Daniel W. Drezner

Politics and science, sitting as far away from the tree as possible

Yesterday The Lancet retracted a controversial 1998 study that linked a British vaccine for measles/mumps/rubella to the onset of autism.  This comes on the heels of multiple scientific studies that have failed to replicate the 1998 study’s results, as well as the revelation that the paper’s lead author, Andrew Wakefield, had failed to disclose commercial ...

Yesterday The Lancet retracted a controversial 1998 study that linked a British vaccine for measles/mumps/rubella to the onset of autism.  This comes on the heels of multiple scientific studies that have failed to replicate the 1998 study's results, as well as the revelation that the paper's lead author, Andrew Wakefield, had failed to disclose commercial conflicts of interest

So, this should put an end to the whole debate then, right?  Well, New York Times reporter Gardiner Harris gets some quotes that suggest otherwise.

the retraction may do little to tarnish Dr. Wakefield’s reputation among parents’ groups in the United States. Despite a wealth of scientific studies that have failed to find any link between vaccines and autism, the parents fervently believe that their children’s mental problems resulted from vaccinations....

Yesterday The Lancet retracted a controversial 1998 study that linked a British vaccine for measles/mumps/rubella to the onset of autism.  This comes on the heels of multiple scientific studies that have failed to replicate the 1998 study’s results, as well as the revelation that the paper’s lead author, Andrew Wakefield, had failed to disclose commercial conflicts of interest

So, this should put an end to the whole debate then, right?  Well, New York Times reporter Gardiner Harris gets some quotes that suggest otherwise.

the retraction may do little to tarnish Dr. Wakefield’s reputation among parents’ groups in the United States. Despite a wealth of scientific studies that have failed to find any link between vaccines and autism, the parents fervently believe that their children’s mental problems resulted from vaccinations….

Jim Moody, a director of SafeMinds, a parents’ group that advances the notion the vaccines cause autism, said 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.”

Unfortunately, Moody’s statement does seem to evoke Drezner’s Eleventh Commandment of Policy Wonks.  Activists will argue that this is an example of Big Science suppressing counterintuitive research.  And in a public battle between the Jenny McCarthy/Oprah media-industrial complex and a bunch of science nerds, I’m putting my money on Mustard Girl.  And I’m not the only one

In my prior research, I’ve seen this kind of dynamic play out in the debates over genetically modified foods, and we’re still seeing it play out in the debate over climate change.  Furthermore, because scientists are not perfect., it’s becoming easier to point out flaws that don’t necessarily compromise the basic science but do tarnish the image of scientists as neutral arbiters of fact. 

To be fair, it’s true that individual scientists aren’t really completely neutral — especially when it comes to politicized debates.  The scientific method, on the other hand, is about as neutral as you can get.  But that’s not as sexy a sell to the public.   

Question to readers:  is there a way to make scientific consensus more acceptable to a public that doesn’t want to hear the results? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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