Johann Hari has a surprisingly good article on vaccination on his site today, tackling the Daily Mail’s campaign to kill children, and manages to lump Melanie Phillips in with Nigerian Islamic fundamentalists on the subject of vaccination. Something that I’m sure she won’t like given her “barbarians are at the gate” mentality when it comes to Islam.
Was the Mailâ€™s campaign based on faith-based thinking, like the campaign in Northern Nigeria? I think it can be shown that it was. Letâ€™s look at the figure within the newspaper who spearheaded the MMR campaign: Melanie Phillips. Despite having no scientific qualifications, and despite making the most elementary scientific howlers time and again in her articles, she feels free to announce that virtually all the worldâ€™s scientists are wrong, on everything from global warming to MMR.
But why was she so certain the MMR campaign should be stopped? Phillips presented her argument as if she was simply siding with one scientist against another. But in reality, she disputes on religious grounds the very basis of vaccinations: evolution. She says that creationism should be taught in schools, and that evolution is â€œonly a theory.â€ So itâ€™s no wonder she is so hostile to (and ignorant of) vaccination science. Vaccines only work because we can observe evolution, live, as it happens. Take the flu virus. It is constantly changing â€“ you can watch it under a microscope. Thatâ€™s why you need a booster shot every year: because the virus has evolved. Thatâ€™s why a vaccine against the 1918 flu virus would be radically different to a vaccine the 2007 flu virus: it has evolved. Yet when Professor Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council, pointed out this elementary scientific truth, she accused him of seizing any sneaky opportunity to â€œbeat the drum for Darwinâ€ and for claiming â€œthere was no intelligent design in a virus, only the mindless force of natural selection.â€
Let me get this right: Phillips actually believes God personally tweaks the flu virus every year, just to keep it ahead of the vaccinators? What sort of sadist-deity does she follow? And why did newspapers and the BBC mimic her anti-scientific ravings? From this species of ignorance has flowed the serious risk of children dying, according to â€“ remember â€“ our chief scientist.
Hari makes too large a claim by suggesting the Mail’s attitude to MMR vaccine is religiously inspired. His own newspaper has hardly covered itself in glory on the issue of MMR vaccine – suggesting a government conspiracy against Wakefield. â€œAre we wrong to detect the distant whirr of the same spin spin machine that so recently set about destroying the reputations of David Kelly, Andrew Gilligan and othersâ€?â€, it asked in 2004.
It is also doubtful that Phillips’ has the intellectual coherence to construct the religious basis Hari suggests. I suspect she was just grasping for examples to serve a particular argument, and that her opposition to MMR vaccine was probably more rooted in distrust of government. Nor, sadly, is she the only journalist at the Daily Mail to have written about MMR. More importantly, she didn’t start her column in the Daily Mail until December 2001, prior to that she had been at The Guardian, The Observer and The Sunday Times – a slightly dubious cause and effect relationship there. Religion, thankfully, has been only a minor aspect of MMR debacle in the UK.