Why bad science won’t ever die

Some retracted studies retain a hold on the popular imagination.
Some retracted studies retain a hold on the popular imagination.
Image: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
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“You’ve really drunk the Koolaid, haven’t you?”

My friend and I were emailing about the 2015 multi-state measles outbreak, which had left 113 people sick and one Washington State woman dead. She was convinced I had fallen prey to unfounded and dangerous convictions—because I am in favor of vaccinating for measles, while she is not.

My friend is certain that vaccines harm the immune and nervous system. According to her, they’re implicated in the steadily rising cases of autism, as well as neuroimmune disorders like chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and possibly cancer.

Science doesn’t back her up. But science is no match for the near-hypnotic hold that a discredited 1998 study—since retracted and declared an “elaborate fraud” by the British Medical Journal—has had on some folks.

Why can’t bad science be killed? It seems to be as resilient as Michael Myers in Halloween. I believe one reason may lie in the way that certain disproven studies play on our biologically-hardwired fears of contagion, contamination, and infection.

The link between vaccines and health risks has a particularly strong grip on the popular imagination. Some parents simply refuse to vaccinate their kids at all, while one in ten parents have adopted a slow and delayed vaccine schedule for their children, based on the vague idea that vaccines are harmful. “I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied,” tweeted Donald Trump in September of 2014. “Save our children & their future.”

When scientific research taps into our deep-seated fears, belief trumps truth. Take another discredited study—the 2009 research published in Science linking chronic fatigue syndrome to a possible mouse retrovirus called XMRV. This study was fully retracted in 2011. XMRV turned out to be a laboratory contaminant that grew in cell culture, not mice or humans.

But although the link between XMRV and CFS was discredited, it has been hard for the community suffering from the disease to give up the idea. It was so elegant—and might have led to effective treatment if true. “I am sorry to be a pest,” a CFS patient told me last year. “But I do think retroviruses are involved in CFS.” On a popular patient forum, Phoenix Rising, one man wrote, “I was XMRV positive and still believe in XMRV despite the politics and bullying.” Patients claim the many studies that could not replicate the science simply orchestrated a cover-up. “Definitive research is MEANINGLESS,” one patient wrote.

The lead author of the retracted study, Judy Mikovits, has recently resuscitated her theory in altered form. She has published a new book, Plague: One Scientist’s Intrepid Search for the Truth about Human Retroviruses and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), Autism, and Other Diseases. She is now claiming that 30% of vaccines are contaminated with retroviruses.

“How many new retroviruses have we created through all the mouse research, the vaccine research, gene therapy research?” she asks in a November 2015 interview on YouTube. “More importantly, how many new diseases have we created? They’re experimenting with us now. I’m really worried about the population.”

Patients echo her beliefs. “In years to come,” one writes, “we will know what animal to human retroviruses the sickest patients have, as private labs will offer a test outside of the US, [labs that] cannot be stopped by Western fraud link up with the vaccine makers and establishment cancer scientists who caused it to happen.” XMRV died, but the retrovirus lives on.

It’s easy to see why people are suspicious of vaccines. When the doctor gives us a vaccine, we can’t see for ourselves what’s in the syringe. We do know we’re getting jabbed in the arm with stuff that’s going directly into our bloodstream. That can ignite fears of contagion—and in fact, there’s a long history of suspicion about the dirty contaminants possibly lurking in vaccines.

Back in the late 1800s, fear of the smallpox vaccine was so strong that regulations were relaxed, vaccination rates fell, and smallpox returned. Paul Offit, author of Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, quotes 19th-century anti-vaccination activists who claimed the smallpox vaccine contained “poison of adders, the blood, entrails and excretion of bats, toads and suckling whelps.” The idea that we are letting ourselves and our kids be injected with all kinds of decimating pathogens and contaminants is so scary that it seizes our attention—and in some cases, refuses to let go.

A July 2015 study on bubonic plague in the New York City subways offers another striking example of our unshakable fears. After swabbing more than 400 subway stations for all kinds of microorganisms, researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College reported that they had found evidence at points across the city of the Black Death that decimated 14th-century Europe, as well as deadly anthrax. The study lit up newspapers and television screens. Everybody was horrified.

“It’s hard to overestimate the attention these findings received when first published,” the website Retraction Watch wrote, reporting in July 2015 that the conclusions had been deemed false. The scientists had analyzed the wrong region of a DNA molecule by mistake. They corrected the paper, adding that no pathogens had been found in the samples. Yet although media outlets did pick up the corrected news, it didn’t have the impact of the first and far more terrifying untruth. As late as December of last year, news outlets were still reporting on the subway plague. Meanwhile, Brooklyn artist Craig Ward decided to grow out germs from each subway line, in petri dishes, and present them as art in his “Subvisual Subway Series.”

I have to admit that I’ve got my own germophobic tendencies. I’ve never forgotten the 2011 finding that over 70% of shopping carts are contaminated with the strain of e. coli bacteria that thrives in fecal matter. That study still holds, but scientists say the bacteria is likely harmless. Besides, potentially deadly bacteria of all kinds have been found on kitchen counter tops, sponges, cutting boards, inside dishwashers, and living in our noses and on our skin. Still, I yank out a whole scarf of those Purell wipes whenever they’re available and thoroughly clean my cart. Even though I know better, I too am susceptible to unfounded beliefs that science can’t shake—especially when it comes to microbes I can’t see.