Glen Otero Often it takes a very long time, if ever, for good science to be recognized. Unfortunately, bad science often burns incandescent in the media and can't be extinguished. Cooler heads rarely prevail in the short term and thanks to hubris, scientific illiteracy, and bureaucracy, the self-correcting scientific method can take years to right wrongs. Case in point, the story I'm about to relate to you.

I was reminded of this little vignette by two recent events: 1) a planned trip to the Broad Institute where genomics research and high performance computing go hand-in-hand. In fact, Broad researchers published a genome-wide study of autism in October 2009; 2) last month's official retraction of Andrew Wakefield's 1998 Lancet paper that claimed to show a connection between the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Wakefield's publication, which documented a small study with preliminary evidence, ignited a media circus, and caused a celeb and vociferous anti-vaccine movement.

Now, vaccines are one of public health's greatest achievements, so the cooler heads weren't about to sit on their collective hands. Children have been imperiled by vaccination in the past (did I mention that we don't live in a risk-free world?), and those alarming incidents were met head on by the best and brightest. Several large studies since Wakefield's publication have demonstrated that there is no discernible link between MMR vaccines and autism. But that's not all. In 2004, ten of Wakefield's co-authors withdrew support of the paper's conclusions and Lancet withdrew its endorsement of the paper due to undisclosed conflicts of interest for Wakefield. Further digging uncovered that Wakefield was allegedly getting paid by lawyers to cast doubt on the MMR vaccine and that he also stood to personally gain from the outcome of that research. Of course, I don't remember the media applauding the scientific community for sorting out this hot button issue or castigating Wakefield for his malfeasance in 2004.

That was 2004, six years after the original publication date. But instead of quelling the anti-vaccine movement, it turned Wakefield into a martyr who was supposedly being targeted by a conspiracy. The anti-vaccine movement also threw its weight behind the notion that thimerosal, a vaccine preservative containing mercury, had a connection to autism. Several studies have shown that there is no thimerosal-autism connection either, while new evidence, like the Broad's publication, suggests that autism has genetic links.

Now it's 2010 and Lancet finally officially retracted Wakefield's paper, twelve years after its publication and six years after the majority of the authors withdrew their support of the paper's conclusions. Better late than never. The best account that I've read of how this twelve year scientific drama has unfolded can be found in the book Science Under Siege. I highly recommend the book.

The most disturbing thing to me in this scientific spectacle is the refusal of the anti-vaccine movement to acknowledge the evidence that disproves their theories; theories that were built on a now discounted study. This is symptomatic of a bigger scientific illiteracy problem in the U.S., what Thomas Friedman likes to refer to as the "dumb as I want to be" attitude. The public increasingly views science as just another news source, one that they can treat on equal footing with "Oprah."

HPC at Dell is about building incredibly powerful computer systems to support leading-edge genomics, global climate and particle physics research, just to name a few. I also happen to think it's about reversing the ill-informed, fear mongering public backlash against science currently showcased round-the-clock by a media addicted to sensationalism and void of critical thinking. No small feat. And the reason I work at Dell. Here to Serve.

- Dr. Glen Otero