Patrick Holford, solicits wikipedia changes. again. inevitable consequences

February 16th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, patrick holford | 27 Comments »

Patrick Holford has now solicited his subscribers to write positively about him on his wikipedia page, in a mailout earlier today:

“Weirdness on Wikipedia – Ideally, debates on issues of scientific and medical contention should stick to the facts, but unfortunately those in the front line of paradigm shifts are usually subject to personal attacks, of which I’ve had many. I noticed a few on Wikipedia, which is meant to be the ‘people’s encyclopedia’ meaning that anyone can edit an entry. Unfortunately, some of the people who have been editing appear to be part of the pro-drug lobby. I did write to the moderator to straighten out some facts, but have had no reply, so I’ve decided to stay out of it. Of course, if you think there’s anything said that is wrong, or anything you’d like to add, feel free to do so.”

I think that means it’s likely to be vandalised on and off for a good long while to come. I’m perfectly serious when I say I don’t think it’s appropriate for readers of this to get involved.

As you can see, Holford’s wikipedia page is currently about a third full of material he has written attacking me, of all things. I’ve only written on his science (and now his wikipedia shenanigans). I can understand it must be difficult to see yourself criticised on wikipedia and it can be a very imperfect medium, but I do wonder about this move, again.

Ah, his free-and-easy approach to scientific evidence is also excellently exposed in extremis here for those who are interested.

The copy-and-paste post onto his wikipedia page comes from an earlier mailout to his subscribers today, although we can’t know who posted it on wikipedia, unlike before (also reported in Wikipedia’s in-house newspaper).

The rather personal style of the attack on his critics, as a kind of bullying, is quite interesting. A vitamin salesman himself, he slurs his critics by suggesting they are “pro-drug” and motivated by an interest in the pharmaceutical industry; and as an enthusiastic amateur with no qualifications, he opines that his critics are insufficiently highly qualified to judge him.

This issue of arguing from authority is one I’ve addressed at length elsewhere (eg Don’t Dumb Me Down) and it’s one of the things that motivated me to engage with the communication of science in the media as a hobby: to me, this is about the evidence. A schoolkid can spot that Holford’s quoted studies of cells in dishes do not justify his claim that vitamin C is more effective than AZT, and that’s very empowering.

People do have to be in full possession of the facts to make judgements, though, and this is the other interesting feature of he “information management” strategy in Holford’s post. He links to his online response to my BMJ article (Holford calls it his “letter published in the BMJ”, although I checked the print version, and I’m afraid I couldn’t find it, so I don’t think they did – the bar for online responses in the BMJ is admirably very low, they almost allow anything that is not obscene).

Interestingly, he doesn’t link to the BMJ site to show his subscribers his response, even though – correct me if I’m wrong – that page is free to access for all (hurrah!). Instead, he has gone to special effort, and made a whole new page on his own website, where he has placed his response in isolation.

The consequence of this is that his subscribers – who may be interested in reading different views – are deprived of seeing the context, deprived of seeing my article (which is neither here nor there really): but crucially, they are deprived of seeing the responses to his online posting, in which his reasoning is criticised in some detail as being characteristic of the nutritionism genre.

If you are interested in the full caboodle, as it were, there is nothing to hide: you can read my article, his responses, and all the others, online here in the BMJ, in full.

In any case it seems he’s riled, and I’m very sorry to see that. I only really noticed him on account of my longstanding interest in HIV denialism and vitamin pushers in South Africa, and I really wouldn’t think any less of him if he just said that, well, he now doesn’t really think that vitamin C is better than the antiretroviral AZT. I was also rather hoping to have him on the podcast interviews (alongside gods like Sokal) as one of the more articulate – if obscure – of the unqualified media nutritionists, but sadly he declined, unless it could be an opportunity to specifically promote his new book. Ho hum.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

27 Responses

  1. evidencebasedeating said,

    February 16, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    A manic street preacher.
    Pity so many vulnerable people pay him any attention

  2. TimW said,

    February 16, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    Well that’s an interesting viewpoint of how Wikipedia works: “I did write to the moderator to straighten out some facts, but have had no reply…”. There are hundreds of edits per minute on Wikipedia, this “moderator” must be jolly busy person!

    However, I’m sure there are enough interested Wikipedians to prevent Holford from using the site as just another publicity vehicle, in the long run.

  3. ffutures said,

    February 16, 2007 at 11:26 pm

    Actually it looks like you need to be registered or pay a one-time fee to access your article; while that page does show Holford’s letter and other responses, without the original article it’s missing its most important context. There are good reasons why Wikipedia should not link to that sort of page.

  4. Dr Madvibe said,

    February 16, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    But what has Gary Lineker got to do with it?

  5. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 16, 2007 at 11:34 pm

    heh. i think my article is behind a paywall sadly, and i guess he wouldnt want to link to the version here. but the rabid responses are free, yes? i think they usually are.

  6. j said,

    February 16, 2007 at 11:38 pm

    “Well that’s an interesting viewpoint of how Wikipedia works: “I did write to the moderator to straighten out some facts, but have had no reply…”. There are hundreds of edits per minute on Wikipedia, this “moderator” must be jolly busy person!”

    Wikipedia does, in effect, do something like moderating articles – administrators can lock some articles (esp biographies of living persons) to prevent vandalism and/or libellous edits. This hasn’t happened to the Holford article – either the administrators concluded it’s not libellous and refused Holford’s request (my guess – the article’s all pretty moderate and well-sourced imo) or Holford/Holford’s staff were sufficiently daft that they wrote to the wrong person 😉

  7. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 16, 2007 at 11:41 pm

    yeah, it had a bit of criticism in there before, but i didnt think it was absurd. i mean i’m really not on a witchhunt, he’s an unqualified media nutritionist with a strong new age background, they provide a service, people like it, they provide good tv entertainment, and sometimes they’re obviously going to get things a bit wrong. AIDS is an unfortunate thing to be wrong on, but still, the wiki page wasn’t particularly horrible, last one i saw, just biog and one crit. obviously now it’s bonkers. he seems to think the vit c and azt thing is a one off. i’ve got a plenty more but i really don’t want to go to town on this guy.

  8. Mithent said,

    February 16, 2007 at 11:54 pm

    Indeed, the BMJ is not free access.. I can’t even access your article using Athens (though using an IP within my university’s domain works, I later found).

  9. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 16, 2007 at 11:57 pm

    really? god, that’s a bit five minutes ago of the bmj. what a drag. i can get in with my athens login. i can also get to the rabid responses without logging in.

  10. imagineyoung said,

    February 17, 2007 at 12:03 am

    ” i’ve got a plenty more but i really don’t want to go to town on this guy.”

    Why not, Ben? Might stop others going down the same route – or at least to think about it more. And stop the ‘well, he might have made a mistake about AIDS, but he’s not so bad and gives useful advice’ thoughts.

    That’s a serious ‘why not?’ too – interested.

  11. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 17, 2007 at 12:11 am

    hey, i certainly dont think he gives useful advice! interesting question. more interesting things to write about i guess. i’m only really going at this because of his rather foolish behaviour over the AIDS thing. such a stupid thing to be stupid about.

  12. imagineyoung said,

    February 17, 2007 at 12:14 am

    Sorry, wasn’t suggesting you had those thoughts 🙂

  13. j said,

    February 17, 2007 at 12:17 am

    “Why not, Ben? Might stop others going down the same route – or at least to think about it more. And stop the ‘well, he might have made a mistake about AIDS, but he’s not so bad and gives useful advice’ thoughts.

    That’s a serious ‘why not?’ too – interested. ”

    Seconded – even if you don’t want to use your Guardian column to write about Holford, it’ll take no time at all to post the info on your blog 😉 The info’s then going to be available to and reprodicible by all. It might help stop some folk being fooled by Holford, and make others think twice about a similar career path.

    Holford’s currently selling – and using his ION, and those trained there, to sell – quack treatments to a lot of people. Most of this is probably just handing out placebos for self-limiting conditions, but some of his advice (e.g. on treatment of serious mental health problems) could lead to serious damage to ‘patients’.
    Holford also recommends ineffective, dangerous ‘naturopathic’ treatments like chelation. Also, by advocating vit C over AZT, Holford’s helping to give cover to those who are denying effective treatment to millions of relatively poor people with HIV/AIDs. I really can’t see any reason to hold back on the bloke, assuming the info you’ve got isn’t libellous…

    Sorry for the rant – tbh, ethical issues aside, something about Holford just really pisses me off 😉

  14. jackpt said,

    February 17, 2007 at 12:41 am

    People like Holford get on my nerves because the number of superficially good things they’re involved with. Eat your greens (as you’ve pointed out) is good advice, but these people encourage fads because people will never get the life promised by the promotional material. I think that’s why a lot of it is successful, it never works to the degree that people stop paying them money. Just another packet of nuts, or anti-oxidants, or omega-3, and you could shake off those blues, be detoxified, and have perfect bowel movements. In the meantime any improvements in the new-ager’s health is ascribed to the wrong things. The people peddling it are successful because they either inadvertently or deliberately exploit ignorance.

  15. dmanning said,

    February 17, 2007 at 3:35 am

    I can access the bmj site and Im no-way connected with medicine.

    Anyone can edit wikipedia, just remember the dragnet rule – “just the facts, ma’am”. Unsupported comments from either camp get removed pretty quickly. From the edits recently to various pages, Id guess alot of the editors do read this already.

  16. gadgeezer said,

    February 17, 2007 at 6:41 am

    It does matter that Holford is advocating dubious tests while stating that they are “sound science”. It matters that he is encouraging people to ignore the work of scientists and professionals (who are either engaged in ‘deception’ or ‘haven’t kept up to date’) and ‘take their power into their own hands’ when studies report that parents are restricting diets on the basis of their children’s perceived food intolerances and those children are shorter. Other researchers go further and describe the consequences of an ‘incorrect’ diet in childhood as “dangerous”.

    Don’t French and Wiseman occasionally make it onto TV programmes as the token balance in yet another discussion of the paranormal? Isn’t it about time that TV producers started inviting along dissenting opinions when media nutritionists are given promotional spots for their books or particularly egregious claims?

  17. Nebbish said,

    February 17, 2007 at 9:09 am

    The long first person response on Wikipedia, posted by user Anaalberts according to the corresponding talk page is gone, as I predicted.

    Since I saved a copy, here are some quotes to remember it by:

    “When you tread a path that’s not yet mainstream, people will often criticise you for it. This year has kicked off with a flurry of attacks on ‘media nutritionists’, vitamin C and HIV, food intolerance testing, supplements for children, and also the Food for the Brain schools campaign. We must be ruffling some conservative feathers to attract so much attention! For those of us who are committed to pursuing better health naturally and harmlessly, sometimes it’s necessary to answer our critics and correct the misinformation they quote.

    “As a result, I’d like to share my responses to several recent assaults in the press. I appreciate there’s a lot of information to wade through here, but as these different cases have a similar theme, I thought I’d deal with them all together. So let’s start with my response to material written by a journalist called Dr Ben Goldacre.”

    [blah blah blah]

    “The reason that some spokespeople ignore and want suppression of anything other than RCTs (at least on nutritional issues) may be simply because RCTs cost so much money, and favour pill trials (very hard to do placebo trials on diet or exercise), that almost all are funded by the drug industry, thus perpetuating the unhealthy monopoly within medicine today.

    “But, of course, even when the RCTs do exist – as for multivitamins and children – somehow the evidence is ignored. The real hypocrisy is that newspapers are full of stories about drugs that can cure diseases ‘coming next year’, not based on RCTs.”

    “Somebody once told me that ‘expecting people to treat you well just because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge just because you are a vegetarian’. I guess Jerome Burne’s and my book Food is Better Medicine Than Drugs – not one single fact in which has yet been disputed – is a red rag to the pro-drug bull. Ridicule and attack are to be expected in the dying throes of the old pharmaceutical model of treating disease, as it inevitably makes way for a more holistic approach with optimum nutrition at its core.”

  18. TimW said,

    February 17, 2007 at 10:28 am

    @ j, Re 6

    Sure, there are administrators who could lock the article, but Holford says he wrote “to the moderator to straighten out some facts”. This makes it sounds like there’s a person who is responsible for the article and controls what goes into it and what gets left out, and Holford told them some key points that the moderator should bear in mind while carrying out this role. Holford wrote to that person and didn’t even get a reply, the moderator is obviously failing in their duty and/or is biased! So then Holford invites his supporters to start editing the page.

    It sounds like he thinks he’s writing to an audience ignorant of the basic facts. (Probably his favourite kind of audience.) “The moderator” as such doesn’t exist, he *might* mean an administrator who has taken action in the article before, or he could mean anything else at all. Actually, as with every other wikipedia article, there is a discussion page (/”Talk”), that’s where arguments about content are supposed to take place, and I can’t see entries on there from anybody claiming to be Holford. Perhaps there *are* entries on there by Holford, pretending to be somebody else.

    So, what did he *actually* do, if anything? We don’t know.

  19. Paul Crowley said,

    February 17, 2007 at 10:38 am

    Nebbish – you don’t have to save a copy of the response, it’s part of the history of the article. Click the “history” tag at the top and you’ll find it. Or note that Ben has cunningly linked directly to that version, knowing that the change wouldn’t last.

  20. RS said,

    February 17, 2007 at 11:43 am

    I think only research in the BMJ is free to access, and comment pieces are pay to view. Which, to be fair, is a reasonable compromise.

  21. j said,

    February 17, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    anyway, another article on Holford – great. The guy’s going on a speaking tour of South Africa, then – just what they need with the HIV/AIDS/medication problem there. Again, I can think of lots of things to call him…

  22. Bob O'H said,

    February 17, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    “But what has Gary Lineker got to do with it?”

    Didn’t you know? Walkers crisps include lots of micro-nutrients, and supports the immune system!


  23. outeast said,

    February 21, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    I was going to ask about the pic of Gary Lineker, too.

  24. danfish said,

    February 21, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    Glad to see TAPL’s wiki entry is bang on:

    She has been censured twice by the Advertising Standards Authority, most recently to prevent her from using the title Dr. on her products.[9][10][11]

    Following this censure, Gillian McKeith has been further investigated by the Scottish Heritage Association requiring her to drop “Mc” from her name; Gillian Keith has been investigated by the European Fish Naming Standards Council, declaring that she has no gills; Ian Keith has been twice stung by advertising watchdogs forcing her to drop both the names Ian and Keith as they were misleading consumers into thinking she is a man. In a shocking twist, expert linguists declared that ” ” as she has come to be called, is non-existent, stating that as far as they are concerned if she doesn’t have a name, she doesn’t exist.

  25. Dr Madvibe said,

    February 28, 2007 at 9:33 am

    “But what has Gary Lineker got to do with it?”

    Didn’t you know? Walkers crisps include lots of micro-nutrients, and supports the immune system!

    Splendid. In that case, I must attribute my excellent state of health today to the two free packets of “all new singing and dancing” Walkers crisps they were handing out at Harrow tube staton yesterday.

  26. j said,

    March 21, 2007 at 1:54 pm

    Moving on from crisps, a user called Patrick James Holford has been revising Holford’s wikipedia entry –

    I’ve posted on this here –

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