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:
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.
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?
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?
Minor Update – 12th Feb:
“…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.
“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.