For me, one of the most interesting things about the retraction last week by the Lancet of its discredited 1998 study linking vaccines and autism was the consensus that those who have believed the study will continue to have faith in it, despite the retraction.
That's why, with the help of Star health reporter Megan Ogilvie, who wrote the paper's original story on the retraction, I began asking around why people clung to scientific studies long after they have been discredited. The result was a story in Tuesday's paper.
I spoke with Jeanette Holden, a geneticist at Queen's University specializing in autism and whose brother is autistic.
As a scientist, Holden knows every rational reason why a discredited 1998 study, by Andrew Wakefield of London's Royal Free Hospital, linking autism to vaccines is poor science – vaccines have no connection to autism, she says – but can find little fault in the families of autistic children who remain loyal to it.
"This does provide some sort of an answer," she says.
I also spoke with Paul Offit, a Philadelphia pediatrician whose book Autism's False Prophets takes aim at the anti- vaccination movement, who said that people such as Wakefield offers patients and their families the glimmer of something he and other scientists so far cannot: hope.
And hope can be a powerful thing. "They love him because he offers them something," Offit says.
The story has generated some e-mails to Ogilvie and I, with one reader from the United States this morning passionately defending Wakefield and assailing his critics.
Offit, he says, has a conflict of interest because he created a vaccine and stands to lose financially if vaccines are shown to cause autism. However, Wakefield had his own conflicts of interest, having been paid by a law firm suing vaccine makers to conduct the study. The firm also provided some of the research subjects.
Wakefield was the lead author of the report. He wrote that the parents of eight of the 12 children blamed MMR: they said symptoms of autism had set in within days of vaccination. The Sunday Times has now established that four, probably five, of these children were covered by the legal aid study. And Wakefield himself had been awarded up to £55,000 to assist their case by finding scientific evidence of the link.
Wakefield did not tell his colleagues or medical authorities of this conflict of interest either during or after the research.The children were subjected to a battery of invasive procedures, including colonoscopies and lumbar punctures.
In the months that followed the examination of the first children, many more were channelled through the hospital. The parents of many were clients of one solicitor, Richard Barr, of King's Lynn, Norfolk, who was leading the legal attack and had organised Wakefield's funding from the Legal Aid Board (now the Legal Services Commission).
The writer also disputes the description in the story that autism as "relatively rare," pointing out that diagnoses of the condition have been increasing rapidly. I have no way of knowing, however, if that's due to more cases, or better diagnostics. The write ends the e-mail by saying that parents love Wakefiled because he listens to them, which is essentially what Holden and Offit said.
Holden said the only way such family members might finally break with the vaccine study is if Wakefield himself disavows it. She doesn't, however, expect that to happen.