As an English major, I'm really disappointed to see the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse promoting Brian Deer's talks next week at the University. According to the department's blog, Deer "carried out one of the classic public interest investigations of recent times. He probed the controversy over vaccines and autism. Based on this landmark inquiry, and 25 years of pursuing complex, contentious topics, he gives a reporter's inside perspective on how to break a difficult story."
"Fears that vaccines cause autism has become one of the biggest health controversies in America. But where did the story begin, and what keeps it going?"
The truth, fellow English majors and would-be journalists, is that the story began when vaccines began causing autism, and what keeps the story going is that vaccines keep causing autism. That's my view, but I'm not alone, and the fact that I and thousands of others hold that view shows that Deer's presentation should be treated as one side of a controversy, not as a how-to session. The promo -- doubtless supplied by Deer or his enablers -- acknowledges it's a real controversy, but then immediately reverts to the idea that some nonsense abroad in the population is perpetuating this ridiculous idea of a vaccine-autism link.
That is the kind of subtle subversion of logic and language to which English majors, especially, should be alert. The medical and scientific community may be in the tank, but this is a story in which close attention to rhetoric and reality can point to the truth as directly as any other evidence.
There's nothing wrong with having Deer speak at an American university, although I can't see much point in it. But the issue needs to be presented as a debate, a dialogue, and prosepective journalists need to study the controversy, not slaver over the author because he has won some awards and the orthodox medical and media establishments are drunk on his Kool-Aid. Andy Wakefield shouldn't have to scratch around for a venue to hold his own press conference. He should be invited in to confront Deer, or to appear in a similarly respectable capacity. Or, if not Wakefield, I've written and presented on the problems with Deer's reporting and would have been glad to do so again (they wouldn't have to pay me, which I can only assume is another difference between myself and Deer).
The title of Deer's other talk, "An Elaborate Fraud: The MMR Vaccine and Autism," is not really holding up well, either, given developments since the series by that title appeared in the British Medical Journal in January 2011. According to the promo: "Over a period of seven years, Brian Deer investigated the story for The Sunday Times of London and now comes to LaCrosse to reveal what Time Magazine dubbed one of the 'great science frauds' of all time. Launched from one British hospital in the 1990s, the scare took hold first in the UK, and then spread around the globe, leaving doctors baffled, children at risk, parents frightened, and lawyers with a lot more money. Deer shows how it was done, who did it, and why it will happen again."
The question to be asked is not how was it done, etc., but, What fraud?
Inconveniently, Wakefield's co-author on the 1988 "Lancet" paper, the renowned John Walker- Smith, was exonerated of the British medical establishment's trumped-up charges this year by a British civil court with a thorough-goingness that directly discredits many of those breathless assertions against Wakefield, including claims that there was no regressive autism, no bowel disease, no genuine case series, no plausible link to the MMR. For instance, here is what Smith said under oath :
Q. What did you believe that you were finding?
A. Just like many times in my career before, we were finding a new disorder. … We were beginning to see a new syndrome, fairly clear features of children [with regressive developmental disorders] presenting with diarrhoea, very often abdominal pain which often was not diagnosed by other doctors. ...There is a characteristic symptom pattern. ... Clearly in the context of autism we felt something new was coming, and that is the motivation, of course, for us clinicians to feel that it was appropriate for Andy Wakefield to take the lead, and write these features for publication.
Q. Having gone through the histology reports, the synthesis of those reports in the histology meetings, it is clear that there are abnormalities there ---?
Walker-Smith also knocks down Deer's claim that the cases were cherry-picked by Wakefield to create a bogus case series. In a letter entered into evidence, he wrote: "I deny the allegation that there was systematic bias in the pattern of referral for the children in the 1998 Lancet paper. No children were invited to participate in this study. Upon review of the Centre for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Royal Free Hospital, work book entitled ‘Biopsies Vi 4/9/95 to 21/7/97’, we confirm that the children who were reported in The Lancet paper of 1998 were the first 12 children consecutively referred to the university department of paediatric gastroenterology with autism and related disorders, who had gastrointestinal symptoms requiring ileo-colonoscopy to exclude chronic bowel inflammation.” …
And as for a possible relation to the MMR shot, another letter by Smith to a fellow doctor was entered into evidence: “In relation to this department, we are all in agreement with the description of a new syndrome of ileal lymphoid nodular hyperplasia and non-specific colitis in a cohort of self-selected (ie parent selected) patients. We have sent a paper to the Lancet and I enclose a copy for you. In some there is a clear historic link to MMR. ... Like you I am very concerned at any weakening of MMR uptake in the community. However, I have personally seen all these ‘autistic’ children and in some at least there seems to be a strong presumptive evidence of an MMR link.”
The Lancet paper, then, according to Wakefield's clinical co-author, whose integrity has been formally upheld by a British court of law, offered "strong presumptive evidence of an MMR link," a link that, if anything, was underplayed in the "interpretation" section of the paper, which merely reported the belief of most of the parents that the MMR was the cause, and called for further investigation (since squelched with Deer's material help).
The truth, tragically: Something new was coming -- a new wave of very sick children who developed a characteristic gut disease and regressive developmental disorders, blamed in most cases by their observant parents on the MMR shot. The human toll since then, a toll Deer has helped to increase, has been unfathomable, and it goes up every day. No wonder parents dislike Deer and are dismayed at the credence that he still gets, while Wakefield is forced to try to find a venue to tell the truth. I am sure there are Wisconsin residents, University of Wisconsin LaCross students, teachers, alums, who feel this way.
If the English Department wants to help it students, it should send them not just to Deer, but to those first-person sources -- to "the real world" -- and then to Wakefield, and then to George Orwell to see the trick that, in my opinion, is being played on them.
For more details, here's a news release from The Canary Party:
Researcher Wakefield & families of MMR-injured to speak in LaCrosse
ST. PAUL, MINN. – Researcher and patient advocate Andrew Wakefield, MB, BS, FRCS, FRCPath, will speak publicly next week to correct ongoing false reports about the 1998 Lancet MMR vaccine case series he co-authored with 12 other researchers.
Wakefield, an academic gastroenterologist and author of more than 140 scientific articles, will hold a press conference with Midwest autism families at 1 p.m. Thursday, October 4 in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The location will be provided next week.