The check must have finally cleared, or: Mawson’s incompetent “vaxed/unvaxed” study is back online

It looks as though the check has finally cleared.

You might be wondering what I’m referring to. A little more than a week ago, I took note of how a truly awful survey masquerading as a “study” had risen from the dead once again as two publications in a notorious bottom-feeding predatory “open access” journal after having been retracted after publication in a somewhat less notorious but similarly bottom-feeding predatory “open access” journal. Whether or not these studies were actually retracted the second time around is somewhat unclear. What is known is that they were on the Open Access Text (OAT) website, and then they weren’t.

Retraction Watch reported:

For the second time, a journal has quickly retracted a study that suggested vaccines raise the risk of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

The study first raised a furor last year, prompting a Frontiers journal to quickly retract it. After it was republished in the Journal of Translational Science this month, that journal has also retracted it.

Although the titles of the two papers changed, the abstracts were nearly identical. Both studies surveyed the parents of 666 home-schooled children, 39% of whom where not vaccinated, and concluded that vaccination increased the risk of neurodevelopmental problems, particularly if children were born prematurely.

A representative of the Journal of Translational Science told us “Pilot comparative study on the health of vaccinated and unvaccinated 6- to 12-year-old U.S. children” has been retracted, and it will update us with an explanation.

Not surprisingly, that never happened, and the mystery remained. Someone from the journal told Retraction Watch that the studies had been retracted, and then yesterday people started noticing that they were back on OAT website. Not surprisingly, given the nature of OAT journals, including the Journal of Translational Science, the jokes about the check finally having cleared wrote themselves. My purpose here is not to reiterate what’s wrong with the two studies, the first of which purported to show that vaccinated children are much unhealthier than unvaccinated children, and the second of which purported to show that the only reason premature birth is a risk factor for neurodevelopmental disorders is because of vaccines. I discussed them both in great detail quite enough. I’m more interested in what this whole incident shows about the bankruptcy of antivaccine “science.” Whatever happened, the CMSRI is gloating that the studies are back:

For instance, there’s Celeste McGovern, some of whose antivaccine nonsense I missed last week, referring to the study as the “big taboo.” That’s how antivaxers always portray themselves, as the persecuted warriors for “truth” while those evil “skeptics” (or “Skeptics,” as McGovern refers to them) are trying to “suppress” that truth. Here, she describes what happened when a Frontiers journal first retracted the Mawson paper:

There was no thought or delay in the Skeptic response. They did not waste time with letters of inquiry or professional concern. They did not wait to consider the methodology or the data or its interpretation or to read the full discussion.

Um, no. It was apparent from what we knew about the genesis of the survey and from the abstract itself that the methodology was without merit. McGovern was only getting started, though:

They jeered and screamed “anti-vaxx” – which is the equivalent of ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ and thrown like a bludgeon at anyone, even a credible professor and researcher with a 30-year career, who questions the safety of the expanding use of this particular type of pharmaceutical product for children. “Anti-vaxx” is a silencer.

A fumbling editor at Frontiers tweeted in haste that the study had only been provisionally accepted and the review would be re-opened “in response to concerns raised.”

One skeptic is gloating that he is solely responsible for blighting the entire study consideration process:

“I pride myself to have caused the Frontiers anti-vaxx retraction with one tweet!” Leonid Schneider tweeted this week. “The anti-vaxx paper was published as abstract, a reader alerted me, I tweeted, Frontiers got scared, pulled the paper.”

Even Retraction Watch reported the story that way. After receiving criticism on Twitter, Frontiers released a public statement, noting that the study was only “provisionally accepted but not published,” and is being re-reviewed. “

I described what happened when it happened. From my perspective, the study was so bad that even a Frontiers journal considered it too bad to complete the publication process and publish the entire article. So Mawson shopped the paper around and found a journal with even lower standards than a Frontiers journal.

McGovern then addresses the most recent “retraction” (or whatever the temporary “depublishing” of Mawson’s papers was):

Now, an editor at the Journal of Translational Science has bowed to these forces again. Retraction Watch reports that the study has been “retracted – again.” But there has been no formal statement issued by the journal. I emailed the Editor in Chief, Terry Lichtor, a professor at Arkansas State University, twice. When I didn’t hear from him I called the London office and was told they would telephone him to make sure he got my questions. The person on the phone seemed to know about my emails. I’ve had no reply.

I contacted two editors at Retraction Watch and asked if they weren’t using the term “retracted” rather loosely for the study, considering the professional ethics and implications. No reply.

“With millions of views, the concerns that this study raises will not be easily wiped away from the public consciousness,” says Claire Dwoskin, founder of the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute, which contributed to funding for the study.

“It would more greatly serve the interests of public health and science to replicate the study on a larger scale and determine the accuracy of the results, rather than harkening back to a time where book burning and persecution of scientists reigned the day. If the study is not restored on the journal’s website, it may be fair to conclude that some of the lessons of the past have not been learned after all.”

This is the dodge that all quacks and pseudoscience advocates fall back on whenenver their terrible scientific methodology and bogus studies are criticized. In the case of one of the studies, we know that one of its key findings is so out of whack with what is known from many, many, many high quality studies dating back to the 1970s showing that premature birth is a major risk factor for neurodevelopmental disorders that it was a huge red flag. Moreover, the methodology and statistical analyses of the studies were so bad, so incompetently carried out, that it’s quite safe to say that the results are almost certainly invalid. There is no need for “further research,” at least not based on Mawson’s utter dreck of a couple of studies. But I do love how predictable McGovern is in crying, “Persecution!” and comparing a retraction to a book burning.

She also, like most antivaxers, misunderstands what scientists mean when they refer to a finding as “settled science”:

But people who say “vaccine science is settled” are being dishonest. Science is never settled. By its very nature, science questions orthodoxies and constantly seeks and discovers new things.

Well, yes, but not quite how McGovern means it. There are certain findings in science that are so well-supported by evidence that the burden of evidence to change or refute these findings is very, very high. Such findings are considered “settled science.” That’s not to say that they are findings that will never be changed or even radically altered; rather, it’s a recognition of just how high the bar is to challenge findings in terms of evidence, given the level of evidence supporting the them.

I like to use homeopathy as an example because it is so incredibly, ridiculously improbable and for homeopathy to work huge swaths of existing chemistry and science would have gto be not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Even so, I concede the tiny possibility that this much science might be wrong but point out that to demonstrate that homeopathy “works” would take a mass of evidence at least as large, high quality, and compelling as the existing scientific evidence supporting current theory in physics and chemistry. One little study won’t do it. But that’s what homepathy advocates cite.

The same is true for antivaxers. Although it is less implausible that vaccines might cause autism than that homeopathy works, it is still very, very implausible indeed, based on a large, robust, and mutually reinforcing body of scientific research from multiple disciplines. Two crappy “studies” based on a crappy “survey” of an unrepresentative population, which, when you come right down to it is all Mawson’s “studies” are, won’t seriously challenge the existing scientific consensus that vaccines are not a risk factor for autism. Not even close!

None of this stops McGovern from engaging in the common crank fantasy of ultimate vindication:

Skeptics have closed ranks against this one line of inquiry. We don’t know how important that line is. But we can be pretty sure that history repeats itself and when medical history textbooks are rewritten a long time from now, there will be names of medical heroes like Semelweiss in there, people who challenged orthodoxy and went where no one wanted to go. And there will be brief allusions to the hordes of nameless scientific fools who impeded medical progress while countless children suffered.

Of course, skeptics have not “closed ranks against this one line of inquiry.” We merely point out how incompetently Mawson and other antivaxers engage in this line of inquiry. After all, it’s not as though real scientists (as opposed to antivaccine scientists) haven’t done “vaxed/unvaxed” studies before comparing health outcomes between the two groups. There have been several such studies. And guess what? The results aren’t what antivaxers would have you believe. Such studies have generally found either that there is no difference between the health of vaccinated and unvaccinated children or that vaccinated children are actually healthier. But that’s not what people like McGovern want to hear.

I can’t help but finish with a very old “friend” of the blog, J.B. Handley, founder of the antivaccine group Generation Rescue:

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. And just to clarify: this study has NEVER been retracted, only removed by two journals, and re-published by the second one…Starting to think this is the study that just “won’t go away!”

I notice that The Gnat also thinks I wouldn’t address this. Silly Gnat.

No, it is, as I referred to it before, the zombie study. Or the Jason study. Or the Michael Myers study. Or the Freddy Krueger study. Or pick the name of your favorite movie monster that appears to die at the end of one movie and always returns for another movie to kill again. I hope Retraction Watch will follow up on what happened, but somehow I doubt that there will ever be a coherent answer to the question of what happened here. My best guess remains that the check finally cleared, because Mawson’s study is so bad that even a pay-to-publish journal balked.