AUGUST LEADER – The media’s misguided tolerance of anti-science fearmongers

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This summer, in the depths of cucumber season, Politiken managed to publish two opinion pieces that made me equal parts angry, frightened and nauseated.

The first contentious opinion piece was written by Ninka-Bernadette Mauritson – an entrepreneur and author of a bestselling lifestyle book – following an interview with tabloid BT in which she explained that she “cured” her son’s autism by changing his diet.

The article in BT ruffled feathers. While at least one small study of 18 children found that changing the composition of a child’s gut bacteria had some impact on their autism symptoms there is no conclusive evidence that diet can cure autism.

But Politiken’s debate editors decided to let Mauritson defend herself, and in her op-ed, she dismissed the criticism that no peer-reviewed studies have confirmed her claims by presenting evidence she alleged was being overlooked by the medical establishment.

What about the press release from Danish health authority Sundhedsstyrelsen warning against Mouritson’s diet guidelines, which advised parents not to feed their children food containing milk or gluten? Well, they can’t be trusted because of a few unrelated scandals.

“You can’t use that Sundhedsstyrelse as any form of guarantee!” she scoffed.

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Mauritson drew heavy criticism, including from the national autism association, Landsforeningen Autisme. In a press release, they stated that after Mauritson’s interview and op-ed, the organisation had heard from the families of three children with autism that had all been advised by their municipal caseworkers to follow Mauritson’s dietary guidelines.

The second contentious op-ed that Politiken published was written by a father who regretted giving his daughters the HPV vaccine that protects against cervical cancer. Not because his daughters have reported any side effects – on the contrary, his daughters are fine. Rather, he was concerned by media reports of dozens of sick young women who attribute their illnesses to the vaccine.

Although these young women have been presented in the media as sufferers of vaccine-induced illness, both the WHO and the European Medicines Agency have cleared the vaccine. The vaccine is offered in virtually every European country, but only in Denmark is there speculation that it is making young women ill (see page 14 for an in-depth article on the subject).

In the op-ed, the father explains that the vaccines are dangerous because its manufacturer uses “controversial aluminium nanoparticles” that allegedly seep “deep into the brain and cause neurological damage.” The father didn’t present any sources for his claims.

Politiken was rightly condemned for publishing these two op-eds, and promised to change its policies to make it clearer to readers when they are reading opinions rather than facts, and to demand that writers provide evidence for their claims. That’s good.

But why publish them at all? In defence of the newspaper’s decision to publish, debate editor Ditte Giese’s reasoned, “The voice of experience should not be excluded. On the contrary. Science is an authority that must be challenged just like any other – its conclusions must stand up to confrontation with the real world.”

Here is the central misunderstanding of Politiken’s debate editors: science is not an authority. Science is a methodology that is designed to bring us closer to the truth.

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Yes, Ninka’s son got better after she changed his diet. But that does not prove it was the diet that made the difference. Yes, there are dozens of sick young women who received the HPV vaccine. But just because their symptoms began after the vaccine doesn’t mean the two are related. Correlation does not equal causation.

Scientific truths should be always challenged, but that can only happen by using the scientific method. And this methodology is designed precisely to overcome our tendency toward biased thinking and sentimental, anecdotal logic that tries to find connections between things that are not connected.

We cannot allow the Mauritsons of this world to sow distrust in the medical establishment that is tasked with keeping us healthy. And we cannot let them abuse scientific scepticism to provoke false hope and fear – especially when it concerns the health of children. M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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