Ben Swann returns, and this time he’s got the CDC whistleblower documents [Respectful Insolence]

December 1, 2015 Orac

When it comes to blogging, sometime’s it’s feast or famine. Some days there are more topics and stories that I’d like to blog about than I could ever get to, given that I generally only do one post per weekday, while other days I seriously think about skipping a day because there’s just nothing out there that interests me. This is one of the former kinds of days.

Seriously, there was an embarrassment of riches last night, so much so that I had a hard time making up my mind what story to write about. The one that I ultimately chose only just edged out the second place choice, and then only at the last minute and then only because it is a followup to a post I did about about a month ago. I might well get to the runner up tomorrow, but for now it’s time to revisit a story I’ve done a lot of blogging about because it’s come up again.

How many of you remember Ben Swann? Well, he’s back.

Regular readers might remember that Swann is the clueless, conspiracy-minded “investigative reporter” who anchors the evening news for WGCL-CBS46 in Atlanta. The location is important, because it’ means he’s the local news anchor for a major CBS affiliate who did a highly credulous story about the the “#CDCtruth” rally in October. As you recall, that rally involved the Nation of Islam, Barbara Loe Fisher of the antivaccine group the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) that she founded, and a whole gaggle of other antivaccine activists, the most prominent of whom was our old pal Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who’s risen, Phoenix-like, since his disappearance from the antivaccine movement several years ago, to write a fear-mongering book about mercury in vaccines and, of course, to headline the #CDCTruth rally in Atlanta in October. Basically, this tag team of pseudoscience was the culmination of a partnership between antivaccine activists with Minister Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam (NOI) that began when antivaccinationists used the “CDC whistleblower” manufactroversy to persuade high ranking members of the NOI that vaccines can cause cause autism in African-American boys. Using that misinformation, they were able to persuade the NOI to join in the fight against SB 277, the new law in California that will eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates beginning in 2016.

The whole “CDC whistleblower” saga is a long and complicated story that began in August 2014 and has progressed and metastasized since then to become a major focus of many antivaccine activists and groups. The long version of the tale can be found here and here. As is my wont, before I tell you what Swann’s up to now, I’ll provide a CliffsNotes version for the casual reader and newbie because it’s necessary to know a bit about who the “CDC whistleblower” is, what he claims, and what all this has to do with Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), which is where Swann comes in. Regular readers who are familiar with the story might want to skip ahead. If you don’t know the story, please read the next couple of paragraphs.

The “CDC whistleblower,” as you might recall, is a psychologist who works for the CDC and was involved in planning and carrying out some pivotal studies that failed to find a correlation between vaccination and autism, including a 2004 study whose lead author was Frank DeStefano (henceforth referred to as DeStefano et al). Beginning in November 2013, for reasons known only to himself, Thompson somehow became chummy with Brian Hooker, someone whom I like to refer to as a biochemical engineer turned incompetent antivaccine epidemiologist because that’s exactly what he is. Not realizing that his conversations were being recorded, Thompson spoke to Hooker in several telephone calls in which, apparently racked with guilt over his role in DeStefano et al examining MMR vaccine uptake as a risk factor for autism, he unburdened himself, kvetched about his CDC colleagues, and basically accused the CDC of covering up a finding that MMR vaccination correlated with autism in African American boys. Even if one were to take that finding at face value, it actually was a study that showed that Andrew Wakefield was basically wrong in that no such correlation was found in Caucasians, male or female, African American girls, or any other racial group. That right away should have suggested to Thompson that it’s a spurious finding due to small numbers in the subgroup. It was, of course, a finding that disappeared when proper statistical correction was made for confounders.

As a result of these conversations and the data supplied to him by Thompson, Brian Hooker did an epically incompetent “reanalysis” of DeStefano et al. What this reanalysis claimed to find was that DeStefano et al had done some statistical prestidigitation to eliminate a statistically significant difference in African American males correlating with age of MMR vaccination. Of course, as I discussed at the time (as did many others), Hooker, in his love of “simplicity,” had neglected to control for important confounders and imputed way too much significance to a spurious correlation that disappeared when proper correction for confounders was made. As I’ve put it many times, simplicity in statistical analyses of epidemiological data is not a virtue. In any case, so incredibly incompetent was Hooker’s analysis that the journal actually retracted the paper. Because Thompson’s allegations appeared to confirm the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement (that the CDC knew vaccines cause autism but were hiding it from the public), the antivaccine movement has been beating this dead horse of a scandal for over 15 months now.

Nere’s where Rep. Bill Posey comes in. Back in July, the week before the House of Representatives went on recess, Rep. Posey gave a five minute speech on the House floor in which he claimed that Thompson had told him that his co-investigators on DeStefano et al had destroyed primary evidence for the study, claiming that the “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.” Thompson, as you might recall, stated that he had saved a copy of these documents, and Rep. Posey told the House that he had them and demanded an investigation. Stories have appeared in the antivaccine crankosphere that Rep. Posey had 100,000 pages of documents.

Nothing much has happened since then, other than the tiny and ineffectual “#CDCtruth” rally in October. Certainly, Congress has not investigated the CDC whistleblower charges. So guess what happened? The antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism is more than happy to tell the tale:

Ben Swann began reporting on the problems in the vaccine program two years ago, and today on Age of Autism he discloses that Congressman Bill Posey has released to him the CDC documents turned over to Congress by Dr. William Thompson concerning the cover up of the links between the MMR and autism. Swann discusses Vaccine safety, vaccine choice, potential corruption at CDC and his plans for the #CDCwhistleblower documents in a video interview with Age of Autism Media Editor, Anne Dachel.

Oh, goody. Judging from his previous brain dead coverage of the #CDCtruth rally, we’re in for some entertaining times here on the skeptic side. For one thing, this move on Posey’s part, if he really has given Swann all of the CDC whistleblower documents, strikes me as sheer desperation. He obviously wasn’t getting any traction in his attempts to get a Congressional committee to investigate Thompson’s allegations; so he decided to dump the documents into the hands of a sympathetic journalist, who then gave an interview to the Internet’s premier antivaccine website and blog:

Here we learn where Swann got interested in the topic of vaccines:

It was in 2014*, I was in Minneapolis for an event that I was asked to speak at. It was an event about liberty, and while I was there, I had a chance to meet really two people whose names I did not know: Jennifer Larson and Mark Blaxill. These were two people who came to this event that was in part sponsored by the Canary Party. And I didn’t know what the Canary Party was either by the way, and while we were there, I had a chance to talk with them for a few minutes. They started explaining to me some of the issues with vaccines and concerns about vaccines. (*Correction: 2013)

And:

And then they were beginning to explain about the vaccine schedule, how much it’s increased over the past thirty years vs the number of cases that actually make it into vaccine court. It was really interesting. And so we decided to create a Truth in Media episode with Jennifer and Mark, and to interview Mark about this because the issue of vaccine court was so interesting to me.

Here is the video:

Contained in that video is ten minutes worth of seriously burning stupid. It hits many of the common antivaccine tropes, including the claim that the government has “quietly awarded” families of autistic children damages for vaccine injury. Never mind that the compensation was not for autism and the study used to claim to show this was unethical and poorly designed. Meanwhile, as I listened to Swann’s description of the Vaccine Court and its creation in 1986, I couldn’t help but hear Rob Schneider’s voice, because Swann was clearly cribbing the same talking points that Schneider does, full of the same misinformation and deceptive talking points. Of course, that’s not surprising, given that Swann relies on Mark Blaxill of the antivaccine Canary Party for his information. Swann also engages in—shall we say?—a bit of revisionist history about the Autism Omnibus hearing.

No wonder Swann thinks like this. Get a load of an analogy he makes in his interview:

Because there is this assumption that if you cover a certain subject you’re obviously taking a position on it, you’re taking a side on it. And as a journalist, that should never be true. No matter what issue you cover as a journalist, it should not be based on your own preference or your own opinion.

“As a lot of journalists would look at this story, …they’re told, ‘Well listen, those people are crazy. There’s all these anti-vaxxers out there. And if you do anything that indicates that you’re among them, or you’re one of them, it discredits you.’

“Now what’s completely nonsensical about that is, if we cover terrorism, if we cover ISIS, that doesn’t make us a part of ISIS. If we say, ‘Hey, let’s take a look at how ISIS formed in the first place,’ that doesn’t make you a terrorist or a suicide bomber. And yet if you say, ‘Let’s take a look at what these people are talking about when it comes to vaccination,’ they’ll say, ‘Oh wait, that makes you anti-vax.’ It’s a very bizarre thing.

No, it’s not bizarre at all. Swann’s analogy is ridiculous and deceptive. A better analogy would be if a reporter were to report on ISIS and credulously repeat its propaganda as news and as true. Any reporter that did that would rapidly become viewed as either sympathetic to ISIS or a dupe of ISIS, in just the same way that reporters like Ben Swann and Sharyl Attkisson are quite correctly viewed as either sympathetic to antivaccinationists or their dupes. Given the enthusiasm with which Swann regurgitates antivaccine talking points, I don’t think he’s a dupe. I think he’s become sympathetic to antivaccine views. Sure, it’s possible that he’s just so clueless about science that he thinks he’s really discovered an important story, but his conspiracy mongering about big pharma tends to lead me back to thinking he’s been converted.

He’s also proud of his previous coverage, which he really should not be. He gushes about how many people called him and sent him supportive e-mails and bragged about how “this is by far the largest news organization that’s ever covered this issue, and done it in a very public way.” Of course, given that CBS 46 is only a CBS affiliate, it should tell Swann something that it’s the biggest media outlet that’s covered the story.

He then attacks a straw man:

“One of the claims was that this whole thing was made up.

“As a journalist, that bothers me. It bothers me because, candidly, I haven’t seen the documents either. Maybe they’re right, maybe they don’t exist.

“So the next step for me was to contact Congressman Posey and say I would like to have the documents. Please release to me all those documents. And I’ll let your listeners know that Congressman Posey has complied with that request for the documents.

“So I now have copies of all of the information that Dr. Thompson handed over to Congress. We’re going through that information right now. We’re studying it and we’ll be releasing that information at some point, to the public.

“Again, because it’s not my information–it doesn’t belong to me. It is my job, I believe, as a journalist, to share that information. I want to do it in a responsible way. But it will be shared with the public because I believe they have a right to know.

“And again, the CDC should have done this themselves a long time ago. They should have come clean with it. They didn’t. Dr. Thompson could have come clean on his own, but he didn’t. He’s gone through the channels, based on what his attorneys have told him.

“But as a journalist, I have the ability to share that information. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve established Truth in Media Project and TruthInMedia.com so that truth can reach the public.

“So stayed tuned for that because very soon…you’re going to have access to those documents yourselves.”

Oh, goody.

Here’s the problem. First, no one say said that the “whole thing was made up.” Rather, what we have argued is that the case is almost certainly a major misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what actually happened. Certainly, its key premise, that DeStefano et al showed that African American boys who receive the MMR earlier are at a much higher risk of autism than those who don’t and that the CDC covered it up, is not supported by evidence and rests on the misinterpretation of the DeStefano et al dataset. More importantly, interpreting documents like the ones allegedly provided by William Thompson is not a simple matter. You need to know the science; you need to know a bit about how the CDC works; you need to know a bit of statistics.

Maybe that’s why it looks as though Swann won’t be reporting on these documents for CBS 46 but rather for his own YouTube channel. Indeed, he even uses the opportunity of the interview to pimp his IndieGoGo campaign Global Activist, an Internet series. There’s also another issue. Even if you take Thompson at his word and these are documents “destroyed” by the CDC, how can Swann even be sure that theyse are the real documents? How can we verify the chain of custody? Inquiring minds want to know!

Antivaccinationists have been flogging the CDC whistleblower manufactroversy for well over a year now. All they’ve managed to accomplish thus far are to ally themselves with the Nation of Islam, which has of late become so tightly associated with the Church of Scientology that it might as well be a wholly owned subsidiary, and to stage a small protest at the CDC and in Atlanta. Even if Swann does release all these documents, I highly doubt that he’ll manage to to what antivaccinationists and Twitter were unable to do: Make it into a real story that hits the national news in a big way and triggers a major investigation of the CDC. After all, if a Congressman couldn’t get that to happen after many months, either he wasn’t trying very hard (which is quite possible) or there’s just no there there.

I guess we’ll see. My prediction? We’ll see the same sort of thing we’ve seen with every prior announcement about the “CDC whistleblower”: A lot of heat and buildup from the antivaccine movement and then nothing damning (or even that interesting) when the documents are finally released, even the cherry-picked examples like the ones that have been released before. Whatever happens, my guess is that Rep. Posey got tired of being the point man for the antivaccine lunatic fringe. Giving whatever documents he got from Thompson to Swann lets him wash his hands of the whole affair while appearing to be a hero to his donors the antivaccine movement.

The hot potato has been passed to Ben Swann. I predict that it will be amusing to see what he does with it.

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