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hard lesson

This article should be a hard lesson for the public on the way science is done, and why it is done the way it is.

I often hear complaints about how slow research is, particularly from peddlers of woo (or to be kind "non-standard treatments"), and they wonder why they aren't being taken more seriously, and why they have to do trials on animals, and then small groups of people, and then big groups of people, and so forth, long before they will be considered for approval by the FDA or be treated like real medicine. Why? Why? they ask, wringing their hands, when there are little children to be saved? The public would prefer to believe that science is cold and doesn't care.

That is so far from the truth. Instead, they are protecting the public against the unscrupulous frauds like Andrew Wakefield.

Let us summarize what has happened here. Wakefield published an article decades ago claiming that there was a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. As it turns out, he doctored his results. Even the families have come forward to dispute some of the claims he made. But just saying it was so was enough for the uncritical to refuse to vaccinate their kids, and now children are dying from from measles and whooping cough even though a vaccine exists that can save them. The damage Wakefield has done is incalculable, and he eventually lost his license to practice medicine in Britain. But as the article linked above makes clear, it wasn't just because he was sloppy or wanted person gain in the form of plaudits from his peers: it was because he wanted to make money off this study. He wanted to scare people into using a product he planned to market. And when given a chance to do normal science, and replicate his results on a larger group of subjects, he declined. His reasons for declining are clear: he knew his results were fraudulant, and reproducing fraudulant results on a larger group would be much more difficult than on a mere 12 children. Anyone who has ever taken statistics knows that there isn't a lot you can say about a group that small.

This case is one of real science on this subject being stymied at ever turn by Wakefield. But one man can't hold back the tide of real data forever. Other scientists tried to replicate his results, and got what Wakefield knew they would get: nothing. And so, the conspiracy theories started, and desperate parents of children with autism got sucked in to his madness. Merely refuting Wakefield now is no longer enough. Evidence no longer matters because these parents are too invested in the hope that they are doing something good. That is what is so sad. They are being used by this man, by Wakefield, and like many men in the face of evidence that proves he is wrong, that he is caught, he still insists that he is the victim here.

It's very hard for me to resist the urge to conclude that Wakefield is evil. Sadly, his choices at every step are all too human. We all wish to succeed, to do something no one else has done, to make money, and not to see ourselves as bad people. But most of us eventually accept that we do make mistakes; that our best intentions don't necessarily mean that only good can come from it; that we are flawed and make errors; that we will never be rich. Most of us will bow to the weight of evidence and morality sooner rather than later. If anything makes Wakefield evil, it's that neither evidence nor morality matter any more. He is still writing books leading the conspiracy-crazed on about how he was right all along. And dupes like Jenny McCarthy still follow, and to make sense of any of his lies, are forced to lie themselves. In the end, like Anakin Skywalker trying to save his wife, end up causing more harm that good.

Science exists to help us weed out these claims before they become entrenched. Unfortunately, in the modern media environment, with reporters hyping results because they know nothing about how science works, tragedies like this unfold. Will the media and the public learn their lesson? Maybe in a generation, we can hope. But as with Wakefield, the living will find it very hard to ever admit they were wrong while they live.

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