I recently blogged about the MMR so-called “debate”, but thought I would bring it up again because
a) it is incredibly incredibly annoying when people don’t look for evidence, listen to evidence when it’s presented, and revive closed debates
b) the BBC Trust Review has some pretty cool things to say about it
The MMR issue (the public belief that the use of the vaccine for Measles, Mumps and Rubella could lead to autism) of thirteen years ago is an elderly and familiar example of such a failure in science reporting – and the BBC was far from the worst culprit. It was driven by a medical panic, exacerbated by a variety of ill-informed campaigns that were given exposure by the BBC and other outlets long after the technical argument was over. According to the Economic and Social Science Reasearch Council survey, at the height of the panic most people felt that because both sides of the argument had been given equal time by the media, then there must have been equal evidence for both (although by then the result had been thoroughly discredited by experts). An attempt to be impartial had had exactly the opposite result.
Yes, that’s right. Professor Steve Jones attributes the MMR panic to misapplied science reporting which provided an outlet for suspicion to fester where it was frankly silly for it to subsist at all.
That observation has a serious lesson. The most immediate is that of the rate of triple vaccination, which fell sharply after the paper was published thirteen years ago, has still not recovered to the levels that would allow “herd immunity”, the protection of a population because so many have become immune that the disease can no longer spread.
In other words, that is a mistake that kills. There is no debate on whether the MMR vaccine is harmful or whether it causes autism. The claim that it is and does was rapidly discredited and should have had no impact upon the scientific world nor the public. The fact that it did was entirely due to its exposure and the unwillingness of the media to stand up and say that Andrew Wakefield was a crap scientist.
So for those who are still unconvinced,
Andrew Wakefield was a crap scientist.
He was quickly discovered and struck off the medical register for bad practice. Nobody put up with him. Nobody let this silliness continue. Nobody thought this was an acceptable claim to have made. And has it ever struck you that if you ever fear scientists making up evidence, you should fear him, certainly not believe him, certainly not when the rest of the scientific community is raising their eyebrows and saying
And the media is definitely learning from it too and recognise the whole fiasco as just that.
The Corporation’s treatment of the influenza epidemic avoided hyperbole (in contrast to that of certain overseas broadcasters who sowed something close to terror).
More wise words from our eloquant professor:
…In the context of impartiality, the MMR story shows how the media’s attempts to show both sides of the argument can skew public understanding, particularly when a trusted source such as the BBC is involved and most particularly when a matter of crucial medical importance is under consideration.