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'Je Suis Charlie' and the evidence base.


The shocking, tragic, terrifying massacre at Charlie Hebdo has given rise to an uplifting global display of solidarity with the people of France and compassion for the bereaved families. The determination to defend democracy and the principles of free speech and a free press which underpin it are captured in two much quoted sayings, the first from liberation theology and often used by Charb,  the editor of Charlie Hebdo, “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees” and the second from Voltaire (although actually from his biographer):“I disapprove of what you say, sir, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.


Brave words and glorious sentiments to which most people would subscribe. It is therefore very concerning to read of the reaction to a series of seminars being offered in Australia by the US anti-vaccination campaigner, Sherri Tenpenny. Half a dozen venues have now declined to host Tenpenny’s seminars during her tour in February and March and the Australian immigration minister has been approached by the Stop the Australian (Anti) Vaccination Network (SAVN) to deny her a visa.

To say that this it is curious that this should be going on in the same week as the Paris massacre is an understatement. Even more curious is the platform upon which SAVN is campaigning against Tenpenny. SAVN challenges Tenpenny’s argument that there is a link between autism and childhood vaccines for diseases such as whooping cough, mumps and measles on the basis of ‘evidence-based medicine’.

Ok – so had SAVN been operational in the UK in 1980, it would presumably have been supporting the Peel Report that claimed to have evidence that hospital birth was the safest place for all women to give birth? Last year, NICE recommended that women at low risk of complications should be encouraged to have their babies at home as ‘the evidence’ showed that this is the safest place for them and their babies. Mary Hannah’s study of vaginal birth for breech babies claimed that it is safer for these babies to be born by caesarean section, a recommendation that flew round the world and was quickly adopted in hospitals globally. Since the Term Breech Trial was published, numerous other papers have demonstrated flaws in the methodology and analysis of the study and have undermined ‘the evidence’ which it presented.

The point is that the ‘evidence-base’ is for ever unfinished. It is work in progress. It is a concept that demands the highest degree of humility in recognising the partiality of human knowledge and the possibility of human error. Knowledge is always in a state of ‘becoming’; it is not a finished product.

So while SAVN attacks Tenpenny’s views as ‘lies and misinformation’ and claims  the moral high ground from which they are able to see that there is absolutely NO link between childhood vaccinations and autism, perhaps it should pay attention to a small voice whispering in its ear, ‘Je suis Charlie’.

The moral high ground is in truth occupied by those who defend to the death the right to challenge the ‘evidence-base’ and not by those who assert that only they know what it is.

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