Our age could be called the Age of Rebellion against Truth. Ideological zealotry—an attitude that often combines material greed with the spiritual kind—has now infected science and medicine as well as other, softer fields. In this instance, it appears that an ideology of “anti-vaccinism” got started somehow, and, in pursuit of it, truth and science and human well-being got thrown out the window.
Junk science kills
By ELIZABETH M. WHELAN
February 4, 2010
The media gave big headlines to this week’s stories on a prestigious British medical publication’s retraction of an article that had claimed to show a causal link between standard childhood vaccinations (measles, mumps and rubella) and autism.
Yet the coverage of the Lancet affair didn’t truly convey the outrageousness of the original publication or the gravity of its consequences—consequences long festering, since the paper was published not last week but 12 years ago.
Many of us in the scientific community recognized the “study” as junk when it appeared in 1998. Even before we learned of then-unknown ethical failings by its lead author, we knew the study was based on a tiny population of only 12 children. More, it relied on a novel methodology that assumed some bizarre, previously unheard of, association between children’s autism and their manifestation of intestinal problems.
Nonetheless, the media back then seized on this story from a prestigious medical source—and the scare picked up steam when TV appearances by actress Jenny McCarthy and a Rolling Stone article by Robert Kennedy Jr. blared word of the putative dangers of vaccines.
When criticism of the paper intensified in the days after publication, Lancet editor-in-chief Dr. Richard Horton defended his decision to publish what he acknowledged as an inferior study by claiming it would generate debate on the autism/vaccine issue. Even when 10 of the original 13 authors withdrew their names from the article, Horton still refused to withdraw the study.
Nor did he take such action when multiple studies subsequently appeared showing no link between vaccines and autism. Nor even in 2004—when it was revealed that the lead author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, had been paid, in part, by lawyers for parents seeking to sue vaccine makers, claiming adverse health consequences.
All the publicity led many parents to forgo these vital infant immunizations: Vaccination rates in Britain, especially, plummeted. And since then, hundreds of unvaccinated children have been hospitalized in Britain with the measles. Some died of the illness.
Here in America, more than 1,000 children have died from H1N1 flu over the last year—numbers that would surely be smaller had not so many parents been frightened away from getting flu shots by the general Wakefield-induced paranoia over vaccines.
In other words, a medical jour nal triggered a chain of events that led to preventable disease—and some child deaths.
Some will argue the Lancet piece was an aberration: Most peer-reviewed journals publish only carefully reviewed, well-conducted studies. But there is a disturbing trend in recent years: publication of small, uncontrolled, isolated findings—which the media immediately present as fact, under alarming headlines.
And health and environmental activists have founded their own cliquish “peer review” journals: Small groups of ideologically fueled scientists publish the manuscripts compatible with their activist mission.
In the specific case of vaccines, a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists, “investigative journalists” and (understandably) desperate parents of sick children in search of explanations also stands ready to pounce on any apparent indictment of vaccines—and spread the word.
All of which makes it all the more important for serious journals, as the Lancet claims to be, to avoid junk science—not promote it.
Nor did the journal’s editors, after 12 years, finally independently come to their senses and vote to retract. Horton finally pulled the trigger on the retraction only after a British medical panel (the General Medical Council) concluded that Wakefield had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a “callous disregard” for the suffering of children following his spurious publication.
Even with the retraction, the widespread rumors of a vaccine-autism link will prevail: The broader anti-vaccine movement is alive and well, albeit without a shred of evidence to support their case. As the chief of Infectious Disease at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, Dr. Paul Offit, reflected sadly, “This retraction by Lancet came far too late. It’s very easy to scare people; it’s very hard to unscare them.”
Horton has made no effort whatsoever to apologize or take editorial responsibility for this egregious error. He should step forward and say, “I regret the needless suffering and death for which I am partly responsible.”
This incident leads to one very unsettling but unavoidable conclusion: Even a study in a top-notch, peer-reviewed medical journal may still be scientific garbage. Imagine how many other false (if less controversial) reports glide by under the radar—undetected but still destructive to good science and public health.
Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health (AC SH.org).
Ron L. writes:
This peer reviewed journal must havea select set of idiots and leftists as peers. [LA replies: Yes, the “peers” in peer-reviewed studies now have about as much value as the “peers” in the Tony Blair-recreated House of Lords.]
The Lancet is infamous for running faked satistics on Iraqi casualties.
Also, Phyllis Chesler, the feminist author of “The New Anti-Semitism,” called out the absurd Arabism of the Lancet, as seen in a piece where they blame endemic domestic violence in the “Palestinian Territory” on Israel. In a critique she sent to the Lancet and posted online, Chesler writes:
Their study is titled: “Association between exposure to political violence and intimate-partner violence in the occupied Palestinian territory: a cross-sectional study.” And yes, they have found that Palestinian husbands are more violent towards Palestinian wives as a function of the Israeli “occupation”—and that the violence increases significantly when the husbands are “directly” as opposed to “indirectly” exposed to political violence.
I believe that Arab and Muslim men, including Palestinian men, are indeed violent towards Arab and Muslim women. I also believe that war-related stress, including poverty, usually increases “intimate partner violence,” aka male domestic violence. But beyond that, how does one evaluate this study?
First, let’s follow the money. This study was funded by the Palestinian National Authority as well as by the Core Funding Group at the University of Minnesota. The Palestinian Authority is not a disinterested party. But even worse: The data was collected by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Palestinians are the people who once told the world that Israeli soldiers shot young Mohammed al-Dura, committed a massacre in Jenin, and purposely attacked Palestinian civilians (who just happened to be jihadists dressed in civilian clothing or hostage-civilians behind whom the jihadists hid).
Second, let’s note that the study has a political goal which trumps any objective academic or feminist goal. (These researchers claim to have a “feminist” perspective). In my view, this study wishes to present Palestinian men as victims even when (or precisely because) those men are battering their wives. And, it wishes to present Palestinian cultural barbarism, which includes severe child abuse, as also related to the alleged Israeli occupation.
Third, therefore, the study has purposely omitted the violence, including femicide, which is routinely perpetrated against daughters and sisters in “occupied Palestine” and has, instead, chosen to focus only on husband-wife violence and only on couples who are currently married. The honor murders of daughters and sisters by their parents and brothers is a well known phenomenon in Gaza and on the West Bank.