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.