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February 8th, 2009 · 3 Comments · Critical thinking

Apparently, the decades-long innovation know as the world wide web is not diffusing fast enough for old media types. Lawyers for LBC 97.3, a London-based talk radio station, are learning the hard way that censorship doesn’t work on the internet, and that which was supposed to be censored is merely amplified, a phenomena known as the The Streisand Effect.

This latest example involves Dr. Ben Goldacre who writes the indispensable Bad Science blog and a weekly Guardian column. Goldacre rightly trained his sites on LBC talker Jeni Barnett, a British actress who feels obligated to share what she knows about vaccines and measles. But since she knows so little, Barnett was compelled to fill the rest of her three hour time slot with anti-vaccine talking points, addle-pated weltanschauung, and other assorted brain farts. In the pre-internet age such mindless drivel passed quietly into the ether, and was easily ignored.

But ignore, being the root word of ignorance, is not something Goldacre is comfortable with. He spends too much time exposing ignorance, and when Jeni Barnett, a former cooking show hostess, served up a steaming bouillabaisse of crass indifference to our mechanistic universe, well, Goldacre sprang into action. One of his readers kindly edited Barnett’s three-hour crankfest down to 44 minutes, and Goldacre posted the audio file on his website.

LBC 97.3 was not amused. Goldacre explains:

LBC’s lawyers say that the clip I posted is a clear infringement of their copyright, that I must take it down immediately, that I must inform them when I have done so, and that they “reserve their rights”.

To me this raises several problems:

Firstly, I don’t even know what “reserving your rights” means. They are a large corporation worth around a billion pounds (genuinely), I am some bloke, they have a legal team, I have no money, they are making threats using technical terminology and I actually don’t understand what those words mean.

Secondly, more importantly, as I have written at length, the media have systematically and irresponsibly misrepresented the evidence on MMR. It is my view that individuals like Jeni Barnett  – but more importantly, organisations like LBC and Global Radio who give them a mouthpiece and a platform – pose a serious danger to public health, with their ignorant outbursts, disseminated to the nation. This clip was extremely instructive as an example of that recurring theme, and it deserves to be freely accessible and widely discussed.

MMR vaccine uptake has dropped from 93% to around 75%, and to below 50% in London. Furthermore, the media have shown no sign of recognising and acknowledging their role, and so it seems likely that they will go on to cause further harm on this but also, more importantly, on many other issues. I write about all this because I think it is interesting, and extremely important.

But thirdly, there is a question of the basic tools you need to illustrate a point. The clip I posted was, to my mind, hideous and unremitting: it went on for so long.

In fact it was so long, so unrelenting, and so misinformed that I really couldn’t express to you how hideous it was. If I tried, without the audio, you might think I was exaggerating. You might think that I was biased, that I was misrepresenting Jeni’s demeanour and views in this broadcast, that and their parent company are living up to the standards of basic responsibility which we might reasonably hold them to, as they shepherd Jeni’s views and explanations into our cars and kitchens. You might think that I was quoting Jeni out of context, cherry picking only the ridiculous moments from an otherwise sensible, proportionate and responsible piece of public rhetoric.

Goldacre removed the audio from BadScience.com and,  predictably, the file instantly appeared on a dozen other sites. There’s even a written transcript. Highlights include:

JB: But why give them the vaccine if they get the measles? I never can understand that.

Critical MD caller: We don’t give vaccines to children who have had measles. They need a combined vaccine of measles, mumps and rubella.

If they have one dose the studies show that they possibly need to be revaccinated within a couple of years to make sure that that protection carries on for life.

*  *  *

JB: I’m going to ask you something here, have you had the flu jab? And still you’ve got the cold?”

Sneezing physician caller: The vaccine protects you from influenza. It doesn’t protect you from the cold.

* * *

JB stream of -consciousness: Back in the day, children got measles, children got mumps. I’m not suggesting – I am not suggesting – that we got backwards where some children, where we have one in fifteen children die of it (then a minute later) What is wrong with childhood illnesses? Is it – to hark back to the first hour – because we don’t have parents at home looking after the children? What’s going on? Is there something wrong with having mumps, is there something – you know is it – most people aren’t that one in fifteen?

* * *

I, however, have talked to many people over the years – 22 years I’ve lived with my daughter – and over the years many many people have said the same thing, that when we were little, chicken pox, you took your kid to get the chickenpox, you made sure your child was near somebody who had it. My brother got mumps, he lived to tell the tale. I don’t know if we had measles. I was sitting next to Nick Owen on the settee at TV AM when his children were incubating rubella which is measles, and I was pregnant!

Barnett’s recurring themes, as Goldacre called them, are not unique to LBC 97.3. Such gross distortions of  science and reason are the fruit some faulty, but widely held assumptions* held by the news and entertainment media. A few include:

Complicated answers are suspect. Antigens-schmantigens, just give it to us straight.

Certainty is strength. Doubt is weakness. Nothing cements certainty like personal experience, confirmed by anecdotes on the internet.

Your opinion matters as much as anyone else’s. Of course you’re biased, but so is everyone else!

If it’s good for you, it’s good. Better to bark like a loon than run with the herd.

Radio personalities such as Jeni Barnett are a symptom of a much larger problem – the dumbing down of the consumer population. As news and entertainment media meld into a single, amorphous glob, the line between science and wishful thinking becomes hazier. Exposing Barnett and LBC 97.3 is a little like putting on a pair of reading glasses – it helps us to see the line more clearly, and perhaps recognize our own biases and misperceptions.

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* From Peter Klausler’s intriguing Principles of the American Cargo Cult.

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