Time and time again poorly conducted studies have linked autism to vaccines. The studies are harmful. They encourage people to stop their children from getting potentially life-saving vaccines, putting them at risk of contracting entirely preventable illnesses unnecessarily.
Enter a new study which claims that autism symptoms in mice are linked to aluminum in vaccines. The study, published on September 5, stated that aluminum caused symptoms "consistent with those in autism" in mice.
After the study was published, articles claiming that there's a link between autism and aluminum in vaccines began circulating the internet almost immediately, influencing an unknown number of people into not giving life-saving vaccines to their children.
As always with these stories, the damage may already have been done. The story has already been shared countless time by ant-vaxxers. A retraction won't reach the same people.
But yet again the link is proving to be false, and the study extremely questionable, after one of its own co-authors claimed that figures in the paper were deliberately altered before publication. The data had been tampered with.
As with any bold claim like this, the study came under close scientific scrutiny after it was published. David Gorski, a professor and surgeon at Wayne State University, called the paper "the torture of mice in the name of antivax pseudoscience".
But of particular note was the PubPeer community, who spotted something odd about some of the images used in the study. The community, which allows users to analyze and comment on scientific papers, spotted that certain images appeared to have been manipulated.
Some of the images appeared to have been flipped. I.e. they weren't showing what they were supposed to be showing.
After seeing the allegations on PubPeer, Dr. Chris Shaw – one of the paper's co-authors – told CBC News that his lab ran its own analysis on the figures. After doing this, he asked for a retraction of the paper from the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, where it was published.
"It appears as if some of the images in mostly what were non-significant results had been flipped," Shaw told CBC. "We don't know why, we don't know how... but there was a screw-up, there's no question about that."