The Observer replies over Wakefield, autism and MMR.

This Sunday The Observer nearly apologizes for its disgraceful front page report on Autism a fortnight ago. But they still don’t get it. Today’s Observer says that,

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.

  •  Final Report in this context means final report to the funding body. It cannot be equated with the final report of the research team to their peers. This was an academic work in progress. When they eventually spoke to Professor Baron-Cohen the Observer learned that the data in the report is still being analysed and is therefore incomplete. Therefore it is not a legitimate source for their story.
  • The Observer claims they were unable to contact Dr Scott prior to publication. Post publication, the Times and the Telegraph had no problem contacting Dr Scott.
  • Meanwhile Dr Scott had to contact the Observer via their online comments form in order to respond to their misrepresentation of her views. But they are able t0 quote “internal” (i.e. private) emails from Dr Scott.
  • So we have a prestigious national newspaper that has access to a private document (the interim report of the research team to its funding agency) and access to the private emails of one of the researchers. But said newspaper is unable to obtain public access to either the lead researcher (Professor Simon Baron-Cohen) or Dr Scott prior to publication.
  • Here is a thought. Why didn’t the Observer delay publication until after they had spoken to  Professor Baron-Cohen and Dr. Scott? This was not breaking news. They could have waited. Surely, this report’s timing was not influenced by the same reporter’s “exclusive” interview with Andrew Wakefield in the same issue, prior to his disciplinary hearing before the GMC?
  • Here is another thought. Someone offers the Observer a story on a plate: leaked report; leaked emails; background briefing. Oh, and while you are at it, how about an exclusive interview with the main man? 
  • Should they check it out or accept it uncritically? What do you think happened?

Meanwhile, today’s statement merely compounds their error. To continue:

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.

  • Do tell. Which one of the authors described 1 in 58 as our primary analysis? Dr Stott, anybody?

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.

  • A very misleading error in my opinion. And just to be clear, reporting errors are made by reporters. Editing errors are made by editors. People screwed up here. The people should admit their error and apologize.

There’s more.

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.

  • So Stott and Wakefield are both employees of Thoughtful House? They bump into each other in the canteen now and again? Not exactly. Wakefield is Executive Director of Thoughtful House. Stott is a senior researcher there. She and Wakefield have issued joint press releases answering critics of Thoughtful House.  Does that make it clear?

It gives me no pleasure to see a newspaper like the Observer squirm like this. Your sister paper, the Guardian, has already published a damning critique of the whole affair. Why continue to defend the indefensible when a simple, “Sorry, we were wrong.” would have sufficed?

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10 thoughts on “The Observer replies over Wakefield, autism and MMR.

  1. Pingback: » Mike vs Observer - Autism Blog, Web Design Blog

  2. I can’t believe how immature and unreasonable the Observer are being about this. Maybe its just that I consider it ‘my’ paper (in that its my regular Sunday read) but I really expected better from them. Sad.

  3. There’s such a long history of fabricating stories about MMR that reporters think they can get away with it. This individual – plainly targeted by Wakefield’s people as someone who was too gullible, and probably too lazy to know or care whether the story was true or not – went the extra mile and cooked the story to get it on the front.

    You have to remember that newspaper reporters for the most part live in fear for their jobs. You’ll have noticed that Olmstead has just been fired by the Moonie UPI, after clinging to his desk for a year with his “age of autism” garbage.

    How long before this Observer guy is sent back to where he belongs.

  4. Pingback: More terrible Observer MMR coverage « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  5. It has gone beyond one ‘Observer guy’ – the response team continues to compound the errors. Along with other people, I’ve been nagging the Guardian to correct the 1 in 58 figure – but the only response that we’ve had is that they’re looking into it because it is ‘technical’. So – not technical enough to trigger the thought that perhaps they ought to have run the original story past an appropriately-qualified/experienced person – but no too technical that they can’t correct it on the say-so (with references) of the people who complain about it.

    Just so we’re all clear on this…

  6. Evidently the words “primary analysis” are in the document and due to one or more of the authors. I think Ben Goldacre said that “primary analysis” is another technical term in science papers and doesn’t mean “an absolute fact that you must put in the newspaper”, just as “final” doesn’t mean “finished”.

  7. Normally ‘primary analysis’ means ‘anything else I do won’t be corrected for multiple comparisons’, which is ‘technical’ in some senses of the word I guess.

  8. Pingback: Media Response to the Observer and Autism « Action For Autism

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