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« Author of Children With Starving Brains Supports Dr. Andrew Wakefield in Letter & Petition | Main | David Kirby's "Animal Factory" Is Back Up At Amazon! »

The Conflicting Views of Dr. Ben Goldacre and the Wakefield Affair

Ben Goldacre The conflicting views of Dr Ben Goldacre and the Wakefield affair: dumbing the public down.

By John Stone
 
Photo: Ben Goldacre receiving the 2003 GSK/ABSW award  for his Guardian article on MMR,’Never mind the facts’, posing between Pallab Ghosh, science correspondent of the BBC, and Dr Alistair Benbow of GSK.

Not so familiar in the North American world Ben Goldacre, author of the Guardian’s Bad Science column,  is perhaps the most prominent and prestigious scientific opinion leader in UK journalism, and at least since 2003 – when his career was effectively launched – he has carried a brief to defend the reputation of MMR vaccine. Essentially, this has consisted of a different strategy of that of Times Newspapers and Brian Deer, focussing on trying to damage Andrew Wakefield’s scientific reputation without the all-out assault on his integrity. Until the GMC brought in its verdict against Wakefield and his colleagues John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch this might have looked like a clever insurance policy, but now it has led to problems.

In his article ‘Don’t Dumb me down’ which won the 2005 Syngenta/Association of British Science Writers’ award Goldacre wrote something remarkably interesting (and accurate) (HERE ):

"...people periodically come up to me and say, isn't it funny how that Wakefield MMR paper turned out to be Bad Science after all? And I say: no. The paper always was and still remains a perfectly good small case series report, but it was systematically misrepresented as being more than that, by media that are incapable of interpreting and reporting scientific data."

Remarkably, too, there sat on the panel of judges for the award, Brian Deer’s associate and Liberal-Democratic member of parliament Dr Evan Harris. This nevertheless brought Goldacre into conflict with Brian Deer, or certainly led to Deer expressing public annoyance in an interview the Press Gazette last year.

On the other hand when the GMC panel announced its decision on 28 January Goldacre was hit by a sudden attack of amnesia, failing to recall anything of his earlier reasoned objection to the central charge of the GMC hearing. Even if for some reason he had changed his mind, the only mainstream journalist who had sufficient grip on the case to explain what was at issue held his tongue in his “expert view” comment in the Guardian on-line that evening (HERE).



The reality was that the panel had swallowed an astonishingly tenous case from the prosecution that the “Lancet study” was not  “a perfectly good small case series report” – in Goldacre’s words – but a botched attempt at the protocol of what looked like a completely different study. The panel in fact found that the doctors were in breach of the terms of the protocol which had been granted ethical permission as project 172-96 (HERE):

“The Panel has heard that ethical approval had been sought and granted for other trials and it has been specifically suggested that Project 172-96 was never undertaken and that in fact, the Lancet 12 children’s investigations were clinically indicated and the research parts of those clinically justified investigations were covered by Project 162-95. In the light of all the available evidence, the Panel rejected this proposition.”

However, if the claim that the study was bungled version version of Project 172-96 was perverse they border on deception by claiming 162-95 as a “project” at all: 162-5 was nothing other than code for the ethical permission granted to Prof Walker-Smith, when he arrived at the Royal Free Hospital the previous year,  to order biopsies according to his own clinical judgment: he was, after all, recognised as the leading paediatric gastroenterologist in the country at the time (HERE).

Of course, if the panel had explained what 162-95 was, instead of passing it off as an alternative “project” perhaps even the press room at the GMC might have worked out that something was amiss. The panel would have had to have explained why or how they had managed to retrospectively disable the discretion granted to John Walker-Smith to use his clinical judgment for the apparent purpose of bringing in a guilty verdict. Moreover, it is fairly hard to see how there was anyone present at the hearing who had the expertise or experience to second-guess Prof Walker-Smith’s clinical judgment anyway.
It is quite apparent Ben Goldacre did not originally announce his reservations  abou
t this prosecution out of the sympathy for the predicament of the doctors or for the children injured by MMR vaccine. Infamously, his Bad Science blog site used to bear the advice (HERE):

 ".. personal anecdotes about your MMR tragedy will be deleted for your own safety"

Goldacre, plainly adopted this line because he and many people like him in the medical establishment believed the prosecution would unravel. Well, it hasn’t yet, but he may live to regret his silence. That same Thursday evening his colleague Sarah Boseley wrote in the Guardian (HERE):

“Opinion is divided in the medical establishment on the wisdom of pursuing Wakefield – and particularly his colleagues who played a lesser role in the drama – at the GMC. Some say there was a clear case to answer and that the GMC had no other option but others believe that no good can come of it.”

Her choice of tense: “no good can come of it” is interesting.

John Stone is UK Editor for Age of Autism.


 

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Goldacre is here described, for some reason, as a "cocky little cove" for using the phrase "fun thing". Given the article in question is critical of the role of Big Pharma in scientific publication, it's pretty obvious that "fun thing" is mordantly ironic.

I see no evidence of "flip-flopping" in Goldacre's line on Wakefield (not that changing your mind in line with new evidence is anything to be ashamed of). His position has always been that blaming one individual tends to hide systemic problems. That's what he said before the GMC hearings, and that's what he's saying now:

http://www.badscience.net/2010/01/the-wakefield-mmr-verdict/

"But there is the wider context: Wakefield was at the centre of a media storm about the MMR vaccine, and is now being blamed by journalists as if he were the only one at fault."

I hardly think Goldacre can be faulted for not anticipating the facts brought out in the GMC hearings, which led to the Lancet retracting the article.

Hi Cherry,

According to Wiki Ghosh was born in India in 1962 and came to the UK the following year. He has been a controversial proponent of GM technology:

http://www.gmwatch.eu/latest-listing/1-news-items/2684-anger-at-bbc-reporting-out-of-indiarole-of-pallab-ghosh-questioned

At the time of the photograph he was chairman of ABSW which must have meant considerable liaison with GSK the then sponsors of the ABSW awards.

John

Notice Dr. Goldacre, backed up by Pallab Ghosh. Well thats stands to reason - The name tells you that this person is a Bengali and the Bengali community has always had autistic kids and adults in their midst, even before the increase in vaccines. Naturally, everyone thought it was genetic and its difficult to change their mindset.
The real reason for autism in Bengalis was their high fish consumption. There are many Bengalis who have fish twice a day , seven days a week, and it can also be thrice a day. A person known to me tells me that 20 years ago, he did a study of the sediment of the Hooghly river, which runs through Calcutta, and found such high levels of mercury, that his study was rejected. However recently some other researcher has confirmed his early findings.
I wish that all the Bengali doctors of the world would do a little study of the possiblity that mercury causes autism, and speak up to save the lives of the little Bengali boys who are, in vast numbers, headed for lives of autism. Mercury laden fish plus mercury laden vaccines is a disaster for so many little boys.

skepticat
Bens "motivation" may better be explained by this

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/11/27/guardian_use_me_as_a_mouthpiece/

"Use me as a mouthpiece"

"incidentally, before you assume that i'm a lazy journo, i dont write like this with anyone else, but in fact i am offering ORG the chance to use me as a mouthpiece for your righteous rightness."

"think of it as a "pull" model for lobbying, rather than the usual push."

so is this "Bad Journalism"?

Huh? I see no 'conflicting views'. Goldacre has consistently blamed the media for the MMR scare and is still doing so. OK, he waited for the GMC ruling before conceding that Wakefield acted unethically in carrying out the research. So what? He wasn't in possession of the facts before. Now he is. Like all rational, open-minded people he made his decision according to the evidence available at the time. Maybe you could learn something from him.

How is it that Gardiner Harris at the NYT and Goldacre can clearly see the fraud and cover-up when it concerns one set of products from the drug industry, but go completely blind when confronted with the precise same marketing and research fraud and injury cover-up when it pertains to vaccines?

AnaB,
Me too!
I was hoping to see from my death bed at least a scolding with someone actually hanging their head in shame while the rest of the vast population are shaking fists in the air, not at the idea of vaccines but at the cover up that is going on and the refusal to research it.

It appears that you can buy transcripts of the GMC proceedings from their website. May I suggest that some autism organization buy them and make them available on the internet? I bet you could get them digitized rather than hardcopy.

Thank you, julie! George Orwell said in full,

"Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip."

I'm sure Goldacre deserves awards for his cracking flip-flops as much as for his circus somersaults.

Of course Ben Goldacre is the same cocky little cove who thinks that what Andrew Wakefield has put up with these last few years is a “fun thing”.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/09/bad-science-medical-journals-companies

"The first fun thing to emerge in the Australian case is email documentation showing staff at Merck made a "hit list" of doctors who were critical of the company, or of the drug. This list contained words such as "neutralise", "neutralised" and "discredit" next to the names of various doctors. “We may need to seek them out and destroy them where they live," said one email, from a Merck employee. Staff are also alleged to have used other tactics, such as trying to interfere with academic appointments, and dropping hints about how funding to institutions might dry up. Institutions might think about whether they wish to receive money from a company like that in future. Worse still, is the revelation that Merck paid the publisher Elsevier to produce a publication."


Different cast of characters, but the story sounds awfully similar:

http://www.pharmalot.com/2010/02/accutane-depression-and-expert-testimony/

A beautiful example of spin doctoring is given us by GSK.
Their communication department says that because of the mass production of swine flu vaccine, various vaccines for children are not available at the present time.

"There are production bottlenecks. A sixfold vaccine for babies and a fourfold vaccine against measles, mumps, rubella and windpox would probably not be available until mid February."

A spokeswoman for GSK, the producer of the vaccines, regretted the situation. One tried to improve the situation. However, there could be bottlenecks until the second quarter of 2010.

In another communication, it was said that the children would have to get single vaccines (as suggested by Andy Wakefield) at present.

The sixfold vaccine had caused several deaths in children, so the other producer had stopped making it. The fourfold is the MMR plus another disease.

The immediate reason is not a lack of vaccines or a high production of swine flu vaccines - there is an ample supply since the uptake is minimal. Here in Germany, only 5 percent of the population got themselves vaccinated.

The reason is an intra-industry study showing that it is impossible to sterilize the production machinery. When you have four vaccines and just one is polluted with improper viruses, the "tetravalent" vaccine becomes a tetravalent carrier of disease or death.

Sterilization would have to be done to the standard for surgical instruments (which is self-evident). This means that the machines would have to be kept at 135° C for hours, and they are not built for that and neither are there any sterilization chambers large enough for the machines. The problem are not the straight tubes which can be kept clean, but rather the angles, branch-offs etc where the hot steam will not reach sufficiently, and when one is studying these - as has been done now - one was in for huge surprises which, in real life, translates into sick or dead children.

Andy Wakefield tried to prevent this, and see what happened to him, kind of a repeat of the Galileo story. As Galileo said when dying: "E però si muove.*" (He probably foresaw the results of "sterilization".)

12 years for the Lancet to retract a paper that has had other papers follow which confirm the original findings ?? I would guess that is "science"

The media must be on drugs not to see through this issue.

UK science seems to be controlled by some sort of "glorious pharma ethics committee" that can determine what can or what cannot be studied or investigated.



I hope I'm still alive by the time history sorts this out

I think we should call for an investigation to see if there were any large monetary deposits into the bank accounts of Brian Deer and any of those involved in the GSK....err GMC hearings.

If there were, then this would call the entire proceedings into question.

I think George Orwell was talking about a British journalist when he said that the really well-trained circus dog is the one who jumps before the trainer cracks the whip. I wonder if Dr Goldacre set out to become a circus dog when he went to medical school?

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