One of the big stories in science news lately has been the story that links of vaccine administration to autism are not just wrong, they are fraudulent – a willful fabrication built up in an effort to sue a vaccine maker.  The disturbing thing here is that millions of parents may have been scared away from vaccines for their children by a lie.

In an effort to help my readers distinguish between scientific fact and fiction, I will now describe a way that anyone can use to tell whether a scientific study is real or horse hooey.  It can be done in less than about 30 minutes and is completely free.  One caveat – this only works for studies more than a few years old as it relies on scientists to make up their minds about the study.  It does, however, have the advantage that you are eliminating from the search those HUGE sections of the web which are trying to sell you something or are written by crackpots.

1)      Step one  – Go to Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com/).  Type in the search terms for the study you are interested in.  If you know the last name of the study author, type it in as well.

2)      Step two – Look for the study in question in the search results and go to the section where it says “Cited by (some number)”.  Click on this.  What you are doing here is seeing what other scientists are saying about the article.  Like any Google search, you will get a number of irrelevant hits, but you should get several hits that focus on the article within the first page or two. Read the abstracts to see what they have to say.

Scott Snyder

Let’s see how this works when we apply it to the study on vaccines and autism.  I happen to know the article in question was written by a man called Wakefield so I will type in “wakefield autism vaccine”.  The study I want to look at comes up as the first hit.  As a bonus, I can see that the study has been retracted which should be a pretty good first clue.  At the bottom of the entry is a section that says “Cited by 1086”.  Click on this and look at the first 10 results. 

The title of number 3 reads, “Autism and measles, mumps and rubella vaccine: no epidemiological evidence for a causal association”.  Going down to number 5 on the list, titled “A population based study of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism”, and skip right to the conclusions – “This study provides strong evidence against the hypothesis that MMR vaccination causes autism.”  Pretty good evidence here that the study is best reserved for use in a compost heap rather than informed decision making.

If you want to try this yourself, one search I might suggest is “Mann global temperature”.  It relates to a key study in global warming which many people question.

About Scott Snyder

Senior Research Scientist, Biotherapeutic Pharmaceutical Sciences

Blog Posts 

Key Areas of Research: Carbohydrate Chemistry

Professional Affiliations: Member, International Endotoxin Society

Education: Ph.D. Duke University Cell Biology with certification in Biological Chemistry M.S. Biochemistry Medical College of Wisconsin B.S. Chemistry University of Idaho

This article originally appeared on the “Think Science Now” site.

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