Sunday 31 August 2008

Ben Goldacre on the MMR-autism hoax

Ben Goldacre was written an absolutely excellent article on the history of the MMR-autism scare, with a particular focus on the media's responsibility for the thousands of cases of childhood illness, disability, and death that the scare has caused. Particularly interesting is his potted history of vaccine scares in other countries. The United States is rolling through its own scare at the moment, helped along ably by its endemic antivaccination movement.

The MMR scare bobbed into view while I was in high school, and it never smelled of anything but quackery, mostly because the media coverage degenerated quickly into a mess of emotionally exploitative bullshit and instigator Wakefield seemed more interested in getting off on said media exposure than actually being a scientist. And I just don't get any less angry about it. We have a responsibility as scientists to present our work accurately and modestly, and to consider the consequences of our errors, and to not take hundreds of thousands of pounds from lawyers to make shit up from the most tangentally-related, hokey data. The media and the public look to us for answers, and if we say something which gets their attention, it's going to be be assumed as the truth. For my part, I did my best to present the situation as it really stood to my relatives, and to make sure I had the best possible basis for believing that.

It was an important lesson at an stage of my career. Anyway, check out Goldacre's article. It's wonderfully thorough and well-written. And remember, don't trust what you read in the papers.

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