Andrew Wakefield: mass delusions and conspiracy theories

I really appreciate Terri and Ed Arranga for inviting me to AutismOne 2014. I know they are thoroughly convinced of the role of vaccines in autism; a point of view that I, as well as a few other invitees, do not share. It is well known to everybody within the organizing committee that I was a witness for the government at the Omnibus Proceedings for Vaccination Safety.  Despite this the Arranga’s have tried to foster an open dialogue calling all sides to the debate.  In this regard my intent for attending AutismOne is trying to introduce science, a seed for critical thinking, one person at a time.

This year I had the opportunity to speak at the main hall opposite to the plenary presentation of the famous or infamous Andrew Wakelfield. In the end Mr, Wakefield had over a thousand people in attendance while I had only 30 or so (a turnout I call a success). My turnout rapidly decreased to about 20 or so after a few chosen words about Mr. Wakefield and some of the therapies publicized at different booths at the congress.

It may perplex you to know that I thoroughly miss not having gone to Mr. Wakefield’s lecture. It is a surreal experience watching the entranced audience and realizing that Mr. Wakefield’s success, and survival thus far, has depended on what I believe to be a cult following or the result of mass delusion.

Andrew Wakefield is a persistent anomaly within the world of autism. As I previously stated, to hear him evokes surreal feelings wherein followers willingly suspend their critical thinking. I say this because his position is not scientific at least in the way that he formulates it. You have to believe him by faith making what he says dogma, not science.

Having been paid by lawyers that carried their case against pharmaceuticals Mr. Wakefield also received their clients as patients. Just to say that his series was in this regard cherry picked and extremely biased. The British Medical Journal described him as having perpetrated an elaborate fraud. The egregious conflict of interest could have easily instilled in him the a priori belief that vaccinations were at the root cause of autism. It is easy to envision how this conflict of interest suggests that he worked backward from desired results into research design; what in logic is called motivated reasoning. Unfortunately, this major conflict of interest was disclosed by people investigating Mr. Wakefield’s actions. Mr. Wakefield’s confession after the fact makes obvious the lack of transparency in his original Lancet publication. In the end, his study was retracted by most of his co-authors and publishing journal (i.e., The Lancet).

Mr. Wakefield now pontificates about fields of medicine (i.e., autism and vaccines) that are not in his area of expertise by training. In his books he defends himself by compulsively repeating minutia that, true or not, do not alter the major flaws in his research. Still, the hand waiving tactics have been accepted by many of his followers. His studies, lectures and unrepentant public harangues are responsible for falling vaccine rates and the increase in measles prevalence in different countries (see for example http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-12258/UK-faces-measles-epidemic.html). Indeed the main result from his publication has been the erosion of public confidence, security and stability.

Measles is now a serious problem, due in part, to Mr. Andrew Wakefield. One of the major problems is that many babies are too young to get vaccinated and some adults suffer from some type of immunodeficiency that prevents vaccination. Traveling to a country where measles is endemic may be catastrophic for these individuals and the people they themselves may then get in contact. It is not surprising that many people have called for criminal charges to be levied against Mr. Wakefield.

Mr. Wakefield’s gigantic ego has prevented him learning from his own mistakes; in this regard  he is a man controlled by his own biases. He now promotes explanations about how the measles virus could move retrogradely from the GI tract to the CNS via peripheral nerves, yet to my knowledge, has not designed any experiments to prove this fact. His science is by press release and publishing non-peered reviewed books. He casually dismisses (and may even appear hostile) to opposing views and research studies. He prioritizes his ego to critical thinking. He has little insight to his own emotional makeup and cognitive biases. In this regard Mr. Wakefield is truly the poster child for disastrous science. Yet, followers have fallen for the beliefs of Wakefield encouraged by a cult culture.

Some of his former academic colleagues believed that Mr. Wakefield had the premature expectation of going after a Nobel Prize. He had the need to dazzle the academic community with his own purported brilliance. Contrary to this expectation, the cumulus of academic work that he has reported is being called to question. When given the opportunity to respond to charges against him the main argument that he has constructed on his behalf has been one of conspiracy theories, all full of moving targets.

If you believe Mr. Wakefield then you also believe that there is a grand conspiracy by many people, institutions, and multiple governments who have been acting dishonestly and in partnership for many years. The vastly powerful conspirators are intelligent enough to have positioned themselves as overseers of our health policies but evidently are also stupid and careless enough to have had their nefarious plot uncovered by the brilliant Mr. Wakefield.

Evidently there are people, like Mr. Wakefield, that believe that they can see the grand conspiracy and by their determination to stand firm in their conviction that they can save the world; otherwise everybody else is uninformed, a naïve dupe. This is a paranoid delusional disorder, one that unfortunately is too common. Indeed, paranoid delusions are frequent among people who believe that they have lost control of their lives.

In The Cocktail Party, a play by TS Elliot, the following dialogue transpires between patient and psychiatrist: “I must tell you that I should really like to think there’s something wrong with me- Because, if there isn’t, then there’s something wrong with the world itself-and that’s much more frightening! That would be terrible. So I’d rather believe there is something wrong with me, that could be put right.” Mr. Wakefield in this regard provides the possibility of things that can be fixed, a world that can get back in track, for people that are at their wits ends. It is easy to rest your confidence on the laurels of a single individual who promises the possibility of immediate change rather than on scientific authorities that temper caution and “baby step” progress in research.

Unfortunately the paranoid delusions of the antivaccine movement forms a closed belief system; one that can’t be refuted despite available evidence. Indeed, any evidence capable of refuting their beliefs is made immediately part of the conspiracy and/or dismissed as stemming from a flawed experiment. Invariantly they fail to apply the same skepticism to their own studies. Delusional thinking is therefore meant to satisfy many of their more personal needs. Furthermore, the sense that they are in possession of this important information increases their ego. It is indeed a very empowering perspective for people who have lost control of their lives.

Mr. Wakefield has lacked humility; rather he can be portrayed as arrogant. He is not cautious and never seems to defer to the vast body of literature that has accumulated against him. He fosters the patina of legitimate science but his arguments lack the weigh of scientific evidence. His fiasco has gone well beyond making a few mistakes. Indeed, scientists make mistakes all of the time, but not so Mr. Wakefield. At the end of the day it is time to look at data objectively. Mr. Wakefield is at present a highly charismatic guru, not a scientist. The MMR theory of Mr. Wakefield enjoys the same credibility as N-rays, cold fusion and alien abductions. Fortunately the vast majority of people realize the fact.

23 responses to “Andrew Wakefield: mass delusions and conspiracy theories

  1. Mr. Casanova,

    You are totally uninformed. This post reads like a diatribe written from misplaced anger over the fact that Dr. Wakefield’s talk was scheduled the same time as yours and was far better attended than yours. People – especially people at AutismOne – are going to be more interested in listening to someone who is not afraid to speak his mind on the causes of autism than someone who dismisses a cause that is not politically convenient to even consider. Get over it.

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    • Thank you for posting your comments. I realize that I won’t be able to change your concerns but I would like to clarify a few points. I have read all of Mr. Wakefield’s books and attended several of his lectures. Nothing of what he has said changes his conflict of interest, non-disclosure, and biased patient population. In this regard, I am not sure how I am misinformed.

      I am sorry if my writing is construed as a diatribe, that was not my intent. Unlike Mr. Wakefield (with his vaccine patent) I have no political or economic interests in the measles debate. Since many people have already written about Mr. Wakefield I was trying to provide a different perspective; one explaining why with all of the available evidence people still believe in him maybe emphasizing a psychiatric viewpoint.

      I appreciate your comments and realize that there are always 2 sides to an argument. In this particular case I have never found anything substantive in Mr. Wakefield’s arguments. I just don’t believe in his grand conspiracy theory involving Big Pharma and multiple governments.

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      • If you’ve read “Callous Disregard,” then you know the Lancet editor lied under oath that Dr. Wakefield failed to disclose his interests and keeps his paper retracted based on allegations he clearly showed in his book to be false. The findings that those allegations were true have since been overturned by a judge’s ruling. So while it may all just seem like a conspiracy theory to you, it is a real conspiracy.

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      • Thank you for the clarification. I did read Callous Disregard. It was the book that I made reference to when I said that Wakefield compulsively addressed minutia that did not change the overall flaws of his research. Overall Wakefield tried to explain his lack of disclosure based on the fact that Lancet did not require the same back then. Biomedical journals do vary in their standards, but personal standards as researchers have not varied. It was his personal obligation, not The Lancet, to disclose any information that could have impaired his objectivity and provided a conflict of interest (i.e., the money he received from the lawyers, his vaccine patent). As a researcher, if any information may provide a conflict of interest, you are asked to err on the side of full disclosure. Again, I read the book but his arguments, although repetitive, were superficial. The Lancet finally retracted the article, but so did most of his collaborators. Were they all part of the conspiracy?

        Thank you again for your comments and the points you have raised. We have a difference of opinion. I hope that you can understand my qualms. I may not be able to answer future comments in an expedited manner as I am presently leaving for Burgos, Spain (an autism conference).

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      • None of his collaborators retracted the paper. The patent wasn’t issued until after the paper’s publication, but he did disclose his connections to litigation in the Lancet in 1998 even though the Lancet had already been made aware of his collaboration with lawyers the year before. The Lancet editor dishonestly denies this while failing to disclose his boss was sitting on GSK’s board. Talk about undisclosed conflicts of interest…

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      • Thanks you for your comments. I always stand to learn in a civilized argument.As an aside, I am coming back from Oregon and find myself physically exhausted. Just to explain the tardiness of my reply.

        I am aware that only the editor of a publication can retract an article. However, what do say when your coauthors withdraw their names from the publication? A retraction? Were they aware that Mr. Wakefield had received money on behalf of lawyers who had a vested interest in proving a causative role of vaccines in their clients?

        Mr. Wakefield waited one whole week after publication to declare his patent? Is this an excuse or does it makes it worse? According to your argument there appears to have been an intent to consciously hide this conflict of interest, to avoid having to report it. Was the patent under his name or that of his academic institution?
        (As an aside when I obtained my results with rTMS, I had the opportunity to file a patent. I did not do so, because I think of my patients first. I had no intention to benefit from their plight. Patents that I do have been institutional ones as part of grant applications).

        So Mr. Wakefield claims that the Lancet had been made aware of this conflict of interest. Yet it appears that this was by word of mouth. For such an important piece of information, he did not put this on writing, like what would happen in any other journal. Do you actually believe him?

        I must say that it is easy to dislike Mr. Wakefield. Many aspects of his presentation that are found endearing by the audience, I find suspicious. Calling into fact mysterious telephone calls by anonymous individuals who claim they can prove the vast pharmaceutical conspiracy, collecting blood from children at birthday parties, taping suffering families of autistic individuals for the sake of instructing those who have not made their minds…This pattern of behavior by Mr Wakefield is extremely troublesome.

        I do agree about the potential negative role of pharmaceuticals in publishing and considerable conflict of interest by some editors. Similar to Mr. Wakefield, there should be little tolerance for the same.

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      • None of the coauthors withdrew their names from the paper; his senior coauthors were made aware of his litigation involvement. As previously stated – the patent was not issued until after publication. It was in the name of his academic institution.

        The Lancet was made aware of his involvement in litigation through multiple written correspondences discussed in his book which you claim you’ve read. So yes, I believe Dr. Wakefield, not Richard Horton.

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      • Thank you again for your comments and for conducting yourself in a civilized manner. I appreciate when criticisms are provided in a constructive manner.
        I am not sure what word to use besides retracted when referring to his co-authors withdrawal of support to The Lancet study. The word itself has been used numerous times in published media. When conflicts of interests became known the Lancet Editor contacted the co-authors asking them if they stood by the results of the same. “Ten of the original 12 authors of the study retracted their support for the study and its interpretation” (see http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/lancet-retracts-wakefield-article/). The coauthors stated, “We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.” In reality, the article itself never made the link. It was Wakefield in his press release conference that went overboard in his expressions as recounted in Callous Disregard. Wakefield’s had made his position/intent clear when he provided a letter to his co-authors about his way of thinking well in advance of the press conference. Unfortunately the letter, given at length in Callous Disregard, does not identify his conflict of interest.
        Retracted is also the word used and emblazoned across the title page of the article if you attempt to look it up (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2897%2911096-0/abstract). It is also the word used in the explanation provided by the editors of that journal:
        “Following the judgment of the UK General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practice Panel on Jan 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were “consecutively referred” and that investigations were “approved” by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record”.
        Claims about making conflicts of interests known by verbal comments to the editor rather than written documents begs our credulity. If you believe this you have already taken a leap of faith in accepting Wakefield’s account.
        Thus far in order to believe Wakefield you would have to accept a collusion between The Dean of his Medical School, the editors of the Lancet and British Medical Journal, the five member statutory tribunal of the GMC, the Office of Special Masters of the US Court of Federal Claims, American Academy of Pediatrics, US Public Health Service, World Health Organization among many other agencies. I find it hard to accept the fact. There was an egregious conflict of interest. His behavior in collecting samples from children during a birthday party was equally appalling. The preponderance of scientific data heavily weights against him.

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      • Of course you’re not sure, because as I’ve stated previously – you are misinformed. None of the coauthors withdrew their names from the paper, just because this claim has been erroneously made in the media doesn’t make it so. The blog you have quoted is also not correct. It is also incorrect to suggest Andrew Wakefield said the vaccine caused autism at the press conference on his paper.

        Have you forgotten my earlier comment? The very retraction you quote from the Lancet cites as its basis the very GMC findings that have been overturned as I pointed out earlier. The Lancet refuses to justify its ongoing retraction of the paper.
        http://www.autisminvestigated.com/lancet-wakefield-retracted/

        You really haven’t read Dr. Wakefield’s book entirely, have you? The disclosures to the Lancet concerning his work with litigation have been written correspondences as I’ve said before, which the Lancet editor lied about later. While there has been different degrees of collusion across the groups and people you’ve named, belief in such collusion is not necessary to know that each of them has acted reprehensibly in varying ways.

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      • Thank you for your comments. So I am misinformed, the blogs on the net are misinformed, the Lancet editors are both stubborn and lying, and there is conspiracy by multiple health related bodies in multiple countries acting against Mr. Wakefield? Still you are unable to deny the conflict of interest from Mr Wakefield and accept him at his word for many of the things he claims purportedly happen. This is all regardless of the weight of scientific evidence overturning findings in his research and other studies trying to validate the claims. Even when you realize that I have read the book, it is only with a qualifier on your part?

        I must say that I still treasure your comments. You have been one in a 100 trying to convince me by using some type of argumentation. The other 99 have promised serious threats on my person for having sullied the already tarnished reputation of Mr Wakefield.

        As I said in the blog having grand conspiracy ideas stemming from a charismatic leader whom you take at his word, rather than available scientific evidence, and the visceral violent reaction or the group gives the strong impression of a cult movement.

        I am definitely not going to be able to change your mind. The world around you is wrong and you know better. I trurthfully wish you well in your future endeavors.

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      • In short, yes, but I don’t take him for his word; I have asked him questions, as I have of his critics including the Lancet editor-in-chief, its current and previous ombudsmen, the BMJ editor-in-chief, Seth Mnookin and Paul Offit. None of his critics can stand defend their allegations and the latter two have responded by evicting me from events of theirs, one of them being at a talk Offit gave at the NIH. The BMJ editor-in-chief couldn’t defend her fraud allegations, and the Lancet couldn’t justify its continued retraction of Dr. Wakefield’s paper based on overturned findings. Meanwhile, what Dr. Wakefield says checks out.

        For someone who claims to have fully read his book, you sure seem to have an awfully selective memory of what you claim you’ve read. You demonstrate ignorance of some key facts discussed at length in his book, such as the disclosure of his interests. In any case, you had every opportunity to raise whatever outstanding concerns you had with Dr. Wakefield at the conference, but apparently chose not to. Instead, you have taken his accusers for their word.

        You also hold him to a standard of conflicts disclosure you do not follow yourself. I don’t understand how you can say, “Unlike Mr. Wakefield (with his vaccine patent) I have no political or economic interests in the measles debate,” despite admitting that you have testified as a witness for the government against 4,900 children it poisoned. I also never saw where you disclosed your defense of the government in your last year’s post defending mercury in vaccinations, despite your acknowledgement that it is the personal responsibility of researchers. That smacks of hypocrisy.

        And suggesting that Dr. Wakefield and I are part of a “cult” because of threats you received from other people is guilt by association. Threats have been made against me, and threats have been made against him, too. It comes with the territory of picking a side of a charged issue such as this one, no matter what side you choose. Yet from what I’ve seen so far, only one side flaunts it to paint the other with a broad brush. I’ve got better things to do with my time than to judge everyone who disagrees with me based on the threats I’ve received, and I think you do, too.

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      • Sorry to hear that you have been mistreated or threatened from others. That is never part of a scientific discussion. I thought I answered your objections in a non-biased manner from what I know from the literature. I never tried to be sarcastic or belittle you (or others) who write in a civilized manner. Hopefully you agree. I also hope that you would get to know me personally before offering words to condemn my character.

        This is a personal blog for personal opinions, not an academic publication. I even have my CV posted on line as part of my web page. I really feel I have nothing to hide. However, to start from the premise that the MMR vaccine poisoned 4,900 children already makes you the judge and a biased observer. The case had its day in court and the account from witnesses for the defense were belittled by the persons presiding the trial for the different cases.In terms of conspiracy theories and delusional thinking, by virtue of having expressed a contrarian opinion, now I am the enemy. As you said, and I agree, we have better things to do with our time. Best regards.

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      • No need to apologize for threats made against me by other people; you haven’t made them. I’m not trying to judge your character based on unfair assumptions, but it is hypocritical of you to rake Dr. Wakefield over the coals and even say he should be indicted over his litigation ties when you have also litigation ties to the other side of the argument. I have not seen this mentioned on your CV, though I do see you are listed as having consulted the vaccine manufacturer Aventis Pasteur (now Sanofi-Pasteur). Therefore, it is not accurate for you to say: “…I have no political or economic interests in the measles debate.” I simply don’t see how you can logically say this, yet call me a biased observer simply for expressing my opinion as to what happened to those 4,900 children when I never even testified for a specific side as you have.

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      • Just to clarify, I did say in my blog, “…It is not surprising that many people have called for criminal charges to be levied against Mr. Wakefield”. Although I personally share those feelings I never called for it myself. Also, if you review the blog, the statement was made in regards to the rising measles rate and deaths accrued to the same, not to Mr. Wakefield’s past litigation. As for my part, my ties with pharmaceuticals have been minimal, at least not to enough to influence me in any decisions or personal beliefs. My participation at the Omnibus Proceedings was limited to my written testimony that research suggests a prenatal causation, in part, to autism (I call it a triple-hit hypothesis). Otherwise I was not called to personally testify. I have to believe that my views were considered controversial or detrimental to the government (they collided with those of other reviewers for which we had at least one teleconference and several meetings). Indeed, I did not believe in a measles nor thimerosal causation but still saw further research into vaccines per se as necessary. All of the incept cases had abnormal reactions to vaccination, they had suffered high fevers, were lethargic even stuporous, and had seizures. I thought the violent reaction as such in a susceptible individual (e.g. one suffering from a mitochondrial abnormalitiy) could produce an encephalopathy that could account for autistic symptomatology or at least one consistent with a pervasive developmental disorder.

        In regards to a measles/mercury causation there is absolutely no evidence, from my field of expertise, that they play a role in autism. There are absolutely no neuropathological footprints that I can correlate to them. It is unfair of you to say or conclude that 4,900 were poisoned by the vaccinations, especially if making reference to the measles virus. This sort of open statement has only driven to a loss of heard immunity, morbidity and mortality. After examining many brains I have seen undeniable evidence of cortical malformations (so-called focal cortical dysplasias) that do have ample explanatory and predictive powers for autism symptomatology. We -and others- have used these findings to provide for new screening measures and institute new therapeutic interventions (e.g., transcranial magnetic stimulation). This makes more sense to me.

        Thanks again for your comments

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      • Okay, so you haven’t called for his indictment, you just think he should be indicted for measles outbreaks you blame his research on. The vaccine programs in the US and UK brought lapses in immunization coverage entirely on themselves by working to bury MMR’s risks instead of address them. They have even made it harder for people to opt-out of MMR for separate vaccinations instead.

        That aside, what you are essentially saying is that you support researchers being criminally charged based on how their research might be interpreted and subsequently acted on by other people. That would not just effect Wakefield; it would effect you, me and anybody else who has ever conducted scientific research.

        It’s interesting seeing you play down your conflicts, saying you were never invited to testify. Assuming you’ve read Dr. Wakefield’s book fully, you know that the litigation he was involved with never even made it to trial as legal aid was quashed before it could. You would have also read that he donated the money he earned from that litigation to an initiative to build a new GI clinic at the hospital where he formerly worked. Meanwhile, you’ve given no indication that you’ve used the money you made from litigation or vaccine consulting in any way other than kept it for yourself.

        Finally, your claim there is absolutely no evidence for measles or mercury, yet acknowledge that vaccines that presumably include ones containing these ingredients, could cause autism is rather oxymoronic.

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    • I would love to see a widely televised scientific debate from both sides
      This seems to me the most sensible thing to do! And perhaps we can put an end to the controversy!
      Has there been any attempt made to do this?

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      • Wakefield proposed such a debate. The challenge was accepted by Fitzgerald in Europe and Offitt in the US. I am not sure as to the reasons why Mr Wakefield backed out or did not proceed with his proposal. Read about it in Left Brain Right brain but have nor additional information. Thanks for your comment. (Sorry if I have been slow in answering comments).

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  2. I have participated in Think Tanks for AutismOne and the ARI. In all of them I have felt welcome as I could express my opinions freely. Over the years AutismOne gave me the opportunity to talk to hundreds of parents and hear their concerns.

    I have the highest respect for researchers like Theoharides and Deth. I hold in high regards the Arrangas. I can understand their arguments/science. It is not the same with Mr. Wakefield. Never tried to be personal in my writing.

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