Dr Briffa on Athletic Ancients

October 23, 2009 at 10:04 pm (Books, Briffa) (, , , , , , )

While browsing Dr John Briffa’s blog today, I stumbled upon this recent post. [Backup here: http://backupurl.com/6u8x3z.##] Brilliantly, Briffa’s post seems to be based entirely upon a Daily Mail article. No references to research are given and the only source he links to is the Mail.

The Mail article is about a book written by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister. Dr Briffa# seems to be relying on (a) the Daily Mail accurately reporting the content of McAllister’s book and (b) the content of McAllister’s book being well-researched as well as accurately reported. Can you guess what the punchline is yet? First I will discuss my concerns about the way the Mail and Dr Briffa have approached this story.

Journalists, as Nick Davies points out in Flat Earth News, regularly write articles that show no sign of key facts having been checked – this is hardly conducive to writing accurate articles, although I am not sure we should blame journalists for this. The environment in which they work seems to promote churnalism, possibly because it is deemed by newspaper owners to be more economical than journalism. If considerably less reliable.

I would point out that it is unwise to ever assume accuracy when reading (of all papers) the Daily Mail – and that it is also unwise to rely on the content of a book one hasn’t read (or a book that fails to cite its sources). If Dr Briffa had checked the information provided by the Daily Mail by, say, looking up relevant academic papers then he might have been rather more cautious.*

Briffa points out that he is “a big believer in using our ancient past to inform our modern-day dietary and lifestyle habits”, discusses the claims of 20,000 year-old footprints that apparently “[reveal] that ancient [Indigenous Australians] were capable of running at 23 miles an hour”, claims that these ancient athletes “might even beat [Usain Bolt] at a canter” and goes on to use the Daily Mail’s report of McAllister’s book to claim that farming:

may well have been a huge retrograde step in terms of our health and wellbeing

One relevant paper looks at human footprints from about 20,000 years ago and, as well as including appropriate cautions about interpretation, claims that the “most impressive track in terms of speed” is estimated at roughly 20 kilometres per hour – somewhat lower than the claimed 23 miles per hour that Dr Briffa seems to have got from the book, but perhaps via the Daily Mail’s article.

And those cautions? Well, the authors explain that they first “calculated a conversion factor for extrapolating stature from foot length” and later calculated the “approximate speeds that the people making the trackways were traveling […] using a regression equation derived from measurements […] for a sample of twelve male recreational distance runners” and here comes the caveat:

Estimates of velocity derived from this equation should clearly be interpreted cautiously, as stride lengths at a given speed will be modified by variables such as leg length and body mass.

The Daily Mail article does not seem to carry similar caveats in their reporting of the book. Dr Briffa does not seem to mention any caveats or possible concerns in his report of the Daily Mail’s report of a book (that he makes no mention of having read himself). The failure to discuss the nature of such research – specifically, issues that should be addressed when communicating this research to the public – would normally bother me. In this case, though, there seem to be larger concerns.

* Here is a version of the paper I quoted from earlier, that is apparently the source for claims regarding the speed of the Indigenous Australians in question: linky. Here is an alternative PDF – I found it having googled for “Journal of Human Evolution 50 (2006) 405e413”. The reason I did this was because the author of the book apparently turned up on the xkcd forum and stated that the claim regarding speed came from Steve Webb’s research, citing this PDF as the relevant research. If the commenter on the xkcd forum really was Peter McAllister, then it appears that all the claims for these rather athletic Indigenous Australians running at 23mph rest on research that found they ran at 20kph. Oh dear Peter McAllister, oh dear Daily Mail, and oh dear Dr Briffa.

This is why fact-checking is important – and why it is also important to cite sources. If we accept claims without checking them, or if somebody makes a claim without citing their source for that claim, then how can we possibly know whether the claim has any validity?


Note: Although it appears in the Daily Mail article and Briffa’s post, I have changed “Aboriginals” to “Indigenous Australians” wherever it appears in this post (including direct quotes). Apparently, “Aboriginal” is deemed to be a derogatory term.

H/T to mp42; crowey from the Bad Science forum. Thank you for linking to the story – and to the xkcd forum.

H/T to Pez Dispens3r for asking Peter McAllister for the source of his claim (on the xkcd forum).


Here are some more recent posts from Dr Briffa: mobie phone use linked with tumours, which is cached at: http://backupurl.com/a7cv8r (the sources Briffa links to are (a) himself and (b) the Telegraph – who are reporting on an unpublished study); adverse effects of drugs, which is cached at: http://backupurl.com/akxnid.

Briffa’s decision to cite himself and a newspaper report about an unpublished study will come as no surprise to anyone who has read the comments thread following this post: http://www.drbriffa.com/blog/2007/02/26/347/, in which he writes “I have never claimed that my work is evidence-based.” This post can also be found here: Google cache and here: http://backupurl.com/k4kjx2

And into November: tea and stress, backed up at http://backupurl.com/ryiu26; high-protein diets and bones, backed up at http://backupurl.com/v2y7cg; and dark chocolate, backed up at http://backupurl.com/ag287c (the third of the these latest posts is about chocolate and skin damage – see NHS Choices for sensible discussion of the research: here).

# Dr Briffa is a “practising doctor, author and international speaker”.

## There appears to have been some sort of cock up on Briffa’s site and the link to his post on the Manthropology claim now goes to a post on mobile phone use. The backupurl link is still working at the time of writing, and here is a PDF of the backupurl cache: Could our ancient ancestors… [Updated 10/10/10]


  1. LeeT said,

    When I first discovered Dr Briffa’s website, read his biography and saw his photograph I thought it was all a joke. There was a particularly amusing post a year or two ago on why we should not drink tap water. I am still waiting for the post where he says, “Ha, ha you stupid dim wits. Had you going there. You didn’t think I really believed any of this stuff?

  2. jdc325 said,

    Comment I left on Briffa’s blog:

    I wonder if Dr Briffa could comment on the revelation that the claim (taken from the Daily Mail’s article about the Manthropology book) about Indigenous Australians travelling at speeds of 23mph apparently came from a paper that actually found a top speed of 20 kilometres per hour?

    I would be interested to know whether Dr Briffa has made any attempt to verify the information published by the Daily Mail.

    I’d also be interested in hearing whether Dr Briffa has read the book himself, or whether he considers the reporting in the Daily Mail to be sufficiently reliable to act as a source for claims made by a Dr blogging about nutrition?

    ETA: http://www.drbriffa.com/blog/2009/10/23/could-our-ancient-ancestors-have-given-todays-champion-athletes-a-run-for-their-money/#comment-160350

  3. jdc325 said,

    Thank you for commenting. I believe Dr Aust covered Dr Briffa’s tap water bloggery over at http://draust.wordpress.com/

  4. draust said,

    Cheers jdc. always grateful for a chance to plug my own work:

    Drinking water – or bathing in it – can be fatal (not)

  5. LeeT said,

    “farming – an event he describes as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” I’m inclined to agree with McAllister: what may appear at first sight to have been a leap forward in terms of the development of human civilisation, may well have been a huge retrograde step in terms of our health and wellbeing.”

    Now he really is having a laugh. The implication of that statement is that we should all become hunter-gatherers. However, if you pointed that out to him he would say that was not what he meant and you had missed the point. I would love to know what the point was ……

  6. colmcq said,

    doesn’t Usain Bolt have a diet of nothing more than fried chicken? oh dear.

  7. colmcq said,

    “Relative nutritional newcomers (such as refined sugar and vegetables oils, grain and milk),”

    would that include breast milk?

    epic, epic fail.

  8. jdc325 said,

    I could see my comment on Briffa’s blog, but it has now disappeared. I also appear to be blocked from viewing his blog from my home computer and have to go to the library if I want to read it. I will email him and see if I can find out why.

  9. jdc325 said,

    Email now sent:


    A comment I left on your blog post about the Manthropology book seems to be missing. Please can you confirm whether it is being held in moderation, or whether it has been deleted?

    Also – I now seem to be having trouble accessing your site from my home computer. Please can you confirm whether I have been blocked from viewing your website?


  10. jdc325 said,

    @ colmcq, draust, LeeT

    Thank you all for commenting.

  11. jdc325 said,

    Amazon review:

    Dr Briffa makes recommendations that are not based on evidence.

    To pick just one example: Dr Briffa points out that children who seem more prone to coughs, colds and congestion may have a sensitivity to dairy food. Briffa also claims that if this is the case, it can lead to an increase in mucus production. This seems to be based on the popular belief that dairy food is mucus-forming. However, it has been reported in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (JACN) that: “milk consumption does not lead to mucus production or occurrence of asthma.” The authors of the JACN paper also point out that: “Milk and milk products are the main source of calcium in the diet, and they contain eight additional essential nutrients. Needless avoidance of dairy products can lead to limited intakes of these essential nutrients.” [Reference: Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 24, No. 90006, 547S-555S (2005)]

    Briffa also recommends that parents could seek guidance from a nutritionist.
    Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. This title is not protected and practitioners are not regulated. There is no requirement for nutritionists to hold recognised qualifications. Those properly-qualified in nutrition are called dietitians and these practitioners are regulated.

    That Briffa makes recommendations that are not based on evidence will come as no surprise to those who have read his blog. Particularly as Briffa has said, on his own blog: “I have never claimed that my work is evidence-based.”

  12. LeeT said,

    Shouldn’t you have started your email “Dear Dr Briffa”? That’s the title of his website and how he appears to want to be addressed.

    Not sure why as I thought the convention in this country was that only those working in medicine and academia had the right to be called “Dr” …

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