One of the things we talked about a few weeks ago when the Science Media Centre came to visit was the Andrew Wakefield MMR controversy, which seems to be back with a vengeance this weekend. Even after having his controversial paper linking measles vaccines to autism withdrawn by the Lancet some years ago, and subsequently being struck off, Wakefield is again being given space in the papers to explain himself even as the measles outbreak that many blame him for spreads. Everyone in the media now knows that his work has been discredited, and can see the potentially tragic consequences of his campaign. But we just can’t seem to let it go completely.
Why is that? The SMC press officers weren’t surprised that the media got excited when his paper was first published in 1998: how can you expect the papers to ignore a major study under the imprimatur of the Lancet? But as the controversy and questions over his work grew – long before 2010, when the paper was finally withdrawn – they couldn’t understand why some journalists obstinately stuck with him.
But I think I understand. The impression I get is that scientists, who are even-handed, evidence-based and impartial in their work, think that journalists are the same: but they aren’t. Reporters are romantics. They don’t get into journalism to magisterially weigh the evidence; they want to use the power of the media to redress injustice and battle powerful lobbies – to fight for the weak against the strong.
This is most clearly seen in consumer journalism, of course, where, if it emerges that a reader’s complaint against a big company has no foundation, the whole investigation is simply dropped. No one runs “Tribune reader attempts petty fraud on multinational” stories in the consumer pages. If the strong are in the right, there’s no story.
But that guiding principle gets particularly tricky in specialist subjects. Science reporters, especially, can’t possibly know as much about the subject as the researchers in the field; so they replace that knowledge gap with that combination of suspicion, compassion, cynicism and inquisitiveness known as “news sense”. Confronted with something like the thalidomide scandal, they don’t understand the in-utero biochemistry, but they see a pharmaceuticals company with a “wonder drug”, a series of personal tragedies for families, some high-profile dissidents in the scientific community – and they start to wonder.
And the instinctive romantic’s support for the outsider also comes into play. The parallels aren’t exact, but if you compare the treatment of the now-discredited Wakefield and the now-vindicated 2011 Nobel chemistry prize winner Dan Shechtman, in a certain light they look very similar. Shechtman was an outlier for years in his belief in the existence of quasicrystals: the great Linus Pauling rebuked him publicly and repeatedly (“There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists”) to the extent that he was almost fired from his job. It took years and years to bring a hostile scientific community round to his point of view. But he was right all along.
At the start, Wakefield seemed to have all the same characteristics of the courageous loner. Add in the thalidomide-like elements of personal disasters for families on one side, and Big Pharma making money on the other, and the combination was simply irresistible for the press. Of course Wakefield was being rubbished, the thinking went; isn’t that how the scientific community deals with its dissenters? Isn’t that what pharmaceuticals PRs are paid to do? It took years of patient research rebuttals and damning revelations against Wakefield himself, and the complete withdrawal of all official backing for him in 2010, before most of the media got the message.
We never normally need to be judicial; on the one occasion when we really needed to be, we couldn’t manage it, or at least not in time.
And some people still can’t.