The Real Lesson of the Vaccines-Cause-Autism Debacle

The doctor who claimed to have proven a link between autism and routine childhood vaccinations has been stripped of his license to practice medicine, the latest in a long string of humiliations. It turned out that his now-discredited study was carried out while he was quietly being well-paid by lawyers who were suing vaccine makers, and was based on blood taken from kids at a birthday party who were each slipped eight bucks for their trouble.

Let’s review: A corrupt charlatan tried to foist a sloppy and possibly fraudulent piece of research onto a vulnerable community–many parents of autistic children are haunted by the lack of good explanation for the disorder–but the persistent work of mainstream scientists laid bare the scheme. And that’s what we expect from science, isn’t it? There may be the very occasional peddlers of junk science who sneak into reputable journals, but science surely if slowly brings their egregious transgressions to light, and expunges them and their work like so much gristle.

But here’s an alternate view to consider: Even prestigious medical journals routinely run dubious studies that are tainted by bias, corruption or incompetence, and are rarely called out on it–but because this particular study got so much attention the scientific community for once actually went through the trouble of exposing it.

That probably seems far-fetched, but it’s much closer to the truth. The evidence supporting this point of view is so plentiful and consistent that it’s daunting to contemplate having to narrow it down to a mere handful of quick points so as not to make this an absurdly long post, but let me try, drawing on my research in Wrong (where these factoids are elaborated on and sourced): About two-thirds of the findings published in top medical journals turn out to be wrong or significantly exaggerated. Nearly all studies that find a particular type of food or a vitamin lowers the risk of disease fail to hold up. In spite of all the hype for gene discoveries that promise to deliver insights into our personal disease risks and customized treatment, studies have found that less than 10 percent of the published studies that identify gene links to disease hold up. Studies suggest that only about one percent of the scientific studies based on fraudulent data are identified and reported. On average roughly one-third of medical researchers surveyed in various studies admit to having committed or become personally aware of at least one act of research misconduct within the previous three years. Two-thirds of the drug-study findings that indicate a drug may cause harm are not fully reported by researchers. A third of the studies published in top medical journals contain statistical errors. And here, at least in this context, is the kicker: An estimated ninety-five percent of medical findings are never retested.

Ironically, the occasion of the rare public outing of one out of an ocean of bad studies actually serves to make medicine look good, because the story comes off as the community successfully rooting out the tiny percentage of bad work that sneaks in.  Rarely does anyone openly point out in public that bad studies are the rule rather than the exception, let alone actually identify many of the vast number of studies that are not trustworthy, let further alone actually correct the record with better research.

Yes, in this case the system worked, because the findings were so inflammatory in terms of the politics of the large autism community, and because they so blatantly contradicted what scientists were already sure they knew about the subject. But it’s a real exception to how the system fares, not a general validation. And that’s the insight we really ought to take away from this sorry episode.

2 thoughts on “The Real Lesson of the Vaccines-Cause-Autism Debacle

  1. The Addiction Blog Letters to Editors 11/12/09 – Re: To Err Is Human. And How! And Why. The Times reviews two books on why and how experts are wrong and why you should or shouldn't trust them. Many similar books have been written. The best ones are the ones that explain why we are wrong most of the time and how this happens. "To Err is Human," and House of Cards," are two of these. Another one, "Why People Believe in Weird Things," is another excellent one because it lists 25 clear cut ways people make mistakes – thinking mistakes. My guess is these new books don't add anything to these past works. People ignored the first books and they are going to ignore these as well. The problem isn't that people can make mistakes and believe these mistakes (bias), but that they want to believe these mistakes because they believed these mistakes before they ever did the first bit of research looking into the particular matter. I read something very critical to this concept about a year ago. It was an article on how Nora Volkow had spent her entire undergraduate and graduate career preparing to become the next Einstein of psychiatry. She had already been picked out to be that genius by the field and all she then had to do was do the prerequisite reading, writing, and arithmetic's and out of this would come the "theory of addictions." This theory would then cure the world of addictions – problem solved – end of story. Moreover, everyone knew this was happening so when the time was right the media would announce it and it would appear. That's what happened too, except for one thing, she was wrong – her theory was wrong. But the field and the media had already decided she was right, before she had even written it. What this did was to kill the field of addiction theory. No other theory was going to be looked at or evaluated because no one else was capable of deriving the right theory but her. Thus, we find ourselves ten years after her being anointed chief of NIDA in the same place we were in 11 years ago. The field of addictions is still wrong and continues to kill a million addicts a year with the wrong theory and its implications. Without realizing it I had written the book about this funeral in 1996, Hypoic's Handbook. In fact, I've been writing about this phenomenon for 17 years and censored – although I didn't know it was about Volkow until a year ago when I happened to read her biography that explained her previous psychiatric canonization. But even in the face of this explanation the addiction field and the media continue to believe every word she says and ignore everything else. Without fixing a single thing in addictions she's probably going to get a Nobel Prize in addictions because the Nobel Committee will do the same thing – believe she's the Einstein of addictions without even reading her stuff that shows she's far from being anything close to the genius she's supposed to be. And addicts will continue to die by the millions and even blamed for their own demise. "Biology isn't destiny?" La-Di-Da. Bada bing bada boom. "Love is an action not a feeling.Integrity is an action not a thought.Anything less is too little." —Dan F. Umanoff, M.D.Author of Hypoic's Handbook – The Hypoism Paradigm of Addiction. and founder of The National Association for the Advancement and Advocacy of Addicts, Inc. (N4A), a not-for-profit 501 (c) (3) organization of addicts for addicts offering free educational and legal services to discriminated against and abused addicts of all varieties, "substances" and "behavioral," and their families. Misty Creek Dr.Sarasota, FL 34241941-929-0893

  2. Joseph says:

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