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Anti-Vaccine Debate Illustrates Misuse of Expert Testimony

Anti-Vaccine Debate Illustrates Misuse of Expert Testimony

Americans were alarmed to hear that there was an outbreak of measles at Disneyland in California recently. Health officials are attributing the outbreak, at least in part, to relatively low vaccination rates among some groups of children. Even 2016 presidential candidates are now being asked for their views on whether vaccination for children should be mandatory.

Even though the vast majority of U.S. children are still vaccinated, it turns out that there are population pockets where vaccination rates are low. These are not areas with low-income people who lack access to vaccines. Rather, they tend to be relatively high-income areas where access to vaccines and health care is a given.

A small minority of people in those areas have refused to vaccinate their children. They fear that neurological damage, particularly autism, is caused by the use of childhood vaccines. The theory is that mercury preservatives in vaccines have contributed to a huge rise in childhood autism rates.

This theory has its roots in a paper which came out in 1998. The paper was written by a team of researchers led by a British physician, Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield's paper was published in the prestigious medical journal Lancet and created a huge vaccine scare when it was published.

In time, the entire paper was exposed as a fraud. Wakefield had a conflict of interest because he was involved in a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers when he did the research. Investigators found that he altered the relevant facts, misinterpreted data, violated ethics rules, and slanted his findings to reach a pre-ordained conclusion. His conclusion, of course, just happened to support the claims of the people who hired him to support their anti-vaccine litigation.

Wakefield's work was so bad that he was stripped of his medical license and academic credentials. It should have gone to the dustbin of history, never to be repeated or even acknowledged.

That's not what happened. It has been almost 20 years since the now-discredited Lancet paper appeared, and its ghost still haunts us. Wakefield's paper spawned the "anti vaxxers" who refuse to vaccinate their children to this day. Anti-vaxxers cling stubbornly to their belief that Wakefield was right, and argue that retraction of his article is just evidence of a government conspiracy to suppress the "real" medical evidence.

Anti-vaxxers are obviously sincere in their belief that vaccines are harmful. Their passion about this issue stems from an understandable concern about protecting their young children. If this were not a public health concern, it would be no more than a harmless curiosity. Unfortunately, this misguided belief means people are now contracting measles in California, even though the disease was previously thought to be vanquished by universal vaccination.

This illustrates the power of so-called expert research and testimony. Unfortunately, people with the right "paper" credentials can mislead a lot of people and do a lot of damage. The fact that Wakefield's universally discredited paper still has real health consequences shows just how long these side effects can linger.

In our world, for example, we deal with expert witnesses who misuse government crash test data to testify that someone could not have been hurt in a car accident. Others claim that medical or psychological tests can prove someone is lying or exaggerating an injury. Still others cherry-pick data compiled by health insurers to claim an injured person's medical bills are unreasonable.

In other cases, experts claimed their scientific analyses showed tobacco and asbestos weren't harmful. Other experts claimed their research showed breast implants caused health disorders when they did not. There is probably no end to the examples of how science has been misused to support or defeat claims made in courtrooms. And while this type of testimony can be seriously questioned on cross-examination, it can create a strong first impression. Otherwise, people would not be paid such large sums of money to provide it.

To conclude, there's reason to be suspicious of an expert who gets hired in a lawsuit, and then comes up with new or novel scientific findings which just happen to support the party who hired them. Wakefield's work is just a particularly potent illustration of the corruption, and lasting harm, this arrangement can produce.

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