Monday, January 17, 2011

To lead astray ...

... to 'mislead', or 'cause to believe something incorrectly'. Or all of those, with a touch of duplicity and hubris thrown in. Details below.

On November 8th 2010, Defra released a bundle of papers on the vaccination of badgers with an accompanying press release which explained:
A key finding of the field study, conducted over four years in a naturally infected population of more than 800 wild badgers in Gloucestershire, was that vaccination resulted in a 74 per cent reduction in the proportion of wild badgers testing positive to the antibody blood test for TB in badgers.
With the help of our resident scientific team, we explored the background to this in various posts throughout November, and early December.

Meanwhile on December 1st, the the BBC launched their campaign, with the strapline:
In a four-year project, UK scientists found vaccination reduced the incidence of TB infection in wild badgers by 74%.
This was picked up by lazy media tarts journalists, and flipped around the world.

The 'consultation' on whether to cull badgers infected with tuberculosis, closed on December 8th 2010 in England and December 17th., in Wales.

The Badger Trust cite the BBC report in their submission.

But on December 14th., one week after the close of the English consultation, and with just hours before the close of the Welsh one, Defra issued a sort of retraction or plain English explanation of this bundle of research papers. And it says categorically that some media interpretation of this data, should not have been used to make the claim:
1. The findings in the paper were reported by some sectors of the media to mean that vaccination produced a 74% reduction in the proportion of badgers that had TB: e.g. "In a four-year project, UK scientists found vaccination reduced the incidence of TB infection in wild badgers by 74%."

The data should not be used to make this claim.

The results of the field study actually show that BCG vaccination of free-living badgers reduced the incidence of positive serological test results by 73.8% (a new incident being a badger that changed its test status from negative to positive during the study). This is not the same thing as saying that vaccination reduced the incidence of disease by 74% as a negative blood test is not an absolute indicator of protection from disease, so the field results cannot tell us the degree of vaccine efficacy.

Data from the laboratory and field studies do not lend themselves to giving a definitive figure for BadgerBCG vaccine efficacy, defined as the reduction in the incidence of disease (new cases) among badgers who have received vaccine compared to the incidence in unvaccinated badgers. A definitive figure for efficacy could only be determined by field-testing the vaccine on a large scale over a long period of time. Several thousand badgers would need to be killed to determine the presence and severity of TB at detailed post-mortem examination."  
This paper was not released as a follow up press release to Defra's November 8th. offering, and neither was it released hard on the heels of the original misleading simplified BBC version which got the Badger Trust so excited. We are grateful for sight of it. As were Farmers Guardian who had the story on the FG online edition of January 4th.

So dear readers, what do we make of the time line on this?

* A bundle of papers and their million annexes on badger vaccination, released in a blaze of glory just a few weeks before the end of a consultation on whether (or not) to cull badgers infected with TB?
* The media scrum, led by the BBC and supported with quotes from Messrs. Cheeseman and Macdonald, offer their spin that 'Scientists have found that vaccination reduces TB in 800 wild badgers by 74%'.
* The consultation closes in England.
* With hours to go to the Welsh consultation deadline, Defra offer this little gem to their in-house group. "The data should not be used to make this claim."

Too bloody right it shouldn't. But it was, and it was not corrected until after the event - or at least the English event. And then only released within the magic circle of Defra's TB section.

And under those circumstances, we make no apology for the title of this post.


Anonymous said...

"With the help of our resident scientific team"

Who are?

Anonymous said...

Well it wasn't the tosspot trio Attenborough, Lumley and May was it!

Matthew said...

Anon 9.31

Our co-editor is a published, peer reviewed, microbiologist. Other contributers, now free of political shackles, have the freedom to say what they think - and do. We are grateful for their experience and their input.

Anon 9.53.

No, it was not. They, and the Badger Trust hung their hopes on the BBC's rather dumbed down version of this politico-scientific slight of hand.

Anonymous said...

"Our co-editor is a published, peer reviewed, microbiologist" Who is so confident of his views that he does not wish to be named?

"Other contributers, now free of political shackles, have the freedom to say what they think - and do" so anonomously.

We would be grateful for their experience and their input if we new who they were.

Anonymous said...

I can't see how it matters who they are...

It could be Darwin, Aristotle and Fleming and its likely that you would still argue it!

Matthew said...

Anon 1.22

The comment below yours (Anon 4.55) is spot on. The core of this thread is not who contributes to this blog, but the fact that DEFRA issued a very belated retraction / explanation to some highly suspect media headlines on vaccinating badgers. These were published with impeccable timing smack in the middle of a consultation on - culling badgers..

The fact that this retraction / explanation was issued too late and kept 'in house' is the point.

So if you're questioning 'the science' - as in the use or mis-use of 'political' science - we suggest that you address your questions to Defra. It is their paperwork.
We questioned the project headlines in relation to its content in late November, and early December.
Now we merely report a very belated retraction / explanation which is too late to have any influence whatsoever.
(Except perhaps to make those of us contributing to this blog, all of whom have 'hands on' experience of TB, even more cynical than we already were.)

Anonymous said...

This blog repeatedly gives what it claims to be expert opinion but fails to state who those experts are.

Conversely, you are quite happy to knock the opinions of other scientists not on your resident team.

In your comment above you say that it "is not who contributes to this blog", so why do you tell us that your "co-editor is a published, peer reviewed, microbiologist?

Anonymous said...

Why is "anonymous" anonymous?

Who are you?

Unknown said...

What exactly did they retract?

Everything they wrote was, as far as I can see, 100% accurate and fair. It was the BBC and others who misquoted, and the scientists then corrected that misquotation.

Compare that to the various errors printed in this blog.

Anonymous said...

i agree with the last contributor, the second defra statement was clearly a reaction to the inaccurate reporting not some conspiracy to sway consultations. How can an organisation in one breath branded as incompetent also be so cunning? Ask you panel of expert scientists about occams razor - the simplest explanation is the most likely - government moves slowly, it just took that long to get the second statement out. You don't even need to adjust your view of them...