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UCL – DC's Improbable Science

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There can be no doubt that the situation for women has improved hugely since I started at UCL, 50 years ago. At that time women were not allowed in the senior common room. It’s improved even more since the 1930s (read about the attitude of the great statistician, Ronald Fisher, to Florence Nightinglale David).

Recently Williams & Ceci published data that suggest that young women no longer face barriers in job selection in the USA (though it will take 20 years before that feeds through to professor level). But no sooner than one was feeling optimistic, along comes Tim Hunt who caused a media storm by advocating male-only labs. I’ll say a bit about that case below.

First some very preliminary concrete proposals.

The job of emancipation is not yet completed. I’ve recently become a member of the Royal Society diversity committee, chaired by Uta Frith. That’s made me think more seriously about the evidence concerning the progress of women and of black and minority ethnic (BME) people in science, and what can be done about it. Here are some preliminary thoughts. They are my opinions, not those of the committee.

I suspect that much of the problem for women and BME results from over-competitiveness and perverse incentives that are imposed on researchers. That’s got progressively worse, and it affects men too. In fact it corrupts the entire scientific process.

One of the best writers on these topics is Peter Lawrence. He’s an eminent biologist who worked at the famous Lab for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, until he ‘retired’.

Here are three things by him that everyone should read.

PL

The politics of publication (Nature, 2003) [pdf]

The mismeasurement of science (Current Biology, 2007) [pdf]

The heart of research is sick (Lab Times, 2011) [pdf]

From Lawrence (2003)

"Listen. All over the world scientists are fretting. It is night in London and Deborah Dormouse is unable to sleep. She can’t decide whether, after four weeks of anxious waiting, it would be counterproductive to call a Nature editor about her manuscript. In the sunlight in Sydney, Wayne Wombat is furious that his student’s article was rejected by Science and is taking revenge on similar work he is reviewing for Cell. In San Diego, Melissa Mariposa reads that her article submitted to Current Biology will be reconsidered, but only if it is cut in half. Against her better judgement, she steels herself to throw out some key data and oversimplify the conclusions— her postdoc needs this journal on his CV or he will lose a point in the Spanish league, and that job in Madrid will go instead to Mar Maradona."

and

"It is we older, well-established scientists who have to act to change things. We should make these points on committees for grants and jobs, and should not be so desperate to push our papers into the leading journals. We cannot expect younger scientists to endanger their future by making sacrifices for the common good, at least not before we do."

From Lawrence (2007)

“The struggle to survive in modern science, the open and public nature of that competition, and the advantages bestowed on those who are prepared to show off and to exploit others have acted against modest and gentle people of all kinds — yet there is no evidence, presumption or likelihood that less pushy people are less creative.  As less aggressive people are predominantly women [14,15] it should be no surprise that, in spite of an increased proportion of women entering biomedical research as students, there has been little, if any, increase in the representation of women at the top [16]. Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them [17]. Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”

From Lawrence (2011).

"There’s a reward system for building up a large group, if you can, and it doesn’t really matter how many of your group fail, as long as one or two succeed. You can build your career on their success".

Part of this pressure comes from university rankings. They are statistically-illiterate and serve no useful purpose, apart from making money for their publishers and providing vice-chancellors with an excuse to bullying staff in the interests of institutional willy-waving.

And part of the pressure arises from the money that comes with the REF.  A recent survey gave rise to the comment

"Early career researchers overwhelmingly feel that the research excellence framework has created “a huge amount of pressure and anxiety, which impacts particularly on those at the bottom rung of the career ladder"

In fact the last REF was conducted quite sensibly (e.g. use of silly metrics was banned).  The problem was that universities didn’t believe that the rules would be followed.

For example, academics in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London were told (in 2007) they are expected to

“publish three papers per annum, at least one in a prestigious journal with an impact factor of at least five”. 

And last year a 51-year-old academic with a good publication record was told that unless he raised £200,000 in grants in the next year, he’d be fired.  There can be little doubt that this “performance management” contributed to his decision to commit suicide.  And Imperial did nothing to remedy the policy after an internal investigation.

Several other universities have policies that are equally brutal. For example, Warwick, Queen Mary College London and Kings College London

Crude financial targets for grant income should be condemned as defrauding the taxpayer (you are compelled to make your work as expensive as possible)  As usual, women and BME suffer disproportionately from such bullying.

What can be done about this in practice?

I feel that some firm recommendations will be useful. 

One thing that could be done is to make sure that all universities sign, and adhere to, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), and adhere to the Athena Swan charter

The Royal Society has already signed DORA, but, shockingly, only three universities in the UK have done so (Sussex, UCL and Manchester).

Another well-meaning initiative is The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. It’s written very much from the HR point of view and I’d argue that that’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.
For example it says

“3. Research managers should be required to participate in active performance management, including career development guidance”

That statement is meaningless without any definition of how performance management should be done. It’s quite clear that “performance management”, in the form of crude targets, was a large contributor to Stefan Grimm’s suicide

The Concordat places great emphasis in training programmes, but ignores the fact that it’s doubtful whether diversity training works, and it may even have bad effects.

The Concordat is essentially meaningless in its present form.

My proposals

I propose that all fellowships and grants should be awarded only to universities who have signed DORA and Athena Swan.

I have little faith that signing DORA, or the Concordat, will have much effect on the shop floor, but they do set a standard, and eventually, as with changes in the law, improvements in behaviour are effected.

But, as a check, It should be announced at the start that fellows and employees paid by grants will be asked directly whether or not these agreements have been honoured in practice.

Crude financial targets are imposed at one in six universities. Those who do that should be excluded from getting fellowships or grants, on the grounds that the process gives bad value to the funders (and taxpayer) and that it endangers objectivity.

Some thoughts in the Hunt affair

It’s now 46 years since I and Brian Woledge managed to get UCL’s senior common room, the Housman room, opened to women. That was 1969, and since then, I don’t think that I’ve heard any public statement that was so openly sexist as Tim Hunt’s now notorious speech in Korea.

Listen to Hunt, Connie St Louis and Jenny Rohn on the Today programme (10 June, 2015). sl50

On the Today Programme, Hunt himself said "What I said was quite accurately reported" and "I just wanted to be honest", so there’s no doubt that those are his views. He confirmed that the account that was first tweeted by Connie St Louis was accurate

Inevitably, there was a backlash from libertarians and conservatives. That was fuelled by a piece in today’s Observer, in which Hunt seems to regard himself as being victimised. My comment on the Observer piece sums up my views.

I was pretty shaken when I heard what Tim Hunt had said, all the more because I have recently become a member of the Royal Society’s diversity committee. When he talked about the incident on the Today programme on 10 June, it certainly didn’t sound like a joke to me. It seems that he carried on for more than 5 minutes in they same vein.

Everyone appreciates Hunt’s scientific work, but the views that he expressed about women are from the dark ages. It seemed to me, and to Dorothy Bishop, and to many others, that with views like that. Hunt should not play any part in selection or policy matters. The Royal Society moved with admirable speed to do that.

The views that were expressed are so totally incompatible with UCL’s values, so it was right that UCL too acted quickly. His job at UCL was an honorary one: he is retired and he was not deprived of his lab and his living, as some people suggested.

Although the initial reaction, from men as well as from women, was predictably angry, it very soon turned to humour, with the flood of #distractinglysexy tweets.

It would be a mistake to think that these actions were the work of PR people. They were thought to be just by everyone, female or male, who wants to improve diversity in science.

The episode is sad and disappointing. But the right things were done quickly.

Now Hunt can be left in peace to enjoy his retirement.

Look at it this way. If you were a young woman, applying for a fellowship in competition with men. what would you think if Tim Hunt were on the selection panel?

After all this fuss, we need to laugh.

Here is a clip from the BBC News Quiz, in which actor, Rebecca Front, gives her take on the affair.sl50

Follow-up

Some great videos soon followed Hunt’s comments. Try these.
Nobel Scientist Tim Hunt Sparks a #Distractinglysexy Campaign
(via Jennifer Raff)

This video has some clips from an earlier one, from Suzi Gage “Science it’s a girl thing”.

15 June 2015

An update on what happened from UCL. From my knowledge of what happened, this is not PR spin. It’s true.

16 June 2015

There is an interview with Tim Hunt in Lab Times that’s rather revealing. This interview was published in April 2014, more than a year before the Korean speech. Right up to the penultimate paragraph we agree on just about everything, from the virtue of small groups to the iniquity of impact factors. But then right at the end we read this.

In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?

Hunt:  I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.

This suggests to me that the outburst on 8th June reflected opinions that Hunt has had for a while.

There has been quite a lot of discussion of Hunt’s track record. These tweets suggest it may not be blameless.

19 June 2015

Yesterday I was asked by the letters editor of the Times, Andrew Riley, to write a letter in response to a half-witted, anonymous, Times leading article. I dropped everything, and sent it. It was neither acknowledged nor published. Here it is [download pdf].

One of the few good outcomes of the sad affair of Tim Hunt is that it has brought to light the backwoodsmen who are eager to defend his actions, and to condemn UCL.  The anonymous Times leader of 16 June was as good an example as any.
Here are seven relevant considerations.

  1. Honorary jobs have no employment contract, so holders of them are not employees in the normal sense of the term.  Rather, they are eminent people who agree to act as ambassadors for the university,
  2. Hunt’s remarks were not a joke –they were his genuine views. He has stated them before and he confirmed them on the Today programme,
  3. He’s entitled to hold these views but he’s quite sensible enough to see that UCL would be criticised harshly if he were to remain in his ambassadorial role so he relinquished it before UCL was able to talk to him.
  4. All you have to do to see the problems is to imagine yourself as a young women, applying for a grant or fellowship, in competition with men, knowing that Hunt was one of her judges.  Would your leader have been so eager to defend a young Muslim who advocated men only labs?  Or someone who advocated Jew-free labs? The principle is the same.
  5. Advocacy of all male labs is not only plain silly, it’s also illegal under the Equalities Act (2010). 
  6. UCL’s decision to accept Hunt’s offer to relinquish his role was not the result of a twitter lynch mob. The comments there rapidly became good humoured  If there is a witch hunt, it is by your leader writer and the Daily Mail, eager to defend the indefensible and to condemn UCL and the Royal Society
  7. It has been suggested to me that it would have been better if Hunt had been brought before a disciplinary committee, so due process would have been observed.  I can imagine nothing that would have been more cruel to a distinguished colleague than to put him through such a miserable ordeal.

Some quotations from this letter were used by Tom Whipple in an article about Richard Dawkins surprising (to me) emergence as an unreconstructed backwoodsman.

18 June 2015

Adam Rutherford’s excellent Radio 4 programme, Inside Science, had an episode “Women Scientists on Sexism in Science". The last speaker was Uta Frith (who is chair of the Royal Society’s diversity committee). Her contribution started at about 23 min.

Listen to Uta Frith’s contribution. sl30

" . . this over-competitiveness, and this incredible rush to publish fast, and publish in quantity rather than in quality, has been extremely detrimental for science, and it has been disproportionately bad, I think, for under-represented groups who don’t quite fit in to this over-competitive climate. So I am proposing something I like to call slow science . . . why is this necessary, to do this extreme measurement-driven, quantitative judgement of output, rather than looking at the actual quality"

That, I need hardly say, is music to my ears. Why not, for example, restrict the number of papers that an be submitted with fellowship applications to four (just as the REF did)?

21 June 2015

I’ve received a handful of letters, some worded in a quite extreme way, telling me I’m wrong. It’s no surprise that 100% of them are from men. Most are from more-or-less elderly men. A few are from senior men who run large groups. I have no way to tell whether their motive is a genuine wish to have freedom of speech at any price. Or whether their motives are less worthy: perhaps some of them are against anything that prevents postdocs working for 16 hours a day, for the glory of the boss. I just don’t know.

I’ve had far more letters saying that UCL did the right thing when it accepted Tim Hunt’s offer to resign from his non job at UCL. These letters are predominantly from young people, men as well as women. Almost all of them ask not to be identified in public. They are, unsurprisingly, scared to argue with the eight Nobel prizewinners who have deplored UCL’s action (without bothering to ascertain the facts). The fact that they are scared to speak out is hardly surprising. It’s part of the problem.

What you can do, if you don’t want to put your head above the public parapet. is simply to email the top people at UCL, in private. to express your support. All these email addresses are open to the public in UCL’s admirably open email directory.

Michael Arthur (provost): michael.arthur@ucl.ac.uk

David Price (vice-provost research): d.price@ucl.ac.uk

Geraint Rees (Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences): g.rees@ucl.ac.uk

All these people have an excellent record on women in science, as illustrated by the response to Daily Mail’s appalling behaviour towards UCL astrophysicist, Hiranya Pereis.

26 June 2015

The sad matter of Tim Hunt is over, at last. The provost of UCL, Michael Arthur has now made a statement himself. Provost’s View: Women in Science is an excellent reiteration of UCL’s principles.

By way of celebration, here is the picture of the quad, taken on 23 March, 2003. It was the start of the second great march to try to stop the war in Iraq. I use it to introduce talks, as a reminder that there are more serious consequences of believing things that aren’t true than a handful of people taking sugar pills.

ucl-quad-200303-500.jpg

11 October 2015

In which I agree with Mary Collins

Long after this unpleasant row died down, it was brought back to life yesterday when I heard that Colin Blakemore had resigned as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), on the grounds that that organisation had not been sufficiently hard on Connie St Louis, whose tweet initiated the whole affair. I’m not a member of the ABSW and I have never met St Louis, but I know Blakemore well and like him. Nevertheless it seems to me to be quite disproportionate for a famous elderly white man to take such dramatic headline-grabbing action because a young black women had exaggerated bits of her CV. Of course she shouldn’t have done that, but it everyone were punished so severely for "burnishing" their CV there would be a large number of people in trouble.

Blakemore’s own statement also suggested that her reporting was inaccurate (though it appears that he didn’t submitted a complaint to ABSW). As I have said above, I don’t think that this is true to any important extent. The gist of it was said was verified by others, and, most importantly, Hunt himself said "What I said was quite accurately reported" and "I just wanted to be honest". As far as I know, he hasn’t said anything since that has contradicted that view, which he gave straight after the event. The only change that I know of is that the words that were quoted turned out to have been followed by "Now, seriously", which can be interpreted as meaning that the sexist comments were intended as a joke. If it were not for earlier comments along the same lines, that might have been an excuse.

Yesterday, on twitter, I was asked by Mary Collins, Hunt’s wife, whether I thought he was misogynist. I said no and I don’t believe that it is. It’s true that I had used that word in a single tweet, long since deleted, and that was wrong. I suspect that I felt at the time that it sounded like a less harsh word than sexist, but it was the wrong word and I apologised for using it.

So do I believe that Tim Hunt is sexist? No I don’t. But his remarks both in Korea and earlier were undoubtedly sexist. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that, as a person, he suffers from ingrained sexism. He’s too nice for that. My interpretation is that (a) he’s so obsessive about his work that he has little time to think about political matters, and (b) he’s naive about the public image that he presents, and about how people will react to them. That’s a combination that I’ve seen before among some very eminent scientists.

In fact I find myself in almost complete agreement with Mary Collins, Hunt’s wife, when she said (I quote the Observer)

“And he is certainly not an old dinosaur. He just says silly things now and again.” “Collins clutches her head as Hunt talks. “It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say,” she says. “You can see why it could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But really it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s.”

Nevertheless, I think it’s unreasonable to think that comments such as those made in Korea (and earlier) would not have consequences, "naive" or not, "joke" or not, "upbringing" or not,

It’s really not hard to see why there were consequences. All you have to do is to imagine yourself as a woman, applying for a grant or fellowship, and realising that you’d be judged by Hunt. And if you think that the reaction was too harsh, imagine the same words being spoken with "blacks", or "Jews" substituted for "women". Of course I’m not suggesting for a moment that he’d have done this, but if anybody did, I doubt whether many people would have thought it was a good joke.

9 November 2015

An impressively detailed account of the Hunt affair has appeared. The gist can be inferred from the title: "Saving Tim Hunt
The campaign to exonerate Tim Hunt for his sexist remarks in Seoul is built on myths, misinformation, and spin
". It was written by Dan Waddell (@danwaddell) and Paula Higgins (@justamusicprof). It is long and it’s impressively researched. it’s revealing to see the bits that Louise Mensch omitted from her quotations. I can’t disagree with its conclusion.

"In the end, the parable of Tim Hunt is indeed a simple one. He said something casually sexist, stupid and inappropriate which offended many of his audience. He then confirmed he said what he was reported to have said and apologised twice. The matter should have stopped there. Instead a concerted effort to save his name — which was not disgraced, nor his reputation as a scientist jeopardized — has rewritten history. Science is about truth. As this article has shown, we have seen very little of it from Hunt’s apologists — merely evasions, half-truths, distortions, errors and outright falsehoods.

"

8 April 2017

This late addition is to draw attention to a paper, wriiten by Edwin Boring in 1951, about the problems for the advancement of women in psychology. It’s remarkable reading and many of the roots of the problems have hardly changed today. (I chanced on the paper while looking for a paper that Boring wrote about P values in 1919.)

Here is a quotation from the conclusions.

“Here then is the Woman Problem as I see it. For the ICWP or anyone else to think that the problem.can be advanced toward solution by proving that professional women undergo more frustration and disappointment than professional men, and by calling then on the conscience of the profession to right a wrong, is to fail to see the problem clearly in all its psychosocial complexities. The problem turns on the mechanisms for prestige, and that prestige, which leads to honor and greatness and often to the large salaries, is not with any regularity proportional to professional merit or the social value of professional achievement. Nor is there any presumption that the possessor of prestige knows how to lead the good life. You may have to choose. Success is never whole, and, if you have it for this, you mayhave to give it up for that.”

After an interchange on Twitter about how blogs get noticed, I commented that the best thing for me was being thrown off the UCL web site by Malcolm Grant, and the subsequent support that I got from Ben Goldacre. I am a big fan of just about everything that Goldacre has done. So are a lot of other people and his support was crucial.

When I looked up his 2007 post, I found a lot of links were now broken, and some characters didn’t render properly. So, as a matter of historical record, I’m reproducing the whole post with updated links where possible.

Goldacre’s comments, of course, greatly exaggerated my virtues. But they were very useful at the time, they quadrupled my readership overnight, and I’m eternally grateful to him.

Some of the history of this saga has already been transferred to this blog. The aftermath was interesting.

The Mighty David Colquhoun

June 9th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, heroes of bad science, stifling criticism | 56 Comments »

[Update: Letter from Provost below]

Ben Goldacre

Saturday June 9, 2007

The Guardian

I’ve always said you’d get a lot more kids interested in science if you told them it involves fighting – which of course it does. This week, for example, Professor David Colquhoun FRS – one of the most eminent scientists in the UK – has been forced to remove his quackbusting blog from the UCL servers where it has lived for many years, after complaints from disgruntled alternative therapists.

161514131211109

They objected, for example, to his use of the word “gobbledygook” to describe Red Clover as a “blood cleanser” or a “cleanser of the lymphatic system”. Somebody from the “European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association” complained that he’d slightly misrepresented one aspect of herbalists’ practice. One even complained about Colquhoun infringing copyright, simply for quoting the part of their website that he was examining. They felt, above all, that this was an inappropriate use of UCL facilities.

Now I don’t want to get into the to and fro here, but it is striking that none of them engaged the Prof himself on the issue of the ideas. In fact, they all ran behind his back to the Provost, or rather, to teacher; and the Provost, after serving up a sterling defense of academic freedom in responses to them, quietly asked Colquhoun to take his blog elsewhere, on the grounds that it was bringing the university too much flak. Rousing defenses of Colquhoun have already been written by Professors from Stanford, and senior academics from the UK. [Some are linked here, I’ve got the rest archived. The provost’s initial letter was actually rather stirring]

This episode reveals some unfortunate contrasts. Firstly, in a world where most orthodox "public engagement with science"  activity consists of smug, faux radical "science meets art" projects where ballet dancers watch each other prance about in brain scanners (and I am hardly caricaturing here) Colquhoun was showing the world what science really does.

He took dodgy scientific claims, or “hypotheses” as we call them in the trade, and examined the experimental evidence for them, in everyday language, with humour and verve. For all that being a world expert on single ion channels might make Colquhoun glamorous to me, I would say his blog is a bit more of a treat for the wider public, and arguably a rather good use of the time and resources of a public servant who has devoted his entire life to academia, on its relatively low wages, never once working for industry. Sharing ideas is an employment perk in academia.

Secondly, giving special attention to a blog shows that we may not have got to grips with new forms of social media yet. His blog is the problem in hand, but I’ve heard Prof Colquhoun speak about quackery in UCL lecture theatres. Was the electricity, the publicity material, the room rent, a misuse of public funds and resources? I’ve done talks myself, in universities and schools: are they all guilty of wasting public money on robust, challenging, childish and sarcastic discussion of ideas?

But lastly, if you’re worrying about the appropriate use of a science department’s resources, Prof Colquhoun is the bloke who made the fuss in Nature -the biggest academic journal in the world – about British universities giving away science degrees in quackery. The people who run the BSc "science" degrees in these pseudoscientific alternative therapies have still refused to answer questions from David, and from me, about what "science" they teach in their science degrees.

I notice that nobody is making the jokers behind these Quackery BSc’s take their gobbledygook -a word that sounds best being snorted through Colquhoun’s impressive nasal hair – off university webservers. Although courses in gobbledygook make money. And they are flattered by the Prince. And nobody can criticise them, because they actually refuse to tell us what they’e teaching. Now you tell me who should be booted out of a seat of learning.

Please send your bad science to ben@badscience.net

87654321

So:

Prof Colquhoun doesn’t really have impressive nasal hair, I just didn’t want the column to come across as too gushing. His quack page is definitely worth rooting about on:

www.dcscience.net

And as you can see, he needs WordPress advice even more than I do. Also his politics feed is quite jolly and if I could work out, for example, how to link directly to the Greenhalgh story, I would. Rummage away.

[DC edit: one of the best side effects of the move was getting a proper blog, rather than a bloated web page. The old politics page is archived and the Greenhalgh story link now works]

dcscience.net’/corrie.html



Letter from Provost:

This is an email from the Provost to someone who emailed him this morning, which he has allowed me to post, I understand he will be sending something similar to those who email him. It’s very much worth reading. I believe – as you can imagine – that an emeritus professor of pharmacology in his seventies making the link between science and real world claims for free in everyday language is a treat, but of course I have absolutely no doubt that Colquhoun’s public engagement with science activity did pose difficulties for UCL.

These difficulties were thrown into sharp relief by the fact that those who disagreed with Colquhoun enacted their grievances through the Freedom of Information Act, UK libel law, copyright law, complaints about the use of academic resources, and efforts to lean on senior figures from the university, rather than engaging on the science, or contacting Colquhoun.

There is a balance to be struck on whether Colquhoun’s public engagement with science activities were valued enough to be worth defending (through the miracle ofinstant context you can decide for yourself) and that is of course a decision for UCL to make.

If you are going to write to the Provost I hope I can rely on you to be polite and understanding about this balance, and understand that he’s a busy man who has already been leant on over what ideally should never have been a Provost’s concerns at such an early stage.

Andrew

If UCL had behaved in the way you seem to believe then your comments would be wholly justified, but of course it hasn’t.

Allow me to supply the missing facts. I;m copying this message also to Ben Goldacre and David Colquhoun.

Academic freedom is a fundamental precept of any institution fit to style itself a university. Like all freedoms, it comes with conditions, largely those that are necessary to underpin the freedoms of other people under the law, including criminal law, human rights, copyright, the laws of tort and contract, and statutory regulation.

When a university hosts a website it is taken to be the publisher of the material on it. That means that it is liable in law for any breaches of copyright, data protection and defamation. It is possible of course to engage in robust academic debate without infringing any of these rules.

But breaches of all of them have now been claimed in legal claims against UCL regarding David Colquhoun’s website, and with good reason.

A university can of course safeguard its position by moderating the content of the website. That is what I assume the Guardian does with its various blogs, and certainly is what it does with all its editorial content. Nobody sees that as a major assault on the freedom of expression of the press. To do this in a university would of course raise concerns that it constituted an incursion into academic freedom, and I also think it would be completely impractical.

Yet not to take appropriate action to protect UCL would be to expose us to potentially expensive legal action in respect of activity over which we have absolutely no control.

For the most part, academic websites don’t infringe the law. Indeed, in over 35 years as an academic this is the first such instance that I have any detailed knowledge of. If it has unlawful material that the author believes is essential for conveying his/her message, then there is no reason why they shouldn’t host it themselves and assume the consequences.

UCL has taken legal advice, which is to the effect that the website does contain material which breaks the law in several respects. Some of them have now been fixed: alleged breaches of copyright and data protection. But libel proceedings are now also in play, and Professor Colquhoun and I have a meeting on Monday with a senior defamation QC to explore the potential extent of UCL’s vicarious liability for certain statements on the website, and our possible options. There is also the question of Professor Colquhoun’s own personal liability, but of course a plaintiff will always prefer to go against a major institution because of our deep pockets.

On the basis of the advice that I receive then I shall have to determine UCL’s future course of action, and Professor Colquhoun likewise.

Malcolm Grant

Just to be absolutely clear:

The item that has caused the fuss and complaint is this one. It has not been changed since the complaint, so you can decide for yourself how awful it is.

www.dcscience.net/improbable.html#walker1



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56 Responses




  1. woodchopper said,

    June 9, 2007 at 7:45 am

    I’m quite shocked. If people complain about the lack of understanding of science then they know where to look for an answer.

  2. SomeBeans said,

    June 9, 2007 at 8:03 am

    I’m guessing that if we all write the Provost a letter, it won’t really be troublesome enough to make him change his mind.

    This is really exactly the sort of thing a university should be supporting and encouraging, rather than censoring.

  3. evidencebasedeating said,

    June 9, 2007 at 8:44 am

    Rather depressing proof-positive (in a holistic, meaningful ,empathic way)of how our previously august and independent universities increasingly pander to the lowest-common-denominator ‘science-lite’ approach amidst concerns from woo practitioners and regal missives from Charlie Boy (Ernst at Exeter springs to mind).

    I wonder if the Provost took the decision unilaterally? Perhaps the university Senate should review both the case and the decision. They could take into account the dichotomy of Provost Malcolm Grant’s actions, versus his opening paragraph states his ‘vision’ of UCL – taken from the website, that states:

    “UCL is an exceptional institution, with a radical tradition and a distinctive character. The university’s commitment to excellence and innovation in research and teaching is central to its vision of enriching society’s intellectual, cultural, scientific, economic, environmental and medical spheres.”

    Er, so his role as Provost is to eradicate that ‘radical tradition’, ‘distinctive character’ and ‘vision of enriching society’s cultural and scientific spheres’.

    But I note his Professorship is in Law, not science.

    Explains a lot.

    Never mind, Colquhuon’s status in his professional and public spheres is independent of UCL. Just makes me consider the organisation in a much more ambivalent manner.

  4. Mojo said,

    June 9, 2007 at 9:04 am

    (Off-topic)

    This is odd: when I looked at this page first thing this morning, before there were any comments on it, it displayed fine. Now the text has slipped down the left-hand side again.

  5. jackpt said,

    June 9, 2007 at 9:36 am

    I missed out on all of this because I hadn’t checked his site for some time. You’d think UCL would be better than this, especially from the standpoint of precedents of which this is an appalling one. On a positive note I’m sure he could get free hosting or mirrors from places and people way out of the reach of scum trading on red clover etc. I for one would happily mirror any material under legal or informal threat from bread headed scum flogging false hopes and pseudoscience. The problem here is one of precedents, other universities may take note…

  6. le canard noir said,

    June 9, 2007 at 9:44 am

    It is most important that all fellow bloggers and site owners, change their links to DC’s pages asap!

    Need to get Google onto the move and make sure the pageranks for his stuff is up there again!

  7. terryhamblin said,

    June 9, 2007 at 10:53 am

    This is not just any university. This is UCL. Jeremy Bentham must be turning in his box seat.

  8. doctormonkey said,

    June 9, 2007 at 11:32 am

    This is a sad state of affairs

    Another large institution bullied into dropping something as good and funny as DC’s blog

    Personally I think they should drop the quackology BSc’s but failing that should allow parity and keep DC’s blog

    Then again, I have always disliked UCL but I am sad to have my un-thinking, I’m-from-another-London-college prejudice actually supported by fact

    17

  9. andrew said,

    June 9, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    The more you look at it, the worse it gets.

    Tobacco companies, anti-MMGW groups and other lobbyists frequently fire off

    legal challenges against individual scientists to maintain a general climate of harrassment.

    UCL’s message to the world is that their staff are easy meat, the college won’t stand by them.

    From Steven Shafer’s letter on Colquhoun’s web-site:

    “As a counter example, the University of California at San Francisco stood solidly behind Stanton Glantz when the cigarette industry tried to destroy him for his efforts to expose their activities. Had he agreed to ‘shoulder directly the burden’, we would never have known of the extensive research conducted by the cigarette industry over two decades that identified the health risks, and guided their extensive disinformation campaign. I would hope that Stanford University would following the UCSF example, and devote the necessary resources to defend my academic freedom, rather than the UCL example, and ask me to ‘shoulder the burden.’ “

  10. JohnD said,

    June 9, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    I can’t belive that the Provost’s decision will stand. Less than a year ago, UCL signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, and bragged of it. That charter includes that, “all members of that institution’s academic community should have the freedom to work, teach and learn.”

    See:www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0609/06092601

    I hope Professor Michael Worton, who signed on behalf of UCL is as uncomfortable as he should be with this.

    John

  11. j said,

    June 9, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Great idea for the column: when ‘alternative’ practitioners get a website shut down by moaning about it, I think it’s important to give them as much publicity as possible as a result.

    Just to add a couple of extra details: the complaint that got DC’s site moved from UCL came from Alan Lakin (the husband of Ann Walker). Walker is (or at least was) the director of New Vitality – www.newvitality.org.uk/index.htm. She also has quite a few interesting online articles on herbal medicine which come up when you google her (e.g. www.healthspan.co.uk) Given the way in which DC was forced to move his site, it might be appropriate if a few people with health/science-related blogs collaborated to post articles fisking different pieces of Walker’s work: I like the idea of a load of critical articles springing up when one is forced to move 18

    Anyway, just going to update my blogroll link to DC’s excellent site.

    [DC edit- —Walker no longer has any obvious connection with Healthspan, but Google reveals that this incident gave rise to a lot of rather unflattering interest in her activities]

  12. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 9, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    dear all

    please see the email from the provost that has been added above.

  13. PK said,

    June 9, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    I do not find that letter remotely convincing. Sure, Colquhoun must not engage in libel, but it is hard never to (accidentally) stray into libelous territory when you are dealing with these people. If UCL is serious about academic freedom and scientific integrity, then they should fight this one.

  14. SomeBeans said,

    June 9, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for posting the letter from the provost – most illuminating.

    Doesn’t give the impression of UCL helping David Colquhoun very much. I wonder if they still use his papers for their RAE’s.

    What’s the Guardian policy on this type of thing? I seem to remember that they fought Jonathan Aitken and won…

  15. jackpt said,

    June 9, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    The problem with the letter is is that it’s all couched in such vague terms. It seems to me that they’ve acted on the basis of something that could be libellous/in breach of copyright/etc rather than anything clear cut. If it were clear-cut there would be specific examples that he could point to. It’s the approach of a chicken because the letter is saying “we may be right but it’s not worth our trouble to fight” setting himself up as an arbiter of just causes. So if it’s not clear cut don’t expect any help from UCL. Grey areas not wanted.

  16. Andrew Clegg said,

    June 9, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    I also sent a letter complaining (being another less than impressed alumnus like Dr Nicholas above). Here’s some helpful thoughts…

    1. When you get a long personal reply back from the provost, it’s worth checking to see whether other people got the same reply word for word

    2. … rather than being so surprised that when you forward it to Ben and David with comments…

    3. … you forget to take Prof. Grant’s email off the header and end up looking like a muppet.

    But a since and well-intentioned muppet at least.

    Andrew.

  17. Andrew Clegg said,

    June 9, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    Err, unless that response Ben posted was his reply to my letter (just noticed the Dear Andrew at the top), not a standard form response, in which case I take back what I said about word-for-word copies, and look like slightly more of a muppet instead.

    I think I need to eat something, brain not working at 100% today.

    Andrew.

  18. pv said,

    June 9, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    They might well have acted on the threat of a libel action and just decided to cave in. A University is primarily a business these days while aspiring to be a centre of educational excellence is either secondary or coincidental. On that basis no-one should be surprised that it is compelled to act in a way that protects the interests of its financial supporters and sponsors – namely their money – before any wider academic interests or unnecessary luxuries like freedom of speech. I know it all appears to be lacking in integrity but freedom of business comes first these days, even (or especially) the right of quacks and charlatans to do business without hindrance.

  19. Art5 said,

    June 9, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that they did just decide to cave in, but why does that entail asking DC to remove the whole blog and not just the contentious article? That looks incredibly unsupportive to me.

  20. igb said,

    June 10, 2007 at 12:43 am

    One of the defining characteristics of the `management’ of public sector bodies is their utter, craven cowardice in face of things that even smell of a court case. I don’t know when it happens in their career, but your typical school headmaster, hospital manager or (it would appear) University provost regards a dog-eared piece of paper saying “Oi will zue youse for libil” as being as frightening as the jury coming back in and saying `guilty’.

    Hence the rise in schools and universities being cowed by not even solicitor’s letters (which are, it should be noted, simply a letter from someone who happens to be a solicitor) but the threat of the same. If public bodies fought such cases through the courts, and then bankrupted the claimants when they lost (as they almost always would), after a year or so they and the ambulance chasers would get the hint. As things stand, public sector managers are encouraged to pay tribute, rather than spend on defence, and worse they are paying tribute to people with cardboard swords.

    Those who get their fortnightly dose of poor typography (and it’s not as funny as it was, is it?) will know of `Arkell vs Pressdram’. The rest of you can google for it. UCL’s response to a threatened libel case should be `bring it on’, with a plea of justification.

    The reason we know that David Irvine is a fraud and is because Deborah Lipstadt’s book, a copy of which is sat a few feet from me, was defended to the hilt by its publishers. Penguin Books have principles, and made a stand. It’s a shame that UCL appears to have a yellow stripe painted down its back where its spine used to be.

  21. rob said,

    June 10, 2007 at 6:14 am

    Pitiful cowardice from an institution that claims to be a world-class university. Until it is proven that the material is actually illegal, it should be their part to stand up for academic freedom.

  22. Moganero said,

    June 10, 2007 at 7:46 am

    le canard noir “Need to get Google onto the move and make sure the pageranks for his stuff is up there again!”

    UCL’s webmaster could set up a permanent redirect to Prof Colquhoun’s new URL – this would send the search engines to it and they’d index the new location. Anyone trying to see the blog at the old URL would automatically see it at the new location.

  23. TINSTAFL said,

    June 10, 2007 at 9:16 am

    Step on their toes until they apologize. They can wave their jargon at us and threaten libel, but they WILL NEVER ACTUALLY WANT TO BE IN COURT AND LOSE. And they want all this to happen quietly. Now that UCL has backed off, they will want to put pressure on UCL to censure the Prof. even more. And this is exactly what UCL is doing in response to a minor complaint. They are censuring him: cutting off his voice and officially rebuking his work on the site.

    It may even be possible that rather than protect themselves, they have opened themselves to litigation from both sides. 1) Dumping suggest merit to the complain and 2) that UCL provided the site in the place and then took it away means then have placed the good Prof. in an unsupported/dangerous situation.

    igb has the right idea. Fight them now and hard.

    I sent an email to the provost and I suggest that others do so as well. Even letters from well-intentioned muppets will help (I have certainly sent my own in my time, misspellings and all!). Certainly the provost responded the original bad-intentioned muppets who made the complaint. Even if he does not read them, having Prof. Colquoun’s name in the subject line of a large number of message will lend him the support that he needs and will make the provost think a bit. I will also make a head link link from my own anti quack site to his.

    I am willing to post my email if other are interested, but this may be up to Dr. Goldacre to decide if this is appropriate.

  24. Mojo said,

    June 10, 2007 at 10:06 am

    le canard noir said,

    (June 9, 2007 at 9:44 am) “Need to get Google onto the move and make sure the pageranks for his stuff is up there again!”

    Well, as long as Google aren’t as spineless as they were in the case of Howard’s page about TAPL:

    http://www.hakwright.co.uk/rants/Gillian_McKeith.html

    A search of google.co.uk still brings up the message at the bottom of the page saying “In response to a legal request submitted to Google, we have removed 1 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read more about the request at ChillingEffects.org.”

    Interestingly, while Howard’s page still appears on the first page for google.com, google.ca and google.com.au, the results for google.co.uk seem to have different rankings so that the message about the legal threat, sorry, request, now appears on the second page of results.

  25. Mojo said,

    June 10, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Incidentally, in some parts of intellectual property law (trade marks, patents and registered designs, but not copyright, unfortunately) it is a tort to make an unjustified threat to sue. Perhaps a case could be made for extending this to defamation.

  26. Dr Aust said,

    June 10, 2007 at 11:53 am

    I also wrote to the UCL Provost (as an academic scientist and UCL alumnus) and got the stock response several other people have mentioned about the time that had gone into handling complaints etc.

    I can see where he’s coming from, although on balance I think he is wrong (see the Stanford letter for why).

    I think the wider point about UK Univs turning pale at the merest whiff of a threat of legal action that igb mentioned is a genuine problem. It appears that in this case they have at least taken real legal advice… but I have seen many examples where merely the threat of (e.g.) a student sueing is enough to cause a fit of the vapours, and would trigger tens or even hundreds of person hrs of administrative hot air.

    I used to argue, without much success, that Univs should fight all these cases when they were sure they were right, especially when they dealt with “academic integrity” in the wider sense. And they should seek to recoup their adminstrative and legal costs against frivolous complainants like Walker and Lakin.

    …the point being that if people think complaining and shouting “lawyer” will get them an undeserved second or third chance at an exam resit, or a website taken down, or whatever, people will keep doing it. As igb says, you have to give them a real potential DOWNSIDE to doing it, as well as a potential upside.

    Incidentally, it is worth noting that Dr Walker is employed (although apparently now only in a part-time capacity, according to DC’s blog) by Reading University. Presumably they are happy about an academic from their School of Food Biosciences making public claims about unproven supplements and herbs that are scientific nonsense, and then waving M’Learned Friends when these claims are exposed. I wonder if she still teaches on their BSc in “Nutrition and Food Science”.

  27. Mojo said,

    June 10, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Dr Aust said,

    “I used to argue, without much success, that Univs should fight all these cases when they were sure they were right, especially when they dealt with “academic integrity” in the wider sense. And they should seek to recoup their adminstrative and legal costs against frivolous complainants like Walker and Lakin.”

    While legal costs are recoverable (assumong the Uni won the case), I’m not sure that this would apply to the Uni’s administrative costs.

    Hence my suggestion above that the tort of falsely threatening to sue, at present only available in patent, trade mark and registered design disputes, might usefully be extended to libel. If it were, the Uni could then sue the frivolous complainants for their administrative costs as well.

  28. JohnK said,

    June 10, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    I don’t understand why UCL didn’t just ask DC to remove the offending material, which he has done anyway. Booting him off the server seems to be an attempt to hang him out to dry (“there is also the question of Professor Colquhoun’s own personal liability.”), but if UCL are deemed to be publishers, removing the content does not alter the past; if it was illegal, stopping doing it doesn’t redeem them. To paraphrase an old joke, “Have you stopped hosting allegedly defamatory material on your website?” – both answers get you in trouble.

    I wonder how much a lawsuit would actually cost if it came to it, and I wonder how much monetary value could be ascribed to DC’s RAE contribution.

  29. Dr Aust said,

    June 10, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    Mojo wrote: “While legal costs are recoverable (assuming the Uni won the case), I’m not sure that this would apply to the Uni’s administrative costs.”

    Shame. The main context for this was typically students contesting results, or complaining they had been treated unfairly, or denying they had been caught cheating, BTW. My argument was that a basic investigation of any alleged mistakes / irregularities was warranted and fair. For stuff beyond that we should be prepared to make people pay for the time and inconvenience caused by unfounded and often frivolous complaints.

    What would happen was that the Univ would investigate (at Faculty level) and write back and say: “We have investigated your allegation and found it to be groundless… (gives details). However, if you are not satisfied with this, you may…. (appeal to next rung up).

    The problem was that this gave people who were alleging a grievance no downside whatsoever to continuing to pursue groundless and often ludicrous claims, apart from their own time. In many cases it would go up the next one, or two, rungs in turn to the University’s senior administrator(s), with the same info being picked over multiple times by increasingly high-powered and expensive people.

    I thought we should say “…if you are not satified you may (appeal to next rung up). HOWEVER, as your complaint has been investigated by our standard procedures and judged groundless, any further administrative time, and costs of expert advice we find it necessary to take, incurred by us through your pursuit of a complaint will be recorded. In the event that your complaint is ultimately judged groundless, it will be our practise in all cases to pursue you in civil court for the recovery of all these costs.”

    Please somebody tell me that there is a case in law for doing this? Mojo’s posts above suggest not, which is sad.

    If there isn’t, there ought to be…!

    The point is that at some stage there needs to be a mechanism for making complainants judge whether they really have a case, or are just blustering for some other reason (like that they can’t admit, either for public consumption or even to themselves, that they were rumbled). They have to be made to do a “cost-benefit analysis” of wasting everyone’s time. Sadly at the moment cheats, charlatans, and obsessed nutters too often get a free ride.

    Coming back to Univs, I suspect the cost and “negative publicity” is the factor the administrators prioritize when pressing for settlement or (as in DC’s case) “minimizing the University’s liability”. But if Universities are mainly selling themselves on their academic reputation (which in the final analysis they are), they have to be prepared to defend that reputation in the open, every time, and without compromise.

    PS In terms of DC’s scientific standing and it’s worth to UCL, it has doubtless been worth a lot over the years.

    RAE rankings contain a lot of nonsense, as DC himself has eloquently argued elsewhere:

    voltaire.members.beeb.net/goodscience.htm

    – but it is fair to say the UCL Pharmacology Dept has generally been regarded as one of the two or three, or arguably the best, pharmacology dept in the UK for all of the 25 yrs I have been in the business. As for DC himself, the FRS (judged by your peers to be a top scientist, and the only such thing British scientists rate) says it all.

  30. Pepper said,

    June 11, 2007 at 1:31 am

    I see here 43 comments and a lot of people, which try to defend Prof. Colquhoun. But I’d like to know – is here just one man from UCL? And if the answer is “no”, then – what does this silence suggest? If DC is right, then why do his Alma Mater remain silent?

    It is merely question. And I’d like merely to learn answer.

  31. Filias Cupio said,

    June 11, 2007 at 2:32 am

    I know of one case where there was a significant downside to students for pushing too hard.

    Two students had been caught cheating in a terms test. A friend of mine (from whom I have the story) summoned them to his office, and told them that they would get zero for the test, and for all assignments they’d done up to this point, but they could appeal to the university’s disciplinary committee. They did so, and instead were expelled for a year.

  32. igb said,

    June 11, 2007 at 10:32 am

    “Isn’t the problem not so much that UCL are cowards as that the legal advice they have taken says they may lose with a heavy financial penalty. ”

    So suddenly the `precautionary principle’, which most people with the vaguest scientific background regard as silly, has become respectable? No lawyer can tell you that you will not lose, just as no scientist can tell you that mobile phones are absolutely safe. So `may’ is the coward’s shield.

    The reality is that a libel case fought by an individual against a large institution is almost imposssible to win, as legal aid is not available and most decisions can be appealed. In fact, “ the real issue the fact that people can use libel laws to restrict free speech” conceals the fact that current libel laws allow newspapers to accuse you of being a kiddie-fiddler whilst providing you with no redress, because libel cases are the strict preserve of the affluent.

    Bearing in mind the requirements of a libel case, the risk to UCL is approximately zero. But it’s not actually zero.

  33. Gimpy said,

    June 11, 2007 at 10:54 am

    igb I don’t see what the merits or otherwise of the precautionary principle have to do with this. I’m not defending UCL here, I’m just pointing out that libel law is abused as you correctly point out by the affluent. In this case the accusers are relatively wealthy.

    I’m assuming that libel is the main legal argument being used against UCL because breaches of copyright rarely stand up in court if swiftly corrected and apology issued (which has been done in this case).

    In this country the burden of proof in libel cases is on the defendant and there is no limit on the financial awards for damages. UCL obviously think there is a reasonable possibility that they may be liable for such damages and have taken what they consider appropriate action while they review the facts.

  34. Dr Aust said,

    June 11, 2007 at 11:56 am

    Gimpy

    That may be part of the reason, but what heinous libel would DC have committed against Walker and Lakin? He pointed out that terms like “blood cleanser” or “lymphatic cleanser” have no meaning as applied to drugs; he pointed out that their claims had no foundation in published research; he pointed out that certain organisations were not neutral information services but actually exist to promote supplements; and he used the word “gobbledegook”, which in the context used could be taken to mean “scientically meaningless or nonsensical”.

    Would Walker and La kin they really ever want all this aired in open court? That is, that they use the pretence of “science”, and stuff that is arguably in breach of the trades descriptions, to relieve the gullible of their money? I find this inconceivable.

  35. vinnyr said,

    June 11, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    I’m sure UCL are covered by the same legislation as websites such as YouTube when it comes to copyright infringements.

    As they are only hosting the blog, all they need to do is inform Dr Colquhoun of problem with his blog and take down the page if he does not correct the infringement within a reasonable amount of time (usually ~24 hours).

  36. Gimpy said,

    June 11, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Dr Aust – “but what heinous libel would DC have committed against Walker and Lakin?”

    I have no idea. All I was trying to do was see things from UCL’s side. It does seem a hasty decision on the part of UCL though. Anyway, the courts are not the place to establish the veracity of science nor indeed the truth in libel trials as the cases of Jeffry Archer and Jonathan Aitken prove.

  37. andrew said,

    June 11, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    Well, I’m no lawyer, and I see that Prof. Grant is.

    Nor am I going to start second-guessing that senior defamation QC they’ll be meeting today.

    On the other hand, for background info, outlaw.com is a solid source of information on internet law.

    Here’s their stuff on “User-generated content”

    www.out-law.com/page-7807

    and on “Liability of ISPs for third party material”

    www.out-law.com/page-488

  38. Dr Aust said,

    June 11, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    Point taken, Andrew.

    I think what worries us here is the possibility that UCL, and other comparable institutions, will seek to position themselves to have NO conceivable liability.

    I would imagine it is virtually impossible to utterly exclude liability unless (i) every page on a University’s website is scrutinized by a libel QC, or (ii) anything thought to be even vaguely “controversial” (read : “critical”) is blanket forbidden.

    In which case critics of misinformation stand a good chance of being silenced.

  39. andrew said,

    June 11, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    To clarify, the previous post is mainly to attention to outlaw.com‘s explanation of the E-commerce Directive and related material, e.g.

    “Article 12 [of the E-commerce Directive] provides that each member state shall ensure that service providers (which will include ISP s, VISPs and Web Hosts) will not be held liable for information transmitted on their sites provided that the relevant service provider:

    – Does not initiate the transmission;

    – Does not select the receiver of the transmission; and

    – Does not select or modify the information contained in the transmission.

    In other words, if the above criteria are met a service provider will be treated as a mere conduit as opposed to an author, editor or publisher. However, a service provider will still be required to remove unlawful and/or defamatory material from its site once it has received a complaint.”

    All I’m saying is that I’m not qualified to comment on how it applies in this case, you’ll have to make of it what you will.

  40. raygirvan said,

    June 11, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    > minor breaches of copyright, which DC could have (and has) corrected. And there was no “malicious intent” behind the infringement, since he did not do it specifically to steal their trademarked words. He did it to highlight that what they were saying was untrue.

    … which I would have said put it well into the territory of fair use for the purposes of comment or criticism.

  41. Symball said,

    June 11, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    I think the real shame here has been the obvious victory of harassment over principle. I don’t believe that UCL has done anything other than protect itself financially and try to draw a line between personal comment and university statements. To be honest there are not many organisations that would allow its IT resources to be used for anything other than some ‘fair use’ surfing. so it is not surprising it has asked for the blog to be removed.

    However it is sad that the woo’s have used similar tactics to the animal rights mob in simply harassing organisations into doing their bidding. Perhaps UCL could redress the balance by looking into the subject and publishing something in its own name instead

  42. Dr Aust said,

    June 11, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    I suspect UCL probably couldn’t use the “ISP defence” indicated by Andrew above. This is because a complainant could argue, with some plausibility, that DC’s “pseudoscience debunking” clearly stems from his work for UCL as a scientist. So hard to separate the two.

    But this just brings back to the “Is what DC said true?” issue.

    Quoting from a site talking about the law of defamation:

    webjcli.ncl.ac.uk/2005/issue3/lewis3.html

    “Where defamation is alleged, the first step is to consider the ordinary and natural meaning of the words used and what an ordinary person will infer.”

    “If a defendant can prove the substantial truth of the words complained about the defence of justification is established.”

    “Another defence in the law of defamation is that everyone is allowed to comment so long as the subject is a matter of public interest and the views were honestly held. The public interest has never been satisfactorily defined for these purposes but it is clear that it is to be broadly construed.”

    All these seem to offer fairly obvious defences.

    Of course, the UCL Provost has stated for the record that it was the “admin bother and nuisance” that was the issue, rather than the risk of liability at law. I still think, though, that they had some sort of wider moral obligation, as an institute of learning and “enlightenment”, to be SEEN to defend the right of scholars to oppose obfuscation and inaccuracy, especially when the latter were being used to sell things.

  43. igb said,

    June 11, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    “igb I don’t see what the merits or otherwise of the precautionary principle have to do with this. ”

    Because the basic argument seems to be “a lawyer says this bad thing _may_ happen” or even “a lawyer says this bad thing cannot be said never to happen”. That’s exactly the argument that idiots use about wifi: “can you tell me it’s absolutely safe with no caveats? No? Then we should assume the worst”.

    “libel law is abused as you correctly point out by the affluent. In this case the accusers are relatively wealthy.”

    I may be mis-judging the finances of alternatives, but I seriously doubt that the people making the theats have pockets as deep as would be required. UCL could quite justifiably demand that measures be taken to ensure their costs are paid should they win: that’s where the rubber meets the road.

    “I’m assuming that libel is the main legal argument being used against UCL because breaches of copyright rarely stand up in court if swiftly corrected and apology issued (which has been done in this case).”

    The same’s true of libel, because…

    “In this country the burden of proof in libel cases is on the defendant”

    No, it isn’t. If the defendant opts to run a defence of justification, the burden is on them (albeit only to a civil, “balance of probabilities” standard). But the burden resides with the plaintiff to show that the words are capable of having a defamtory meaning (which might be _very_ difficult in this case) and that the plaintiff suffered harm to their repution. And there’s a whole stack of defences which might apply in this case (notably a Reynolds defence, see Reynolds vs Times Newspaper) for which the reverse burden doesn’t apply in the same way.

    “UCL obviously think there is a reasonable possibility that they may be liable for such damages and have taken what they consider appropriate action while they review the facts.”

    I don’t see where `reasonable’ comes from. I might just as (in)acurrately say `remote’ in the same place. A case in which a University was held to be vicariously liable for the public statements of a professor, writing in a field which is his exact speciality, requires a sequence of events all of which have a probability distinctly less than one (the writ being served, the case making it to court, the case being held to be answerable, the judge being prepared to join UCL to the case, the case making it past a jury, the case making it past an appeal, the case having damages greater than the hundred quid that UCL will have paid into the court).

  44. John Craddock said,

    June 11, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    Re: mch’s comment;

    “Why has UCL a moral obligation to defend our rights? It’s a university – it has a business to run, students to teach, research to, well, search. Making a stand and getting sued will cost (and maybe not just money), and who is going to refund it?”

    UCL has an obligation to defend the freedom of its academics. If it doesn’t, then it reduces its role to that of a degree factory.

    I don’t know what the situation is in the UK but the universities act in Ireland (quoted below) is clear on the issue, I presume you have similar principles and laws over there.

    14.—(1) A university, in performing its functions shall—

    ( a ) have the right and responsibility to preserve and promote the traditional principles of academic freedom in the conduct of its internal and external affairs

    (2) A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions

  45. Dr Aust said,

    June 11, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    I suppose if a “justification defence” is deemed too risky there is always “fair comment in voicing a sincerely held view on a matter of public interest” (see my post above). The sincerity is not in doubt and the whole tenor of DC’s blog is malice-free – it always just asks “do these statements have scientific meaning” or sometimes “do these people have hidden interests they have not made clear?”

    I have read the words about Walker and Lakin and their product very carefully, first with my amateur barrack-room lawyer’s hat on, then as a scientist with an interest in the use of words, and finally as a “member of the public” – and I still can’t see anything that could not be construed as “DC’s sincerely held opinion”.

    I would still hope that in an analogous situation in the future a (any?) University would have the stones to put up the justification defence when the statements could be easily argued to be true. The point of pubically taking a stand specifically on justification would be, as mentioned by many here,

    “We stand by our guy and his right to try and inform the public about a matter of public interest, no matter what”.

    If Universities don’t stand for stuff like this, then mch is right and they are just businesses. But when they admit that, they are on the slide, because their business is based at bottom on their academic REPUTATION, which is based on their not being “biddable” by financial considerations alone. That is why, in science, research from Univs is by and large more trusted than research from drug companies.

    Stanford, though a private institution (and thus more of a “business” than UCL), seems to have understood this, judging by the tobacco company example the Stanford prof gave on DC’s blog:

    www.dcscience.net/quack.html#move1

    UCL has misjudged the same, IMHO.

    What I sincerely HOPE is happening behind the scenes is UCL offering DC legal advice about how to avoid problems going forward with his now “privatised” blog. That would go some way to restoring my faith in my old alma mater.

  46. Kells said,

    June 12, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    Whilst shutting down DC UCL would like you to give generously to this

    www.uclh.nhs.uk/New+developments/RLHH+redevelopment/

    they need 1/4 million to house thier CAM library full of non evidence based periodicals of absolute bullshit.

    Please give generously

  47. Dr Aust said,

    June 12, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    It’s more interesting than that – from the webpage:

    “…

    New specialist electronic library on complementary and alternative medicine (NeLCAM)

    The RLHH recently won the contract to provide the NHS "new specialist electronic library on complementary and alternative medicine (NeLCAM) in collaboration with the Research Council for Complementary Medicine (RCCM) and the University of Westminster’s School of Integrated Health. ..”

    This is, of course, the same Univ of Westminster School of Integrated Health that DC has been chiding on his blog and in the pages of Nature for awarding BScs in antiscience, and which awards a “B.Sc. in Homeopathy” for which the External Examiner is (surprise surprise) a non-scientifically qualified homeopath.

    The RLHH appeal is for money to fund their “open access CAM Information Centre”. Oh goody. They say this Centre will “work with other bodies within the world of complementary medicine, including the Research Council for Complementary Medicine, the British Homoeopathic Association, and The Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Health”.

    Boosters all, of course. Now why doesn’t that leave me feeling reassured?

  48. Pepper said,

    June 12, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    Well…

    And what next?

    DC’s webpage is expelled from UCL server. Quacks intend to frame up a case against DC. Homoeopaths are trying to edge in UCL.

    Scientific people have written to provost. Provost has answered.

    That’s all.

    And strange silence has settled…

    What is it? Is it defeat? Or the hush before the storm?

    Hey! Defenders of freedom and real Science! Or will this problem leave in the air? Will it exist further in present state?

    That will never do, IMHO. It’s unscientifically, after all.

    It is necessary right solution of this question.

  49. andrew said,

    June 13, 2007 at 10:19 am

    As an aside, Malcolm Grant is also catching flak over UCL’s armaments investments (£900k in Cobham PLC).

    New Statesman 11 June 2007:

    “Despite the overwhelming support of the Disarm UCL campaign, Grant refused to genuinely engage with the issue of divestment from Cobham. Instead he concentrated on criticizing students and suggested we were campaigning against UCL.”

    It’s been a rough week for poor Grant, and it’s still only Wednesday…

  50. Pepper said,

    June 13, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Aha, Malcolm Grant gains money for UCL and UCL’s students by armaments investments.

    But UCL students can’t even tackle his provost to gain money by other way! The students and staff in other universities have done it. And UCL student can merely yelp against provost like silly pups and unroll antiwar banners. One question, please! Do they like to get stipends and salaries ill-gotten by their provost for them? Eh?

    No?? Then – let UCL students and staff propose their provost OTHER way to gain money for UCL. There are a lot of methods to get money from development of modern, knowledge-intensive, advanced technologies, from applied scientific research, etc., etc., etc.

    Who is richest man in the world? Bill Gates! Does Bill Gates sells the arms? He makes and cells computers.

    UCL students and staff must propose your provost best way to gain money. But if he refuse, then there will be only remaining resource – to put question about discharge him for inaptitude, so in this case his words about business and progress for UCL would be empty words and he would be merely wild aggressive politician of last centuries with backward opinions and policy.

  51. Pepper said,

    June 13, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    DAVID COLQUHOUN WON!!!

    Here is ad from his website:

    Announcement 13 June 2007. UCL restores DC’s IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page.

    After taking legal advice, the provost and I have agreed a joint statememt. Read it on the UCL web site.

    " . . . the Provost and Professor Colquhoun have taken advice from a senior defamation Queen’s Counsel, and we are pleased to announce that Professor Colquhoun’s website – with some modifications effected by him on counsel’s advice – will shortly be restored to UCL’s servers."

    I am grateful to UCL for its legal support, and I’m very grateful too for the enormous support I’ve had from many people, especially since Ben Goldacre mentioned the site move. Now all I need is a bit of help to get it into a more convenient format. The page will stay at its present address until there is time to sort things out.

    MY CONGRATULATIONS, DEAR DAVID!!!

    BE HAPPY AND HEALTHY!!!

  52. Pepper said,

    June 13, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Here is link of UCL website about DC:

    www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0706/07061303

  53. Tabazan said,

    June 13, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    Good statement . . nice to see common sense won through in the end

  54. Grathuln said,

    June 14, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    Perhaps the UK would benefit from “safe habour” laws, making site hosts immune from prosecution for content; I thought we must have something like this already but the Provos statement suggests otherwise. Perhaps we would also benefit from fair usage copyright laws, allowing the kind of use Dr. Colquhoun.

    I hope that if this does go to court on defamation it gets summarily kicked out and used as example of how such cases will be treated in the future.

  55. ihid said,

    December 18, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Yeah, this is really shocking!

Jump to follow-up

I have always been insanely proud to work at UCL. My first job was as an assistant lecturer. The famous pharmacologist, Heinz Otto Schild gave me that job in 1964, and apart from nine years, I have been there ever since. That’s 50 years. I love its godless tradition. I love its multi-faculty nature. And I love its relatively democratic ways (with rare exceptions).

From the start, the intellectual heart of UCL has been the staff Common Room. As I so often say, failing to waste time drinking coffee with people who are cleverer than yourself can seriously damage your career (and your happiness). And there’s no better place for that than the Housman room.

 

It is there that I met the great statistician Alan Hawkes, without whom much of my research would never have happened. It was there that Hyman Kestelman (among others) gave me informal tutorials on matrix algebra over lunch. It was there where I have met John Sutherland (English), Mary Fulbrook (German), many historians and people from the Slade school of Art. And it was there where, yesterday, I had an illuminating conversation with Steve Jones about the problems of twin studies for measuring heritability.

I was astonished when I arrived at UCL to discover that the Housman room was male only. I’d just come from Edinburgh which still had separate men’s and women’s student unions and some men-only bars. But Edinburgh also had a wonderful staff club, open to all. It’s true that UCL had also a women-only common room and a mixed common room, the Haldane room (which is where I went usually). But the biggest and most impressive room, the Housman room, was for men only. I found this very odd in the 1960s, the age of sexual liberation. Reform was in the air in the 1960s.

A lot of other people, not all female, thought it odd too. Direct action was called for (I was in CND at the time). So we’d go into the Housman room with a woman and join the queue for coffee. It never took long before some pompous prat would tap the woman on the shoulder and eject her. I can’t remember now the names of any of the feisty women who braved the lions’ den (perhaps this blog will remind someone).

I had any ally in Brian Woledge. He was Fielden Professor of French at UCL from 1939 (when I was 3) to 1971 so he was on the brink of retirement. I was a young lecturer, but our thinking on segregation was much the same. His obituary in the Guardian says “Of robustly secular beliefs and Fabian views, in important respects he was an heir to the ideals of the Enlightenment”. It’s no wonder we got on well.

The picture, from around 1970, was supplied by his son, Roger Woledge, who was in the Physiology department at UCL for most of his life, and who did his PhD with my great hero, A.V. Hill.

In 1967 we proposed a motion at the Housman AGM to desegregate all common rooms. It was defeated. The next year we did it again, and were defeated again.. But at the third attempt, in 1969, we succeeded. I was very happy to have had a small role in upholding UCL’s liberal traditions.

It is now quite impossible to imagine that UCL was segregated. After all, UCL was the first English university to admit women on equal terms to men, in 1878 (the Scots were a bit ahead) And UCL was home to Kathleen Lonsdale (1903 -1971), one of the first two female fellows of the Royal Society, and the first female professor at UCL.

 

Nevertheless, in the mid-1960s, women were very far from being regarded as equal, even at UCL. At the time, segregation was more common than people now remember.

I was spurred to write this post when Melissa Terras, UCL’s professor of digital humanities, retweeted a reminder that it was in 1967 that a woman first ran in a an official marathon, and suffered physical attack from a male organiser for her temerity.

I responded

I was urged to record this history by both Terras and by Lisa Jardine, Director of UCL’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Humanities. So I have done it.

I was very aware of Kathy Switzer at the time, and I’ve no doubt she is part of the reason why I felt strongly about segregation. You can read about the 1967 Boston marathon in her own words. I thought it was a wonderful story, though I wasn’t yet into distance running myself (I was still sailing and boxing).

One of the great thing about marathons is that women and men run in the same race. That means that almost all men have had to get used to being overtaken by very many women. That has been wonderfully good for deflating male egos. When I was training for marathons in the 1980s, my training partner, Annie Briggs was on the elite start -a good hour faster than I could manage.

Now we are accustomed to watching Paula Radcliffe run marathons faster than any but the very best men. She’s the world record holder with the spectacular time of 2 hours 15 min in the 2003 London Marathon (my best is 3 hr 57 min). That’s only a bit over 26 consecutive 5 minute miles. And that’s faster than I could run a single mile at my peak.[Picture from Wikipedia: NYC marathon 2008 2:23:56]

 

It’s now utterly beyond belief that in the 1960s men were saying that women were too feeble to run 26 miles. It was sheer blind arrogance. After Switzer, progress was fast. In 1972 women were allowed to run in Boston, and within 10 years, the women’s record time had fallen by a full hour. Physiology hadn’t changed, but confidence had.

Of course it wasn’t until the 2012 Olympics that women gained total equality in sport. Everyone who said that women were incapable of competing in combat sports should see Rosi Sexton in action.

She’s the ultimate high-achiever. She’s an accomplished musician (grade 7 cello, ALCM piano) and she played at the Albert Hall with the Reading Youth Orchestra. She went on to get a first in maths (Cambridge, Trinity College), where her tutor was Tim Gowers. Then she did a PhD in theoretical computer science from Manchester (read her thesis). And she’s had a distinguished career as professional athlete, competing at the highest level in MMA. Why? “The other things I did, the music, the maths, just weren’t quite hard enough“.

Taking bow at school concert

PhD, Manchester

Athlete in MMA

Not many athletes have a paper in the Journal of Pure and Applied Algebra. I’d be very happy if I could do any one of these things as well as she does.

It could not be more appropriate than to be writng this in the week when the Fields medal was won by a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, for the first time since it started, in 1936. Genetics hasn’t changed since 1936. Confidence has.

UCL mathematician, Helen Wilson, points out the encouragement this will give to female mathematicians.

On 15 July 2017, Maryam Mirzakhani died, at a mere 40 years old. It’s tragic that having achieved so much, against all the odds, the dice rolled the wrong way for her, and cancer destroyed her. Her life will inspire generations to come.

As in marathons, confidence, role models and zeitgeist matter as much as genetics.

It’s examples like these that have made me profoundly suspicious of generalisations about what particular groups of people can and cannot do. Whether it is working class boys. black boys, or women, such generalisations can be shattered over a decade or two, once the zeitgeist changes.

That’s one reason that I am so unsympathetic to the IQ enthusiasts. Great harm has stemmed from the belief that it’s possible to sum up human achievements in a single number. What’s more, it’s a number that measures your resemblance to white male psychologists. It is because politicians believed the over-hyped claims of psychologists in the 1930s, that three-quarters of the population was written off. Much the same thing has happened with women, and with skin colour.

Don’t believe it.

And the job of desegregation may not be entirely finished. In fact now it is harder to combat, since it’s unspoken. Once again, I’m reminded of Peter Lawrence’s essay, The Mismeasurement of Science. Speaking of the perverse incentives and over-competitiveness that has invaded academia, he says

“Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them [17]. Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”

The perverse incentives that make academic life hard for women (and for many men too) are administered by HR departments (with the collusion of mostly elderly male academics). They are the very same people who write fine-sounding diversity documents and lecture you about work-life balance.

It’s time they woke up.


Note. The minutes of Housman AGMs from the 1960s are missing at the moment. If they come to light, this post will be modified accordingly.

Follow-up

29 August 2014

As I’d hoped, this post elicited the name of one of the women who braved the rules and went into the Housman room when it was still men-only. I had an email from Lynn Bindman, and she told me that one of them was Gertrude Falk (1925 – 2008), who had worked in Bernard Katz’s Biophysics Department since 1961.


Gertrude Falk at 76
(Camden New Journal
)

In 1967 she must have been about 42. The episode is mentioned in Gertrude’s obituary in the Guardian. She also sent me a copy of the Physiologocal Society’s obituary, which recounts the story thus.

"Her indifference to conventions is well illustrated by the occasion when, drinking coffee in the men’s staff common room, at that time still segregated, she responded calmly to the Beadle summoned to escort her out, “well, I am certainly going to finish my coffee first”, and did so at her leisure."

I have another story about Gertrude’s feistiness. Every year the Royal Society has a soirée for fellows and guests. It’s a sort of private view for the Summer Science exhibition. Men are required to dress like penguins despite the heat, and the invitation says "decorations will be worn". The food is good though it’s all a bit pompous for my taste. Some years ago I met Gertrude at a soirée and I saw she was wearing a medal round her neck. I said "have they made you a Dame of the British Empire?". She held up the medal and I saw it said "Erasmus High School Economics Prize". She is why I usually go to the soirée wearing my London Marathon medal.

12 May 2015

Surprising as it seems now that the Housman room excluded women until 1969, there are other UCL institutions that were almost as slow as Oxford and Camridge to join the modern age.

One of these is the Professors’ Dining Club (it isn’t actually restricted to professors). I recall going to one of their dinners in the 1960s, as a guest of Heinz Otto Schild, the then head of Pharmacology, who gave me my first job. He was a lovely man, but I was horrified that it didn’t allow women to join. I recently discovered that its records reveal that it didn’t see the light until 1981. It wasn’t until after that happened that I joined the club. It seems now to be a shameful record.

We all know that chiropractors feel pretty desperate, after their job has been revealed as baseless (much more information at ebm-first). Nonetheless it was very surprising when I was alerted by Twitter to the fact that the London Chiropractors were claiming to have been chosen by UCL as a "Centre of Excellence".

chiro2

That was the heading in the whole page devoted to crowing about this designation. The page, as it was on18th April, can be seen on freezepage.com. They even boast about our 21 Nobel prizewinners, as though they had endorsed chiropractic.

"London Chiropractor has recently been designated as a “Centre of Excellence” by University College London. The University is among the world’s leading universities as can be seen by its ranking in a variety of performance areas. Twenty-one Nobel prizewinners have come from the University’s community".

chiro-3s

The triumphalist crowing goes on

"The designation of London Chiropractor as a Centre of Excellence is something that we are sincerely proud of. It distinguishes our clinic while providing impetus to carry on with our multi-disciplinary and evidence based treatment strategies while looking for new ways in which to improve on all aspects of our clinic at the same time and in a continuous manner."

But chiropractic is undoubtedly in deep trouble, after more that 600 complaints were submitted to the General Chiropractic Council (GCC). The GCC was forced to renounce what has always been a central myth of chiropractic, the "subluxation". The fact that most of the complaints have been rejected has revealed huge deficiencies in the GCC (some of which it recently admitted). It also reveals the uselessness of the Council for Health Regulatory Excellence (CHRE).which is meant to supervise them. More details at quackometer, Chiropractors at War with their Regulator, the GCC.

In the words of Richard Brown (president of the BCA) himself,

"The BCA sued Simon Singh personally for libel. In doing so, the BCA began one of the darkest periods in its history; one that was ultimately to cost it financially,"

Needless to say, chiropractors are trying to cash in on the Olympic games, sadly, with a little success. I suppose that invoking UCL. was part of that attempt. Like so many of chiropractors’ attempts to defend themselves, it misfired badly.

The inspection of evidence that followed the attempt by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) to sue Simon Singh showed that he was entirely justified to describe many of their treatments as “bogus” and “without a jot of evidence”.

A quick email to the UCL authorities quickly determined that the claimed endorsement was not true. Attempting to access this page now leads to “page not found". The page vanished on Sunday 22nd April, and a near identical page for the Broadgate Spine and Joint Clinic had already vanished on Friday 20th April. While it is true that two surgeons from UCL’s Institute of Sports Medicine have worked in the same building, they neither use chiropractic nor endorse it.

I’m assured that the alleged endorsement never happened. London Chiropractors won’t say where it came from. It seems that it was simply made up. I think that’s called a lie. I presume it is a sign of the desperation of chiropractors.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

The press may like to portray students as irresponsible and revolting . When I visited the occupied Jeremy Bentham room last week, i got a very different impression. That was more than confirmed yesterday (29 November). The students aren’t just sitting around grumbling. They have organised a very impressive series of events. Here is yesterday’s programme.

UCL-occ events

I volunteered to discuss with them some ideas of what could be done to further their aims. It was the same day that our letter came out in the Daily Telegraph, that pointed out the foolishness of deciding on funding before deciding what form universities should have in the future, I also suggested some possible changes along the lines of those proposed in the Times in October.

DC at UCLoccupation

I didn’t talk for long and the discussion that followed was lively and constructive. It was about education, not revolt.

I was asked if I’d like to come back a bit later for group discussions, so I did. I found the students had split into groups. It could well have been an academic conference.

group at uclocc

There was a cheerful but entirely serious discussion about what universities should be doing, about teaching methods and about research. There was also discussion about how the good atmosphere could be continued when the occupation eventually ends. Perhaps the most obvious thing is that the students were enjoying immensely being thrown together with people from other disciplines, whom they would never have met otherwise. There were two scientists in the group I joined, the rest being from a whole range of disciplines.

It is to the credit of UCL that they haven’t brought in bailiffs or cut off access to toilets. So a lot more sensible than Warwick university’s management for example. An email was shown on the screen from Rex Knight, vice provost (operations) who seems to have been put in charge of mediation. He’s the one who refused to do anything about it when HR were advertising for people trained in that curious form of psychobabble/pyramid selling scheme, neurolinguistic programming. He decined to meet the students. These days, you just can’t get the staff.

You can just walk in and out of the Jeremy Bentham room quite freely. Some students left for lectures and then returned. Others were away that afternoon on a demonstration outside TopShop on Oxford Street. If people like Top Shop owner Philip Green paid the taxes that they should do, the crisis might not be as bad as it is.

And between the earnest intellectual stuff they have fun too. This is the dance-off against the Oxford occupation.

And this is their weekend Ceilidh

Their blog is impressive. as is their organisation. They they have an events organiser with their own email address. You can follow the activities on Twitter @ucloccupation. In just a few days they have picked up more followers on Twitter than I have,

Even the BBC reporter, Sean Coughlan, sees this a something a bit different.

These are well-dressed, articulate youngsters, there’s no damage to the room, and the occupation leaflets are mixed up with sleeping bags and text books about biology and Spanish grammar.

This looks like a revolution that probably does the hoovering when it’s finished. Any stereotypes about rent-a-rioter are way off the mark.

,

It’s the Hogwarts kids, with their strong sense of right and wrong, who are now putting up the barricades.

And they seem as distant from the old left as they do from the new right.

This could be the best educational experience of the year for some of them, and they were making the most of it.

It is really rather beautiful.

Follow-up

Sad to say. UCL’s management soon managed to lose the moral high ground and went to court to evict the students. Their blog says

On Friday 3rd December two students on behalf of the UCL Occupations attended a hearing to resist the university’s application for a possession order. After almost an hour of legal debate, the judge acknowledged the occupying students’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and concluded that no possession order could be granted without a full hearing of all the legal arguments. The hearing has been adjourned till Tuesday 7th December at 10:30am.

6 December 2010.Hobbled into work, for hospital appointment. The Slade School of Art is now occupied too. The signs are quite, eh, artistic.

slade

Jump to follow-up

In July 2008 I wrote an editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ), at the request of its editor.

The title was  Dr Who? deception by chiropractors.  It was not very flattering and it resulted in a letter from lawyers representing the New Zealand Chiropractic Association.  Luckily the editor of the NZMJ, Frank Frizelle, is a man of principle, and the legal action was averted. It also resulted in some interesting discussions with disillusioned chiropractors that confirmed one’s worst fears.  Not to mention revealing the internecine warfare between one chiropractor and another.

This all occurred before the British Chiropractic Association sued Simon Singh for defamation.  The strength of the reaction to that foolhardy action now has chiropractors wondering if they can survive at all.  The baselessness of most of their claims has been exposed as never before.  No wonder they are running scared.  The whole basis of their business is imploding.

Needless to say chiropractors were very cross indeed.  Then in February 2009 I had a polite email from a New Zealand chiropractor, David Owen, asking for help to find one of the references in the editorial.  I’d quoted Preston Long as saying

"Long (2004)7 said “the public should be informed that chiropractic manipulation is the number one reason for people suffering stroke under the age of 45.

And I’d given the reference as

7. Long PH. Stroke and spinal manipulation. J Quality Health Care. 2004;3:8–10

I’d found the quotation, and the reference, in Ernst’s 2005 article, The value of Chiropractic, but at the time I couldn’t find the Journal of Quality Healthcare.  I did find the same article on the web. At least the article had the same title, the same author and the same quotation.  But after finding, and reading, the article, I neglected to change the reference from J Quality Health Care to http://skepticreport.com/sr/?p=88.  I should have done so and for that I apologise.

When I asked Ernst about the Journal of Quality Healthcare, he couldn’t find his copy of the Journal either, but he and his secretary embarked on a hunt for it, and eventually it was found.

JQHC title

JQHC reference

It turns out that Journal of Quality Healthcare shut down in 2004, without leaving a trace on the web, or even in the British Library.  It was replaced by a different journal, Patient Safety and Quality Healthcare (PSQH)  A reprint was obtained from them.   It is indeed the same as the web version that I’d read, and it highlighted the quotation in question.

The reprint of the original article, which proved so hard to find, can be downloaded here.

JQHC quotation

The full quotation is this

"Sixty-two clinical neurologists from across Canada, all certified members of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, issued a warning to the Canadian public, which was reported by Brad Stewart, MD. The warning was entitled Canadian Neurologists Warn Against Neck Manipulation. The final conclusion was that endless non-scientific claims are being made as to the uses of neck manipulation(Stewart, 2003). They need to be stopped. The public should be informed that chiropractic manipulation is the number one reason for people suffering stroke under the age of 45."

I have often condemned the practice of citing papers without reading them (it is, of course, distressingly common), so I feel bad about this, though I had in fact read the paper in question in its web version. I’m writing about it because I feel one should be open about mistakes, even small ones.

I’m also writing about it because one small section of the magic medicine community seems to think they have nailed me because of it.  David Owen, the New Zealand chiropractor, wrote to the editor of the NZMJ, thus.

The quote [in question] is the public should be informed that chiropractic manipulation is the number one reason for people suffering stroke under the age of 45.

Long PH. Stroke and Manipulation. J Quality Health Care. 2004:3:8-10

This quote actually comes from the following blog article http://www.skepticreport.com/medicalquackery/strokespinal.htm [DC the URL is now http://skepticreport.com/sr/?p=88]

I have attached all my personal communications with Colquhoun. They demonstrate this is not a citation error. Prof Colquhoun believes the origin of the quote doesn’t matter because Long was quoting from a Canadian Neurologists’ report (this is also incorrect). As you can see he fails to provide any evidence at all to support the existance [sic] of the “J Quality Health Care.”
This would not be an issue at all if he had admitted it came from a blog site— but I guess the link would have eroded the credibility of the quote.

Colquhoun ‘s belief that my forwarding this complaint is me “resorting to threats” is the final nail in the coffin. If he had any leg to stand on where is the threat?

This may seem pedantic but it surely reflects a serious ethical breach. Is it acceptable to make up a reference to try and slip any unsupported statement into a “scientific” argument and thereby give it some degree of credibility?

Incidentally, at the end of the article, conflicts of interest are listed as none. As Colquhoun is a Professor of Pharmacology and much of his research funding no doubt comes from the pharmaceutical industry how can he have no conflict of interest with therapies that do not advocate the use of drugs and compete directly against the billions spent on pain medications each year?

If I may quote Colquhoun himself in his defence of his article (Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 05-September-2008, Vol 121 No 1281) I’ll admit, though, that perhaps ‘intellect’ is not what’s deficient in this case, but rather honesty.

David Owen 

Financial interests

Well, here is a threat: I’m exposed as a shill of Big Pharma.  ". . . much of his funding no doubt comes from the pharmaceutical industry".  I can’t count how many times this accusation has been thrown at me by advocates of magic medicine.  Oddly enough none of them has actually taken the trouble to find out where my research funding has come from.  None of them even knows enough about the business to realise the extreme improbability that the Pharmaceutical Industry would be interested in funding basic work on the stochastic properties of single molecules.  They fund only clinicians who can help to improve their profits, 

The matter of funding is already on record, but I’ll repeat it now.   The media ‘nutritional therapist’, Patrick Holford, said, in the British Medical Journal

“I notice that Professor David Colquhoun has so far not felt it relevant to mention his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry “

To which my reply was

” Oh dear, Patrick Holford really should check before saying things like “I notice that Professor David Colquhoun has so far not felt it relevant to mention his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry”. Unlike Holford, when I said “no competing interests”, I meant it. My research has never been funded by the drug industry, but always by the Medical Research Council or by the Wellcome Trust. Neither have I accepted hospitality or travel to conferences from them. That is because I would never want to run the risk of judgements being clouded by money. The only time I have ever taken money from industry is in the form of modest fees that I got for giving a series of lectures on the basic mathematical principles of drug-receptor interaction, a few years ago.”

I spend a lot of my spare time, and a bit of my own money, in an attempt to bring some sense into the arguments. The alternative medicine gurus make their livings (in some cases large fortunes) out of their wares.

So who has the vested interest?

Does chiropractic actually cause stroke?

As in the case of drugs and diet, it is remarkably difficult to be sure about causality. A patient suffers a vertebral artery dissection shortly after visiting a chiropractor, but did the neck manipulation cause the stroke? Or did it precipitate the stroke in somebody predisposed to one? Or is the timing just coincidence and the stroke would have happened anyway? There has been a lot of discussion about this and a forthcoming analysis will tackle the problem of causality head-on,

My assessment at the moment, for what it’s worth, is that there are some pretty good reasons to suspect that neck manipulation can be dangerous, but it seems that serious damage is rare.

In a sense, it really doesn’t matter much anyway, because it is now apparent that chiropractic is pretty well discredited without having to resort to arguments about rare (though serious) effects. There is real doubt about whether it is even any good for back pain (see Cochrane review), and good reason to think that the very common claims of chiropractors to be able to cure infant colic, asthma and so on are entirely, ahem, bogus.  (See also Steven Novella, ebm-first, and innumerable other recent analyses.)

Chiropractic is entirely discredited, whether or not it may occasionally kill people.

Complaint sent to UCL

I had an enquiry about this problem also from my old friend George Lewith.  I told him what had happened.  Soon after this, a complaint was sent to Tim Perry and Jason Clarke, UCL’s Director and Deputy Director of Academic Services. The letter came not from Lewith or Owen, but from Lionel Milgom.   Milgrom is well known in the magic medicine community for writing papers about how homeopathy can be “explained” by quantum entanglement.   Unfortunately for him, his papers have been read by some real physicists and they are no more than rather pretentious metaphors.  See, for example, Danny Chrastina’s analysis, and shpalman, here. Not to mention Lewis, AP Gaylard and Orac.

Dear Mr Perry and Mr Clark,

I would like to bring to your attention an editorial (below) that appeared in the most recent issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal. In it, one of your Emeritus Professors, David Colquhoun, is accused of a serious ethical breach, and I quote – “Is it acceptable to make up a reference to try and slip any unsupported statement into a “scientific” argument and thereby give it some degree of credibility?”

Professor Colquhoun is well-known for writing extensively and publicly excoriating many forms of complementary and alternative medicine, particularly with regard to the alleged unscientific nature and unethical behaviour of its practitioners. Professor Colquhoun is also a voluble champion for keeping the libel laws out of science.

While such activities are doubtlessly in accord with the venerable Benthamite liberal traditions of UCL, I am quite certain hypocrisy is not. And though Professor Colquhoun has owned up to his error, as the NZMJ’s editor implies, it leaves a question mark over his credibility. As custodians of the college’s academic quality therefore, you might care to consider the possible damage to UCL’s reputation of perceived professorial cant; emeritus or otherwise.

Yours Sincerely

Dr Lionel R Milgrom

So, as we have seen, the quotation was correct, the reference was correct, and I’d read the article from which it came   I made a mistake in citing the original paper rather than the web version of the same paper..

I leave it to the reader to judge whether this constitutes a "serious ethical breach", whether I’d slipped in an "unsupported statement", and whether it constitutes "hypocrisy"

Follow-up

It so happens that no sooner was this posted than there appeared Part 2 of the devastating refutation of Lionel Milgrom’s attempt to defend homeopathy, written by AP Gaylard. Thanks to Mojo (comment #2) for pointing this out.

Herbal medicine is, unlike homeopathy, not ridiculous, It is merely Pharmacology, as practised up to circa 1900.  Whereas good trials have now shown acupuncture to be sham and homeopathy to be a placebo, there has been very little good research on herbs.

Most herbalism could fairly be described giving to sick patients an unknown dose of a substance with unknown efficacy and unknown safety.

How odd, then, to visit the Royal Society of Medicine to be greeted thus.

Just look at the words!

“Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has developed over thousands of years”

That’s partly true

“and provides a comprehensive and systematic understanding of the natural world and the treatment of the human body.”

and that is total nonsense. TCM provides no understanding and virtually none of it is known to be useful for treating anything.

Another poster at the RSM exhibition provides some of the explanation.


What on earth, one wonders, do they mean by “making efforts to modernise TCM “? So far, the idea of modernising TCM doesn’t seem to include any great effort to find out if it works.


Much of the promotion of TCM seems to be not so much ‘ancient wisdom’, but modern nationalist propaganda by the Chinese government.



The history is fascinating, but you won’t learn it from the posters on display at the exhibition.

“The Daoguang emperor though it [acupuncture] was a barrier to medical progress and removed it from the curriculum of the Imperial Medical Institute,”

“By the start of the twentieth century, acupuncture was extinct in the West and dormant in the East. It might have fallen out of favour permanently, but it suddenly experienced a revival in 1949 as a direct result of the communist revolution and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao Tse-tung engineered a resurgence in traditional Chinese medicine, which included not just acupuncture but also Chinese herbal medicine and other therapies ”

“His motivation was partly ideological, inasmuch as he wanted to reinforce a sense of national pride in Chinese medicine. However he was also driven by necessity. He had promised to deliver affordable healthcare .. . . ”

“Mao did not care whether traditional Chinese medicine worked, as long as he could keep the masses contented. In fact, his personal physician, Zhisui Li, wrote a memoir entitled ‘The Private Life of Chairman Mao’, in which he quoted Mao as saying”

“Even though I believe we should promote Chinese medicine, I personally do not believe in it. I don’t take Chinese medicine.” “

Or, as put more succinctly by Shapiro

“You would never know that TCM was fashioned in the twentieth century, as we shall see, from a ragbag of therapies in post-revolutionary China.”

Rose Shapiro, Suckers, how alternative medicine makes fools of us all.

Why is the Royal Society of Medicine allowing such mendacious posters?  As it happens, I and a friend were visiting the RSM to see their Academic Dean, with a view to finding out why the RSM had failed to take any public position on alternative medicine.  The answer appeared to be money, and that was the answer to why the TCM exhibition was being held on their premises too.  The Dean no more believed in TCM than we did, but, well, they need the income.  He pointed out (looking suitably sheepish) that the address given for the exhibition was not the RSM, but Number 1 Wimpole Street (that, of course, is also the address of the RSM).

Ah, so that’s OK then.

It has to be said that the RSM isn’t alone in its spineless attitude.  Both the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) have failed to make any clear condemnation of mystical medicine.  This is in stark contrast to just about every relevant scientific society (here is a summary).

It is a mystery to me why much of medicine should still be dominated by a mindset that seems to have lagged 200 years behind every other science. Perhaps medicine  is just too complicated.

UCL Hospitals’ skeleton in the cupboard

Make no mistake, University College London Hospital is top class.  The UCLH Trust. runs seven hospitals All but one of them are excellent.  But in 2002 the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital was acquired as part of the UCLH group, to the intense embarrassment of UCL scientists.

Let’s start with the good bit.  Usually I don’t like anecdotes, so just think of this as a vote of thanks, not evidence.

A personal history of UCH

I owe UCLH a lot personally.  On December 13th 1984, my wife had
a subarachnoid haemorrhage when she was seven months pregnant.  After misdiagnosis at St Peter’s Hospital, Chertsey, she was moved to UCH and diagnosed very quickly.  The next day she had neurosurgery to pin an aneurysm at the Maida Vale Neurosurgical Hospital, part of the UCLH group (it no longer exists).  The surgeon, Alan Crockard, came out of theatre after five hours, looking rather tired and said “it was adhered to the optic chiasma on one side and about a millilmetre from the pituitary on the other.  It was a bit tricky but I think we got it”.

After a week in intensive care, under heavy sedation, Margaret’s blood pressure was not low enough and they decided to deliver the baby.  At about 4 pm on a snowy Christmas Eve, a team of neurosurgeons and a team of obstetricians gathered and soon after, Andrew Stuart Colquhoun emerged in a small incubator to be whisked off in an ambulance to the Special Care Baby Unit at UCH (run, at that time, by Osmund Reynolds).. Christmas day was spent in the hospital, with Margaret’s mother.  Andrew weighed 1.4 kg at birth, but by Christmas day he had pulled out his ventilator himself, and was doing fine. He was so tiny that it was a couple of days before I dared to hold him. The Unit had racks of doll-sized clothes, knitted by volunteers. Andrew's birth

Andrew (at 9 days) and Dad. Jan 2, 1985. Click for album..



Once Margaret was well enough, she was given a side room in a neurosurgical ward with a cot for Andrew by her bed, an arrangement that gave the neurosurgical nurses some fun. They were in UCLH continuously until 27th April before Margaret had recovered enough to go home, [Full photo album here]

Now they are both fine.and Andrew is 6′ 7″ (200.5 cm)..

It is episodes like this that make one very proud of the NHS.  Heaven knows what it would have cost in the USA.

Margaret & Andrew, with carer, Anna, June 2, 1985

Andrew playing cricket in Bangladesh, Feb 2005.



But now the the less desirable side of UCLH

Herbs and homeopaths at UCLH

Recently I was sent the UCLH Annual Review 2007 – 2008.  There was a lot of good stuff in it and worth a read despite there being too much hyperbole and too many pictures of men in dark suits.  But buried among all the high tech stuff, what do we find but an advertisement for 1900-style pharmacology in the form of the herbal clinic at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, accompanied by a load of utterly inaccurate information from the TV botanist, David Bellamy.

Take, for example, the claim about Devil’s Claw for osteoarthritis. Even alternative medicine advocates said “The authors concluded that there are insufficient high-quality trials to determine the safety and efficacy of Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) in the treatment of osteoarthritis, and that definitive trials are needed.”


Unbelievably, they are actually boasting that it is the first herbal clinic in the UK to be based in an NHS hospital.  In fact, of course, it is a step backwards by about 100 years.

Reading between the lines, I’d guess that the opening of this clinic has a subtext.  It is well known that funding for homeopathy has dried up (partly as a result of our letter to NHS Trusts that appeared in the
Times in May 2006
).  No doubt the advocates of mystical medicine are trying to fill the gaps left by the departure of some of the homeopathy.  .

There have been problems before with the herbal activities at the RLHH before (see Conflicts of Interest at the Homeopathic Hospital). It appeared that the Khans, who run the Marigold homeopathic podiatry clinic (no, seriously, it is real) were largely prescribing a herbal product that was made by their own company. without even the hospital trust, never mind the patients, being made aware of it.   In normal medicine this would be regarded as a rather serious offence, but as far as I know, nothing was ever done about it.


The ethics of alternative medicine are truly one of life’s great mysteries.

Reading further in the annual review, we come to the page about the RLHH.   The homeopathy side must really have run down because it seems to have diversified into selling cosmetics and groceries. That sounds like desperation.


Good heavens, they sell “chemical-free sun cream”. One wonders what it can be made of, if not chemicals. This is the language of low-grade advertising agencies, not what one expects from an NHS hospital trust.

But next to this there is a much more interesting item. Just look at the last sentence.

“Changing the name of the hospital to reflect its status as a centre of excellence for the integration of the best of conventional and complementary medicine is currently being considered, “

I wonder if this could possibly have anything to do with the fact that Michael Baum and I visited the Trust headquarters in August 2006 to propose that the RLHH might be turned into a centre of supportive and palliative care?

It would be nice to think so. But it seems they haven’t gone nearly far enough yet. If all they do is replace the waning homeopathy
with herbalism and acupuncture, we won’t be much closer to the 21st century.

We know they are under pressure from their royal patrons, but that, in a constitutional monarchy, is simply not acceptable.



Michael Baum is a cancer surgeon who has taken a particular interest in palliative and supportive care.  He is someone whose views should be taken seriously.  He is also the author of the magnificent “An open letter to the Prince of Wales: with respect, your highness, you’ve got it wrong” Here is a quotation from that letter.  The UCLH Trust should bear it in mind.

The power of my authority comes with a knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research. I’m sensitive to the danger of abusing this power and, as a last resort, I know that the General Medical Council (GMC) is watching over my shoulder to ensure I respect a code of conduct with a duty of care that respects patients’ dignity and privacy and reminds me that my personal beliefs should not prejudice my advice.


Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. Furthermore, your public utterances are worthy of four pages, whereas, if lucky, I might warrant one. I don’t begrudge you that authority and we probably share many opinions about art and architecture, but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies. There is no equivalent of the GMC for the monarchy, so it is left either to sensational journalism or, more rarely, to the quiet voice of loyal subjects such as myself to warn you that you may have overstepped the mark. It is in the nature of your world to be surrounded by sycophants (including members of the medical establishment hungry for their mention in the Queen’s birthday honours list) who constantly reinforce what they assume are your prejudices. Sir, they patronise you! Allow me this chastisement.



Baum is a truly good man.


Follow-up

The photo album chronicling the birth of my son, is really just for family and friends, but at least one blog picked up on the wider significance.


Jump to the homeopathy debate

Jump to follow-up: Brian Kaplan

Obama wins! Bush and Blair have gone. Could this mark the beginning of the end of the fashion for believing things that aren’t true?

Trinity College Dublin: the Phil. “Creationism is a valid world view”

This is the 324th year of the Trinity College Philosophical Society (known locally as the ‘Phil’).  Its former members include Bishop Berkeley,  Dean Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett, and E.T.S. Walton .  It was founded for “discourse of philosophy, mathematics, and other polite literature ”, and is now a debating society.

Click to enlarge

The motion was Creationism is a Valid World view.  At the dinner before the debate, the students all dutifully stood as one of them recited long graces in Latin both before and after eating.  All very Oxbridge.  So I wasn’t optimistic.  However I hadn’t taken into account the conformist tendencies of undergraduates.   Notwithstanding the Latin graces, the result of the debate was very clear indeed.

Result. The Creationists were totally wiped out. Almost the only vote for the motion was a young born-again student, who made a desperately sincere speech.

I don’t need to give the details of what happened, because the opposer of the motion, Bob Bloomfield (of the Natural History Museum) has given an excellent account (The Discovery Institute send big guns to Ireland but only manage to fire blanks) on the Beagle project blog.  Two of the proposers were Americans, from the Discovery Institute, and they said what you’d expect: nothing that would impress anyone with any education.    I’ll settle for Bloomfield’s description of me as “charmingly irascible”. Irascible, moi? Well it would make anyone mildly irritated to have to spend time arguing about creationism in 2008.

Religion, all religion, seems to me to be boring and not a thing worth wasting good time on thinking about, but the rise of barmy fundamentalism has made it essential, if only so that genetics can be taught without  accusations of racism,   I’m entirely with Dawkins,  I can’t prove that there is no god, and I can’t guarantee
that the bottom of my garden is free of fairies.  Both questions merit about the same amount of time, though if pressed, I’d go for the fairies. They are, allegedly, rather better behaved than gods.

The 24th president of the USA said, when asked for his thoughts on evolution, said

“of course like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised”.

Woodrow Wilson, 1922

That, of course, was from a president who has been described as ” leading intellectual of the Progressive Era”.

How things have changed in the time of Tony Blair, George Bush and Sarah Palin. Very few people had such barmy beliefs in 1960, never mind 1922. My thesis is much the same as that of Francis Wheen in “How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world” Sometime around 1980, with the conjunction of Thatcher, Reagan and Khomeini it came into fashion to believe things that aren’t true, just because you wished they were (actually I’d put it a bit earlier than Wheen: arguably it started when the Beatles went to that guru), It was after that when suddenly people started to believe in magic medicine, religious fundamentalism. weapons of mass destruction, and, ahem,  that the market would make us rich if only we would remove all the regulations.

Tony Blair defended in parliament the Emmanuel School which is run by a young earth creationist and used car dealer, Peter Vardy.  The head of the school, Nigel McQuoid, features strongly on the web site of the Christian Institute, This curious organisation seems to be devoted largely to creationism, homophobia and the virtue of beating children (a search of the site for “corporal punishment” gives 43 hits).  An essay by Burns & McQuoid says

“There are those who argue that Science and Christianity can be harmoniously reconciled .  ; ;. We cannot subscribe to this view”

The former head of science (yes, of science) at McQuoid’s school, Steven Layfield, had an article on the Christian Institute web site. It vanished as soon as it got some publicity but you can read it at http://www.darwinwars.com/lunatic/liars/layfield.html.
Try this quotation.

“Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm (millions or billions of years) is explicitly mentioned or implied by a text-book, examination question or visitor and courteously point out the fallibility of the statement. Wherever possible, we must give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data.”

These guys are really at the fruit-cake end of the religious spectrum.  In contrast, the young anglican chaplain of Trinity, Darren McCallig, spoke against creationism, eloquently and sensibly.  His religiousness did seem at times to be diluted almost to homeopathic extremes, but all the better for that. He seems to have a sense of humour too, judging by the poster for his services.
click to enlarge

There is, of course, a very healthy opposition to creationists in the USA too,  I like particularly Gerald Weissman’s article “The facts of evolution: fighting the Endarkenment” (it may have been the first time that I saw the wonderful word endarkenment, which describes so well the last 30 years). It starts thus.

“Those of us who practice experimental science are living in the best of times and the worst of times, and I’m not talking about A Tale of Two Cities, but a tale of two cultures. “

Here are a couple of pictures of the meeting.

Chris Stillman (geologist)

Berlinski (left) Luke Ryder (speaking), Bloomfield, DC, Stillman (right)

And some pictures of Dublin here

James Joyce, TCD quadrangle and Molly Malone. Click to view

UCL homeopathy debate

This was organised by the UCL students’ debating society.  The Darwin Lecture theatre was surprisingly full for this debate, but they weren’t all students. As usual on these occasions, the homeopaths tried to pack the audience, but this time they failed.  That tactic is fair enough I suppose, but it means that the vote failed to tell us anything much about the opinion of students, beyond the fact that not many of them opposed the motion.

There are a few though. To the horror of some of our pharmacology and neuroscience undergraduates, a student society devoted to medicines that don’t work has been started at UCL, for the first time ever.  Luckily, it seems to be a rather small society.  I was fascinated to see that they are going to hear about the evidence base for complementary therapies, from George Lewith. I had occasion a while ago to look at Dr Lewith’s attitude to evidence: see Lewith’s private clinic has curious standards.

The proposers were Simon Singh and me. Simon is author of, among other things, Fermat’s Last Theorem and Trick or Treatment.  I thought he did an excellent job.




Singh pointed out that, contrary to the view propagated by quacks, science likes wacky ideas, as long as you can produce the evidence for them  He cited dark matter as an example.

The main opposer was my old friend Peter Fisher, homeopathic physician to the Queen.  It was a pleasure to show the video of Fisher agreeing with me that there is not enough science in homeopathy to justify a BSc degree in it.  Fisher, in his papers, strikes me as one of the most honest of homeopaths.  He was “very angry” when homeopaths were caught out recommending their sugar pills to prevent malaria.  But is his speech, he struck me as less than honest. He cherry-picked the evidence quite shamelessly as usual.  And his suggestion that there was an analogy between the ‘memory of water’ and a DVD was disposed of ably by a physics student who spoke from the floor.

The results were too close for comfort, 65 for, 53 against and an amazing 37 abstentions,

Sadly we’ll never know how the students voted, because of the imported homeopaths.

Dr Brian Kaplan was there.  He had given the meeting some advance publicity, in a web posting that also kindly gave publicity to our 2006 letter to the Times. He didn’t like the letter, which is unsurprising given that it turned out to be more effective than we could ever have hoped (see also here).



On the second row, getting very excited, was homeopath Grace Da Silva-Hill and her husband,  She runs the ‘Healing with Grace’ business.  On her web site she makes the ludicrous claim that

“Homeopathy will treat the cause of your health problem, not just alleviate your symptom”

She also says, inter alia, that

“Homeopathy is effective in treating a wide range of conditions such as: asthma, . . . “

In contrast, the Cochrane review says

“There is not enough evidence to reliably assess the possible role of homeopathy in asthma. “

I have been sent her account of the debate (a reply to a query from the ubiquitous Dana Ullman).

“Hello Dana, The debate, on monday 20th Oct., organised by UCL debating society, was poorly managed, and biased, attended mostly by students, who appear to have gone there to practice their debating skills. The motion was lost by 12 (65 for and 53 against), with 37 abstentions. Peter Fisher put on a good show, and so did his second, in comparison with the rather stale and poor presentation of Simon and Qulquoun (sorry, can never spell this). My husband Ken did a rather
good caricature of him, unfortunately can’t share it here. Pity there were not more  homeopaths/supporters there. Kind regards,”

Uhuh. Well, I guess she would say that.

You can judge the critical faculties of Mrs Da Silva-Hill from a comment she left on a piece in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Homeopathy putting lives at risk with claims’. I quote from it verbatim.

“The public does not care about the research available, the public care about having their health problem sorted, where conv. medicine has failed,”

(I apologise for attributing to Mrs Da Silva in the original post a quotation from the Telegraph that appeared above her name but was actually written by somebody else. I apologise also for using a picture of her without permission.)

On the way out of the debate, I walked back to Euston Road with another homeopath, William Alderson, who had come all the way from Kings Lynn to cast his vote.  He was earnest and sincere, the conversation was amicable but his idea of evidence was so different from mine that no progress was made. You can read more about Alderson on Dr Aust’s blog.

It’s fascinating stuff.

Follow-up

Dr Brian Kaplan has posted some splenetic comments on this post. I suppose the paranoid tone is an indication that we are winning, but I do wish he’d be a bit more careful about the facts. Let me correct some of them.

(1)Neither the letter of May 2006, nor its follow up in May 2007, was written under the NHS letterhead. The follow-up letter of May 2007 contained the words

“If you have not already reviewed your own trust’s provision, you might find it useful to consider, in conjunction with your Director of Public Health, the paper that we have enclosed which, while not a full review of the scientific position, has been used by other trusts to promote evidence based commissioning.”

The enclosed form was a sample commissioning letter which reproduced the NHS logo with a notice saying “insert your NHS logo here”. The accompanying letter made it perfectly clear that the enclosed form was simply an example to help those who wanted to save money and not an official NHS communication.

(2) Kaplan says I accuse him of lying to his patients, but his reference is to (an old version of) my Dilemmas at the heart of alternative medicine. It says nothing of the sort. I have said many times that I believe homeopaths are perfectly sincere, but they are just deluded. The reference to lying in the ‘dilemmas’ concerns how to get the maximum placebo effect when you know it is a placebo. Homeopaths have not reached that stage yet.

All this information has been available since May 2007.  He should have checked.