Giving space to Andrew Wakefield on MMR isn't balance, it's lunacy

The Independent should not have run the discredited doctor's claims on its front page today, says Martin Robbins.

The photograph below is all that the majority of parents with young children will see of the Independent today, waiting in supermarket queues or flicking through magazine racks. The front page quotes a doctor – never mind that he was struck off in order to protect patients – saying he was right about the MMR-autism scare. And so the zombie controversy rises from the dead again.

There are three realities that need to be addressed here right at the start. First, the MMR vaccine is safe, many tens of millions of doses have been administered worldwide, the data show no link between MMR and autism. As with any medicine there are occasional side effects, in some cases these might be serious, but the benefits far outweigh the slight risks.

Second, single vaccines are less safe than MMR. They are less convenient, leading to poor uptake and more children being unprotected for longer; and they have had far less testing.  If the NHS were to start touting single vaccines as an alternative then not only would it have a negative impact on public health, it would be taken as evidence that the problem was real, potentially leading to a catastrophic loss of public confidence in vaccines (remember Tony Blair’s role in all of this).

Third, Andrew Wakefield is about as discredited as it is possible for a doctor to get. He was found to have ordered invasive investigations on children without either the qualifications or authority to do so. He conducted research on nine children without Ethics Committee approval. He mismanaged funds, and accepted tens of thousands of pounds from lawyers attempting to discredit the MMR vaccine, being found by the GMC to have intentionally misled the Legal Aid Board in the process.  He was not just dishonest, unprofessional and dangerous; his contempt for the rules and regulations that safeguard children in research projects was vile.

Wakefield’s research was unconvincing at the time and swiftly refuted, yet the ‘controversy’ over MMR has raged for years, fuelled almost entirely by credulous idiots in the media.

As Ben Goldacre wrote almost three years ago:

“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 same time, evidence showing no link between MMR and autism, reviewed academic journals, was simply ignored. This was cynical and unforgivable.”

And yet, three years after Wakefield was struck off and the Telegraph’s best journalist, Tom Chivers, wrote “so, farewell then, Dr Andrew Wakefield”, here we are again with Britain’s most dangerous doctor since Harold Shipman given pride of place on the Independent’s front page.

The villain, now firmly at the heart of America’s quack autism-cure industry, has come to gloat even as 60 measles-afflicted children are sent to hospital beds in Swansea.

What impression does the Independent website give of the MMR ‘controversy’?

On Twitter, the Independent's health writer Jeremy Laurance has spent the day demanding that critics read the whole piece. “Jeeezus!”, he responded to Ben Goldacre and others at one point, “U have NOT read the story.” What Laurance fails to understand is that few people ever do read the whole story. Any competent journalist understands that people tend to grab the information at the top, and don’t always stick around until the end of the piece. 

And besides, it’s not just the headline. Laurance’s article continues to put Wakefield’s point of view for a further 14 paragraphs, before giving over barely half that space to one contrary voice, addressing only a fraction of the points made. It would be a great example of the false balance inherent in ‘he-said, she-said’ reporting, except that it isn’t even balanced – Laurance provides a generous abundance of space for Wakefield to get his claims and conspiracy theories across, and appends a brief response from a real scientist at the end. 

The Independent’s deputy editor, Archie Bland, protests that ‘it’s not as if we give [Wakefield] unqualified airtime’. Well no, but few disclaimers – calling him ‘discredited’ for example - do not address this problem of giving Wakefield a big national platform in the first place.  As Dave Jones puts it, “why do the media give a lone, discredited voice in the darkness an equal platform as the whole body of scientific evidence? Is that balance?”

On top of this, Wakefield gets his own entire article, a further 12 paragraphs apparently copied verbatim from a days-old press release, linked to prominently on the Indie’s homepage. This isn’t health journalism, it’s simple, unadulterated PR.

Earlier, Ben Goldacre asked Laurance the following on Twitter: “How on earth can the Independent justify running 12 paragraphs today on MMR by Wakefield himself?” Laurance replied, “So what do u suggest? That we ignore him and let him go on spreading poison? Or answer him, point by point, as we have done?”

There’s a difference though, isn’t there, between ‘not ignoring’ someone, and putting their opinions on the front page of a national newspaper; just as there is a difference between answering somebody’s claims, and republishing them verbatim on page 5 of the same national newspaper.

Jeremy Laurance has a history of reacting badly to the idea that health and science journalists deserve scrutiny. What he doesn’t seem to grasp is that this is not an abstract public health debate between a few angry people on Twitter - he, and journalists like him, are putting the lives of real children at risk, their clumsy reporting stoking unwarranted fears about a safe vaccine.

Andrew Wakefield and supporters in 2010. Photo: Getty

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.