Why *Everybody* Needs Critical Thinking Skills #2: Research Fraud

In the past few weeks, two cases of serious research fraud have become public. Both involved medical research done by well-respected researchers, and both led to inappropriate medical decisions that have probably caused deaths in patients.

  • Andrew Wakefield. British researcher Andrew Wakefield published fraudulent research that claimed that there was a connection between childhood vaccination and autism. That led to parents who heard this deciding not to vaccinate their children, which led to outbreaks of certain diseases that are prevented by vaccines. Some of these diseases can cause severe disabilities or death.
  • Joachim Boldt. German researcher Joachim Boldt published fraudulent research that claimed that a certain class of drugs (called colloids) was safe when it was not. That led to medical societies recommending that colloids be used, which led to kidney failure, severe blood loss, and heart failure in patients.

Both of these cases of research fraud took place over a period of more than a decade. Both involved well-respected medical researchers. In Dr. Wakefield’s case, the motive was evidently financial: he wanted to make money from people who feared vaccines because of his reports. In Dr. Boldt’s case, we do not yet know what the motive was, but money seems plausible.

The target of Dr. Wakefield’s research was the public: he wanted to influence opinions about vaccination among parents and others who made the ultimate decision whether to vaccinate or not. The target of Dr. Boldt’s research was the medical establishment: he wanted to influence the drugs that health services, hospitals and doctors chose to use during surgery. In both cases, a great deal of other medical research existed that contradicted their claims. Multiple studies done before and after Dr. Wakefield’s studies all showed that there was no link between vaccination and autism. Many studies done before Dr. Boldt’s research had already shown that the drugs that he was reporting on were not safe for all patients.

It appears that both the public (in the first case) and the medical establishment (in the second case) nonetheless largely failed to spot the problems with the work done by these two researchers. Many parents ignored the building evidence that Dr. Wakefield was wrong, and continued to refuse to vaccinate their children. Many medical societies and surgeons ignored the evidence of multiple studies that showed that colloids were more dangerous than other drugs that did the same thing, an continued to use colloids.

Both of these situations appear to me to involve many cases of people choosing to believe the evidence that supported a particular theory that they had already decided that they believed, instead of impartially assessing all of the evidence. It’s a common human failing to put more weight on evidence that supports what you already believe, but use of elementary critical thinking skills allows people to recognize their presuppositions and work around them. It appears that many people, some of them highly trained medical professionals, failed to exercise these skills here.

It isn’t just the public that needs to work on its critical thinking skills. :/

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