Fish oil in the Observer: the return of a $2bn friend

June 5th, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, evidence, fish oil, guardian, schools, statistics | 33 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 5 June 2010

Fish oil helps schoolchildren to concentrate” was the headline in the Observer. Regular readers will remember the omega-3 fish oil pill issue, as the entire British news media has been claiming for several years now that there are trials showing it improves school performance and behaviour in mainstream children, despite the fact that no such trial has ever been published. There is something very attractive about the idea that solutions to complex problems in education can be found in a pill. Read the rest of this entry »

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: Read the rest of this entry »

The Medicalisation of Everyday Life

September 1st, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, big pharma, celebs, equazen, fish oil, medicalisation, nutritionists | 42 Comments »

As the pace of medical innovation slows to a crawl, how do drug companies stay in profit? By ‘discovering’ new illnesses to fit existing products. But, says Ben Goldacre, in the second extract from his new book, for many problems the cure will never be found in a pill.


Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
Monday September 1 2008

When you’ve been working with bullshit for as long as I have, you start to spot recurring themes: quacks and the pharmaceutical industry use the exact same tricks to sell their pills, everybody loves a “science bit” – even if it’s wrong – and when people introduce pseudoscience into any explanation, it’s usually because there’s something else they’re trying desperately not to talk about. But my favourite is this: alternative therapists, the media, and the drug industry all conspire to sell us reductionist, bio-medical explanations for problems that might more sensibly and constructively be thought of as social, political, or personal. And this medicalisation of everyday life isn’t done to us; in fact, we eat it up. Read the rest of this entry »

Now with audio – The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists Part II – BBC Radio 4

March 31st, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, fish oil, gillian mckeith, nutritionists, onanism, patrick holford | 39 Comments »

grundig_satellit_2000.jpgBusy bee today, sorry for the late link, the second part of the BBC Radio 4 two-part series “The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists” is going out at 8pm this evening, presented by yours truly (part one here) and produced by the excellently sharp Rami Tzabar from the BBC Radio Science Unit. I think it’s rather good, and makes a single clear point: lifestyle is important, and we all want to improve our health, but the evidence on diet and health is not sufficient to justify the very specific and confident advice which we crave, and which some will sell to Read the rest of this entry »

The trial that never was.

March 29th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, equazen, fish oil, mail, nutritionists | 50 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday March 29 2008

And so an epic saga comes to a close. You will remember the Durham Fish Oil tale – don’t switch off now, the punchline’s funny. The county council said it was doing a “trial” of fish oil pills in children, but the trial was designed so that it couldn’t possibly give useful information – not least because it had no placebo group – and was very likely to give a false positive result. Read the rest of this entry »

The fishy reckoning

September 22nd, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, cash-for-"stories", fish oil, mail, media, medicalisation, mirror, nutritionists | 29 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
Saturday September 22 2007

So you will remember the fish oil pill stories of last year. For the new kids: pill company Equazen and Durham Council said they were doing a trial on them with their GCSE year, but it wasn’t really a proper trial, for example there was no control group, and they had lots of similarly dodgy “trials” dotted about, which were being pimped successfully to the media as “positive”. When asked, Durham refused to release the detailed information you would expect from a proper piece of research. Even now, for all this pretending, there still has never been a single controlled trial, even a cheap one, of omega-3 fish oil supplements in normal children. Ridiculously.

Read the rest of this entry »

Pushing The Habit

March 17th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, fish oil | 31 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday March 17, 2007
The Guardian

In the pharmaceutical industry there are people called “drug reps“, who travel around doctors trying to “educate” them about their products. They actively foster an ignorance of scientific methodology, and much of what you get taught in medical school is about how to spot their complex fluffs. Luckily, when pill peddlers market directly at consumers, the fluffs are much simpler. Read the rest of this entry »

“Surrogate Outcome Proves Something Beyond All Reasonable Human Doubt”

March 12th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, fish oil | 59 Comments »

I’m very much looking forward to this important press release, of a study in 4 children, making massive international news. The experiment is part of the promotional activity for another omega-3 pill called VegEPA, and a Channel Five documentary on children and diet to be broadcast later this week: it is unpublished, and this time the study, amazingly, was funded by the TV production company Endemol. They love these stories so much, they’ve started paying for the research. This represents a really interesting new development in the interplay between commercial companies making seductive claims about pills solving complex social problems, and the media who love them. They’ll be giving out their own degrees next.

For more on the dangers of making great leaps of faith on the real world abilities of a treatment using a theoretical surrogate outcome, I’d always recommend reading the excellent Trisha Greenhalgh, here on “Evidence and Marketing”:

This is taken from her book “How to Read a Paper: The Basics of Evidence-Based Medicine”, a highly Read the rest of this entry »

Doctoring the records – Patrick Holford and Fuel PR

January 6th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, equazen, fish oil, fuel pr, ITV, nutritionists, patrick holford, references | 85 Comments »

Read more on “Professor Patrick Holford” here, there, here, there, here and here.

Ben Goldacre
Saturday January 6, 2007
The Guardian

It’s just not cool to anonymously edit your own Wikipedia page. It’s an online encyclopaedia, free to access, a tribute to the powers of the hive mind, and anyone can edit any page. This makes it a valuable resource in the hands of those who know its limitations, but it has certain vulnerabilities, certain rules, and certain moral codes. It’s even less cool to get your hip young PR agent to anonymously edit your Wikipedia page for you.

Patrick Holford is a self styled “nutritionist”. Since anyone can use the title, I am a nutritionist too, so take this as one nutritionist to another, Patrick: you have been the subject of justified public criticism – in my case, with references to back me up – and for a long time. Holford’s only academic qualification is an undergraduate degree in psychology from York in 1976. He set up the Institute of Optimum Nutrition in 1984, and as the director of his own institute, it must have been a particular honour for Patrick in 1995 to confer his “Diploma in Nutritional Therapy” upon himself. This remains his only qualification in nutrition, since he failed to complete a masters in nutrition from Surrey 20 years ago.

There is an awful lot more to be said about Patrick Holford. I have studied his work meticulously, and I can tell you that this is someone who plays very fast and loose indeed with research data: cherry picking studies, misrepresenting them, or misunderstanding them. If one person writes in to genuinely doubt me, then I will campaign tirelessly to get the space a careful appraisal of his work would require.

So far, I have only published one example of this behaviour, and it was referred to on his Wikipedia page. Alongside the lavish biographical praise, this page had an element of criticism, with a lot of references in nice parentheses:

“In the UK, “Nutritionist” is not a title covered by any registered professional body, so some have questioned Patrick Holford’s qualifications and expertise. [1] The accuracy of Holford’s claims re. health and nutrition has also been questioned: for example, Dr Ben Goldacre has responded critically to Holford’s The New Optimum Nutrition Bible. [2] Holford used a non-clinical study where “you tip lots of vitamin C onto HIV-infected cells and measure a few things related to HIV replication” as the basis for his conclusion that “AZT, the first prescribable anti-HIV drug, is potentially harmful, and proving less effective than vitamin C”. [3] [4] For Goldacre, “Holford was guilty of at least incompetence in claiming that [this paper] demonstrated vitamin C to be a better treatment [for HIV/AIDs] than AZT” – “[t]he paper doesn’t even contain the word AZT. Not once.” [5] [6]”

Now, on December 22nd all criticism of Holford was deleted, in its entirety, by a user called “Clarkeola”. A mystery. Normally, on Wikipedia, people will make modifications to the page and explain why, using the discussion page associated with the entry, especially if the issue is contentious.

So who is this user “Clarkeola”? He’s obviously keen on Holford, as he has created pages for other Holford projects, including his private clinic (although one was recently deleted by a Wikipedia editor, after the appropriate process, because the subject was not notable enough for an encyclopaedia entry: a common problem when people make their own entries).

And who is Clarkeola? It’s not a common username. In fact it only seems to be used in one other place: a travel website, where the name Clarkeola is used by a man called Stephen Clarke (I’d post the link but it feels a bit intrusive). He seems to live in Queenstown Road. Amazingly, there is a man called Stephen Clarke who works at Fuel PR who, in another coincidence, are based in Queenstown Road, and extraordinarily, that Stephen Clarke at Fuel PR does the PR for Patrick Holford, and his Food For The Brain Foundation, and his private clinic. Could they by any chance be related? Indeed they are, and it has now been explained to me that the deletion was a mistake (Holford says what he actually asked his PR to do was add a defense of the criticism against him).

Now this isn’t Watergate. But it does show once again how closely celebrity nutritionists try to control brand information – because sometimes it’s all they have – and more than that, how wiki autobiographies are a tricky area. Peter Hitchens edits his own Wikipedia page, for example; so does Cory Doctorow, editor of uberblog BoingBoing. I sympathise. There is no excuse for abuse, imbalance, or libel.

But Hitchens and Doctorow both edit explicitly, openly, and under their own names, justifying changes, and discussing them: because Wikipedia is a collaborative project that belongs to us all, and it edges towards accuracy and completeness through goodwill; not through the anonymous accidental deletion of all criticism by PR agents.

· Please send your bad science to

EDIT: “Clarkeola” Banned 6th Jan 2007 13:30

“Clarkeola” has been banned from Wikipedia, here is the entry from the page:

“I’ve banned this account indefinitely under our “Meatpuppets” policy. “These newly created accounts, or anonymous edits, may be friends of another editor, may be related in some way to the subject of an article under discussion, or may have been solicited by someone to support a specific angle in a debate”. The policy states that these can be delt with in the same way as “sockpuppet” accounts i.e. indefinate bans. –Robdurbar 10:57, 6 January 2007 (UTC)”

This is from

“A sockpuppet (sometimes known also as a mule, glove puppet, alternate account, or joke account) is an additional account of an existing member of an Internet community to invent a separate user. This may be used for fictional support of separate people in a vote or argument by falsely using the account as a separate user, or for acting without consequence to one’s “main” account. It is often considered dishonest by online communities, and such pretending individuals are often labeled as trolls.

“The term meatpuppet is used by some as a variation of a sockpuppet; a new Internet community member account, created by another person at the request of a user solely for the purposes of influencing the community on a given issue or issues acting essentially as a puppet of the first user without having independent views and actual or potential contributions. While less overtly deceptive than sockpuppetry, the effect of meatpuppetry and sockpuppetry on the community as a whole may be similar.”

The Wikipedia policy page is also very interesting on the subject:

This is the Holford page before “Clarkeola” deleted the criticism:

This is the page after “Clarkeola” deleted the criticism:

This is the page as it looks now, it appears there have been some more unwikipediaesque edits since I contacted Stephen Clarke:

Here is the current page, whatever it may be when you click it:

And here is Hitchens discussing on his own entry’s discussion page, it’s really interesting process to watch, he posts as “Clockback” and is open about his identity, there is also interesting discussion on Clockback’s talk page.

The core Wikipedia values include, at the risk of encountering the scorn of wiki nerds for oversimplifying: NPOV (“neutral point of view”), no original research, verifiable information only, and citing sources. It’s a fascinating and important project, here’s a good link, it deserves out support and nurturing (moving music please), and it’s our collective responsibility to help prevent it being inaccurate, or abusive, or anything not NPOV:

EDIT: Equazen! again…
6th Jan 2007 23:10
Oh, and hilariously Equazen are in on this one too. Small world, huh. They have sent out a big press release in which Holford says he thinks all the extraordinary benefits he produced in children in a rather bizarre Tonight With Trevor McDonald program last night (a revolutionary experiment etc etc) are because of the Equazen Eye-Q pills. Nothing to do with the placebo or hawthorne effects which he worked tirelessly to maximise. I think it’s very interesting that Holford thinks all the benefits were because of these expensive Equazen pills, and yet this view was not reflected at all in the program (they may have learnt their lesson).

EDIT: Holford under attack..
7th Jan 2007

Sheesh, all these edits. But it looks like there are some other people who think Holford is a bit dodge too:


Holford is now actively soliciting subscribers to his newsletter to edit his wikipedia page, with the inevitable consequences.

Fish Oil Trials In Viz

November 30th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, equazen, fish oil | 24 Comments »

Don’t let me distract you from the important work in the other fish post, but you might have missed this from the current affairs monthly Viz, which was pointed out to me in the senior common room today: Read the rest of this entry »