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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Thursday, July 26th, 2007

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

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

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 news.bbc.co.uk 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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8 Responses to “New health fears over big surge in misleading and irresponsible science reporting”

  1. Ms. Clark Says:

    “There is no science without fancy and no art without fact” Vladimir Nabokov
    :-) Media coverage of science has been horrendous, especially in autism, from my point of view. It doesn’t help that some more or less straight scientists were willing to help promote the autism epidemic that never happened because it led directly to more funding for autism research. Yes, they knew what they were doing.

  2. Phil Says:

    I just left this comment on Kevin’s MySpace story, and it seems depressingly appropriate here too:

    [Anastasia Goodstein's] phrase “both fear-based and divorced from reality” is very neat (cf. Team McCann.) Perhaps the underlying problem is that we blur the line between the emotional reality of fear and its validity or appropriateness - so to deny the reality of what people are afraid of is tantamount to denying their right to be afraid, which is an insult to them personally.

  3. larissa Says:

    Thanks for your view, obviously you no little about the subject and have not spoken to parents whose children are medically ill, due to vaccinations and other enviromental causes. I suggest you log on to some web sites that treat austim. We can treat autism & our kids get better - oh sorry I forgot autism is genetic isn’t it - there is no cure ! Why is it that the autism epidemic has risen from 15 in 10,000 10 years ago to 1 in 100 now. That is not genetic. why is it that the countries that have an autism epidemic are the ones that follow the W.H.O guidelines on vaccination. Whys is it that children with autism have heavy metals in there bodies that they cannot get rid of. Why are they full of yeast bugs. Dr Wakefield helps our kids, they have bowel disease all he did was to find measles in the bowel. I am not posting again, I want to inform other parents that your view is a shallow and one of which you have no experience of.

  4. Suw Says:

    Phil, if what you’re saying is that by debunking a potential source of fear, that invalidates people’s feelings and that they therefore feel they have been personally attacked, then yes, I think you are right. People don’t like to be told that the thing they believe and have put so much emotional work into believing is not true, and sadly, no amount of evidence is going to convince these people that their belief is unfounded. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about MMR and autism, or electrosensitivity or any other unsubstantiated viewpoint.

    The problem is that journalists, by writing these scare stories and perpetuating these untruths, are introducing more and more people to flawed theories, which means more and more people are putting 2 and 2 together to make 5, and then we have more and more people who come over all insulted when their pet theory turns out to be wrong.

    The way that the media works these days is that if there are enough people with a loud enough voice, journalists feel that their views must be valid and represented *even though they have no evidence to support them*. And so you end up with this false dichotomy, this false conflict being created between, for example, those who believe MMR causes autism, and the scientists who try to explain that there is no evidence to support that view.

    And because scientists by their nature don’t deal in absolutes and cannot prove a negative - they cannot say that MMR is absolutely safe, they can only say that there is no evidence that it is unsafe - their view is devalued in the face of people who are quite happy to make unsubstantiated absolute statements.

    So the whole thing becomes self-perpetuating, and the only thing that can stop it is the journalists resisting the urge to publish or broadcast juicy but untrue stories.

  5. Suw Says:

    Larissa, thank you for your comment. However, I’m afraid you are missing the point somewhat.

    I am not at all disputing the existence of autism, or autism spectrum disorders, such as Aspbergers. Nor am I saying that autism should not be taken very seriously as an illness, and shouldn’t be treated. I’m also not making any statement about what could cause autism, or the validity of any other theories.

    I’m also not going to get into a discussion about why there are more children diagnosed with autism now than ten years ago. If you re-read this post, you’ll see that the core issue I’m addressing is irresponsible science journalism.

    However, the one thing I will say with certainty is that there is no convincing evidence that MMR or any other vaccinations cause autism. Period. From your tone of voice, though, I don’t think you really care about evidence, unless it supports your point of view.

    As regarding your insinuation that I cannot write about autism because I don’t have autistic children, well, that’s an absurd position. No one needs to have first hand experience of raising autistic children to be able to assess the data regarding autism, or to have an opinion on the irresponsible reporting of mistruths by biased and insufficiently informed journalists. If it were the case that I need to have autistic children before I am in a position to assess the science, that would mean that no scientist without autistic children would be in a position to carry out research on autism. In fact, it would mean that no one would be able to work on anything that they did not have direct personal experience of, so no cancer research, no malaria research, no MRSA research… unless you had suffered or had children who had suffered such diseases.

    If you have autistic children, then you have every right to expect their condition to be treated and managed to the best standards of current knowledge and ability. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. But I think you and your children would be best served by understanding the evidence, not by believing a discredited doctor currently being charged with misconduct, whose research was flawed to the point of meaninglessness.

  6. Martin Says:

    I would really like to see this evidence that the MMR is 100% safe. as a scientist you should know that all medical procedures have some accociated risk. even taking bloods. I challenge you to find a statistic that shows this risk for the MMR. or even the types of reactions that are statistically likely.
    you will fail.
    how can you refute the Vacination autism link without these stats.
    maybe all doctors should be made liable immunisation, I would guess that they would take more care insuring that children are fit and healthy before injecting a combination of live viruses into them, this would be a good test of “faith” in science.

    So how many autistic children do you know? how many of these childrens parents suspect vacinations, how many have other health issues? how many have bowel problems? how many have problems accessing health care?.
    I afraid without first or even second hand experience and baising the rest of your argument on data that has not statistical basis is less than scientific.
    and as for you last comment i really think you need a reality check , any child with the combination of “bowel disorder” and “autism” will not be able access the same level of health care as you in the UK. the countess of Marr raised this issue in the lords recently.
    the press have a lot to answer for, the lancet should not have published and GMTV should not have run with this everyday for 6 months.

  7. Suw Says:

    Martin, you might like to see evidence that MMR is “100% safe”, but you never will, because that is something which is logically impossible to prove. To borrow an illustrative example from Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness, it is logically impossible to say that all swans are white, unless and only unless you have seen every single swan alive and have seen that every single swan alive is white. You could see 100 swans, or 1000 swans, or a million swans, and all of them could be white, but unless you’ve seen every single swan than you cannot guarantee that all swans are white. Just one black swan will destroy the hypothesis, and that swan could be the million-and-one-th swan that you didn’t observe because you stopped at a million.

    Equally, it is impossible to prove that anything is 100% safe, whether it is MMR, mobile phones, driving a car, cooking dinner, eating fish, or crossing the road. Nothing in this world is 100% safe. Most accidents happen in the home - the home is one the unsafest places to be, yet we spend much of our time there. (Of course, the reason that most accidents happen in the home is probably that that’s where we spend much of our times, and we humans are generally the causes of most accidents.) Cars are the least safe form of transport - much more unsafe than planes or trains - yet we use them every day. And children do get killed by accidents in the home and in car accidents.

    The question is, is MMR safe enough, and the answer there, as far as medical establishment is concerned, is yes. The fact that we can never say that the MMR vaccine is 100% safe does not mean that you can infer that it causes autism either - that’s a leap of faith unwarranted by the evidence. The link to autism has not been satisfactorily proven, no matter what you say.

    And again - although obviously you haven’t read my last comment - whether or not there are autistic children in my life is irrelevant to my being able to assess the scientific data and media coverage of science stories. Do you think I need to have suffered MRSA in order to understand the data surrounding it or the media coverage of it?

    Additionally, whilst the stories of parents with autistic children can be illustrative, they aren’t evidence. In this kind of scientific study, anecdotes aren’t very useful as evidence - we need to do a variety of rigourous experiments and studies to help us understand what is happening. Anecdote alone is meaningless.

    But this is not a post about autism and MMR, nor is it a post about whether or not autistic children are getting the treatment they need, it’s a post about irresponsible science reporting. This is something that you finally get to in your last sentence, and I’m glad that there we agree. The press and the media do have a lot to answer for.

    NOTE FOR FUTURE COMMENTERS

    I am not going to get into arguments about the science surrounding autism and MMR, nor am I going to talk about whether autistic children are getting the care that they should because I’ve already said what I wanted to say about that. This is not a post about the science, but about the reporting of the science. I am happy with the medical establishment’s view that the MMR vaccine is safe (not 100% safe, because nothing is, but safe enough) and that it does not cause autism - if you want to debate this, then there are plenty of other places you can do it, including the Bad Science Forums where you’ll get lots of responses from doctors and scientists.

    http://www.badscience.net/forum/

    What I’m interested in here is bad journalism - inaccurate or deliberately misleading science and technology stories, which never get corrected and which permeate the press and the media. These stories poison the public’s understanding of science and tech, and they do a dreadful disservice to us all. If you want to comment about that, be my guest.

  8. Phil Says:

    Suw - I hope my followup to Kevin’s post clarifies what seems to be have been a rather badly-phrased point.

    “And so you end up with this false dichotomy, this false conflict being created between, for example, those who believe MMR causes autism, and the scientists who try to explain that there is no evidence to support that view.”

    I think that’s an important point. The trouble is that we’re schooled to think that arguments have two sides, and that the fair thing to do is represent both sides. “These people think A, but *these* people think B - let’s give them both a chance to put their case”.

    I wonder now if the modern revival of creationism is where the idea of science as just one point of view among others got started - because, you know, Darwinism’s just a *theory*…