Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ben Goldacre Breaks His Silence on the Media Coverage of the MMR, Autism Stories

Wounded are removed from a battle scene by horse-drawn sledgeI recently complained about the standard of coverage of MMR and autism issues in the UK media alongside the ubiquitous hagiographies of Dr Andrew Wakefield.
The belief in a link between MMR-vaccines-mercury-autism has cultish overtones. Most religions have an act of contrition. UK media collectively need to make an act of contrition and perform an act of reparation. The latter, of course, should take the form of some informed coverage. I would nominate Ben Goldacre (who is uncharacteristically/ominously quiet at present) but then what would somebody who is medically qualified and known for promoting the public understanding of science (awards and everything) have to add to this discussion?
Ben Goldacre has broken his silence with an article in the BMJ: MMR: the scare stories are back (also available on Bad Science). It's a feisty piece (can men be feisty?) and quotes some robust language from an email tirade that happened long ago but is still a stone in the shoe for enraged academic.

One of the interesting nuggets that came out of the article was the background to Prof. Baron-Cohen's widely-reported concerns and consulation of Public Health Officials.
How did the Observer manage to crowbar MMR into this story? Firstly, it cranked up the anxiety. According to the Observer, Baron-Cohen “was so concerned by the one in 58 figure that last year he proposed informing public health officials in the county.”

But Professor Baron-Cohen is clear: he did no such thing and this was simply scaremongering. I put this to the Observer, which said it had an email in which Baron-Cohen did as the paper claimed. Observer staff gave me the date. I went back to the professor, who went through his emails. We believe that I too now have the email to which the Observer refers. It is one sentence long, and it is Professor Baron-Cohen asking if he can share his and the other researchers’ progress with a clinical colleague in the next door office. This dramatic smoking gun reads: “can i share this with ayla and with the committee planning services for AS [autism services] in cambridgeshire if they treat it as strictly confidential?”

Professor Baron-Cohen told me, “That’s not saying I’m concerned, or that we should notify anybody; these are just the people who run the local clinic, who I share a corridor with, who said they were interested to hear how it was going so far. They are not public health officials, and it’s not alarmist, it’s not voicing concern, it’s simply saying: ‘am I allowed to share a paper with a colleague in the next door office?’ It seems very important to me that we discuss clinical research with clinical colleagues, and I only stressed confidentiality because the paper was not yet final.” [My emphasis.]
Now, there is a saying along the lines of "Bring me a dozen words written by any man and there's enough therein to hang him" but the resulting farrago of nonsense seems to rely upon a remarkable over-interpretation of this simple one-liner. If Baron-Cohen had mentioned that he had to dash because he was working to meet a deadline on this report while munching the morning toast, would this have been trailed as a clandestine briefing at a breakfast meeting? Who leaked this email? Why didn't Denis Campbell contact Baron-Cohen to discuss the matter rather than relying upon an over-interpetation by parties who may well have had their own agenda?

The BMJ is one thing. The wider UK media have to step up and start making reparations although that 1 in 58 figure has spread so far that it seems impossible to recall (examples: blogs, here and here; the newspapers who cite this are too many to mention but include, of course, The Observer, the Daily Mail, The Daily Express and even the BMJ). Goldacre concludes, somewhat dismally although accurately:
Whatever one might think about Andrew Wakefield, he was just one man: the MMR autism scare has been driven for a decade now by a media that over-emphasises marginal views, misrepresenting and cherry picking research data to suit its cause. As the Observer scandal makes clear, there is no sign that this will stop.

Related posts

The British Medical Journal Embarrasses Itself by Reproducing That Notorious 1 in 58 Figure
Another Day of Shame for UK Media on Topic of MMR and Autism
Autism: The Truth Plus Sensitivity, Specificity and All That Is Decent to Reveal About Predictive Values
Wakefield: Another Triumph for Mainstream Journalism in the UK
Anthony Cox: How virulent were The Observer’s MMR articles?

Thanks to Wellcome for use of this open access image of the removal of wounded by horse-drawn sledge by Ugo Matania.

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