Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Scientific Fraud: Autism and Child Vaccines

CNN is reporting that researchers are labeling academic research that linked autism to childhood vaccines as "fraudulent." Here is a quote:
A now-retracted British study that linked autism to childhood vaccines was an "elaborate fraud" that has done long-lasting damage to public health, a leading medical publication reported Wednesday.
An investigation published by the British medical journal BMJ concludes the study's author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases formed the basis of the 1998 study -- and that there was "no doubt" Wakefield was responsible.
"It's one thing to have a bad study, a study full of error, and for the authors then to admit that they made errors," Fiona Godlee, BMJ's editor-in-chief, told CNN. "But in this case, we have a very different picture of what seems to be a deliberate attempt to create an impression that there was a link by falsifying the data."
Britain stripped Wakefield of his medical license in May 2010. Efforts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday.
"Meanwhile, the damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession," BMJ states.
The now-discredited paper panicked many parents and led to a sharp drop in the number of children getting the vaccine that prevents measles, mumps and rubella. Vaccination rates dropped sharply in Britain after its publication, falling as low as 80 percent by 2004. Measles cases have gone up sharply in the ensuing years.
Fraud in scientific research is something I am very concerned about. I find it reprehensible that researchers will lie in order to get their results published. Meanwhile, people rely on their studies and, in this case, people took medical risks that were unnecessary. Deadly diseases that could be avoided have been contracted because these researchers falsified their data.

In economic research such as in my field, the consequences of falsifying results may not seem to be as severe as normally business research won't lead people to take medical risks as it did in the case above. As such, fraud may be easier to rationalize in my area of research than it would be in a field such as medical science.

I am personally aware of falsified results that were nearly published in a top academic business journal. In the case I am aware of, the person was caught when the results didn't make sense to the co-authors. Unfortunately, I am sure that a careful and competent fraudster could have gotten away with fraud. As such, when I see someone who regularly publishes papers with wonderful data that is collected without help from his co-authors, I have to wonder if it's fraudulent.

Another case that troubles me is when I heard a comment from a co-author who was presenting a working paper with data that was collected by his very successful coauthor.  The first coauthor said something to the effect of: "We don't know where he gets his data--he won't tell us!" I think this is like a CEO who says: "I don't know where the CFO gets the revenues he's booking--he won't tell us!" In my mind, the CEO and the co-author are at least negligent if not co-conspirators in the fraud!

I believe that the problem of fraudulent research getting published is probably more widespread than we think. This is based on a simple analysis of the fraud triangle. First, tremendous pressure exists to publish in top journals. Second, opportunities are ripe for doing so as few controls exist to prevent or detect it. One control could come through co-authors who watch over each other. I've already established that that control is probably not very effective. Another control could come in the way of replication studies. This was how the cold fusion research was revealed to be bogus. However, in many areas of research including some business and economics, replicating a finding is often not publishable and the researcher in charge of collecting the data may do so without any help from his co-authors. Thus, opportunities to falsify data are probably ripe.

If pressure is high and controls are weak, we have to rely on the integrity of the researchers. I believe it's naive to think there aren't some fraudsters out there taking advantage of the system...


  1. Cold fusion has been replicated thousands of times in hundreds of major laboratories. I have a collection of ~1000 peer-reviewed journal papers copied from the library at Los Alamos describing these replications. I suggest you review this literature before commenting on this research. See:

  2. Jed, thanks for your comment. It sounds like you are an expert in this area. In my passing comment about cold fusion, I was trying to emphasize the role of replication and why it is important in research. Normally, cold fusion researchers don't read my blog but if I was writing it more carefully to an audience like yourself, I might say it this way: "Replication revealed that the original hype about cold fusion, as partially publicized by the scientists that originally documented the finding, was revealed to be erroneous at best and bogus at worst." I admit that my understanding of this area is based on a review of things like Wikipedia which references numerous sources, many that appear to be peer reviewed in top journals, that basically say cold fusion is not accepted by mainstream scientists. If you disagree with this, I would put forth effort to change Wikipedia as opposed to commenting on an obscure blog on a tangential topic. Knowing how Wikipedia works, I'm guessing that the general scientific opinion on cold fusion is reflected in that entry.

  3. You wrote: ""Replication revealed that the original hype about cold fusion, as partially publicized by the scientists that originally documented the finding, was revealed to be erroneous at best and bogus at worst."

    That is incorrect. I suggest you review the October 1989 NSF conference proceedings. You will see that the groups which replicated by that date found no errors and nothing "bogus" in the original claims. There groups far outnumbered the groups that failed to replicate.

    I would also suggest you read the formal reviews of the field published in 1990 by EPRI, Los Alamos, BARC, the French AEC, the Indian AEC, the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin. All of these reviews agree that "there is now undoubtedly overwhelming indications that nuclear processes take place in the metal alloys." That was the consensus of informed, peer-reviewed scientific opinion then, and now.

    There are comments in the mass media to the effect that cold fusion was bogus, but these are not peer-reviewed and they are not backed by data or valid arguments. They do not count.

    Regarding Widipedia, I along with all other published authors in the field of cold fusion are blacklisted. We are not allowed to change the article or comment on it. I can't imagine any of us would want to edit the article, but anyway, Wikipedia informed us that we are blacklisted. Wikipedia also arranged it so that any link to LENR-CANR and other cold fusion related websites are automatically rejected. (I mean that authors who published experiments or positive reviews are banned. Two authors who published anti-cold fusion papers are welcome. They appear to be in charge.)

    Anyway, rather than use Wikipedia, I strongly recommend you stick to material in the peer-reviewed literature or published by professional organizations such as national labs and universities. We have ~1000 full-text papers at LENR-CANR from such sources.

  4. Jed, I hope you're right and that I can soon get a cold fusion nuclear reactor going in my home soon so that I can unplug from my power company. That was the hype in the 1980s and as I read your comment, it appears you still believe this is possible. Unfortunately, what I've read in the top peer-reviewed journals about cold fusion doesn't give me much comfort that I will be unplugging anytime soon. For example, I just read from the journal "Nature Physics" (maybe the top journal in physics?) that the research supporting cold fusion violates Karl Popper's philosophy of science (see Nature Physics 3, 585 (2007) doi:10.1038/nphys714). If this journal is correct, then it sounds like the science has significant potential to be erroneous at best and bogus at worst. This may be why so many are skeptical.

  5. I think the sample-size of the original autism study (less than 20 patients?) was more than enough for us to expect the Lancet to have exercised more scrutiny about what they published.

    This doctor never would have had the scam published had they employed real scientific standards before publication.

    Everything we're reading today is less about Wakefield and more about trying to recover from a damaged reputation. The damage to the Lancet's reputation is (and was) well deserved.

    Running the bus back and forth over Wakefield won't erase the real tragedy. My own kids were not vaccinated for HepB because of my belief in the original study.