Stifling Debate – When Bloggers Bite Back

June 16th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, stifling criticism | 30 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday June 16, 2007
The Guardian

I like short stories with happy endings. Last week we saw how the mightily eminent pharmacologist Professor David Colquhoun (FRS) was having his witty and informative “Improbable Science” quackbusting blog quietly banished from the UCL servers.

He had questioned claims made by a herbal medicine practitioner called Dr Ann Walker over, for example, the “blood cleansing” properties of red clover pills (also a “cleanser of the lymphatic system”, apparently) and criticised her for making public statements about the benefits of vitamin supplements in an academic journal, without disclosing her role as spokesperson for
the Health Supplements Information Service, a lobby group for the multibillion-pound supplement pills industry. Walker complained.

Well, in fact her husband complained. Of defamation. Directly to the provost. He also complained of breach of copyright (Colquhoun quoted part of a website he was writing about), breach of data protection requirements, and issued various requests to UCL under the Freedom of Information Act. He also demanded that a paper was circulated to all UCL council members concerning Colquhoun’s misuse of IT resources, and possibly office space and secretarial facilities.

Now above all, to me, these moves lack style. Dr Walker didn’t contact Professor Colquhoun about what he wrote, and nowhere has she addressed any of the scientific arguments he made. In fact Colquhoun had the decency to contact Walker and ask what “blood cleanser” meant (before then describing the phrase as “meaningless gobbledygook”) and never received a reply.

Colquhoun’s brief move away from UCL produced a gratifying avalanche of letters to the provost in defence of robust criticism, and after this – and necessary expensive legal consultations – it was announced on Wednesday that Colquhoun’s blog is to be de-excommunicated.

But amusingly, in these democratic times, there are inevitable consequences of trying to silence a blogger – especially when you make a hash of it – and a mass of activity has now grown into what is cheerfully being described as “a festival of Ann Walker”. As the Sciencepunk blog gleefully points out, Ann Walker’s claims are now more famous than ever.

Most have started by trundling through her pieces on a pill-vendor website called Healthspan. In one piece, Walker promotes the idea that neanderthals were not a distinct kind of human, but degenerate and malnourished versions of ordinary humans: buy pills or regress to a sub-human state, seems to be Walker’s message. Yikes. And there’s a handy list of links to the pills you can buy from Healthspan at the bottom of her article. Dr Andy Lewis on the Quackometer blog points out the flaws, but also shows how the “neanderthal as malnourished homo sapiens” argument is more commonly found on quack creationist websites, where biblical literalists don’t like the idea of “evidence that archaic forms of humans existed, quite distinct from ourselves, and that evolution can explain their development from earlier, more ape-like ancestors.”

Meanwhile, Holfordwatch wades in to look at the evidence behind her claims that Ginkgo biloba pills are effective in dementia and cognitive impairment, and Coracle from the Science and Progress blog examines her claims on glucosamine and chondroitin pills. Coracle makes an interesting general point about the patterns that often emerge in trial research on any pill: “Early, and poorer quality trials showed benefit for chondroitin vs placebo, but in later and more robust trials this benefit gets closer to equivalence with placebo.”

These critical pieces generate insights, and new ideas, because claims are rarely just wrong, they are usually interestingly wrong. It’s a shame that discussions about interesting wrongness should take place under threat of litigation. Now don’t let me get too web-happy on you here, but these stories are the perfect illustration of why UCL is right to stand by Colquhoun and his blog, because it is not a waste of an academic’s time, nor does it waste minuscule quantities of electricity and hard disk space.

Coracle makes his point about the quality of evidence, for example, with reference to a blog post on the same phenomenon by Prof Colquhoun. These are ordinary, everyday people chatting with each other, with passion – and with Fellows of the Royal Society – about science, in a popular forum, in everyday language, and forgive me as I wipe a tear away but this is a very, very beautiful thing.

Ideally one shouldn’t be rude about people (although it may be justified). But criticising activities and ideas, of all things, with a passion for the truth, should never be a dangerous hobby. Good luck not getting sued.

· Please send your bad science to

Links for the Festival Of Ann Walker:

If you take part in the festival of Ann Walker, post a link below, or email it in, and I will post them all below. I also think it’s really interesting how much of what’s around at the moment is about people trying to stifle debate.

Dr Ann Walker and Her Neanderthal Theories

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! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

30 Responses

  1. Nickynockynoonoo said,

    June 16, 2007 at 7:46 am

    For each new link posted we should all sing;

    Roll me over in the clover,
    Roll me over, lay me down, and do it again.

  2. PK said,

    June 16, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Hear, hear! But “activities and ideas with a passion for truth” has been a dangerous hobby in most eras of human history.

  3. Mehitabel-III said,

    June 16, 2007 at 9:18 am

    Oh, yes! We are singing already!
    Many thanks Ann Walker for our merry-making! :))
    Well! Bionic madam… 😉

  4. Dorothy King said,

    June 16, 2007 at 10:19 am

    I know this might sound obvious / been done, but has anyone thought of sending someone sick to Holford or Gilly McK or one of these people just to see what they’d diagnose and recommend ?

  5. Mehitabel-III said,

    June 16, 2007 at 10:26 am

    Nevertheless, all this brouhaha around Ann Walker plays role a sort of advertising campaign and rebounds pretty much. Sadly. Really, this woman with her business is unworhty of such attention.

    My genuine sorrow is that Professor Colquhoun wastes his time, energy and brilliant mind to fight against this muck instead of doing real scientific research 🙁
    Of course, mighty scientist is mighty scientist, at all times and in all places, always and everywere. But… This community could do without his help. And Science will not do without him. Science wants him.

  6. doctormonkey said,

    June 16, 2007 at 11:43 am

    Well done Ben for following this all up and making excellent use of the Grauniad column to highlight this in such a well rounded way (on the blog post at least, have not seen what the editors have done to it)

    Bravo Ben, seemingly becoming top media quack-buster, and that is roughly paraphrasing the mighty DC

  7. Mojo said,

    June 16, 2007 at 11:44 am

    “My genuine sorrow is that Professor Colquhoun wastes his time, energy and brilliant mind to fight against this muck instead of doing real scientific research”

    So you would prefer it if the people perpetrating “this muck” were just allowed to go about their business without fear of contradiction? That would be nice for them, wouldn’t it?

    And then there’s the wider (and important) issue of public understanding of science, of course.

  8. Dr Aust said,

    June 16, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    I take Mehitabel’s point, but I think I will trust DC to decide how to balance his time between his research and the quack-busting.

    [In case someone hasn’t mentioned, DC is officially retired – hence Emeritus Prof – so he doesn’t have to do University admin or teaching any more. I have to say he seems to me to work as hard as when he was full-time employed, judging by the amount of stuff (science and quackbusting) that he produces.]

    The wider point, which Mojo has already alluded to, is that it IS important that someone of DC’s scientific standing takes on the quacks. On the whole the scientific “Great and Good” have too often tended to ignore the Quackery (and other irritants like the animal rights lots) in order to “get on with the more important stuff”. But the result has often been to leave the field to the nutters, while the scientists are seen as hiding in their Ivory Towers pretending the misinformation doesn’t matter.

    As a working scientist I am profoundly grateful to DC and to other high-profile scientists like Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones, Robert Winston, Colin Blakemore and Nancy Rothwell, who have given up their time and energy to promote proper science and also to speak out against nonsense.

  9. woodchopper said,

    June 16, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    A result! Bravo.

  10. ACH said,

    June 16, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    pv – isn’t that an insult to Eddie Izzard? he’s far more attractive than that when he has all his slap on!

    Glad to see UCL saw sense.

  11. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 16, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    I wondered about “Colquhoun’s brief move away from UCL”, which suggests he was asked to leave the premises physically. Have I read carelessly, was this not only “The brief move of Colquhoun’s blog away from UCL servers”? (I don’t understand the “Emeritus” point.) And of course it didn’t look brief at the time.

  12. prescience said,

    June 16, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    If Bad Science were to make annual awards for the most egregious claims / worst mangling of science to promote a product / best example of ignorance of biochemistry or any other category, what would it call them?

    The Ann Walker Prize for Garbled Genetics? The Patrick Holford Prize for Preposterous Pendants? The Gillian McKeith Prize for Proselytizing Poo?

    And what would the trophy look like?

  13. Mehitabel-III said,

    June 16, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    Just Eddie Izzard? Why? 🙂 Pobably is there no good comic-women in Britain cinema? OK! I’ll be first!:)

    Unfortunately, there is no comic sense in my second posting. And moreover – it is not off topic 🙁

    Otherwise we should consider as “off topic” Colquhoun’s words from other theme: Here is the qoute form DC words. Read attentively:
    “…Oddly enough, the web site palaver has been just a distraction. A more important matter (for me) at UCL has just been lost. There is no longer a Department of Pharmacology. I do hope this is not a step in the direction of the corporatisation of universities that we’ve seen elsewhere…”

    What does it mean? What do you think ? It means that we HAVE LOST OUR BATTLE FOR GOOD SCIENCE. Yes, we won first stage of this battle, when the quacks attacked DC. But now second stage starts.
    And here is still only one man, who have guessed it – Robert Carnegie.
    Well! I explain for those “who within tank”! What first step could be done when Departments are disestablished? Quite right – it is dismissall! Who will be displased in the first place? The objectionable individuals, personae non grata. It will be either the fighters for justice or old scientists. Unhappily Professor Colquhoun have both these merits. Thus – the enemies didn’t hammer him, but “dear friends, colleagues and bosses” will manage this difficult task very simply!
    Of course, you can answer me: “It is not our funeral. We fight against quacks here”. No, gentlemen, as I see you work here against bad science! And do you consider that when the scientist will be kicked out university for his honesty and old age – IS that GOOD science?

  14. pv said,

    June 16, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    ACH – I did say “in disguise”. 🙂
    I mean, it does seem to be in the time-honoured media tradition of finding the ugliest, most dishevelled mugshot available.

    Oh. And sorry Eddie Izzard if you’re reading this. You are clearly much better looking!

  15. Mehitabel-III said,

    June 16, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    Any old quack can live without university. He can do his/her business. For example, repeatedly mentioned here Dr. Lakin and Ann Walker (she is old, considering her last portrait).
    However if the scientist leave (is dismissed) University, then he can not be engaged in research.
    Thus – Britain law about old scientists (about retirement) encourages the quackery in Britain.
    Paradox? I don’t think so.
    And if University begins to turn science into business, then – is there a way out of it for scientist who wants to do science? No!…
    I ask my question once again – do you think that it is GOOD SCIENCE?

  16. Dr Aust said,

    June 17, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    I would suspect that by now someone at Reading will have noticed. Ben’s blog is widely read among science academics.

    Ann Walker, BTW, used to (and perhaps still does) teach on Reading’s BSc degree in “Nutrition and Food Science”

    I quote:

    “Nutritionists with training in food science are therefore now at the forefront of new product development, packaging design and relaying health messages to the consumer…”

    How reassuring. And later:

    “A core curriculum provides you with the necessary academic training to gain registration within the Nutrition Society as a ‘Registered Nutritionist’ following graduation.”

    Ah.. those guys. And still later:

    “In year 2 and the final year of the course you will be given module options so that you can develop your particular interests and will undertake an individual research project in a cutting edge area of research in either (a) food and human health and well being, or (b) food design and manufacture.”

    So if you want to learn to concoct, market, and sell things like “Red Clover”, this degree will clearly give you the necessary, er, skills.

  17. Pastafarianbabe said,

    June 18, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    Particularly a thread that turned out to be THAT embarrassing – although to be fair the links she posted in the final message were hysterical (if unintentionally). I was also intrigued to know why she sees fit to announce herself as (amongst other things) a “daugter” on her site. Was she expecting people to think she’d sprung fully formed from the depths of the sea or grown in a lab or something if she didn’t put that bit in? Mind you in her “about Sue Brown” bit on her site she also announces that she is a “human being” (the mind boggles – what on earth did she imagine people thought could be the alternative – Shakspeare’s monkeys? – mind you given the quality of what she was typing it is probably best not to speculate further on that).

    As a final aside I also noted her claims to be a psychologist and historian and, given the fuss she had made thgoughout the thread regarding the scientific qualifications of those she was arguing with I thought I’d see what her biog bit said about hers. To be fair it is refreshingly honest about her (lack of) qualifications in either field but given her earlier remarks the words “glass houses” and “stones” did spring to mind.

    Between her, Anne Walker and Julia Stephenson it’s getting to be embarrassing being female aroud here. Cringe!

  18. Mehitabel-III said,

    June 18, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    I’d like say about this website
    By the way, this nutritionist is right in some things. I like, for example, this piece (sorry for huge quote):

    “…Dr Goldacre’s opinion piece [1] takes a broad swipe at media nutritionists by focusing on some silly thinking and the ‘pseudoscience’ that undoubtedly can sometimes be found in the area. The author takes particular exception to Gillian McKeith’s claim that chlorophyll is rich in oxygen and that eating plenty of it will help to oxygenate the blood. In respect to this, Dr Goldacre comments “as any 14 year old biology student could tell you, plants only make oxygen in light: it’s very dark in your bowel; and even if, to prove a point, you put a searchlight up your bottom, you probably wouldn’t absorb too much oxygen through the gut wall.”

    Fair enough, but I wonder how many of us (doctors included) have beliefs and, where relevant, employ clinical approaches that in their entirely would stand up to scrutiny. Take, for example, Dr Goldacre’s own suggestion to test the oxygen-producing capacity of chlorophyll in the gut by illuminating the large bowel: this hypothetical test, albeit tongue-in- cheek, is flawed because the process of digestion would render chlorophyll biologically inactive by the time it reaches the colon. On the face of it, some of Dr Goldacre’s own musings here might be regarded as nonsensical at those of McKeith…”

    Certainly, McKeit is wrong about chlorophyll (moreover, her opinion about this subject absolutely wild). However, Dr. Goldacre is wrong about chlorophyll too (even considering immoderate polemical heat)! And Dr. Briffa’s opinion is more close to modern scientific ideas about photosynthesis (although not ideal).

    Dr. Goldacre, could I ask you question? Do you really think that if the light acts on chlorophyll (pure substance), then chlorophyll produces oxygen? Or was it merely your “figure of speach”?

  19. Mehitabel-III said,

    June 19, 2007 at 1:12 am

    Indeed? Maybe… Although I think that these nutritionists (as well as some alternative therapists and some of quacks even) are not so simple as you suppose. Sometimes they know scientific facts better than you all togehter! They operate by these facts very literately. And they gab about this matter none the worse. So they survive. That is mimicry.
    So – it is complicated problem to fight against such folk! And it will be considered. That is main idea of my posting (above).

    But it is most terrible thing when talented real scientist degrades to level of quack. Probably you didn’t see it. And I have seen!.. 🙁

  20. Robert Carnegie said,

    June 19, 2007 at 2:09 am

    I think strictly a doctor only gets involved with photosynthesis when things are going radically wrong. You don’t -want- photosynthesis in your gut. In case you did, carbon dioxide and of course water are available in the bloodstream. Or you could have a chlorophyll and soda-water enema. If it works then I believe you also produce hydrogen, so it really doesn’t seem like a good idea.

    Anyway, oxygen isn’t all good, it is what you take antioxidants to stop. (At least… sort of.)

  21. Mehitabel-III said,

    June 19, 2007 at 8:21 am

    Robert Carnegie

    :))) Superclass!! I never laughed so before! :)Interesting technology…;) Some questions to “inventor”. Why does hydrogen produced (what sort of hydrogen)? How do you get the light there? Why do you believe so that there will be oxygen and water? And what about hydrogen sulphide?

    Dr. Goldacre, while you keep silence your colleages develope and modernize your technology. Take care! You will lose gereat patent! 😉 What about my question?

  22. Mehitabel-III said,

    June 19, 2007 at 10:54 am


    I agree. Really – “verbal equivalent”…
    Simply I think that level of our criticism against them must be high. We are scientists.

  23. paulbradshaw said,

    June 19, 2007 at 11:07 am

    last week, my colleague Andrew Dubber, who writes a popular blog about the music industry – New Music Strategies – was similarly threatened by Paul Birch of Revolver Records.

    Dubber’s crime was not writing anything offensive to Birch, but simply linking to an article which Birch felt promoted “hatred of the recording Industry”. Now I am aware that promoting race hate is a crime, but hatred of the recording industry? Apparently that warrants a lawsuit.

    Dubber, with Birch’s permission, published the correspondence in full at You can also read the story at

  24. raygirvan said,

    June 19, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    I just commented about such non-arguments to the BMJ Rapid Responses for Tell us the truth about nutritionists.: three of the respondents had replied with the same creaky old oh-but-X-is-worse fallacy.

  25. quark said,

    June 20, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    Most importantly, Ben doesn’t try to sell any dodgy nutritional supplements, so his not very serious suggestion of sticking a torch up the bum is quite different from someone trying to sell a product by claiming that the chlorophyll produces oxygen.

    Still, there seems to be quite a bit of confusion about photosynthesis.
    Chlorophyll itself does not produce any oxygen, even when illuminated. It’s the Mn4Ca cluster of the
    oxygen evolving complex that makes the oxygen and the whole process only works when all the pigments and cofactors are bound to proteins in the membrane.

    Unless we acquire photosynthetic organisms or complete chloroplasts (which some animals do), we are very unlikely to function photosynthetically.

    Sorry to be pedantic – but, contrary to what’s written in most text book, glucose is not a direct product of photosynthesis. Triose-phosphates (a form of sugar) are produced first and then converted into sucrose.

    Anyway, this may not contribute much to the discussion here. There is no doubt that all of us are occasionally wrong about scientific issues. The important thing is that, in contrast to many of those selling nutritional supplements, scientists (or those truly interested in science) try to find out how things really work and should therefore welcome if they are challenged (instead of threatening to sue).

  26. Pastafarianbabe said,

    June 20, 2007 at 5:41 pm


    Ouch – is that South Africa by any chance? If so I thought that woman had been given the boot and that your government had been forced in to a U-turn on that or was that just unrealistic optimism on my part?

  27. Mehitabel-III said,

    June 21, 2007 at 2:43 am

    O-o-o-h, what a nice talk about photosynthesis!
    Sure, now forum becomes more interesting. Although it seems I have provoked again “off topic” (sorry…:)). However, honestly speaking, I prefer to talk about real science then “to hunt the quacks”, because these quacks are a confounded bore. I wonder how scientific people can deal with this “folk” seriously. Probably, it is necesssary for that either to have strong character or a lot of free time.

    I’d like to add some details to all interesting stories about photosynthesis sounded here. Explaination of crana(44) is good, but complicated a bit. He consideres that Robert Carnegie(39) knows about Photosystems I and II.
    Certainly, pure chlorophyll can’t produce oxygen at all. Chloropyll can absorb the energy of light and convert it in energy of electron moving. Photosystems I and II are actually systems of donors and acceptors of electrons and protons. All these donors/acceptors are bound to specific membrane proteins (some of these proteins are donor or acceptor themselves). It is very important that all these proteins are membrane proteins (why – see below). Chlorophyll absorbs quant of light and loses the electron, which then runs from one acceptor to other one in Photosystem-II. Chlorophyll, which have lost electron, is powerful oxydizer. He takes part together with Mn-claster (twice-mentioned here) in splitting of water to oxygen, electons and hydrogen-ions. Chloropyll is reduced, taking one of these electons. Other electrons are transferred to Photosystem-I. Now it is known well, that Mn-claster requires carbon dioxide for its work. There are wonderful theories described this process and smashing hypothesis of photosynthesis evolution, which issues from these theories. See about it here:

    Note! Molecular hydrogen is never produced in photosynthesis! Only – hydrogen-ion (proton) and atomic hydrogen. Water splitting produces protons, which can’t premeate across membrane of thylakiods and accumulate inside thylakoids, so proton gradient is created. Second way of proton gradient creation is work of Photosystems (see post of crana (44) – it is right description. Protons move from stroma to inside of thylakoid). This proton gradient itself is part of general membrane potential and is also “energy currency” like ATP (theory of Peter Mitchell)! Protons can run through specific membrane proteins from inside of thylakoids to stroma. ATP-syntase is one of this membrane protein. When proton moves across ATP-syntase, latter creates ATP. Thus process of ATP syntesis and photosynthesis are coupled by membrane. That is way I’ve said above that membrane localization is important (main!)feature of photosynthesis.
    Atomic hydrogen is produced from electrons and protons in stroma and then is used for creation NADPH.
    Nevertheless, Robert Carnegie is right telling about photosynthetical production of hydrogen as a fuel. Simply – in this process hydrogen is produced by specific enzyme (hydrogenase), which are in some species of photosynthetic microorgaisms. There – photosynthesis is only source of energy for hyrogenase work. Hydrogenase itself isn’t member of system of photosynthetic proteins.
    Water is not only donor of protons for photosynthesis. Some photosynthetic microorganism uses hydrogen sulphide for this aim. Bacterial photosynthesis is more simple process unlike photosynthesis, which uses water and produces oxygen, because water spliting requires more energy for its realization (see my links above).
    Thus – we see that oxygen can be produced only by intact complicated system of membrane proteins (plus bounded to them pigments and cofactors) and on conditions of intact membranes. If photosynthetic complexes (or membranes, where they are) are destroyed, then photosynthesis is impossible. But if they are intact, then process comes.
    For example, if we cut plants into little pieces and expose them to light (better – laser!:) Labs in our institute prefer laser), then we could observe the photosynthesis in them. So if we have eaten any plants, then its piece, which still are in stomach, could photosynthesize under light action. But if we try to carry out same experiment with intestinal contents (where active photosynthetic system are absent already, are destroyed), then (alas, dear Dr. Goldacre ;)) we will see nothing even under laser action. Escpecially, if we will torch the bum… 🙂

  28. Mehitabel-III said,

    June 21, 2007 at 3:02 am

    “…The important thing is that, in contrast to many of those selling nutritional supplements, scientists (or those truly interested in science) try to find out how things really work and should therefore welcome if they are challenged (instead of threatening to sue)…”

    Quite right! I absolutely agree with you.
    So I don’t like to discuss anything with different quacks (wasted time!). However to dicuss interesting themes with clever people – it was good form even in our secondary school (I finished secondary school not in England).

  29. jgharston said,

    June 21, 2007 at 7:45 pm

    I get so fed up with these idiots saying their copyright is breached when somebody quotes their work without their permission.
    Copyright legislation specifically allows works to be quoted for review or critisim, and specifically disallows copyright holders from stopping their work being quoted for review or critisim.

    “Fair dealing for criticising or review and reporting current events is allowable for any type of copyright work except a photograph as long as it is with sufficient acknowledgement” (UK Intellectual Property Office,

    (Oh no! I’ve quoted something without permission! Sue me! Sue me!)

    Anything that is published is explicitly declaring itself available for critisim and review. Publishing on a website is still publishing. If you don’t want to be quoted, DON’T PUBLISH!

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