Emily Willingham takes on the Tempest in a Trashcan

21 Aug

In case you missed it (and count yourself lucky if you did), Congressman Bill Posey recently read a statement into the record in the U.S. House of Representatives. That was 2 weeks ago (July 29th). I put off writing about it for various reasons, including not having the time to do check on some of the facts. Luckily, Emily Willingham did: A Congressman, A CDC Whisteblower And An Autism Tempest In A Trashcan.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s a background timeline–

About a year ago it became public that a CDC researcher by the name of William Thompson had made the monumentally bad decision to ally himself with Brian Hooker. Brian Hooker is an autism parent and a major proponent of the idea that thimerosal in vaccines cause autism. As an autism parent myself, I find Mr. Hooker’s stance to be damaging to our communities. As a researcher, I find Mr. Hooker’s lack of scientific integrity (see this discussion for example) to be an example of the worst that the research community has to offer. To put it simply, he lies with statistics to make a political point. While one could argue that he sold out for his own cause, the fact remains that he sold out. So, again, I consider Mr. Thompson’s decision to reach out to Brian Hooker to be an incredibly bad choice. Perhaps someday we will learn why Mr. Thompson didn’t take his concerns to the appropriate channels.

That all said, Mr. Thompson appears to have turned over a number of documents as well as statements to Congressman Posey’s office. And Mr. Posey read excerpts of a statement into the record. Before we get to the “trashcan quote” let’s focus on one word–excerpts. Excerpts mean that we aren’t being told everything. And as anyone who has followed Andrew Wakefield for any period of time knows, often it’s what people aren’t telling you that matters.

So, what is the “trashcan quote”? Per Emily Willingham:

At the bottom of Table 7 it also shows that for the non-birth certificate sample, the adjusted race effect statistical significance was huge. All the authors and I met and decided sometime between August and September ’02 not to report any race effects for the paper. Sometime soon after the meeting, we decided to exclude reporting any race effects. The co-authors scheduled a meeting to destroy documents related to the study. The remaining four co-authors all met and brought a big garbage can into the meeting room and reviewed and went through all the hard copy documents that we had thought we should discard and put them in a huge garbage can. However, because I assumed it was illegal and would violate both FOIA and DOJ requests, I kept hard copies of all documents in my office and I retained all associated computer files. I believe we intentionally withheld controversial findings from the final draft of the Pediatrics paper.

(note–one punctuation changed. I believe it to be incorrect in the original at Forbes).

As you can imagine, people are focused on the idea that the CDC destroyed documents.

Let’s back up for a moment and go back to fact that these are excerpts. That means that we don’t know what was deleted or where. Between any two sentences there could be other sentences or another paragraph. Take for example, these two sentences from Posey’s talk:

“‘At the Sept. 5th meeting we discussed in detail how to code race for both the sample and the birth certificate sample. At the bottom of table 7, it also shows that for the non-birth certificate sample, the adjusted race effect statistical significance was huge.”

Here’s the thing–I’m, pretty sure there is content missing between those two sentences. Why? Because the Sept. 5 meeting was a planning meeting. They were deciding how to analyze the data. And then, bang, we hear about “table 7” and a race effect. But there wouldn’t be data at the September 5 meeting. The team didn’t start getting results until November. This according to the information released by Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker themselves. There’s no reason for “also” in that last sentence in the present context.

Why point this out? Well, for one it shows that we are getting an edited version of the statement. And it’s not just a random edit. The above statement appears to me to be crafted to support the story that Wakefield and Hooker put out a year ago: that the CDC team added the birth certificate analysis after seeing the race effect. You read the above and it’s easy to get the feeling, “Dang, they had table 7 in front of them and they added the birth certificate analysis”. But that’s not what the actual timeline tells us. According to the information Wakefield and Hooker themselves presented, the first race data were analyzed and presented a few months later.

That’s an example of creative editing of the excerpts that makes me want to see more. And not just more of what Mr. Thompson has to say as, frankly, I want the facts and I don’t think that his side of this story will be the complete truth.

So, let’s get back to the “garbage can quote”. Are there sentences edited out? Who knows. Does it represent the facts? Also, unknown. But let’s consider the idea that the CDC team met and discarded documents. Am I surprised? No. Researchers don’t keep every document. I’ve been a researcher for 30 years (almost all in a non-government position, I admit), and I can say that as someone who had to be prepared to (and in fact did have to) defend an invention against legal action: you don’t keep every document. You keep what you need to keep, what allows you to recreate the study.

I started back in the day when most data were on paper. A lot of paper. Think a 3″ binder of paper in a week or 2. Over years. That’s a lot of paper. Here’s the process my former employer used–possibly different at CDC, but I’m guessing not too different. After a while one would have to decide: what do I keep, what do I put into storage and what do I discard? What I may need to look through again stays in my office. The core of the work goes into storage. (There are probably still boxes and boxes of my old results and notes in my former employer’s wharehouse.) The rest–the stuff that you don’t need to keep, and this can be a lot–gets shredded.

How do you shred lots of confidential material? Well, you order a big bin. One could call such a bin a “garbage can”, but that would be misleading. Here’s what the bin looks like:

It looked like that except that it said, “Confidential” on the side and something about shredding. Notice the lock on the bin? It’s because you are working with confidential materials. It’s routine. Dull really. But that’s not what people want to hear. They want to hear “garbage can”.

And here’s another thing–you don’t get a group of people together to decide what to discard. That’s easy. I imagine especially if you think that the paper documents are incriminating–you would destroy everything. You get together to decide what to keep. No reason for everyone to keep every printout from every internal presentation.

What would happen if a team at the CDC dumped a bunch of confidential material into a garbage can? Well, a big batch of paper would get noticed by the people handling the garbage. And that would create a huge problem for you–mishandling of confidential materials.

Throwing a lot of material into the garbage is not a way to hide your tracks. Much the opposite.

I wasn’t there to see what happened with documents for that study. And, per the statement that Congressman Posey read, neither was William Thompson. And there is an investigation ongoing into this study. Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker filed a complaint with HHS/CDC and it is being investigated.

Sorry, but Congressman Posey’s statement really is just not that interesting right now. Well, I am interested if he wrote it and if (as I assume) someone else did, who that someone is. But that’s just mild curiosity.


By Matt Carey

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7 Responses to “Emily Willingham takes on the Tempest in a Trashcan”

  1. Julian Frost August 22, 2015 at 17:47 #

    One of the client sites I worked at was a bank. They had those bins. There were also rules regarding the retention of documentation. In order to stay on, I had to take an online course about document retention rules and then pass a test.
    So yes, this story doesn’t ring true to me either.

    • brian August 23, 2015 at 02:07 #

      CDC also has “rules regarding the retention of documentation” including document destruction by burning or shredding.

  2. reissd August 22, 2015 at 20:18 #

    I’m grateful to you and Emily for pointing out the lack of credibility in this problematic claim. I wonder why it was made.

  3. Narad August 23, 2015 at 06:40 #

    Andrew Wakefield and Brian Hooker filed a complaint with HHS/CDC and it is being investigated.

    Is there any concrete reason to think that this has not already been dispensed with?

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) August 23, 2015 at 08:55 #

      I only know second hand, but it is still ongoing.

      Didn’t Emily Willingham write that HHS/CDC responded that the investigation is weeks or months away from completion?

      • Narad August 23, 2015 at 20:44 #

        Didn’t Emily Willingham write that HHS/CDC responded that the investigation is weeks or months away from completion?

        Yup. I hadn’t read her entry before commenting; I was relying on my memory of the statutory time frames.

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