Pseudoscientist reprimanded, pseudoscience retracted

February 4, 2010 • 1:20 pm

by Greg Mayer

Following up on a comment by Glen Davidson to my latest dowsing post, in which he noted that the UK’s General Medical Council had ruled against anti-vaccination activist Dr. Andrew Wakefield, finding him callous, unethical and dishonest, I note that The Lancet (registration required) has retracted Wakefield and coauthors’ 1998 paper that set off the autism/vaccination controversy. The editors of The Lancet now accept that not only should the paper not have been published, but that its conclusions are false.

The NY Times also covered the story, in a manner I found refreshing. Too often, perhaps due to some distorted sense of objectivity, news reporting consists of a “he said, she said” style, in which opposing viewpoints are given equal status, regardless of the plausibility or support for the claims made.  You’ve all read the kind of story that will have a line like, “Dr. Smith, a paleontologist at the natural history museum, said Triceratops had been extinct for more than 60 million years before the origin of man, while Dr. Jones from the institute said Triceratops had been ridden by men like horses until the recent worldwide flood drowned them all”. The Times reporter, Gardiner Harris, however is familiar with the evidence.

After Dr. Wakefield’s study, vaccination rates plunged in Britain and the number of measles cases soared.

In the United States, anti-vaccine groups have advanced other theories since then to explain why they think vaccines cause autism. For years, they blamed thimerosal, a vaccine preservative containing mercury. Because of concerns over the preservative, vaccine makers in 2001 largely eliminated thimerosal from routinely administered childhood vaccines.

But this change has had no apparent impact on childhood autism rates. Anti-vaccine groups now suggest that a significant number of children have a cellular disorder whose effects are set off by vaccinations.

With each new theory, parents’ groups have called for research to explore possible links between vaccination and autism. Study after study has failed to show any link, and prominent scientific agencies have concluded that scarce research dollars should be spent investigating other possible causes of autism.

(I’ll add parenthetically that I find the notion of “retracting” a paper silly.  Once it’s published, it can’t be unpublished. But it is proper for editors and/or authors to later publish to say that a paper’s data or conclusions were flawed, unwarranted, or false.)

32 thoughts on “Pseudoscientist reprimanded, pseudoscience retracted

  1. I find the notion of “retracting” a paper silly. Once it’s published, it can’t be unpublished. But it is proper for editors and/or authors to later publish to say that a paper’s data or conclusions were flawed, unwarranted, or false.

    Publishing other work that counters the findings of a paper is by no means similar to a retraction. A retraction is about a failure of the peer-review process, and not about the normal course of science. A journal will potentially have access to information on a paper it has published that others will not. A retraction is not just saying that the paper’s data or conclusions were flawed, unwarranted or false, but that there was a fundamental error in the publication process, perhaps involving fraud or other malfeasance, things that could never be addressed in some sort of later conventional publication.

    By retracting a paper a journal says that it removes the imprimatur of the peer-review process for it. Without retractions, a journal could never say that it was wrong to accept a paper, which I think is a vital aspect to scientific communication.

    1. As much as I agree with the premise to this argument (and well said, btw), the conclusion does not follow. However “flawed” the review process, it is not at all clear that the review process was at fault, at least for a medical journal that seems routinely to accept what amounts to little more than testimony as evidence.

      The problem is that the journal does routinely accept and publish crap science. Despite its apparently august reputation, far too much of what it publishes wouldn’t pass muster in any real science journal. We all know this, and we know it about most “medical” journals.

      Attempting to protect their undeserved reputation that this article was a “one-off” failure of process, and needs to be “retracted” is just utter nonsense.

      Real science journals do not retract articles unless true fraud has been proved, and then they retract simply and only because of the fraudulent representation: not because of some alleged “failure” of the review process. What bollocks.

      As a reviewer for scientific journals, the one thing I do NOT ever do is assume the data are fraudulent. I attempt to make sense of what was found given the methods articulated in the article. Fraud is NEVER a review criterion.

      Nor, incidentally, is it in any way obvious that fraud is the explanation here. With just 12 cases, one should not be surprised that happenstantial correlations occur. Oversell, hyperbole, etc., yes. Yes, well, who hasn’t been guilty of that.

      So, all that said: we should not retract from journals (a political act, if it is anything), we ultimately correct them by subsequent work.

  2. In this case the retraction was made after the General Medical Council found that Dr Andrew Wakefield was “dishonest, irresponsibile and showed callous disregard for the distress and pain of children.” The Lancet’s point seems to be that, in view of these findings, the research published under his name should no longer be considered to contain noteworthy scientific findings. It cannot unpublish them, but is it silly to say that this is no longer considered to be part of the corpus of serious scientific work? I’m not a scientist, but it doesn’t seem silly to me. Perhaps I am just repeating what Tulse is saying. If so, I agree with Tulse, and it seems to be a reasonable thing to have done.

    1. Perhaps the disagreement is only verbal– I see nothing wrong (in fact it’s a good thing) in editors having the ability to state that a paper was published under circumstances that they now find would not pass muster. I just wouldn’t call this retraction, as the paper is already out, and it cannot be taken back. And, contra Tulse, journals can say that they were wrong to accept a paper without “retracting” it. The Biological Society of Washington (of which I am a member) repudiated Stephen Meyer’s infamous ID paper which appeared in the Society’s Proceedings without “retracting” it. (See Society statements and .) Maybe that’s the word to use in such cases: repudiation.


  3. As cataloged as the scientific literature has become, it seems entirely plausible to me that were the 1998 paper to be cited at least in any electronically available journal (which must be nearly 100% of all journals with any impact factor at all), something would be added to the citation automatically at the redactory to the effect that the paper had been retracted. Further, altho I haven’t tried it, I suspect that if I try to access the original paper electronically it will carry a WITHDRAWN disclaimer across the top.

    It’s far easier to play catch-up now than when bad science sat on shelves forever, looking just as reputable as the papers flanking them.

    1. As laudatory as that might appear, the paper was NOT retracted: the author stands by his publication, and has NOT retracted it: the journal is now attempting (in some bizarre way that I really do not understand) to remove retroactively its publication. But, it was published. It has all the comedy of a retroactive abortion of one now fully adult.

      Now, I agree that I would not want to be associated with the ridiculous claims associated with this paper. Few would. But, the journal in question reviewed it, and published it, confirming the fact that they routinely (or at least in this one case) publish shite. There are no take-backs in science, as much as the journal would like to pretend so.

      And, a belated, “we fucked up” won’t do, because the process that led to the aforementioned comeuppance is precisely and exactly the same process that allows for the publication of all the rest of the articles they publish.

      Yes, their integrity is shot, and deservedly so. If I were British, I would call the editorial team wankers, but as I am Canadian, they are merely mentally-challenged.

      The journal has no integrity, not as a science journal, and all the attempts at off-loading obvious errors and ridiculous content won’t fix that. If this makes it obvious what a POS journal it is (notice, I have never referred to it by name: it could be yours!), good!.

      1. There were three authors. Although Wakefield has not, the other two have disavowed the paper (see , correction at bottom).

        Update: I’ve now been able to access full text of The Lancet papers. Although three authors (including Wakefield) were ruled against by the GMC (the others less so than Wakefield), there were 13 authors of the original paper, 10 of whom (including the two just found to have “failed in their duties as responsible consultants”) published a retraction in The Lancet in 2004 (vol. 363:750). Two authors declined to retract, and one could not be contacted.


    2. To Hempenstein-
      The electronic version of The Lancet does now include the word “RETRACTED” as the first word of the original paper’s title, and the PDF has the same word in a large red, font splashed across each page.


  4. Why do you label Dr Wakefield a pseudoscientist? He is a trained MD isnt he? He may be a lying, cheating, bastard MD,(forgive my impromptu) but a pseudoscientist?..whats a pseudoscientist anyways?? By the way he is “practising” here in US, TX, the last I know..

    1. The practitioners of pseudoscience can be properly termed pseudoscientists.

      Pseudoscience is that which pretends to be science, but fails to follow the rigorous guidelines for true scientific inquiry.

      Wakefield is, in fact, a pseudoscientist.

      1. Sorry Ty, no-go. Your explanation leaves out the perplexing number of peer-reviewed published non-reproducible experiments. Are the ones that did them, pseudoscientists? Why use a term that does not add anything to a fruitful dialogue? A set of fabricated data is not science, it is a lie, not pseudoscience. I repeat my question, in good faith, whats pseudoscience??

  5. Marilyn wrote:
    I repeat my question, in good faith, whats pseudoscience??

    Well, if you’re really, in good faith, looking for a definition, a dictionary is a good place to start. For instance, the American Heritage,

    n. A theory, methodology, or practice that is considered to be without scientific foundation.

    That would seem to fit here. Or, Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary,

    A system of theories or assertions about the natural world that claim or appear to be scientific but that, in fact, are not.

    That would also seem to fit. Why do you find the word so hard to define?

  6. Not to be a complete nudge Marilyn, but why not save the time posting retorts to Ty and type pseudoscientist or pseudoscience into google? How are you actually “adding anything fruitful” to the conversation?

    1. Sorry Lorax dont get your drift. Not satisfied with “google” searches, inasmuch as you think otherwise.Or for that matter everybody else. I was hoping would engage some fruitful minds in a fruit basket full of fruitful thoughts regarding the practice of science/publishing and deceit. What Wakefield did is exactly what many have without pseudoscience labels involved. I was wondering why. Lets talk about fruitful substance in a fruitful environment

      1. You seem to be suggesting that pseudoscience is no different than any other deceit in science publishing. If so, that’s not the case. While deception in publication does happen, pseudoscience is much more than this. Pseudoscience is whitewashing your existing non-scientific idea with “sciency” trappings in order to give the appearance of credibility.

        If I fake some data in a paper I’m being deceptive (unethical, etc.) but not necessarily pseudoscientific. On the other hand if I tell you that spinal manipulation can cure bedwetting, high blood pressure and your baby’s colic by alleviating the negative effects of invisible vertebral subluxations… pseudoscience.

      2. Marilyn wrote:
        Not satisfied with “google” searches, inasmuch as you think otherwise.Or for that matter everybody else.

        So you weren’t really asking, “in good faith” as you put it, what is pseudoscience? Because the dictionary defines it well, and you could find more about it by searching, even on Google. Why don’t you tell us what you really want?

  7. Wow! It’s a good thing there is no crusade to cleanse science journals of all the pseudoscience papers by retraction. Can you imagine how much work that would entail just to cover the eugenics papers.

  8. I’d heard of the 1998 paper long ago, but I’d never bothered to look it up until this discussion came up about electronic editions having the word “withdrawn” or something across the top.

    A quick search through ISI Web of Knowledge (aka “Web of Science”), using the search term

    AU=(Wakefield) and PY=(1998) and TS=(autism or vaccine)

    author Wakefield AND published in 1998 AND containing the words autism OR vaccine in the title or abstract or keywords.

    5 hits. The earliest one on the list is
    Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A, Linnell J, Casson DM, Malik M, Berelowitz M, Dhillon AP, Thomson MA, Harvey P, Valentine A, Davies SE, Walker-Smith JA. 1998. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children (Retracted article. See vol 363, pg 750, 2004). Lancet 351(9103): 637-641.

    Notice the “Retracted article” after the title.

    Following the links through ScienceDirect, the title of the article has the word “RETRACTED” in front of it. The PDF has “RETRACTED” stamped on every page in giant red letters.

    Eric MacDonald said: “Further, altho I haven’t tried it, I suspect that if I try to access the original paper electronically it will carry a WITHDRAWN disclaimer across the top.”

    Yeah, pretty much this.

    Dr. John R. Vokey said “As laudatory as that might appear, the paper was NOT retracted: the author stands by his publication, and has NOT retracted it: the journal is now attempting (in some bizarre way that I really do not understand) to remove retroactively its publication.”

    Oh, it’s been retracted, all right. That’s how I interpret “RETRACTED” in giant red letters on every page. Perhaps you and the journal have different definitions of the word? Can only an author retract a paper, or can the publisher also do so? In this case, the publisher seems to be making a sincere attempt.

  9. Actually, the retraction approach will (I predict), have exactly the opposite effect that its creators imagined. So congratulations, science journal publishers and editors, you just created a whole new conspiracy theory – and you aren’t even smart enough to see it coming.

    1. Who are you referring to as “its creators” there? Did you mean the creators of… the retraction? Are you suggesting that the retraction was somehow expected to make the paper just “go away” and no longer be the pernicious influence it has been to date? If so, I think that it is not an issue of editors and publishers being “not smart enough” but one of you rather completely misunderstanding the point of the retraction.

  10. It doesn’t matter whether I, or even you, understand the point of the retraction. It only matters what the public sees. They will in fact see the retraction as an attempt to make the problem go away – and the retraction will be incorporated into a conspiracy theory by those of the anti-vaccination camp. The paper should have just been left alone. Like I quipped earlier, there’s quite a lot of pseudoscience in other papers, but no big push for retractions.

    1. While you are certainly entitled to your own opinion regarding what should have been done, I was more concerned with your assumption of motive and how it led you to claim that the publishers were not smart enough to predict the spin the antivax camp would put on this.

      The truth is that no matter how we approach this issue these people will attempt to spin it in their favour. All that we can do is be honest, clear and above-board, which I would say is what has been done here.

    1. “I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement.”

      Yeah, clearly the blame for this idiocy lies with the haughty medical establishment, not with the pandering media and certainly not with rational, reasonable, approachable folks like Jenny McCarthy.

      Full points for consistency Mooney.

      1. Orac’s Respectful Insolence blog has tackled this one. Given the absolutism and conspiracy fervour of the anti-vaccine movement – things which who has engaged with the anti-vax gang on the internet will have experienced – he suggests that attempting to “build bridges” is a complete non-starter. His examples are quite persuasive.

        I think Mooney has misjudged this one. He seems to see it as analogous to the US science v religion debate – but there are no “moderate anti-vaccinationists” that I have ever come across, certainly not among the visible faces and leaders of the anti-vaccine movement.

  11. Barry wrote:
    It only matters what the public sees. They will in fact see the retraction as an attempt to make the problem go away

    That’s a rather sweeping generalization, based entirely on your rather thoughtless opinion. “In fact”, as you put it, some may see it that way, while many will read the rather well-done article and realize that the original study was bogus.

    the retraction will be incorporated into a conspiracy theory by those of the anti-vaccination camp.

    Of course it will, that’s obvious. But nothing will convince them, and pandering to the anti-vaccination wackos will have no more effect than pandering to creationists, or 9/11 conspiracy buffs, or any other anti-reality, anti-science group.

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