Insights from the Paul Offit Interview, Part II: Blame the Scientific Journal, Not the Media

By Chris Mooney | February 16, 2010 10:52 am

(If you haven’t yet heard the first episode of the new Point of Inquiry, you can listen here, and I also strongly encourage you to subscribe via iTunes from the same page.)

The second insight from my chat with Paul Offit involved who he felt deserved the chief blame for the now notorious 1998 Wakefield paper (which, essentially, presented a claim of correlation between getting the MMR vaccine and getting autism based on a tiny sample of children, with a rather questionable mechanistic hypothesis attached). Offit said, very candidly, that he didn’t blame the media for going gaga over the study when it was published; rather, he blamed the Lancet for publishing it in the first place. As he put it around minute 10:

I think journals are a public trust, and when that’s published in Britain’s oldest and arguably most respected general medical journal, the media is going to see that as information, they’re not going to see it just as a hypothesis raised, they’re going to see it as a study done. And for them, they’ll jump on it and say, “Here’s at least a cause of autism,” and scare the hell out of people. Which is what happened. I actually don’t blame the media for this. I think that when something is published in the Lancet, I can see where they would jump all over it.

I agreed with Offit 100 % about this. Journals have a peer review process, and weeks or months to determine which studies to publish, after imposing quality control protocols. Journalists then have less than a day, in many cases, to determine what studies to cover and how to cover them. So by the time a study comes out in a journal, especially a major one, there’s no chance that you can unring the bell by hoping for the media to impose quality control, or call B.S. on this new piece of “science.”

It just isn’t going to happen.

For me, that’s another important insight from the Offit interview. Stand by for still more, and in the meantime, you can listen to the podcast and subscribe here. And don’t forget to buy Paul Offit’s book Autism’s False Prophets if you don’t already own it…


CATEGORIZED UNDER: point of inquiry, vaccination

Comments (9)

Links to this Post

  1. Tut, tut. . . not so fast « Why Evolution Is True | February 18, 2010
  1. V.O.R.

    The difference between an hypothesis and a conclusion sounds like a matter of basic science literacy to me. I agree it’s not unexpected for the media, such as it currently is, to fail to make much of a distinction between the two. But there should be plenty of push back against it. Don’t solely blame the media… but there’s plenty of blame to go around. I don’t think we need to skimp.

    As a practical matter restricting conjecture from major journals isn’t a bad idea. OTOH, in doing so while failing to blame the media you stand at the top of a rather steep slippery slope, the bottom of which is zero science reporting on anything controversial because it might be misunderstood.

    I know that sounds stupid and extreme. OTOH, maybe we’re already almost there.

  2. SLC

    I would have to partially agree with Dr. Offit that Lancet has to bear a considerable responsibility for publishing a paper with results based on a sample of 12. However, the media can’t be let completely off the hook as the reporters should have queried another expert in the field before rushing into print. Of course, the British print media is notoriously addicted to scandal mongering and is generally unreliable, even more so since Rupert Murdock took over the London Times,

  3. Zach

    Dr. Profit is like the docs used by tobacco in the 40s and 50s. Bottom line- have an unvaccinaed vs. vaccinated study. That will show us who is right and wrong. Some vaxs are useful others are just silly why does a newborn hours old need a hep-b shot? why is there a chick. pox vaccine? parents and their blindness to what is happening has helped damage a generation of kids

  4. Katharine

    Zach, obviously you live under a rock because there have been MANY of them.

  5. bob

    Zach, did you even listen to the interview? As Dr Offit explained, a vaccinated vs unvaccinated study would not even be remotely ethical. Vaccines are incredibly effective at preventing disease, and the notion of randomly giving children placebos rather than actual vaccines would never pass a review board.

    So, no, that’s not the “bottom line.” It sounds to me like the “bottom line” is that you’ve made up your mind already on poor or nonexistent evidence. Where is the evidence that parents (i.e. vaccines) have damaged a generation of children?

  6. “…others are just silly why does a newborn hours old need a hep-b shot”

    Because HepB can be spread through fairly casual contact.

    Because HepB is very serious, and this is especially so when infants get it. The younger a person is, the more likely that person is to develop a chronic HepB infection.

    Because it works. The incidence of HepB has dropped since the vaccine was given to infants. It did not drop when it was recommended to at-risk adults.

    Is that not enough for you? Were you misinformed?

  7. Chris

    My comment seems to have disappeared into the ether. Zach, you really need to listen to the podcast where the ethic problems with the “unvax vs. vax” study were discussed in detail.

    I would also suggest you go to your local library and check out a copy of Dr. Offit’s book, and actually read it.

    Sullivan, he is not only misinformed, but he is commenting on a podcast he has not bothered to listen to. This is obvious when he asks a question that was actually answered!

    More information on hepatitis, including stories of kids with HepB here:

    Chicken pox used to actually kill over a hundred people per year. It has also caused blindness. It also never goes away, it comes back as shingles (which can cause further injury, including blindness).

  8. Chris

    Well, that is interesting. Twice I tried to post Dr. Joe Albietz’s article on hepatitis B vaccine from the Science Based Medicine blog for Zach, and neither comment appeared. Not that Zach would actually read it, nor understand it (more for the fence sitters)… but I find it interesting that the link caused a problem.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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