Inquiry: Earning the Right to Believe

Crazy belief or not?
“Ground up unicorn horn will detect the presence of poison.”
In early modern Europe, belief in unicorns and the virtue of their horns was widely accepted. As would be expected, people acted on their beliefs. Thus, a supposed unicorn horn was of course valuable because of its ability to detect poison. So one that belonged to the king of France was priced at £20,000 pounds in 1553. Mary Stuart (1542-87), Queen of Scotland bought a piece of unicorn’s horn and used it regularly to test for poison. (Jackson, 2004)
Of course, it is now well-known that what were believed to be unicorn horns are in fact the tusks of narwhals and that they have no special poison detecting properties. (Maynard, 2014)
We know this because investigators have inquired into the belief; that is, searched systematically for evidence that would give us the right to believe or not in the existence of unicorns.
While there are a variety of different ways that scientists conduct their investigations, at the core of all science is inquiry with its assumption that beliefs about the natural world must be earned by patient investigation. To the scientific mind it is wrong to “believe on insufficient evidence or to nourish belief by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation.”(Clifford, 1876, p. 292)
The practical value of inquiry is that it provides “strategies with which to examine evidence systematically, interpret, and control our surroundings. Knowledge of science can enable us to think critically and frame productive questions. Without evidence that supports or refutes an idea we are wholly dependent on others as “experts.” With evidence, we are empowered to become participants rather than merely observers.” (Michaels and others, 2007, p. 2)
A vivid illustration of the importance of inquiry can be found in the case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British physician and researcher.
Along with twelve colleagues, Wakefield published a research paper in the British medical journal Lancet in 1998 that “reported on 12 developmentally challenged children” who were diagnosed with “regressive”“autism as well as with “non-specific colitis.” The paper identified a “new syndrome” that linked brain (autism) and bowel disease” and which was caused by vaccination with the MMR vaccine. (Deer, 2011)
The MMR vaccine has been used successfully since 1971 to immunize infants against measles, mumps, and rubella, so naturally the news that MMR vaccine was connected to autism spread rapidly. The consequence of the news was a world-wide scare about the MMR vaccine as well as a reduction in the number of children who were immunized against measles, mumps, and rubella. In Britain the vaccination rate fell from 92% to 78.9%, for example.
Wakefield’s article also caused the development of a movement against all childhood vaccinations including, for example, the DTaP that protects children from diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, or whooping cough.
Despite its publication in the Lancet, the experiment on which the conclusions were based seemed flawed. It was a study based on a sample of only 12 children; there was no control group; the data wasn’t analyzed as a whole but selectively; its conclusions were highly speculative (that MMR was related to autism) given the long history of the successful use of the MMR vaccine.
A more detailed inquiry by a journalist named Brian Deer by soon found significant problems in the research.
For example, some of the children’s problems were detected months before the child had received the MMR vaccine.
Even more revealing was Deer’s finding that Dr. Wakefield had been employed a lawyer and paid £400,000 by a lawyer working with a group of parents who were suing the pharmaceutical company that produced the MMR vaccine, and that his research was to create evidence to be used in the law suit.
Even the selection of the subjects for the study was facilitated by the lawyer for whom Wakefield worked. The lawyer solicited subjects for the study by specifying particular symptoms which meant that “the evidence that launched the vaccine scare — was bound to be found by the …clinicians because this was how the children were selected.” (Deer), 2011)
The sensational nature of the Wakefield conclusions spurred a flurry of investigations, none of which was able to confirm the Wakefield findings.
As the cascade of problems appeared, ten of the twelve co-authors of the article retracted their support for the MMR-autism connection because “no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.” (Rao, and others 2011)
Ultimately, the British General Medical Council (GMC) investigated Dr. Wakefield’s possible misconduct. In January of 2010, a tribunal of the GMC found three dozen charges against Wakefield proved, including dishonesty and the abuse of developmentally challenged children. The tribunal found that Wakefield “had failed in his duties as a responsible consultant, acted both against the interests of his patients, and “dishonestly and irresponsibly”“in his published research.
The editor of the Lancet fully retracted the article and stated that the paper was utterly false and that the journal had been deceived. (See the notes in resources for the sources)
Despite the fact that inquiry from a variety of sources revealed that both Wakefield and his research to be fraudulent and was retracted from the medical literature in 2010, still in 2016 self-declared experts including celebrities and even some politicians continue to disseminate the fraudulent claim that vaccinations are the cause of autism, with the consequence that parents are led to withhold vaccination and thus protection against serious disease from their children.
There were outbreaks of measles attributed to lack of immunization in the UK in 2008 and 2009 as well as in the U.S. as well as outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) with 48,000 cases with fatal outcomes for 20 children. (CDC,
These facts support Clifford’s warning that failure to work for the right to believe by rigorous inquiry has the result that we “all suffer severely from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to… . There is a danger to society that “is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them….” (Clifford, 1876, p. 294)
Clifford, W.K. (1876). The Ethics of Belief, Contemporary Review (29) 1876.

Deer, Brian (2011). How the case against the MMR virus was fixed. BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 06 January 2011)

Jackson, William (2004). The use of unicorn horn in medicine. The Phamaceutical Journal, 18 December 2004.

Maynard, James (2014) Narwhal tusk – Scientists finally solve its real purpose. TechTimes retrieved

Michaels, and others (2007). Ready, Set, Science! (National Research Council, Washington, DC)

Rao, Saythyanarayana and Chittaranjan Andrade (2011). The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud. Indian Journal of Psychiatry 2011 Apr-Jun; 53(2): 96-96. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.82529

Notes on the Wakefield Case:
“MMR-row doctor failed in his duties”. Yorkshire Evening Post. 28 January 2010. Archived from the original on 30 January 2010. Retrieved 28 January 2010.

Triggle, Nick (28 January 2010). “MMR scare doctor ‘acted unethically’, panel finds”. BBC News. Archived from the original on 28 January 2010. Retrieved 28 January 2010.

Boseley, Sarah (28 January 2010). “Andrew Wakefield found ‘irresponsible’ by GMC over MMR vaccine scare”. The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 14 February 2011. Retrieved 9 January 2011.

Inquiry, W.K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief, the right to believe, Andrew Wakefield, The Lancet, measles, mumps, rubella, MMR vaccine


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