Field of Science

Oh, what a tangled web we weave

A few days ago, I brought you a bit of a tongue-in-cheek example of how easy it is to find a conspiracy among any group that has like interests at heart. In that case, the "like" interests are battling irrationally against vaccines, and the "conspiracy" led me, in the best of ironies, to a chemical company that makes what those anti-science, anti-vaxx folk would call "chemicals," or...even worse, "toxins."

But today, I bring you a timeline that suggests links of a different and even more concerted sort. The antivaxx community I illustrated in this graphic certainly interacts among themselves, linking to and supporting each other in many ways, enjoying their time in the echo chamber. It's understandable that like would turn to like and that amidst the earnestness of some, a few more nefarious sorts reside, clearly intent on making a buck or a million by taking advantage of some of that earnestness.

I admire venality as much as the next person, but I'm not sure even with that appreciation, I can admire Andrew Wakefield. His record speaks for itself [NYT]. This is someone I've been only a few feet away from twice in restaurants, and his mere presence filled me with an indescribable mix of emotions and urges, ranging from confrontation to immediate departure and from pushing away my plate to vomiting. Yet, the man is like the antagonist from a horror movie. Even after you've poked at it and assured yourself that it's vanquished, the damned thing rises up again, sneaking up behind unsuspecting you on the most benign-seeming of Wednesdays.

The former good doctor's latest is a salvo in the British Journal of Medicine (BMJ)--will they ever tire of prolonging the world's misery in this way? As described in a piece at, the salvo arrives in the form of a letter to the journal from one David Lewis (a search of the site and the current issue turns up no hits). Lewis, it seems, is a whistleblower with a longstanding feud with the EPA. He also is affiliated with this orgnization, the National Whistleblowers Center. This organization is not to be confused with, a non-profit government accountability project.

The "S," you see, makes a difference. is an entity run by lawyers from this firm, including brothers Stephen and Michael Kohn. Hold onto the name, as you will be seeing it again later. The firm, as its Website notes, specializes in "protecting whistleblowers," so it's kind of them to have set up to help out with that.

Now, it's time for a timeline.

March 14, 2010
Orac, over at Respectful Insolence, offered up a post that was characteristically and justifiably none too admiring of the good (former) Dr. Wakefield. One of the comments on the post, from someone named Michael0156*, offers the following:
We are better off for the courage of heroes like Andrew Wakefield, Richard Convertino, David Graham, Brooksley Born, Frances Kelsey, Harry Markopolos, Eric Topol, Bunnatine Greenhouse, David Lewis, Colleen Rowley, Steven Nissen, Cynthia Cooper... and many others who stood up for what they believed was right, who by their selfless example point the way to where we should go and what we can be. We have to find the will and strength to support them.
They all appear to be whistleblowers, and the results of my quick search of the name Kohn and each listed name are linked with the names above. Michael Kohn was the attorney for Bunnatine Greenhouse. David Lewis...there he a Board Member at the National Whistleblowers Center. 

December 2010
"The Research Misconduct Project was created by the National Whistleblowers Center (NWC) Board of Directors in December 2010." Here is a link to the project page, featuring David Lewis. The sole project listed? This one:
Independent Review of the Allegations Against Dr. Andrew Wakefield 
In January 2011, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published editorials and a series of articles by reporter Brian Deer accusing Dr. Andrew Wakefield of fraud associated with a case series that Wakefield and 12 coauthors at the Royal Free School of Medicine in London published in 1998 in The Lancet. The study involved 12 children with regressive developmental disorders and chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Wakefield and his coauthors called the condition lleal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia and non-specific colitis. This disease, which is neither Crohn's disease nor ulcerative colitis, involves a nodular proliferation of lymph cells in the ileum of the small intestine. Parents of the children in Wakefield's study, and the children's physicians, linked the onset of the children's autism to the measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Given the potential significance of Dr. Wakefield's initial findings, the Research Project will undertake a review of the scientific attacks lodged against Dr. Wakefield in order to produce a non-biased, objective review (italics mine) of this very important matter.
Again, in spite of its year-long existence, there are no other projects listed.

January 3-8, 2011
Vaccine Safety Conference, Jamaica. Andrew Wakefield was a listed speaker (among many others in the anti-vaxx heavens) and attended. Also in attendance, according to Brian Deer, the journalist who outed Wakefield's various misdeeds, were David Lewis (as, he says, "an invited observer") and Stephen Cohn, who also was one of the illustrious speakers
In January, Lewis and Kohn were guests of anti-vaccine campaigners at the 2,000 acre Tryall Club villa resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where struck-off former surgeon Andrew Wakefield headlined the cabaret. An autism website reports that travel costs and hospitality at the five star holidayspot were paid for by the promoters
January 5, 2011
ETA: BMJ comes out with an editorial condemning "fraudulent" Wakefield study.

January 10, 2011
Gary Null at Progressive Radio Network (PRN), has Andrew Wakefield as a guest on the show. Turns out, PRN runs a lot of material featuring the good (former) Dr. Wakefield. 

January 11, 2011
Gary Null at PRN offers up "The Real Truth from Andrew Wakefield."

January 13, 2011
Andrew Wakefield releases a statement. "No fraud. No hoax. No profit motive."

January 20, 2011
"Dr. Andrew Wakefield MD whistleblower on baby vaccines and autism."

January 24, 2011
Gary Null again, this time posting the above statement in total.

January 24, 2011
Another from Gary Null, this time including a "thank you" note from the good (former) doctor himself.

January 26, 2011
Gary Null again here. A lengthy statement from Andrew Wakefield. Null has entitled it, "Dr. Wakefield was right. No fraud. No Hoax. Here's proof."

January 26, 2011
Null features Wakefield in a post entitled, "Why wrongful convictions happen." Actually, Wakefield is the only example in the post.

January 28, 2011
Null posts "Julia Ahier of Lancet speaks out!"

Thus, in the single month of January 2011, Null ran these very pro-Wakefield items on his site. There was another one from January 11 called "Vaccine witch-hunt trial scandal: Parents of Andrew Wakefield's research silenced!", but it goes to a 404 page.

But soft, there is more.

Stephen (Steve) Kohn is now a host at PRN. While his official hostitude spans only three recent episodes, he's been a presence on the show since at least December 2010

October 15, 2011
"Andrew Wakefield MD and whistleblower tells his story." Whistleblower?

November 9, 2011
A story appears, "A fresh dispute about MMR 'fraud.'" "Fraud" is in quotation marks. Nice.

The letter is a submission from one David Lewis. Yes, that David Lewis. The one who allegedly traveled to Jamaica with Stephen Cohn, whistleblower lawyer, for a cozy, resort-style get-together of the anti-vaxx firmament, including Andrew Wakefield. The one who now is in charge of the "Research Misconduct Project," in existence for a full year, with only one project: Andrew Wakefield. 

In the BMJ letter, according to the Nature story, Lewis argues that review of the forms describing biopsies from the children in the study show that Wakefield did nothing wrong with the data. The documents that Lewis reviewed include confidential forms describing biopsies from the guts of children. The forms were filled out by doctors Andrew Anthony and Paul Dhillon, who worked with Wakefield at the Royal Free. 
"These documents, Lewis says, are relevant to Deer's charge that records he obtained do not support Wakefield's claims in the Lancet paper that the children had nonspecific colitis, a supposed element of an MMR-induced syndrome. On sheets for three of the children graded by Anthony, the handwritten word "colitis" appears, and Dhillon checked a box labelled "non-specific" on 10 forms. Anthony's sheets are dated after the Lancet publication (italics mine), whereas Dhillon's are dated before."
So Dhillon noted "nonspecific" related one knows, could be "any kind of gut changes," per a GI doctor at King's College Hospital, who "doesn't believe the materials are sufficient to support claims in Lancet paper of new disease process." 

But more mysterious is the dating of Anthony's "colitis" notes. How would Wakefield have been able to say "colitis" from three of the records if the term "colitis" was added after the infamous and now-retracted Wakefield publication? Evidently, Anthony is not available for comment, and Dhillon has been told by his institution not to.

Is someone styling and grooming Andrew Wakefield as a whistleblower so that he can then present him self as such in a legal sense? I do not know. If so, I hope that he is treated better in that guise than he treated an actual whistleblower not too long ago:

Wakefield + Lewis + Cohn. What does that equal?

ETA: What if you add Age of Autism Wizard John Stone? LeftBrain RightBrain pointed out to me that in his posted response to the Nature piece, Stone accidentally left in "Here is information to post on Nature" and this other oopsie in what was otherwise supposed to be a third-person reference: "editors at Annals of Internal Medicine rated me in the top 10% of its reviewers in 2010.15." (Nature has since deleted the comment, which violated their "no self promotion" comment rules). In other words, Stone was serving as poster boy for David Lewis. As of 11-10-11, a new poster boy emerged, one who has provided this service previously: Clark Baker. He has posted a comment on the Nature story, but it's not his first support of Andrew Wakefield. He also is an HIV denialist. Appears that the web got--and continues to be--a tad too tangled for this bunch.

ETA: In other BMJ news, BMJ's editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee, has written in a BMJ editorial that "The MMR fraud needs parliamentary inquiry." Godlee writes that six more research papers require investigation and that at least six people from the London medical school involved in the work must step up with answers. If the associated university does not initiate an investigation, Godlee says, "parliament must intervene." Link via Liz Ditz 

Further, the BMJ has produced a set of publications completely taking apart any idea that the specimens that Lewis ID'd as demonstrating no fraud were remotely indicative of colitis. Indeed...and this will come as no surprise to many in the autism community...the primary GI diagnosis among the children appears to have been constipation. 

The reports are linked below. They are behind a paywall with only the first few grafs of each freely available, but I've read them all in full, and the titles accurately reflect their content.

"We came to an overwhelming and uniform opinion that these reports do not show colitis"
"Pathology reports solve 'new bowel disease' riddle" "Unpublished data from the research that claimed links between MMR vaccine, autism, and enterocolitis reveal no enterocolitis. "
"Institutional research misconduct"
"I see no convincing evidence of 'enterocolitis,' 'colitis,' or 'unique disease process'"


*Sorry, folks. No conspiracy here!
[Image credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, via Wikimedia Commons under the Gnu Free Documentation License]. 


  1. I like the "poster boy" label. Not the typical usage, but accurate!

    The logical conclusion was that Mr. Lewis was using John Stone to post a comment for him. I also found the comment odd in that the citations started at #8. Some sort of bad edit, I suspect. Strange all the way around.

    On the main topic, I suspect that a lot of people have an interest in rebuilding Mr. Wakefield's reputation. Unfortunately, his business (the Strategic Autism Initiative) is new. So we can't get an idea of who and how much is being spent to support him. GR, for example, hosted a fund-raiser for him. The new address for it is the same as AutismOne (both share Terri Arranga as a member). Those organizations have a vested interest in his reputation, and they should declare that when they promote him. In my opinion, of course.

    Just adding a few new strands to the web.

  2. Clever gus, aren't I? ;)

    Looks like I need to build an updated chart of autwoo interactivity.

  3. I just noticed that the BMJ articles are no longer behind a paywall.

  4. I thought you might be interested in the press release I stumbled on:

    I noticed something familiar here: Editors at Annals of Internal Medicine rated him in the top 10% of reviewers in 2010.

    (which in John Stone's new comment still reads as He is frequently called upon to review medical research papers; editors at Annals of Internal Medicine rated me in the top 10% of its reviewers in 2010.15)

    And of course, where does the press release come from? Well it says: SOURCE Strategic Autism Initiative.

    Oh, it is a tangled web.

  5. Mr. Stone edited the comment and reposted it. He removed the "Here is information to post on Nature" at the top. He neglected to edit the pronoun issue of him/me which was another sign that this was ghostwritten.

  6. @Chris Good eye. :)

    @Sullivan If I were DL, I'd hire a new poster boy.

  7. Emily, you should get in touch with @Arclight and ask him about his infographic on the relationship between all sorts of anti-vaccine people. Either he was bored or had way too much time to spend because that thing is incredibly long and the research is solid.

  8. My, my, my! What a tangled web, indeed!

    I'm curious how Dr. Lewis - a microbiologist like myself - feels qualified to state that the pathology reports show "enterocolitis". It seems more than moderately arrogant to assume that since he had researched the microbial contents of the human gut, that he is qualified to evaluate the state of the gut itself.

    I'm curious - I can't seem to find what the disagreement between Dr. Lewis and the US EPA was about. Do you have any sources?


  9. Prom, someone left a message over at LBRB:


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