The controversy surrounding British medical researcher Andrew Wakefield is instructive for this era of information overload.
More than a decade ago, Wakefield authored a research paper published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet that sought to establish a connection between autism and the administration of the most common of childhood vaccines.
In February, the Lancet retracted the paper, and last week British medical authorities revoked Wakefield's license to practice, having found him guilty of numerous ethical violations in his research.
Yet what remains firmly in place is the widespread mistrust of vaccination that Wakefield's repudiated study has engendered.
Talk to almost any new parent and chances are they've heard some version of the supposed vaccine- autism connection. If you hesitated to get the standard immunizations for your children, thank or curse Wakefield.
To hear Wakefield's defenders tell it, this noble scientist's untiring quest to understand the causes of autism has been quashed by the unholy combination of "Big Pharma" and pliant governments. And it's true, large pharmaceutical companies vigorously defend themselves against disparaging claims of this nature, even when those claims have validity. And the U.S. government has strenuously avoided releasing information about lawsuits it's been involved in over vaccines.
But another culprit here is the press, always eager to shed light -- and inadvertently far too prone to sow confusion -- by pouncing on each new medical story. Stories that prominent journals like The Lancet dole out in press releases to the mainstream media find their way into the conventional wisdom, often without the qualified context that's taken for granted in the scientific community.
Propagated on the Internet, where even the standards of the mainstream media are not necessarily operative, the stories often take on lives of their own.
When a story turns out to be wrong, no matter what is done to debunk it, it may still live on, often as a conspiracy theory.
I don't blame parents who fervently believe that vaccines cause autism. One in every 150 children is now diagnosed with an autism-related neurological condition, and the public ravenously demands an explanation to this most troubling of mysteries. Is the incidence rising, or are doctors simply better at diagnosis? Or both?
I'm not professionally competent to take apart Wakefield's study. Plenty of critics with medical credentials can continue with that work. But it's plain to see that Wakefield's work planted the seed of doubt in the public, and then that doubt went, well, viral. Measles rates, in particular, are believed to be rising as a consequence of parents shunning immunizations. And this continues despite the availability of mercury- free doses, which should have alleviated many parental concerns.
Those who are in the business of spreading information ought to do some thinking about the responsibilities that come with it. In democratic societies, we believe in absolute openness, that information must be disseminated. We rarely think of the pitfalls.
The editor of The Lancet recently admitted the missteps the journal had made.
"We used to think that we could publish speculative research which advanced interesting new ideas which may be wrong, but which were important to provoke debate and discussion," Dr. Richard Horton told the public radio program "On the Media." "We don't think that now."
He termed the Wakefield story a "systems failure," and found fault in his own journal, the media, government and the scientific community. "I think we all have to look very carefully at ourselves here and say, we really messed up here."
It's worth noting that Wakefield is unrepentant, and many of his supporters are as implacably convinced as ever that his research is conclusive and damning. This attitude seems rooted in a general crisis in public trust in our time. People feel they can't trust the companies that provide our fuel, underwrite our mortgages and watch over our pensions. And now they fear that one of the most basic childhood rituals -- going to the pediatrician for immunizations, long accepted as a way to keep our children safe -- also can't be counted on.
Wakefield is the tipping point, the straw to the camel's back for parents already worried about the burden of autism. Science and society can do better -- maybe we need a truth serum of sorts for responsibility.