A Fall From Grace

December 7, 2010 at 8:57 pm (Anti-Vaccination, Miscellaneous, Nutritionism) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

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.

Andrew Wakefield

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 Ben Goldacre contrasted the media’s silence over a paper by D’Souza et al with their coverage of Krigsman’s unpublished study here.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.

Gillian McKeith

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.

6 Comments

  1. Helen said,

    Mmm. Maybe. But the fact that he got his conclusions wrong just means he was wrong. Being wrong in itself isn’t the end of the world. What is more of an issue are the reasons that would motivate a professional to continue to promote the wrong answer rather than to admit that he’d got it wrong.

    Surely, then, it *is* his ethics, rather than his *wrongness* that are the problem?

  2. Prateek Buch said,

    excellent insight – all too often society lets fallacies pass if presented by well-spoken, apparently honourable folk, and shoots down those of flawed character no matter how much they speak the truth… witness the Assange story, although I’m willing to admit that ‘it’s a bit more complicated than that…’

  3. Anthony said,

    Interesting.

    On Wakefield, the payments from lawyers and the patent were motivators for the initial publication in 1998, so I have no problem with them being his downfall either. It isn’t strictly speaking ad hominem. This isn’t to deny that papers didn’t give same coverage to papers disproving his theory.

    On McKeith, her downfall was some time ago and temporally related to criticisms from Goldacre. Indeed, here appearance on “celebrity” was an attempt to reanimate her career. It should be no surprise that the pregnancy story tops google given the exposure of the show. Again, her PhD was used to facilitate her ideas. Pointing out a misrepresentation of academic qualitifications, also isn’t ad hominem.

    Not sure that the number of google results is the ideal way to measure relative importance.

  4. jdc325 said,

    @Helen

    I think that for me, in this case at least, the fact of being wrong is more important than whatever motivation helped to sustain the wrongness. Being wrong (and loudly wrong) in this case led to a drop in vaccine uptake that put people’s health (and indeed their lives) at risk. Even without competing interests or concerns over ethics of Wakefield’s behaviour (e.g. paying for blood at a party), the announcement of his flawed conclusions was in itself a serious problem.

    I think one problem in Wakefield’s case was that the press weren’t interested in the truth of the hypothesis – they seemed to ‘pick sides’ on the basis of the characters involved. They painted a picture of brave Wakefield against the evil government and backed Wakefield and his half-baked hypothesis until it became clear to all that Wakefield wasn’t quite the hero they’d made him out to be.

    When it comes to “the reasons that would motivate a professional to continue to promote the wrong answer rather than to admit that he’d got it wrong”, I’m not sure Wakefield has accepted that he got it wrong – let alone admitted it. Quite apart from any financial competing interest, Wakefield likely had an emotional investment in his hypothesis. His motivations for continuing to promote the wrong answer could have been entirely well-meaning – the kind of motivations that you or I might find hard to criticise.

  5. jdc325 said,

    @Anthony

    “It isn’t strictly speaking ad hominem.” I agree. Similarly, I don’t think it would necessarily constitute an ad hom attack to point out that McKeith’s PhD is unaccredited – much of the criticism of McKeith regarding her PhD came out of her use of the title and was to my mind entirely legitimate. I don’t think it’s wrong or illogical, I just think it’s slightly worrying that that there seems to have been more widespread criticism of people’s flaws than of their flawed ideas.

    “Not sure that the number of google results is the ideal way to measure relative importance.”
    Nor am I.

  6. Neuroskeptic said,

    I think you’re absolutely right about McKeith. While her jungle-based capers were hilarious and (as we know) entirely deserved for someone who has consistently behaved very badly towards Ben and others – ultimately, they’re just tabloid fodder. Her nutritionist nonsense seems to have largely escaped criticism. If anything she’s been criticized for her veganism, which is the one thing about her diet that isn’t silly (says Neuroskeptic the vegetarian and ex-vegan).

    With Wakefield I think it’s less clear. Everything he’s been slammed for, related to his handling of the MMR science; his conflicts of interest were scientific ones that he failed to disclose, etc. The media have, of course, failed to own up to their part in it but other than that, I think Wakefield’s got a pretty fair hearing, which is to say, he’s now regarded as a joke.

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