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Perspective on the paper by Hilton et al (see page 831)
Nobody doubts that the flawed paper on non-specific colitis and pervasive developmental disorder in children1 provoked a public health crisis and increased the risk for children in the UK of contracting measles. In this month’s journal, a group of social and public health scientists examine the response to the paper by several journals likely to be read by those responsible for providing advice to individual families regarding immunisation.2 They conclude that the journals “missed opportunities to accurately inform practitioners about the evidence” and seemingly preferred to “stand back and wait for consensus to develop”.
Should the editors of the magazines Health Visitor, Community Practitioner, Practice Nurse, Nursing Standard and Pulse as well as the combined peer-reviewed medical journal and magazine BMJ accept that they failed their readers? I’m not sure what scientific pretensions the first group of these profess. If, as I suspect, they commission mostly freelance journalists to write their opinion pieces then there is little reason to expect any deeper analysis of a scientific disagreement that that of those writing feature items for any magazine or newspaper designed for an intelligent lay audience. Unless individual journalists have a bee in their bonnet about a topic or a competing interest, such as a deeply held personal belief or alarming personal experience, they are unlikely to come down on one side or the other on what they see as disputes between equally “respectable” scientists or clinicians. To do otherwise might lead to an accusation of publishing propaganda rather than news or unprejudiced opinion.
The issue may be different for a journal such as BMJ, edited and largely written by medically qualified individuals. In the 1970s, Robert Merton of Columbia University used the …