Sunday, January 11, 2004

MMR Enema

I've said this before but, like him or hate him, few people today give better insight into what the scientific community really thinks than this guy. One of his latest posts summarises so perfectly the party line on MMR that it shows exactly why those of us who are more sceptical feel the way we do.

Whenever the scientific collective talks about MMR van loads of cake are had and eaten. On the one hand scientists want to establish themselves as a secular priesthood, disinterested seekers after truth, sole and final authority on how things are, while at the same time they employ all the techniques of political trench warfare. A fine mist of humbug hangs over most scientist's output on MMR, and Anthony's article is no exception - try this for a compare and contrast:

Murch was followed immediately by Wakefield. Taking a cue from the Michael Meacher school of conspiracy theories he personally attacked the motivation of his former colleague “His laboratory is under threat. He has failed to gain due promotion. He has been strongly advised to withdraw from scientific publications that involve any mention of my name or association with MMR and bowel disease.” and suggested government suppression of important safety data, a claim for which he has no evidence and that has been denied. Dr Murch has also clearly stated again that he was under no such threats.

This is the scientist as priest, high-mindedly disdaining personal abuse. Except immediately following is this:

Wakefield has a lot invested in the MMR controversy. He is a regular speaker in the US at autism and anti-vaccine group conferences. You can even buy videos and audiotapes on the internet. His message is delivered persuasively, yet his focus is on “injustice” and “conspiracy” rather than scientific facts. In his world corporations and bureaucracies are never able to give the truth. Relishing the role of a United Kingdom MMR-matyr, he has even argued at anti-vaccine meetings that suffering the infection that vaccines prevent gives benefits.

Seventy-six words ago that was called a personal attack, but a lot can happen in a paragraph. But, don't let the obvious humbuggery of this obscure the deeper humbug. Murch was originally a comrade of Wakefield, now six years later he has not only repented his heresy but he has carried out the scientific equivalent of a Hail Mary, penning a letter fit for a man with a Kool Aid IV. A lot can happen in six years, but it's worth noting that British science, riddled as it is with log rolling, influence peddling, sweetheart deals, magic circles and numerous other toxic practices, is hardly famous for transparency and unswerving commitment to the public interest. Whether or not Murch has been pressured to recant is unknown, but given the structure of British science, there is no reason to believe it couldn't happen.

Anthony wants us to discount Wakefield on the grounds that he's been corrupted by the prospect of filthy lucre from speaking at conferences and selling his speeches on the net, well here's British science where difficult people can get quietly squashed without so much as a formal charge (Wakefield himself is a good example of this). But this has no effect on the quality of the research. The public are entitled to ask for a little less sleaze before letting the scienceistas take us to see any puppies.

After all, let's not beat around the bush here. What the scienceistas are talking about is censorship. In fact, more than that: Anthony is presumably OK with the Beeb publicising Murch's hit piece, just not with giving Wakefield a right of reply. In short, the aim is to turn the BBC into a propaganda channel, spewing forth the party line 24-7.

Only scienceistas could seek to allay public suspicions about conspiracy and cover up by demanding their opponents be banned from the airwaves. But aside from the tactical objections, the principle itself is despicable. Anthony's call for censorship, just like that of Trevor Phillips, is based on the idea of the Little People who can't be trusted with the facts. At least Anthony cites some evidence for this, but even then it is revealingly bad evidence. Anthony reports that a survey by Cardiff University School of Journalism claims that 'less than a quarter of those interviewed were aware that the scientific evidence favoured supporters of the vaccine.' Does that mean that 75% thought the evidence favoured the rebels ? Simple logic says not necessarily. Besides, the MMR debate only really affects a tight demographic, new parents, so it hardly matters that, say, a 66 year old lesbian is ill-informed - there's no reason for her not to be. This is all good politics, but it's a bit much for these people to indulge in this sort of thing then cast themselves as disinterested seekers after truth. More to the point, what about the credibility of the whole exercise ? The debate revolves around how much trust the public can have in research produced by British academics, and so to prove their case these people cite research produced by British academics. Not all their credibility problems can be blamed on the media.

When looked at more generally, the suggestion that the media have some kind of social duty to spin for Big Science becomes even less convincing. Terrorism 101 says that the terrorist seeks to change public opinion by acts of extreme violence. Equally, investors know that once a crash has started the reason why is soon forgotten as stocks continue to plunge simply because stocks are plunging in a dive out of all proportion to the original causes. How much greater then is the need for censorship to ensure that the media does not act as terrorist enablers. Equally, economic stability requires that the media refrain from reporting any news that may lead to irrational panics in the market. Yet, we do not have such controls in either case. On the contrary, we recognise that efforts to control terrorism can too easily shade into totalitarianism while suppressing information liable to affect stock prices just ensures that when the correction comes, it'll be all the more dramatic. You can make your own analogies with the current state of British science but, hearing Anthony rage about Murch being questioned about his views as though he had a responsibility to back up his statements brings home just how badly needed this kind of public scrutiny is.

What's really objectionable though is the way the Scientific Collective pre-emptively waves the bloody shirt of kids killed in a future measles epidemic. True, unvaccinated kids are vulnerable, but the rebels aren't anti-vaccination, they're anti-MMR. The parents concerned would quite happily give their kids the single jab, except the government has been busily squashing every clinic which makes them available - let alone allowing the NHS to deploy them. True, there may be perfectly good reasons why MMR may be better than single jabs, but single jabs are surely better than nothing. This is one time when the best is the enemy of the good, yet the scienceistas appear to have tacitly agreed with the government to create a false impression that it's MMR or nothing. It ain't, it never was and even now a crash single jab program may prevent thousands of casualties.

A responsible scientific community would devote some of the time they spend ranting about anti-MMR campaigners to pressuring the government to reverse course on single jabs. This they have not done. On the contrary, reading much of the output of science's Inner Party it is hard not to suspect that are at least ambiguous about measles sweeping through the nation's children. It is all too easily to believe that many scientists regard a future outbreak as a perfect chance to shout 'told you so' and use the subsequent public angst to push their own agenda. Paranoid ? Totally, but the scientific collective's behaviour throughout the MMR debate has been almost a textbook example of how not to inspire confidence.

Throughout this debate, the scienceistas' main argument has boiled down to 'Trust me, I'm a Professor'. We expect a little more these days yet, whenever pressed, the scienceistas turn into a spitting, snarling, slandering mass of geriatric adolescents screeching 'Who are you to question scientists, you oik ?'.

Us ? We're just the folks who pay for it. Anthony asks why a body like the BBC should receive public funding when it doesn't serve the public interest - may I suggest the BBC may not be the only case of this in modern Britain ?

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