Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Streisand Effect

The Jeni Barnett MMR story really has longer legs than many of us sciencey bloggers had hoped. A week after Barnett rehashed every cliché in the anti-vaccination handbook over roughly 40 minutes of hysterical melodrama, the subsequent attempts by both Barnett and her radio station LBC to silence Ben Goldacre's perfectly appropriate criticisms have exploded hilariously in what is called The Streisand Effect. Only the Bad Science followers were paying attention up until the point when LBC's lawyers forced Ben to remove a (rather long) clip of the entire MMR segment of the show in what was a rather dubious and aggressive copyright infringement claim. The Sciencey Blogsphere Collective as not amused. The clip was rapidly copied and redistributed across the interenet, effectively becoming entirely untouchable. Blogs everywhere began to report angrily on the incident and the feeling was almost universally in favour of Ben.

In an attempt to appear open to debate, Barnett's Blog (which rather scathingly dismissed one of her most polite pro-MMR callers as "viscious") called for comments. And the comments came. 121 comments, mostly annoyed but polite attempts to explain to Jeni why MMR is safe and important for public health. A follow-on post by Barnett sneered at the "Bad Scientists" and their "sarcasm". This post prompted a further 81 comments, again the vast majority being critical of Barnett's poorly-informed and irresponsbible stance on MMR.

More blogs reported, more segments of the radio programme were posted, this time in fragments too small and too many to be silenced by questionable copyright infringment claims. Transcripts appeared. PZ Myers rallied his atheist army behind the pro-MMR standard. The Times online noticed the story, and weighed in to defend Ben Goldacre. And, in a quite stunning moment, the great Stephen Fry called for Goldacre to be supported.

Perhaps understandably, Ben's website crashed several times under the weight of visits and messages of near-universal support. Perhaps panicked, Barnett deleted all 200 or so of the critical messages from her own blog and has attempted to move on. No meaningful apology. No recognition of the continuing damage this evidence-free nonsense has done to public health in the UK and Ireland. And of course, no glimmer of having realised that everything she and LBC have done so far, including this, is just making things worse for her and her employers.

For those interested, the deleted blog comments are available at the excellent Quackometer blog.

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