If you're a follower of the never-ending vaccines/autism chronicles, then you probably already know that Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the researcher who sparked the "vaccines cause autism" panic, has been formally sanctioned by the UK's General Medical Council. After an investigative hearing lasting more than two years, the GMC reached their verdict [PDF]: Wakefield conducted his research "dishonestly and irresponsibly."
There is so much to be pissed about when it comes to Wakefield: he was in a vaccine-injury lawyer's pocket when he conducted his original study. He had applied for a patent for a vaccine alternative to the MMR before he held the press conference that set off the vaccine/autism storm. His original study comprised only twelve children, few of whom actually met the criteria for the study. He continues to assert that his research is valid, even though 10 of his original co-authors and the journal in which his study was originally published issued formal retractions. And on. And on.
I summarized the matter for BlogHer, and included plenty of links if you'd like to spend your entire day riding an outrage-fueled adrenaline rush. Excerpt:
Have you ever wondered why, exactly, vaccines are erroneously associated with autism? I'll tell you: In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield held a press conference to announce that his research had revealed a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He published his findings in the respected independent medical journal The Lancet, and spent the next few years promoting his vaccine-autism "concerns" through media outlets like the TV news magazine 60 Minutes.The facts, the deception, the denialist mercenary mindset, the damage to public health, are bad enough -- but Wakefield's actions cause additional damages. As my favorite scientist Emily so eloquently wrote:
The result was panic, a vaccination rates nosedive, and the resurrection of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.
In 2004, it was revealed that Wakefield had also been conducting a separate, simultaneous study funded by lawyers seeking compensation for clients who claimed their children suffered from vaccine damage. Ten of Wakefield's twelve original paper co-authors, horrified by Wakefield's conflict of interest as well as the public health crisis they'd help cause, issued an official retraction in The Lancet [PDF], stating, "We wish to make it clear that in [Wakefield's] paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient."
Why do I care so much? Oh, it's not just because this hack job of science ended up in so much wasted time, money, energy, emotion, and lives. It's also because in science, we've got ethics. We're supposed to, anyway. We have standards. We've got these rules, you see, about "research involving human subjects." They're designed to keep the more nefarious among us from taking advantage of vulnerable populations, to keep them from exploiting people who are least able to defend themselves because of false hope, scientific ignorance, desperation, or incapacity.Iz and I recently watched the movie Contact, in which Jodie Foster plays Ellie Arroway, an astronomer whose principles never waver, not even when doing so would let her fulfill a lifelong dream of extraterrestrial contact. My daughter's face remained naked with awe during Dr. Arroway's hearings, as it dawned on her that devotion to science means devotion to courage. It's a lesson that Dr. Wakefield could stand to learn.
And when a researcher, scientist, doctor violates those rules, steps outside of those bounds, acts dishonestly, doesn't act in the best interests of the children involved, they're joining ranks with the big cheaters of science. With the big selfish bastards of science who are in it only for themselves, the research "subjects" be damned. The ones who will, without compunction, do things that harm just so they can do themselves good.