Wakefield – Scapegoated by The Media?

June 24, 2008 at 6:07 pm (Anti-Vaccination, Bad Science, Media) (, , , , , , )

The Independent this week reported on the MMR-autism scare (or, as I like to call it, The Media’s MMR Hoax) and named only one person who was to blame. Andy Wakefield. Now don’t get me wrong – I am certainly not about to defend Wakefield, or the Lancet paper, or the fact that Wakefield had been told his PCR results were false positives yet still failed to retract…

What I am going to do is look at the media’s coverage of the Media’s MMR Hoax – first by googling “MMR site:http://www.independent.co.uk/” and looking at some of the coverage that has been in the paper over the last couple of years. The article from last Saturday included this:

But confidence in the vaccine was dashed by publication of a paper in The Lancet in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues from the Royal Free Hospital, linking the jab with autism.

Controversy over the link continued for eight years but is now widely accepted to be without substance. Dr Wakefield and two of his former colleagues have been charged with serious professional misconduct over their research in a case before the General Medical Council which is expected to conclude later this year.

So… it was definitely Wakefield’s fault that public confidence was ‘dashed’ then? The press didn’t play a part? I’m not asking the Independent to put their hands up here – especially as their commentators (e.g., Johan Hari) were among the saner correspondents on the MMR front. I just wonder if the reason they are blaming only Wakefield is that it is more convenient than admitting that the media so often get things so wrong. Maybe they just don’t want to upset their mates.

A piece in the Telegraph from 14th July on autism included this gem: “Two suspects among possible environmental causes are the measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and thimerosal, a vaccine preservative containing mercury.” Link.

The majority of stories I was able to read on the Indy site were pro-MMR vaccine and anti-scaremongering. There is a piece here, though, that cites the bogus 1 in 58 figure, as well as quoting the Fletchers (of the infamous JABS organisation) and being generally uncritical of Wakefield, his dicredited theory and the anecdotal evidence of parents of autistic children.

I soon got bored looking through the far-too-sane-and-rational pages of the Indy and went in for the kill. The Daily Mail. Halvorsen, Hitchens, Carling, the Kirsty Robinson Russian roulette article. I can’t believe that the almost endless publicity given to the MMR scare by the media is now being brushed under the carpet. The media cannot pretend that they didn’t publish these articles and nor can they pretend that the articles were unimportant or that they failed to influence. Particularly now that the Bad Science blog has reported on the importance of the media in reporting scientific findings:

People read newspapers. Despite everything we think we know, their contents seep in, we believe them to be true, and we act upon them.

So how might the Mail describe the Media’s MMR Hoax? Who might they think is to blame?

The doctor who sparked a worldwide health scare over the MMR jab charged £150 an hour to a law firm that planned to sue the vaccine’s manufacturer, an enquiry heard today.

Yep – it’s Wakefield’s fault. MMR Scare Doctor.

14 Comments

  1. jdc325 said,

    I’d just like to point out that WordPress’s “possibly related posts” function is the biggest pile of steaming turd I have ever seen. These posts are not related in any way that I can see other than that, in common with my blog, they use words from the English language. That appears to be the one and only connection.

  2. Political Scientist said,

    At the risk of being a bit pretentious, I think it’s a question of narrative: to tell the MMR story properly they’d have to discuss the evidence both pro and con, which is hard work. But “MMR Scare Doctor”, and the implication of fiscal impropriety, is a very easy story to tell.

    [BTW, I think “Telegraph” should read “Independent” in the 3rd sentence after the first quote]

  3. jdc325 said,

    Thanks Political Scientist. I made a silly mistake with the newspaper names there and, unlike media nutritionists and homeopaths, I like people to let me know when I’m wrong so I can correct myself. If anyone spots any mistakes on my blog, please leave a comment and let me know.

    I think your point is interesting and relevant rather than pretentious – it’s a shame that the media can’t or won’t tell the MMR story properly though. I don’t care if it’s hard work [and I can’t think of a good reason why journalism should be easy – few other jobs are], in my opinion the media should discuss the evidence rather than tell the easy story.

    I’m reminded of a comment by PJ (here) in relation to a post I wrote on the reporting of health stories, “they’re all stupid workshy bastards who would be out of a job without embargoed press releases to crib their articles from. Letting us read the papers makes them superfluous and highlights their complete lack of qualifications to write on science/health stories.”

    ETA: Can you believe just how hypocritical the Mail are? They were responsible for some of the worst coverage of the Media’s MMR Hoax, yet they still shamelessly shift all the blame to Wakefield.

  4. Political Scientist said,

    “Can you believe just how hypocritical the Mail are?”

    The volte face is almost unbelievable – “We have alway supported vaccination, and we have always been at war with Eastasia”.

    Ben Goldacre did a piece about a while[1] ago about who wrote MMR stories: 80% were by non-specialist reporters. A solution could be to increase the general level of statistical and scientific knowledge amounst all journalists. It certainly can’t do any harm.

    An alternative possibility would be to show the media that there is a demand for high quality science reporting by a knowledgable readership. All the problems faced by science journalists – jargon, many readers find it dull, complex narratives, competing interests, statistical or numerical data that is necessary for the story to make sence – are also faced by business reporters.
    However, the papers know there is a market for business journalism, and so produce high quality, worthy business pages.

    [1] link

  5. ben goldacre said,

    the scapegoating of wakefield which the media are currently revving up for is beneath and beyond contempt. the media created their own hoax, and now they are trying to shun all responsibility. i am glad there are individuals with hokey ideas, even if i disagree with them, long may they remain interesting and thought provoking. individuals do not have the same responsibilities for balance as the entire british news media.

  6. Anthony said,

    “individuals do not have the same responsibilities for balance”

    They have other responsibilities though.

    Without Wakefield’s assertions about the dangers of MMR vaccine, the media would not have been able to start this scare off. Wakefield has also had ten years in which to see the light.

    And Wakefield’s study was neither interesting or thought provoking, given what we know about how it came about, what the conflicts of interest were, and what Wakefield knew about false positives.

    I’d share out blame this way:

    40% Media
    40% Wakefield
    10% Lancet miscalculating what might happen
    10% government and scientists, much of which was an unavoidable cycle of learning about how to deal with false claims hyped by the media. And that’s even accepting that Blair should have told people about Leo’s jab status (which I’m not convinced he was under any obligation to do).

    None of this makes the media any less hypocritical. I’d also be much harsher on The Independent than jdc. They were more than willing to join in the whole conspiracy side of the MMR vaccine hoax when it suited – even if Johan Hari’s bullshit detector worked correctly on this issue.

    http://www.blacktriangle.org/blog/?p=1814

  7. jdc325 said,

    Thanks Anthony. I’ve left a response to your comment on the piece that you have linked to. As you say, I probably could have been harder on the Indy than I was. Unfortunately, it seems it is not possible to access some of their more egregious comments on MMR via google. This is something I am going to have to be aware of in future – perhaps a jkn ‘press scaremongering’ account is something I might have to sign up to.

    As I said in my post, I am certainly not about to defend Wakefield, or the Lancet paper, or the fact that Wakefield had been told his PCR results were false positives yet still failed to retract… However – without the media reporting the scare in the manner they did, the scare clearly would not have been so widely publicised or believed [see Ben Goldacre’s recent article on the power of the press] and I think the stunning hypocrisy of newspapers such as the Indy and the Mail is well worth remarking on. I think Wakefield had an emotional investment in his hypothesis and I have a feeling there’s a point I’m going to be unable to articulate properly here but…
    I can almost understand Wakefield being unable to accept he was wrong – even given the fact he was made aware his positives were false positives. If the press had acted responsibly then an act committed by an individual wouldn’t have had the power to terrify parents into refusing to vaccinate their children. Wakefield is one man – and any one man can have a blind spot. The press are legion – what can their excuse possibly be?

    Funnily enough, the Indy on Sunday once provided a decent model of what a newspaper should do when it is in the wrong. Unfortunately, they were apologising for their previously sensible stance on cannabis in order to announce their new, ridiculous policy. See TDPF in my blogroll for more on drug silliness in the Indy on Sunday. I really think it would have been appropriate for the Independent, the Mail and others to say something like ‘yep, we scared you for no good reason and helped to bring back measles – sorry for being such dangerous twats’. Blaming Wakefield and getting away with it just means they will feel empowered to do similar in future.

    Ben @Weds evening: “i am glad there are individuals with hokey ideas, even if i disagree with them, long may they remain interesting and thought provoking.” – I think I’d agree with that. I seem to remember reading something interesting on another blog once about smart people defending stupid ideas. Will post if I can find.

    Thanks for your comments everyone.

  8. jdc325 said,

    Actually, the post I was looking for wasn’t quite as brilliant as I had remembered. I did like this bit though: “The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong. This is bad.”
    From one of Scott Berkun‘s essays.

    I remember beginning to read Bertrand Russell on mysticism and logic [yet another ruddy book I haven’t finished yet, dammit] and he said something about needing both the intuitive and the rational in order to make progress. I think the message I got was that the seer is important because they have inspired ideas and the logician is important because they tell us whether or not the seer is talking a load of old cock.

    Page 19 of this Google Book may be more enlightening than my comment: here.

  9. Professor Stanley, MMR, Measles and C4 Dispatches Publicity « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science said,

    […] wrote about the media scapegoating of Wakefield to displace their own responsibility. Anthony Cox highlights the media attempt to dissociate […]

  10. Andrew Wakefield: Misleading and Irresponsible « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] Those journalists who reported on MMR and autism in a misleading and inaccurate fashion will probably simply brazen it out and pretend it was nothing to do with them. As they have been doing for some time now: scapegoating Wakefield. […]

  11. The 21st Floor » Blog Archive » “What do we want?” … “SCIENCE!” said,

    […] the mainstream media escaped almost without criticism from the MMR hoax that they perpetuated, Dr Andrew Wakefield was […]

  12. The Daily Mail and Mr Andrew Wakefield « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] It may have been Wakefield who sparked the health scare – but the Mail played a prominent role in hyping the scare. They chose (dishonourably, if unsurprisingly) to ignore their part in the controversy and swim with the tide that would see Wakefield scapegoated by the media. […]

  13. A Fall From Grace « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] did the mainstream media react? Well, the Daily Mail wrote about his charging £150 an hour to a law firm that planned to sue the vaccine’s […]

  14. Metro: Twitter To Blame For Vaccine Fears « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] among the media to criticise their fellow editors and reporters may perhaps account for the lack of reflection on the media’s role in vaccine scare stories, it’s also worth noting that in this instance the Metro is avoiding criticism of a sister […]

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