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Thursday, 27 January 2011

Dr. Andrew Wakefield. I doubt we'll ever know everything

This morning as I was listening to Dr. Andrew Wakefield on CBC Radio 1's The Current, I couldn't help but be impressed by his well composed answers to Anna Maria Tremonti's pointed questions. And his refined British accent definitely helped his arguments sound convincing.

I don't think we'll ever know the whole truth around this incident. But since I spent a little time in research myself and I know a little about the process of submitting scientific research studies for publication in medical journals, I can't help but think that the Lancet also has some explaining to do.

From the interviews I've heard, the crux of the matter seems to be that Dr. Wakefield did not randomly select the children for his gastrointestinal research study; some children were referred. This of course would bias his results. Which would also render his findings meaningless.

What I don't understand is why the problematic method of selection was not identified by the peer review board when Dr. Wakefield initially submitted his research paper for publication. Considering the controversial nature of his findings, his research should have been - and I think WOULD have been - picked apart by a fine toothed comb. Data collection, methodology and statistical analysis is where peer review boards look the closest because the validity of the results rests 100% on the necessity that all these steps are carried out appropriately.

Peer review boards are notorious for challenging the researcher to justify their methodology and the interpretation of their results. It's their job. Correspondence passes back and forth between the board and the researcher for months, sometimes for more than a year before all the board's questions are answered and the research is either approved for publication or rejected. Maybe I misheard something but I got the impression that the Lancet only announced NOW (actually a few weeks ago) that there was an issue with Dr. Wakefield's data collection methodology. 

The paper was published in 1998. The Lancet makes their announcement in 2011. I wonder what more we will learn about this controversy in the next 13 years.

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