Sunday, March 8, 2009

Dispatch from The Times (UK): Paper linking autism and MMR vaccine verrrrry naughty

As our first "real" post, The Science Police decided to go with a threefer -- three dispatch targets for the price of one. As the neuroskeptic predicted, much ink is being spilt these days on autism and the MMR vaccine. Namely, the fact that the whole link between autism and the MMR vaccine was started by a 1998 paper that, we are finding out, was very badly behaved.

(1) You can't say that
The 1998 Wakefield et al Lancet study2 includes just two easy to parse lists of the twelve individuals included in the study, all of whom had received an MMR vaccination. Eight of the twelve (66.67%) children were judged by their parents to have developed autistic behaviors shortly after receiving their MMR vaccinations. That IS IT, my friends. No matched control group. No replication in a larger, more representative sample -- or using alternative measures that we could expect would be more reliable. No common-sense checks that should bear out if the ridiculously large effect size was indeed representative (e.g., did autism diagnoses spike in 1988, the year MMR vaccines were introduced in the UK?).

In short, this should not have been published in the first place, particularly by a medical journal that should see the public health implications a mile away. Sensational claims need to be supported by sensational(ly rigorous, high-quality and not made-up) data. Like The Amazing Randi sez,
"Look, if I told you that I keep a goat in the backyard of my house in Florida, and if you happened to have a man nearby, you might ask him to look over my garden fence, when he'd say, 'That man keeps a goat'. But what would you do if I said, 'I keep a unicorn in my backyard'?"1

(2) Evil or ignorant?
Now we come to Andrew Wakefield, the first author of the study. Turns out he was paid what would today be $80K by lawyers planning to sue vaccine manufacturers to run the study. And his study's "self-enrolled" participants were the very same vaccine suers. Oh, and on top of all that, he also made up the data.

The psychologists among The Science Police wonder, is Wakefield someone who knew what he was doing, and why it was wrong -- but did it anyway? E.g., for fame, money, love, etc. Or is Wakefield a True Believer -- someone who just never thought things through deeply enough to see any one of the many serious, and important flaws in the study -- and perhaps was even motivated a true desire to help people. This would be a POLL in itself, if we weren't more interested in your opinion on another matter...

(3) Who just f***ed up?
This shiny nugget was published in 1998. It's March 2009 now, and the legal hearings aren't expected to conclude until April. The Science Police are here to ask why it is taking over a decade to settle this thing. We put it to you in the poll below.

Finally, The Science Police thanks Brian Deer, a journalist who seems to have developed an amazing sense of smell, for his help keeping the streets safe. And for better people than we, who have been covering this stuff early and giving the events a human face.

1Maddox, J., Randi, J., & Stewart, W.W. (1988). "High-dilution" experiments a delusion. Nature 334, 287 - 290.

2Wakefield, A.J., et al. (1998). Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The Lancet, 351(9103).