A matter of judgement

7 Jun

Last year I read a book by Ben Goldacre called ‘Bad Science’. Ben is the medical correspondent of the Guardian newspaper here in the UK and a fierce critic of reporting standards. A case he describes in detail concerns some research on the MMR vaccine given to young children. This vaccine is used against measles, mumps and rubella and is considered completely safe. One doctor published a preliminary report linking the MMR vaccine with the increasing incidence of autism. The story was plastered all over the papers and led to a good deal of panic. Parents refused to get their children immunised. This resulted in outbreaks of these diseases in some areas. They are not diseases to be taken lightly. Measles can kill, mumps lead to infertility and rubella in pregnant women can seriously damage the unborn child. The link made by the doctor was entirely rejected by all the main agencies which judge and rate research and the doctor has since been struck off.  The research in this case was badly flawed and used a methodology which was inappropriate. There was no link between MMR and autism. The problem was that the story was out there and most people cannot judge what weight to give such a story as against the official position. The tabloids spotted a good story and splashed it all over the front pages. They had given equal weight to the struck-off doctor’s work and the huge weight of evidence on the other side. Children died and others were blinded because they did not receive the inoculation.

Now for the moral of the story. You cannot say there are two points of view here and give equal weight to both arguments. To do that is to be guilty of ‘relativism’. It is the writer’s responsibility to make judgement on the weight of evidence. Otherwise you risk being lumped in with holocaust deniers and conspiracy nuts.

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