“I have no regrets about anything that has happened other than what has happened to the children or what hasn’t happened for them as a consequence of the controversy. I would like to think that I would follow exactly the same course even knowing what the consequences were, if presented with the same challenges again.” — Andrew Wakefield, in “Dr. Andrew Wakefield on the Autism Vaccine Controversy,” Daily Bell, May 30, 2010
“The main deficiencies in the books are in taking a doctrinaire, everything-is-solved attitude, toward just about every problem addressed. . . . They should all be sent back to the publishers as unacceptable.” — John W. Oller, Jr., letter of November 8, 2010, to Louisiana Textbook/Media/Library Advisory Council urging that proposed biology textbooks be rejected

By Barbara Forrest

**Note:  Since this post is longer than usual in order to cover the topic adequately, readers may wish to print it. This post has been updated; see below.

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On February 2, 2010, The Lancet, one of the world’s premier medical journals, retracted [pdf] a 1998 article [pdf] in which British physician Andrew Wakefield was lead author (with twelve co-authors).

Following the judgment of the [United Kingdom] General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practise Panel on Jan 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al. are incorrect. . . . In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were ‘consecutively referred’ and that investigations were ‘approved’ by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.

Wakefield is the now-notorious physician who, by means of this 1998 article, promoted the idea that the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine causes autism. Readers will surely wonder what this has to do with creationism in Louisiana. Please keep reading. There is a connection that highlights once again the error of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) in handing over to creationists the policies implementing the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). On Tuesday, December 7, BESE must decide whether to approve the biology textbooks that have been proposed for adoption by the state. We can only hope that, at that meeting, board members will call a halt to the influence that they have allowed the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF) to have over science education policy during the last two years.

John W. Oller, Jr., a professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, is a creationist who is integrally involved in the LFF’s attack on the textbook selection process in Louisiana. (See him pictured (on left) at the September 16, 2009, BESE meeting with his LFF colleagues Darrell White, Lennie Ditoro,and Rev. Gene Mills.) He also serves on the “Technical Advisory Board” of the young-earth creationist Institute for Creation Research (ICR), which is headquartered in Dallas, Texas (see below). In 2002, he assisted the LFF in its first effort to influence the selection of state-approved biology textbooks, an effort that BESE fortunately rejected (“Evolution Disclaimer Supported,” Baton Rouge Advocate, December 11, 2002, 1A). He is now assisting the LFF again in its second attempt to discredit every single biology textbook that has been submitted this year for BESE’s approval. More will be said about this below. (See “Textbook Attack in Louisiana.”) But the main point of this post is to reveal Oller’s connection to Andrew Wakefield, an association that no respectable scholar should cultivate.

First, the background: Wakefield co-authored a now-infamous 1998 article suggesting that the MMR vaccine causes autism. He capitalized professionally on this supposed connection. However, major scientific studies have shown that there is no causal connection between vaccines and autism. In 2002, a Danish study of 530,000 children found no link between vaccines and autism. A Japanese study in 2005 got the same result. In 2008, an American study published in PLoS ONE provided “strong evidence against association of autism with persistent MV [measles virus] RNA in the GI tract or MMR exposure.” In 2009 and 2010, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled against parents who had sought damages in the belief that vaccines had caused their children’s autism. (See here and here for press coverage.) However, Wakefield was publishing articles based on suspicious research as early as 1993. (See this July 2009 ruling [p. 6] [pdf] by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.)

Real harm to children resulted from Wakefield’s promotion of the autism-vaccine connection. His flawed (and dishonest) study, based on only twelve children, caused a precipitous drop in childhood vaccinations in the United Kingdom and a corresponding rise in the diseases that vaccinations have so successfully prevented. According to British journalist Brian Deer, whose reporting led to the investigation of Wakefield, “[O]fficial figures showed that 1,348 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales were reported last year [2008], compared with 56 in 1998. Two children have died of the disease.” (See Deer’s website here.)

The retraction of a scientific article is very serious business, especially in world-class journals such as The Lancet. (See this article in Neurology Today on the subject.) Elsevier, which publishes The Lancet and is the world’s leading publisher of scientific and medical information, states its grounds for retractions:

Article Retraction: Infringements of professional ethical codes, such as multiple submission, bogus claims of authorship, plagiarism, fraudulent use of data or the like.

Wakefield met the last criterion for retraction in his 1998 article. As a practicing physician, he also violated important ethical standards by ordering unnecessary, invasive tests on children for the sake of his research. Speaking at a parents’ meeting in California in 1999, he joked about drawing blood from children attending his own son’s birthday party, for which he paid each child five pounds — about eight U.S. dollars:

But, and, they put their arms out and they have the blood taken. All entirely voluntary. [laughter]. And when we did this at that party, two children fainted, one threw up over his mother [laughter]. . . .

And (NAME) burst into tears. Ruined his birthday party. But people said to me, Andrew, look, you know, you can’t do this, people, children won’t come back to you. [laughter]. I said you’re wrong, I said: ‘Listen, we live in a market economy. Next year they’ll want ten pounds!

[Read the transcript and listen to the audio file.]

Wakefield compounded these violations by profiting handsomely (to the tune of about $750,000 in U.S. currency) from advising lawyers representing parents who planned to sue vaccine manufacturers — without disclosing this to The Lancet prior to publication of his article. He had also filed for a patent on his own measles vaccine, from which he planned to profit further after he discredited the MMR vaccine.

High-profile publicity about Wakefield’s transgressions began six years ago — in 2004 — with Brian Deer’s reporting in the Times in London. That same year, ten of Wakefield’s twelve co-authors themselves issued a partial retraction of the 1998 article:

We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient. However, the possibility of such a link was raised and consequent events have had major implications for public health. In view of this, we consider now is the appropriate time that we should together formally retract the interpretation placed upon these findings in the paper. . . . [See also the March 4, 2004, BBC story.]

In 2007, the United Kingdom’s General Medical Council (GMC) began an investigation of Wakefield that continued until this year, making it the longest investigation in the GMC’s history. In February 2010, The Lancet‘s total retraction of Wakefield’s article made international headlines. Following the retraction, he resigned from his job as research director at Thoughtful House, a facility for autistic children that he helped found in Austin, Texas. Yet the retraction was only a foreshadowing of what was soon to follow. On May 24, 2010, the GMC banned Wakefield from practicing medicine in the UK. (See the GMC’s nine-page ruling [pdf].) In other words, he has lost his license to practice medicine in the UK.

[T]he Panel concluded that Dr Wakefield’s misconduct not only collectively amounts to serious professional misconduct, over a timeframe from 1996 to 1999, but also, when considered individually, constitutes multiple separate instances of serious professional misconduct. . . .

Accordingly the Panel has determined that Dr Wakefield’s name should be erased from the medical register. . . . [I]t is the only sanction that is appropriate to protect patients and is in the wider public interest, including the maintenance of public trust and confidence in the profession and is proportionate to the serious and wide-ranging findings made against him.

Dr. Paul Offit, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is a national expert on vaccines. In his book, Autism’s False Prophets (Columbia University Press, 2008), he discusses Wakefield extensively. (See especially chapters 2 and 3.) Offit notes that on the day Wakefield’s Lancet paper was published, he held a press conference announcing that he had found the cause of autism (18). However, as Brian Deer discovered six years later, although Wakefield had written that his “investigations were approved by the Ethical Practices Committee,” the committee “had never approved Wakefield’s study” (37).

Wakefield’s team had put children under general anesthesia, performed spinal taps, threaded fiber-optic scopes into their intestines, taken biopsies, and collected large quantities of blood for testing. These procedures weren’t trivial. Several children had difficulties with the anesthesia, and one five-year-old child was in critical condition after his colon was perforated in several places. If the Ethical Practices Committee hadn’t granted its approval, then Wakefield and his coworkers had circumvented a process designed to protect children from unnecessary and potentially harmful tests — a serious charge. (Offit 38)

Dr. Offit also points out that “although study after study showed MMR didn’t cause autism, Wakefield remains unrepentant, wedded to a belief he considers irrefutable” (54). He also relates the view of David Salisbury, the director of immunization for the Department of Health in the UK, concerning Wakefield:

I don’t think he’s an innocent in this. . . . He knew exactly what he was doing. And throughout he has never shown the slightest contrition for what he has caused. He’s had more than enough opportunities to say to the world, ‘I deeply regret the fact that I, acting out of the best of interests, got this wrong and now realize the consequences of what has happened.’ He’s never done this.  (Offit 55-56)

THE AUTISM-CREATIONISM CONNECTION — JOHN W. OLLER, JR.

Given Wakefield’s ethical violations, which began coming to light in 2004, it is a no-brainer that responsible professionals should neither associate with him nor cite him as an authority in their scholarly publications. Yet John Oller has done both.

Oller organized a 2007 conference in Lafayette, LA, “Solving the Autism Puzzle,” at which Wakefield was one of the featured speakers. This was the same year that the General Medical Council began its investigation of Wakefield in the UK, a development about which Oller must surely have had some inkling given the previous three years of high-profile publicity. However, Oller mistakenly accepts Wakefield’s contention that vaccines cause autism and continues to promote this idea, despite all the evidence against it. After Oller’s involvement in the September 2009 episode in which the LFF commandeered BESE’s policy governing complaints about supplementary materials used under the LSEA (see below), his book, Austism: The Diagnosis, Treatment & Etiology of the Undeniable Epidemic, was published (Jones and Barlett 2010). Here’s the kicker: Andrew Wakefield wrote the foreword. (Read it here [pdf]). Wakefield affirms that “this [Oller's] book is unashamedly invested in the belief that the vaccine-autism story has far from run its course” (x).

Forewords are usually written at the author’s invitation, and Wakefield begins his foreword by acknowledging Oller’s invitation (ix). Such an invitation is typically reserved for someone whom the author holds in high esteem for his contributions to his profession. The foreword helps frame an author’s discussion and lends prestige to the work. At least, it is supposed to lend prestige. Given Wakefield’s record of unprofessional behavior — where helpless children are concerned — one would think that any academic author who is concerned about his reputation would avoid Wakefield like the plague. But not John Oller. His standards are far outside those of the mainstream academic community.

Oller is a young-earth creationist who, in September 2009, helped persuade BESE to give the LFF control over the procedure governing complaints about creationist supplementary materials in public schools. This procedure was part of BESE’s implementation of the LSEA. In connection with this development, Oller was featured in a September 28, 2009, press release on this website:

Among the creationists testifying [at the September 16, 2009, Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting] was University of Louisiana-Lafayette professor John W. Oller, Jr., who is a member of the “Technical Advisory Board” of the young-earth creationist Institute for Creation Research in Dallas, Texas. He wrote anti-evolution articles for ICR’s magazine, Impact, for almost twenty years. [UPDATE 9/29/09: It gets worse. Further research has revealed that Oller is also involved with Answers in Genesis, the young-earth creationist outfit that operates the infamous "Creation Museum" in Kentucky. He was one of "eleven creation scientists" who attended a meeting there in 2006 and is shown in a photograph at the museum (left rear, in bright blue shirt). This museum has mis-educated thousands of children. See critiques of this facility here and here, along with a statement of concern by scientists (real ones).] Oller’s field is linguistics; he has no credentials in either biology or science education. In December 2002, he participated in the LFF’s effort to have evolution disclaimers inserted into state-approved biology textbooks (Advocate, 12/11/2002), a move that BESE at that time fortunately defeated by a 7-3 vote.

Here is what Oller said during that 2002 effort, as reported in the Advocate (12/11/02):

John Oller Jr., a professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, also criticized the accuracy of science textbooks under review.

Oller said he was appearing on behalf of the Louisiana Family Forum, a Christian lobbying group.

Oller said the state should force publishers to offer alternatives, correct mistakes in textbooks and fill in gaps in science teachings.

‘We are talking about major falsehoods that should be addressed,’ he said.

As Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” Now, in 2010, Oller is at it again. The public record [pdf; see p. 4] indicates that he made an oral presentation against the proposed biology textbooks at a September 30 meeting of the Life and Environmental Science Committee, which was convened as part of the 2010 textbook adoption process. (See Oller’s completed public comment form. [pdf]) He also submitted for the public record a November 8 letter [pdf] to the Textbook/Media/Library Advisory Council in lieu of his personal testimony at the council’s November 12 meeting.

Concerning the new biology textbooks, which were placed in public libraries for citizen review over the summer, he makes some bold statements in this letter to the advisory council. Oller, who has absolutely no credentials in any of the natural sciences (his degrees are in French, Spanish, and linguistics), claims that “The authors of the books . . . seemed not to have access to modern databases of the journal literature of the most recent decades of biological research.” (That would be news to my friend Kenneth Miller, who uses the most current biological research available both in his work as a cell biologist at Brown University and as co-author with Joe Levine of one of the currently proposed textbooks that Oller is attacking.)

Oller also refers to the “death knell of evolutionary dogma” (creationist talk), which he blames for the “sorry state of our current educational system and the rampant crime and deterioration of our social and economic systems.” He must have picked up this idea from his colleagues on the Technical Advisory Board at the Institute for Creation Research, where the late Henry Morris, a lead figure in the American young-earth creationist movement, wrote an article ominously entitled “Evil-ution.”

As evolutionism has become the dominant teaching in our schools and colleges, those evil doctrines and practices whose rationale is based on evolution have inevitably followed. In terms of its impact on society—especially a society once founded on principles of Biblical morality as ours was—evolutionism has indeed evolved into evil-utionism. . . .

The practices of sexual promiscuity, homosexuality and abortion are already widely promoted and accepted as ‘normal’ and even ‘good’ in our culture, in the name of evolutionism. Infanticide, and euthanasia are being increasingly advocated, on the same basis. . . .

Oller has a long history of creationist activity. He-coauthored an article for a 1994 book entitled The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer, in which he and his co-author posed the question: “Are human beings just beasts with more flexible and better-developed vocal systems, or are we utterly unique creatures who approximate the divine traits of an invisible, omniscient . . . , omnipresent . . . and omnipotent . . . Creator who, according to the Bible, stands both within and outside the space-time continuum?” (Answer: B) The editor was J. P. Moreland, and the foreword was written by Phillip E. Johnson, both of whom are associated with the Discovery Institute, the creationist think tank that helped write the LSEA in 2008.

In July 2006, Oller participated as an invited speaker (topic unknown) at a workshop [pdf] sponsored by ICR and the Society for the Advancement of Creation Science in Starkville, Mississippi. Part of the mission of this workshop was “to develop a new generation of faculty at secular universities who confidently express a Biblical creationist worldview in their research and teaching.”

Also in July 2006, Oller was among “eleven creation scientists [who] gathered together for a 5-day conference” at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, the state-of-the-art misinformation center that has now attracted more than one million visitors. He was photographed (upper left, rear) in front of an exhibit showing children playing alongside animatronic dinosaurs, depicting, as the museum website says, how “children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers.”

UPDATE (12/4/10): An alert reader in Louisiana (hat tip!) pointed out that in Oller’s 2008 article for Answers in Genesis, “More than PIE: Babel Explains Distinct Language Families,” his explanation for the diversity of human languages is the unscientific, biblical story of the tower of Babel, as even just the title makes clear. Here is the heart of his article, with a clarification inserted in blue:

Standard theories argue that languages change when people are separated, but the Bible teaches that people were separated at Babel because God miraculously changed the common language. So which story fits the facts? The miracle of Babel or gradual change? How did we get all these languages? . . .

Enemies of the Bible have especially made sport of this part of the biblical narrative. They have supposed that all the diversity of the languages of the earth can be explained by gradual change. If the Darwinian idea were correct, we should expect a very different picture than the one we have. . . .

In their efforts to explain the multitude of languages, secular [i.e., non-religious] theories come up empty. They are upstaged by the biblical narrative, which credits God with the gift of language and the vast diversity of different language families. . . .  [end update]

Such is the evidence for the quality of the scientific judgment of Prof. Oller, who, in his LinkedIn profile, specifies that his interests are “consulting offers” and “expertise requests.” He hangs out with not only the the disgraced (and disgraceful) Andrew Wakefield but also with young-earth creationists who have misinformed an untold number of innocent children. His association with ICR indicates that he believes that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Yet, according to Oller, the scientists with hard-earned, professional expertise in biology who wrote the proposed textbooks don’t know what they’re doing. Oh, and — lest we forget — evolution is causing the downfall of society.

One has to wonder whether BESE would have given the LFF control over science education policy if they had known who the LFF’s “experts” really are. Ladies and gentlemen of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, wouldn’t you like to rethink — and rescind — your decisions of the past two years?


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