Junking ‘Junk Science?’

I’ve become aware of David Colquhoun’s apology, posted on his DC’s Improbable Science, to Chris Woollams, founder of CANCERactive. I am not up to speed with the detailed history of their dispute, a legal matter between them on which I am unable to comment*. What I consider appropriate, however, is comment on some of the reaction to this: for example, the gloating, self-righteous opining at Junk Science?, whose editor, Sam Wilson

‘… openly detests the misleading or downright incorrect conclusions scientists and people working in the Health arena can make, especially when they have hidden agendas and/or vested interests.’

Who doesn’t? In itself, this reads noble enough. But do not allow your perception to be adumbrated by Wilson’s two scientific doctorates (so what?), or by Junk Science?‘s ‘mission statement’:

‘Our aim is simply to expose scientific rubbish, especially when it is used to form public opinion, maintain a status quo, and/or has vested interests and hidden agendas shaping the claims. We are especially concerned when good research evidence is denied or ignored.’

Who isn’t? However, a quick perusal round her site reveals its agenda – the promotion of complementary and alternative medicine as the legitimate medical science (or at least of equivalent legitimacy). For example, posts supporting QuackRag What Doctors Don’t Tell You and its shoddy endorsement of homeopathy; the anti-vaccination propagandist Mercola; not to mention a cornucopia of often confusing information on anything that has somewhere at sometime been somehow linked with some or other cancer.

Several Junk Science? posts are credited to Chris Woollams, who Wilson apparently holds in high regard. Relishing Colquhoun’s apology, she asserts that

‘… 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?’

His recent joint award of the inaugural Good Thinking UK Science Blog Prize aside, this needs balance somewhere (as Wilson seemingly doesn’t welcome comments on her posts). I’ve heard David Colquhoun speak, and taken interest in his tireless highlighting of all manner of pseudoscientific nonsense and shenanigans – including that perpetrated by individuals and institutions that ought to know better (which one might reasonably assume would be of interest to Junk Science?). I consider he performs an invaluable service that arguably ought to form part of all medical and science curricula; and I don’t see how any mistake he might have made in this particular instance discredits the vast body of his work.

The second half of Wilson’s post is given over to quoting Woollams, who lambasts Colquhoun for ‘pontificating’ outside his area of expertise – pharmacology – arguing that his opinions on nutrition and oncology hold no credibility. Opinions on nutrition? It is worth re-noting that there is no specific qualification required to comment on ‘nutrition.’ Anybody can posture as a ‘nutritionist’, and it is thus hypocritical to attack those who do not, simply because they challenge your challengeable statements on nutrition. And as a pharmacologist, is not Colquhoun qualified to comment on the merits of oncological drugs? Regardless of these considerations, Woollams takes the opportunity to brandish his disparaging brush, with which to tar ‘almost all the skeptics’ as

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.’

As he does (whilst boasting ‘… a wide range of contributors, from journalists to oncology professors in a spectrum of oncology fields.’) on his CANCERactive website:

‘Of course, it is also possible that these Skeptics have no research that shows we are inaccurate anyway. None who has attacked us so far is even an oncologist!’

From what I read, neither is Woollams himself an oncologist. Although he ‘read Biochemistry, including a time in cancer research’, he’s an advertising man. That he has amassed information on subject matter outside of his expertise is doubtless a commendable endeavour, reminiscent of Anni Matthews, who was also personally motivated to compile a not dissimilar resource for cancer sufferers. However, noble intent though this is, it does not automatically exempt its mover from due criticism. Yet Woollams is seemingly dismissive of such endeavour on the part of educated laypersons who happen to disagree with aspects of the information he provides. Such ignoramuses are not to be taken seriously, apparently.

Anni Matthews’s book interleaved worthwhile cancer information with apparent recommendations of many unproven/disreputable CAM ‘treatments.’ Such compiling might seem all well and good but, whether wittingly or unwittingly, it effectively legitimises an awful lot of quackery. As does CANCERactive: take a look here for some of the usual suspects. And yet, Woollams claims to look to call out (his reinterpreted notion of) quackery, even though he gives it a great big open barn door.

Can we not perhaps perceive a pattern of double standards at work here? It is okay to be a non-specialist when endorsing Woollams’s chosen arguments; but if you ‘judge’ as a (non-)specialist, your opinion is dismissed with an ad hominem swat. Woollams argues the definition of what constitutes evidence, and to be fair (because I do try to be), he declares he has been critical of homeopathy and Gerson Therapy for lack of it… before then going on to validate the anecdotal, whilst declaring ‘… a social responsibility to try to cover the treatment objectively.’ (My emphasis in bold.)

So, what of this highly confusing informational morass? CANCERactive‘s Medical Board comprises (unnamed) ‘… expert oncologists, doctors and professors and experts in certain complementary cancer therapies.’ But the reiterated Disclaimer is, to my mind, acceptance that much of what is posted there is potentially misleading because it describes treatments that have not been proven to work. Yet, when sceptics call them out, they are dismissed tu quoque for being unable to prove that they don’t work. And flagrantly accused of seeking to block the provision of information to vulnerable cancer sufferers. CANCERactive, we are informed, is an information-only site; it does not give ‘advice’ – except, that is, the advice to always consult expert medical advice… precisely what the sceptic argues.

Back at Junk Science?, Woollams end-swipes:

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

Hmmm. Yet, when it comes to comment on the ‘vested interests’ of Big Pharma, hasn’t the rug been pulled from under CAM’s feet by the ‘misleading and vacuous opinions’ of that renowned sceptic, Ben Goldacre? Now, where was it I saw particularly good review and comment on his book? Oh yeah…


* Update: since posting, I’ve found more info on this here.

One response to “Junking ‘Junk Science?’

  1. As a well-read and thoroughly-trained practicing research scientist, I agree with you. JunkScience strikes me, in my opinion, as toxic to the popular interpretation of peer-review publication process. Additionally, I find the opinions of JunkScience to be biased and entrenched in the notion that if something seems a bit weird or unlikely then it must be junk. Research that goes against the dogma is, in fact, the foundation of discovery. The practice of science is revisionist where healthy (not hostile) scepticism is required. Further, to genuinely refute some bit (or field) research, there really needs to be a supporting argument…otherwise there is no dialogue and it’s just another wingnut loading the interweb with (more) bovine faecal matter.

    That being said, there is plenty of ‘junk’ being published on a daily basis. The realization of its ‘junk’ nature is not immediate though…the actual ‘junk’-like properties typically lie in the authors conclusions that often stem from unknown variables experimental context or false assumptions. To realise this all you need to do is pick up a really old science journal (the stuff from the 1800’s is great) and it becomes easy to see how their ‘modern’ understanding of their research subjects adversely coloured interpretations of data.

    At the same time, it is the data that doesn’t lie. Barring technical errors, old data (even the stuff from the 1800’s!) can still be useful and accurate. Personally, I love citing the oldest relevant article I can find at the beginning of my introductions because it provides the reader some perspective of how long people have been doing research in that area.


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