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Title: Blog by Novelist William S. Frankl, MD

Scientific Verity

On January 26th, 2010 the prestigious British medical journal, Lancet retracted a 1998 article by Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues that proported to show a link between vaccines and autism.  The study claimed that 12 children with chronic intestinal disorders but with previous normal early development, demonstrated severe behavioral and intellectual deterioration that suggested autism within days after the inoculation with the measles/ mumps/ rubella (MMR) vaccine.
This article caused terrible epidemiological damage by strongly suggesting that many cases of autism were caused by the MMR vaccine.  Many families in Europe and the United States refused to allow their children to be vaccinated after the Lancet article received worldwide publicity.  Newspapers, magazines, TV and radio broadcasts touted the article and stoked the fears of parents.  This led to failure to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of children leading to epidemics of measles, mumps, and rubella, especially the former
Lancet’s retraction of the article occurred less than one week after the United Kingdom’s General Medical Council ruled that in conducting his study, Wakefield acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” by failing to disclose his extreme financial conflicts of interest and “callous disregard” for his patients by subjecting them to unnecessary invasive procedures.
How the editors of Lancet could have allowed the publication of such a momentous challenge to accepted epidemiologic practice based on only 12 subjects is beyond understanding.  Lancet actually ignored warning signs of trouble with this article when 10 of the original 12 authors withdrew their names from the paper, the fact that numerous studies by other researchers in the autism field failed to reproduce Wakefield’s findings, and the outrage of so many in the scientific community.
This storm buffeting Lancet is only one of many that have confounded the scientific community.  Some papers arriving in journal offices are flawed because of poor methodology, inept statistical analysis, and self-serving data analysis and conclusions.  These flaws should be picked up by reviewers and editors with those papers rejected.  However, in some cases papers are accepted and touted out of political conviction, especially when the paper has implications for public policy.
My friend, David Woods, an editor himself, commenting on these matters likes to quote the humorist and physician, Michael O’Donnell in “A Skeptics Medical Dictionary “:           ” Scientific paper ––– Piece of prose that serves many purposes save for that which it claims to exist ––– the passing on of information . . . and which often serves the needs of its authors above the needs of its readers.”

One Response to “Scientific Verity”

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