On Sunday, dozens of senior scientists with expertise in wildlife disease wrote a public letter to The Observer, expressing their strong objection to the Government’s badger cull about to begin in England. They say that they “believe the complexities of TB transmission mean that licensed culling risks increasing TB rather than reducing it.”
This is something that we’ve already agonised over in Wales. Prior to the 2011 Assembly election our own local AM, Lorraine Barrett, campaigned vigorously against the cull when the then Agricultural Minister wanted it to go ahead in parts of Wales. Having looked at all the evidence when I was Minister for Rural Affairs, I knew that it did not support the cull so I strongly supported her. After the election we expected the new Cabinet to simply say “there will be no cull”, but in fact the new Minister, John Griffiths, took his time and insisted on reviewing all the evidence. He was right to do so. And thankfully, the science won out and we decided on a badger vaccination instead. In contrast, Ministers in Whitehall are allowing farmers to cull badgers in an approach to reducing TB infection in cattle which goes against evidence and is potentially very dangerous.
All of this reminds me of the controversy in 2002 surrounding the MMR vaccine, which still remains in the public consciousness to this day. Cardiff University’s Professor Justin Lewis wrote a study on the media coverage which arguably played the biggest part in creating the trouble around it. Only one scientist, Andrew Wakefield, claimed to find a possible link between the measles disease and children with autism and bowel disorders. This wasn’t even a proposed link between the vaccine but just the actual disease of measles that the vaccine protects against. Andrew Wakefield was stripped of his medical license last year when it was found that he misrepresented or altered the 12 case studies that formed the basis of his study, and also found to have been paid by a law firm that intended to sue vaccine manufacturers.
Even at the time, the scientific evidence was largely stacked in favour of the MMR vaccine, but Cardiff University’s study found that reporters mostly just mentioned the ‘conflict’ of evidence and didn’t explain the issue properly. Or in one unbelievable quote from The Sun, they didn’t even think that science was very reliable in comparison to vague anecdotal evidence – “No scientists confirmed his findings but many parents say their children changed dramatically after the injection”. When a media debate gives equal weight to individuals and their fearful views rather than the peer-reviewed science and hard evidence, it is acting as ‘entertainer’ rather than providing objective and factual information to the public. Science is routinely misreported. I don’t accept the old slogan ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ – this is really a case of ‘lies, damn lies and the misuse of statistics’!
With the badger cull, Ministers are trying to meet the understandable wish of farmers that ‘something must be done’ and allowing the belief that the cull would work to colour the way they view the actual evidence. That is always dangerous. I hope the science will be listened to now, before it’s too late.