From the MMR investigation

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Editorial: Bad science

needs good scrutiny

The Sunday Times, January 31 2010

Science and public policy can be uncomfortable bedfellows, as we saw last year with the sacking of Professor David Nutt, the government’s chief drugs adviser. Politicians, we know, can play fast and loose with “expert” evidence. But scientists, too, are neither infallible nor always pure of heart. Their findings must be open to scrutiny and challenge.

There have been two recent developments in which this newspaper has had a pivotal role. One concerned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

As is now conceded by the IPCC, a claim made in its influential fourth assessment report in 2007 that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 “or perhaps sooner”, was wrong. The claim, based on an eight-year-old magazine report subsequently picked up by environmental pressure groups, had been challenged by scientists commissioned by the Indian government but their views were dismissed by Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, as “voodoo science”.

If this was an isolated example, perhaps the matter could rest. But other sections of the IPCC’s report dealing with the impact of climate change are also in doubt. The scientific basis is thin for claims that global warming is responsible for a rise in the number or severity of extreme weather events such as hurricanes and was not based on peer-reviewed research, as we reported last week. Alarm bells should have rung much sooner when the IPCC began drawing on such “grey” science and claims by pressure groups to support its case.

We are not seeking to rubbish every claim by the IPCC or destroy the underlying arguments about climate change. The IPCC’s evidence on the physical science is extensively peer-reviewed and remains largely intact. But when scientists allow claims from pressure groups into the public arena, without checking the evidence, they let themselves and everybody else down.

That is also true of the case of Dr Andrew Wakefield and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. For parents of children with autism, the idea that this was caused by the vaccine provided succour and the prospect of compensation. Many other parents refused to have their children vaccinated with MMR.

Dr Wakefield exploited these concerns ruthlessly, taking money from the parents’ lawyers for his researches, developing his own patented single measles vaccine and recruiting children for £5 a time at his son’s birthday party for experiments with, as the General Medical Council put it, “callous disregard” for their distress and pain. Some sections of the media have been criticised for spreading his claims but we should remember that they were first published in The Lancet after being peer-reviewed by scientists. Conversely, it was Brian Deer’s reporting for The Sunday Times which exposed this wrongdoing.

Dr Wakefield is finished in this country, thanks to the GMC, whatever his followers may think. Dr Pachauri is still head of the IPCC, although he presided over the use of dodgy science in its reports and ignored legitimate criticism of that science. He should go.

Copyright, Brian Deer. All rights reserved. No portion of this article on MMR and Andrew Wakefield may be copied, retransmitted, reposted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of the author. Responses, information and other feedback are appreciated - via the contact page