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.
We didn’t conflate the two issues; the issues are already conflated.
- reporting unpublished research that has not gone through a proper peer-review and scientific analysis and promoting such reports as if it was reliable and important.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.