The Sciences

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

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFeb 16, 2010 3:52 PM

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(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...

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