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There isn’t enough punishment for this

February 9, 2009 on 3:25 pm | In Education, Life, Scientific papers |

I normally try to keep my nose out of areas where I’m in over my head. In other words, there are areas where I’m an expert, and there are areas where I keep myself as informed as I can, but I have to rely on experts for their information. For instance, if you wanted to know about dark matter in our own galaxy, you should definitely come to me:

I’ve got expert knowledge on this, I’m familiar with what makes my findings scientifically rigorous and valid, and I know how to draw responsible conclusions based on the data in front of me. It is completely unreasonable to expect someone who isn’t an active researcher in theoretical astrophysics and cosmology to be an expert in the same way I am.

And by the same token, there are areas where I’m not an expert, such as what the incidences, symptoms, and causes of autism in children are:

So, to be informed, it should be reasonable for me to rely on the scientific findings of experts in that particular field of medical research. Now, I’ve talked before about the importance of being a good scientist, especially when your research can affect the health and well-being of others. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to someone you may not have heard of (unless you’re a huge fan of Bad Astronomy), Andrew Wakefield.

To give you the extremely quick version: in 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a very controversial paper following 12 children’s conditions at a clinic. His conclusion was that eight out of the twelve developed symptoms of autism after receiving their Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) inoculation. Since that piece of research, many millions of dollars have gone into researching the possibility of a link between vaccines and autism. Thousands of children have not been inoculated out of a fear of developing autism, and a few of those children have died as a result of contracting a disease for which a simple vaccine exists. There has been a huge grassroots movement that has sprung up among parents of autistic children, blaming the vaccine for their woes:

Now, over the last 11 years, overwhelming evidence has shown up that there is no link, not even a correlation (much less a causation) between vaccines and autism. But this past Sunday, an article came out in Wakefield’s home country of the UK, declaring the following:

MMR doctor Andrew Wakefield fixed data on autism


What? We have not just a scientist, but a medical doctor dealing with one of the fastest growing epidemics in medicine, falsifying results? And publishing them in a medical journal (the Lancet)? Remember that “eight out of twelve” statistic I quoted you earlier? Here’s what we get, upon further review:

Our investigation, confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated.

The details are even worse. It turns out that after Wakefield’s “suggestion” that MMR, bowel disease/inflammation and autism were linked, the children were re-examined and diagnosed with these new bowel problems. I was unable to find US data, but in the UK, the number of confirmed measles cases in 2008 was 1,346. Want to know what the number of cases was in 1998, the year Wakefield’s paper was published? 56. One scientist’s false data has led to the resurgence of a disease that should be eradicated by this point. Nice move, Andrew, seriously.

That said, autism is a serious problem. We don’t know what causes it, we don’t know why the incidence of autism is so much higher than it’s ever been in the past, and these are things that need further investigation, absolutely. But not on a foundation of lies. And not by searching for a link that doesn’t exist with vaccines. Let’s do everyone justice, and have some sort of accountability for doctors and scientists who, through their actions (whether through ethical incompetence or unethical falsification), cause unnecessary death and disease among the general populace.

If you’re going to accept being lauded as an expert, you have to accept the responsibility of being an expert. Be honest. Be ethical. Or go do something else.


10 Comments »

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  1. Ethan,
    You are absolutely correct that there is no good scientific evidence linking autism with the MMR or any other vaccine. Having said that, there is ample evidence that today’s default recommended vaccine schedule is was too aggressive and can be harmful to infants and children. Many vaccines contain harmful heavy metals that can be toxic in the doses they are given, and furthermore, there is little justification for giving some vaccines at such a young age. When cooler heads prevail, the reasonable compromise between the status quo and the grassroots movement to avoid vaccines altogether is led by Dr. Sears in his book called (appropriately) The Vaccine Book. In a nutshell, the book offers an alternative vaccination schedule spread out over more time than the standard one. Basically, this means spreading the shots out over more visits so less is given at a time. I highly recommend Dr. Sears’ book to any responsible parent concerned with this issue.

    Comment by Brian — February 9, 2009 #

  2. […] of Starts With A Bang! is disgusted by this story: There isn’t enough punishment for this. Ethan gives a good overview of a number of issues albeit we would not agree on some points, […]

    Pingback by Brian Deer Discusses Andrew Wakefield in the Sunday Times: Many Updates « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science — February 9, 2009 #

  3. Oh boy, hot topic. :) Ethan, you’ve presented a very good case against falsifying data or research claims by any scientist in any field. You’ve presented no evidence that autism and vaccines aren’t linked.

    I don’t think anyone disagrees that any form of dishonesty in science is reprehensible and can be a setback for the scientific community. However, if you’re going to discredit a hypothesis (viz. there is a connection between vaccinations and autism) you’re going to need to provide evidence to that effect. The fact that a particular scientist who supported this hypothesis has been exposed as a fraud does not say anything about the merits of that hypothesis. There is no guilt by association here.

    Brian’s point about overstimulation of developing children’s immune systems by an aggressive vaccination schedule (32 vaccines in the first two years of life according to the current schedule!) is one that I think is plausible and even likely. But you’ll continue to hear the CDC and vaccine manufacturers proclaiming how safe vaccines are based on dubious research they’ve sponsored and papers they’ve ghostwritten. The CDC is filled with pro-vaccine “regulators” thanks to a revolving-door policy between industry and government that is, sadly, the norm today.

    Comment by Tom — February 9, 2009 #

  4. Brian, thanks for the vaccination scheduling issue. I remember that when we were kids, there were a handful or two of vaccinations that were done before age 2. Now, they do something like 30. I think that known neurotoxins (like heavy metals) should be removed from vaccines and that the schedule should be spread out.

    This is a hot topic, Tom. Although I haven’t presented evidence that there is not a link between vaccines and autism, the evidence is easily available simply through google.

    But the burden of proof is not on people to prove that there’s no link; that isn’t how science works. You don’t prove that there’s no link between global warming and pirate abundance. You don’t prove that there’s no link between rainfall and pesticide use. And you don’t prove that there’s no link between vaccines and autism. You search for the links that do exist; sometimes you find a hot trail that peters out and sometimes you find a hot trail that leads you to the gold. There’s no merit to the “vaccines cause autism” idea that I’ve been able to find.

    Comment by ethan — February 10, 2009 #

  5. This was frightening to read - pseudoscience=BAD

    Comment by Kampfgestfj — February 10, 2009 #

  6. one of the fastest growing epidemics in medicine

    You don’t mean autism, I hope.

    There is *no* ‘autism epidemic’. That’s the first lie - and the ‘in’ that allows the antivaxxers to continue peddling their crap.

    (The apparent higher incidence of autism is due to better awareness and more importantly changed diagnostic criteria. So now high-functioning autists are included for instance.)

    Comment by Sili — February 12, 2009 #

  7. You’ll be happy to hear that a court just determined that there is no legal grounds for linking vaccines with autism, either.

    Check it out: http://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/news/20090212/vaccine-court-rejects-autism-claims

    That said, autism is a *real* condition that afflicts a lot of people, and I think that there’s good reason to fight it.

    Comment by ethan — February 12, 2009 #

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