Attack on Autism Critic's "Secret" Father Doesn't Stand Up to Scrutiny

Last Updated Aug 20, 2010 11:51 PM EDT

Age of Autism, the web site for people who believe -- wrongly -- that vaccines cause autism, has published a "takedown" piece on Ben Goldacre, the "Bad Science" columnist for The Guardian, suggesting that he has kept secret the fact he is the son of Michael J. Goldacre, an academic who has done research showing that vaccines don't cause symptoms associated with autism.

Goldacre has yet to respond on his massively trafficked blog, but he ought to: As BP, Goldman Sachs and Johnson & Johnson have all discovered recently, failing to robustly defend your yourself when under attack can lead to long-term damage to your reputation. The Goldacre story is already spreading to fellow-traveller "holistic" health web sites, such as this one.

AOA's expose is a breathless and cynical effort intended to make it look like Goldacre has concealed a vast network of conflicts of interest. Here's a representative sample:
While the reasons for the secrecy remain unknown it is possible that if the relationship, which has never before been mentioned in the mainstream media or scientific publications, had been common knowledge it might have raised questions about the independence of the younger Goldacre's views.
The Goldacre familial relationship is indeed surrounded in "secrecy" unless you count his public Facebook page, which mentions his dad in the second paragraph.

AOA's central scoop is that Goldacre's father, Michael, is the author of a study that showed the MMR vaccine that relied on the Urabe mumps strain had a higher risk for meningitis than other MMR vaccines.* That vaccine was removed from the market based in part on such studies, and thus counts as a contribution to vaccine safety and not, as AOA would have it, as evidence that proves Goldacre's dad is in league with Big Pharma's vaccine makers.

Goldacre junior was an early critic of the media's unquestioning acceptance of the alleged link between vaccines and autism. In 2003, for instance, he wrote a column showing that journalists who reported such a link literally misunderstood the science they were describing.

AOA even manages to link Goldacre to the Revolutionary Communist Party. In 2007, AOA notes, Goldacre criticized a story in the Observer that claimed 1 in 58 Cambridgeshire schoolchildren were autistic. Goldacre showed that the available data showed no such thing. Also criticizing that story, AOA points out, was Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre. Fox once wrote a story under a pseudonym denying that there had been a genocide in Rwanda. That story appeared in Living Marxism, the official magazine of the RCP.

So somehow, Goldacre is linked to all of that! It's desperate stuff.

Why would AOA bother? The vaccines-cause-autism myth is slowly crumbling. The doctor whose "research" started it has been discredited; and large-scale studies repeatedly fail to find a correlation between vaccines and autism symptoms (such as this one or this one or this one).

Or, indeed this study, also by Goldacre's dad, which attempted to find out if there really was a rise in Crohn's Disease and ulcerative colitis (two conditions associated with autism) between 1979 and 1998 in British hospitals, and if so whether it was correlated with the U.K.'s measles vaccine program. Goldacre senior found:
... no significant change over the 20 year period:
... These results, together with those from other studies, provide strong evidence against measles vaccine causing CD or UC.
With its "evidence" dying all around it, AOA has nothing left to do but attack those who write about it.

*Correction: This item originally linked to the wrong Goldacre study because AOA's link failed to indentify the study properly. Apologies for the error, but be reassured that the context of both studies undermines AOA's argument rather than buttressing it.
Related: Image from Wikimedia, CC.

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