Wakefield – the Cooked-up “Controversy” that Will Not Die

I didn’t pay much attention the Wakefield MMR paper when it first started generating controversy: I wasn’t bothered whether its conclusions were correct or not, because I figured that it’s in the nature of science for certain putative discoveries later to be debunked.  But the years passed, and as I paid a bit more attention, it began to be clear that there was more to the story than a disagreement about how to interpret data.  Over at Ministry of Truth, Unity provides a nice little account of just what was wrong not just with Wakefield’s research findings, but with the research wholesale: I won’t reproduce the litany of problems that have been raised, but it’s worth remembering that, notwithstanding GMC censure and the retraction of his paper, he’s still working at a clinic in Texas seemingly funded by anti-vaccination campaigners… which brings me nicely to this little gem, reported in last week’s New York Times, from Jim Moody.  Moody speaks on behalf of an organisation that promotes the supposed link between the MMR vaccination and autism, and he thinks that “the retraction would strengthen Dr. Wakefield’s credibility with many parents.”

“Attacking scientists and attacking doctors is dangerous,” he said. “This is about suppressing research, and it will fuel the controversy by bringing it all up again.”

What’s notable about this is the manner in which it seems to track the “teach the controversy” canard that’s dug out by creationists when it comes to the teaching of evolution.  That is to say: the fact that Wakefield’s research has been retracted does not, in this world, indicate that it’s been debunked, so much as it indicates that he’s being cruelly silenced.  You can see where this is leading: his paper being retracted strengthens the mania of the anti-vax lobby; its not being retracted would have been treated as a vindication that there’s something to his claims that merits further publicity.  Heads I win, tails you lose.

It’s hard to know how to respond to this kind of intransigence.  Chris Mooney also considers this problem in his post at Science Progress:

What would it take—beyond the overwhelming scientific evidence, which already exists—for this battle to finally go away? A Lancet retraction isn’t going to do it, that’s for sure. For vaccine skeptics, that’s just more evidence of corruption and collusion in the medical establishment. Indeed, I doubt any individual scientific development has the strength to move these folks—because we aren’t dealing with a phenomenon that’s scientific in nature.

Instead, I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement.

But this seems to me to be precisely the wrong way to go about things.  It is so for a couple of reasons.  One of them is articulated perfectly by Ophelia Benson, and has to do with Mooney’s conflation of the political with the epistmic.  But I think that there’s a straightforwardly political objection, too, and it’s simply this: that there are some things – creationism, antivaccinationism, the “birther movement” – in respect of which to attempt to build a bridge is de facto to concede defeat.

The reason for this is essentially that, in offering this sort of conciliation, one doesn’t encourage one’s opponents to come out and play on the sunny plains of science; rather, one gives them an incentive to stay in their fox-hole.  Bluntly, why should they move if we’re willing to abandon, or could be construed as being willing to abandon, our own position to move closer to theirs?  I can see the political attraction of a move like Mooney’s: it pours oil on the waters, and if you squint, it looks magnanimous.  But I think that it’s misguided: there are some waters on which oil should not be poured.

It takes a bit more courage, but I think that there’s a lot to be said for the medical establishment digging in its heels and insisting that the evidence is thus-and-so; that new evidence is always welcome, but that there are tight criteria of validity that have to be met.  This isn’t, after all, a mere academic spat about the classification of a galaxy or the manner in which Darwin has been married with Mendel; people’s lives and wellbeing are at stake here.  It’s worth having the fight.

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