Last night I noticed a tweet from Jason Kitcat, a Green Party councillor for Regency ward on Brighton & Hove City Council. He is also the Cabinet Member for Finance & Central in the City. He’s a man of influence and clearly going places. I like him. He’s hard working and very capable. He’s a techie with a sense of humour. Unfortunately, on June 6th he tweeted a link to an abstract of a paper hidden behind a paywall (as most medical literature is), which claimed new evidence of a link between childhood vaccinations and autism. He said this was “Serious stuff.”
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I looked up the abstract. I decided that it wasn’t worth me paying the £25 for the paper it abstracted from, since I have no scientific training and am unlikely to be able to assess it properly. Consequently, I checked it out with a child and adolescent psychiatrist, who had never heard of it. She takes her NHS job very seriously and keeps up to date with all developments in her field, of which this would definitely be one.
She informed me that there had been much research which
showed that there was nowhere near enough evidence to justify such a link being made has now disproved the theory that there was a link between the measles, mumps & rubella vaccine and autistic spectrum disorders. She confirmed that no new link has been established between childhood vaccinations and autism. [Note: corrected upon a further conversation with her, on the day of the original posting.]
Sadly, Jason Kitcat did not trouble himself with reading the original paper either. He admitted in a conversation on twitter that he was not “expert” enough either:
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Which begs the question, why did he tweet a link to an abstract from it? What was the point? Spreading the word about something useful is one thing but if the data is misleading it could be dangerous. In the case of Mr Kitcat’s tweet it could well be dangerous, since there is an industry profiteering on the back of fear for children’s health. This industry is very quick to promote misinformation and quackery in exchange for cold cash. Why have you done your bit to help this pernicious industry, Mr Kitcat?
The tabloid press and its brethen in the new media make much hay out of this scare story. By hay, I mean profits. Profits inform everything they print, which is why they have recently been attacking our rule of law over the super-injunctions. In some cases, we the public may benefit from this but in most we do not. In most cases, we are scared into making bad choices because we are not expert enough to understand the real issues. Choices not grounded in evidence based research but on fear. The more frightened we are, the more profits for Rupert Murdoch.
Being no expert on the subject either, I researched what I could on the story. The best narrative I have yet found on the scare story comes from the Guardian’s science columnist Dr Ben Goldacre. Please click that link and read it. Contrary to popular opinion, doctors want to help people. Being scientists they do not act in conspiracy to suppress information. On the contrary, they publish and ask to be proved wrong. The NHS doctors are not driven by greed. They do not advertise. The adverts appearing alongside this blog post will not come from NHS doctors. I have tried to avoid repeating certain words too often to prevent me from having to hunt down and ban the scaremongerers who would otherwise pay Google and me for advertising on this blog. (Previously, due to too many adverts from Tesco for chicken, I hunted down and banned all of Tesco’s affiliates from appearing here. This took a long time.) The tabloid media, as detailed in Dr Goldacre’s article certainly do operate a conspiracy of silence when some new information will kill the profits to be made out of a story.
At the end of the day, Mr Kitcat is just one of thousands of parents who are no doubt deeply concerned about the wellbeing of their offspring. He’s no different from any other parent in that regard. He’s certainly not the only tweeter or blogger or forum user who is prepared to promote bunkum that he little understands. I guess it is fear that drives him to say it “pays to be cautious on all medications”.
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Come off it! Why does Mr Kitcat make this assertion? Where is the ‘payment’ if I contract a serious illness and then delay treatment for a few crucial days? In the case of the childhood vaccinations, the fear whipped up by the profit driven media created the caution first and the diseases came later. There was a mumps epidemic. Measles is returning. These diseases could not previously take hold in the population because the children were being given preventative cures. Blanket statements like this are rarely useful.
It is difficult to think of a bigger issue than one concerning childhood health. However, in my book there is: whether we found our society on evidence based research, science, replicated knowledge or on the fear, scaremongering and panic promoted by those who would seek to destroy our socialist values.
Not A Socialist
Rupert Murdoch represents all that is the worst about the free press in this country. He hates the freedom the internet has given to the rest of us. He hates the concept of social justice, formerly known as socialism. His media empire makes profit out of scaremongering. Thanks to the enormous power and influence this man and people like him wield, it has been an uphill struggle to achieve any progressive change.
However, we, the activists have been successful. We have fought hard for the values we believe in. We have consistently buried whatever difficulties came between us and will do so again for the bigger principles at stake: the better vision we hold dear. Call it what you will, I call it socialism. Ah, that dirty word again. I’m cleaning it off. Socialists fight for a society governed in the best interests of its people, not just the pockets of the few. Clearly no socialist can ignore the pressing threat of climate change, for its impact on human society will be, if unchecked, catastrophic.
2011: Brighton & Hove elected a minority Green council. It would have been a Green-Labour coalition but Labour, for some reason, didn't want any power this time.
The Brighton & Hove Green Party shines a light for the rest of the country. Our local party pulled off a major historical upset in the normal scheme of things with the election of Caroline Lucas to the House of Commons. The election of a (albeit minority) administration to govern Brighton & Hove City Council was a more impressive milestone, which pits our beliefs against the practicalities of wielding power. If the local councillors get this exercise right, a new dawn may rise in British politics. Other people around the country may well follow our example and elect Green councillors.
The annual naked bike ride in Brighton
Brighton & Hove is an unusual place. It has the highest graduate retention rate in the country, with approximately one-third of its residents having attended one of the two local universities. This highly educated population has chosen to stay in Brighton for several reasons but chief among them is the very lovely civil society that exists in Brighton. Of course Brighton’s fame and raison d’être is partying, posing and promenading. All of that holds good but we have also consistently led the way in counter-culture, in creativity and holding onto the things we hold dear. We have not built on the downland, preferring instead to become the most densely populated city in Europe. Even our local football team’s supporters refused to give in the hard-faced men who sold their stadium from underneath them and despite years of homelessness, are now experiencing a well earnt rebirth. Our population votes for what they believe in, rather than because of what they fear.
The local Green Party has been born of this population. As the issues which concern us have become more urgent, we have professionalised our operation. Gone are the many party speakers and in is the one leader. Our media presentation is slicker and we have grown mechanisms to take control of the story, so that the Rupert Murdoch’s of this world cannot completely control it. This has been the result of hard, consistent grafting. People who like to waive religious totems around are still most welcome in our party (Hey, everyone’s welcome!) but they no longer dominate the agenda.
Our local councillors must represent all that is best about the Green Party. Their conduct over the next four years will be scrutinised like no other elected politicians before them. Attention to detail has to be a hallmark of their civic pride. Throwaway remarks in public are no longer acceptable. Anything tweeted is public. We say that our policy is no longer informed by mysticism but by science, that our human values are concerned with social justice rather than the inequality promoted by Murdoch’s crew and we demand that our political decisions are based on properly conducted research instead of being informed by undue panic.
This is a plea to all our local councillors, including Mr Kitcat: please be sure when you speak out in public that you truly know of what you talk. Either you truly know about something or you do not. In the first case, fine, let’s have your expert opinion. In the latter case, shut the fuck up because if you don’t, you’ll cause us more harm than good. Stating that something you haven’t read and can’t understand is “serious” is, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, misleading and dangerous. Neither approach is attractive by a leading politician. By “us” I mean, those of us who you seek to rule, not your new friends in the old media. It’s fine to say that something is not your area of expertise and pass someone over to someone who is. Mr Kitcat, you are in position of considerable influence. Your standing with the local party could not be higher. Please use your public energies to supporting the NHS and its hard working doctors. If you want to tweet away about public health, please use your time to promote public health, not scaremongering. It is unacceptable to repeat gubbins you barely understand, absolutely unacceptable. Loose words, especially now, will cost us all very dear.