The truth is usually inconvenient

By Yaroslav Mikhaylov

When Al Gore dubbed his climate change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” he perfectly captured how science is viewed by those who would build popularity or a fortune through public ignorance.

This past month, science and medicine have colluded to inconvenience the “Playboy” model-turned-parenting expert Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield – formerly a doctor. Wakefield became famous in 1998 for publishing a study linking the mumps, measles and rubella vaccination, commonly known as MMR, with instances of autism in children.

The study received much media attention, despite a heavy opposition to its methodology or the conclusiveness of its findings from the British medical community. As a result, vaccination rates across Britain and the United States significantly decreased.

However, over the next couple of years allegations of data manipulation and conflicts of interest arose surrounding the study’s findings, and these discoveries eventually prompted several of the study’s co-authors to distance themselves from their findings or even speak out against the study entirely.

In 2010, the General Medical Council tribunal found Wakefield guilty of manipulating data and acting against the best interests of his patients, stripping him of the right to practice medicine in Great Britain indefinitely. Finally, on Jan. 11, 2011, the British Medical Journal published a series of articles exposing the 1998 study as a fraudulent operation designed to win massive settlements from vaccine manufacturers and the British government.

According to the BMJ articles, Wakefield was working with a law firm in order to manufacture evidence that vaccines were harmful and secure a settlement which would include sizeable attorneys’ fees for the firm, part of which would then go to Wakefield.

Also, Richard Barr – the attorney in charge of preparing the case – searched for autistic children that fulfilled Wakefield’s requirements and were likely persuaded into joining the study through promise of seeing the settlement money involved. Because Wakefield had access to patients pre-selected to suit his conclusion, his “study” could do nothing but support the case that Barr was building. The revelation that the research was financially motivated eventually led to the BMJ’s exposé that put the final nail in the coffin of the 1998 study.

Jenny McCarthy, a former “Playboy” model, became one of Wakefield’s strongest supporters in the United States after her son was diagnosed with autism in 2005. Through several books and an appearance on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” she became the American spokesperson for Wakefield’s fraudulent theory. After he was banned from practicing medicine in Britain, Wakefield moved to the United States and continued to advise McCarthy, who continued to defend his theories.

Immediately following the British Medical Journal report, McCarthy wrote a Huffington Post editorial denouncing the article and attacking the investigative reporter who uncovered the story, Brian Deer. In it, she defends Wakefield because he “listened to parents and reported what they said.”

McCarthy goes on to decry the opposition of the medical community to Wakefield’s fraudulent and self-serving “research” as a “media circus.” Her rebuttal featured no discussion of the science involved except an out-of-context snippet from the 1998 paper and quotations from two of the parents involved in the study – both clients of the law firm that was paying Wakefield a retainer of £150 per hour and helped him defraud a government fund set up to defray the legal costs of low-income Britons to the tune of £50,000 or more.

Wakefield is indirectly responsible for killing at least two children – the first fatalities from measles in the United Kingdom since 1992 – through his campaign against vaccines. It is unknown how many more suffered from inadequate vaccination due to his personal get-rich-quick scheme.

McCarthy, however, isn’t even trading children’s lives for money. She has built her own celebrity around her crusade against vaccines, and to back down and concede defeat now would be to sink back into the obscurity of a former adult star.

The responsibility of the news media is to provide accurate information to the public. Why do they then give such a high profile to a proponent of a fringe belief that preys on fears of parents in order to promote her own fame?

It is nothing short of a failure of the media that it allows such “medicine by public opinion” to take place. Scientists have boring papers and figures. McCarthy has the testimonies of concerned parents and pictures of sad children. As mentioned above, she has no intention of debating science or medicine with her opponents. She is merely looking to secure better publicity than the people who can actually call her out on her self-serving quest.

It is the role of the media and the role of the American people to recognize that and take steps to make sure that we hear from the real experts, not the people who find experts’ opinions inconvenient to their own celebrity.

Yaroslav Mikhaylov is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].