Questionable research, inaccurate conclusions, poor taste

Professor David Colquhoun of UCL has formally apologised to Chris Woollams for suggesting that he made money from his work for the charity CANCERactive. The apology will run on Professor Colquhoun’s homepage of the site ‘DC’s Improbable Science’, and will be communicated electronically to all his followers. This apology has avoided a libel case against Colquhoun with significant potential costs and damages.

‘In the worst possible taste’

Chairman of the CANCERactive Trustees, Larry Brooks, said that any inference that Chris Woollams was making money from the death of his own daughter, Catherine, ‘beggars belief’, was ‘simply atrocious’ and ‘in the worst possible taste’.‘Chris’ daughter Catherine died from a brain tumour; no orthodox medicine cures this disease. But Chris and Catherine discovered a lot of natural compounds and treatments that could prolong her life. Catherine wanted a magazine in Hospitals that told people their options; Chris was asked by Doctors at St Thomas’ Hospital to write down what he had found out. Chris and Catherine founded icon; he wrote a bestselling book; the charity is ten years old and has a Medical Board of Oncologists and Doctors overseeing content. 3600 pages of possible causes, orthodox therapies and complementary and alternative options. Over 1.3 million people came to the site this year and the hits are growing all the time. A dozen or more Oncologists have written articles for us in the last few months – it’s all a tribute to Chris and Catherine’s efforts.

Chris’ own philanthropy, plus the profits from all of his books, writings and speeches, make a significant contribution to the charity, the magazine icon and the website for CANCERactive. Chris works tirelessly for no financial reward. While patients praise him for his efforts and generosity, ‘Skeptics’ like Colquhoun make crass and ridiculous accusations. In my view UCL should now give some serious thought to the future employment of Colquhoun. Is this really the sort of individual who should be setting standards for the young at our Universities?’

Chris was forced to threaten a libel action after Colquhoun posted the second of two potentially defamatory blogs on his ‘DC’s Improbable Science’ website. In 2006 he had suggested Chris had set up the CANCERactive site for personal gain but removed the offending comments when Chris explained he had set up the Charity in memory of his daughter. Chris explained then that he originally funded the site to the tune of 150,000 pounds so that all people with cancer might benefit. Colquhoun even replied at the time that he ‘did not have that sort of money’.

Repeated inaccuracy

The new attacks came after Charity patron Janice Day had pointed out numerous inaccuracies in the original DC’s Improbable Science blog. Rather than correct the inaccuracies, Colquhoun, a known ‘Skeptic’, chose to attack the charity again calling some of its claims ‘absurd’, and then referred his readers to the website of an “independent consultant” (who writes under an assumed name), whom Colquhoun lauded as being “very interesting” having supposedly looked into Chris’ business affairs. As a result Colquhoun suggested that Charity law preventing use of charities for private gain was being broken, which, if true would of course put the charity’s charitable status at risk. Despite Chris then detailing, yet again, that he had never taken a penny from the charity but made significant annual donations to it (which were a matter of public record), that a former ‘sister company’, Health Issues, was still in his debt, and that the ‘research’ into his business affairs was nothing of the sort, Colquhoun chose to run Chris’ comments but continued with his own wild claims. Chris threatened to sue for libel. Colquhoun appointed lawyers, the whole blog was removed immediately and he has now apologised to Chris.

Is this what we should expect from a Professor of Science at UCL?

Of the settlement, Chris Woollams said ‘Frankly, can anybody now trust a word this man says when he seems prepared just to quote any old bit of ‘research’ from someone with no relevant qualifications, takes no steps (so far as I know) to check its accuracy, including the most basic step of asking me to comment before publication and worse, uses it to draw completely ludicrous and inaccurate conclusions? Then when his mistakes are pointed out – as could have been confirmed if he had made proper enquiries – he continues to blindly run the original accusations!

In this instance he has been uncovered and had to apologise. But in other areas outside his expertise of pharmacology (the study of drugs) – like nutrition and oncology where he frequently pontificates – how can anyone now believe his claims there hold any credibility either? The use, and even praise of this type of ‘research’, extrapolated to draw false conclusions which he persists with even though his errors are pointed out to him – is this what we should expect from a Professor of Science?

But then isn’t this example true of almost all the skeptics? A cocktail of computer programmers, journalists, geologists with the occasional physics degree thrown in, all ‘judging’ the merits of nutrition, complementary and alternative therapies when they have neither qualification nor research expertise in the specialist field. Some even ‘advise patients’ through their websites and blogs. Many attack complementary therapies and therapists, often in a deliberate and concerted effort. When Colquhoun stood accused, several rushed, unthinkingly, to his defence, proclaiming that I was trying to stop a scientific debate through the law courts. They all missed the truth – but can they read accurately? Tweets gushed between Colquhoun, Simon Singh, Josephine Jones, Guy Chapman and others. One asked if the recipient could find inaccuracy in the CANCERactive website. Oh dear. So some then started writing verbose and inaccurate drivel about CANCERactive with others even contributing to Colquhoun’s defence costs on ‘Just Giving’! One wrote that she ‘didn’t always agree with what he said but she defended his right to say it!’ His right to inaccurately suggest a father was profiting from his own daughter’s death? This was never a debate about science but about decency. Shame on you all.

Skeptics proclaim they are somehow ‘protecting patients’ when in reality, many patients have now wised up to their misleading and potentially life-shortening and even life-threatening antics with ignorant claims against nutrition and complementary therapies. The American Cancer Society 2012 research report (now endorsed by the NCI in America) talks of an ‘explosion’ in research into complementary therapies since 2006, and the spokesperson talked of ‘overwhelming’ evidence that complementary therapies such as diet, exercise and weight control could increase survival times and even prevent a cancer returning. Is this really the sort of knowledge we should be keeping from people with cancer? When will Skeptics wise up to the potential harm they are doing?

Colquhoun’s apology is sadly yet more evidence of the misleading and vacuous opinions of skeptics at large’.

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