UCL, Colquhoun, and Dr Ann Walker – A victory for common sense.

June 13th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, heroes of bad science | 32 Comments »

UCL have just issued a smashing statement on Prof Colquhoun’s de-excommunication.

www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0706/07061303


posting this from my phone, more to follow…

Joint statement by Professor Colquhoun and UCL
13 June 2007

UCL was recently contacted by Dr Alan Lakin on behalf of his wife, herbal medicine practitioner Dr Ann Walker, in relation to comments made about her, on a website hosted by UCL, by Professor Colquhoun, a distinguished UCL pharmacologist.

Dr Lakin complained to the Provost about comments on the website about Dr Walker which he maintained were “incorrect, misleading and defamatory”, and asked for them to be removed forthwith. The Provost refused and invited Dr Lakin to furnish proper substantiation of his allegations, undertaking that he would then review the matter. Dr Lakin also complained of breach of copyright and data protection requirements, and issued various requests to UCL under the Freedom of Information Act, and a request to have a paper circulated to all UCL Council members concerning an alleged misuse of IT resources and possibly office space and secretarial facilities by Professor Colquhoun.

Solicitors acting on behalf of Dr Lakin and Dr Walker wrote some three weeks later in response to the Provost’s letter, specifying statements on the website which they alleged to be defamatory, and also alleging malicious falsehood against UCL. They enclosed with their letter a pre-action protocol for defamation proceedings. Acting on legal advice, UCL asked Professor Colquhoun to remove his personal website from UCL’s servers as a mitigating measure and to allow UCL to take further advice.
On his website, Professor Colquhoun questioned the validity of claims made by Dr Walker for the ‘blood cleansing’ properties of red clover and also criticised Dr Walker for making public statements as to the benefits of vitamin supplements without disclosing her role at the Health Supplements Information Service, a lobbying body for the supplements industry. Dr Walker has not complained to Professor Colquhoun and in her complaint to UCL has not addressed any of the scientific arguments made by Professor Colquhoun.

UCL has a long and outstanding liberal tradition and is committed to encouraging free and frank academic debate. The evidence (or lack thereof) for the claims made for health supplements is a matter of great public interest, and UCL supports all contributions to that debate. The only restriction it places on the use of its facilities is that its staff should use their academic freedom responsibly within the law.

To this end, the Provost and Professor Colquhoun have taken advice from a senior defamation Queen’s Counsel, and we are pleased to announce that Professor Colquhoun’s website – with some modifications effected by him on counsel’s advice – will shortly be restored to UCL’s servers. UCL will not allow staff to use its website for the making of personal attacks on individuals, but continues strongly to support and uphold Professor Colquhoun’s expression of uncompromising opinions as to the claims made for the effectiveness of treatments by the health supplements industry or other similar bodies

This is extremely good news and the robust nature of this statement is a great testament to the good will and right thinking nature of the UCL Provost, as well as the long and honourable traditions of UCL.

Prof Colquhoun has also posted a brief note:

www.dcscience.net/quack.html

Added:

There is a more serious issue in the background, however. It strikes me that there is a sizeable cohort of people who sell themselves and their wares by making scientific claims, but then use bullying and legal threats when their claims and ideas are criticised. This to me is completely unacceptable.

I suspect that in the case of Dr Lakin and Dr Walker their efforts in this case may backfire, and a great deal more attention will now fall on their work. EDIT: This has already begun. Are we about to see a festival of Ann Walker?

I am also reproducing for your delectation below the piece from Prof Colquhoun’s site on Dr Ann Walker, as it currently appears there.

Red Clover and herbal spin

The Health Supplements Information Service (HSIS) is a spin organisation for the supplements industry. It was mentioned below, when they attempted to discredit a report that suppplements could actually increase mortality. In that case Ann Walker spoke for HSIS.

The same Ann Walker wrote an editorial for the British Journal of General Practice (January 2007), “Potential micronutrient deficiency lacks recognition in diabetes”. The conclusion is “Although still considered to be controversial by some, taking a daily multinutrient supplement would bridge the gap between intake and requirements and ensure that nutrient target intakes are met”. The affiliation given is senior lecturer in nutrition at the University of Reading, where she has a one-tenth full time appointment. No competing interests are declared. The University of Reading tells me that she has “consultancies for two supplement companies and for the Health Supplement Information Service. Dr Walker has also declared a private patients clinic”.

Ann Walker is also course director for an organisation called New Vitality. And she “operates a Clinic from her home on two days a week, using a combination of nutritional therapy and herbal medicine to treat patients with a wide variety of conditions.” All this sounds rather less academic. And so it is. Take red clover. New Vitality’s view is shown on the right What on earth is a “blood cleanser” or a “cleanser of the lymphatic system”. This is so much meaningless gobbledygook. The term “blood cleanser” means nothing whatsoever.

An enquiry about what “blood cleanser” means has yet to produce a reply.

The description of red clover on the New Vitality site

And is red clover really good for “symptoms of the menopause”? There is quite a different view on Medline Plus. This is an information service run by the US National Librery of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. They say, of red clover for menopausal symptoms,

“most of the available human studies are poorly designed and short in duration (less than 12 weeks of treatment).As results of published studies conflict with each other, more research is needed before a clear conclusion can be drawn.”

Medline Plus lists six other indications for red clover that have been suggested by herbalists. The conclusion in all seven cases is “Unclear scientific evidence for this use”

Likewise, New Vitality says of elderflower

“The primary use of elderflowers is for colds and influenze where its anti-viral properties come into play.”

But Medline Plus says

“it remains unclear whether there is truly any benefit from elder for this condition. Additional research is needed in this area before a firm conclusion can be reached. Elder should not be used in the place of other more proven therapies, and patients are advised to discuss influenza vaccination with their primary healthcare provider. It should be noted that the berries must be cooked to prevent nausea or cyanide toxicity.”


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32 Responses



  1. Norbury said,

    June 13, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Excellent news, it’s important for people like Prof Colquhoun to conform to legal advice, because if people can use something to take him down then they will. Clearly they can’t take him down on the science side!

  2. ayupmeduck said,

    June 13, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    Nice :-)

  3. woodbine said,

    June 13, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    That’s made my day, but let’s not forget that that the real problem lies with people like Dr Lakin. These people will go to out of their way to attack and undermine academics in order to deflect attention from their spurious claims and to protect their themselves (and their products) from reasoned scientific investigation. Although UCL and other universities have a role to play here, let’s not forget who the real villains are.

  4. TINSTAFL said,

    June 13, 2007 at 4:35 pm

    Yes, great news. But it is a pyyric victory as it certainly took a toll on Prof Colquhoun. UCL should have made this statement from the very start rather than let him hang and twist in the wind. Its only after the level or outrage was measured that the Provost made the political move to head off further embarrassment. Our dear Dr. Grant will make an excellent politician, but sadly he has shown that he made a very poor decision in his role as Provost. Reminds me of the Governor’s song in Greatest Little Horehouse in Texas “Oh, I love to dance a little side step.” His lesson is the most important one learned. I hope.
    Congrats Prof. Colquhoun.

  5. SciencePunk said,

    June 13, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    Great news – thank God we don’t have a DCMA law here in Blighty (though as my servers are probably on US soil, I imagine I’m vulnerable to that kind of attack).

  6. Ithika said,

    June 13, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    I don’t share your enthusiasm.

    The statement is wishy washy at best. It still implies that Colquhoun actually did something wrong. Why mention fud like “making of personal attacks on individuals” if it’s not relevant?

    As for people who use copyright violation to fight back against valid criticisms deserves far worse. Horrible people.

  7. profnick said,

    June 13, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    You mean This Dr Alan Lakin ?

    www.healthspan.co.uk/articles/list.aspx?authorid=16

  8. profnick said,

    June 13, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    Sorry pressed the “submit” button before adding my next line which is: both Alan Lakin and Anne Walker appear to have perfectly respectable academic credentials, so why woo……..?

  9. thescientist said,

    June 13, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    “statement is a great testament to the good will and right thinking nature of the UCL”

    this wouldn’t be anything to do with ben studying at UCL would it? :-)

    well done anyway, an end to quackery is hopefully coming closer. just goes to show that you cant sue your way to victory

  10. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 13, 2007 at 6:52 pm

    mm i don’t want to interfere with a very gracious and graceful resolution but i’m not entirely sure it is correct to say it was “suspended”.

  11. Dr Aust said,

    June 13, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    Let’s be fair and say that it is good to see that UCL has understood – a little late – what is the important issue here.

    Their initial reaction was ill-judged. People pointed this out and publicised it. The mistake has now been corrected.

    And I’m not saying that ‘cos I have a degree from there. I’m saying it because that seems the minimal interpretation of the chain of events.

  12. Dr Aust said,

    June 13, 2007 at 9:17 pm

    Still, good to see the UCL Provost has the humility to be prepared to reverse a bad decision, and without claiming that was what he really meant all along.

    Contrast, should you wish to, virtually any UK politician over the last three decades.

  13. Dr Aust said,

    June 13, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    Careful DrM, we don’t want an internecine London medic-against-medic flame war. What is it about the London Colleges and hospitals? Oh for the good old days, when the rivalries were simply sublimated into rugger and stealing Jeremy Bentham’s head.

  14. BSM said,

    June 13, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    I’m with Dr Aust on this. Having just received my copy of the circular e-mail from UCL, my immediate thought was “right decision, if a little late and back-to-front”.

  15. pv said,

    June 13, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    profnick says:

    “… appear to have perfectly respectable academic credentials, so why woo……..?”

    Since when did having the “respectable academic credentials” translate into being respectable in general or with regard to integrity or morality, or whatever?
    “Every man has his price”, is a saying I believe that refers to the monetary level at which principles, no matter how deeply held, and irrespective of academic credentials, become overwhelmingly inconvenient and are automatically jettisoned.

  16. Deano said,

    June 14, 2007 at 12:09 am

    Congratulations Ben – I’m sure that your exposure of this played an important part in supporting Colquhoun.

    In your face woos… ;)

  17. Deano said,

    June 14, 2007 at 12:12 am

    Incidentally – any news on Morag – who was fighting accusations of ‘Gross Professional Misconduct’ by woo vets because her involvement in the ‘Voodoo Vet’ protest group??

  18. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 14, 2007 at 12:21 am

    ProfNick: Dr Harold Shipman’s qualifications were only seriously questioned after, well, you know.

    Cyanide, eh?

  19. Teek said,

    June 14, 2007 at 8:52 am

    great news, if a little delayed.

    Ben, with you on the praise for UCL in general, altho i declare a COI – studied there for degree, did PhD, still here as a post-doc – institutionalised or what…?! (DrM, a better medical school in London…?! surely not?! ;-))

    the right decision’s been made, and to be honest i can definitely see the whole legal threats approah backfiring too – doesnt exactly exude confidence in your own woo theories if at any mention of “show me the evidence” folks like Lakin and Walker resort to bitter litigation…

  20. RS said,

    June 14, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Yes, congratulations to UCL for belatedly making the right decision – I am actually a little surprised that reason and academic integrity won through in the end – so it brightens my day a bit, faith restored in human nature.

  21. Nanobot said,

    June 14, 2007 at 1:02 pm

    Also I thought Dr Lakin’s copyright comment was a bit weak. Any action could be defended under the fair use sections of our copyright law. Especially as it could be argued that the esteemed Prof. was actually engaging in a bit of news reporting (which he indeed was) and this is explicitly mention in several different publications that I have seen detailing fair use in academia.

  22. woodchopper said,

    June 14, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Great news. Ben should feel proud.

  23. coracle said,

    June 14, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Interesting alternative take:
    Spring Offensive Against Homeopathy – the debate matures

  24. Pepper said,

    June 14, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    To paulp127 and Nanobot
    Indeed! I have looked at website of RSC just now. Dr.Lakin is absent in
    Directory of Fellows and Foreign Members of RSC! Make sure that, please: www.royalsoc.ac.uk/fellowsindex2.cfm?N=l
    Blik or fool? It is too simply – to check this info!

  25. David Colquhoun said,

    June 14, 2007 at 10:56 pm

    uhuh, that is the RS index, not the RSC.

    I’d just like to thank everyone for their enormous support, especially Ben of course.

    Oddly enough, the web site palaver has been just a distraction. A more important matter (for me) at UCL has just been lost. There is no longer a Department of Pharmacology. I do hope this is not a step in the direction of the corporatisation of universities that we’ve seen elswhere www.goodscience.org.uk

  26. pv said,

    June 14, 2007 at 11:26 pm

    Royal Society of Chemistry
    www.rsc.org/

  27. le canard noir said,

    June 15, 2007 at 9:19 am

    I’ve just been listening to Richard Dawkins and, as usual, he made a great comment on how religious people respond to criticisms of their beliefs,

    “Offense is what people take when they can’t take argument”

    It strikes me that alternative medicine responds in the same way. Instead of engaging in debate, sceptics are told we ‘hate’ and and ‘insulting’ and so on. (Maybe we are and maybe we do.) But, just as I have not heard any real religious engagement with the ideas in RD’s God Delusion, it is rare to come across alties real engagement with people like Colquhoun et al.

    The difference is though that with alternative medicine there is money behind the beliefs, and so in taking offense there is the option and sometimes ‘necessity’ of legal redress.

  28. pv said,

    June 15, 2007 at 10:48 am

    There’s money behind religion too. Just look at the Catholic church – it’s big business.

  29. Dr Aust said,

    June 15, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    It honestly is quite possible to have a perfectly sensible discussion / argument about “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM).

    However, it is NOT possible to have a sensible argument with many (though not all) CAM practitioners.

  30. Dr Aust said,

    June 15, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    RS – Re. the UCL Pharmacology Department (and other depts, e.g. Physiology, which have similarly been “disestablished”):

    They don’t seem to be merging Depts to larger Depts in this case. More like going to a “single school Faculty”.

    Mergers within biosciences have, as RS alludes to, been a widespread practise in the UK Univs over the last 20 yrs, driven largely (though not wholly) by the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) rankings.

    In cases where small Depts do not really provide “critical mass” and are clearly not achieving what they might achieve post-merger / shake-up, one can make a pretty good argument for mergers to bigger units. For a discussion, if anyone’s interested, see:

    www.physoc.org/publications/pn/issuepdf/54/3.pdf

    However… In cases where all the stand-alone Departments seem to be thriving, with high class research, full degree courses, and a successful and mutually-supportive departmental “culture”, there seems much less rationale for such moves. The suspicion is that the change is primarily to give more power to a central management system.

    The loss of a century or more of tradition and identity also saddens me a bit. As a Ph.D. student at UCL a quarter of a century ago I would have happily admitted to being largely indifferent to the history. However, now that I am a middle-aged old fart I see the history of science as being rather important. Apart from informing us about where our disciplines came from, and reminding us that the current battle against unreason has old roots, it is quite comforting to feel one works in some small way within a major human undertaking, past and present. (DC has a rather good quote from Gandhi on his blog:
    “Almost everything you do will be insignificant, but it is important that you do it.”)

    Finally, one would have thought this kind of history of disciplines and departments actually confers some of the “brand identity” which Univs care so much about these days. But then I’m not a University manager.

  31. JQH said,

    June 15, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    Definitely good news. I would not be surprised if various academics had been having a quiet word with the Provost as to the implications of his initial decision. I’m equally sure that Ben’s publicity of his (the Provost’s!) initial craven response will have stiffened his spine.

    UP YOURS, WOOS!!!

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