(Reprinted from August, 2010)
By John Stone
After years of secrecy on the matter confirmation has finally come to light that Guardian ‘Bad Science’ journalist Ben Goldacre is the son of Oxford professor of public health Michael J Goldacre (HERE). Prof Goldacre has been director since 1986 of the UK Department Health funded Unit of Healthcare Epidemiology (HERE). The family relationship is mentioned in a review of Goldacre junior’s Bad Science book in the peer-review journal Medicine, Conflict and Survival (25, p.255-7, 2009)by Dr Ian Fairlie, but there has been a long term lack of candour about the matter. While the reasons for the secrecy remain unknown it is possible that if the relationship, which has never before been mentioned in the mainstream media or scientific publications, had been common knowledge it might have raised questions about the independence of the younger Goldacre’s views. Goldacre senior was a co-author of a study of the effects of GlaxoSmithKline’s notorious Urabe strain version of MMR, Pluserix, after it was suddenly withdrawn from public use in 1992 (HERE): the Unit has produced several MMR related studies.
Ben Goldacre’s column which started in 2003 has featured his largely epidemiological approach to health issues, most prominently MMR and autism. Coming apparently from nowhere, journalistically speaking, he was promoted to the role of an “opinion leader” from the outset. His early article MMR: Never mind the facts won the accolade of the GlaxoSmithKline sponsored Association of British Science Writers’ award for the best feature article of 2003.
The article, however, used flawed epidemiology for which he later offered no defence (HERE), as well as including an anonymous attack on Andrew Wakefield by one of Wakefield’s colleagues. This was just the first of several notable interventions Ben Goldacre in the MMR affair. A stock-in-trade has been his generalised attacks on parents of MMR damaged children. His Bad Science blogsite for a long time offered this intimidatory advice to would-be contributors:
“..personal anecdotes about your MMR tragedy will be deleted for your own safety”
A fundamental of Ben Goldacre’s journalistic method is the ad hominem and he always talks across opponents: he can always depend on the greater prominence of his published views and he never answers the many awkward criticisms.
The Goldacre dynasty seem to be one of several with on-going connections with the MMR affair:
- *Dr Evan Harris, the former MP, who accompanied Brian Deer to make accusations against Andrew Wakefield and colleagues, and led a debate under privilege in the House of Commons making further allegations of unethical practices (HERE) is the son of paediatrician Prof Frank Harris who sat on the Committee on Safety in Medicines and the adverse reactions to vaccine committee ARVI in the early 1990s when Pluserix MMR vaccine had to be withdrawn (HERE) , (HERE) , (HERE).
For several years Ben Goldacre kept his distance from the Deer allegations against Wakefield, preferring to use the epidemiological literature to combat and deride concern about MMR and autism. In another ABSW award winning article Don’t dumb me down sponsored by Syngenta he wrote:
“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, Evan Harris - who originally made the allegations about scientific fraud against Wakefield and colleagues under privilege in a House of Commons debate in March 2004 – was on the panel of judges that made the award (HERE).
Indeed, Goldacre was right: the claims were convoluted and tenuous. When the GMC finally brought in its verdict against the three doctors in January 2010 it managed to find them guilty both of conducting the Legal Aid Board protocol in the Lancet study and guilty of not conducting it at the same time. Since the Lancet paper was as Goldacre had stated a ‘a perfectly good small case series report’ and “ an early report” as paper itself stated, Wakefield and colleagues were found with remarkable ingenuity to be in innumerable respects in breach of the terms of the protocol which they had reasonably pleaded they were not doing.
By this stage, however, Goldacre had “dumbed” himself “down” and welcomed the verdict (HERE). In retrospect this looks like nothing so much as an elaborate ploy in which the medical and political establishment were giving themselves an insurance policy in case the GMC failed to bring in a guilty verdict. If this had happened the polemical position evolved by Ben Goldacre over seven years, based on dodgy epidemiology, might have provided the main defence for MMR.
There have been a number of other key moments when Ben Goldacre has intervened in the MMR debate. In 2005 Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, alone in the journalistic profession, correctly spied the weakness in the newly published Cochrane review of MMR (HERE). While this had been successfully spun to give the impression MMR was safe, the real findings were that after sifting 5000 related studies and reviewing the 31 best the evidence base for MMR safety was “largely inadequate”, while individually several of the autism studies had come in for scathing criticism, and none of them was strong (HERE). Goldacre berated Phillips for knowing nothing about science, but the reality was that she was the only journalist who had taken the trouble to read the small print and dared to say the emperor had no clothes. There is no doubt in this attack that ad hominem prevailed over substantive discussion of the science (HERE). There is a dangerous message here from Goldacre of ‘leave it to the scientists’, but scientists are human, subject to institutional bullying and manipulation: many will not speak up against the powerful interests, or they speak, as did Cochrane, “with forked tongue”. Goldacre’s attack on Phillips sounded plausible, but the problem with the literature that Cochrane reviewed was not that the science was “imperfect” as Goldacre put it, it was that it was mostly no good whatsoever. And hiding behind a few weasel statements Cochrane had said just that.
In 2007 Goldacre led an attack via the Guardian on its sister newspaper the Observer contributing to the dismissal of its editor, Roger Alton. The Observer had published ahead of the GMC hearing against Drs Wakefield, Walker-Smith and Murch an account of a study which showed the autism rate amongst Cambridgeshire schoolchildren to be running at 1 in 58. One of the authors concerned about the seriousness of the situation and delays in publication had leaked an early version of the paper to the newspaper. The story was denied by lead author Simon Baron-Cohen, ridiculed by Goldacre, and the Rwanda massacre denying director of Science Media Centre, Fiona Fox, organised an institutional hanging party against the newspaper. Then, a few months later, when the furore had died down, the article had been removed, the Observer editor sacked, Baron-Cohen gave a presentation at the London IMFAR conference, which showed that story had been correct all along (HERE) .
It has been a lamentable feature of Ben Goldacre’s contribution to the public discussion of science in the UK that he has everywhere generated an atmosphere of intolerance in support of his views, and rather than raise the tone of the debate it has encouraged a new kind of scientific infantilism, in which you deride your opponents and defer to authority. The ruthlessness of this power was demonstrated when LBC radio journalist Jeni Barnett questioned the heavy-hand of the MMR lobby. She could not have been proved more right when the station was inundated by protests from Goldacre’s website, LBC removed the broadcast from its website, and Goldacre arranged for Liberal-Democrat Members of Parliament to organise a motion censuring Barnett: the second signatory inevitably being Evan Harris (HERE , HERE).
A recent development in Ben Goldacre’s career has been the projection of himself as an arbiter of research ethics. It remains hard to judge the sincerity of his position. While he has recently attacked GSK over the diabetes drug Avandia (HERE) this is only after many years of controversy surrounding the product and with the US Food and Drugs Administration about to take action. Only last year he led a hostile campaign against Express journalist, Lucy Johnston, for her reporting of GSK’s HPV vaccine Cervarix. (HERE). Yet the long term efficacy of the product is still to be demonstrated, and to attack concerns about safety is to prejudice the issue in relation to those who suffer adverse effects. Goldacre’s angry denunciation is an essence no better than a public relations agenda (on behalf of whom?), and can only prejudice the science. Johnston, on the other hand, was just trying to report.
There is not a little irony in the doctor-journalist who sells ‘MMR is Safe’ T-shirts, mugs and baby-bibs from his website (HERE ) calling for an end to scientific spin (HERE). Did Cochrane say that? No, Cochrane said “The design and reporting of safety outcomes in MMR vaccine studies, both pre- and post-marketing is largely inadequate HERE, which is quite different. The calculation apparently would appear to be that we are by now all too stupid or too intimidated to call his bluff.
I agree with Ben Goldacre, we need an end to spin and he can start at home: we not only need to know what we are being told, we also need to know why. And we can do with an end to the totalitarian tactics.
John Stone is UK Editor for Age of Autism.