No matter what else I write about, inside this breast will always beat the heart of a reporter. I grew up during the Woodward-Bernstein years, when journalists considered themselves members of the Fourth Estate and took seriously their role as guardian of the public interest.
For each of the first three of the six books I’ve written (including the book What Doctors Don’t Tell You), I spent months inside lawyer’s offices, laying before them shopping bags and cartons full of documents, articles and tape recordings to prove my various cases.
This early exposure — to the press’s power to bring down a corrupt presidency, and to the importance of being sure of my facts — developed in me a reasonable sense of fair play, to stick only to the evidence I had and to make sure that evidence was exhaustive.
I had many sleepless nights, trying to weigh up what I had. What was fair? What could I prove? It wasn’t good enough to disagree with someone, or disapprove of someone. Someone’s entire life hung in the balance and would be influenced forever by my words.
This week I was reminded of those early days and also of how much of science reporting has degenerated into a case of school-ground bullies protecting the status quo after reading a page about me put up on Wikipedia.
Ordinarily I tend to ignore this stuff on the premise that my own words speak louder about me than any other’s, but what I found there weaves into the point I’m about to make and also gives me a chance to set the record straight.
First of all, besides my name, only two sentences in the entry are actually true –the fact that I am married to Bryan Hubbard and that I appeared in an extended version of The Bleep.
Virtually everything else is misinformed, slightly off or a complete falsehood.
The two pieces of misinformation I’d most like to draw your attention to are the following:
“The McTaggart group has been cited for significant factual errors in their attacks on medicine, such as confusing the antiviral drug Tamiflu for a vaccine and attributing deaths to a nonexistent avian influenza vaccine.”
The footnote it cited was a column by Ben Goldacre, an article called "How to be beautifully, blissfully wrong about Tamiflu: just call it a bird flu vaccine".
Quackbuster Ben Goldacre had centered an entire column around the fact that a casual e-news blast written by another WDDTY journalist (NOT me, even though this appears on my own biography) — incorrectly referred to Tamiflu as a vaccine, not a drug. That’s it. It should be noted that that incorrect label (for that is all it is) never appeared in the WDDTY publication. Furthermore, we corrected that detail in a subsequent e-blast.
The non-group company
My husband and I launched What Doctors Don’t Tell You in 1989. I do not have a ‘McTaggart group’, which sounds a little like a covert society or a cult. We have set up a proper publishing company (just like the Guardian, but smaller) that employs experienced, trained journalists.
Since that time we have published some 3,100,000 words, which you can freely peruse on www.wddty.com. In the 21 years we’ve been writing, we have never been cited for significant factual errors. Ever. In fact, we have been applauded by many newspapers, including the Times and the Observer. I have published articles in many major newspapers in the US and the UK and for a good while wrote a medical column in the Observer — the companion Sunday paper of the Guardian where Goldacre writes.
No doubt we have published a few errors over all this time – I can think of a handful of occasions over the years where we’ve got some figures wrong, or were slightly off in our interpretation of a medical study. But by any standard, we are far more in-depth and accurate than most publications I know, who mainly rely on press releases for their science. In the few cases we’ve been wrong we’ve published a correction.
I know this for several reasons. We employ a highly experienced science production editor who used to work for the pharmaceutical industry to sift all the scientific data on which we base our stories to ensure that they are accurate. And two, we get all our material by painstakingly combing through the medical literature and reports of the Food and Drug Adminstration — ie, the medical establishment.
In other words, all we do is make public a private conversation that doctors conduct among themselves in the most respected medical journals in the world.
So if we are wrong, so is the Lancet, the BMJ and the New England Journal of Medicine.
The real point of our Tamiflu release, the thing that Goldacre should be paying attention to as a member of the Fourth Estate, the part that’s really in the public interest — namely that many people have died after taking Tamiflu - is true. Goldacre never rubbished that part of the story because he can’t. The FDA has now released a statement to that effect. He doesn’t seem interested in that. He had to attempt to discredit us by using inference. By being a bully.
Point two in my Wiki biography: “The Field has been characterized by Mark Henderson of The Times as pseudoscience, criticizing her understanding of quantum physics as a misconception.”
In this article, Mark Henderson, another self-proclaimed defender of reason, is attempting to discredit a forthcoming vaccine conference WDDTY was holding by, in effect, demonstrating that it is being run by a loonytune.
As he writes: “The Universe, she argues, is pervaded by a field of vibrations ‘like the Force in Star Wars’.”
This “perspective underlies the health recommendations of McTaggart’s group.” (I do not have a group!)
Aside from the fact that the Star Wars quote never appears in The Field, but only in my publisher’s marketing material about the book, Mark Henderson puts forward no actual evidence to support his contention that my book is pseudoscience.
The Field, it should be said, contains some 400 scientific references — most of them from traditional highly respected scientific journals. Each of the 80 or so scientists who were depicted in the book carefully checked the facts relating to their own work, and two noted physicists and one astrophysicist read the entire manuscript to make sure that the facts and my interpretation of the facts were all correct.
And then after that, two scientific copy editors worked tirelessly with me to ensure that the science was correct. Virtually nothing in the manuscript was not checked by a scientist with many more credentials than Mark Henderson, who, according to Sense about Science, has a history degree.
The same holds true with The Intention Experiment.
I tell you all this not to whine about these particulars, which are largely inconsequential and don’t affect either attendance at our events (they were always packed) or my book sales. I tell you about them for a larger reason, to demonstrate just one example of why science isn’t a free debate.
The supposed high-ground of science been largely hijacked by a few well organized bullyboys who don’t know how to engage in a fair debate or responsible reportage, and so have to kick sand in others’ faces and hope that blinds them (and blinds their audience).
They’ve organized into groups like Sense about Science and claim themselves the defenders of scientific truth and try to take the moral high ground, while resorting to innuendo and opinion to make their case.
Many of us in the field of cutting-edge science or science writing note that our Wikipedia entries are getting hijacked by these kinds of falsehoods and innuendos. Noted psychologist and noetic science researcher Dean Radin has given up trying to change his entry.
Fighting dirty also goes on in face-to-face debate. I was eight months’ pregnant when we launched What Doctors Don’t Tell You, and I remember being asked to debate the issues with a noted newspaper columnist at the time on live television. Just before we were due to go on, he leaned over and whispered in my ear that he’d heard that my obstetrician had been up on charges.
Rupert Sheldrake was once interviewed by Richard Dawkins for a forthcoming show (I also had been invited to be on the show, but declined). Sheldrake had agreed to being filmed on the promise that he could put forward his side of the story. During filming, Dawkins cut him off whenever he attempted to provide evidence about his work.
As Sheldrake tells it: "Richard seemed uneasy and said, ‘I don’t want to discuss evidence.’ "
"’Why not?’ I asked.
"’There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that's not what this programme is about.' The camera stopped."
Sheldrake showed him the emails from the producers promising a fair debate. The director looked dismayed.
As Sheldrake said to the director: “I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise.”
"Richard said, 'It's not a low grade debunking exercise; it's a high grade debunking exercise.'"
At this point, the team packed up and left.
The show’s eventual title: Enemies of Reason.
For Rupert’s full story, click here
Investigating the skeptics
Many frontier scientists like Sheldrake, tired of these bullyboy tactics, have created a website called Skeptical Investigations, which encourages open-mindedness in research – ie, true science — and also writes about scientific bullying in depth: http://www.skepticalinvestigations.org/New/index.html
Mainstream science has grown ever more fundamentalist, dominated by a few highly vocal individuals (mostly non-scientists) who proclaim themselves the guardian of a worldview and a scientific story they believe has largely been written.
They claim to be ‘evidenced based’ but their attacks are emotional, underhanded and demonstrably unscientific. They are the very antithesis of both good science and good journalism.
Science is finally just a story, told in installments. We learn about our world in piecemeal fashion, a process of constant correction and revision. New chapters refine — and often supplant — the chapters that have come before. And thus it has ever been. Every new finding in science has seemed as preposterous as the force in Star Wars until it grew to be accepted.
We are at the point in the evolution of our understanding of science where many of our most cherished beliefs are going up in smoke. The only way to deal with that is to do the right thing: to tell the truth, the whole truth, and to engage in fair debate.