Skip to main content

Blind eye to scientific fraud is dangerous

By Frank Y. Wong
February 6, 2014 -- Updated 1732 GMT (0132 HKT)
Vaccination can prevent numerous childhood diseases, says Frank Wong.
Vaccination can prevent numerous childhood diseases, says Frank Wong.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frank Wong: There's been a decline in vaccination to prevent childhood diseases
  • Wong: It's partly due to the rise of anti-vaccine movement that relies on scientific fraud
  • He says the rise of e-media allows charlatans to corrupt scientific publications
  • Wong: Pseudoscience undermines public's trust in science and scientific authority

Editor's note: Frank Y. Wong is an associate professor at the Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University. He is an Op-Ed Project Public Voice fellow.

(CNN) -- Recently, the United States has seen a resurgence of Bordetella pertussis, a highly contagious bacterial disease more commonly known as "whooping cough." The disease mostly afflicts children, though adults can catch it, too. Whooping cough is easily prevented with vaccination.

According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, vaccination, introduced in the 1940s, brought the number of cases per year down from 107,473 in 1922 to just 1,248 in 1981. Since 1982, however, the number of cases has steadily increased.

In recent years, there has been a general decline in vaccination to prevent many childhood diseases in the United States. In 2012, the number of whooping cough cases in the United States hit a long-time high of 48,277.

Frank Y. Wong
Frank Y. Wong

The decline in vaccination is in part due to the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, which has found spokespeople in celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and politicians like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. It is a movement that relies on scientific fraud and pseudoscience.

In the not too distant past, one of the scientific community's primary concerns was preventing scientific fraud. Episodes like the 1998 fabrication of data indicating a connection between childhood vaccines and autism risk have clear public health and policy repercussions. Claiming a link between vaccines and autism opens the door for false claims about the dangers of other vaccines, allowing, for example, politicians like Bachmann to inflame the public's doubts about the benefits of vaccination against the human papillomavirus, or HPV.

In a 2011 interview on the "Today" show, Bachmann mentioned a woman whose daughter suffered from "mental retardation" as a result of receiving the HPV vaccination. In a subsequent interview, Bachmann defended her position, fueling the anti-vaccination movement. Given that HPV can result in cancer, disseminating this kind of misinformation not based on scientific evidence is dangerous.

The general public thinks of scientific journals as unimpeachable, but the rise of e-commerce and e-media has created an unprecedented opportunity for charlatans to inflate credentials and corrupt scientific publications.

In this process, pseudoscience has become rampant. In a recent article, "Who's Afraid of Peer Review?" published in Science, the flagship journal of The American Association for the Advancement of Science, John Bohannon revealed that it is relatively easy to publish fake scientific data in open-access journals.

Unfortunately, Bohannon's piece barely received any attention from the popular media, squandering a vital opportunity to alert and inform the general public how to differentiate the wheat of real science from the chaff of pseudoscience. For the sake of public health, this issue must move beyond the confines of academia.

The ideal behind open access journals is admirable: They aim to disseminate important scientific findings to audiences such as those in nonacademic settings or residing in developing countries who may not be have access to such information. But, the financial reality of open access is that the business model -- where an author agrees to pay a fee, often in the ballpark of $2,000, to get the article accepted for publication -- favors quantity and moneymaking over integrity. Such publications often fail to differentiate between the plastic Rolex and the real one.

It is somewhat unnerving to read some of the comments posted below Bohannon's article, where a number of readers think "scientific counterfeits" are a fact of life, that falsifying data is old news, and that scientists should focus on our scientific work instead of worrying about counterfeiting.

Scientists sometimes think it is not their role or responsibility to engage in public discourse regarding their work. In this instance, however, they could not be more wrong. As scientists, we have a responsibility to speak up about the damage that pseudoscience could inflict on society.

For example, we are in the third decade of the AIDS pandemic, and there are still well-trained scientists such as Peter H. Duseberg, once an HIV/AIDS control and prevention adviser to the former president of South Africa, who denies that HIV causes AIDS. Duesberg says that recreational drugs are the culprits for AIDS among homosexual men in the West, while the cases in Africa are largely due to malnutrition and other diseases. People like Duesberg are not shy about spreading their half-baked, unproven ideas in spite of overwhelming contradictory scientific evidence.

In this new business environment, publishers are often no longer responsible for preventing fake or less than credible data. Meanwhile, some scientists who have the financial resources might opt for a quick and easy publication, though their findings may be questionable. A key scientific currency, peer-reviewed publication, is being corrupted outright by the unscrupulous pursuit of profit.

Sadly, the profit motive has begun to play an increasingly distortive role in the dissemination of scientific research findings. What's at stake here? Lives, obviously. Less dramatic, but no less important is the question of how we define "knowledge," and how much we can trust science and scientists. Reasonable people can disagree on how to interpret data, but first, we need good data.

The longer we turn a blind eye to scientific fraud, the more we encourage a pay-to-play system that puts dollars before scientific data, and the more we will erode the public's trust in science and its authority. That way is perilous.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frank Y. Wong.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT