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.


Comments are moderated, but you can leave them without registering.