Richard Smith: On being misunderstood, exploited, and abused

richard_smith_2014A friend has pointed out to me that I am listed as an “exemplary professional” on the website of the Alliance for Human Research Protection. Others on the list include Florence Nightingale and the Nobel prize winner Sydney Brenner. I clearly don’t belong in such exalted company, but another on the list is Andrew Wakefield—yes, him of the fraudulent research that suggested that the MMR vaccine caused autism and created much suffering and confusion. It’s because of him—and the whole dubious nature of the website—that my friend wants me to protest.

I can see why I’m there. They have carefully and cleverly gathered together much that I have written over many years arguing that much of what appears in medical journals should not be believed. I am thus being used to advance their cause that research they don’t like should not be believed. I could be used in this way to advance almost any cause.

The website looks professional and respectable and cleverly mixes together authentic stories of misconduct and abuse in medical research, many from long ago, with particular bogies that concern those that have created the site. It isn’t very clear who has created the site, and the scattering of “exemplary professionals,” a fair few of whom are dead and so unlikely to protest, makes it look as if the site is put together by dozens of admirable people.

So should I protest? I doubt if I would get anywhere, and—on a quick scan—they haven’t misquoted but rather selectively quoted me. Somebody visiting the site might be left thinking that I support Andrew Wakefield’s research and various other causes of the site that I don’t support, but I don’t see them breaking any law. And even if they did would I want to waste time and money taking action against the site.

I take a sanguine view of all of this. The world is full of crazies and bizarre websites. If I’m going to sound off in blogs and journals then I’m going to be misunderstood, exploited, and abused—especially in this age when anybody can assemble a website within an hour. If I don’t like it I’d better shut up and detach myself from the internet and publications, and I’m sure that there are a few who would like me to shut up. (Most people, of course, don’t care a fig one way or the other.) But even if I were to do that there’s several hundred thousand words about there already to misunderstand, exploit, and abuse.

So there’ll be no protests from me.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.