2017-04-06 20:18:07 UTC
If you are unlucky, and all of us are unlucky in the end, you will
visit a doctor in the confident expectation that they can fix any
illness as a mechanic fixes a car and learn of the vast areas of
ignorance on the map of medical science. If you are very unlucky, you
will take an autistic child to a doctor and learn that “autism” is a
vague and flabby label. There isn’t even agreement on what causes it,
let alone on what, if anything, might alleviate or cure it.
Into the gap, between inexplicable suffering and the inability to
relieve it, pour the conmen. Last week, Andrew Wakefield, the most
contemptible of the charlatans, arrived in Britain to exploit the false
hopes and fill the nightmares of his native land.
That he is a fraud has been established beyond reasonable doubt. The
General Medical Council struck him off in 2010 after, in a superb
example of journalism at its best, Brian Deer showed how Wakefield had
manipulated research to make a non-existent link between the measles,
mumps and rubella vaccine and autism.
Not content with lying, Wakefield exploited his voodoo science for
financial gain. The money was not the worst of it. The MMR conspiracy
theory sent vaccination rates below the level of herd immunity. As
unvaccinated children become teenagers, we are yet to see whether they
will pay a price in blood for Wakefield’s fraudulence. Given the threat
to public health, the personal enrichment and the neglected fact that
Wakefield’s malign fantasy has led parents who vaccinated autistic
children needlessly blaming themselves, in my eyes he appears to be a
If you want to know what is wrong with a country, look at the criminals
its courts cannot punish. Just as it was impossible to prosecute
bankers after the crash of 2008, so it is impossible now to arrest
Wakefield. Rob an old lady of her savings and you go to prison. Rob
millions of children of protection against preventable illness and you
are endorsed by the Trump administration, which has, inevitably, made
its support for the MMR con explicit.
The one good thing Andrew Wakefield has done in his worthless life is
show that sick societies are like sick people. They, too, face
suffering without relief or prospect of a cure. They, too, are open to
exploitation by every variety of crank and fanatic. Nowhere more so
than in Trump’s America. At a personal level, Trump’s wife, Melania,
promises to sue anyone who says their son, Barron, may be autistic. Her
threat suggests the couple have feared, however fleetingly, that they
might learn of the pain of the parents of autistic children and of
autistic people themselves.
Whatever twinge of sympathy I felt, vanished, however, when I saw that
at the political level Trump had said that “doctors lied” about
vaccination and has given every indication of pursuing the Wakefield
conspiracy theory in office. If he does, it will be a disaster for
autistic people. In America, as in the UK, they fall over a cliff edge
when they move from child to adulthood. So bad are the services, the US
does not know how many autistic adults live in its borders.
Hillary Clinton, who actually talked to autistic people, something
vaccination conspirators neglect to do, promised a census. She lost.
And now, as Steve Silberman, the author of the magnificent Neurotribes
tells me, the Trump administration can indulge in junk science, safe in
the knowledge that its billionaire friends will never need public
assistance to provide for their autistic children.
The “doctors lied” is the first link between MMR and so many other
modern manias. Climate change deniers have to maintain that 97% or more
of the world’s scientists are lying. It is easier to believe an
unbelievable fiction than contemplate the vast and wrenching changes
manmade climate change must bring to our lives. Rather than face them,
say Trump and the Anglo-Saxon right, we can retreat into a surprisingly
comfortable state of paranoid delusion.
Second, and this point needs emphasising when elements on the right
claims to be the champions of the working class (and let us see how
long that lasts) and elements on the left blame it for Trump’s victory:
conspiracy theories always begin with pseudo-intellectuals.
Anyone who has looked at the work of Holocaust, 9/11 or climate change
deniers, will see that it is stuffed with footnotes. It was not a
tabloid catering for the “left behind” that began the MMR lie, but the
learned medical journal, the Lancet. Its editors did not know they were
victims of a fraud. But they ought to have seen that Wakefield’s
original 1998 paper was “badly written and had no clear statement of
its hypothesis or indeed of its conclusions”, as Ben Goldacre, the
debunker of scientific fraud, put it.
Last week, Wakefield did not speak at a working men’s club, but at the
supposedly reputable Regent’s University in London. To top that, he was
invited to the European parliament, not by a neofascist know-nothing,
but by an MEP from a Green party, which readers who have not been
paying attention may think is filled with decent people.
Third, the MMR scandal rebuts the myth that we are living in a uniquely
mendacious era of web-driven “fake news”. Mainstream national newspaper
journalists, including here at the Observer, I am afraid and at the
BBC, amplified Wakefield’s message in the last decade without making
the most basic checks. There can be no “post-truth age” for the
autistic, for they never had an age of truth to begin with. To put the
disgrace of my trade as mildly as I can, if Wakefield were put on
trial, there would be hundreds of journalists alongside him in the
Finally, ask yourself why Andrew Wakefield does not recant, when every
study of autism and vaccination has shown his original claim to be
false. Asking that is like asking why Donald Trump does not cut his
links with climate change deniers or Jeremy Corbyn cut his links with
the Socialist Workers party. Wakefield would lose his support base.
More to the point, as I suspect he, Trump and Corbyn know, the very
fools he has encouraged would throw the accusations of corruption he
has thrown at others back at him.
Whether you are dealing with climate change or MMR, the final lesson is
this: you cannot rely on charlatans to expose themselves. You have tune
up your bullshit detector and do the exposing yourself.
Tra il rosso ed il nero,
vince sempre lo zero.
Tra il rosso ed il nero,
vince sempre lo zero.