Engineering Thinking Extra Is A Short Review Of A Current Hot Topic
A Major Study Purporting To Show That The MMR Vaccine Causes Autism Has Been Shown To Be A Fraud: What Can We Learn?
A 1998 Lancet paper by Dr. Andrew Wakefield et al concluded that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. As a result, many parents refused to have their children vaccinated. On January 5 of this year the British Medical Journal (BMJ) declared that the Wakefield paper was a fraud.
Scientific corruption is, in my view, a most foul betrayal of the public trust. Hopefully Dr. Wakefield and his cohorts will receive appropriate punishment. Moving on, however, what can we learn from this revelation of fraud? There are two basic cautions provided by Engineering Thinking:
1. Wakefield’s Fraud Does Not Prove That Vaccines Are Safe
Since the Wakefield paper was a fraud, does this mean vaccines do not cause autism? No, drawing that conclusion would be a logical fallacy. This may seem counter-intuitive, but here’s an example to help clarify: Assume that I published a paper purporting to show that 2 + 2 = 4. In my proof I used erroneous math and logical fallacies. Therefore my paper did not prove that 2 + 2 = 4. However, that does not alter the fact that 2 + 2 = 4.
In other words, there is nothing in the Wakefield saga that allows one to eliminate the possibility that vaccines may contribute to autism.
2. The Link To Autism May Be Multi-Variable
Humans tend to look for a smoking gun — a single cause — to explain a fearful event. If we eliminate the smoking gun, then all is okay. However, some medical doctors have expressed concern about vaccinations based on mercury content, mixing of multiple vaccines, and other issues. The hypothesis is that it is a combination of variables, related to the production and/or application of vaccines, that may overwhelm the embryonic neurological system, causing damage that manifests as autism.
There are independent studies that strongly suggest that MMR vaccines are safe, but those do not necessarily constitute a proof. Unfortunately, many studies are flawed or even completely invalid because of the improper application of statistical methods. Failure to account for significant variables as mentioned above can also contribute to poor or invalid results.
Therefore what can we conclude?
Showing the Wakefield paper to be a fraud, as explosive and damaging as it may be, does not move the science forward with regard to the key question: do vaccines, under certain conditions, contribute to autism?
If anyone has some links to studies that are scientifically sound (that use appropriate statistics and that properly account for all variables), and which demonstrate that vaccines are indeed unambiguously not a factor in autism, please forward them to me for posting here.
In the meantime, the old cliché “better safe than sorry” is best applied. Some suggestions for consideration can be found in an earlier blog: “Off Topic: The Autism Epidemic“.