts:
There is biologic plausibility right now to say that Thimerosal causes autism-like features.
Next we see Dr. T. on the phone with Hooker. He’s trying to sell Hooker on the idea that the anti-vaxers should make ‘Thimerosal causes tics’ their ‘mantra’. Hooker isn’t totally buying it, and putting up some resistance. Thompson pulls out his money quote, and interjects “I really do believe there is” to plead his case. In context, his tone is saying “Look. This is plausible. I can back it up. It will work!” Hooker flashes back to the anti-vaxer’s failures to get significant traction from Issa’s hearings. Why not try a new twist on the strategy? Hooker nods, and takes the bait.
Cut forward in time to the office of House Representative Bill Posey, who, at the behest of an anti-vax pal and big campaign donor has agreed to take receipt of everything Hooker got from Dr. T., and look into what might be done with it. Two of Posey’s sharpest aides are going over their respective analyses of the info-dump, in prep for the summary report they’re going to hand the Congressman. They’re focusing on the money quote.
So does “autism-like” actually mean anything?
I don’t know. Maybe not. I mean when my girlfriend tells me I’m ‘like’ Leo DiCaprioI’, she knows I’m NOT Leo DiCaprio…
Right, you only say something is ‘like’ something else, when you understand they’re NOT the same.… OK, so what if there’s no solid link between tics and autism, but it’s still ‘biologically plausible’? Couldn’t this Thompson have said something like, “Thimerosal causes symptoms that should be considered signs of autism.”? That would sound a lot stronger right?
Yup, “autism-like” is about as weak as he could be, now that I think about it.
What if… nah…
C’mon. It’s just us. Spit it out.
Look at how there’s no subject for the verb “to say”. Who’s doing the saying to who, and why?
Well, you know, you always hear “We can say” used to mean, uhh, something like ‘surely no one would disagree’
Right, but what if this means something else?
What if this means, “You can I can get away with saying ‘vaccines cause autism-like features’ and that will dupe the rubes into thinking there’s that’s a plausible biological link between autism and the MMR.”? Even though it isn’t…
Yeah, that’s pretty far-fetched. But I’ve been saying you have the mind of great campaign strategist… Do you really think…
Nah… I mean, who knows? It doesn’t matter. What matters is if Bill puts any weight behind this and it turns out there’s no there there.
Right, not good…
We need to check this out. Who do we go to for medical science stuff…
Bill’s tight with [redacted] who’s got a PhD in Chemistry…
No. Not who do we go to for anti-evolution and global-warming-hoax quotes. Who do we have for REAL scientists we consult on the down low?
Next scene: the aides give their report to Posey (green text).
So, the Professor X says ‘autism-like” isn’t worth shit as science?
Yes sir. We advise you to be very careful here.
Good work. But our friends are still going to like the politics of this, and we don’t like to disappoint our friends TOO much.
We considered that sir. And we think if you just request an investigation, you’ll be in the clear. Thompson and Hooker are the scientists, so if anybody criticizes you for just asking to have it looked into, we have the social media crew call them out on suspicion of being Pharma Shills.
And since there’s a recess coming up, and the calendar after that is full of a lot of hot button stuff, the whole issue will sit there for a long time before an investigation could be scheduled…
There’s always some investigation that never happens because other things intervene. And your friends are going to find other ways to move their ball forward.
So if I call for a hearing, I’m completely covered unless we actually hold one and this Thompson fella gets exposed?
Right. If he gets discredited elsewhere enough to be toxic, you just walk away.
OK. I want our friends to see I’m on this, but I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it…
And the news cycle will move o several times during the recess. Plus there’s no way anything you do is going to get that much attention while The Donald is still around.
Stiil boys, I’d to be on the safe time… so I’ve got the ticket. I’ll call for a hearing just a bit days before recess, during Mornig Hour.Absolutely brilliant, sir!
Posey makes his speech at Morning Hour. The anti-vax websites go nuts in anticipation of finally getting Their Big Day. Posey’s backers express their gratitude. Sbm bloggers write dismissive, ‘No, not this again!’ posts. The mainstream media just writes another 2,000 articles about Donald Trump.
Cut to: Bill Posey in his study, pouring his third stiff drink after the first GOP Presidential debate. His private phone rings, and he sees the call is from John Boehner’s private phone:
Hi Bill. Listen, I just got off a conference call with Reince and Roger. We all agreed we need to get something, uhh, different into the news a.s.a.p. So I’ll be calling a press conference announcing I’m scheduling your CDC Whistleblower hearing before the end of the year. Roger’s going to play it up on Fox, see if we can get some cloud cover for the flack… [click]
Posey sighs. During the recess he puts out feelers to the junior GOP members of his committee, and finds an eager beaver he can snooker into taking the hot potato of questioning Thompson.
Meanwhile Dr. T. is beseiged by e-mailed questions, and requests for interviews. Journalists are hanging out outside his home and in the CDC parking lot. He stresses, sucks it up, employs heroic measures to dodge all communication, then finally disappears to an ‘undisclosed location’ until the hearing, with his attorney issuing a statement that Dr. T has received multiple death threats and has reluctantly gone into hiding in fear for his life. The anti-vax blogs scream about the FBI’s refusal to go after the Big Pharma hit squad that silenced Jeff Bradstreet, and that even gets some play on Fox.
The day of the hearing arrives, and Dr. T. arrives on Capitol Hill accompanied by an armed guard, as legions of of cameras record his entrance. CNN is broadcasting the hearing live using C-SPAN’s feed. Dr. T. takes his oath, and Posey turns the floor over to the eager beaver, and together Dr. T. and the young representative rip apart every ‘senior person’ at CDC for breaking rules, repressing data, yada yada yada, all going by the script set out in the book by Kevin Barry, Esq.
Then, it’s an opposition member’s turn to question Thompson, and this Dem asks Dr. T. about the tics, about whether “autism-like features” means anything in terms of actual autism, about whether he has any solid evidence supporting the thesis that vaccines cause autism. Thompson pauses for dramatic effect, and then leans into the mic so he’ll be heard loud-and-clear:
No. My point is that even considering the material we so very wrongly hid from the public eye, the science will stand up. The tics are a concern in and of themselves, but there is no connection between vaccines and autism whatsoever.’
Jaws drop. Except for Bill Posey, who just gives his aides a subtle little nod. The puzzled Dem asks Dr. T why he’s so concerned about reporting the SEED data if it doesn’t establish a link between autism and the MMR..
My concern has always been for the parents of children with autism-spectrum disorders. Too many of them have been deeply and needlessly troubled by the thought vaccines were to blame. By trying to bum-rush a ‘re-assuring’ study without full disclosure, the CDC administrators only added to these parents’ distress. If we had revealed all the data, and shown definitive scientific proof that it’s only correlative, and not causal – which, I must emphasize, we could have done with the proper studies – we could have done so much more to ease these parents’ minds, and move past this destructive controversy.
OK, the Dem continues skeptically, why have you been so critical of the pharmaceutical industry you knows vaccines are actually safe.
We always hear the cover-up is worse than the crime. Here there’s a damaging cover-up where there isn’t even a crime. That’s the problem. The vaccine makers are so focused on the bottom line of the next quarterly report, their PR people want to quash any criticism that might get out to the public and affect stock values, whether that criticism is valid or not. So they pushed us at CDC to come up with a quick-fix ‘final answer’ in the hopes they could use that to shut down criticism there and then, instead of waiting for the much more thorough report we could have done. And what disheartens me more than anything is how willing to be pushed the people in charge at CDC turned out to be, and the highly questionable things they were willing to do in service of the pharmas’ short-term agenda. The ends don’t justify the means…’
The hearing ends with a unanimous vote to continue the investigation, and calling for the FBI and Federal prosecutors to open their own inquiries. That evening, the CDC Whistleblower story is featured by every major news outlet, and Dr. T is the big media hero of the day. Below the fold in the print stories, Paul Offit, Steve Novella and Orac are quote-mined in ways that make them look dumb-founded by the events of the day, or defenders of ‘bad science’. The quotes are accompanied by ‘objective’ notes that anti-vax activists have accused all these men of being shills for Big Pharma. Dr. Novella is quoted to the effect that ‘No, the DeStefano study was good enough! Really!’ which gets mocked by a bipartisan assortment of Op-Ed pundits the next day.
Dr. T. retreats to his undisclosed location without further comment. Anti-vaxers oblige him by posting venomous death threats all over the web, which get screen-capped before the admins flush them down the memory hole. Thousand of web pages are flushed in their entirety. Genration rescue leaders discover that the personal number they have for Jim Carrey) has been disconnected, and messages to his old personal email address just bounce back. From his refuge, Dr. T. smiles at all the commotion. He sneers as he deletes all the phone messages and emails of congratulations, offers of support, reguests to feature him as a guest of honor on a host of TV shows. Fuck the johnny-come-lately, fair-weather faux friends who weren’t there when he really needed them, who had been silent when the pooh-bahs were laughing at him, or maybe laughing along with them.
Dr. T, continues enjoying his schadenfreude as mass resignations at CDC are announced, just ahead of multiple subpoenas being issued for every one and every thing in Atlanta. He laughs as some pols s and pundits call for pharmaceutical execs to be subpoenaed, knowing that will never happen. He laughs too as Jim Kramer and other financial pundits tell their followers to dump their pharma shares since the execs have proven themselves to be dumb-asses, shooting themselves in the foot by being too manipulative and obsessed with short-term appearances to act in their own best interests.
Dr. T.s attorney signs a very lucrative deal for a tell-all book to be authored by a ghost writer under Dr. T’s supervision. Dr T. discovers he’s being offered nice no-strings research funding unsolicited from several small foundations looking to make a name for themselves. He applies for bigger and better grants…
Dissolve to: Dr. T. in his office in a spiffy new ultra-high-tech lab facility. “Director of Research” is stenciled on his door. For the first time in the story, there is no agita visible on Dr. T. A group of biologists are brown-nosing him as they present proposals for conducting their piece of a major study. As they finish he smiles at them, and thanks them for their efforts. They listen intently as delivers a little speech about how the only thing more important than the highest scientific rigor is mutual respect and support among colleagues. He tells them he’s even more pleased by how well they’ve absorbed that lesson than he is by their top-notch scientific skils. He flatters the proposals, tells them they have a lot of good ideas, and says he’s excited about what they’ll contribute in the future. But this time, he says gently, the team is going to do things his way. The biologists take notes on their iPads as Dr. T. explains how their study will be conducted. The camera tracks in as he speaks, and we see the face of a man finally at peace and perfectly content.
FADE TO BLACK. ROLL CREDITS OVER STIRRING THEME SONG WITH VOCALS BY BONO.
OK, I don’t think this is actually going to happen… 🙂
The ‘serious point’ I promised behind the entertainment is merely that this unlikely scenario is not ruled out by anything Thompson has said or done. And that’s, well, odd, yes? Am I wrong to think there’s something fishy in the way Thompson’s language stirs the pot but still leaves him an escape path?
I don’t think we’re not even close to seeing the end of this little melodrama, and before everything is said and done I do expect several more twists to be revealed as new layers of the onion get peeled back. Who knows what they’ll be? I’ll just stand on the prediction that whatever happens with the ‘tic mantra’, it will fail to convince anyone in their right mind that vaccines cause autism. Because, well, they don’t.
Since ‘like cures like’ and tics are ‘like autism’, I await the slam-bang homeopathic cure for ASD made from a 30C dilution of spittle from someone with Tourette’s.