On January 3rd the disgraced British physician Andrew Wakefield filed suit in a Texas court against the British Medical Journal, claiming he had been defamed. The suit came almost exactly one year after BMJ's historic article that accused Wakefield of deliberate fraud in his 1998 study which claimed a connection between bowel disease, measles vaccines and autism. (This is no coincidence, as the statute of limitation on defamation cases in Texas is one year).
These are just the latest in a long series of twists and turns in the Wakefiled story. Two earlier key events both took place in February.
When the original paper was published in The Lancet in 1998, Wakefield called a press conference on February 26, 1998 to promote his research. This was the beginning of the modern vaccines and autism scare, what the BMJ now says was based on an "elaborate fraud".
That fraud was exposed through the tireless investigative work of journalist Brian Deer of the Sunday Times in London. The first part of his initial investigation was published in that newspaper on February 22, 2004. At that time Deer only had access to certain sources, but still clearly made the case that the Lancet paper was wrong.
After Wakefield was struck off the medical register in 2010, Deer was able to get access to considerably more information and the result was the 2011 BMJ articles.
Skeptics know that even detailed investigations like these will not convince true believers, and certainly Wakefield's dedicated followers have not been dissuaded. But these detailed investigations are helpful to convince those still sitting on the fence.
You can get a daily dose of the history of skepticism with JREF’s free Today in Skeptic History app for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad or by subscribing on Twitter or Facebook.
(This essay originally appeared in a slightly different form on Skepticality episode #149)