James Le Fanu has an article in the Daily Telegraph today regarding the GMC case against Andrew Wakefield, John Walker-Smith, and Simon Murch. It is very badly argued.
Here is the offending article. Here are the ‘highlights’:
It is not necessary to be a conspiracy theorist to recognise that the General Medical Council’s recent ruling to strike professors Andrew Wakefield and John Walker-Smith off the register had the fingerprints of the medical establishment all over it.
On the basis of the evidence before them, the GMC (whether they are the ‘medical establishment’ that James Le Fanu has in mind or not) were quite right to rule that there had been unethical behaviour with regard to the children in the retracted Lancet paper. You would probably have to be a conspiracy theorist to suggest otherwise.
But this charge against them, as everyone knows, cannot possibly be true. Professor Walker-Smith, who supervised the investigation, is, from personal experience and by common consent, the epitome of the saintly doctor. [Le Fanu goes on to refer to affidavits testifying to the saintliness of Walker-Smith.]
If the defence for Walker-Smith rests on the fact that Le Fanu and others consider him to be a good person and a good doctor, then it is easy to dismiss. Good people can do bad things.* People who are experts in their field can make misjudgements.
That a person is of previous good character may be a mitigating factor to be considered when the decision on that person’s fate is made. It is not, however, something that automatically precludes misjudgement or wrongdoing and Le Fanu is foolish to make this the basis of his defence of Walker-Smith.
We can find plenty of examples of people of previous good character who have appeared in court as “first-time offenders”. To pick out just one of these examples, there is this case, in which the judge stated that one of the defendants was of previous good character but had been badly influenced on this occasion by his peers. This person, as many others have been, was found guilty and sentenced despite being of previous good character.
It is probably reasonable for Le Fanu to assert that by reason of his character, Walker-Smith is unlikely to have behaved in a manner that warranted the action taken by the GMC, but he can not reasonably assert that the charge “cannot possibly be true”. [Apart from any other consideration, our natures may be less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.**]
And so to the opinion of the parents of the vulnerable children whose best interests he had allegedly disregarded. […]
Actually, let’s not rely on the opinion of the parents of the vulnerable children to decide whether Wakefield and Walker-Smith behaved unethically. Here’s just one reason I would be wary of relying on their opinion as to what should have become of Wakefield and Walker-Smith: misplaced consistency***. As Stuart Sutherland writes in Irrationality, with house-hunters the example:
Apart from the time and effort expended in the search, they will have spent a great deal of money. If they are not to feel foolish, they must justify to themselves the commitment they have made… [they tend to exaggerate the good points and minimise the bad points].
Having made the decision to allow their children to be subjected to the investigations undertaken for the retracted Lancet paper, the parents have since had to justify their decision to themselves.
Le Fanu concludes:
It seems only sensible, given this moral confusion that would portray a decent and honest man as deceitful and exploitative, to reserve judgment about the GMC’s verdict and to speculate what lies behind it. Leaving aside the question of whether the MMR vaccine is implicated in this form of autism – as the parents’ accounts would certainly suggest – it is perhaps not unreasonable to detect the hidden hand of those powerful forces for whom the crushing of a professional reputation is a price worth paying for the continuation of the ever-expanding child immunisation programme.
This is utter nonsense. It is in no way sensible or reasonable to reserve judgement on the GMC’s verdict on the basis that Walker-Smith was a nice man who was good at his job.
Nor is it sensible or reasonable to imply that the anecdotes of the parents mean that MMR might be linked to autism, as Le Fanu does here. There is no good evidence to suggest that is the case. There is, on the other hand, rather a lot of evidence to suggest that it is not.
The suggestion that one can detect the hidden hand of sinister powerful forces determined to wreck careers in order to further the child immunisation program, meanwhile, is nothing but bullshit.
Plenty of doctors have expressed concerns about the vaccination program. Richard Halvorsen, to name but one. As far as I am aware, Halvorsen is still a doctor and a GP despite expressing his concerns about the immunisation program on his own clinic’s website. Why has Halvorsen’s professional reputation not been “crushed by the GMC”? Perhaps it is because he has not been guilty of unethical conduct. Compare his situation to that of Walker-Smith and Wakefield.
Then there’s Simon Murch, who I mentioned briefly earlier. In his case, the GMC did not find (despite his errors of judgement) that “the threshold of serious professional misconduct” had been reached – and the Panel found that Professor Murch was not guilty of serious professional misconduct. [PDF]. Why “ruthlessly crush” the professional reputations of two men for the continuation of the immunisation program and not the third? If the “saintly doctor” Walker-Smith can be found guilty, then why not Murch?
All Le Fanu provides are anecdotes, conspiracy theorising, and personal testimonies as to the previous good character of Walker-Smith. He uses the space allotted to him by the Daily Telegraph to imply (despite all the contrary evidence, not a bit of which is mentioned) that there might be a link between MMR and autism and to weave a sinister tale of good doctors ruined by sinister forces.
This really is shoddy journalism.
*Harry G Frankfurt writes, in his esssay On Bullshit, that:
there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
**A quote in this bench book, from Australia, is worth reproducing here:
The judge is at liberty to remind the jury that people do commit crimes for the first time and that evidence of previous good character cannot prevail against evidence of guilt which they find to be convincing, notwithstanding the accused’s previous character. This consideration may apply with particular force to certain types of crime and the judge is free to point that out to the jury if he or she sees fit: R v Trimboli (1979) 1 A Crim R 73 at 74.
***Robert Cialdini writes about consistency from a different perspective in Influence: Science and Practice. Cialdini discusses the work of Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills, who tested their observation that “persons who go through a great deal of trouble or pain to attain something tend to value it more highly than persons who attain the same thing with a minimum of effort”.
The parents of the children in the retracted Lancet paper, and their children, went through a great deal of trouble and pain to get answers. Having been provided with answers by Wakefield after going through the investigations performed for the retracted paper, some of the parents involved may feel a greater commitment to Wakefield and his ideas than they might otherwise have experienced.
Some of the evidence ignored by Le Fanu
This PDF presents a rough overview of the evidence on MMR and autism: here (note that 25 studies show no link and of the three that do, one has been retracted). This was in 2008.
Since then, more research has been published that has found “evidence against the association of autism with either MMR or a single measles vaccine” – but this was the news you didn’t read. Because newspapers like the Telegraph didn’t think it worth mentioning.