LBC – laughable, blustering, canting (updated twice)

In which Dr Aust finally finds something unoriginal to say about the Jeni Barnett business

Ben Goldacre has been asking over at BadScience that people not post vitriolic or abusive comments to Jeni Barnett’s blog.

I have been having a think back to see if I have said anything vitriolic and abusive. So far the nastiest thing I have said was:

“Jeni Barnett’s astonishingly ill-informed comments, petulant on-air behaviour, and dismissive attitude…demonstrate, yet again, just how idiotic – not to mention dangerously deluded -”personalities” can be when they comment on stuff they know F***-All about.”

All of which might be at the watery end of vitriolic, but seems to me to be well short of abusive.

And I also described the programme as “spectacularly awful” Which sounds about right, although I also liked Holfordwatch’s “lamentable”.

Anyway, while Jeni Barnett’s views about MMR were laughable, the sad truth is that she is (as we are all too well aware) not the only person that thinks that way. Nor are her reasons for holding such views atypical

So why do people hold such extraordinary views on the MMR vaccine?

Well, there is research on this. Of course, there is research on everything. The key question is – why do people believe what they do? The media’s dreadful science can hardly be helping, but is it the whole story?

A few years ago, a social science research group in Sussex did an extended “anthropological fieldwork” type study in Brighton on attitudes to, and beliefs about, vaccination, and on what shaped these attitudes and beliefs. Basically, they talked to and interviewed mothers concerning their beliefs about vaccination. The research appeared in an interim report in 2004, and then latterly in two published papers in 2005 and 2006, which can be found here and here respectively (the first paper resembles the interim report). Let me quote the summary of the report, which is essentially identical to the abstract of the first (2005) paper:

Summary

In the context of the high-profile controversy that has unfolded in the UK around the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and its possible adverse effects, this paper addresses how parents in Brighton are thinking about MMR for their own children. Research focusing on parents’ engagement with MMR has been dominated by analysis of the proximate influences on their choices, and in particular scientific and media information, guiding policy to focus on information and education. The ethnographic work in Brighton reported in this paper, to be complemented by survey work, begins to question the validity of such reasoning by showing how wider personal and social issues shape parents’ immunization actions. Extended parental narratives show how parents’ practices around MMR are shaped by their personal histories, by birth experiences and related feelings of control, by family health histories, by their readings of their child’s health and particular strengths and vulnerabilities, by particular engagements with health services, by processes of confidence-building and undermining, and by friendships and conversations with others, which are themselves shaped by wider social differences and transformations. “MMR talk” has become a social phenomenon. Many see vaccination as a personal decision which must respond to the particularities of a child’s immune system. These perspectives both challenge key tenets of public health policy, and suggest ways in which people’s engagements with MMR reflect wider changes in their relations with science and the state.

Now, it is not hard to see in their list pretty much every one of the “arguments” that Jeni Barnett produced on her show, and since.

The question for me is not really why Jeni Barnett said what she said. She was out of her depth. She told us what she sincerely believes, all of which was pretty much rank nonsense in a scientific and medical sense. The only real questions relating to Jeni are first, why she thought that she was able to handle a show on this subject, and second, why she was so dismissive of the people who rang in to put her right, usually politely, and often based on real knowledge. These are both legitimate questions for a professional broadcaster.

More important, though – why did LBC make the segment? Why another – yet another, for Heavens sake – desperately silly MMR phone-in? I remember hearing one of these on Radio 5 Live (as it was then) back in 1999 or so. I heard it while driving down the M42 in the old (though then almost-new-ish) Aust-mobile, and it nearly made me drive the car off the road, so relentlessly stupid was it. But I really hoped we might have moved on a bit in the last ten years.

Apparently not.

So what were LBC seeking to achieve? Education? Hardly, given that it was a Vox Pop presented by someone who didn’t really understand the subject, with no expert talking heads. Entertainment? Is vaccination a suitable subject for entertainment programming?

Controversy?

Well, as to that last one, I think the question is the answer.

In which case, I think serious questions should be asked about Jeni Barnett’s editorial team, and also about the senior Programme staff at LBC.

If what Jeni was really being asked to be here was a kind of Shock Jock talk show host, like some of the whackjobs on US TV and radio, then I would personally like to ask the LBC head of Programming why this was thought to be a suitable subject for shock-jock-ery.

The reaction of the Programme Director at LBC, which Ben Goldacre has discussed on his blog, is pathetic. It seems to reduce to:

“Those bastards! They’re out to get Jeni – and us! And all because we did a challenging and entertaining Vox Pop!”

I find I am oddly reminded of the puffs of smoke and faux umbrage that emerged from the Observer when they ran a famously idiotic MMR story and fawning Andrew Wakefield interview back in the Summer of 2007. They similarly didn’t seem to be able to see that this stuff actually does matter. Also similarly, when any number of people pointed out the mistakes, they singularly failed to apologise properly, or to address the question of what responsibilities journalists have WRT some semblance of truth and objectivity.

Really, one has to ask: if these high-up editorial people just don’t get the importance of stuff like this in terms of the media and the wider public conversation, then why are they in the jobs that they are in? Are they really the best the owners could find?

[bpsdb]

Minor Update – 12th Feb:

An interesting post has appeared over at the blogs bit of journalism.co.uk, where Jeni Barnett’s agent, Robert Common, is quoted as saying that he has:

“…personally been very shocked at the hurtful level of criticism [of Jeni Barnett] and its very personal and threatening nature.”

The post has been expanded a couple of times after bloggers (including the Quackometer’s Andy Lewis) pointed out that the published, and now disappeared, comments on Barnett’s blog had been neither personal nor threatening. Common responded to this by saying that:

“The comments/emails [to which he had previously referred] are the ones that have been unpublished.”

It is a shame if some idiots have been posting personal abuse to Barnett’s blog.  Like (probably) everyone who runs a blog, and certainly like everyone who runs a blog of the Bad Science variety, I have received my share of personally abusive comments and emails, and it is unpleasant and unnecessary.

While I understand why Common is defending his client, it must be said that his statements do not offer an explanation as to why all the reasonable comments disappeared from Jeni Barnett’s blog. I could have understood closing the thread after a certain point, if she and he were determined to try and “draw a line” under the business. But deleting the reasoned comments which had set out, for the record, many of the reasons why Barnett’s programme had been wrong on the facts and had angered people, strikes me as  ill-judged.  The journalism.co.uk blogger, Judith Townend, put this point to Robert Common, but he decided he was not making any more statements.

Going back to the original theme, Townend also writes:

Given that Barnett had removed the comment facility on her blog I thought it was important to put the many questions being raised around the web to LBC and Barnett’s agent – for example in the posts and comments at Holford Watch and Quackometer. LBC did not want to make an on-the-record comment.

And in their case, I would say, it is the silence which speaks volumes.

Second Minor Update -  11th March

Via my friend Dr John Crippen I see that Bad Science King Of The Nerds Ben Goldacre has been on London Tonight talking about Jenny B, LBC, and media coverage of MMR.


Now, all you hear from LBC themselves in this film segment is a brief and anodyne statement.

However, it seems that behind the five on-screen minutes lies a positively byzantine web of negotiation and to-ing and fro-ing, probably including “clearing it with the lawyers”. Some of it involving LBC. You can read about it from the producer of the segment, Nick Wallis, here.

Wallis comments:

“Jonathan [Richards, of LBC] was courteous, but was not prepared to put anyone up for interview. I can see why he didn’t (I think they just want this story to go away now).”

Now, I rather suspect the Blogosphere may not be letting LBC forget in such a hurry. I will be waiting with interest to see what happens the next time LBC run a dire science story.

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8 Responses to “LBC – laughable, blustering, canting (updated twice)”

  1. Sceric Says:

    Thanks! A bit later than the others, but then a different angle then what I have read so far! If I’d be a cynic [and I am] I’d assume that doing this thing was a calculated risk. Either they get their target group with the radio show itself, or with the reactions to it (kind of a “we teach the controversy” label on them now)…on the other hand, they probably were looking for ratings without having any idea what the status of the topic is….

  2. Dr Grumble Says:

    The really evil people here are the LBC managers who allow this sort of thing and not really the presenter whose job it is to stir things up whatever the damage she may cause as a result. Perhaps that is why they have been trying to prevent us from hearing the programme and why they are claiming that Jeni is upset. They are the ones that are really responsible for all of this. If they had any decency they would resign.

  3. dvnutrix Says:

    It seems very clear that this entire episode has exposed some serious flaws in LBC and Global Radio contingency plans for reputation management and they are furiously trying to lay the blame elsewhere.

    It is unthinkable that a communications company of that size doesn’t have a damage limitation plan (they have edgy presenters who they want to provoke and engage people) and a social media management strategy.

    And yes – agree strongly that this is a textbook example of what Poltorak et al describe.

    They are trying to cast themselves as the victims while refusing to acknowledge their distressing treatment of Yasmin or the implications of their broadcast for children’s health.

  4. Some Rebuttals to Jeni Barnett’s Canards in Her LBC Radio MMR Segment « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science Says:

    [...] We enjoy the privilege of the freedom of speech but responsibility to use that wisely should be a corollary. There is a substantial influence of education and income on the uptake of MMR vaccines and the disproportionate influence of media such as television – a convincing argument as to why people like Jeni Barnett should be more cautious before spreading misinformation. Update Feb 12 Dr Aust has a good assessment of the media influence of Jeni Barnett’s platform and rhetorical devices. [...]

  5. Jeni Barnett, LBC and Global Radio, MMR Segment 7 Jan 2009 and the Ben Goldacre Coverage: Part 2 « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science Says:

    [...] Aust has a good assessment of the media influence of Jeni Barnett’s platform and rhetorical devices. He discusses some valuable research that examines precisely the confluence of factors that [...]

  6. apgaylard Says:

    Thanks for the interesting perspective. The ‘Brighton’ study does raise some interesting questions. I wonder how representative Brighton is of the UK, England or even the SE in terms of these social attitudes. It does have a bit of an altieville-on-sea image; though I must say that I’ve never been there.

    Setting that aside it makes me wonder whether, for some people, the (anti) “MMR talk” gives them a sense of permission to decline, when the actual refusal is grounded in other beliefs.

    Interesting part of the report addresses what these may be:

    The narratives show how parents perspectives are grounded not in myths or ignorance that can be vanquished by education, but in a range of forms of “experiential” knowledge which lead them, for instance, to relate possible vaccine effects to their individual children’s births, feeding and sleeping patterns, allergies, and other vulnerabilities, and to family histories which they see as influencing these. In some cases parental interest in such issues is supported by their engagement with complementary practitioners such as homeopaths. When vaccination becomes a dilemma, parental deliberation over it feeds into these issues.
    [5.1.4 Obscuring scientific debates]

    It suggests some anti-MMR positions coming out of the kind of conceptualisations promoted by CAM. It does seem to me that the co-opting and redefinition of scientific concepts may be muddying the waters. In times past people had a strong “constitution” now the “immune system” is invoked as standing for a general (or lack of) robustness of health and/or wellbing. Hence the claims that a particular child’s “immune system” wouldn’t be able to cope with MMR perhaps sounds more reasonable than, “I think he/she is too sickly…”

    It may be through accessing alternative knowledge, through people’s own research into the issue, or through their engagements with other parents. Indeed, the increasingly accessible printed and online literature; parents groups, and the loose social movement of concerned parents (e.g. Jabs, The Informed Parent) all help to give parents confidence in adopting perspectives and practices that contradict professional recommendation. The ways in which parents communicate their reflections to each other appear to affirm a common cause in the face of uncertainty that similarly reinforces parental confidence to go against professional expectation. Parents’ styles of talk over MMR also seem to promote trust in the accounts of parents who claim their children to have been detrimentally affected by vaccines. In effect, not to take these accounts seriously is to deny the value one puts on one’s interactions and knowledge-sharing as a parent with other parents.
    [5.2.3 Parental confidence]

    This seems to provide evidence to suggest that your proposal of focussing on individual cases of damage from the natural disease may be more likely to succeed.

    The “alternative knowledge” concept is also very difficult. Given the many spurious lessons dolled out by the “University of Google” it highlights the importance of an education that teaches how to evaluate information.

    It also show how dangerous groups like JABS can be, with a potent mix of mis-interpreted studies, bad science and personal experience.

  7. draust Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Adrian. Sorry I’ve not replied, been frantically busy (work and other writing deadlines) and periodically reduced to a gibbering wreck (home) by sick kids, spouse, and self. Roll on Easter.

    Anyway, I agree with pretty much all you have said. The second excerpt you quote is particularly important, I think, as it makes the point that people get this stuff from “other people like us” (which often means mothers), and in contexts where there is both:

    (i) a certain amount of peer pressure to “adopt the vaccine doubting role” (or at least accept the offered anecdotes at face value); and

    (ii) a kind of “validation effect” if you sign up, in that this is seen to be “trusting your intuition” or similar. This latter one interests me particularly, and I may write some more about it when I can find time.

    Anyway, as you say it offers an argument for highlighting the possible nasty consequences of vaccine-preventable disease, though this goes against the modern UK trend of recent years which has been to avoid putting the frighteners on people. I do think, though, that we need a high-profile story with a mother telling a “look what happened when I didn’t vaccinate” (or similar) tale.

    Of course, the quoted bits also highlight, again, why the drip-drip-drip of vaccine scare stories in the media is so damaging. It is not so much that people have read and believed them themselves; it is that someone they know has, and will then present this line to others in the “worried parents share their doubts and fears” context.

    Mrs Dr Aust and I have had personal experience of this, I should say, in hearing the anti-vaccine “individual immune syndrome” messages from people we know with small children. And more than once.

    And would you believe, the local nursery now has a case of measles.

    *Sigh*

  8. Svetlana Says:

    “I do think, though, that we need a high-profile story with a mother telling a “look what happened when I didn’t vaccinate” (or similar) tale.”

    It can really help. Especially now – in period of epidemic. It is necessary to make series of radio-/TV- programmes, to publish special posters (like German posters with sick children in other your post about measles), to paste up these posters in public transport ( for example, at first in our atheistic buses, because it is “our territory”), etc. It is necessary to involve Goldacre, Dawkins and others same into this activity. They are nailers at different public campaigns. It will be useful.
    And it must be really powerfull campaign, but not dull single attempts.

    By the way, it has standard name “sanitary enlightenment”.
    So it would be typical action against quackery as an endarkenment ;)

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