nil pecuniam ad veritas

11th June 2015

indycut

Okay, I’m going to take it as read that you know that this headline from the front page of the Independent on Sunday (31st May 2015) is wrong, and why it is wrong. This has already been covered, and covered well, by people who actually know what they are talking about on the subject of vaccinations, not least Dr Jen Gunter, jdc325, and Adam Jacobs.

When the Toronto Star ran a similar story back in February, it ultimately resulted in a retraction and an apology (thanks in no small part to the intervention of Jen Gunter). But, on this occasion, the Independent haven’t retracted, and instead they’ve sought to justify their position, as typified by the response they wrote to Adam Jacobs. This story was followed by a similar piece the next day in the Mail.

It’s possible to attribute some of this bad journalism to ignorance on the part of the author of the article, for example ignorance of the fact that adverse event databases demonstrate no causal link between the vaccination and the adverse event. No doubt there’s often some truth in this, particularly since such stories often originate in the lifestyle, fashion, diet, or even showbiz ends of the publication in question (the publication’s science department – if it has one – presumably refusing to touch the story with a bargepole).

Writing a headline article on an important subject while in complete ignorance of its meaning is bad enough, but there is another problem which is typified by the Independent piece. When challenged by Adam Jacobs, they say:

We made clear that no causal link has been established between the symptoms experienced by Miss Ryalls (and other teenagers) and the HPV vaccine.

Adam responds:

I think what they mean by “made it clear that no causal link has been established” is that they were very careful with their wording not to explicitly claim a causal link, while nonetheless using all the rhetorical tricks at their disposal to make sure a causal link was strongly implied.

Let’s be clear here. The Independent knew exactly what they were doing. Their journalists and editors may not understand science, or epidemiology, or statistics, but they do know how to write. They know that by writing a headline in the form “Bad thing x happened after somebody did y” they are drawing a clear connection between x and y.

If they were to publish the headline…

Thousands of customers endure food poisoning after visiting [insert fast food chain here]

…unless they had good evidence to show that the food poisoning was actually connected to the visit to the fast food chain, they’d fully expect the bosses of that fast food chain would be sharpening their lawyers. If there was no demonstrable link between the two, if it was unclear whether the food poisoning was actually food poisoning, if many of the cases happened months later, they could expect their headline to be challenged.

The point I’m making here is that it’s not good enough simply to say “Blah blah happened after blah blah” and then run away from responsibility for it, shouting over your shoulder that it’s not your fault if somebody takes away an untrue meaning from what you’ve said. It’s your fault if somebody draws a false connection between those two events, especially when that false connection was precisely what you were aiming for.

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But the Independent letter goes on:

I am confident that our readers are sophisticated enough to understand the wider context and implications.

This is tantamount to saying, “Our readers know we make shit up. They know our headlines can’t be trusted and they are sophisticated enough to take what we say with a massive pinch of salt. D’oh, what are we like?”

Now, that may be good enough for the Sunday Sport or Viz, where there either isn’t really any attempt to make a serious stab at accurate news reporting or the work is (at its best) satirical humour, but it’s not good enough for a supposedly trustworthy broadsheet newspaper.

20150610_131458sm

Viz: What the Independent wants to be when it grows up.

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It also misses two important aspects of publication, which result in a readership beyond the normal Indy audience.

Firstly, this was the front page headline. It will have been read by lots of non-readers of the Independent: people in the newsagents on their way to buy their copy of Scaffolding Monthly or a scratchcard. These people will have read the headline, absorbed the claim that HPV vaccinations are harming children, but not bought the paper and therefore not read the caveat somewhere around paragraph 23 that it was all made-up bollocks.

Secondly, because the article is published and freely accessible on the internet, it’s open to what I’m going to refer to, for want of a better term, as the blowfly effect. Here’s how the blowfly effect works. If you publish, on your front page and on your website, a huge steaming turd of an article, you’re going to attract flies. In this case, a swarm of of anti-vax conspiracy arseholes who will take your article, divest it of any of the “wider context and implications” you think you’ve been so careful to include, and just trumpet the basic headline message that HPV is bad, m’kay. These then infect people who never saw the original article and just pick up the misinformation that builds up around it. It’s in the Independent, it must be true, they’ll think. This is exactly how scandals such as MMR occur.

The Indy continues:

The impact on the MMR programme of Andrew Wakefield’s flawed research (and media coverage of it) is always at the forefront of editors’ minds whenever concerns about vaccines are raised, either by individuals or by medical studies. But our piece on Sunday was not in the same bracket.

Adam’s response:

No, sorry, it is in exactly the same bracket. The media coverage of MMR vaccine was all about hyping up completely evidence-free scare stories about the risks of MMR vaccine. The present story is all about hyping up completely evidence-free scare stories about the risk of HPV vaccine. If you’d like to explain to me what makes those stories different, I’m all ears.

Couldn’t have put it better.

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Now, articles such as the Independent’s front page frothy outpouring undoubtedly feed into a climate of unjustified fear of vaccination, which results in reductions in vaccination rates, which results in real harm. There are already reports of girls being withdrawn from the vaccination programme. Beyond that, I’d like to make comments about two other areas that could be affected by such irresponsible scare-mongering.

Firstly, AllTrials. One potential excuse for pharmaceutical companies to avoid releasing all the data regarding their clinical trials is the risk of that data potentially being misused, by somebody who is inexperienced, ignorant, or has an axe to grind.

If we are going to say that drug companies and researchers must release the data they hold about the treatments we use, then we have to make sure we use that data in a grown-up, responsible way. Brutalising adverse event databases in a cheap attempt to stir up controversy is not exactly responsible behaviour.

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Thousands of people rip off own ears after Ed Sheeran gig

No, wait, there probably is a link between those two. I’ll try again.

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Thousands of Bothans die after attempt to obtain Death Star plans

This just isn’t working. I’ll move on.

Then there’s What Doctors Don’t Tell You (motto: “never knowingly accurate”). Regular readers of my blog will be fully aware of this particularly loathsome rag, which cloaks dangerous medical advice in the camouflage of a glossy lifestyle magazine. Vitamin C to cure AIDS? It’s got it. Homeopathy to cure cancer? It’s got that too. Their chief editor runs courses in using the power of the mind to influence the world around you, and is convinced she managed to end civil war in Sri Lanka by the power of brain-thoughts.

edsnocap

Mmmmmm. Brains.

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WDDTY (motto: “Coming up: why we will never take advertising. But first, a word from our sponsors”) is solidly, barkingly anti-vax, even to the extent of giving advice on how to avoid school vaccination programmes. One investigation into how often WDDTY (motto: “Blibl blibl blibl”) makes anti-vaccination comments ran into difficulty when the search hit 100 results and couldn’t count further.

babyneedles

Don’t leave your baby in the sharps bin. I know it seems a good idea to put your baby in the sharps bin, but really… you’ve got to try not to do that.

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The Independent clearly isn’t as bad as WDDTY (motto “nil pecuniam ad veritas”) but when they publish articles like this one they are clearly on the same spectrum, and their reach is much larger (despite what WDDTY (motto “bite me, facts”) would have you believe about their sales figures).

A number of us have been campaigning for some time to persuade supermarkets and newsagents to stop stocking WDDTY (motto: “Can we really get away with this?”), on the basis that it contains dangerous advice and is given an illusion of verity it doesn’t deserve by being stocked in stores such as Tesco and Asda. The magazine’s editors, for their part, claim to be being persecuted by this campaign.

notevenwrong

Possibly the only accurate headline that has ever been printed in WDDTY (motto: “Full scream ahead!”)

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Now here’s the thing. If we campaign and complain about WDDTY (motto: “Not even wrong”) while the mainstream media get away with dangerous nonsense such as this Indy article, then their claim of persecution has some measure of justification.

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Thousands of journalists suffer brain fade after being told to stoke up something controversial to use as clickbait

So please, Independent, do the right thing. Learn the lesson that the Toronto Star learned, understand the contribution you could make to public safety (either positively or negatively) and decide to take a conscious step towards making that contribution a positive one.

Retract this awful article.

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Otherwise I’m going to have to start writing sarky things about you too.

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Comments gratefully received (except Latin pedantry).

More WDDTY articles

6 Responses to “nil pecuniam ad veritas”

  1. mikeh June 11, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

    Very well put.

    Wondering what can still be done with the Independent, given they’ve basically told everyone who has complained to fuck off and refused to retract it. Thing is, Jen Gunter and Adam Finn (amongst others, no doubt) have made their feelings very clear, so heavyweight academic and clinical opinion hasn’t swayed the Independent at all. Then there are the numerous blog posts that make clear the problems with the article.

    So the problem is well described by experts and enthusiasts alike, the newspaper knows full well, but does nothing. So what now?

    • wanderingteacake June 11, 2015 at 2:54 pm #

      Don’t know. IPSO don’t exactly inspire confidence as a regulator either.

  2. ketteringsatellite June 11, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

    Just out of interest, and speaking rhetorically, have their circulation figures gone up?

  3. Guy Chapman June 11, 2015 at 10:29 pm #

    The worst thing about this is that HPV is actually more serious than measles. Not many people die from measles, now we have good techniques to control secondary infections, but HPV causes cancer and thousands of women are diagnosed with preventable cervical cancer every year.

    So while we obviously think of the article as promoting false balance and anti-vaccine tropes, what it’s really promoting is an unnecessary and agonising death for potentially quite large numbers of the paper’s readers’ children.

    And that is not an exaggeration.

  4. jaycueaitch June 12, 2015 at 7:28 am #

    “HUNDREDS DIE IN AGONY AFTER READING SCAREMONGERING IOS ARTICLE!”

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