Correspondence | Published:

Scientific misconduct

Latest MMR 'dispute' is a straw man

Nature volume 481, page 145 (12 January 2012) | Download Citation

Journalists have for years manufactured baseless controversy over the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The latest example is Eugenie Samuel Reich's report 'Fresh dispute about MMR 'fraud'' (Nature 479, 157–158; 2011). Truly a classic of the genre.

You rely on one David Lewis, a retired environmental microbiologist who claims to refute findings of research fraud against Andrew Wakefield contained in my report in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) last January and in an accompanying editorial. You say that Lewis analysed a pathologist's bowel-histology grading sheets: these were supplied to him by Wakefield, a now struck-off former surgeon. These data underlay the claims in Wakefield's 1998 study of a “new inflammatory bowel disease” associated with MMR, based on alleged “histological diagnoses” of “non-specific colitis” (Lancet 351, 637–641, 1998; retracted, 2010).

Your report fails to identify where the BMJ's conclusions (that Wakefield's work was “an elaborate fraud” (F. Godlee et al. Br. Med. J. 342, c7452; 2011)) were reliant on bowel histopathology. I invoked patient selection, clinical histories and reporting with regard to autism. These were different aspects of the study, and therefore your suggestion that somebody's opinion on the histology might “complicate” the debate about Wakefield's 'integrity' is an obvious straw-man fallacy.

You also wrongly claim that Lewis had a letter in the BMJ “arguing that Wakefield did not commit research fraud”. A letter was published, behind a report by me, in which I quoted five gastroenterological specialists who noted that the grading sheets indicate essentially healthy findings, where Wakefield reported disease (B. Deer Br. Med. J. 343, d6823; 2011). In his BMJ letter, Lewis then merely remarks: “I do not believe that Dr Wakefield intentionally misinterpreted the grading sheets as evidence of 'non-specific colitis'.”

As no such proposition was advanced (histopathology was almost the only area where, until recently, we lacked critical raw data), why did you publish an article founded upon its denial? The denier, moreover, has no qualifications in medicine or pathology; misread the grading sheets, according to their author (see go.nature.com/b9e5gu); and began working with Wakefield at a meeting of vaccine-campaign activists in Montego Bay, Jamaica, which he attended at the organizers' expense.

To breathe life into your shameless straw man, you claim that “no institution has yet ruled on the matter”. You note ethics findings of a statutory tribunal of the UK General Medical Council last year, but fail to report that it found Wakefield guilty, against a criminal standard, of four counts of dishonesty over the research. These included his dishonest publication of “a misleading description of the patient population” which was “fundamental to the understanding of the study and the terms under which it was conducted” (see go.nature.com/hg9dvs).

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    • Brian Deer

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https://doi.org/10.1038/481145d

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