I was reminded by this interesting blog article on "What is Science" of a few thoughts I had jotted down about the scientific method and vaccination research.
For starters, the blog which remindd me: http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2011/03/08/everybody-thinks-scientificall/
And my favourite bit of it
Science, stripped down to its essentials, is just a method for figuring things out: you look at some situation, come up with a possible explanation, and try it to see if it works. If it does, great, if not, try something else. Repeat until you find an explanation that works.
And here's my musings on science and vaccination research which I wrote on a train a couple of weeks ago but never got around to posting.
There's been a fair amount of discussion on here lately about the use of science in making decisions about vaccination. As is obvious from my user name and signature, I'm a fan of science. I work full time as a research scientist (although not in a medical field - my biological expertise doesn't go much beyond high school and popular science) and I like to think science and the scientific method inform (although do no rule) the choices I make in parenting.
To be clear, I do not consider my "pro science" stance as an unshakable belief that "science" always gives the right answer. Science is not a thing or a person, it's a process. And it's a messy process which meanders towards the best answer given the available evidence. Sometimes that best answer has such a strong body of evidence that it becomes the right answer, and sometimes the evidence, or our perspective of the evidence shifts.
OK, enough preamble. Here's my view of the process of science for what it's worth.
1. You (the scientist) have an idea about something. For example, you think - hey, what if the rise in vaccination of children is to blame for X. Or you think "I wonder if the rise in chronic illness might be explained by a rise in consumption of sugary processed foods".
2. Now you decide if the idea you have is physically plausible. Is there a mechanism which can link the two things or explain your idea in another way? This is also a point at which as a professional scientist I would check up on if anyone else has researched this link already. It's amazing how many ideas stop at this point when you discover they're either not physically possible, or that many other people have already proved/disproved them.
3. Ok, so you have an idea which seems physically plausible. So now you have to come up with a way to test it. This could be developing your own experiment, collecting evidence by observing what's happening in the real world. Or it could be conducting an assessment of many other studies addressing the point.
4. With the evidence in you now decide if (a) the evidence in your study backs your idea, (b) the evidence is against your idea, or (c) the study you have done is not yet good enough, and more work needs to be done. The sign of a good scientist is to be willing to have any of these results be true, and to continue to publish even null results.
5. Now comes peer review. This is having other scientists (and yourself) critique your evidence and try their hardest to find flaws in it. It's nothing personal, it's the way we work to make really sure we believe you didn't accidently do something wrong. If you pass this point your work is published and enters the next level of scrutiny where hopefully lots of people read it.
6. Now the crucial step for the process of science is that this is not the end. Even if your study backs your idea strongly, you cannot yet as a scientist say it's right (no matter how much the press release and media write up will say that). You must keep working and think of another idea of how to test the idea (or something related). You also wait for more independent studies or assessment of published works. Only once there is overwhelming evidence that something is true, will a scientist claim it is right.
Anyway, how does this inform my assessments of some of the worrying ideas about vaccinations being harmful which we have all read online. Well I see a lot of these ideas falling down at step 2. Many do not appear to be physically plausible (because of infinitesimal doses etc). But I accept i could be wrong about that so I proceed. I see a lot of the studies which seem to demonstrate harm falling down at step 4 - the people conducting them seem unwilling to accept that sometimes they might not find proof vaccines are harmful - or at least they never publish those ones. Where I get concerned about conflicts of interest is where i see people only doing research on vaccines, and only publishing things which hint at harm. The real process of science is messier than that. And then I see a lot of reliance on single (or small numbers) of studies suggesting harmful links, while the (typically much larger number) of studies which do not provide evidence of harm are dismissed as being "too small", "not testing it properly" or "biased because of who paid for them". So I do not feel step 6 is applied appropriately either.
So without going into specific issues/claims about vaccination harm, this is why I decide that it's extremely unlikely (remember I'm a scientist so I like caveats) that vaccines cause more harm than good.
And it absolutely doesn't mean I think they are 100% safe, or work 100% of the time. This is an assessment of risk benefit and the most likely outcome.
And it doesn't mean either that I think the job is done. The process continues, the studies keep going and the safety checks are vital. But that's already happening in my opinion.