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Wednesday, June 12

A Sneering Smearing Of Facts

I'm not a fan of Melanie Phillips. In some cases it's about difference of opinion and politics. In some cases the reason I don't like her comes down to the way she writes using weasel language to make her point. By carefully playing on the reader's feelings, she can have her cake and eat it by stating things that are generally factual and even making some reasonable points about temperance, underpinning the whole thing with an attitude that's the opposite.

Let's take a sample article from 2004, 6 years after Andrew Wakefield's now discredited paper was published suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The medical establishment, which is to be considered a massive team of evidence-based experts on the subject, were advocating the use of the combined MMR vaccine, rather than the lesser individual vaccines, based on an older and less effective vaccination technique.

Read her article here.

Now let's explore some phrases she used in the article to show how they play on emotion and fallacies.

Andrew Wakefield first published his explosive theory - suggests a feeling about the theory not that it was reproducible, correct, incorrect, just "explosive". Is that good explosive?

the government and the medical establishment have been determined to discredit him and thus destroy his research - paints him as a victim, whose work is being attacked unfairly. The phrase that they're determined makes it sound like a vendetta, rather than the sort of determination that you'd invest in, say, saving lives.

None of this proves MMR causes either bowel disease or autism; but it certainly indicates a cause for concern - a classic "having your cake and eating it" statement. In fact, there's no established causal link, but this intimates but there might be.

countless parents have said doctors not only failed to diagnose autism or bowel disease in their children but dismissed out of hand the parents' reports - a lot of individual parents claiming something doesn't make for evidence. This is the post hoc ergo proper hoc fallacy - the parents decided that autism started after the jab, so the jab caused it. This cannot be proved by multiple anecdotes. The causal link needs to be established another way.

In any event, these studies do not prove MMR is safe. They say there is no proof it is not safe, a very different matter. This is reversal of the burden of proof. The clever thing about it is that it looks like the opposite. It's very true to say that a statement of "MMR is totally safe" puts the burden of proof on the asserter. However, the causal link with autism is in question, so the statement that "there's no proof that MMR causes autism" actually puts the burden of proof on those asserting that MMR causes autism, which on balance of evidence, it doesn't. So the statement from Ms Phillips sidesteps the angle she's coming from which is something like "ooh, there might be something dodgy about MMR".

Certainly, it is extremely worrying if parents are refusing to vaccinate their children against measles, mumps and rubella - it certainly is. Unfortunately, articles like this have a subtext of "MMR is unsafe, don't let it make your children autistic". A statement like this is almost a way of saying "well I didn't say don't vaccinate". The net result of the MMR scare, some of which was down to Wakefield and a lot of which was down to scaremongering from irresponsible reporters such as Phillips, resulted in a general feeling among the public that they shouldn't vaccinate. Doctors are still having to talk people into adopting the vaccination programme. There are outbreaks of the diseases. Herd immunity is lower than it should be. Those who are too young or too weak to be vaccinated have been unnecessarily put at risk.

the government refuse to allow the use of less worrying single jabs - since when does the efficacy of medicine get decided by "how worrying" something is? What does that even mean?

Phillips makes a good story out of the slandered doctor and the worried parents. The the facts are quite different. The doctor was acting without the checks and balances of good, ethical research. The link between the research and a class action to prove a link between the vaccine and autism was clearly an influence in the outcome. The fact that evidence-based medicine was put up against this bunch of logical fallacies and emotive arguments, shielded in a gloss of faux-concern is why I think Phillips should apologise to the families whose children were needlessly affected by the lack of immunity to these diseases.

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