Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Bad Science and Ben Goldacre vs LBC

I have been following Ben Goldacre's Bad Science blog for a couple of years now. It is an excellent read. He really gets into the detail of medical and pharmaceutical issues with an endearingly self-confessed nerdiness. I also read his Bad Science book before Christmas and I can highly recommend it.

One of the issues of recent years that he has campaigned most strongly on is the MMR hoax which erroneously linked the triple jabs for measles, mumps and rubella with bowel disorders and autism. Just to clarify, there is no credible evidence of any link at all. However that has not stopped much of the media from very strongly giving the impression that there might be a link and that scientists are unsure. They are not unsure, there is no evidence. Ben's valiant efforts to expose the misreporting of this issue have been very much appreciated by those of us who believe in the scientific method and using a solid evidence base to make decisions. Although I have no children (yet) I would not hesitate to give them the triple jab.

Anyway, he seems to have got himself into a spot of bother with LBC about this issue. He posted an entry a few days ago which strongly criticised Jeni Barnett, an LBC radio presenter who had run a phone-in show on MMR. Rather than be impartial, she had taken a strong anti-MMR stance and was highly critical of those who disagreed with her. I am not going to go over it all again as it is covered in the links in this post but one of things Ben did was to post a 45 minute excerpt from the offending LBC show on his blog as he felt that it was only by doing this that he could avoid accusations of taking things out of context. I have listened to the excerpt and Barnett's inability to grasp basic scientific concepts is utterly shocking. She is also hectoring and rude to the callers who disagree with her.

LBC then contacted Ben and threatened him with legal action if he did not take the clip down. He has now done so, even though he felt that the use of the clip was fair. However I think LBC have grossly underestimated the power of the internet. There is a phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect which says that any attempt to censor or remove a piece of information from the internet is doomed to backfire. Indeed that has proved that case as the excerpt has now been put onto wikileaks and is hosted in all sorts of other places following the threat. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that many more people will now have listened to the clips online due to LBCs actions than would have been the case if they had kept their legal department at bay.

Jeni Barnett did post a half-hearted apology on her blog which did not in my opinion go far enough but to give her her due she has allowed comments on there and appears not to have attempted to censor them. Many of the comments are extremely critical of her and her approach and go to the heart of why what she did was so irresponsible.

This whole episode to me demonstrates why it is dangerous to allow ill-informed people to have lots of airtime to espouse their views largely unopposed. I am of course for freedom of speech but there is a real risk that when people like Barnett get on their soapbox about issues they know nothing about, that people will act upon their advice and they will then in this case be risking their own and other children's health. It can surely be no coincidence that the measles rate has shot up in the last few years as the vaccination rates have commensurately dropped due to this bogus scare of the last few years. At the very least, Barnett should have had someone like Goldacre on the show to stand up for the opposing view.

It has also been heartening to see the level of support in the poltical blogosphere for Ben. Here are a few examples of those who have posted in support of him:

Sunny on Liberal Conspiracy
Harry's Place
Unity on Ministry of Truth

EDIT 1: Following a comment from Lonely Wanderer below it appears that Jeni has now decided to get rid of all the comments on the thread I referred to, so I withdraw the credit I gave her for that. She can't even run a blog properly and has no idea of the etiquette. You don't just delete all comments to a post en masse.

EDIT 2: The Quackometer has archived the deleted blog post and comments here. Also, Ben has done a follow up post here and it is great to see just how many people (some very influential) have now got involved with this campaign.

1 comment:

Lonely Wonderer said...

"... to give her her due she has allowed comments on [her blog] and appears not to have attempted to censor them"
Not any more!