By Keir Liddle
The science community can often be suspicious of journalists – given their tendency to misrepresent, misreport and misunderstand scientific research and their habit in particular of framing health issues as either “what will kill you” or reporting findings as “Miracle cures”. However it appeared Brian Deer was different – after all his fantastic investigative journalism into MMR and Andrew Wakefield helped inoculate us all against the MMR media hoax – if you haven’t already you can read about it here.
Indeed Mr Deer was recently appeared on ABC’s Rear Vision discussing the GMC’sproceedings against Wakefield but unfortunately – like so many journalists before him he used this opportunity to display some crucial misunderstandings about how science works and proceeds. You can read the full transcript here.
The interview starts promisingly enough with Deer rightly laying into the media for starting the scare and propagating it in the quest for readers:
That newspaper industry is so competitive that the opportunity to frighten its readers with scares over vaccines was just too good to resist. And the thing about vaccine scares is they’re absolutely perfect for the sale of media products. I mean Aristotle said that the only thing that moves the public is fear or pity. And the thing about vaccine scares is you have both. You have public fear of vaccination, and you have the pity for the victims. And then you have this other phenomenon that a newspaper particularly can sell media product as the scare develops.
Deer then goes on to detail Wakefields poor research practices and his links with anti-vaccination groups and his employment with a firm of lawyers in order to make the case against vaccination. He describes Wakefields research as a “piece of scientific confectionery”: presumably just the sort that melts in the mouth.
Dr Wakefield had started this scare by telling people that they should boycott the MMR vaccine and have their children vaccinated with single shots, measles, mumps and rubella at yearly intervals. And I discovered that he’d actually, nine months before he said this, he had patented his own single measles vaccine. So we revealed that. Then we revealed the enormous sums of money, 435,643 pounds, plus expenses he’d got from the lawyers to promote the scare, and as an hourly rate, which meant that the longer the thing went on, the more money he made.
So you can see Deers contribution to the exposing and reporting of bad science cannot be in doubt and his work must surely be lauded by those with an interest in public health. However Brian Deer also reveals in this same interview some very odd ideas about scientists and peer review:
People assume that these are learned journals handing down wisdom from Mount Olympus. In fact, they’re just another kind of magazine; they’re just another kind of media product that somebody is trying to sell, they’re trying to sell them to doctors, mostly. And the thing about, people very rarely focus on with these kind of publications, is it’s all anonymous.
Well this may well be the case for some journals – but for the whole system of scientific publication? It amounts really to a trivial truth that journals disseminate research to scientists. Also the point about anonymity is a perplexing one as anyone who works in research will be aware the amount of studies you have published has great implications for your career. A researcher doesn’t want their name to be kept off a research paper they want their name on as many research papers as possible.
This leads me to conclude that Deer may be conflating the process of anonymous review with anonymous publication – publication is not anonymous when a paper appears in a journal the scientist or researcher who wrote it is accountable for the data and conclusions contained within. Scientific process hedges on the idea that work is falsifiable – I’m not sure if I am understanding Deer correctly but he seems to be suggesting that we should abandon the ethical compulsion to protect participants identity so that other folks can believe they exist; a worrying and frankly odd statement:
You can imagine what would happen in national newspapers if all the facts were anonymized, you can imagine what journalists would get up to. And I believe that that’s what scientists get up to, behind the veil of anonymous research they’re involved in all kinds of misconduct of which this was just one example.
Well I don’t think we really need to imagine what the press get up to “under a veil of anonymity”… Heather Brooke (the journalist who broke the expenses scandal) is vocal about her opposition for the British presses habit of anonymizing sources (taken from her website):
one of the more dubious practices of the British press is the way reporters collude with officials by granting anonymity…
The reason these people insist on anonymity is simply to exercise power without accountability. Anonymity = deniability.
So far from being an open and transparent press we can see that the press may actually collude in exactly the sort of behaviour Brian Deer accused scientists of: under the banner of “sources say” who knows how many untruths or propaganda have filtered into the press? Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, also critically appraised the presses tendency to take the official word as truth – because modern journalists have little time to attend press conferences or fact check. The following quote is from Nick Davies Flat Earth News website:
Working with a network of off-the-record sources, Davies uncovered the story of the prestigious Sunday newspaper which allowed the CIA and MI6 to plant fiction in its columns; … the respected quality paper which was so desperate for scoops that it hired a conman to set up a front company to entrap senior political figures. He found papers supporting law and order while paying cash bribes to bent detectives and hiring private investigators to steal information.
Davies details these cases and more in his excellent book “Flat Earth News” (which I heartily recommend) but we don’t have to look to the past to see how poorly the press can behave – we have our very own press scandal taking place just now: The Murdoch papers phone scandal.
The idea that the press are somehow more accountable then scientists is, I believe, a complete and utter fantasy to quote from a comment left on my article about Simon Jenkins:
If only scientists had some such means to keep their methods in check. Say, some kind of process subjecting their findings to review by their peers. What a novel idea.