Help! Help! I’m being repressed.
Somehow, that is the image I have gotten in the three weeks since the very last shred of Andrew Wakefield’s facade of scientific respectability tumbled. As you may recall, at the end of January, the British General Medical Council found Andrew Wakefield, the man whose trial lawyer-funded, breathtakingly incompetent, and quite possibly fraudulent study in 1998 launched the most recent iteration of the anti-vaccine movement, not to mention a thousand (actually, many more) autism quacks, guilty of gross research misconduct, characterizing him as “irresponsible and dishonest.” Soon after that, the tainted first fruit of Wakefield’s “research,” his infamous 1998 Lancet paper, was retracted by the Lancet‘s editors. The anti-vaccine movement reacted, predictably enough, with paranoid conspiracy theories that surpass even those promulgated by Alex Jones of Prison Planet or Jeff Rense. In particular, the conspiracy theories pushed by Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey (not to mention J.B. Handley) were particularly entertaining in their sheer paranoid nuttiness.
Basically, the conspiracy theory went like this: It’s all a conspiracy to suppress Andrew Wakefield’s latest “research,” which, if you believe them, demonstrate once and for all that vaccines are The One True Cause of autism. I’m referring, oof course, to Andrew Wakefield’s “monkey study,” which I blogged about in 2008 and again in 2009. Prometheus and Science Mom have also eviscerated the study, which, as you may also recall, had somehow managed to slither its slimy way past some haplessly clueless peer reviewers and editors in order to ensconce itself in the actual real scientific literature. Make no mistake, the anti-vaccine movement took full advantage of it, as cranks always do whenever editors and reviewers for peer-reviewed journals slip up and let pseudoscience into their pages. Of course, this must have been a doozy of a conspiracy theory, though. Not only did it get the GMC to bring him down but it even went beyond that. It somehow managed, if you believe the antivaccine movement, to pressure the editor of NeuroToxicology, which had accepted Wakefield’s latest manuscript reporting on his monkey study for publication. Indeed, it worked so well that pharmaceutical company heiress and benefactor of Andrew Wakefield’s Thoughtful House had had enough. With Wakefield’s last hope for scientific vindication gone, she forced Wakefield to resign. Since then, we’ve been wondering where Wakefield would finally show up. Indeed, Free Speaker has started a blog WakefieldWatch, that specifically asks, Where in the world is Andrew Wakefield?
Now it looks like it’s Mark “not a doctor, not a scientist” Blaxill’s turn. The one anti-vaccine loon who can match or even exceed Orac’s logorrhea, Blaxill’s shown up after a suitable pause, entitled Joan Cranmer’s Fateful Decisions and the Suppression of Autism Science. He asks:
How can a scientific study simply vanish? This paper had cleared every hurdle for entry into the public scientific record: it had passed peer review at a prestigious journal, received the editor’s approval for publication, been disseminated in electronic publication format (a common practice to ensure timely dissemination of new scientific information), and received the designation “in press” as it stood in line awaiting future publication in a print version of the journal. Now, and inexplicably, it has been erased from the official record. For practical scientific purposes it no longer exists.
Correct. Consider it a mistake being erased. It’s not unlike the case of anesthesiologist Scott Reuben, who was caught in massive scientific fraud and, as a result, many of his manuscripts in press were retracted. True, it’s might not be fair to other authors who may not have known about the scientific fraud. Also true, Wakefield wasn’t accused of scientific fraud on the monkey paper manuscript itself, but it is not unreasonable in light of the ruling of the GMC to consider all of Wakefield’s work to be suspect. Indeed, there’s abundant evidence of utterly incompetent science and possibly even scientific fraud on the part of Andrew Wakefield. It is not “censorship” or “suppression of science” to acknowledge that. Rather, in the case of the monkey study, it is simply acknowledging that the peer review system screwed up big time. Not that that stops Mark “not a doctor, not a scientist” Blaxill from claiming otherwise:
The answer, of course, is that this is no ordinary scientific study. Age of Autism reported previously on its importance HERE , where we noted that “one likely tactic of critics of the study will include attempts to nullify the evidence based on the alleged bias of those involved.” The obvious risk, of course, was that a co-investigator on the paper, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, might make the study a target, especially in light of the hearings then underway at the U.K.’s General Medical Council (GMC). In the wake of last month’s GMC findings of misconduct, we also reported on the calls by Generation Rescue to recognize the even greater importance of Dr. Wakefield’s work on this primate project, an analysis of the health outcomes of vaccinated and unvaccinated macaque monkeys (see HERE and HERE). Sadly, true to our prediction, and despite the quality of the work and the importance of the findings, it appears that the “attempts to nullify the evidence” have been successful.
No, it is because of the quality of the work, as in the lack of quality of the work and its highly unethical nature, that the study should never been done, much less accepted for publication, much less published. Of course, it is a measure of just how critical to the anti-vaccine movement Wakefield’s monkey study was to providing a false appearance of scientific respectability to his work.
My speculation regarding this paper, of course, was that the peer reviewers probably had no clue about the stench of dishonesty and incompetence that hang on Andy Wakefield’s “scientific” career like a shroud. Those of us who pay close attention to the anti-vaccine movement often forget that we are oddballs in a way. The vast majority of people, even scientists who study this stuff, are either unaware or only vaguely aware of Andrew Wakefield and the anti-vaccine movement. Many of them are vaguely aware of the anti-vaccine movement but correctly view them as dangerous cranks who could cause them trouble and therefore stay as far away from them as they possibly can. My guess is that neither Cramner nor the peer reviewers knew the depths of Wakefield’s scientific perfidy. If they did, they never would have accepted the paper for publication. On the other hand, Blaxill does provide a revelation at the end that shows that NeuroToxicology had some connections that I didn’t know about with the anti-vaccine movement, specifically the revelation that the anti-vaccine group SafeMinds had sponsored past NeuroToxicology conferences.
Be that as it may, the editors clearly made a huge mistake as well, given that apparently the huge problems with the study that I described in detail didn’t stop them from accepting the manuscript for publication. Leave it to Not a Doctor Not a Scientist to paint the acceptance of Wakefield’s paper as a brave act, rather than the profound failure of the peer review process:
When Joan Cranmer accepted the primate paper in Neurotoxicology, her decision could not have been an easy one. The study subject and one of the study authors, Andrew Wakefield, were known to be highly controversial. All of the information about the GMC proceedings and the accusations against Wakefield were well known to the editors and peer reviewers. Despite that knowledge and the risks involved, Cranmer and her editorial team judged the science to be sound and decided to go ahead. We complimented them at the time, noting that “the journal editors at Neurotoxicology have taken a courageous stand in publishing what is sure to be unwelcome evidence in some circles.” It appears, however, that Cranmer’s superiors within Elsevier did not share those views.
Uh-oh. The Brave Maverick Scientist appeared to have triumphed, thanks to Brave Maverick Actions by a Brave Maverick Editor, to the acclaim of Brave Maverick Anti-vaccine Cranks everywhere, especially Andrew Wakefield sycophants, toadies, and lackeys. But all is not well in woo-ville. Dark and evil forces were gathering to thwart Brave, Brave Sir Andy, much as the Nazgûl gathered to thwart Frodo and Sam. Can you guess what those forces might be? Of course, one of them is the evil Elsevier publishing. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a big fan of Elsevier. Indeed, I’ve ragged on Elsevier myself on more than one occasion for its dubious activities, not the least of which is its publishing that bastion of pseudoscience Medical Hypotheses, as well as a number of really bad “alternative” medicine journals. Speaking of Medical Hypotheses, I note that HIV/AIDS denialists reacted pretty much the same to the retraction of a Peter Duesberg article from Medical Hypotheses as Not a Doctor Not a Scientist is reacting to the withdrawal of Wakefield’s monkey studies. I guess Wakefield can take solace in the fact that at least he hasn’t sunk so low as to have a manusript withdrawn from Medical Hypotheses. Yet. It’s hard to go lower than that. It’ll probably happen soon, though, because crank journals like Medical Hypotheses or JPANDS are probably the only journals that will even look at a Wakefield manuscript from here on out.
But I digress.
I’m sure you can guess where Not a Doctor Not a Scientist is going with this, can’t you? It’s not as though he’s been telegraphing his intent from early in his article, and it’s not as though he hasn’t been posting on the anti-vaccine crank propaganda blog Age of Autism. If there’s a conspiracy to “suppress” science there, it’s got to come from one place and one place only. That’s right.
Suspicions over the editorial independence of Reed Elsevier on the question of vaccine safety draw support from evidence of board level conflicts of interest involving Reed Elsevier’s CEO, Sir Crispin Davis. Davis, who retired in 2009 as CEO of Reed Elsevier, has served since July 2003 on the board of directors of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) a major vaccine manufacturer (also recently appointed to the board of GSK is James Murdoch, publisher of News Corp., which owns The Times of London, the newspaper which launched the media attack on Wakefield). In 2008, vaccines accounted for 12.5% of GSK’s worldwide revenues. And although Reed Elsevier has no known vaccine liability risk, GSK has been directly exposed to two of the most prominent autism/vaccine controversies. GSK manufactured Pluserix, a version of the MMR vaccine introduced in the UK in 1989 and withdrawn in 1992 due to safety concerns. GSK also produced a thimerosal containing vaccine similar to the one examined in the primate paper (which was a Merck product) named Engerix B, for hepatitis B. GSK lists its financial exposure to thimerosal litigation in the U.S. under the “legal proceedings” section in its 2008 Annual Report.
Of course! It had to be! Damn those vaccine manufacturers! Is there nothing they can’t control? Clearly, they saw Wakefield’s monkey study as a grave threat to their profits, even a grave existential threat to their very existence. Such is the power of Andrew Wakefield and his Brave Mavericky-ness™. Cower, thou vaccine-injecting evildoers! None can stand!
The reason, according to Not a Doctor Not a Scientist, is because Andrew Wakefield is just like Herbert Needleman, the man who carried out groundbreaking studies demonstrating the neurodevelopmental effects of lead exposure in children starting back in the 1970s. Amazingly, Not a Doctor Not a Scientist actually has the audacity to make this comparison:
Seen from this perspective, what if the next-generation incarnation of Herbert Needleman is Andrew Wakefield, but in today’s version of the story, the balance of power has shifted in critical ways? In Wakefield’s case the product is neither gasoline nor paint, but vaccines, one of the most privileged product categories ever invented, products that are produced and promoted by the medical industry with missionary zeal. In contrast to the limited scientific influence of the oil and gas industry, the medical industry Wakefield faces is far more powerful, pursues its interests with greater skill, controls the flow of scientific information and effectively dictates media coverage. It appears now that the medical industry is so powerful that it can rewrite scientific history when it wants and even erase important scientific publications in a reputable journal.
Yes, when I think of Herbert Needleman and his successful crusade to reduce childhood exposure to lead, the first man I think of as the heir to Needleman’s legacy is, of course, Andrew Wakefield. (For any anti-vaccine loons who might be reading this, that’s sarcasm.)
I wonder what Herbert Needleman would think of this comparison. After all, he dedicated his life to protecting children and their health by trying to decrease their exposure to lead as much as possible. He also did it through sound epidemiology and science, not litigation-driven, incompetent, and quite possibly scientifically fraudulent research. My guess is that, if he’s aware of the full extent of Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccine pseudoscience, Dr. Needleman would likely take a very dim view indeed of being compared to such an incompetent, unethical, and dishonest “scientist.” I wonder if he knows that Mark “not a doctor, not a scientist” Blaxill is talking smack about him and comparing him to a pseudoscientist whose activities have greatly contributed to the resurgence of measles in the U.K. and continue to frighten parents about vaccination, endangering children. At least when Blaxill compares Wakefield to Galileo (perhaps the most hilariously inapt bit of hyperbole ever to come out of the anti-vaccine movement), Galileo is hundreds of years in the grave, leaving as his only option what’s left of his bones spinning at thousands of RPM in his grave to protest the news. Dr. Needleman is still alive, and I’d love to see what his reaction to such a comparison would be.
In the end, Cramner’s action to purge her journal of the taint of Wakefield’s bad science surprised me. I didn’t think that she’d do it, but she did. Whatever Elsevier’s other faults or previous misdeeds, in this case, for once, an Elsevier journal did the right thing.