Sunday, August 05, 2007

Confused by 'Muddled Medical Research'? Scoop Campbell to the Rescue

Black and white image of a revolving door: text on the floor reads, 'I'm afraid of revolving doors'
Scoop Campbell was the trigger for St. Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed Titus Brandsma Day: once The Observer had published those notorious pieces, it guaranteed abysmal coverage of the issue for the next 100 days. Following Campbell's fine example, other staff from The Observer duly obliged with failed clarification upon failed clarification and no adequate apology although one of these articles has now disappeared from the archives seemingly related to legal enquiries.

Jon of Holford Watch has been remarkably diligent about following up on factual errors with The Observer's Readers' Editor but it seems that Steve Pritchard is still not ready to acknowledge that Campbell erred in points of fact, and that Pritchard's attempts to deny this are increasingly ludicrous.

Campbell was wrong. The article that was so egregious that Healthbolt has styled it as a hoax has been withdrawn.
The zombie autism/MMR thing is back. In the new BMJ, Ben Goldacre tells the appalling story of an article in the UK's Observer newspaper that claimed new research had found the prevalence of autism to be much higher than previously believed -- 1 in 58 -- and that "leading researchers" thought this might be due to the MMR vaccine. None of the above was true. Period. The article can only be described as hoax. The study found no such thing, one of the "leading researchers" had no such opinion, and the other, who is not even part of the study team, works for Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who started the whole thing with a fraudulent paper in The Lancet many years ago, which has been withdrawn. [My emphasis.]
There are still errors of fact-not interpretation, fact-in the article that is still available in the archives. These errors are serious enough to pollute the public understanding of issues that are relevant to public health, namely the composition and safety profile of vaccines.

This weekend, we have learned that there is yet another outbreak of measles among unvaccinated children. One of the reasons that some parents have declined to vaccinate their children is the sensationalist reporting of an unsubstantiated link between vaccinations and autism; reporting that has been untempered by subsequent reports that find that there is no evidence for such a link.

So, it is with spectacularly bad timing that the The Observer carries a Special Report by Campbell: Confused by health advice? Then read on. It beggars belief that somebody perceived a need for clear guidance on important matters of public health and the cry went up, "Send for Scoop Campbell; nobody does it like him!".
It kills you; no, it does you good. Hang on, here's another report that says ... Denis Campbell looks at the muddled world of medical research
Seriously, that's what it says. One has to assume that the sub-editor has a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour in such matters. It reads like an apt description of Campbell's knowledge of the matters that he is writing about in the assumed capacity of expert mediator between scientists and the public. It is not always true that medical research is muddled. Many substances and interventions have both advantages and disadvantages; it's a somewhat sophisticated argument but it should not be beyond the wit of Observer journalists to write with appropriate qualifiers and nuances.

As it is, for Campbell to be The Observer's journalist of choice seems like breathtaking incompetence or arrogance. I feel that they have let loose someone with the subtle understanding of science that invites comparisons with Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle and her remarkable musings on What is liquid?
All that doth flow we cannot liquid name
Or else would fire and water be the same;
But that is liquid which is moist and wet
Fire that property can never get.
Then 'tis not cold that doth the fire put out
But 'tis the wet that makes it die, no doubt.
Just how much contempt does The Observer have for its readers? Well, enough to ignore what might have been an excellent opportunity to retract Campbell's completely erroneous report, that must have 'baffled' many, that there is a 1 in 58 prevalence of autism among UK schoolchildren. Le Canard Noir is not easily stirred, but he has been moved to describe this article as "barefaced cheek, hypocrisy and cowardice". Quite.

It is past time that Pritchard and Campbell paid attention to the hoardes of people who are waving correction slips at them. Is it time to pick up the virtual pitchforks and flaming torches in the form of more corrections and besiege the citadel of the Readers' Editor's office?

Update 14:00: Le Canard Noir is sufficiently irritated that he has added an Observer-MMR Non-Apology Counter to his front page.

Related reading

Wakefield: another triumph for mainstream journalism in the UK
Autism: The Truth Plus Sensitivity, Specificity and All That Is Decent to Reveal About Predictive Values
The British Medical Journal Embarrasses Itself by Reproducing That Notorious 1 in 58 Figure
Ben Goldacre Breaks His Silence on the Media Coverage of the MMR, Autism Stories
Observer Gives A PoMo Clarification: Retract Already
Anthony Cox: How virulent were The Observer’s MMR articles?
Myth: Measles Is A Trivial Illness, There's No Point to Vaccination
MMR Vaccine Does Not Contain Mercury, Thiomersal, Thimerosal and It Never Has
Myth: Autism Omnibus Hearings Have Not Included Evidence About MMR
The Observer Still Doesn't Understand Corrections of Fact

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Blogger coracle said...

That really was a very silly article from Denis Campbell. Talk about willfully displaying your ignorance.

5:25 pm  
Blogger Shinga said...

Indeed, wilfully displaying to the point of being ostentatiously proud of his ignorance. He misattributed the muddle to the research rather than himself. I don't know what The Observer thinks that they are achieving by this job creation scheme for the scientifically illiterate...

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