After an interchange on Twitter about how blogs get noticed, I commented that the best thing for me was being thrown off the UCL web site by Malcolm Grant, and the subsequent support that I got from Ben Goldacre. I am a big fan of just about everything that Goldacre has done. So are a lot of other people and his support was crucial.
When I looked up his 2007 post, I found a lot of links were now broken, and some characters didn’t render properly. So, as a matter of historical record, I’m reproducing the whole post with updated links where possible.
Goldacre’s comments, of course, greatly exaggerated my virtues. But they were very useful at the time, they quadrupled my readership overnight, and I’m eternally grateful to him.
Some of the history of this saga has already been transferred to this blog. The aftermath was interesting.
The Mighty David Colquhoun
[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! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
This was posted originally on the old IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page
UCL felled by a herbalist?
OK this isn’t really bad science, but it’s caused inconvenience to me and to readers. It still puzzles me that UCL has not got the resources to deal with a herbalist (the reason that I was given for the move). The herbalist in question, Ann Walker, got rather angry when I called her use of the term ‘blood cleanser’ as gobbledygook
On Friday 1 June, 2007, when it was announced that the IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page had been moved from the UCL server, several people sent letters to the provost. Here is one of them. I have never met Prof Shafer, but his letter, and other similar ones, lightened an otherwise bad day.
|Dear Dr. Grant:I am very sorry to learn that you have requested Dr. Colquhoun to remove his “Improbable Science” web page from the computer system at University College London. It is particularly disheartening to learn that you made this request after receiving a complaint from a practitioner of nonscientific medicine.
I don’t know how many of your faculty publish in Nature (Colquhoun D. Science degrees without the science. Nature. 2007;446:373-4). However, based on my experience at Stanford, I would guess precious few. You now appear to be attempting to squelch his academic freedom, or at least disassociate UCL from his efforts to educate the public about quack science.
Perhaps you were put off by the “unprofessional appearance” of the web page. If so then you have misunderstood its purpose. The public is inundated by junk science, A large portion come from the Internet. There are almost no Internet resources where a lay reader can find a counterweight to the extensive claims of pseudoscientists. Dr. Colquhoun’s blog is a unique resource. The format may put off a scientific reader, but it is exactly the format required to get the message to the web surfer with a 10 second attention span. In my view the Improbable Science web page was among the most important public services made available by the University College London.
I don’t know the facts of your decision. Perhaps there are policies, procedures, and regulations that Dr. Colquhoun has violated in creating the Improbable Science web page. However, I do know that any request to remove the page that follows a complaint from an individual offended by the page is entirely inappropriate. Even were your request otherwise reasonable, the mere appearance of academic censorship should have been absolutely unacceptable to you. (Think of it like conflict of interest – there is a need to avoid not only true conflict of interest, but the mere appearance of
It is thus with shock, sadness, and disappointment that I have learned of this decision by the University College London. I hope that you will reconsider. The present course makes it appear that UCL has caved in to pseudoscientists and is engaged in academic censorship of possibly the most important public service offered by the UCL.
Steven L. Shafer, MD
Editor-in-Chief, Anesthesia & Analgesia
Professor, Department of Anesthesia, Stanford University
Adjunct Professor, Biopharmaceutical Sciences, UCSF
Stanford University Medical Center
Stanford, CA 94305
No doubt it is an exaggeration to say “the Improbable Science web page was among the most important public services made available by the University College London”. But thanks anyway.
After an unrepentant response, Professor Shafer replied thus.
|Dear Provost Grant:I appreciate your taking the time to respond. I’m sure that as provost you live on the receiving end of a firehose of correspondence, as do I as a professor and a journal Editor-in-Chief. I’m sorry to have added to the e-mail overload. I appreciate your finding time to respond.
It would be my hope that Stanford University would shoulder the responsibility of dealing with whatever harassment would come my way by virtue of my scientific and academic pursuits. Yes, when legal action is threatened, and staff are consumed with processing paperwork, I’m sure my Dean, Provost, and President would prefer to ransfer everything to me. However, the effect would be chilling. Universities are supposed to provide a haven to insulate scientists from harassment. I’ve looked at Dr.
You note that Dr. Colquhoun “accepts that he needs to be in a position where he shoulders directly the burden of responding to Dr Lakin.” I applaud his fortitude, but note that are only 24 hours in a day. If the administrative resources of University College London are inadequate to respond to Dr. Lakin, how is Dr. Colquhoun, on his own, without the resources of UCL, expected to survive the harassment, legal hallenges, and other pressures to silence him?
As a counter example, the University of California at San Francisco stood solidly behind Stanton Glantz when the cigarette industry tried to destroy him for his efforts to expose their activities. Had he agreed to “shoulder directly the burden”, we would never have known of the extensive research conducted by the cigarette industry over two decades that identified the health risks, and guided their extensive disinformation campaign. I would hope that Stanford University would following the UCSF example, and devote the necessary resources to defend my academic freedom, rather than the UCL
Again, I appreciate your responding to my e-mail. I hope that my perspective is a least thought provoking on the complex mutual responsibilities between a prestigious University and an equally prominent faculty member with outspoken views.
Thank you for your consideration,
The Goldacre effect
Saturday 9 June 2007. The wires (and my hit counter) are melting after Ben Goldacre’s comments on the move of this web site from UCL’s servers. That’s understandable: his excellent badscience.net site gets 12,000 hits a day and 95,000 unique visitors per month.
Like all the other comments, his badscience column in today’s Guardian, was not solicited by me, but it’s wonderful to know that somebody cares. His badscience.net version (“The Mighty David Colquhoun” !) was even more over-the-top. I can’t say I’m feeling very “mighty” at the moment.
Goldacre’s piece starts “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.” A correspondent today enlarged on the theme “you have got me thinking and yes my kids would be far more interested in science if a playstation game was created whereby Prof. Colquhoun was zapping disgruntled alternative therapists”. The mind boggles. Making money out of selling mindless violence (in the news again today) must be even worse than making money out of selling useless pills. A university should be one of the few places left where one cannot be accused of knowing the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
Contrary to what some people seem to think, I don’t enjoy rows. They keep me awake at night. But some things are just too important to duck out of them.
Read the provost’s reply.
Goldacre has posted the complete text of the provost’s reply to one of the many people who have written to him. You should read the other side of the story too (click here and search for “letter from provost”). Grant has a real problem. He shouldn’t have to spend time fending off herbalists. Yet if they aren’t fended off, more attacks will occur. Who’d be a provost? That is all sorted out now.
June 9, 2007 at 7:45 am
I’m quite shocked. If people complain about the lack of understanding of science then they know where to look for an answer.
June 9, 2007 at 8:03 am
I’m guessing that if we all write the Provost a letter, it won’t really be troublesome enough to make him change his mind.
This is really exactly the sort of thing a university should be supporting and encouraging, rather than censoring.
June 9, 2007 at 8:44 am
Rather depressing proof-positive (in a holistic, meaningful ,empathic way)of how our previously august and independent universities increasingly pander to the lowest-common-denominator ‘science-lite’ approach amidst concerns from woo practitioners and regal missives from Charlie Boy (Ernst at Exeter springs to mind).
I wonder if the Provost took the decision unilaterally? Perhaps the university Senate should review both the case and the decision. They could take into account the dichotomy of Provost Malcolm Grant’s actions, versus his opening paragraph states his ‘vision’ of UCL – taken from the website, that states:
“UCL is an exceptional institution, with a radical tradition and a distinctive character. The university’s commitment to excellence and innovation in research and teaching is central to its vision of enriching societyâ€™s intellectual, cultural, scientific, economic, environmental and medical spheres.”
Er, so his role as Provost is to eradicate that ‘radical tradition’, ‘distinctive character’ and ‘vision of enriching society’s cultural and scientific spheres’.
But I note his Professorship is in Law, not science.
Explains a lot.
Never mind, Colquhuon’s status in his professional and public spheres is independent of UCL. Just makes me consider the organisation in a much more ambivalent manner.
June 9, 2007 at 9:04 am
This is odd: when I looked at this page first thing this morning, before there were any comments on it, it displayed fine. Now the text has slipped down the left-hand side again.
June 9, 2007 at 9:36 am
I missed out on all of this because I hadn’t checked his site for some time. You’d think UCL would be better than this, especially from the standpoint of precedents of which this is an appalling one. On a positive note I’m sure he could get free hosting or mirrors from places and people way out of the reach of scum trading on red clover etc. I for one would happily mirror any material under legal or informal threat from bread headed scum flogging false hopes and pseudoscience. The problem here is one of precedents, other universities may take note…
le canard noir said,
June 9, 2007 at 9:44 am
It is most important that all fellow bloggers and site owners, change their links to DC’s pages asap!
Need to get Google onto the move and make sure the pageranks for his stuff is up there again!
June 9, 2007 at 10:53 am
This is not just any university. This is UCL. Jeremy Bentham must be turning in his box seat.
June 9, 2007 at 11:32 am
This is a sad state of affairs
Another large institution bullied into dropping something as good and funny as DC’s blog
Personally I think they should drop the quackology BSc’s but failing that should allow parity and keep DC’s blog
Then again, I have always disliked UCL but I am sad to have my un-thinking, I’m-from-another-London-college prejudice actually supported by fact
June 9, 2007 at 12:21 pm
The more you look at it, the worse it gets.
Tobacco companies, anti-MMGW groups and other lobbyists frequently fire off
legal challenges against individual scientists to maintain a general climate of harrassment.
UCL’s message to the world is that their staff are easy meat, the college won’t stand by them.
From Steven Shafer’s letter on Colquhoun’s web-site:
“As a counter example, the University of California at San Francisco stood solidly behind Stanton Glantz when the cigarette industry tried to destroy him for his efforts to expose their activities. Had he agreed to ‘shoulder directly the burden’, we would never have known of the extensive research conducted by the cigarette industry over two decades that identified the health risks, and guided their extensive disinformation campaign. I would hope that Stanford University would following the UCSF example, and devote the necessary resources to defend my academic freedom, rather than the UCL example, and ask me to ‘shoulder the burden.’ “
June 9, 2007 at 12:59 pm
I can’t belive that the Provost’s decision will stand. Less than a year ago, UCL signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, and bragged of it. That charter includes that, “all members of that institutionâ€™s academic community should have the freedom to work, teach and learn.”
I hope Professor Michael Worton, who signed on behalf of UCL is as uncomfortable as he should be with this.
June 9, 2007 at 1:29 pm
Great idea for the column: when ‘alternative’ practitioners get a website shut down by moaning about it, I think it’s important to give them as much publicity as possible as a result.
Just to add a couple of extra details: the complaint that got DC’s site moved from UCL came from Alan Lakin (the husband of Ann Walker). Walker is (or at least was) the director of New Vitality – www.newvitality.org.uk/index.htm. She also has quite a few interesting online articles on herbal medicine which come up when you google her (e.g. www.healthspan.co.uk) Given the way in which DC was forced to move his site, it might be appropriate if a few people with health/science-related blogs collaborated to post articles fisking different pieces of Walker’s work: I like the idea of a load of critical articles springing up when one is forced to move
Anyway, just going to update my blogroll link to DC’s excellent site.
Ben Goldacre said,
June 9, 2007 at 3:50 pm
please see the email from the provost that has been added above.
June 9, 2007 at 4:20 pm
I do not find that letter remotely convincing. Sure, Colquhoun must not engage in libel, but it is hard never to (accidentally) stray into libelous territory when you are dealing with these people. If UCL is serious about academic freedom and scientific integrity, then they should fight this one.
June 9, 2007 at 5:11 pm
Thanks for posting the letter from the provost – most illuminating.
Doesn’t give the impression of UCL helping David Colquhoun very much. I wonder if they still use his papers for their RAE’s.
What’s the Guardian policy on this type of thing? I seem to remember that they fought Jonathan Aitken and won…
June 9, 2007 at 5:17 pm
The problem with the letter is is that it’s all couched in such vague terms. It seems to me that they’ve acted on the basis of something that could be libellous/in breach of copyright/etc rather than anything clear cut. If it were clear-cut there would be specific examples that he could point to. It’s the approach of a chicken because the letter is saying “we may be right but it’s not worth our trouble to fight” setting himself up as an arbiter of just causes. So if it’s not clear cut don’t expect any help from UCL. Grey areas not wanted.
Andrew Clegg said,
June 9, 2007 at 8:25 pm
I also sent a letter complaining (being another less than impressed alumnus like Dr Nicholas above). Here’s some helpful thoughts…
1. When you get a long personal reply back from the provost, it’s worth checking to see whether other people got the same reply word for word…
2. … rather than being so surprised that when you forward it to Ben and David with comments…
3. … you forget to take Prof. Grant’s email off the header and end up looking like a muppet.
But a since and well-intentioned muppet at least.
Andrew Clegg said,
June 9, 2007 at 8:29 pm
Err, unless that response Ben posted was his reply to my letter (just noticed the Dear Andrew at the top), not a standard form response, in which case I take back what I said about word-for-word copies, and look like slightly more of a muppet instead.
I think I need to eat something, brain not working at 100% today.
June 9, 2007 at 9:41 pm
They might well have acted on the threat of a libel action and just decided to cave in. A University is primarily a business these days while aspiring to be a centre of educational excellence is either secondary or coincidental. On that basis no-one should be surprised that it is compelled to act in a way that protects the interests of its financial supporters and sponsors – namely their money – before any wider academic interests or unnecessary luxuries like freedom of speech. I know it all appears to be lacking in integrity but freedom of business comes first these days, even (or especially) the right of quacks and charlatans to do business without hindrance.
June 9, 2007 at 9:52 pm
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that they did just decide to cave in, but why does that entail asking DC to remove the whole blog and not just the contentious article? That looks incredibly unsupportive to me.
June 10, 2007 at 12:43 am
One of the defining characteristics of the `management’ of public sector bodies is their utter, craven cowardice in face of things that even smell of a court case. I don’t know when it happens in their career, but your typical school headmaster, hospital manager or (it would appear) University provost regards a dog-eared piece of paper saying “Oi will zue youse for libil” as being as frightening as the jury coming back in and saying `guilty’.
Hence the rise in schools and universities being cowed by not even solicitor’s letters (which are, it should be noted, simply a letter from someone who happens to be a solicitor) but the threat of the same. If public bodies fought such cases through the courts, and then bankrupted the claimants when they lost (as they almost always would), after a year or so they and the ambulance chasers would get the hint. As things stand, public sector managers are encouraged to pay tribute, rather than spend on defence, and worse they are paying tribute to people with cardboard swords.
Those who get their fortnightly dose of poor typography (and it’s not as funny as it was, is it?) will know of `Arkell vs Pressdram’. The rest of you can google for it. UCL’s response to a threatened libel case should be `bring it on’, with a plea of justification.
The reason we know that David Irvine is a fraud and is because Deborah Lipstadt’s book, a copy of which is sat a few feet from me, was defended to the hilt by its publishers. Penguin Books have principles, and made a stand. It’s a shame that UCL appears to have a yellow stripe painted down its back where its spine used to be.
June 10, 2007 at 6:14 am
Pitiful cowardice from an institution that claims to be a world-class university. Until it is proven that the material is actually illegal, it should be their part to stand up for academic freedom.
June 10, 2007 at 7:46 am
le canard noir “Need to get Google onto the move and make sure the pageranks for his stuff is up there again!”
UCL’s webmaster could set up a permanent redirect to Prof Colquhoun’s new URL – this would send the search engines to it and they’d index the new location. Anyone trying to see the blog at the old URL would automatically see it at the new location.
June 10, 2007 at 9:16 am
Step on their toes until they apologize. They can wave their jargon at us and threaten libel, but they WILL NEVER ACTUALLY WANT TO BE IN COURT AND LOSE. And they want all this to happen quietly. Now that UCL has backed off, they will want to put pressure on UCL to censure the Prof. even more. And this is exactly what UCL is doing in response to a minor complaint. They are censuring him: cutting off his voice and officially rebuking his work on the site.
It may even be possible that rather than protect themselves, they have opened themselves to litigation from both sides. 1) Dumping suggest merit to the complain and 2) that UCL provided the site in the place and then took it away means then have placed the good Prof. in an unsupported/dangerous situation.
igb has the right idea. Fight them now and hard.
I sent an email to the provost and I suggest that others do so as well. Even letters from well-intentioned muppets will help (I have certainly sent my own in my time, misspellings and all!). Certainly the provost responded the original bad-intentioned muppets who made the complaint. Even if he does not read them, having Prof. Colquoun’s name in the subject line of a large number of message will lend him the support that he needs and will make the provost think a bit. I will also make a head link link from my own anti quack site to his.
I am willing to post my email if other are interested, but this may be up to Dr. Goldacre to decide if this is appropriate.
June 10, 2007 at 10:06 am
le canard noir said,
(June 9, 2007 at 9:44 am) “Need to get Google onto the move and make sure the pageranks for his stuff is up there again!”
Well, as long as Google aren’t as spineless as they were in the case of Howard’s page about TAPL:
A search of google.co.uk still brings up the message at the bottom of the page saying “In response to a legal request submitted to Google, we have removed 1 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read more about the request at ChillingEffects.org.”
Interestingly, while Howard’s page still appears on the first page for google.com, google.ca and google.com.au, the results for google.co.uk seem to have different rankings so that the message about the legal threat, sorry, request, now appears on the second page of results.
June 10, 2007 at 10:35 am
Incidentally, in some parts of intellectual property law (trade marks, patents and registered designs, but not copyright, unfortunately) it is a tort to make an unjustified threat to sue. Perhaps a case could be made for extending this to defamation.
Dr Aust said,
June 10, 2007 at 11:53 am
I also wrote to the UCL Provost (as an academic scientist and UCL alumnus) and got the stock response several other people have mentioned about the time that had gone into handling complaints etc.
I can see where he’s coming from, although on balance I think he is wrong (see the Stanford letter for why).
I think the wider point about UK Univs turning pale at the merest whiff of a threat of legal action that igb mentioned is a genuine problem. It appears that in this case they have at least taken real legal advice… but I have seen many examples where merely the threat of (e.g.) a student sueing is enough to cause a fit of the vapours, and would trigger tens or even hundreds of person hrs of administrative hot air.
I used to argue, without much success, that Univs should fight all these cases when they were sure they were right, especially when they dealt with “academic integrity” in the wider sense. And they should seek to recoup their adminstrative and legal costs against frivolous complainants like Walker and Lakin.
…the point being that if people think complaining and shouting “lawyer” will get them an undeserved second or third chance at an exam resit, or a website taken down, or whatever, people will keep doing it. As igb says, you have to give them a real potential DOWNSIDE to doing it, as well as a potential upside.
Incidentally, it is worth noting that Dr Walker is employed (although apparently now only in a part-time capacity, according to DC’s blog) by Reading University. Presumably they are happy about an academic from their School of Food Biosciences making public claims about unproven supplements and herbs that are scientific nonsense, and then waving M’Learned Friends when these claims are exposed. I wonder if she still teaches on their BSc in “Nutrition and Food Science”.
June 10, 2007 at 1:05 pm
Dr Aust said,
“I used to argue, without much success, that Univs should fight all these cases when they were sure they were right, especially when they dealt with â€œacademic integrityâ€ in the wider sense. And they should seek to recoup their adminstrative and legal costs against frivolous complainants like Walker and Lakin.”
While legal costs are recoverable (assumong the Uni won the case), I’m not sure that this would apply to the Uni’s administrative costs.
Hence my suggestion above that the tort of falsely threatening to sue, at present only available in patent, trade mark and registered design disputes, might usefully be extended to libel. If it were, the Uni could then sue the frivolous complainants for their administrative costs as well.
June 10, 2007 at 2:15 pm
I don’t understand why UCL didn’t just ask DC to remove the offending material, which he has done anyway. Booting him off the server seems to be an attempt to hang him out to dry (“there is also the question of Professor Colquhounâ€™s own personal liability.”), but if UCL are deemed to be publishers, removing the content does not alter the past; if it was illegal, stopping doing it doesn’t redeem them. To paraphrase an old joke, “Have you stopped hosting allegedly defamatory material on your website?” – both answers get you in trouble.
I wonder how much a lawsuit would actually cost if it came to it, and I wonder how much monetary value could be ascribed to DC’s RAE contribution.
Dr Aust said,
June 10, 2007 at 3:34 pm
Mojo wrote: “While legal costs are recoverable (assuming the Uni won the case), Iâ€™m not sure that this would apply to the Uniâ€™s administrative costs.”
Shame. The main context for this was typically students contesting results, or complaining they had been treated unfairly, or denying they had been caught cheating, BTW. My argument was that a basic investigation of any alleged mistakes / irregularities was warranted and fair. For stuff beyond that we should be prepared to make people pay for the time and inconvenience caused by unfounded and often frivolous complaints.
What would happen was that the Univ would investigate (at Faculty level) and write back and say: “We have investigated your allegation and found it to be groundless… (gives details). However, if you are not satisfied with this, you may…. (appeal to next rung up).
The problem was that this gave people who were alleging a grievance no downside whatsoever to continuing to pursue groundless and often ludicrous claims, apart from their own time. In many cases it would go up the next one, or two, rungs in turn to the University’s senior administrator(s), with the same info being picked over multiple times by increasingly high-powered and expensive people.
I thought we should say “…if you are not satified you may (appeal to next rung up). HOWEVER, as your complaint has been investigated by our standard procedures and judged groundless, any further administrative time, and costs of expert advice we find it necessary to take, incurred by us through your pursuit of a complaint will be recorded. In the event that your complaint is ultimately judged groundless, it will be our practise in all cases to pursue you in civil court for the recovery of all these costs.”
Please somebody tell me that there is a case in law for doing this? Mojo’s posts above suggest not, which is sad.
If there isn’t, there ought to be…!
The point is that at some stage there needs to be a mechanism for making complainants judge whether they really have a case, or are just blustering for some other reason (like that they can’t admit, either for public consumption or even to themselves, that they were rumbled). They have to be made to do a “cost-benefit analysis” of wasting everyone’s time. Sadly at the moment cheats, charlatans, and obsessed nutters too often get a free ride.
Coming back to Univs, I suspect the cost and “negative publicity” is the factor the administrators prioritize when pressing for settlement or (as in DC’s case) “minimizing the University’s liability”. But if Universities are mainly selling themselves on their academic reputation (which in the final analysis they are), they have to be prepared to defend that reputation in the open, every time, and without compromise.
PS In terms of DC’s scientific standing and it’s worth to UCL, it has doubtless been worth a lot over the years.
RAE rankings contain a lot of nonsense, as DC himself has eloquently argued elsewhere:
– but it is fair to say the UCL Pharmacology Dept has generally been regarded as one of the two or three, or arguably the best, pharmacology dept in the UK for all of the 25 yrs I have been in the business. As for DC himself, the FRS (judged by your peers to be a top scientist, and the only such thing British scientists rate) says it all.
June 11, 2007 at 1:31 am
I see here 43 comments and a lot of people, which try to defend Prof. Colquhoun. But I’d like to know – is here just one man from UCL? And if the answer is “no”, then – what does this silence suggest? If DC is right, then why do his Alma Mater remain silent?
It is merely question. And I’d like merely to learn answer.
Filias Cupio said,
June 11, 2007 at 2:32 am
I know of one case where there was a significant downside to students for pushing too hard.
Two students had been caught cheating in a terms test. A friend of mine (from whom I have the story) summoned them to his office, and told them that they would get zero for the test, and for all assignments they’d done up to this point, but they could appeal to the university’s disciplinary committee. They did so, and instead were expelled for a year.
June 11, 2007 at 10:32 am
“Isnâ€™t the problem not so much that UCL are cowards as that the legal advice they have taken says they may lose with a heavy financial penalty. ”
So suddenly the `precautionary principle’, which most people with the vaguest scientific background regard as silly, has become respectable? No lawyer can tell you that you will not lose, just as no scientist can tell you that mobile phones are absolutely safe. So `may’ is the coward’s shield.
The reality is that a libel case fought by an individual against a large institution is almost imposssible to win, as legal aid is not available and most decisions can be appealed. In fact, “ the real issue the fact that people can use libel laws to restrict free speech” conceals the fact that current libel laws allow newspapers to accuse you of being a kiddie-fiddler whilst providing you with no redress, because libel cases are the strict preserve of the affluent.
Bearing in mind the requirements of a libel case, the risk to UCL is approximately zero. But it’s not actually zero.
June 11, 2007 at 10:54 am
igb I don’t see what the merits or otherwise of the precautionary principle have to do with this. I’m not defending UCL here, I’m just pointing out that libel law is abused as you correctly point out by the affluent. In this case the accusers are relatively wealthy.
I’m assuming that libel is the main legal argument being used against UCL because breaches of copyright rarely stand up in court if swiftly corrected and apology issued (which has been done in this case).
In this country the burden of proof in libel cases is on the defendant and there is no limit on the financial awards for damages. UCL obviously think there is a reasonable possibility that they may be liable for such damages and have taken what they consider appropriate action while they review the facts.
Dr Aust said,
June 11, 2007 at 11:56 am
That may be part of the reason, but what heinous libel would DC have committed against Walker and Lakin? He pointed out that terms like “blood cleanser” or “lymphatic cleanser” have no meaning as applied to drugs; he pointed out that their claims had no foundation in published research; he pointed out that certain organisations were not neutral information services but actually exist to promote supplements; and he used the word “gobbledegook”, which in the context used could be taken to mean “scientically meaningless or nonsensical”.
Would Walker and La kin they really ever want all this aired in open court? That is, that they use the pretence of “science”, and stuff that is arguably in breach of the trades descriptions, to relieve the gullible of their money? I find this inconceivable.
June 11, 2007 at 12:12 pm
I’m sure UCL are covered by the same legislation as websites such as YouTube when it comes to copyright infringements.
As they are only hosting the blog, all they need to do is inform Dr Colquhoun of problem with his blog and take down the page if he does not correct the infringement within a reasonable amount of time (usually ~24 hours).
June 11, 2007 at 12:12 pm
Dr Aust – “but what heinous libel would DC have committed against Walker and Lakin?”
I have no idea. All I was trying to do was see things from UCL’s side. It does seem a hasty decision on the part of UCL though. Anyway, the courts are not the place to establish the veracity of science nor indeed the truth in libel trials as the cases of Jeffry Archer and Jonathan Aitken prove.
June 11, 2007 at 12:20 pm
Well, I’m no lawyer, and I see that Prof. Grant is.
Nor am I going to start second-guessing that senior defamation QC they’ll be meeting today.
On the other hand, for background info, outlaw.com is a solid source of information on internet law.
Here’s their stuff on “User-generated content”
and on “Liability of ISPs for third party material”
Dr Aust said,
June 11, 2007 at 12:50 pm
Point taken, Andrew.
I think what worries us here is the possibility that UCL, and other comparable institutions, will seek to position themselves to have NO conceivable liability.
I would imagine it is virtually impossible to utterly exclude liability unless (i) every page on a University’s website is scrutinized by a libel QC, or (ii) anything thought to be even vaguely “controversial” (read : “critical”) is blanket forbidden.
In which case critics of misinformation stand a good chance of being silenced.
June 11, 2007 at 1:24 pm
To clarify, the previous post is mainly to attention to outlaw.com‘s explanation of the E-commerce Directive and related material, e.g.
“Article 12 [of the E-commerce Directive] provides that each member state shall ensure that service providers (which will include ISP s, VISPs and Web Hosts) will not be held liable for information transmitted on their sites provided that the relevant service provider:
– Does not initiate the transmission;
– Does not select the receiver of the transmission; and
– Does not select or modify the information contained in the transmission.
In other words, if the above criteria are met a service provider will be treated as a mere conduit as opposed to an author, editor or publisher. However, a service provider will still be required to remove unlawful and/or defamatory material from its site once it has received a complaint.”
All I’m saying is that I’m not qualified to comment on how it applies in this case, you’ll have to make of it what you will.
June 11, 2007 at 1:55 pm
> minor breaches of copyright, which DC could have (and has) corrected. And there was no â€œmalicious intentâ€ behind the infringement, since he did not do it specifically to steal their trademarked words. He did it to highlight that what they were saying was untrue.
… which I would have said put it well into the territory of fair use for the purposes of comment or criticism.
June 11, 2007 at 2:56 pm
I think the real shame here has been the obvious victory of harassment over principle. I don’t believe that UCL has done anything other than protect itself financially and try to draw a line between personal comment and university statements. To be honest there are not many organisations that would allow its IT resources to be used for anything other than some ‘fair use’ surfing. so it is not surprising it has asked for the blog to be removed.
However it is sad that the woo’s have used similar tactics to the animal rights mob in simply harassing organisations into doing their bidding. Perhaps UCL could redress the balance by looking into the subject and publishing something in its own name instead
Dr Aust said,
June 11, 2007 at 3:45 pm
I suspect UCL probably couldn’t use the “ISP defence” indicated by Andrew above. This is because a complainant could argue, with some plausibility, that DC’s “pseudoscience debunking” clearly stems from his work for UCL as a scientist. So hard to separate the two.
But this just brings back to the “Is what DC said true?” issue.
Quoting from a site talking about the law of defamation:
“Where defamation is alleged, the first step is to consider the ordinary and natural meaning of the words used and what an ordinary person will infer.”
“If a defendant can prove the substantial truth of the words complained about the defence of justification is established.”
“Another defence in the law of defamation is that everyone is allowed to comment so long as the subject is a matter of public interest and the views were honestly held. The public interest has never been satisfactorily defined for these purposes but it is clear that it is to be broadly construed.”
All these seem to offer fairly obvious defences.
Of course, the UCL Provost has stated for the record that it was the “admin bother and nuisance” that was the issue, rather than the risk of liability at law. I still think, though, that they had some sort of wider moral obligation, as an institute of learning and “enlightenment”, to be SEEN to defend the right of scholars to oppose obfuscation and inaccuracy, especially when the latter were being used to sell things.
June 11, 2007 at 8:10 pm
“igb I donâ€™t see what the merits or otherwise of the precautionary principle have to do with this. ”
Because the basic argument seems to be “a lawyer says this bad thing _may_ happen” or even “a lawyer says this bad thing cannot be said never to happen”. That’s exactly the argument that idiots use about wifi: “can you tell me it’s absolutely safe with no caveats? No? Then we should assume the worst”.
“libel law is abused as you correctly point out by the affluent. In this case the accusers are relatively wealthy.”
I may be mis-judging the finances of alternatives, but I seriously doubt that the people making the theats have pockets as deep as would be required. UCL could quite justifiably demand that measures be taken to ensure their costs are paid should they win: that’s where the rubber meets the road.
“Iâ€™m assuming that libel is the main legal argument being used against UCL because breaches of copyright rarely stand up in court if swiftly corrected and apology issued (which has been done in this case).”
The same’s true of libel, because…
“In this country the burden of proof in libel cases is on the defendant”
No, it isn’t. If the defendant opts to run a defence of justification, the burden is on them (albeit only to a civil, “balance of probabilities” standard). But the burden resides with the plaintiff to show that the words are capable of having a defamtory meaning (which might be _very_ difficult in this case) and that the plaintiff suffered harm to their repution. And there’s a whole stack of defences which might apply in this case (notably a Reynolds defence, see Reynolds vs Times Newspaper) for which the reverse burden doesn’t apply in the same way.
“UCL obviously think there is a reasonable possibility that they may be liable for such damages and have taken what they consider appropriate action while they review the facts.”
I don’t see where `reasonable’ comes from. I might just as (in)acurrately say `remote’ in the same place. A case in which a University was held to be vicariously liable for the public statements of a professor, writing in a field which is his exact speciality, requires a sequence of events all of which have a probability distinctly less than one (the writ being served, the case making it to court, the case being held to be answerable, the judge being prepared to join UCL to the case, the case making it past a jury, the case making it past an appeal, the case having damages greater than the hundred quid that UCL will have paid into the court).
John Craddock said,
June 11, 2007 at 8:47 pm
Re: mch’s comment;
“Why has UCL a moral obligation to defend our rights? Itâ€™s a university – it has a business to run, students to teach, research to, well, search. Making a stand and getting sued will cost (and maybe not just money), and who is going to refund it?”
UCL has an obligation to defend the freedom of its academics. If it doesn’t, then it reduces its role to that of a degree factory.
I don’t know what the situation is in the UK but the universities act in Ireland (quoted below) is clear on the issue, I presume you have similar principles and laws over there.
14.â€”(1) A university, in performing its functions shallâ€”
( a ) have the right and responsibility to preserve and promote the traditional principles of academic freedom in the conduct of its internal and external affairs
(2) A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions
Dr Aust said,
June 11, 2007 at 11:21 pm
I suppose if a “justification defence” is deemed too risky there is always “fair comment in voicing a sincerely held view on a matter of public interest” (see my post above). The sincerity is not in doubt and the whole tenor of DC’s blog is malice-free – it always just asks “do these statements have scientific meaning” or sometimes “do these people have hidden interests they have not made clear?”
I have read the words about Walker and Lakin and their product very carefully, first with my amateur barrack-room lawyer’s hat on, then as a scientist with an interest in the use of words, and finally as a “member of the public” – and I still can’t see anything that could not be construed as “DC’s sincerely held opinion”.
I would still hope that in an analogous situation in the future a (any?) University would have the stones to put up the justification defence when the statements could be easily argued to be true. The point of pubically taking a stand specifically on justification would be, as mentioned by many here,
“We stand by our guy and his right to try and inform the public about a matter of public interest, no matter what”.
If Universities don’t stand for stuff like this, then mch is right and they are just businesses. But when they admit that, they are on the slide, because their business is based at bottom on their academic REPUTATION, which is based on their not being “biddable” by financial considerations alone. That is why, in science, research from Univs is by and large more trusted than research from drug companies.
Stanford, though a private institution (and thus more of a “business” than UCL), seems to have understood this, judging by the tobacco company example the Stanford prof gave on DC’s blog:
UCL has misjudged the same, IMHO.
What I sincerely HOPE is happening behind the scenes is UCL offering DC legal advice about how to avoid problems going forward with his now “privatised” blog. That would go some way to restoring my faith in my old alma mater.
June 12, 2007 at 12:02 pm
Whilst shutting down DC UCL would like you to give generously to this
they need 1/4 million to house thier CAM library full of non evidence based periodicals of absolute bullshit.
Please give generously
Dr Aust said,
June 12, 2007 at 1:40 pm
It’s more interesting than that – from the webpage:
New specialist electronic library on complementary and alternative medicine (NeLCAM)
The RLHH recently won the contract to provide the NHS "new specialist electronic library on complementary and alternative medicine (NeLCAM) in collaboration with the Research Council for Complementary Medicine (RCCM) and the University of Westminster’s School of Integrated Health. ..”
This is, of course, the same Univ of Westminster School of Integrated Health that DC has been chiding on his blog and in the pages of Nature for awarding BScs in antiscience, and which awards a “B.Sc. in Homeopathy” for which the External Examiner is (surprise surprise) a non-scientifically qualified homeopath.
The RLHH appeal is for money to fund their “open access CAM Information Centre”. Oh goody. They say this Centre will “work with other bodies within the world of complementary medicine, including the Research Council for Complementary Medicine, the British Homoeopathic Association, and The Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Health”.
Boosters all, of course. Now why doesn’t that leave me feeling reassured?
June 12, 2007 at 5:34 pm
And what next?
DC’s webpage is expelled from UCL server. Quacks intend to frame up a case against DC. Homoeopaths are trying to edge in UCL.
Scientific people have written to provost. Provost has answered.
And strange silence has settled…
What is it? Is it defeat? Or the hush before the storm?
Hey! Defenders of freedom and real Science! Or will this problem leave in the air? Will it exist further in present state?
That will never do, IMHO. It’s unscientifically, after all.
It is necessary right solution of this question.
June 13, 2007 at 10:19 am
As an aside, Malcolm Grant is also catching flak over UCL’s armaments investments (Â£900k in Cobham PLC).
New Statesman 11 June 2007:
“Despite the overwhelming support of the Disarm UCL campaign, Grant refused to genuinely engage with the issue of divestment from Cobham. Instead he concentrated on criticizing students and suggested we were campaigning against UCL.”
It’s been a rough week for poor Grant, and it’s still only Wednesday…
June 13, 2007 at 1:38 pm
Aha, Malcolm Grant gains money for UCL and UCL’s students by armaments investments.
But UCL students can’t even tackle his provost to gain money by other way! The students and staff in other universities have done it. And UCL student can merely yelp against provost like silly pups and unroll antiwar banners. One question, please! Do they like to get stipends and salaries ill-gotten by their provost for them? Eh?
No?? Then – let UCL students and staff propose their provost OTHER way to gain money for UCL. There are a lot of methods to get money from development of modern, knowledge-intensive, advanced technologies, from applied scientific research, etc., etc., etc.
Who is richest man in the world? Bill Gates! Does Bill Gates sells the arms? He makes and cells computers.
UCL students and staff must propose your provost best way to gain money. But if he refuse, then there will be only remaining resource – to put question about discharge him for inaptitude, so in this case his words about business and progress for UCL would be empty words and he would be merely wild aggressive politician of last centuries with backward opinions and policy.
June 13, 2007 at 3:00 pm
DAVID COLQUHOUN WON!!!
Here is ad from his website:
Announcement 13 June 2007. UCL restores DC’s IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page.
After taking legal advice, the provost and I have agreed a joint statememt. Read it on the UCL web site.
" . . . the Provost and Professor Colquhoun have taken advice from a senior defamation Queenâ€™s Counsel, and we are pleased to announce that Professor Colquhounâ€™s website â€“ with some modifications effected by him on counselâ€™s advice – will shortly be restored to UCL’s servers."
I am grateful to UCL for its legal support, and I’m very grateful too for the enormous support I’ve had from many people, especially since Ben Goldacre mentioned the site move. Now all I need is a bit of help to get it into a more convenient format. The page will stay at its present address until there is time to sort things out.
MY CONGRATULATIONS, DEAR DAVID!!!
BE HAPPY AND HEALTHY!!!
June 13, 2007 at 3:04 pm
Here is link of UCL website about DC:
June 13, 2007 at 4:20 pm
Good statement . . nice to see common sense won through in the end
June 14, 2007 at 12:55 pm
Perhaps the UK would benefit from “safe habour” laws, making site hosts immune from prosecution for content; I thought we must have something like this already but the Provos statement suggests otherwise. Perhaps we would also benefit from fair usage copyright laws, allowing the kind of use Dr. Colquhoun.
I hope that if this does go to court on defamation it gets summarily kicked out and used as example of how such cases will be treated in the future.
December 18, 2009 at 10:37 am
Yeah, this is really shocking!