Absence of Evidence

The absence of the Bad Science column in yesterday’s Guardian has all the makings of a bigger story than had there actually been a column. Ben Goldacre, writer of the column, has been one of the few voices in the British press that has reliably and careful pointed out the evidence against the assertion that the MMR vaccine causes autism in children. Last Sunday’s appalling story in the Guardian’s sister paper, the Observer, and the non-appearance of Ben yesterday, cannot be a coincidence.

Last week saw two pretty awful bad science stories: the first was this unnecessary muck-raking around MMR on the eve of Andrew Wakefield’s competence to practice hearing; the second, was Patrick Holford’s parading of his non-science nonsense on the gullible Trevor McDonald programme. The latter was broadcast too late for inclusion in Saturday’s paper. No, Ben just had to write about the MMR story that spread across the British Media like wildfire last week. I am sure it was tearing at the very heart of Ben’s Bad Science existence. I can feel his pain.
So, has the Guardian gagged him? Told him not to write about it? Today’s Observer offers a piss poor explanation for their story. Maybe, the Guardian wanted to let the Observer offer its own explanation for why it made the story front-page? Well, if their readers’ editor comments is justification then it falls a long way short. The non-apology offers in response to the charge that it was conflating the issues of MMR safety and an autism increase that,

We didn’t conflate the two issues; the issues are already conflated.

Fantastic. And I thought the more progressive papers were all about trying to disentangle the lies, half-truths, confusions and propaganda so readily dished out by most of the press. It is a great shame that the two newspapers that stand the best chance of offering rational reporting based on good science find it so hard to do so.
The Observer tries to justify its story in that it managed to get hold of leaked previews of the Cambridge results that deserved reporting. In this respect it is behaving as if it has got hold of leaked cabinet papers. It forgets that science is a process that has many checks and balances. Break that process and what you end up with is inherently unreliable – it is no longer science. Leaked results, before they have been peer-reviewed and amended are deeply provisional and may well be worthless.
What I find galling is that the original article is essentially repeating the same mistakes that led to the MMR debacle in the first place, namely:
  • reporting unpublished research that has not gone through a proper peer-review and scientific analysis and promoting such reports as if it was reliable and important.
  • feeling the need to report ‘balance’ by giving undue prominence to fringe views and small numbers of dissenting voices
  • failing to properly report careful and sound science that could settle the issues and instead continue to look for a sensationalist angle.

Newspapers appears to misunderstand that good science reporting is intrinsically different from reporting financial issues, politics, fashion and sport. Science is not democratic. It is not about the fair counterpointing of opinions. It is not ‘pluralistic’. It cannot be selective. Science reporting should not focus on the motives of researchers as its primary analysis. It should not be about conspiracies and shenanigan’s as a matter of course.

And the reason is that science is the the best way, indeed the only way, that we know of finding out the truth about the world. And it is a truth that is deeper than the ‘truths’ of politics and the love lives of celebrities. Our wishes, aspirations, prejudices and world views make no impact on scientific reality, no matter what the post-modern educations of our media masters may have told them. Does MMR cause autism? This is a question that cannot be answered by readers’ polls, a show of hands and an editorial in a paper. It is a question about the nature of reality; a scientific question that can be, and has been, answered by the meticulous collection of relevant evidence.

Understanding science is about understanding the evidence: about how that evidence has been collected, analysed and criticised. It is about the best conclusions we can draw from that evidence and how we might improve on that evidence to gain deeper insights. Reporting that concentrates on fringe views, that are in contradiction to reliably established facts, might do when we discuss base-rate changes, Spice Girl reunions or the size of Tony Blair’s manhood, but cannot make the mainstay of scientific reporting. The end result is just a total distortion of what science knows and just adds to public mistrust of the reliability of science.

Now, of course there are very important human interest stories in the MMR controversy. Science is a human process too. But the process of science is different from the established conclusions of science. In science there are deceptions, intrigue, anguish and politics. These issues too need reporting. The charges that Andrew Wakefield will face need covering to counter the arguments in the mad press that this is just the ‘establishment’ hitting back. There are thousands of confused parents and many who are convince that MMR caused their children’s problems, despite their beliefs being due simplistic and faulty reasoning. There are the quacks that seek to exploit the fear of MMR and offer their own self-serving money making schemes. But the science is different from the human ping-pong. The non-MMR/Autism link is as settled as any scientific question can be now. This ought to be the starting point of the stories, not something that can be played with like antics of Paris Hilton.

So, will the Guardian let Ben write what needs to be written? What is more important, can the Guardian and the Observer cover the GMC disciplinary hearings for Andrew Wakefield in a way that can start putting the whole sorry mess to bed? We desperately need newspapers that can do this. We do not need more sensationalist rags. I shall not be buying a paper this week. A small step, I know.

These things are important. As a society, we have forgotten how bad childhood illnesses can be. We have forgotten how they were feared by our grandparents. Instead we just just get idiots in the Daily Mail saying how we should not be too worried about immunising our children, because there are no cases of measles about.

Response now posted…


9 Comments on Absence of Evidence

  1. of course there are very important human interest stories in the MMR controversy. Science is a human process too.

    One odd thing about the reporting is that the Observer doesn’t even give a balanced account of the human interest stories. Wakefield is charged – among other things – with unethical and potentially harmful experiments on children: why is this barely mentioned? And why is there so much inaccurate coverage of the supposed risks of MMR, and so little coverage of the children injured by dubious ‘treatments’ for the supposed aftereffects of vaccination?

  2. Hi–this is spot-on. Indeed, the absence of the Bad Science column this week is no coincidence, or so it would seem from Ben Goldacre’s comments on His own forum, here. Quote:


    i think to be fair they’re well meaning and up for letting me write it but its vey very difficult for them, for various reasons.

    it’ll be really interesting to see what happens next week.

  3. One of the newspapers has to give this some decent coverage. It beggared belief that the Autism Omnibus hearings were not reported – had they been then much of the spadework for understanding so many of these issues would have been done.

  4. “Reporting that concentrates on fringe views, that are in contradiction to reliably established facts, might do when we discuss base-rate changes, Spice Girl reunions or the size of Tony Blair’s manhood, but cannot make the mainstay of scientific reporting.”

    In the sort of cases cited, perhaps. But I suggest that this level of innacuracy in, for example, the sports pages would rapidly lead to, at best, ridicule.


  5. Nothing much to add Andy except to compliment you on a very nice piece. In particular, what you have written about the difference between the requirements for science reporting and other types of reporting (say, financial or political) was exactly to the point and needs to be restated loudly at every available opportunity.
    I would add one doesn’t need to be a scientist in order to understand the scientific process. Indeed, the process isn’t difficult to grasp which makes it all the more depressing how inept so many editors and journalists are.

  6. “Instead we just just get idiots in the Daily Mail saying how we should not be too worried about immunising our children, because there are no cases of measles about.”

    It could have been worse, the Daily Mail could have published facts that would, or at least SHOULD, have encouraged open scientific debate about efficacy and safety of vaccines, where instead there is silence.

    One list HERE
    should raise questions for anyone interested in safety.

    “In 1871-2, England, with 98% of the population aged between 2 and 50 vaccinated against smallpox, it experienced its worst ever smallpox outbreak with 45,000 deaths. During the same period in Germany, with a vaccination rate of 96%, there were over 125,000 deaths from smallpox.

    In Germany, compulsory mass vaccination against diphtheria commenced in 1940 and by 1945 diphtheria cases were up from 40,000 to 250,000. (Don’t Get Stuck, by Hannah Allen)

    In the USA in 1960, two virologists discovered that both polio vaccines were contaminated with the SV 40 virus which causes cancer in animals as well as changes in human cell tissue cultures. Millions of children had been injected with these vaccines. (Med Jnl of Australia 17/3/1973 p555)

    In 1967, Ghana was declared measles free by the World Health Organisation after 96% of its population was vaccinated. In 1972, Ghana experienced one of its worst measles outbreaks with its highest ever mortality rate. (Dr H Albonico, MMR Vaccine Campaign in Switzerland, March 1990)

    In the UK between 1970 and 1990, over 200,000 cases of whooping cough occurred in fully vaccinated children. (Community Disease Surveillance Centre, UK)

    In the 1970’s a tuberculosis vaccine trial in India involving 260,000 people revealed that more cases of TB occurred in the vaccinated than the unvaccinated. (The Lancet 12/1/80 p73)

    In 1977, Dr Jonas Salk who developed the first polio vaccine, testified along with other scientists, that mass inoculation against polio was the cause of most polio cases throughout the USA since 1961. (Science 4/4/77 “Abstracts”)

    In 1978, a survey of 30 States in the US revealed that more than half of the children who contracted measles had been adequately vaccinated. (The People’s Doctor, Dr R Mendelsohn)

    In 1979, Sweden abandoned the whooping cough vaccine due to its ineffectiveness. Out of 5,140 cases in 1978, it was found that 84% had been vaccinated three times. (BMJ 283:696-697, 1981)

    The February 1981 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 90% of obstetricians and 66% of pediatricians refused to take the rubella vaccine.

    In the USA, the cost of a single DPT shot had risen from 11 cents in 1982 to $11.40 in 1987. The manufacturers of the vaccine were putting aside $8 per shot to cover legal costs and damages they were paying out to parents of brain damaged children and children who died after vaccination. (The Vine, Issue 7, January 1994, Nambour, Qld)

    In Oman between 1988 and 1989, a polio outbreak occurred amongst thousands of fully vaccinated children. The region with the highest attack rate had the highest vaccine coverage. The region with the lowest attack rate had the lowest vaccine coverage. (The Lancet, 21/9/91)

    In 1990, a UK survey involving 598 doctors revealed that over 50% of them refused to have the Hepatitis B vaccine despite belonging to the high risk group urged to be vaccinated. (British Med Jnl, 27/1/1990)

    In 1990, the Journal of the American Medical Association had an article on measles which stated ” Although more than 95% of school-aged children in the US are vaccinated against measles, large measles outbreaks continue to occur in schools and most cases in this setting occur among previously vaccinated children.”(JAMA, 21/11/90)

    In the USA, from July 1990 to November 1993, the US Food and Drug Administration counted a total of 54,072 adverse reactions following vaccination. The FDA admitted that this number represented only 10% of the real total, because most doctors were refusing to report vaccine injuries. In other words, adverse reactions for this period exceeded half a million. (National Vaccine Information Centre, March 2, 1994)

    In the New England Journal of Medicine July 1994 issue a study found that over 80% of children under 5 years of age who had contracted whooping cough had been fully vaccinated.

    The CDC states that 135 children died during the 2003-2004 flu season. 59 of these children had received their flu shots.

    On November 2nd, 2000, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) announced that its members voted at their 57th annual meeting in St Louis to pass a resolution calling for an end to mandatory childhood vaccines. The resolution passed without a single “no” vote.”

    It would seem that drug and vaccine makers often prefer suppression over transparency.

    When a drug or vaccine proves to have problems it should be open to debate. Without transparency and debate, there is no “science”.

  7. The title of your article
    Absence of Evidence
    would seem on relection to more accurately portray past vaccine programs listed above than that of the position taken by Andrew Wakefield.

    Now that we are getting used to our arrival in the ‘modern, scientifically superior’ 21st century, will we at last be allowed to have open scientific debate about current drugs and vaccines such as Gardasil about their emerging side effect?

    Or will the public and the media continue to be kept in the dark, with

    a. those academics whose opinions are, at best, colored by blind trust in the integrity of drug manufacturers and their ‘evidence based’ products being massively supported, and

    b. those who question the science being added to the number of bullied, discredited academics?

    It should make very interesting future reading.

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