I find it odd, and on occasion a little unsettling, to see instances of people or ideas being subject to criticism for what appear to me to be the wrong reasons. I think some of the criticism of Andrew Wakefield and Gillian McKeith falls into this bracket.
I have a suspicion that Wakefield’s reputation, and the now discredited MMR-autism hypothesis, suffered greater damage from revelations of financial interest and ethical concerns than they suffered from criticism of the conclusions drawn in his Lancet paper or the mountain of evidence that contradicted his hypothesis.
Time and again, research into MMR and autism that contradicted the line take by Wakefield and the mainstream media was ignored. Ben Goldacre contrasted the media’s silence over a paper by D’Souza et al with their coverage of Krigsman’s unpublished study here. The media were, for the time being, going to stick by their man Wakefield.
However, once it became clear that Andrew Wakefield was not the “handsome, glossy-haired hero to families of autistic children” that he had been painted as by the media, support fell away. Measles was on the increase, Wakefield was to be investigated by the GMC, and Brian Deer had written about the vaccine patent.
How 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 manufacturer, and referred to Wakefield as “the doctor who sparked a worldwide health scare over the MMR jab”. No mention of their prior, wholehearted support for Wakefield and his doomed hypothesis.
The media were unimpressed by the evidence against Wakefield’s hypothesis that was stacking up, but leapt on the facts that (a) he’d been paid by a law firm and (b) Wakefield and the Royal Free had taken out patents that could lead to profits.
McKeith appears now to be known chiefly for: an association with poo; fainting (and claiming to be pregnant) on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here; and for having an unaccredited PhD. Exposure of the nonsense McKeith sometimes spouted on You Are What You Eat did not seem to have quite the same impact.
Searching Google for “gillian mckeith” +pregnant brings up a reported 321,000 results, with “gillian mckeith” +phd bringing up a reported 202,000 results. Searching for “gillian mckeith” +faint brings up a reported 218,000 results. Replacing “faint” with “poo” yields 101,000 reported results.
A search for “gillian mckeith” +chlorophyll only throws up a measly 8,810 results, Google claims only4,730 results for “gillian mckeith” +pseudoscience and a mere 1,770 for “gillian mckeith” +unscientific. Searching for “gillian mckeith” +bullshit apparently brings up 38,500 results, which is kind of heartwarming – but still a long way behind pregnant, faint, or PhD.
Why am I bothered?
Well, if people only fall from grace when they, rather than their ideas, are under the microscope… then what happens when someone who is superficially plausible or credible propagates misinformation? Well, perhaps they’ll simply be left to get on with it.