Truth, falsehood and evidence: investigations of dubious and dishonest science

Download Lectures on Biostatistics (1971).
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This is a story of everyday researchers and teachers, struggling to do their job in a world pervaded by management bollocks.

This page is a continuation of the diary that started in June 2007, with the demise of UCL’s Pharmacology department (for the time being).

It continued from June 2008 to May 2009 on a separate page.

From June 2009 to May 2010

From June 2010 to May 2011

Now we continue from June 201l.

Links. Most items on this page can be linked directly by appending the date to the page link. For example takes you directly to the entry for 21 March 2012.

1 June 2011. The provost’s Green paper for the future of UCL has appeared. I haven’t got through all 64 pages yet, but some things stick out at once.

"UCL is a very special place. It attracts remarkable affection and loyalty amongst its students, staff and alumni."

I couldn’t agree more. The traditions of the place and the distinction of people who have worked here, are what create the altruism that is needed to make the place work. Morale is enormously importnat, That is precisely why I feel obliged to speak out when it is threatened, as it has been in a few cases recently. Even the overuse of the word "global" can be forgiven as provostorial hyperbole.

There’s a sensible analysis of the problems that the new funding arrangements (‘students pay’) will bring, though it rings a bit oddly because it is Russell Group vice-chancellors who appeared to be pressing the government for high fees.

I was delighted to read on page 10

Top-down prescription seldom works in any community, let alone in an open and critical institution such as UCL..

That is spot on. But it did elicit an email from a colleague from a distant department

Here are a few recent examples of top-down prescription at UCL:

1. The instruction to use a UCL-appointed travel agent.

2. The reorganisation of the Faculties of Life Sciences and Medical Sciences.

3. The appointment of new research facilitators.

4. The proposal to abolish the Housman Room.

5. The restrictions on the use of UCL Business Cards.

6. The restrictions on the use of ones own discretionary funds.

7. The implementation of the professorial pay-banding scheme.

I could cite more, and I’m fairly sure that not one of these prescriptions is the result of ‘bottom-up’ pressure from academics.

Irony or delusion?

Of this list, by far the biggest blow to morale was the (2) The2007 reorganisation of the Faculties of Life Sciences and Medical Sciences, where the consultation was, sad to say, utterly sham. (4) The proposal to abolish the Housman Room is still going on.

Let’s hope the Green paper signals a change of policy.

2 June 2011. The silly and unnecessary row about UCL’s Housman room appeared in last week’s Times Higher Education. And sure enough, this week it pops up again in the column of the inimitable Laurie Taylor.

Disciplined silence

One of our leading “under threat” academics, Professor Gordon Lapping of the Department of Media and Cultural Studies, has announced that he will not be signing the online petition to preserve the Housman Senior Common Room at University College London.

Lapping explained that he had been deterred from adding his signature by the news that the Housman Room provided a place where it was possible “to meet and talk to people in areas very different from your own”.

He regarded this as seriously at odds with the traditional senior common room practice in which members of the same discipline sit in long-established seats at carefully regulated distances from those of other academic persuasions.

He was also alarmed by the reference to “talk”. In his view, the proper ambience for any place that presumed to describe itself as a senior common room was “complete silence broken only by the occasional groans of dismay from those who had been first to bag the weekly copy of Times Higher”.

Neither had he been persuaded to sign by the claim that the Housman Room allowed for “surprise relationships”. It is his long-considered view that “if God had intended academics to mix, he wouldn’t have created disciplines”.

It’s encouraging that the provost’s green paper says

UCL is currently lacks world-class social facilities for staff. Provision is patchy across the campus, and there is a shortfall of central provision. Social encounter and interaction is an essential aspect of high quality academic life and performance.

It’s less encouraging that there is so little correspondence between the excellent sentiments and what’s actually happening.

And, oh dear. The students are very upset about UCL’s outsourcing of all of its remaining cleaning, security and portering staff to private contractors. These people will now lose union rights and pensions. The students have started a Facebook page that proposes outsourcing of UCL’s management

3 June 2011

The Wellcome Trust has been enormously important for the support of medical and biological support, and never more than now, when the MRC has become rather chaotic (let’s hope the new CEO can sort it out). There was, therefore, real consternation when Wellcome announced a while ago its intention to stop giving project and programme grants altogether. Istead it would give a few Wellcome Trust Investigator Awards to prominent people. That sounds like the Howard Hughes approach, and runs a big risk of “to them that hath shall be given”.

The awards have just been announced, and there is a good account by Colin Macilwain in Science. UCL did reasonable well with four awards, but four is not many for a place the size of UCL. Colin Macilwain hits the nail on the head.

"While this is great news for the 27 new Wellcome Investigators who will share £57 million, hundreds of university-based researchers stand to lose Wellcome funds as the trust phases out some existing programs to pay for the new category of investigators".

There were 750 applications, but on the basis of CV alone, they were pared down to a long-list if 173. The panels then cut this down to a short-list of 55. At this stage no external referees were used, quite unlike the normal process for award of grants. This seems to me to have been an enormous mistake. No panel, however distinguished, can have the knowledge to distinguish the good from the bad in areas outside their own work, It is only human nature to favour the sort of work you do yourself. The 55 shortlisted people were interviewed, but again by a panel with an even narrower range of expertise, Macilwain again:

"Applications for MRC grants have gone up “markedly” since the Wellcome ones closed, he says: “We still see that as unresolved.” Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, which won four awards, believes the impact will be positive: “Universities will adapt to this way of funding research."I

It certainly isn’t obvious to most people how Cambridge or UCL will "adapt" to funding of only four people.

One problem is that any scheme of this sort will inevitably favour big groups, most of which are well-funded already. Since there is good reason to believe that small groups are more productive, it isn’t obvious that this is a good way to go, I was lucky enough to get 45 minutes with the director of the Wellcome Trust, Mark Walport, to put these views. He didn’t agree with all I said, but he did listen.

One of the things that I put to him was a small statistical calculation to illustrate the great danger of a plan that funds very few people. The funding rate was 3.6% of the original applications, and 15.6% of the long-listed applications. . Let’s suppose, as a rough approximation, that the 173 long-listed applications were aal of roughly equal merit. No doubt that won’t be exactly true, but I suspect it might be more nearly true than the expert panels will admit. A quick calculation in Mathcad gives this, if we assume a 1 in 8 chance of success for each application.

mathcad 1

And this gloomy outcome supposed that you made 8 grant applications -an enormous amount of work. If you submitted four applications then you have a nearly 60% chance of getting nothing at all, and only a i in 3 chance of getting one grant.


These results arise regardless of merit, purely as consequence of random chance. They are disastrous, and especially disastrous for the smaller, better-value, groups for who a gap in funding can mean loss of vital expertise. It also has the consequence that scientists have to spend most of their time not foing science, but writing grant applications, The mean number of applications before a success is 8, and a third of people will have to write 9 or more applications before they get funding. This makes very little sense.


Grant-awarding panels are faced with the near-impossible task of ranking many similar grants. The peer reveiw system is breaking down, just as it has already broken down for journal publications.

I think these considerations demolish the argument for funding a handful of mega-stars. The public might expect that the person making the application would take an active part in the research. Too often, now, they spend most of their time writing grant applications. What we need is more responsive-mode smallish programme grants and a maximum on the size of groups.

7 June 2011 Drove to Southampton for lunchtime talk on "Corruption of Science" for their postgraduate society. Got an excellent crowd and lively quesrions. Sadly its a lot more popular than talks on single ion channels. Students do seem to appreciate it when senior (ie old) academics don’t talk the customary bullshit. Then had late lunch at the boatyard where we had a boat for many years (but sold in 1984 because couldn’t afford a son and a boat on academic salary). More sailing pictures here.

Lunch in boatyard, 2011

9 June 2011.

Rain at last. But had goldfinches in the garden (not common here). Picture isn’t great, but it was 12x zoom, through glass window, and raining.

10 June 2011. Good news that UCL will get an Institute for Sustainable Resources, thanks to a donation of US $10 million over five years from the mining company BHP Billiton. Though that isn’t very much of BHP Billiton’s profit of $10.5 billion for the second half of 2010. One hopes that the institute can help to improve BHP’s appalling reputation for pollution -see BHP Billiton Watch.

11 June 2011 Sigh as I read about the ritual farce of the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. True, there are some good people, mostly in the lower ranks, but by and large it is a system which politicians use for "rewarding its henchmen with titles and trinkets" (I quote a recent tweet).

It was particularly worrying to see a knighthood for the Vice-chancellor of Exeter University, Steve Smith, who persecuted one of nis most honest members of staff, Edzard Ernst, at the behest of the Prince of Wales. The story was related here, The establishment has rewarded him for his failure to defend academic freedom and the public interest . Another tweet pointed out that "Smith guilty of tickling Willetts’ belly over tuition fees too when he noticed the £’s Exeter could rake in", but that is true of many other VCs too

steve smith THE

As always, the matter of UUK and tuition fees was dealt with by Laurie Taylor (24 Feb 2011).

UUK is Innocent – OK?

Our vice-chancellor has expressed “deep shock” at the news that student activists intend to picket this week’s meeting of Universities UK.

In an interview with our reporter Keith Ponting (30), he said that he found it difficult to see why the UUK was being singled out in this manner. “Apart from sending an open letter urging MPs to vote for the increase in tuition fees and apart from sucking up to Russell Group members who favoured the increase and apart from not defending post-1992 universities who despite widening participation are most likely to be hit by the new fees and apart from failing to point out the total chaos now facing the new funding system as most universities move to a £9,000 tuition charge, it’s difficult to see how UUK could in any way be seen as partisan in the current debate.”

In response to further questions, our vice-chancellor also firmly denied “the scurrilous rumour” that he had recently attended a meeting on the future of higher education at which a leading Russell Group vice-chancellor had been unable to complete his speech because he’d been emotionally overcome by a fit of “chortling”.

And on 10 March,

Philosophical transactions

In an exciting development, Dr P.Q. Function, our Professor of Advanced Logic, has announced the establishment of a new research project to consider whether it is possible to detect any degree of logical incompatibility between David Willetts’ proposal to obliterate the teaching grant for the humanities and social sciences and his recent assertion that “the humanities and social sciences are essential to a civilised society”.

Dr Function said he expected that the project would be completed “within the next 20 minutes”.

13 June 2011. My statistics textbook has come back to life on Google books. Lectures on Biostatistics was published in 1971 by Clarendon Press. It sold 5000 copies and then went out of print. I hope someone finds it useful. The hardback cost £5 and the paperback £2.75. Copies have appeared on Ebay at a lot more than that.


The reviews mostly weren’t bad, but one in particular was lovely. It was in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 9 February 1973, I remember clearly picking up THES and going back to bed to browse through it. I started on the review section and had a real shock when I realised it was my book they were writing about. [download review: pdf]. Sorry, but I can’t resist a few quotations.

“It is rare indeed to be confronted by a textbook that is so beautifully written that it is sure, for the time being, to be the last word on the subject. This is the case with Colquhoun’s book, which radiates wisdom in a hitherto obscure field.”

“One hears, as one reads through the book, a Johnsonian voice saying: “Sir, if you will believe that, you will believe anything!””

“Anyone learning statistics at any level will profit by its lucidity and lack of humbug.”

That meant a lot to a young lecturer.

There is now a searchable version with typos corrected (see left sidebar).

17 June 2011. The petition to retain e good common room facilities for staff at UCL closed today with a respectable 1179 signatures and plenty of comments. For the sake of the historical record, the petition page has been preserved here. It was printed and delivered to the provost. It’s beyond my comprehension that it should have been necessary to spend time on such a petition. It should have been obvious. The only reason that I can think of is that we are being managed by people who don’t understand how academia works, and who won’t listen to those who do.

The common room has 1700 members, so I would have expected more signatures, Why didn’t they all sign? I can think of four possible reasons.

  • (1) Some staff simply don’t open emails from anything that looks as though it might be management. They see that as the only way to get time to get on with their jobs. Such people would not have been aware of the problem.
  • (2) Some people have no interest in interacting and little interest in UCL as a university -for them it’s just a place to work. I suspect that recent morale-destroying decisions have swelled this category, and that is a great pity.
  • (3) Some people have simply come to the conclusion that anything they say will be disregarded. This is understandable in the light of recent "consultations", but I don’t think it’s the right attitude.
  • (4) There are always some people who are too pusillanimous to sign anything, in case it affects their career.

I have no idea how many people fall into each of these categories.

The thin attendance at meeting to discuss the Green Paper on 21 June is consistent with all of them.

20 June 2011 I was alerted a few days ago to a "Masters for Complementary Practitioners" to be run at University of Swansea Medical Sxhool, by a Dr Mary Hoptroff. She is indeed employed at Swansea Medical School: she is listed variously as senior clinical tutor, or ‘part time tutor; on different pages. A quick Google revealed that she is also a member of the Sacred Swan network.("Acknowledging the One-ness of it All”). The course was announced on Dr Hoptroff’s page on the Sacred Swan network (captured on 21 June).

New: A First in the UK: A MSc programme for Complimentary [sic] Practitioners!!

Part time study at in Swansea university….. also convenient for those living outside the area…… integrate the skills of traditional medicine, intuitional and tacit diagnosis into your complimentary [sic] practice. Now taking applications for October 2011 entry. Contact Dr Mary Hoptroff for further details/…

This site, though undoubtedly well -meaning makes homeopaths look almost sane. Dr Hoptroff’s page on the Naturally Universal Network is at least as amazing. It advertises “The Energy Body Gym. The series of shamanic energy body workouts”.

It seems that Dr Hoptroff’s web site needs to be updated, because the vice-chancellor of Swansea, Richard B Davies, wrote today, saying

I have now been advised that this proposed scheme had already been rejected by our validation procedures.  It will definitely not go ahead, nor anything like it.

It seems that Swansea’s validation procedures are a lot more effective than those at the University of Wales, subject of a BBC TV programme. Their website needs updtating though: the course is announced here.

25 – 26 June 2011, Summer returns, Hot for walking, Garden is glorious, thanks to Margaret.

Roses and lavender (click to enlarge).

roses 1

and my favourite, Rosa mundi (left picture with bee)

rose 2

27 June 2011

prometheus logo

Prometheus magazine carried a series of articles about libel reform. Peter Wilmshurst’s article was followed be a series of responses (including one by me). Available free.

28 June 2011

Hospital facing therapy claim rap was the headline in the local newspaper for the area where UCL is located, the Camden New Journal. Sadly, the hospital in question was the "Royal London Hospital for Integrated medicine" (not UCLH as it says in the article). But the RLHIM is under the jurisdiction of the UCL Hospital Trust. When I tried to complain to the trust about the advertisement for "Craniosacral therapy" I was met with a brick wall, as related at Cranial Osteopathy at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, and inaction by Dr Gill Gaskin This of bad publicity is totally unnecessary, but it seems impossible to persuade the Trust not to promote magic medicine.


I notice that motion 39 at this year’s BMA conference reads as follows

That this Meeting notes and is concerned that:
i) the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital changed its name in September 2010 to “The Royal London Hospital for Integrative Medicine”;
ii) the Royal London Hospital already exists, and integrates its medical services;
iii) patients must inevitably be confused between these two institutions and misled as to the nature of services being provided;
iv) medical practitioners will also be misled and commissioning will not be as efficient and cost effective as it should be.
This Meeting therefore calls on the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (the Chartered Body), to desist from using the style and title of “Royal London Hospital” and, if it so desires, to use a new name which will not be confused with that of an existing institution. 

It seems the bait and switch trick has been spotted.

29 June 2011

Got the neuroscience strategy document. It’s full of all the right buzzwords, but, in my opinion, ultimately vacuous. The main themes are obvious. A lot about ‘translational’ and nothing wrong with that, at least until such time as we run out of things to translate UCL’s reputation in neuroscience, is based to a large extent on Andrew Huxley and Bernard Katz, whose work was anything but translational. So no more people like that needed.

The other buzzword is interdisciplinary. I’m all for that. I’ve done it all my life. What policy wonks fail to understand is that it’s not something than can be achieved by writing newsletters or moving labs. The best collaborator will rarely be local, My collaborations have been with mathematicians, specially Alan Hawkes in Durham, then Swansea. And with Bert Sakmann, in Göttingen then Heidelberg. They were the best in the world at their jobs. That’s how to choose collaborators.

The accompanying emal from the head of the medical school, Professor Sir John Tooke, referred to the Francis Crick Institute.

"he discovered the triple helix structure of DNA."

A postdoc commented, “what’s the next frontier? the quadruple helix?”. One is reminded a recent speech (about higher standards in education!) in which Education secretary, Michael Gove said

“What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.”

Tom Chivers puts it well in the Daily Telegraph: "Would you have confused Shakespeare and Dickens, Michael Gove?"

It would help if leaders of science knew a bit more about it.

3 July 2011. The Sunday walk is a bit slow and painful now. Four miles is an effort. But this was well worth while because I saw a purple emperor butterfly ("magnificent and elusive"). It rested on the moss on the side of a lock on the Grand Union Canal for long enough to get a decent picture. Cllck picture for high resolution version.


5 July 2011. Came on train to Aberdeen yesterday (the best way to travel), for Andrew’s graduation ceremony. He got a 2.1 in politics and international relations, so everyone was very happy. The ceremony wasn’t too long and it was rather well done (apart from a ghastly rambling speech from an anthropologist at the end). The big surprise for Margaret and me was that Andrew’s grandmother had colluded with him to buy him a kilt (and all the works) for the ceremony. He looked grand. Thanks grandma.

Andrew, grandma and Margaret, outside Elphinstone hall

13 July 2011.

The indomitable Glasgow GP, Margaret McCartney published in the BMJ, The scam of integrative medicine (free text on MaCartney’s blog).


It was a fine denunciation of the word play on the word "integrated" that is now the favourite bait and switch approach of believers in magic medicine. The rapid responses were lively. In particular it was aimed at the new, and disgracefully dishonest, "College of Medicine". See, for example, Don’t be deceived. The new “College of Medicine” is a fraud and delusion.

This followed a Lobby Watch article on 15 June in the BMJ, by Jane Cassidy, which revealed the fund raising efforts of the "College of medicine" which seem to rely largely on gullible celebrities.

The College of Medicine was defended in the print BMJ by a letter from some of its founding members, George T Lewith, Graeme Catto, Michael Dixon, Christine Glover, Aidan Halligan, Ian Kennedy, Christopher Manning and David Peters. And that was countered by a letter from me

A comment signed by Catto, Kennedy, and Aidan Halligan should perhaps be taken seriously—it might be if it were not also signed by George Lewith (who prescribes homoeopathy despite having written papers that conclude it doesn’t work), Christine Glover (a homoeopathic pharmacist), and David Peters (whose clinic has used dowsing as an aid to diagnosis and treatment).

I am sure that Catto, Kennedy, and Halligan are sincere, but you do get judged by the company you keep.

15 July 2011. A nice surprise appeared on Twitter

diana brighouse dianabrighouse diana brighouse

@david_colquhoun Familiar name appeared on twitter radar; remember whisky sours in pharmacology lecture 35 years ago, many lives since then!

This alludes to a lecture I gave to medical students for many years on alcohol. I used a trick that I’d learned from Murdoch Ritchie while working at Yale (1970 – 1972). The idea was to demonstrate the denaturing effect of alcohol on proteins. You crack an egg and separate the egg white into a measuring cylinder (slightly nerve-wracking in front of 200 – 300 students). Then announce that you need a source of alcohol, and produce a bottle of bourbon (first laugh). Pour it in to the egg white and shake. It turns milky as protein precipitates. Then you say that it would be a pity to waste the products of the demonstration, and produce a cocktail shaker, squeeze a lemon into it, and shake. Then you drink it Since students think that anything connected with alcohol is hilariously funny, this always got a bit of applause and good ratings,

Sadly it isn’t possible to get ratings like that for any lecture with equations. Once I was asked to give two lectures on diffusion to a class that was intended to fill gaps in students’ knowledge of physics and maths (that course is now much attenuated). The first lecture was pretty descriptive but in the second I tried deriving the very simplest solution of the diffusion equation, diffusion from an infinite plane source. \it comes out as an error function and it seemed to be that the relation to the Gaussian distribution would emphasise the random nature of diffusion. It did not go down well with students. In fact the student feedback had perhaps the worst comment I ever got, It seems I’d be better employed "teaching Welsh in a Japanese university". It hurts to this day. It also shows that if teaching is guided by student choice it would consist largely of nursery rhymes (and whisky sours).

18 July 2011. A nice surprise on the eve of my 75th birthday. A comment was sent to the BMJ after the altercation about great integrative scam. I’m not sure whether they’ll publish it, but thanks, Dr Lammy.

bmj 18 July

20 July 2011. The question of whether UCL is getting good value from its procurement department came up last year and it’s been rumbling on ever since. After I was told that it was possible to buy an Apple computer more cheaply from the Apple store than it was through procurement, I decided I should do something about it. So I wrote to the Finance Director with "an idea to save money for UCL". You’d think that such collegiality would be welcomed, but it took a while for my suggestion to be brushed aside. The suggestion was to choose a range of goods, and get the people who do the ordering to get the best price they could, from any source. Then compare these prices with the quutations obtaned by our procurement department. If the latter prices are not sufficiently cheaper to pay the wages and other costs of the procurement office than clearly we’d save money by abolishing it

But what ig got was "Thank you for the offer but I am already quite satisfied that they deliver value for money sufficient to cover their costs.". I’m hoping to find out the reason for this confident prediction of the result of an experiment that has not been done.

24 July 2011. We had a big garden party for my 75th birthday, Margaret’s 60th and Andrew’s graduation. And we had the first sunny day for a month. lots of friends and relations, and lots of good food and drink.


Bert Sakmann (who flew from Munich for the party). John Henderson, Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee on Twitter)


Margaret, Chris Shelley, Andrew Plested, Lucia Sivilotti, cousin Marcus Chembers and Phyllis


Andrew with cousins Oliver and Julian. Andrew was bullied into putting on his graduation outfit and gave a nice speech.


Alan Hennes (@zeno001) and "Skeptic Barista" (@skepticbarista) admiring glumpy

29 July 2011. Phew. Just finished a week of wall-to-wall teaching on our summer course, Analysis and interpretation of single ion channel records and macroscopic currents using matrix methods. It’s a week of hard, and totally unpaid work. If you want to get paid you have to run a course in some form of psychobollocks,like Brain Gym or NLP. But it’s a pleasure to see bright students getting hold so quickly of ideas like matrix inversion, matrix exponentials and spectral expansion. The afternoon tutorials, where the students do it all for themselves in Mathcad, work fine thanks to hard work by Remigijus Lape, Andrew Plested. and Lucia Sivilotti. Lucia taught the first morning too: the basic rules of matrix algebra. The course was dropped by the Graduate School a few years ago on the grounds that it’s education not training (I know, you couldn’t make it up). So now we run the course with no support from UCL.

After five days, the students will all have evaluated for themselves the general expression for the probability density function that describes the lengths of bursts of channel openings, as on the course mug.

mug 201

Here’s the course picture (click picture to get higher resolution pdf version).

pic 2011

During a break between lectures, I noticed in the South quad, a trailer labelled (not very helpful because I can’t get into that site). It also bore the logo of UCL’s Grand Challenges. It was doing body measurements on anyone they could persuade to go in (mainly the Italian under-age smoking squad who attend language schools at this time of year). I was told it was “opportunistic sampling”.


My attempts to explain random sampling fell on deaf ears. I was curious about how this exercise would help human wellbeing so this lunchtime I met the man who organised it. I’m still puzzled.

I was intrigued to discover that they’s been told by the HR Manager that they couldn’t do it. I’m not clear why HR should have any control at all over research. And I’m far from sure that the well-meaning Grand Challenges will deliver value for money. That was the point of my recent BMJ piece, “The A to Z of Wellbeing“. The problem is that “wellbeing” on the web usually means quackery, and that’s not good PR for UCL.

7 August 2011. Sat up late to listen to the inaugural lecture by Patricia Greenhalgh, who has left UCL for Queen Mary College. I did it because it was recommended on Twitter by Jonathon Tomlinson (@mellojonny), a Hackney GP who gave me good advice when I was writing the A to Z of Wellbeing. I have had great regard for Greenhalgh since she wrote "How to read a paper" (though of course these admirable pieces referred only to clinical papers).

Sad to say, I didn’t like the lecture very much. It is always a sign of failure when people start to invoke Einstein and Thomas Kuhn, a bit like Godwin’s law. I have a rule, never trust anyone who uses the word ‘paradigm’. I also have a rule, never use the term ‘evidence-based medicine (EBM)’. That term merely signifies how backward medicine is compared with other branches of science. You don’t hear people talking ‘about evidence-based physics’ or even ‘evidence-based pharmacology’. It begs the question of what the antonym of EBM might be. Myth based medicine perhaps?

Greenhalgh used the lecture to criticise EBM as heartless and reductionist. It is neither. It’s just the application of common sense and rationality to medical problems. It struck me as plain arrogant to pretend that there is a ‘new paradigm’ involved in a doctor showing humanity and compassion when faced with a patient for whom they can do little. It over-intellectualises common humanity. Over-intellectualising things is what gives academics a bad name. In social sciences it is rife. I wish people would use plain words for ideas that really aren’t very complicated.

11 August 2011. A colleague drew my attention to this advertisement. Another job of the sort that, until recently, we managed quite well without, and on the same pay as a full professor. This is at a time when quite brilliant postdocs would give their eye teeth for a job at half that salary. There’s one puzzle that I can extract from the ghastly convoluted bureaucratese. What exactly are these “performance management polices”. It isn’t just a matter of who judges "performance", but a matter of what can be done about it if someone isn’t performing.  You give them a wigging and instruct them to publish some Nature papers? What actually happens when a crunch comes is that the good people leave and the mediocre don’t. I’m unconvinced that a Faculty manager can do anything at all apart from getting in the way of those who are trying to do the work.


Then, hot on the heels of this, there was an advertisement for a deputy faculty manager, on grade 9. No shortage of money there.

14 August 2011. Went to the goodbye party for Andy Lewis of Quackometer fame. He’s moving to the country. It was a Caribbean style party, and since he’s posted a picture on Google+. I feel free to post one of him and Joanna. The dreadlocks are part of the Rasta hat (he’s as bald as me). They rather suit him.


21 August 2011. Spent much of the weekend on doing some last minute calculations for a paper on a glycine receptor mutation which causes startle disease in humans (alpha K276E). Tried a new method to eliminate states from an over-parametrised model, by looking at the frequency with which they are visited, rather than their occupancy. That needs some beautifully simple matrix calculations. The authors will be Remigijus Lape, Andrew Plested, Mirko Moroni, David Colquhoun and Lucia Sivilotti. It got to the 50th draft, a new record. Should be submitted this week. At last.

22 August 2011. Went to Westminster Skeptics in the Pub to hear Paul Lewis talk about the riots. He did the on-the-spot reports for the Guardian. Talk was excellent, questions were excellent. and huge turnout. Well worth suffering the heat. Evan Harris turned up with Jemima Khan. Paul Clarke took some good pictures. This one has president, Evan Harris, and several of the patrons.


28 August 2011 The Financial Times had a nice piece “NHS loses taste for homeopathic medicines“. The graph says it all.


The fall is certainly not a result of pressure from the Department of Health, the MHRA or any other pseudo-regulatory body. All they have done is encourage it. It must be the result of the success of nerds writing blogs. Who says the blogs don’t make a difference?

7 September 2011. Lancaster Skeptics in the Pub This was there first ever meeting, and the audience was good and enthusisatic.

8 September 2011.Manchester Skeptics in the Pub All seemed to go well at this well-established group. Some very gratifying comments followed on twitter, @GMSkeptics.

!3 September 2011 After two relaxing days in the New Forest, moved onto Poole, and their gave a talk as part of the medical education progremme of Dorset NHS. It got a packed audience (OK it was a smallish room) of students to consultants. Mostly it was about the bad behaviour of the drug industry and of medical academics in their pay. Then a bit on quackademia, not neglecting the disgraceful behaviour of the British Journal of General Practice.

After the talk, took a ferry to Brownsea Island. Saw a red squirrel (very rare in southern England) and a horde of bar-tailed Godwits.


I learned from a nice article by Robert Krulwich that "They are the only birds known to fly more than 7,000 miles nonstop" according The data come from Gill et al, Proc. R. Soc. B 2009, 276, 447-457: Extreme endurance flights by landbirds crossing the Pacific Ocean: ecological corridor rather than barrier? It shows the southward flight tracks of nine bar-tailed godwits fitted with satellite transmitters (PTTs) during 2006 and 2007. One female (E7) flew directly from Alaska to the non-breeding area in New Zealand in 8.1 days along an overwater track encompassing 11 680 km.


23 September 2011. The weekly UCL newsletter (now glossier, and much more PR-laden than before) issued an invitation.

“Participants are needed for a research survey beginning on 25 September on the Bloomsbury campus that will form part of a larger national wellbeing survey.Those taking part will make a significant contribution to the success of the project, enable the identification of lifestyle ‘drivers’ that improve wellbeing and receive a printout of your body measurements.”

This initiative has already been mentioned above. I still don’t know how it will do anything for wellbeing. If you want to take part you must fill in a questionnaire. The questions, as always, look pretty dumb to me.

  • What do you (your child) normally have for breakfast?
  • How many portions of vegetables do you (your child) eat each day?
  • Have you (your child) been on weight gain or loss diet programme?
    •None •NHS •WeightWatchers •Special K •Atkins

  • Do you suffer from any mental health problems (or have suffered in the past)?

    •None •Anxiety •Depression •Schizophrenia •Bipolar •Other

  • Do you consider yourself (your child):
    •Happy •Positive Relationships •Sense of Purpose •Confident• Enjoy new Experience

  • How many hours do you (your child) sleep a night?
  • Do you (your child) use an Online web site to manage your wellbeing?
    •None •Boots •WebMD •Other

  • Do you (your child) use a personal trainer or advisor to manage your wellbeing?
    •None •Personal •Trainer •Dietician •Other

How on earth should these questions be answered?

What I eat for breakfast is enormously variable

I have no idea how many "portions of vegetables" I eat each day, but it certainly varies a lot

Do I suffer from anxiety or depression? Who doesn’t from time to time? Asking about such ill-defined conditions, self-diagnosed, is not likely to produce any useful results.

Do I consider myself happy? It varies from moment to moment. I’m happy if I solve an equation or see a butterfly. I’m unhappy when I read surveys like this. I maintain that no sensible answer can be given to questions like this.

The number of hours I sleep varies hugely.

The idea of using an online site to "manage my wellbeing" seems utterly ludicrous. It would be especially ludicrous to use Boots, who would probably recommend useless supplements, "detox" or other sorts of quackery (but they did help with funding so can’t say that).

A personal trainer?! This is a survey for UCL staff, not for air-headed celebrities.

After you’ve filled in the questionnaire you can go to get a 3D body scan. There is no random selection, so nobody knows what population the results will be typical of. And there is indication of how the results will be used, or how they will benefit well-being. The study is being run by the inventor of the 3D body scanner, who has written

Developed largely for the clothing industry,3D body-surface scanners are transforming our ability to accurately measure and visualize a person’s body size, shape, and skin-surface area. Advancements in 3D whole-body scanning seem to offer even greater potential for healthcare applications.

Sadly that potential remains largely unrealised. That makes me wonder whether it is right to promote the survey under the banner of wellbeing. I do hope it isn’t really just a way of promoting the spinout company that makes the scanner.

I fear this exercise, though not quite in the angelic reiki class, falls somewhere towards the whacky end of the "A to Z of the Wellbeing Industry".

29 September 2011.

nhs choices logo

NHS Choices has many merits. But assessment of hospitals is not one of them. I noticed that the feedback site for the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (that’s the dishonest re-branding of the homeopathic hospital) consisted entirely of eulogies. I attempted to restore some balance by sending the following comment.

No mention is made anywhere that this hospital provides bogus and ineffective treatments. Homeopathy is utterly discredited/ At the recent parliamentary select committee, even the Dept of Health admitted that there was no worthwhile evidence that it worked. There is a growing body of evidence that acupuncture is no more than a theatrical placebo (and that even the placebo effect is too small and erratic to be of much benefit).

This hospital is an anachronism in the 21st century and it does no credit to the UCLH Trust that they continue to promote it.

Guess what? The comment failed to appear. When I asked why, I got this (from a no-reply address -apparently dialogue is not allowed).

Thank you for contributing to the NHS Choices website. We have removed your contribution because it is off-topic.

It’s true that, strictly speaking, the site is for patients at the hospital. But since nobody with any critical faculties would be willing to be referred to a hospital that promotes quackery, the whole process is circular. The NHS Choices site is therefore totally uninformative: in fact it’s misleading.

17 October 2011. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement has spread from the USA, round the world. The interesting thing is that the business world is not entirely unsympathetic, The magazine Business Insider has published “Here Are The Four Charts That Explain What The Protesters Are Angry About…”, and also a set of 41 slides on the same theme. Here is one of them.

business insider

No wonder there is such unrest. It is the same in universities too, according to this 2010 chart from Times Higher Education, “V-cs outrank generals when it comes to pay gap over those in the trenches”.


In Russell group universities, the ratio is 19.1 (and, in the case of UCL, rather higher than that).

I often wonder why universities do not take more notice of Professor Sir Michael Marmot. UCL’s professor of public health. His work has shown the correlation between inequality, and disempowerment, with bad health and low life-expectancy. Why then, have we seen increasing inequality and increasing disempowerment in universities, as elsewhere? Marmot said "When I last looked we had found $9 trillion to bail out the banks. For one ninetieth of the money we found to bail out the banks every urban dweller could have clean running water". No wonder people are rather angry.

18 October 2011 The weekly Provost’s Newsletter has taken to giving us (rather elementary) lessons in spelling. The previous week’s newsletter pointed out the difference between "complimentary" and "complementary". Can there be any academic who doesn’t know this? It drew a quick response from me, most of which was quoted in today’s newsletter.

"within one hour of the 23:30 dispatch of the Newsletter – from Professor David Colquhoun, the renowned scourge of quackery. He wrote: “I just searched my blog for ‘complimentary’ . . . It occurs six times (in 334 posts), one used correctly to refer to a compliment. The other five are used incorrectly, by practitioners of complementary medicine in four cases, and by a head of HR in one case. It occurs only once on UCL’s site, and not at all on Westminster’s, though Westminster  has ‘complimentary therapies’ twice (perhaps a reflection of their reduced activities in this area, something that I have been glad to help them with).". "

I note that there is a quack site which actually has the mistake in its domain name It seems that many quacks are not only scientifically illiterate.

19 October 2011. Everyone taken by surprise by the news that our provost, Malcolm Grant, will chair the NHS Commissioning board, two days a week, while retaining his job here. This is the enormous quango to which the Health minister proposes to hand over his powers. Perhaps its better to have Grant, rather than the head of a supermarket chain. Look what happened when tuition fees were put in the hands of a rather discreddited ex-head of BP? But it must also be said that Grant was not very vociferous in opposing the huge increase in tuition fees.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the matter is that almost everyone I’ve talked to about the matter has been quick to point out that Malcom Grant has not yet got a knighthood or peerage. The honours system in the UK is both corrupt and corrupting. Its abolition is long overdue.

But even I am not quite so pessimistic about the outcome as a colleague who wrote as follows,

So, the Provost has been invited to sit on the committee that decides what to do with the NHS, what does this mean?

All NHS buildings will be cleaned and scattered with illuminated panels in an attempt to unify the Old and the New.
There will be a proliferation of poorly bonded pea gravel, and in some instances large areas of York Stone will be laid, only to vanish under a patina of oil, rubber and chewing gum.
Huge swathes of below-average managers will be drafted in at the expense of employing more medical staff (no change, in other words). Any autonomy of existing medical departments will be wrested from the enfeebled arms of the existing staff and given to the above or GP’s (same animal).
Teams of Consultants (not the medical kind) will be rampaging through the Health system at great expense, they will be briefed on what they should recommend, and will recommend it. In the unlikely event of a fit of conscience or common sense, all recommendations contrary to the brief will be ignored.
There will be large amounts of rhetoric involving “Corporate”, “Enterprise”, “Wellbeing”, “Challenge” and “Translation” . This will be wilfully translated by the above as:
“Corporate”  –  Run by someone else at my behest, preferably with kickback.
“Enterprise”  – Tax avoidance,
“Wellbeing” – Tax avoidance,
“Challenge”  – Tax avoidance
“Translation” –  An alchemical process by which “monies in” become “monies due” [to us] avoiding the usual route of “monies spent” [on them].

Committee’s involved with running “NHSUK.COM Britain’s Global Health Service” (currently running seventh in the World Ranking of Health Services – but who takes any notice of them) will rarely be seen as they are on permanent world tours espousing their brilliance.

There will be a move to 50% of patients being treated privately.

New headquarters for NHSUK.COM will occupy the Shard of Glass (or similar Renzo Piano project)  for 30% of the annual budget.

21 October 2011. Anne McElvoy of the Economist asked for some advice about cosmetic adcertisement. I sent her a lot of detailed stuff about their bare-faced mendacity, and got a brief quotation in the Economist. article. "a lot of chemical-sounding ingredients in skin-care are merely “pseudoscientific technobabble”. "

Ms McElvoy got double value from this when a similar story appeared in the (London) Evening Standard (November 9th), I’m keeping faith with London’s beauty gurus. This one was far less sensible than what she wrote for the Economist. It starts

Ladies, the man you may not wish to talk to about your beauty routine and accompanying expenditure is right here in London. David Colquhoun is a professor of pharmacology at University College and, frankly, a liability to any woman’s dreams of transformation by skin cream.

and ends

It’s why the expensive facial and nightly slatherings will survive any amount of rational onslaught. And if a good dollop of delusion is the price, so be it. In beauty as in life, belief’s the thing.

It seems that her devotion to accuracy is rather dependent on the audience. This caused me to tweet

And i thought for a moment that Anne McElvoy of #Economist cared about truth Life is full of disappointments

Not long after that. some rather hostile commensts appeared.

5 November 2011. Apologies to anybody who wants to access any of our computer programs. reprints, comment pages or pictures on the UCL Server. All the links have been broken by our incompetent web managers who don’t seem to realise that if you move a page, links may no longer work. They are so eager to force on us a boring corporate uniformness that nothing else seems to matter. If you want programs or anything else, please email me until the mess is sorted out.

The problem was fixed on 8th November. It seems that someone to do with teaching felt free to remove a gigbayte or so of somebody else’s files without asking. That’s an aspect of the problems posed by the 2007 separation of teachng from research that I hadn’t thought of until it happened.

10 November 2011. Laurie Taylor comments on the provost’s new job.

Our vice-chancellor has offered his “unstinting support” to Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, who is under attack for adding the post of chair of the new NHS Commissioning Board to his existing duties.

Speaking to our reporter Keith Ponting (31), the vice-chancellor noted that Professor Grant would “generously” be donating his £63,000 NHS salary to UCL and continuing to survive on his unreduced university salary, which with benefits amounted to £317,779 in 2009-10.

Mr Ponting pointed out that based on a three-day week, this was equivalent to a daily salary of £2,302. Apart from the size of the pay cheque, weren’t there also concerns about Professor Grant’s capacity to perform his UCL administrative duties in such a dramatically reduced time period?

Our vice-chancellor vigorously rejected both concerns. He told Mr Ponting that the essential character of higher managerial university posts was that “nobody has the faintest idea how their incumbents ever came to attract, let alone earn, such disproportionately huge salaries in the first place”.

He did not believe that this view of the size of Professor Grant’s UCL remuneration would be “greatly affected” by the new arrangements.

11 November 2011 It’s always nice to get an unsolicited testimonial. Here is one that came today.

From      Sarah Latimer

Subject  What a rediculous [sic] blog


Hi David

What amazes me about you septics [sic] is your total lack of balance, science and logic. Flu vaccine is jet [sic] trash, the evidence shows that, last week it was anounced [sic] that one of the longest studies on eating raw fruit and veg showed that it effectively disrupted the gene known to cause heart disease, yet I see no support for things the alternative movement has taught for decades. Your population [sic] bias in choosing twat writers like Ernst who have no qualifications in anything alternative is a joke.

Do you really believe that ‘effective treatment’ for RA is tumour necrotising factor inhibitors! You need to get off your ex box, [sic] stop watching ex factor [sic] and get a life!


So not just scientifically illiterate.

The problem lies, I suspect, not in having "no qualifications in anything alternative", but it lies in having such a "qualification".

I was foolish enough to answer this letter, to ask for the reference. It was a journalist’s account of this paper. I read it and tried to explain what it did and didn’t say. It was all a waste of time though. Ms Latimer’s next mails had the subject line "data is [sic] not the issue, the thinking is the issue". It isn’t easy to discuss a question of genuine interest when it’s conducted with lines like "So do you think fat obese people have a medica; problem or they just eat loads of shit?".

21 November 2011. Spent an interesting day at HQ of Which? magazine, helping them with a project, which should appear in February. The big bonus was meeting Margaret McCartney face to face for the first time.

23 November 2011.

To Nottingham, to give the Tony Birmingham memorial lecture, “The past, present and future of pharmacology: successes, failures and threats from managerialism and quackery”. In which I reflect on some of pharmacology’s failures as well as its successes. Some version of this will eventually be published.

29 November 2011. To the British Academy, for launch of book, Evidence, inference and enquiry. My chapter, In Praise of Randomisation, can be downloaded. It might be better to read the slightly extended versions that have appeared on this blog, because they have links. Most of the paper appeared in a “post about risks of red meat“. The paper ended with some comments about the harm that some philosophers have done, which appeared more recently, as Why philosophy is largely ignored by science). Books now seem to be a very slow and unsatisfactory way to publish things.

1 December 2011 Talk to UCL Crucible Centre’s Café Scientifique group, part of the UCL “Grand Challenge of Human Wellbeing” The aim was to discuss whether wellbeing could be measured, and whether there was any feasible way to improve it. Short version, no and no. The talk had some elements of the BMJ piece on this topic, but with local examples. A blog about it will appear eventually.

3 December 2011 By steam train to Lincoln’s Weihnachtsmarkt, originally modelled on that in Neustadt an der WeinStrasse, and now the biggest in Europe. There’s a picture album for anyone who likes trains, food or markets.

6 December 2011. Debate orgamised by the admirable Index on Censorship, about "Is data transparency bad for science". Some of what I said, and a lot of other stuff, has been posted under Open access, peer review, grants and other academic conundrums.

11 – 13 December 2011. To Christ’s College Cambridge for “Reason and Unreason in 21st Century Science”, organised by Academia Europaea. For some reason it was invitation only. Rather dominated by philosophers and ethicists for my taste, but fun anyway. It was the second time in a week when I met Baroness Onora O’Neill (and I still had problems in grasping her message). I think I managed to bring a bit of levity to the meeting with a few slides of things that are taught in the University of Westminster.

22 December 2011. I only just noticed, in Times Higher education, a piece by my colleague, Adrian Furnham (professor of psychology at UCL). It’s pretty feisty compared with most of his columns. Doubtless it was brought on by the barrage of emails badgering us to fill in the latest staff survey (I did). Two quotations give the flavour.

Where’s the ticked-off box?

"The staff survey is, of course, the province of the most hated, loathed and despised department in the university – human resources. The survey-wallahs go to great pains to get a good response rate. They appoint, recruit and bamboozle people into becoming survey “champions”, whose job is to get people to complete the damn thing. Nothing peeves, irks and frustrates the survey people more than a poor response rate. "

"Who sees the results? It is customary for a “client” and respondents to receive a report giving the headline results. But do these reports ever show the really bad news? Namely, the news that 87 per cent of people neither like nor respect nor trust their manager, that 74 per cent are very strongly not proud to work for the organisation, and that a staggering 94 per cent think the appraisal/performance management system is a pointless, time-wasting, bureaucratic exercise?"

17 January 2012. A bit of a storm broke out after someone drew to my attention that a charity event was being run at UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre, and that the proceeds would go to a very dangerous quack cancer charity, Yes to Life. The director of the Bloomsbury is a good bloke and it seemed more likely that this was cock-up, not conspiracy. At midnight on Friday night, a letter was sent to him to draw attention to the nature of the charity. Various oncologists and celebrity scientists also wrote. On Monday, the matter was sorted out very quickly and now the money will go to a different charity, the Beyond Food Foundation. Great credit goes to Peter Cadley, director of the Bloomsbury Theatre, and to the The Charity Fundraiser, Jeremy Banks, for their speedy response.

There are now very many registered charities that sound plausible at first, but which turn out on closer inspection. to support barmy and dangerous ideas. That’s why I no longer give money to any charity until I’ve googled it.

20 January 2012. There’s an odd thing. After someone told me about a rather odd article about Steiner schools in the Scotsman on Sunday, I thought I should restore the balance a bit by posting a comment. Then, few days later, I saw that it had been removed by the moderator. This has never happened to me before so I wrote to ask why it had been removed. But then this comment appeared today, from a Drochelle. Thanks

I don’t understand why the moderator removed D Colquhoun’s comment which I retrieved from google cache: “Despite the positive tone of this article, it’s fair to warn parents that Steiner schools are not at all the same as Montessori. Rudolf Steiner’s ideas are occult, cult-like and often just plain weird.. Faceless dolls, gnomes, karma and reincarnation feature in his teachings. Anthroposophical ideas about medicine are a positive danger to public health (and the health of your children). Steiner also had some pretty unpleasant views which would nowadays be classed as racist. There is a good description of Steiner education, written by people who know about it, to be found here:”

I wonder how long that will stay up.

21 January 2012. A letter appeared in Times Higher Education from Nigel Palastanga, Pro vice-chancellor, learning, teaching and enhancement at the University of Wales, in which he tried to say that he was blameless in the validation fiasco which brought the university to destruction. I can’t agree, and the reasons why are well-documented. Here is my response.

Oh dear, I’m afraid that this is not true at all.

It was Professor Palastanga himself who presided over the astonishingly incompetent validation of many barmy courses. This was all documented in detail on my blog in October 2008, including an email from Prof Palastanga himself, dated 26 October 2008, which revealed very clearly the incompetetent box ticking approach that eventually brought down the University of Wales. (Just put Palastanga in the search box at

It might have happened much sooner if Times Higher Education had taken up the case at the time. Sadly they didn’t.

It is almost beyond belief that, after these revelations, the then vice-chancellor, Marc Clement, promoted Palastanga to be, of all things, Pro vice-chancellor, learning, teaching and enhancement, a post that he still seems to hold. And Marc Clement, the man who presided over the validation fiasco (and was quite aware of what I’d unearthed) has been rewarded by promotion to be president of the University.

The academic world owes a debt to Leighton Andrews, Welsh minister of education, who did take notice of what was happening and shut the university, But I have the impression the job is not finished yet.

24 January 2012. The eminent mathematician, Tim Gowers, has a rather hard-hitting blog on open access and scientific publishing, Elsevier – my part in its downfall. I’m right with him. Although his post lacks the detailed numbers of mine, it shows that mathematicians has exactly the same problems of the rest of us.

26 January 2012. The good thing about Thursdays is the weekly dose of the great Laurie Taylor in Times Higher Education". Two weeks ago it was

Thought for the Week

(contributed by Jennifer Doubleday, Head of Personal Development)

I’m delighted to say that next week’s seminar will be given by a leading neuroscientist who will demonstrate how parts of his bank balance light up when he delivers yet another unfounded generalisation about the cortical basis of human behaviour.


Then, today,

Our vice-chancellor has taken exception to the claim by Sir Peter Scott, former vice-chancellor of Kingston University, that he enjoyed a conversation with “a very senior policy figure” who said that “ministers always know that they can get at least one or two vice-chancellors to agree with almost anything they suggest”.

“I’ve never heard of Peter Scott or Kingston University,” the vice-chancellor told our reporter, Keith Ponting (30), “but what he says gives an entirely misleading impression of the average vice-chancellor’s readiness to stand up and be counted. It ignores how members of Universities UK agonised for the best part of an hour before agreeing with every single aspect of the government’s proposals on higher education.

“And”, he added, “there are plenty of other instances. I can recall a recent UUK meeting that carefully deliberated the government’s view that universities were made of blue cheese before concluding by a clear majority of two that this contention needed more consideration. This is hardly evidence of unthinking compliance.”

27 January 2012 Into hospital for revision of 15 year old prosthetic hip. To be continued soon, I hope.

15 February 2012. Only a bit over two weeks post-op, a Russian TV crew from NTV came to film an interview at home. I look surprisingly normal. A small fragment of the interview, dubbed into Russian, was broadcast. The unedited version is on YouTube.

23 February 2012. First gig, just under four weeks post-op. "Gods. quacks and other fairy stories" at the UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society/ Managed on two crutches, and cab to get in to UCL.

29 February 2012. It’s now almost five weeks since the hip revision operation. Recovery has been a lot slower than after the original prosthesis. It was all going well up to 4 weeks post-op but then trying straight leg raises seemed to bugger up something -could it be iliopsoas tendonitis? Flexion (only) of right leg now very painful -can’t get into bed or car without lifting right leg by hand. It’s getting boring being stuck at home. Apologies to anyone I snap at on Twitter.

2 March 2012. Readers may have noticed frequent outbursts against the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) which not only fails to ensure quality, but sometimes actually helps low quality by approving it. See, for example, Scandal of the University of Wales and the Quality Assurance Agency, and most recently, the diary entry for 21 January 2012. The latest pronouncement is a good example. It was spotted by the indefatigable Laurie Taylor, writing in Times Higher Education

‘We know nothing’ – QAA

“Hands off the Quality Assurance Agency.”

That was the robust response of Jamie Targett, our Director of Corporate Affairs, to the news that the QAA has absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of 63 out of the 94 private providers who currently benefit from state-backed student loans funding.

Targett told our reporter Keith Ponting (30) that it would be only “a matter of time” before the QAA team got around to assessing the quality of such private providers as the Delamar Academy (the UK’s “leading professional make-up school”) and Mattersey Hall (“preparing men and women for productive Christian service”).

When asked by Ponting if the QAA’s assertion that it had “good knowledge” of private providers was at odds with its lack of knowledge of most private providers, Targett pointed out that in the past the QAA’s idea of “good knowledge” had always been based on the seriously misleading form-filling evidence that institutions provided of their own teaching quality.

This meant, he said, that the QAA’s “total lack of knowledge” could be seen by those with an open mind as “something of an advance”.

7 March 2012. Margaret drove me to Southampton for talk at Southampton Atheist Society Reason week. Still on two crutches.

14 March 2012. Into UCLH for follow-up outpatients appointment. First time on train with crutches. X-ray looks good. Got the OK for new hip to be load-bearing and to use one walking stick rather than two crutches. Also seen by very impressive physiotherapist.

16 March 2012. Nightmare two hour drive (by Margaret) through rush hour traffic, to deepest south London, to get to launch party for Margaret McCartney’s book, The Patient Paradox., . Well worth it though. It’s a great book. Everyone should read it. Lots of old friends there, and some new ones.

17 March 2012. Some truth in this (I hope).

22 March 2012. Got a rather amazing email from medical school (SLMS) managers. “SLMS Academic Careers Office is launching a new Academic Role Models initiative”, “Our aim is to produce an exciting publication describing each role model, detailing their career pathway”. My career pathway was in the 1960s, and entirely irrelevant to anyone starting now. Laurie Taylor does it again, in Times Higher Education.

“We’re on our way!” That was the triumphalist response of Louise Bimpson, the Corporate Director of our ever-expanding Human Resources team, to the news from the Higher Education Statistics Agency of another dramatic increase in the number of managers in higher education.

Ms Bimpson said she was “profoundly heartened” by the evidence that there is now one manager for every nine academics compared with the previous ratio of one to eleven.

She told The Poppletonian that she could readily remember the “bad old days” when the relative lack of managers meant that members of academic staff could go for a whole day without having to attend a single meeting with management or respond to an urgent and largely incomprehensible request from management or complete a very long form provided by management or explain to one part of management what had already been adequately explained to another part of management.

“One sometimes wonders”, she said with one of her trademark chuckles, “how on earth they ever contrived to fill their time.”

27 March 2012. On Sunday (25 March) we went to the Guardian open weekend. Serendipitously, we met Martin Wainwright , who works for the Guardian. he also runs a blog about moths. He and features editor Patrck Barkham did a talk on butterfiles. They were really interested when I mentioned the purple emperor that I saw last July (one picture above)I sent them my two best pictures which now appear on Martin’s moth blog. According to Patrick Barkham it is the first ever sighting within the M25.

19 April 2012

I got invited to give after-dinner talk on open access at Cumberland Lodge. It was for the retreat of out GEE Department (that is the catchy brand name we’ve had since 2007: I’m in the equally memorable NPP). I think it stands for Genetics, Evolution and Environment. The talk seemed to stiir up a lot of interest: the discussions ran on to the next day.


There is an update about open access on the blog.

The organisers kindly allowed Margaret to come too (at the time I accepted I was not sure how mobile I’d be). Cumberland Lodge is beautiful, excellent room and superb food. And on the way we stopped at the Loch Fyne restauarant in Egham for a self-indulgent lunch.

Loch fyne 

And this was our room.



26 April 2012. Nature red in tooth and claw. A sparrowhawk appeared in the garden. it looks like the end for a young blackbird, but too late to intervene.



15 May 2012. The great Bert Sakmann, co-inventor of the patch clamp, and co-author of one of my best papers Colquhoun & Sakmann, 1985), is windsurfing, at age 69. When he retired from the Max Planck Institute Heidelberg at 65, he was put in charge of setting up a Max Planck Institute in Florida.

20 May 2012. Sunday walks resumed at last, though not very long or very fast. Summer is on its way. Last week, primroses. They used to line every hedge in the country, but now quite rare


This week, the rhododendrons are coming


28 May 2012. Went to Kings London to give seminar to their Institute of Pharmaceutical Science. There was an excellent audience and I enjoyed meeting Peter Hylands. That will be turned into a full post shortly.

The diary for June 2012 to May 2013will now be continued on a new page.

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30 Responses to The diary: June 2011 – May 2012

  • [Ed. Refers to 3 June]

    Re “spend all their time writing grants”, don’t forget the struggle to get the papers in journals with a high Impact Factor/”visibility”, which is widely believed to have a significant influence on your chance of getting funded.

    One of my colleagues just had a paper turned down from the third high-impact clinical research journal it has been sent to. The main reason it is going to these places is the potential “funding uplift” factor. But the work required to keep re-jigging it for different places is real, and the time is non-recoverable.

  • One obvious consequence of investigator led funding is that some (perhaps many) research questions/topics will be effectively rendered ‘unfundable’ and will die. Only big, fashionable topics will be funded, they will become bigger and more fashionable etc. I’m not sure what to make of this – it’s a bit like the loss of biological diversity, which people seem to agree is a bad thing . . but what are the consequences? Does it really matter? I wish I knew.

  • @JamesT
    Thanks for the comment, but I think exactly the opposite of is the case. At present what’s being funded is too often decided by committees of research council people who are far from active research. It is they who are lead by buzzwords and fine-sounding sentiments. What this neglects is that there is no point in pouring large amounts of money into problems that it would be useful to solve when the methods for solving it just don’t exist. Systems biology comes to mind. Obviously it is an area worth exploring (and was being explored before the buzzword was invented). But it was a mistake for BBSRC to pour quite so much money into it before it was known whether the money would be spent well. The outcome so far is a plethora of over-parametrised studies with very few conclusions.

    The people who know best what’s likely to give results are the people who are doing the experiments. It is the research councils’ policy of setting the agenda that will lead to loss of whole subject areas.

  • @DC
    I agree with everything you say, but what worries me is that if all the research funding is concentrated in a few large and successful groups, then other groups/individuals will be left with nothing and the diversity of research will be dramatically reduced as a consequence.

    I am less worried about the basis upon which decisions about which ‘big cheeses’ should get all the funding, as I am about the reduced diversity that would seem to follow necessarily. I am in two minds about it as well: I look at my own discipline (and some others) and wonder why it is that the tax payer or charity contributor should be funding the kind of nonsense that some academics get up to. It’s fine to have a hobby, but why should someone esle be paying for it? On the other hand, in order to have a rich and diverse research culture, you have to put up with a bit of silly crazy stuff – you never know what might get thrown up.

    I guess as a charity the Wellcome should do as they wish. However, it looks as though the research councils are following suit. I guess that since I work on questions that are extremely unlikely (at best) to yield a string of Nature and Science papers (it’s not happened yet) and are small scale, my interests are in danger of becoming unfundable (perhaps they already are). Luckily I like teaching, so if I can’t do research any more I can continue to do something enjoyable!

  • [Ed. Refers to 11 June 2011]

    Well Steve Smith has a history of anti-science – closing down the chemistry department, it certainly wouldn’t happen with English or all those bits of campus paid for by middle eastern repressors

  • I’d quite like to read your book on statistics, it’s a shame Leicester’s library don’t have a copy.
    Those handy-sized books by academics are the best.

  • (Usually written from 1960 to 1980s, they don’t make books like that anymore!)

  • @Teige
    As well as the Google books copy, there is a corrected and searchable copy at link on the front page,

    Better grab it now because when Google ebooks get going in UK I may make a (trivial) charge for it.

  • Can’t believe my luck/oversight! =)

  • Many thanks for the making the statistics lectures widely available, they look good indeed.

    Do you plan to publish your pharmacology lectures as well?

  • @smurf
    Ah yes, the pharmacology principles book. I fear that my blogging addiction has meant that the book has stayed on the back burner for 5 years or more. There is still no book that describes the principles accurately, in my opinion, so I really ought to finish it. But having an effect in the real world has proved to be so interesting that I’m not sure I’ll ever do it now. We’ll see.

  • I fear you grossly underestimate the importance of good text books and monographs to change the practise of teaching and research. I (used to) work for the drug discovery industry, I can ensure you that state of the art reference texts and reviews are imperative for any “practitioners” to “keep the shop running”. Academic and industry enzymologists have done a pretty good job for enzymology, but this cannot be said for receptor pharmacology, and the situation for ion channel pharmacology, I hate to say it, is even far, far worse.

    I understand that the level of work required is off-putting, so perhaps you should think about alternative ways to influence the field? Blogging, some type of “open source” approach? Comments on “top papers”, papers that, in your opinion, should be understood by every serious pharmacologist?

  • [This refers to the 5 July 2011]

    What a great picture!!!!!!!

    WOOWWW!!! ANDREW IS RESPLENDID!!! He looks like a real Scotland Hero!!! Powerful, brave and superb!!! Real Scottish hero from ballads!! Real fairy tale!!! :) He is absolutely the best!!! I knew that he would be great in kilt ;) But I couldn’t even imagine that he is SO magnificent! :) I am in delight!

    I was right with my idea. However Grandma is great! :) She thought about it too! And if the boy has deserved 2.1, then Grandma deserves First-class Honours Degree for her idea! :) And it is necessary to stamp her name by gold letters on the wall of Aberdeen University :) She is worthy! By the way, she looks indeed excellently. I wish her to be healthy!

    Margaret is really beautiful – rosy and pink like the roses from her own garden!! :)

    In brief, it is really victory!

    I cordially congratulate you, David!!!

  • Many congrats on your 75th, David. Am myself closing in on a ‘Big’ birthday (gulp), so hope I manage to face it with as much equanimity!!

  • This refers to entry on 7 August 2011

    From Tricia Greenhalgh’s lecture:
    “The paradigm I want to talk about today is evidence-based medicine – EBM. The most widely quoted sentence ever published in the British Medical Journal is this from Dave Sackett in 1996: “Evidence based
    medicine is the conscientious, judicious and explicit use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients”
    This wasn’t so much a definition of EBM as a skilful rhetorical move to position his new paradigm squarely on the moral high ground. Anyone disagreeing would have to argue that doctors should be using worse evidence or practising non-conscientiously, non-judiciously and so on.”

    Which is your point.

    She continues,

    “A few years later, when EBM had built a reputation for itself as the only game in town, Anna Donald and I decided to propose a definition with which it was possible to disagree. We defined EBM as “the use of mathematical estimates of the chance of benefit and the risk of harm, derived from high-quality research on population samples, to inform clinical decision-making” Our definition highlighted three underlying
    assumptions of the EBM paradigm: first, clinical practice equates more or less with clinical decisions; second, clinical decisions are best made using mathematical predictions; and third, reasoning occurs from the population to the individual. In the circumstances for which EBM was originally conceptualised, these assumptions were entirely reasonable. Many people – my own mother included – owe their lives to the rigorous science of EBM that was built on these foundations.”

    Greenhalgh explains the shortcomings of relying on EBM (or common sense) alone in making a medical diagnosis and prescribing a treatment.

    What she does not do, that you imply, is to suggest that she is in any way ‘anti’ EBM, or interested in an alternative or opposing view to EBM, nor does she or I (as you tweeted) ‘slag off’ EBM. Indeeed she is best known for her book, ‘How to read a paper, the Basics of Evidence Based Medicine’

    The practice of clinical medicine, as a reading of literature would most likely demonstrate (see Greenhalgh’s Medicine and Literature) is far more than EBM+humanity. The ability to take a medical history and make sense of a patient’s narrative requires far more than common-sense. From the ‘scientific confines’ of a laboratory this may seem like mythology, but it is how medicine is practiced.

  • @jonathon tomlinson
    Thanks for taking the trouble to write such a convincing defence.

    I know quite well that Greenhalgh is someone who believes in the value of evidence, but it does worry me that some of her comments, taken out of context, will be cited by people who don’t (there are a surprising number of them around). To refer to “evidence based medicine” as the “only game in town” seems both inaccurate and unhelpful.

    Neither do I underestimate the difficulty of practising good medicine, especially in areas with high deprivation. I admire anyone who takes on that challenge. I write merely from the patients’ point of view.

    Nevertheless I still maintain that the term EBM is unnecessary and misleading. So it is barely worth discussing at all. And I certainly think that it is pretentious and unhelpful to call it a “paradigm”. As far as I’m concerned the only thing that merits that term was the enlightenment itself, and even that does not need the word. The comparison with Einstein seems to me to be plain silly.

    The main problem concerning evidence is surely that there isn’t nearly enough of it. No doubt, if we knew a lot more than we do, it would be possible to account for the way individual patients vary in response to the same treatment. The first faltering steps are being taken on that road, for example in breast cancer treatment, but there are a million miles to go. For a long time to come, evidence will be inadequate, and so guesswork will be the only option. There are no subtle principles involved though. Just patience.

  • Saw your comment on Twitter, You are coping with sensible discussion in the middle of a riot!

    Gotta see patients now, family safe. V Frightening

    Hope it’s calmed down now.

  • [Refers to entry for 20 July 2011]

    “I’m hoping to find out the reason for this confident prediction of the result of an experiment that has not been done.”

    Cracked me up!

  • [This and next comment refer to 11 August 2011]

    Good grief – that ‘Faculty Manager’ job would make you weep. UCL managers should be ashamed.

  • I guess ‘Faculty Manager’ here means ‘Head of Faculty Administration’, so the senior administrator in the faculty. Still, one can remember when such a person would have been called ‘Assistant Registrar’ and, while having a secure job, would not have been being paid on a Professorial scale.

    Of course, the justification is likely to be that, in contrast to the old Asst Registrar days, the Head of Faculty Admin is now a senior MANAGER, since they are in charge of a large staff of OTHER administrators.

    Which is the story right there.

  • Talking of well-remunerated Vice Chancellors, DC, have you seen that [UCL boss] Malcolm Grant, of the impressive £ 400 K pa remuneration, is taking on the job of Chair of the NHS Commissioning Board, presumably as well as running UCL.

    The job was announced as being ‘equivalent to two days a week” – so if the NHS is going to be paying him for those two days, I guess UCL might save 2/5 of his hefty salary. I make that £ 160K odd a year. Should probably pay for two £ 80K pa MBA-toting sub-Provosts to share the load.

    One hopes the Provost will still have time in the 3 days per week he is at UCL to continue to pen his justly celebrated Provost’s Friday bulletin, excerpts of which are sometimes forwarded to me by awed UCL colleagues.

  • A little bird mentioned that Grant was asked by the UCL Council to hang on for a year, focussing solely on UCL, rather than taking dual responsibility for these substantial organistations immediately. I heard from somewhere that he declined this offer (which should turn up eventually in the Council minutes…). No news yet about a renegotiation of pay either. Its a fair guess we will be paying him for his three days a week (~£400k p.a.) for some time to come.

    For those at UCL Grant is in a rather unique position, being able to fail doubly; firstly as a disinterested, costly Provost (eye on the Lords?) and secondly as chair of the future NHS Plc. Aren’t they lucky.

  • Ref to 11 Nov:
    Is Ms Latimer genuine? If I hadn’t met people like this myself, I’d be certain you had been ‘trolled’!

    To 10 Nov:
    It is sad to hear your VC state the awful truth and either consider it fine or consider himself powerless.

  • @ Teige, Re: Sarah Latimer letter [11 Nov]

    If she exists, she seems to really like coffee shops.

    (sorry if the link doesn’t work, I’m new to commenting here)

  • I’ve been reading this blog for a long time, and I think it might be interesting to chip in here. I’m one of these failed-scientist types (leaving with an MChem) who went into HR at an Oxbridge science department after it became clear I was a liability in a lab. You’re right about HR having too much money (my very ordinary 2:1 got me a starting salary higher than my friends with firsts are doing PhDs on) but lazy? I’ve regularly emails from my boss at 5:45 in the morning on busy days!

    Where I think academic HR has gone wrong is that it should be academic first, HR second: our job here is to a large extent (and it should be at UCL too) to keep on top of the research councils’ latest nutty ideas and slot the buzzwords into your grant applications so that you can worry about the research. Given graduate unemployment this can be done very simply: stop hiring people with degrees in people management, start hiring science graduates who know what you’re doing-they can learn HR on the job like people used to. Next (and this is very important), start an internship programme where your students can earn money over the hols working in these areas. This will make them more employable in general (‘worked on multimillion pound doctoral training programme’), help out the genuine duffers in HR by giving them an idea of what the big building they’re in does, and if they then want to go into research will give them a better understanding of what science is out there and how to make a career in science work. I genuinely mean that: I’ve read a lot of papers, met a lot of senior academics and I’d say my work is pretty interesting-if I’d done this one summer it would certainly have helped in my second-year exams, for instance.

  • @Mender
    Thanks very much for your helpful comment. It’s always particularly gratifying when I get support from HR people, and you aren’t the first.

    Your suggestions sound very sensible to me. Someone with a scientific background should be much more capable of telling what works and what doesn’t. They should be able to distinguish between psychobabble and reality. And they would not be likely to think that it was a good way to spend money if it were proposed to hire a life coach to teach NLP and Brain gym to postdoctoral students.

    I wish there were more like you HR.

  • Glad to hear you’re getting your mobility back, David. If your ears were burning last Wednesday night, it was because we were talking about you and getting a progress update on the hip..!

  • No, , primroses and rhododendrons – it is still spring ;)

    Summer is here, in Samara. Cherries are big already, though green. They will be ripe already in June.
    I was walking in Botanic Garden today. Excellent! A lot of flowers – simultaneously summer and spring ones.

    I was having lunch there under tree near the pond. There I was eating in company of gnats: I was eating cheese&bread and lemonade, and that time the gnats were eating me :) However this were the wrong gnats. No marks of their bites remained ;) And of course I was late as usual and the Garden turned out closed (the Garden works only up to 5 o’clock). And I climbed over the fence (as usual)… :) It was good too.

    Now people doesn’t go to the Garden almost. They fear the ticks (mites). There are a lot of mites this spring-summer, because weather is uncommonly warm. So only old ladies and young pairs with small babies in baby carriages are walking in the Garden (they are walking along the paths, so the mites are not dangerous for them. The mites are sitting in grass). Good public. For our wild city the absence of people in the Garden is doubtlessly a good. The Garden is clean and full of flowers. Now the common people goes to the beach (there it is not forbidden to litter and to drink the beer).

    The nightingales are singing in the Garden… And the big dragonflies are flying over the pond… Black grass-snake with orange “ears” is swimming in the pond. The green frogs are singing. The pink carnations are blossoming on the impovised small “Alpine mountains” (like in the photo in your blog) and the butterflies are playing among them. Funny… The lilac are blossoming still.

    And now the rain is brewing… It is good too.

  • The Mayfly May Ball

    I live on the edge of civilisation in an L formed by 3×2 houses. The apex of the L is a good shelter from the wind. I was outside having a fag on Saturday night and saw a mayfly May Ball.

    There was a swarm of about 80-100 mayflies in a column in the windbreak. I say “about” as they are hard to count in a swarm.

    Their behaviour seems to consist of flying around a bit and then going perfectly vertically upwards as fast as possible and then dropping perfectly vertically down through the swarm. As far as I could tell (try identifying one bug in a swarm) their actions seem to consist of falling down slowly until they see a female bug they fancy (I imagine it is the males doing the heavy lifting here and showing of their prowess) and then flying upwards as fast as they can to impress the lucky young lady.

    I imagine the females are impressed or otherwise by the males ability/strength and the ones whose ascent is most spectacular gets his choice of mayfly lovelies.

    Pairs of bugs would then disappear of into the wild blue yonder (well gloom) to do what mayflies do when they get their act together. This was a perilous venture as the swallows hunt bugs every evening in the wind trap. The attrition rate among the bugs was fairly high. (They might have been swifts or martins but as they fly close to Mach 1 it is hard to tell).

    They reminded me of students at a May Ball or kids at the school disco. Drink enough champagne or cider and blackcurrant to overcome your inhibitions and then vanish off with the object of your desires.

    As the light went down my pet bat Batty came out to feed (he is not yet aware that he is my pet but I am working on it). His radar obviously informed him that he was in a target rich environment and the mayflies suffered further attrition.

    A lot of the departed bugs came back to the swarm but then seemed to be dying on the roof of my car. In military bomber terms I guess they expended their payload, went bingo on fuel and bought the farm.

    If the rapid vertical ascent (followed by pairing off) is not a mating ritual I would love to know what it is. It certainly seems to be something which is worth risking getting eaten by birds and bats for.

    They are all gone now (Tuesday evening).

    A few stragglers last night. Must have been the wimps or the ugly ones (How do the lady bugs tell?).

    “Sneaky Fuckers”

    I run the risk of appearing to be some sort of zoological peeping-tom here. I do not have an unhealthy interest in animal procreation – it is hardly my fault if they do it in front of me.

    Apologies for the title phrase but it was not coined by me. I think I read it in a Dawkins book, or possibly in Jerry Coyne.

    It apparently describes an animal such as an also-ran male deer which runs in and mates the females whilst the big male deer are locking antlers in a fight to see who gets to mate the females. Who says zoologists have no sense of humour.

    I usually walk along the Wey Navigation/Basingstoke Canal every day. I was having a fag whilst sat on a lock gate (I would probably never see any nature if I didn’t smoke) and was watching some ducks.

    Two big beautifully plumaged drakes were having a serious set-to – pecking each other, flapping their wings at each other at point blank range, chasing each other up and down the canal for 50-60 yards, squawking and quacking and generally giving each other the “I am a seriously harder duck than you” spiel.

    Meanwhile a female duck sat there quietly waiting for them to finish their willy waving exercise (literally and metaphorically).

    All of a sudden a somewhat mediocre drake idly shambled off the bank, lazily swam over to the female, swam around her once, mounted her from behind and held her head under water while he (presumably) mated her. (I thought the head under water bit was a bit unfair but I suppose it ensures acquiescence and rapidity. Mrs H was less than enthusiastic about this technique.).

    Throughout the entire mating Rambo Drake and Arnie Drake were still at it 60 yards away.

    Mrs Duck and Mediocre Drake swam away happy.

    So much for survival of the fittest. Maybe it should be rewritten as survival of the sneakiest and most duplicitous. That would explain a great deal about human evolution.

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