Retraction Watch readers may be forgiven for thinking that there has been at least a small uptick in the papers that claim to link autism and vaccines, and yet tend to raise more questions than they answer. Sometimes, they are retracted. See here, here and here, for example. We talk to David Gorski, well known for his fights against pseudoscience, about the most recent example.
Retraction Watch (RW): You describe a recent paper reporting high levels of aluminum in the brains of people with autism as “utterly awful.” What are your main criticisms of the paper?
David Gorski (DG): There are no controls.
Medians Means are used instead of means medians. There was no attempt even to explain why there were huge variations in readings for their tissue replicates. I can’t comment on the details of the fluorescence microscopy images, but talking to people I know who do have expertise there, I find them unimpressive.
RW: The paper appears in Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology, an Elsevier publication with an impact factor of 3.225. Are you surprised these problems weren’t picked up by the editors and reviewers?
DG: I don’t know how that journal works, but the short time frame between publication, revision, resubmission, and publication makes me suspicious that the peer review was not what it should be. The paper was submitted on October 26, a revised version was resubmitted on November 21, and the final was accepted on November 23 — and published online November 26. That’s an awfully quick turnaround.
Also, the lead author, Christopher Exley at Keele University, sits on the editorial board of the journal, which makes me wonder if there’s a sufficient firewall between the editorial board and the review process. But I don’t know. I only see red flags.
RW: You compare the lead author of this paper — Christopher Exley — with the lead author of another paper allegedly linking autism to components of vaccines, Christopher Shaw, who has had to retract two papers for data issues. What’s the similarities between them, besides the subject matter?
DG: Both started out as reasonable scientists and got sucked into the maw of bad antivaccine science. Both have been funded extensively by the rabidly antivaccine Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute. Both claim not to be antivaccine but regularly say things that show they are, They show up in antivaccine propaganda films. For instance Shaw was in the antivaccine propaganda film The Greater Good, while Exley was recently in the antivaccine propaganda documentary Injecting Aluminum. They’re both popular now in various antivaccine groups such as Autism One, a conference devoted to promoting the discredited idea that vaccines cause autism.
RW: We have covered a number of retractions of papers reporting findings suggesting vaccines may have health problems. Does this surprise you?
DG: Of course not. At best these studies are virtually always incredibly bad science. At worst, they can be fraudulent.
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