Sunday, July 08, 2007

Wakefield: Another Triumph for Mainstream Journalism in the UK

Question mark and reminders
Mr Matanoski, a lawyer for the US Govt. Health and Human Services Dept., recently made this remarkable comment in his concluding statements for the first part of the Autism Omnibus hearings (pdf) in the US. The MMR-autism case has no plausible or verifiable science to support it.
It's at best speculation, idle speculation. Now, at worst--at worst--it's a contrivance. It's a contrivance that's been developed and articulated and promoted by its chief proponent, and that's Andrew Wakefield. He promoted it for financial gain. Either way it's not science.
pgs 28-9: Day 12 Transcript of Cedillo v. Secretary of Health and Human Services (pdf)
Denizens of mainstream media frequently criticise bloggers; either we are ill-educated, close-minded and so unskilled at writing that we are a carbuncle on the internet and the intellect of those who read us or we will be the downfall of civilization. Bloggers such as Autism Diva and Kevin Leitch have played close attention to the proceedings and blogged them faithfully.

But, it seem that the mainstream media don't see fit to research recent developments in the Wakefield autism debacle just because they are writing about it.


You may recall a recent blogging uptick in stories about coverage of the Autism Omnibus hearings and what they have revealed about the shoddy science and laboratory practice behind Dr Andrew Wakefield and those notorious MMR-autism-gut findings. This is particularly relevant in the light of the upcoming General Medical Council hearings that will investigate Dr Andrew Wakefield, Professor Walker-Smith and Professor Murch.

So, what has mainstream media done for us today? I'm too angry to comment now; I shall update this as the day progresses.

I told the truth all along, says doctor at heart of autism row
In his only interview before he appears in front of the General Medical Council to face serious charges of malpractice, the campaigner against the MMR vaccine tells Denis Campbell that he has no regrets.
I am hanging my head in shame for the Observer. Among the many, many problems with the story, I just drag out this paragraph at random.
Critics point out that the US court case is not about the MMR vaccine itself but centres on the use of a preservative called thimerosal, which contains 50 per cent mercury and until a few years ago was added to routine vaccinations given to children in the US under one. Crucially, it has never been an element of the MMR vaccine here.
Give me strength. Thiomersal has never been a component of MMR anywhere because MMR is a live vaccine. How does this muck get through a scientific sub-editor?!? (See MMR the Facts for the UK and the CDC for the US (no. 7) plus the ever-reliable Orac.) Sunday is not the sort of day to take you through the structure of thiomersal (but I can't resist saying that Autism Diva gives a diagram of thiomersal/thimerosal in the Byers' link, and that mercury is one atom among the 23 in a thiomersal molecule so the issue is molecular not actual weight) or the issue of mercury v. ethyl mercury (but start thinking of ethanol v. methanol or regular alcohol v. wood alcohol) but, if you have the stamina, look at Dr Byers' ludicrous testimony in the Autism Omnibus on this topic.

New health fears over big surge in autism [Edited: July 24; new URL as original story removed from Observer archive.] Let's not go into the whole epidemic issue right now. The article is about an upcoming paper that says the prevalence/incidence of autism is higher than suspected.
Two of the academics, leaders in their field, privately believe that the surprisingly high figure may be linked to the use of the controversial MMR vaccine. That view is rejected by the rest of the team, including its leader, the renowned autism expert, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen.
One of the two people who thinks this is Dr Carol Stott. That's right, Dr Carol Stott who harassed Brian Deer by email and is a collaborator at Thoughtful House with Andrew Wakefield? Dr Fiona Scott used to be in business with Dr Carol Stott. They used to provide assessments for use in the failed MMR vaccine litigation.

This is a brilliant move. It's impossible to comment on an upublished study or one that is 'in publication'. So, for now, I will defer to the learned testimony of Dr. Fombonne during the recent Autism Omnibus Hearings. Edit update: 23:00 Ben Goldacre of Bad Science has emailed both Scott and Stott (the two experts). Scott has responded by quoting a press release:
The Cambridge University Autism Research Centre have not yet released the findings from their prevalence study, as the study is not yet complete. The Cambridge researchers are surprised that an unpublished report of their work was described out of context by the Observer. They are investigating how this report was made available to the Observer. They are equally surprised that the Observer fabricated comments attributed to their team.
Edit: 23:00 One useful thing I learned, this is obviously a prevalence study.

Do Observer journalists do any basic websearches before emoting in ink? Edit: 23:00 - in light of the above edit, who knows what to think but the substantive point still stands...

MMR Scare Pair Acted Dishonestly and Irresponsibly Despite the promising title, this places undue emphasis on the controversy: there is no controversy, the preponderance of evidence is with the truly world-class experts who testified for the defendants at the recent Autism Omnibus hearings. It also mentions that the Nigel Thomas petition in support of Wakefield, Walker-Smith and Murch has 7000+ signatures without mentioning that approximately 50% of the signatories are anonymous or are the duplicates of those who have signed between 2-5 times.

The indefatigable Kevin Leitch is all over the comments, of course. Edit: He has posted an excellent response to the Observer piece.

In the comments there is a dispiriting Private Eye story that looks like it was based on a JABS PR release.

Professor Trisha Greenhalgh wrote a very readable critical review of the Lancet paper.
In conclusion, the Wakefield study was scientifically flawed on numerous counts. I am surprised that neither the editor nor the reviewers spotted these flaws when the paper was submitted. Had they done so, the public would have been saved the confusion and anxiety caused by false credibility conveyed by publication of the study in this prestigious journal.
Had Denis Campbell read it, then we might have been spared yet another airing of this mis-information. But, then again, Wakefield's PR company has a history of insisting that he should be interviewed by journalists who know little about MMR or medicine (Brian Deer postcript).

More when the red mist has left my eyes.

Blog reactions:
Ben Goldacre of Bad Science: Try Me, Sh*thead - the strange case of Carol Stott, Wakefield and the Observer
Dr Crippen of NHS Blog Doctor: Andrew Wakefield, MMR, Autism and the GMC
Tony Hatfield of Retired Ramblings: What the Observer's MMR Piece Didn't Tell You!
Tim Worstall: Crap Reporting in the Observer
Anthony Cox: New Autism Fears, A Man in Denial, MMR Memes in Newspapers and How virulent were The Observer’s MMR articles?
Mike Stanton: Cry Shame on Wakefield and MMR
Kristina Chew of Autism Vox: 1 in 58
Ms Clark of Autism Diva: Embattled Andy Wakefield Speaks and Wakefield and Walker-Smith: Dishonest and Irresponsible
Russell Brown of Public Address: Bad journalism, old stories
Patrick Holford and Andrew Wakefield

Related posts or relevant reading

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick on Stephen Bustin's devastating testimony and why there is nothing in the MMR-autism theory
Brian Deer for a very readable summary of The MMR-autism scare and Wakefield's role in it.
Brian Deer on Prof. John Walker-Smith and his involvement in experimentation on children with autism symptoms and his statement relating to the revelations about the Lancet paper.
Brian Deer on Prof Simon Murch and his involvement with the studies and his defence of the Wakefield research. Brian Deer has performed a thorough analysis of the differences between that statement and the claims made in the Lancet paper
Daily Telegraph on Prof Murch and his statement that there is no link between MMR and autism
Brian Deer has made available an easy-to-read format of the cross-examination of Dr. Arthur Krigsman in the Cedillo case of the Autism Omnibus.
Andrew Wakefield, Chronology and "Bad Science"
Patrick Holford and Dr Andrew Wakefield's Discredited Findings: Part 1 and Part 2
Wakefield's Latest Tent Mission on the Doctrine of Autism
Kevin Leitch on Andrew Wakefield and the death of the MMR debacle
Patrick Holford, MMR and What Passes for Hard Evidence
Mike Stanton on Patrick Holford and his unusual views on vaccination, MMR and autism
Patrick Holford Claims Remarkable Benefits for Homeopathic Vaccinations
Holford Watch: Holford believes Secretin is "Worth considering" as an autism treatment; however, there is no evidence that this treatment is effective and
Holford is sceptical about off-label prescribing, but thinks that secretin for autism is "Worth considering"

Flickr credits for the images. 1. question, 2. Questions?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Do Observer journalists do any basic websearches before emoting in ink?"

Well, sometimes they do, but that has landed them in trouble when they didn't know enough about the subject to be able to assess the reliability of what they found:,,1795170,00.html

"How does this muck get through a scientific sub-editor?!?"

Note that in that story they claim to have had a science editor and a health editor available, but apparently nobody bothered to consult either of them about a science and health related story.



4:19 pm  
Blogger Shinga said...

Spot on, Mojo. Because when you are going for truthiness and referenciness, the intervention of a science or health editor might be profoundly unhelpful.
"Dr Ben Goldacre, used this word to suggest a supposed scholarly reference that wasn't a real one: "The scholarliness of her work is a thing to behold: she produces lengthy documents that have an air of 'referenciness' ... but when you follow the numbers, and check the references, it's shocking how often they aren't what she claimed them to be." ...StephenColbert's "truthines s"...describes things that a person claims to know, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or actual facts."

5:38 pm  
Anonymous mike stanton said...

Did you catch this bit about Wakefield on AIDS

"He compares himself to the small band of doctors who, soon after Aids emerged in the Eighties, pinpointed a previously unknown virus (HIV) as the cause, only for their theory to take years to become established.

'In the Thatcher-Reagan era, Aids was originally seen as something politically unacceptable, as an act of God or a gay plague - as anything but our problem. People were stigmatised,' he said. 'We are looking at something with autism which is similarly politically unacceptable."

So when is he going to condemn MCandless, Holford and the rest of the alti quacks promoting their snake oil remedies for AIDS and all the HIV denialists who are anti-vaccine.

I think we might need the Master's paradox machine here.

9:46 pm  
Blogger Shinga said...

Oh good grief! Between that and people comparing him to Semmelweiss, Pasteur, Galileo and almost Christ - it is almost difficult to identify the venal and venial reality here...

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