Trust in Science

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A recent article by Lisa Gross in PLoS Biology provides a retrospective look at the vaccine-autism controversy (1). The report of a possible link between the MMR vaccine and an increased incidence of autism originated from a small case study published in 1998 in The Lancet, a well-respected medical journal (2). Public fear was further fueled in 2001 by an article published in the non-peer reviewed, Medical Hypotheses (3), a journal Gross suggests “welcomes even probably untrue papers”. While the larger scientific community eventually discredited the controversial studies and cited no evidence for the link between vaccination and autism, the anti-vaccine campaign had already gained significant public support. Two questionable papers that could have been forgotten in time, instead threatened to create a public health crisis.

In 2004, ten of the thirteen authors of the original Lancet paper signed an official retraction, stating that their data were insufficient to claim a link between the MMR vaccine and autism (4). But how did the study initially make it through the peer review process? And why is it that even after the official retraction and after a panel of scientific experts concluded there is no basis to the claims, the belief in a connection between vaccines and autism continues to thrive?

These are questions that we, as editors of a journal that publishes untested and sometimes controversial ideas, need to face. How can we best ensure the validity of the mansucripts we publish and what responsibility do we have for any unforseen impacts on public opinion?

Peer review is important, but not infallible, and it is important to understand its inherent limitations. Reviewers are volunteers and their main priority lies with their own research. Reviewers are expected to identify glaring omissions, misrepresentations and logical flaws, but cannot reanalyze data in meticulous detail. A certain amount of trust is pragmatically extended to authors, given that their reputations are on the line.

More broadly speaking, it is critical to accept that science requires ongoing debate. Peer review does not end at the time of publication. Readers should consider evidence for and against novel theories by considering multiple studies and critically judging which studies were best conducted. While scientists are trained to do this automatically, there is clearly a need for greater scientific literacy amongst the public.

As editors of Hypothesis, it is our responsibility to promote alternatives to the scientific dogma without sacrificing the benefits of peer review. We encourage our readers to critically evaluate the articles we publish and to continue the discussion by submitting comments to communications@hypothesisjournal.com.

References

1. Gross, L. A Broken Trust: Lessons from the Vaccine–Autism Wars. PLoS Biol 7, e1000114 (2009).

2. Wakefield, A.J. et al. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 351, 637-641 (1998).

3. Bernard, S., Enayati, A., Redwood, L., Roger, H. & Binstock, T. Autism: a novel form of mercury poisoning. Med. Hypotheses 56, 462-471 (2001).

4. Murch, S.H. et al. Retraction of an interpretation. Lancet 363, 750 (2004)

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