There has been much discussion here on Nature Network and on other blogs on the decline of traditional media outlets due to the rise of the internet and other means by which journalism as a whole is being reported. Science and medicine are obviously no exception to this rule, with both ends of the quality spectrum being represented out there on the World Wide Web. One example of the evolving online media is the Huffington Post, touted as “The Internet Newspaper”. The HuffPo as its also known, publishes a variety of news articles on world events and featuring articles on politics, entertainment, business and “living”.
As a regular reader of the site, it I’m no fan of the science coverage in the latter section, which seems to feature articles of an anti-scientific nature (extensive coverage of this over at Science-Based Medicine). Two such examples pointed out here include an article by Kim Evans (author of Cleaning Up – The ultimate body cleanse) on how “Antibiotic cause cancer?” citing the outstanding quackery of Dr. Tullio Simoncini who claims that cancer is a fungus and Margaret Ruth (a metaphysical teacher) who reports on the “intuitive scan … provides an energetic profile of the client”, as a diagnostic tool akin to an x-ray.
Could it get any worse? Well, this last week was no disappointment with an “editorial” from the actor / comedian Jim Carrey. In this article titled “The Judgment on Vaccines Is In?”, Mr Carrey voices a range of arguments including the safety of vaccinating children, the link between vaccines and autism, and a conspiracy of the CDC and pharmaceutical companies to create toxic products with only profits in mind. Mr Carrey and his partner Jenny McCarthy are part of an increasing movement to “green our vaccines” and “too many too soon”; claims that vaccines are full of toxins and the increasing vaccination schedule of children today being too much for a child’s immune system. How did this anti-vaccination viewpoint start?
Historically as long as vaccinations have existed there has been opposition, either due to religious or political beliefs. This opposition started with the introduction of the first vaccine against smallpox by Dr Edward Jenner, and continues to this day. One of the most recent examples is the controversial link made between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism. This originated from a study published by Dr Andrew Wakefield in the Lancet in 1998, which suggested a link between the initiation of an inflammatory bowel condition, and the administration of the MMR vaccine in autistic children. In this paper of 12 subjects and no controls, Dr Wakefield and colleagues described a series of case reports where the authors mentioned eight of the twelve children developed behavioral problems within two weeks of MMR vaccination. Although, numerous studies could not reproduce these findings, media coverage did not adequately highlight these findings.
If that wasn’t bad enough, 10 of the original authors of this paper issued a retraction in 2004. It took however, an additional paper authored by Dr Wakefield in 2002 (known as the “O’Leary" paper) to fully create a widespread media induced panic in the UK. Ultimately, the one-sided media reporting induced an understandable panic amongst parents, ultimately causing a drop in the number of children being vaccinated with the MMR vaccine (93% to as low as 50% in some areas of the UK). Subsequently, the incidence of measles (previously eradicated in the UK), has risen from 56 cases in 1998 to 1,348 reported cases in 2008.
It would take a few years for the anti-vaccination movement in the U.S to seize on these publications, which would ultimately result in court cases against the vaccine makers in both the U.K and U.S. The U.S case also rested on the premise that thimerosal, a mercury derived compound used as a vaccine preservative was the responsible for the apparent rise in autism. There are a few points worth noting here though; 1. thimerosal has not been used in vaccines in the U.S. since the FDA called for its removal in 1999. 2. since this time, autism diagnosis rates have continued to increase, mainly through increased awareness and diagnostic criteria. 3. thimerosal was not used in live vaccines such as MMR.
These two papers would not only become the central scientific evidence in these court cases (MMR Vaccination Litigation in the UK and the Vaccine Court Case (Cedillo v. Health and Human Services) in the US), but also their downfall. The expert testimony of Professor Stephen Bustin; an expert in PCR, would question the validity of the O’Leary paper too. In this study, the authors had demonstrated that the measles virus RNA had been detected in gut biopsies of children with autism by RT-PCR, linking directly the MMR vaccine to autism. The problem with these findings were that noone could reproduce these findings. Professor Bustin’s analysis concluded that the study was flawed on a number of counts, the first being due to probable PCR contamination with positive control plasmid DNA. The second flaw and quite a considerable one, was that on examination there were instances where the authors seemed to have forgotten to perform a reverse transcription step before performing real-time PCR on the biopsy samples. Yes, before you check your textbook, ladies and gentlemen, the measles virus is RNA based. You can read Professor Bustin’s report here and the court testimony here
In addition to this, numerous epidemiological studies from around the world have failed to demonstrate any link between the MMR vaccine (or any vaccine) and autism. Furthermore, the Institute of Medicine concluded on the extensive available evidence that there is no link between autism and either the MMR vaccine (in 2001) or with thimerosal (in 2004). Therefore, you would think everyone would agree this would scientifically close the case on the link between vaccinations and autism, and focus valuable research resources on other potential causes for autism. Unfortunately, not everyone.
Step forward the unofficial voice piece for this movement of the eminent celebrity research team of (Jenny) McCarthy and (Jim) Carrey. In addition to a fervent online campaign, the pair recently organized a march on D.C with the campaign to “green our vaccines” and that the vaccination schedule for children was “too many too soon”. This campaign is focused on the eradication of alleged toxins from vaccines and that a child’s immune system cannot cope with current number of vaccinations recommended within the first few years of life. Whilst no drug treatment can be considered 100% safe, there has been no program in modern health care that has been more successful than vaccination against infectious disease. The campaigners refuse to accept the scientific evidence and consensus outlined above and call for more “research”, mainly still based on the de-bunked Wakefield studies. This brings me to the point of this blog post, namely the dangers of the unscientifically based views that celebrities may have based on their own biases and the role of the media in propagating these points to the public. McCarthy and Carrey are just an example of the daily uphill struggle science and scientists face to effectively communicate to the public. In this case although their intentions may good and to bring attention to a subject (in this case the cause of autism), through unguided and unqualified viewpoints they cause parents to question the need to vaccinate their children. In their defense they vocally question any opposition from scientists, as having “conflicts of interest”, citing even grant funding from the NIH as evidence of being co-conspirators in a grand scheme cooked up by the pharmaceutical industry and the government. Let’s not even get started on celebrity conflicts of interest, especially when aforementioned celebrity has a book out on a “cure” for said disease. Although they cite (and in the article above), they be not against vaccinations, to tell everyone how dangerous vaccinating your child could be, is clearly going to influence some people not to. The drop in vaccination rates and the resulting endemic of infectious disease seen in the U.K is now starting to be seen here in the U.S. Lets not forget that a successful vaccination program only works when the majority of a community is vaccinated against a pathogen (herd immunity).
These two are not alone in their advocacy of their own version of science. Other notable examples include Gwyneth Paltrow’s anti-cancer views; “I am challenging these evil genes by natural means. I am convinced that by eating biological foods it is possible to avoid tumors.” Lets not forget Madonna’s research effort to “work with scientists to find a way to neutralize radiation”. The list goes on and on. So, how can we change this consensus? One such way is the approach taken by the non-profit organization “Sense about Science”. This U.K. based organization composed of ~3000 scientists promotes public understanding of science at the same time tackling misinformation in the media, and also providing guides for scientists to adequately communicate their work and viewpoints to the media. One of their guidebooks “Celebrities and Science” details the various claims by celebrities and the resulting explanation of the real science by experts in the field. They are all available here.
So, what’s the harm in celebrities voicing their views on science? Well, firstly, we have to know whether there is a hidden interest behind these pseudo viewpoints (a book or cosmetic range). Secondly, voicing opinions on important health issues whether just a random offhand quote, can influence more people than the official view which may have taken many years of public health care policy to have had an impact. At the same time however, this can be used positively such as using a public figure to reinforce a health campaign. This obviously all points to one central aspect; the media and how science is reported. Whilst journalists will cry foul that they are only reporting “the facts”, and it is the scientists’ responsibility / fault how we communicate, selling newspapers or viewing figures are the bottom line and therefore sensational headlines trumpet the information. Giving a mouthpiece or column space to this celeb pseudo-science fiction does not pass as science journalism (and that includes you Time magazine).
Ultimately, this comes down to how the modern media will evolve and the role of the scientist in this new medium. It is up to us to not only communicate science to the public, but more importantly explain the actual process of how science is performed and interpreted. If we leave it to the celebrities to communicate their version, in the future we can only expect that we will all just become dumb and dumber.