One of the advantages of taking some time off writing and the internet autism discussions is not hearing about Andrew Wakefield. Otherwise it seems a day can’t go by without some news article or blog post going up where the same 4-5 people will descend and tell us, once again, about how Andrew Wakefield isn’t an unethical guy but a combination of Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one.
If you don’t recall and think I’ve gone way over the top with that phrase: it’s a quote. Yeah, really. J.B Handley, co-founder of Generation Rescue actually said that to a reporter at the New York Times for his article The Crash and Burn of an Autism Guru.
A decade ago Brian Deer exposed the first of the ethical lapses to come to light involving the MMR/Autism research Mr. Wakefield had undertaken. That’s when it became clear that Mr. Wakefield had financial conflicts of interest, hidden from the public and even his own colleagues. While this ground has been gone over many times in the past 10 years, it’s worth reading about it again if only to hear Mr. Wakefield’s colleague, Simon Murch, chime in on what it was like to discover that Mr. Wakefield had hidden financial interests:
Simon Murch, one of the leading doctors involved with Wakefield’s research at the Royal Free, said yesterday that news of the £55,000 legal funding was “a very unpleasant surprise”. “We didn’t know. We were pretty taken aback. The timing of it before the paper is something we have all been shocked by. If you have a colleague who has not told you, if you have not been informed you are going to be taken aback.”
He went on: “I am not going to join the queue of people rushing up to kick Andy. But it is right that this has come out: there has been a complete conflict of interest.”
Murch said it was never made clear that the payment was in place before the report was published. “We never knew anything about the £55,000 — he had his own separate research fund,” said Murch. “All of us were surprised . . . We are pretty angry.”
In response for his 2004 reporting of such stories, Mr. Deer was served with a lawsuit. A lawsuit that Mr. Wakefield eventually dropped, paying Mr. Deer’s legal fees. But before it was dropped, a judge made the following statements in a judgment and those comments are worth reading again (at least I think so):
It thus appears that the Claimant wishes to use the existence of the libel proceedings for public relations purposes, and to deter other critics, while at the same time isolating himself from the “downside” of such litigation, in having to answer a substantial defence of justification.
The Claimant in the above being Mr. Wakefield. Who appears to have been facing a rather strong rebuke for “us[ing] the existence of the libel proceedings for public relations purposes..” etc..
Before we get to the matter at hand, here’s one more paragraph of background. Readers of Left Brain Right Brain may be aware that Mr. Wakefield has again sued Mr. Deer, this time for articles which appeared in the BMJ. Mr. Wakefield lost the first round of this lawsuit against the BMJ and Brian Deer and is appealing (docket here). Mr. Wakefield took exception to his work being called fraudulent and himself being called a fraud. Well, he took exception to the word fraud in the BMJ and spoken by Mr. Deer, but as Todd W notes at Harpocratese Speaks, Mr. Wakefield has since let a lot of other mentions of the word “fraud” go by unchallenged. Most notably, to me, a Time magazine article: Great Science Frauds.
Mr. Wakefield has now taken offense at an article written by Emily Willingham, Ph.D., a researcher and science writer whose work appears, among other places, on Forbes.com. Emily Willingham wrote an article, Blame Wakefield For Missed Autism-Gut Connection in which she used the “f” word (fraud):
So why is it that no one attends to this clear (to me) link when it come to autistic children? Well, the Pediatrics review by McElhanon et al. happens to cite that reason several times: Wakefield’s MMR/autism/gut red herring and the subsequent noxious cloud that his fraud (link added 5/2/14) left over any research examining autism and the gut. So we don’t know anything about the real underlying causes of these digestive problems among autistic children. The Pediatrics authors state it unequivocally, as they have done before (link added 05/02/14):
It is clear that greater clinical and research scrutiny is needed to increase awareness on this topic and thus support development of the best standards of care. Previous controversy surrounding the MMR vaccine and proposed causal link between ASD and infection of the GI tract probably deterred investigators from dedicating resources to examine GI functioning in this population while fostering uncertainty in the ASD community regarding the validity of this line of inquiry.
Mr. Wakefield responded with a letter (linked at Forbes) in which he has informed Willingham and Forbes that while he isn’t bringing a suit forward now but he intends to bring suit. He also sent a copy of the letter sent to the Age of Autism blog which posted it.
Let’s go to the heart of Mr. Wakefield’s assertion, where he pulls a line out of the Forbes article and comes to a conclusion of malicious intent (he starts with a quote from the Forbes article):
Well, the Pediatrics review by McElhanon et al. happens to cite that reason several times: Wakefield’s MMR/autism/gut red herring and the subsequent noxious cloud that his fraud… The Pediatrics authors state it unequivocally:
On any ordinary reading, the intent of your statement is clear: to imply that the authors of the Pediatrics paper cite fraud on my part. What McElhanon et al actually say is substantially different from your false and defamatory allegation i.e.,
Well, I guess by Mr. Wakefield’s standards I did not give the article an “ordinary reading” as I did not see that purported intent. I stand apart from Mr. Wakefield on many standards. Why didn’t I make the association Mr. Wakefield claims?. Because I know without reading the Pediatrics article that no where in it does it have the phrase “noxious cloud that his fraud”. I know this because I read scientific journals, write for scientific journals, have edited an issue of a journal and more. Perhaps Mr. Wakefield missed the obvious conclusion that the phrase he focuses upon is clearly in Emily Willingham’s voice and that is obvious “on any ordinary reading”.
Mr. Wakefield asserts that the Forbes article was written “maliciously” and that “[Emily Willingham’s] defamatory statements about me will undoubtedly cause me to suffer significant personal and financial damage.” Now, I can’t speak for Emily Willingham, but I can speak for myself–when I write my opinions of Mr. Wakefield and his work, I don’t think about it in terms of causing him damage. Frankly, if forced to consider it, I’d guess that when I write I likely enhance his stature among his supporters and donors, by supporting the image of Mr. Wakefield as some wronged maverick with myself as cast in the role as part of the machine which is grinding him down.
When I saw that Mr. Wakefield had threatened Forbes and Emily Willingham I thought, has he never heard of the Streisand Effect? I mean, here was a blog post at Forbes that had a couple of thousand views and was quickly on its way to the archives. Then I thought, yep, I bet he has heard of the Streisand Effect. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s counting on me and others writing about him. What was it that judge said 10 years ago in a different suit? It thus appears that the Claimant wishes to use the existence of the libel proceedings for public relations purposes. I could be wrong. Probably am. I can no more read minds than can Andrew Wakefield, who projects malicious intent where I see none.
Consider a very recent interview he gave for a podcast. He’s introduced as “one of those dudes… [who] won’t back down” who has been “through living hell”. That group, by the way, is helping raise money for Mr. Wakefield.
So, here I am, playing into the mythos that is Andrew Wakefield, a man bravely facing critics like me in order to do what he does best: listen to the mothers of autistic children with GI disease. Except when those mothers disagree with him, apparently. Oh, did you miss that? Emily Willingham *is* the mother of an autistic child. And *two* of her kids have dealt with GI diseases. It’s in the comments of the article on Forbes.
In case it is not clear in the above, this is far from a trivial matter. Threats of legal action are never minor. I recall when Kathleen Seidel (autism parent and writer) was subpoenaed by Cliff Shoemaker, a vaccine attorney (Mr. Shoemaker was sanctioned). I recall when J.B. Handley threatened Kev Leitch (disabled adult, father of an autistic child and founder of Left Brain Right Brain). Even when you know you are in the right, lawsuits create a lot of uncertainty and distress.
By Matt Carey