MMR and climate change: the missing link

Andrew Wakefield’s comeuppance part 1 seems very likely to be followed by part 2 (“the strike-off”) later this year.

I’ve just read some of the detail of the recent findings: it won’t be a minute too soon. He is not, of course, the only party at fault. The Lancet published a shoddy paper— twelve patients! Twelve selected patients!— with the retraction last week amounting to an historically belated stable door closure. The government and the medical profession were patronising, clumsy and ineffectual in their efforts to reassure the public. But perhaps the biggest villain of the piece is what Ben Goldacre says. The meeja.

Meanwhile, someone at GQ magazine has written this.

The writer, Laurie Laird, mulls over two seemingly unconnected sagas and arrives at an unexpected conclusion: that because the media initially got it wrong about Wakefield, it’s also getting it wrong in its unbalanced reporting of the ‘consensus view’ of climate science. At least I think that’s what she’s saying; the article struggles to join these widely-separated dots, and ends in a confusing muddle of Ed Miliband and radiotherapy.

In summary (as far as I can tell): she likens Wakefield’s dodgy research to that of the UEA climate scientists caught up in ‘Climategate’, and the mistaken/poorly-evidenced/poorly-referenced assertions that have recently emerged from the 2007 IPCC’s Working Group II report. These climate science ‘scandals’ have been quietly burbling away in the media background for several weeks now, giving excitable commentators something to write about.

Although the current climate science media storms may or may not amount to anything above the level of trivial— in view of the increasing public/political interest, it’s certainly true that more openness and better PR management from some climatologists wouldn’t go amiss— it remains clear that increasing amounts of CO2 derived from human activities are trapping more heat in the atmosphere, and that sooner or later this will become a significant problem. We can argue about the detail, and like any science it should be expressed in probabilistic terms, not journalistic absolutes— but nothing in the recent fuss damages our underlying understanding of any of this; there are no revelations of paradigm threatening counter-theories, or even counter-hypotheses, that can explain it all away.

It’s astonishing how Laird has got it all hopelessly inverted. The implication appears to be that— until recently— climate scientists such as Phil Jones and Rajendra Pachauri were individuals proposing dangerous, maverick theories, which were being falsely celebrated by the media. Or that there was a rigid “MMR is unsafe” scientific consensus led by Andrew Wakefield, which the media was failing to challenge properly. Just to be crystal clear on the latter point: there wasn’t. Indeed, the weight of over two hundred years of human experience with vaccination, decades of previous related research, a decent body of MMR-specific safety trials, and — apart from anything else— a fairly dubious case for claiming biological plausibility for the autism link, combined to ensure that the balance of probabilities remained overwhelmingly in favour of the safety of the MMR vaccine both before, during, and after the scare stories hit the headlines. The effect of the media reporting of the MMR controversy was to create the ‘controversy’ in the first place: it placed the shonky claims of Wakefield (and the understandable fears of a few parents) on a false parity with the hard-won understanding of thousands of scientists, doctors and public health experts.

And of course the same thing is happening in the climate change debate. This is the real link between these two ‘stories’. I could go on, but I won’t. Journalists, if you’re going to write about science, please— just learn some.


2 Responses to “MMR and climate change: the missing link”

  1. Bob Calder Says:

    I can’t find the GQ article. Do you think they may have withdrawn it?

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