Dave Ford from Durham Council performs incompetent experiments on children.

September 27th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, fish oil, nutritionists | 71 Comments »

image You’ll remember the Durham fish oil “trial” story, possibly the greatest example of scientific incompetence ever documented from a local authority.

Initially they said – to blanket media coverage – that they were running a trial on fish oils, giving pills to 3,000 children to see if it improved GCSE performance. I pointed out, along with several academics, that their experiment was incompetently designed, for no good reason, and so would only produce false positive results. They responded that this was okay, as they hadn’t called it a “trial”. This was very simply untrue: they had, repeatedly, in press releases, and interviews, and who cared anyway, because whatever you called it, this was still a stupid experiment. Durham’s response was to edit the online version of their press release to remove the word “trial”.

Then I asked what they were going to do in this experiment, how they were going to measure results, and more. They refused to give me this information – for an experiment by a public body performed on thousands of children – so I used the Freedom of Information act. They still refused. Then hundreds of you wrote to their information commissioner, using the FoI, and they refused again, accusing us of running a “vexacious campaign”.

Then the GCSE results for Durham came out: they weren’t too great, so I asked for the results of the “trial”. Durham refused to give me this information. Then they announced, bizarrely, untruthfully, in a formal response to a written question: “It was never intended, and the county council never suggested, that it would use this initiative to draw conclusions about the effectiveness or otherwise of using fish oil to boost exam results.”

This was, once again, very untrue. Durham’s own press release had clearly said they were giving out the pills “to see whether the proven benefits it has already brought children and young people in earlier trials can boost exam performances too”. All the press coverage said the same. The council’s chief schools inspector Dave Ford said “the county-wide trial will continue until the pupils complete their GCSE examinations next June, and the first test of the supplement’s effectiveness will be when they sit their ‘mock’ exams this December.” Suddenly this trial did not exist.

Now, bafflingly, suddenly, in defiance of their previous denials, Durham have released some results. “Detailed analysis of the outcome of the initiative,” they say “shows that pupils who took the Omega-3 supplement did better than those who did not.” Hardly. Let’s try to disentangle what they think they’ve done.

“Initially, just over 3,000 Year 11 pupils began the study, taking the Omega-3 tablets at school and at home. By the time GCSE examinations came around, 832 pupils had 80 per cent or greater compliance.” This is appalling. 2,168 of their subjects dropped out of the trial: they must count these people in the results. They do not. This makes the rest of their claimed results even more meaningless.

“Mr Ford and his colleagues then sought to identify the same number of Year 11 pupils who had not taken the supplement and match them to those who had, according to school, gender, prior attainment and social background.” They originally said they were going to compare childrens’ predicted GCSE performance (whatever on earth that means) against actual performance. Of course, they refused to say how they would analyse this, despite hundreds of requests: and it is vitally important that people performing experiments are clear what they are measuring, and how they will analyse it, before they begin, otherwise they can move the goalposts and get a false positive result afterwards, by slicing the cake a dozen different ways.

“The GCSE results of 629 ‘matched pairs’ – fish oil takers and non-fish oil takers – were then analysed.” Who are these 629? I thought it was 832? But more importantly, by selectively only looking at the results from the pupils who were most highly adherent to the capsules regime, they have skewed their sample, entirely unnecessarily. They have, in fact, simply discovered that school performance is better in children who are more highly adherent to a school regime involving pills, and who are, in all probability, also more adherent to everything at school, harder working, better performing, from completely different families, with higher aspirations, and so on. If you wanted to design an experiment to produce a spurious false positive result, you could not do any better than this.

This result has nothing to do with the pills, it is laughably incompetent science, in an experiment performed on thousands of Durham children. It has been widely reported in the local press, and in the Telegraph (doubtless with more to come) as “perhaps there is something in this preliminary stuff”. Every journalist is baffled by the details. Some report that there is “controversy”, in the classic style of journalists who simply report “two sides”.

But there are not two sides here: there is nothing in this work. It is not “controversial”. A crap unpublished result presented in a press release from an incompetent experiment analysed incompetently in god knows how many different ways by incompetent people who have shrouded themselves in secrecy and demonstrated themselves to be incapable of making reliable true statements about their own research – or even whether it exists – is not a “maybe”.

Fish oil pills are now the biggest selling food supplement product in the UK, with a market size of £110m. Nobody has ever tested them. Most damningly of all, Durham council had the children, and the pills, necessary to perform a decent piece of research. The only thing they were missing was the rigour, and help was offered. The only real question now is this: why has Dave Ford performed a incompetent experiment on thousands of children? And more importantly, why has Durham Council let him?

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71 Responses

  1. peterd102 said,

    September 27, 2008 at 12:21 am

    We can all speculate the reasons why. Was he paid, were they desperate, was he incompetent, or was he told that the pills worked and so didnt think a trial was needed.

    Mad study that really should have been thought through a bit more. Theres conflicting reports and i dont think anyone knows whats going on, all we do know is that it isnt going to give us any particulary useful information.

    Well done for persisiting Ben. hopefully people wont be persuaded into thinking that this was a proper Trial.

  2. pharmajames said,

    September 27, 2008 at 12:21 am

    The don’t like it up ’em Ben – they don’t like it up ’em. Good work.

  3. McCruiskeen said,

    September 27, 2008 at 1:19 am

    Unfortunately, journalists, in their desire to appear fair and write a balanced article, tend to offer two opposing views on a situation and leave the reader to draw a conclusion. In this case, it’s a bit like the creationist versus evolution debate. The former is superstitious drivel, the latter is logical, rational and testable. A way I have used to describe David Ford’s and DCC’s behaviour in this affair is to call it intellectual tennis without a net. Whatever people “serve” to DCC in the form of questions or justifiable criticism, it is done with the net of rational scrutiny up. David Ford and DCC however, give their “returns of serve” and indeed their “serves” with that net down. In other words, they say what they like, change the story to fit their current needs and expect to be believed. And because of their refusal to reveal any of their plan or methodology, they cannot be challenged. David Ford has clearly displayed incompetence in this affair, despite his claims that he never intended it to be a study. The evidence indicates otherwise. All of this could be quickly settled if he were to publish his trial/study/initiative (delete as politically expedient) online. Of course that assumes that he had a written plan.
    DCC’s resident expert in this field, Dr Madeleine Portwood seems to be mysteriously absent these days. One would have expected her to at least say something, however slight, in support. I should think being associated with this particular “turkey” will not have done her credibility for any future research into the possible effects of Omega 3 supplement on children’s academic performance, much good and so she may be attempting to distance herself from it. Unfortunately for her, she was fully involved at the start, as an e-mail from her to all Durham secondary schools, headed “Omega 3 Fish Oil Trials” in which she refers to “this initiative” and “the study” (thereby using the full range of DCC’s shifting terminology in one go!)shows.

  4. peterd102 said,

    September 27, 2008 at 1:27 am

    Presenting both sides is good, but trying to equalize them when they are issues of science is not going to work.

    Lol just watching Live at the Apollo as i was writing this and the guy is saying about Gillian McKeith:
    “She presents that show ‘you are what you eat’ so at some point in her life she has eaten a proper miserable bitch”

    “She says ‘ive looked at your poo, and it stinks’, and you think out of the two of them who needs to reasess their life the most”

    Just thought id cheer you all up

  5. cebolla said,

    September 27, 2008 at 2:36 am

    Sarah Kennedy mentioned it on radio 2 a few days ago on her ‘reading stuff from papers” section. It made me issue stink. But, I mean, I’m not a listener or anything, it was coincidence that the radio was on.

  6. ayupmeduck said,

    September 27, 2008 at 7:49 am

    Obviously Dave Ford and some people around him at Durham Council are clueless, but what irks me most is that they managed to twist the Freedom of Imformation (FOI) Act to do exactly the opposite of what it was indended for.

  7. evidencekagoul said,

    September 27, 2008 at 9:08 am

    Posted this elsewhere by mistake:

    There is one thing that really concerns me about this piece of experimentation. I’m a health researcher. If I want to do research involving either adults on children, I need to get full ethical clearance from an ethics committee. In the past, when I have been involved in research involving children in schools, it has had to have explicit ethical approval from the ethics committee of the relevant education department, and also by a separate University ethics committee. This is as it should be. If I didn’t do this, I would probably be severly disciplined and possibly lose my job. It would also be in violation of the Delaration of Helsinki, which among other things covers medical experimentation – which giving children fishy tablets surely is – whether or not it is physicians giving out the pills. In any case the Declaration also covers human experiments (like htis one) conducted by non-medics. But here we have experimenters doling out drugs to children, apparently with the blessing of the council, head teachers and so on. So the key questions are: 1) what ethics committee, if any, agreed to this study, and if they did, can we see the minutes of the relevant meeting; and 2) if this was not passed by any ethics committee, why were the experimenters allowed to conduct medical experiments (whether methodically rigorous or not) on schoolchildren? Or have I missed something…

  8. JoG said,

    September 27, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Thanks, Ben for keeping up the pressure on this. I agree with Evidencekagoul. How do they get away with this? I’ve had to get multiple ethics and R&D approval to interview doctors and nurses for research projects. Durham County Council appears to have been carrying out invalid and therefore unethical experiments on children. Where is the scrutiny?

  9. McCruiskeen said,

    September 27, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Yes, Evidencekagoul, what you have missed is the slipperiness of the Fish Oil Farce team at DCC. Their “defence” on this one (no laughter, please!)was given one month after I asked the relevant question in the council chamber on 7th february 2007, as follows:

    “A recommendation to use Omega 3 supplement was made by officers in line with the normal advisory relationship between the county council and its schools. In that sense, members were not directly involved in the decision, although key members were made aware of and supported providing this opportunity to schools.”

    So there was no member scrutiny, as JQH discovered when he asked under a FOI request and was told that no plan was submitted to members for scrutiny. Presumably they will use the same “defence” when it comes to liaising with the Health Authorities and their ethics committee.

    But all of the very strong evidence clearly indicates that the trial/study/initiative was centrally planned, led and managed by one David Ford.

    This defence, produced a month late (they studiously ignored my question initially, clearly hoping it would all go away!)was, in my opinion a back-tracked, cobbled together necessity to get them out of that particular hole.

    What kind of officers undertake a project of that size, without appropriate member scrutiny?

    And what bunch of dozy councillors allowed them to do it.

    My letter to Councillor Claire Vasey (then DCC Lead member for Children’s Services) of 31st October 2006, asking very pertinent questions, (which she simply ducked by passing it to David Ford to answer, obviously not having a clue herself)is available for scrutiny. It contains, among other things, the following questions:

    Did DCC approach Equazen or vice-versa?

    Have there been any financial or other inducements from Equazen, in cash or in kind?

    Who planned the “trial” or initiative?

    What are its stated aims and objectives?

    have they been changed following the recent events in the national media?

    Who sanctioned its implementation in schools?

    Was a written plan for the “trial” or initiative prepared?

    If so, who wrote it?

    What supporting documentation, if any, was given to the participating schools?

    Were briefing meetings held for the participating schools?

    Was a coherent evaluation strategy for the “trial” or initiative prepared as part of the “trial” plan?

    Is so, how was the “trial” to be evaluated?

    Who is leading the “trial” or initiative?

    Who is responsible for its evaluation?

    Who prepared the material for the DCC press releases on the “trial” or initiative?

    Why was it that nobody, including Dr Portwood, Senior Educational Psychologist, and David Ford, Chief Education Inspector (whose main subject in his teacher training was science) could see that without some form of “control” in the “trial,” the results will be absolutely worthless?

    Why did David Ford, following ridicule of the “trial” by Ben Goldacre in the Bad Science column, suddenly declare to him that it was not a “trial,” but an “initiative”?
    Why is it reported by the “You and Yours” team that the “trial” or “initiative” has the full backing of county councillors?

    Has the “trial” been discussed and agreed in any committee of members of DCC?

    If so, what briefing papers were provided and was the “initiative” described as a trial?

    Were the methodological implications of the “trial” or “initiative” explained to members?

    Were the evaluation implications of the “trial” (i.e. that any results would be meaningless) explained to members?

    Did members raise any questions or doubts and if so, how were these dealt with?

    If so, what discussion, if any, took place regarding the ethical considerations of becoming involved with a company such as Equazen, which has a clear commercial imperative?

    Who signed the “deal” with Equazen?

    Do members actually realise the damage that has been done to DCC through being pilloried in this way in the national press?

    Why has no-one in DCC realised that what eleven year-old children in science in the authority’s primary schools are taught concerning controls in experiments and fair testing, would enable those very children to understand why the “trial” was not only fatally flawed, but worse than that, a travesty of scientific method?

    Students in Year Eleven, being given fish oil capsules and studying science, will be more than capable of understanding the glaring flaws in the methodology of the “trial” in which they are participating as part of the study cohort. Does a scientist like David Ford, who presumably inspects science teaching, or indeed anyone else in his department, not appreciate the inherent irony here, that the students could certainly have designed a proper trial, yielding significant data?

    I also have david Ford’s reply.

  10. j said,

    September 27, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    McCruiskeen- have you thought of starting a blog? It would be great to have some of this online, and it’s only five minutes work at www.wordpress.com

  11. McCruiskeen said,

    September 27, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    Dear J,

    I hadn’t until JQH suggested it to me yesterday and now you today. I have grasped the nettle and registered at WordPress as maccruiskeen.

    Now I just have to work out what the hell to do!!


  12. McCruiskeen said,

    September 27, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Have you noticed how far back Equazen have stepped in this? Now that the excrement has well and truly hit the fan, they are keeping well out of sight. I doubt they wish the product they gave so generously and philanthropically to be sullied by any of this criticism. Meanwhile, David Ford is left to keep smiling, while attempting to defend the indefensible. But then he is not bound by commercial considerations and has the backing of Durham County Council.

  13. le canard noir said,

    September 27, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    I expect Equa$en to be quite happy about this. After all, Durham insist that the kids taking the fishy pills did better in schools. That is all Equa$en want to hear.

  14. Jeesh42 said,

    September 27, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Nick Davies was right about journalists confusing neutrality for objectivity, when one side of the argument is clearly rubbish. They either do so because they’re too thick to understand the science, because they can’t be bothered to investigate the science by asking experts and making an informed opinion (which they have the option to, and their readers don’t), or because they’re just covering they’re backs and think sitting on a fence is the safest option.

  15. Jellytussle said,

    September 27, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    What evidence kagoul and Mccruiskeen said, and what has been discussed in threads passim.

    These guys have tried to wriggle out of their ethical responsiblities by doging around the semantics of “trial” and “initiative.” The fact remains they performed an experiment on children. OK, most informed folks probably believe the fish oil has no effect at all. However, for the sake of argument, what if the fish oil were to have a detrimental effect on performance: these children could have been disadvantaged by taking part. By not measuring outcomes scrupulously and in a statistically rigorous fashion, Durham council has abused its responsiblity to the children under its care.

    This is quite apart from whether the trial conformed to Good Clinical Practice.

    The Durham Fish Oil Trial is not exactly Tuskegee, but the Principle Investigator needs to answer some quite serious questions.

  16. j said,

    September 27, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    I think most would agree that fish oil does have *some* effects in a suitable dose, even if these are not the effects that Durham may have hoped for. For example, fish oil supplements can cause GI disturbances, cause fishy burps, increase bleeding time, etc.

    I wonder if the parents and children were given information on potential adverse effects from the pills, to allow them to give informed consent to their participating the the trial? Cough, sorry, the initiative. Seeing the relatively poor compliance rates (especially poor given that the pills were handed out in school) I also wonder if adverse effects played a significant role in the low compliance? It would be nice to think that Durham had asked those who gave up on the pills about why, and that they would make these data public…

  17. David Mingay said,

    September 27, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    Sili: I certainly think someone should have a word with the British Psychological Society about Dr Portwood.

  18. evidencekagoul said,

    September 27, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    “About bleeding time”… So, given that there is (real) trial-based evidence that fish oils increase bleeding time in adults, and in healthy young adults (e.g. Mundal et al, 1994), one would be entitled to ask DCC/Ford whether children at any risk of bleeding/GI disturbance were identified and excluded from the study in advance. Of course Ford and Portwood would have done this. Wouldn’t they?
    Anyway… bloody well done McCruiskeen. Just thinking about the sheer dishonesty of all this gives me “GI disturbance”.

  19. bob sterman said,

    September 27, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    Sili asked “Would it be possible to press charges against Ford and Portwood? It seems clear that they’re in breach of the Helsinki Declaration and as such presumably English Law.”

    The Helsinki Declaration does not form part of English Law. It’s a statement of ethical principles – not a list of specific offences.

  20. evidencebasedeating said,

    September 28, 2008 at 1:29 am

    The sad thing is that this form of pill-pushing is becoming widespread in UK schools – solely due the the lack of DoE direction for headteachers when approached by any Adam, Madeleine or Patrick.

    Head teachers become ‘rabbits in the headlight’ of smooth talking pseuds who claim nutrition/psychologist backgrounds (ie health scienciness that they admire but lack any real knowledge of).

    Tentative forays such as ‘healthy eating for school lunch’ PTA events are well received, and everyone basks in the pro-active stance. In fact, healthy eating DOES improve kids development – thats all is needed. Honestly. Research supports this. Some may benefit from a kiddie one-a-day multivit/min – easily and cheaply purchased on 3-4-2 offers on the high street.

    Fast forward 3-6 months then the grooming of intelligent parents/ SEN kids begins for the ‘diagnostic tests for food allergy’, the pill-pushing fish oil/ optimum nutrition for your kiddies Key stage 1/2/3/4 supplements, the clinically irrelevant blood tests and the availability of the pseud for ‘private nutrition consultations’- and voila/ ker-ching! Your pseud has reaped their financial rewards for minimum outlay!

    Eventually it comes to the attention of someone with ‘real’ qualifications in the area – who perform an ‘Emperors new clothes’ denudement of the nutrition-lite approach. Headteacher quietly drops organisation from extra-curricular activities, after all its a bit embarrassing to acknowledge you were duped, being the educational lead for the school, after all …

    But never mind, the money has been made, the kids/parents exploited. Another day, another school head to schmooze.

    Only in Durhams case, even the Education Authority was duped.

    never mind – would make a good piece of critical evaluation coursework for A level statistics, or biology.

  21. pv said,

    September 28, 2008 at 2:04 am

    Honestly, does anyone really believe they really intended this to be a real trial?
    In the words of General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett, to Captain Blackadder, perhaps “the cover story was… just a cover story”. A ruse, as it were. A marketing exercise crudely disguised, for the benefit of sports writers masquerading as medical journalists, as a trial of fish oil capsule to discover their efficacy for a particular purpose.
    From that point of view they can regard it as a success. From the point of view of actually discovering anything at all it seems to have been a resounding failure. But then the format rather indicates that discovery of anything useful (apart from public gullibility) wasn’t on high their “to-do” or “must-have” lists.

  22. McCruiskeen said,

    September 28, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    PV has raised an interesting issue. Ben Goldacre ened his piece with,”The only real question now is this: why has Dave Ford performed a incompetent experiment on thousands of children? And more importantly, why has Durham Council let him?”

    The answers to PV’s and Ben’s questions, in my opinion, lie in a complicated tangle of dynamics involving, at least, the following factors:

    1. The social, corporate and political dynamics of Durham County Council and in particular of its then Education Department.

    2. David Ford’s rise through the hierarchy of the latter.

    3. David Ford’s influence within that department.

    4. The Education Department’s relationship with its schools (a fascinating study in itself as they gradually became “autonmous,” but were assiduously cultivated to remain “onside!”

    5. David Ford’s relationship with those schools, their staffs, but particularly their head teachers.

    6. The target-led, assessment-driven curriculum and the constant scrutiny by the government of performance.

    7. Durham’s problem with failing schools and the Ofsted inspection regime.

    8. GCSE results

    9. The retirement of Keith Mitchell, Director of Education’ leading to the merging of departments to form Children and Young people’s Services.

    10. The appointment of David Williams as Corporate Director of the new Service.

    11. The appointment of individuals to “new” key senior posts within this new service.

    12. GCSE results (I know I’ve already mentioned them!)

    13. GCSE results!!

    14. The post of Head of Achievemnt Services in the new structure.

    15. The soliciting of £1m worth of “free” fish oil capsules by DCC from a certain supplier of those products.

    16. Dr Madeleine Portwood

    17. David Ford

    18. A plan!

    19. Ambition

    20. Arrogance

    21. Vanity

    22. Subterfuge

    23. Denial

    24. Incompetence

    25. Cover up

    26. Lack of appropriate scrutiny by council Members

    27. Lack of appropriate knowledge of council members

    28. Tail wagging the dog!

    I think all of these factors played, to a greater or lesser extent, a part in the David Ford’s Fish Oil Farce. I wonder if any one can think of others?

  23. McCruiskeen said,

    September 28, 2008 at 12:13 pm


    My penultimate sentence should have read:

    I think all of these factors played, to a greater or lesser extent, a part in the David Ford Fish Oil Farce.

    (It’s just such a pity that he is not called Francis!)

  24. peterd102 said,

    September 28, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    I think thats a fair round up of all the reasons, and no need to apologise.

  25. Dr Aust said,

    September 28, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    Glad to hear McCruiskeen is setting up a blog to post the material. Do we have the URL yet, McC?

    I have added my (not very original) thoughts on the re-risen Fish Oil Zombie here (Conflicting Interest: shameless self-plug).

    PS I have the first verse of a Durham Fish-ditty derived from “When The Boat Comes In”:

    “I smell something iffy

    Quite distinctly fishy

    Durham’s special trial ishy*

    When nurr vote got done**”

    * short for initiative – couldn’t think of a rhyme

    ** as in “the Council never voted on this”

    – so if anyone else is feeling lyrical… feel free to contribute more verses.

  26. Mojo said,

    September 28, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Did they actually use kids who had dropped out of the trial, sorry, “initiative” as their “matched” controls, or did they manage to find some who hadn’t taken part at all? It’s not entirely clear from the coverage I’ve seen.

  27. David Mingay said,

    September 28, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    David Ford sings:

    I thought they’d all get brainy,
    I’d be on the gravy trainy
    But it’s money down the drainy,
    When the gcse results come in.

  28. McCruiskeen said,

    September 28, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    URL? Stop getting technical with me Dr Aust!

    My blog can be found at:


    Note the difference in spelling.

    Now I had better get something in it (or should that be on it?)

  29. gadgeezer said,

    September 28, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    Dance ti’ thy daddy, sing ti’ thy mammy,
    Dance ti’ thy daddy, ti’ thy mammy sing;
    Thou shall hev a fishy on a little dishy,
    Thou shall hev a fishy when the boat comes in.

    Grill kipper, Dave Ford
    Serve it out, Portwood
    Kids will turn canny, fish oil grows their brains.
    If schools served more fishy in a tasty dishy
    Those pills, costly/fishy, would be dropped in bin.

  30. JQH said,

    September 28, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    J, the bumf I eventually extracted from DCC under the FoI Act made no mention of those side effects.

    It would be a shame if sopme shyster lawyer reading this were to decide that there was money to be made in finding one of DCC’s experimental subjects who had suffered side effects, now wouldn’t it?

  31. McCruiskeen said,

    September 28, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    I’ve written my first blog page (sorry the format is a bit untidy!)

    You can find it at:



  32. brainfever said,

    September 28, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    This bloody fish oil scam caused a HUGE argument between my wife and I ! she wanted to dose our eldest with this c*** and I said there was no evidence to back-up their claims (showed her your excellent blog btw). She bought one bottle, gave a few doses and quietly dropped it, so good sense prevailed ! Keep up the good work, you are one of the few sane voices (PZ Myers/R.Dawkins) in a blogsphere tending to white noise.

  33. Dr Aust said,

    September 28, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    Just stuck up a link to your blog, M(a)cC. Welcome to the world of online ranting.

  34. Getonyerbike said,

    September 29, 2008 at 11:07 am

    after the cloudiest summer in living memory perhaps this could be re-branded as a vitamin D supplementation program?

  35. j said,

    September 29, 2008 at 11:49 am

    I just realised another oddity about this (non)trial – while most of the coverage focuses exclusively on the magic powers of fish oil/omega 3, Eye Q capsules also contain evening primrose oil


  36. McCruiskeen said,

    September 29, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    Re: Rob Shorrock’s post about the Children and Young People Now website; a John Smith has, interestingly, defended DCC’s “trial” in a comment there, on the grounds that it would have been unethical to have given a placebo to students about to sit exams.

  37. zuclopenthixol said,

    September 29, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    Ben, you ask about the ‘predicted’ results, and I’m not sure if you are being tongue in cheek when you say, ‘what ever on earth that means’.

    As a governor at a local school, I was surprised to see the results for every named child from an organisation called the Fisher Family Trust (www.fischertrust.org/) which gave their predicted results from key stage one to two. I would imagine these exist for KS two to three, and three to GCSE’s. I would also be surprised if they didn’t exist for AS and A’ Levels.

    For those of you who are banging on about Ethics Committee approval, have you read Iain Chalmers work in the BMJ about how unethical Ethics Committees are?

    Based on the principle that if you want to kill all of your patients by giving them something, you can, but if you want to test if you are killing your patients by giving it to half of them and a control to the other half, you have to apply to an ethics committee and stand the chance of being rejected.

  38. Will Davies said,

    September 29, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    As a student at Durham University, I feel embarrassed that neither the School of Medecine in Stockton, the Biology departent, or the Faculty of Science have made any comment on this farce going on right under their noses.

    I hoped that my institution might have considered public communication of science (and guarding the local community from pseudoscientific bullshit) one of its duties. Apparently not.

  39. Getonyerbike said,

    September 29, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    i was surprised that in this case the placebo effect didn’t result in improved exam performances. Any ideas?

  40. Getonyerbike said,

    September 29, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    …perhaps fishoil capsules are less effective than homeopathy?

  41. Getonyerbike said,

    September 29, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    …or maybe the ‘researchers’ didn’t inspire much confidence in their subjects?

  42. McCruiskeen said,

    September 29, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    At the Brain Food Conference, Dr Madeleine Portwood is billed as follows:

    Dr Madeleine Portwood – is a qualified teacher and educational psychologist working within Durham LEA. She is currently Senior Specialist Educational Psychologist in County Durham, with specific area of specialism in dyspraxia and has written several books on the subject. Her research over the last eleven years has involved thousands of children/young adults and their families. Dr Portwood will present details of her current research into the effects of fatty-acid supplementation on the behaviour and learning of children.

  43. Getonyerbike said,

    September 29, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    That’s possible, though i suspect that healthy teenagers are naturally more skeptical (of meddling adults) than anxious adults (are of homeopathy) and so are less susceptible to the placebo effect. It would be interesting to look at placebo trials before, during and after the pernicious effects of a modern education.

    And fish oil capsules give you fishy burps, which i’ve been informed by teenagers unfortunate enough to have been force-fed them (only old people take them willingly) so that might have contributed to the nocebo theory @peterd102

  44. rogerhyam said,

    September 29, 2008 at 8:03 pm

    Most people are greedy and lazy. This means they don’t think hard enough to cook up a good conspiracy but cock things up by lazily thinking about themselves rather than others. So don’t knock David Ford he is probably just normal.

    Of course I may have this degenerate opinion because I had an allergy to fish from birth. I can honestly say (and probably scientifically proved) that I am incapable of ever having successfully consumed any fish. Oh and I have been a veggie for 17 years. Thick as a brick me I am that me.

  45. Lemonade Lily said,

    September 29, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    I almost wish I had the odd couple of hundred quid to go to the ‘Brain Food Conference’ -having seen the illustrious list of ‘partners’ aupporting the event, viz. BioCare, Equazen, Institute for Optimum Nutrition, British Association for Nutritional Therapy…..it’s all just a bit consanguineous.

    Will D – my university (sic) doesn’t guard the public against pseudoscientific bullshit either – it teaches it!

  46. Dr Aust said,

    September 29, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    Yes, I think the coincidence in timing between all this and the upcoming FFTB conference is, er, not a coincidence. I have written about this on the blog. The conference is in large part a fish-oil love-fest, if you check out the sponsors (inc Equa£en) and speakers.

    We have also been talking about the fishy burp problem and consequent problem of non-blind of blinding even in placebo-controlled trials. If you wanted to do a proper large scale human trial one would think solving the “appropriate placebo” problem would be an important thing to do.

    Of course, Durham avoided this by having no control group, let alone no placebo arm..!

    Treble fish oil capsules and large pay rises all round, one might suppose…

  47. Dr* T said,

    September 29, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Sorry if this has been posted before, but the Press Association put out a press release which contains this line:

    Dave Ford, of Durham County Council’s Children and Young People’s Services, said there was no plan to continue providing children with the fish oil capsules now that the donated pills had run out.

    He said he had been “upset” by the level of criticism the project had attracted from the scientific community. But he said the council had never set out to conduct a scientific experiment.

    So we are back from trial to initiative. He really should resign.

  48. evidencekagoul said,

    September 29, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    The Brain Food conference looks like an excellent opportunity to learn more about the cutting edge science behind fishy brain pills: for example,
    Madeleine Portwood will be presenting ‘Essential fats, School Performance and Behaviour – UK Update’. The session in which she is speaking is chaired by Patrick Holford. It would be pretty helpful to her, and the attendees, , wouldn’t it, if someone went along to the conference specifically to ask about the “trial” methodology, about the ethical aspects, and about whether and what parents were told about the side effects.

    The conference website itself beggars belief, with its link to the Institute for Optimum Nutrition. “DO YOU NEED HELP?
    Come to the Brain Bio Centre, our outpatient clinic, specialising in the ‘optimum nutrition’ approach to mental health problems.” There are various other puffs for the Institute for Optimum Nutrition also, and the whole thing unsurprisingly has the air of advertising rather than science. Why, I wonder, are (presumably) reputable UK and non-UK scientists lending it credibility. (In particular Professor Philip Cowen, Professor of Psychopharmacology at the University of Oxford). Anyway it is well worth checking out the website – if you can see it through the haze of adverts and links to Holford Enterprises Inc.

  49. Filias Cupio said,

    September 30, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    While you do have truth on your side, I see that you’ve just publically accused several people of incompetence and medical experimentation on children without ethical oversite. Having just escaped one ill-founded libel suit, I wonder if you’re sailing into another.

    About now, your Guardian employers must be looking at the cost of of your column: 10000* pounds per year for writing, 500000 pounds per year for legal costs. I hope they keep backing you, anyway.

    * Wild guess by me – I have no inside knowledge.

  50. McCruiskeen said,

    September 30, 2008 at 11:07 pm


    One presumes that Ben’s column is checked by editorial staff who, in addiition to their own experience in these matters, will have access to appropriate legal advice from legal professionals.

  51. pv said,

    September 30, 2008 at 11:53 pm

    He said he had been “upset” by the level of criticism the project had attracted from the scientific community. But he said the council had never set out to conduct a scientific experiment.

    Is that not a tad disingenuous?

    If it wasn’t supposed to be a scientific trial (“experiment” has Dr Mengele overtones here), the only other thing that could possibly have been intended was a marketing exercise for the company that supplied the product. After all they were mentioned enough in press releases and the national press.
    It does prompt a couple of questions:
    Is it really the job of David Ford on behalf of DCC to conduct a product placement exercise on behalf of a commercial entity?
    And, is this a case of corruption or rank incompetence?

  52. McCruiskeen said,

    October 1, 2008 at 11:27 am

    If it was never a “Trial” or “Study” then David Ford and DCC should have been much more circumspect in their press releases and quotations to the media. If David Ford reents the criticism he has received, he only has himslef to blame, it seems to me, and he continues to be evasive in his repsonses.

    There is no doubt in my mind that this was in part a gigantic marketing exercise for a certain company who mentioned Durham County Council in their advertising. Commercial reality dictates that the company would hardly supply supply £1m worth of “free” capsules to DCC for a properly conducted study, the results of which could have been indifferent or even negative. That would have been expensive commercial suicide.

    Desperation may also have played a part. There is tremendous pressure on local authorities such as Durham to raise their game in their schools, as measured by GCSE scores. David Ford may well have thought that the capsules may have had some effect and so there was nothing to be lost in promoting his “Brainchild.”

    Equally, he may have felt that the Hawthorn effect might have assisted even if the capsules themselves did not.

    In any event, one cannot fault his desire to assist some of the most socially disadvantaged children in the country (with the government breathing down his neck!) by rolling out his “Brainchild.” In my opinion, where he went wrong was in seeking publicity for it!

    It was not necessary, so why did he do it? Pressure from Equazen who clearly needed it and were footing the bill? Raising his own and DCC’s profile?

    Whatever the reasons, it all went disastrously pear shaped and attracted all kinds of legitimate criticism, which David Ford now resents.

    Things have changed at Durham County Council. It now has a leader with a brain, in Councillor Simon Henig. Hopefully scrutiny by members will improve. How can you ask appropriate questions about something you do not understand?
    I doubt that David Ford will ever get away with another “wheeze” like this!

  53. Dr* T said,

    October 2, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    I agree. There are a lot of questions that a decent full-time investigative journalist should be sniffing out answers for. I reckon there is a cracking scoop still to be had.

    Stinks like fish.

  54. McCruiskeen said,

    October 3, 2008 at 12:51 am

    I forgot to add that the media just don’t seem interested.

  55. McCruiskeen said,

    October 4, 2008 at 8:28 am

    Robshorrock – I, for one, had not considered that option. Referral to the Local Government Ombudsman must be made within one year of the event about which one complains. The Director of DCC Children and Young People’s Services “bullshits” an enquiring MP and David Ford is interviewed on BBC NE television, coming across as aggrieved about being misunderstood and defending his actions – even smiling. They obviously think they have it “sewn up” and they probably have. Some one has to be respomsib;e for education (if it can be called that) in County Durham; it is just a pity that integrity and an ethical conscience do not appear to be among the criteria required for the role.

  56. Sili said,

    October 4, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    Thank you, bob sterman.

    I think I’ve partly misunderstood what the HD is, and partly expressed myself badly.

    There is some kind of provision in the law against experimentation on people (and for that matter animals) without ethical approval, isn’t there?

    Or is it nothing but guidelines and professional contracts? I know Wakefield stands before the GMC and not a court, but still … Does this mean that it’s only a problem if a registered doctor does it, while Joe Q. Public can go ahead and do as he pleases?

  57. McCruiskeen said,

    October 13, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Episode 6 of my Blog (David Ford Replies to Me) is now available.


  58. DrFred said,

    October 14, 2008 at 1:47 am

    Just thought I’d share a bit of similar test improvement foolishness from across the pond. Today I was given a package of mint chewing gum to share with my students to ‘improve their performance’ on their NECAP tests required under the NCLB mandates.

    This evening, while searching for other examples of ‘Dumbo’s feather’ in education, I stumbled on an on-line study run by the Univ. of Northumbria psychology department to assess the effect of Omega 3/Fish Oil on memory performance.
    (Link is: www.omega3research.org.uk )
    I decided to participate in the study, playing both parent and child roles. I proceeded to the end, wondering when I would be asked for some type of validating information. I know you’ll never guess – there was none! The only potential trap might have been when I selected a weight and height for my 14 year old child – couldn’t remember what a stone was equal to in pounds – had to spend a moment looking it up.

    In any case, I’m sure this study’s results will someday be publicized, yet it’s results are totally bogus. Any idiot, including this 62 year old Vermont chemistry teacher, can participate!

    Keep up the great work exposing bad science!

  59. McCruiskeen said,

    October 14, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    Chapter 7 of my blog is now available at:


    (Sorry about the earlier mistyped link!)

    Chapter 8 (in a couple of weeks) will be about the questions I asked in the DCC council chamber and DCC’s pathetic response(s)!

  60. McCruiskeen said,

    November 7, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    Chapter 8 is done!

  61. EleanorC said,

    November 8, 2008 at 10:16 pm


    McCruiskeen: “Have you noticed how far back Equazen have stepped in this? […] I doubt they wish the product they gave so generously and philanthropically to be sullied by any of this criticism.”

    Then again… I’ve just picked up a leaflet in a health food shoo, advertising Eye Q. Front cover: “Look Mum! The fish oil used in the largest ever omega-3 schools trial was eye q.” Inside it refers to “the Durham Schools Trial” four times and also bangs on about the “Middlesbrough Trial” and how robust, unbiased, etc that is. It finishes with the delightfully fallacious statement that “eye q was the only [fatty acid supplement] used by the Middlesbrough and Durham LEAs, and therefore the only one worthy of your consideration … To find out more about the Durham School trials please visit www.durhamtrial.org.”

    I guess any publicity is good publicity.

    (Sorry if this is all old news, by the way.)

  62. athene317 said,

    November 10, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    Ah, wonderful. Thanks to the BBC’s coverage of the Durham “trial”, this nonsense is now being implemented in New Zealand classrooms! www.nzherald.co.nz/health/news/article.cfm?c_id=204&objectid=10542321 Hawthorne effect, anyone?

  63. Dr* T said,

    November 17, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    I’ve just this NZ nonsense and I see MacCruiskeen is still hammering away at Durham!

  64. YYY said,

    January 15, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Hammering away is not always that smart neither. Your book is very interesting, ideal to freshen the critical brain!
    But for PUFAs there’s still some hope, so instead of hammering alone, some extra research wouldn’t be bad!

    Referenties :

    Richardson AJ, Puri BK. Prog Neuro-Psycho-Pharmacol 2002; 26: 233-9

    Starobat-Hermelin B, Kozielec T. Magnes Res 1997; 10: 149-56
    Van Oudheusden LJ, Scholte HR. Prostagl, Leukotr Ess fatty Ac. 2002; 67(1): 33-8

  65. anonymouse said,

    March 5, 2009 at 11:10 am

    This might be a clue as to why Dr Portwood didn’t exercise proper oversight–she may have been developing a product with Equazen. I saw her speak at an autism conference in Newcastle in 2004. If memory serves, the results of the original “trial” had not been released at that time but she basically said that while they are embargoed til publication I can tell you that they were really great.
    Here’s something I do remember quite clearly: She started her talk by saying that some people in the audience might not recognise her, because her appearance has greatly improved due to using an amazing new EFA-based anti-wrinkle or skincare product that she was involved in developing and would be bringing to market in future. I wonder what company was involved in that development, hmmm? Because as far as I know, Dr Portwood does not have a home chemistry lab.
    Haven’t heard anything about the product since so I guess the transformation was not as miraculous as she thought.

  66. janetholden said,

    September 4, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    This sort of pseudo science is creeping in everywhere. I just came from some training in my college we were supposed to be updated on the current responsibilities of classroom teachers on recognising students with dyslexia. The “consultant” rapidly got into all kinds of quasi scientific nonsense, but when fish oil was mentioned I had to respond! The alarming asertion was that fish oil causes an increase in myelination of neurones in the brain of dyslexic children. I asked what the evidence was and was told it was on the “web” !!! One study…………. Are these people cynical, or just ignorant? A little bit of knowledge can be a very bad thing. We have to fight back. If anyone knows anything about this I’d love to know.

  67. dystalk said,

    September 23, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Completely agree, Janet, though we recently filmed Oxford Prof. John Stein, who argues for the benefits of experimentation when it comes to solutions for dyslexia. See this, esp., on fish oils:


    What do we think?


  68. chazmike said,

    October 9, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    anyone wandered onto this site by mistake


    its worth a look for a laugh.

    I posted a comment a week ago pointing out one or two salient things, and guess what? My comments have disappeared and not been published. Wonder why.

  69. Stegs said,

    October 21, 2009 at 9:53 am

    I’m confused.

    The following article from BBC Science & Nature talks about the Durham Trial using an ‘experimental’ method called a randomised double-blind controlled trial. Where half of pupils got the Omega 3 and the other half got Placebos. Are they talking about the same “Durham Trial” or is this article completely incorrect?

    I note that the article still doesn’t say how many children took part in this amazing, spectacular ‘experimental’ randomised double-blind controlled trial.


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  71. Philip123 said,

    December 26, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    Interesting article on review of the literature that indicates, on average people with High cholesterol live longer.


    Also an interview with the MD Phd who first did much of this research