In 1998, the British medical journal The Lancet published a paper by a physician named Andrew Wakefield (among others) entitled “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children”. Pretty straightforward, right? However, what he should have called it was “vaccines cause autism”, because that’s what it was all about.
After studying twelve children with developmental delays in a London hospital, Wakefield claimed to have discovered a new medical condition called “autistic enterocolitis”, which he alleged was caused by a routine childhood vaccination. In the paper, he concluded that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) caused both autism and gastrointestinal issues, suggesting that the three vaccines should be given individually instead of all at once.
The report created a media frenzy, with two British newspapers making the story front-page news upon its publication. Millions of people jumped on the bandwagon. Celebrities – most notably Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. – became outspoken critics of childhood vaccination.
The truth about the MMR vaccine, however, was completely opposite. Despite the widespread panic, medical societies and most other physicians worldwide refused to get caught up in the hype, instead opting for careful research to investigate such a monumental claim. It didn’t take long to discover that Wakefield’s research was completely false. In fact, he had been hired by a legal team to act as a witness in a class action lawsuit alleging “vaccine damage”, earning him over £400,000 in consultation fees. He actively recruited the twelve children in his report in order to imply a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Furthermore, Wakefield held the patent for a different measles vaccine, which had the potential to turn an enormous profit if the trivalent MMR was dropped. He also stood to gain from selling diagnostic kits for autistic enterocolitis, the condition he claimed to have discovered.
Now, the whole issue of vaccines is still controversial, especially in Christian circles. Some people support all vaccines, some are completely against them, while others are indifferent to the whole issue. However, we’ll deliberately avoid the topic of vaccine morality and ethics here, so you can carry on however you like. The point of Wakefield’s story is this: not all decisions are based on reliable information. The current pandemic of misinformation is even more dangerous than any viruses or vaccines. We need to be very careful to base our decisions on trustworthy information, however we find it.
Wakefield’s MMR-autism paper has been called the most damaging medical hoax of the last century. There’s no evidence whatsoever that the measles vaccines – or any other vaccine for that matter – causes autism or any other developmental disorder. “Autistic enterocolitis” was completely fabricated. And yet the destructive effects of that infamous paper persist even until today. The resulting health scare caused a major public health crisis, with many parents refusing to get their children immunized. The sharp decline in vaccination rates around the world subsequently caused an outbreak in measles and mumps. Sadly, countless children died or were permanently disabled from these preventable diseases.
After extensive investigation, The Lancet fully retracted Wakefield’s paper, citing that his research was fraudulent, his methods were unethical, and his conclusions were completely false. Soon afterwards, he had his British medical license revoked for extreme professional misconduct.
Andrew Wakefield circulated lies to turn a profit, misleading an entire generation. Parents worldwide trusted a single lying doctor (and all the celebrities who endorsed him) rather than the millions of other physicians who said otherwise. Some of those same parents, after losing a child, later became the most outspoken proponents of vaccination, working tirelessly to ensure nobody else would have to live with the pain and regret they experience every day.
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Discernment is all about a healthy skepticism that tests everything. Your friend tells you a story – test it. You read something online – test it. You discover a new weight-loss technique – for heaven’s sake test it thoroughly before you pull out your credit card! The Bible encourages this very thing.
Test everything. Hold fast [to] what is good. (1 Thes 5:21, ESV)
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 Jn 4:1, ESV)
In the days of the early church, false teachers abounded. Jesus warned that they would “come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mt 7:15, ESV). False teachers misled believers by mixing half-truths into their teaching. Nearly all of Paul’s letters in the Bible were written to warn against the folly of being led astray by such teachers.
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. (Eph 5:6, ESV)
There are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! (Gal 1:7-8, NASB)
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Cor 11:13-15, ESV)
In the end, acting on false information (i.e believing lies) can lead to very bad things. Manipulation, dishonest gain, disharmony, destruction, and even death.
False claims can be subtle and difficult to discern, especially when skilled liars like Andrew Wakefield abound. So how do we test the information we get bombarded with? Three ways. Three methods that believers can evaluate the truthfulness of something they’re not sure of.
Consult reputable sources. If there was one thing I learned in medical school, it was to cite my sources. Some sources of information are trustworthy, others are not. Much of the MMR-autism fiasco may have been prevented if people had simply done their research. The editors of The Lancet could have examined Wakefield’s data themselves, or looked into his conflicts of interest (like being employed by a law firm trying to prove a class-action lawsuit). The media could have consulted with other medical researchers or the British Medical Association before publishing their fear-mongering stories. The general public could have made their decisions based on more reputable testimonies. Like, maybe Jenny McCarthy – an ex-Playboy model and talk show host – wasn’t the best source of medical information.
When it comes to spiritual matters, nothing compares to fact-checking with the Bible. This is something the early church in Berea did well.
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11, ESV)
Testing all teaching against the Bible – specifically what you read for yourself – is a surefire way to avoid being deceived in spiritual matters. Searching the Scriptures is something we should all do regularly, because God’s Word will never steer us wrong.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Ps 19: 105)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (2 Tim 3:17, ESV)
Paul calls it the Sword of the Spirit, which is what Jesus used to fight back against lies that came flying his way (Eph 6:17). The Bible may not have all the answers for every situation (like whether certain vaccines are safe), but nothing we do should ever contradict the overarching principles of God’s word.
Seek Godly Counsel. Some of the best advice I ever received was from my dad. My wife and I were considering adoption after having difficulty expanding our family naturally. However, we were flat broke. The only way we could pay the massive adoption fees was to take out more loans, something I was reluctant to do. So I called my dad. He listened carefully and then shared the perspective that the cost of raising one child from birth till graduation is about a quarter million dollars, far less than the cost of adoption. Plus, as a fledgling physician (I was in medical school at the time), money wouldn’t be as much of an issue in the future. So, if having more kids was something we really wanted, then we should just go for it. My dad gave us good advice, and it was exactly what my wife had been saying all along. We went for it. Eventually, after a long and expensive process, fraught with pitfalls, we finally adopted two children into our family. Now, years later, I couldn’t imagine life without them.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. (Pr 12:15, ESV)
Where there is no guidance, a [nation] falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. (Pr 11:14, ESV)
Listen to advice and accept instruction that you may gain wisdom in the future. (Pr 19:20, ESV)
We all know how important it is to select a trustworthy advisor, someone we respect, who won’t be afraid to tell us what we may not want to hear. If they’re reasonably mature and have our best interest in mind, we can trust them to guide us in the right direction.
Follow Your Gut. God puts dreams, ambition, and a conscience into each of our hearts for a reason. It may not make any worldly sense, but sometimes our gut feeling is the Lord’s prompting to bring us into a better place or avoid disaster.
Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. (Is 30:21, ESV)
Heeding that still, small voice inside may be the difference between walking in truth and believing lies. This doesn’t mean we make emotional decisions (like acting on the irrational fear that MMR vaccines will give children autism). Rather, it’s a sober-minded, soul-searching evaluation of all the available information from sources we trust.
As well, we should pray about everything.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given [to] him. (Jam 1:5, ESV)
Lies, even subtle ones, tend to be revealed for what they are when they’re spoken before his throne.
Evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. (Eph 5:13-14, NLT)
That’s how believers can find discernment in any given situation. Then, after discerning the truth, we need to stick with it. This is faith is all about, “with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph 6:16, ESV). Faith isn’t just a wishy-washy belief that what you hope for is true; it’s sticking with the truth that you already know. Jesus was able to withstand the temptation and lies of the Devil after going without food for forty days in the wilderness (Mt 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). When Satan shot flaming darts, they bounced right off thanks to Jesus’ rock-solid faith. The Devil can hurl all the lies he wants our way, but when we faithfully hold onto the truth, our chances of being deceived drop dramatically. The Bible says it this way:
[Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers [i.e. godly counsel]… until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge [via Scripture] of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph 4:11,13-14, ESV)
God has a way of guiding us using the Bible, good advice, and our conscience, especially when we set the issue before him in prayer. Lies simply can’t touch with a discerning believer who walks hand-in-hand with their God.