Some pseudoscientists have actual education
and backgrounds in research, lending them a sheen of credibility in their pseudoscientific research endeavors.
A striking thing about pseudoscientists’ attempts to do research, however, is
how they systematically and deliberately avoid taking simple measures to
validate their findings – they deliberately select biased samples, avoid
blinding, neglect asking whether something works in favor of just looking at how it works (and consequently end up churning out garbage through strategies like p-hacking).
It really is striking, insofar as it would often have been relatively easy to
do it right – it’s almost as if they
tacitly know that doing it right
significantly lowers the chance of obtaining the results they want.
The research of Anthony R. Mawson is a
striking example. Now, Mawson has a real education. He is also an anti-vaxxer and a fan of Andrew Wakefield who really, really want to deploy his skills in the service of anti-vaccine
propaganda. Mawson is most famous for his “research” putatively showing
differences in general health outcomes between vaccinated and unvaccinated
kids, and that the unvaccinated ones are healthier (of course, even if it were
true, which it isn’t, it would have been largely because those unvaccinated
kids would not have died due to
vaccine-preventable diseases because of herd immunity; Mawson’s fans are not
able to comprehend this otherwise obvious point, however). To establish the
results he wanted, Mawson conducted an internet survey among home-schooling
parents, where the opportunity to participate was spread by word of mouth in
anti-vaccine groups, and where the largely anti-vaccine parents would report
their opinion and assessment of the general health of their children without
consulting medical records. It doesn’t take much knowledge of scientific
methodology to realize that such a survey is less than worthless (some further
and the really striking thing is: why
would Mawson, for a study that apparently required substantial funding (seemingly from various anti-vaccine fundraising efforts) deliberately choose a
sample like this, one that any elementary school kid would be able to tell you
would make the results worthless, and – in addition – deliberately avoid taking
into account measures (like medical records) that would provide any kind of
control? How would you explain his choice of methodology if not by i) trying to
make sure the data would end up “showing” what he wanted them to show and
fearing that using a proper methodology apt to track reality would not yield
the results he wanted; and/or ii) it matters less to pseudoscientists and
denialists that the study is properly done and reflects reality, than that it exists and can be brought up in online
debates and used to scare those who don’t know enough about the methodology (or
don’t have time to look at it) to realize that it is complete shit? More
details about why it is shit, in case you ever wondered, are here.
As an aside, one has to wonder about the
competence of the people at the Institutional Review Board at Jackson State
University who approved said study. And it’s not like the anti-vaccine crowd
hasn’t tried to obtain the results they want by (deliberately) incompetently done phone surveys
and Internet surveys before.
Well, the fruit of Mawson’s efforts,
“Vaccination and Health Outcomes: A Survey of 6- to 12-year-old Vaccinated and
Unvaccinated Children based on Mothers’ Reports,” was provisionally accepted by
the bottom-feeding journal Frontiers in
Public Health (which had previously published – before retracting – a study
Frontiers went on to pull it
and eventually formally retract it,
something that didn’t prevent antivaxxers from touting it.
The peer-reviewers included Linda Mullin Elkins, a chiropractor at Life
University – a “Holistic Health University” offering studies “within the fields of
Chiropractic, Functional Kinesiology, Vitalistic Nutrition, Positive Psychology, Functional Neurology and Positive
Business” – which suggests that
Frontier uses a too-literal interpretation of “peer-review” for their
reviews of garbage pseudoscience.
The study was then, without even attempting
to correct for the glaring methodological shortcomings, published in Journal of Translational Science, a predatory
pseudojournal published by Open Access Text, as “Pilot comparative study on the
health of vaccinated and unvaccinated 6- to 12-year old U.S. children”. Details
(including further details about the utter worthlessness and painfully obvious
biases of the study) here.
They even published a second study, as bankrupt as the first,
using the same data set, in the same predatory journal
; that one, too, was eaten up and promoted
with gusto by antivaccine conspiracy groups and antivaccine advocates like Bob Sears
was all over it, for instance, with delusional comments by one Celeste McGovern,
described as a “vaccine expert
”, of Claire Dwoskin’s Children’s Medical Safety
Research Institute, one of the antivaccine groups that funded Mawson’s “study”.
In 2011, Mawson filed a lawsuit against the
Mississippi State Department of Health, alleging that the state health officer
interfered with his position at the University of Mississippi Medical Center
(his contract wsa not renewed) after promoting antivaccine talking points. The
suit was dismissed in 2012.
Diagnosis: Pseudoscientist and conspiracy
theorist. Yes, Mawson has a real education, but what he dabbles in is not