The following blog post is in reference to the MMR research performed by Wakefield et al.
This is probably the most classic case of a piece of research going wrong. I use the term ‘research’ in the previous sentence very loosely. This is a classic case of fraud that went too far. Basically, the work was done by a now former researcher named Andrew Wakefield. He put together a bunch of data that showed a link between MMR vaccine and a new form of Autism. All of the data was proven to be false and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine and is no longer a researcher. I would like to use this blog post to comment on some of the more interesting aspects from this case of deception.
One of the most interesting facts of this case is that it was known that the research results were not very good. The study used a very small cohort and it seemed impossible to generate the results that were published in the paper. Even the editor at the time thought that the work seemed very weak. This work was published in the Lancet, which is a pretty good journal. I think this is another good point, top journals make mistakes as well. Although, I have had a few good laughs reading some of the open access journals recently (I’m looking at you PLOS ONE). Of course the most damaging thing that came out of this entire ordeal is the effect it had on the general public. Most work that is published may be retracted for dishonesty but that is where the issue ends. The paper is retracted, researchers shamed and the world keeps spinning. But this case led to a new breed of stupid : the anti-vaccine movement. A group of individuals content with the idea that vaccines are bad for their children and thus vaccination must be avoided at all costs. Vaccine, although with much room for improvement, are probably one of the most important scientific achievements in history. No BS, I actually believe this. The number of lives saved by vaccination s staggering. The fact that most vaccines are made at a low price point has made them available to a majority of the world and led to the successful eradication of several diseases such as small pox. Think about that for a moment. A cheap and efficient method of eradicating a disease agent that would kill tens of thousands of people annually. But with the anti-vaccine crowds they don’t care for this history of events. So what do they do to justify their position? They reference the Wakefield study. This is why the Wakefield study was so damaging. People still believe it even though it is completely and terribly incorrect. So, in the end this study really did damage in the public opinion arena. This work obviously is cherry picked to prove an erroneous opinion and is the major reason why this study never should have been published. I never knew that a journal article could turn out to be so dangerous.