The Blairs’ Witch Project

May 12th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, dangers, MMR, religion | 69 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday May 12, 2007
The Guardian

So normally you just wouldn’t bother with the New Age stuff. The people are pretty friendly and harmless, and they tend not to make too many scientific claims. But Tony Blair stepped over some pretty significant lines.

In 2002 he refused to say whether his son Leo had received the MMR vaccine. From survey data, this was the fact the public remembered best about the vaccine, and it was this move that drove the story away from the specialist health journalists, and into the rabid hands of the generalists.

From that day on, we got our advice on complex immunological and epidemiological issues from political diarists and lifestyle columnists. It’s testament to the poor quality of popular rhetoric on the subject that public perception of the vaccine only recently improved, and not in response to the mass of data showing it to be safe (which has been systematically ignored by all corners of the media), but rather when it was shown that Dr Andrew Wakefield had received hundreds of thousands of pounds for work done for lawyers making a case for MMR’s dangerousness.

We don’t know whether baby Leo eventually received the MMR jab. But what is more interesting is what the Blairs may have done instead. You might remember Carole Caplin, the intuitive people person and life coach who was taken in by convicted fraudster Peter Foster. He did the Blairs’ property deals, of course, and he also says that they took Leo to a New Age healer, Jack Temple, who offered crystal dowsing, homoeopathy, herbalism, and neolithic circle healing in his back garden.

Apparently, says Foster, the prime minister agreed to this bloke waving a crystal pendulum over his son to protect him (and therefore his classmates, of course) from measles, mumps and rubella. And Foster also reckoned that Tony let Cherie give Temple some of his own hair and nail clippings. Temple, who died in 2004, preserved these cuttings in jars of alcohol and said that he only needed to swing his pendulum over the jar to know if the owner was healthy or ill.

Using this crystal dowsing pendulum, Temple claimed he could harness energy from heavenly bodies, and offered remedies with names like Volcanic Memory, Rancid Butter, Monkey Sticks, Banana Stem and my own personal favourite Sphincter, perhaps for courage. Temple was one well-connected cookie. Jerry Hall endorses him. The Duchess of York wrote the introduction to his book.

How likely does all of this sound? It’s just so unrelenting. Cherie Blair was a regular visitor to Carole’s mum, Sylvia Caplin, a spiritual guru. “There was a particularly active period in the summer when Sylvia was channelling for Cherie over two or three times a week, with almost daily contact between them,” the Mail reported. “There were times when Cherie’s faxes ran to 10 pages.”

Sylvia was viciously anti-MMR, as are most alternative therapists. “It has definitely caused autism,” she told the Telegraph. “All the denials that come from the old school of medicine are open to question because logic and common sense must tell you that there’s some toxic substance in it.” One source even claimed that Cherie Blair and Carole Caplin encouraged the prime minister to have Sylvia “douse and consult The Light, believed by Sylvia to be a higher being or God, by use of her pendulum” to decide if it was safe to go to war in Iraq.

And of course the Times described the Blairs’ holiday in Temazcal, Mexico, where they rubbed fruits and mud over each other’s bodies inside a large pyramid on the south end of the beach, and then screamed whilst going through a new age rebirthing ritual. Then they made a wish for world peace.

In my mind, weapons of mass destruction which can be mobilised in 45 minutes are from the same category as creationism and Light Beings. And people who perform New Age peace rituals before initiating death/war situations remind me of those house guests who get outrageously drunk on wine, after extra portions of pudding, and then eat seeds with seaweed juice for breakfast the next morning. Washed down with a sanctimonious speech on alternative lifestyles.

· Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk


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69 Responses



  1. hinschelwood said,

    May 12, 2007 at 1:11 am

    Frightening. Awful. True.

    If Blair didn’t get MMR for his kid, why didn’t he just lie and say that he did? He’s lied about everything else, for crying out loud.

    As for the endless nonsense about Cherie, the further she and her idiocy are away from the centre of government the better. Let’s hope that Brown changes the locks to keep her away.

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    May 12, 2007 at 1:19 am

    Brown was pretty clear that he vaccinated his child, and that he didnt see it as much of an issue.

    ken livingstone, disappointingly, was a complete tosser on the subject.

  3. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 12, 2007 at 1:32 am

    I think Leo’s care was never any of our business, but couldn’t Mr Blair have taken the vaccine himself, in Parliament, and invited other party leaders and cabinet and shadow members to do likewise? It might not do them any particular good and would probably be wasteful but it would show willing.

    As for the other New Age stuff, though, the reports seems to be coming from very unreliable sources. And perhaps that is the real problem – that those very unreliable sources are getting a public platform.

    I seem to recall that Soviet nuclear missiles were supposed to be upon us with four minutes’ warning. Sputnik 1 flew around the world once every 96 minutes. However, a sudden military attack from a country on the other side of the world with no air force seemed less likely. The 45 minutes claim – certainly proven groundless – did include, apparently, the time to an attack by Iraq’s government on its own subjects, but it was never very clear to me that any of our people should risk their necks over that. After all, they hadn’t before, in that and in many other conflicts.

  4. Jools said,

    May 12, 2007 at 1:37 am

    I’m glad to know that my eggs and bacon the night after I’ve disgraced myself at a dinner party are evidence based.

    (and my speeches are more abject apologies than sanctimonious)

  5. Mojo said,

    May 12, 2007 at 3:21 am

    Robert Carnegie said,
    “I seem to recall that Soviet nuclear missiles were supposed to be upon us with four minutes’ warning.”

    Even if it was true that we would only have had four minutes warning of the missiles approach after their detection, this does not mean that the missiles would only have taken four minutes to get here from their point of origin.

    And may I remind you that there are some people in this great country of ours who can run a mile in four minutes?

  6. Mojo said,

    May 12, 2007 at 3:26 am

    “And of course the Times described the Blairs’ holiday in Temazcal, Mexico, where they rubbed fruits and mud over each other’s bodies inside a large pyramid on the south end of the beach, and then screamed”

    Chacun à son goût.

  7. Tom P said,

    May 12, 2007 at 3:41 am

    …rubbed fruits and mud over each other’s bodies inside a large pyramid on the south end of the beach, and then screamed.

    Or, as I like to call it, Saturday evening.

  8. j said,

    May 12, 2007 at 3:43 am

    Might be interesting to compare the media’s role in misperceptions around issues like MMR and Iraqi (non)WMD. I know one study of the US media and the Iraq war showed that “overall, there was no relation between the reported level of attention
    to news and the frequency of misperceptions. In the case of those who
    primarily watched Fox, greater attention to news modestly increased the likelihood of misperceptions. Only in the case of those who primarily got their news
    from print did misperceptions decrease with lower levels of attention, though
    in some cases this occurred for CNN viewers as well.”
    (www.ingentaconnect.com/content/taps/psq/2003/00000118/00000004/art00002)

    How would reading the daily mail effect (mis)perceptions about MMR?

  9. Kimpatsu said,

    May 12, 2007 at 6:17 am

    Does anyone else remember that Ronald Reagan made presidential decisions based on advice from his wife’s astrologer?
    These political types are so into woo, it’s really scary.

  10. ChrisR said,

    May 12, 2007 at 8:26 am

    Where’s the science? Very disappointing to see second-hand gossip, which may or may not be true – and at the very least is probably highly exagerated, re-hashed in your column, which used to be one of the few serious bits of the media left. You even use a quote from the Mail as part of your evidence – is it possible to stoop any lower?

  11. Martin said,

    May 12, 2007 at 8:56 am

    Where’s the science? I think that’s the point.

    Both Blairs are qualified lawyers. (Cherie certainly seems to be something of a star in the legal profession, although this may be because of her husband’s job.) But the public perception is that lawyers must be of above average intelligence in order to pass the bar exams.

    So here we have two seemingly intelligent people who are completely off the wall about science. What can your average man-in-the-street think except “Well, they don’t believe in science so why should I?” The Blairs have caused, directly or indirectly, so much of the rise in Bad Science that I think Ben’s right to have a column on them.

    As to Brown, he can’t really do much worse than Blair, can he?

  12. Gimpy said,

    May 12, 2007 at 9:16 am

    Hinschelwood – “If Blair didn’t get MMR for his kid, why didn’t he just lie and say that he did? He’s lied about everything else, for crying out loud.”

    I know this might not be a popular opinion but maybe Blair doesn’t lie. He’s a lawyer and they dont lie in court. They use obfuscation, half-truth and spin to defend the indefensible. So if Blair doesn’t lie then it is reasonable to assume that if he is being unclear or refusing to release evidence on something then he has got something to hide. So yeah he probably didn’t make sure his son got the MMR vaccine and its a crying shame that there wasn’t a organised campaign by the scientifically minded to campaign against Cheries and his new age idiocies at the time. Still its hard to see Brown having anytime for crystal healing or new age birthing rituals (although he’s probably just as much a God-botherer).

  13. superburger said,

    May 12, 2007 at 9:20 am

    At the risk of defending Blair’s record, his government did spend a lot of money on science, which is odd as Maggie was a oxford chemist. Spending is going down again, but he’s not been a total enemy to academic science.

    “In my mind, weapons of mass destruction which can be mobilised in 45 minutes are from the same category as creationism and Light Beings.”

    WMD with a 45 minute launch capability? remember blair could chose to blow up most of the interesting bits of the world in

  14. superburger said,

    May 12, 2007 at 9:24 am

    5 or so minutes if he took the notion to, and the planets were aligned correctly.

  15. kayman1uk said,

    May 12, 2007 at 9:53 am

    But what makes anyone think that it’s not the Blair’s Catholicism that’s the problem here? After all, if Tony honestly believes that his inevitable sudden death from a heart-attack (thereby robbing him of the opportunity for pennance) might land him in a big pit of fire for all eternity, wouldn’t it seem perfectly rational that since science can’t tell him when he’s going to pop his clogs, he needs to find people like Temple who say they can?

    After all, organised religion is just as unscientific as all this new-age crap.

    Why should two higher-than-average-intelligence lawyers be allowed to walk around admitting they believe in healing lepers and walking on water without all of us using that as the basis to question their sanity?

  16. censored said,

    May 12, 2007 at 11:03 am

    kayman1uk – I’d say it’s because a lot (the majority?) of people in the country think it’s either harmless fun or ‘there must be something in it’.

    Even my mum, an intelligent teacher who claims not to believe in it, phoned me yesterday because my horoscope said I’d have a good day.

    Like a typical Libran, I don’t believe it at all.

  17. pol said,

    May 12, 2007 at 11:08 am

    to be fair, he sort of did say Leo had had the jab

    observer.guardian.co.uk/politics/story/0,,624391,00.html

    admittedly “sort of” but it is understandable that they didn’t want to be drawn into setting precedents for revealing anything they did or didn’t do with Leo.

    Incidentally Ben, what is “disappointing” about Ken Livingstone being a “tosser”. That’s what he’s there for…

  18. Dr Aust said,

    May 12, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    Superburger wrote:

    “Blair’s… government did spend a lot of money on science, which is odd as Maggie was a oxford chemist.”

    Indeed she was, but perhaps more pertinently she was a chemist who quit science to re-train as a lawyer.

    “Spending is going down again, but [Blair’s] not been a total enemy to academic science.”

    Agreed, Blair/Brown (they are not separable in this context) have increased the total amount of money going into science, although they are now throttling back.

    But there is a downside. The problem, at least in academia, has been that much of the extra money has been swallowed in increased bureaucracy, or tied to flavour-of-the-moment initiatives, or distributed in very large chunks to “beacons of excellence” (read: the well-connected) rather than being spread fertlizer-style across the academic science landscape as a whole.

    Sound familiar? See schools, hospitals, etc etc.

    I guarantee you that University scientists have to spend far more time than a decade ago cranking out funding proposals rather than actually doing the science. More “bids” to write per yr, and each one 3+ times more complicated to prepare than 10 yrs back. We science types do so love form-filling… not.

    Re. Tone and Cherie and little Leo, the “trade whisper” / urban legend / widespread belief in scientific and medical circles was/is that the little chap had had probably had the separate MMR jabs at his mother’s insistence, and that that was why his dad was keeping schtum – as someone said above, lawyers are too smart to lie flat out, they evade instead.

    The rationale for this view was that TB clearly agreed vaccination was important in a general public health way, so why not say if his son had had the MMR like 90+ % of the country’s children? Although the stated reasons for refusing to say (principle of family privacy etc etc) were obviously something the Blairs did believe in, it was hard to buy that, once the Wakefield madness got into full swing and the fire-fighting was a Govt priority, the need for public support for vaccination wouldn’t have overridden this – unless, of course, Leo hadn’t had the MMR shot. After all, it was arguably less an issue of “Leo’s privacy” and rather one about what Tony and Cherie really believed.

  19. pv said,

    May 12, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    Isn’t it odd that when the Mail and ilk write stories about “science”, they are usually and rightly taken to task by sceptics and people who actually know something about the subject at hand. However, when it comes to stories about our pet prejudices some of the same folks lap them up and regard them as gospel. For example, stories about Cherie Blair.
    Cherie Blair’s background wasn’t the easiest or most auspicious exactly and, whatever else she might or might not be according to the Mail, she is a QC and has become a formidable human rights lawyer. She isn’t a complete idiot, even if she might have some eccentricities. Hands up the boring wanker who doesn’t have any eccentricities. Yet the apparent reason and scepticism shown by many in response to the media’s patently ignorant coverage of science and health matters is completely suspended when it comes to the prejudicial coverage of Politicians and “celebrities”. In case any one didn’t know, it has been a long held and hardly secret ambition of the major part of the British press to get rid of the Labour Party and Tony Blair, but we don’t let this fact intrude when exercising our “own” deeply considered opinions (I mean, prejudices).

  20. mrzero said,

    May 12, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    I’m more than a little concerned about the source of these stories. “The Mail reported…” “the Times described…”
    As a champion of rational thinking you really shouldn’t be presenting these as reliable sources.
    Disappointing column Ben. Sorry.

  21. superburger said,

    May 12, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    dr aust,

    i agree – but at least the money is being thrown in the right general direction.

    Thatcher retrained as a lawyer, but you’d have thought she’d have seen the need for more money for basic research.

    Actually – has a scientist ever become PM in the UK? Who’s the highest ranking minister with a science background?

    Also, for all the posters who say there is no hard evidence that the Blairs like new-agey stuff – they named their child after a sign of the zodiac for god’s sake!

  22. Nebbish said,

    May 12, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    Brown’s generally pro-science but he’s a meddler. Some years ago he and David Sainsbury had breakfast and the next thing you know an absurd fraction of the research councils’ science budget was ring fenced for so-called e-science. EPSRC hired well-known dodgy geezer Tony Hey to head it up, he was featured in their ‘Connect’ spin-sheet saying on the same page that 1) the e-science initiative had already had a tremendous impact and 2) no one should expect results in a hurry because they were in it for the long haul. He then gave all the money to his mates for projects that are lumbering parodies of what teenagers had got working with napster etc. and hurriedly nobbed off to become a VP at Micro$oft before anyone could ask what they’d got for their money. Meanwhile, everyone doing anything remotely related to data or communications added the word ‘e-science’ to their proposals in the hopes of getting lucky, allowing EPSRC to claim that the high application rate meant it must be an important area (as if free money’s usually unpopular). EPSRC officials were also left in the sticky position of having to pretend that the Haldane principles (i.e. scientists decide what to spend research money on, not politicians) still meant a damn while defending the e-science initiative (lower level EPSRC staff speaking off the record roundly condemned it as a serious wrong turning). And everyone doing really serious scientific computing carries on as before. Undoubtedly grid computing will have its uses (I was asking for something like it twenty years ago, and all the computer scientists told me I was an idiot and that I would just have to learn Occam and get a transputer farm) but it won’t take its place any sooner as a result of Brown’s involvement.

    And Brown hasn’t learned his lesson, since then there have been things like the Silent Aircraft Initiative, which actually was an interesting and useful piece of research but which came about by a huge wedge of dosh being bunged to Cambridge with no competition for the funding. And we could live with this if weren’t for the fact that now that the Research Assessment Exercise has been binned (no complaints here) a bunch of managers are salivating at the prospect of replacing it with what is called metrics but which actually means the more research funding you get the more other money you get. If Gordon’s deciding what subjects (let alone what institutions) get preferential funding then whoever does the research he says is important will prosper and those who don’t agree will have to conform or fall by the wayside.

    New Labour, new Lysenkoism. I hope I’m wrong.

  23. Gimpy said,

    May 12, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    “Actually – has a scientist ever become PM in the UK? Who’s the highest ranking minister with a science background?”

    Although not a minister anymore and not strictly a academic science back ground ex-science minister David Sainsbury is a good candidate. Of course he is an unelected peer and large donor to the Labour Party but he did work for free, has a very obvious passion for science, puts his money where his mouth is and did wonders to support research.
    The only MP I can think of with a postgrad science background is Ian Gibson. He’s far too principled to become a minister.

  24. Ben Goldacre said,

    May 12, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    mm, dont know about that, there’s not much doubt about the character of the caplins and temple, or the closeness, and there’s lots more fun stuff that i left out. cherie photographed wearing a woo qlink-style necklace to protect her against electromagnetic waves. cherie being counsel for the woo side of the osteopaths in their struggle to stop the GCRO regulator from only admitting sensible osteopaths.

    www.badscience.net/?p=412

    etc.

    i think maximum woo at the top, with tony, cherie, prince charlie, et al, presiding over things like mmr, homeopathic remedies being approved by the MHRA, new regulators for woo that aggrandise the quacks in preference to protecting the public, and more, are bad.

    and by golly the house of lords debate on homeopathy was an all time low.

    www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld199697/ldhansrd/pdvn/lds06/text/61026-0004.htm#06102652000003

    you could play down the influence of the woo values of the most influential people in the country, and that’s fine by me, but there are also an awful lot of stories about the hidden hand from above interfering in medicine and woo that won’t get printed (not because theyre unprovable, but because theyre too pedantic, too obscure, or people involved wouldn’t permit it because theyve got bigger fish to fry). but they’re certainly not the sole cultural and political factor driving woo.

  25. jackpt said,

    May 12, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    Its going to be interesting to see how the next few years turn out. The association between the Blairs and Carole Caplin is bulletproof. The detail of it, particularly re Peter Foster and the extent of Carole Caplin’s influence seems less well defined. To be fair to Ben I very much doubt that the Caplin/Foster thing was covered solely by the newspapers you’d expect to have it in for Blair. IIRC it was The Sun that took a lot of the heat off Blair by raising credible doubts about Peter Foster’s motivations. Blair’s general tolerance of unscientific opinion isn’t a question and his wife has associated with some seriously woo people. The MMR thing wasn’t about privacy it was about tolerating dangerous opinion in fear of alienating potential voters. Cowardly. Nowhere near as brave as invading a country with a nincompoop.

  26. boredagain said,

    May 12, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    As usual I’m too lazy to read all the previous entries. I think Tony Blair made the point that he personally would use the MMR vaccine because he thought it was safe. He wanted to avoid using his children in making a political point.

    On the point of Iraq, I think that at the time, the Labour Government decided that Saddam Hussain did have weapons of mass destruction and was a threat. The responsibility for going to war on this basis lies with parliament, since they approved military action. If cabinet ministers and more MP’s had rebelled then Britain’s involvement in the war could have been prevented.

    One final thing is that this Labour Government has drastically increased spending on the NHS, international development, and on (primary) education. It has also taken a very active role in attempting to foster international agreement on mitigating climate change.

  27. jjbp said,

    May 12, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    It always seems to me to be a weird comparison. These New Agey things have vast markups for selling prepared water and nicely polished rocks, and yet they slag off pharma for their profit levels for things that might need 20 really complex manufacturing steps from something you can siphon out of the ground, and then extraordinary levels of quality control of the final pill. I also wonder where those prescribing wonder doses of zinc. vitamin c or selenium think they come from…

    I am also intrigued by the whole science funding debate. It does seem to operate hugely on the basis that big money follows where historically the last tranche of big money went (and if you got nowt last time, you’ll get twice as much nothing this time). However you’d expect world class scientists to be getting their research funding supported handsomely, ideally on the basis of them following their noses and not actually even having to write a proposal to do that.

  28. Dr Aust said,

    May 12, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    jjbp

    It is harder than you think to decide where to put the cash in science.

    If you rate scientists in terms of “Do you publish in highly regarded specialist science journals which are rated in your field” (which is what most of the Govt-sanctioned assessment exercises do), then most researchers in the top 40 UK Universities would qualify as “international quality” (since the journals are international).

    However, that is far more people than there is money to go round. It is far harder to get the cash to do science than it is to do the science and publish the paper.

    So how do we decide where the cash goes? Apart from inmitiative-itis, there is a strong tendency to dish it out to “hot research teams” who have published a recent paper in a small sub-set of very high-profile general science journals – things like Science and Nature.

    It only takes one paper in these places to make the difference between “get the cash” and not. So it is a career-breaker.

    However, Science and Nature and similar “frontier science” journals, by the nature of what they publish, tend to be more “tentative” – as the stuff is perceived cutting edge, it is actually more likely to be “maybe” rather than “definite”.

    Orac has a good discussion of this at:

    oracknows.blogspot.com/2006/01/frontier-science-versus-textbook.html

    Anyway, the standard line on science funding from the inside would run a bit like this.

    The Committee that hands out the cash has enough money to fund 20 proposals.

    They have 100 to consider.

    At the top are 10 from Nobel prizewinners or from labs that have such a track record of repeat “frontier” stuff that actually turned out to be right that they are golden. They get their proposals funded, and no-one would really argue.

    At the bottom are 20 that are total rubbish. No great argument there either.

    This leaves 70 good proposals, from good labs with a solid track record. Of these, 10 will get funded. In this category it is a lottery, pure and simple.

    A single recent “frontier” publication will help immeasurably in here, as it functions as a “shiny jewel in the mass” – even though it is only one paper, and even if it later turns out to be wrong. This is what people mean about the stakes being high, and most folk would see this as an incentive to finagle, not quite on the Hwang Woo-Suk scale but definitely a temptation.

    Another thing that counts in this “in-between” category is whether you are “speaking” to the thing that is trendy at the time – if the Govt is pushing for engagement with business this year, having an industrial collaborator or working on a “research problem of economic importance” may be enough to get your grant funded.

    Friends in important places, like on the Committee handing out the cash, help too. Having had a winning ticket a couple of times before is also helpful. And it is widely believed, though denied by the funders and the Univs in question, that working at Oxford, Cambridge, UCL or Imperial helps as well.

    Anyway, it is this 1-from-7 buy-a-ticket-for-the-unlucky-dip aspect that really drives the scientists nuts. Especially since most science is now so expensive to do that without the grant money you are pretty much totally hamstrung.

  29. kim said,

    May 12, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    I think Blair’s refusal to say that Leo had been vaccinated did enormous damage to the pro-MMR cause. A large number of people, I would guess, drew the conclusion that:

    a) Leo hadn’t been vaccinated
    b) Blair knew something he wasn’t telling the rest of us.

    Which meant that government reassurances that MMR was perfectly safe were met with the strong suspicion that we were being lied to.

    And to be honest, I think that’s fair enough. If the prime minister isn’t going to heed the official advice of government scientists, why on earth would the average parent?

  30. paperpig said,

    May 12, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    Seriously.
    You are reporting the second hand story spouted by a convicted fraudster (“Apparently, says Foster, the Prime Minster agreed to this bloke waving a crystal pendulum…”) in support of your allegations against the Blair family. And quotes from the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail! Oh dear god.
    I thought this was a column promoting rational thought.
    Ben – don’t let your standards slip. Please. Your column is a haven of sanity. Please keep it that way.

  31. JQH said,

    May 12, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    Cherie Blair is a human rights lawyer.

    The Daily Mail hates human rights legislation.

    The Daily Mail claims Cherie Blair is a nutcase.

    We have our conspiracy.

  32. Ben Goldacre said,

    May 12, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    i think cherie is an interesting example of how quite admirable left wing liberal political ideals can so often be mixed up with seriously offensive woo claptrap.

  33. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 12, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    Well, woo-woo can be fun, as someone pointed out. Enjoy the ride.

    If it was announced that Leo was vaccinated then his entire life thereafter, school reports and so forth, would be placed in the public interest and held up as evidence of the damage done by MMR, regardless of what it actually meant. Anything can be spun.

    How about my unscientific very-publicly-getting-vaccinated-yourself idea? Strong arguments against? People would say it was a hoax like David Blaine living for forty days on consomme?

    And weren’t Peter Mandelson and… forgotten the fellow’s name… into some weird stuff? I do hope you haven’t got it mixed up?

    The Catholic angle was curious. At the turn of the twentieth to twenty-first centuries, and with Britain’s constitution as it is, of course we don’t doubt that the Vatican still longs to turn this island Catholic again butdit isn’t going to happen just because the Prime Minister married one of that lot. We had all that fuss under Charles II, I think, when at least one of his girlfriends was Romish, but since then? And are there no Tory Catholics? I thought they were very much Brideshead Revisited at grandee level. Enlighten me.

    At least it wasn’t Jews they were against… oh hang on, yes (Mandelson) it was. You didn’t really think people minded him being gay? No no, the homophobia was a front. It was the fact he was openly Jewish that got to people. At least that’s my theory.

  34. wewillfixit said,

    May 13, 2007 at 8:50 am

    Ann Widdecombe is a Catholic, she coverted from the CofE after they started ordaining women and divorced men.

  35. pv said,

    May 13, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Superburger wrote:
    “Also, for all the posters who say there is no hard evidence that the Blairs like new-agey stuff – they named their child after a sign of the zodiac for god’s sake!”

    Unless you are being sarcastic (I can’t tell), apart from Leo, who was born in May, what zodiac signs are we talking about?

  36. superburger said,

    May 13, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    re: Leo and signs of the zodiac, it was and attemept at a crap joke, sorry……

  37. pv said,

    May 13, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    No. Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry for my dimness.

  38. pie said,

    May 13, 2007 at 10:52 pm

    Worst
    Post
    Ever

  39. pie said,

    May 13, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    this week see the daily mail for the bad science column
    www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/health/healthmain.html?in_article_id=454586&in_page_id=1774
    and the guardian here for a sensational gossip column

    ..sorry, just glad i didn’t recomend anybody to this normally outstanding column this week

  40. timsenior said,

    May 14, 2007 at 4:06 am

    Imagine this hypothetical situation. I am Leo Blair’s GP. I have had a discussion with the parents about MMR. Later (perhaps a week, a month, many years) I am phoned by a very friendly journalist from the Daily Mail asking if Leo got the MMR. Everything that happened in that consultation, including whether or not Leo saw me, or whether he is a patient is absolutley confidential. If I say anything at all to the paper on or off the record, or any other third party I will be rightly struck off.

    And now consider this man Foster, who has apparently given very detailed descriptions of everything that happened in the woo consultations. You’d hope people would say “I’m not going there, he’ll tell the papers everything”. But I suspect they won’t.

  41. tallpaul said,

    May 14, 2007 at 10:14 am

    Not that this exculpates her from anything else but as a barrister wouldn’t Cherie Blair have taken on the Osteopath’s case under the cab rank rule?
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cab_rank_rule

  42. Lurkinggherkin said,

    May 14, 2007 at 11:58 am

    So, this week Ben decides to take a step back and examine political influences that are creating an environment for woo to prosper in, rather than a specific instance of woo.

    Result: Sneery mud-flingers direct people to ‘this week’s bad science column’, an article in the Daily Mail which (at last!) is re-iterating something very close to what Ben has been saying for years.

    Maggie Thatcher has been credited as saying that her greatest achievement was New Labour. If Ben’s greatest achievement were to be the New Daily Mail, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, actually.

  43. Kells said,

    May 14, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Ben what was the survey data that showed people remembered the Leo MMR story more than other aspects of the vaccination case? Even so the story was out in the nationals before this issue surfaced, although it did get a humongous amount od attention.

    findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20020202/ai_n12593402

    I think he should have stated clearly the child had the vaccine but the above link points out he went pretty close to saying just that. I know it was too little too late but it was his son and his call.

  44. trujiman said,

    May 14, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    I’m sorry, but on a website which consistently knocks bad science on the most carefully researched basis, this repetition of gossip is poor.
    And suggesting it is credible because of Blair’s religious beliefs, shows a profound lack of understanding of serious Christians and Christianity. Serious Christian faith makes it much less likely to believe any New Age mumbo-jumbo that comes along, as it is generally completely incompatible. Criticise Blair’s Christianity, if you choose, but don’t use lazy arguments suggesting if he believes in God then he must believe in waving crystals at his children to cure cancer, or whatever.

    Disappointing.

  45. ancala said,

    May 14, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    WMDs ready in 45 minutes? No problem – if you class mustard gas as a WMD. Saddam used lots of it against the Iranians and probably the Kurds as well, and confessed/claimed he had large stocks of it after Gulf War I. As I understand it, mustard gas is stable, easy
    to store and long lived. And (relatively) easy to
    handle. It would take something of the order of 45minutes to transfer mustard gas ( which of course is stored as a liquid under pressure) into a suitable casing, hang it beneath the wing of a MiG fighter/bomber, and get the MiG ready for take-off.

    Theoretically, the MiGs Saddam had left could have reached Cyprus…The interesting thing is what happened to all the mustard gas Saddam claimed to have had. It isn’t something that’s easy to dispose of safely. As far as I know there are only two purpose built facilities in the world that could handle it.
    The traditional method was to burn it in the open air in small quantities while standing well back, but this apparently leaves distinctive chemical signatures behind. Nobody found any traces of such piecemeal disposal. So, did he actually have what he claimed? And if he did, where is it now?

    It’s also worth noting that the German inventor of mustard gas saw it as a more humane battlefield weapon than bullets or shells, as it incapacitates far more people than it actually kills. This makes it very different in practise to the nerve gases Saddam also had at some point, which can truly be classed as WMDs
    – but were also intended as battlefield weapons.

    Otherwise, keep up the good work, your column is one of the most important things the Guardian does these days – and I speak as an ancient former engineering journalist and Guardian reader of many decades.

  46. Dr Aust said,

    May 14, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    Nice one Kells, hadn’t seen that and similar articles. Again, mea culpa.

    After a good read of that one and the similar story from The Observer –

    observer.guardian.co.uk/politics/story/0,,624391,00.html

    – it does seem more than likely that Leo Blair had the MMR jab. So I was talking balls, though Balls of Urban Legend-ary status.

    Of course, this in itself makes a point about how the way that issues like this are reported impinges far more on people than what is “provable” or even likely. AKA: “When the legend becomes fact – print the legend”.

    What people seem to have remembered about the MMR and baby Leo media-storm – including me, although I probably should have done better – was Tony Blair refusing to say whether Leo had had the jab, and other ministers and Govt spokespersons taking the same line about their kids. As indicated above, the reasons for refusing to answer questions about one’s kids are completely understandable, but the message that got widely received, whether due to the coverage, or the impression of evasion, or people’s intrinsic disbelief of politicians’ statements, or a combination of all of the above, was that they were dodging and weaving.

    Anyway, Tony Blair’s statements from the Observer article seem pretty clear-cut.

    “The suggestion that the Government is advising parents to have the MMR jab whilst we are deliberately refraining from giving our child the treatment because we know it is dangerous, is offensive beyond belief.

    For the record, Cherie and I both entirely support the advice, as we have consistently said. It is not true that we believe the MMR vaccine to be dangerous or believe that it is better to have separate injections, or believe that it is linked to autism.”

  47. JQH said,

    May 14, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    I’m no fan of the Blairs (can’t stand TB as a matter of fact)but the evidence that they are flakes is – err – flakey.

    Sure, Carol Caplan is a died in the wool nutjob and CB would appear to be a rather close friend of hers but just because one of your friends is a woo is not proof that you are a woo. Some of my friends hold views quite different from mine. Mrs H is a christian while I’m an atheist.

    The Daily Mail utterly dispises the Labour Party – even the emasculated Blue Labour that Blair and his cronies created. To the Daily Hate, anything will do to destroy their political opponents. I remember the constant barrage of lies the Hate, the Excess and the Scum vomitted forth about Labour and the Left. Smearing a Labour Prime Minister and his wife as nutjobs is just more of the same old same old.

  48. amoebic vodka said,

    May 15, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    Heh, this government good for science? That’s why they diverted millions of pounds of ring fenced research money at short notice to pay off the rover factory workers so they’d not lose votes so close to an election (er…allegedly as they’re all ex-lawyers) .

  49. Delster said,

    May 16, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    Also, how incredibly luck is this guy.

    “Jack Temple, who offered crystal dowsing, homoeopathy, herbalism, and neolithic circle healing in his back garden.”

    This kind of healer just happening to own a house with a stone age circle in his back garden…. there’s a stroke of luck for you.

  50. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 16, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    They say Guillotine also was a humanitarian.

    As for the stone circle, either you find a spectalist estate agent or else you emphasise the “neo” part of “neolithic”. Possibly this stone circle is brand neo.

    These things do exist, however, in places where housebuilders have adopted them as interesting garden features. It’s just that you can’t be sure that they were sited neolithically where they are now. But after all hasn’t a lot of Stonehenge fallen down and been put up again in nearly living memory?

    Well, first Google hit… “The stone circle in Pyrford was originally discovered in Wales, then transported stone by stone and reconstructed by Jack Temple.” I dare say it is cheaper than moving house, even to Wales. “John Temple constructed the circle using cardinal points and uses it to empower his oils etc which he uses for healing.” We don’t need no steenking ley lines…

  51. Dr Aust said,

    May 17, 2007 at 10:33 am

    Yes…

    Nature identifies “more money going in” but does not discuss “where it goes”.

    As in much else the Labour Govt has done, science has seen an increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots alongside the increased overall funding.

    The problem with this in science is decreased diversity within research and particularly the loss of skills seen as less “productive”. For instance, in the biosciences most of the money has gone into molecular cell biology (which is fair enough) but other areas have been starved as they are perceived to be old-fashioned.

    To give an example of the consequences, we now get 100+ trained molecular biologists applying for any job in molecular biology. Meanwhile the PharmaCos cannot find UK-trained people who know how to anaesthetise an animal and monitor (say) its blood pressure and urine output.

  52. superburger said,

    May 17, 2007 at 10:50 am

    It’s true – all the chemistry and physics departments closing down…

    This bizarre obsession with nano-everything is beyond me too.

    I know it’s wrong, but i’m bored, bored, bored with climate change as well.

  53. Lurkinggherkin said,

    May 17, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    59 (apart from quantum physics)

    I don’t know how you resisted the urge to say “which might or might not be”

  54. Dr Aust said,

    May 17, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    Agreed re stem cells, Gimpy.

    Stem Cells (“Britain Leads The World! Hurrah!”) is what I call a “Interdisciplinary Scepticism-Suspended Snouts-in-Trough-in” (ISSSiT).

    i.e., if you can re-badge what you do as:

    Stem Cells! New! Pioneering! Cure the Incurable! The Paralysed Will Walk!

    …You are now suddenly fundable, whereas before you were just another plodding hack.

    Bioscience, as you’ve no doubt seen, is full of people (from all disciplines) who now say they are working on stem cells.

    The last great example of a runaway ISSSiT was Gene Therapy. I used to work in a solidly good-science-but-not-world-beating physiology lab which then turned “gene delivery” – the difference in spin-fueled fundability was startling.

    Of course, one struggles to think of any examples of how gene therapy has revolutionised patient care.. or indeed made any difference at all to anything much.

    More Initiative-itis.

    So… the rush to Stem Cells means funding loads of deeply average stuff thinly badged as “Stem Cell Research” rather than rather better stuff which isn’t… sorry, I’m coming over cynical again, I’ll shut up.

  55. jjbp said,

    May 17, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    Another phrase of yesterday was chemical biology (i.e. chemists talking to those people in the Dept/School of Biology/Medicine/Biomedical Sciences). It seemed like a darn good initiative with a lot of support until RAE Units of Assessment made everyone chose between chemistry, explicitly bioey places or, em, “subjects allied to medicine”.

    I was trying to guess what the least fashionable bio subject was… and I think I can’t beat botany (though it does have a special place in my heart).

    As a new uni person, can I launch a pre-emptive strike. Before ANYONE mentions trendy yet bollox “forensic science” can I point out that FS taught well turns out rather useful analytical chemists who are currently going into that sort of role in the UK chem/pharm/process industries. Admittedly it is not always taught in this way…

  56. Dr Aust said,

    May 17, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    Yes, hard to beat botanical taxonomy for sheer unmitigated unfashionable-ness. Although re-doing taxonomies with Mole Bile sorry, mol biol – is quite fashionable – just don’t mention “taxonomy”. I think the modern phrase is “molecular systematics”, although by now it probablly has an “-omics” all to itself.

  57. Dr Aust said,

    May 17, 2007 at 10:13 pm

    Gimpy: “Anyway stem cell research is pretty dull if all you get to do is look at things differentiating or not in cell culture.”

    Trust me, Gimpy, having sat through a bunch of the seminars, that really is what a lot of it is. That plus QPCR (or similar, perhaps microarrays if you’re really cutting edge) “profiling” of which genes go up/down in the process.

    My tagline for this sort of Stem Cell work:

    “It’s cell culture … but now it GROWS ITS OWN IMPLANTS”

    (think enhancement.)

  58. Gimpy said,

    May 18, 2007 at 9:58 am

    66. Quite agree. I’ve suffered a view interminable lectures illustrated with bloody monochrome excel graphs and dubious P-values. At least the microarray talks have a bit of colour in them. Its a terrible shame that areas of science that the public seem to latch onto (stem cells, population genetics, nanotechnology) make for unbeliveably dull experiments. At least crystal healing lectures have cool looking rocks.

    If I’m excited by rocks its pretty fair to assume that I am easily excited so stem cells are clearly super dull.

  59. Dishevelled said,

    May 18, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    Surprised no one has mentioned ‘Systems Biology’.

    ‘A Systems Biology approach to the analysis of Stem Cell (or better yet Cancer Stem Cell) function using genome wide RNA interference and proteomic analysis’ being possibly the most fundable grant title possible in the current climate.

  60. Gimpy said,

    May 18, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    68. I wonder in a few years if someone will get away with a Sokal-esque hoax by submitting a systems biology paper along the lines of An Integrative Theoretical Fractal Approach to Hypothetical -omics Network Modelling in Complex Adaptive Systems.

  61. Dr Aust said,

    May 18, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    Dishevelled wrote:

    “Surprised no one has mentioned ‘Systems Biology’.

    ‘A Systems Biology approach to the analysis of Stem Cell (or better yet Cancer Stem Cell) function using genome wide RNA interference and proteomic analysis”

    100% with you on systems biology

    “Systems biology… the new name for… mathematical modelling.

    Has systems biol got an -omic yet?

    Systomics? (sounds oddly nasty)

    PS For science-geeks who fancy a bit of omic mickey-taking, try:

    www.physoc.org/publications/pn/issuepdf/53/48-49.pdf

    (scroll down the page to the article)

  62. Dishevelled said,

    May 18, 2007 at 11:44 pm

    69. Hmm, check out the contents page at BMC Bioinformatics to see just how close you are to the truth (www.biomedcentral.com/bmcbioinformatics)

    70. Dr Aust – Systomics – was forced to do a Pubmed search to check, it had the ring of truth – it’s not there (yet). But then did a Google and found this (and others) www.faculty.ucr.edu/~tgirke/Databases.htm

    ‘Systomics is a systems biology approach that integrates and models large-scale ‘omics’ data.’

    Brilliant.

  63. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 19, 2007 at 1:13 am

    The other week the BBC Radio 4 obituary magazine (cheery stuff – not; on before [The Film Programme]) had someone or other who was something in stem cell research apparently, and dead. Of course. This seemed to be a matter of categorising bone marrow transplants as “stem cells” applied. But I don’t think it’s what they said at the time.

    Also this week, unexpected growth of new hair follicles – in mice – seems to be said to involve stem cells.

  64. Dr Aust said,

    May 19, 2007 at 10:38 am

    As so often, the reality is beyond anything a satirist could invent – see:

    www.genomicglossaries.com/content/omes.asp

    bioinfo.mbb.yale.edu/what-is-it/omes/omes.html

    PS One they HAVEN’T done yet, but should, is the set of all genes involved in fat metabolism, which I have decided to call the “steatome”.

    www.yourdictionary.com/ahd/s/s0728700.html

    Try saying “Steatome” fast and you’ll realise what it is ageing scientific farts like me increasingly feel like doing in the face of the tide of shite-omics.

  65. Dishevelled said,

    May 19, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    73. Heh, heh.

    From link 2, Pseodome – which unfortunately doesn’t mean what you hope it might but in fact refers to pseudogenes.

  66. amoebic vodka said,

    May 19, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    There’s loads of molecular biology being done in ‘botany’ (called molecular biology / systems biology / nanotech / pharmacology on the grant application…). The molecular biology version of taxonomy has proper uses though – it’s used to follow what’s going where when breeding new crop varieties, so it’s not entirely pointless. It speeds up the process somewhat, though not as much as using evil GM to do the same thing.

    Really, it just goes to show that the government can come up with stupid targets and even stupider ‘initiatives’ for science, like everything else, and the response is to do pretty much the same stuff as before, but reworded slightly and with 50% added pointless paperwork. It means a few scientists have to be sacked to afford to pay more admin staff to deal with the sea of paperwork, but they count as spending money on science, so no loss there.

  67. Dr Aust said,

    May 19, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    Amen to that, AV. Am just staggered how much extra pointless paperwork “Full Economic Costing” / FEC has generated.

    I would say that, in the 20 yrs since I wrote my first grant applications, the amount of verbiage and form-filling you have to generate to ask for (allowing for inflation) the same amount of dosh has increased by about 200%. And the number of Research Admin staff in the Univ has expanded by about 400%.

  68. Gimpy said,

    May 19, 2007 at 10:47 pm

    76. Hmm as a scientific youngster I clearly have lots of form filling to look forward to as I approach my dotage. Still these bloody COSHH forms must be good practice. I got watched like a hawk on health and safety issues for a while after setting off some dry ice bombs during a safety inspection. Made to sign a form for every minor experiment I did.

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