New health fears over big surge in misleading and irresponsible science reporting

As soon as I saw the news that Dr Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who first alleged that there was a link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism, was to be brought before the General Medical Council on charges of professional misconduct, I knew that there’d be a media feeding frenzy. Despite lots of evidence that the MMR vaccine is safe and a distinct lack of evidence that there is any link between MMR and autism, journalists from every corner of the media insist on writing stories that lead the public to believe quite the opposite.

As the misconduct story broke, I saw stories on both ITV’s morning show GMTV and on the BBC, which managed to paint Wakefield as some sort of misunderstood hero and imply both that the link between MMR and autism was real, and that the ‘establishment’ was working to deliberately mislead the public. Both broadcasters used the same ‘reporting’ tactic – to interview the parents of autistic children, (along with the autistic children themselves and their non-autistic older brother, on GMTV), giving them the opportunity to promulgate their beliefs for five minutes, whilst a GP was given two or three sentences in which to respond. The last word, on GMTV at least, was given to the parents.

The pieces were incredibly biased, pitting beliefs against evidence, with the presenter clearly coming down on the side of the parents and, to all intents and purposes, dismissing the evidence and views of the medical experts out of hand.

This, by itself, is appalling. Beliefs are not evidence. Nor is suffering. No matter how much sympathy I have for children and adults with autism, symptoms by themselves are not evidence of the cause of those symptoms. And the fact that people are suffering these symptoms should not be interpreted as proof that studies finding no link between MMR and autism are ipso facto wrong. Believing things does not make them true – science is not some sort of Secret where the power of the mind can change reality.

What is true is that the media have exploited the beliefs of those who are suffering, and in doing so have denigrating the work of many respectable, honourable and diligent scientists in order to create outrage, because outrage sells. They have portrayed the flawed work of a minority of doctors – now charged with acting unethically and dishonestly – as David to the rest of the medical world’s Goliath, purely so that they can profit from covering the manufactured conflict.

Things got even worse on the 8th July when The Observer’s Denis Campbell wrote an article entitled “New health fears over big surge in autism”. The original article has been removed from The Observer website (i.e. Guardian Unlimited), so if you click that link all you’ll get is a 404 page, but the whole thing has been posted in the comments of Ben Goldacre’s blog, Bad Science. The chances are that the article has been pulled for legal reasons, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mr Campbell’s article was front page news, and it claimed that a new study had found that there was an increase in the prevalence autism to one in 58; that the lead author of the paper was so worried about this rise that he had brought his findings to the attention of public health officials; and that two “leading researchers” on the team had privately said that they felt the rise was due to the MMR vaccine. All of these assertions were false, and Ben Goldacre goes into the precise details in an article for the British Medical Journal, and a column that he wrote for The Observer’s weekday sister paper, The Guardian, entitled The MMR story that wasn’t.

There can be no beating about the bush. Denis Campbell was flat out wrong on a number of key points. He also misrepresented the views of Dr Fiona Scott – one of the “leading researchers” who is actually a research associate rather than a professor, fellow or even lecturer. Dr Scott actually ended up having to refute Campbell’s claims in the comments of the Readers’ Editor, Stephen Pritchard, piece defending the original article (Look for the comment by DrFJScott posted at July 16, 2007 11:31 AM).

Eventually, The Observer posted a ‘clarification‘, but did not go so far as a retraction or an apology. Ben called the Readers’ Editor’s piece a “rather incomprehensible non-retratction“, and says of the clarification:

They still don’t seem to understand the problems with the one in 58 figure, and they still don’t seem to be able to understand the report they keep going on about (but won’t let anyone see because they think their scientific evidence is top secret), and they are still covering up their mistakes.

And Ben wasn’t the only person disappointed by this whole affair. Mike Stanton of Action for Autiusm says:

This Sunday The Observer nearly apologizes for its disgraceful front page report on Autism a fortnight ago. But they still don’t get it.

[…] People screwed up here. The people should admit their error and apologize.

And Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre, says:

The claim that MMR may cause autism, made by Dr Andrew Wakefield in 1998, produced one of the biggest rows in public health for decades and millions of pounds of public money have been spent on scientific studies researching the evidence for a link. Not a single reputable study has found any and just last year the SMC coordinated a joint appeal from many of those involved in child health that the media now draw a line under this row unless and until it has compelling new evidence. Many autism experts have echoed this call and issued their own plea for resources to move from the obsession with MMR to investigating the many other possible causes – including genetics, environmental factors and so on.

Given this context, I would argue that the bar for evidence in any newspaper splashing on a link between MMR and autism needs to be much higher than for other stories. In my view the Observer really needed to have produced stunning evidence of a link between MMR and autism to justify re-running this particular scare story.

Stunning evidence it wasn’t. The two researchers cited are experts in autism but not in MMR and the study they were involved with was nothing to do with MMR. In fact it had nothing whatsoever to do with what causes autism at all – it simply looked into prevalence of autism. As such, the authors private views on MMR are neither significant in terms of public health or in any way relevant to the Observer’s story. In fact I’m tempted to say that their private views as to what causes autism are no more significant than my mum’s view.

It’s bad enough that journalistic and editorial standards at a paper such as The Observer should be allowed to fall so low. It’s bad enough that, having been caught telling porky pies, they don’t have the balls to issue a full retraction and apology. But this sort of appalling science reporting isn’t just bad journalism, it’s also irresponsible. There has been a fall in the number of children immunised against measles, mumps and rubella using the MMR vaccine since this contrived controversy broke, and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t directly attributable to the way the MSM have covered the story.

These diseases are serious, and we need to treat them as such. Indeed, alongside the drop in MMR take-up, we’ve also seen a rise in measles. That is no only bad for the children involved, it’s also bad for the population as a whole – as vaccination levels fall and infection levels rise, the chances of an unvaccinated child coming into contact with a disease carrier increase. It doesn’t take a genius to do that maths.

But despite the fact that the initial research carried out by Wakefield has been shown to have been seriously flawed, despite lots of evidence saying that MMR is safe, and despite the serious consequences of their scaremongering, the MSM persist in propagating this nonsense. This is, in my opinion, gross moral turpitude, yet nothing is done. Journalists are free to continue writing articles that are flat out wrong, and there’s no come-back. Only if they libel someone, or otherwise besmirch a reputation, will there be any action taken against them.

And it’s not just stories around the MMR vaccine that are given this treatment. In April, The Independent published a story on wifi,’Danger on the airwaves: Is the Wi-Fi revolution a health time bomb?‘. The article erroneously extrapolated concerns over mobile phones and masts (another subject that has suffered dreadfully biaised reporting) to wifi in a manner that was scientifically unsound. Ian Betteridge effectively debunked the wifi story, as did Bill Thompson.

The BBC then jumped on the electrosensitive bandwagon anyway, broadcasting an episode of Panorama dedicated to the issue. I watched the programme, and it was one of the worst pieces of ‘journalism’ that I have ever seen. Riddled with factual inaccuracies, belief-based reporting, used biased and inappropriately emotive language – they used the word ‘radiation’ 30 times in a half-hour programme – and flat-out woo, it was a disgrace to the BBC.

Many people complained and although I can’t find the BBC’s response on their website, it’s on Ben’s. A canned reply, written ahead of time to mollify complainants, it doesn’t address any of the key points raised by viewers.

And despite the debunking, The Independent continued to push their agenda, publishing an article entitled “My war on electrosmog: Julia Stephenson sets out to clear the airwaves“, which blamed wifi and mobile phone masts for the author Julia Stephenson’s ill-health.

Both the BBC’s and The Independent’s stories lacked any sort of balance or, indeed, science. There is no ‘growing evidence Wi-Fi technology is harmful’, and there are many studies that ‘electrosensitives’ are in fact unable to tell when they are being exposed to an electromagnetic field. (As an aside, yesterday a study into electrosensitivity found that people who believe they are electrosensitive cannot tell when a mobile phone mast is turned on or off.)

The MMR/autism and wifi stories are just two extreme examples of bad science reporting, but I think they are symptomatic of a wider malaise: science and technology are treated with suspicion and mistrust by most of the mainstream media. Yes, there are always exceptions and some mainstream media science and tech journalists are very good indeed, but they tend not to be the ones writing the big, headline-grabbing stories. In the rest of the media, on the front pages and the breakfast TV shows, science and technology are constantly being disparaged, misrepresented and trivialised, and it seems to me to be getting worse.

Using Google to search for ‘boffin’ (and discounting articles about football player Danny Boffin) gives 267 results. Nerd appears 881 times. Geek, 1360 times. Words like ‘boffin’ and ‘nerd’ are highly negative words, used to devalue the person to whom they refer and in my opinion they have absolutely no place in news reporting. I think that we, the geek community, are making inroads on reclaiming ‘geek’ for our own, but whether ‘geek’ is offensive or not depends entirely on who is saying it, to whom, and with what tone of voice.

Why is this? Well, at least in part I think it’s because of the division between arts and sciences, which starts – or it did in my day – at school. You were sciency or you were arty, but you weren’t supposed to be both. And never the twain would meet, so the misunderstandings started early. At university it was worse. I did a geology degree and I worked on the student newspaper Gair Rhydd, but I let the other student journalists make the assumption that I was an arts student, because I knew that it would be too much trouble to admit I was a scientist. Equally, I don’t think my fellow geology students really understood my arty side either.

The results of such a split are that scientists generally (and yes, I know I’m generalising) end up not being quite as skilled in communications as they should be, and arts graduates end up being unable to grasp basic scientific concepts because they’ve had no real practise doing so. And any situation wherein you have people who aren’t great at communicating coming into contact with people who aren’t very good at understanding what’s being communicated, well, it’s obvious there are going to be problems. Fiona Fox says in her post quoted above:

We [the Science Media Centre (SMC)] were set up in the wake of media furores over issues like MMR and we know that poor journalism on public health is our territory. However we also know that the SMC philosophy (the media will ‘do’ science better when scientists ‘do’ media better) was a reaction against the culture of complaint within science which often saw top scientists complaining privately about coverage rather than pro-actively engaging with the story.

But it’s not just about communication, there is also a rank mistrust of science and technology that permeates the industry. It’s not that the people responsible for these articles haven’t put enough effort into understanding the evidence, it’s that they don’t want to. They have a ‘story’ with an ‘angle’. They cherry pick quotes that support their misconceptions, and they have no desire whatsoever to have their point of view challenged. They really don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

(This was one reason why I stopped trying to be a full-time journalist. I was fed up with editors saying “Well, what’s your angle?” Why the hell do I need to twist things round til I find an angle? Why aren’t the facts enough?)

But this institutional neophobia that decrees all technology and science to be suspect is very difficult to combat. If the Editor of The Observer doesn’t care that one of their writers is filing stories riddled with inaccuracies and untruths – or at least, doesn’t care enough to publish a retraction and apology – what hope do we have that they will care about accuracy in future science and technology stories?

This neophobia is rife in society as well, and in politics. A lack of understanding leads to poor personal decisions and poor government policy, and the people who genuinely understand what is going on are marginalised as ‘nerds’ and ‘boffins’ who are not worth listening to. These attitudes are promulgated and extended by the shoddy reporting done by the media, who, in expressing their own biases and prejudices as if it is fact validate the biases and prejudices of their audiences.

I am sure that the reasons behind the current prevalence of anti-science attitudes are a lot more complicated than the conflict between arts and science, though – there’s probably a thesis in there somewhere. But regardless, it is a dreadful state of affairs.

Of course, if the media wanted to, it could change things. Editors could commission more science graduates, more technology experts, to write about the areas in which they are expert. They could instruct their journalists to provide supporting links and materials for their science articles, in the way that blogs generally do, so that readers understand where the information comes from. They could be more transparent, confessing when their journalists are in bed with industry and taking money to promote specific products or companies. They could fact check articles prior to publication, calling up the people quoted to ensure that everything is correct. They could report even the outrage-free stories that show something is safe, as well as stories that show something may be harmful. They could educate their journalists in understanding statistics and how to read scientific papers. They could insist on a shift from belief-based reporting to evidence-based reporting.

These are actually quite simple actions to take. There’s nothing complicated in any of those suggestions. Sadly, I don’t believe for one second that anyone in any position of power in the mainstream media actually cares. So it will continue to be up to Ben Goldacre and David Colquhoun and others like them to debunk bad reporting after the fact – an honourable pursuit, but nowhere near as good for society as the MSM simply getting it right in the first place.

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