Saturday January 6, 2007
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.  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.  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”.   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.”  ”
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 â€“ because sometimes itâ€™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.
Â· Please send your bad science to email@example.com
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 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meatpuppet
“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.