This blog has been critical of Holford’s writing on MMR, autism and Wakefield. We were surprised that Holford made such a hash of summarising the evidence on this issue, and especially disturbed that he failed to note that Wakefield faced serious charges from the GMC – including the charge that he carried our unethical, unnecessary, painful and potentially harmful experiments on vulnerable children. Naturally, I expected that – even if Holford chose not to let his readers know about the serious charges Wakefield faced – the mainstream media would offer a more accurate summary of the issues. At least as far as the Observer is concerned, I was disappointed. My next post will look in more detail at the ethics of experimenting on children – if right-on papers like the Observer are totally incapable of doing a competent job of this, maybe blogs can offer slightly less dismal coverage – but first I think that the Observer deserves some attention.
Last week, the Observer ran a jaw-droppingly awful front page article on MMR. Luckily, though, they have a Readers’ Editor – Simon Pritchard – to correct this type of mistake. Well, kind-of. In fact, in a “short piece…riddled with self-exoneration“, Pritchard fails to correct most of the mistakes in the original article, and actually includes basic mistakes in his own column. Genius.
Pritchard ends his column by stating that “the central point, in my view, is that the leaked story of the apparent rise in the prevalence of autism was a perfectly legitimate and accurate story in its own right, which did not need the introduction of the MMR theory.” However, this was only a draft study and therefore was not reliable. Prof. Baron-Cohen (a prominent participant in the team behind the leaked study, described by the Times as “head of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University and one of the most authoritative figures in the field”) makes clear that the leaked draft was at a stage where it “is as accurate as jottings in a notebook”. More damningly, the alarmist 1/58 autism rate referred to by the Observer was, um, not a measure of autism diagnoses – but results of a pretty basic questionnaire, which showed that 1/58 research subjects were at risk of being on the autistic spectrum. Moreover, for Baron-Cohen we should interpret the current rise in autistic spectrum disorder diagnoses as “more to do with diagnostic practice” than a rise in autism rates. So the leaked study only showed an ‘apparent’ rise in autism rates for those who lack basic statistical and critical analysis skills. Perhaps the Observer should get a Science Readers’ Editor – so that it can properly correct its mistakes in future – or just find a Readers’ Editor with basic analytical skills.
The front page Observer story on Wakefield – and their pathetic attempts at an apology – both got their facts seriously wrong. They also both failed to mention the details of the serious charges against Wakefield – including allegations of unethical experiments on children. Aside from making their coverage of debates around Wakefield and MMR extremely partial, this strikes me as disrespectful to those children who allegedly suffered as a result of Wakefield experimenting on them.
I still believe that Holford owes it to his readers and supporters – and to the alleged victims of Wakefield – to correct his claim that Wakefield might be “struck off for…challenging the status quo”. I also believe that the Observer owes it to its readers to devote a substantial piece – as the mistakes pile up and are compounded by the failure to issue a prompt and accurate correction, I would suspect that several thousand words will be necessary – to correct its very basic, very careless errors.
Measles is a far from trivial condition: 12% of children and 20% of adults who contract measles will be hospitalised, and measles can have very serious effects. While the number of measles cases is rising in the UK – due to falling vaccination rates – we are not, yet, seeing that many people effected by the illness (although if one child suffers unnecessarily that is, of course, too many). Anti-vaccination bad science might therefore seem like harmless ‘alternative’ science. However, as herd immunity falls and measles cases continue to rise, the consequences of spreading inaccurate information about MMR vaccination will become steadily more apparent: consultant epidemiologist Mary Ramsay is “predicting an epidemic from this, and many places in London are already at a point where an epidemic can occur”. I hope that Patrick Holford, Denis Campbell, Simon Pritchard, and other newspaper editors, journalists and media personalities who have helped to spread bad vaccination science feel very, very proud.