Bad science?

In an editorial under the headline “Bad science gets its due,” the editors of the Boston (MA) Globe lament the consequences of Andrew Wakefield’s promotion of a connection between vaccines and Autism. At the end of the piece, the editorialist makes an important point:

But sadder still is the possibility that, in the minds of thousands of parents desperately clinging to hopes of finding a cure for autism, Wakefield’s legend might survive untarnished, possibly even exalted. In reality, his work on autism offers an unfortunate example of poor research trumping the scientific method.

Too bad the writer overlooked some of the other consequences. Here are a few nominees for a list repercussions:

  • The upsurge in cases of preventable diseases that is at least possibly, if not likely, associated with resistance to vaccination;
  • The extraordinary expenditure of resources required to debunk the misleading hypothesis, which resources could have been devoted to developing early identification measures and increasingly effective treatment regimes;
  • The creation of a group or class of people who have been backed into a corner by their allegiance to a mistaken hypothesis;
  • The creation of a host of hucksters who market sham intervenitons to those in that class or group;
  • And more…. Throw others into the comments dear readers.

I suspect that, as with some other popular hypotheses, this one will not die. It may decline for a while, but resurface in 10-20 years in a slightly different guise. Like facilitated communication reveals the hidden brilliance of individuals with severe communication problems; creeping, crawling, and doing angels in the snow (or sand) organizes the brain for learning academics; a special diet reduces hyperactivity; and others, we probably haven’t seen the last of this one.

Link to the editorial.

2 Responses to “Bad science?”


  • Readers should not miss Harriet Hall’s review of Wakefield’s recently published book, Callous Disregard.

    If you are too busy to read the whole review:

    In my opinion, the whole book is an embarrassing, tedious, puerile, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at damage control. Wakefield has been thoroughly discredited in the scientific arena and he is reduced to seeking a second opinion from the public. Perhaps he thinks that the truth can be determined by a popularity contest. Perhaps he thinks the future will look back at him as a persecuted genius like Galileo or Semmelweis. Jenny McCarthy thinks so; I don’t.

  • There is no excuse for bad science.

    Wakefield’s hypothesis has encouraged may folks to keep searching “out there” (vaccines, heavy metals, etc. . ) for some villain that caused their child’s Developmental Disorder.

    I think the search for one specific external “cause” is not helpful for finding out what has blocked a child’s developmental process.

    I think it would be much more fruitful to explore what blocks the developmental process (generally) and find ways to unblock it. If we could re-engage the developmental process, Developmental Disorders might disappear.

    Our current paradigm keeps us from solving Developmental Disorders, because each of these disorders is considered separate and unique and none of these isolated conditions can be cured. We are left with only the ability to treat symptoms.

    GFCF and Feingold Diets and bio-medical treatments may be guideposts which can help us start to build a more appropriate model of Developmental Disorders and help us find functional solutions rather than only treating symptoms.

    Maybe there is an important kernel in Wakefield’s theories. Maybe GFCF and Feingold Diets and bio-medical treatments have a similar kernel. Maybe there are some environmental factors to which some sensitive children react. Maybe those reactions which some hypersensitive children have shuts down their developmental process.

    We might find in the future that Wakefield made mistakes in his science, but that he was also part of a broad group of folks who were dissatisfied with the current paradigm about Developmental Disorders and looked for alternative ways of describing them and understanding them.

    We are not going to be able to make a paradigm shift in Developmental Disorders by sticking within our “normal science,” which clearly tells us there is no cure. The paradigm shift we need is one which re-engages the stuck developmental process of these children and encourages their developmental process to catch up.

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