I’ve been taking a closer look at what Ben Goldacre regards as ‘good science’, given that he makes such grandiose and sweeping claims about the respective quality of research into both homeopathy and pharmaceutical interventions in both his recent Guardian article, What’s wrong with homeopathy? and the accompanying comment piece in The Lancet, Benefits and Risks of Homeopathy.

In the Guardian, he claims:

I look about 12, and I’m only a few years out of medical school. This is all good fun, but my adamant stance, that I absolutely lack any authority, is key: because this is not about one man’s opinion, and there is nothing even slightly technical or complicated about the evidence on homeopathy, or indeed anything, when it is clearly explained.

He then goes on at great length, much of it speculative, to give his reasons for why just about all homeopathic research is meaningless nonsense full of nothing but bias and conventional medical research is robust.

But thanks to a rapid response on the BMJ’s website, we learn the following from John Stone:

We can all benefit from Ben Goldacre’s wisdom. For instance, in 2004 Goldacre received the Association of British Science Writer’s (ABSW) award for “the best feature on a science subject in a national or regional newspaper (2003) [1] for an article on MMR: Never mind the facts [2]. The major sponsor of the award of £2000 was MMR manufacturer and defendent Glaxo SmithKline [1]. This has not been disclosed in many Guardian articles mentioning MMR, nor was it recently in Goldacre’s BMJ piece MMR, the scare stories are back [3].

I also wonder whether this is one of the best examples of Goldacre’s work. Goldacre cited four studies three of which were subsequently reviewed by Cochrane 2005 [4]. Of these Cochrane stated:

“The study demonstrates the difficulties of drawing inferences in the absence of a non-exposed population or a clearly defined causal hypothesis”. (Re: Taylor 1999)

“The number and possible impact of biases in this study was so high that interpretation of the results is impossible”. (Re: Fombonne 2001)

“The interpretation of the study by Madsen was made difficult by the unequal length of follow up for younger cohort members as well as the use of the date of diagnosis rather than onset of symptoms of autism”. (Re: Madsen 2002)

The fourth study mentioned was the most remarkable of all, the Peltola letter to the Lancet of May 1998 which recorded no cases of autism or inflammatory bowel disease following 3 million applications of MMR in Finland simply because they were not in the follow up criteria of the larger study [5].

Moreover, there was a complex of funding issues unrelated by Goldacre. The Peltola study received funding from MMR defendent Merck [5]. The department of Elizabeth Miller who contributed to the Taylor study [6] benefited from funding by MMR defendents SmithKline Beecham and Aventis Pasteur [7]. At least one MMR study authored by her and Brent Taylor received funding from SmithKline Beecham [8]. The Fombonne study disclosed no interests [9] but according to a later study [10]:

“In the United Kingdom, Dr Fombonne has provided advice on the epidemiology and clinical aspects of autism to scientists advising parents, to vaccine manufacturers, and to several government committees between 1998 and 2001. Since June 2004, Dr Fombonne has been an expert witness for vaccine manufacturers in US thimerosal litigation. None of his research has ever been funded by the industry.”

So you can’t be too careful!

[1] ABSW Science Writers Award 2003

[2] Ben Goldacre, Never mind the facts, Guardian 11 December 2003

[3] Ben Goldacre, MMR, the scare stories are back, BMJ 21 July 2007

[4] V Demicheli, T Jefferson, A Rivetti, D Price,[Review] ‘Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in children’, Cochrane (Wiley 2005)

[5] Heikki Peltola, Annamari Patja, Pauli Leinikki, Martti Valle, Irja Davidkin, Mikho Paunio, No evidence for measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine-associated inflammatory bowel disease or autism in a 14-year prospective study, Lancet vol 351, May 1998, p. 1327-8

[6] Brent Taylor, Elizabeth Miller, C Paddy Farrington, Maria- Christina Petropoulos, Isabelle Favot-Mayaud, Jun Li, Pauline A Waight, Autism and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine: no epidemiological evidence for a causal association, Lancet vol 135, 12 June 1999.

[7] According to Geier M and Geier D (P3R to PEDIATRICS,’ Thimerosal does not belong in vaccines’ 8 September 2004) this funding was disclosed by Elizabeth Miller to the Committee on Safety of Medicines in 2002, and this was not denied by Dr Miller in her response

[8] E Miller, P Waight, C P Farrington, N Andrews, J Stowe, B Taylor, Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura and MMR vaccine. vol. 84 p.227-9 March 2001

[9] Eric Fombonne, FRCPsych and Suniti Chakrabarti, FRCPCH, No Evidence for A New Variant of Measles-Mumps-Rubella-Induced Autism, PEDIATRICS Vol. 108 No. 4 October 2001, p. e58

[10] Eric Fombonne, MD, Rita Zakarian, ME, Andrew Bennett, PhD, CPsych, Linyan Meng, MSc and Diane McLean-Heywood, MA, Pervasive Developmental Disorders in Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Prevalence and Links With Immunizations, Published online July 3, 2006 PEDIATRICS Vol. 118 No. 1 July 2006, pp. e139-e150 (doi:10.1542/peds.2005- 2993)

Competing interests: Autistic son

Curioser and curioser …

And yes, this appears to be very much about one man’s opinion.

Goldacre’s defence of MMR vaccination should also be viewed in the context of a study recently undertaken in the US. The new survey indicates a strong correlation between rates of neurological disorders, such as ADHD and autism, and childhood vaccinations.

The survey, commissioned by Generation Rescue, compared vaccinated and unvaccinated children in nine counties in Oregon and California. Among more than 9,000 boys age 4-17, the survey found vaccinated boys were two and a half times (155%) more likely to have neurological disorders compared to their unvaccinated peers. Vaccinated boys were 224% more likely to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and 61% more likely to have autism.

For older vaccinated boys in the 11-17 age bracket, the results were even more pronounced. Vaccinated boys were 158% more likely to have a neurological disorder, 317% more likely to have ADHD, and 112% more likely to have autism.