Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Getting the pee out of the pool

A study recently came out citing that about 1/4th of American parents erroneously believe some vaccines cause autism. This faulty belief grew from the increasing diagnoses of autism over the last couple decades and a study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet from 1998. I want to walk this story along side climate change to draw some parallels.
Subsequent studies have failed to find any link between the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine at the center of the story, and finally last month the 1998 paper was fully retracted. The lead author on the 1998 paper turned out to have highly questionable ties and has been alleged to have manipulated data and results. (See a summary at Wikipedia)

Still, many parents were convinced enough to forego vaccination, particularly in Britain where the story was bigger. This is of more than academic interest as failure to vaccinate is a threat to public health. Without evidence of a vaccines-autism link, that belief still exists among a substantial chunk of the population. The only real hope at this point is that continued efforts to educate the public can eradicate that mistaken belief.

If other researchers had been able to recognize the flaws beforehand and stop that flawed 1998 study in its tracks and avoid so many people mistakenly fearing vaccines cause autism, should they have done that? Or should they have still allowed it a public airing as it got? Should future attempts to push the same flawed claims be fought, or is it wrong to stand up against faulty information like that? There is a lot of climate change denialist noise saying that working against faulty information is simply trying to squash differing opinion.

One of the whines in the aftermath of the recent email theft was of pressure on journal editorial members as related to a paper by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas in Climate Research in 2003. Quite a fuss was raised by some scientists after publication, and there was notable fallout.

Science has a couple a key filters. There is "peer review" where others scientists examine a potential publication. It is not perfect, but it is one hurdle to keep work obviously bad in some way from advancing further. The other filter may be called "the test of time" - after publication do other researchers advance or build upon the work or does the line just trail off or get halted by other work?

It may be reasonable to expect flawed papers that, for whatever reason, made it beyond the first filter into publication could be slowly weeded out by the second filter. Unfortunately the vaccines-autism story illustrates how wrong ideas can persist, especially with prominent backers be they celebrity or "think"-tank. The perversion of science would not be pushing against faulty work, but would be letting anything pass. And if flawed work can be caught before publication, that it preferable to trying to undo damage from misinformation, which is like trying to get the pee out of the pool.

It is one thing to expect best practices including professional and ethical behavior to be employed in peer review. It is a complete other and unreasonable thing to label it elitist and presume it simply an exercise groupthink. Of course nearly all of those throwing out such claims have no idea about climate science anyway. But I challenge those who are using that cop-out excuse in their dismissal of climate science to demonstrate there is more turning away of good work in forcing conformity than there is pushing of repeatedly discredited ideas by groups ideologically driven, clinging to fossil fuels at all costs, or both.

Peer review has been and is effective across scientific fields including climate science.

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