The retracted publication by Wakefield, Murch, Anthony, Linnell, Casson, Malik, Berelowitz, Dhillon, Thomson, Harvey, Valentine, Davies and Walker-Smith (1998) is an ideal example of how fabricated findings that claim to have scientific support have a large impact to the public. Kolodeziejski (2014) discussed how the practices for scientific publishing, specifically the tradition of hedging, help make publications more scientifically acceptable, but leaves gaps. These gaps allow for alternate interpretations to be passed to the public audience such as claims that have insufficient support (p. 166).
Scientific research usually attracts interested scientists and engineers. However, Wakefield et al.’s (1998) article continues to gain attention years later, even after being retracted from the publishing journal (Kolodeziejski, 2014, p. 166). Kolodeziejski (2014) stated that the article by Wakefield et al. (1998) received significant attention because of its link between measles, mumps, and the rubella (MMR) vaccine with the onset of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) (p. 166). Although the article’s explicit denial of proving a link between autism and the MMR vaccine (p. 166), many people still view the article as establishing scientific grounds resulting the Wakefield et al. article as a starting point in the autism vaccine controversy (AVC).
Poland and Jacobson (2011) stated that due to the claim by Wakefield et al. (1998) that the MMR vaccine played a causational role in autism, it led to decreased use of the MMR vaccine in Britain, Ireland, the United States, and other countries (p. 98). Ireland experienced multiple measles outbreaks where there were more than 300 cases, 100 hospitalizations, and 3 deaths (p. 98). By 2002, MMR immunization rates dropped in the U.K. below 85%, with some areas as low as 75% (Kolodeziejski, 2014, p. 166). Although MMR vaccinations rates remain high in the U.S., there is an increase of parents exercising their rights to opt out of vaccinations, with some exemption rates high enough that outbreaks of infectious diseases have occurred (p. 167). Greby, Wooten, Knighton, Avery and Stokley (2012) stated that in 2011, the CDC reported 17 outbreaks of measles and 222 measles cases that were mostly due to unvaccinated persons. It was stated that it was the highest number of measles cases in the United States since 1996 and highlighted the importance of vaccination (2012).
The general public have demonstrated that they believe in things that do not have scientific evidences such as occult beliefs. Alcock (1995) and Singer and Benassi (1981) discussed about how individuals have the tendency to believe in ideas that are not scientifically proven rather than in situations that are more likely to happen and logical. Singer and Benassi (1981) focused on social perspective and stated that media, social uncertainty, and absences of human reasoning seem to be the root of occult beliefs. Alcock (1995) concentrated on areas of how people learn, think, and choose, which agrees with Singer and Benassi’s (1981) statement of human reasoning. However, this may also result in individuals who are quick to believe in situations that claim to have scientific evidence. Wander (1976) noted that scientific research reports not only provide information, but act as a form of persuasion (p. 230). Rather, individuals should be more skeptical in materials they hear and see. However, a higher level of human reasoning and logical thinking may be difficult to achieve. Alcock (1995) stated that experience is often a poor guide to reality and skepticism is ideal to help individuals question their experiences and to avoid being led to believe what is not so.
Skepticism is defined as having an attitude of doubt (Skeptical, 2017). This is an ideal attitude when approaching situations that have bold claims. For example, toothpaste commercials like Sensodyne claim that nine out of ten dentists recommend Sensodyne toothpaste for sensitive teeth (Sensodyne, 2017). However, one should question how many dentists were actually in the study. Likewise, in the article by Wakefield et al. (1998) a sample size of 12 children is too small to display any significances in its findings. Furthermore, after the investigation by the British General Medical Council, it was proven that Wakefield wrote the article alone (Kolodeziejski, 2014, p. 166), which suggests that it is ideal to investigate its sources.
In addition, the publication of the article contributed to the public trust as it was approved and published by the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet (Kolodeziejski, 2014), which allow individuals to believe the article’s creditability. Although the Wakefield et al. article has been discredited and holds no validity, it continues to circulate and have an impact on the general public (p. 179). For example, many scientists still refer to the Wakefield et al. article as an extension to their scientific contributions (P. 179). There are still individuals who are more concerned about the risk of side effects from MMR vaccines, especially those with low science knowledge (Funk, 2017).
Alcock, J. (1995). The belief engine. Skeptical Inquirer, 19(3), 255-263. http://www.csicop.org/si/show/belief_engine/
Funk, C. (2017). Parents of young children are more ‘vaccine hesitant’. PEW Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/06/parents-of-young-children-are-more-vaccine-hesitant/
Greby, S. M., Wooten, k. G., Knighton, C. L., Avey, B., & Stokley, S. (2012). Vaccination coverage among children in kindergarten-United State, 2011-12 school year. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 61, 647-652.
Kolodziejski, L. R. (2014). Harms of hedging in scientific discourse: Andrew Wakefield and the origins of the autism vaccine controversy. Technical Communication Quarterly, 23(3), 165-183. doi:10.1080/10572252.2013.816487
Poland, G. A., & Jacobson, R. M. (2011). Perspective: The age-old struggle against the antivaccinationists. New England Journal of Medicine, 364, 97-99. doi:10.1056/NEJMp1010594
Sensodyne. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.sensodyne.ca/
Singer, B., & Benassi, V. A. (1981). Occult beliefs. American Scientist, 69(1), 49-55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27850247
Skeptical. (2017). In Dictionary.com. Retrieved from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/skeptical
Wakefield, A. J., Murch, S. H., Anthony, A., Linnell, J., Casson, D. M., Malik, M., Berelowitz, M., Dhillon, A. P., Thomson, M. A., Harvey, P., Valentine, A., Davies, S. E., & Walker-Smith, J. A. (1998). RETRACTED: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The Lancel, 351, 637-641. doi;10.1016/S0140-6736(97)11096-0