Good News!

February 3, 2010

Good news!  The Lancet has retracted Dr Andrew Wakefield’s paper linking the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine with autism and bowel disorders.  This is not before time; the damage done by this particular paper in a journal as respected as The Lancet has been enourmous.  The journal has admitted that it should never have published the flawed research in the first place, which implies that in this case there was a failure of the peer-review process and that steps should be taken to avoid a repetition of that failure.

The retraction of the paper was not a spontaneous decision to do the right thing on the part of The Lancet, however.  It came in response to an editorial in the rival British Medical Journal that was to have been published today calling for its retraction.  One hopes that The Lancet will be more careful in future.

The vaccine-autism debate has raised a lot of issues that now need to be ingested, digested, mulled over and taken into the public conciousness.  As with all scientific subjects that become politicised, this one has raised questions about the quality of scientific journalism, the lack of science education and the inability of the public to understand, even in the most superficial way, the scientific process.

Firstly, there is a profound misunderstanding of the very nature of science.  The man in the street seems to be under the misapprehension that science consists of “proving”  things.  We only need one exception to disprove a rule, but in order to prove a rule we must prove it for every case, which is usually impossible to do.  So when a paper appears in a medical journal statistically linking autism with vaccines, newspapers immediately run headlines like “VACCINES CAUSE AUTISM, STUDY SHOWS”, even if the original paper made no such claim.  The fact is that science very rarely proves anything—that is the sphere of mathematics.  Science can only pile up evidence in the form of data that may or may not support a particular hypothesis.  In this case almost all the non-fabricated evidence did not support the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism.

So why the statistical link?  Well, there are other explanations than that vaccines cause autism.  The age at which the diagnosis of autism can be made is about the same age as the MMR vaccine is administered.  A parent who has his child vaccinated and then the child is diagnosed as autistic a few weeks or months later may be forgiven for thinking that the latter may be caused by the former.  But, as we all should know, correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

Why has the incidence of autism been increasing as vaccination has become more widespread?  Again, there are other factors that may be at work.  The diagnostic criteria for autism have changed: a child who may, a few decades ago, have been regarded as merely shy may today be diagnosed as autistic.  The anti-vaccination factions originally blamed Thimeresol (which was used a preservative in the vaccine) for causing autism.  Thimeresol was duly removed wihout having any affect on the incidence of autism, strong evidence that it was not a cause of autism.

There is strong psychological need for people to aportion blame for any misfortune that may befall them, so parents grasped at the vaccine explanation as a drowning sailor would clutch upon a passing liferaft.  I sympathise with such parents, but their actions have consequences among the wider community.  Once a sufficient proportion of the population are vaccinated against a particular disease, the pathogen can no longer be propagated and the population as a whole develops “herd immunity”, even those who for other reasons (allergies, for example) cannot be vaccinated.  When parents decide not to vaccinate their children they put herd immunity in jeopardy, which places all unvaccinated children at risk, not just their own.

Will The Lancet’s decision have any effect on the anti-vaccination lobby?  Probably not for the die-hards—their minds are incapable of change.  It will have an effect on the medical fraternity, though, and those doctors who are advising their patients not to vaccinate their children may undergo a change of heart.  We can only hope that the anti-vaccination lobby becomes a part of the lunatic fringe like the moon-landing-hoax crowd: not taken seriously by anyone with any vestige of sanity.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

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Flax and Cheese

November 6, 2009
185px-Olej_lniany

Flax seed oil

“Honey, I’m home!”  Fred Bakelite was in his late forties, tennis fit and looked young for his age.  His polyester leopard-skin suit was still immaculate, even after a hard day at DuBridge Industries.  “Where aaaarrree yoooouu, sweety?”

“Right here, light of my life, floater of my boat, churner of my butter.”  Margeret Bakelite kissed her husband tenderly on the lips.  They wrapped their arms around each other, stood cheek-to-cheek awhile, sighed, then split apart, she to the kitchen and he to the drinks cabinet.

“How was your day?” she called from the kitchen.

“Not Bad,” he replied. “That Barney Nylon dropped the ball on the PolySyne contract.  I’ll probably get the promotion when old Yurethane kicks the bucket.  It’ll mean a big increase.”

“Wonderful.  Did you have your medical?”

“Oh yes, I forgot to mention.  I’ve got the body of a twenty year old except for bowel cancer.  Doc Multistix says I must have an immediate operation or it’ll spread and kill me.  Well, you know what a sceptic  I am, I did my own research and you know what?  I can easily be cured!  Without an operation!”

Margeret came rushing through from the kitchen.  “What are you talking about?  Good grief Fred, this is the time to take expert opinion and to hell with these weird ideas of yours!”  Her gorgeous green eyes were humid with concern.

“Ha ha,” Fred laughed. “I understand you’re worried about me, you silly thing, but just look at this.”  He whipped open his briefcase and extracted a thick folder.  “Look, I printed this out to show you and that old fool Multistix.  There’s this woman from Germany, her name’s Johanna Budwig.  She’s been nominated for the Nobel Prize six times!  Actually some of the sites I got from Google show she’s been nominated nine times.  She has this treatment for cancer that is just cottage cheese and flax seed oil.  It has a 100% success rate!”

Margeret looked doubtful.  She took the folder from Fred and perused it, biting her lips.

“I thought nominations for the Nobel Prize were secret.  How does anyone know who was nominated, or how many times?”

“Well, I don’t know.  The people who put these sites up are probably on the committee.  They’d know, obviously.  Why  don’t they come up with the same answer?  I don’t know, how could I?  This is just typical of you—tryng to shoot down my every idea.  You really aren’t being very supportive at a hard time for me.”

“Oh, Fred, you know perfectly well I’m not trying to be nasty.  It’s just that if this was really a cure for cancer, wouldn’t everyone have heard of it?  Wouldn’t she actually have been awarded the Nobel Prize instead of just being nominated for it?”

Fred sighed.  “Well, that’s what people would say.  As you can see from this document here, the reason she hasn’t had the recognition she deserves is that the big pharmaceutical companies are making too much money selling standard chemotherapy drugs to allow this simple cure to become known.  The ingredients are not patentable, therefore no one can make money from them.”

“What’s flax seed oil?”

Fred grinned.  “I thought you might ask that, so I got some.”  He reached into a pocket in his brief case and produced a small blue bottle with what appeared to be a ghost depicted thereon.  He unscrewed the cap and wafted it under Margeret’s nose.  “Ring any bells?” Fred asked, his head bobbing idiotically in anticipation.

“Oh.  My.  God.  You’re mad.  Now I know it.  I haven’t smelt that since our schooldays.  How many years ago?  Yes, that day you shagged me in the pavilion.  I was only fifteen you bastard.  What’s that thing?”  She indicated a thin folder in Fred’s open briefcase.

“Oh.  That’s a life insurance policy I took out months ago.  I’ve been meaning to give it to you for filing.  You’re the beneficiary, obviously, it’s for two million bucks.  Thanks to Johanna you won’t be collecting. ”

“I’ll take it in any case and put it away.  I’ll be off to bed.  Enjoy your cottage cheese and cricket bat oil.  See you later.”

There was a small smile on her face and a wicked gleam in her eye as she left the room.

 

Creative Commons License
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.