Friday, 6 February 2009

Jeni Barnett and MMR

I don't know how many times we're going to have to teach people this, but if you try and censor something on the internet now, the chances are that you're merely going to ensure a much bigger audience for it when the blogging echo chamber takes up the cause. A few days back, everyone's favourite cuddly tousle-haired science writer/evil Big Pharma shill Ben Goldacre wrote about LBC radio host Jeni Barnett's hilariously wrong-headed rant about the MMR vaccine, posting a 44-minute excerpt of the show so you could hear for yourself the titanic levels of stupid involved. Since then, LBC have wielded the copyrighthammer and made him take it down.

It's really worth hearing, although to do so requires gritted teeth and a slight masochistic streak, so to that end I'm linking to a couple of good folks who are hosting the mp3. You can assault your ears it with here at Lay Science (where there are also links to complete transcripts) or download it from the good folks at Wikileaks. Or hear it in five parts on YouTube. It continually amuses me how lawyers like this fail to understand a) that once things are on the internet the cat immediately puts a spectacular amount of distance between itself and the bag, and b) that bloggers and forums are full of people passionate about free speech who will make sure that your legal threats end up merely helping the thing spread.

Barnett's opinions on the MMR vaccine are confused, but some of her stellar arguments include:

The fact is, the notion that we're all the same, that you have to be inoculating children with this MMR jab, this debate is going to go on for ever and ever and always at the back of it, in my head is 'hold on a minute, there's a drug company that's making lots of money out of it'.
Drugs companies make money from drugs! Why not ignore them and listen to the opinions of someone who makes money from talking on the radio?

There are some children - whether you like it or whether you do not - that have a response to that triple jabbing that is not good for them. We have evidence, however much people say we don't, we have evidence that if a child's immune system is weak; my daughter was one of them, she was very asthmatic as a child, she could not have received that triple vaccine, she couldn't have done it so I made a calculated decision that I didn't want to go there.
The best part about this argument, apart from the childish 'Yeah well we've got evidence so ner!' tone of it, is that if Barnett's child were actually medically unsuitable for the vaccine, she would be able to be protected by herd immunity provided enough other kids got theirs. One of the most compelling reasons for mass vaccination is that with many vaccines there are a small percentage of people who cannot have them; these vulnerable people rely to an extent on herd immunity keeping the spread of the disease down. Barnett's wittering frequently stumbles into the offensive:

Is there something wrong with having mumps, is there something - you know is it - most people aren't that one in fifteen.
The 'one in fifteen' being a reference to the old days where, as she mentions earlier the broadcast, one in fifteen kids died of measles. But hey, 1 in 15? Gotta love those odds! Does Britain really need this many kids anyway? Later, Barnett gets a homeopath (Tracy) on the phone to provide the impartial, sane advice you would expect from someone who believes that the less of something you put in something, the more of it there is:

My eldest is 12, my youngest is 3, none of them have ever been vaccinated, immunised. And they're all very healthy children.
"Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm!"

There's a telling exchange right at the end, as transcribed here at Holfordwatch, where a nurse, Yasmin, calls in to take Barnett to task over a number of points. One of them is Barnett's continued references to 'stuff' that's in vaccines harming her child. Yasmin asks her a couple of times if she has any clue what's in the MMR vaccine:

Yasmin: You don’t know what you’re talking about. You can’t even tell me what’s in an MMR vaccine so you shouldn’t be talking about it.

JB: Well, I can get it…Shall I get it off the internet, Yasmin?

Yasmin: Yeah, get it off the internet, from a reliable source, the such as the Department of Health

JB: Really?

Yasmin: and then I might listen to you, yeah.

JB: The Department of Health frightens people.

Thanks, Yasmin, for your call.
Yeah, you don't wanna be running into the Department of Health down a dark alley. That pretty much sums up the standard of evidence Barnett is working from; throughout the whole show she relies on anecdotes, a ludicrously fuzzy understanding of science, a breathtaking array of logical fallacies and a lot of vague suspicions about the motives of people promoting MMR (a level of skepticism she apparently doesn't have towards, say, homeopaths who call in to deride vaccines despite making their living out of selling the alternative). She's since written a blog in which she complains about the reaction and what it says about "Allopathic medicine", allopathy being the name alternative health proponents give to real medicines that have been, like, tested and shit. Like a lot of these people do, when challenged she falls back on the 'MORE RESEARCH!' fallacy; "Injecting tiny babies with substances that may compromise their immune system needs to be looked at not shouted down", which is an argument frequently used by people who couldn't tell you the first thing about what research has or hasn't already been done.

Oh, and she closes her blog with a classic argument; "Should anybody from BAD SCIENCE read this I urge you to continue the debate, and if it gets too heated there is always the option of turning me off". As if instead of challenging broadcasters on abusing their position by perpetuating potentially harmful misinformation, we should just switch the radio off, chill out and go do something else. It's only the health of kids and the public understanding of science under threat, you planks! Still, I do fancy another go on the Killzone 2 demo right now so I might take her advice and finish here.

At the time of writing, a Google search for "Jeni Barnett" brings up two blogs about this in the top ten so far, and her Wikipedia page now has its own section about this, which represents top work by the righteous blogging bandwagon which I'm now unashamedly joining. I may as well link to the transcipts in full: Part 1 at Science Punk, Part 2 at The Lay Scientist, Part 3 at PodBlack Cat, Part 4 at The Skeptic's Book, Part 5 at The Quackometer and finally Part 6 at HolfordWatch.


  1. 1 in 15? Wow, I wonder what she thinks are high odds if, for every classroom full of kids, 2 can happily die of measles without anyone giving a frack.

  2. Hear hear... ...from another NW of England blogger gritting his teeth.

    Don't know if you saw this story from the local rag last year, but it shows what can happen in "run of the mill" bad measles. And that's not even mentioning encephalitis.

    But never mind... "as a mother" Jeni knows all of this is just scaremongering. It's a mystic connection thing.