‘We know little about the effect of diet on health. That’s why so much is written about it’. That is the title of a post in which I advocate the view put by John Ioannidis that remarkably little is known about the health effects if individual nutrients. That ignorance has given rise to a vast industry selling advice that has little evidence to support it.
The 2016 Conference of the so-called "College of Medicine" had the title "Food, the Forgotten Medicine". This post gives some background information about some of the speakers at this event. I’m sorry it appears to be too ad hominem, but the only way to judge the meeting is via the track record of the speakers.
Quite a lot has been written here about the "College of Medicine". It is the direct successor of the Prince of Wales’ late, unlamented, Foundation for Integrated Health. But unlike the latter, its name is disguises its promotion of quackery. Originally it was going to be called the “College of Integrated Health”, but that wasn’t sufficently deceptive so the name was dropped.
For the history of the organisation, see
The conference programme (download pdf) is a masterpiece of bait and switch. It is a mixture of very respectable people, and outright quacks. The former are invited to give legitimacy to the latter. The names may not be familiar to those who don’t follow the antics of the magic medicine community, so here is a bit of information about some of them.
The introduction to the meeting was by Michael Dixon and Catherine Zollman, both veterans of the Prince of Wales Foundation, and both devoted enthusiasts for magic medicne. Zollman even believes in the battiest of all forms of magic medicine, homeopathy (download pdf), for which she totally misrepresents the evidence. Zollman works now at the Penny Brohn centre in Bristol. She’s also linked to the "Portland Centre for integrative medicine" which is run by Elizabeth Thompson, another advocate of homeopathy. It came into being after NHS Bristol shut down the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital, on the very good grounds that it doesn’t work.
Now, like most magic medicine it is privatised. The Penny Brohn shop will sell you a wide range of expensive and useless "supplements". For example, Biocare Antioxidant capsules at £37 for 90. Biocare make several unjustified claims for their benefits. Among other unnecessary ingredients, they contain a very small amount of green tea. That’s a favourite of "health food addicts", and it was the subject of a recent paper that contains one of the daftest statistical solecisms I’ve ever encountered
"To protect against type II errors, no corrections were applied for multiple comparisons".
If you don’t understand that, try this paper.
The results are almost certainly false positives, despite the fact that it appeared in Lancet Neurology. It’s yet another example of broken peer review.
It’s been know for decades now that “antioxidant” is no more than a marketing term, There is no evidence of benefit and large doses can be harmful. This obviously doesn’t worry the College of Medicine.
Margaret Rayman was the next speaker. She’s a real nutritionist. Mixing the real with the crackpots is a standard bait and switch tactic.
Eleni Tsiompanou, came next. She runs yet another private "wellness" clinic, which makes all the usual exaggerated claims. She seems to have an obsession with Hippocrates (hint: medicine has moved on since then). Dr Eleni’s Joy Biscuits may or may not taste good, but their health-giving properties are make-believe.
Andrew Weil, from the University of Arizona
gave the keynote address. He’s described as "one of the world’s leading authorities on Nutrition and Health". That description alone is sufficient to show the fantasy land in which the College of Medicine exists. He’s a typical supplement salesman, presumably very rich. There is no excuse for not knowing about him. It was 1988 when Arnold Relman (who was editor of the New England Journal of Medicine) wrote A Trip to Stonesville: Some Notes on Andrew Weil, M.D..
“Like so many of the other gurus of alternative medicine, Weil is not bothered by logical contradictions in his argument, or encumbered by a need to search for objective evidence.”
This blog has mentioned his more recent activities, many times.
Alex Richardson, of Oxford Food and Behaviour Research (a charity, not part of the university) is an enthusiast for omega-3, a favourite of the supplement industry, She has published several papers that show little evidence of effectiveness. That looks entirely honest. On the other hand, their News section contains many links to the notorious supplement industry lobby site, Nutraingredients, one of the least reliable sources of information on the web (I get their newsletter, a constant source of hilarity and raised eyebrows). I find this worrying for someone who claims to be evidence-based. I’m told that her charity is funded largely by the supplement industry (though I can’t find any mention of that on the web site).
Stephen Devries was a new name to me. You can infer what he’s like from the fact that he has been endorsed byt Andrew Weil, and that his address is "Institute for Integrative Cardiology" ("Integrative" is the latest euphemism for quackery). Never trust any talk with a title that contains "The truth about". His was called "The scientific truth about fats and sugars," In a video, he claims that diet has been shown to reduce heart disease by 70%. which gives you a good idea of his ability to assess evidence. But the claim doubtless helps to sell his books.
Prof Tim Spector, of Kings College London, was next. As far as I know he’s a perfectly respectable scientist, albeit one with books to sell, But his talk is now online, and it was a bit like a born-again microbiome enthusiast. He seemed to be too impressed by the PREDIMED study, despite it’s statistical unsoundness, which was pointed out by Ioannidis. Little evidence was presented, though at least he was more sensible than the audience about the uselessness of multivitamin tablets.
Simon Mills talked on “Herbs and spices. Using Mother Nature’s pharmacy to maintain health and cure illness”. He’s a herbalist who has featured here many times. I can recommend especially his video about Hot and Cold herbs as a superb example of fantasy science.
Annie Anderson, is Professor of Public Health Nutrition and
Founder of the Scottish Cancer Prevention Network. She’s a respectable nutritionist and public health person, albeit with their customary disregard of problems of causality.
Patrick Holden is chair of the Sustainable Food Trust. He promotes "organic farming". Much though I dislike the cruelty of factory farms, the "organic" industry is largely a way of making food more expensive with no health benefits.
The Michael Pittilo 2016 Student Essay Prize was awarded after lunch. Pittilo has featured frequently on this blog as a result of his execrable promotion of quackery -see, in particular, A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor.
Nutritional advice for patients with cancer. This discussion involved three people.
Professor Robert Thomas, Consultant Oncologist, Addenbrookes and Bedford Hospitals, Dr Clare Shaw, Consultant Dietitian, Royal Marsden Hospital and Dr Catherine Zollman, GP and Clinical Lead, Penny Brohn UK.
Robert Thomas came to my attention when I noticed that he, as a regular cancer consultant had spoken at a meeting of the quack charity, “YestoLife”. When I saw he was scheduled tp speak at another quack conference. After I’d written to him to point out the track records of some of the people at the meeting, he withdrew from one of them. See The exploitation of cancer patients is wicked. Carrot juice for lunch, then die destitute. The influence seems to have been temporary though. He continues to lend respectability to many dodgy meetings. He edits the Cancernet web site. This site lends credence to bizarre treatments like homeopathy and crystal healing. It used to sell hair mineral analysis, a well-known phony diagnostic method the main purpose of which is to sell you expensive “supplements”. They still sell the “Cancer Risk Nutritional Profile”. for £295.00, despite the fact that it provides no proven benefits.
Robert Thomas designed a food "supplement", Pomi-T: capsules that contain Pomegranate, Green tea, Broccoli and Curcumin. Oddly, he seems still to subscribe to the antioxidant myth. Even the supplement industry admits that that’s a lost cause, but that doesn’t stop its use in marketing. The one randomised trial of these pills for prostate cancer was inconclusive. Prostate Cancer UK says "We would not encourage any man with prostate cancer to start taking Pomi-T food supplements on the basis of this research". Nevertheless it’s promoted on Cancernet.co.uk and widely sold. The Pomi-T site boasts about the (inconclusive) trial, but says "Pomi-T® is not a medicinal product".
There was a cookery demonstration by Dale Pinnock "The medicinal chef" The programme does not tell us whether he made is signature dish "the Famous Flu Fighting Soup". Needless to say, there isn’t the slightest reason to believe that his soup has the slightest effect on flu.
In summary, the whole meeting was devoted to exaggerating vastly the effect of particular foods. It also acted as advertising for people with something to sell. Much of it was outright quackery, with a leavening of more respectable people, a standard part of the bait-and-switch methods used by all quacks in their attempts to make themselves sound respectable. I find it impossible to tell how much the participants actually believe what they say, and how much it’s a simple commercial drive.
The thing that really worries me is why someone like Phil Hammond supports this sort of thing by chairing their meetings (as he did for the "College of Medicine’s" direct predecessor, the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health. His defence of the NHS has made him something of a hero to me. He assured me that he’d asked people to stick to evidence. In that he clearly failed. I guess they must pay well.
Today, 25 September, is the first anniversary of the needless death of Stefan Grimm. This post is intended as a memorial.
He should be remembered, in the hope that some good can come from his death.
On 1 December 2014, I published the last email from Stefan Grimm, under the title “Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm“. Since then it’s been viewed 196,000 times. The day after it was posted, the server failed under the load.
Since than, I posted two follow-up pieces. On December 23, 2014 “Some experiences of life at Imperial College London. An external inquiry is needed after the death of Stefan Grimm“. Of course there was no external inquiry.
And on April 9, 2015, after the coroner’s report, and after Imperial’s internal inquiry, "The death of Stefan Grimm was “needless”. And Imperial has done nothing to prevent it happening again".
The tragedy featured in the introduction of the HEFCE report on the use of metrics.
“The tragic case of Stefan Grimm, whose suicide in September 2014 led Imperial College to launch a review of its use of performance metrics, is a jolting reminder that what’s at stake in these debates is more than just the design of effective management systems.”
“Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods ”
I had made no attempt to contact Grimm’s family, because I had no wish to intrude on their grief. But in July 2015, I received, out of the blue, a hand-written letter from Stefan Grimm’s mother. She is now 80 and living in Munich. I was told that his father, Dieter Grimm, had died of cancer when he was only 59. I also learned that Stefan Grimm was distantly related to Wilhelm Grimm, one of the Gebrüder Grimm.
The letter was very moving indeed. It said "Most of the infos about what happened in London, we got from you, what you wrote in the internet".
I responded as sympathetically as I could, and got a reply which included several of Stefan’s drawings, and then more from his sister. The drawings were done while he was young. They show amazing talent, but by the age of 25 he was too busy with science to expoit his artistic talents.
With his mother’s permission, I reproduce ten of his drawings here, as a memorial to a man who whose needless death was attributable to the very worst of the UK university system. He was killed by mindless and cruel "performance management", imposed by Imperial College London. The initial reaction of Imperial gave little hint of an improvement. I hope that their review of the metrics used to assess people will be a bit more sensible,
His real memorial lies in his published work, which continues to be cited regularly after his death.
His drawings are a reminder that there is more to human beings than getting grants. And that there is more to human beings than science.
Click the picture for an album of ten of his drawings. In the album there are also pictures of two books that were written for children by Stefan’s father, Dieter Grimm.
Dated Christmas eve,1979 (age 16)
Well well. It seems that Imperial are having an "HR Showcase: Supporting our people" on 15 October. And the introduction is being given by none other than Professor Martin Wilkins, the very person whose letter to Grimm must bear some responsibility for his death. I’ll be interested to hear whether he shows any contrition. I doubt whether any employees will dare to ask pointed questions at this meeting, but let’s hope they do.
Stolen from badscience.net
Peter Medawar, the eminent biologist, in his classic book Advice to a Young Scientist, said this.
“Exaggerated claims for the efficacy of a medicament are very seldom the consequence of any intention to deceive; they are usually the outcome of a kindly conspiracy in which everybody has the very best intentions. The patient wants to get well, his physician wants to have made him better, and the pharmaceutical company would have liked to have put it into the physician’s power to have made him so. The controlled clinical trial is an attempt to avoid being taken in by this conspiracy of good will.”
There was a lot of truth in that 1979, towards the end of the heyday of small molecule pharmacology. Since then, one can argue, things have gone downhill.
First, though, think of life without general anaesthetics, local anaesthetics, antibiotics, anticoagulants and many others. They work well and have done incalculable good. And they were developed by the drug industry.
But remember also that remarkably little is known about medicine. There are huge areas in which neither causes nor cures are known. Treatments for chronic pain, back problems, many sorts of cancer and almost all mental problems are a mess. It just isn’t known what to do. Nobody is to blame for this. Serious medical research has been going on for little more than 60 years, and it turns out to be very complicated. We are doing our best, but are still ignorant about whole huge areas. That leads to a temptation to make things up. Clutching at straws is very evident when it comes to depression, pain and Alzheimer’s disease, among others.
In order to improve matters, one essential is to do fair tests on treatments that we have. Ben Goldacre’s book is a superb account of how this could be done, and how the process of testing has been subverted for commercial gain and to satisfy the vanities of academics.
Of course there is nothing new in criticisms of Big Pharma. The huge fines levied on them for false advertising are well known. The difference is that Goldacre’s book explains clearly what’s gone wrong in great detail, documents it thoroughly, and makes concrete suggestions for improving matters.
Big Pharma has undoubtedly sometimes behaved appallingly in recent years. Someone should be in jail for crimes against patients. They have behaved in much the same way that bankers have. In any huge globalised industry it is always possible to blame someone in another department for the dishonesty. But they aren’t the only people to blame. None of the problems could have arisen with the complicity of academics, universities, and a plethora of regulatory agencies and professional bodies.
The biggest scandal of all is missing data (chapter 1). Companies, and sometmes academics, have suppressed of trials that don’t favour the drugs that they are trying to sell. The antidepressant drug, reboxetine, appeared at first to be good. It had been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and there was at least one good randomized placebo-controlled trial (RCT) showing it worked. But it didn’t. The manufacturer didn’t provide a complete list of unpublished trials when asked for them. After much work it was found in 2010 that, as well as the published, favourable trial, there were six more trials which had not been published and all six showed reboxetine to be no better than placebo . In comparisons with other antidepressant drugs three small studies (507 patients) showed reboxetine to be as good as its competitors. These were published. But it came to light that data on 1657 patients had never been published and these showed reboxetine to be worse than its rivals.
When all the data for the SSRI antidepressants were unearthed (Kirsch et al., 2008) it turned out that they were no better than placebo for mild or moderate depression. This selective suppression of negative data has happened time and time again. It harms patients and deceives doctors, but, incredibly, it’s not illegal.
Disgracefully, Kirsch et al. had to use a Freedom of Information Act request to get the data from the FDA.
“The output of a regulator is often simply a crude, brief summary: almost a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about side effects. This is the opposite of science, which is only reliable because everyone shows their working, explains how they know that something is effective or safe, shares their methods and their results, and allows others to decide if they agree with the way they processed and analysed the data.”
“the NICE document discussing whether it’s a good idea to have Lucentis, an extremely expensive drug, costing well over £ 1,000 per treatment, that is injected into the eye for a condition called acute macular degeneration. As you can see, the NICE document on whether this treatment is a good idea is censored. Not only is the data on the effectiveness of the treatment blanked out by thick black rectangles, in case any doctor or patient should see it, but absurdly, even the names of some trials are missing, preventing the reader from even knowing of their existence, or cross referencing information about them.Most disturbing of all, as you can see in the last bullet point, the data on adverse events is also censored.”
The book lists all the tricks that are used by both industry and academics. Here are some of them.
- Regulatory agencies like the MHRA, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) set a low bar for approval of drugs.
- Companies make universities sign gagging agreements which allow unfavourable results to be suppressed, and their existence hidden.
- Accelerated approval schemes are abused to get quick approval of ineffective drugs and the promised proper tests often don’t materialise
- Disgracefully, even when all the results have been given to the regulatory agencies (which isn’t always). The MHRA, EMA and FDA don’t make them public. We are expected to take their word.
- Although all clinical trials are meant to be registered before they start, the EMA register, unbelievably, is not public. Furthermore there is no check that the results if trials ever get published. Despite mandates that results must be published within a year of finishing the trial, many aren’t. Journals promise to check this sort of thing, but they don’t.
- When the results are published, it is not uncommon for the primary outcome, specified before it started, to have been changed to one that looks like a more favourable result. Journals are meant to check, but mostly don’t.
- Companies use scientific conferences, phony journals, make-believe “seed trials” and “continuing medical education” for surreptitious advertising.
- Companies invent new diseases, plant papers to make you think you’re abnormal, and try to sell you a “cure”. For example, female sexual dysfunction , restless legs syndrome and social anxiety disorder (i.e. shyness). This is called disease-mongering, medicalisation or over-diagnosis. It’s bad.
- Spin is rife. Companies, and authors, want to talk up their results. University PR departments want to exaggerate benefits. Journal editors want sensational papers. Read the results, not the summary. This is universal (but particularly bad in alternative medicine).
- Companies fund patient groups to lobby for pills even when the pills are known to be ineffective. The lobby that demanded that Herceptin should be available to all on the breast cancer patients on the NHS was organised by a PR company working for the manufacturer, Roche. But Herceptin doesn’t work at all in 80% of patients and gives you at best a few extra months of life in advanced cases.
- Ghostwriting of papers is serious corruption. A company writes the paper and senior academics appear as the authors, though they may never have seen the original data. Even in cases where academics have admitted to lying about whether they have seen the data, they go unpunished by their universities. See for example, the case of Professor Eastell.
- By encouraging the funding of “continuing medical education” by companies, the great and the good of academic medicine have let us down badly.
This last point is where the book ends, and it’s worth amplification.
“So what have the great and good of British medicine done to help patients, in the face of this endemic corruption, and these systematic flaws? In 2012, a collaborative document was produced by senior figures in medicine from across the board, called ‘Guidance on Collaboration Between Healthcare Professionals and the Pharmaceutical Industry’. This document was jointly approved by the ABPI, the Department of Health, the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Nursing, Psychiatrists, GPs, the Lancet, the British Medical Association, the NHS Confederation, and so on. ”
“It contains no recognition of the serious problems we have seen in this book. In fact, quite the opposite: it makes a series of assertions about them that are factually incorrect.”
“It states that drug reps ‘can be a useful resource for healthcare professionals’. Again, I’m not sure why the Royal Colleges, the BMA, the Department of Health and the NHS Confederation felt the need to reassert this to the doctors of the UK, on behalf of industry, when the evidence shows that drug reps actively distort prescribing practices. But that is the battle you face, trying to get these issues taken seriously by the pinnacle of the medical establishment.”
This is perhaps the most shameful betrayal of all. The organisations that should protect patients have sold them out.
You may have been sold out by your “elders and betters”, but you can do something. The “What to do” sections of the book should be produced as a set of flash cards, as a reminder that matters can be improved.
It is shameful that this book was not written by a clinical pharmacologist, or a senior doctor, or a Royal College, or a senior academic. Why has the British Pharmacological Society said nothing?
It is shameful too that this book was not written by one of the quacks who are keen to defend the $60 billion alternative medicine industry (which has cured virtually nothing) and who are strident in their criticism of the 600 billion dollar Pharma industry. They haven’t done the work that Goldacre has to analyse the real problems. All they have done is to advocate unfair tests, because that is the only sort their treatments can pass.
It’s weird that medicine, the most caring profession, is more corrupt than any other branch of science. The reason, needless to say, is money. Well, money and vanity. The publish or perish mentality of senior academics encourages dishonesty. It is a threat to honest science.
Goldacre’s book shows the consequences: harm to patients and huge wastage of public money.
7 October, 2012, The Observer
"I think it’s really disappointing that nobody, not the Royal Colleges, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Pharmacological Society, the British Medical Association, none of these organisations have stood up and said: selective non-publication of unflattering trial data is research misconduct, and if you do it you will be booted out. And I think they really urgently should."
I had never intended to write about climate. It is too far from the things I know about. But recent events have unleashed a Palin-esque torrent of comments from people who clearly know even less about it than I do. In any case, it provides a good context to think about trust in science,
My interest in it, apart from little matters like the future of the planet, lies in the reputation of science and scientists.
I have been going on for years now about the lack of trust in science, and the extent to which it is a self-inflicted problem. The latest reactions to the developments at the University of East Anglia and the IPCC may show the nature of the problem with dreadful clarity,
Many of us came into science because, apart from the sheer beauty of nature, it seemed like one of the few honest ways of earning a living. Most scientists that I know still think like that, but recent
events invite some reexamination of honesty in science.
How dishonest is science?
The first thing to say is that I have never come across anything in my own field that would qualify as fraud, or even dishonest. I did once have a visit from a rather distressed postdoc (not in my area of work) who felt pressurised by her boss into putting an interpretation on her work that she did not agree with. In the end, the bit of work in question was left out of the paper. That could be held to be dishonest, in that the omission wasn’t mentioned, but it could also be held that the omitted result was too ambiguous to contribute much to the paper. It was just short of the point where I’d have felt compelled to do something about it. But only just. That is about the worst thing I’ve encountered in a lifetime.
There is, of course, an enormous difference between being wrong and being dishonest. Any research that is worth doing has an outcome that can’t be predicted before the work is done. At best, one can hope for an approximation to the truth. Mistakes in observations, analysis or interpretation will sometimmes mean the announced result is completely wrong, with no trace of dishonesty being involved. But when that happens, others soon fiind the mistake. It is that self-correcting characteristic of science that keeps it honest in the long run.
Of course there have been occasional cases of outright fraud, simple
falsification or fabrication of data. How often it occurs is not really known. There is a recent analysis in PLoS One, about verified cases of misconduct in the USA suggested that 1 in 100,000 scientists per year are to blame, but other ways of counting give larger numbers. For example, if asked around 2 in 100 scientists claim to be aware of misconduct by someone else., The numbers aren’t huge but they are much bigger than they should be.
It isn’t perhaps surprising that the Fanelli study found misconduct was most frequent in “medical (including clinical and pharmacological) research studies”, which are often funded by the pharmaceutical industry, Basic biomedical research and other subjects were better, though sadly that could be only because they are less often offered money.
What gives rise to dishonesty?
It seems obvious that one motive is money, as suggested by the worst rates of misconduct being found in the clinical pharmacological studies, It is well known that studies funded by industry are more likely to produce results that favour the product than those funded in other ways.
The other reason is presumably the human desire to win fame, promotion and to get grants.
It is no excuse, but it is perhaps a reason for misconduct that the pressure to publish and produce results is now enormous in academia. Even in good universities people are judged by the numbers (rather than the quality) of papers they produce and by what journal they happen to be published in. Contrary to public perception, even quite senior people have no guarantee that they can’t be fired, and life for postdoctoral fellows, who do a large fraction of experimental research, is harsh to the point of cruelty. They exist on a series of short term contracts, they work exceedigly hard and have poor prospects of getting a secure job. In conditions like that, the only surprising thing is that there is so little dishonesty.
The pressure to publish in particular journals is particularly invidious because it is known that the number of citations that a paper gets (itself a fallible measure of quality) is independent of the journal in which it appears. Bibliometrists are the curse of our age. (See, for example Challenging the tyranny of impact factors, 2003; and How to get good science, 2007 or its web version; and Peter Lawrence’s article, The mismeasurement of science)
The enormous competitive pressure under which academics work is imposed by vice-chancellors, research councils and other senior people who should know better, It is a self-inflicted wound.
In other words, the authorities provide a strong incentive to do poor, over-hurried and occasionally dishonest science. Perhaps the surprising thing in the circumstances is that there is so little outright fabrication. The very measures that have the aim of improving science actually have just the opposite effect. That is what happens when science is run by people who don’t do it.
For an idea of what life is like in science now, try Peter Lawrence’s Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research. Or, for someone at the other end of their career, Jennifer Rohn’s account on Nature blogs.
Given the high degree of insecurity for young researchers, compounded by well-intentioned but vacuous “training” from daft Robert’s’ "training courses", or the dismaly ineffective Concordat, the only surprise is that so many people remain honest and devoted to good science. Nothing raises the ire of hard-pressed scientists more than the constant emails form HR trying to force people to go to gobbledygook courses on "wellbeing". Times Higher Education recently did a piece on "Get happy", The comments are worth reading.
So what about climate change?
Out of thousands of pages in the IPCC reports, a single mistake was found, On page 493 of the IPCC’s second 1000-page Working Group report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” (WGII) it was said that Himalayan glaciers were “very likely” to disappear by 2035. Glaciers are melting but that date can’t be justified. This single mistake has been blown out of all proportion. Furthermore it is important to notice that the mistake was found by scientists, not by ‘sceptics’. It is a good example of the self-correcting nature of science. Nevertheless this single mistake has provoked something close to hysteria among those who want to deny that something needs to be done.
On the other hand, the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia (UEA) look bad. It simply isn’t possible at the moment to say whether they are as bad as they seem at first sight, We just don’t know whether anything of importance was concealed, but we should know.
One thing can be said with certainty, and that is that the reaction to their revelation by Dr Phil Jones, and by the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, was nothing short of disastrous. Fred Pearce put it very well in Climate emails cannot destroy proof that humans are warming the planet
Most unforgivably of all, UEA refused to comply with requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and there is some reason to think that relevant material was deleted. The deputy information commissioner, Graham Smith, said: in a statement that
“The emails which are now public reveal that Mr Holland’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act were not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation. Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act makes it an offence for public authorities to act so as to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information.”.
That seems to me to be a matter that requires the resignation of the vice-chancellor. On this matter, I think George Monbiot is spot on in his article “Climate change email scandal shames the university and requires resignations“.
There was a big feature about academic freedom in Times Higher Education recently. One of the problems was what happens to someone who brings their own university into disrepute. But when that term is used, it is always used about junior partners in the organisation (you know, professors and the like). It should apply equally to heads of communications and vice-chancellors who bring their own university into disrepute, whether the disrepute is brought about by failing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, or by promoting courses in junk medicine.
In general, conspiracy theories are wrong. I’m not sure how much of the distortion of climate data results from surreptitious funding of opposition to doing anything by the fossil fuel industry. The Royal Society is an organisation that is not usually prone to conspiritorialist views. That means one must take it seriously the fact that in 2006, the Royal Society wrote to ExxonnMobil to ask them to stop funding climate denialist organisations. This is a bit like the way Big Pharma has been caught funding “user groups” that endorse their products. Some newspapers like to stir up controversies about things that aren’t very controversial. For example there is a good analysis of a recent Sunday Times piece here.
Of course it is often alleged that "quackbusters" are funded by Big Pharma, though in fact the amounts of money involved are far too small for Big Pharma to bother. Climate deniers too like to suggest that there is some sort of conspiracy, arranged between hundreds of labs in the world to conceal the fact that there is no such thing as warming. I guess that shows only that deniers know little about how science works. it is an exceedingly competitive business, and getting hundreds of labs to say the same thing would be like trying to herd cats.
If there is a problem, it is the other way round. Labs are in such intense competition with each other, that it lcan lead to undesirable levels of secrecy.
Blogs in which researches have a direct dialogue with the public are a big help. As always in the blogosphere, the problem is to find the reliable sources. Two excellent sites, in which scientists (not journalists or lobbyists) talk directly with the public are realclimate.org and Andrew Russell’s blog. The post on RealClimate, IPCC errors: facts and spin, is especially worth reading.
Total openness is the only cure
All the raw data and all emails have to be disclosed openly. Everything should be put on the web as soon as possible. By appearing to go to ground, UEA has made enormous problems for itself and for the rest of the world. Some people object to total openness on the grounds that the other side tells lies. In the case of climate change (and in the case of junk medicine too) that is undoubtedly true. The opponents are ruthlessly dishonest about facts. The only way to counter that is by being ruthlessly and visibly honest about what you know, and why.
The UK’s Meteorological Office has, to its great credit, put raw data on line. That policy has already paid off, because a science blogger found a mistake in the way that some Australian data had been incorporated into forecasts. The Met Office thanked him and corrected the mistake. In fact the error makes no substantial difference to the warming trend, but the principle is just great. The more people who can check analyses and eliminate slip-ups the better.
Putting raw data on the web is an idea that has been gathering force for a while, in all areas of work, not just climate change. In my own are (stochastic properties of single ion channel molecules) our analysis programs have always been available on the web, free to anyone who wants them, despite the large amount of work that has gone into them. And we run a course. almost free, on the theory that underlies our analyses. Within the last couple of months we have been discussion ways of making public all our raw data (in any case, we would always have sent it to anyone who asked). Digitised single channel records are big files (around 100 Mb) and it is only recently that the web has been able to deal with such large amounts of raw data. There are also problems of how to format data so other people can read it, The way we are all heading is clear, and the fact that some people in climate science appeared to be hiding raw data is a disgrace.
Public relations is not the cure
It is not uncommon to read that science needs better PR. That is precisely what is not needed. PR exists to put only one side of the story. That makes it an essentially dishonest occupation. Its aims are the very opposite of those of science. The public aren’t stupid: often they recognise when they are getting half the story.
It is particularly unfortunate that many universities have developed departments with names like "corporate communications". Externally they are seen as giving information about science, and indeed some of the things they do are successful public engagement in science. Only too often, though, it is made clear internally that an important aim of these departments is to improve the image of the university.
But you have to choose. You can engage the public in science or you can be a PR image-builder. You can’t be both.
The matter came to a head in 2008 when, according to a report in Times Higher Education, the University of Nottingham issued a memo that defined public engagement as: “The range of activities of which the primary functions are to raise awareness of the university’s capabilities, expertise and profile to those not already engaged with the institution”.
The mainstream media and political blogs
The biggest problem of all with climate change is that it has become more about politics than about facts. It has become an essential credential for any conservative to deny that climate is changing. It is part of their public image, and most conservatives neither know nor care about evidence. Like Sarah Palin, they just know. In the USA especially, the argument is not really about climate at all. It is really about discrediting Barack Obama -a sort of swift-boat treatment that uses whatever lies are needed.
Just as with the great MMR fiasco and the promotion of its false link to autism, reports in newspapers and blogs must bear much of the blame for failing to inform readers of the actual underlying facts and, just as important, the uncertainties. Of course some papers have done a pretty good job, particularly the Guardian and the Independent in the UK, and the New York Times.. The political blogs, by and large, haven’t. The Huffington Post has made little effort (and publishes some appalling nonsense about medicine too).
The problem with political blogs and tabloid newspapers is that they are much more interested in sensation and circulation than they are in giving accurate news and information. Take, for example, the Guido Fawkes blog. To be fair, the blog itself says "The primary motivation for the creation of the blog was purely to make mischief at the expense of politicians and for the author’s own self-gratification. Its writer", so you know not to expect much, Paul Staines, was at the Westminster Skeptics event, Does Political Blogging Make a Difference? He makes no pretence of taking the news seriously, which, I guess, is why I don’t read his blog. After the talks I asked why his blog did little about climate change. His answer was "where are your sandals?". On the way home I tweeted, from a very overcrowded train (most trains from Euston being cancelled that night),
"On way home from #sitp political blogging. Learned that Guido serious about nothing but Guido. Narcissist not journalist."
At least one other person there agreed (thanks, Dave Cole).
It was good to hear Sunny Hundall of Liberal Conspiracy (the only one I read), but I found myself agreeing mostly with the chair, Nick Cohen. It would be a tragedy if the great national and local papers were to vanish. Guido Fawkes and Huffington Post are not remotely like proper newspapers.
Specialist blogs like this one are fine if you are interested in the topics we write about, but we don’t begin to supplant proper newspapers. Bloggers can and do occasionally get good stories. Those that are written by scientists can analyse more critically than most journalists have either the knowledge or the time to do. Bur they don’t come close to supplanting the detailed reporting in good newspapers of local events, what happens in law courts or in parliament. That’s why it is vital to buy newspapers, not just read them free on the web.
James Hayton, who is in nanoscience has posted his thoughts obout trust in science on his blog. I discovered this via Twitter (@James_Hayton). He also posted a beautiful clip from the Ascent of Man, in which Jacob Bronowski speaks, from Auschwitz, of the consequences of irrational dogma. I’m old enough to remember Bronowski on a 1950s radio programme, the Brains Trust, though James Hayton clearly isn’t. Now I enjoy equally his daughter, Lisa Jardine‘s talks about science and history.
1 March 2010. Phil Jones, and the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, appeared before a parliamentary committee. I found their responses to questions very disappointing. The evidence submitted by the Institute of Physics was strongly worded, but spot on.
“The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions and freedom of information law. The principle that scientists should be willing to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others, which requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials, is vital.”
7 March 2010. Thanks to some kind remarks from Michael Kenward (see first comment). I sought wider coverage of this item in the mainstream media. Consequently, on Thursday 4 March, a much shortened version of this article appeared on the Guardian environment site. That piece has accumulated so far, 230 comments. The discussion of it has spread to the two blogs that I recommended, Andy Russell’s blog and RealClimate.org, though it has been diverted onto the side-issue of the letter from the Institute of Physics. The seemingly innocent idea that total openness would increase trust has, to my real astonishment, resulted in hysterical accusations that I’m a crypto-denialist. The constant politically-motivated attacks on climate science seem to have induced a paranoid siege mentality in some of them. There is a real danger that such people will harm their own cause, and that would be tragic.
We have listed many reasons hear why you should never trust Boots. Here are the previous ones.
This post is about a "functional food". That is about something a bit more serious than homeopathy, though I’ll return to that standing joke in the follow-up, because of Boots’ latest shocking admission..
Alternative medicine advocates love to blame Big Pharma for every criticism of magic medicine. In contrast, people like me, Ben Goldacre and a host of others have often pointed out that the differences seem to get ever smaller between the huge Alternative industry (about $60 billion per year), and the even huger regular pharmaceutical industry (around $600 billion per year),
Boots are as good an example as any. While representing themselves as ethical pharmacists, they seem to have no compunction at all in highly deceptive advertising of medicines and supplements which are utterly useless rip-offs.
The easiest way to make money is to sell something that is alleged to cure a common, but ill-defined problem, that has a lot of spontaneous variability.. Like stress, for example.
The Times carried a piece Is Boots’s new Lactium pill the solution to stress?. Needless to say the question wasn’t answered. It was more like an infomercial than serious journalism. Here is what Boots say.
What does it do?
This product contains Lactium, a unique ingredient which is proven to help with the stresses of every day life, helping you through a stressful day. Also contains B vitamins, magnesium and vitamin C, which help to support a healthy immune system and energy levels.
Why is it different?
This one a day supplement contains the patented ingredient Lactium. All Boots vitamins and suppliers are checked to ensure they meet our high quality and safety standards.
So what is this "unique ingredient", Lactium? It is a produced by digestion of cow’s milk with trypsin. It was patented in 1995 by the French company, Ingredia, It is now distributed in the USA and Canada by Pharmachem. which describes itself as “a leader in the nutraceutical industry.” Drink a glass of milk and your digestive system will make it for you. Free. Boots charge you £4.99 for only seven capsules.
What’s the evidence?
The search doesn’t start well. A search of the medical literature with Pubmed for "lactium" produces no results at all. Search for "casein hydrolysate" gives quite a lot, but "casein hydrolysate AND stress" gives only seven, of which only one looks at effects in man, Messaoudi M, Lefranc-Millot C, Desor D, Demagny B, Bourdon L. Eur J Nutr. 2005.
There is a list of nineteen "studies" on the Pharmachem web site That is where Boots sent me when I asked about evidence, so let’s take a look.
Of the nineteen studies, most are just advertising slide shows or unpublished stuff. Two appear to be duplicated. There are only two proper published papers worth looking at, and one of these is in
rats not man. The human paper first.
Paper 1 Effects of a Bovine Alpha S1-Casein Tryptic Hydrolysate (CTH) on Sleep Disorder in Japanese General Population, Zara de Saint-Hilaire, Michaël Messaoudi, Didier Desor and Toshinori Kobayashi [reprint here] The authors come from France, Switzerland and Japan.
This paper was published in The Open Sleep Journal, 2009, 2, 26-32, one of 200 or so open access journals published by Bentham Science Publishers.
It has to be one of the worst clinical trials that I’ve encountered. It was conducted on 32 subjects, healthy Japanese men and women aged 25-40 and had reported sleeping disorders. It was double blind and placebo controlled, so apart from the fact that only 12 of the 32 subjects were in the control group, what went wrong?
The results were assessed as subjective sleep quality using the Japanese Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index (PSQI-J). This gave a total .score and seven component scores: sleep quality, sleep latency, sleep duration, habitual sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances, use of sleeping medication, and daytime dysfunction.
In the results section we read, for total PSQI score
"As shown in Table 2, the Mann-Whitney U-test did not show significant differences between CTH [casein tryptic hydrolysate] and Placebo groups in PSQI-J total scores at D0 (U=85; NS), D14 (U=86.5; NS), D28 (U=98.5; NS) and D35 (U=99.5; NS)."
Then we read exactly similar statements for the seven component scores. For example,. for Sleep Quality
As shown in Table 3, the Mann-Whitney U-test did not show significant differences between the sleep quality scores of CTH and Placebo groups at D0 (U=110.5; NS), D14 (U=108.5; NS), D28 (U=110; NS) and D35 (U=108.5; NS).
The discussion states
"The comparisons between the two groups with the test of Mann-Whitney did not show significant differences, probably because of the control product’s placebo effect. Despite everything, the paired comparisons with the test of Wilcoxon show interesting effects of CTH on sleep disorders of the treated subjects. "
Aha, so those pesky controls are to blame! But despite this negative result the abstract of the paper says
"CTH significantly improves the PSQI total score of the treated subjects. It particularly improves the sleep quality after two weeks of treatment, decreases the sleep latency and the daytime dysfunction after four weeks of treatment.
Given the antistress properties of CTH, it seems possible to relate the detected improvement of sleep aspects to a reduction of stress following its’ chronic administration."
So there seems to be a direct contradiction between the actual results and the announced outcome of the trial. How could this happen? The way that the results are presented make it hard to
tell. As far as I can tell, the answer is that, having failed to find evidence of real differences between CTH and placebo, the authors gave up on the placebo control and looked simply at the change
from the day 0 basleine values within the CTH group and, separately, within the placebo group. Some of these differences did pass statistical significance but if you analyse it
that way. there is no point in having a control group at all.
How on earth did such a poor paper get published in a peer-reviewed journal? One answer is that there are now so many peer-reviewed journals, that just about any paper, however poor, can get published
in some journal that describes itself as ‘peer-reviewed’. At the lower end of the status hierarchy, the system is simply broken.
Bentham Science Publishers are the publishers of the The Open Sleep Journal. (pity they saw fit to hijack the name of UCL’s spiritual founder, Jeremy Bentham). They publish 92 online and print journals, 200 plus open access journals, and related print/online book series. This publsher has a less than perfect reputation. There can be no scientist of any age or reputation who hasn’t had dozens of emails begging them to become editors of one or other of their journals or to write something for them. They have been described as a "pyramid scheme” for open access. It seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry has been asked. They have been described under the heading Black sheep among Open Access Journals and Publishers. More background can be found at Open Access News..
Most telling of all, a spoof paper was sent to a Bentham journal, The Open Information Science Journal. . There is a good account of the episode the New Scientist, under the title “CRAP paper accepted by journal”. It was the initiative if a graduate student at Cornell University. After getting emails from Bentham, he said “”It really painted a picture of vanity publishing”. The spoof paper was computer-generated rubbish, but it was accepted anyway, without comment. Not only did it appear that is was never reviewed but the editors even failed to notice that the authors said the paper came from the "Center for Research in Applied Phrenology", or CRAP. .The publication fee was $800, to be sent to a PO Box in the United Arab Emirates. Having made the point, the authors withdrew the paper.
Paper 5 in the list of nineteen stidies is also worth a look. It’s about rats not humans but it is in a respectable journal The FASEB Journal Express Article doi:10.1096/fj.00-0685fje (Published online June 8, 2001) [reprint here].
Characterization of α-casozepine, a tryptic peptide from bovine αs1-casein with benzodiazepine-like activity. Laurent Miclo et al.
This paper provides the basis for the claim that digested milk has an action like the benzodiazepine class of drugs, which includes diazepam (Valium). The milk hydrolysate, lactium was tested in rats and found to have some activity in tests that are alleged to measure effects on anxiety (I haven’t looked closely at the data, since the claims relate to humans).. The milk protein, bovine αS1 casein contains 214 amino acids. One of the many products of its digestion is a 10-amino-acid fragment (residues 91 -100) known as α-casozepine and this is the only product that was found to have an affinity for the γ-amino-butyric acid (GABA) type A receptors, which is where benzodiazepines are thought to act. There are a few snags with this idea.
- The affinity of α-casozepine peptide had 10,000-fold lower affinity for the benzodiazepine site of the GABAA than did diazepam, whereas allegedly the peptide was 10-fold more potent than diazepam in one of the rat tests.
- The is no statement anywhere of how much of the α-casozepine peptide is present in the stuff sold my Boots, or whether it can be absorbed
- And if digested milk did act like diazepam, it should clearly be callled a drug not a food.
What’s the conclusion about lactium?
Here is what I make of it.
Does it relieve stress? The evidence that it works any better than drinking a glass of milk is negligible. Tha advertising is grossly misleading and the price is extortionate.
Corruption of science. There is a more interesting aspect than that though. The case of lactium isn’t quite like the regular sort of alternative medicine scam. It isn’t inherently absurd, like homeopathy. The science isn’t the sort of ridiculous pseudo-scientific ramblings of magic medicine advocates who pretend it is all quantum theory The papers cited here are real papers, using real instruments and published in real journals,
What is interesting about that is that they show very clearly the corruption of real science that occurs at its fringes, This is science in the service of the dairy industry and in the service of the vast supplements industry. These are people who want to sell you a supplement for everything.
Medical claims are made for supplements, yet loopholes in the law are exploited to maintain that they are foods not drugs. The law and the companies that exploit it are deeply dishonest. That’s bad enough. but the real tragedy is when science itself is corrupted in the service of sales.
Big Pharma and the alternative industry. Nowhere is the slose alliance between Big Pharma and the alternative medicine industry more obvious than in the supplement and nutriceutical markets. Often the same companies run both. Their aim is to sell you thinks that you don’t need, for conditions that you may well not have, and to lighten your wallet in the process. Don’t believe for a moment that the dark-suited executives give a bugger about your health. You are a market to be exploited.
If you doubt that, look from time to time at one of the nutraceutical industry web sites, like nutraingredients.com. They even have a bit to say about lactium. They are particularly amusing at the moment because the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has had the temerity to demand that when health claims are made for foods, there is actually some small element of truth in the claims. The level of righteous indignation caused in the young food industry executives at the thought that they might have to tell the truth is everywhere to see. For example, try Life in a European health claims wasteland. Or, more relevant to Lactium, Opportunity remains in dairy bioactives despite departures. Here’s
a quotation from that one.
“Tage Affertsholt, managing partner at 3A Business Consulting, told NutraIngredients.com that the feedback from industry is that the very restrictive approach to health claims adopted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will hamper growth potential.”
“Affertsholt said: “Some companies are giving up and leaving the game to concentrate on more traditional dairy ingredients.”
Science and government policy
It may not have escaped your notice that the sort of low grade, corrupted, fringe science described here, is precisely the sort that is being encouraged by government policies. You are expected to get lots of publications, so never mind the details, just churn ’em out; The hundreds of new journals that have been created will allow you to get as meny peer-reviwed publications as you want without too much fuss, and you can very easily put an editorship of one of them on your CV when you fill in that bit about indicators of esteem. The box tickers in HR will never know that it’s a mickey mouse journal.
Boots own up to selling crap
Although this post was nothing to do with joke subjects like homeopathy, it isn’t possible to write about Boots without mentioning the performance of their professional standards director, Paul Bennett, when he appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee for Science and Technology.. This committee was holding an “evidence check” session on homeopathy (it’s nothing short of surreal that this should be happening in 2009, uh?). The video can be seen here, and an uncorrected transcript. It is quite fun in places. You can also read the written evidence that was submitted.
Even the Daily Mail didn’t misss this one. Fioana Macrae wrote Boots boss admits they sell homeopathic remedies ‘because they’re popular, not because they work’
“It could go down as a Boot in Mouth moment.
Yesterday, the company that boasts shelf upon shelf of arnica, St John’s wort, flower remedies and calendula cream admitted that homeopathy doesn’t necessarily work.
But it does sell. Which according to Paul Bennett, the man from Boots, is why the pharmacy chain stocks such products in the first place.
Mr Bennett, professional standards director for Boots, told a committee of MPs that there was no medical evidence that homeopathic pills and potions work.
‘There is certainly a consumer demand for these products,’ he said. ‘I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious.
‘It is about consumer choice for us and a large number of our customers believe they are efficacious.’
His declaration recalls Gerald Ratner’s infamous admission in 1991 that one of the gifts sold by his chain of jewellers was ‘total crap’.”
The Times noticed too, with Boots ‘labels homeopathy as effective despite lack of evidence‘.
Now you know that you can’t trust Boots. You heard it from the mouth of their professional standards director.
A commentary on the meeting by a clinical scientist summed up Bennett’s contribution thus
"Paul Bennett from Boots had to admit that there was no evidence, but regaled the committee with the mealy-mouthed flannel about customer choice that we have come to expect from his amoral employer."
Being interested in science communication, I was pleased when the BMJ asked me to review Unscientific America , by Chris Monney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.
The BMJ provides a link that allows you access to the whole review. They have made very few changes from the submitted version, which is reproduced below (with live links in the text. [Download pdf of print version]
I very soon discovered that the book had already caused ructions in the USA, as a result of its advocacy of appeasement of religious groups. In particular there was all out war with P.Z.Myers, whose very popular blog, Pharyngula. documented the battle in detail).
It is an American book through and through, and in the USA the biggest threat to reason comes from the far-right religious fundamentalists who preach young-earth creationism. It is said that 46% of US citizens believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. The same far-right religious groups also preach that carrying guns is good, that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, that climate change is a socialist conspiracy and that health care for everyone is a communist plot. And they never hesitate to lie in the promotion of their ‘religious’ views. The US situation is totally different from that in Europe, where religion is all but dead, and young earth creationism is the preserve of a few cranky used-car dealers (and possibly Tony Blair?)
Review of the Week
Trust me, I’m a scientist
David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology, University College London
Unscientific America sounds like a fascinating topic, not least because the book is a follow-up from Mooney’s The Republican War on Science. It is written entirely from a US perspective (the USA sequenced the genome and invented the internet, apparently unaided). It’s reported that 46 percent of Americans believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. That’s certainly cause for alarm and Mooney & Kirshenbaum are certainly alarmed. They think that the public needs to be educated in science. They identify the obvious problems, evolution, climate change and quackery and ask what can be done. The problem is that they propose no good solutions, and some bad ones. Their aims are worthy but sometimes the book reads like an over-long and somewhat condescending whine about why science and scientists are not sufficiently appreciated.
I simply don’t think that it’s true that the public are not interested in science, nor that they can’t understand it at a level that is sufficient to be useful. It’s true that they have been let down badly by some sections of the media. Think particularly of the “great MMR hoax”1. The disastrous fall in vaccination is more attributable to talk show presenters and air-headed celebrities than to lack of interest from the public. People are systematically deceived by anti-vaxers, climate change denialists, vitamin pill salesmen and a horde of crackpot alternative therapists.
There is one problem that Mooney & Kirshenbaum don’t talk about at all, yet it seems to me to be one of the biggest problems in science communication. It isn’t lack of interest by the public, nor even lack of understanding, but lack of trust. The tendency of real science to indulge in hyperbolic self-promotion is one reason for the lack of trust. Sometimes this descends into outright dishonesty2,3. That is a tendency that is promoted by government and funding agencies by their insistence on imposing silly performance measures. The public is quite sensible enough to take with a pinch of salt the almost daily announcements of “cancer cures” that emanate from university press offices.
On the face of it, one should be encouraged that ‘public engagement in science’ is the mode du jour. It isn’t quite that simple though. Only too often, universities regard public engagement as a branch of their own PR machine4. They even instruct you about what tone of voice to use when talking publicly.
One reason why scientists need to talk to people outside the lab is precisely to counteract this tide of nonsense from PR people, who are paid to deceive. The problem for academics is usually time. We already do three jobs, teaching, research and coping with HR bollocks. How can we find time for a fourth job? That’s not easy, especially for the best researchers (those that do research themselves, not just lead a team). Mooney & Kirshenbaum suggest that the solution is to create a “cadre of communication and outreach experts”. I don’t think this would work. They would, by and large, be outsiders, writing uncritical paeans, dictated by big name scientists. A new cadre of PR hangers-on does not sound like a great idea. A better, and very much cheaper, solution would be to provide a course in free blogging software and we’ll do it ourselves.
The two chapters that I looked forward to reading, on religion and on “The bloggers cannot save us”, proved deeply disappointing. The authors are firmly in the camp of what Richard Dawkins called the “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists&rdquo.; They maintain “if the goal is to create an America more friendly to science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive”. They are particularly critical of P.Z. Myers5, the University of Minnesota developmental biologist who is splendidly clear in his views. Of the communion wafer, he famously said “It’s a frackin’ cracker”. But he, and Dawkins, are right. When it comes to young earth creationists we have a war on our hands, and nowhere more than in the USA. What’s more it’s a winnable war. Mooney & Kirshenbaum are all for appeasement, but appeasement won’t work. It might please the more moderate wings of the church, but they already believe in evolution and are regarded by fundamentalists as being just as big an enemy as Myers and Dawkins. And, one must ask, who has done best at getting a wide public readership? P.Z Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, has up to two million page views a month. Dawkins’ book The God Delusion has sold three million copies. In comparison the bland and often rather condescending corporate science web sites get tiny numbers of hits.
In Europe in general, and the UK in particular, young earth creationists are not the major problem that they are in the USA, despite being supported by Tony Blair6. Perhaps the nearest analogy in Europe is the threat to reason from various sorts of crackpot medicine. The appeasers are widespread. The Royal Colleges and the Department of Health are at the forefront of the Neville Chamberlain approach. But appeasement hasn’t worked there either. What has worked is the revelation that university courses are teaching that “amethysts emit high yin energy”7. Or, in a lecture on herbal approaches for patients with cancer, “Legally, you cannot claim to cure cancer. This is not a problem because: ‘we treat people, not diseases’ “8. This is shocking stuff but it has not been unearthed by the corporate media, but by bloggers.
I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum have it all wrong. They favour corporate communications, which are written by people outside science and which easily become mere PR machines for individuals and institutions. Such blogs are rarely popular and at their worst they threaten the honesty of science. More and more individual scientists have found that they can write their own blog. It costs next to nothing and you can say what you think. A few clicks and the world can read what you have to say. Forget corporate communications. Just do it yourself. It’s fun. And think of the money you’d save for doing science if the PR people were just fired.
(1) Goldacre, B. The media’s MMR hoax. 2008 http://www.badscience.net/2008/08/the-medias-mmr-hoax/
(2) PLoS One. Ghostwriting documents now fully available on PLoS Medicine website. 21-8-2009 http://speakingofmedicine.plos.org/2009/08/21/ghostwriting-documents-now-fully-available-on-plos-medicine-website/
(3) Colquhoun, D. Universities Inc. in the UK. The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education: part 2. 6-12-2007 https://www.dcscience.net/?p=193
(4) Corbyn, Z. Nottingham raises eyebrows over definition of ‘public engagement’. 21-8-2008 http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=403234
(5) Myers, P. Z. Pharyngula. 2009 http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/
(6) Pyke, N. Revealed: Blair’s link to schools that take the Creation literally (Independent 13 June 2004). 13-7-2004 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-blairs-link-to-schools-that-take-the-creation-literally-732032.html
(7) Colquhoun, D. Westminster University BSc: "amethysts emit high yin energy". 23-4-2008 https://www.dcscience.net/?p=227
(8) Colquhoun, D. Herbal approaches for patients with cancer. 10-8-2009 https://www.dcscience.net/?p=2043
P.Z. Myers has posted about thie book review, on Pharyngula, as Is this book dead yet? There are a lot more comments there than here, though few of them address the question of science communications..
Butterflies and Wheels is generating a lot of hits
BSc courses in homeopathy are closing. Is it a victory for campaigners, or just the end of the Blair/Bush era?
Dr Peter Davies, dean of Westminster’s school of integrated health, says
“he welcomes the debate but it isn’t as open as he would like.”
Well you can say that again. The University of Westminster has refused to send me anything much, and has used flimsy excuses to avoid complying with the Freedom of Information Act. Nevertheless a great deal has leaked out. Not just amethysts emit hig Yin energy, but a whole lot more (watch this space). Given what is already in the public, arena, how can they possibly say things like this?
“Those teaching the courses insist they are academically rigorous and scientific.”
There’s another remark from an unlikely source that I can agree with too. George Lewith, of Southampton University and Upper Harley Street, is quoted as saying
“The quality of degrees is an open joke . . . ”
Whatever next? [Note: Lewith told me later that he was quoted out of context by the Guardian, so it seems that after all he is happy with the courses. So sadly I have to withdraw the credit that I was giving him].
The article emphasises nicely the view that universities that run BSc degrees in things that are fundamentally the opposite of science are deceiving young people and corrupting science itself.
Professor Petts of Westminster seems to think that the problem can be solved by putting more science into the courses The rest of the world realises that as soon as you apply science to homeopathy or naturopathy, the whole subject vanishes in a puff of smoke, I fear that Professor Petts will have to do better,
“He [DC] believes the climate is starting to change after the Bush/Blair era where people believed in things because they wished they were true. “This has been going on for a generation and it’s about time for a swing in the other direction,” he suggests.”
Well, one can always hope.
Sense about Science have just produced a rather good pamphlet that exposes, yet again. the meaningless marketing slogan “detox”. You can download the pamphlet from their web site.
The pamphlet goes through the claims of eleven products. Needless to say, the claims are either meaningless, or simply untrue.
- Garnier Clean Detox Anti-Dullness Foaming Gel
“Detoxifies by cleansing the skin’s surface”
- MG Detox Shampoo Trevor Sorbie
“Deep cleansing and clarifying shampoo”
- Boots Detox Body Brush
“Ritualistic body brushing helps expel toxins through the skin”
- Innocent Natural Detox Smoothie
“Helps neutralise nasty free radicals which can cause damage to your body’s cells”
- Vitabiotics Detoxil 15 day support
“Helps the body cleanse itself of toxins and pollutants caused by the excesses of a busy life”
- V-Water Detox
“Cleanse your system and whisk away the polluting nasties”
- 4321 Shape Up and Detox
“To drain off water and toxins” and “purify the body”
- Boots Detox 5 Day Plan
Works “in harmony with your body to flush away toxins”
- Farmacia Spa Therapy Detox range
To “rid your body of these damaging toxins”
- Crystal Spring Detox patches
“I’m the easy way to detox, just put me on one foot at night and take me off in the morning”
- Fushi Holistic and Health Solutions Total Detox Patch
“it acts as a toxin sink and absorbs impurities through your feet”
One nice thing about the pamphlet is that each item is written by a young scientist (including my close neighbour, Daniella Muallem). They are all people at an early stage in their career, but they care enough to spend time dissecting the rubbish spread by companies in order to part you from your money.
Garnier, it’s true, is a cosmetics company, so one expects nothing but lies You won’t be disappointed on that score.
That least ethical of pharmaceutical companies, Boots, appears twice The Boots Detox Body Brush is reviewed by a young chemist, Tom Wells. It turns out (there’s a surprise) to be nothing more than an ordinary stiff brush. It seems that Boots’ definition of “detox”, for this purpose, is “removing dead skin cells” A totally shameless con, in other words.
The Boots Detox 5 day plan consists if 5 phials of apple or strawberry flavoured goo containing two vitamins and one mineral, mixed with glycerol. In this case the young investigator, Evelyn Harvey, elicited a quite remarkable response from Boots.
Well, have you tested the effects of that diet, with or without the detox product? Does the ‘goo’ stuff [the drink which forms part of the plan] add anything extra?
Well, it’s meant to kick start it.
But has is been tested like that?
Ok, I’m thinking I’ll just try a healthy diet for a week, a bit more exercise, and not bother with buying the detox.
Yes, that sounds like a better idea, to be honest I’d never do this myself.
The media coverage
The Radio 4 Today programme interviewed Ben Goldacre and the managing director of yet another product “Detox in a box” (following their usual policy of equal time for the Flat Earth Society). Listen to the mp3. When Ben Goldacre asked the MD for evidence for the claim made on the web site of Detox in a box, that their diet could remove cadmium from the body, it was denied explicitly that any such claim had been made.
But by 10.02 the site had already changed
So no apology for the mistake. Just a sneaky removal of a few words.
That seems to be the only change though. All the rest of the nutribollocks is still there. For example
There isn’t the slightest reason to believe that it will “improve our immune function”.
There isn’t the slightest reason to think that scavenging free radicals would do you any good, even if it happened.
There isn’t the slightest reason to think it will strengthen body’s fight against cancer cells (that looks like a breach of the Cancer Act to me).
“Cleansing mucous” doesn’t mean much, but whatever it is there isn’t any reason to think its true.
“Purify our blood”. Total meaningless bollocks. The words mean nothing at all. I’ve been here before.
Ben Goldacre’s own account is here “The barefaced cheek of these characters will never cease to amaze and delight me.”
The BBC web site does a good job too.
The Guardian gives an excellent account (James Randerson).
The Daily Mail writes “Detox diets to kick-start the New Year are a ‘total waste of money’ “.
Medical News Today write “Debunking The Detox Myth“.
The Daily Telegraph disgraces itself by not only failing to carry a decent account of the item, but it does run an article on “Detox holidays: New year, new you“. Mega-expensive holidays for the mega-stupid (not to mention the capital letter after the colon).
The Daily Mash provides a bit of cognate fun with “BRITAIN SIGNS UP FOR VORDERMAN’S 28-DAY PISS-DRINK DETOX“. That alludes to “Carol Vorderman’s 28-Day Detox Diet”. A woman who got an enormous salary for playing a parlour game on TV, and has done some good for maths education, is reduced to promoting nonsense for yet more money.
As Clive James pointed out, it’s a but like watching George Clooney advertising coffee for, of all unethical companies, Nestlé. They really look very silly.
Evening Standard 6th January. Nick Cohen writes “Give up detox – it’s bad for your health”
“Giving up on detox should not be painful, however. On the contrary, it should e a life-enhancing pleasure.”
The Times. rather later (January 18th) had a lovely one, “Detox
Debunked“, by the inimitable Ben Goldacre, His account of /detox; as a quasi-religious ‘cleansing ritual’, is spot on.
Alfred Joseph Clark FRS held the established chair of Pharmacology at UCL from 1919 to 1926, when he left for Edinburgh. In the 1920s and 30s, Clark was a great pioneer in the application of quantitative physical ideas to pharmacology. As well as his classic scientific works, like The Mode of Action of Drugs on Cells (1933) he wrote, and felt strongly, about the fraud perpetrated on the public by patent medicine salesmen. In 1938 (while in Edinburgh) he published a slim volume called Patent Medicines. The parallels with today are astonishing.
Alfred Joseph Clark FRS (1885 – 1941)
I was lucky to be given a copy of this book by David Clark, A.J. Clark’s eldest son, who is now 88. I visited him in Cambridge on 17 September 2008, because he thought that, as holder of the A.J. Clark chair at UCL from 1985 to 2004, I’d be a good person to look after this and several other books from his father’s library. They would have gone to the Department of Pharmacology if we still had one, but that has been swept away by mindless administrators with little understanding of how to get good science.
Quotations from the book are in italic, and are interspersed with comments from me.
The book starts with a quotation from the House of Commons Select Committee report on Patent Medicines. The report was submitted to the House on 4 August 1914, so there is no need to explain why it had little effect. The report differs from recent ones in that it is not stifled by the sort of political correctness that makes politicians refer to fraudsters as “professions”.
“2.2 The situation, therefore, as regards the sale and advertisement of proprietary medicines and articles may be summarised as follows:
For all practical purposes British law is powerless to prevent any person from procuring any drug, or making any mixture, whether patent or without any therapeutical activity whatever (as long as it does not contain a scheduled poison), advertising it in any decent terms as a cure for any disease or ailment, recommending it by bogus testimonials and the invented opinions and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians, and selling it under any name he chooses, on payment of a small stamp duty. For any price he can persuade a credulous public to pay.”
Select Committee on Patent Medicines. 1914
“The writer has endeavoured in the present article to analyse the reasons for the amazing immunity of patent medicines form all attempts to curb their activity, to estimate the results and to suggest the obvious measures of reform that are needed.”
|Clark, writing in 1938, was surprised that so little had changed since 1914. What would he have thought if he had known that now, almost 100 years after the 1914 report, the fraudsters are still getting away with it?
Chapter 2 starts thus.
The Select Committee appointed by the House of Commons in 1914 ‘to consider and inquire into the question of the sale of Patent and Proprietary Medicines’ stated its opinion in 28 pages of terse and uncompromising invective. Its general conclusions were as follows:
That the trade in secret remedies constituted a grave and widespread public evil.
That the existing law was chaotic and had proved inoperative and that consequently the traffic in secret remedies was practically uncontrolled.
In particular it concluded ‘”that this is an intolerable state of things and that new legislation to deal with it, rather than merely the amendment of existing laws, is urgently needed in the public interest.”
The “widespread public evil”continues almost unabated, and rather than introduce sensible legislation to cope with it, the government has instead given a stamp of approval for quackery by introducing utterly ineffective voluntary “self-regulation”.
Another Bill to deal with patent medicines was introduced in 1931, without success, and finally in 1936, a Medical and Surgical Appliances (Advertisement) Bill was introduced. This Bill had a very limited scope. Its purpose was to alleviate some of the worst abuses of the quack medicine trade by prohibiting the advertisement of cures for certain diseases such as blindness, Bright’s disease [nephritis] , cancer, consumption [tuberculosis], epilepsy, fits, locomotor ataxy, fits, lupus or paralysis.
The agreement of many interests was secured for this measure. The president of the Advertising Association stated that the proposed Bill would not affect adversely any legitimate trade interest. Opposition to the Bill was, however, whipped up amongst psychic healers, anti-vivisectionists and other opponents of medicine and at the second reading in March 1936, the Bill was opposed and the House was counted out during the ensuing debate. The immediate reason for this fate was that the Bill came up for second reading on the day of the Grand National! This is only one example of the remarkable luck that has attended the patent medicine vendors.
The “remarkable luck” of patent medicine vendors continues to this day, Although, in principle, advertisement of cures for venereal diseases was banned in 1917, and for cancer in 1939, it takes only a few minutes with Google to find that these laws are regularly flouted by quacks, In practice quacks get away with selling vitamin pills for AIDS, sugar pills for malaria and homeopathic pills for rabies, polio anthrax and just about anything else you can think of. Most of these advertisements are contrary to the published codes of ethics of the organisations to which the quack in question belongs but nothing ever happens.
Self-regulation simply does not work, and there is still no effective enforcement even of existing laws..
“It has already been stated that British law allows the advertiser of a secret remedy to tell any lie or make any claim that he fancies will sell his goods and the completeness of this licence is best illustrated by the consideration of a few specific points.
Advertisements for secret remedies very frequently contain a list of testimonials from medical men, which usually are in an anonymous form, stating that ………….. M.D., F.R.C.S., has found the remedy infallible. Occasionally, however, the name and address of a doctor is given and anyone unaware of the vagaries of English law would imagine that such use of a doctor’s name and professional reputation could not be made with impunity without his consent. In 1899, however, the Sallyco Mineral Water Company advertised that ‘Dr. Morgan Dochrill, physician to St. John’s Hospital, London and many of the leading physicians are presenting ‘Sallyco’ as an habitual drink. Dr. Dochrill says nothing has done his gout so much good.
Dr. Dochrill, whose name and title were correctly stated above, sued the company but failed in his case. ”
“The statement that the law does not prevent the recommending of a secret remedy by the use of bogus testimonials and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians is obviously an understatement since it is doubtful how far it interferes with the use of bogus testimonials from real physicians.”
Dodgy testimonials are still a mainstay of dodgy salesman. One is reminded of the unauthorised citation of testimonials from Dr John Marks and Professor Jonathan Waxman by Patrick Holford to aid his sales of unnecessary vitamin supplements. There is more on this at Holfordwatch.
The man in the street knows that the merits of any article are usually exaggerated in advertisements and is in the habit of discounting a large proportion of such claims, but, outside the realm of secret remedies, the law is fairly strict as regards definite misstatements concerning goods offered for sale and hence the everyday experience of the man in the street does not prepare him for dealing with advertisements which are not merely exaggerations but plain straightforward lies from beginning to end.
Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums. One imagines that no one today would be willing to spend money on pills guaranteed to prevent earthquakes but yet the claims of many of the remedies offered appear equally absurd to anyone with an elementary
knowledge of physiology or even of chemistry. A study of the successes and failures suggests that success depends chiefly on not over-rating the public intelligence. (Page 34)
This may have changed a bit since A.J. Clark was writing in 1938. Now the main clients of quacks seem to be the well-off “worried-well”. But it remains as true as ever that “Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums.” In 2008, it is perhaps more a problem of Ben Goldacre’s dictum ““My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour.”
Clark refers (page 36) to a successful conviction for fraud in the USA in 1917. The subject was a widely advertised ‘get fat quick’ pill that contained lecithin, proteins and sugar. The BMA analysis (in 1912)
suggested that the cost of the ingredients in a box of 30 tablets sold for 4/6 was 1 1/4 d. [4/6 meant 4 shillings and six pence, or 22.5 pence since 1971, and 1 1/4 old pence, a penny farthing, is 0.52 new pence]. He comments thus.
The trial revealed many interesting facts. The formula was devised after a short consultation with the expert of one of the largest drug manufacturers in the U.S.A. This firm manufactured the tablets and sold them to the proprietary medicine company at about 3/- per 1000, whilst they were retailed to the public at the rate of £7 10s. per 1000. The firm is estimated to have made a profit of about $3,000,000.
These trials in the U.S.A. revealed the fact that in a considerable proportion of cases the ‘private formula’ department of the large and well known drug firm already mentioned had first provided the formula for the nostrum and subsequently had prepared it wholesale.
Nothing much has changed here either. The alternative medicine industry (and it is a very big industry) is fond of denouncing the evils of the pharmaceutical industry, and sadly, occasionally they are right. One of the less honest practices of the pharmaceutical industry (though one never mentioned by quacks) is buying heavily into alternative medicine. Goldacre points out
“there is little difference between the vitamin and pharmaceutical industries. Key players in both include multinationals such as Roche and Aventis; BioCare, the vitamin pill producer that media nutritionist Patrick Holford works for, is part-owned by Elder Pharmaceuticals.”
The manner in which secret remedies can survive repeated exposure is shown by the following summary of the life history of a vendor of a consumption [tuberculosis] cure.
1904, 1906: Convicted of violating the law in South Africa.
1908: Exposed in British Medical Association report and also attacked by Truth.
1910: Sued by a widow. The judge stated: ‘I think this is an intentional and well-considered fraud. It is a scandalous thing that poor people should be imposed upon and led to part with their money, and to hope that those dear to them would be cured by those processes which were nothing but quack remedies and had not the slightest value of any kind.’
1914: A libel action against the British Medical Association was lost.
1915 The cure was introduced into the United States.
1919 The cure was sold in Canada.
1924 Articles by men with medical qualifications appeared in the Swiss medical journal boosting
Secret remedies have a vitality that resembles that of the more noxious weeds and the examples mentioned suggest that nothing can do them any serious harm.
Most of the time, quacks get away with claims every bit as outrageous today. But Clark does give one example of a successful prosecution. It resulted from an exposé in the newspapers -wait for it -in the Daily Mail.
There is, however, one example which proves that a proprietary remedy can be squashed by exposure if this is accompanied by adequate publicity.
The preparation Yadil was introduced as an antiseptic and was at first advertised to the medical profession. The proprietor claimed that the remedy was not secret and that the active principle was ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’. The drug acquired popularity in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the proprietor became more and more ambitious in his therapeutic claims. The special virtue claimed for Yadil was that it would kill any harmful organism that had invaded the body. A more specific claim was that consumption in the first stage was cured with two or three pints whilst advanced cases might require a little more. Other advertisements suggested that it was a cure for most known diseases from cancer downwards.
These claims were supported by an extraordinarily intense advertising campaign. Most papers, and even magazines circulating amongst the wealthier classes, carried full page and even double page advertisements. The Daily Mail refused these advertisements and in 1924 published a three column article by Sir William Pope, professor of Chemistry in the University of Cambridge. He stated that
the name ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’ was meaningless gibberish and was not the chemical definition of any known substance. He concluded that Yadil consisted of :
‘About one per cent of the chemical compound formaldehyde.
About four per cent of glycerine.
About ninety-five per cent of water and, lastly, a smell.
He calculated that the materials contained in a gallon cost about 1/6, whilst the mixture was sold at £4 10s. per gallon.
This exposure was completely successful and the matter is of historic interest in that it is the only example of the career of a proprietary medicine being arrested by the action of the Press.
Clark goes on to talk of the law of libel.
“On the other hand the quack medicine vendor can pursue his advertising campaigns in the happy assurance that, whatever lies he tells, he need fear nothing from the interference of British law. The law does much to protect the quack medicine vendor because the laws of slander and libel are so severe.”
The law of libel to this day remains a serious risk to freedom of speech of both individuals and the media. Its use by rogues to suppress fair comment is routine. My first encounter was when a couple of herbalists
threatened to sue UCL because I said that the term ‘blood cleanser’ is gobbledygook. The fact that the statement was obviously true didn’t deter them for a moment. The herbalists were bluffing no doubt, but they caused enough nuisance that I was asked to take my pages off UCL’s server. A week later I was invited back but by then I’d set up a much better blog and the publicity resulted in an enormous increase in readership, so the outcome was good for me (but bad for herbalists).
It was also good in the end for Andy Lewis when his immortal page “The gentle art of homoeopathic killing” (about the great malaria scandal) was suppressed. The Society of Homeopaths’ lawyers didn’t go for him personally but for his ISP who gave in shamefully and removed the page. As a result the missing page reappeared in dozens of web sites round the world and shot to the top in a Google search.
Chiropractors are perhaps the group most likely to try to suppress contrary opinions by law not argument. The only lawyers’ letter that has been sent to me personally, alleged defamation in an editorial that I wrote for the New Zealand Medical Journal. That was a little scary, but the journal stuck up for its right to speak and the threat went away after chiropractors were allowed right of reply (but we got the last word).
Simon Singh, one of the best science communicators we have, has not been so lucky. He is going to have to defend in court an action brought by the British Chiropractic Association because of innocent opinions expressed in the Guardian.
Chapter 6 is about “The harm done by patent medicines”. It starts thus.
“The trade in secret remedies obviously represents a ridiculous waste of money but some may argue that, since we are a free country and it pleases people to waste their money in this particular way, there is no call for any legislative interference. The trade in quack medicines cannot, however, be regarded as a harmless one. The Poisons Acts fortunately prevent the sale of a large number of dangerous drugs, but there are numerous other ways in which injury can be produced by these remedies.”
The most serious harm, he thought, resulted from self-medication, and he doesn’t mince his words.
“The most serious objection to quack medicines is however that their advertisements encourage self-medication as a substitute for adequate treatment and they probably do more harm in this than in any other manner.
The nature of the problem can best be illustrated by considering a simple example such as diabetes. In this case no actual cure is known to medicine but, on the other hand, if a patient is treated adequately by insulin combined with appropriate diet, he can be maintained in practically normal health, in spite of his disability, for an indefinite period. The expectation of life of the majority of intelligent diabetics, who make no mistakes in their regime, is not much less than that of normal persons. The regime is both irksome and unpleasant, but anyone who persuades diabetics to abandon it, is committing manslaughter as certainly as if he fired a machine gun into a crowded street.
As regards serious chronic disease the influence of secret remedies may be said to range from murderous to merely harmful.
‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous, since they are likely to cause the death of anyone who is unfortunate enough to believe in their efficacy and thus delay adequate treatment until too late.
The phrase “‘Cures for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous” made Clark himself the victim of suppression of freedom of speech by lawyers. His son, David Clark, wrote of his father in “Alfred Joseph Clark, A Memoir” (C. & J. Clark Ltd 1985 ISBN 0-9510401-0-3)
“Although tolerant of many human foibles, A. J. had always disapproved fiercely of quacks, particularly the charlatans who sold fraudulent medicines. During his visits to London he met Raymond Postgate, then a crusading left wing journalist, who persuaded A.J. to write a pamphlet which was published in an ephemeral series called ‘Fact‘ in March 1938. It was a lively polemical piece. . To A.J.’s surprise and dismay he was sued for libel by a notorious
rogue who peddled a quack cure for for tuberculosis. This man said that A.J.’s remarks (such as “‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous”) were libellous and would damage his business. A.J. was determined to fight, and he and Trixie decided to put their savings at stake if necessary. The B.M.A. and the Medical Defence Union agreed to support him and they all went to lawyers. He was shocked when they advised him that he would be bound to lose for he had damaged the man’s livelihood! Finally, after much heart searching, he made an apology, saying that he had not meant that particular man’s nostrum”
Talk about déjà vu!
On page 68 there is another very familiar story. It could have been written today.
“The fact that the public is acquiring more knowledge of health matters and is becoming more suspicious of the cruder forms of lies is also helping to weed out the worst types of patent medicine advertisements. For example, in 1751 a bottle of oil was advertised as a cure for scurvy, leprosy and consumption but today such claims would not be effective in promoting the sale of a remedy. The modern advertiser would probably claim that the oil was rich in all the vitamins and the elements essential for life and would confine his claims to a statement that it would alleviate all minor forms of physical or mental ill-health.
The average patent medicine advertised today makes plausible rather than absurd claims and in general the advertisements have changed to conform with a change in the level of the public’s knowledge.
It is somewhat misleading, however, to speak of this as an improvement, since the law has not altered and hence the change only means that the public is being swindled in a somewhat more skilful manner.
The ideal method of obtaining an adequate vitamin supply is to select a diet containing an abundant supply of fresh foods, but unfortunately the populace is accustomed to live very largely on preserved or partially purified food stuffs and such processes usually remove most of the vitamins.”
The first part of the passage above is reminiscent of something that A.J Clark wrote in the BMJ in 1927. Nowadays it is almost unquotable and I was told by a journal editor that it was unacceptable even with asterisks. That seems to me a bit silly. Words had different connotations in 1927.
“The less intelligent revert to the oldest form of belief and seek someone who will make strong magic for them and defeat the evil spirits by some potent charm. This is the feeling to which the quack appeals; he claims to be above the laws of science and to possess some charm for defeating disease of any variety.
The nature of the charm changes with the growth of education. A naked n****r howling to the beat of a tom-tom does not impress a European, and most modern Europeans would be either amused or disgusted by the Black mass that was popular in the seventeenth century. Today some travesty of physical science appears to be the most popular form of incantation.”
A.J. Clark (1927) The historical aspect of quackery, BMJ October 1st 1927
Apart from some of the vocabulary, what better description could one have of the tendency of homeopaths to harp on meaninglessly about quantum theory or the “scienciness” and “referenciness” of
modern books on nutritional therapy?
So has anything changed?
Thus far, the outcome might be thought gloomy. Judging by Clark’s account, remarkably little has changed since 1938, or even since 1914. The libel law in the UK is as bad now as it was then. Recently the United Nations Human Rights Committee said UK laws block matters of public interest and encourage libel tourism (report here, see also here). It is unfit for a free society and it should be changed.
But there are positive sides too. Firstly the advent of scientific bloggers has begun to have some real influence. People are no longer reliant on journalists to interpret (or, often, misinterpret) results for them. They can now get real experts and links to original sources. Just one of these, Ben Goldacre’s badscience.net, and his weekly column in the Guardian has worked wonders in educating the public and improving journalism. Young people can, and do, contribute to the debate because they can blog anonymously if they are frightened that their employer might object.
Perhaps still more important, the law changed this year. Now, at last, it may be possible to prosecute successfully those who make fraudulent health claims. Sad to say, this was not an initiative of the UK government, which remains as devoted as ever to supporting quacks. Remember that, quite shamefully, the only reason given by the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) gave for allowing false labelling of homeopathic pills was to support the “homeopathic industry”. They suggested (falsely) that the EU required them to take this irresponsible step, which was condemned by just about every scientific organisation. But the new unfair trading regulations did come from the EU. After almost 100 years since the 1914 report, we have at last some decent legislation. Let’s hope it’s enforced.
The back cover of the series of ‘Fact‘ books in which A.J. Clark’s article appeared is reproduced below, simply because of the historical portrait of the 1930s that it gives.
This post got a lot of hits from Ben Goldacre’s miniblog which read
- Prof David Colquhoun gets into a time machine and meets himself
A truly classic DC post.
There have been some really excellent books about quackery this year. This isn’t one of them, because
Nice dedication uh?
it is about a lot more than quackery It is about the scientific method in general. and in particular about how often it is misunderstood by journalists. Abuse of evidence by the pharmaceutical industry is treated just as harshly as abuse of evidence by homeopaths and you get the low-down on both.
“More importantly, you will also see how a health myth can be created, fostered and maintained by the alternative medicine industry using all the same tricks on you, the public, which big pharma uses on doctors. This is about something much bigger than homeopathy.” (p.28)
Sir Iain Chalmers, a founder of the Cochrane Collaboration , co-author of the best lay text on evidence says: “Bad Science introduces the basic scientific principles to help everyone become a more effective bullshit detector”. And there is no more invaluable skill than being a bullshit detector.
Chalmers says also “Ben Goldacre has succeeded where the ‘public engagement in science’ organisations have so signally failed.” That is exactly right. ‘Public engagement’ has rapidly become bureaucratised, and at its worst, is no better than a branch of the university’s marketing department. This sort of public engagement corrupts as much as it enlightens. Goldacre enlightens, and he also makes you laugh.
In the introduction, Goldacre says
“You cannot reason people out of positions that they didn’t reason themselves into.” (p xii)
It’s a nice point, but the rest of the book makes a magnificent attempt to do just that.
There is quite a lot about medicine, of course, that’s his job, after all. But it isn’t all quackery by a long chalk Quackery is merely a good hook to hang the arguments on about how you distinguish what’s true from what isn’t. That’s partly because quacks make every mistake known to mankind (sometimes through ignorance, sometimes just to boost sales), and partly just because it is a topic that interests people, and with which they are bombarded every day I feel exactly the same. If I were to talk about the statistics of single ion channels, nobody would read it (big mistake -it’s fascinating), but if one can use the case of honey versus cough medicine to explain the analysis of variance, there is a chance that someone might find it interesting.
As much as anything, Goldacre’s book is about C.P. Snow’s two cultures. The chapters on the distortion and trivialisation of science in the media are just terrific.
“My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they have denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of Western thought from the past two hundred years.” Chapter 11, p. 207
“.. . . here is the information I would like from a newspaper to help me make decisions about my health, when reporting on a risk: I want to know who you’re talking about (e.g. men in their fifties): I want to know what the baseline risk is (e.g. four men out of a hundred will have a heart attack over ten years); and I want to know what the increase in risk is , as a natural frequency [not as relative risk] (two extra men out of that hundred will have a heart attack over ten years). I also want to know exactly what’s causing that increase in risk -an occasional headache pill or a daily tub full of pain-relieving medication for arthritis. Then I will consider reading your newspapers again, instead of blogs which are written by people who understand research , and which link reliably back to the original academic paper, so that I can double check their précis when I wish. ” (p. 242)
I detect some ambiguity in references to things that aren’t true. Sometimes there is magnanimity. At other times he is a grade one kick-ass ninja. For example
I can very happily view posh cosmetics -and other forms of quackery -as a special, self-administered, voluntary tax on people who don’t understand science properly (p. 26)
Of course nobody wants to ban cosmetics, or even homeopathy. But a lot of bad consequences flow from being over-tolerant of lies if you take it too far (he doesn’t). The lying dilemma and the training dilemma are among them. Some unthinking doctors will refer troublesome patients to a reflexologist. That gets the worried-well out of their surgery but neglects the inevitable consequence that Human Resources box-ticking zombies will then insist on having courses that teach the big toe is connected to the kidney (or whatever) so that reflexologists can have an official qualification in mystical mumbo-jumbo.
Is there anything missing from the book? Well inevitably. There are plenty of villains among the peddlers of nutri-bollocks, and in the media. But there isn’t much about the people who seem to me to be in some ways even worse. What about the black-suited men and women in the Ministry of Health and in some vice-chancellors’ chairs who betray their institutions and betray the public through some unfathomable
mixture of political correctness, scientific ignorance and greed? What about the ludicrous behaviour of quangos like Skills for Health? You have to wait right to the end of the book to hear about universities. But when it comes, it is well worth the wait.
“I’m not surprised that there are people with odd ideas about medicine, or that they sell those ideas. But I am spectacularly, supremely, incandescently unimpressed when a a university starts to offer BSc science courses in them.” (p. 317)
It’s almost worth buying Ben Goldacre’s book for that sentence alone.
This book is a romp through the folly, greed and above all the ignorance of much in our society. It’s deeply educational. And it makes you laugh. What more could you want?
After writing the recent post Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 promotion, I sent a complaint about the dishonesty of the advertisements to the Advertising Standards Authority. I got a surprsingly fast response. On April 22 I got
“it appears you have a valid point and, with a view to acting quickly, have asked Boots to change their ad. We have asked them to remove the claims that CoQ1 0 can create “a spring in your step” and “boost energy levels”. Provided we get an assurance from the advertisers that they will change their ad, we will close the case.”
Then on 1 May, the ASA said
“We have now received a response from Boots and they have given us an assurance that they will not repeat the problematic claims for this product. We have therefore closed our file on that basis.”
Boots agreed to this request, so no full investigation will appear. That’s a win for reason, up to a point, but it also shows how toothless the rules about advertising are. Boots launch a big promotion with advertisements that are simply not true. The promotion is over and they got clean away with it. All they get is a little publicised rap on the knuckles and no doubt they’ll do the same again next time.
This afternoon I went to the Coliseum to see a revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1986 production of the Mikado. It was beautifully staged. The well-known patter song of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of Japan, begged for a version that deals with anti-science (original here). The serious post will come later. Meanwhile here’s some late night rhyming.
As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
There’s the pestilential bureaucrats who want to send you on a course —
The HR folks who treat you not as human but as mere resource
Skills specialists who think that education just means training
And all ex-scientists who used to work, but now are only feigning
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!
He’s got ’em on the list — he’s got ’em on the list;
And they’ll none of ’em be missed — they’ll none of ’em be missed.
And that deluded nuisance, whom no one understands
The homeopathist – I’ve got her on the list!
All Reiki folks, pill hucksters and layers on of hands
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed.
And herbalists and Princes who like to talk to trees
Those phony nutritionists who’ll treat you for large fees
And that singular anomaly, the acupuncturist —
I don’t think they’d be missed — I’m sure they’d not be missed!
You may put ’em on the list — you may put ’em on the list;
And they’ll none of ’em be missed — they’ll none of ’em be missed!
There’s the vision statement writer, and others of that sort
And the crystal therapist — I’ve got him on the list!
And the people who think long words are a substitute for thought
They never would be missed — they never would be missed!
Then those whose knight starvation makes them crave the honours list
So all below must suffer in case their chance is missed
And those who think that science can be judged by its citations
And so kill creativity by funding only applications
But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list,
For they’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!
You may put ’em on the list — you may put ’em on the list;
And they’ll none of ’em be missed — they’ll none of ’em be missed!
I replaced two lines after my pedantic sister pointed out their imperfect rhyme and scansion. Personally I’m with Charles Babbage.
Here is letter that Babbage is said to have written to Tennyson after reading “The vision of sin”.
In your otherwise beautiful poem there is a verse that reads:
“Every moment dies a man
Every moment one is born”
It must be manifest that, were this true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest that in the next edition of your poem you have it read:
“Every moment dies a man
Every moment 1 1/16 is born”
Strictly speaking this is not correct. The actual figure is a decimal so long that I cannot get it in the line, but I believe that 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.
I am etc,
(The Mathematical Gazette, 1927, p270)
One aspect of the endarkenment, the Wal-Mart model of a university, is very much the same in the US as in the UK. At one US university, an excellent scientist offered the theory that an alien spacecraft had scattered spores across the land which developed into HR staff who appeared at first sight to be human, and who colonised academia.
The penetration of quackademics into US universities is a bit different from in the UK.
In the UK, the plague is restricted to sixteen or so ex-polytechnic universities which, to their great shame, actually offer Bachelor of Science degress in subjects like homeopathy. There are bits of quackery in good teaching hospitals (such as laying-on-of-hands at UCLH), but not very much.
In the USA and Canada, this sort of “vocational” training does not occur much in universities, but in separate colleges. The situation is worse there though, insofar as these colleges have been allowed to award titles like ‘doctor of naturopathic medicine (ND)’, for work that in no respect compares with what the rest of the world has to do to earn a doctorate. This prostitution of academic titles has not happened to anything like the same extent in the UK. How our own quacks would love it if they were allowed to call themselves ‘doctor’ and sport the initials ND (so easily mistaken for MD at first sight).
It is on the clinical side where the situation is far worse than in the UK. Almost every university hospital, including Harvard, Yale and Stanford, has departments devoted to fairy-tale medicine.
Quacks use a number of euphemisms to make themselves sound more respectable. First they became ‘alternative medicine’, then ‘complementary medicine’. Now the most-used euphemism is ‘integrative medicine’, which is favoured by most US universities (as well as by the Prince of Wales). Raymond Tallis pointed out that this seems to mean integration of treatments that don’t work with treatments that do work.
An official roll of shame for North American universities can be seen here (35 in USA and 4 in Canada).
A bigger collection of 44 universities has been posted by the incomparable Orac at the The Academic Woo Aggregator. He’s had good support in the USA from DrRW (R.W. Donnell), see particularly his articles on How did pseudoscience get admitted to medical school? and What is happening to our medical schools? Abraham Flexner is turning over in his grave.
All these outfits have two things in common. They all claim to be scientific and evidence-based, and none has produced any real evidence that any of their treatments work.
Here are a few examples of what’s going on.
Yale University School of Medicine
The usual theme is expressed thus.
“Through open-minded exploration and rigorous scientific inquiry, we aim to improve awareness and access to the best in evidence-based, comprehensive medical care available worldwide, with the goal of optimizing health and healing for patients”
The driving force behind the woo seems to be a fourth year medical student, Rachel Friedman, so I wrote to her to ask what useful alternative treatments had been established by research at Yale. But she could not identify any. All I got was this.
“My best advice would be to do some medline searching of metaanalyses” there’s been enough research into some of these modalities to provide for a metaanalysis.”
So she was unable to produce nothing (and anyway. metanalyses, useful though they may be, are not research).. A glance at the Yale publications page shows why.
The Scripps Institute
“In use at Scripps since 1993, Healing Touch is an energy-based, non-invasive treatment that restores and balances energy to help decrease pain and relieve associated anxiety.
Healing Touch is performed by registered nurses who recognize, manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body, thereby promoting healing and the well-being of body, mind and spirit.”
“manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body”?
This is just meaningless baloney. And it come from the Scripps Institute.
The Oregon Health & Science University
OHSU is an excellent and well-respected research university where I have many friends. It was a pleasure to meet them recently.
But it also has a big department of “Complementary and alternative medicine” and an “Integrated medicine service”. There are some good bits of advice mixed up with a whole range of crazy stuff. Take their page on homeopathy.
“This therapy treats ailments with very small amounts of the same substance that causes the patient’s symptoms.”
WRONG. In most cases it is zero amount. To brush this fact under the carpet is simply dishonest (and perhaps a sign of guilt). Then comes this (my emphasis)..
Explanations for why homeopathy works range from the idea that homeopathic medicine stimulates the body’s own natural defenses to the idea that homeopathic medicine retains a “memory” of the original substance.
However, there is no factual explanation for why homeopathy works and more research is needed.”
WRONG. This statement carries (twice) the expicit message that homeopathy does work, quite contrary to a mountain of good evidence that it is merely a placebo. The statement is deceptive and dishonest. And it comes with the OHSU logo.
The University of Arizona
” Heal medicine”, “Transform the world?” Modest uh?
The University of Arizona Program in Integrative Medicine is certainly not modest in its claims, but its publications page shows that it doesn’t even attempt to find out if its “therapies” actually work.
Here is an example. They are advertising their Nutrition and Health conference
There’s nothing wrong with good nutrition of course, but the ‘alternative’ approach is instantly revealed by the heavy reliance on the great antioxidant myth.
And look at the sponsors. The logo at the top is for Pistachio Health, a company that promotes pistachio nuts: “Delicious and good-for-you, pistachios are nature’s super heart-healthy snack. Nutrient dense, full of fiber and antioxidants, pistachios give you more bang per calories than any other nut.”.
The other advertisement is ‘POM Wonderful’, a company that sells and promotes pomegranate juice, “POM is the only pomegranate juice you can trust for real pomegranate health benefits”
No doubt pistachio nuts and pomegranate juice are perfectly good foods. But the health claims made for them are just marketing and have very little basis in fact.
Now let’s look at the speakers. Take, for example, Dr David Heber, MD., PhD. He is director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, a professor of Medicine and Public Health, and the founding Chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition in the Department of Medicine. He is the author of several books including “What Color is Your Diet” and the “L.A. Shape Diet.” With the possible exception of the books, you can’t sound like a more respectable and impartial source of advice than that.
But hang on. Dr Heber is to be seen in a video on the Pistachio Health web site doing what amounts to a commercial for pistachio nuts.
OK let’s take a look at one of Dr Heber’s papers. Here’s one about, guess what, pomegranate juice. “Pomegranate Juice Ellagitannin Metabolites Are Present in Human Plasma and Some Persist in Urine for Up to 48 Hours”. The work was “Supported by the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Revocable Trust and from the NIH/NCI grant P50AT00151”. So no problems there. Well not until you check POM Wonderful in Wikipedia, where you find out that Stewart and Lynda Resnick just happen to be founders of POM.
Of course none of these interesting facts proves that there is anything wrong with the work. But they certainly do show that the alternative nutrition business is at least as much hand-in-glove with big business as any other form of medicine. And we know the problems that that has caused.
So, if you want impartial advice on nutrition, sign up for the 6th Annual Nutrition and Health meeting. For “MD, DO, ND & other doctors”, it will cost you only $845 to register .
The meeting is being run by The University of Arizona College of Medicine and Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.
The University of Arizona is, incidentally, also the home of the famous (or perhaps infamous) Gary Schwartz (see also, here). He “photographs” non-existent “energy fields” and claims to be able to communicate with the dead, and he is director of its Human Energy Systems Laboratory at the University of Arizona. He is also head of the inappropriately-named Veritas Research Program and “Centre for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science”. All of these activities make homeopathy look sane, but he is nevertheless part of an otherwise respectable university. In fact he is He is Gary E. Schwartz, Ph.D. is professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry and surgery at the University of Arizona. Even more incredibly, this gets NIH funding.
Columbia University, along with Cornell, also has its own “Complementary, alternative, and integrative medicine“, defined as “the use of treatments, such as homeopathic medicine, ayurveda, botanical dietary supplements”. And their “Integrative Therapies Program for Children” is intimately tied up with a company called Origins, which is more a cosmetics company, Origins” (with all the mendacity that implies). They say
“Origins understands the importance of addressing wellness through an integrative approach,” says Daria Myers, President of Origins Natural Resources. “With our recent Dr. Andrew Weil collaboration, Origins demonstrated its support for the integrative wellness concept. Now, with the introduction of the new Nourishing oil for body and massage, we hope to bring not only a moment of comfort but also a healthy future to children enduring the fight of their life.”
Andrew Weil is, of course, the promoter of the Arizona meeting.
The corruption of Universities by this sort of activity is truly amazing.
We hear a lot about leadership these days. It has become one of the favourite buzzwords of those who do neither research not teaching. The word occurred six times in a recent HR-speak document that was sent to explain the criteria for promotion to a chair. Quite what it means is never clear. Could it just be a talent for telling other people to do things that the leader can’t do himself? (People who describe themselves as leaders are, needless to say, mostly male.) Only too often those who call themselves ‘leaders’ turn out to be suffering from the Siegfried delusion -in the words of Ernest Newman, overgrown boy scouts.
One thing that leadership certainly should include is setting a good example in ethical behaviour. So what’s going wrong?
We’ve seen the case of Howard Newby. We’ve seen vice-chancellors (12 of them) refuse point blank to respond to enquiries about how they justify running degrees in alternative quackery, despite the fact that even the Queen’s Homeopathic physician thinks it is unjustified to run BSc degrees in homeopathy (watch him say so).
We’ve seen the malign influence of corporate money (most strikingly in the UK in the notorious case of the University of Sheffield). We have seen ghost-writing and spin tolerated, and even encouraged, not to mention sham consultations and attempts to impose the Wal-Mart values of PricewaterhouseCooper on research.
Here are two more interesting examples of ‘leadership’.
Professor Sir Roy Anderson
|Next year, the rector of Imperial, Richard Sykes, will be replaced by Roy Anderson, epidemiologist and Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Ministry of Defence,. Sykes is the chap who (with a little help from my first attempt at a web campaign) failed in his messianic attempt to take over UCL in 2002.|
Imperial rector with a past
In June this year, Imperial College London announced that Roy Anderson, a distinguished epidemiologist and former chief scientific adviser to the MoD, would succeed Richard Sykes to become rector next year. An internationally renowned academic and researcher, Anderson is amply qualified for this ambassadorial role in the British scientific establishment. Yet some, including the former director of the Wellcome Trust, Bridget Ogilvie, have remarked to Prospect that parts of the scientific community were “very surprised” at Anderson’s selection in view of the controversies seven years ago that surrounded his professorship at Oxford.
The first scandal arose when Anderson accused a female colleague of having won support for her post via a relationship with her head of department—a claim he was eventually forced to retract as untrue, and which was a major factor in his subsequent resignation from Oxford. At around the same time, Anderson’s resignation from the board of the Wellcome Trust was announced, prompted in part by his failure fully to disclose his relationship with a private biomedical consultancy during his time at Oxford, in breach of the trust’s financial guidelines.
It should, of course, be emphasised that Anderson did nothing illegal; he has always been admired as a dynamic leader, and some feel that the “Oxford scandals” can now be set aside as isolated incidents in an otherwise unblemished career. It will be interesting to see what he makes of his new position.
But perhaps most damaging was the downfall of Roy Anderson, a leading epidemiologist, and one of the governors who run the trust. Anderson, who also directed the Wellcome Trust Centre for the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at Oxford University, was forced to resign from the university, the centre and as a trust governor, following the publication of two damning reports into his management of the Oxford centre. Initially triggered by allegations that Anderson had made sexual slurs against a female colleague chosen for a senior position at Oxford, the investigations went on to examine his failure fully to disclose business interests that had become entangled with the Wellcome centre’s research activities.
A lot of people seem to be quite puzzled by Imperial’s choice of leader.
Sir John Chisholm
|Mild surprise greeted the news that the chairman of the Medical Research Council (MRC), John Chisholm, is also Executive Chairman and former Chief Executive of QinetiQ (the privatised version of the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency). Was this sort of some job creation scheme? The arms merchants providing customers for the health service?|
The Parliamentary science and technology committee, certainly had reservations (“New medical research chair unfit for job, say MPs“).
An editorial in the British Medical Journal (March 2007) commented on this unholy mix, thus.
“In a recent editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Richard Smith drew attention once again to the paradoxical and disturbing association between Reed Elsevier, a huge global publishing company, and the international arms trade.1 While promoting world health through its publications, including the Lancet, Reed Elsevier also organises international trade fairs for the arms industry. By facilitating the sale of armaments, Reed Elsevier is directly implicated in causing untold damage to health.”
In March 2007. Nature commented
“The MRC faces other challenges, too. Last October saw its appointment of a chair, John Chisholm, who has a strong track record in privatizing defence research laboratories. He has recently sent signals that have left MRC researchers dumbfounded. To judge by recent statements, he views biomedical research as being applied research by definition, and sees fundamental research to be all but irrelevant.”
According to a report from the National Audit Office, the Treasury sold off its arms research to the US private equiry group far too cheaply. A handful of directors made staggering personal fortunes from the deal. This interchange occurred in the minutes of evidence to the Committee of Public Accounts (Monday 3 November 2007). The chairman was Edward Leigh (Conservative MP for Gainsborough).
Q18 Chairman: Yes, because you told the Defence Committee on 28 February 2001: “In regard to people who were already in the organisation, certainly when they have proved themselves successful they can expect to earn a reward but they cannot expect to earn it just because we have been privatised”.
What the public think is that it is frankly appalling. It goes totally against any concept of ethical capitalism, Sir John, that you can put £100,000 into a business and emerge with £25 million of taxpayer’s money. Nobody from outside can understand it. Do you have any sense of shame here before us?
Sir John Chisholm: I have a considerable sense of having led a team to create £1 billion worth of value for the taxpayer. I think that is a great achievement by the team.
Q19 Chairman: Why should your poor staff get £9 for every pound they put in but you get £200 for every pound that you put in? Do you think that is fair?
Sir John Chisholm: I believe in any deal like this there was a contractual agreement put by the investor to the management team that had considerable risk for the management team at the time and they signed up to it.
. . . .
Q30 Mr Touhig (Lab,Islwyn): You see our concern, because one of the first things that Carlyle did when it became the preferred bidder was to change the planned management incentive scheme following representations from the QinetiQ Board. The outcome of this, as the Chairman has pointed out, was that top management got almost a 20000% increase on the return on their investment. Sir John, that is not so much the unacceptable face of capitalism as the unacceptable face of greed, is it not?
Sir John Chisholm: I do not accept that, no.
So not much concern for “ethical capitalism” there.
Is this what we are meant to learn on the ‘leadership’ courses that are springing up everywhere?
Is this the sort of example to set to young scientists about how to succeed?
Is this how to get good science?
I think not.
From Private Eye 26 January 2008.
£100m. Profits gained by senior executives through QinetiQ privatisation
£75m. QinetiQ pension deficit, now being addressed by additional staff contributions.
The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) last week had a headline “Staff loyalty key to Hefce report”.
Staff loyalty is something I’m interested in, so I read on eagerly.
The article was about report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). It came from their Leadership, Governance and Management Strategic Advisory Committee (dated 2-3 July 2007). [Download the report: Word format]
Well there is the first cringe already. Whenever you see the word ‘leadership’ you can bet that it means that you are going to be lectured on how to do your job by somebody who has never done it themselves. (probably somebody suffering from Siegfried delusions -in the words of Ernest Newman. an overgrown boy scout).
|No disappointment on that score. This particular sermon is being delivered not by a successful researcher. Not even by an unsuccessful researcher who has been moved up to manage the successful ones. It is being given by Ed Smith, Global Chief Operating Officer and Strategy Leader for Assurance, PricewaterhouseCoopers.|
Their web site says of Ed Smith:
“He is a leading advocate of, and external speaker on People management in organisations, in particular diversity and work/life having led PwC’s own enlightenment in this area “
“PwC’s own enlightenment” ? Cringe!. Who writes this stuff, one wonders,
Here are the main points.
“3. There are high level activities to be undertaken of reconceptualising the university and rethinking the business model.”
Reconceptualise? Is it a condition of essential condition of working for PricewaterhouseCoopers to be unable to write plain English?
More to the point, one would be interested to know what concept of a university he has in mind? The statement as it stands has roughly zero content.
“4. To implement the outcome of this rethinking, there will need to be significant culture change. HEIs’ staff will need to be more aware of and aligned to the strategic needs of the HEI.
Academics’ goals are often related to their discipline rather than their institution and they will need to develop institutional loyalties in addition to discipline loyalties. Corporate planning processes will need to be communicated more effectively for those processes to be more successful. “
This statement fails to make the important distinction between the Institution itself, and the people who, for the time being, are running it (see Letters). The first thought that comes to mind after reading this is that it is a statement that is likely to have exactly the opposite effect from that intended by the writer. The more statements like this that come from on high, the less inclined people are to feel allegiance to the institution that issues them, or, to be more precise, the people who are running the institution for the time being.
Respect has to be earned.
“5. HE staff can find themselves uncertain about their role, typically
because it has never been fully made clear. Research has often become too prominent as an indicator of performance, because it has been measured in the RAE, and other activity has not been equally recognised and rewarded. “
Aha, now does that mean that our role is not to do research and teaching after all? Perhaps it has now been redefined somehow? Perhaps our role now is to waste time on sham consultations, read reams of world-class policy bollocks, and do what one is told by some official in HR? I don’t think so. The second sentence has some justice, but I guess Mr Smith has not had to suffer floods of contradictory instructions from the endlessly-multiplying ‘managers’.
One day a ‘manager’ says we must all publish three papers a year, and they must all be in the same handful of journals (though there has not, as far as I know, been
the sort of crude bullying about this at UCL that I have heard about in, say Imperial and a few other places). Furthermore we mustn’t collaborate with anyone in the same place because the same paper must not appear to the RAE to come from two groups.
The next day we will be told that the entire place must be turned upside down because of the absolute necessity for collaborations. Of course the measures that are proposed never have the slightest effect on collaboration, because they come from people who talk about it, not from people who do it.
And the next day we are told by a third person that all of the above is secondary and that teaching matters more than anything else.
Of course all these contradictory instructions do nothing but prevent us doing the research and teaching that we had supposed to be our job.
“7. HEIs will need to develop their business process and become more efficient, so that they can re-invest. The Committee advises that HEIs should not be afraid of the language and culture of business. “
The language of business, at least of the sort that now permeates universities, is usually both vacuous and pretentious. The culture of business is what produces BSc degrees in anti-science (not to mention accounting scandals).
The use of the word “afraid” in this context is sheer overweening arrogance. I have spent a lifetime trying to express complicated ideas in simple language. That seems to me to be as desirable in real science as it is in my attempts to improve public understanding of science. The aim of managers seems often to be to express
simple ideas in complicated language. I’m never quite sure whether the reason for this is illiteracy. or a conscious effort to disguise the emptiness of the ideas. A bit of both, I expect.
What do we conclude from this?
The interesting thing about this document is that it is written by a businessman but appears to me to ignore two basic business principles that can be put in perfectly simple language.
(1) Supply and demand. There will always be an endless supply of managers and pensioned-off researchers who are willing to accept professorial salaries for producing reams of policy bollocks. There isn’t even much shortage of people who can do a tolerable job of teaching at least at first or second year level. The really scarce people are the top flight original researchers, the ones who will make a difference to the future. It follows that these people have enormous power (though often they are too busy to use it). If the place that they works adopts the culture of managerialism, they will just leave Highly original minds have a low tolerance for policy bollocks. Of course this is a slow process. It might take a decade or more to destroy a good research outfit in this way, and by the time managers notice the consequences of their actions it would already be too late. It is much easier to destroy than to build.
(2) The value of brand names . This is where it gets personal, though I imagine many other people have had similar experiences in recent years. The Pharmacology Department at UCL has had a distinguished history for 100 years. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been at meetings and heard people say “gosh you are from Pharmacology at UCL -that’s impressive”. People in the department got a glow from comments like that. That is what generated loyalty to the department and to the College that houses it. Now we are told that we are to be part of an over sized monstrosity called the “Research department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology”. That really trips off the tongue, right? One can’t imagine something with an utterly unmemorable name like that ever getting an international reputation. In any case, I expect that another policy wonk will come along and change the name again in 5 year’s time,
How does this sort of vandalism happen? I guess one reason is that the sort of people who get to be managers just aren’t sufficiently in contact with science to be aware of the reputation that we used to have. They seem to be unaware that the reputation of an institution is no more than the sum of the reputations of the researchers and teachers who work in it (not the administrators). And if a department has a few good people in it over a long period, the department as a whole contributes too. The College reputation barely exists in isolation, just the sume of individuals. Take an example. At UCL we have an excellent department of German, a department that contributes to the reputation of UCL. But of course not one pharmacologist in a million has heard of it, just as I imagine not one German historian in a million has heard of our (late) pharmacology department.
Let’s get a few things clear.
- The job of universities is to do teaching and research.
- The teaching is enormously important but the external reputation of the establishment will inevitably depend almost entirely on its research.
- The success of the place therefore depends entirely on the people who do the research and teaching. Everybody else, from junior technician to vice chancellor is there only to support them.
- The people who do the research and teaching are the only ones who know how to make a success of those jobs The HR department, for example, know nothing about either either teaching or research. How could they? They have never done either. Their job is to make sure people get paid, not to bully and harass the people doing the real work of the university.
- The aims of business are, in some ways, precisely the opposite of those of universities. Business aims to sell things. Spin and mendacious advertising are an accepted part of the game. The tendency for them to become part of the game in universities too can do nothing but harm. Are universities mean to admire the mentality that gave rise to Enron and Worldcom?
- Remember the words of Robert May (President of the Royal Society, 2000 – 2005).
“A rather different issue that has emerged during the Blair decade is the tendency to invite people from the world of business to advise on the management of universities, or to head them. Given that UK universities still stand significantly higher on international league tables than does most of the UK business sector, this seems odd.”
On ‘leadership’ and ‘vision’.
The two most overworked words in management-speak remind me inexorably of the rhetoric used by those who advocated the merger of UCL and Imperial. And of two comments that appeared in the financial (not the academic) press after the attempt crumbled.
Lessons of a failed merger (Matthew Lynn, Bloomberg News. 20-Nov-02). “: [get the pdf].
“Unfortunately for Sykes, the professors of Imperial and University College London were smarter than the last recipients of his strategic wisdom, the shareholders in the formerly independent drug companies Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham.
The biggest universities in the world are clearly not the best. So why do some British universities think that mergers will make them world class? (John Kay, 21-Nov-02 Financial Times).
” The same empty phrases that were used in the 1990s to justify corporate mergers are today used to justify university mergers – the aspiration to be a “global player”, the need to achieve “critical mass”. But greater size is always the aspiration of those with no better strategic vision.”
These two responses appeared in THES the following week (Dec 7th), from opposite ends of the age spectrum. Notice that the younger one does not dare to give a name. I don’t blame him or her. That is the rule rather than the exception, when people feel intimidated. Exactly the same thing happened when the crazy “vision” of merging Imperial and UCL was on the cards. Anyone with half a brain could see it was nuts (with the exception of the senior management team at the time), but not everyone dared to say so.
|Loyalty, but not blind allegiance 1
Research associate, Russell Group university
Published: 07 December 2007
Loyalty cuts both ways (“Staff loyalty key to Hefce report”, November 30).
Look at contract research staff such as myself who are forced to seek employment in other institutions and environments.
I cannot say that I have had an experience in my institution that inspires anything like loyalty. People there want it to go only one way. When are we going to get loyalty from our employing institutions rather than being treated as disposable drones?
Research associate, Russell Group university.
| Loyalty, but not blind allegiance 3
Published: 07 December 2007
Many years ago, it fell to me to chair Higher Education Funding Council for England teaching-quality inspections of academic departments.
At one such event, the head of department confided to me and my team that he and his team completely disagreed with the strategic direction in which their vice-chancellor was taking them and were doing all they could to undermine it, in the interests of the discipline they taught.
We agreed, and gave the department top marks.
Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history Buckingham University.
How very nice to get an endorsement from a Nobel prizewinner. Why, I wonder, was he not asked for his opinion about how to get good science. Perhaps PricewaterhouseCooper know better