Friday, January 7, 2011
In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist and researcher,
set off a worldwide panic with a Lancet article in which he identified the
common MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccinations as a cause of autism.
There was a precipitous drop in the number of parents electing to vaccinate
their children, and a corresponding rise in measles cases. Once considered
inevitable, measles is a serious disease. In 2009, however, Wakefield was
found to have altered patients records to support his claim. The Lancet
immediately retracted his 1998 publication. The British General Medical
Council ruled that Wakefield had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly."
Investigative reporter Brian Deer has tracked Wakefield for years, turning
up new "contributions" to support his "work." Lawyers, smelling a
possible "mass tort blitz that could make them very wealthy, were
particularly generous. Class-action lawsuits in asbestos and tobacco,
while justified, eventually benefited the lawyers far more than the
victims. Wakefield was struck off the Medical Register and may no longer
practice medicine in the UK. No matter, Wakefield now operates an autism
clinic in Austin, Texas. Although he doesn't have a medical license in the
US, that won't much matter in Texas.
An editorial in the British Medical Journal expressed the hope that the
latest news will put an end to the anti-vaccine movement. We should be so
lucky. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert who wrote Autism's False
Prophets, and donated all royalties to autism research, is not optimistic.
Wakefield is clearly seeking to portray himself as a martyr, and even has
his own celebrity activist pleading his case to the public on programs such
as Oprah, former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy who has an autistic child.
The scientific community must learn to speak up publicly on issues of
Four years ago when the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab (PEAR)
closed its doors after 28 years, scientists saw the closing as a sign of
progress. The public had lost interest in the make-believe science of ESP.
Not a single accomplishment marks the existence of the world's most famous
ESP laboratory. ESP today exists only in second-rate science fiction.
That's where it belongs. However, according to an article by Benedict Carey
on the front page of yesterday's New York Times, a respected psychology
journal plans to publish a paper described by the author as "strong
evidence for extrasensory perception." How strong? Extraordinary claims,
it is often said, require extraordinary evidence. Any evidence of ESP
would qualify as extraordinary today. I have not yet seen the paper, but I
have gone through the exercise of trying to imagine evidence for ESP I
would find persuasive. I couldn't even come close.