Sloppy Science Meets Slimy Science: Andrew Wakefield and the Dangers of Junk Science

The esteemed British Medical Journal took up the strange and sordid case of Andrew Wakefield, the discredited autism quack whose 1998 study launched the vaccine-autism debacle. Read the piece if you can stomach it.  Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent 

The BMJ editorial accuses the former doc of fraud - arguing Wakefield elaborately and thus knowingly constructed the crappy case against the MMR vaccine.  Much of the leg-work in deconstructing the fraud came not from the scientific community but a persistent and perhaps pissed off journalist, Brian Deer.  True, researchers were too busy doing real studies investigating the vaccine-autism link.  In fact, 14 large-scale studies from 3 continents finding no differences in autism rates between vaccinated and unvaccinated children.  Enough said.   The BMJ felt compelled to weigh in but seemed to miss an important aspect of the spectacle.

Yes the former doc committed fraudulent, unethical acts upon vulnerable children and families, not to mention the hundreds of kids sickened by measles and whooping cough outbreaks, the thousands of unvaccinated children, and of course we parents who had to weather this spectacle. 

His study was always sloppy science. Pseudoscience. Junk Science.    

The unethical behavior aside, Wakefield produced a sloppy study that should never have been published, never should have been unleashed on the scientific community or the general public.

Paul Offit, the vaccine expert, reminded me of that crucial fact in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that minces no words.  Title says it alone.  Junk Science Isn't a Victimless Crime: Vaccines don't cause autism—and there was never any proof that they do. Too bad kids had to die while we figured that out.

Even if you believe Dr. Offit is the devil's spawn, you must trust that he's right here.  Even if you believe Andrew Wakefield a scapegoat, a savior, you must admit the study suffers many limitations.  There's no room for argument.  Wakefield's work was flawed every which way until Sunday.  In fact, the editor of the Lancet published it despite it being outright rejected by 4 out of 6 of its peer reviewers.  It was descriptive, hardly rigorous, only 8 kids!! It doesn't take an expert to realize how truly speculative and unscientific the results from a study of 8 kids.  Amazing.  Really.  Not even close to good science.  Wouldn't have passed any graduate-level course. 

Should it have been published because of its critical topic?  Should we give a pass to really loose hypotheses on the chance they might be right?  Look at the damage.  There was virtually no other evidence to suggest he was on the right track.  Wasn't then nor is there today.  In fact, plenty refuting the whole "gut" theory.  He could have done a real study, a larger one, a better one, but he didn't.  He took the easy route.

It was a crappy study.  Poorly constructed, obvious from day one.  He was not serious about testing his hypothesis. Yes, about finding his results, constructing his case, but not testing anything. No excuse for that. None.  

Experts didn't go out of their way to remind parents of this startling clear fact amist the growing vaccine controversy.  Did any of you read about those 8 kiddies back several years?  You wouldn't find it anywhere in the national media.  Nowhere.  Not unless you happened to read the original research.


Liz Ditz said...

I'm keeping a list of positive responses to the BMJ (Yes Wakefield is a fraud, and here are the implications...) and negative responses (Wakefield's research IS TOO valid and vaccines cause autism anyway) at A roundup of responses to the BJM & Wakefield's research was motivated by fraud.

Some observations
1. The positive responses come from a broad range of sites -- politically left and right; people who are skeptics/ people who have heretofore (to my knowledge) never commented on vaccines or autism before, and so on. The negative responses are from a predictable set of sites and people.
2. The news coverage in the US has (perhaps inadvertently) perpetrated the idea that all parents of children with autism believe in the vaccine causation myth. It is a complete falsehood. Many parents of children with autism and adults with autism robustly reject the myth.
3. Kev Leitch, whose daughter has intense autism, has a moving post on how Wakefield's actions have damaged everyone affected by autism

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Liz,

Thanks for letting me know about your tallying - please email me or post a comment so we can see your final tally!

And thanks for the reminder that not many? parents of autistic children don't believe autism is caused/triggered by vaccines. Unfortunately the reverse is also true: some parents of children who aren't autistic believe vaccines do.

Good luck!

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Charge me with typing while rushing. Meant to write not all (many?)parents of autistic children think vaccines cause autism. Me make mistake...