The Observer fails to correct or retract its glaringly obvious mistakes on MMR and autism. For the third week running. Despite these being explained to them in very, very simple terms

I used to think that the Observer was a proper, accurate paper – that when you saw an article in it, you could assume that it was well-researched, probably accurate and, if a mistake was made, the Observer would correct it. Maybe I was naive before: at any rate, the Observer has very effectively disabused me of this belief. Apologies in advance for any typos etc. in the below: I’m sufficiently annoyed about this that I’m struggling not to break into any Stott-style swearing, so the bile might come out in an occasional spelling or grammatical mistake instead.

On 8/7/07 the Observer ran two awful articles on autism and MMR – and got things wrong in many, many ways. The problems with the Observer’s 8/7/07 article on autism rates and MMR, and Wakefield interview, have been dealt with at length – here and elsewhere – and I won’t go over all of these points again here: the Observer got things wrong in so many ways that it frankly becomes tedious to keep listing them again. They have also made a real hash of their two – woefully inadequate – responses to well-justified criticisms of the article: criticisms that were in many case far better-researched, more nuanced, and closer to what good journalism should be than Denis Campbell’s attempts at being a health/science journalist in the original Observer articles. The Observer have now removed one of the two offending articles from their website (although this appears to be for legal reasons, rather than a retraction due to the article being mostly wrong on most things it covered).

In this week’s Observer there is not (so far as I can tell from their website) any mention of their previous coverage of MMR and autism. After previously trying to cover up their horribly embarrassing failures with a bodged clarification, it looks like the Observer may now be hoping that if they don’t mention the elephant that is in the room – and currently stamping all over their reputation for quality journalism – the elephant will go away. However, that is not going to happen.

What I’m going to focus on here is the Wakefield/Campbell interview still on the Observer website – and two embarrassingly basic errors in the interview, which still remain uncorrected. In the interview, the writer (Denis Campbell, I presume) states that:

Critics point out that the US [Autism Omnibus] court case is not about the MMR vaccine itself but centres on the use of a preservative called thimerosal, which contains 50 per cent mercury and until a few years ago was added to routine vaccinations given to children in the US under one. Crucially, it has never been an element of the MMR vaccine here.

The Observer is simply wrong to imply that MMR contained thimerosal, anywhere, ever: this is a live vaccine, so adding such a preservative would render MMR ineffective. Moreover, the Autism Omnibus has discussed MMR at length: for example, Chadwick’s testimony to the court offers a devastatingly effective critique of Wakefield’s science. One might hope that a journalist covering the Wakefield case would know about a well-publicised US court case where the testimony (freely available online) demolishes Wakefield’s claims to have a scientific basis for his claims re. MMR and autism. If anyone would like to get up-to-date, BreathSpa offers a nice, clear, detailed account of the Autism Omnibus testimony on MMR.  This should be easy enough for any intelligent layperson to read and understand.  Maybe I’m expecting too much, though.

Making these mistakes is bad enough. However, the Observer has been told that this is a mistake, more than once. I know that at least one person contacted the Observer about these errors shortly after the issue came out. I spoke to the Readers’ Editor myself on Thursday, and e-mailed him links which make very clear that the Observer got its facts wrong (a link to Chadwick’s testimony in court [PDF link], and to a table that makes clear that thimerosal was never added to MMR in the US). As far as I can see, the Observer still have not corrected these errors this week (though they did find time to correct, for example, an incorrect URL given in a previous edition).

Frankly, I am not sure what to say. These are not complicated or controversial issues. One does not need to have an advanced understanding of science to understand what the Observer got wrong. One just needs to be able to read a court transcript, and a table, both of them written in nice clear English. However, the Observer have had three opportunities to correct these errors. And failed. Dismally.

To make things even stranger, the Guardian (the Observer’s sister paper) has already deleted similar errors in its MMR coverage from their website. The Guardian previously echoed the Observer’s errors in its MMR Q&A, stating that:

the US [Autism Omnibus] is not about the MMR vaccine itself. It is concerned with the use of a preservative called thimerosal, which contains 50% mercury and until a few years ago was added to routine vaccinations given to children under one in the US. The preservative has never been an element of the MMR vaccine here.

However, the Guardian has revised its coverage. As the Guardian now puts it:

A paragraph regarding concern about MMR overseas, extracted from a piece in the Observer now deleted from the website due to concerns about its accuracy, has been removed from this article until the information can be verified.

Now, when I (and others) contacted the Guardian re. these errors, it did take longer to respond than I would have liked; moreover, I am not sure why this information is taking so long to ‘verify’. I may post more on this at a later date. However, what is notable for now is that the Guardian – the Observer’s sister paper – appears to have realised that the Observer’s coverage of this issue was inaccurate. However, this does not yet appeared to have dawned on the Observer Readers’ Editor.

It is important to be clear about the train of events here:

  • the Observer published inaccurate information about MMR.
  • the Observer was told about how and why this information was inaccurate.
  • several people took the time to explain why this was the case, in terms that should have been quite clear to an intelligent non-scientist (and to many unintelligent non-scientists).
  • the Observer did not adequately correct and/or retract these inaccurate claims.

To my mind, this means that the Observer is either knowingly spreading misinformation on MMR, lacks staff who meet a basic level of competence, or simply can’t be bothered to correct significant errors. Either way, if I see a story in the Observer now I will have to check elsewhere before I believe that the story is accurate. And I can’t bring myself to buy the rag, so will be without a Sunday paper again.

Edit 31.07: Myth: Autism Omnibus Hearings Have Not Included Evidence About MMR



Filed under Andrew Wakefield, MMR, The Guardian, The Observer

19 responses to “The Observer fails to correct or retract its glaringly obvious mistakes on MMR and autism. For the third week running. Despite these being explained to them in very, very simple terms

  1. Ian

    I’ve already cancelled my Observer subscription over this coverage, so that makes two of us.

    You are absolutely right that you cannot trust it for anything. I know of other subject areas in which it writes unfounded crap as “fact”.

    I think the media relishes its ability to set the agenda and create FUD in the public. No wonder our political system has decayed into spin and disingenuousness.

  2. Thanks for this. The Wakefield interview got off lightly what with all the furore surrounding the front page story which is now withdrawn because the observer has received “a legal complaint,” which I take to mean that someone is threatening to sue them.

  3. Kim

    I might be missing something here, but surely MMR is given after children reach the age of one? In which case, the Observer article (in that respect, anyway) was accurate: the US court case is about the DTP vaccinations, not the MMR.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Kim- Autism Omnibus testimony does cover MMR. See for example the PDF of Chadwick’s testimony – a lot of it is on Wakefield, and the top of p. 2309 for example explicitly addresses the allegation that both MMR and thimerosal can play a part in causing autism.

    Mike- yeah, I guess the Oberver isn’t likely to get sued for making daft scientific claims. Just embarrassed.

  5. Crucially, [thimerosal] has never been an element of the MMR vaccine here.

    Thimerosal has never been included in any MMR vaccine anywhere, Kim. The whole of that paragraph and that sentence implied that it had.

    Jon has pointed out that substantial parts of the Autism Omnibus address MMR. MMR was a key element of the Cedillo case and included extensive discussion because this exemplar case was intended to establish principles of general causation.

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  7. HCN

    Another thing that gets missed is that the MMR that is now being used in the UK was first approved in the USA in 1971. It is the same one that has been used in the USA (and many other parts of the world) for over 35 years.

    So even saying “oh, it is different from USA” is silly, because it is the one developed in the USA.

  8. Indeed, HCN. It is very odd when people say that we have no long-term data on MMR when it has now been used for 30+ years in some parts of the world. Finland offers some good, prospective data about the introduction of MMR into a vaccination schedule.

  9. I’ve now put up a post that contains extracts about MMR from transcripts of the Autism Omnibus Hearings and pointers to transcripts where there is discussion about MMR; the impact of the wild measles virus on the brain; the presence of measles vaccine virus in the gut; and the confidence in the integrity of laboratory findings of measles virus in gut and CSF samples.

  10. Thanks for the comments.

    HCN- yep, to get things wrong, and to do it in so many ways, is impressive. For a paper refuse to correct this when their mistakes are pointed out to them is just insulting.

    Shinga – interesting post, thanks. Have revised post to link to it.

  11. Pingback: » Why investigating Wakefield matters - Autism Blog, Web Design Blog

  12. Greg

    Good work team.

    What’s the deal with the link between MMR and autism anyway? I remember this from last year:,,1799078,00.html

    Which may have been spoken about somewhere along the line..

  13. Are you asking why people still believe that there is a link? Arthur Allen wrote a good piece for Slate: Why there’s no dispelling the vaccines cause autism myth.

  14. Pingback: The Observer eventually responds to my e-mail pointing out their basic factual errors on MMR. And tries to weasel their way out of an apology, again. « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  15. Fran

    I am disappointed that, on a post relating to the inaccuracy and ridiculous statements made by a journalist, Shinga has posted a link to a similarly tactless article. Describing the MMR controversy as one of “such notions that verge on the irrational” is, quite frankly, a silly and rash condemnation; surely its the most rational idea in the world that bombarding a child with three virsuses at once, however non-pathological they are deemed to be, may be too much for the infant immune system. I see nothing particularly irrational.

    Another thing that irritated me was his assertion that; “In the homes of autistic children it is not unusual to find cabinets filled with 40 different vitamins and supplements, along with casein-free, gluten-free foods, antibiotics, and other drugs and potions.” Whilst this may be true (although what he means by “unusual” is unclear – no stats are provided, so again this is a sweeping generalisation); it is also an obvious manipulation of the controversy itself. Doctor I may not be, but it seems glaringly obvious that measles in the gut would cause serious digestion problems; and from what I understand, gluten intolerance (listed) is one of the more common.

    Finally, in what was possibly one of the most horrifying statements I have ever read, Arthur Allen (who doesn’t appear to have a doctor in front of his name, might I add) asserts; “Blaming vaccines can promise benefits. Victory in a lawsuit is an obvious one, especially for middle-class parents struggling to care for and educate their unruly and unresponsive kids.” Disgusting. So instead of resorting to criticising his methods, or his findings themselves (or as most have recently resorted to, slinging mud at Andrew Wakefield personally, which I don’t really understand); Allen has decided to attack the unfortunate parents of seriously ill children. Or rather, the money-grabbing [edited for obscene language] using their seriously ill children to make a quick buck, as Allen would have you believe. Shinga, I’m sorry, but I was seriously offended by the link you have made here; and to be perfectly honest, I think Allen’s article is more worthy of attack by Holford than the Observer’s one.

  16. I’m seriously offended by people failing to address the issues in the IOM review and the findings that the infant immune system is capable of coping with vaccines without insult. I’m seriusly offended by people who criticise others for criticising without troubling to do any background reading. I live with it…

    You’re offended by a link? I do wonder how you can bear to pick your way through the Internet as you must be offended on a regular basis. Some people are offended by science, or the existence of attitudes that don’t match their own confirmation bias – we all have to live with that.

    Why don’t you read up on Andrew Wakefield before objecting to Arthur Allen’s characterisation of him – which is far from mud-slinging. You are aware that Mr Matanoski, a lawyer for the US Govt. Health and Human Services Dept., recently made this remarkable comment in his concluding statements for the first part of the Autism Omnibus hearings (pdf) in the US.

    The MMR-autism case has no plausible or verifiable science to support it.
    It’s at best speculation, idle speculation. Now, at worst–at worst–it’s a contrivance. It’s a contrivance that’s been developed and articulated and promoted by its chief proponent, and that’s Andrew Wakefield. He promoted it for financial gain. Either way it’s not science.
    pgs 28-9: Day 12 Transcript of Cedillo v. Secretary of Health and Human Services

    By the by – editing your comment for obscene language, something that was unnecessary and offensive…

  17. Jon

    Fran, you state that

    Describing the MMR controversy as one of “such notions that verge on the irrational” is, quite frankly, a silly and rash condemnation; surely its the most rational idea in the world that bombarding a child with three virsuses at once, however non-pathological they are deemed to be, may be too much for the infant immune system. I see nothing particularly irrational.

    The MMR-autism hypothesis isn’t necessarily irrational in-itself. What is irrational is to continue to hang onto this hypothesis after it has been falsified.

    re. Wakefield, I actually think he’s getting off pretty lightly in the media. The guy is accused (with pretty strong evidence – including video of him admitting to paying children for blood at a party) of unethical research on children. Normally this type of thing would have the Mail calling for the reintroduction of hanging, but instead Wakefield’s getting a rather sympathetic reception.

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

  19. Pingback: Myth: Autism Omnibus Hearings Have Not Included Evidence About MMR KIDS CHILDREN BABY

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