AltMed Responses To Criticism – from Holford to Barnett

February 11, 2009 at 5:45 pm (Alternative Medicine, Bad Science) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Here, I have some examples of the, fairly limited, debate between sceptics and proponents of Alternative Medicine – and a couple of examples of how scientists generally respond to criticism. The most recent example of a supporter of Alternative Medicine (anti-vaccinationism, with a smidge of homeopathy) responding to criticism is Jeni Barnett. She referred on her blog to incandescently stupid comments she made about MMR during a radio broadcast on LBC, and the fuss that followed the broadcast. The comments section soon included critics explaining why Jeni was so dangerously wrong. Jeni’s response to the criticism? To remove the blog post and the comments. Thankfully, it’s been preserved and is available at The Quackometer website. Further discussion at Holford Watch. LBC’s response to the original criticisms? Legal chill tactics – a pretty disgusting way to tackle legitimate criticism. Other examples of legal chill (and other threats) come from nutritionists, chiropractors, homeopaths, herbalists, and an American Christian organisation.

There are plenty of other examples of this “alternative debate”, with one side engaging with the arguments and the other side picking another tactic – whether obfuscation or simply ignoring the criticism, use of legal chill, or good old-fashioned abuse.

First up, we have Patrick Holford’s full responses to the Radio 4 show “Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists”. I looked at these fairly briefly here – and again here; meanwhile, HolfordWatch have posts in their April 08 archive (parts 1, 2a, and 2b as well as a post referring to Stephanie Fox’s take on the criticism) – read them all if you have time, they are well worth looking at. Holford failed to properly address the criticisms made in the show and I think that the blog posts I’ve linked to above should demonstrate that.

Secondly, Jeni Barnett posted a follow-up piece to her blog post about MMR. In it, she complained of sarcasm and nitpicking and completely missed the point of the comments people had left on her previous post. This reminded me of Jeremy Sherr – who posted a rant about the “Pharmaceutical Inquisition […] squawking away in a hysterical frenzy”, when all that had actually happened is that bloggers had commented on the shockingly poor design of Jeremy’s proposed trial. See here for more (the link is to my blog post on the subject – Sherr’s blog is currently unavailable).

There’s more. The Society of Homeopaths, and Joseph Chikelue Obi both complained to the Quackometer using legal chill in an attempt to silence legitimate criticism. David Colquhoun has been the subject of a complaint from a herbalist, Ann Walker, and received a threatening letter from Patrick Holford, both of which are yet further examples of the AltMed tendecy to try to suppress dissenting voices. The nutritionistas seem to be fond of legal threats, so I’d better be careful what I write in this blog post. Here, John Garrow recounts a tale involving Gillian McKeith: “Her husband phoned me claiming I was defaming her so I said sue me. I’m still waiting.”; here is an article that includes references to several threats of lititgation. The Sun, PhDiva, and Eclectech are among those who have incurred the wrath of McKeith.

Wrath. That reminds me – Matthias Rath was criticised (and quite rightly, in my opinion) in the Guardian’s Bad Science column. Rath’s response was to sue. The vitamin pill magnate later pulled out of the case. The food supplements industry was invited to comment on the farrago, but declined. See here, here, and here for more on my take on this (I emailed various industry bodies and received no adequate responses). Holford Watch have a post calling for comment from the AltMed community on Rath’s activities.

Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes blog has a post up relating the legal threats received from a fung shui practitioner. His response to the threats may amuse you. He could simply have referred to the reply given by the plaintiff in the case of Arkell v Pressdram, of course. [See here for an explanation of Arekll v Pressdram: Wiki.]

OK, it’s back to David Colquhoun (who also received communications from Ann Walker and Patrick Holford as I wrote earlier in the post). This time, the post is related to threats from Chiropractors: New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association. Holford Watch referred to Professor Frizelle’s instant classic “let’s hear your evidence not your legal muscle”, while I (boringly) went for “more legal chill (from spine-cracking Chiropractors) as a title and added a post here (A Beginner’s Guide To Chiropractic).

A final example is the Cochrane review of antioxidants. I looked at IANT’s response here, Holford Watch covered it here and the Bad Science blog has a post on the response of HFMA, Cliff Richard and Gloria Hunniford: it’s a contriversy. [Holford Watch also posted on the HFMA/Richard/Hunniford triumvirate here: Cliff on Cochrane.

And finally, by way of comparison, we have a couple of examples of engagement with criticism as is generally practised by scientists: there is a long tradition of scientists answering criticism of their work by addressing it and my first example is from 1927. It is a letter to the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the author, George William Clough, is asserting that he made no error “concerning either the conventional or the configurational designations of the 2-hydroxybutyric acids”, and clarifying that his conclusion is actually in accordance with the results of the two scientists (Levene and Haller) who had (apparently mistakenly) assumed that his results were not in agreement with theirs. PDF.

Here’s another: Podmore et al on vitamin C. The authors of the original study respond to criticism of their paper by, well, engaging with the issues and answering the questions raised by their critics. Which is how it should be. Now look back at the previous links, and compare and contrast.


  1. jdc325 said,

    If you have any interesting examples of the response to criticism from the AltMed community then please feel free to post them here in the comments section.


  2. dvnutrix said,

    That really is quite a depressing litany, isn’t it?

    Let us not forget Patrick Holford’s email to Holford Myths asking whom he should sue, should he wish.

    The Di Bella Multitherapy was bogged down in various legal actions and accusations of suppression, of course.

    Ben Goldacre has blogged about the actual suppression of a review of Evening Primrose Oil written by proper academics.

    In 1990, two academics had their review of the data binned by the journal after Horrobin’s lawyers got involved. In 1995 the Department of Health commissioned a meta-analysis from a renowned epidemiologist. This included 10 unpublished studies held by the company which was marketing evening primrose oil. The ensuing scene was only fully described by Professor Hywel Williams a decade later (full quotes and references at The company erupted over a leak, and the Department of Health forced all authors and referees to sign written statements to reassure the company. They were not allowed to publish their report. Alternative therapy, the peoples’ medicine! It has since been shown that evening primrose oil is not effective in eczema, and it has lost its medicines license.

    Actually, there are quite a few examples but it is making me feel sad and sorry for now so I shall save some for when I’m feeling stronger.

  3. jdc325 said,

    Thanks dvnutrix – I should have remembered the Horrobin affair. I thought I had remembered all of Holford’s threatening legal (or pseudo-legal, at least) letters & emails, so thanks also for pointing me to the Holford Myths post including their communication from cher Patrique.

  4. Sceric said,

    Isn’t that exactly what you expect from believe-based systems? Witch/warlock hunts?
    Besides the companies that are making good money from water w/o ingredients or one-shot vaccines, which need to protect their customer base from beeing enligthened.

  5. Patrick Holford on Andrew Wakefield: He Needs to Issue an Update « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science said,

    […] (the coverage of Dr Ben Goldacre and Catherine Collins, inter alia). When one considers that Holford has form for writing angry letters and is hypersensitive to criticism it is not that odd that people might be wary of being identified through their membership details. […]

  6. Mojo said,

    Remember also Clarence House’s complaint against Edzard Ernst. See the last couple of paragraphs of this story for example:

  7. jdc325 said,

    Good example Mojo – thanks. I like DC’s coverage of the affair.

    Prof Ernst was doing exactly what academics are meant to do. As a result he was subjected to a very prolonged disciplinary procedure, and for a year it was not obvious whether he’d keep his job. For a Prince, in a constitutional monarchy, to put pressure on a university to silence a conspicuously honest academic is just not acceptable.

  8. draust said,

    Ah yes, the thin skin, huff and bluster and recourse (or at least threat of recourse) to M’Learned Friends. All tediously familiar.

    Being named (as in “please could you copy this letter to these folks and tell them not to repeat the mean things you have said about me”) on Dear Patrick’s threatening letter to David Colquhoun ranks as one of my proudest moments as an anonymous internet grumbler. It’s there in my scrapbook, along with the various occasions I have been accused of actually BEING David Colquhoun or Ben Goldacre behind an alias (high compliments IMHO), and that time Some Aussie Bloke wrote a harrumphing editorial article quoting all of us BadScience lurkers by our noms-de-blog and chiding us for being nasty about his journal’s legendary foray into po-mo bollocks.

    The Holmes et al “Microfascism” paper, note, has since been quoted approvingly by sundry Alt.Reality types to support their assertion that asking them to back their claims with evidence constitutes unfair-to-Alt.Reality nastiness.


  9. jdc325 said,

    “I have been accused of actually BEING David Colquhoun or Ben Goldacre behind an alias (high compliments IMHO)”
    Absolutely! The assumption that DC or BG would use an alias is a weird one, but not all that uncommon. I think it may be attractive to some to think that all pseudoscience bloggers either are Ben Goldacre or are somehow controlled by Ben Goldacre. It’s a conspiracy, I tells ya.

  10. All The Way up To Eleven… Beware The Spinal Trap « jdc325's Weblog said,

    […] Previous posts I’ve written: on Legal chill and Alt Med responses to criticism. […]

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