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Another hoax spread by Age of Autism?

Posted Mar 07 2010 12:04am

Age of Autism has never been noted for accuracy or honesty, except in terms of lack thereof. Still, it has not been their style to post completely fabricated material. As a rule, there is just enough factual basis in their material to make a debunker work to find the lies. The pattern may be changing, in the last few days, as they have made not one but two articles alleging that one Dr. Poul Thorsen, author of several studies debunking an autism-vaccine link, a) has disappeared, b) secretly worked for two universities at the same time when he wasn’t supposed to, c) sometime prior to his disappearance stole millions of dollars from former employer Aarhus University and d) faked data against an autism-vaccine link in exchange for money from the CDC/Big Pharma conspiracy. They currently appear to be bogged down by the fact that a) Thorsen has been located and b) other anti-vaxxers say a different doctor stole the money and disappeared. While I have a work in progress to give a thorough necropsy this train wreck, I deem it most important to provide a briefer analysis of just one facet: AoA’s source for this nonsense, a document allegedly released by a representative of Aarhus. (NOTE: I have a report that the link is no longer active!  Fortunately, I saved the file on my computer.) On examination, I am satisfied of two things. First, this document is, substantially, a forgery. Second, it is not a single work, but a pastiche of what I believe to be at least three originally independent documents.

The best evidence I can offer that this document is forged is how easily certain portions of it can be excised from the rest, to form a whole which is in no way negative in portraying Thorsen. I offer the following as nothing more or less than a possible form of an original and authentic communication:

Aarhus University has decided to issue this statement in response to a number of requests on the part of CDC Denmark project partners. The Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation (DASTI) has been a grant recipient as part of a cooperative agreement with the US National Center for Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, CDC, since 2001. The grant has been administered by Odense University Hospital and Aarhus University (AU) under the direction of Dr. Poul Thorsen. The grant has multiple components and involves collaborators at other institutions in Denmark, including the University of Copenhagen and SSI (Statens Serum Institut). This successful collaboration has resulted in numerous valuable scientific results, and many more are forthcoming.

In March 2009, Dr. Thorsen resigned his faculty position at Aarhus University. Aarhus University wishes to confirm that Dr Poul Thorsen no longer has any connection to Aarhus University, and that Aarhus University will not be able to collaborate with Poul Thorsen in the future. To the extent that other parties collaborating with Aarhus University wish to draw on Poul Thorsen’s expertise, Aarhus University will only accept such collaboration if it has the purpose of securing data or protecting the interests of participating researchers and funding agencies.

Several details stand out to me as casting doubt on the authenticity of the document as an “official” statement from a representative of Aarhus University:

  • As presented at , it is accompanied by external text with numerous errors, most conspicuously: Aarhus is misspelled Aarhaus. An article published in 2003 is dated to 2002, and two authors are indicated instead of seven. “Side 2/2” appears in the body of the text.

  • The identified author of the document is “Jørgen Jørgensen, Managing Director”. I have been able to verify that this is a real person, currently employed by Aarhus. However, his most current title is “Director of Administration”.

  • It is also anomalous that “ Jørgen Jørgensen” is the only appearance of non-Anglic figures in the document. This is consistent with the body of the document originating outside of Denmark.

  • At one point, Thorsen is misspelled “Thomsen”.

  • A key statement that “Dr Thorsens double Full-time employment was unauthorised by Aarhus University…” contains three typos in rapid succession: “Thorsens” without apostrophe; “Full-time” capitalized unnecessarily, and “unauthorised” instead of “unauthorized”. The last is strictly speaking not an error but a variant spelling, consistent with an English-speaking author from the UK rather than the US.  (Note that this would mean the forger is probably NOT a member of AoA!)

  • The claims of wrongdoing currently being aired by AoA and others center upon two extended passages which strike me as tangential to and difficult to harmonize with the rest of the document and with each other. The first and obviously most serious is this: “In investigating the shortfalls associated with the grant, DASTI and Aarhus University became aware of two alleged CDC funding documents as well as a letter regarding funding commitments allegedly written by Randolph B. Williams of CDC’s Procurement Grants Office which was used to secure advances from Aarhus University. Upon investigation by CDC, a suspicion arose that the documents are forgeries. DASTI conducted an internal investigation of the authenticity of the documents and have filed a police report with no specific person named in the filing.” The last comment (italics added) is sufficient to establish that, even if the information is authentic, its presence in the document is not. Assuming that the event happened at all, there is no conceivable point in mentioning it here except to implicate Thorsen. If his ex-employer had had not had enough evidence to do that in a police report, they certainly would not be doing so here, where expressing even well-justified suspicion could easily provide cause for a defamation lawsuit.

    The other major charges are that “(I)t has come to the attention of Aarhus University thatDr Thomsen ( ) has continued to act in such a manner as to create the impression that he still retains a connection to Aarhus University after the termination of his employment by the university… (I)t has come to the attention of Aarhus University that Dr Poul Thorsen has held full-time positions at both Emory University and Aarhus University simultaneously. Dr Thorsens (sic) double Full-time (sic) employment was unauthorised (sic) by Aarhus University, and he engaged in this employment situation despite the express prohibition of Aarhus University.” It is noteworthy that these charges border on the mutually exclusive: On a certain level, emphasizing the “termination” of his employment is going to weaken a claim to illegitimate double employment. It is also striking that, even apart from the multiple typos, the text is quite awkward, with a great deal of redundancy- possible evidence of more lifting from originally separate sources.

    The allegation that dual employment went against his contract is perhaps the most improbable aspect of the document. To anyone familiar with science and academia, this will seem counterintuitive at best: Employment at two or more institutions, as adjunct faculty, is pervasive, at Aarhus as it is elsewhere. Normally, it is only treated as an issue if the joint employment creates conflict of interest, eg. Working for two competing companies. The more specific references to “ employment” do much to allay suspicion: At the least, this suggests a separate and more complex issue than simply whether he was, and should have been, employed by a second university. But, it is still difficult to reconcile such accusations with the apparently positive tone with which the document closes. Thus, it is once again most probable that, even if we are dealing with a genuine communication, its present here is an interpolation.

    Thanks to help from commenters at Left Brain/Right Brain on an earlier draft of this article, I now have strong evidence of something I already suspected: that the allegations against Thorsen are taken from an earlier document which was about him. The following story is apparently the source:

    Aarhus University has confirmed that a former head of research at its North Atlantic Neuro-Epidemiology Alliances department has committed possible fraud totalling up to 10 million kroner against several of the school’s research partners… , Aarhus University’s rector, confirmed that ... Numerous applications for funding for the research were apparently . The scientist – who is reportedly living and working in Atlanta in the US – . But which dealt primarily with research into the possible causes of autism. Aarhus University also claims that the researcher took another permanent position at in the US while still heading the Danish-based project…”

    Many factors argue both against the identification of Thorsen as the suspect, and against the authenticity of the document:

  • The date of the story, February 11, is later than the internal date of “January 22, 2010” given in the document. If the document can be proven based on the story, it is certainly forged.

  • The strongest evidence that the document is based on the Feb. 11 story is that the story does refer to the suspect’s simultaneous employment at Aarhus and Emory, but does state that this was against the rules or wishes of the former. This is consistent with the creator of the document embellishing upon an earlier source.

  • The story does not identify Thorsen or any other suspect. In contrast to the document, it does indicates that a suspect was identified by the university to the police.

  • It appears from the story that Aarhus was unwilling to name the suspect to the public, as would be expected in a sensitive and ongoing investigation. This would indicate, as I have said, that even if Aarhus suspected Thorsen of wrongdoing they would not publicly implicate him in the manner that the document does. Therefore, the document is probably forged.

  • The story does not identify the project in which the alleged fraud was committed. It suggests a project far more recent than the 2003 date of the paper that AoA et al dispute.

  • According to Thorsen’s professional biography, from 1997-2000, he worked as a “visiting scientist” at a CDC office in Atlanta. However, there is no evidence that he currently lives or works there. Therefore, he does not match the description of the suspect.

  • His biography reports that he was an “associate professor” at Aarhus, which does not appear consistent with the document’s allegation that he had “full-time employment” at Aarhus.

  • His biography, which is dated Jan 22, the same date that the document was allegedly composed, indicates that he was employed by Aarhus only through 2008. Therefore, the charge against the suspect of “ continu(ing) to pass himself off as the head of the international project” does not apply to him. Even worse, the document can be proven to be a response to a claim that Thorsen made about himself at or around the time the document was allegedly written. Even the statement that he resigned in March 2009 does not fit with the dates in his biography, though this could be harmonized simply as a kind of “rounding”.

  • It can be added that these allegations, dubious as they are factually and contextually, fall far short of the allegations made by AoA and their immediate source. It does not say that Aarhus “`expressly prohibited’ Dr Poul Thorsen from working for a second university, Emory.” It does not say that, “The double role of Thorsen came to light after the university detected a shortfall in funding.” It does not say that “The university had paid out millions of crowns in advance to Thorsen”, or in any way suggest that he misappropriated funds for his personal use. And it certainly does not say that “Thorsen vanished in March 2009”!

    And really, what was this supposed to prove? When someone literally or proverbially take the money and run Venezuela, the logical explanation is not “hidden bias in the studies” that will “undermine the scientific case for thiomersal“! It’s greed and maybe sex and/or drugs! Why is it that, for all their outward displays of cynicism, antivaxxers can’t seem to accept that people can be greedy, dishonest bastards without help from Big Pharma?

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