Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Independent on the Motivation of Criticism of the Infamous Campbell Articles

Baby with bib that reads, MMR is safe. Tell your friendsStephen Glover of The Independent somewhat magnificently misses the point of Dr Ben Goldacre's criticisms of Denis Campbell's infamous MMR-autism article for The Observer:
It is not often you read an attack in one newspaper on another such as appeared in The Guardian last Wednesday. The oddity here is that the venom of the article's author, Ben Goldacre, was directed at The Guardian's sister paper, The Observer. Mr Goldacre was angry about a front-page piece in The Observer suggesting a possible link between the MMR jab and autism. According to Mr Goldacre, The Observer had wilfully misrepresented research at Cambridge University. His piece was quite persuasive, though I dare say The Observer's case is stronger than he made out. Some may say it is grown-up for one newspaper to be able to attack another in the same group. No doubt it is. Yet, one cannot help wondering whether the publication of this piece in unexpurgated form did not reflect irritation on the part of The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, at The Observer's distinct populist identity. [My emphasis.]
Oh, I think that one can quite easily avoid that line of thought, if one comprehends the full horror of just why that article and the one that accompanied it are so spectacularly horrible that they will probably end up in textbooks as an Awful Warning to Journalists Who Get Out of Their Depth and Write About Matters that They Don't Understand While Behaving in an Irresponsible and Indefensible Way - and to the Editors Who Back Them.

According to Ginger Yellow, this matter was mentioned in The Guardian's media podcast but, again, missed the point by a country mile.
Tim Radford’s comments about this debacle on the Guardian’s media podcast. He basically took the line that you shouldn’t have scientists or people trained in science in newspapers because only lay journalists would know the questions that readers would want asked, and that we should rely on scientists to give the right answers. But isn’t it the job of an editor to make sure the right questions have been asked? And besides the Observer story had nothing to do with asking the right questions (as far as we can tell they didn’t ask any) and everything to do with basic misunderstandings of science and pushing an anti-scientific agenda. [My emphasis.]
Eh - wasn't one of the most significant points here that Denis Campbell signally failed to contact any of the principal scientists who could have set him straight about his astonishing story? Or was he too busy practising his new signature as Scoop (don't call me Denis) Campbell?

And, frankly, it may be the fact that he knew nothing about the subject, and couldn't assess his sources that led him to repeat the canard by implication that MMR in the US contains thimerosal (UK thiomersal, a mercury-containing preservative) which it does not and never has (he makes this mistake in his interview with Andrew Wakefield* that accompanied the autism scoop article, but he was obviously dazzled judging by the breathless fanfic prose). It may also have led to his inability to understand some of the terminology used and his lack of awareness that it is unwise to report the results of a tool that yield a known false positive rate of 50% without appropriate caveats and qualifications alongside. Those are just a few of the many flaws in Denis Campbell's piece that has now disappeared from The Observer's archive**.

Golf fans would not sit still for reporting by a journalist who didn't know one end of a club from another and flaunted ignorance of the history of the game. Why would anyone think that the public needs science interpreted for them by people whose understanding is worse than their own? Goldacre has described the responsibilities of journalists, acknowledging that the public is expected to rely upon journalists of various media to read and understand studies that are of general interest and to report upon them accurately. However, as Goldacre expresses it, although
newspapers like to fantasise that they are mediators between specialist tricky knowledge and the wider public...I wouldn’t be so flattering.
Scoop Campbell's debacle is a horrible example of this and, yes, An Awful Warning to Others. It is particularly galling that the consequences of correcting his misinformation will not have to be faced by him and The Observer. GPs and health workers in the UK and other countries will face yet more conversations with parents who are alarmed by Campbell's claims and have not heard that there is no foundation to them. Health insurers or the NHS will have to pay for that time. Who knows what the final bill will be if parents are so alarmed by these groundless statistics and claims that they refuse to vaccinate their children against preventable childhood illnesses?

The excellent Language Log posted a thoughtful piece on the Sí se puede surrounding a contretemps that involves language classes and some remarkably simplistic solutions that were offered by people who may not have known better but should have been aware of the appropriate resources that they might have consulted. They quote John Moore and Ana Celia Zentella with approval:
Rarely do politicians think to consult language researchers when dealing with linguistic problems. The governor seems to think that his recollection of his own experience with learning English is enough evidence to know how to deal with complex issues of second-language acquisition and literacy among poor immigrants under very different circumstances. However, we still harbor hope that research and facts might occasionally trump a facile appeal to personal anecdotes, so often invoked in political discourse.
That seems remarkably sensible. If you have an announcement to make that might influence public understanding and even lead to some friction, then it might be worth talking to some experts on the subject. The Science Media Trust comes to mind for Denis Campbell, editors, Correction Offices and anyone else who might regard this as a helpful tip.

*Campbell propagates the myth that the Autism Omnibus Hearings did not discuss MMR but were solely concerned with thiomersal, thimerosal and mercury preservatives
**The Guardian uncritically reproduced some of Campbell's claims in an article that claimed to give a summary background on MMR: Q&A: MMR vaccine row. This article now has the offending paragraph removed pending investigation:
A paragraph regarding concern about MMR overseas, extracted from a piece in the Observer now deleted from the website due to concerns about its accuracy, has been removed from this article until the information can be verified.

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