MMR and The Observer – a nation waits

July 21st, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in MMR | 7 Comments »

I’ve been told by Dr Fiona Scott that the main news editor of the Observer phoned her today, and she has been promised that there will be a large article in tomorrow’s Observer [EDIT it's up now, here] reproducing in full and unedited the comments that she ended up posting, in desperation, in the commentisefree thread beneath their previous and rather incomprehensible non-retraction. In those, she explained that they had repeatedly misrepresented her views, and had consistently failed even to ask her what they were, despite her protesting.

I feel, given that I was one of the two ‘leaders in the field’ (flattering, but rather an exaggeration) reported as linking MMR to the rise in autism, that I should quite clearly and firmly point out that I was never contacted by and had no communication whatsoever with the reporter who wrote the infamous Observer article. It is somewhat amazing that my ‘private beliefs’ can be presented without actually asking me what they are. What appeared in the article was a flagrant misrepresentation of my opinions – unsurprising given that they were published without my being spoken to.

It is outrageous that the article states that I link rising prevalence figures to use of the MMR. I have never held this opinion. I do not think the MMR jab ‘might be partly to blame’. As for it being a factor in ‘a small number of children’, had the journalist checked with me it would have been clear that my view is in line with Vivienne Parry of the JCVI. The ‘small number’ was misrepresented by being linked inappropriately and inaccurately with ‘rise in prevalence’, leading readers to arguably infer that it is in fact NOT a small number!

I wholeheartedly agree with Prof Baron-Cohen, and many of the posts and responses received to date, that the article was irresponsible and misleading. Furthermore I reiterate that it was inappropriate in including views and comments attributed to me and presented as if I had input into the article when I had not (and still have not)ever been contacted by the journalist in question. I am taking the matter under advisement.

She’s also been promised that this article will be linked on the internet to originals repeatedly and incorrectly claiming that she is an MMR “dissenter”.

We shall see what tomorrow brings and I’ll post it straight away. I’m genuinely fascinated to know what one might be able to say on the subject without simply posting a full retraction and apology, although that seems very unlikely. Whatever they print, it will be very good to see if they finally manage to do right by Dr Scott.

We can only begin to imagine how very, very weird this experience must have been for her.


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7 Responses



  1. Gimpy said,

    July 21, 2007 at 11:41 pm

    Well done to Dr Scott. I do wonder how The Observer are going to spin this since they and The Guardian have been acting all high and mighty over the BBC misrepresenting things.

  2. stever said,

    July 22, 2007 at 12:51 am

    agree that nothing less than a full retraction and apology will do. i expect we will get some half arsed apology and some more lame justification.

  3. stever said,

    July 22, 2007 at 12:53 am

    here it is:

    The Observer and autism: a clarification

    Sunday July 22, 2007
    The Observer

    On 8 July, The Observer published a news report under the headline ‘New health fears over big surge in autism’. The article revealed details of an unpublished report by the Autism Research Centre (ARC) at Cambridge University which showed that a statistical analysis of autism prevalence among primary schoolchildren in Cambridgeshire had produced a figure that as many as 1 in 58 children could be suffering from forms of the disorder. This figure is nearly double the presently accepted prevalence of autism of 1 in 100.

    Article continues
    The news report also said that two of the authors of the report believed that in a small number of cases the triple measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine could be linked to the incidence of autism.

    The news report has been the subject of a number of comments since its publication. Critics have said that The Observer should not have published figures from a report that had not been finalised, that we failed to detail other figures from the report that showed a lower prevalence of autism, that we did not reveal the links between one of the authors, Dr Carol Stott, and Dr Andrew Wakefield, who has made controversial claims of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, and that we did not accurately reflect the views of another of the authors, Dr Fiona Scott, on the possible links between MMR and autism. There are a number of points in The Observer report that should be clarified:

    The status of the report

    The report from the ARC was entitled the Final Report of a three-year research project for the Shirley Foundation, a private charitable trust that has an interest in the issue of autism. The foundation paid almost £300,000 for the study which Dr Scott, one of the authors, described in an internal email as ‘very thorough’. As such The Observer believed it legitimate to report its findings, given the apparent status of the work. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the ARC, has subsequently said that the data in the report is still being analysed and is therefore incomplete.

    The 1 in 58 figure and other statistics in the report

    The 1 in 58 figure was described by one of the authors as ‘our primary analysis’ and was the only figure presented in the Final Report’s summary. It was therefore highlighted by The Observer. In the body of the ARC’s report the figures 1 in 74 and 1 in 94 were also published.

    The Observer should have reported these figures in the news story so that readers were aware that there were different interpretations of the findings. That they were left out was due to a reporting and editing error.

    Dr Carol Stott

    Dr Stott, one of the authors of the Final Report and described by The Observer as believing that there maybe a link in a small number of cases between MMR and autism, does some work for Thoughtful House, the autism centre in Texas that treats children from all over the world. Dr Wakefield works at Thoughtful House. Dr Stott’s links to Dr Wakefield should have been made clear in The Observer news report.

    Last week, in addition to a number of letters critical of the paper’s reporting, The Observer’s Readers’ Editor wrote about the coverage of the autism issue. He concluded: ‘The central point, in my view, is that the leaked story of the apparent rise in the prevalance of autism was a perfectly legitimate and accurate story in its own right, which did not need the introduction of the MMR theory.’ In response to his piece, Dr Scott posted her views on the Guardian Unlimited website. We republish that posting here:

    ‘I feel, given that I was one of the two ‘leaders in the field’ (flattering, but rather an exaggeration) reported as linking MMR to the rise in autism, that I should quite clearly and firmly point out that I was never contacted by and had no communication whatsoever with the reporter who wrote the infamous Observer article. It is somewhat amazing that my ‘private beliefs’ can be presented without actually asking me what they are. What appeared in the article was a flagrant misrepresentation of my opinions – unsurprising given that they were published without my being spoken to.

    ‘It is outrageous that the article states that I link rising prevalence figures to use of the MMR. I have never held this opinion. I do not think the MMR jab ‘might be partly to blame’. As for it being a factor in ‘a small number of children’, had the journalist checked with me it would have been clear that my view is in line with Vivienne Parry of the JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation]. The ‘small number’ was misrepresented by being linked inappropriately and inaccurately with ‘rise in prevalence’, leading readers to arguably infer that it is in fact NOT a small number!

    ‘I wholeheartedly agree with Prof Baron-Cohen, and many of the posts and responses received to date, that the article was irresponsible and misleading. Furthermore I reiterate that it was inappropriate in including views and comments attributed to me and presented as if I had input into the article when I had not (and still have not) ever been contacted by the journalist in question.’

    Although we attempted to contact Dr Scott by email before publication, we were unable to speak to her. We should have made greater efforts to speak to Dr Scott directly and apologise for this, and for suggesting that she links rising autism prevalence figures with the use of MMR.

  4. Ben Goldacre said,

    July 22, 2007 at 1:07 am

    half defending it still, completely unacceptable, no surprise.

    blogged it:

    www.badscience.net/?p=464

    i have to say, i am pretty jaded and sceptical at the best of times, but this whole affair has absolutely stunned and astonished me. it went far beyong them simply misunderstanding the science. i can honestly say i will genuinely never read a newspaper in the same way again.

  5. Robert Carnegie said,

    July 22, 2007 at 10:30 am

    I was getting quite confused with Dr Stott and Dr Scott myself. It’s asking for trouble. Putting their forenames in helps, the “Dr” can probably be dropped after first go for each if you’re doing that.

    I could also suggest that no private interim document should have the word “Final” printed in it in case it is stolen and used by illiterate journalists. Alternatively, private drafts of scientific papers could have gross and actionable personal libels seamlessly inserted, so that the journalists’ arses can be kicked from here to Cape Wrath when this “information” is used. Whether something like that may have happened this time anyway remains to be seen.

    Incidentally, on the forum we were discussing two bishops whom the Telegraph reported blaming recent flooding in England on sin, both of whom have put up web pages saying that no they didn’t. Although at least one of them had spoken to a Telegraph man. Apparently the bloke asked something like “So do you think the floods are the consequeence of sin then” and the bishop’s answer was not sufficiently close to “no” to put the point across.

    Going by a recent BBC radio series on “Great Political Myths” at news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/the_westminster_hour/6234940.stm that’s how a lot of these things start – the journo puts words in your mouth and then if you don’t say “No” loudly enough then it sticks. William Hague’s fourteen pints of beer were mentioned.

    And for John Major’s shirt-inside-underpants, we have one testimony, that of Alastair Campbell.

  6. Sili said,

    July 23, 2007 at 3:22 am

    RC’s suggestion “Alternatively, private drafts of scientific papers could have gross and actionable personal libels seamlessly inserted” charms me, and I’ll keep it in mind if I ever return to do my Ph.D.

    I too can only feel sorry for Dr. Scott. It must indeed have been a surreal experience.

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