Wednesday, April 13th, 2011 was a triumphant day. Dr. Andrew Wakefield came to Brandeis, and Poul Thorsen – the Danish scientist who coauthored the infamous reports used to cast doubt on the vaccine-autism connection – was indicted on charges of fraud. You can read the details about Thorsen HERE. And the video of Dr. Wakefield’s Brandeis lecture is now available. I don’t want to spoil anything for our readers, except to say that Dr. Wakefield did a great job. (Photo credit Asher Krell for The Justice)
Alongside the Brandeis faculty, students and staff who were present, I was happy to see a substantial showing of friends of the autism community from off-campus. Dr. Richard Deth, professor of pharmacology at Northeastern University discussed the higher prevalence of autism among boys when Dr. Wakefield asked him to speak during Q/A. Dr. Deth and autism parent Heather McClennand - also at the lecture - were recently interviewed on Boston’s local FOX TV station. Alison MacNeil attended the event, and then just five days later was featured in the PBS Series Autism Now, talking about her vaccine-injured son to her father Robert MacNeil. Also in attendance was a local pediatrician who commented on her observation of a higher incidence of autism after the Hep B birth dose was introduced. Fellow Aspergian/Autistic Chloe Ioffe was there as well as autism mom Allison Chapman, two of many who gave Dr. Wakefield a standing ovation. I was happy with the excellent turnout.
It’s been five months since the huge media blitz against Dr. Wakefield. Never before had I seen so many unsubstantiated charges so widely disseminated yet unchallenged. Since then, I have wanted to bring Dr. Wakefield to campus to address the claims against him.
One place where these claims were repeated was a New York Times op-ed from January, authored by Michael Willrich, Associate Professor of History at Brandeis. At first, I didn’t recognize the author’s name – thinking, “They replaced Gardiner Harris, already?” Then I read “Brandeis University” in the bio and it all hit me like a sack of bricks. It was my former professor!
I then had the idea of a Willrich-Wakefield debate, so I called Professor Willrich and left a message asking to meet with him. He wrote me a friendly email in response telling me how nice it was to hear my voice and that he looked forward to catching up. I then brought Professor Willrich’s name up to Andrew Wakefield, who told me he would have no problem debating my former professor if given the chance.
Unfortunately, that was the easy part.
As I was exiting one of my classes, I saw Prof. Willrich and asked him about setting up an appointment. He was very amicable, mentioning that he read my article in last semester’s issue of Brandeis Magazine. I replied that I saw his Op-Ed about Andrew Wakefield in The New York Times. At that point, I realized I had to spill the beans.
“Would you like to debate him?”
The expression on my former professor’s face immediately changed from happiness to horror.
“Not really,” he replied.
I then told him that Dr. Wakefield will be coming to campus in April and that I was trying to find someone to debate him. I also disclosed my opinions about Dr. Wakefield and how I felt he had been wronged.
Professor Willrich seemed to keep an open ear. He even told me he did not want a debate in the classic sense and preferred to make it more of a panel-type discussion – leaving room for both disagreement as well as common ground between him and Dr. Wakefield.
“I’m not going to be the ‘anti-anti-vaccine guy,’” Prof. Willrich told me. As our conversation was winding down, he said he would think about it, but also told me not to be disappointed if he refused.
Hours later in my email inbox, he gave me his answer.
"… I've given your invitation a good deal of thought. I do not think Andrew Wakefield is a credible researcher, and I have no desire to have a public debate with him on this campus or anywhere else. So I'll have to say no.”
Prof. Willrich would be the first, but not the last professor at Brandeis to turn down a debate with Dr. Wakefield. I asked students from my club SPECTRUM if they knew of any professors who disagreed with Dr. Wakefield and would be willing to debate him. The results were the same – no luck. One student looked shell-shocked as he reported that the professors he approached with the idea “wouldn’t be caught dead with Wakefield.”
It eventually became pretty clear that this was going to be a one-person lecture, with a Q/A session being the closest possible thing to a “debate,” if it was to even happen at all. Some members of SPECTRUM were uneasy about sponsoring Dr. Wakefield without an opponent to debate him, so I asked Age of Autism to sponsor the lecture.
I had no desire to cancel, especially considering the events that unfolded during that semester. The new vaccine industry spokesman Seth Mnookin calling his opponents “total assholes” at American University was one of them. Brian Deer calling online autism organizations “drunken buffoons” at Ryerson University was another, not to mention the announcement that he would be speaking at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. But autism epidemic doubter Professor Peter Bearman visiting my own college campus sealed it for me, especially since it was the week after he had written a glowing double-book review in The Amerian Prospect for Mnookin and millionaire vaccine industrialist Dr. Offit. It was these events that further motivated me to invite Dr. Andrew Wakefield to campus.
The week before his lecture, I sprained my ankle while rushing to class and had to go to the hospital to get it splinted. For the next couple days I was on crutches while I publicized Dr. Wakefield’s lecture around campus - posting dozens of flyers for the event. Thankfully, one student helped me - a student who said his parents were positive his sibling’s ASD was caused by vaccines. Since Brandeis would not list the event on its online calendar, I knew a lot of the publicity hinged on handing out flyers person to person. I got a wide range of reactions, from anger that Dr. Wakefield lost his medical license, to anger that he was coming to campus. Most students, however, simply said, “thank you.”
Reactions started to pick up when I began advertising the event online. The day after I started the facebook event, one of the students I invited posted the very next day:
“Andrew Wakefield is coming to Brandeis. Let's protest as awesomely as we can! Join the reddit discussion.” (HERE)
The person who posted this turned out to manage the website for his parents’ PR firm which had pharma clients. So I pointed that out in a comment underneath the link on facebook. No protest ever happened.
It was not the post itself that was disturbing, but the AskReddit discussion that followed. Graphic talk of punching, biting, stabbing and assaulting Dr. Wakefield with deadly pathogens was rampant - what lovely people the pharmaceutical industry employs! And yet, if such threats took place about Dr. Paul Offit on a public online forum, his supporters – perhaps the very folks who had taken part in the discussion about Dr.Wakefield – would be all over it, throwing one great big pharma pity party. Thankfully, the Brandeis Police maintained a strong presence at Dr. Wakefield’s lecture. Dr. Wakefield told me he’d never had a security problem at any of his speaking events.
For all their online talk, the corporate fringe never managed to translate their venom into much action. The commenters on “Science”Blogs went crazy and the Boston chapter of the local “Skeptics” pharma front group put out an official “alert” that fizzled.
There was one member of “neurodiversity” at the lecture who on his blog, listed his “Competing financial interest: I am working on researching and commercializing products using skin resident commensal autotrophic ammonia oxidizing bacteria to naturally supply basal NO under normal physiological control via sweating to prevent and treat a number of disorders, including ASDs. Patents issued and applied for.”
During the Q/A, he seemed very confused, blending Dr. Wakefield's Lancet paper with a later study that found evidence of vaccine-strain measles in the intestines of children with autism. Commenting on “Science”Blogs afterwards, however, all he reported was:
“I did ask [Andrew Wakefield] why he didn't report Nicholas Chadwick's negative PCR results for measles vaccine virus. He said he reported the positive results from the labs that got positive results.”
I was there, and Dr. Wakefield also said he reported the negative samples – even though they were based on findings using obsolete and insensitive technology. You can watch the video and see for yourself.
Yet the distortions didn’t end there. A commenter responding online took it to yet another new level:
“To anyone but the faithful he just said "Yes, I did commit fraud."
I truly laughed when I read that. Wow, this is just one example of how the collective thinking at “Science”Blogs and other pharma front blogs operates.
Even more amusing, however, was the apparent conflict that existed among vaccine industry defenders in relation to this event: on the one hand saying that Andrew Wakefield should not speak unchallenged, and on the other hand, refusing to debate him and even saying he should not be able to speak at all. There was also an online effort to try to get Brandeis to cancel Dr. Wakefield's talk.
In addition to balanced articles in student newspapers The Brandeis Hoot and The Justice, The Hoot also ran an editorial criticizing the event for Dr. Wakefield speaking unchallenged. When I submitted my letter to the editor explaining why, (HERE) ; the newspaper – despite its efforts – was unable to find a professor to contribute a counterpoint piece.
And yet, those who did challenge Dr. Wakefield in the Q/A trotted out the same old baseless allegations against him – like the poor, confused fellow described prior – only to see their claims torn to shreds. Perhaps that’s why they turned to bashing the event in publications after the event was over – yet they could not even succeed at that. Dr. Amy Tuteur – another member of the “Skeptics” pharma front franchise of Boston attempted to do just that in a blog post for The Boston Globe, and got destroyed by her own commenters. It was very entertaining to see.
All told, I think my event was effective not only at giving Dr. Wakefield a much-needed and deserved forum to address the allegations against him and to talk about the science, but also to expose the dilemma pharma is in, led by Dr. Paul Offit whose official position is to refuse to debate Dr. Wakefield. When it chooses to censor, it ultimately looks terrible while only further motivating people like myself to express our views. Yet when it chooses to engage in a debate head-on, it gets thoroughly debunked. I guess that would explain why it has preferred the former over the latter.
I would like to thank all those people who made Dr. Wakefield’s lecture a success. Brandeis Conference and Events was great at helping me plan for and set up this event. The Brandeis Police Force provided extra security. The Goldfarb Library permitted use of Rapaporte Treasure Hall. I would like to thank the administration for making Brandeis the kind of place where Dr. Wakefield was able to speak, despite the intense controversy surrounding him. Everyone who attended that night also deserves a huge thank you as does Age of Autism for sponsoring the event. And finally, the biggest thank you goes to Dr. Andrew Wakefield.
Jake Crosby has Asperger Syndrome and is a contributing editor to Age of Autism. He is a 2011 graduate of Brandeis University with a BA in both History and Health: Science, Society and Policy. In August, he will attend The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services where he will study for an MPH in epidemiology.