Earlier this week, The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, published the following short retraction:
It doesn’t get any more serious in the world of science. Ordinarily, a scientist who realizes an error in one of his published papers simply stops referring to the report and allows it to die an unceremonious death. Occasionally, a scientist of especial probity will voluntarily publish a retraction and explanation. But, it is distinctly unusual for someone to be accused of scientific fraud, much less twelve years later. What usually follows is a series of denials and recriminations, finger pointing and objurgation, though mostly in-house, because science usually affects only scientists. The big controversies that spill over to the general public–and this one is the biggest in years–typically leads to great fonts of oratory from people who don’t know much about science, but who do hold the reins of power. Heaven forfend, we will not see any of our wise Solons in Washington pass new laws or regulations to protect us from future trespasses.
Of course, we treat autistic kids at Atlanta Hyperbaric. And, they are very dear to me. As I’ve said many times before, I would love to have a practice that ONLY treats children, for the selfish reason that it makes me feel good to help out kids who will be around long after I’m gone. Consequently, this English dust up hits pretty close to home.
Few minds will be changed by The Lancet retraction. Even though mainstream medicine subsequently brought forward a large volume of research casting doubt on any association between vaccines containing mercury preservatives and autism, The Lancet report did much to propel the controversy. People took sides and, depending on their view of the dispute, kids paid the price either by going unvaccinated and risking mumps, measles and rubella or by getting vaccinated and risking autism. The great gods of government stepped in and took Thimerosal, the main mercury-based preservative in the United States, off the market. Litigation has raged, including a recent plaintiffs’ decision by the Georgia Supreme Court. [American Home Products v. Ferrari, (2008.)] I suspect that hundreds of millions (more?) of dollars have been spent on this controversy.
What can we learn from this mess? We already knew that scientists were human and subject to the same character flaws as everyone else. We also knew what side the weight of scientific evidence fell in this particular instance. So I guess we really don’t learn anything. More scandals will occur, more pundits will opine, more people will be injured and more money wasted. And, God help us, more politicians will solve our problems.