2013-11-14

The Extremes of Creation or the Creation of Extremes (Christmas is coming & there are excellent books to be had)



The Ramble

I had planned to write two separate posts (I’m not sure my ramblings below quite merit the description of “reviews”) on these two books but they both arrived on my door mat around the same time, I have some similar things to say about both books (and their authors), and, if you select one on Amazon, the other pops up as a recommendation and you can buy the pair for a reduced price. Here, then, is my two for the price of one offer.

My first, and only (until now), attempt at posting my thoughts on a book I had read was not, I fear, an unbridled source of joy for the author. He obviously skim-read my post and decided it was a hagiography and tweeted lots of nice things back. He then, apparently, re-read my post (just as hurriedly) and decided it was a hatchet-job and promptly deleted all his nice tweets. In fact my post was a well-balanced mixture of high praise and trenchant criticism.

Spoiler alert:

This time round I have only nice things to say about my target books and their authors.

But first some personal history:

A long long time ago in this very universe, I went to university and studied biochemistry and genetics. After a year’s research work at Newcastle University I got my first permanent job at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow. For various reasons, I hated it. The final straw came when one day, during the coffee break, my boss picked up the Daily Mail (they were all graduates, PhDs, clinicians, professors even; but they all seemed to read the Daily Mail) and read out one of their ghastly headlines to the assembled company of coffee drinkers – something about brown people coming in droves to “our” country to sponge off “our” benefits while taking all “our” jobs and giving us all cancer. Everyone in the room (bar me) tutted and shook their heads in disapproval. I regret to this day not having had the courage to stand up and shout “for fuck’s sake you don’t actually believe this shite do you?”, but I just slunk quietly out of the room.

I quit my science job, studied philosophy, and then philosophy of science and somehow ended up in an obscure field of IT. I’ve certainly had an interesting career. But I’ve always missed science and always tried to keep up with what was going on – mainly by reading popular science literature (a couple of examples of which I am, don’t worry, eventually going to get round to discussing).

To come finally to the point, in my day, all the cool people (or so it seemed at the time) were doing philosophy and social science and politics; and all the people doing science were irredeemably uncool.

Now, quite suddenly there seems to be a whole new generation of astonishingly cool, media savvy, young science communicators out there who don’t seem to read the Daily Mail. I consider myself privileged to have lived long enough to witness such a thing. It has made the job of passing on a love of (or at least respect for) science to my two kids so much easier and has enriched my own life to an (to me) unexpected extent.

So today I wish to pay my respects to the writing efforts of two members of this new generation: Adam Rutherford (geneticist) and Kevin Fong (space doctor). Both have combined successful endeavours in their chosen disciplines with successful careers as science presenters – being good at doing science is (I have often had cause to reflect) no guarantee whatsoever of being good at communicating the subject.

Actually (sorry Adam and Kevin) I think my favourite TV science presenter and science writer of all is (Adam Rutherford’s mentor) Steve Jones, but even he wasn’t on TV in my day and (sorry Steve) isn’t anything like as photogenic as Adam and Kevin. Steve J may appeal to old gits like me but is, I suspect, somewhat less likely to appeal to a younger generation.

The Books

Both Kevin and Adam have recycled some of the material they presented in their excellent TV programmes in their books. Though I watched both these series, as someone who almost always gets disturbed during TV programmes by cats and/or kids and/or spousal demands for cups of tea, and as someone who tends to forget most of what I do see on TV, I did not find this any kind of impediment to my enjoyment of the books.

While there are – as I’ve repeatedly noted – various parallels that can be drawn here, the two books could hardly be less similar. Kevin Fong’s book Extremes is, I suppose you could say, a slightly odd collage of autobiography, physiology, and medical anecdote; but this description utterly fails to do it justice. After the first few paragraphs you are completely hooked. Extremes grips you like a thriller. Actually I’ve never read a thriller. I once read a “whodunit” and was little wiser even after I’d got to the dénouement. But my point is that the book is amazingly readable and exciting and (unlike my whodunit – at least when it was uploaded into my cerebellum) knits (what might seem at first blush, to be) a disparate set of themes into a fully coherent piece of writing.

The writing has a beautiful economy of style. There is no redundancy or unnecessary verbiage in Kevin Fong’s prose and he discusses some astonishingly heart-rending and moving events while steering well clear of any sentimentality or sensationalism or ghoulishness.

There is nothing in the book to scare even the most hard-core science-phobe and even the most hard-core science-phile will still learn a thing or two and enjoy it immensely. Both groups will be moved to tears on several occasions.

Adam Rutherford’s book will, I suppose, scare some people[1]; but, if you are one of those people, it is worth your while to overcome your fears.

The book addresses probably the two most fascinating questions concerning life: where did it come from and where is it going? It addresses these questions from the point of view of the science of Genetics.

The answer to first question is, in a sense, of limited scientific value. We shall almost certainly never know for certain how life got going on our planet and (spoiler alert) we know that it did. But figuring out how nature could have got round the Catch 22 of abiogenesis (a code of life – qua life – requires a system that can read and replicate that code; a system that can read and replicate a code must itself be the result of reading and acting upon a code) is one of those questions that seems (to me at least) entirely worth pursuing for its own sake. And, in the second part of Adam’s book, we begin to see how attempts to answer such fundamental questions may have all kinds of practical implications in the longer term. Again (yet another spoiler alert) Adam Rutherford explains how the pieces of the puzzle have begun to fall into place and relates experiments that have provided an wonderful solution to the central Catch 22 described above.

The answers provided to the second question in Adam Rutherford’s book (Where is life going?) involve not dire speculation about a Frankensteinian (is there such a word?) future but a detailed examination of some quite incredible developments in our understanding of how genetic mechanisms work and how we can use our new understanding to manipulate and modify those mechanism – and even come up with our own novel variations.

While Adam Rutherford’s book is extremely well written, his prose is (it has to be admitted) much denser than the prose in Extremes – “dense” in the sense that there is often a lot of information packed into short runs of text. (Again, I’m not criticising here, merely suggesting that you should save your glass of wine for after reading each chapter rather than drinking it at the same time. Such self-denial will pay dividends if you wish to get the most out of this book. Please note, I’m not hereby suggesting that it is okay to read Kevin Fong’s while completely trolleyed. And, out of deference to Kevin’s genetics – which make it a bad idea for him to get completely trolleyed – I read Kevin’s book while never fortifying myself with anything stronger than a cup of tea. But I digress once again.)

But there are some quite astonishingly fun aspects of Adam Rutherford’s book too:

  1. The outermost blank pages (there’s probably a technical term for these [2]) of the hardback edition (I’ve not seen the softback yet) come in colours that make Las Vegas on acid seem subdued. Just opening the book without sunglasses on made my retinas bleed. If Adam Rutherford thinks these colours anything other than highly alarming, he needs to get his OPN1LW and OPN1MW genes checked out.
  2. The two halves of the book are opposite ways up – you read about the origin of life from one end and then have to turn it the other way up to read about the future of life from the other end. Whichever way you put it on your bookshelf, it looks the wrong way up when viewed from the wrong side.
  3. It contains hidden references to cinema films – another of Adam Rutherford’s passions.
So if forced to choose one of these two books, Extremes or Creation, for Christmas this year, which should you go for?

My unequivocal answer:

Fuck it, they’re both out in paperback [3]. Get them both!




[1] The cover even scared me.

[2] It seems they are called "end papers" - thanks to @Suw (on Twitter) for that information.

[3] It also seems that Creation doesn't come out in softback until February 6th - thanks to @AdamRutherford (on Twitter) for that information.

2013-10-13

Why Michael Gove's special adviser is wrong about genes and education; and why you probably are too.



The Guardian this week reported that Michael Gove's special adviser Dominic Cummings had "provoked outrage" by claiming that "up to 70% of a child's performance is related to his or her genes".

Now I don't know whether Dominic Cummings has been quoted correctly here [1], but - assuming he has - I should like to make four rather bold statements (and then try and justify them):
  1. Dominic Cummings is talking complete nonsense.
  2. What Dominic Cummings intended to say is probably true.
  3. Even if what Dominic Cummings intended to say is true, this has the opposite implication to the implication he thinks it has.
  4. Whether your politics are, right or left, your views on genetics and education are almost certainly back-to-front too.
Let us take the second point first:

I suspect what Dominic Cummings intended to say is that "up to 70% of the variation in children's performances is related to their genes".

To see why this statement (rather than the one he apparently made) is probably true, we need only consider the following simple thought experiment:

Imagine you adopted two randomly chosen children born one the same day (Mary and Jane) and gave them exactly the same upbringing, environment, life experiences, and education. (Of course that would be impossible in practice, but this is only a thought experiment.) Now imagine that we tested them both (several times perhaps to make sure one of them was not having an off day) at eighteen years old and Mary got straight Bs and Jane got straight Cs.

The variation in the results of the two individuals must, I hope you see, be entirely due to their respective genetic makeups.

Now let's repeat the thought experiment but provide much better education. This time (we could imagine) Mary gets straight As and Jane gets straight Bs. The variation in the results of the two individuals must still be 100% due to their respective genetic makeups. The improvement in results is, however, entirely due to the change in environment - specifically the improvement in education.

This observation illustrates why, as given, Dominic Cummings's statement (as I claim above in "1") is drivel. The 70% figure relates to the explanation for the variation in a population not to the performance of an individual.

Of course, as I expect almost everyone agrees, the variation in academic achievement (and many other attributes) of the population depends on a complex mixture of factors. Teasing out the relative contributions of the various factors is far more tricky than you might think. Even if we take something like height - which is far easier to measure objectively than academic ability and is undisputedly highly heritable (tall parents tend to have tall kids and vice versa) - it is still far from clear to what extent the variation in human height around the world is down to genes or environment.

I have no idea what the correct figure is for the genetic contribution to the variation in academic achievement in the population at large, but (though I am very much on the political left) it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that the true figure is even higher than 70%.

But, given the fact that nobody know the facts for sure, people at either end of the political spectrum are wont to provide ideologically-driven rather than data-driven answers to the empirical question: How much is nature and how much is nurture?

The left's commitment to egalitarian principles lead them to conclude that it must be mostly due to nurture. Only if we believe that, they suppose, can we imagine a future where social inequities are put right through progressive social intervention.

The right's commitment to in-egalitarian principles lead them to conclude that it must be mostly due to nature. Only if we believe that, they suppose, can we justify the claim that doing anything to improve the lot of the hoi polloi is a waste of time.

So why do I claim that both sides have got the whole thing rather arse-about-face?

Let us conduct another couple of thought experiments:

First let us first suppose that we have the most extreme case possible of the left-wing belief about the way the world is. Everyone in our imaginary society is a genetic clone with an exactly equal genetic endowment of academic potential and any differences in ultimate achievement will be entirely due to how we nurture the individuals concerned. How would we then structure our education system? We'd have to choose individuals completely arbitrarily from the pool and train some of them up to be clever enough to be surgeons or rocket scientists or whatever; and - at the other end - some of them to be just clever enough to tie their own shoe-laces etc so that they could perform jobs requiring very little intelligence - like the job of Education Secretary I suppose.

But isn't this more or less what right-wing education policy has always been (and what the likes of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings seem to want to go fully back to): a system where people are picked arbitrarily from the pool on the basis of social class [2] (rather than innate ability) and given the training they require to fulfill their allotted station in life?

Now, instead of s society of genetic clones, let us imagine a society where everyone is born with different potentials. No matter how well I had been nurtured, I could never have become a Premiere League cricket player or someone who can cope with dates and times or remembering where I put my car keys; and the likes of Michael Gove could, no matter how well he had been nurtured, never have understood averages or become a professor of thermodynamics.

...a bit like the world Dominic Cummings and other right-wingers (probably largely correctly) believe we do inhabit.

In this world, it no longer makes sense to choose people arbitrarily from the pool and nurture (only) them. The only policy that makes sense is to nurture everybody so that each person achieves the best he or she is capable of and those who come out on top represent those who started out with the best genes rather than those who were fortunate enough to be given an education.

...rather like the sort of education system left-wingers tend to argue for in fact.

Okay, I've over-simplified here and rather caricatured the various political positions, but I hope I have also successfully made a serious point: the thinking about nature and nurture, on both left and right, is terribly confused.





[1] It seems he was not (ref) - thanks @OdysseanProject for the link. Whether or not Dominic Cummings share's this confusion, however, it is a form of confusion which is widespread (on both sides) and that, rather than criticizing Cummings, was the main thrust of this post.

[2] Of course they have, from time to time, also helped a few lucky less-well-off individuals over the years who were selected on the basis of ability rather than "breeding" (not least the British Humanist Association's splendid Chief Executive, Andrew Copson @andrewcopson, who wrote recently about his assisted place at an independent school and thereby set off a train of thought in my head which - after reading the Cummings story - turned into this blog post). Such considerations do not detract from my main point however - not least because the selection of such talented individuals is also arbitrary (many perfectly worthy poor kids don't get picked).

2013-10-08

The Al-Madinah Free School in Derby

Before we start, here's a picture of Jessica Ennis (from Yorkshire) winning the Olympics in "tight-fitted indecent" clothing - did I mention she's from Yorkshire?







The Al-Madinah Free School in Derby has just reopened almost a week after it was closed during an Ofsted inspection.

In its own words:

(from the school prospectus on the reopened school website today pp13-14)

Introduction

Al-Madinah School is a Muslim faith school serving Derby and the surrounding areas. Through a team of dedicated and skilled staff, the school endeavours to provide excellent education in a surrounding shaped by the teachings of Allah Almighty and His Final Messenger, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.
At the heart of Al-Madinah School is the Quranic and Islamic Studies department, supported by a team of experienced and dedicated servants of Islam. This team is not only responsible for teaching Islam, but to ensure the values, morals and philosophy of Islam is reflected in each and every aspect of the school. The following sections aim to indicate in detail how this has been achieved.
Your input, questions and queries are welcome; please direct them to the Director of Islamic Studies at Al-Madinah School. Thank you.

1.0 Books and Teaching Resources.

In each and every department, all efforts will be geared towards ensuring the books and resources conform to the teachings of Islam.
Sensitive, inaccurate and potentially blasphemous material will be censored or removed completely. If and when teachers are required by the curriculum to convey teachings that are totally against Islam [1], the Director of Islamic Studies will brief the relevant teachers and advise accordingly.

With regards to songs and music, we acknowledge that it can be an aid for learning, in particular in primary school. Under the guidance of the Director, it shall only be used as a learning aid, not for entertainment and amusement purposes.
Muslims are encouraged to reflect on Allah’s beauty in his creations. The art lessons will be used as a platform to fulfill this religious duty. At the same time however, great care will be taken to ensure artwork produced or shown in lessons conform with the specific teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
[1] Darwinism, for example

2.0 School Uniform.

Al-Madinah School is committed to the principle of a school uniform for both male and female pupils. This smart and affordable uniform will instill a sense of pride and identity in the students, as well as implicitly teach the values of equality and brotherhood in the school. The school uniform is:
Key Stage 1: Children of age 4-7.
• Black trousers.
• White polo shirt.
• Al-Madinah school jumper.
• Black shoes (not trainers).
Key Stage 2, 3 and 4: Children of 8-16.
• Black trousers.
• White shirt/blouse.
• School tie.
• Al-Madinah jumper with logo.
• Charcoal & blue blazer.
• Black shoes (not trainers).
PE Kit.
• White tops (long sleeve only).
• Long black bottoms (loose).
• The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) instructed Muslims to display modesty and decency in clothing. In light of these teachings, pupils will not be permitted to wear clothing that is transparent, tight-fitted or indecent.

2.1 The Attire of Teachers and Staff Members.

All staff members will also express decency and modesty in their clothing and appearance. Female members of staff – irrespective of their religious beliefs – will cover their heads and bodies appropriately in light of the teachings of Islam. Provocative and revealing clothing will not be permitted. Male members of staff are expected to dress so they create an example for their pupils. In short, the school will adhere to Qur’anic teachings when it comes to clothing. ‘And clothes of piety, that is better’, Allah Almighty states (7: 26).

3.0 Employment of Staff and Teachers.

The employment of staff and teachers will be strictly governed to ensure the most dedicated, competent and skilled individuals are selected to work at the school.
Additionally, the vigorous process will ensure that the Muslim staff that are recruited are suitable to teach the faith elements of the School to the highest standards. The Director of Islamic Studies will be directly involved in the recruitment process to ensure this is the case.

4.0 The School Building.

Our aim is to ensure the school premises are kept clean, not least because ‘Allah loves the ones who repent often and the ones who keep clean’ (2:222). The displays, settings and posters in and around the school will be ascetically-pleasing as well as informative and educational. Utmost care will be taken to ensure all displays conform to Islamic teachings and in fact, encourage adopting the ideals of the Final Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).

5.0 Physical Education.

A strong moral and spiritual character requires a strong physical body. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) taught us to care for our bodies through good, physical exercise.
Al-Madinah School is wholly committed to ensuring both male and females get opportunities to pursue sports and games at the local sports facilities.
Male staff members will not actively teach female students, but will merely co-ordinate them, through communicating with female members of staff. During the actual lesson, no male member of Al-Madinah School staff will be present.
All topped off with a supporting quotation from a Mr Abdurrahman:
I love the family atmosphere
So there you have it. In the UK in the 21st century our government is funding a children's school which:
  • Censors books and resources which do not conform to the teachings of Islam
  • Does not allow songs and music for entertainment and amusement
  • Forces female staff-members (but not male staff-members) to cover their heads and bodies
  • Discriminates on religious grounds when recruiting staff
  • Prevents children from drawing pictures that do not meet the specific teachings of Prophet Muhammad
  • Segregates staff and pupils on the basis of gender
  • Forces children to wear long baggy clothing for games
and last but not least
  • Teaches children that Darwin's theory of evolution is totally against Islam.
All this may well please Allah Almighty, His Final Messenger, Mr Abdurrahman, and Michael Gove, but I find it all extremely disturbing.

Addendum:
Lord Nash Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools has written to the school and raised some of the above issues. There is, however, no specific mention of the teaching of evolutionary theory - something which is mandated by Lord Nash's department here.

2013-09-13

Do we see the same thing?



Jenny Winder's




excellent piece in the Washington Times (which I urge you to read) Sound and vision: Exploring the world of sight and hearing contains many fascinating, surprising, and intriguing examples of the peculiarities of human perception.

Jenny Winder's son, like my own, is colour blind and, using our knowledge of light and retinal biology, we can infer what our sons and people with different types of colour blindness see:



Now it is easy, when thinking about perception, to be led astray by a kind of "Numskulls" (from "The Beano") notion of psychology (I point to which I shall return)



where (in the case of vision) "I" is the little man top right with specs, and my sensory apparatus is the telescope, and "I" look at what appears in the eyepiece of the telescope. Such a notion of perception is clearly philosophically problematic (not least because it would lead to an infinite regress of little men with telescopes) and biologically incorrect. As Jenny Winder notes, colour perception is ultimately located in the activities of our brain cells - activities that take place in response to signals transmitted from the retina by the optic nerve.

It is, I suppose, possible that, just as various types of colour blindness affect the functioning of the retina, there could be biological conditions that affected the functioning of the optic nerve. Such conditions might, in turn, lead to new insights into what different people see when presented with different colours and these scientific insights could be added to what we understand about colour blindness; but I know of no such conditions.

When we get into the brain itself, however, there are further complications - which Jenny Winder alludes to. The science of observing and teasing apart neuronal activity in different people presented with different visual stimuli still has a lot of work to do. Perhaps one day (by analogy with the theoretical example of optic nerve function and the well understood example of retinal biology) we might be able to infer - from neuronal activity - what different people experience when presented with the same visual stimulus. Perhaps we never shall. But, given what Michael Stevens calls (in the video Jenny Winder links to) the "ineffably private" nature of colour vision, things get a bit murky at this point.

In his video (which is certainly worth a watch) Michael Stevens departs somewhat from a purely scientific analysis of this topic and ventures off into the realms of philosophy. One of my problems, with Michael Stevens is he makes no attempt to distinguish clearly between the two realms.

The Philosopher whose name most often crops up in this context and whose ideas would seem to inform Michael Stevens, is John Locke:

15. Though one man’s idea of blue should be different from another’s.

Neither would it carry any imputation of falsehood to our simple ideas, if by the different structure of our organs it were so ordered, that the same object should produce in several men’s minds different ideas at the same time; v.g. if the idea that a violet produced in one man’s mind by his eyes were the same that a marigold produced in another man’s, and vice versa. For, since this could never be known, because one man’s mind could not pass into another man’s body, to perceive what appearances were produced by those organs; neither the ideas hereby, nor the names, would be at all confounded, or any falsehood be in either. For all things that had the texture of a violet, producing constantly the idea that he called blue, and those which had the texture of a marigold, producing constantly the idea which he as constantly called yellow, whatever those appearances were in his mind; he would be able as regularly to distinguish things for his use by those appearances, and understand and signify those distinctions marked by the name blue and yellow, as if the appearances or ideas in his mind received from those two flowers were exactly the same with the ideas in other men’s minds.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke


We can forgive Locke for the fact that the science of perception was virtually non-existent in his day. This fact does not detract from the essence of the points he makes. But, like Michael Stevens, John Locke, I would argue, is in danger of conflating science and philosophy here.

If Locke is putting forward a scientific theory that the "different structure of our organs" might produce marigold in one man's mind and violet in another man's mind and that this "could never be known", he is simply wrong. Science has already provided a great deal of knowledge in this area and future science, I think we can assume, will provide a great deal more.

If, on the other hand, Locke is putting forward a philosophical theory, there is more to say.

I suppose the best way to illustrate the purely philosophical point would be to consider a situation where we have two people with identical sensory apparatus and identical brain activity when presented with certain colours (perhaps two identical twins). Here, though the scientist declares them to be the same, the philosopher can argue that, because perception is ineffably private, we still have no way of knowing whether these two individuals are having the same sensation when they look at (say) a strawberry.

Now, in this humble blog post, I cannot possibly do justice to the philosophical literature devoted to this kind of claim, but it's the kind of philosophical claim that clearly strikes a chord with many people and I think it is worth further examination:

First of all we have to be clear about what we mean by the word "same" here. Two twitchers who claim to have seen the "same bird" on a particular day may both have being sharing a hide and observing a single lesser-spotted grebe in the field in front of them, or may have been far apart and observing two different individual lesser-spotted grebes in different places. In the first case they observed the same token. In the second case the same type.

It is trivially true that two individuals looking at the same strawberry don't have the same (token) perception. They have different heads.

But do they have the same (type) perception? Does this question make sense?

The notion here seems to be that if the little Numskull in my skull could climb into your skull and look down your telescope he would say "ah yes, that's just what I see in my telescope" or, alternatively, "hmmm, that's not what I see in my telescope". But, as has been argued, the Numskulls do not lend themselves well to coherent thought experiments.

If we tease out the purely philosophical claims implicit in John Locke's or Michael Stevens's accounts, we are being asked to assign meaning to contentions that two people might perceive different or the same (type) things in the absence of any criteria that could ever decide the matter. No conversations between the individuals will ever shed light on this question. No tests or scientific findings could ever shed light on the matter. We can't even think of a coherent thought experiment that could shed light on the matter - even extra sensory perception - were it to exist - would presumably involve the transmission of data from one brain to another which might then be interpreted differently.

I conclude that the essentially solipsistic position implied here - the only thing I can really be sure about is what's going on inside my head - is incoherent. I really can know (in the only senses of "know" that make any sense) - through science and through engaging with you - what is going on inside your head and when it is the same or different from what is going on inside my head.

This is a rather important conclusion. It means that none of us are truly alone.

2013-05-12

Gove, Grammar, and Gnomes (and Michael Rosen)

Having read a piece by Toby Young in which he castigates the author Michael Rosen for a couple of proof-reading mistakes and uses this as a vehicle (a JCB perhaps?) for heaping praise on Michael Gove, I decided to apply some of the rules I had drummed into me at my traditional 1960s primary school (very much the style of schooling Michael Gove seems to approve of) to Michael Gove's What does it mean to be an educated person?:
And that is why, under this government, the Department for Education is setting higher expectations for every child.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that you should not begin a sentence, still less a paragraph, with a conjunction.
Fans from abroad, she said, would apologise for their poor English.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that words with Greek roots (apologizesthai) should take "ize" endings. (If you are under the misapprehension that "ize" endings are "American", please see the Oxford English Dictionary.)
We are introducing a basic test of competence in spelling, punctuation and grammar at the end of primary school.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that lists should include the "Oxford comma", thus: "spelling, punctuation, and grammar".

[1]

This sentence is, in any case, badly phrased as it invites that interpretation that "grammar at the end of primary school" is a single item. It might have been better to write:

For students leaving primary school, we are introducing a basic test of competence in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
Though many other equally good (or better) variations are possible.
But I will abjure such Ciceronian rhetorical tricks.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that the first person singular and plural take "shall".

He, and many others, are deeply worried about what he calls, ‘the enacted school curriculum: what actually gets taught in classrooms.’
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that it should be possible to delete the text within parenthetical commas leaving a grammatical sentence behind. The commas here are simply incorrect. This sentence should simply begin "He and many others are ..."

But through the development of their natural curiosity, talents and potential.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that sentences should include a verb.

There are dozens of similar "errors" in Gove's essay.

Of course all the above "rules" (with the possible exception of the final two) are moot, but I wonder how Michael Gove might respond here. Would he admit that these "rules" are correct and he broke them; or would he insist that these "rules" are incorrect and that he has some other rules which are really correct; or would he concede that the "rules" of "correct" English are a matter for debate and of evolution? Any of these three options would seem to undermine his position somewhat.

As long as we are relaxed about the missing Oxford comma, we cannot condemn the following sentence for breaking any rules of grammar:
I suspect those of us who are parents would recognise that there are all too many children and young people only too happy to lose themselves in Stephanie Meyer, while away hours flinging electronic fowl at virtual pigs, hang out rather than shape up and dream of fame finding them rather than them pursuing glory.
This is, nonetheless, an appallingly badly constructed sentence. I had to read it four times (experimenting with different stresses) before I got the sense of it. The final "them" is especially problematic. Does the fame find the pigs or the fowl or the children or the parents? Obviously it is the children but the sentence does its best to mislead the reader.

I suppose Michael Gove might argue that, although my above remarks are rather embarrassing for him, the fact that I am able to embarrass him is testament to the quality of the schooling I received. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although I had all the above "rules", and many others, drummed into me as a child, I was quite incapable of applying them properly at the time. My terrible English and my even worse handwriting ensured that I only just scraped through my English Language O level.

What turned me into the towering king of blogging I have become today (ok, I'm not really the "towering king of blogging", but my posts are better than anything Michael Gove has ever written) was the fact that I devoured books from an early age. My love of books was bequeathed not by my "reading is a chore but you've got to do it or we'll hit you" school but by my parents. My father left an even more "traditional" school with no qualifications, but the Marxist (in those days) Workers' Education Association and later the Labour-created Open University saw to it that he died with an honours degree - leaving a house full of books that I am still trying to find room for in my own house. Next weekend an old friend of his is visiting. He graduated from Trinity College Oxford and arrived at this destination via the aforementioned WEA and the Trades Union Movement's Ruskin College.

I suppose my favourite passage in Gove's diatribe is the following:
Jacqueline Wilson is not - by any measure - a reactionary nostalgist in the republic of letters. Her work deals - unsparingly and in detail - with divorce, mental illness, life in the care system and growing up poor. We’re not talking pixies dancing under the Faraway Tree, here.
Jacqueline Wilson is, like Michael Rosen, an inspiring children's author and Gove is right to praise her. Gove, however, is a man who has taken countless schools out of the control of elected bodies and handed them over to groups of fruit-loops who believe in everything from creationism, transubstantiation, reincarnation, winged-horses, and yogic-flying to (yes) gnomes. He will, thereby, leave a legacy of segregated schooling which I'm sure will be the same success as it has been in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Quite how Michael Gove can mention "pixies" with a straight face rather puzzles me. Moreover, the problem posed by a history teacher who does not know the date for (say) the Norman Invasion would seem to pale into insignificance alongside the problem posed by a science teacher who believes that the earth was created six thousand years ago.

Gove also includes some grossly disingenuous misrepresentations of Michael Rosen's views and a thoroughly dishonest account of the use of "Mr Men" in an exercise by the Active History web-site.

It should, perhaps, be conceded that not everything Gove has to say is complete and utter tosh. Gove is right to criticize the lamentable IT syllabus and right to say that children should be encouraged to write well and right to say the children should be encouraged to read good books. How children are best encouraged to write well and read good books is, however, not a matter best decided by Michael Rosen (infinitely better qualified though he is than Michael Gove to comment on such matters), or by Marxist theory, or by my anecdotal remarks, or (especially) by whatever popped into Gove's head last Tuesday. How children are best encouraged to write well and read good books could, and would, best be decided by subjecting the matter to empirical examination - you know, controlled trials, evidence, statistical analysis, all that sort of thing. A science teacher (though preferably not one from a creationist school) could explain it all to Gove, if Gove were remotely interested in such things.[2]

I hope that, while I make no attempt to pontificate on the best way to educate our children, my above remarks do establish that this is a complex subject that defies simplistic analyses and that, when Gove talks about "correct English" and suggests that the only things holding kids back from higher achievement are the unions and left-wing teachers, he is (to use the plainest English possible) talking out of his arse.

............. oh, and I expect that Michael Rosen's books will still be inspiring children to read when Michael Gove is a minor footnote in even the most right-wing history books.





PS Muphry's Law - postulated by the splendid writer and Telegraph fifth columnist Tom Chivers (@TomChivers) - suggests that "Any work criticizing the spelling/grammar of another piece will itself contain an error". On that basis, this post will probably contain about two dozen mistakes. Any corrections gratefully received, admitted, and acted upon - I'm a scientist not a pompous demagogue!
[1] Pinched from http://stephentall.org/
[2] It has been brought to my attention (by Anthony Cox @drarcox), since I wrote this post, that Michael Gove is actually planning some controlled trials - a move which I can only applaud. I have, therefore been somewhat unfair to him (above) on this specific issue. It remains the case, however, that none of his current pronouncements are based on such research and these would still seem to reflect nothing more than his strongly held prejudices.

2013-05-04

Would single vaccines have improved protection in the population?

OK, no jokes or satire this time. Just a cold hard look at this one remaining issue.

From the beginning, my main point was that irresponsible journalism bears a great deal of blame for the current crisis (now threatening to spread to Birmingham). This point has been made again very eloquently (sorry this is behind the Times Paywall) by my comrade in arms (on this topic) journalist David Aaronovitch. He focuses especially on the South Wales measles outbreak, MMR uptake in that area, and misleading coverage provided by the South Wales Evening Post; but he has harsh words for many journalists - including journalists at the BBC (to wit a letter of complaint to them from me and their shameful response).

Many journalists have, meanwhile, offered their mea culpas but (as anyone who has been following my blog will be aware) the journalist Peter Hitchens has argued strongly that fault lies not with journalist like him who ran stories suggesting there might be some substance to fears about MMR (there isn't by the way) but with the NHS which, in spite of those fears, refused to provide courses of six single vaccines as an alternative to the two MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) combined jabs.

In my first post on this topic I set out briefly what the problem was with the NHS offering single vaccines, and Martin Robbins, writing in the Guardian, has gone into a great deal more detail on this topic. Mr Hitchens remains unconvinced:



This graph (from the BBC) shows MMR uptake rates since 1997 (this vaccine was introduced in 1988 and replaced single measles and rubella vaccines - there never was a licensed single mumps vaccine in the UK):



It seems obvious to Mr Hitchens (and his supporters) that, had we offered single vaccine programmes once the unfounded autism scare had taken hold, this would have ensured that the missing yellow in this graph would have been filled in as parents who had eschewed MMR switched to single vaccine programmes instead.

Now, as has been argued, there are all sorts of reasons - logistical, financial, and ethical - why the NHS did not give in to various pressure groups and provide the less well tested single vaccines. And we are not alone. No other country in the world has a national six jab single vaccine programme. Let us, however, suppose that all these objections had been overcome and we had managed to secure huge supplies of single vaccines with a reasonable (though less than fully documented) safety record. Would it have worked?

The graphic below illustrates the MMR only regime and Peter Hitchens's proposal (which was also Andrew Wakefield's proposal) side by side.[1]



Now what Hitchens and like minded people seemingly fail to grasp is that the NHS provision of a single vaccine programme and (especially) the announcement of said in the media would have resulted, not just in the transfer of people from the no vaccine group to the singles group but also a huge transfer of people from the MMR group to the singles group.

If single vaccines were just as good as MMR, this wouldn't matter. But there are three relevant problems with single vaccines (in order of increasing significance):
  1. The immune reaction they produce is not quite as strong. Less than one percent of kids who get both MMR jabs will still lack immunity. With single vaccines the percentage is higher (exactly how much higher is difficult to say with confidence since there are a number of different preparations and far less data on the use of six single vaccines rather than two MMR vaccines)
  2. Andrew Wakefield suggested a one year gap between jabs. If this protocol were followed, kids receiving their first jabs would have to wait two more years before they stood any chance of being fully covered and a further three years to achieve maximum protection.
  3. Compliance with six single vaccines would be much lower than compliance with two MMR jabs. People move house, have fallible memories, decide not to bother, lose paperwork, miss appointments etc. - especially when they are not paying for the vaccines themselves.
(There are also the - admittedly statistically small but still significant if they happen to you - problems of increased dangers of allergic reactions, infection and injury from the injections themselves - if you have six rather than two - but let's just concentrate on the numbers aspect.)

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the average single vaccines child will be (because of the considerations listed) fifty-percent as well protected as an MMR child, then the benefits of any transfer from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group in the above diagram will be wiped out by the same number of transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group.

If we assume that the average single vaccines child will be thirty-three-percent as well protected as an MMR child, then the benefits of any transfer from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group in the above diagram will be wiped out by the half the number of transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group.

If we assume that the average single vaccines child will be sixty-seven-percent as well protected as an MMR child, then the benefits of any transfer from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group in the above diagram will be wiped out by the double the number of transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group.

There are three variables here: 1) the transfers from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group 2) the transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group; and 3) the percentage cover provided to the typical recipient by a programme of single vaccines.

Nobody, and certainly not Peter Hitchens, knows for certain what these three variables are, but we can make educated estimates. Apart from any other considerations, the fact that the MMR group is very large in relation to the other two groups tells us that even a small percentage of switchers from this group would have resulted in very large absolute numbers of switchers.

But, and here's the clincher, even if you are quite convinced (as I'm sure Mr Hitchens is despite expert opinion) that that the benefits would have outweighed the drawbacks had we introduced single vaccines back in (say) 2004 (or prior to then), just look at what has happened to MMR uptake rates since then!

Had we supplied single vaccines back in the day, this would not just have been for one year. We'd have been stuck with them forever. And every year that has passed since 2004 would have made the statistics (for MMR plus single vaccines provision) worse in comparison to MMR alone. We are now (thank goodness) nearly back up to the levels of MMR uptake we had before the scare. Any transfers to single vaccines beyond this point would reduce immunity in the population - even if single vaccines were ninety-ninety percent as good as MMR (which they certainly are not).

It is highly unlikely that single vaccines would have improved matters, even in 2004. Even if it would have done, It is virtually certain that, over the course of time, the cumulative effect of the option illustrated on the right of my diagram would have been worse overall than sticking with MMR only. The NHS did absolutely the right thing.

Of course the only reason we are having this discussion is because there was a scare. Instead of informing themselves and reporting responsibly, journalists in the print and electronic media blithely spread the scare around. Those journalists, I'm afraid, need to examine their consciences if any death or disablement results from the current outbreak. They did not do the right thing.





[1] I've simplified things by assuming that those using single vaccines privately under the current regime would have continued to do so or would have switched to NHS provided single vaccines under the alternative regime. This would have had no overall effect and can be ignored. I've also simplified things with respect to the fact that some MMR recipients fail to get the second MMR jab. The numbers, in this case, would be slightly different on either side of the equation but, since the numbers getting MMR are high and the numbers on getting the second jab are low, this would make very little difference and this complication can be ignored.

PS It occurs to be that this post may come across as journalist-bashing. I should perhaps emphasize that there are one or two scientists who don't come out of this smelling of roses and that it is only due to the tenacity of a journalist - Brian Deer - that the full story of Andrew Wakefield's actions ever came to light. (Life is complicated and simplistic explanations are usually wrong!)

2013-04-30

OK I give in. Peter Hitchens is right. (A UK blogger's reply to just criticism)

I've argued the MMR topic with Peter Hitchens at some length (see here, here [by me], here, here [by me], here, here, and here).

Whatever else you might wish to accuse Peter Hitchens of, you cannot accuse him of laconicism.

Mr Hitchens has requested that I reply again to some of his points.

Sadly, I have little to add on the specific subject of MMR: If you are a parent, the best thing you can do for your kids (unless your GP advises you of any contraindications in your individual child's case) is to get him or her vaccinated on schedule and ignore any contrary suggestions in the tabloid newspapers - these suggestions are irresponsible and wrong. I shall add that, if you want to learn more about real science and real controversies in science and want something accessible, read New Scientist or read Jim Al-Khalili or Jon Butterworth or Tom Chivers or Brian Cox or Edzard Ernst or Kevin Fong or Suzi Gage or Steve Jones or Alok Jha or Alice Roberts or Martin Robbins or Adam Rutherford or Simon Singh or any of the countless scientists and scientifically literate journalists who actually know what they are talking about and write excellent (and accurate) articles in the mainstream press.

Meanwhile I have been ignoring my own advice and reading some of Mr Hitchens's other thoughts - this time on the subject of evolution (here and here and here) and I've come to realize there's a unbridgeable gulf between Mr Hitchens and me.

You see I have always held the opinion that truth is (by and large) arrived at via the methods of logic and mathematics (which can "prove" things) or via the methods of empirical science (which can never prove things but can deliver well tested theories about the world and - crucially - modify those theories in the light of new evidence). Mr Hitchens takes an alternative view: truth is arrived at by whatever pops into his head on a particular day.

Unfortunately, there is no meta-argument that can establish that my opinion here is any better than Mr Hitchens's. (This is essentially the point which the post-modernists - often unfairly maligned by my comrades in skepticism - make.)

You might want to retort that we can establish that (say) medical advice based on mainstream science is better than medical advice based on what Mr Hitchens thinks and we can establish this by pointing to scientific evidence and statistical analyses of that evidence; but you would be missing the point. Mr Hitchens does not accept that empirical evidence or logic are relevant criteria for evaluating empirical claims. His position is unassailable.

I am forced, therefore, to concede that I am in the wrong. I have no knock down arguments against Mr Hitchens. There is no philosophical super-position from which someone can arbitrate between our respective opinions. I can only say, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, that Peter Hitchens and I had parted company before we ever began to speak to one another.



#############################



I should stop writing here. You, dear reader, are forgiven if you stop reading here. I promised Martin Robbins that I would stop giving Mr Hitchens any more excuses to propagate his anti-vaccination memes. But I'm afraid I can't help myself. In addition to his arguments relating to MMR, Peter Hitchens made a number of assertions and ad hominem attacks which he obviously thought were relevant to the safety of MMR - though I couldn't quite see the connection - and I feel compelled to address some of them:



#############################



Could the choice of a picture of me holding a rifle in a gun shop in Idaho be there to predispose liberal-minded readers against me?



Let me put Mr Hitchens's mind at rest. I tried to use the picture he puts at the top of his blog. It is protected. I hit Google images, typed in "Peter Hitchens" and started to scroll. My eyes alighted on the above picture and various ideas drifted across my synapses: "shots" (gedit?) "loose cannon". None of these quite seemed to work. Then I realized why this picture had caught my eye. Peter Hitchens has exactly the same expression I saw on my cat's face when once (in exasperation) I handed her the tin-opener. It occurred to me that this picture - man holding a dangerous object which he doesn't quite know how to use - was perfect. Okay, the real dangerous object in Peter Hitchens's hands is a computer keyboard rather than a gun but, as the old saying (which I suppose needs updating) goes: the pen is mightier than the sword.

Ten seconds after that picture was taken, the gun went off accidently and the bullet ricochet off the wall bringing down a chandelier on Mr Hitchins's (and the photographer's) heads. Mr Hitchens blamed the photographer for startling him. (Okay I made all that up but I think you'll agree it's hard to imagine any other scenario after seeing that picture.)

Next time I shall try and find a picture of Mr Hitches holding a kitten.



The author, I note, displays a picture of himself looking like a really cool dude, shades and all.

Again, let me set the record straight. This picture is cropped from a holiday snap taken by my wife. It shows me in a pair of prescription sunglasses which I obtained from Spec Savers in Bradford (such is the glamorous life I lead). Since those spectacles are now at the bottom of the Aegean Sea (following an unfortunate encounter with those laws of physics which scientists just make up to upset Peter Hitchens) and since the sun visits Bradford about as often as the light of reason visits Peter Hitchens, I almost never venture out round here in "shades". Using the "really cool dude" picture for my twitter account has the advantage that people don't point at me as I walk down the street and say "look there's that chap who Peter Hitchens is always writing about in the Mail".

Perhaps I should try and find a picture of myself holding a gun.



Mike Ward is a proxy for David Aaronovitch a former enthusiast of the late Communist Party of Great Britain who has not devoted much time to repudiating his past affiliation to the Party of Brezhnev and Andropov.



(I couldn't find a picture of David with a kitten or a gun, but here he is attempting to maintain his composure.)

This is going to get a bit "Life of Brian", but please bear with me.

Both Peter Hitchens and David Aaronovitch were (as they both freely admit) members of left-wing parties in their younger days.

Peter Hitchens was a member of the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers' Party) which advocated violent revolution and whose members (who were there in force on many CND or anti-fascist demonstrations I attended in my youth) used to chant (using words which seemed to be directed at the likes of David Aaronovitch rather than at the general public) "Parliamentary-roadism out out out". They probably still do.

David Aaronovitch was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain which subscribed to parliamentary democracy and was highly critical of Brezhnev's Soviet Union (I'm not sure what they ever said about Andropov since he dropped dead shortly after taking office and I wasn't really paying attention). David Aaronovitch was very much on the right (anti-Soviet, "Euro-communist") wing of that Party which (unlike the SWP and like Communist parties all over the world) disbanded when it finally hit home that the empirical evidence was not declaring socialism to be a historical success.

Though both have moved on a lot since their days as socialist firebrands, David Aaronovitch has increasingly eschewed wilder ideas about the ways of the world in favour of ideas with a firm evidential basis. Peter Hitchens has simply swapped one species of far-fetched dogmatism for another.

I have never met David Aaronovitch and have never been his "proxy". I do feel a certain kinship with David, I have a similar age and BMI, have kids of a similar age, have travelled a similar intellectual road (though he's gone down that road further than I have) and I rather enjoy reading or hearing what he has to say. All that being said, I often disagree with him. Fortunately we don't disagree about how knowledge is arrived at so twitter dialogues between us have a point. He has certainly often influenced me.

But to finally come to the point of this rather rambling section: One issue on which I part company with David is on what Hitchens (rightly - IMHO) calls "Mr Blair’s idiotic and disastrous war on Iraq". But this very topic fatally exposes the flawed nature of Peter Hitchens's style of reasoning:
i) Hitchens is incapable of distinguishing between claims based on value judgments (like whether the Iraq war was justified or not) and claims about what is the case - which actually have a right answer (whether we currently know the answer or not)
ii) There is no simple relationship between someone's political opinions and their views about science and one can't just dismiss what David Aaronovitch and I have to say about MMR with "well that's just what you'd expect someone who supported the Iraq war to say."




Michael Ward seems to dislike my views on illegal drugs

I do!

We've been astonishingly successful at reducing the consumption and social acceptability and availability to minors of an addictive drug called "nicotine" and we have achieved this without imprisoning a single tobacconist or smoker (while regulating the product to ensure it contains nothing worse than dried tobacco leaves). Meanwhile, we've been astonishingly unsuccessful at reducing the consumption and social acceptability and availability to minors of an addictive drug called "heroin" despite imprisoning lots of people for increasingly long periods and, in some parts of the world, executing them (while striving to ensure that the product contains every dangerous impurity and virus known to humankind).

Perhaps there is a moral in this experience somewhere.

But I didn't try to pick a fight over drugs with Mr Hitchens. I merely tried to use drugs as an analogy to illustrate the difference (alluded to above) between value judgments and factual claims. Needless to say, Mr Hitchens failed to grasp my point.

Ironically, David Aaronovitch's views on drugs are closer to Peter Hitchens's than to mine[1]. A mirror image of our Iraq dispute. Again we have to conclude that
There is no simple relationship between someone's political opinions and their views about science and one can't just dismiss what David Aaronovitch and I have to say about MMR with "well that's just what you'd expect someone who supported the decriminalization of drugs to say."




Is there any coherent thread here?

Not really, but let me try and spin one.

Let's see: cats, communism, David Aaronovitch, drugs, and Peter Hitchens .... hmmm.

Okay got it!

Many moons ago, I announced on Twitter that my cat had correctly answered the question "who led The Long March".

Someone out there will recognize where I pinched this from. Drugs are closely involved. [2]

David Aaronovitch expressed some scepticism that my cat had correctly identified Zhou Enlai. My son Max and I set about trying to teach our cat to say "Zhou Enlai" instead of "Mao", but it quickly became apparent that A) we were never going to succeed, and B) even if we did succeed, we would fool nobody and it was always going to be a waste of time discussing Chinese history with our cat.......

... rather like discussing MMR or evolution or drug policy or .. well, almost anything, with Peter Hitchens.





{1] David Aaronovitch has informed me that his views on drugs policy are far more equivocal than I suggest above, but I'm not trying to pick any fights on that score at the moment. My main point still stands: PH can't just lump people together in a kind of seamless conspiratorial group on the basis that their shared views in one area differ from his own.

[2] Ha I've found it.

2013-04-26

DNA double helix: 60 years of sexism in science

(also at Pulling on the corkscrew of life)

Picture 51

Rosalind Franklin 1920-1958

Sixty years ago today, on 25 April 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson published a paper in Nature describing the double helix structure of DNA.

There have been a flurry of excellent articles in the newspapers to commemorate this auspicious anniversary and, (especially) if you are at all unfamiliar with the history and significance of Crick and Watson's discovery, I wholeheartedly recommend Adam Rutherford's piece in today's Guardian.

Adam also relates some details of Rosalind Franklin's story and the way she was belittled by her male colleagues. Franklin's contribution to the unravelling of the structure of DNA was, to some extent, written out of history - a wrong which has only been righted in relatively recent times - and a number of commentators have sought to rescue her reputation (as they see it), set the record straight, and put Rosalind Franklin's name up there where it belongs alongside Watson's and Crick's. (see for example Anne Sayre and Lynne Osman Elkin)

This is not, however, quite the simple female-goody versus male-baddies tale that some modern accounts suggest. Real stories rarely fit tidy narratives.

Part of the reason Rosalind Franklin was "written out of history" is simply the fact that she died tragically young and Nobel Prizes are never awarded posthumously. Of course whether she would have received the Prize if she had lived is impossible to say, but even Jim Watson is on record as saying that she should have done. The famous Picture 51 (above) which played a crucial role in the DNA story is often credited to Franklin (see eg wikipedia) and is certainly testament to her skills in this field but it was actually taken[1] by her (male) student Raymond Gosling who (as Adam Rutherford also notes) has been written out of history to an even greater degree than his female supervisor. While Jim Watson is astonishingly patronizing in the pages of The Double Helix : A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Francis Crick (as is often noted) is far more generous to Franklin and fully acknowledges the significance of her contribution. He does, however, correctly point out that X-ray crystallography alone could never have revealed the detailed chemical structure of DNA and that the Crick/Watson approach to the problem and Franklin's approach were very much complementary strands (if you'll forgive the pun).

As I say, life is complicated.

But regardless of the complex twists and turns (sorry I can't help myself) of history and science, there is no doubt, however, that Rosalind Franklin was the victim of appalling sexism - and not just from Jim Watson.

Inspired by the various newspaper articles I read today, I dug out my copy of What Mad Pursuit (Crick's autobiographical account of the subject at hand) and reminded myself of one or two things he had to say:

People have discussed the handicap that Rosalind suffered in being both a scientist and a woman. Undoubtedly there were irritating [sic] restrictions - she was not allowed to have coffee in one of the faculty rooms reserved for men only - but these were mainly trivial, or so it seemed to me at the time. (op cit p 68)
Well yes, but though I'm a man, I can kind of imagine that a woman might find something like that a teensy bit more than "trivially irritating".

Crick goes on to say:

Feminists have sometimes tried to make out that Rosalind was an early martyr to their cause, but I do not believe the facts support this interpretation. [...] I don't think Rosalind saw herself as a crusader or a pioneer. I think she just wanted to be treated as a serious scientist. (ibid p 69)
Now perhaps I've got the wrong end of the chromosome here, but I always thought that a world where women can be treated as serious scientists is exactly the sort of thing those dreadful feminists have always been arguing for.

As a younger man, Crick and Watson's work inspired me to go to university and study genetics. It's hard to imagine they inspired many women to do the same. Let us hope that one legacy of the Rosalind Franklin story is that the next sixty years sees many more young women entering science and being taken seriously when they do.



[1] The only reason I know this is again down to the aforementioned Adam Rutherford.

2013-04-18

Peter Hitchens, MMR, and the core issue

This began with my previous blog-post in which I "fisked" (to use the current jargon) one of Peter Hitchens's articles on MMR in between waiting for my computer program to compile (nobody pays me for blogging). Mr Hitchens (to his credit I suppose) has now reproduced my fisk in full and added some more words re-defending his original position.

Rather disingenuously, Mr Hitchens complains that my "essay (including quotations from [him]) is almost 6,000 words long". Yes Peter, but about 4000 of those words are yours - to which you have now added another 3000.

I could respond to the other statements Peter makes concerning drugs, communism, "shades", guns, GM, Iraq, and electrons, but let's try and stick to the point for once:

If, in spite of all the considerations I've outlined, Peter Hitchens thinks that the NHS should have offered single vaccines at the height of the scare, he is (as they say) "entitled to his opinions."

The experts feel, on balance, that this would have done more harm than good overall. Peter Hitchens feels the opposite. In the end, nobody can say for certain what the two outcomes would have been of the two competing policy decisions. It's a matter of judgement. I incline (steeply) to the expert judgement and I find the reasoning behind Peter's view wanting, but I accept that Peter has every right to express a different view here.

But this is not all Peter said.

If, in spite of all the science to the contrary, Peter Hitchens thinks that MMR may cause autism, he is not entitled to that opinion in the way he is entitled to his opinion about single jabs.

But let me explain what I am saying and not saying here. (I shall come in a moment to what Mr Hitchens actually says.)
  • Though I rather wish Mr Hitchens had not expressed his opinions, I am not saying he should be prevented from expressing his opinions.
  • I am not saying that science is always right. Science is based on the current best evidence and is constantly revised in in response to the latest evidence. Occasionally there are mavericks in science who challenge the status quo, are ridiculed, and then turn out to be right. Most of the time, however, mavericks turn out to be wrong.
  • There is nothing wrong with journalists reporting the views of maverick scientists or even their own maverick views providing such views are placed firmly in the context of whatever mainstream scientific opinion is at the time. This is particularly important when the general public (who do not read scientific literature) may react to a report in the media and put their own health or (especially) that of their children at risk.
Now Mr Hitchens claims that he is not saying that MMR causes autism:
were I arguing that Dr Wakefield was right, or the MMR was dangerous, I would need to show my qualifications before doing so. [...] But I am not.
The problem is that this statement - though strictly true - is again disingenuous. Let's take just one of Mr Hitchens's sentences:
The claims of an MMR risk have not been proved, but nor have they been disproved.
This sentence is of course true. The problem is that is is always true no matter what empirical claims you put in there. For example, try substituting "for the existence of unicorns" for "of an MMR risk". The sentence is still true.

Sentences like Peter's, which are always true no matter what is the case, do not tell us anything about the world; so Peter is correct. He has not made a false factual claim here.

Nevertheless, this sentence, without actually saying anything, puts the false idea into a reader's mind that there is some credible doubt about the safety of MMR.

As I write, there are hundreds of children across the UK suffering from measles. Dozens have been hospitalized. I have a great deal of "human sympathy" for these children and their parents - which is precisely why I became angry enough to write my original attack on Peter Hitchens's article.

This would not have happened if those children had been given the MMR vaccine at the recommended time. The reason they were not given the vaccine at the recommended time is that their parents were scared. The parents were not scared by (no longer a Dr) Wakefield's original paper - which they never read and which was thoroughly discredited by other experts within months of its appearance and utterly discredited by 2001. The parents were scared by what they read in the newspapers.

Even if it were true that things would have been better if the NHS had supplied single vaccines (it almost certainly isn't true but let's let that pass) it would still be the case, I submit, that the actions of journalists (including Peter Hitchens) were deeply irresponsible and were partly responsible for the current epidemic.

Nothing Peter has to say about drugs, communism, "shades", guns, GM, Iraq, or electrons changes this uncomfortable conclusion.

2013-04-15

Some Reflections on Peter Hitchens's Reflections on Measles and MMR



[My comments on Peter Hitchen's piece in bold.]

I’m asked for my thoughts on the measles outbreak in Swansea. I’m not sure quite why, as most readers here will know my views on the MMR controversy.
I've not been asked for my thoughts on Arsène Wenger, but most of my readers will know my views on him: he should hire Wayne Rooney to play in goal for Spurs. My readers will also know that I know about as much about football as Peter Hitchens knows about science.
Perhaps there’s some intended suggestion that I am in some way responsible for this outbreak, which is also being attributed by some to a long-ago local newspaper campaign against the MMR vaccination. The local newspaper, I should add, says that it covered the controversy fairly, which I have no reason to doubt. I was interested to hear its current editor rather aggressively and righteously questioned on the subject by a BBC presenter the other day.
I think the suggestion is that all ill-informed journalists who've reported irresponsibly on MMR bear some responsibility for the current outbreak.
Longstanding readers will know that I was myself mysteriously targeted, some years ago, by a skilful anonymous letter writer who faked a letter from a mother claiming that her child’s terrible illness was my fault. As it turned out, the woman whose identity the fraud had stolen (and whom I eventually traced) confirmed that no such thing had taken place. Nor, of course, had she written the letter sent to me with her signature faked upon it. The address from which the letter was sent was also a fake, though a very clever and carefully-planned fake which I only uncovered by going to visit it personally, a step the fraud did not think I would take.

The elaborate faking of the letter, the invention of a real-seeming address, the use of an actual name, have always seemed to me quite sinister and unpleasant. And it is things like this, rather than the science of the matter, which have continued to make me question the behaviour of those who petulantly insisted that the MMR injection was the only option for worried parents. I am still astonished that the supposedly beloved National Health Service, every inch of which is paid for by the public, treats the parents of children in this high-handed way. If it is the people’s service, a national benefit, surely its loyalty is above all to those who use it? Is the state our servant or our master?
The fake letter is indeed sinister and unpleasant but was almost certainly the action of a particular individual whose motives we can only guess at. It has no bearing whatsoever on the question on the validity of the National Health Service position that the MMR injection was the only option. The state is our servant, but the mechanisms for providing instructions to our servant are necessarily quite complex and highly regulated. An individual or a group of individuals can't simply demand that the state do whatever barmy thing they've just thought of. I consider myself fortunate to live in a country where this is the case.
If it is our servant, it should sympathise with our fears. Yet, while public money could not, apparently, be used for single jabs, it could be used to pay generous bonuses to doctors who increased the uptake of MMR, and it could be used for propaganda campaigns telling parents that all was well. Yet the Chief Minister of the government which used tax money for these purposes refused to reveal if his own small child had been given the MMR which his ministers and civil servants were vigorously pressing on everyone else.
Depends what you mean by "sympathize". I sympathize with people who hear voices telling them that they have been chosen for a special purpose in life. I don't share their delusions or base my policy towards such people on their delusions. (NB I am NOT saying here that MMR opponents are psychotic. I am saying that their fears have no basis in reality.)
Another of the authorities’ tactics has been to over-rate the importance of immunisation. They suggest wrongly that the main defence against measles is immunisation, when (see below) history shows that it was general improvements in public health, especially in nutrition, housing and the availability of clean water, which reduced the numbers of measles deaths from thousands to a tiny few, before any vaccine was brought into use. Linked with this is a tendency to exaggerate the dangers of measles. In rare cases, measles can without doubt be very damaging. But in most cases it is not. And the rare measles deaths which take place in the modern era tend to involve patients who are already gravely ill or otherwise vulnerable for separate reasons (such as chemotherapy making immunisation impossible).
Ceteris paribus, general improvements in public health do reduce death rates from measles dramatically. Immunization reduces measles rates dramatically. In addition to death, measles causes: pneumonia, deafness, brain damage, blindness and lots of other health problems. Immunization (properly implemented) reduces death rates to zero.
Given the possibility, also discussed below, that a small minority of patients may react badly to any vaccination, this is an important point in calculating risks.
It has actually occurred to all the stupid scientists who work in the field that medical interventions have risks and benefits and that we need to be sure about where the balance lies before rolling out national programmes. Sometimes, as with some types of cancer screening, it is very difficult to decide exactly where the balance lies and the debate continues. In the case of MMR, however, it is perfectly clear where the balance lies. The benefits far exceed any possible risk.
Before quoting my January 2001 article, I should make a historic point. It was written when the dispute over the safety of the MMR was already in full swing and had not been resolved. I doubt very much if it influenced even one person in deciding whether to give their child the MMR or not. It certainly was not intended to do so. Many parents had already declined the MMR and were unconvinced by official assurances of its safety. They may have been mistaken in this view, but their fears were reasonable at the time.
In March 1998 The Medical Research Council concluded there was no evidence showing a link between the MMR jab and bowel disease or autism. In April 1998, a 14-year Finnish study found no danger associated with the MMR vaccine. In 1999 Research published in the Lancet from the Royal Free Hospital, where Wakefield did his research, found no evidence or an MMR - autism link. The "dispute over the safety of the MMR" was in full swing in the pages of the Daily Mail and other newspapers, but anyone who knew what they were talking about was insisting that the MMR vaccine was safe.
An experienced doctor’s public doubts about the vaccine had been considered so significant by medical journalists and news outlets that a controversy had by then continued for three years (though, as I show below, it goes back even further than that). This is not itself unreasonable. Medical treatments can go wrong. Vaccines can have problems. Should reporters or media suppress such worries? Surely the default position, in a free society, is to publicise them. What if they had been justified, but suppressed?
When one maverick is saying one thing and almost the entire scientific establishment are saying another, then reporters have a responsibility not to suppress anything but to report the maverick views in their proper context. Now that Wakefield has been so thoroughly discredited, there is no excuse whatsoever for journalist reporting his views as though they had any remaining credibility - especially when doing so may result in death or injury to children.
As a parent myself, I sympathised then, and sympathise now with those parents who were worried. It is a very heavy responsibility to authorise an injection, in the fear that it may unpredictably do permanent and irreversible damage. The chance may be very small. The authorities may be saying that it does not exist. But if it is your child, you won’t necessarily be convinced by such words. Any parent will know this. Many non-parents will simply not understand.
So why not find out the facts and use your power as a journalist to help them understand?
I say now what I said at the time and have always said. If the true aim of the authorities was the maximum possible level of immunity, they should have authorised single jabs on the NHS while the controversy was still continuing. My view is that events show that , if maximum immunity was their true aim, they went about it in a very odd way. The predictable ( and predicted) effects of what they did were – as we now know – a significant number of children who were never immunised.
Single jabs are less effective, cause more distress to the children, have far fewer data on their safety, and result in far more missed appointments. Even more importantly, if the authorities had authorized single jabs, this would have given the impression that there were real doubts about the safety of MMR. It is unethical to offer a treatment which has less evidence of safety when a better product with much more robust evidence of safety is available. Moreover, given all the considerations described, it is more than likely that the provision of single jabs would have resulted in fewer children being protected.
It seems to me that what they wanted above all was to get their way. The fact that this involved a number of parents refusing the MMR, could perhaps be blamed not on their inflexibility, but on the wicked media. QED.
It is outrageous to suggest that the medical and scientific establishment had any other considerations in mind than the best way of protecting children.
The current events in Swansea and elsewhere were entirely predictable 12 years ago, and I predicted them. Exhortation and official reassurance were never going to work. A significant minority of parents would not let their children have the MMR, but would unhesitatingly have given them single jabs. Had this happened, there would now be no Swansea measles outbreak, or it would be much smaller (no injection has a 100% success rate, even when given twice, as the MMR is).
Almost certainly untrue - see above.
Here I will reproduce the very first thing I recall writing on the subject, and the earliest of my writings about it that I can find in any archive, which was in the Mail on Sunday on 28th January 2001. It was published under the headline ‘ Is it Really Our Duty to risk our children’s lives with this Jab?’, and it followed Anthony Blair’s refusal to say if he planned to let his small son Leo have the injection, at the height of the controversy over its safety. It read ‘Many mothers would die to save their children's lives, and many would kill anyone who threatened their young with danger. But now they are being asked to risk their own offspring for the sake of others. You may be worried about your own child, say the authorities, but your fears are groundless and actually rather selfish. Be responsible. Overcome them. Trust us, for we know better. This is an astonishing piece of State bossiness in an age that has seen a catalogue of mistakes, panics and mysteries in the world of disease and medicine.
They were not being asked to risk their own offspring for the sake of others. They were being asked to vaccinate their own offspring for the sake of their own offspring. Yes, the world is complicated and some people do know better than you (or me) about all sorts of things. There is, of course, no absolute guarantee than any particular expert in something is right but science is a collaborative enterprise that produces a consensus reflecting the best evidence we have at any particular time. Even then the consensus MAY be wrong, but it's the best source of information there is. The alternative - listening to people who don't know what they are talking about and just make stuff up - is much worse.
They told us thalidomide was safe.
It is - for the person taking it. Unfortunately they didn't test drugs properly for effects on developing embryos in those days. Now they do.
They said that we would all get AIDS.
No they didn't. They said that you risk getting AIDS if you have unprotected sex. You do.
Official advice on avoiding cot death switched from 'babies must lie on their fronts' to 'babies must lie on their backs' with barely an apology.
Yes. Because science - unlike your immutable prejudices - is based on evidence. When new evidence comes in, science changes to reflect that new evidence. That's why science gets better and better all the time whereas stuff people just make up or think doesn't.
The wise person responds with deep caution to the words 'Trust me, I'm a doctor', and with even more caution to the words 'Trust us, we're the Government'.
The wise person either becomes an expert him/herself or puts his trust in the the current expert consensus. The fool places his/her trust on something s/he read in the newspaper.
The same authorities who refuse even to consider that there might be a risk from the Mumps, Measles and Rubella (MMR) vaccine have embarked on a massacre of cattle, and on slaughter and hygiene regulations which have crippled the entire beef industry, when there is still no actual proof that eating BSE-infected meat leads to CJD.
We don't "prove" things in science - you can only do that in maths or logic. We gather evidence and develop well supported theories. There is overwhelming evidence that eating BSE-infected meat leads to vCJD - though vCJD is (mercifully) relatively rare.
But they demand conclusive proof of danger before they will even entertain doubts about MMR. They shout 'bad science' at Andrew Wakefield, the consultant who has persistently raised questions about MMR. Yet nearly half the health professionals questioned by the British Medical Journal say they have concerns about children being given the second of the two required MMR jabs. Surely they, with their long and careful training and education, can recognise 'bad science' when they see it? And what about Tony Blair, who refuses to say if he will follow his own Government's advice when little Leo comes up for his first MMR any day now? If it's so wonderfully safe, why not give a lead to us all?
Yep. Blair's behaviour was indefensible - only valid point in this entire diatribe.
This weekend the triple vaccine is being urged on every parent of small children through a £3million propaganda campaign, mounted at our expense in breezy defiance of unproved but frightening suggestions that MMR could be behind a sudden increase in childhood autism. Most GPs back the Government line, though this may have something to do with the fact that doctors can increase their annual income by £860 if they achieve a 70 per cent take-up of the jab, and by £2,580 if they can reach 90 per cent.

The pressure is strong. If you don't let us immunise your child, says the Government, you could help cause an epidemic of measles. And don't imagine that measles is just a few spots. This is a serious disease which can kill. The Department of Health speaks of the 'devastating brain-destroying impact of measles in young children', known as SSPE, which sometimes accompanies measles.

Yet it is the devastating brain-destroying impact of autism which is so worrying for the parent who hovers at the surgery door, wondering whether to submit a cheerful, healthy toddler to MMR.

There is no proof that MMR causes or has ever caused autism, or the severe bowel disorder Crohn's disease which can lead to brain damage.
Again, "proof" is not a relevant concept here. There is no credible evidence that MMR causes or has ever caused autism, or the severe bowel disorder Crohn's disease and there is overwhelming evidence that MMR does NOT cause autism, or Crohn's disease.
But both of these afflictions have become more common since the triple MMR was introduced in 1988,
A questionable claim, but one that is irrelevant given the detailed and large scale epidemiological investigations which have been carried out.
and they have brought unutterable misery to many families. Heartbroken parents speak of how they have 'lost' their children even though they are still alive. Toddlers who were alert, responsive, full of laughter and recognition, suddenly went quiet, and retreated into an unknown world where they are no longer the people they were or might have become.
It is indeed terrible when such a thing happens to a toddler, but the terribleness of it is irrelevant to whether this terrible thing was caused by MMR.
Imagine wondering for the rest of your life whether you were to blame for such a thing happening to your own child. You cannot know, but you will always suspect. Because the decision on whether to inject or not was yours alone, this would be far worse than coping with the random, unpredictable ravages of a disease. It is an awful choice, and those who must take it need not propaganda, but help.
But why would any parent wonder such a thing unless that parent had been misled by a dishonest doctor and credulous journalists who insist on spreading that doctor's lies?
Why do they not get help?
Why do journalists not give them the help they need - accurate easy-to-understand facts.
Why do parents have to take this decision at all? The alleged autism risk is linked entirely to the joint use of the three vaccines in one go.
A false and thoroughly discredited allegation.
If there is a connection it is possibly because three viruses at once overload the child's small frame.
No! Again, scientists consider such possibilities, and they understand how the immune system works. Three attenuated viruses at once do not overload a child's small frame.
While we find out for certain, why not let worried parents have single vaccines, spread over time?
See above.
The official answer to this is astonishingly thin. Parents are told that huge studies - especially a recent one in Finland - have shown no link between MMR and autism. But the Finnish study, it turns out, was not really looking for any such link so it is no great surprise that it did not find one.
Do you mean this study? "No evidence for measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine-associated inflammatory bowel disease or autism in a 14-year prospective study." (PMID:9643797) Peltola H, Patja A, Leinikki P, Valle M, Davidkin I, Paunio M Lancet [1998, 351(9112):1327-1328]?
Asked to explain its rigid refusal to leave a loophole for worried mothers and fathers, the Health Department brusquely proclaims: 'The Government recommends the use of MMR because the evidence is that combined MMR is better for children than separate vaccines. There is evidence that separating the vaccines puts children unnecessarily at risk of diseases that have serious complications. Recommendations on MMR vaccines are categorically not based on financial considerations, nor do they aim to deny parental choice. We cannot offer parents the choice of an unsafe and unproved option when a safer and more effective vaccine exists. The Department must make recommendations based on the best scientific evidence and the advice of experts and this is that MMR is the safest way to protect children against these diseases. For this fundamental reason we cannot support the use of single dose vaccines.' Dr Jayne Donegan, a sceptical London GP, says the official position about this is confused and self-defeating. The reason for the current panic is that fears of MMR have led to a severe drop in the take-up, down to levels of 75 per cent, which are not enough to insure against an epidemic. If this is so, she points out, then the urgent task is to get as many children immunised against measles as possible. By making the single measles vaccine available easily in this country, the Government could get levels back up to 90 per cent. Even with a six-month gap between jabs, toddlers could then be immunised against the more distant dangers of rubella and mumps within less than two years.

And she asks: 'Why is it safer to give them together?' It is true, she says, that the old Berna-Rubini single mumps vaccine had a poor record. But there is no reason why the new and effective Jerryl Lyn mumps immunisation could not be given on its own. However, you cannot readily get it here except as part of the MMR.
See above.
The Department's fierce statement that the single-vaccine alternative is 'unsafe and unproved' does not seem to be founded on much, and an unkind person might well suspect that this assertion was 'bad science'.
There are far fewer data about the safety of the single-vaccine. This is good science.
Dr Donegan used to be an enthusiast for vaccinations of all kinds, but experience has turned her into a doubter. She believes that the medical establishment is in the grip of an intolerant orthodoxy that will not listen to questioning voices.
But does she have any real evidence for her doubts or any support from the rest of her profession concerning her opinions about "the medical establishment"?
'They think that people who question the vaccine are socially irresponsible. If I say anything critical about vaccines it's as if I were saying that God was dead.' Certainly an act of faith is required. The claims of an MMR risk have not been proved, but nor have they been disproved. There is no reason for either side to be certain, and every reason to be cautious, especially if the future of a tiny child is in your hands. Yet the use of emotional strong-arm tactics comes just as much - if not more - from the pro-injection lobby as it does from the antis.
See "proof" and "overwhelming evidence" above.
Are their scares valid? The MMR enthusiasts make much of recent measles epidemics in Ireland and the Netherlands which involved several thousand children. Dr Donegan says measles is indeed deadly if it attacks badly nourished children living in dirty conditions, or if it affects those who are already seriously ill. She says most health improvements, even the ones credited to vaccination, are really due to the march of civilisation. In an advanced country with clean food and water, fresh fruit and vegetables readily available, and modern, spacious housing, she believes measles is unlikely to be fatal for healthy youngsters.
What Dr Donegan believes is irrelevant. There is ample statistical evidence about how many otherwise healthy children are likely to die or become disabled in a measles outbreak.
Normal, fit people can suffer severely or even die from measles, but such deaths are rare. The Netherlands recently suffered an epidemic in the country's rural 'Bible Belt', where vaccination of all kinds is frowned upon. There were three deaths among the 3,300 who caught the disease. One two-year-old had underlying heart problems, but the two other victims, a three-year-old and a 17-year-old, died from measles complications.
And those three children would be alive today if their parents had vaccinated their children.
The two measles deaths in Ireland's epidemic last year suggest that Dr Donegan has a point. One of the victims was a 12-month-old baby girl from a very poor family living in grim conditions on a large Dublin housing estate and was, incredibly for a European capital in the year 2000, malnourished. The other was also exceptional and seriously ill before he contracted measles. He was a two-year-old with a severe malformation of the throat which linked his windpipe with his oesophagus and who had to be fed by a tube let into his stomach.
And those two children would be alive today if their parents had vaccinated their children.
The Irish epidemic also revealed another unsettling fact for the 'MMR at all costs' lobby. At least ten per cent of those who developed measles had been given the MMR jab. One in ten is a pretty high failure rate for a treatment that is being pressed on the public as a great social duty.
The failure rate is less than one percent for children who get both MMR jabs. Even if it were lower, herd immunity would protect the unprotected children.
And it is that idea of social duty which really lies at the heart of this argument. The lofty view that 'the health of the people is the highest law' seems to have shoved aside all other thoughts. The authorities, who take more than a third of our income in taxes, are not delivering very much that is good or laudable in return, as the NHS decays into Third World conditions.
Have you ever visited the Third World?
They are anxious to prove to us that they are still benevolent and good: the abolition and defeat of diseases is one of the few ways they now have of doing so. They have made a calculation which leaves no room for doubt and they think we are obliged to help them. Luckily for us, they cannot - yet - make us vaccinate our young. I bet they wish they could, but in the meantime they are forcing the parents of Britain into a deeply unpleasant and completely needless dilemma which may have the opposite effect to the one they intend. If there is a measles epidemic in this country, the rigid minds of the Health Department will have to share the blame for it. ‘
That statement is so perverse, I hardly know how to respond. There is a measles epidemic in this country. It was caused by the rigid minds of one idiot doctor and dozens of idiot journalists.
I still think that, given the state of knowledge when this was written, this is a reasonable summary of the case. I was the only journalist to track the measles deaths in Dublin and find out the true circumstances from the Irish authorities. This would have been impossible in Britain, where my requests for such information on a measles death was brusquely refused, on the spurious grounds of patient confidentiality. I never sought to identify anyone so that cannot be the reason. It is useful to recall that Andrew Wakefield’s original paper in ‘The Lancet’, suggesting that the MMR (introduced in 1988) might have risks, had been published in February 1998, almost three years before I wrote the article. The concerns about the safety of the MMR had already taken hold in the public mind long before I ever uttered a public word about it.
But by the time you wrote, the fears over MMR had already been put to rest. You could (and should) have uttered your public words in favour of vaccination.
In fact, they go back further than the famous press conference which began the controversy. Using an electronic library database, I found that fears over the MMR being linked with autism and bowel disease were raised in newspaper reports in March 1994, January 1996, November 1996, June 1997 and July 1997. In 1992, two of the original MMR vaccines had been withdrawn because of a separate concern over the safety of the mumps component.
Yep. That's what we do if, despite our best efforts, we later discover that vaccines are dangerous or do more harm than good.
I am not going to attempt to go into the rights and wrongs of this controversy now. I can only say that it seemed to me that some legitimate concerns had been raised, and that parents were entitled to be worried. Some personal experiences of mine have made me worry about all claims of total safety for vaccines.
No scientist would ever claim total safety for anything. Your personal experiences are irrelevant. The safety of vaccines is established by the large scale collection of evidence.
Nor is it just personal experience, nor the ghastly experience of Heather Edwards and her son Joshua, which I have often written about, and which haunts me to this day (Joshua had severe reactions after *both* his MMR injections, suffering both regressive autism and grave bowel problems. No, this doesn't prove anything. But it is surely worrying).
What's worrying is that a supposedly intelligent journalist can commit such an obvious case of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. I am very sorry about Joshua, but the epidemiological evidence clearly establishes that he did not develop his conditions as a result of his jabs.
As I noted in July 2007, ‘ I am hugely grateful to Vivienne Parry, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises the Government on the controversial MMR injection, for finally explaining the true attitude of the authorities: “There's a small risk with all vaccines,” she says. “No one has ever said that any vaccine is completely without side-effects.” “But we have to decide whether the benefits outweigh the risks. If we had measles, it would kill lots of children. If you have a vaccine, it will damage some children, but a very small number.” ‘ As I wrote then: ’It's not really true about measles, a rather minor risk to a healthy child in an advanced country. But what a refreshing change this candour is from the woodenheaded assertions by the medical establishment that the MMR jab is proven to be completely safe.’ The problem here is that governments may regard the ‘small number’ who are damaged as unimportant. But the individuals who are personally and directly affected see it in a very different way.
See above. The benefits of MMR vastly outweigh any risk - for each individual child as well as for the child population as a whole.
I don’t think I have ever met or communicated directly with Andrew Wakefield, though I have corresponded with many people, whose children suffered from bowel complaints and regressive autism, who did meet him and who had and continue to have a high opinion of him as a doctor and a man. I note that many modern accounts of the controversy describe his actions as ‘fraudulent’ or ‘false’ or as a ‘hoax’, suggesting a deliberate attempt to deceive. I don’t personally think this is fair.
Andrew Wakefield's dishonesty has been established beyond any reasonable doubt.
Another doctor ( I won’t name her in case it brings extra trouble to her) who dared to sympathise with worried parents, and whom I believe to be a fine and ethical professional, was also dragged before the General Medical Council for daring to give evidence on behalf of such worried parents. I am glad to say that she was cleared, but not until after she had been put through a professional and emotional ordeal which would have crushed many people.

One of the things which always made me sympathise with the worried parents was the intolerant fury of the pro-MMR campaign, which to this day exaggerates the dangers of measles. The prevalence and dangers of this disease (grave among malnourished people without access to clean water) had already fallen precipitately before the first vaccine was introduced in 1968. Annual Measles deaths in in England and Wales ranged between about 9,000 a year and 12,000 a year before the First World War, rose to a peak of nearly 17,000 in the harshest period of the war (during, and perhaps caused by, the now-forgotten severe food shortages of that period) , fell after the war, at one stage to fewer than 3,000, then rising again to nearly 6,000 before beginning a long, jagged fall to around 100, a level reached in the mid-1950s 13 years before the introduction of any vaccine at all. During the first 60 years of the century, its victims fell from more than 300 deaths per year per million to about two per million. (Older figures show a far higher death rate in the 1840s – 700 per year per million; and again in the 1880s – 600 per year per million. There is a data gap in the 1890s In the five years immediately before the first vaccine, deaths were as follows : 1962:39; 1963:166; 1964:73; 1965:115; 1966:80; 1967:99; 1968:51. To give an indication of the range of possible variations in those times, deaths in 1956 were at 30, while the previous year there had been 176 and in 1957 there were 96, and in 1958, 49. The width of the variation did narrow after 1968, but not vastly. Nor can we be sure that the vaccine was responsible, or wholly responsible, for the subsequent continuing fall in the number of deaths to zero or very near zero, which has been maintained since then. General standards of housing, nutrition and public health were all continuing to rise in that period, which saw the final removal of some of the worst slums. Deaths in subsequent years fell even lower, falling to 6 in 1979. This is obviously an advance. But a) it is really quite small compared with the changes wrought by better nutrition, housing conditions and hygiene achieved in the previous 60 years. And b) it is very hard to say whether it is attributable to the vaccine, or to the continuing improvements in public health which had already had so much effect.
This line of argument makes no sense whatsoever. Yes deaths were reduced by better living conditions. Now we have better living conditions, the only way to reduce deaths further is by vaccination. It is not hard to say what is attributable to the vaccine. Epidemiologists do this for a living. The vaccine (properly deployed) prevents people getting measles at all. If nobody gets measles, nobody dies from or is disabled by measles. The only argument for not vaccinating would be if vaccination caused more harm than good. It doesn't.
Let us all hope and pray that there are no deaths or serious illness as a result of the current measles outbreak.
Indeed! At least, if there is death or serious illness, those of us in the "intolerant orthodoxy" will at least be able to sleep at night knowing we did our best. Will you?
As always, the subject is illuminated more by thought and facts than by dogma and emotion, though it is, in my view, kind to respect the fears of others, and foolish to ignore them.
Even when the fears of others are based on dogma and emotion?
If you want accurate information about medical science and the sorry tale of Dr Wakefield and the MMR scare, I can only suggest that you stop reading the Daily Mail and start reading Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.

PS I've just been taken to task on twitter for not citing references (other than Ben's book above). I really wanted to avoid rehearsing debates about the detailed scientific evidence because those debates have all been had and the outcome is clear. I wanted to restrict myself to the question of how the advice was derived from the science and how science works. I have, however, alluded to factual evidence concerning the merits of MMR versus single vaccines. If you dispute any of my claims, I would direct you to Public Health England: Why is MMR preferable to single vaccines?. If you don't accept what they have to say then you'll have to start reading the primary literature.