Lab that finds bugs where others do not

October 15th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, media, mirror, MRSA, news of the world, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications, scare stories, sun | 78 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday October 15, 2005
The Guardian

A while ago an investigative television journalist friend rang me up. “I just went undercover to take some MRSA swabs for my filthy hospital superbug scandal,” he said, “but they all came back negative. What am I doing wrong?” Always happy to help, I suggested he swab “my arse” instead. Ten minutes later, I heard from him again. He’d just spoken to a tabloid health journalist who had told him which lab to use: “the lab that gives positive results when others do not” was how he described it to me.

What lab was this? Step up Northants-based Chemsol Consulting, and director Christopher Malyszewicz. If you see an MRSA superbug positive swab scandal, the chances are it came from his lab.

In fact, people have taken swabs from the very same hospitals given massive MRSA finds by Chemsol, sent them to other reputable mainstream labs, or their own, and got nothing. An academic paper by eminent microbiologists describing this process in relation to one hospital has been published in a peer reviewed academic journal, then loudly ignored by everyone in the media except little me. So how do we explain this extraordinary phenomena? A phenomena so replicable that even tabloid journalists are – uniquely – familiar with the ability of various different research laboratories to give different results?

First let’s clarify one thing: there probably are plenty of nasty hospitals that aren’t as clean as we’d like them to be, and deaths from MRSA are tragic. Certainly the UK has more MRSA than many other countries, an observed phenomenon which could of course be put down to various different causes. But we’re looking at the issue of one private laboratory, with an awful lot of business from undercover journalists doing stories on MRSA, that seems to give an awful lot of positive results where other labs do not. I asked Dr Malyszewicz why this happened. He said he did not know, and suggested that the microbiologists might be taking swabs from the wrong place at the wrong times. I asked why he thought the tabloids chose his lab (producing almost 20 articles). He did not know. I asked why various microbiologists have said he has refused to tell them about his full methods when they wanted to replicate and validate them in their own labs. He says this is not true.

I spoke to Peter Wilson, UCL Microbiologist, who said: “We got batches of the media that Dr Malyszewicz was using, we couldn’t distinguish Staph. epidermidis [not MRSA] from Staph. aureus [which could be MRSA] by whether it grew on that media. It seemed he was relying on whether or not it grew on that media to determine whether it was MRSA or not. Without getting full cooperation from the other side, it’s hard to know exactly what they were doing.”

Lastly I asked Dr Malyszewicz about his qualifications. He told me he has a BSc from Leicester University. Actually it’s from Leicester Polytechnic. He told me he has a PhD. The News of the World called him “Respected MRSA specialist Dr Christopher Malyszewicz”. The Sun called him “The UK’s top MRSA expert.” and “Microbiologist Christopher Malyszewicz”. He agreed his was a “non-accredited correspondence course PhD” from America. He has no actual microbiology qualification. Dr Malyszewicz says his PhD is not recognised in the UK. He is, however, charming to talk to, and to my delight has agreed to a filmed visit and interview so we can get to the bottom of everything. This story is going to run like dysentery.

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78 Responses

  1. ArrogantEngineer said,

    October 20, 2005 at 10:51 am

    I suppose by pegging the responsibility of the accuracy of the story on a supposed ‘expert’, neither reader or journalist feel they need to understand it. Comfortable laziness each way.

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 11:11 am

    Exemplar: I think a bit of personal responsibility is called for here. Humanities graduates feel entitled to commentate on science issues, but choose not to burden themselves with any knowledge of the subjects. Nobody forced them to commentate, and nobody is withholding secret scientific knowledge.

    These self-appointed and ill-informed commentators, and the people in the media who make decisions to withhold informative detail, are not the victims of circumstance. Anybody who wants to learn about the philosophy of science is welcome to, anybody who wants to learn about science is welcome to. Reading lists are available.

    For those who come to the table too late, we offer commiserations and advice on alternative careers where a lack of science education will not render you incompetent.

  3. exemplar said,

    October 20, 2005 at 11:28 am

    Agreed – here’s the plan then………you get the ‘self-appointed and ill-informed commentators’ out of the media………. I’ll educate the replacements ! πŸ˜‰

    Your right there are plenty of opportunities for those in these positions to educate themselves but if the rest of the populace were better informed through other medium with regard the sciences they wouldn’t fall for all the guff in the first place……….we need more engagement like your secondary school teachers event and things like the Institute of Ideas and the BA, but also we need to sort out cross-disciplinary communication within academia so that there is a system within university education to promote a wider better informed understanding of the sciences.

  4. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 11:59 am

    It’s nice to think we could push science harder, but consider this: economics is important, I should maybe have read about it a bit, maybe it would have been nice if someone had forced it down my neck at school, but I’m glad it’s well covered in newspapers for those who are interested in it, and I don’t mind skipping those pages.

    Notice how I do not have a column in a national newspaper passing comment on economic issues, for the simple reason that I know very little about the subject, and cannot read an end of year financial report.

  5. Michael said,

    October 20, 2005 at 1:04 pm

    I think it’s been an interesting discussion of “False Authority Syndrome”; this is a term I hear a lot in computer security circles, I don’t know if it’s a commonly used term in the context of these here “sensible scepticism” circles.

    Without understanding what a person’s qualifications are, logically one should not begin to accept their opinions. In everyday situations, I would hope that most people understand that “bloke down the pub’s” medical advice is not worth having. However, if we then found out that he’s actually Dr. Bloke, then we’d take his advice more seriously (depending on how much of what he’d had to drink). The more cautious of us would ask what he’s a doctor of, what institution awarded the PhD, and whether he actually has a track record for good advice. And if he’s been struck off…

    What the comments above say to me, is that we should be training the people around us to question what qualifications ‘authority figures’ actually have, and expecting journalists to be more up front about those qualifications in their articles. I think we should also be training the people around us to stop reading certain newspapers as soon as they notice the words “boffin” or “expert”, a naked lady on page 3, or a front page headline about house prices.

    Ben, I would definitely be interested in a PhD in Scepticism to imbue myself with False Authority, when I’m trying to deprogramme my family and friends from believing the latest bit of nonsense they read in the paper. (I’d suggest an exam to pass before getting the PhD though… questions like “Do you believe that there is scientific evidence that homeopathy works?” should do the trick.) The flight upgrades sound handy, too.

  6. Tessa K said,

    October 20, 2005 at 1:26 pm

    Reading lists are available? Can I have one?

    I’ve read quite a few books on skeptical thinking and logic, and some science books, but there are gaps I’d like to fill.

  7. MostlySunny said,

    October 20, 2005 at 1:54 pm

    me to!

    Got caught up in a debate with an Anthropologist and a Behavioural Psychologist (both working on PhD’s) around the whole “science is a belief system just like any other” – the Behavioral Psychologist was chucking around terms like “Scienfitic Positivism” – saying that was the “belief” that all scientists signed up to.

    a reading list of good science books would be helpful as I am becoming more interested in this subject.


    ps. the Behavioural Psychologist is the only person I personally know who claims to have been kidnapped by aliens…

  8. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    Ok, here’s a reading list, to be shortly superceded of course when Bad Science comes out:

    How To Read A Paper by Jean Haugland
    This Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan
    What is Science (or something like that) by Robin Dunbar
    Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland
    The Unnatural Nature of Science by Lewis Wolpert
    Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins
    And most importantly any school biology/chemistry/physics textbooks you like.

  9. MostlySunny said,

    October 20, 2005 at 2:29 pm

    thanksalot πŸ™‚

    Folk Devils and Moral Panics -Stanley Cohen

    How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World – Francis Wheen

    both are excellent books on the Media and how we are manipulated by it. Could give you an interesting insight into how all this pseudoscience manages to have such staying power.

  10. Michael said,

    October 20, 2005 at 3:34 pm

    I can also recommend Bad Thoughts by Jamie Whyte.

  11. Ian said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:00 pm

    I’ll have a look at the books already on the list (and request them for our school library). Can I recommend another two – _Innumeracy_ by John Allen Paulos and _A Short History of Nearly Everything_ by Bill Bryson. Both are non-scientist friendly, so make good gifts for those not yet converted…

  12. MikeTheGoat said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:02 pm

    I can find “How to read a paper” by Trisha Greenhalgh on Amazon but not by Jean Haugland… are they different books?

    I’ve long thought that some kind of tuition in Critical Thinking would be beneficial as part of the school curriculum (not just in science either). Francis Wheen’s book is excellent although tends to concentrate more on economics than science – what he has to say is equally relevant no matter what the subject is.

    Being a scientist I get asked all the time about the scare story du jour (currently bird flu of course) and am often depressed by the misconceptions that seem to abound. I really don’t think that’s the fault of the “non-science” public but really is due to the misrepresentation of the facts and omission of important points in media reporting. That said, people who then start to pontificate on a subject without knowing any more than they’ve learned from a newspaper really get on my tits.

  13. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    Trisha, yup, soz. It is the best book in the world ever.

    How to Read a Paper: The Basics of Evidence-Based Medicine

    Can anyone tell me who Jean Haugland is then? I bet she’s a porn actress or something really embarrassing like that.

  14. MikeTheGoat said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:25 pm

    There’s a Jean Haugland who has something to do with politics in Iowa (according to a quick Google). So not porn then. If for some bizarre reason it wasn’t that *particular* Jean Haugland that you were thinking of then I can’t help you.

  15. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:28 pm

    Got it. I reckon I was thinking of John Haugeland who wrote this excellent philosophy of mind book on artificial intelligence that I read in 1997. Still definitely not porn.

  16. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 20, 2005 at 4:01 pm

    Actually, if we’re talking about great science books, I have to say “On Giants’ Shoulders” by Melvyn Bragg after the Radio 4 series was bloody great:

  17. GWO said,

    October 21, 2005 at 9:37 am

    Slightly off the subject matter, but can I also recommend : Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time” by Michael Shermer. Not intimately about science, but very good on Pseudoscience (and he takes time out to excoriate Ayn Rand, and that’s always worth a read).

  18. Tessa K said,

    October 21, 2005 at 1:06 pm

    I’m glad to see I’ve read some of the ones on Ben’s list already. I tried to get the Sutherland a while ago but I think it’s out of print.

    Another good skeptical thinking book is How To Think About Wierd Things by Schick and Vaughn. Or How We Know What Isn’t So by Gilovich.

    I’m a member of a skeptics group in London so I’m pretty well stocked in books in that area. It’s more the science books I’m after.

    I did get a school physics text book from the library from pre-GCSE days and that was pretty helpful, and I have some zoology books. I could do with some on biology/medicine.

  19. Alex B said,

    October 21, 2005 at 6:47 pm

    i like porn

  20. callie said,

    October 22, 2005 at 9:24 pm

    ‘Dr’ Chris reminds me of Dr Nick off the simpsons πŸ˜€

  21. Richard said,

    October 28, 2005 at 10:01 am

    Anyone wanting a page summary of the “scientific approach” might like to read Feynmans “Cargo Cult Science” essay. It’s quite an amusing read with no use of technical terminology.

  22. Ray said,

    October 28, 2005 at 11:32 am

    Widely available online: Cargo Cult Science.

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  25. Alisa said,

    May 31, 2006 at 4:11 pm

    Re: Dr Chris Malyszewicz
    Bless him and may he lay in peace ! He did expose MRSA which no one would.His formulations works , for sure. Jealousy is a terrible thing, dont you know.

  26. There used to be a time when naked Britney Spears photos were an attraction, but these days it’s just Science, Science, Science. « Archaeoastronomy said,

    March 3, 2008 at 9:03 am

    […] I wrote it because someone heard there was to be a hatchet job on a clinic which hadn’t opened yet in an area which badly needed it. Malyszewicz claimed to have a degree from a university in Leicester and they wondered if I could help. What I did was put the facts out in the public domain. By and large it’s clear the public isn’t that interested. I think one person who did read it was the journalist and his editor who delayed the story. Later the scandal broke in the national press at the Guardian. […]

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  28. JonathonCowley said,

    November 15, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    See, I’m okay with the likes of chiropractors and whatnot using the title ‘doctor’ if they’ve done the relevent course. After all, the first doctorates were in theology so there’s an established tradition of universities awarding doctorates in bollocks.