Lessons from the Wakefield Case
I was almost at a loss for words today, besides having read the morning paper on the upcoming ESP study in a major psychology journal with questionable stats, and my having seen last night the first story on the British Medical Journal‘s report that completely, and maybe finally, discredits Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccine crusade which has caused needless morbidity and deaths in children from preventable illnesses in the U.S. and elsewhere.
So many others have written on Wakefield’s fraud, and considered the role of the press in perpetuating the notion that vaccines cause autism, I wasn’t going to cover it here on ML. But I do think there are a few instructive points from this “lesson” about medical communication and news:
1. People aren’t always rational in their decisions about health care. (This is an understatement.)
2. When most of the population (including journalists and, sadly, some doctors) are ignorant in basic science and statistics, misinformation spreads easily. In effect, our limited educations render us vulnerable to speculation and hype. A result “sounds good” or plausible, so we believe it, never mind the details –
3. Sometimes even educated people are so desperate for an explanation, or for a solution to a medical problem, that they’ll believe a smooth-talking scientist or doctor because they want to believe what he’s saying is true. If vaccines were to cause autism, that would give people a sense of control, i.e. a way to avoid autism.
The truth is that, for the most part, we still don’t know why diseases occur in some people and not in others. Not understanding can be a frustrating, unsatisfying circumstance, because it makes us feel powerless.
That’s it for today.