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07 February, 2010

Why Science Works

The biggest "gotcha" used by many Young Earth Creationists is that scientists or archeologists have published studies on data that turned out to be entirely wrong or even hoaxed. Conveniently omitted by people like Kirk Cameron is the fact that it has been scientists that have exposed these flaws in studies or these hoaxes.

An example of the effectiveness of peer review has just come out in the news recently, regarding autism and measles/mumps vaccines. Said vaccines have saved millions of lives of children since the practice of inoculation was first implemented.

Then, in 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet, a British medical journal asserting a direct connection between the measles/mumps vaccines and autism. This was landmark, as the cause of autism was, and still is, largely unknown. However, the results could not be reproduced by other independent studies and so the scientific community was largely against the hypothesis.

Sadly, however, parents of autistic children became activists against the vaccines and the number of children vaccinated went down as more and more parents feared that the mercury in the vaccines would cause autism. Despite finding no correlation between the mercury and any health issues, the manufacturers of these vaccines greatly reduced the already very low amount of mercury or excluded it altogether in 1999, according to the CDC. Many of the staunchest anti-vaxxer celebrities either ignore this fact or are ignorant to it.

Diagnoses of autism continued to rise despite the lower rate of vaccination and the removal of the mercury. Finally, after much peer review and investigation into Andrew Wakefield's methodology, the entire paper has been retracted by The Lancet.

The public rejection of Wakefield, who apparently was being funded primarily by trial lawyers, has been a long time coming. Without the sensationalism of our media, our affinity to conspiracy theories and the activism of well-meaning but ill-informed parents, this might have just been a blip in the medical journals. Alas, the damage is already done as the mistrust of vaccines grow, despite the overwhelming evidence that vaccines have saved millions from pain, suffering, crippling disability such as Polio, and even death.

However, science and reason did win out in the end. The same science and reason that has pointed out the other hoaxes and misinformation perpetrated in the early years of evolutionary science. The voices of parents decrying vaccines will lessen and perhaps quiet as now the scientific community can move on from studying vaccines and get to the real root causes of autism. This is how science works.

Hypotheses, peer-review, duplication of results, and an acceptance or rejection of hypotheses based on evidence and clear methodology. It's a process. The occurrence of mistakes using the process doesn't undermine the entire process, especially when those mistakes are brought to light using the process itself. Yet there are people out there who would do everything in their power to get you to believe that this process doesn't ever work and that it is unreliable. Hopefully, the consequences won't be so damaging as the Wakefield case.

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