John Walker's Electronic House

Goldacre Vs Barnett, Why The Internet Will Get You

by on Feb.10, 2009, under Rants

On 3rd Feb, Ben Goldacre posted to his Bad Science blog to report the most extraordinary radio broadcast from former TVAM star, Jeni Barnett. During her LBC show, she had spent 45 minutes campaigning against the MMR vaccine, shouting down any who disagreed with her, and perpetuating the lie that there were any connections between the MMR and any long-term disorders such as autism.

The piece of radio was remarkable not simply because it was yet another idiot spreading this dangerous lie, but because Barnett managed to involve every piece of pseudo-science, every misconception, every fallacy, every woo-woo belief, and all the while rejecting any other information presented to her. It was, as Goldacre observed, a textbook piece of bad thinking, and exemplary for those wishing to understand what rational science is competing with.

Barnett responded on her blog to the attention she garnered. (No link, as explained later). She posted remarkable doublethink statements, such as:

“I am not a scientist, I would not claim to be a scientist. When tested on the contents of the MMR vaccine I told the truth. I did not have the facts to hand. Was I ill informed? Yes.As a responsible broadcaster I should have been better prepared as a parent, however, I can fight my corner. I don’t know everything that goes into cigarettes but I do know they are harmful.”

The nonsense deepened as she continued, with peculiar cries of,

“Injecting tiny babies with substances that may compromise their immune system needs to be looked at not shouted down.”

Something with which I’m sure no one disagrees. Of course, MMR doesn’t fit into this category, since it enhances their immune systems, but I think we can all get on board with Jeni’s campaign to stop people injecting these especially small babies with botulism or lead paint. She then declared that her critics wouldn’t be able to present a three hour radio programme, and finished with what proves to have been quite a prescient claim:

“Should anybody from BAD SCIENCE read this I urge you to continue the debate, and if it gets too heated there is always the option of turning me off.”

Meanwhile, LBC’s lawyers contacted Goldacre, telling him to remove the segment of the radio programme from his blog, or they would take legal action. This is, of course, standard procedure for copyright enforcement. You simply cannot post long sections of radio programming without the broadcaster’s permission, even though it was beamed through the airwaves into people’s radios for free, and would be very unlikely to be something LBC could use to make more money. (I’ve a sneaking suspicion it won’t be appearing on many ‘Best Of’ segments.) Goldacre posted about that here, along with many more updates regarding the story.

The comments thread on Barnett’s site filled quickly. It was a mixture of three groups. There were the rational scientists, explaining why she was incorrect, and why her claims were so dangerous. Then there were the angries, who posted to say she was a moron. And there were the anti-MMR brigade, mobilised from their mysterious headquarters, to post links to the websites of the usual suspects. These included the tragic stories of poor parents whose children have autism, and for whom the MMR lie has taken over their lives, leaving their grief and rage misdirected, mostly on themselves. To Barnett’s temporary credit, she allowed all manner of comments through her moderation process, with the weight heavily against her.

This led her to post again, and very sadly, rejecting all the polite and carefully expressed information she had been offered. She wrote in a post titled “Bad Scientists”,

“I thank those of you who have sent me information about sites that may be of use to me.

I thank the Bad Scientist for being just that. Sarcasm doesn’t shift peoples opinions. Making another person feel small because they don’t have a Bad Science degree and then nit-picking over semantics is not the answer either. I care about humanity my way, and you Bad Scientist yours.

To all of you Bad scientists, who are SO angry with me, good luck with your research. Should you fall ill I will attend you as best I can with my motherly love. Should I fall ill, as a non paid up member of your club, will you administer to me? And should I refuse your drugs then what?”

The final paragraph is the most remarkable. That she would reject everything in favour of the bullshit links she received to John Stone and Andrew Wakefield’s misinformation is not too surprising, especially after she had previously stated that she didn’t care if she was wrong, she was going to believe it anyway. But to imply that those with qualifications (something that, pleasingly enough, disqualifies them from having a perspective in Jeni’s world) would leave her to die because they disagreed was incredible. And then the last sentence… huh? Then you’d die by your own choice, you peculiar person.

Meanwhile, the internet began doing what it does best. Not letting things go away. The phenomenon known as The Streisand Effect kicked in, where an attempt to silence something makes it an awful lot louder. When Goldacre could no longer host the LBC segment, he suggested that maybe it could be divided into “fair dealing” chunks on a series of blogs, which he could coordinate on his site. He believed the clip was too valuable to lose. Of course, the internet is more efficient than this, and within minutes the full 45 minutes was hosted in a number of places. You can hear it at Wikileaks when their servers can carry the load (you can also make a donation to them to help keep their servers going). And don’t tell anyone, but it’s also here. And the transcripts are coordinated here.

Not letting awkward things go away is one way in which the internet leaps into action. Another, of course, is spreading the information. Goldacre has a popular following, writing a regular column for the Guardian, and articles exposing a-medical nonsense in various newspapers. But his blog-based following is generally restricted to those already on his side. The story was picked up by bloggers and written about all over the world. And thanks to the recent explosion in the popularity of Twitter, the tweeting was cacophonous. Then the great grandfather of Twittering mentioned it, Stephen Fry. It’s been re-tweeted a kerbillion times, and Goldacre’s site is creaking under the pressure (fortunately it’s hosted by Positive Internet, and they will be working hard behind the scenes to keep it going).

The noise was loud enough for even The Times to pick up the story, David Aaronovitch writing a good summary of the events. I would imagine that today, post Fry-tweet, it will be further reported.

Jeni Barnett, meanwhile, has made the most astonishing choice. Yesterday the 200+ comments across both posts mysteriously vanished. Then this morning, both the posts went too. Her site has removed the incident entirely. Quite what she hopes to achieve by this is unclear, but presumably she’s under a great deal of attention, and she’s not having much fun. From reading previous entries on her blog, Barnett is obviously a very emotional and insecure person (I say this as no slight – this seems to be the most recurring theme in what she writes about) and she must be having an extraordinarily hard time. However, if she thinks deleting her own references to her vociferous attempt to prevent children receiving vital vaccinations will help, she doesn’t know the internet at all well. Both posts, and all the comments, are here. For those of us taking part in the discussion in her comments starting a few days ago, her deleting them is remarkably unpleasant. While the first post received a great deal of offensive nonsense, the second, “Bad Scientists”, contained a wealth of intelligent, polite individuals writing sensibly and helpfully. Her deletion of it was fairly grotesque. Unfortunately for Barnett, nothing gets deleted on the internet.

At the same time as all this unfolded, with remarkable timing, a series of stories regarding the MMR scandal appeared. The first was the news that thanks to the drop in MMR vaccinations, the herd immunity in this country had been lost, and measles cases are rising at a terrifying rate. 2008 saw a 36% increase on 2007, as was revealed on Friday. A disease that was almost eradicated in the late 90s is now killing children again, because of people refusing to take the perfectly safe vaccination, all thanks to one despicable man, Andrew Wakefield.

There’s no point in reproducing the Wakefield story here, but this is absolutely essential reading to not only catch up on exactly how Wakefield single-handedly caused the deadly scare, but also the extraordinary depths to which it is alleged he falsified the data. Of the twelve children followed in his study, The Times demonstrated that some were diagnosed with autism before receiving the MMR, and others have never been diagnosed with autism, nor indeed did they ever manifest the bowel disorders Wakefield claimed was the cause. What this story doesn’t repeat, however, are the revelations from two years ago that Wakefield was paid over £400,000, that he failed to declare in his study, by the lawyers trying to build a case linking MMR to autism. It is mind-boggling.

This is why Barnett’s mistake was so huge. Finally, after a decade of this hideous man’s work having somehow dominated, despite dozens and dozens of further studies failing to reproduce the results, and the MMR being repeatedly proven safe, the tide in the media is beginning to turn. Newspapers that perpetuated the myth are beginning to report the truth. This hopefully means, along with the recent revelations as to the depths of Wakefield’s malpractice, the tide might begin to turn.

(PS. Nothing to do with the above, but another example of when the internet won’t let someone undo history is here, and it’s a fun one.)

8 Comments for this entry

  • Joe Russell

    That was a brilliant read. The events were on the edge of my attention (thanks, of course, to Mr. Fry), but I hadn’t realised the extent of it.

  • Pace

    Nice work. We need to see about shutting up Jenny McCarthy next.

  • SuperNashwan

    I can’t quite decide if I’ve gained or lost respect for Ben Goldacre for exploiting the “big nasty lawyers are suppressing me” angle to try to push the story further. It was a simple and quite understandable take-down request, couched in the standard threatening (to a layperson) legalese. It appears quite cynically calculated that at the same time he’s saying, “look the story here is the media’s role in the MMR clusterfuck” he then links to a bunch of blogs that make the story out to be “Ben Goldacre vs the Lawyers”. This woman’s wilful stupidity is quite monumental enough to support the story by itself for anyone who’d care about it in the first place.

  • Dorian Cornelius Jasper

    Every so often, the power of the internet is used for good. This made me feel a bit warm and fuzzy, much like when I read about the hilariously tongue-in-cheek anti-Scientology protests also stirred up by the internet.

    So it’s stories like these that somehow manage to fuel your optimism for humankind. I’d wondered about that.

  • Tim E

    Stop killing babies, John.

  • NM

    SuperNashwan: it wasn’t a reasonable takedown request. It was a bloody stupid takedown request, and the media company and the lawyers behind it clearly do not understand the mores and mechanism of the Internet, and only have themselves to blame. Had they not issued the takedown “request”, the story would have gone no further than the usual BadScience geeks. Any savvy organisation would have realised this.

  • SuperNashwan

    You’ve missed my point by quite a margin. Ben Goldacre is playing on exactly that angle while trying to pretend that he isn’t.

  • Pace

    I thought it was okay since that recording really was key to the whole discussion. He’s trying to point out how horrible it was, and that something really needs to be done, but they’re telling him to take it down. That request is more or less valid I suppose, or at least within their rights, but the suspicion is that they’re asking him to take it down because they probably just want it gone, they’d rather not have to deal with the criticism, they know how bad it is. That, I’d say, is good reason for Ben to make a big deal out of it. Besides, from what I’ve read on his site, Mr. Goldacre is a very sensible fellow, and I think he deserves all the support he can get. (That is, he easily gets the benefit of the doubt from me.) (I’m trying to look at the post again, but the badscience server isn’t working for me for some reason.)

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