31 May 2010

Won't get fooled again.

Last week my son gave me an interesting insight into how we understand the world when he asked me the following question: Are all brown skinned people vegetarians? He had obviously spent a while mulling it over with all the data at his disposal: of the 30 kids in his class, maybe 8 or 9 are non-white, all of whom have some cultural or religious dietary requirements. In school dinner terms, the safest bet for religiously observant parents is to choose the vegetarian option for their offspring. So in my son's universe of 30, there was a noticeable correlation. QED.

While this is charmingly naive in a 7-year-old boy, it would be ridiculous if grown adults followed this statistical method. And yet it is actually remarkably similar to the approach used by newspaper editors when approaching a story about science and evidence. Perhaps my favourite definition of why we take a scientific approach to information is by Robert M Pirsig in Zen and the art and motorcycle maintenance: "The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn't misled you into believing you know something you actually don't know." Whereas the average newspaper editor seems to operate on the principle that the real purpose of the scientific method is to act as another branch of the entertainment industry.

It was an apposite thing to be considering as it came on the same day the GMC formally struck off Andrew Wakefield, originator of the research that led to what I can only describe as the MMR media hoax. He was not barred from practising medicine because of his bad science but rather his habit of taking blood samples for money at children's parties and performing unnecessary, and bowel-rupturing, endoscopies upon autistic children. His foot soldiers in the war on reason were the British press who ensured the story remained active beyond the point when it became clear the evidence did not support his claims.

Top of the list of offenders was, unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail, though you'd never have guessed it from Tuesday's reporting. Unusually they didn't seek a balancing quote from one of their medical experts: Carole Caplin, Carol Vorderman, Julia Carling or Jackie Fletcher. Nor did they make any mention of the hundreds of column centimetres they had given to popular readings of Wakefield's work. He was hung out to dry as the lone shooter, with the Mail denying its role behind the grassy knoll, as it was shocked, SHOCKED to discover that Wakefield had a vested interest for finding a link between autism and MMR that caused him to ignore the facts. Unlike the Daily Mail, of course.

Of all the coverage devoted to this issue, one fact that continues to amaze me. Wakefield's original research, in 1998, was not ever meant, in itself, to be proof of anything for one simple reason: it was a study based upon 12 very sick children with multiple conditions, including autism. As a sample size for proving anything it is next to useless, and any editor who couldn't see that was either staggeringly stupid or truly desperate for news. Next to this, my son's observation looks like a model of rigour and caution.

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