Anti-vaxxers behaving badly

Another study has come out claiming a link between vaccinations and autism — and it has been retracted. The paper was deeply flawed in a lot of ways, but we can ignore the poor experimental design, the bad statistics, the cherry-picking of the data, and the funding from dubious sources, and focus entirely on one crystal clear concern: they faked their data. One of their figures is a jiggery-pokery jigsaw assemblage of gel bands copy-pasted into an image that bears little relationship to reality.

The principal investigator, Christopher Shaw, was confronted with these obvious, irrefutable facts of faked data, and he goes into an unconvincing song-and-dance of denial. He doesn’t know who could have done this or why, he says.

We don’t know how some images in the manuscript came to be altered. We investigated when the first suggestions came out in Pubpeer and confirmed that some of the images had indeed been manipulated. We don’t know by whom or why. The first author, Dr. Dan Li, denies doing anything wrong, but has not provided any information about this in spite of repeated questions from us. We are continuing to pursue these questions, but as she is now at another institution, we can’t force her to comply.

Those are outright lies. He knows. The figures for a paper do not simply manifest out of thin air — Shaw had to have discussed this illustration with Li. If he didn’t contribute directly to the paper himself, he is responsible for delegating the work. It’s got 4 authors on it; they had to have talked about the data, worked to interpret it, decided how these data supported their hypothesis, and put together a publishable story. The person who put so much remarkable effort into cobbling together a totally fake image had to have done so consciously — you don’t ‘accidentally’ make at least a dozen edits and reorganize the contents of an image in Photoshop.

Shaw also claims that the figures were not significant anyway. Then why publish it? This is another lie. They thought it was worth including in the paper, and someone went to considerable effort to mangle the data — why would they risk compromising their scientific integrity for a figure that they think doesn’t matter?

Faking data is the second most serious crime you can commit against science (the first would be ethics violations that do harm, which includes faking data). It is unforgivable. Retracting this paper is an inadequate response — the perpetrators ought to be fired, any grants rescinded, and there ought to be an asterisk, at least, on all of their published papers because their data is clearly untrustworthy. Two of the authors, Shaw and Tomljenovic, have a history of dubious work and past retractions. They still get published. The University of British Columbia is still defending them, which is unfortunate since it taints all the legitimate research done there.

Shaw is blaming others for his problems.

“Anti-vaccine” researcher is an ad hominem term tossed around rather loosely at anyone who questions any aspect of vaccine safety. It comes often from blogs and trolls, some of which/whom are thinly disguised platforms for the pharmaceutical industry… Anyone who questions vaccine safety to whatever degree gets this epithet.

This is nonsense. Imagine it’s true that there is a conspiracy against you, and swarming trolls are trying to destroy your reputation. What would you do? Would you be particularly careful to make your work above criticism, consulting with colleagues to get a thorough inspection of your data and interpretations before publishing them, or would you get so sloppy that you would eagerly publish an easily detectable manipulated figure?

Fire the lot of ’em. Forging data is such an egregious crime in science that it ought to warrant retraction of tenure.


  1. rietpluim says

    And yet, this “research” will be referred to endlessly by antivaxxers to prove their point.

    It troubles me that antivaxxers have gone from simply stupid to plain evil. It is time that they are being held responsible for the damage they are doing. Can we sue some for jeopardizing public health please?

  2. gijoel says

    I’d argue that they have done harm, as studies like these are done to convince people not to vaccinate their children.

  3. voidhawk says


    Antivaxxers have always been evil. Andrew Wakefield, the ‘doctor’ who originated this nonsense falsified and manipulated data back in 1998.

  4. photoreceptor says

    In an ideal scientific world, that kind of obvious shit should have been picked up by the reviewers (assuming this is a peer-reviewed journal). Maybe he also managed to screw the system by getting his stuff reviewed by “friends”.

  5. blf says

    voidhawk@4, Minor correction, Wakefield originated neither anti-vax lunacy nor the Aluminum conspiracy behind the retracted paper. For instance, the Anti-Vaccination Society of America was founded around 1880. Having said that, Wakefield’s fraud was described as “the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years”.

  6. blf says

    photoreceptor@5, There are plausible claims the journal in question is deep into the Aluminum conspiracy snake-pit, The rise and fall of an antivax paper, by Smut Clyde:

    […] The Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry (J.Inorg.Biochem) has a tradition of publishing papers on neurology, immunology, animal behaviour, and the causation of autism, as long as those topics arise in the context of aluminium toxicity. The Editors take a generous interpretation of their remit, and the journal’s peer reviewers are optimistic about the bounds of their expertise. This tradition goes back at least to 2009. In 2011 the Editors surpassed themselves with a Special Issue (“Living the in Aluminum Age”), guest-edited by a high-ranking member of the Aluminati, Professor Christopher Exley of Keele University. Many surprising reports claims were made in that issue, such as the fact that alumina in antiperspirants is a leading cause of breast cancer, while Tomljenovic and Shaw contributed a problematic comparison between variations in autism prevalence and variations in vaccination schedules — a comparison that works best if one postulates that the neurotoxicity of aluminium adjuvants propagates backwards in time, in the manner of thiotimoline.

    The thiotimoline snark links to an old Orac article from 2011, And global warming is caused by the decrease in the number of pirates or: Why an inorganic chemistry journal should not publish a vaccine epidemiology paper, which itself is worth a read.

  7. rietpluim says


    I know. It’s just that I have the impression that the overall population of antivaxxers used to be more gullible and is now shifting to more evil.

  8. blf says

    rietpluim@8, I also have about the same impression, but try to draw a distinction between those genuinely opposed to vaccines — who do seem to be more evil now, which seems to be loosely correlated with Wakefield’s fraud — and the apparently much-larger number of people who are simply reluctant (they’ve heard the evil and are understandably worried). Vaccinating children of the latter does not appear to be that difficult, what seems to work is to simply put up obstacles to not-vaccinating. For example, having to attend an interview in person with a public health official before an exemption is granted.†

    Getting locally-respected community figures on-board is also known to help, with famous recent-ish cases being the local mullahs in several Muslim-majority (rural?) areas in both parts of Africa and the Middle East. The taliban — certainly evil, with a capital E — and similar kooks had been spreading lies, such as vaccinations caused sterility (and the fake CIA vaccination campaign used as part of the effort to find bin Laden didn’t help either!).

    Educational films and brochures don’t work nearly as well, apparently often backfiring (as I now recall (all this is from memory — apologies for the lack of references!‡))).

    Those genuinely opposed to vaccinations are not always sincere about it, in the sense they claim they just want to make vaccines safer, or claim to object to some of the manufacturing methods, or claim the schedule is harmful (too many, too soon), or, like Wakefield, are simply trying to make a profit, ethics be damned. And so on. In reality, they are adamantly opposed to vaccines, and will change their claims as suits the situation. And attack debunkers and experts, such as Orac and Dr Paul Offit. And promote bullshite like the paper discussed in this OP. And and and…

      † A scam currently running in California shows why it’s important the interview be in person with a public health official. A flaw in California’s recently much-strengthened law about exemptions is that, basically, a doctor’s note suffices. At least one (several, I think) pediatricians appear to be selling such notes — and possibly doing so without even bothering to examine the child or discuss the matter with the “responsible” adults. Profit! Feck this ethics thing.

      ‡ The bulk of this comment is based on my recollections of a series of posts, mostly by Orac, over the years. Any mistakes are mine, for which I apologise.

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