BOB GARFIELD: This week, the highly respected British medical journal The Lancet formally retracted a 1998 article that suggested a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism. The reasons for the retraction were many, chief among them serious ethical concerns surrounding the study’s lead doctor, Andrew Wakefield. According to the U.K.’s General Medical Council, Wakefield performed overly invasive tests on children, paid the kids to participate and failed to disclose ties to a lawyer representing parents of children with autism. Furthermore, no other study has reproduced Wakefield’s research, and 10 out of his 13 research collaborators have disavowed the article. So how did bad science make its way into a respected medical journal and into the collective psyche? The Lancet’s editor, Dr. Richard Horton, says it’s a mess he’s been trying to clean up for a decade.
DR. RICHARD HORTON: What we've tried to do over the past ten years is, first of all, publish papers that have shown the safety of the vaccine and, secondly, the lesson we've learned is that anything we publish will be picked up and used. It certainly made us much more risk-averse, much more conservative. We now try to be even more cautious about the kinds of work we publish, recognizing that you cannot have a closed discussion in the scientific community about anything today. Everything is accessible to everybody, at any time.
BOB GARFIELD: And those who are paying attention to what you publish do not necessarily approach it with the same level of understanding and report it with the same level of nuance that perhaps you'd prefer. I think what you’re saying is apart from The Lancet’s errors here, the media, by doing what the media do, compounded the problem maybe exponentially.
DR. RICHARD HORTON: This was a system failure. We failed, I think the media failed, I think government failed, I think the scientific community failed. And we all have to very critically examine what part we played in this. I think the media certainly did sustain the story over a decade. It became a political story, with did Tony Blair have his son vaccinated with MMR or not, suddenly a huge media furor around that. Andrew Wakefield would make many statements during the course of those ten years, each of which was dutifully reported as if it was the gospel truth. Profiles of him were written as this charismatic doctor saving the lives of children. I mean, I think we all have to look very carefully at ourselves and say, we really messed up here.
BOB GARFIELD: While it’s nice to imagine that this episode will chasten the media and force it to take much more care about how it reports any kind of medical research, the fact is that a badrillion different media organizations with fewer resources than they used to have, not more, are apt to not change a great deal. So when you publish something what do you have to do, in this day and age, to make sure that there’s no repeat of the MMR debacle?
DR. RICHARD HORTON: We used to think that we could publish speculative research which advanced interesting new ideas which may be wrong, but which were important to provoke debate and discussion. We don’t think that now. What we don't seem able to do is we don't seem able to have a rational conversation in a public space about difficult, controversial issues, without people drawing a conclusion which could be very, very adverse.
BOB GARFIELD: But is this a case where these conversations would have been better confined to the medical community that somehow the public should not be participating in these things because we simply don't have the wherewithal to evaluate them?
DR. RICHARD HORTON: I think that [LAUGHS] although that’s a nice thought, the problem is that that’s just impossible today. The 19th century days where you could sit in the salon at the Royal Society and have a private conversation amongst your fellows, it just doesn't exist anymore. So I think, yeah, too much information in this particular case is a bad thing, which seems to go against every kind of democratic principle that we believe in. But in the case of science, it seems to be true.
BOB GARFIELD: And, finally, 12 years later, as you retract the original research, does it matter? Isn't it just way too late to have any impact on the public?
DR. RICHARD HORTON: I certainly hope that our retraction today will help to reassure parents that there really isn't anything to be concerned about with the vaccine. But I do think that there is a history over many hundreds of years of anti-vaccine movements. And, you know, we are going to see many, many more vaccines available to the general public, and we all have to be very vigilant about making sure that we build trust and confidence in these vaccines, which are going to transform the landscape of health over the next generation.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, well, Richard, thank you very much.
DR. RICHARD HORTON: Appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: Dr. Richard Horton is the editor of The Lancet.
"There Is A Wind"
by by The Album Leaf