It’s all relative

29 Apr

‘Relativism is the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration.’ (from Wikipedia)

There are currently several outbreaks of measles in Britain. The problem goes back fifteen years when there was a big fall in the uptake of the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine. The reason that fewer parents were getting their children inoculated was a health scare about the vaccine which suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and an increase in the rate of autism. The research which sparked the scare was a study by Dr Andrew Wakefield which appeared in the medical publication, the Lancet, in 1998. The paper was partially withdrawn in 2004 and finally withdrawn in 2010. A review of the paper showed multiple flaws in the study, including the selection of data and groups, failure to have the work properly peer reviewed and poor statistical method. Investigations by Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer revealed that Wakefield had multiple undeclared conflicts of interest, had manipulated evidence, and had broken other ethical codes. Dr Wakefield was struck off the medical register in 2010.

It is easy to lay all the blame at the door of Dr Wakefield, but there are other villains in this story. Journalists sniffed a good story and published or made scary reports in the popular press, on radio and television. The standards of journalism in relation to knowledge of even the most simple of medical matters was largely absent, and a good training in statistical method utterly lacking. Medical scares always make good stories, whether there is any truth in them or not. The lack of moral responsibility of these journalists and their simple failure to check their facts has resulted in many teenagers catching what can be a very serious illness, measles. The excuse used was that there were two sides to the story, on one side the opinion of Dr Andrew Wakefield and on the other side the medical opinion of the rest of the medical community. This is a case of relativism, one where the opinion of the two were given equal weighting. It was the moral responsibility of the journalists to weigh the evidence properly and report accordingly. By failing to do so they scared parents sufficiently that they did not have their children inoculated, and the results of this is the current outbreak of measles. For a good explanation of the errors in the study, look up ‘Bad Science’, by Dr Ben Goldacre, who writes for The Guardian newspaper.

History does not have the same kind of scientific objectivity, but claim most historians claim to have their own appropriate notions of objectivity. It is necessary to recognise the bias in other writers and a good deal of self knowledge of one’s own failure to be fully objective. In judging evidence the nature and volume of evidence must be weighed to judge the correct story and crude relativism of all stories must be rejected. Holocaust deniers rely on relativism to get their message across, when any independent study would show the denier’s argument to be wholly false. We should all be wary of relativism in whatever sphere we move in. There is far too much bad journalism around. More than ever it is necessary to judge carefully when you are told anything, especially when the teller might very well have an ulterior motive.


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