Biology in the News Explained

Self-correcting science works again

This is a fascinating profile of a pathetic man, and a cautionary tale.

Andrew Wakefield is the disgraced doctor who started the anti-vaccine movement which has resulted in disease outbreaks all over the developed world, and unnecessary deaths.  It is pretty appalling to read that he is still playing on the ignorance of a core group of determined supporters just to keep his ego propped up.  But although Wakefield’s followers are painfully ignorant, allowing themselves to be dragged down by a scam artist manipulating their palpable desire to place blame for their misfortune, their desperation is understandable and they should be pitied, not ridiculed.

Susan Dominus is thoughtful in her deconstructing of this delusional man in her profile of him.  She is correct to point out that Wakefield’s slope downward is slipperier than most scientists – particularly those who get caught up in advocacy, instead of remembering what science is really about – would like to admit.  This type of person latches onto an idea and becomes so convinced he’s right that he fudges here, obscures there, telling himself that no matter what he’s right, so even if this particular set of data isn’t clear-cut, the paper will generate the funding to conduct definitive experiments, and he will be hailed for his brilliance in seeing the answer to a vexing problem before everyone else.  Now, to admit he was wrong would be to invalidate all those years he spent getting involved with the issue politically, which is rarely a good idea for a scientist.

The problem is, most of the time when we have paradigm-shifting ideas, we’re wrong.  The good news is that in this case too, science operated as it should, and showed over time that there was no link between vaccines and autism.  True, it was unfortunate that it took twelve years for the journal The Lancet to fully retract Wakefield’s paper, and a lot of damage was done in the meantime, but Wakefield’s charisma captivated a lot of the medical community for awhile – in this case surely the force of his personality was a factor in the long delay at discrediting his finding.  If not for persistence of the journalist Brian Deer in carefully taking apart the original Wakefield paper, it might have taken even longer, but science still did its job.

The damage continues to be done, and it looks like it may take a few more disease outbreaks that include some deaths for people to realize the folly of their anti-vaccine stance.  Jenny McCarthy’s autism organization Generation Rescue is still promoting the idea that vaccinations are harmful.  My favorite quote from their site:  ”Generation Rescue is a community of parents and families who have vaccinated their children and now believe in informed consent.”  When have parents not had the option of informed consent?  What they really believe in is apparently misinformed nonconsent.

The leaders in reversing the madness need to be our public schools, some of which began allowing vaccination exemptions during the peak of the anti-vaccine furor (see information on Texas, Michigan, and California, for example; are there any states that don’t have exemptions for personal reasons?). It will be extremely difficult to change laws regarding “religious and philosophical” exemptions which anti-vaccine crusaders have exploited to expose the rest of our children to their madness. If schools don’t start standing up to the anti-science crowd, more children will die – and not always just the children of the exemptees (which could just be considered a form of natural selection) but vaccinated kids who can still contract disease because many vaccinations are not 100% effective – hence the public health directives that require vaccination of everyone.

So the unfortunate lesson to be learned from this case is that while science is ultimately self-correcting, scientists still have little influence on the willfully ignorant, which include a lot of politicians who care about nothing but winning the future votes of their base supporters.  Right now, in large sections of this country, anti-science rhetoric wins the day, so we all lose.

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