The practice of good science requires an open mind. Experiments and studies preformed may confirm what one suspects, or they may completely discredit an hypothesis. Further for any new theory to be valid it has to be reproducible by others in independent laboratories. All of this is by design. The pursuit of science is the pursuit of the accurate understanding of the universe; to be truly accurate you have to have cross-checks.
British Dr. Andrew Wakefield did not practice good science. He infamously claimed that the Measles – Mumps – Rubella vaccine was a trigger for the onset of autism. His 1998 paper in which he claimed the link between the MMR vaccine and autism was withdrawn this year by the Lancet. 10 of the 13 doctors who originally signed on to the paper have withdrawn their support and the work in the paper was extremely flawed.
"Originally posted at Squarestate.net"
There are consequences for really bad science. Dr. Wakefield is facing them now. As of today his license to practice medicine in Britain has been revoked. The General Medical Council found that Dr. Wakefield was guilty of serious professional misconduct.
The study which has caused so much confusion and consternation for parents of autism spectrum children and non-autism spectrum children alike was a study of only 12 children and actually said in it :
"We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described."
What the study did say is that is there seemed to be some link between the time when children were vaccinated and the time when most of cases of autism were also diagnosed. That is a correlation, but it is not in any way an establishment of causality. Lots of things start happen between the age of 1 ½ and 3 which could be triggering autism, if it indeed has a trigger in that sense.
Up to that point, it is good science. There seems to be something there, lets go and take a look at it. What happened with Dr. Wakefield was that he refused, and still refuses to let go of the hypothesis. He gained an enormous amount of fame and money from being able to point to a cause for at sum. He became a celebrity doctor with pals like Jenny McCarthy and other high profile parents of autism spectrum children. All this would have been great if there had been other studies that confirmed what his vanishingly small sample study pointed to. They did not.
Time after time larger scale studies done by other doctors in England and elsewhere showed there was no difference in the autism rates for children who were vaccinated with the MMR vaccine and those who were not. Yet the fear of autism and militancy of some parents of autistic children was enough to do incredible harm. Since the study appeared in the Lancet and the firestorm began, vaccination rates for Measles in Britain have fallen to 61%. This means that tens of thousands of children will be sickened by this disease which can permanently harm or even kill.
It is hard to for those of us who do not have autism spectrum children to understand what those who do feel. As with any group there is going to a range of view points. I know there those who never bought into this idea that vaccination was a trigger, but there are also a very vocal and visible segment of the population who will continue to beat the drum for this theory even though it has been totally discredited. They may be acting out of guilt or fear or any of a host of reasons, but as long as they continue to insist on an idea that has no basis in science they are actually setting back the cause they are so passionate about.
If there is a silver lining in all of this, it is that Dr. Wakefield’s (or should that be Mr. Wakefield now?) claim has focused a lot more attention on autism and what causes the on set of this condition. It is always a good thing when more attention is focused on a condition, even if the original reason for it was fraudulent.
One of the things which makes this time in human history so interesting is the ability for information to be shared and shared quickly world wide. The problem with that is that bad information can be shared and reinforced just as quickly as the good. When emotion and the desire for a certain outcome is fused with bad information we see the result we have with the debate about the causes of autism. There are a lot of hurting parents out there who saw the best thing they ever did, their child, go from being on the normal path of development to the autistic path. This can be incredibly painful and the idea that there is an external source is one that is very attractive.
Sadly it is not supported by science. This is what many people miss about science, it does not care what we want or hope. It can’t help us if our point of view is contrary to the evidence. This is not done out of malice but it can feel that way. For people who desperately want an simple explanation, science often falls short. It would be nice to be able to say that the withdrawal of the Lancet article and the banning of Dr. Wakefield from the practice of medicine will put this pseudo-scientific notion that vaccines are a trigger for autism, but the reality is some will never let go of an explanations for the inexplicable change in their child. As long as that is true we will have to refute and ague about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, to the detriment of the very children they are designed to protect.
The floor is yours
A bit of an update at the request of Brook in Seattle:
The big issue with the study is that Dr. Wakefield claimed that changes in the digestive process caused by the MMR vaccine allowed proteins to get into the blood stream then to the brain. His contention was that this damaged the brain in ways that we identify with autism.
Over at Science Blogs there is a great explanation of the studies done to try to verify this hypothesis. You can find ithere.
What is particularly good about this article is it points out that there have been years of scientists arguing back and forth about this idea. That is what science is. In the end the link was conclusively proven to be non-existent.