It is entertaining to watch Brian Deer try to wriggle out of trouble and end up slithering into even more of it. In what strikes me as a highly unusual move, Deer has not contented himself with letting his lawyers rebut Andy Wakefield's defamation suit against him and the British Medical Journal. No, Deer has filed with the court his own 101-page hagiography.
Brian Deer in 25,000 words or less. It's hard to squeeze in all the greatness, but someone has to do it.
Let me take just one little fact with which I happen to be familiar. Last March, the father of Child 11 in the Lancet study that is the focus of the court battle sent me a letter. It was just a few days after I interviewed him in California, an interview in which he told me Deer had made a big mistake. Deer had written that the child's autism symptoms actually began before his MMR shot -- a fatal blow to Wakefield's credibility. It was so important to Deer, that's how he started the article. He quoted the father as confirming the outrage. It became Exhibit A in Deer's cover story, "How the Case Against the MMR Vaccine Was Fixed."
Without this alleged manipulation -- which the BMJ said evinced an "elaborate fraud" by Wakefield -- Deer and the BMJ really have nothing to back up their explosive claim -- especially now that John Walker-Smith has won his appeal and the judge has affirmed the key elements of the Lancet report. The case series was manipulated and not consecutive? Gone. Wakefield turned routine gut problems into a new clinical syndrome? Poof. The kids didn't have pervasive developmental disorders? Uh, yeah, they did. Walker-Smith's medical investigations were uncalled-for and invasive, simply performed to aid Wakefield's Mengele-like research agenda? Nope.
So the MMR-manipulation thing had better be right.
But the father told me: “Mr. Deer’s article makes me appear irrational for continuing to believe that the MMR caused difficulties which predated its administration," a clear contradiction that called for a prompt correction.
Poor Deer. Relying on a mistaken discharge summary, and never checking his facts with the father -- the ordinary standard of care in journalism -- Deer went off the reservation with his claim that Wakefield had altered dates to implicate the MMR shot in autism. No, the father himself believed the MMR caused his child's autism and bowel disease. He wrote that in 1997. That's why he went to Wakefield in the first place.
When the BMJ editors -- who claimed they independently fact-checked and peer-reviewed everything, taking several months to do so -- learned of this fundamental, material, and inexplicable f-up, they must have been nauseous. (That is, if they understand the norms of the journalism profession.)
But in his 101-page declaration, in between encomiums to himself and his legendary role in British journalism, Deer says,
"Despite the plain falsity of the Lancet paper, by any account, Wakefield, relying on Olmsted’s material, alleges: 'Indeed, the child’s father has since written Deer and the BMJ to explain that Deer was misrepresenting facts about child 11, yet Deer and BMJ have printed no retraction, correction, or mention of this fact.'"
Deer asserts: "Neither I nor (to my knowledge) the BMJ have received any letter from this father accusing me of 'misrepresenting facts.'"
Really? We're going to bog this down with a silly attempt to quibble over whether making someone appear irrational based on incorrect and easily checkable information is different from misrepresenting the facts, and on that basis claim there was no such letter?
A few paragraphs later, Deer doubles down on whether he had "received any letter," stating:
"Last March, the father wrote to Olmsted and myself – effectively really copying me in to a letter he sent to Olmsted following their meeting ..." So you see, even if there was a letter, and even if that letter accused Deer of putting the father (and hence Wakefield) in a false light, and even if putting someone in a false light through knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth (actual malice) is an element of defamation of a public figure, and even if "misrepresenting facts" and making someone "appear irrational" are, in common usage, substantively the same allegation -- well, even then, the letter was not technically sent to Brian Deer at all.
This semantic misdirection -- the kind of thing that defines Deer's Wakefield investigation over seven years -- reminds me of the joke about the boy who comes to a neighbor's front door and tells Johnny's mom, "I didn't steal Johnny's bike, and if I did, I didn't wreck it, and if I did wreck it, I put it back in the garage. Bye."
The letter begins:
Dear Mr. Olmstead & Mr. Deer:
I have spoken with both of you regarding my son who may be one of the subjects in the Royal Free Hospital’s “research study” on autism summarized in the 1998 Lancet article.
So you be the judge. Did the Father of Case 11 write Deer (and me) a letter in which he said a key fact had been misrepresented by Deer?
Is a court in Texas going to go for that sort of nonsense?
And does Brian Deer, his own leading advocate, have a fool for a client?
Yes. No. And, oh good gracious, yes.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism and co-author, with Mark Blaxill, of "The Age of Autism -- Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic," published in paperback last fall by Thomas Dunne books.