A short while ago I was asked to speak on a conference call for Voices for Vaccines. The topic was the events that are behind (and misrepresented in) the movie Vaxxed. With Wakefield trying to bring his movie to Europe, and the fact that President Trump spoke with Robert Kennedy on vaccines and autism, I though an analysis might be worthwhile now. So, here’s an edited version of that talk.
I have written a great deal about these topics. Specifically the topics of Vaxxed and William Thompson. I will try to embed those links where relevant below. Until then, they are at the bottom of this article (in no particular order).
Let me introduce myself: My name is Matt Carey. I hold a Ph.D. in physics and have been an active researcher for 30 years. More importantly–I am the parent of autistic child. I take the question of whether vaccines cause autism very seriously.
When my kid was diagnosed I did what many do: I went online to find information. I found claim after claim that autism is caused by vaccines. As a researcher, I pulled papers and dove into the question. I also dove into online discussions, reviewing published studies and news. I’m still doing this. Even though the answer has come back time and again, there isn’t evidence that vaccines cause autism, I keep checking on many of the claims that come up.
So when the story that became the movie “vaxxed” first came out, I took it seriously and I started investigating the claims. It’s too important not too. I’ve followed the story since.
Having done this, let me start by avoiding the trap that the “vaxxed” team has set out. They have worked hard by limiting access to information to not only get their conclusion out, but to control how we discuss the topic.
Here’s how they describe their film:
An investigation into fraud on the MMR autism study at the CDC as revealed by Senior Scientist & Whistleblower Dr. William Thompson.
No. Just no.
Sure, fraud may be what they made a film about—but that isn’t the topic that is important. The important question, the one real advocates would focus upon, is whether they unearthed proof that vaccines cause autism.
The answer is simple and clear: NO.
Before I discuss my reasoning and the results that the Vaxxed team are misrepresenting, here is one of the few public statements made by William Thompson (the so-called “CDC-whistleblower” himself):
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.
These are not the words of someone who thinks that vaccines have been shown to cause autism. They just aren’t. So, don’t take my word for it, or my analysis below. There isn’t proof of vaccine causation in this story.
If you want a very direct quote from Dr. Thompson on this point, here is another statement you won’t find quoted by the Vaxxed team:
The fact that we found a strong statistically significant finding among black males does not mean that there was a true association between the MMR vaccine and autism-like features in this subpopulation.
Put in simple language–no matter how you look at the data, it doesn’t show that vaccines cause autism.
What he’s saying there isn’t even that surprising. The type of study he’s talking about can’t—it just can’t—show causality. But that fact, and the fact that Thompson has made this statement, doesn’t stop the Vaxxed team from claiming the opposite.
These statements aren’t in Vaxxed. They aren’t discussed in the public appearances I’ve seen by those promoting the movie Vaxxed. They are in a statement that Thompson provided to Representative Posey. Mr. Posey read part of that statement into the public record–but not the very important parts quoted above.
Vaxxed is often billed as “the movie they don’t want you to see”. It’s pure hypocrisy given that there are important facts the Vaxxed team apparently doesn’t want you to know.
The vaxxed team apparently doesn’t want us talking about the fact that they haven’t unearthed evidence that vaccines cause autism. They seem to want us to just assume that they have evidence of causation and keep us talking about supposed fraud.
The fraud discussion is a diversion. As is much of the film. Again, the question that should be discussed is whether vaccines cause autism. And even their source, their so-called “whistleblower” isn’t saying there is a causal link shown.
The film Vaxxed and the activities by Andrew Wakefield’s team before and since has been from what I have seen largely about controlling the information so they can try to control the conversation. Rather than talking about the important questions, they want us to skip over that, skip over whether vaccines cause autism, and instead talk about parents’ stories, and claims of fraud.
I think it is important in discussions about these events to try to focus on the important topics and not let them get buried. And that’s why I bring the above points up first. That’s why I bring up those statements by Dr. Thompson. Statements which, as I noted, are not in Vaxxed. They do not get brought up by Wakefield’s team. And people should be questioning why such important statements are left out. From the beginning, they haven’t released documents and only given us partial information.
At this point, it’s worth posing the question–Why are we even asking again whether vaccines cause autism? To answer that, we need to now get into the narrative of the so-called “CDC-Whistleblower”.
This story revolves around a CDC researcher named William Thompson. Dr. Thompson was involved with a number of vaccine studies, but the story here centers on an MMR/autism study that was started in 2001. For this study, the CDC team chose to analyze data from an existing CDC autism study on Atlanta school kids—basically the prototype for the CDC prevalence estimates we see today. For that study the researchers added information on vaccines and other factors. The study was published in 2004 with Frank DeStefano as the lead author.
Dr. Thompson felt there were problems with the way the CDC handled this study and, years later, he reached out to Brian Hooker. Mr. Hooker is an autism parent, and a very vocal proponent of the failed idea that autism is a vaccine-induced epidemic. Thompson exchanged phone calls, emails and a number of CDC documents from the time of the study was being performed with Mr. Hooker.
Thompson raised two main concerns about the MMR study, and these are an important part of Vaxxed. The first concern was that there was an association found between the MMR vaccine and autism for African American boys. The second was that in a group the CDC termed “isolated autism”, that is to say autism with no other disabilities, there was an association with MMR and this was not correctly reported.
These points are important to Vaxxed, but not in the way a responsible advocate or documentary film maker would. Wakefield apparently wants us to believe that these are direct evidence that vaccines cause autism and they were hidden. The facts tell a different story.
Let’s talk about “isolated autism” first. In his written statement to Congressman Posey, Thompson stated:
In addition to significant effects for black males, we also found significant effects for “isolated autism cases” and for the threshold of 24 months of age. If we had reported the 24 month effects, our justification for ignoring the 36 month significant effects would not have been supported.In the discussion section of the final published manuscript, we took the position that service seeking was the reason we found a statistically significant effect at 36 months.
That’s sort of a long quote for this sort of talk, but I wanted to use his exact words before giving my own summary: Thompson basically said that the CDC team saw an association between autism and MMR for kids vaccinated by 36 months—and he acknowledges that they did report this. I’ll repeat that–they did report this. It wasn’t hidden. The CDC team attributed this to families who vaccinated their disabled children late. They needed vaccinations to be up to date for early start or special ed programs at age 3.
Thompson also claims that they saw an association between MMR and the isolated autism group vaccinated before 24 months, and that this means that the interpretation is wrong: the association can’t be driven by services seeking behavior near age 3.
The problem with that claim is that the CDC team did NOT find an association at 24 months. This is directly counter to what Thompson said and what Vaxxed The authors presented the 24 month data in the paper and there is no association there and—more importantly—there is no association at 24 months in the preliminary results Thompson provided in the documents recorded at the time of the study. Documents I made public and the Vaxxed team did not, even though they had them for over a year longer than I have.
I know that can be hard to follow in this sort of talk, but to put it simply: Thompson’s claim in this written statement and in what he apparently told Brian Hooker doesn’t match the facts. The facts in his own documents.
There is no substance to the “isolated autism” complaint.
Given that, what about the second argument, the one about the finding of an association between the MMR and autism found for African American boys? This is the finding that Brian Hooker presented in his now-retracted study. Based on the contemporaneous notes, yes, the CDC did find an apparent association between the MMR vaccine and autism in African American boys. As I mentioned earlier, Thompson himself has said this doesn’t mean that there’s a causal relationship. Now we can say even more: it was a spurious result. How can we say that? Because if that result were due to a true causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism, the autism prevalence in African Americans would be double that of Caucasians. And in study after study, that isn’t seen.
Let’s take an example. Here’s a recent CDC autism prevalence study. They state:
Estimated ASD prevalence was significantly higher among non-Hispanic white children aged 8 years (15.5 per 1,000) compared with non-Hispanic black children (13.2 per 1,000),
African Americans are being diagnosed less often than non-Hispanic white kids. Less often. If the claim that Vaxxed is making were true, African Americans would be diagnosed twice as often.
It was a spurious result.
So in the end, both of the pieces of evidence that Vaxxed claims supposedly show vaccines being linked to autism aren’t really links.
Having addressed that, what about the claims of “fraud” that we keep hearing? Wakefield’s fraud claims are convoluted, and don’t hold up to scrutiny. Let me explain.
Before starting the research, the CDC team laid out an analysis plan, which Thompson and Wakefield also refer to as the protocol. This plan went through many revisions over a period of nearly 6 months. From April to September of 2001.
One of the claims Wakefield made in his first videos was that the CDC saw the result for African American boys and needed to bury it. So they supposedly abandoned the protocol and introduced a new part of the study where they used data from birth certificates. According to the story, this birth certificate group was introduced to reduce the number of children in the analysis and reduce the statistical power of the result.
That would have been very problematic if it were true, but it simply isn’t. The plan to use birth certificates was included in the very first analysis plan, months before they actually did any analysis. This is clear from the documents Thompson had. I know this because Thompson turned those documents over to Congressman Bill Posey, and Mr. Posey was gracious enough to give them to me on request. This is also made clear in the timeline that Thompson spelled out in his written statement to Congressman Posey.
Let me make an aside here—if you are starting to think, this is going by really fast, you are correct. It’s very hard to really go into the details here simply. Which is another reason why it’s important to focus on the point that there isn’t really evidence here that vaccines cause autism. That Thompson’s own words are that the results don’t mean that there’s a causal link, and that he recommends people not skip vaccines.
And we can go on with what Thompson actually said, rather than what people claim he said.
In all the material made public to date, there isn’t a statement by Thompson that fraud was committed. In fact, his notes at the time include the statement that “everyone has good intentions”.
He did feel that the African American result should have been made public. Apparently feels this very strongly. And felt that not making that public amounted to lying. But he also states, “Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information.” That’s not, “my coworkers are fraudsters”, that’s stating that there were scientific disagreements.
Scientific disagreement isn’t fraud.
Thompson also discussed an event where he says many of his team got together at the end of the study to decide which paper documents to discard. He makes a very strong statement that he felt this was possibly illegal and he kept copies of the documents.
Let me first point out something: I’ve worked with confidential documents my whole professional career. Back when most communication was paper, one would collect a great deal from each project. It was completely appropriate to order a confidential bin—which looks like a garbage can with a lock—and discard those documents not critical to keep.
Let me point out something else: I have copies of the documents Thompson retained. He gave electronic versions to Congressman Bill Posey, and upon request, the Congressman graciously let me have a copy.
There are about 1000 pages of documents. Many will claim 10,000 or even more, but it’s roughly 1,000 pages. And I can see no reason why at the least most if not all of those could not have been discarded. There are pages and pages of meeting itineraries. There are multiple versions of the protocol—the analysis plan for the study. While these are interesting to look over, they show nothing that indicates anything unethical. The analyses presented can all be recreated with the original data. Which was preserved and offered to any qualified researcher, and this was made clear on the CDC website.
One can also piece together the timeline from these documents, and in so doing show that the claim that the CDC team added the birth certificate study after finding problematic results is, well, just false.
And that’s only one of the claims one can check in the “whistleblower “ story, details that just don’t match with facts.
At this point it is worth noting that Wakefield’s team supposedly had these documents, or many of them, well before they went public with their PR effort. And, they have to my knowledge never made the documents public. They did not allow people to check their claims. I think that is very telling.
You can find the documents online. I put them online. When I got them I worked to digest them and put a discussion online as quickly as I could. And with that discussion I put the documents so people could check my claims. This is something Wakefield and his team did not do.
And with that, let me bring this back to the beginning: Vaxxed, the “cdc whistleblower”, however this effort is labeled, it isn’t about disclosing hidden information to bring the truth to people. It has been about controlling information to get a specific message out. As far as I can see, that message is “vaccines cause autism and don’t trust research that says otherwise”.
And the bottom line here is that this isn’t evidence that vaccines cause autism. It is very easy to get bogged down in all the details, all the fact checking of Vaxxed (believe me, I could go on much longer about the inaccuracies in the film and public statements by their team). But that diverts attention away from this simple message—this doesn’t show vaccines cause autism—and that diversion plays into the apparent strategy of their team.