An editorial from the Chicago Tribune on Monday gives me an opportunity to discuss something I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while: the retraction (pdf) of the scientific paper in The Lancet that originally proposed a link between MMR vaccinations and autism.

The story got plenty of press, touched off a raging debate about the safety of vaccines, and scared many parents away from inoculating their kids.

There was just one problem. Researchers hadn’t actually proved a link between the vaccine and autism. They were pushing a theory, one that lead researcher Andrew Wakefield was paid nearly half a million pounds to pursue. He was paid by lawyers who were trying to prove that the MMR vaccine caused autism.

As this article notes, the original paper got tons of press, and a movement started that has convinced millions of parents not to vaccinate their kids. In the 12 years since the original paper was published, many other, more thorough investigations have found no link.

A dozen epidemiological studies have not found a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. But the fear of a link remains. And some parents complain that kids receive too many vaccines. In 1960, young children were routinely vaccinated against five diseases: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio and smallpox. The CDC now recommends vaccination by age 2 against 13 diseases.

But negative results don’t generate the same kinds of screaming headlines, and the “controversy” continued. Dr. Richard Horton, the current editor of The Lancet, put it well in a recent interview on NPR’s On the Media:

This was a system failure. We failed, I think the media failed, I think government failed, I think the scientific community failed. And we all have to very critically examine what part we played in this. I think the media certainly did sustain the story over a decade. It became a political story, with did Tony Blair have his son vaccinated with MMR or not, suddenly a huge media furor around that.

Andrew Wakefield would make many statements during the course of those ten years, each of which was dutifully reported as if it was the gospel truth. Profiles of him were written as this charismatic doctor saving the lives of children. I mean, I think we all have to look very carefully at ourselves and say, we really messed up here[…]

We used to think that we could publish speculative research which advanced interesting new ideas which may be wrong, but which were important to provoke debate and discussion. We don’t think that now.

This is a basic problem with scientific outreach – journalists often report sensationalist stories based on major advances, but major advances are rare. Furthermore, the implications for the major breakthroughs often aren’t understood for years, after a great deal of follow-up – certainly long after the “newsworthieness” has gone away. As any grad student will tell you, science is long, plodding work. Victories are small and far between, but there’s an inexorable march towards understanding. Unfortunately, you’ll never see that on the front page.