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Fiona Godlee

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It’s good to see the BMJ joining the campaign for free speech (only a month or two behind the blogs). The suing of Simon Singh for defamation by the British Chiropractic Association has stirred up a hornet’s nest that could (one hopes) change the law of the land, and destroy chiropractic altogether. The BMJ’s editor, Fiona Godlee, has a fine editorial, Keep the libel laws out of science. She starts “I hope all readers of the BMJ are signed up to organised scepticism” and says

“Weak science sheltered from criticism by officious laws means bad medicine. Singh is determined to fight the lawsuit rather than apologise for an article he believes to be sound. He and his supporters have in their sights not only the defence of this case but the reform of England’s libel laws.”

Godlee refers to equally fine articles by the BMJ’s Deputy Editor, Tony Delamothe, Thinking about Charles II“, and by Editor in Chief, Harvey Marcovitch, “Libel law in the UK“.

free debate

The comments on Godlee’s editorial, show strong support, (apart from one from the infamous quantum fantasist, Lionel Milgrom). But there was one that slighlty surprised me, from Tricia Greenhalgh, author of the superb book, “How to read a paper”. She comments

“the use of the term ‘bogus’ seems both unprofessional and unscholarly. The argument would be stronger if expressed in more reserved terms”

That set me thinking, not for the first time, about the difference between journalism and scholarship. I can’t imagine ever using a word like ‘bogus’ in a paper about single ion channels. But Singh was writing in a newspaper, not in a scientific paper. Even more to the point, his comments were aimed at people who are not scholars and who, quite explicitly reject the normal standards of science and evidence. The scholarly approach has been tried for centuries, and it just doesn’t work with such people. I’d defend Singh’s language. It is the only way to have any effect. That is why I sent the following comment.

The ultimate irony is that the comment was held up by the BMJ’s lawyers, and has still to appear.

Thanks for an excellent editorial.

I doubt that it’s worth replying to Lionel Milgrom whose fantasy physics has been totally demolished by real physicists. Trisha Greenhalgh is, though, someone whose views I’d take very seriously. She raises an interesting question when she says “bogus” is an unprofessional word to use. Two things seem relevant.

First, there is little point in writing rational scholarly articles for a group of people who do not accept the ordinary rules of evidence or scholarship. We are dealing with fantasists. Worse still, we are dealing with fantasists whose income depends on defending their fantasies. You can point out to your heart’s content that “subluxations” are figment of the chiropractors’ imagination, but they don’t give a damn. They aren’t interested in what’s true and what isn’t.

Throughout my lifetime, pharmacologists and others have been writing scholarly articles about how homeopathy and other sorts of alternative medicine are bogus. All this effort had little effect.   What made the difference was blogs and investigative journalism.  When it became possible to reveal leaked teaching materials that taught students that “amethysts emit high yin energy“, and name and shame the vice-chancellors who allow that sort of thing to happen (in this case Prof Geoffrey Petts of Westminster University), things started to happen. In the last few years all five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy have closed and that is undoubtedly a consequence of the activities of bloggers and can assess evidence but who work more like investigative journalists. When the BCA released, 15 months after the event, its “plethora of evidence” a semi-organised effort by a group of bloggers produced, in less than 24 hours, thoroughly scholarly analyses of all of them (there is a summary here). As the editorial says, they didn’t amount to a hill of beans, They also pointed out the evidence that was omitted by the BCA. The conventional press just followed the bloggers. I find it really rather beautiful that a group of people who have other jobs to do, spent a lot of time doing these analyses, unpaid, in their own time, simply to support Singh, because they believed it is the right thing to do.

Simon Singh has analysed the data coolly in his book. But In the case that gave rise to the lawsuit he was writing in a newspaper. It was perfectly clear from the context what ‘bogus’ meant. but Mr Justice Eady (aided by a disastrous law) chose to ignore entirely the context and the question of truth. The description ‘bogus’. as used by Singh, seems to be entirely appropriate for a newspaper article. To criticise him for using “unprofessional” language is inappropriate because we are not dealing with professionals. At the heart of the problem is the sort of stifling political correctness that has resulted in quacks being referred to as “professions” rather than fantasists and fraudsters [of course I use the word fraudster with no implication that it necessarily implies conscious lying].

At least there are some laughs to be had from the whole sorry affair. Prompted by that prince among lawyers known as Jack of Kent there was a new addition to my ‘Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine‘, as featured in the Financial Times.

Libel: A very expensive remedy, to be used only when you have no evidence. Appeals to alternative practitioners because truth is irrelevant.

It is, perhaps, misplaced political correctness that lies at the heart of the problem. Who can forget the letter from Lord Hunt, while he was at the Department of Health, in which he described “psychic surgery” (one of the best known fraudulent conjuring tricks) as a “profession”.

Follow-up

Two days later, the comment has appeared in the BMJ at last. But it has been altered a bit.

Unprofessional language is appropriate when dealing with unprofessional people

Thanks for an excellent editorial.

I doubt that it’s worth replying to Lionel Milgrom whose fantasy physics has been totally demolished by real physicists. Trisha Greenhalgh is, though, someone whose views I’d take very seriously. She raises an interesting question when she says “bogus” is an unprofessional word to use. Two things seem relevant.

First, there is little point in writing rational scholarly articles for a group of people who do not seem to accept the ordinary rules of evidence or scholarship. You can point out to your heart’s content that “subluxations” are figment of the chiropractors’ imagination, but they don’t give a damn.

Throughout my lifetime, pharmacologists and others have been writing scholarly articles about how homeopathy and other sorts of alternative medicine are bogus. All this effort had little effect. What made the difference was blogs and investigative journalism. When it became possible to reveal leaked teaching materials that taught students that “amethysts emit high yin energy”, and name and shame the vice-chancellors who allow that sort of thing to happen (in this case Prof Geoffrey Petts of Westminster University), things started to happen. In the last few years all five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy have closed and that is undoubtedly a consequence of the activities of bloggers and can assess evidence but who work more like investigative journalists. When the BCA released, 15 months after the event, its “plethora of evidence” a semi-organised effort by a group of bloggers produced, in less than 24 hours, thoroughly scholarly analyses of all of them (there is a summary here). As the editorial says, they didn’t amount to a hill of beans, They also pointed out the evidence that was omitted by the BCA. The conventional press just followed the bloggers. I find it really rather beautiful that a group of people who have other jobs to do, spent a lot of time doing these analyses, unpaid, in their own time, simply to support Singh, because they believed it is the right thing to do.

Simon Singh has analysed the data coolly in his book. But In the case that gave rise to the lawsuit he was writing in a newspaper. It was perfectly clear from the context what ‘bogus’ meant. but Mr Justice Eady (aided by a disastrous law) chose to ignore entirely the context. The description ‘bogus’. as used by Singh, seems to be entirely appropriate for a newspaper article. To criticise him for using “unprofessional” language is inappropriate because we are not dealing with professionals.

At least there are some laughs to be had from the whole sorry affair. Prompted by that prince among lawyers known as Jack of Kent there was a new addition to my ‘Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine’, as featured in the Financial Times.

Libel: A very expensive remedy, to be used only when you have no evidence. Appeals to alternative practitioners because truth is irrelevant.

Here are the changes that were made. Hmm.very interesting.

changes made by lawyers

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