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Sunday, July 01, 2007


From the Guardian:


I like short stories with happy endings. Last week we saw how the mightily eminent pharmacologist Professor David Colquhoun (FRS) was having his witty and informative "Improbable Science" quackbusting blog quietly banished from the UCL servers. He had questioned claims made by a herbal medicine practitioner called Dr Ann Walker over, for example, the "blood cleansing" properties of red clover (also a "cleanser of the lymphatic system", apparently) and criticised her for making public statements about the benefits of vitamin supplements in an academic journal, without disclosing her role as spokesperson for the Health Supplements Information Service, a lobby group for the multibillion-pound supplements industry. Walker complained.

Well, in fact her husband complained. Of defamation. Directly to the provost. He also complained of breach of copyright (Colquhoun quoted part of a website he was writing about), breach of data protection requirements, and issued various requests to UCL under the Freedom of Information Act. He also demanded that a paper was circulated to all UCL council members concerning Colquhoun's misuse of IT resources, and possibly office space and secretarial facilities.

Now above all, to me, these moves lack style. Dr Walker didn't contact Professor Colquhoun about what he wrote, and nowhere has she addressed any of the scientific arguments he made. In fact Colquhoun had the decency to contact Walker and ask what "blood cleanser" meant (before then describing the phrase as "meaningless gobbledygook") and never received a reply.

Colquhoun's brief move away from UCL produced a gratifying avalanche of letters to the provost in defence of robust criticism, and after this - and necessary expensive legal consultations - it was announced on Wednesday that Colquhoun's blog is to be de-excommunicated.

But amusingly, in these democratic times, there are inevitable consequences of trying to silence a blogger - especially when you make a hash of it - and a mass of activity has now grown into what is cheerfully being described as "a festival of Ann Walker". As the Sciencepunk blog gleefully points out, Ann Walker's claims are now more famous than ever.

Most have started by trundling through her pieces on a pill-vendor website called Healthspan. In one piece, Walker promotes the idea that neanderthals were not a distinct kind of human, but degenerate and malnourished versions of ordinary humans: buy pills or regress to a sub-human state, seems to be Walker's message. Yikes. Dr Andy Lewis on the Quackometer blog points out the flaws, and shows how the "neanderthal as malnourished homo sapiens" argument is more commonly found on quack creationist websites.

Meanwhile, Holfordwatch wades in to look at the evidence behind her claims that Ginkgo biloba pills are effective in dementia and cognitive impairment, and Coracle from the Science and Progress blog examines her claims on glucosamine and chondroitin pills. Coracle makes an interesting general point about the patterns that often emerge in trial research on any pill: "Early, and poorer quality trials showed benefit for chondroitin vs placebo, but in later and more robust trials this benefit gets closer to equivalence with placebo."

These critical pieces generate insights, and new ideas, because claims are rarely just wrong, they are usually interestingly wrong. It's a shame that discussions about interesting wrongness should take place under threat of litigation. Now don't let me get too web-happy on you here, but these stories are the perfect illustration of why UCL is right to stand by Colquhoun and his blog, because it is not a waste of an academic's time, nor does it waste minuscule quantities of electricity and hard disk space.

Coracle makes his point about the quality of evidence, for example, with reference to a blog post on the same phenomenon by Prof Colquhoun. These are ordinary, everyday people chatting with each other, with passion - and with Fellows of the Royal Society - about science, in a popular forum, in everyday language, and forgive me as I wipe a tear away but this is a very, very beautiful thing.

Ideally one shouldn't be rude about people (although it may be justified). But criticising activities and ideas, of all things, with a passion for the truth, should never be a dangerous hobby. Good luck not getting sued.

Ben Goldacre