A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Middle-class panics from MMR to 'global warming'.....

Not being a medic, I have refrained from commenting on the disastrous 'yummy-mummy' panic over the MMR vaccine and its [seemingly non-existent] link with autism [see: 'Misplaced autism worries fuel measles outbreak' (The Guardian, June 16)].

As you may recall, confidence among the professional and media-type middle classes in the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) triple-vaccine collapsed following some hysterically-reported research first published in The Lancet that hypothesized a possible link between the vaccine, given at 18 months, and then at 4 years, with autism and bowel disease. Part of The Lancet paper was later retracted, and one of the authors may now face professional misconduct charges brought by the General Medical Council (GMC).

But these latter points are not what interest me, nor am I briefed enough to comment on the whole sorry tale. What I do know is that the media, and a bunch of precious, middle-class pundits, failed lamentably to assess the extremely meagre evidence for any link against the deadly serious, and fully-understood, risks of failing to achieve the necessary levels of vaccination for 'herd-level' protection in any given population. And the outcome of this folly? Unsurprisingly, as The Guardian reports, Britain is today "... experiencing its biggest measles outbreak in 20 years, fuelled by the reluctance of some parents to have their children immunised because of now-discredited claims of a link between the MMR jab and autism."

In 2006, there have been some 449 reported cases of measles; in 2005, there were 77. The first direct death from measles has been recorded. But worse: while the safe level for 'herd' immunisation rates is, according to the WHO and others, between 92 and 95%, rates in London have fallen to 71%, and in Britain as a whole to below 85%. Now that is genuinely a cause for concern.

Three factors merit comment. First, the prime withdrawers have been well-educated, middle-class mothers. Secondly, some of the media built up the hype in a truly disgraceful manner. Thirdly, there was no scientific understanding of the need to balance risks, only a foolish yearning for impossible absolutes and a flurry of febrile comment.

On all this, I recommend strongly Cristina Odone's outstanding piece in today's The Times [apologies - no direct hyperlink for copyright reasons]: 'White, middle-class, loving mums. And their stupidity could kill your child.'

Middle-class panic has become one of the self-indulgent curses of the age, and, behind much of the panic, there often lies class arrogance and loathing. Though they would never actually utter such an un-PCness, some, deep down, do believe that they are more important than everyone else, and that everything about their existence is much, much, more precious, from hemp to 'organic' Hypericum. There is a sense of horror at playing your part in a 'herd of humanity'.

Interestingly, a substantial element of 'global warming' panic is likewise class-driven, especially those metro-media attacks on cheap air fares. In their heart of hearts, the 'yummy mummies' and the 'dandy dads' believe that 'the great unwashed' should know their place and stay at home in Blackpool or Margate. What they want is immunisation from 'the herd'!

And, when the middle class cease flying to their Provencal and Tuscan villas, and snooty academics stop jetting off to conferences, then you should believe in 'global warming'.

In this respect, I was delighted that, in the Queen's Birthday Honours, the founder of EasyJet, and Easygroup Chairman, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, received a knighthood [see: 'Honours offer snapshot of new establishment' (The Guardian, June 17)]. This was a splendid one-in-the-eye for the Etonian Greens and their pot-porritt ilk. Stelios is indeed a jolly chap, and he has brought the destinations of the self-important within most people's reach. Folk go up to him on the street to thank him for opening up their world.

And, of course, the idea that grounding Sir Stelios, and his no-frills jets, would "save the planet" is as stupid as refusing the MMR jab. It is a carefully-contrived middle-class, media conceit and panic to undermine an increasingly democratic world - Stelios, by the way, also introduced cheap internet cafes and cheap car rental. As for balancing the risks of climate change and economic adaptation - no, they don't want to hear about that! It might mean that folk can continue driving their el-cheapo cars, clogging up the roads for the Porcheistas.

Like Pooh, I thus wonder to myself a lot. How much middle-class panic is actually about putting a cordon sanitaire around privileged existences, from Chelsea to Chiantishire, Green Belt to Golf? Increasingly, I am finding my 'Old Labour' hackles rising.

Philip, detoxing after flying back from Porto! Tea and coffee only on return. There's my punishment. "See you next year in Tuscany, Old Thing!"

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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