Just last month, I reported about a cancer study that was found to have manipulated data. Now, according to the Sunday Times, a scientist cooked his data to create a seeming connection between autism and a vaccine. From the story:
THE doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine [measles, mumps, rubella] for children changed and misreported results in his research, creating the appearance of a possible link with autism, a Sunday Times investigation has found. Confidential medical documents and interviews with witnesses have established that Andrew Wakefield manipulated patients’ data, which triggered fears that the MMR triple vaccine to protect against measles, mumps and rubella was linked to the condition.
The research was published in February 1998 in an article in The Lancet medical journal. It claimed that the families of eight out of 12 children attending a routine clinic at the hospital had blamed MMR for their autism, and said that problems came on within days of the jab. The team also claimed to have discovered a new inflammatory bowel disease underlying the children’s conditions.
However, our investigation, confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease [sometimes associated with autism], reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and the Lancet paper showed them as abnormal.
The scientist denies the charges, but if they are true, good grief. The study scared enough parents away from the vaccine, that it led, according to the Times, to a “return of the measles.”
What are we to make of these kind of stories? Perhaps the problems have always been there but get more airing now. Or has a problem developed because science has become, in a sense, show business–with big bucks made and potential major celebrity status gained for big discoveries or findings of intense danger? Then, there is the issue, oft mentioned here, of some sectors of science becoming intensely ideological, leading some to use the “study” is merely a tool for advocacy. Still, we must keep our perspective: There is no question, that most scientists are honest, ethical, and care a great deal about accuracy, and that such apparent skewing is the exception, rather than the rule.
But something sure seems wrong. There are too many of these kinds of things happening lately. And some are really big: Think of the charlatan Hwang Wu suk, and how far he got with his fraudulent claim, published in Science, that he had created the first ESC cell line from cloned embryos. Perhaps the peer review process is in trouble–some have worried about that before. Perhaps it is global warming, I don’t know. But this kind of thing has the potential to badly undermine the public’s faith in scientific findings.