The Head of Steam pub on Lime Street may seem like an unlikely venue for grappling with some of society’s biggest hoaxes, or to try and unpack myth and superstition, fact and fiction, over a few beers. But it’s here where, twice a month, Skeptics in the Pub meet to mix a sociable evening with a touch of scientific prodding.

Run by the Merseyside Skeptics Society, the events regularly draw the line between science and pseudoscience, the natural and the supernatural as well as unravelling the odd conspiracy or two. Any fan of a good conspiracy will be aware that science has played centre stage to many a complex and dystopian yarn; and the idea that the truth is out there but science can’t be trusted with it is currently en vogue with many.

The Skeptics were founded in 2009 and add some balance to the numerous unchallenged beliefs and claims making up the ever increasing chatter infiltrating the web and the media. The Skeptics with a ‘k’ employ scepticism with a ‘c’, a scientific scepticism which provisionally accepts compelling evidence as true until proven otherwise, but is still open to scrutiny by others.

This ethos was dramatically put into practice with some creativity last year when the Skeptics launched and coordinated the 10:23 campaign. On January 10th at 10:23am they staged an ‘overdose’ of homeopathic pills in protest of Boots continued endorsement and sales of homeopathic remedies, culminating in February of this year with protestors in seventy cities, over thirty countries, across all seven continents, holding ‘overdose’ demonstrations at 10:23am.

culturepool joined the large crowd gathered at The Head of Steam for this month’s Skeptics in the Pub event to listen to their guest speaker, the Sunday Times award winning investigative reporter Brian Deer presenting ‘MMR and Autism: An Elaborate fraud – How The Case Against The Vaccine Was Built’. Talking to a full house, Deer told the story of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and Dr Andrew Wakefield’s now infamous 1998 study; and also his own role in Wakefield’s recent removal from the medical register.

In April this year Deer received his second British Press Award for what was described as “a tremendous righting of a wrong” for his discovery of “an elaborate fraud” perpetrated by Wakefield with the publication of his study in the Lancet medical journal linking the MMR vaccine with autism and bowel disease. Deer doesn’t describe himself as a science journalist and believes serendipity played a major part in his discovery of Wakefield’s fraud, which was uncovered during his seven year long investigation.

Originally curiosity prompted Deer to investigate Wakefield’s study after he noticed that its findings correlated with another vaccination scare from the 1970s, specifically the symptoms appearing within 14 days of vaccination; plus the new Freedom of Information act gave Deer access to relevant ethic committee papers that had never been made available before.

Once Deer started digging, he found that all of the 12 children involved in the study were recruited through an anti-MMR group and the discredited study was commissioned and paid for by lawyers acting on behalf of parents planning to sue the drug companies manufacturing the MMR vaccine. Wakefield himself received in excess of £400,000 from the lawyers (the money was from the UK legal aid fund), which he did not disclose as part of the study.

The study, which was also found to contain manipulated data and incorrectly diagnosed children created a public scare after publication putting children at risk as rates of inoculation using the triple jab fell from 92% to 73%. Although inoculations are steadily rising again, the rates of confirmed measles cases have increased nationally and more recently closer to home in Wirral, spiking at 1,144 in England and Wales in 2009 compared to 56 in 1998. In November 2004 Channel 4 aired the Dispatches programme ‘MMR: What They Didn’t Tell You’, which prompted Wakefield to sue Deer, Channel 4 and The Sunday Times.

Wakefield’s attempt to use the English libel laws to ‘gag’ Channel 4 was eventually thrown out by Judge ‘Super injunction’ Eady in November 2005, who accused Wakefield of trying to “close down discussion and debate over an important public issue”. In the GMC’s longest medical misconduct inquiry to date Wakefield’s research was labelled “dishonest”, “unethical” and “callous” but Wakefield claims he’s a “victim of dark forces”.

Unfortunately some agree and continue to peddle the study’s claim; and he’s now seen as a hero and a poster boy for many anti-vaccination groups. To be fair, Wakefield has never said he is against vaccinations, in fact he’d patented his own single measles vaccination before the original study was released. Just because a study uses manipulated data doesn’t make the scientific method itself worthless, but it does call for greater policing of the process.

There will always be an incentive for scientific studies to have the ‘right’ findings whether they’re orchestrated by individuals, drug companies or governments. This worries Deer, and he wonders how many other MMR type papers are out there. He suggests a more proactive approach is required to place scientists under the same scrutiny as many other professions, and feels there’s also the need to replace the existing peer review system, which Deer believed was nothing but an old boy network based on trust.

Maybe this would restore what appears to be some distrust in science, but reversing the rise in pseudoscience maybe more difficult since the web’s true equality is revealed when disseminating disinformation.

For some, including bestselling author Ben Goldacre, the media had a bigger role in the story than Wakefield himself. Goldacre believes that “journalists and editors have constructed their greatest hoax to date, and finally demonstrated that they can pose a serious risk to public health” and goes on to say “it is madness to imagine that one single man can create a 10-year scare story” but Deer disagreed during the Q&A and firmly put the responsibility back at Wakefield’s door.

Surely the story will continue, but it also must act as a warning. History tells us how easy it is to spread half-truths and lies, shown very recently with the E. coli outbreak in Germany. The time is right for a little healthy scepticism, especially with a ‘k’.

Skeptics In The Pub:
Social Event: First Thursday of each month, from 8pm.
Guest Speaker: Third Thursday of each month, from 8pm.