Anti-vaccine pseudoscientist Christopher Shaw retracted – shocking news

If you hang out around here reading the ruminations of the feathered dinosaur, you’d have read about the anti-vaccine “researchers” who continually get their fake science retracted by journals, even really low-quality ones. This brings us to the fourth publication over two years authored or co-authored by Christopher Shaw and his shoddy anti-vaccine research.

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that I could probably run a website just writing about the antics and pseudoscience of Christopher Shaw, and his sometimes co-conspirator, Lucija Tomljenovic. In fact, I’ve written about Shaw about 40 times over the past six years – his false facts are perfect fodder for this blog.

But Shaw’s newest foray into retraction has got to be the strangest. It was a letter to the editor that was retracted. Honestly, it’s the first time I’ve heard of it, so lets jump right into the fray.

Who is Christopher Shaw?

Oh, my young padawan, you need to ask who he is? Well, take a seat, and we’ll tell you the long, sordid history of Christopher Shaw.

Shaw holds an academic appointment as a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Shaw does claim he’s a neuroscientist, but his research focus is on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and the ALS-parkinsonism dementia complex. He appears to have done quality research in those areas. Unfortunately, he used this research to move into the area of autism and vaccines (no real scientific evidence supporting a link).

Nevertheless, this gives him little, if any, credibility in vaccine research. Shaw has absolutely no background or training in any area of vaccine research, including immunology, epidemiology, microbiology, virology or anything else remotely related. Despite this underwhelming lack of qualifications, he, often with Tomljenovic, continues to publish badly done research in low-quality journals over and over. At least Shaw is consistent in publishing bad research into vaccines.

Much of Shaw’s anti-vaccine “research” has been paid by the Dwoskin Family Foundation, one of the most profoundly anti-vaccine sponsors of research in the world. Claire Dwoskin is a board member of the anti-vaccine group, the National Vaccination Information Center, a vile anti-vaccine group that passes on misinformation as if they are facts about vaccines.

In 2011, the Dwoskins also underwrote the anti-vaccine “safety” conference in Jamaica, which included as speakers, Shaw and Tomljenovic. In other words, these two researchers with zero credentials in vaccines, are supported by anti-vaccine funding. And this means they violate the primary principle of science – examine all of the evidence to come to a conclusion. Instead, these two have preconceived conclusions and try to produce evidence to support it.

Shaw actually has quite a history in retracted anti-vaccine articles. At least three have been retracted over the past two years:

In addition, they have been hammered by respected scientific organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), who have categorically rejected their weak claims. WHO stated that Shaw and Tomljenovic provided no evidence for a causal relationship between aluminum in vaccines and autism.

Now, you’d think that the University of British Columbia would want to keep these two at arm’s length, or even terminate their association with them. If only that would happen. Basically, UBC believes that this is a matter of “academic freedom,” stating that Shaw and Tomljenovic have the “freedom” to explore research that may be in conflict with the established scientific consensus.

But that’s a strawman argument because the whole point of scientific progress is to frequently answer questions about the current scientific paradigm. But the data that might be in “conflict” with the consensus needs to be high quality. And it needs to be published in high-quality journals. Christopher Shaw fails on both of those levels. Shaw has a conclusion, “vaccines are dangerous,” and appears to create evidence that supports his conclusion. That’s not science, that’s pushing an agenda, and UBC should realize this.

The point of this criticism is that Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic, under the veil of an academic center, are pushing a dangerous anti-vaccine narrative that eventually leads to harm to children and adults. And that’s why UBC should reconsider its support of them. But that’s another story.

So what did Christopher Shaw do now?

This is a most curious story. Retraction Watch (see Note 1) reported that a letter to the editor of the journal Toxicology, co-authored by Shaw, was recently retracted by the journal. I’ve been reading about journal retractions for years, and I can’t remember that many letters to the editor being retracted. If any at all.

So let’s set the story. In early 2017, Shaw co-authored (with 10 other individuals, including the equally notorious anti-vaccine “researcher,” Christopher Exley) an article in Toxicology that pushed the pseudoscience that subclinical doses of aluminum in vaccines were related to some neurological conditions.  It’s terrible research that was roundly criticized by real scientists.

Dr. David Hawkes,  a molecular virologist at the University of Melbourne and Joanne Benhamu, a teaching associate in bioethics at Monash University, both in Australia, penned a letter to the editor of Toxicology, entitled “Questions about the methodological and ethical quality of a vaccine adjuvant critical paper.” Yeah, the title alone indicated it would be a harsh assessment of the quality of research from Shaw.

The original paper in Toxicology is barely different from other articles either authored or co-authored by Christopher Shaw – using questionable techniques in an attempt to convince themselves and their readers that large amounts of aluminum can cause neurological conditions in mice. First, the study did not provide us with any significant data supporting the hypothesis. The study included 36 subgroups of analysis, yet they only provided data for six of them, and the statistics for those six groups were underwhelming at best. My guess is that the other 30 groups had worse statistics.

Hawkes and Benhamu also included a strong commentary about ethics in their letter, discussing the lack of statements of conflicts of interest for Shaw and company (and, there are some significant ones). I do not think that conflicts of interest, by themselves, negate the quality of research, but for transparency purposes, they should be open to view.

Now the story gets even weirder. Exley and Shaw co-authored a letter to the editor in response to the Hawkes and Benhamu letter. It was an unprofessional and troll-like letter that I cannot believe Toxicology published. But they did.

A posting at PubPeer, a website dedicated to scientific reviews of papers, highlights a few of the uncivil points from Shaw and company:

  1. A determination that the letter from Hawkes and Benhamu could never have passed peer-review. As if someone like Shaw knows anything about peer-review.
  2. “Peer review would have established that the criticisms relating to our science were unfounded and only reflected the inexperience of the writers of this Letter in the field of aluminium adjuvants. We do not consider that we should now spend our time pointing out why the criticisms are either scientifically inept or simply ill-informed opinions.” Apparently, only Shaw and his gang know anything about aluminum.
  3. “…the authors are both administrators and activists on behalf of a lobby group (Stop Australia’s (anti) Vaccine Network, SAVN) and spend a considerable amount of time criticising in print (usually in non-peer-reviewed blogs such as The Conversation) anyone or any group that publishes excellent and peer-reviewed science criticising the safety record of human vaccines.” Fair enough, but Shaw and company are activists on the behalf of anti-vaccine lobby groups.
  4. An accusation that the critics have fabricated their qualifications. Of course, I spent about 32.478 nanoseconds on the internet to confirm the qualifications of both Hawkes and Benhamu.
  5. Finally, criticizing Toxicology for publishing the letter from Hawkes and Benhamu. “We welcome open and constructive criticism and we expect the journals that publish our research to treat it with the respect it deserves. Unfortunately through an apparent ‘editorial oversight’ such was not the case this time.”

Toxicology eventually retracted the letter from Shaw and his associates, by stating the following:

This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal.

This Letter to the Editor has been retracted at the request of the Managing Editor as it contains inappropriate statements about the affiliation of the authors of the earlier Letter to the Editor published by Toxicology. However, evidence has been provided to the Editor to support the affiliation of these authors. Apologies are offered to the readers for any inconvenience that this may cause.

Dr. Hawkes is rightly troubled by the wording of this retraction. The editors apologized to the readers for this slanderous letter, but not to Hawkes or Benhamu. The problem, from my point of view, is that the letter from Shaw and company is only part of the problem – the original article is so bad, it should be retracted too.

Toxicology is a moderately low ranked journal, so maybe they’re desperate for articles, irrespective of scientific quality. But there is harsh commentary about the study from across the scientific world – it should be retracted.

According to the Retraction Watch article, Shaw claims that he didn’t write the letter. It sounds like he’s trying to distance himself from it. But Shaw’s name wasn’t put there randomly, he had to have read the letter before agreeing to have his name used. His excuses seem a bit self-serving and don’t ring true.

Well, keep it up, Christopher Shaw. When I need to a topic for an article, you’re there for me.

Notes

  1. Retraction Watch is a very important website in tracking the self-correction system in science whereby fraudulent or faulty research is withdrawn or retracted. If you’re interested in how science works, you may want to subscribe to their website.

Citations

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!