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06:59 pm: The autism study

There is a decent amount of coverage about how the key study linking vaccination to autism was outright fraud. There should be more coverage. This needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Out of all the arenas of public thought, public health is one of the least forgiving and highest payoff areas where we can apply scientific thought. It is hard to understand the statistics of populations, as an individual. It is hard, rigorous, time consuming, invasive, and difficult work. This misinformation led to a decade-long public health scare. Scared and upset parents latched onto it and went off on a wrong path that will take at least as long to correct as it did to get there.

This is important: If we get our epidemiology right, then over time – many more people live healthy lives. If we get it wrong – if we instead indulge in undisciplined and magical thinking – if we fail to check and double check and check again – then unnecessary plagues ravage the land and literally thousands more people suffer and die. It was true with the HIV / AIDs epidemic, it is true with stem cell research, and it’s true in many others.

I encourage every sensible, thinking adult to google around and familiarize themselves with this information. Seriously. I’ll wait. I’ve sat through enough ranty conversations about the evils of vaccines to demand a little payback. How this technology, which is on the short list of truly incredible life-saving scientific tools we’ve ever developed, ought to be pitched because “scientific study,” showed something or other, and did we mention the autistic kids?

The table at the bottom of that review is killer. Out of 12 children in the study, every single one included false data. And this was not mere omission or oversight. The lead author was paid for his work – paid more than 400,000 pounds for work on a lawsuit claiming that vaccines were linked to autism and other disorders.

That author should be charged with, at least, negligent homicide. At least in part, because of his work, we’ve got whooping cough and typhoid fever breaking out in California. Scared parents were misled into not protecting their children – and by doing so they endangered those kids and others. Potentially well meaning but misinformed people then used the old “argument from authority” to go further even than the study.

It’s worth pointing out that one of the standard harangues about climate change applies here. Look, look, say the doubters: Science was wrong! You made a mistake – ha ha – how can we ever trust you? I’m sure that in short order, it’ll be “autism-gate.”

The distinction here is that this is how the system is supposed to work. Some bad data got in, and after the bad information got in – scientists kept working. Eventually the error was pointed out, retracted, and is being broadly corrected. The truth won out, but it took time, effort, and a lot of courage to do so. The truth did not win by argument from authority – by prayer – or by any other form of wishful thinking. We extract knowledge from the world slowly, painfully, through rigorous thought and yes – by finding and correcting mistakes and outright lies.

Hopefully, a ten year public health scare is over. Hopefully we can get back on the right path to actually helping parents whose kids have mysterious behaviors including autism – and hopefully we can do it while continuing to beat back diseases from the dark ages, using the only tools that have ever worked effectively against them.

Originally published at chris.dwan.org. You can comment here or there.


[User Picture]
Date:January 6th, 2011 07:33 pm (UTC)
One of the several things I find incredible about this is that the story that this study demonstrated a link between autism and vaccination was given such wide credence considering the sample size. I mean, 12 people? Really?

I was about to say that I wasn't sure what a good punishment for this man would be, but I think I've got it: community service. I want this guy to have to donate at least 20 hours a week, for the next 10 years, to helping out in vaccination clinics. Also I want him to at least make a public apology for his conduct. (The question of what he ought to be charged with is also interesting; negligent homicide seems like a good first pass, although we might want to add reckless endangerment and creating a public nuisance and maybe some others.)

To the science doubters, I would point out that _no_ system is completely safe from deliberate deception and fabrication. Revealed truth, even if one accepts the premise that God goes around telling individuals things rather than chiseling them into publicly visible stone tablets or something, is at least as subject to these problems, and does not provide any clear avenues for correction--as science clearly does.
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