An autism study that was slammed by experts and retracted this week by its publisher is still alive and well on the Internet, thanks to what critics are calling a perfect storm of lax publishing standards.
Experts say the lone study author played fast and loose with statistics to show a link between autism and the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella, some experts going as far as saying that the author deliberately did this, but the dubious results took off online anyway, quickly going viral.
“There are always going to be those people at the edges of science who want to shout because they don’t want to believe what the data are showing,” said Dr. Margaret Moon, a pediatrician and bioethicist at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. She said she thought the study author “manipulated the data and manipulated the media in a very savvy and sophisticated way.”
“It’s not good. It’s not fair. It’s not honest. But it’s savvy,” Moon said.
Hooker’s study percolated in anti-vaccination circles for weeks but quickly moved mainstream after CNN iReport –- the cable news network’s “citizen journalism” site –- ran a story titled “Fraud at the CDC uncovered, 340% increased risk of autism hidden from public.” The Aug. 24 story, along with a similar iReport titled “CDC Autism Whistleblower Admits Vaccine Study Fraud,” has garnered more than 786,000 views and 256,000 shares on social media.
Though both iReports were “flagged” for further review by CNN with editor’s notes stating than none of the stories’ claims had been verified, they remain published on the site.
“iReport is a social network for news with more than one million members globally. All content and headlines are user generated,” CNN said in a statement to ABC News. “It has not been determined that the iReport in question violates our community guidelines. However, the content was not vetted nor approved for use on any of CNN's editorial platforms.”
But the now-pulled study is still making the rounds online, thanks in part to two highly produced YouTube videos that compare the alleged cover-up to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the Holocaust. The videos, which have received a combined 124,000 views, are narrated by Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 study linking vaccines and autism was retracted and declared “an elaborate fraud” in 2011 by the British Medical Journal. Wakefield lost his medical license in the ordeal but continues to be a prominent figure in the anti-vaccine community.
“This is the real story of a real fraud,” narrated Wakefield, who continues to be a force in the anti-vaccine community despite losing his medical license. “Deliberate, high-level deception of the American people with disastrous consequences for its children’s health.”