Science is self-correcting. Over time, mistakes made by scientists are generally uncovered by other scientists. Sometimes, the mistakes are found quickly. Often, the mistakes take a long time to uncover. But mistakes are simply that: mistakes. Creation is very complex, and as scientists, we can often be fooled by that complexity. What we see as the “obvious” conclusion from a study might not be the correct conclusion at all, because there is often an underlying complexity that was not considered. So while many, many mistakes happen in the course of doing science, it is to be expected. Thus, when a scientist is found to have made a mistake, it doesn’t mean the rest of the scientist’s work is worthless. Even very good scientists make mistakes.
Scientific fraud is another matter altogether. While no scientist should be condemned for making mistakes, all scientists who commit fraud should be strongly and vigorously denounced. There have been two reports of scientific fraud that have come out over the past two days, and I consider it my duty as a scientist to make sure my readers are informed of them. I will discuss the first (and most egregious) in this post.
It involves the nonsensical idea that vaccines cause autism. This idea has been thoroughly tested by various scientific studies, and it is simply wrong. Indeed, I debated a proponent of this idea recently. The debate was hosted, produced, and heavily advertised by an anti-vaccination group. It went so poorly for my opponent that all mention of it has been wiped away from the anti-vaccine site.
Despite the fact that the conclusions of science could not be clearer when it comes to vaccines and autism, there are many people who still believe that vaccines cause autism. Many of them are followers of Andrew Wakefield, the one responsible for the the fraud I wish to discuss in this post.
In 1998, Wakefield and 12 colleagues published a study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. In that paper, they claimed to have found a link between the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.1 Specifically, they claimed to have studied 12 children. Of those children, 9 were claimed to have regressive autism. This means they developed normally until a certain age (usually 15-30 months) and then began to develop the symptoms of autism. According to the paper, 11 of the 12 children had a bowel disease (enterocolitis), and 8 of the 12 showed symptoms days after receiving the MMR vaccine.
Most importantly, however, all three of these things (regressive autism, enterocolitis, and symptoms days after receiving the MMR) could be found in 6 of the 12 children. To the authors of the study, this made a strong case that the MMR was causing a bowel problem, and that bowel problem was producing some effect that developed into autism. As they stated in their paper:
We identified associated gastrointestinal disease and developmental regression in a group of previously normal children, which was generally associated in time with possible environmental triggers
According to the paper, in 8 children the “environmental trigger” was the MMR vaccine, and in one child, it was contracting measles. This study, because it was published in a reputable scientific journal, caused a great amount of concern. As a result, other investigators tried to determine whether or not the MMR was associated with autism. However, several studies showed that it was not.2,3,4
That should have been then end of it, but unfortunately, it was not. There are many “true believers” who really think there has to be a connection between vaccination and autism. However, Wakefield’s colleagues on the study mostly agreed with what the data clearly say. Indeed, after a few years, 10 of Wakefield’s 12 coauthors on the study published a retraction.5 The lead author of the retraction had been very vocal on this issue well before the retraction was published. Acting as a responsible scientist, he stated in 2003:6
There is now unequivocal evidence that MMR is not a risk factor for autism – this statement is not spin or medical conspiracy, but reflects an unprecedented volume of medical study on a worldwide basis.
Up until now, I was willing to believe that this was all just a scientific mistake. Yes, Andrew Wakefield was found guilty of having an undisclosed conflict of interest when he published the study, but in the end, I was willing to believe that he simply allowed his ideology to “color” his interpretation of the study, which led him to a mistaken conclusion. Unfortunately, I can no longer believe that.
An investigative journalist by the name of Brian Deer doggedly followed up on Wakefield’s research. He interviewed several of the parents of the children involved in the study. He then checked the children’s medical records, which was no small task. He published the results of his investigation in The British Medical Journal, and they are nothing short of completely damning for Andrew Wakefield.7
In his investigation, he found that only ONE of the children in the study had confirmed regressive autism. Five of the children were never completely diagnosed, and 6 of them clearly did not have regressive autism. In addition, while Wakefield’s paper claims that 11 of the 12 children had the bowel disease, medical records indicate that ONLY 3 of them had it. While the paper claims that 6 of the 12 had symptoms shortly after the MMR, Deer’s investigation found that NONE of the children could be confirmed as starting symptoms after the MMR, and 10 of the 12 could be confirmed as starting symptoms BEFORE the MMR.
The most damning thing of all, however, is when you put the results together. Even assuming that Wakefield was right in all cases where there was not a definitive medical record that said otherwise, the records make it clear that NONE of the children had all three conditions (regressive autism, bowel disease, and symptoms starting after the MMR). Remember, Wakefield claimed that 6 of the 12 children had all three, and this was a big reason it was clear to him that the MMR was related to autism. However, it can be confirmed directly from medical records that NONE of them had all three.
Here’s the problem. In several parts of the paper, Wakefield claims to have reviewed the children’s developmental records. Thus, either he lied about doing that or (more likely), he lied about what those medical records said. In the end, then, the case is clear. Andrew Wakefield committed scientific fraud.
Unfortunately, he still has a rabidly loyal following here in the U.S. Let’s hope that the rational among them read The British Medical Journal report (it is free to the public) to learn just what kind of man they are following.
1. Wakefield AJ, et al.,”Ileal lymphoid nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children,” Lancet 351:637-641, 1998.
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2. Taylor B, et al., “Autism and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine: no epidemiological evidence for a causal association” Lancet 353:2026-2029, 1999.
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3. Dales, L, et al., “Time Trends in Autism and in MMR Immunization Coverage in California” JAMA 285:1183-1185, 2001
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4. Kreesten Meldgaard Madsen, et al., “A Population-Based Study of Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccination and Autism” NEJM 347:1477-1482, 2002.
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5. Murch SH, et al., “Retraction of an interpretation,” Lancet 363: 750, 2004
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6. Murch, S., “Separating Inflammation from Speculation in Autism” Lancet 362:1498, 2003
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