Henderson, Mark

October 30, 2004


Mark Henderson: Junk medicine: Anti-vaccine activists

Opponents of MMR believe in homoeopathy, the Force, ESP and all sorts of other rubbish


This afternoon, a collection of anti-vaccine activists and worried parents will sit down at University College London to talk MMR. Though Dr Andrew Wakefield, whose discredited research frightened thousands into refusing the triple jab for their children, has cancelled an appearance, the seminar’s agenda is clearly his.

Critics of the vaccine, such as Dr Carol Stott, of Cambridge University, and Paul Shattock, a pharmacist, of Sunderland University, will apparently explain “what the Government isn’t telling you about MMR”. It’s fair to assume this isn’t going to focus on its good record of safety and efficacy and the umpteen large studies that have found no link to autism.

For the privilege of hearing a one-sided view of evidence that is rejected by mainstream science, guests will cough up £40. Parents might prefer to invest in tickets down the road at the Royal Opera House: they’re cheaper and they won’t put your children’s health at risk. Behind this event is a company called What Doctors Don’t Tell You, whose executive director, Lynne McTaggart, will be speaking.

It claims to expose “the truth about the dangers of modern medicine”. But a glance at its literature reveals a wealth of junk science and scaremongering.

McTaggart’s group is on the wrong side of every health issue going. It is suspicious of medicine to the point of paranoia, while placing blind faith in all sorts of alternative prescriptions without a jot of supporting evidence. And it charges plenty for the benefit of this wisdom. When challenged by The Times, it promised that any proceeds from today’s event would be donated to autism research. The company, though, publishes and sells more than 40 books, leaflets and newsletters full of questionable medical advice. A good example is The Vaccination Bible (£8.95), in which McTaggart attacks MMR — and other forms of immunisation.

Vaccination has wiped out smallpox, it is close to eradicating polio and it has made a bigger contribution to health than any advance bar modern sanitation and clean water. McTaggart, though, rejects this and invites parents to consider homoeopathy instead.  This wrong-headed approach to medicine is the only way in which homoeopathy can be harmful. Inert sugar pills will not cure disease but neither will they damage people.

They become dangerous only when they are chosen ahead of drugs that are proven to work.

Homoeopathy is not the only source of magic and miracles in which McTaggart believes. She is also keen on spiritual healing, psychic powers and other paranormal bunkum. The reasons are spelt out in The Field, a triumph of pseudoscience purporting to chart discoveries that “seemed to overthrow the current laws of biology, chemistry and physics”. The Universe, she argues, is pervaded by a field of vibrations “like the Force in Star Wars”. This connects human minds and bodies in “a packet of pulsating energy constantly interacting with this vast energy sea” and explains the supernatural phenomena she accepts as real. There is no evidence for such gibberish, which rests on misconceptions about quantum mechanics. This bit of physics is so weird that the great Richard Feynman famously pronounced that nobody really understands it — but it is often invoked by believers in the paranormal. About the only thing experts agree on is that quantum effects do not support homoeopathy, extra- sensory perception or any of the other nonsense in The Field.

Parents should know that this perspective underlies the health recommendations of McTaggart’s group. The current laws of science may be incomplete but they do rather a good job of explaining the Universe. They are certainly a better guide to medicine than hokum from George Lucas movies.

McTaggart is right on one point: her philosophy is definitely something doctors don’t tell you. For good reason, too: it’s rubbish.

Mark Henderson is the Times science correspondent