Last year the Pan-American Health Organization declared measles as officially eradicated on the American continent. It is the fifth vaccine-preventable disease to obtain this status (besides smallpox, poliomyelitis, rubella, and congenital rubella syndrome). This is the result of comprehensive vaccination campaigns against measles, rubella and mumps, which have been carried out in the Americas for the last 22 years, the statement said. An extraordinary achievement of modern medicine, one would think. Before comprehensive vaccinations began in 1980, nearly 2.6 million people died of measles worldwide annually. On the American continent more than 100,000 deaths were attributed to measles throughout the 1970s, and many more suffered severe long term health problems from the disease. Nevertheless, in some parts of the American (as well as European) population there remains to this day a pronounced skepticism towards vaccination, fueled by personal and emotional reports in countless vaccination critical internet forums (in the vast majority of cases, however, these representations do not refer to recognized vaccine damages, which in fact occur very rarely, but to pseudo-connections).
If the new US president Donald Trump gets his will, this skepticism shall strengthen even further. To this end he intends to appoint the declared vaccination skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as Chairman of a commission evaluating “vaccination safety and scientific integrity”. In the past, Kennedy has repeatedly propagated a causal relationship between vaccination and autism in numerous publications, statements, and even his own book, and this despite that in countless scientific studies such connection has never been recognized.
The study Kennedy is referring to for his claims dates back to 1998. In this research the British physician Andrew Wakefield noted that eight children (out of a group of 12) developed, according to their parents, symptoms of autism within one month after a vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella. These children suffered from gastrointestinal problems as diagnosed by endoscopy. From these observations, Wakefield concluded that the vaccine had caused an intestinal inflammation which in turn had produced harmful substances. These then migrated into the bloodstream, so his conclusion, and eventually into the brain to cause autism. However, the study did not include any control groups that would have indicated whether the signs of autism were causally related to the vaccine or coincidental after the vaccine had been received. It is worth taking a closer look at the statistics of this case because it constitutes a particularly gross violation of scientific honesty. In 1997, approximately 50,000 British children aged 1 to 2 years received the vaccine. At the same time, autism occurred in England with a frequency of 1 to 2,000 children. This means that about 25 children per month received an autism diagnosis by chance within one month after the administration of the vaccine. Therefore a study with eight children was completely worthless! On the same elementary statistical error relies the conclusion of naturopathic practitioners who describe that almost all children coming to them with allergic reactions have been vaccinated, and therefore there must be a connection between the two. As more than 90% of the children are vaccinated, it is not surprising that even the greatest part of the allergy sufferers fall into this group. But when most children with allergies are vaccinated, this does not mean that most of the vaccinees have allergic reactions.
Nevertheless, the Wakefield study and other reports of alleged harm caused by vaccinations that vaccination opponents such Kennedy (as well as Trump himself) refer to remain surprisingly prominent, despite being countered by hundreds of serious studies – as well as the fact that Wakefield’s study has in the meantime been identified as a fraud: The children had been carefully selected by him, and he had received £ 400,000 from lawyers seeking compensation for vaccine manufacturers, as a consequence of which he had his doctor’s license withdrawn and the magazine officially withdrew the article. Wakefield’s story reads like a mafia novel. “Scientific integrity” is something very different from that.
But the new US administration probably does not care a great deal about scientific integrity. We must repeat our assessment from right after the US election: self-righteousness instead of epistemic modesty, sole truth claim instead of reflective doubt, the intentional lie instead of uncompromising search for truth – Donald Trump stands in stark contrast to just about anything that scientists consider a central part of their canon of values and notions of integrity and intellectual righteousness. As of Friday this week the worst is to be feared: Trump’s presidency seems to engage in a fight against the scientific method itself.
Many readers might be wondering: Is it still worth getting hyped up about this all? Have we not already indignantly criticized and lamented over the “Drama Donald Trump”? Are they any new news to be obtained? The answer from the perspective of science must be: No, it is not enough. For scientists should speak up when what is most holy to them is threatened to be undermined: intellectual integrity. For we must also recognize: the path from intellectual dishonesty, that is, to think (or to believe) against better knowledge, to ethical corruptibility, i.e. to act against better knowledge, is never far. And to observe the latter on the part of the leadership of the free world means nothing less than the danger of a catastrophic regression from the goal of shaping an open and humane global society, the common dream of science, democracy, and humanism (and also capitalism, though many might dislike it being listed here).
Not least is scientific idealism needed for the future evaluation of scientific knowledge and the associated technological possibilities. We must rely on its combination of uncompromising aspiration for truth and an intellectual commitment towards modesty in view of our always limited knowledge. At the same time, in shaping our future world we face an enormous complexity, be it the abstract methods of quantum mechanics or particle physics, the seemingly endless complexity of the neuronal architecture of our mind, the breathtakingly complex interaction of genes with our bodies and the brain, the fact that non-linear feedback loops shaping the characteristics of the global climate display very different features from the usual linear trends, society’s political and economic decision-makers are usually directed by. There is simply no place for “simple solutions” à la Trump like “Climate change is an invention of the Chinese”, “Vaccination causes autism. I was able to observe this with the child of one of my employees”, or “Stop all flights to Africa to fight Ebola”.
Now the scientists themselves know best: Their method is per se far from perfect. Again and again it has led us to make mistakes and has put us in various trouble – and will surely continue to do. But it is the most powerful and at the same time most humble method available to us for gaining knowledge about the nature and for the improvement of our living conditions. And it reminds us over and over again of our limited knowledge. To not use it with full capacity would thus be not only foolish, but also grossly negligent. It is to be feared that the new US government will be both. Precisely at a time when we have to evaluate the ethical and anthropological consequences of an ever-changing naturalization of our world- and self-view, and with it the implications of future scientific knowledge and technological possibilities that threaten to change humanity in the long term, the political decision-makers in the US fall back to an attitude towards of scientific knowledge and an intellectual level of preschoolers.