A recent article in the BMJ attracted comment from the drearily ubiquitous John Stone (known to some as “the Pope of Jabs”). This comment on competing interests reminded me of Patrick Holford’s foray into the rabid responses section.
Holford and Colquhoun
In curry cures cancer, I briefly mentioned Patrick Holford’s failure to declare his competing interests and his untrue assertions regarding the competing interests of Professor David Colquhoun.
As reported by HolfordWatch, Holford receives royalties and payments for books, seminars, and food supplements and “when writing to and for the BMJ, such interests need to be declared – in order to maintain transparency”. These competing interests are clearly relevant and should have been declared to the BMJ.
Holford went on to argue that since he doesn’t run an Indian restaurant he didn’t feel there were any conflicts involved in recommending curry. Holford’s HealthProductsForLife, though, was at the time selling curcumin/turmeric supplements.
Having failed to declare relevant competing interests and unconvincingly argued that such interests did not exist, Holford also thought it wise to point out Prof Colquhoun’s “competing interests and financial involvement with the pharmaceutical industry”.
This was not so wise a move as Holford imagined. Mainly because Prof Colquhoun’s research has never been funded by the drug industry, but always by the Medical Research Council or by the Wellcome Trust. See HolfordWatch for more detail.
Harris and Stone
The competing-interest-by-proxy that Stone is so interested in is hardly relevant. Harris senior’s interests are his own – not his son’s.
Writing about competing interests is something I find deadly dull. I don’t really care what Evan Harris’s dad did, whether John Stone’s child has been to the Royal Free, or whether someone’s auntie once met someone who knew an employee of GSK.
We have had a scandalous public health scare sparked by Andrew Wakefield and inflamed by the press, and have seen unethical behaviour that merited Mr Andrew Wakefield being struck off by the GMC. These issues are far more important and more interesting than the ever more tenuous links dug up by the drearily ubiquitous John Stone. If the best he can do is “Evan Harris knows his own father”, perhaps he should give it a rest.
Here are the edited ‘highlights’ of the response I sent to the BMJ regarding the tenuous claims of competing interests in the case of Dr Evan Harris:
Mr Stone states that Dr Harris “…failed to mention [the unremunerated Industry and Parliament Trust Fellowship programme] when introducing the House of Commons debate on this topic on 15 March 2004”, but as I understand it the parliamentary rules are such that an IPT fellowship neither did at that time nor now does (even since rules were tightened) need to be declared. […] Mr Stone seems to believe that it is clear that Dr Harris should have declared his unregistrable interest. I beg to differ. In referring to “contact with senior executives”, Mr Stone appears to imply that merely meeting someone would represent a conflict of interest. Again, I beg to differ.
Dr Harris, according to Stone, “disclosed in the 2004 debate, but not here, that his father (Frank Harris) was a recently retired professor of paediatrics”. It was necessary in neither case. Mr Stone further states that Evan Harris “has not disclosed on either occasion that his father sat on the Committee on Safety in Medicines”. Stone, though, fails to explain why Harris senior’s work with the Committee on Safety in Medicines should be listed as a competing interest by Harris junior. […]
It is perhaps also worth noting that as “UK editor, Age of Autism”, and a member of the anti-vaccination lobby that has campaigned so vociferously against MMR, John Stone might be said to have “a strong antipathy to persons whose interests may be affected by publication [of his response]”. […]
The Age of Autism website has consistently published articles which claim or imply that MMR causes autism, and has also published articles that imply a conspiracy around MMR involving “improper relations between government and industry” (the quote comes from this piece written by John Stone: “Scandalous history of MMR in the UK”).
The Age of Autism article I refer to above also contains the information that the person who commissioned Deer’s articles was the son of somebody who sat on the Committee on Safety of Medicines. Mr Stone seems overly interested in familial relationships, while paying insufficient attention to major financial competing interests – for example, Mr Andrew Wakefield’s competing interest to the tune of £50,000 that was apparently not declared at the submission of the Lancet paper.
It seems that whether it is MMR or a competing interest that is the subject of discussion, the anti-vaccination lobby highlight poor quality evidence and tenuous links, while ignoring well-conducted research and quite blatant conflicts of interest.
One thing I failed to note in my rabid response was John Stone’s previous statement to the effect that his child “has been seen at the Royal Free hospital paediatric gastro-enterology department but […] has not been diagnosed as suffering suspected MMR vaccine damage” and that Stone has “a deep ‘interested’ concern in the cause(s) of the rise in autism generally”. John Stone believes that there is “an epidemic of autism” and that this “epidemic” has been caused by MMR. He is wrong.
Like Holford, Stone is somewhat one-eyed in his view of competing interests. Both fail to see clear competing interests for what they are, while imagining competing interests in others. I would liken their approach to competing interests to the nature of the mimosaphant.
A mimosaphant is “a creature with the delicacy of a mimosa when its own sensitivities are threatened, but the grace of an elephant when dealing with the sensitivities of others”.
By contrast, the holfordstone sees a conflict of interest in every chance meeting and every family relationship when those chance meetings and family relationships involve opponents, while ignoring the very real and not insignificant financial competing interests of those in their own camp.