Monday 31 May 2010

Evan Harris on Royal Free and Lancet culpability in Wakefield case

"After Wakefield: the real questions that need addressing" from Evan Harris (famously pro-science Lib Dem) at the BMJ. Harris discusses the lapses in oversight that allowed Wakefield's unethical research to be performed and published. I've discussed this previously in the context of Jay Gordon's defense of Mr. Wakefield. I wrote that Mr. Wakefield's actions were possible because medical research is performed with the assumption of some basic level of ethical behavior on the part of the researchers, a trust which Mr. Wakefield readily exploited. I argued that the ultimate consequence of Mr. Wakefield's actions would be much-increased oversight of medical research, as a necessary evil to prevent others from slipping ethics breaches through.

With, in retrospect, massive hyperbole and a staggering lack of relevant experience, I imagined a world in which scientists must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their work was performed ethically, with no concealed interests or misrepresented methods, and laid the blame for this at Mr. Wakefield's feet.

Harris' efficient article makes the case that the oversight under which the research took place and was published and was subsequently investigated was not merely liberal but downright cursory. And while I believe that Mr. Wakefield is ultimately responsible for his own deceptions, it appears that had he not existed, some other unethical researcher would have come along and taken advantage of this lax environment for his/her own benefit. In other words, there were lapses that allowed Mr. Wakefield to do his dirty work, they are a concern all of their own, and they may eclipse "MMR-gate" entirely.

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