Hype and Bogus Studies Driven by Lawyers and Celebrities

By January 11, 2011Briefly Legal

Mark Hemingway, Washington Examiner, “Trial lawyer at the center of fake autism study,” covers the bogus study linking autism and vaccines, now refuted by the British Medical Journal as “deliberate fraud.”

In 1998, the respected medical journal Lancet published a study by Andrew Wakefield that suggested a link between autism and childhood vaccination. The study got a great deal of mainstream attention, and touched off a popular backlash against vaccination. Celebrities Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy even secured a good deal of money and attention for the cause.

The problem is that the study was bunk. No other study has ever reproduced Wakefield’s findings, and many more contradicted it. But once the idea that vaccines caused autism took hold in the popular culture, it couldn’t be eradicated.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now reports a resurgence of whooping cough, measles, mumps and other deadly childhood afflictions.

Last week the British Medical Journal detailed the fraud committed in Lancet, which originated in a British trial lawyer’s search for a test case he could exploit for profit. A BMJ editorial concludes, “Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent.”

That this sort of fraud takes place in the fever swamps of trial lawyerdom should come as no surprise. We reported extensively on the litigation against Chevron for environmental damage in Ecuador, a lawsuit built around fraudulent “expert” analyses and reports.

That said, it’s probably true that exaggeration, fear-mongering and disregard for the facts are more common than pure fraud of the Wakefield type. As Hemingway notes:

Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her portrayal of Erin Brockovich, the tale of how a brassy attitude and some legal petitions saved a small town poisoned by a faceless corporation.

But the truth is more inconvenient than fiction. The California Cancer Registry has completed three studies showing that cancer rates in Hinckley, Calif., were completely normal, irrespective of Brockovich’s multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

Unfortunately, these obvious fictions are rarely corrected by the media, and the public continue to believe the hype. Consider the latest alarmist report from the alarmist Environmental Working Group, hyping the minutest of amounts of chromium-6 found in some California water systems.

That’s the same chemical that Brockovich, Hollywood and trial lawyers turned into a cash machine. Jeff Stier of the National Center for Public Policy Research and Henry Miller, a physician, molecular biologist at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, refuted the EWG’s report in a column in The San Jose Mercury News, “Don’t buy into the chromium-6 hysteria.” No cancer outbreak in Hinckley?

The folks at the Environmental Working Group were not about to let this get in the way of a good cry of “wolf,” however.

Predictably, politicians and regulators have taken the warnings seriously. California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are threatening to introduce legislation setting a deadline for EPA to set an enforceable federal standard for chromium-6 in water. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called the analysis “groundbreaking science” and said it had “troubling” implications. This is the kind of ready-fire-aim decision-making we have come to expect from the EPA.

Americans want and deserve safe drinking water. But we can achieve that without irresponsible activists pushing for unreasonable standards based on distorted science — and politicians and regulators pandering to them.

That’s asking a lot, alas. In the meantime, we’d settle for all the TV celebrity gab fests and purported news shows running corrective stories on vaccines and autism. Their eager participation in the trial-lawyer-inspired hype has contributed to sickness and a spreading public health crisis. They owe it to the public to correct the record.

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