So you might have seen that Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced doctor who first linked the MMR vaccine to autism, has been given a “Golden Duck” award for “lifetime achievement in quackery”. The tweet that accompanied it in my feed asked simply “what is the purpose of this award?”, and I had to scratch my head too. Just what is the point? I don’t really gel with the concept of the award itself, for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, it encapsulates the kind of negative behaviour within the skeptic movement that I’ve taken issue with in the past. It’s far too easy for something like this to come across as sneering and contemptuous, and who knows, perhaps it is. This kind action stigmatises the expression of alternative views. That’s never good foundation for a dialogue. But more importantly, I think you need to be in a position of strength or power if this kind of moral criticism is to have any effect. For niche organisations without that kind of clout, such criticism is pointless unless you have the respect of your opponent, and that won’t be achieved if your opening gambit is ridicule. Sure, you can get a small amount of coverage in a sympathetic paper, but there’s a lot of audience overlap. When I worked at Sense About Science, the organisation ran an annual name-and-shame list of celebritieswho’d sinned against science in some way or another – extolling miracle diets or dismissing the reality of climate change. But nobody expected the A-listers to take any notice of these missives – they were simply a way of securing a bit of easy newspaper space in the slow news week between Christmas and New Year and help maintain the profile of the organisation.
I’m also confused by comments in the article that 2013’s award will focus on politics. There’s a bit of disjoint between encouraging changes on a year-to-year basis and the notion of a lifetime achievement award. Assuming they cared, what advantage is there in an MP mending their ways after they’ve been given such an award? The mark is indelible.
Underneath it all, I feel the skeptics are stuck in some kind of late 2000s battle re-enactment, vanquishing the same dragons over and over again. The same names come up again and again, on both sides, without much of a sense of progression. Can there be many people left on Earth who don’t think Wakefield is a quack, who would be convinced otherwise by insults like these? Wakefield has been struck off by the General Medical Council and has abandoned the UK with his reputation in shreds. I think this attack focuses too much on unnecessarily grinding those shreds to dust instead of repairing the damage that he’s done. What I’d really like to see is more attention paid to the ecosystem that allows this kinds of quackery to thrive and encouraging efforts made to remediate it – not just by feeding people more information, but by striving to understand individual health concerns and finding positive ways to address them.
EDIT: I should have pointed out that the golden duck award is the brainchild of the Good Thinking Society with votes coming from some SiTP groups. I’ve made the error above of blithely lumping skeptics into a single group, which is the one thing that really pisses them off. It is a valid point though, and I’d recommend reading ghosthunter Hayley Stevens’ comments on the award for the view from the inside.