David Brown: Confirmation of Statement from Aarhus University

By David Brown

It's now been about a week since I finally received an answer to the question of whether Aarhus University actually wrote thrust into circulation by Age of Autism and Generation Rescue early last month, incriminating autism researcher Poul Thorsen in the forgery of a grant supposedly from the US CDC. It has been a relief, after a fashion, even though it has meant admitting a major error on my part.  It has also given me reason for thought.
First off, here is the full text of the email:

Dear Mr. Brown,

I am sending you this on behalf of Mr. Anders Correll, senior press officer at Aarhus University.
First of all, we can confirm that we have sent out a statement to our partners in the research collaboration about this matter (the statement is enclosed).
Subsequently, we can confirm that the passage you cited is correct.
Due to this being an ongoing police investigation, Aarhus University cannot comment further on the matter, but you are welcome to enquire with Eastern Jutland Police Dept who are handling the case.

Phone No.: +45 8731 1448. E-mail: ojyl@politi.dk. Ref: Børge Frandsen
At this point, I suppose, a significant amount of reflection is in order.  Something I have had to admit to myself is that challenging this document's authenticity was a major departure from the scholarly methods which I support and prefer to follow.   My interests run from history to folklore to Forteana. When it comes to giving a source the benefit of a doubt, I'm a flaming liberal. My long-established “rule of thumb” is to allow, at least for purposes of discussion, that a source is  approximately true on points of fact (or at least perception), and see if I can proceed under that assumption to a scenario that is plausible and harmonious with known facts or other reports.  It normally takes a lot for me simply to throw up my hands and dismiss a source as completely false.  So, I have had to ask myself, why was I so skeptical of this document?

In hindsight, I think the main reason was probably that I was sidetracked by what I now recognize as a separate issue: whether Aarhus had or ever would have approved this document for public circulation.  The answer was obviously “no” on both points: There was no evidence of the document being circulated publicly before it appeared on “anti-vax” sites, and there were obvious reasons for Aarhus to avoid making such a statement public.  But that was an issue of the document's context and purpose, not its authenticity per se.  I was similarly mistaken in arguing against authenticity  based on typos and awkward structuring that to me suggested multiple authors.  I still consider it a strong possibility that the document had multiple authors.  But, in hindsight, that could easily be accounted for in a scenario of authenticity.  It is well-known that professionals routinely delegate the task of writing to secretaries and other subordinates, and it would not be at all surprising if a single document ended up written by two or more people.

I believe I made a further error in judgement by letting the obvious falsehoods that had been reported weigh against the document.  I was willing, in principle, to set these aside when evaluating the document.  But, I'm in no position to ignore how much I could have let the context in which the document was being cited color my evaluation of it's authenticity. I will also admit an even more fundamental issue:  By the time I started writing, the story posted by AoA and source sites had already been thoroughly discredited.  Thus, my usual, generous method of walking through a source while looking for elements of plausibility was not going to prove anything of great importance.  The path I took instead was the one which would truly break new ground, and as it turned out led directly to error.

Something I will add is that I am still not satisfied with the “facts” as reported in the document.  As I noted at the start, the accusations in the third paragraph were at odds with Thorsen's professional biography.  It was claimed (in a very roundabout way) that Thorsen was still presenting himself as a representative of Aarhus, but his biography indicates his employment ended in 2008, even earlier than the March 2009 timeframe indicated by the document.  Even more problematically, it was complained that Thorsen held simultaneous “double full-time employment” at Aarhus and Emory.  (The claim crossposted at AoA  from theflucase.com that “Aarhaus (sic!) University...  `expressly prohibited' Dr Poul Thorsen from working for a second university, Emory” was clearly a garbling of this allegation.)  But, Thorsen's biography describes his position as an “associate”, which would indicate less than “full-time” employment.  Now that the possibility of fabrication by a third party has been denied, these anomalies are in many ways more problematic, for Aarhus and Thorsen alike.  The only remaining explanation  is that one, or the other, or quite conceivably both parties have provided information that is less than fully accurate and complete.

Finally, I will say a few things about the case of Thorsen.  I remain skeptical whether Thorsen had a role in the forgery.  Based simply on analogy with other cases, I think it more likely that the forged grants were created by someone (or several people!) further down the organizational food chain.  On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a scenario where Thorsen could be held wholly blameless.  Even if he didn't participate directly in the forgery, he could have known about it, before or after the fact.  Even if he didn't know  about it, as a certainty, he could have contributed to it by inappropriate actions, ranging from “looking the other way” to making demands that subordinates could only meet through fraud.  Even if none of these is proved, the fact would remain that the fraud occurred in a project that he led and was supposed to supervise.  I suspect that that alone would be enough to end his career.

Whatever the facts, it can be taken as a given that Thorsen's actual actions and motives are at once more prosaic and more complex than the anti-vaxxers' formulaic charge of  bribes in exchange for faking research to discredit an autism-vaccine link.  But there is a “coverup” very much in evidence, and it has nothing to do with autism, vaccines, Big Pharma or even necessarily with greed.  It is notoriously well-known that hospitals are anything but forthcoming about employee misconduct.  Even in “angel of death” cases, there is a well-documented pattern of hospitals firing the employee quietly and without explanation rather than reporting him to law enforcement, medical boards or even his next employer.  The usual alibi, unfortunately with plenty of merit, is that if they did the ex-employee could turn around and sue. It was in light of this that I was absolutely incredulous that the “Aarhus document” could be an actual release from the university.

  From what can be known at this time, its circulation is in fact all too consistent with the pattern seen in hospitals. It would appear that this clumsy composition was originally intended only for the eyes of personnel at other institutions (note the phrase “partners in research” in the email text).  If it was ever seen by or reported to the mainstream media (as would seem plausible in light of articles at the Copenhagen Post and elsewhere), Thorsen's name was expurgated at some point before publication.  Then, when it somehow was obtained and posted by anti-vax websites, and used irresponsibly to advance false claims, the university waited more than a month to acknowledge that the document, as posted, was theirs.
Such are the realities of modern medicine, and they ought to be far more frightening than any anti-vaccine conspiracy theory. 

1 comment:

The author said...

The fact that an investigation has been launched should never be taken as evidence of guilt however, it simply means that an investigation has been launched. It is only when the findings of that investigation are made public or a prosecution ensues that anyone is justifyed in making such an assumption.

Bloggers of course are always ready to condemn the straw man, especially age of autism bloggers. For such reason when a matter is sub judice, it should remain sub judice, as I believe I speculated at the time.

It seems to me it is more likely a matter of dispute regarding terms of contracts for employment or funding or whatever, which may or may not be actually enforcable.

Apart from anything else, Universities do not always act from the highest of motives, especially where matters of competition over funding are concerned, they can indeed act in ways that would in industry be called restrictive practice. There is a whole social economy of academia to be studied, if any University department could stomach such a researcher for long enough not to fear being implicated in the findings.

One of my longstanding ethical concerns over research funding is the way in which it is often driven not by any investigative necessity to solve real problems, but because it is more like premier league football, in which the owner of the club gets to buy the best players. You can understand then the anger if one of there players is seen to be put in a bit of extra practice with the other side.

I am sure in any proceedings inaccuracies in the public statement issued will not help Aarhus' cause one jot, but I am in no better position to speculate than any other observer who applies his own bias to the observations.