Anti-Vaccine Researcher Andrew Wakefield Committed Fraud

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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7. Brian Deer, “How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed” British Medical Journal 342:c5347, 2011 (Available free online)
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5 thoughts on “Anti-Vaccine Researcher Andrew Wakefield Committed Fraud”

  1. Interesting article. I thought that the scientific community in general had been using double-blind study methods to ensure accuracy. I suppose cases of improperly checked scientific study that has gained acceptance are more common then is currently suspected. I am hesitant to judge a person’s motives, but I think that inaccurate research should be denounced regardless of motive. It seems to me that, using technology as a gauge, true scientists in pursuit after truth have been getting rare. For, working under the assumption that true science produces technological breakthroughs, and that we haven’t had a technological breakthrough in a good many years, the scientific community must be losing its vigor and focus.
    What do you think?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Enoch. In general, the scientific community does use double-blind studies when it is reasonable to do so. However, it is hard to do that with studies that try to see what happened to individuals in the past. The type of question being investigated determines what methodology the study follows.

      I would wholeheartedly agree that “cases of improperly checked scientific study that has gained acceptance are more common than is currently suspected.” However, I would disagree that “inaccurate research should be denounced regardless of motive.” Inaccurate research should certainly be uncovered and corrected. However, “denounced” is something I would reserve only for falsified research.

      I am not sure that technology is an accurate gauge of scientific progress. Technology’s goals are different from the goals of science. They each interact with one another, to be sure, but I am not sure one is a measure of the other. I would say that science has been advancing in the last 10 years. We know things about the cell and genome, for example, that were complete mysteries just 10 years ago. It’s only been in the last 10 years that evidence has accumulated to indicate that either universal expansion is increasing or there is something terribly wrong with our view of the universe (I think it’s the latter). Creation science has made huge advances in the past 10 years as well. I think the work that John Baumgardner has done on catastrophic plate tectonics is quite amazing, and the research that the ICR people have done on variable radioactive half-lives is incredible.

      Having said all that, I would agree that “true scientists in pursuit after truth have been getting rare.” I think the way science is done today encourages propping up poor hypotheses rather than revising broken paradigms. That causes science to slow. Thus, I would say that scientific progress is much slower than it could be today. If that’s what you meant when you said “the scientific community must be losing its vigor and focus,” then I agree.

  2. Dr. Wile,
    Thank you for your response! I like being able to get the opinion of one much more knowledgeable in science than I.
    What led me to mention about technology being a measure of science was a pattern that I seem to see in History. I do not doubt that science is still progressing fairly. What I failed to emphasize in my comment is that major discoveries seem to be lacking. One of the most apparent indications of major scientific discoveries seems to be a whole new field of technology. Viz: the discovery of electricity and its technological ramifications; and the special and general theories of relativity and the birth of nuclear power.
    We have continued to build rapidly on or previous foundations, but those foundations are limited. I think that there is much more foundation that we have yet to shed light on.

    Also, on a different note, I was curious as to why you put special emphasis on Anselm of Canterbury throughout the theme of this site. I noticed that the name of the site is derived from one of his works, and your gravatar is a representation of him. As far I know, he did not contribute much to science although he is well known for his theology and his Ontological argument for God.

    1. I guess I would still have to disagree with you. For example, I consider that the discovery that RNA does a lot more than just make protein translation possible is a HUGE discovery. It upsets almost 50 years of “established” thought. Also, the discovery that there are factors other than genetics that lead to inheritance (something unheard of just 10 years ago) is a major discovery. In creation science, the study of helium in zircons that shows stunning evidence for variable radioactive decay rates, coupled with an apparent link between radioactive decay rates and the earth/sun distance is a MAJOR discovery. Not all major discoveries have applications to technology.

      I would agree that there is more foundation upon which to shed light, and that some of the existing foundations need to be toppled in order for more serious scientific progress to be made.

      I like Anselm of Canterbury for several reasons. The most important is that he was one of the first to seriously tie reason to Christian theology. Prior to him, most theologians were either mystical or emotional. Many call Anselm the first scholastic philosopher of Christian theology. I think reason is a vital component in developing a coherent theology. In my view, many theological traditions (such as Calvinism) have made the mistake of ignoring reason when it comes to theology and thus have an incomplete view of Christianity.

      Another reason I like him is that he was a very original thinker. If you read some of my previous posts, you will see that even when I don’t agree with them, I like original thinkers. Gerald Schroder, for example, is a Jewish scientist who has an interesting view on how science and Judaism relate. I disagree with most of what he says, but I love his originality of thought. The same goes for several different atheist writers (see here, here, here, and here).

      Another reason I like him is that he was intent on doing the right thing, even when it cost him. He was exiled by two different kings because he fought for the church to be separate from the state.

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