The anti-vaxxers are excited. A recent paper, Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination timing and autism among young african american boys: a reanalysis of CDC data, claims that there is evidence that vaccinations cause autism. Only one problem: it's a crappy paper.
Orac has covered it to an Oracian level of detail, so let me give the short summary:
The author, Brian Hooker, is unqualified. He is trained as a chemical engineer, although he now has a position as a biologist in a nursing program at a Christian college.
The journal, Translational Neurodegeneration, is a new something-or-other with no reputation, in the BioMed Central stable of journals. It's not clear if it's legit or not -- to its credit, it's not one of those journals that levies large page charges or fees to publish, so maybe it's OK (but you never know…there sure are a lot of flaky fly-by-night journals popping up). It is not to its credit that it published this paper.
Notice the title: it's a reanalysis of CDC data. That means that they sucked in a bunch of previously published data and rejiggered it, searching for possibly significant correlations. You don't get to do that. We're not talking about a meta-analysis, in which multiple data sets are pooled, but taking one data set and dividing it down into smaller, finer subsets, and then doing statistics on these fragments to test hypotheses not made by the original researchers. This is invalid, because when you subdivide data specifically looking for bits with low p values, you will always find them. It's a probability game. Not to mention that it violates basic principles of experimental design.
It's appallingly bad. Even someone like me with only minimal statistical knowledge (and maybe a bit more knowledge about how to properly design an experiment) can see that it's really an awful paper.
So it got published. Orac wrote a rebuttal that was probably longer than the original paper. Where's the hilarity in all that?
Vox Day/Theodore Beale got in the act. Not only does he cheer for conclusions for which he has no understanding at all about how they were reached, he he accuses the CDC of fraud and conspiracy, and rejects the entirety of the evidence for the safety of vaccines. We're in Alex Jones territory here.
Not only does this "reanalysis of CDC data" reopen the possible MMR-autism link, but it calls into question the integrity of the entire field of vaccine research. If Hooker is correct and CDC doctors such as Dr. Colleen Boyle have engaged in vaccine fraud, it will entirely explode the basic assumption that vaccines are safe because it will render all of the CDC's data and assurances suspect.
Then Day/Beale went into a back-and-forth with Orac on Twitter. In the utterly daft exchange, Flaming Sword Boy accuses Orac of being a mere surgeon, who is scientifically illiterate. Right. Orac is a cancer researcher who publishes in the peer reviewed scientific literature, while Vox Day writes bad fantasy novels and despises women.
But then he drops a bombshell. Vox Day does too have scientific credentials!
No, says the guy whose scientific hypotheses have been turned into multiple published papers and cited by Nature.
Nature has also cited one of my original hypotheses. And it doesn't erase your basic blunder re statistics.
Wait, what? I did a search; no, neither Vox Day nor Theodore Beale have published anything in Nature, or any other science journal, and they also haven't been cited anywhere in the scientific literature. Weird. How can he make this claim?
As it turns out, his claim is so tenuous and absurd that you have to laugh.
Here is his 'hypothesis', which is his: Religion doesn't cause wars. He said this in his blog, and he also says it in his self-published 'I hate atheists' book, both of which hardly anyone reads, and which aren't exactly popular with scientists.
However, he now claims that anyone anywhere who even says something vaguely like that (for instance, Scott Atran, who has argued that religion is not the primary causative agent in terrorism), is "citing" him, even if they don't mention his name or his source, or explicitly acknowledge other sources. It's all him. It is entirely his idea. It's not as if people have been making excuses to exonerate religion from all blame for centuries, it was his idea.
This opens up new possibilities for me. My grandmother used to have a collection of my drawings of animals, made when I was four or five, before I learned to read. Therefore my hypothesis has to be entirely original and mine and mine alone. I would draw these animals, a crocodile, an elephant, a cow, mom and dad, and with a purple crayon, I would draw a convoluted squiggle in their heads, which I announced was their brains. Therefore, this is my hypothesis: animals have brains.
My CV is going to get really long as I add every paper ever published in the comparative neuroscience literature. Heck, I'm adding every paper ever published in neuroscience -- they were all citing me, even if they didn't know it. I am obviously the most influential man in the entire history of the science of the brain!
Maybe I should draw the line at every paper that mentions "animals", though. That would be pretentious and narcissistic and slightly dishonest.
So, what's your innovative hypothesis that qualifies you as a True Scientist, far more important than some guy with a scalpel and a set of grants and a long list of published papers in prestigious journals? Vox has shown the way. You can all be the greatest minds in science!
Here is his ‘hypothesis’, which is his: Religion doesn’t cause wars.
Alas, that hypothesis is not original with him. The protagonist of Heinlein's Starship Troopers discusses the hypothesis that all wars are resource wars, including the Crusades. The discussion, in an OCS class called "History and Moral Philosophy", treats that hypothesis as proven. It follows that if resource competition is the root cause of war, then religion is not. It's a defensible hypothesis, but it would take some actual arguing to make it so.
I award you no points, Mr. Vox Day, and may God have mercy on your soul.
The anti vaccination folks are behaving similarly to folks in West Africa who believe Ebola is a vast conspiracy, that the physicians don't know what they are talking about. It also tracks the belief in Pakistan that polio vaccine is a CIA plot. It appears to be part of a general belief that authority figures are part of a vast conspiracy to hurt folks.
I don't like any of the first 3 bullet points. Credentials of author don't make a paper bad and neither does the journal - a paper is bad because of what the paper does. An author should be judged as qualified based on their papers and work. Reanalysis of data is important if you think the first people did a bad job or were not asking questions you want to ask. Subdividing data is fine so long as you account for your peeking - it can be legitimate (likely not in this case, but you can do it properly).
I looked at the paper and the tables don't even let you see what the data looked like - that's the kind of thing that makes a paper bad. Or claiming logistic regression also supports the conclusion but not giving those results (and leaving every reader doubting it's even remotely true) - that's bad. Or having a possible confound that the study design condemned you with, that made the original authors cautious, and ignoring it.