Andrew Wakefield: MMR, Autism and the failure of science and the media

The British Medical Journal publishes this week that the work of Andrew Wakefield is both misleading and fraudulent. Mr Wakefield has the somewhat dubious honour of being the medical professional who was the cause of the scare which suggested that the MMR ( Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine could lead to autism in children.  For some years there were parents who were torn between having the conscience and good sense to vaccinate their children against these diseases, and the concern that was in the public domain that there seemed to be a link with the onset of autism.

This is one of the many examples where questionable science, has been packaged up by the media in an easily digestible form which has resulted in oversimplifications and unnecessary panic. Wakefield did not actually say in his Lancet paper that there was a causal connection between MMR and autism. In his press conference and subsequent media interpretations, he implied that use of the vaccine should be suspended until more research had been done. Whilst this may have been the case, then his naivete in how the media and the general public would interpret this is staggering.

The bare bones of a sensational story was too much for the media to resist and the hysteria was fuelled quite easily. Creating a massive dilemma for parents of small children is a cynical tactic for the papers and exacerbating the concern through lack of knowledge, is incredibly irresponsible. How many children have suffered from one of the MMR diseases, unnecessarily, and how many have suffered lasting damage – I guess we will never know.

Far too often, we hear and read of what, this week is good for you, what’s bad for you, what will give you cancer etc etc…all of which is pedalled as science. Unfortunately most people think of scientists as honorable, reliable, trustworthy people, and if they say something then they should be believed. Sadly, scientists are just as fallible as the rest of us; they are motivated by money and prestige, and are egocentric. The opportunity to be famed for some critical piece of research could drive them to “bend” on principles.

In the media, there is the mainstream view of a particular theory which is generally presented as the “settled science” and anyone who dissents from this is labelled as a crank. In other fields like politics, or other non-science fields, then differences of opinion can easily be held and portrayed with equal justification and credibility – but not with science. This drives us into an intellectual one-way street, where opposition is not accepted – a North Korean style dictatorship, where the scientists are the only ones who have access to the “sacred knowledge” – old style “prophets” . This is very unhealthy for open and sensible debate.

There will be many residual pockets of people who are still unsure of what to do with their children – Wakefield has achieved infamy as a “science terrorist”; many parents will still feel the sense of terror as culturally, we believe scientists. Both he, and the incompetent media should take a huge responsibility for the sensationalist and reckless publicising of this issue.

If it has achieved one thing, and that is, that it has brought to light that all published / reported science is not always accurate. Perhaps at some point we will have a sensible debate on other dubious issues where opposition is considered to be the preserve of cranks – Global Warming, AIDS – to name but two. One can only hope!

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