The Daily Mail (6 February)is still pushing the MMR/Autism myth. The Mail’s last attempt to revive its anti-MMR campaign failed miserably when the hapless Melanie Phillips attempted to rubbish the Cochrane Review which concluded that there was no credible evidence for a link between MMR vaccine and autism. IMHO she came off worse in a subsequent exchange with Ben Goldacre whose Bad Science column is the first thing I turn to in the Guardian. Mike Fitzpatrick provides an excellent summary at Spiked Online.
This time round they decided they needed a proper scientist and found Dr Peter Fletcher. According to the Mail, “In the late Seventies, Dr Fletcher served as Chief Scientific Officer at the DoH and Medical Assessor to the Committee on Safety of Medicines, meaning he was responsible for deciding if new vaccines were safe.” In 2001 he was a referee for Andrew Wakefield’s paper “Through A Glass Darkly,” which suggested that the licence for the MMR vaccine had been granted prematurely and serious concerns about its safety had been ignored. Dr Fletcher appeared to concur with this view but still told the BBC that
Dr Wakefield’s research paper did not contain any extra evidence to alarm parents, but that this would be the inevitable effect. He said: “Parents should definitely continue to have their children immunised against these illnesses.”
Dr Fletcher is made of sterner scientific stuff than Melanie Phillips, or myself for that matter. But he is only one scientist. There are many more who have opposed his support for Andrew Wakefield. See for example this article from the Health Protection Agency. The Department of Health was equally adament in its dismissal of Wakefield’s claims.
It is pertinent that Dr Fletcher is an expert witness on behalf of parents of autistic children pursuing claims for compensation against manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. In common with Kenneth Aitken PhD, another expert witness on this subject, he seems to have sacrificed his scientific objectivity in favour of a subjective identification with the concerns of the parents.
While it is easy to dismiss rogue scientists and in some cases point to a financial incentive for their roguery, the fact remains that there are a significant number of scientific and medical experts who are sufficiently persuaded by their contact with disaffected parents of autistic children to become passionate campaigners and abandon their previous commitment to dispassionate research.
Having been through the mill myself, I feel that parents are right to feel disaffected. We are fobbed off with inadequate provision. We are patronised. We are insulted. And, surprise, surprise, this makes us passionate in advocating for our children. So when we find a doctor or a scientist who actually sympathises with us we tend to give them fierce and undying loyalty. Professionals who are seduced by this heady mixture can be forgiven for losing their objectivity.
But when you sacrifice your objectivity you cease to be of any use to the parents you seek to serve. You may find yourself guilty by association with scientific illiterates and no longer a credible supporter or witness for the parents whose cause you have adopted as your own.
So I wonder what Dr. Fletcher makes of previous Mail columns by Ms Philips in which she asserts that evolution is a “flawed theory” while defending faith schools which teach Intelligent (sic) Design or others where she attacks theories of global warming as “global fraud.” Come on, Peter! Are you really happy with the company you are keeping?
My final message is for the government.
Have you ever considered why parents turn to bad science? It is because you do so little for us and our children. Government responses to autism are so bad that bad science like Andy Wakefield’s theories and snake oil remedies from DAN! seem preferable to some parents. You could make this whole MMR debate irrelevant if you spent a lot more time and money on positive autism specific policies and less defending the present indefensible status quo and producing ill thought out legislation that adds to our difficulties.