Governments can’t win on science advice

Science doesn’t always make common-sense, and that puts governments at a permanent risk of accusations of not giving the public the help they feel they deserve.

Updated for accuracy: current seasonal flu includes swine flu.

Last year we had the furore over Science and Drugs, that flared up again recently.

Most people I suspect, when asked, probably want policy to be evidence based.

However, today, the govt is under attack from the Labour opposition about the withdrawal of Flu vaccines for children under five. I’ll caveat that I’ve not read the research, and even if I was am unlikely to be in a position to appraise it. The attack seems to have arisen from the situation the under-5’s were recommended for H1N1 swine flu vaccine as they were more likely to experience complications. The current seasonal flu vaccines included H1N1 as one of the strains, and the majority of complications/deaths have arisen from H1N1. However, the fact that the media hook onto stories like this shows that really, “the public want science led policy, when it’s what they believe in”.

Epidemiological studies sometimes lead to advice that people don’t like, we don’t screen for all illnesses in all age-groups because for some of these groups the impact of testing outweighs the benefit. New treatments for cancer, always emotive when they are denied, are assessed on evidence of significant improvement over existing treatments. These are all too easily spun as “cost cutting is costing lives”, but if you want science led policy, somethings that won’t appear as tabloid friendly “common sense”.

I’m not a supporter of this government and I don’t think they should have axed the TV campaign for the vaccine – but when the science led policy isn’t what the public want to believe, all governments are vulnerable to allegations against them that the science is just an excuse for cost-cutting.

Is scientific tear-down fair use?

Ben Goldacre is being asked to take down an extract of a show illustrating woeful misunderstandings of the MMR vaccines, and the risks associated with it.

Ben Goldacre has been asked by the lovely Lawyers at Global Radio to take-down his 44 minute extract of Jeni Barnett’s piece she did on MMR. Jenni, who later admitted she was woefully ill-prepared and started off an emotive debate on her blog with the standard pathos laden phrases like “as a mother…”, spouted a load of quasi-plausible pseudo-science about how awful vaccines were.

As Goldacre and others have pointed out many times, the Wakefield claims are totally refuted/withdrawn/dismissed now. There is no evidence that immune systems are overloaded by vaccination. There is a plethora of evidence that Measles is returning.

I hope he finds some legal representation, because at a time when we’re questioning the impact finance reporting can have on the real world economy, we should ask the same about science. But “as a mother…” people don’t tend to have opinions about the state of the credit default swaps market.