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Don’t call it a witch hunt: Scientists who perpetrated autism-vaccine scare should be called out

Don’t call it a witch hunt: Scientists who perpetrated autism-vaccine scare should be called out

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For a field rooted in fact and reason, science sure loves witchcraft.

One of the most common responses to the decade-long effort to hold Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues accountable for creating one of the biggest public health scares in modern history – linking autism to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine – is to call the effort a "witch hunt."

Even scientists who fiercely defend the safety of MMR vaccines and other vaccines say that Wakefield and others should be left alone. The fact that their scientific papers have been roundly criticized, discredited and retracted is enough.

Brian Deer, the investigative journalist who has done the most to detail Wakefield's scientific sleight of hand, wrote a piece about this phenomenon for the Guardian in London that bordered on narcissism. Here's the part worth reading:

Between July 2007 and May 2010, as the longest-ever General Medical Council disciplinary hearing lumbered forward from my investigation, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick – another author who has defended MMR – denounced the GMC's inquiries as a "witchhunt." So, what's my point? I think these comments reveal a striking pattern: doctors default to defending other doctors. In fact, until recently there was a GMC regulation that banned them from bad-mouthing colleagues. But in the specifics of their stance there seemed the idea that scholarly debate, epidemiology and suchlike, should arbitrate. Truth would emerge from the "scientific method", not from "we can reveal" media muck-raking.

Journalists should remain undaunted. A witch hunt, of course, implies a band of crazed bigots and fear-mongers falsely accusing someone of a socially unacceptable act. Charges are trumped up. A trial is hastily put together. Witnesses lie. And the witch is burned at the stake.

Even as metaphor, this doesn't work in the Wakefield case or others like it. Government investigators and journalists like Deer didn't try to pin some false crime on Wakefield. As Deer puts it:  "The regulator's main focus was whether the research was ethical. Mine was whether it was true."

Following Deer's lead, health writers should:

1. Write about who has cited work by Wakefield or other discredited scientists. The fact that Wakefield's concocted evidence for a vaccine-autism link has led to people choosing not to have their children vaccinated against painful and deadly diseases is a true public health crime. It was enough for the UK to ban him from practicing there. Others who helped him by either promoting his work or shielding him from criticism should be called to account. A quick Google Scholar search shows that the controversial 1998 paper has been cited 1,121 times. Many of those articles are citing the paper BECAUSE of the controversy. Some cite the paper and point out its flaws. But there are others who exploit the Wakefield paper to advance an anti-vaccine agenda. One need only see the title of a paper like "Autism: a novel form of mercury poisoning" to know where those authors stand. Their motives should be scrutinized.

2. Question out-of-nowhere advances. This is true for autism, and it's true for much-hyped breakthroughs in genetics, oncology and, just last week, climate science. Ask why a study's findings are so different from previous studies and talk to experts in the field. To understand the real-life consequences of a faulty, possibly fraudulent study, read Sarah Avery's story in the Raleigh News & Observer about a clinical trial for a breast cancer treatment that scientists now say never should have been conducted. Avery describes how although 61-year-old Joyce Shoffner:

received standard chemotherapy, she was steered to the treatment using what was supposed to be a genetic predictor for its success. But the treatment did nothing to stem the tumor's growth, and instead led to blood clots and other problems that complicated her care. Her biggest question is how flawed research advanced to being tested on cancer patients. Many others are asking the same thing in a case that reveals the downside of high-stakes, vastly complicated science.

Avery did not buy the "no witch hunt" argument. She placed blame, by name:

Collaborators – led by Dr. Joseph Nevins, whose lab at Duke has reaped millions of dollars in federal and private research grants – had to retract the work in prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the Journal of Clinical Oncology and Nature Medicine.

3. Hold the decision-makers accountable.This is part of the mission of the Retraction Watch blog, which aims to find out why a paper has been pulled from a journal and whether the retraction might have a ripple effect. Tough questions can make journal editors and scientists uncomfortable. One journal editor told Retraction Watch writer Adam Marcus that it was "none of your damn business" why a paper had been retracted from the Annals of Thoracic Surgery.

Don't take no for an answer. If more reporters regularly asked journal editors, deans of universities and, perhaps most importantly, research funders why deeply flawed or outright fraudulent results were published, they would be more inclined to take their oversight role seriously. They will take a harder look at work before it is published and, if something does go wrong, they will be so used to reporters asking questions that they will have a better response than "none of your damn business" or that it's "too late to change it."

Nobody will be able to claim a "witch hunt" if health writers and the scientific community keep witchcraft out of the labs, the journals and people's medicine cabinets.

Have a question? Send a note to or leave a comment below.

Related Posts:

Wakefield's Wake, Part 1: Media should help undo damage from vaccine-autism hoax

Wakefield's Wake, Part 2: Passionate parents of autistic children can be tricky sources

Wakefield's Wake, Part 3: Trust parents of autistic kids, but verify stories with health records

Wakefield's Wake, Part 4: Overcome confidentiality rules used to hide shaky science

Wakefield's Wake, Part 5: Treat advocacy groups with a healthy dose of skepticism




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Excellent points, all. I would add that jounalists should take into account where a study is published. For example, Medical Hypotheses, Medical Veritas and JAPANDs are infamous wellsprings of quackery. Moreover, FOA (Friends of Andy) have started their own journal (Autism Insights), to publish, in part, their own work. Wakefield was originally on the Editorial Board, but I notice his name has been removed.

BTW, the Autism: A Novel Form of Mercury Poisoning may only be tangentially related to the MMR scare, insofar as it represents another aspect of vaccine-phobia. MMR never contained Thimerosal (the "mercury" referenced.)


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