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! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
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.