At Intelligent Life, Anthony Gottlieb explains that while science is often wrong, it is the only game in town:
In May, Freedman wrote of the Wakefield episode:
If a claim is ambitious, people should indeed tread warily around it, even if it comes from scientists; it does not follow that they should be sceptical of the scientific method itself. But there is an awkward public-relations challenge for any champion of hard-nosed science. When scientists confront the deniers of evolution, or the devotees of homeopathic medicine, or people who believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism—all of whom are as demonstrably mistaken as anyone can be—they understandably fight shy of revealing just how riddled with error and misleading information the everyday business of science actually is. When you paint yourself as a defender of the truth, it helps to keep quiet about how often you are wrong.
In a recent book, “Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them”, David Freedman, an American business and science journalist, does a sobering job of reviewing dozens of studies of ignorance, bias, error and outright fraud in recent academic science. He notes that discredited research is regularly cited in support of other research, even after it has been discredited. Trials of the safety and efficacy of drugs, which are often paid for by pharmaceutical companies, seem to be especially liable to errors of various sorts. That helps to explain why medicines that can do unexpected harm—such as thalidomide, the sedative which was withdrawn in 1961 after causing deformities in babies, and Vioxx, a painkiller that had been used by 84m people before it was pulled in 2004—make it to the market.
It is perhaps the biases of science reporting in the popular press that produce the most misinformation, especially in medicine. The faintest whiff of a breakthrough treatment for a common disease is news, yet the fact that yesterday’s breakthrough didn’t pan out—which ought to be equally interesting to a seeker after truth – rarely is.
Yes, in this case the system worked, because the findings were so inflammatory in terms of the politics of the large autism community, and because they so blatantly contradicted what scientists were already sure they knew about the subject. But it's a real exception to how the system fares, not a general validation. And that's the insight we really ought to take away from this sorry episode.