Medicine and the Media

On the heels of the Wakefield news: Awesome

[…] the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will donate $10 billion over the next 10 years to the cause of fighting disease around the globe through vaccines and immunizations.

Ben Goldacre reminds us that Andrew Wakefield did not operate in a vacuum and takes the media to task. As always, fear sells, and the media did plenty of fear-mongering and too little fact checking (or simple fact reporting).

But there is the wider context: Wakefield was at the centre of a media storm about the MMR vaccine, and is now being blamed by journalists as if he were the only one at fault. In reality, the media are equally guilty.

Even if it had been immaculately well conducted – and it certainly wasn’t – Wakefield’s “case series report” of 12 children’s clinical anecdotes would never have justified the conclusion that MMR causes autism, despite what journalists claimed: it simply didn’t have big enough numbers to do so. But the media repeatedly reported the concerns of this one man, generally without giving methodological details of the research, either because they found it too complicated, inexplicably, or because to do so would have undermined their story.

As the years passed by, media coverage deteriorated further. Claims by researchers who never published scientific papers to back up their claims were reported in the newspapers as important new scientific breakthroughs, while at the very same time, evidence showing no link between MMR and autism, fully published in peer reviewed academic journals, was simply ignored. This was cynical, and unforgivable. Then, after Tony Blair refused to say if his son had received the vaccine, the commentators rolled in. Experts from Carol Vorderman to Fiona Philips from GMTV have all shared their concerns about MMR with the nation. Less than a third of all broadsheet reports on MMR in 2002 mentioned that the overwhelming evidence showed no link between MMR and autism.

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

Speaking of the media and fear-mongering, or flat-out getting it wrong.  Mark Crislip at Science-Based Medicine goes after the media, and The Atlantic specifically, for their reporting on the effectiveness of Tamiflu.  It is a long and informative article and I encourage you to click through.

The review says Tamiflu is modestly effective.
The conclusion says “Because of the moderate effectiveness of neuraminidase inhibitors, we believe they should not be used in routine control of seasonal influenza.”
Fact, then Spin.
And the drug rep, er, I mean Atlantic says it is nearly worthless.
Lots of unjustified spin.
Remember the conclusion of the review, “Evidence for or against their benefit for preventing complications of influenza is insufficient.”
Pretty mild. The BMJ has an nice discussion on the information, as such as can be determined, from the studies on prevention. By themselves they showed no efficacy but did (may be) when combined. But with no access to the data, there remains uncertainty.

Do drug companies hide and spin important information? Do drug companies inflict bias into studies? Do drug companies influence doctors prescribing habits? Is homeopathy nothing but water?
Yes. It is why you need to consider the entire medical literature.


We also need the 4th estate to write and publish quality articles on science and medicine and not go for the easy story of good and bad and obscure importance detail in inflammatory prose. It would be nice if the 4th estate took the time to, oh, maybe actually understand the nuances involved in influenza prevention and treatment.


2 thoughts on “Medicine and the Media

  1. The way this happened — this person used the title of “scientist” — but he was not a scientists — he found a way to use the label “scientist” to get rich or at least enrich his income.

    He believed something to the point that he was willing to bastardize the Scientific Method (see Wikipedia for a good introduction to the Scientific method).

    SCARE SCIENCE — is what we are seeing from some scientist —

    This is another SCARE science — an interview with a scientist who gave an opinion — which was NOT backed by research or even any data. The scientist from India said that the Himalayan Glaciers would melt by 2035. So the UN Climate report — added the bit about a 90% probability of this happening — again not based on any SCIENCE.

    There is a reason why the Science Method has evoked using — research — observation, formulating a hypothesis, researching — accepting or rejecting the hypothesis, and sharing data (publishing the research) — plus peer reviews.

    Andrew Wakefield bypassed much of what we consider the scientific method — and he didn’t seem to be seeking the truth. Above all science is about seeking the Truth. Scientist need to reveal where their funding for research comes from — Wakefield didn’t do that.

    For some reason we are seeing a whole lot of SCARE science — or it is suddenly being exposed or coming under closer skeptical observation?


    1. Yeah, that’s an interesting story. What I think started out as an innocent mistake (misreading the date) then became a line in the sand, and there may very well have been a feeling of not wanting to “upset the apple cart” so to speak.

      And yes, it’s a pity not very many people understand the scientific method:


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