The Observer makes another hash of “clarifying” and persists in trying to cover up its mistakes

July 22nd, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in MMR | 52 Comments »

They still don’t seem to understand the problems with the one in 58 figure, and they still don’t seem to be able to understand the report they keep going on about (but won’t let anyone see because they think their scientific evidence is top secret), and they are still covering up their mistakes.

At first, when it was a one off story, this was a slip. Now, after two failed “clarifications” this story is just blowing me away. I simply don’t understand why they haven’t printed a full, clear retraction and apology, and I don’t see how they can possibly gain from continuing to half defend this story with further inaccuracies.

Stop me if this is too much detail: writing tight takes time and I’m really over this story now. I think people often rely on the boringness of details and repetition to cloak their obfuscation. Here in Anal-land, that’s not an option. Since the Observer piece today is the only one on the entire comment pages which doesn’t permit any comments underneath, I felt obliged to write one here.


Here’s a simple example: the Observer still go on about this study measuring the prevalence of autism. In the version I have of the interim report, which we think is the closest to what the Observer has, the opening line is “The present study provides a novel approach to active identification of all autism spectrum disorders in a population based sample of children aged 5 to 9 years in Cambridgeshire, UK. ” Not autism, as the Observer says, still, in its article, but autistic spectrum disorder: autism, aspergers syndrome, atypical autism. A far wider net.

Stott and Wakefield:

Their efforts on Stott are mealy mouthed in the extreme.

“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.” etc.

For chrissakes. “Some work”? Dr Wakefield “works at” Thoughtful House? Dr Wakefield founded Thoughtful House!

He doesn’t “work at” Thoughtful House. He is the Executive Director.

This is beyond childishness. They were wrong. They should have clarified the closeness of the relationship in the article, and if they’re making amends now, they should do so properly. But instead they’re still trying to cover up (rather ironically for a story effectively claiming a cover up about autism).

In the Observer’s world, Wakefield “works at” a place in America where Stott also does “some work”: in the real world, Stott and Wakefield have even issued joint press releases answering critics of Thoughtful House.

They still somehow don’t understand the perfectly simple concept of an unfinished analysis:

I have no idea if this is defensiveness, or if there is still something that’s not clear about this to people at the Observer, but the analysis wasn’t finished. I don’t see why they’re going on about it, or suggesting it might have been, or defending that point. It was an incomplete analysis. It doesn’t matter what they think they’ve seen. They were wrong. But no, they’re still defending it:

“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’.”

And here – really rather bravely to my mind – they are quoting Dr Scott again. What exactly did she say, in what context, and to whom? Was Fiona Scott simply saying that the text of the write-up was “very thorough”? Was she saying it was “very thorough… for an interim report”? Or was she saying the statistical analysis of the collected data was “very thorough” and complete, as they suggest? Did they ask Dr Scott what she meant by “very thorough”? Did they call her before they quoted her again this week? Are they absolutely certain that this time they’re not misrepresenting her views, again, and that they’re not misquoting an email, again?

We’ve already seen, remember, how the Observer have distorted emails from other people to make this story stand up. This from my BMJ piece on the Observer’s article, for example:

According to the Observer, Baron-Cohen “was so concerned by the one in 58 figure that last year he proposed informing public health officials in the county.”

But Professor Baron-Cohen is clear: he did no such thing and this was simply scaremongering. I put this to the Observer, which said it had an email in which Baron-Cohen did as the paper claimed. Observer staff gave me the date. I went back to the professor, who went through his emails. We believe that I too now have the email to which the Observer refers. It is one sentence long, and it is Professor Baron-Cohen asking if he can share his and the other researchers’ progress with a clinical colleague in the next door office. This dramatic smoking gun reads: “can i share this with ayla and with the committee planning services for AS [autism services] in cambridgeshire if they treat it as strictly confidential?”

Professor Baron-Cohen told me, “That’s not saying I’m concerned, or that we should notify anybody; these are just the people who run the local clinic, who I share a corridor with, who said they were interested to hear how it was going so far. They are not public health officials, and it’s not alarmist, it’s not voicing concern, it’s simply saying: ‘am I allowed to share a paper with a colleague in the next door office?’ It seems very important to me that we discuss clinical research with clinical colleagues, and I only stressed confidentiality because the paper was not yet final.”

Failing to understand the central point: there was never any suggestion of an increase in autism prevalence over time:

They then try to justify their use of the one in 58 figure, by saying it was described as the “primary analysis” in the paper. Again, as I have said many times before, this paper was specifically designed to cast the widest possible net.

They still don’t get this at the Observer. They still think they found an increase. They even quote favourably – because they still clearly stand by this – the incomprehensible Readers’ Editor piece from last week:

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.

No. The central tenet of the Observer piece was wrong. There was no rise in prevalence found. They were fed a paper – god knows how, or by whom, god knows whether these schoolboy misunderstandings of basic methodology were made first by the Observer or by the person who fed the story to them – but they were fed a paper that used a different way to measure autism and autistic spectrum disorders, aspergers, atypical autism, and this wider net got a bigger number, as you would expect, and even that bit is not even certain, because the analysis is not complete.

How can they still not understand this? After ruminating on the subject for two weeks? It was very decent of them to finally call Dr Fiona Scott, after misrepresenting her opinions for two weeks, and clarify her views. I don’t imagine she’d be too pleased with them. But could they not also have phoned someone who understands basic research methodology, and could explain the paper to them? Are they so puerile that they think that every single person who is capable of reading and explaining that paper is part of a conspiracy to cover up MMR?

The “primary analysis”

Lastly, looking at the paper, the term “primary analysis” is one they are eager to quote as exxoneration, as if it justifies their using that “one in 58” figure alone.

The meaning of the phrase “primary analysis” as used in the version of the paper I have is very simple. They described three different ways of estimating the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (aspergers, autism, atypical autism, etc), their “primary” is counting all possible cases from all the different sources of data, various screening tools, school records etc; the “secondary” is using a subset of those; and the “tertiary” is counting only existing confirmed diagnoses and cases reported by schools, without including any cases from their extra screening tools.

The “primary analysis” only had special status in that it was explicitly a new way of measuring prevalence that cast its net far wider than before: therefore it is absolutely no surprise that it gave a larger figure, it is simply a different way of measuring not just autism, but lots of other conditions on the autistic spectrum.

“New health fears over big surge in autism” my arse. I’ll post the picture again. The story was wrong. Wrong. No surge. A different method of measuring it. You misunderstood a very simple research paper. Get over it. Retract!

Without this crucial context their entire news story was meaningless. And screening tools, anyway, in a general population, raise fascinating statistical issues like positive predictive value, because the predictive value of a screening tool changes as the prevalence of the condition in the population you are screening changes.

It’s very weird maths but there you go, life is complicated sometimes, that’s why medical statisticians write and interpret papers instead of sports journalists like the Observer’s Denis Campbell, who wrote the front page story (you’ll notice I’ve deliberately kept his name out of this until now, and advisedly so, it’s clear this is a systematic failure, and that is even more clear now that we have had two failed “clarifications”).

The wider issue – a lack of basic skills

To me this is the key problem. They want to write about some research. They want to disagree with the lead authors. Fine: but they need to understand the research to do that.

It’s not difficult. They would be welcome to give me a call. God knows I’ve been calling them and leaving messages, so they have my number. I’d be happy to help out. Lots of people ring me for informal advice on stuff like this. I’m always happy to chat, and this isn’t showing off: being able to read a paper is not a mandatory life skill, but it’s not difficult either.

If they’re going to get their sports correspondent Denis Campbell to write a front page story on MMR with an interpretation of figures that specifically and rather bravely goes against the interpretation of the data by the same study’s own lead authors, then their sports correspondent should know how to read a medical academic paper too.

Journalists often say, well, all we can do is report concerns, we can’t be experts, and that’s fine: but that simply doesn’t apply here. Denis Campbell wants to go beyond “reporting”, in his first week after moving from sports to health, so he’ll be needing some next level skills. Easy.

Not getting in touch with Dr Fiona Scott

In the original articles they misrepresented her as believing that MMR causes autism, and that MMR caused that “increase” which the Observer still fantasise this study found. Scott protested about this to everyone who would listen. Then the next week, the Observer again, bafflingly repeated this false claim in their first non-clarification.

Now they say:

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.

What efforts did they make? Did they email her? On what address? I Googled Dr Scott, the moment I saw the Observer’s first article: I found her ARC email immediately, I emailed her immediately, she replied within hours, almost before I had finished writing one blog post. No other newspaper has had any difficulty getting hold of her. I asked Dr Scott if she had received any emails from the Observer, and she said no.

And i confirm again that i received no emails whatsoever from them. First contact I had from them was yesterday when the cheif news editor telephoned my mobile (and hey – got me immediately) to say that the piece was going in the Observer today.


They SAY they emailed me but i got nothing, and all my work address emails are forwarded automatically to my home address so it would have come through. I believe on the phone “Thursday before the article” was mentioned as the dya I was emailed(I did not respond one way or the other to the comment that they had emailed once). I have checked records – nothing. So IF they emailed the address must have been wrong or it was bounced back to them. Either way I did not receive anything, and they made no further attempts.

Now one email can go missing, but after someone was protesting that you’d misrepresented their secret views, surely at least then you’d get in touch with them? But no.

And of course, the Observer still even now have the bravery to quote an email they say they have from Dr Scott (“very thorough”) to defend their position. And they’ve still not asked her about that email at all. Very brave indeed, given the circumstances.

I could go on.

I am amazed they are sticking at it. This “on the one hand on the other people have said…” nonsense is misleading, confusing to readers, and absurd. The front page story was based on unfinished research which the reporters were clearly unable to read and interpret. They thought they knew better than the people who wrote it. They were wrong. End of issue.

They should stop beating about the bush, and fully retract this entirely bogus story.

So you can remember the joy, here is their original front page article:,,2121542,00.html

Here is my delayed bad science column on their story:,,2128807,00.html

Here is my longer and juicier British Medical Journal article on the affair:

Here is the Observer’s incomprehensible readers’ editor defense of their piece:,,2126649,00.html

And here is their latest attempt, pasted below.,,2132076,00.html

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.

I am pretty jaded and sceptical, but this front page story has completely stunned and astonished me. The misrepresentations and errors went way beyond simply misunderstanding the science, and after digging right to the bottom of it all, knowing what I know now, I have never resorted to hyperbole before, but I can honestly say: this episode has changed the way I read newspapers.

Two failed “clarifications” later that clarify nothing, and I am even less impressed. Retract. Delete. Apologise.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

52 Responses

  1. stever said,

    July 22, 2007 at 1:08 am

    a great response ben.

    simply not good enough from the Observer.

  2. Deano said,

    July 22, 2007 at 1:41 am

    Not good enough at all…

    ‘clarification’ my arse… any pretense that the Observer is an enlightened rational paper true to some fine traditions is fast disappearing out of the window.
    The ‘editor’ clearly doesn’t understand logic, let alone science, and clearly thinks that he has a readership that stupid enough to bamboozled by a little light sophistry.

    Bollocks – I think I’m going to buy the ‘Sunday Sport’ tomorrow – at least those guys don’t pretend to have high principles….

  3. Tom P said,

    July 22, 2007 at 1:55 am

    Wow. That’s an astoundingly weasel-worded non-apology. The fact that they’ve clearly been put under such pressure to retract, but still can’t bring themselves to just admit that they just got it flat-out wrong – and that they very clearly try to hide what admissions they do make by burying them under a mound of irrelevant details which will only confuse people who haven’t been following the background to the story – well, frankly, it’s pretty damn pathetic. Cowardly, in fact.

  4. Kimpatsu said,

    July 22, 2007 at 5:28 am

    @Ben: “I just don’t understand why they haven’t printed a full, clear retraction of their startlingly misleading story.”
    Because, Ben, sensationalism sells papers. This has nothing to do wiuth the truth.
    I suspect also that a bit of liberal arts snobbery is in play, along the lines of “why can’t these eggheads talk straight?”, rather than admit that if they can’t understand the data, that’s their failing, and not the fault of the report’s authors. But don’t for one minute think that newspaper reporting is about telling the truth; it’s about selling a narrative, and the more dramatic the narrative, the more papers you can sell, which translates into more money for the proprieters and bonuses for the editors and reporters concerned. There’s also the dream of Pulitzers and other “brave reporter exposing establishment coverup” fantasy, all of which stack up against the simple expedient of telling the truth, which isn’t half as much fun.

  5. rob said,

    July 22, 2007 at 8:21 am

    I think this is about as close to a retraction as the Observer is likely to get. Translating it from weaselease to English, it reads something like this:

    “There are a number of points in The Observer report that we got completely wrong:

    “Status of the Report: It was called a ‘Final Report’ and we didn’t know the difference between a final report to a funder and a published analysis, and didn’t check the status with anyone who might have known. Oops.

    “The 1 in 58 figure: This was the only one in the summary of the ‘Final Report’, which was, of course, the only bit we actually read. We left the other numbers out because they got in the way of a good story. Oops.

    “Dr Carol Stott: We either forgot to check, or decided to ignore, that she is closely connected to Wakefield. Oops.

    “Dr Fiona Scott: we dropped her an email while she was out of the office over the weekend, and as she didn’t respond we decided to just make up her views. Oops”

  6. rob said,

    July 22, 2007 at 8:27 am

    Just to really emphasise the difference between the Guardian and the Observer: the Guardian has Ben’s Bad Science column, the Observer has a Horoscope column. From this simple observation, a lot can be learnt about the differing quality of two newspapers from the same ‘stable’.

  7. Chris Clark said,

    July 22, 2007 at 9:11 am

    And it doesn’t seem to mention anywhere or apologise for the assertion that Professor Baron Cohen ‘was so concerned by the one in 58 figure that last year he proposed informing public health officials in the county.’

  8. stever said,

    July 22, 2007 at 9:52 am

    I’ve just had a rather distressing trip to the newsagents. I couldnt buy the Observer on principle, and I couldnt buy the IOS for similar reasons (the cannabis bollocks from a few months back). With a heavy heart i bought the Times, but i suspect that my era of sunday papers purchasing is approaching its end.

    If there is one good thing to come out of this it is that Denis campbells credbilty is totally shot and his serious journalism career mortally wounded. Whilst i dont care about him personally the hope is that it will make others pause for thought before writing or running this sort of shite.

    There really has to be some price for the editors in this case too. They are equally liable.

  9. BSM said,

    July 22, 2007 at 10:22 am

    I think The Observer has made itself look even worse. A full retraction and apology would have been a mature and respectable thing to do. Weaselling, especially when it is so bloody transparent, just invites you to despise them.

    And they still apparently misunderstand or are wilfully misrepresenting, the difference between a new survey method yielding a bigger apparent prevalence figure than other methods and a trend over time. The problem is that “Loose New Survey Method Counts Loads of Kids as Maybe Possibly Sort of Like a Bit Autistic, Kind of” is no headline compared with “New Health Fears over Big Surge in Autism”

    The headline itself conveys the exact problems-

    “New Health Fears over…” underpinned solely by misrepresenting a tangential comment in one internal e-mail by Prof Baron Cohen.

    “…Big Surge…” There it is- incorrect conclusion of a pattern over time that the report itself has not even tried to investigate. Perhaps they can’t tell the different between a snap-shot and a movie, but I can. Perhaps you can keep the Observer’s editor happy for hours by giving him a single photo and asking him to make up a story that led to the image in the photo. He’d be a pretty cheap date.

    “in Autism”. Except that it’s not autism. The study was an exercise in throwing a large net around a whole load of behaviours lying in one part of the psychological spectrum as a prelude to trying to work out the patterns within the behaviours found in the net. Let me see if I can do better… oh, yes…Autistic spectrum behaviours can include such things as attention to small details and poor social interactions. Next week’s headline: “Up to 50% of Population Becomes Autistic. Clear Genetic Link Found- Possession of Y Chromosome Feared to Doom Many”. Journalism really is dead easy.

  10. stever said,

    July 22, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Gimpy – yes i think so. Even if the daily mail readers dont know about this, all the editors do and a two week escalating retraction in the paper, and high profile guardian and BMJ critiques – it looks very bad for any CV.

  11. woodchopper said,

    July 22, 2007 at 11:54 am

    “but I can honestly say: this episode has changed the way I read newspapers.”

    Ive had numerous moments like this in the past. As has been mentioned. Newspapers are there to sell copies. Their commitment to accuracy is peripheral.

  12. mikestanton said,

    July 22, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Great work Ben.

    I have sent my response to the Observer’s Letters Editor this time as well as the Readers Editor so it may be printed – or maybe not.

    It is amazing that they are unwilling/unable to accept that they got the facts wrong. I had a similar experience with the Sunday Times, Scottish edition, when they built a story on the basis of one misrepresented statistic. I explained it all to them in excruciating detail but to no avail.

    I wouldn’t mind. but these hacks get paid more for writing this crap than I get a week, teaching full time. Ofsted for journalists, anybody?

  13. MichaelB said,

    July 22, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    “(1) Ben, you got namechecked and the Absurder got spanked in Radio 4 [Broadcasting House] papers review this week.

    The relevant bit is at 50:41 – I’ll post a transcript here a.s.a.p.

  14. MichaelB said,

    July 22, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    OK, here’s the transcript of the Broadcasting House piece:

    PADDY O’CONNELL: Peter, let’s move to you. There’s a piece you’ve picked out in the Observer about MMR, always a hot topic of controversy…

    PETER BAZALGETTE: Yes, it’s very very interesting, this, because there’s been a huge spat in the last seven days between the Guardian and the Observer, both sister newspapers owned by the Guardian Media Group, because the Observer did a story suggesting once again that the MMR vaccine could lead to autism from one study, and Ben Goldacre, who writes the Bad Science column in the Guardian, wrote a piece midweek – a very very good piece – saying this was absolute rubbish, and they’ve misinterpreted the study, and done a…

    GWYNETH DUNWOODY: Dangerous rubbish.

    PB: …and done a very irresponsible piece. The Observer, in a piece now on its op-ed page headed rather coyly “a clarification”, not “an apology”, nevertheless has responded to this, and said they shouldn’t have reported the figures in the news story in the way they did, we should have made greater efforts to speak to Dr Scott, one of the scientists involved, directly, and I think this is a very healthy thing that two sister newspapers can have a go at each other and lead to a greater understanding of a subject when statistics are so often misquoted. So I think it’s very good.

    GD: Yes, but this one is very serious, and in fact the take-up of the vaccine has gone down, which is very dangerous for children.

    JANET ELLIS: Why didn’t Tony Blair say what he’d done at the time?

    GD: I have no idea. He could simply have said “My children have had the vaccine”, which we all knew was the case, and resolved the whole thing. And the BBC has something to answer for in this, because Rod Liddle in the Today programme ran a consistent campaign on this, and when I wrote to him and said privately I didn’t think this was exactly fair given the amount of evidence, he wrote me back a thing saying I was trying to stop families having their say.

    PB: But you know the key thing behind this is journalists’ dislike of reporting statistics accurately because they want a different sort of story, or their sheer ignorance about proper representation of scientific results. And in this case, all of us in the media could do with a good piece of education about how we report science.

    PO’C: OK, we must leave it there…

  15. Gimpy said,

    July 22, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    stever – I hope you are right. But surely unless the wider public and newspapers debate this publicly then it will continue to happen at an unacceptable frequency?

  16. Mojo said,

    July 22, 2007 at 2:21 pm

    Stever said, “If there is one good thing to come out of this it is that Denis campbells credbilty is totally shot and his serious journalism career mortally wounded.”

    Well, he’s still working for the Observer:,,2132216,00.html

    I can’t vouch for most of the assertions he makes in the story, but I have, by using a calendar, managed to verify that the 27th July 2012 actually is five years from next Friday.

    So at least he managed to get that right.

  17. j said,

    July 22, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    unbelievably bad from the observer. Instead of lazing around with a Sunday paper, I spent the morning ranting about how bad the observer is :(

    There’s a few other blogs I’ve seen covering this (Mike Stanton’s too modest to link to his own post on this; I haven’t got such scruples about linking to mine…)

  18. jimyojimbo said,

    July 22, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    Re: Michael B’s Broadcasting House transcript:

    JANET ELLIS: Why didn’t Tony Blair say what he’d done at the time?

    Thats. Not. The. Effing. Point. Is. It?


    Hurrah for Gwyneth Dunwoody, though!

  19. Mojo said,

    July 22, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    I think it moved on there the moment they misrepresented Dr. Scott.

  20. RS said,

    July 22, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    I can’t believe their use of “reporting error”, what a pathetic euphemism for their article just plain getting it wrong.

    And using ‘internal’ emails again to try and subtly smear someone they’ve misrepresented just compounds their underhand and unnaceptable use of ‘secret’ reports and emails to draw conclusions the authors explicitly disavow.

    I’ve always had a problem with science journalists attempting to shift the blame for poor science reporting back onto the scientists (a refrain that has been around for as long as I’ve been listening) but this is taking things to a new level, they are attempting to directly interpret the data themselves, which they do not have the skills to do, and simultaneously discredit the scientists whose data it is, and circumvent normal scientific scrutiny at the same time. It is the media run rampant, maybe Blair has a point about them.

    And would I be correct in inferring that they have absolutely refused to engage with the point that they cannot say that autism rates are rising based on the data in the report – i.e. that the entire basis of their article is flawed?

    The arrogance of these people is breathtaking.

  21. Skeptico said,

    July 22, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    Great work Ben. Thanks for laying this out in such a straightforward and easy to understand way. Easy to understand unless you work for The Observer, anyway. Their response is frustrating and maddening, but at least a rational response is now out there for anyone who really wants to find it.

  22. Anthony said,

    July 22, 2007 at 7:17 pm

    “I’m not anti-vaccine” says Halverson.'used-as-guinea-pigs-for-vaccines

    Yeah, right.

  23. ControlFreak said,

    July 22, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    Perhaps Shaw’s often quoted phrase need to be modified :-

    He who can, does. He who cannot, reports.

  24. DaveF said,

    July 22, 2007 at 8:55 pm

    A magnificent rant, Ben – every stinging word of it justified. It’s one that deserves widespread dissemination to every media studies course in the country.

  25. AJH said,

    July 22, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    Just sent this to th reader’s ed at the Observer:

    Sent: Sun 22/07/2007 21:01
    Subject: Your “Autism/MMR” story of 8th July – retract it now

    Dear Sir,
    I am disgusted that you have failed to retract in its entirety the complete fabrication that comprised your 8th July front page.

    I am a father of one (and have one on the way), and I am shocked and stunned that a journal of your breeding can jeopardise the health of my chilren so flagrantly in the name of circulation figures and to hell with public health,

    I am talking about the dramatic fall in takeup of vaccination (not just MMR) that has accompanied the baseless scaremongering that the media has indulged in in response to the charlatan Wakefield’s shambolic “research”. Study after study has shown Wakefield’s postulated link between MMR and Autism to be a total figment, but still the media, including your once trusted paper, flogs that dead horse to sell papers.

    I won’t go over the tissue of lies, misrepresentation, scientific illiteracy and just plain scaremongering that your Sports writer indulged in on 8th July, nor your abject failure to act like a responsible organ and correct your obvious pathetic errors, but I will say this:

    If my child or my future second child contracts measles or mumps – which will be due to the reduced herd immunity caused by unfounded fears in the public mind thanks to absolute rubbish like 8th July – then I will hold you and your ilk: editors who still run MMR/Autism scare stories, directly responsible.

    This is not a game. It’s not a conspiracy. Wakefield was wrong. MMR is safe. Your journalist had no story. You know this. Act now and print a full retraction of the 8th July front page. For the public good. For the health of my children. Or just for the sake of you own paper’s credibility.

    On re-reading the last para is a bit melodramatic, sorry about that.
    I sent something similar to Melanie Phillips a year or so ago but this is different, everyone knows MP and her paper are barking. What bothers me is what’s bothering Ben I suspect, we expect better from the Obbie.

  26. mikestanton said,

    July 22, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    I will try to be less modest this time. I have spent my Sunday googling on Observer and Autism. This is the result.

    The two main points are that the Science Media Centre were invited to the Observer on Monday or Tuesday and accompanied by two actual MMR experts laid it on the line to the journalist and his editors. Not that it did much good.

    The other one is this delightfully mischievous suggestion from Brian Deer which I gleaned from Kev Leitch’s blog.

    Brian’s modest proposal.

    “My suggestion is that people should write to the Observer and suggest that, since there is still so much confusion about the duty of reporters, and what – on this matter of grave public interest, affecting the safety of children – are a newspaper’s reasonable duties to accuracy, the Observer should join with the complaining readers and refer the matter – jointly and with agreement – to the Press Complaints Commission for adjudication.

    See what they say to that!”

  27. RS said,

    July 22, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    Ben – seen this?

  28. gadgeezer said,

    July 22, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    RS – not much comfort to you or anybody else but Unigenetics ceased to exist some time ago…

    As Fitzpatrick pointed out, however, not that the standard of work at Unigenetics, nor Bustin’s scathing expert report have done O’Leary’s career any harm.

    In May Professor O’Leary delivered his inaugural lecture (on the unrelated subject of cancer genetics) as head of the department of pathology at Trinity College Dublin (4). It seems that his status in Ireland has been unaffected by the damaging disclosures in Washington, which have received little publicity on this side of the Atlantic. Though it is not clear how O’Leary, a pathologist rather than a virologist, became involved in his collaboration with Wakefield, it is known that he set up a commercial company – Unigenetics – which received around £800,000 in legal aid funding from the UK litigation. Though he supervised the lab, it has emerged that much of the work was carried out by graduate – or even undergraduate – students. Though O’Leary has disassociated himself from Wakefield’s campaign against MMR, he has never admitted that the notion – firmly believed by many parents – that his lab had at least confirmed the presence of measles virus in their guts, was entirely false.

    Bustin’s report on the O’Leary lab was key to the collapse of the anti-MMR litigation in the UK.

  29. RS said,

    July 22, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    Heh, should have read your post first Mike.

  30. SteveNaive said,

    July 23, 2007 at 12:16 am

    I think the real damage was done when other papers picked up this garbage and regurgitated it in their own style. If it had stayed at the Observer, at least only the 500,000 readers or so would have been exposed. When the Mail on Sunday picks it up, 2.5 million uncritical readers are exposed. Unforgiveably, the Observer enabled reactionary idiots like Hitchens to rant all over again about MMR and the bullying state taking away our choice. Someone suggests above that ‘everyone’ knows that the Mail columnists are ‘barking’ – I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you’re wrong. Mostly, they lap it up.

  31. dbhb said,

    July 23, 2007 at 10:06 am

    How is it ok for them to be reading- yet alone quoting- peoples’ internal e-mail?

  32. Ambrielle said,

    July 23, 2007 at 11:21 am

    I can’t believe how furious I am about all this still.
    a. As dbhb said, they read a private (if not confidential) email and then deliberately misinterpreted it.
    b. They fabricated comments. Made them up. Lied. And then didn’t have the balls to make a proper apology.
    c. It is really, really frustrating that no-one is able to comment on their “clarification” (well, it certainly wasn’t an apology).
    d. The timing of this story was way too convenient for Wakefield (although unlikely to influence the GMC hopefully), and makes the whole episode more despicable.

    The Observer: National Sunday quality (broadsheet). Don’t make me laugh. I’m going to miss the Food Monthly though. :(

  33. marcdraco said,

    July 23, 2007 at 11:28 am

    It’s about time someone bought the observer a new pair of spectacles.

  34. Cuchulainn said,

    July 23, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    I was an Observer reader, no more.

    One of the things that really gets to me is that this was a science report written by a sports journalist. Imagine the uproar if a cricket reporter wrote an inaccurate piece about football. Retractions, chastisements… It’s such a joke.

    The lack of understanding on the process of writing a scientific paper is also damning. I’ve often seen colleagues use writing a paper as a way of getting a better handle on the data. The whole process focuses your attention on the data in a way that makes you see mistakes and polishes the whole dataset into something that is coherent. And along the way your interpretation can change radically – I’ve been involved in papers whose conclusions changed completely from those in the very early drafts as we redid analyses to try to understand what was going on and found that, frankly, we were wrong initially and our data supported conclusions that we did not see at first. And that’s the whole point of doing multiple drafts – to strengthen your argument and to make sure, before you make a public fool of yourself, that you’re not deluding yourself and that you’ve done the absolute best with the data you have, even if you don’t like the outcome.

  35. RJK said,

    July 23, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Does the Press Complaints Commission get involved with this sort of thing, or is it purely for famous people to kick up a fuss about being photographed on the way to the gym?

  36. Ambrielle said,

    July 23, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    I guess it must be up to Fiona Scott to complain about the lies they made up. Shame though, that a complaint can’t be made on behalf of the public in regards to the broader issues.

  37. wilsontown said,

    July 23, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    Strangely, the Stephen Glover in the Indie thinks that Ben is being used by Alan Rusbridger as a stick with which to beat the ‘populist’ Observer.

  38. Gimpy said,

    July 23, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    54. Proof indeed that newspapers talk shite.

  39. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 23, 2007 at 4:49 pm

    I was very disappointed with Tim Radford’s comments about this debacle on the Guardian’s media podcast. He basically took the line that you shouldn’t have scientists or people trained in science in newspapers because only lay journalists would know the questions that readers would want asked, and that we should rely on scientists to give the right answers. But isn’t it the job of an editor to make sure the right questions have been asked? And besides the Observer story had nothing to do with asking the right questions (as far as we can tell they didn’t ask any) and everything to do with basic misunderstandings of science and pushing an anti-scientific agenda. I can understand the argument about lay journalists to a certain extent – I write professionally about finance without any formal training – but in addition to asking questions a reader might, a key part of a journalist’s job is putting things in proper context, something I’m able to do because I’ve been doing my job in a specialised field and talking to people in the market for many years, longer than almost any other journalist in my sector. Denis Campbell can’t say the same thing, and it’s a scandal that he should be assigned to a story like this, that an editor didn’t pull him up on some the claims, and that the paper is still trying to defend the story. I don’t want to put the blame entirely on him, because this was obviously a top down decision, probably from Alton.

  40. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 23, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    “Strangely, the Stephen Glover in the Indie thinks that Ben is being used by Alan Rusbridger as a stick with which to beat the ‘populist’ Observer.”

    Even if it were true, damn right. The Observer needs beating into shape. It’s a disgrace.

  41. RS said,

    July 23, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    Ginger, I was actually thinking of Tim Radford in my moan about science journalists blaming all their failings on scientists above:

  42. RS said,

    July 23, 2007 at 5:53 pm


    although the placement of the Fiona Scott part is confusing, coming, as you say, under a heading of “Dr Carol Stott” and following discussion of Stott’s links with Wakefield, the article does in fact draw a distinction between Scott and Stott early on: “…we did not reveal the links between Dr Carol Stott, and Dr Andrew Wakefield…and that we did not accurately reflect the views of another of the authors, Dr Fiona Scott…”

  43. jfdbob said,

    July 23, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Shouldn’t the retraction also be on the front page?

  44. mikestanton said,

    July 23, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    For the record, Fiona Scott was involved in a private company with Carol Stott for the MMR case. She only received around £25,000 as I recall. Brian Deer has the full list on his website. Even Simon Baron-Cohen was paid £250 in expenses.

    It looks like Scott was only temporarily drawn to the dark side, unlike Stott, who is a true believer. Five years ago I thought Wakefield might be right. But no-one offered me any serious money for my opinion, which has changed, BTW!

  45. Deano said,

    July 24, 2007 at 12:09 am

    The truly shocking thing is that it looks like the ‘Observer’ decided to drop it’s normal jounalistic standards so that it could run a ‘pro-Wakefield story’ – presumably as the price for getting an ‘exclusive’ interview with him.

    That this was sanctioned from the top in the first place is the only possible explanation I can think of for why the Observer is now having to have an apology dragged out of it like a small child.

    Incidentally the Guardian is overseen by the Scott trustees – how do things work at the Observer? – is there a board of trustees to whom one could complain about the editor??

  46. ianh said,

    July 24, 2007 at 10:10 am

    Just like to add my support here. I’ve cancelled my subscription to the Observer Digital Edition as a consequence of 1. the first article(s), and 2. the inability to apologise for the grave errors made.

    They have failed in a duty of care they owe the public in reporting, and they have increased FUD on a difficult topic leading ultimately to a worse public health outcome.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve posted on my own blog about this too,

    Good work Ben on pushing this and doing such a thorough job.

  47. CaptainKirkham said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:30 am

    I stopped reading the Observer a while back for a totally trivial reason – a ridiculous, yet written as serious, two paragraph piece by someone raving about the beauty of using buses after she had been put on a budget and forced therefore to stop using taxis – that persuaded me that this paper had little or nothing to do with the real world.

    This MMR/autism debacle has confirmed my decision. Shame on them.

  48. mikestanton said,

    July 24, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    I have acted on Brian deer’s suggestion and mailed this to the Observer

    Dear Sir,
    Your recent coverage of autism and its possible connection to MMR highlights the potential conflict between a reporter’s desire to get the story out, and their obligation to ensure reasonable accuracy. This is especially so when, as in the case of MMR, this pertains to matters of grave public interest, affecting the safety of children.

    After reading Simon Pritchard’s responses there still appears to be a gulf between the Observer and dissatisfied readers regarding what are a newspaper’s reasonable duties to accuracy. I support the proposal that the Observer should join with those readers who, like myself, remain dissatisfied and refer the matter – jointly and with agreement – to the Press Complaints Commission for adjudication.

  49. RS said,

    July 24, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    I have to confess that I mostly don’t get a Sunday paper anymore – just the Saturday Guardian to tide me over for the weekend – the reason was that the Observer is just too transparently London chattering classes in its focus – the glossy magazine articles on £500 a night hotels, national restaurant guides limited to within the M25, and vacuous fashion obsessions are just that much further out of my reach than the Guardian’s teacher/civil servant/academic target audience.

  50. Dr Aust said,

    July 25, 2007 at 10:34 am

    I know what you mean, RS. The Observer is increasingly full of tedious home counties property porn , and if I canned it I would only really miss the book reviews and the sports pages. It is more the ritual of reading the paper on Sunday morning that I cling to.

  51. RS said,

    July 26, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    Anyone see this crap response in comment is free:

    I think I’d have more respect for the ‘it’s not journalists’, it’s scientists’ fault’ arguments if they were made better – scientists can be involved in dodgy spinning of their own data (Wakefield) but he’s just throwing around references to the ‘medical establishment’ without any actual basis, it’s handwaving argument of the worst kind – I’m not convined he even knows the difference between medical research and comments from the Tory shadown health secretary.

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