Hard News by Russell Brown


Start with your conclusion

'Final chapter in the MMR-autism scandal' reads the headline over Peter Griffin's summary of the devastating ruling by Britain's General medical Council against Dr Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues.

Well, you would hope that was an end to the matter. Wakefield, the author of a study that claimed a causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism, was found to have acted dishonestly, unethically and unprofessionally, and to have shown a "callous disregard for the distress and pain" of children.

And yet, there were parents of autistic children cheering him from the gallery, and later outraged at his the council's detailed and damning verdict.

The desire to believe in a cure beyond reason is strong in some autism parents: spawned in the grief that the child you expected was not born, or cruelly departed at the age of two or three; and reinforced by the unexplained changes and improvements that can be characteristic of development on the autistic spectrum.

And, especially, in this case, is it sometimes amplified by the news media. The British media – sensing a flaw in the system, a scandal, and the reliable emotional tug of desperate parents – were all over Wakefield and his study. It was huge.

And then there was Brian Deer, a reporter for The Sunday Times, who actually looked for the truth and sought to discover why Wakefield's study had never been reproduced. From Deer's first stories, in 2004, it has taken until now for what ought to be the final verdict: The Lancet has, finally, formally retracted Wakefield's 1998 study.

Ben Goldacre, who devoted the last chapter of his book, Bad Science to the Wakefield debacle, concludes a new blog post on a gloomy note:

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. In reality, the media are equally guilty.

Even if it had been immaculately well conducted – and it certainly wasn’t – Wakefield’s “case series report” of 12 children’s clinical anecdotes would never have justified the conclusion that MMR causes autism, despite what journalists claimed: it simply didn’t have big enough numbers to do so. But the media repeatedly reported the concerns of this one man, generally without giving methodological details of the research, either because they found it too complicated, inexplicably, or because to do so would have undermined their story.
As the years passed by, media coverage deteriorated further. Claims by researchers who never published scientific papers to back up their claims were reported in the newspapers as important new scientific breakthroughs, while at the very same time, evidence showing no link between MMR and autism, fully published in peer reviewed academic journals, was simply ignored. This was cynical, and unforgivable. Then, after Tony Blair refused to say if his son had received the vaccine, the commentators rolled in. Experts from Carol Vorderman to Fiona Philips from GMTV have all shared their concerns about MMR with the nation. Less than a third of all broadsheet reports on MMR in 2002 mentioned that the overwhelming evidence showed no link between MMR and autism.

The MMR scare has now petered out. It would be nice if we could say this was because the media had learnt their lessons, and recognised the importance of scientific evidence, rather than one bloke’s hunch. Instead it has terminated because of the behaviour of one man, Andrew Wakefield, which undermined the emotional narrative of their story. The media have developed no insight into their own role, and for this reason, there will be another MMR.


I'm guessing there'll be no retraction or apology from Ian Wishart, who has used Investigate magazine to propagate the claims of Wakefield and others as fact, and even to throw in bizarre curveballs such as the claim that "if your kids have been vaccinated with MMR, they're carrying a little piece of [a] dead child inside them."

You may wish to bear in mind Wishart's past conduct if you are to approach the new Investigate cover story. The Truth About Marijuana Reform.

As usual, Wishart begins with his conclusion and works hard to select evidence that meets his purpose. In this case, it's tempting to conclude that it's all simply a path to his real goal: the George Soros conspiracy. That being that the billionaire Soros, a notable donor to evidence-based projects, is the money-man behind a global liberal plot.

Specifically: Soros's Open Society Institute contributed $35,000 last year to an international drug policy conference hosted by the New Zealand Drug Foundation. The majority of those who attended take the view that that the key to drug policy is reducing the harms caused by drugs.

Wishart, on the other hand, praises the ultra-prohibitionist approach of Sweden, and presents some figures on marijuana use in comparison to the Netherlands, but doesn't note that Sweden's rate of youth cannabis use is above the European average, and above that of Germany, which effectively decriminalised marijuana some time ago. How, he wails, could any decent person believe that harm minimisation is a better approach than Sweden's zero-tolerance?

Here are some starters: Sweden's rate of drug-related deaths is twice that of the Netherlands. In the period where Sweden's ultra-prohibitionist policies have been implemented, the prevalence of heroin use has remained at about 1% (the same as the Netherlands) – but the number of heroin-related deaths has increased by 42%. Overall, the number of drug-related deaths annually in Sweden has nearly doubled between 1995 and 2007.

Bear in mind also that Sweden's official drug rate has actually been suppressed since it opted for a narrower definition in the 1990s.

A paper by Henrik Tham of the Department of Criminology, Stockholm University, Swedish Drug Policy and the Vision of the Good Society, confronts the "Swedish model" head-on. From the abstract:

Swedish drug policy has according to official declarations been successful. The picture has recently been challenged through rising drug use and rising drug related mortality. This development has taken place in spite of the restrictive Swedish policy with further penalization of drug consumption, increasing number of police officers working with drug crime and rising number of persons sentenced to prison for drug offences …

The picture that emerges is a denial of the failure of the old Swedish model but at the same time an alarmist stand with demands for increases of resources for information, treatment and control. The strategies chosen can be derived from two central themes in Swedish drug debate: 'a drug-free society' and 'total rehabilitation'. The two in turn seem to be aspects of an underlying vision—the vision of the good and integrative welfare society.

These examples should, to any rational reader, help explain the philosophy behind harm minimisation.

But Wishart has a more exciting idea as to "a character like George Soros [would] have an interest in ''harm minimisation'":

Legalising narcotics worldwide worldwide would allow business financiers like Soros to control large chunks of the drug trade "legitimately". They could own the opium poppy field, pay poor peasants to harvest, control distribution and supply of drugs to market …

Of course. That'll be it.

I'm a bit pressed for time today to turn over the rest of the story, but I've posted it here for purposes of criticism and review and you are welcome to do both. I believe this falls under the fair dealing provisions of the Copyright Act, but if the owner objects, I'll remove the link.

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