Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Some quick thoughts and links on Andrew Wakefield, the BMJ, autism, vaccines, and fraud

with 6 comments

If you’re a savvy Retraction Watch reader — or if you’ve paid any attention at all to the news in the last 18 hours — you will have heard by now that the BMJ has called Andrew Wakefield’s work on autism and the MMR vaccine a “hoax.”

The February 2010 retraction of the original Wakefield paper in the Lancet was, of course, a huge deal. If there were a Canon of Scientific Retractions, it would be in it. It happened before we launched Retraction Watch, however, so we haven’t commented much on it.

We plan on writing about major retractions in history, but the frequency of fascinating timely ones hasn’t abated enough yet to let us do that. (One exception: Our Best of Retractions series.) And in any case, there have been a lot of pixels spilled on this one already, so we’re not sure we have much to add. That’s the nice thing about the web: It leaves us free to curate as well as create.

One comment we want to offer is that the investigation by Brian Deer in the BMJ is yet more proof that scientific retractions are worth watching. While most retractions don’t involve fraud, many involve misconduct. And if you peel back enough layers of the onion on many of those, you’ll uncover critically important stories. Deer has been doing this for more than a decade when it comes to Wakefield’s work, as have others. Adam did it when he broke the story of Scott Reuben’s fraud.

But as we noted, there are already a lot of pixels spilled on the most recent chapter in the Wakefield story, and we’re not sure what else we can add right now. So here are a few suggestions for smart commentary:

We’ll add to that list as we come across other good stuff. (Thanks to Bora Zivkovic and EvidenceMatters for a few of these links.) And here’s what our sister blog, Embargo Watch, posted about whether a tweet — and later, CNN — broke the embargo on the BMJ articles.

Written by Ivan Oransky

January 6th, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Comments
  • Darryl Cunningham January 6, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Thanks for the link to my strip. You did get my name wrong though. Ooops!

    • ivanoransky January 6, 2011 at 1:52 pm

      Fixed — apols and thanks!

  • Liz Ditz January 9, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    I’m keeping a list of positive responses to the BMJ (Yes Wakefield is a fraud, and here are the implications…) and negative responses (Wakefield’s research IS TOO valid and vaccines cause autism anyway) at A roundup of responses to the BJM & Wakefield’s research was motivated by fraud.

    Some observations
    1. The positive responses come from a broad range of sites — politically left and right; people who are skeptics/ people who have heretofore (to my knowledge) never commented on vaccines or autism before, and so on. The negative responses are from a predictable set of sites and people.
    2. The news coverage in the US has (perhaps inadvertently) perpetrated the idea that all parents of children with autism believe in the vaccine causation myth. It is a complete falsehood. Many parents of children with autism and adults with autism robustly reject the myth.
    3. Kev Leitch, whose daughter has intense autism, has a moving post on how Wakefield’s actions have damaged everyone affected by autism

  • Rob Borland January 16, 2011 at 12:16 am

    You say ‘the BMJ has called Andrew Wakefield’s work on autism and the MMR vaccine a “hoax.”’ but I can’t find the word “hoax” used in the two BMJ articles linked.

    • ivanoransky January 16, 2011 at 12:24 am

      Thanks for your comment. The press release likens the retracted paper to the Piltdown Man hoax. Here are the first few paragraphs:

      BMJ declares MMR study “an elaborate fraud” – Autism claims likened to “Piltdown Man” hoax

      Editorial: Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent
      Feature: Secrets of the MMR scare: how the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed
      Online analysis: Piltdown medicine: The missing link between MMR and autism

      Today, the BMJ declares the 1998 Lancet paper that implied a link between the MMR vaccine and autism “an elaborate fraud.”

      Dr Fiona Godlee, BMJ Editor in Chief says “the MMR scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud” and that such “clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare.”

      She is struck by a comparison between researcher Andrew Wakefield’s fraud and Piltdown man, that great paleontological hoax that led people to believe for 40 years that the missing link between man and ape had been found.

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