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.
[Update: Letter from Provost below]
Saturday June 9, 2007
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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:
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]
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.
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.
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.
If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Scienceand Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
I’m a bit late on this one, but better late than never.
|The opinionated and ill-informed actress turned talk show host, Jeni Barnett, spent an hour or so endangering your children (and hers) with what most surely be one of the worst ever accounts of measles vaccination.
Chart from BBC report
She was abominably rude to a well-informed nurse who phoned in to try to inject some sense into the conversation.
The LBC tried to stop Ben Goldacre from publicising this horrific show by legal action.
Blogs are the new journalism. The response has been wonderful. People of all ages sat up late into the night transcribing the entire broadcast. Unlike the doubtless highly-paid actress, they did it as a public service. They were not paid by anyone. It is all rather beautiful.. Within a day of the legal notice being sent to Goldacre, the offensive broadcast has spread like wildfire over the web.
The result of all this hard work is that if you type ‘Jeni Barnett MMR’ into Google, every item but one on the first page links to the sites that are highly critical of Barnett’s irresponsible and ill-mannered rant (at 7 am on 7 Feb).
The many people who have put work into this effort are listed, for example, on Ben Goldacre’s own site.
Holfordwatch lists many links, and also lists previous attempts of lawyers to suppress science.
When will people learn that lawyers are not the proper way to settle matters of truth and falsehood.
Dice, n . Small polka-dotted cubes of ivory, constructed like a lawyer to lie on any side, but commonly the wrong one. [ Bierce, Ambrose , The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary , 1967]
The condemnation extends far beyond the usual bad medicine writers. Anyone who wants to speak the truth as they see it sees legal actions like these as a threat to freedom of speech. A side effect is that I learned about several new blogs.
One, with a name as good as its content is A Somewhat Old, But Capacious Handbag, written by (you guessed it) Miss Prism, has Today’s irresponsible tripe courtesy of Jeni Barnett.”
Another one that was new to me is the Black Triangle blog, written by Dr Anthony Cox (a pharmacovigilance pharmacist). He writes in Conspiracy?
Anti-vaccinators have exploited the internet for years. Websites, blogs, and forums are widely used by activists to promote their wrong-headed cause. However, when the pro-science pro-vaccine lobby use similar methods a common accusation is leveled at them. Here it is posted at JABS, the UK’s leading anti-vaccine website.
“There is no way all of this could have happened so quickly without Pharma backing.” “
That is really priceless. These anti-vaccination fanatics just don’t seem to be able to grasp that there is a big army of people who care so much about the public interest that they do all this for no money and a considerable cost to themselves in time and lost sleep.
Besides which, anyone who thinks that a big corporation could whip up so much support and activity in 24 hours obviously has a rather better opinion of the efficiency of big companies than I do. They’d need 25 meetings and an awayday in Majorca before anything happened . Even a university can do better than that (perhaps only 20 meetings and an awayday in Uxbridge). One does wonder why, then, universities are always being told to be more like businesses. But that is another story.
Anthony Cox also deals with another of my favourite topics in The Today Programme’s irresponsible MMR interview. I listen to the Today Programme, I listen every morning. But I do wish they could bring their medical reporting up to the same standard as their political reporting. Their policy of ‘equal time for the flat earth society” is not my idea of impartiality.
The Sunday Times for 8th February, by coincidence, has a major article by the excellent investigative reporter, Brian Deer.
An excellent summary has appeared already Dynutrix on Holfordwatch.
“However, our investigation, confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease, reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and the Lancet paper showed them as abnormal. “
Part 2. MMR: Key Dates in the Crisis .
Part 3. Most shockingly Hidden records show MMR truth
“A Sunday Times investigation has found that altered data was behind the decade-long scare over vaccination ”
Let’s hope that some of the original documents appear on-line soon.
The Times on 10 February carried a beautifully hard-hitting column by David Aaronovitch: The preposterous prejudice of the anti-MMR lobby
“Last week there was a bust-up in blogland.”
“Last week, justifying herself on her blog, Barnett invoked the spirit of the insurgent ignoramus. Yes, she said, she should have been ready with facts and figures on MMR.”
“That’s why I’m passionately for Goldacre, and why I find myself wondering whether we can file a class action against LBC for permitting a presenter to inflict her preposterous prejudices on her listeners, to the detriment of someone else’s kids.”
Jeni Barnett: have you lost something?. Well well, first Jeni Barnett removed the critical comments from her blog. Then she removed the blog altogether. Seems she isn’t interested in debate at all.
Stephen Fry left a comment (#223) on Goldacre’s site.
“The fatuity of the Jeni Barnett woman’s manner – her blend of self-righteousness and stupidity, her simply quite staggering inability to grasp, pursue or appreciate a sequence of logical steps – all these are signature characteristics of Britain these days. The lamentable truth is that most of the population wouldn’t really understand why we get so angry at this assault on reason, logic and sense. But we have to keep hammering away at these people and their superstitious inanities. We have to. Well done you and well done all you supporting. I’ve tweeted this site to my followers. I hope they all do their best to support you. Publish and be damned. We’ll fight them and fight them and fight them in the name of empricism, reason, double blind random testing and all that matters.”
London Evening Standard on 11 February. Nick Cohen on How my friends fell for the MMR panic.
Press Gazette covered the start of the srory on 6th February, here.
MSNBC TV broadcast by Keith Olberman votes Andrew Wakefield as “today’s worst person in the world” on February 10th. Click in video “Vaccine lie puts kids at risk”.
Write to your MP to ask him/her to sign Early Day Motion 754, MMR Vaccine and the Media
David Aaronovitch writes again in the Times, February 14th, “We need an inquiry into how Andrew Wakefield got away with it“.
Today is a good day for anyone who deplores dangerous confidence tricksters. In particular it is a good day for Ben Goldacre, and for the Guardian which defended him at potentially enormous expense.
|Matthias Rath, the Dutch (or is it German) vitamin salesman has dropped his libel action against the Guardian. He is the man who is, without doubt, responsible for many deaths form AIDS in Africa, as a result of peddling vitamin pills as cures. The action was taken after Goldacre said, in the Guardian, that Rath aggressively sells his message to Aids victims in South Africa that Rath vitamin pills are better than medication”.|
Here is some of what has appeared already today
Fall of the doctor who said his vitamins would cure Aids – from The Guardian, with a video of the villain.
Then more in the Guardian the next day, Chris McGreal investigates the Rath Foundation
Let’s be clear about what the words mean. Nutritional therapists are not like dietitians, and they are not like nutritionists. Nutritional therapists are solidly in the camp of alternative medicine practitioners, Don’t
take my word for it. They say so themselves.
“For nutritional therapists (who practise Complementary and Alternative Medicine) optimum nutrition encompasses individual prescriptions for diet and lifestyle in order to alleviate or prevent ailments and to promote optimal gene expression through all life stages. Recommendations may include guidance on natural detoxification, procedures to promote colon health, methods to support digestion and absorption, the avoidance of toxins or allergens and the appropriate use of supplementary nutrients, including phytonutrients.”
They love to use imaginary words like “detoxification”, and, much more dangerously, they love to pretend that they can cure diseases by changes in diet. As long as you buy from them a stack of expensive “supplement” pills, of course. That means they are selling medicines, but by pretending they are selling food supplements they manage to evade the law that requires medicines to be safe and effective. That will not be so easy under new legislation though, and we can look forward to a few prosecutions soon.
The University of Westminster
On their web site we learn that the Course Leader is Heather Rosa, and the Deputy Course Leader is Val Harvey. Harvey qualified in the subject at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition, the private college run by none other than the famous pill-peddler, Patrick Holford, about whom so very much has been written (try Holfordwatch, or the masterly chapter in Goldacre’s Bad Science)
We don’t know much about what is taught on the Nutritional Therapy course because the University of Westminster has refused repeated requests to say (but watch this space).. One can only assume that, whatever it is, they are not very proud of it. It seems a little unlikely that they will go as far as Matthias Rath and claim to cure AIDS -we’ll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile we can get an inkling by looking elsewhere.
Course leader, Heather Rosa, pops up for example, on the expert panel of a web site called Supplements Compared.com. “Supplements Compared is designed to help you find the best dietary supplement product for your health needs.” And what sort of advice do you find there? Try the page that compares 10 brands of CoQ10 (that is the stuff I wrote about recently, in “Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 promotion” – their advertising was deemed improper by the ASA ). It isn’t a recommended treatment for anything at all, but you certainly wouldn’t guess that from what is written by the ‘expert panel’. The winners are, according to the ‘expert panel’, Boots’ CoQ10 and Holland and Barrett’s CoQ10. Winners? Perhaps the explanation for that comes elsewhere, under “How are we funded?”. “Manufacturers who are awarded “best product” and “worth a look” are given the opportunity to promote this fact throughout the site for an additional fee.”. Well well.
Deputy Course leader, Val Harvey has her own web site and business (I do hope thar Westminster does not pay these people a full time salary too). What can we glean from there? It has the usual scare tactics “Why
you are at risk?“. Never fear; buy enough vitamin pills and you’ll be saved.
Her home page makes some pretty drastic claims.
“Potential health benefits of your nutritional programme
An appropriate Nutritional Programme can benefit many conditions including:
Chronic degenerative diseases
Chronic fatigue, ME
Depression, mood swings
Digestive or bowel problems
Eczema, psoriasis, other skin problems
Hypertension or elevated cholesterol
Irritable bowel syndrome
Parasitic and fungal infections
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
and many others ….
These are just some of the wide range of health problems that may be helped by nutritional therapy. Even those who consider themselves well and healthy may be able to enhance their physical and mental health, as well as their performance, including athletic performance, by improving their nutrition.”
There is, in my view, not the slightest bit of good evidence that swallowing vitamin pills can benefit most of these conditions.
But at least the list doesn’t contain AIDS, so is all this really relevant to the case of Matthias Rath?
Yes, I believe it is. The University of Westminster may well not support the views of Matthias Rath (they won’t say), but we have heard no choruses of protests about him from any nutritional therapists, as far as I’m aware. There is no mention of him at all on the web site of the British Association of Nutritional Therapists (BANT), the UK club for these people. BANT, by the way, has a rather curious code of ethics. It allows its members to take undisclosed financial kickbacks for the pills they prescribe to patients. If doctors were caught doing that they’d be struck off the register.
It is the existence of degrees in subjects like “nutritional therapy” that gives the subject a spurious air of respectability which allows seriously dangerous people like Rath to flourish with very little criticism. In an indirect way, the vice-chancellors who allow it to flourish (and Universities UK who do nothing about it) must bear some small part of the responsibility for the deaths of thousands of people from AIDS.
It is about time they did something about it.
ANH. The first reaction from the supplement-peddling industry comes from the Alliance for Natural Health on 16th September. It contains not one word of condemnation for Rath’s murderous activities. It’s hard to believe how low they will sink.
The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health remains totally silent about Rath. HRH’s concern for health seems to dry up if things don’t suit his views.
The British Association of Nutritional Therapists shows it’s total irresponsibility after a letter was sent to them to ask about their reaction. Their answer , on jdc325’s weblog was “The association has no opinion to offer on Dr Raths vitamin trials.”.