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Dispatches. MMR: What They Didn't Tell You

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.329.7477.1293 (Published 25 November 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:1293

Rapid Response:

Sarcasm and bullying have replaced science and human respect

It is important to understand that the campaign against Andrew
Wakefield is not only a campaign against Andrew Wakefield, it is a
campaign against parents who have seen things they ought not to have done.

In the last year it has become very intolerant indeed in the British
media: not merely Brian Deer but Ben Goldacre in the Guardian
[1], Tim Hames in the Times [2] and dozens of other opinionated journalists who seem to
think they are being intellectually superior. I myself had a particularly
unpleasant outburst of sarcasm in a private communication from a high
profile BBC journalist when I tried to call for a fair hearing. And of
course when Dr Evan Harris MP announces that Andrew Wakefield and concern
about MMR safety have been discredited [3], no one raises a murmur of
protest for Wakefield, the parents - least of all for hundreds of deeply
compromised children.

But the reality is that people who were not there are brow-beating
and insulting the people who were.

I thought in context that some comments by Simon Baron-Cohen in the
Guardian two days ago [4] were deplorable:

"I believe the cause of autism will turn out to be the assortative
mating of two hyper-systemisers. I believe this because we already have
three pieces of the jigsaw: (1) that fathers of children with autism are
more likely to work in the field of engineering (compared to fathers of
children without autism); (2) that grandfathers of children with autism -
on both sides of the family - were also more likely to work in the field
of engineering (compared to grandfathers of children without autism); and
(3) that both mothers and fathers of children with autism are superfast at
the embedded figures test, a task requiring analysis of patterns and
rules. (Note that engineering is a chosen example because it involves
strong systemising. But other related scientific and technical fields
would have been equally good fields to study.) We have had these three
pieces of the jigsaw since 1997, published in the scientific literature.
They do not yet prove assortative mating theory. They simply point to it
being highly likely. I will be the first to give up this idea if it is
proven wrong, since I am not in the business of holding onto wrong ideas,
but I will not give up the idea simply because it will be unpopular with
certain groups (such as those that want to believe that the cause of
autism is purely environmental).

About this I would note:

(a) I have not observed the major claim despite wide acquaitance with
parents and granparents of autistic children.

(b) The general claim being made against parents who observe
environmental damage is that they are collectively fantasists, so they do
not fit into the Baron-Cohen stereo-type: a self-defeating paradox.

(c) The intolerant tone adopted against those who disagree with him
prejudices his evidence.

(d) He proposes a false alternative. In fact no one claims that the
causes of autism are purely environmental: even the mainstream view has
been that it results from a confluence of genetic and environmental
factors. If there was no genetic predisposition presumably all children
would be as badly affected by adverse environmental factors (subject
critically to other issues of health and nutrition).

(e) It would surely be an extreme - not to say eccentric - view that
all examples of the non-specific disorder of autism are determined by pure
genetics.

But what I like least is the dismissive and intolerant tone he adopts
towards those who disagree with him, and the context, the Guardian
newspaper which is not only in the habit of publishing such things, but
which in my experience excludes any contrary views, even in its
correspondence. Simon Baron-Cohen is wrong simply on the grounds of
manners. (I await his early renunciation of the theory.)

[1] Notably, 'Atomic tomatoes are not the only fruit', Guardian 16
December 2004:
http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/sciences/story/0,12243,1374401,00...

[2]'Elvis lives, MI5 murdered Diana, MMR is dangerous' The Times 23
February 2004. One of many examples of science by sarcasm in the Times in
the weeks surrounding Deer's orginal article:
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,170-1011853,00.html

[3]'Plan for new vaccine for babies':
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4147969.stm

[4] The Edge: Faith v.Fact , 7 January 2005:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1385026,00.html

Competing interests:
Parent of an autistic child

Competing interests: No competing interests

10 January 2005
John Stone
none
London N22