Friday, February 06, 2009

isn't MMR scaremongering all a bit 2007?

An absolute textbook example of the Streisand effect over at Bad Science at the moment: Ben Goldacre rather rashly posted an MP3 recording of a recent LBC radio broadcast featuring Jeni Barnett. I'd never heard of her, but it turns out she's a vocal opponent of the MMR vaccination and indeed vaccinations in general, despite being an actress and TV presenter instead of, say, someone with an occupation or qualifications which might confer upon her the authority to pronounce on such topics with any sort of knowledge.

Anyway, following the posting of the 44-minute clip and much amusing mockery of the astonishingly ill-informed and irresponsible nonsense being peddled therein, LBC's lawyers got all lawyer-y on Goldacre's ass and told him to take the clip down. Which, not having much choice in the matter, he did. Trouble is, this is SPARTA! Sorry, I mean, this is the internet. Therefore, paradoxically, any attempt to censor or suppress is likely to have the opposite effect. You can play the big bad playground bully all you like, but while you've got one specky four-eyes up against the wall in the toilets, all his millions of geeky mates are posting copies of the exact data you're trying to suppress in a million different places on the internet and laughing at you while they do. As Mr. Universe says, you can't stop the signal, man.

The serious aspect to all this (sorry, but there is one - it won't take long) is that people, however much they shouldn't, listen to perceived "authority" figures (i.e. celebs) and so it behooves them to be a bit careful about what advice they give out, at least to the extent of ensuring it isn't downright dangerous.

There is, interestingly (well, I think so anyway), a rough but useful correlation between how much of a hand-waving evidence-free quack someone is and how knee-jerkingly litigious they are: entertaining examples include Gillian McKeith setting her lawyer husband on prominent academic John Garrow for suggesting that she was talking bollocks, and Matthias Rath suing the Guardian (and the self-same Ben Goldacre) for suggesting that his multi-million pound business substituting vitamin pills for HIV medicine was based on charlatanry and pseudoscience and almost certainly killing people. In both cases the loonies failed to take over the asylum: McKeith never followed through on her threat, and Rath was forced into humiliatingly dropping his case after the Guardian refused to cave in and retract its story. Here's some more.

Despite it almost universally never ending well for the quacks, what with actual real-world courts and legal folk being all concerned with actual real-world facts and evidence and shit, this, strangely, doesn't seem to have put anyone off. Maybe there's some sort of homeopathy-style what-makes-you-ill-also-cures-you-in-some-way stuff going on here. Maybe if we strike them down they will become more powerful than we can possibly imagine? Maybe.

Strange coincidence - I was just looking back at the blog post where I mentioned Andrew Wakefield and the big MMR court case, and the first half of it is about Sean McCarthy and his Steorn perpetual-motion gizmo. Rather astonishingly not only have none of the people involved died of embarrassment or shame after the farcical failure of their July 2007 demo to produce any motion at all (perpetual or otherwise), but they're still hawking it around and, seemingly, getting people to give them money. Remarkable.

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