One man made thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of children sick. Many of them died and many will continue to die, because one man passed bad science off as legitimate.
In 1998 Andrew Wakefield published an article in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, which found a link between the combined mumps, measles and rubella vaccine and autism. It was a lie but it took more than a decade for the journal to fully retract that paper. It has been thoroughly debunked but today some parents still refuse to vaccinate their children, and a large part of that fear is based on one scientist whose lie had the protection of the scientific academy for 10 years.
But what happens if false science had been held to be true by most scientists for decades, even centuries?
At a cursory glance, there is nothing wrong with the research. The scientific article ticks all the right boxes, and should get us all a-twitter. The research looks at how South African fire management in the Kruger National Park is promoting biodiversity. Tick. It is published in one of the world’s leading academic journals, Science. Tick. This means it has been extensively peer-reviewed. Tick. It makes South Africa look good. Tick.
But this piece of research has one major, irredeemable flaw: it does not have a single South African or African author.
South Africans, like another 2-billion people worldwide, have swallowed social media without a second thought. Nuclear technology, cloning and fracking we consider to be dangerous technologies, things to be protested against, fought about, strongly regulated. But we welcome constant connection to a virtual world and are really only frustrated that high data costs inhibit greater contact.
Not all academic journals are made equal: some are the pinnacle of global scholarship, while others are a collection of articles thrown together with little regard for quality or rigour. At worst, it might even be a scam journal specifically out to make money. If you are a researcher, fact-checker or journalist, how can you know that the article you’re citing is a legitimate piece of research in a credible journal?