More terrible Observer MMR coverage

Now I’m annoyed with the Observer. I had a nice Holford Watch post mostly written – looking at some particularly odd claims for vitamin C – and was planning on spending the rest of the day relaxing with a newspaper. Then I saw the Observer’s truly dismal (2nd) attempt at an apology for their terrible MMR/Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) coverage. Now I can’t buy myself an Observer, and feel obliged to insert a break in your usual Patrick Holford coverage to write another post on the Observer.

Lots of the mistakes in the Observer’s latest ‘clarification’ have already been covered by Ben Goldacre and Mike Stanton. The Observer’s mistakes have also been extensively covered already: in the Guardian, the Times, the BMJ, a number of blogs, and in numerous e-mails and letters to the paper (I wrote to the Observer Readers’ Editor myself, to point out some of their mistakes).

The Observer coverage of this is so bad, though, that there’s always room to point out more errors. Incredibly – despite being told, repeatedly and very publicly – what they got wrong, the Observer continued to make more mistakes in their ‘clarification’ of the failures in their MMR/autism coverage. I will summarise some of these below:

  • The Observer repeats the claim that there’s an “apparent rise in the prevalence of autism”, when the report they reported on did not demonstrate anything on the sort. Baron-Cohen was quite clear that “[f]or the moment, we should assume [any rise] is more to do with diagnostic practice.”
  • The Observer says that “a statistical analysis of autism prevalence among primary schoolchildren in Cambridgeshire had produced a figure that as many as 1 in 58 children could be suffering from forms of the disorder. This figure is nearly double the presently accepted prevalence of autism of 1 in 100.” However, the 1 in 58 figure is not a good measure of ASDs. This figure seems (though the quality of the Observer’s reporting is such that it’s not quite clear) to have come from the CAST questionnaire: a first pass screening tool for epidemiology research (which may be a good way of screening out kids not on the spectrum, but generates lots of false positives).
  • The Observer seriously downplays Stott’s financial interest in anti-MMR ‘science’. They say that “Dr Stott, one of the authors of the Final Report and described by The Observer as believing that there maybe a link in a small number of cases between MMR and autism, does some work for Thoughtful House…Dr Wakefield works at Thoughtful House. Dr Stott’s links to Dr Wakefield should have been made clear in The Observer news report.” However, Brian Deer reports that Stott earned over £94,000 for her role in a “legal attack on MMR”. I sincerely hope that I can some day reach the point in my career when £94,000 seems barely worth mentioning: are the Observer paying their journalists too much?
  • The Observer is also strangely coy about Wakefield and Thoughtful House: Wakefield helped found Thoughtful House, and is the Executive Director: he doesn’t just work there.
  • Most seriously, though, the Observer fails to mention Stott’s previous episode of swearing at Brian Deer (behaviour which the British Psychological Society viewed as “inappropriate”). I mean, how many legitimate excuses do you get to produce phrases like (to quote from one of Stott’s e-mails to Deer) “go fuck yourself…Got it yet shit head” in a national broadsheet newspaper?

Ben Goldacre nicely summarises the what the Observer should do:

I am amazed they are sticking at it. This “on the one hand on the other people have said…” nonsense is misleading, confusing to readers, and absurd. The front page story was based on unfinished research which the reporters were clearly unable to read and interpret. They thought they knew better than the people who wrote it. They were wrong. End of issue…They should stop beating about the bush, and fully retract this entirely bogus story.

I will look at the Observer website next week (no way that I’m buying the paper now) to see whether they do the right thing next Sunday. In the meantime, you can contact the Observers’ Readers’ Editor at to let them know what you think of the paper’s behaviour (feel free to post your e-mails in the comments section here, too). The Observer won’t be able to get over this embarassment until it publishes a proper apology and retraction.

If it quotes Stott’s swearing, too, I might even consider buying the rag again.

Updatenice post up on BreathSpa now, which nicely summarises the problems with the Observer article and subsequent ‘clarifications’: “they were only mostly wrong on most points.”

Update 2- Mike Stanton has a great summary of the media and (especially) blog coverage of this mess.



Filed under Andrew Wakefield, MMR, The Observer

9 responses to “More terrible Observer MMR coverage

  1. It beggars belief. I am composing a letter to the Readers’ Editor – although, I am still waiting on a response to my latest complaint (with follow-up) to the Guardian, so perhaps I should not repose my hopes in that.

  2. Hi
    thanks for the link to my blog. As well as the Readers editor you should also write to the Letters editor if you want your letter considered for publication and include Letters to the Editor in the subject line.

  3. thanks Shinga and Mike. Likewise, I haven’t had any response (even an autoreply) from the e-mail I sent to correct Observer mistakes on MMR. Not terribly polite, aside from anything else.

    Thanks Mike – great you had a post on this up so quickly. Will try to e-mail the letter’s editor, too (when else will I have an excuse to quote so many expletives in a letter to a broadsheet paper ;) ). Looking at the website today (refuse to buy the paper) am I right in thinking that they didn’t publish any letters on this autism/MMR mess today?

  4. My suggestion is that people should write to the Observer and suggest that, since there is still so much confusion about the duty of reporters, and what – on this matter of grave public interest, affecting the safety of children – are a newspaper’s reasonable duties to accuracy, the Observer should join with the complaining readers and refer the matter – jointly and with agreement – to the Press Complaints Commission for adjudication.

    See what they say to that!

  5. thanks for the suggestion, Brian – much appreciated. Sounds like a good idea, and I will pass it around.

    Hopefully the Observer will have another full (virtual) mailbag next week. As you put it, we will see what they say to that.

  6. pv

    What are the odds on the Observer folks being all of a sudden bored with their foray into the MMR scare industry, developing amnesia for it and moving right along to the next “concern” du jour? After all, they’ve covered it in depth, have they not, and alerted the public to what they ought to be worried about!

  7. PV – say it isn’t so. I have had too many illusions crushed recently, I’m not sure that I can cope with this complete lack of concern for accuracy by the Observer and Guardian.

  8. Pingback: 1 in 58 Have Autism Redux: I Blame The Observer « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  9. Pingback: Observer Gives a PoMo Clarification: Retract Already KIDS CHILDREN BABY

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