I am a development scientist. I work in a lab wearing a white coat mixing things up, just like people imagine scientists do. It is actually a fairly skilled job that I have acquired through long hours and much repetition. I’d be a little miffed if somebody off the street could walk in and do my job as well as I do. So I am not too bothered that my modest blog and associated videos reviewing history books are perhaps not the the greatest bits of writing or presentation around. I am after all, very much an amateur. But there is an element of taste to these things as well. There are professionals whose work I find I simply don’t like. And then there are those whose very careers are a mystery to me. And of those, the most mysterious is Melanie Phillips. Why does anybody read her? She has a range of controversial opinions of course. Why not? Controversy can make things interesting and introduce some passion. But our Melanie succeeds in making her controversies boring. The reason is not so hard to fathom. She works to a fairly narrow and fairly predictable formula. She denigrates the integrity of her opponents, and she cherry picks nuggets of information – often a great many of them – to justify what she is saying.
I found it got tedious very quickly indeed when I first came across her when she was writing for the Guardian. I didn’t read that many because her style turned me off, but she seemed to be on the left back then. She later reappeared in the Mail and other media where she seemed to be not so much on the right as just against the left. I generally ignored her but following the MMR story she kept popping up. I was a little surprised to see someone who had been a political commentator weighing into a public health story, but there she was. And there was the formula again, as tedious as ever but this time directed at something that was potentially life threatening. Was she perhaps sincere? I don’t know. Possibly she doesn’t herself. When you make a living having opinions perhaps it affects your ability to form them naturally.
Anyway the MMR story has run its natural course in the media. There was never a strong case against the MMR vaccine. The threads of its threadbare substance have been steadily picked away. The single doctor who started it all up is now discredited and the data has been extensively gone over and no trace of a link between MMR and autism can be found. The final blow came when the inevitable happened and a measles epidemic that need never have happened broke out in Wales. All that remains is for the people who mistakenly criticised the MMR vaccine, from whatever motive, to do the decent thing and apologise for getting it so wrong.
But now it gets strangely personal. I fell into bed at an unusual time last Saturday and without thinking turned on the radio. I had no idea the Moral Maze was on. And who was on it? Only that Melanie Phillips! I turned off as quickly as I could. But it was too late. She had annoyed me. I turned to the perfect antidote for the Moral Maze, Twitter. But by some bizarre turn of events somebody a few minutes later retweeted something by Melanie Phillips into my timeline. I didn’t read it but I was incensed. I sent off a tweet asking when she would apologise for getting MMR wrong. It was perhaps not the most noble thing to do, given that she neither follows me nor I her. It was also not particularly original since I was simply parroting what I had read in the Lancet a few weeks before. Not the best use of Twitter. But Melanie Phillips is a deliberately confrontational celebrity who must presumably expect and get a fair dollop of abuse online. I simply forgot all about and didn’t expect anything to come of it.
To my surprise, today I got a reply from the woman herself. Here it is:
@historyscientis Why so shy? Please tell me your true name, and then precisely what I wrote, in quotes, that was untrue.
I felt like I was on the bloody Moral Maze. There was the formula again in a nutshell. I was accused of hiding behind anonymity and being challenged to point out her factual error. Well I suppose when one kicks a dog, it is no surprise if it barks. My response was to point out that I am perfectly open about my online activities. Well lets just put the tweets up.
@MelanieLatest Hardly shy. I announce my name, Colin Sanders, at the beginning of all my youtube videos.
@MelanieLatest A few minutes research and you wouldn’t have got that wrong.
@MelanieLatest And this article from the Lancet points out your errors on MMR more eloquently than could I http://pubmedcentralcanada.ca/pmcc/articles/PMC1283291/pdf/bmj33101149.pdf …
I left it at that. I still imagine that she has more important people to talk to than me and that she is unlikely to respond again. I did try and read her website. I was a bit worried that she had sneaked an apology about MMR into some spot somewhere and would triumphantly reveal it to show that I was persecuting her even after she had repented. But no, it was the same old stuff. I managed to get through about 4,000 words of a post she did on MMR without finding a single statistic on a story that is about nothing other than statistical probabilities. I actually think that I could have made a better scientific case against the MMR vaccine than she did had I felt inclined to do so. All she could manage was a barage of rhetorical tricks which became blunter every time she repeated them.
It did cross my mind that being in the media she might have another agenda. Perhaps the idea was to do one of those ‘we confront the anonymous troll who plagues a serious journalist’s life’ stories. If so I don’t think the project will get very far. I won’t make very good television. But if I ever did get to meet Melanie Phillips face to face my question would be simply this. You can make a living talking about any number of controversial issues. Why not leave public health to the people who actually understand it?
P.S., She did come back to me again briefly, mainly to point out that I was still anonymous even after I had revealed my name. But she didn’t reply to my reply so I claim the victory. It isn’t so easy to win an argument in a public arena as it is with a newspaper column or on the radio.
[hana-code-insert name=’Melanie Phillips’ /]
Ben Goldacre has a very readable account of how the media blew up the MMR story here