14 February 2010

A Little Knowledge is a Useless Thing

So the Autism-vaccine study has been retracted by the medical journal, The Lancet. It was the study that had led to the resurgence of measles in Europe by influencing parents to avoid the measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine.

First, bravo on retracting that study. It's great to see irresponsible and dishonest research conduct meeting its just consequences.

The entire incident does, however, make me wonder whether it's a very bad thing for people, and non-scientists in particular, to believe everything that's published in a journal.


Just because a study is published in a journal doesn't make it true, valid, believable, or just in general good.

There is so much that's published that's wrong or incorrect in either small or large ways. The peer-review process to get a study published certainly increases the quality of the published research, but just because it's published doesn't mean it's true.

In fact, the point of having it published is so others in the same field could take a look at it and have a chance at debugging it.

Reading a journal article is like taking a snapshot look at a field-in-progress. It takes someone who has been following the scientific discussion, reading all the related articles, talking with the researchers, etc, to fairly assess the state of knowledge on a subject matter.

Cherry-picking an article, or even a few articles, just isn't enough. Maybe this is a case of how knowing a little — where "little" means a study or article or two — turns out to be a very useless thing.

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