Friday, February 12, 2010

Science Works, Albeit Slowly

This month, the British medical journal Lancet retracted a peer-reviewed study done by Andrew Wakefield. The paper was retracted because Wakefield apparently provided false information in the study and perhaps tried to cook the numbers to promote his cause and his career. He's also under investigation for serious professional misconduct.

Who is Andrew Wakefield and why was this paper important? He claimed that there was a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. This paper served as the cornerstone of an anti-vaccination movement here and in Briton that has caused many parents to not vaccinate their children, leaving them vulnerable to a host of serious, but easily preventable diseases. The harm he has done is immeasurable.

On the plus side, science is working. His study drew skepticism and further scrutiny. His co-authors asked to have their names removed from the paper as a means of protecting their reputations. His results could not be replicated and they were refuted. The editors of the journal made a difficult decision to retract the paper, thus keeping their integrity from being taken down with the junk science paper. Retractions like this are rare, fortunately, but they serve as a housecleaning mechanism to purge the literature of truly bad publications. The machinery of science got the right answer. It's a shame that the machinations took 12 years.

The popular press is still full of anti-vaccination material and the harm won't be fully addressed for years, but the process has finally got moving. Meanwhile, true scientists can get back to the serious business of understanding and someday preventing or curing autism.

BTW, Andrew Wakefield now lives in Austin Texas where he runs a clinic called the "Thoughtful House Center for Children." I wouldn't recommend taking your children there.

1 comment:

  1. The anti-vax liars have no interest in science. While the official withdrawal of his research paper is reassuring for the scientific community, as far as changing any public perceptions, that will be even slower. I did not hear anything about the closure of his quackatorium in Austin.

    The anti-vax community is being quick to come to Dr. Wakefield's defense and rather than being persuaded by the evidence they are still crying persecution. When criticisms of the "science" behind his suggestion that autism is due to mercury
    and measles virus in the vaccines, the anti-vaccers quickly moved on to "toxins" and "too many too soon". It's always the vaccines - they don't care what the science says. With the low appreciation of how science works in this country, loud claims based on nonsense have a wide appeal.

    This way of thinking uncritically, is associated with many social problems. It works just as well when accepting the claims for faith. I don't see that brand of nonsense going away any time soon.


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