I am not unwell

July 16th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, MMR | 33 Comments »

Thank you for your emails, I am not unwell, nor have I died “in a strange sexual experiment that went horribly wrong”.

As people suspected I was hoping to write about the Observer’s astonishing front page story on MMR, in fact I was hoping to do it for the comment pages last weds, but then there was a problem, and then again in the column, but again there was a problem.

I have to say the Guardian have been very positive about the idea of me doing it “in principle”, I am a fan, I don’t feel particularly stifled, and with any other newspaper group it wouldn’t even be an option, so there you go, what a cracking institution, no melodrama, and hopefully there’ll be more joy this week.


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33 Responses



  1. Will said,

    July 16, 2007 at 11:24 am

    If you need a donation to cover costs for the strange experiment, it’s a cause worthy of donation. Or alternatively, I have some old rusting garden implements I could send?

  2. marcdraco said,

    July 16, 2007 at 11:34 am

    I dunno what the observer said, but Andy Wakefield looks almost certain to be struck off – he deserves nothing less; his misconduct and behaviour have probably (if indirectly) caused loss of life.

    news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6289166.stm

  3. vinnyr said,

    July 16, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Maybe the Observer editors should have thought about what they were printing. If they print rubbish then why should they complain about your column in a sister paper when you highlight it. Frankly they should have seen it coming.

  4. Kells said,

    July 16, 2007 at 12:08 pm

    Stick it to the man!
    It’s not like they haven’t had a lot of ‘angry’ letters from top academia and medical types.

    Its a sad day for the Grauniad

  5. SpiderJ said,

    July 16, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    I’m probably very slow – but being positive about the idea ‘in principle’ but not actually letting you do it (if that is indeed what the ‘problem’ is?) seems to still have the same effect as being negative about the idea in the first place.

    I’m not a scientist – but I work a lot in the media and from what I’ve learnt it’s the results that count – not what someone tells you along the way – because pretty much everyone will tell you what you want to hear.

  6. ceec said,

    July 16, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    Reader’s editor response to MMR story was hilariously rubbish. Both (deliberately I assume) impossible to make sense of and also at the same time apparently retracting the story (see last para for this hint, if you can make it through the word sludge). So do they stand by the story or do they not?

  7. Camp Freddie said,

    July 16, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    I think they stand by the fact that the story sold a lot of papers, backing it up the their solid support for making lots of money.

  8. theholyllama said,

    July 16, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    SpiderJ is right – being positive about something “in principle” just sounds like a weasly fudge to me. You only have to watch / read Yes (Prime) Minister to see how anyone can say they support something in principle but come up with any manner of technical reasons why they can’t allow it on this particular occasion as a cover for not actually wanting it to happen at all.

    Publish and be damned!!

  9. Munin said,

    July 16, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    To be fair, MMR myth busting features prominently on the Guardian’s home page today:

    MMR scare doctors face disciplinary [sic]
    society.guardian.co.uk/health/news/0,,2127489,00.html

    Q&A: MMR vaccine row
    society.guardian.co.uk/health/story/0,,2127561,00.html

    Alex Thomas: Vaccination should be compulsory
    society.guardian.co.uk/health/comment/0,,2127497,00.html

  10. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 16, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    the bmj have kindly offered to take 1500 words on it for a news feature. dunno if thats a good idea, dont want to annoy anyone at the paper.

  11. hairnet said,

    July 16, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    i was wondering if the silence of any opinion has more to do with annoying the gmc hearing than the observer? Those pieces above look fairly heavyweight criticisms but are quite explicit that they are only reading from the charge sheet.. do I smell a compromise somewhere?

  12. sexitoni said,

    July 16, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    Little off topic, but did you see the Sunday Times Magazine cover-story on Viagra? Surely a classic of the Bad Science genre? It’s all there – anecdotes dressed up as ‘evidence'; non-descript experts backing up the author’s blatantly obvious slant; use of ‘celebrity’ to trigger “it must be true” response.

    tis here:

    www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article2060810.ece

  13. apothecary said,

    July 16, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    To put a contrary view to several comments above (just to foster debate), I think Ben has a difficult line to tread. It’s important not to win a battle but lose the war (or if not lose it, do one’s overall war effort no favours). The Guardian and Observer are read by many people who have little knowledge of science, but are intelligent and influential in a variety of spheres. Both papers also feature plenty of dodgy “science”. I think Ben’s column and this blog has been a very valuable check on this and helps get a more rational point of view across. If he seriously p*sses of the top of the office, who already suspect they’ve dropped one (“It’s not like they haven’t had a lot of ‘angry’ letters from top academia and medical types”), there is a risk that his column might be shortened, have more editorial constraints put on it, or dropped altogether.

    Consider the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin. This has strong reputation for rigorous and independent evaluation of drug therapy. It used to be bought by DH in a block contract and sent to all GPs, hospital doctors, pharmacists, etc. Then it started criticising DH policy. quite a lot. Guess what – DH didn’t renew the contract last year (despite quite a lot of protests). Nowadays DTB is still producing qood quality reviews, etc, but it costs an arm and a leg to access and the people who most need to read the good reviews (eg GPs who get deluged by promotional guff) don’t get to see them (or not easily anyway – only the ones who are interested an prepared to pay for a subscription, who probably would have found the info elsewhere anyway).

    I think I might take the view that enough has been said/written about the Observer’s story at them moment, keep my powder dry and return to MMR later (eg when GMC makes it decision).

  14. simongates said,

    July 16, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Alex Thomas’s article (link above) is interesting and it’s a good point. Should vaccination be compulsory? I doubt you could ever enforce it for everyone, but how about vaccination being compulsory for anyone who wants to use, say, a state-accredited nursery or school? At the moment I can’t take my cat to a cattery without having its vaccinations up to date, but there’s no such requirement for my children. Does this strike anyone else as a bit odd?

  15. simongates said,

    July 16, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    PS I didn’t mean I can send my kids to a cattery…

  16. Jut said,

    July 16, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    so you’re being censored without actually being censored? what do the graunaid expect when their sister paper prints the kind of bullshit we all crusade against?

  17. Teek said,

    July 16, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    oh my Ben you really in a dilemna!! to kick up a stink or not, to publish your views elsewhere or not, to hold fire or to spew forth (in a manner of speaking, ahem).

    IMHO, and for what it’s worth, it is indeed understandable that the Guardian has difficulty printing your article straight away, as it may have adverse consequences for its sister paper. us lot on the outside may well be indignant at the apparent censorship, when it may be no such thing. we may be outraged at the Graun reluctant to criticise the Observer, whereas they may just be taking advice and taking stock. who knows – only Ben presumably.

    what might help is a little more info from both Ben (i understand you have to be careful what you let us blogsters know in this delicate situation, so no pressure to nail your colours to the mast btw) and especially from the Guardian. if we knew exactly why there was no article, and whether there may be room for such an article later, some of us may be placated…

    [/rant]

  18. gadgeezer said,

    July 16, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Apothecary puts up a very attractive argument. However, it seems as if the GMC Hearings are currently scheduled to last 3 months (16 July-19 October); that’s an awfully long and potentially damaging opportunity for the nonsense to spread like wildfire while waiting for Ben to put up a firebreak.

    The National Autistic Society is apprehensive. “The charity is concerned that the forthcoming GMC hearing, and surrounding media coverage, will create further confusion and make it even more difficult for parents to access appropriate medical advice for their children.”

    I do think that if a week is a long time in politics, as the wildfire proliferation of that stupid 1 in 58 prevalence figure for autism non-story demonstrates, a single headline could take years of work to undo. What will happen if only 1 side of the story is presented for 3 months?

  19. theholyllama said,

    July 16, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    I understand that the situation isn’t entirely straightforward and that Ben may be put in a diffilcult position in terms of writing the article for the BMJ – he has the future of his Guardian column to think about. I have no such concerns to prevent me writing a letter, on the other hand.

    The question I’m asking myself is, had the Obs’ article appeared in, for example, the Mail on Sunday, would Ben’s column on it have mysteriously disappeared from the following Saturday’s Guardian? I suspect not. So is it acceptable that Ben’s column has been nixed or delayed, for however short a time, in this case? Surely the answer is no, and surely this is exactly the kind of issue that the readers’ editors of the two papers concerned are there to address.

  20. GreenInk said,

    July 16, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Though it has cost me, I’ve always found it hard to accept the sensible “not win the battle but lose the war” argument.

    Are we discussing the “Bad science outwith the Guardian and Observer” column?

    A BMJ article preaches only to the (hopefully) converted but a (presumably) watered down Guardian piece reaches the target audience.

    Obviously no course of action with which anyone will be entirely content.

    Difficult for you: my sympathies.

  21. Teek said,

    July 16, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    @theholyllama: fair enough, but here’s why i disagree (politely, and not meaning to cause any offence…!) with firing off letters at this present time.

    1) we dont know whether the Graun stopped the publication of Ben’s article because it was critical of an observer piece. we have no evidence. altho we can speculate, we can’t be sure.

    2) if it is the case that the Graun didnt publish to avoid criticising its sister publication, that would indeed be serious. nobody would want to lessen the impact of ensuing wrath once this was confirmed by pre-emptively appearing indignant at the editors’ conduct. that’s a badly worded point but you get my drift right…?!

    3) not wanting to bite the hand that feeds you is an understandable position, and as Ben says himself above at other publications he’d have been burned at the stake for even suggesting a counter-article to the observer guff.

    4) besides, next week we may see this controversy resolved when the Graun see the light, a bit like when UCL re-instated prof colquhoun’s website.

    5) please, please please do not let my comments here or on the forum stop you from sending a letter to anybody, that isnt my aim – i’m just a little wary of the consequences thereof. please dont think i’m trying to stop you, i just hope that if you do write to observer editor/guardian editor, you wont regret it at such a point that we have all the facts in front of us…!!

  22. raygirvan said,

    July 16, 2007 at 4:35 pm

    In a sense, much of the outrage surrounding this issue seems misplaced and more than a little naive.

    Nobody should be surprised that newspapers don’t allow in-house conflictsj. Nor should anyone be surprised that scientific truth is not the top priority; newspapers maintain their readerships by printing material that matches the pre-existing views of their readers. All this is newspaper realpolitik.

    Rather than directing all the energy at bewailing that they’ve done it, it would better focused on arguing to them why this issue is so important that it should override these tenets of newspaper practice.

  23. theholyllama said,

    July 16, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    @teek – argh, we’re having the same conversation in two places! Don’t worry, I’m not the slightest bit offended about your disagreeing with me!As you’ve seen in the [a href=http://badscience.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2689&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=28]letter I’ve drafted[/a] (still not yet sent) I’ve been careful not to accuse the Graun of anything that we don’t know has happened and have instead stuck to the following: Obs publishes rubbish story; Ben’s column, which we might expect to at least mention this, doesn’t appear the following Saturday; Ben says here that he wanted to write such a column but while the Graun supported this in principle it caused certain problems or difficulties. My letter seeks assurances that the Guardian is not censoring criticism of its sister paper – rather than accusing them of anything I am offering them the opportunity to give me a reasonable explanation for the non-appearance of Ben’s column.

    @raygirvan – I’m not naive, I’m not surprised that the Guardian might not want to print a column critical of the Observer, and I know that scientific truth is not the top priority for a newspaper. None of that means that I shouldn’t ‘bewail’ their actions. As you say, “newspapers maintain their readership by printing material that matches the pre-existing views of their readers”. In my case that pre-existing view is that science is important and that internal dissent should be allowed. If I don’t let them know that, they how will they know how to retain my readership?

  24. theholyllama said,

    July 16, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    That link to my letter in the forum again as it didn’t work in the previous post because I’m totally tech-illiterate:
    badscience.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2689&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=28

  25. Johnbax said,

    July 16, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    Actually, I am surprised at the Guardian, because internal dissent is a well established practice at the paper, and they regularly carry columnists who disagree with each other and with the editorial line. I agree there’s no point in ranting at this stage, but I have emailed the readers editor asking why the column was dropped, and pointing out that rumours of censorship are no good for the Guardian’s reputation amongst the kind of soggy liberals (like me) who buy the paper.

  26. BobP said,

    July 16, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    Ah well, I just hope none of the other newspapers regard this as an opportunity to trash the Grauniad. After all, it’s such a fine highly principled publication, unlike (say) the Murdoch Times or the Torygraph, which only ever publish material which aligns with their proprietor’s agendas. It would be so terrible for anyone to be tempted to score points off such a fine publication.

    Meanwhile, I speculate that enforced silence is forcing Ben to try ever more imaginiative and devious experiments – when’s the next book coming out, Ben?

  27. theholyllama said,

    July 16, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    @BobP – I’d not be surprised to see Private Eye (who have their own barmy take on MMR as it is) get hold of it, but the mainstream press tend not to trash each other too obviously too much as they know they’d only get the same treatment back – a sort of Mutually Assured Destruction scenario in miniature.

  28. Deano said,

    July 16, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    A fuller quote is:

    “Comment is free, but facts are sacred… …The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard.”

    – C.P. Scott -founder of the modern Guardian.

    Seems like The Guardian doesn’t even want to listen to a friend on this one..

    If the Guardian don’t want to take an article from Ben (which would be better grounded in facts than the original article on past form) then shame on them.

    Perhaps a quick re-read of C P Scotts inspirational take on how to run a newspaper would be in order:

    www.guardian.co.uk/newsroom/story/0,11718,850815,00.html

  29. j said,

    July 16, 2007 at 7:54 pm

    Munin, thanks for linking those Guardian articles. However, the Q&A makes some daft mistakes. Blogged here:
    holfordwatch.info/2007/07/16/more-mmr-bad-science-the-guardian-the-bmj-and-holford-watch-in-bmj-rapid-responses/

  30. coracle said,

    July 16, 2007 at 8:50 pm

    Glad to hear you’re not ill. It’s a shame, but not unexpected, that The Guardian isn’t keen on the internal dissent. I do hope you stay with them though, I’m not sure I could stomach any of the other rags.

  31. hinschelwood said,

    July 16, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    I have to say, I don’t understand really what the problem is here. True, the Observer and the Guardian are in the same stable, but that’s about it.

    For the last few years, the Guardian has been pretty much a lone voice pleading for rationality and sense; the Observer has happily pushed any old cobblers (Henry Porter being the notable exception). As far as I’m concerned, the Observer has little credibility at all, but it damages the Guardian because it is often perceived as the “Sunday Guardian”.

    So please trash this MMR nonsense and try to knock some sense into the morons at the Observer, or at least make it damn clear to the world that the Guardian and the Observer are not singing from the same sheet.

  32. Phage said,

    July 17, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    That’s it I’ve lost all patience meds. I’m going to steal a tank and go rampaging through the streets running down mobile phone towers, WiFi hotspots and Doctors surgeries. When I run out of fuel, I’m going to throw my clogs into the spinning machines……

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