Religious anti-vaccinators

By AnthonyLast updated: Thursday, December 13, 2007 • Save & Share2 Comments

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 Mail’s campaign based on faith-based thinking, like the campaign in Northern Nigeria? I think it can be shown that it was. Let’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 world’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 “only a theory.” So it’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 – you can watch it under a microscope. That’s why you need a booster shot every year: because the virus has evolved. That’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 “beat the drum for Darwin” and for claiming “there was no intelligent design in a virus, only the mindless force of natural selection.”

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 – remember – 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. “Are 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 others”?”, 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.

Filed in Gerin Oil, MMR, Vaccines

2 Responses to “Religious anti-vaccinators”

Comment from Nick
Time 13/12/2007 at 2:50 pm

Why “surprisingly” good?

Comment from Anthony
Time 13/12/2007 at 4:24 pm

You are right. It isn’t surprisingly good, it’s plain sloppy.

The whole article is flawed because its central thesis that religion is at the root of the vaccine problem in both Nigeria and England is not demonstrably true.

Phillips wasn’t at the Daily Mail for the first two years of the Daily Mail’s anti-MMR vaccine campaign. Phillips’s first article on MMR in the UK media was not published until 11 March 2003: “MMR The Truth”. The Mail had been banging on about MMR for years by then, asking if Leo Blair had been vaccinated, calling for public enquiries…

So to suggest the Mail’s campaign was founded on “faith-based thinking”, based on a 2006 Phillips’ article is clearly a very weak argument.

His conclusion sounds good, it panders to my own prejudices on the backwardness of religion:

There have always been people who responded to life-saving scientific advances with peasant superstition and mutterings about the Almighty. For the sake of all that is good and un-Holy, it seems they still need to be resisted – from the deserts of Northern Nigeria to the hills of North London.

Yay, a strike for secularism! But hang on, there is no evidence that I have seen that demonstrates that any significant parental concerns about MMR vaccine have come from a religious perspective. Rather it comes from the distorted way the scientific debate has been presented in the media by newspapers and media. That includes the BBC, ITV, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Daily Express, The Daily Mail, and, the shame, The Independent.

You can see what Hari has done. He has come across a statement by one of the more rabid anti-MMR/science types that can be used to imply she might have a religious basis for her objections. He then makes the leap of spreading this motive to the paper she writes for, and then makes a further imaginative leap to suggest that the MMR vaccine debate is a symptom of the role of religion in society. It just does not add up.

I speak as an athiest and non-fan of Phillips.