A Shot of Reality

Friday, February 05, 2010


The week, The Lancet formally retracted a deeply flawed study that suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The 1998 study has provided fuel for the anti-vaccine movement for years. The Lancet's editor Richard Horton describes how this debacle has forever changed the way the journal will deal with the scientific community and the media.

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Comments [11]

Sam Bisquit from Boston, MA

A similar media facilitated hysteria regarding cell phones and brain cancer is underway with no scientific basis, just anecdotal testimony and unverified viral internet rumors, fanned by a group of crazed and confused conspiracy wackos.

"Unless one is willing to discard the concept of photons, Planck's law, and the interaction between photons and atoms—and thus the entire body of quantum physics—it is simply not possible for the photons associated with either a power line or a cellphone to cause cancer." (S. T. Lakshmikumar, "Power Line Panic and Mobile Mania." Skeptical Inquirer. September/October. 2009.)

"The photon energy of a cellphone EMF [electromagnetic field] is more than 10 million times weaker than the lowest energy ionizing radiation." (Lorne Trottier, "EMF and health: A Growing Hysteria. Skeptical Inquirer. September/October. 2009.)

It seems more likely that the tumors are caused by wearing baseball caps, but only with the bill pointed backwards, and only the ones with Yankee's logos.

Feb. 14 2010 02:17 PM
Olson Huff, MD from Asheville, NC

Most of us in the medical community have known of the "poor science" of Dr. Wakefield's work for some time. The sad part of this is that no matter how mcuh is disavowed, those ardent beleivers that vaccines casue autism will not just say "Oh, how nice to have some new proof of vaccine safety"; rather they will continue to believe that they are right and the rest of the world is wrong.
I wish we had a simple answer for autism; the truth is that it is a complex problem and continues to require complex approaches to unravel the mystery of its causes and its ultimatley prevention.

Feb. 11 2010 02:04 PM
Michael B. Mayor, MD from Hanover, New Hampshire

Those who don't "do science" can be challenged by the task of sorting through the wreckage when controversy erupts, especially among scientists. It is too easy to mistake the margins of error inherent in studies for errors of exactitude that shake confidence in those studies.

The long view of immunization proves that administering selected fragments of disease causing agents to people is followed by far fewer undesirable consequences than ingesting the agents themselves in their full potency and suffering through the disease that shores up the same defenses. Get good numbers; add up the risks; add up the benefits; question resolved.

Feb. 09 2010 04:14 PM
Aravinda Pillalamarri from Mumbai, India

Concluding this interview, Dr. Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, says,

"We are going to see many, many more vaccines available to the general public, and we all have to be very vigilant about making sure that we build trust and confidence in these vaccines which are going to transform the landscape of health over the next generation."

Why is it the job of a medical journal to "make sure" to "build trust and confidence" in the vaccines that come out in the future? He hasn't yet seen the vaccines and he already trusts them and wants to build public confidence in them? How does he know they are safe and effective? It is one thing to retract an earlier article, but is he also ruling out any future article questioning safety of vaccines?

As a mother who chooses vaccines carefully for myself and my family, I would like to trust a journal like the Lancet to evaluate research according to rigorous medical and scholarly standards. If instead I learn that the editorial position is to promote vaccines rather than question them, I will be less confident that it is a reliable source of information when making this important decision.

Feb. 09 2010 10:27 AM
michael framson

Bob Garfield, Aren't you the least of bit curious that the parents of 12 case series children were strictly prohibited from testifying in support of Dr. Wakefield and the procedures which were used to diagnosis what other physicians refused to address. Aren't you the least bit curious to read the accounts of the parents of the 12 children and the praise of they have for Dr. Wakefield.

Bob Garfield, did you follow at all the testimonies in the 146 day trial and that Dr. Richard Horton lied about what he knew and when he knew it. And when Horton's dishonesty was clearly shown to the GMC, Dr Richard Horton refused to reappear at the proceedings.

Bob Garfield, aren't you the least bit curious to know that Dr. Kumar, the lead judge owns stock in Glaxo Smith Kline, the manufacturer of the MMR in question. That alone should have eliminated their participation in this kangaroo court.

Bob Garfield, you say Wakefield's study hasn't been replicated. You are either ignorant or have been deliberately mislead to make that claim. Five studies to date replicate his findings.

Maybe Mr. Garfield, you should, according to the GMC principles of conduct, be brought up on charges of journalist malfeasance and journalistic misconduct. The GMC was nothing more than a McCarthy styled inquisition, that Galileo and now Wakefield et al understands.

It ain't over, not by a long shot.

Feb. 08 2010 09:18 PM
Mark Richard from Columbus, Ohio

As in engineer, I yield to few in my respect for the physical sciences. But as noted above, papers in scientific journals must be handled carefully, like all information. The propositions of most scientific papers are either disproved or seriously amended within 15-20 years of publication. This is no one's fault, and can't be avoided in the scientific method - but it's also a reason for not dismissing skeptics of 'the authority of science' when 'science' (the network of grant-dependent researchers and institutes, the peer-reviewed science press) foolishly gets itself wrapped up too tightly in the crusades of politicians.

Feb. 08 2010 12:46 PM
Stephen Anderson from New York City

Rats! BDR beat me to it.
There is, of course, real tragedy in the story of how great advances in public health can be swept aside by "those who know best".
A well-oiled snake-oil salesman like Dr. Wakefield manages to push phony science self-dealing fantasies of harm can take advantage of the unfathomably ignorant masters of the "journalism" universe and infect the even more susceptible audience of exasperated and fearful parents.
How is it that the 800 pound Gorilla of Irony beating his chest in the room was not noticed?
How can a truly intelligent and inquisitive professional of these black arts not see the parallels? Everything is the same - supposed "science" that cannot be demostrated, fake scientists who will not share what data they have and have destroyed data they find compromising.
It is the same thing! It is the same story!
You effing R-words.

Feb. 07 2010 09:17 PM
BDR from AZ

In the course of the discussion about the withdrawal of the vaccine study you characterize the media today as having "fewer resources" to evaluate the validity of scientific papers. Perhaps. But is that the only explanation?

I refer you to this posting by Mark Steyn on The Corner http://tinyurl.com/yzxap7c about the problems of newspapers and climategate. Lone bloggers with next to no resources are able to do the simplest of research to refute scientific bunkum that media types with their resources, reduced though they may be, seem incapable of accomplishing. Is it laziness? An inadequate science education? Or are they unwilling to do the work because they have already bought into the narrative and are more interested in advancing it than fact checking the science?

Feb. 07 2010 04:50 PM
Meredith McCulloch from Bedford, MA

With the current sad state of the media finances, a pending merger of two media giants, and the blending of news and entertainment, why one more Super Bowl story. It is NOT important.

Meredith McCulloch

Feb. 07 2010 02:40 PM
Man of Misery

Barb Scott has it right. For those wanting some in-depth discussion on the subject of the anti-vaccine movement, I would refer them to Orac's blog, Respectful Insolence, here:



Feb. 06 2010 05:57 PM
B Scott from Alexandria, VA

I suggest that OTM evaluates the unscientific media/marketing campaign(s) of people like Jenny McCarthy on other parents whose children are Autistic.

I'm talking about the unrealistic and unscientific claims they make about their individual children. They are people with unlimited access to dollars $$$ who are able to pick and choose any "treatment" on behalf of their children. And then they go on TV and talk to magazines about their personal impressions of progress that they see in their children.
Jenny McCarthy claims her son is "cured". And far too many TV and radio shows have given her an unquestioned opportunity to state her case.
US Media has given far too much "voice" to Jenny McCarthy and not enough serious evaluation to the scientific/medical community who spend their lives looking for real evidence characterizes the causes of Autism and truly constructive techniques which can be useful to all Austic individuals and their families.
I'm not Austic, I have no Austic children. I see far too many Austic children in my community. Autism is a multi-facetted condition which needs to be investigated. I hope that the genetic mapping programs of the last 20 years will provide real and positive answers to the many parents and individuals who deal with autism each day.
I hope to see accurate information about autism in the media in the near future which will counteract the unsubstantiated "claims" of people like Ms. McCarthy.
Thanks for listening, Barb Scott

Feb. 06 2010 04:31 PM

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