Trial By Error: Professor Sharpe’s Retraction Requests

By David Tuller, DrPH

After this month’s release of the Health Research Authority’s PACE analysis, Professor Michael Sharpe sent e-mails to at least two US publications requesting a retraction or major correction of critical articles. Professor Sharpe’s e-mails accused the writers involved of suggesting that PACE was “fraudulent.” This accusation was not true.

In both cases, the writers had accurately described the PACE investigators’ misleading presentations of the data. In both cases, editors have rejected Professor Sharpe’s request.

Professor Sharpe appears to be hyping the HRA report as a full-scale vindication of PACE. In doing so, he is ignoring the limits of the agency’s purview. In its letter, the HRA itself noted that its remit is to focus on regulatory matters, such as the process of obtaining ethical approvals, and not on the quality of the science.

I have some real issues with the HRA analysis. But I was pleased at least that the letter, in explaining what it was and was not examining, specifically encouraged the continuation of robust debate about PACE. Professor Sharpe does not seem to have received that message.

One of the publications that heard from Professor Sharpe was STAT, the savvy Boston-based health and medical site. In 2016, shortly after Queen Mary University of London released the PACE data, STAT published an excellent piece by journalist and patient Julie Rehmeyer, who chronicled her own illness in Through the Shadowlands: A Science Writer’s Odyssey. Julie’s STAT article cited the newly released PACE data as evidence that the study’s dramatic outcome-switching—or rather outcome-weakening–led to better-looking results.

Nothing in last week’s HRA letter refutes the facts discussed in Julie’s STAT article. Yet here’s the e-mail Professor Sharpe sent to the publication (he also included links):

“You published an article in 2016 suggesting that research I was involved in was fraudulent. You may wish to know that following similar malicious allegations, the UK Health Research Authority has investigated the study. Their conclusions are published today.

I would like to formally request either that you retract the article in question or publish a prominent erratum in your journal.”

Poor Professor Sharpe. This sad little note says it all.

Julie’s piece was a meticulous account of patients’ successful efforts to unravel the mystery of how PACE participants could be “recovered” and “disabled” simultaneously on key measures. She did not suggest the research to be “fraudulent.” She documented the investigators’ questionable methodological choices—which happened to allow them to report more attractive results than would otherwise have been possible.

Nor does the piece contain errors that require correcting. It contains opinions and interpretations with which Professor Sharpe strongly disagrees. He has the right to find what Julie wrote to be distasteful and offensive. And Julie has the right to express thoughts that Professor Sharpe might find distasteful and offensive. (Julie is a friend and professional colleague, and the STAT article included a favorable mention of my role in the PACE saga.)

To Professor Sharpe, questioning his shaky methodology can apparently be equated with calling his research “fraudulent.” Noting that a study violates basic scientific principles can be compared to making “malicious allegations.” In a similar vein, Professor Esther Crawley appeared to believe my blogs were “libellous” because she disliked my harsh assessments of her research. (At least that was my assumption; since she never explained what she meant, I don’t really know.)

Professor Sharpe’s demand for a retraction or a “prominent erratum” was an act of hubris–an overreach based on what seem to be long-standing distortions in his perceptions of reality and surprising limitations in his understanding of proper scientific conduct. STAT rejected Professor Sharpe’s request.

The other news organization that received a similar message from Professor Sharpe was The Conversation. In that case, his complaint involved a piece by Steven Lubet, a Northwestern University law professor and an expert in legal ethics. (Professor Lubet is a friend and colleague who has written for Virology Blog; in one post, he defended me against Professor Sharpe’s publicly declared concerns about my crowdfunding.) Like STAT, The Conversation found Professor Sharpe’s request to have no merit.

I assume Professor Sharpe likely knew beforehand about the public release of the HRA letter; the Science Media Centre seemed to post statements from him and two other pro-PACE “experts” within short order. Perhaps Professor Sharpe harbored hopes or expectations that the document would revive the declining fortunes of the GET/CBT ideological brigades. But no amount of spinning the HRA letter will ultimately save PACE from its most perfect fate: As a classic case study of bad research in epidemiology courses and textbooks.

Under ordinary reporting circumstances, I would have touched base with Professor Sharpe to ask why he thought sending out such notices was a good idea and whether he tried to contact more than two publications. These aren’t ordinary reporting circumstances.

(I’ve co-written two pieces for STAT, neither discussed in this article. My co-author on the first was Julie Rehmeyer, and on the second Professor Lubet. Professor Sharpe has not yet requested a retraction/correction for either of these two stories.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jezz 18 February 2019, 3:57 am

    It is sad that Professor Michael Sharpe’s ego is more important than the hundreds of thousands of M.E sufferers he is harming.

  • Maggie Smith 18 February 2019, 4:45 am

    I am surprised that Prof Sharpe’s letter had so little substance. He doesn’t engage with specifics, maybe because he can’t so he goes for a broad unspecific approach, which appears weak to me.

  • Couch Turnip 18 February 2019, 5:01 am

    Poor Professor Sharpe.

  • Paul Fox 18 February 2019, 6:19 am

    On its website, the UK Health Research Authority’s website states that its Chair, Sir Jonathan Montgomery is “Professor of Health Care Law at University College London”.

    Among many worrying statements by Prof Montgomery in his letter to Norman Lamb is:

    “It is not clear what ‘personal gain’ the investigators stood to make from the trial and, in particular, it is not clear how any remuneration they received from advisory roles would have been different depending on the outcome of the trial.

    Given that the REC was aware of the competing interests that are regarded by some critics as giving rise to a conflict of interest, and that they approved the trial including the PIS, it is not appropriate to criticise the researchers for non-disclosure.”

    How a professor of healthcare law can seriously claim to be unaware of where conflicts can lead is unfathomable. Why does he think rules on conflict of interest were devised in the first place? Does he, and do the HRA, not understand that among the reasons for these rules has to be the perception (at the very least) that relationships with consultee-companies might depend on decisions (conscious or subconscious) during trials being favourable to paymasters? Does they not realise that the rules are not simply to be disregarded at the behest of a researcher?

    David Tuller rightly says, “I assume Professor Sharpe likely knew beforehand about the public release of the HRA letter; the Science Media Centre seemed to post statements from him and two other pro-PACE “experts” within short order…” (https://www.hra.nhs.uk/about-us/who-we-are/our-board-members/professor-jonathan-montgomery/) The determination to defend the PACE authors apparent in Prof Montgomery’s letter raises serious questions about the HRA’s own independence.

  • Janet Maclennan 18 February 2019, 8:34 am

    ..sounds like Prof. Sharpe has a guilty conscience!

  • jimells 18 February 2019, 8:55 am

    “It is not clear what ‘personal gain’ the investigators stood to make from the trial”

    Perhaps someone should inform the Professor of Health Care Law that there is a way to make it clear: a proper investigation using legal processes like discovery. I wonder if he has heard of them…

  • Richard Vallee 18 February 2019, 10:10 am

    It is indeed not true that the articles Sharpe sought to retract suggest that PACE is fraudulent, they merely present the facts as they stand. That Sharpe considers the facts to suggest that PACE is fraudulent is telling that he understands that it is, in major part because Sharpe and his colleagues have massively overstated what the study showed, touting a cure for those who wanted when the underlying data clearly showed a null result, despite every effort made to maximize bias and cherry-pick non-ME participants.

    That Sharpe find reasonable to make such attempts, which had no chance of success, is telling as to his state of mind, perhaps an inability to distinguish fact from fiction of his own making. The HRA “investigation” did not address any of the serious concerns with PACE and as such adds absolutely no weight to his claims.

    How ironic though that Sharpe wants retraction of articles just because he doesn’t like what they say, when the man is still saying the same of critics of his shoddy work, ignoring the substance of flaws raised by professionals and patients. I believe this is called psychological projection, something the professor might want to address in his own unhelpful beliefs about illness.

    Any person who can invent a fake disease to discredit a real one is a disgrace to the medical profession. Sharpe will have earned his legacy as a medical saboteur, having chosen to destroy millions of lives out of mere gut feeling. What a sad troll of an unserious man.

  • Wendy Boutilier 18 February 2019, 2:19 pm

    The Psychiatric Collaborative created a form of ‘injustice’ which has resulted in “malpractice and negligence” by enforcing unwanted and harmful treatments. This will continue to be the focus of bitter debate and why psychiatry itself has become such a significant field of contention, for everyone involved in this particular community.

  • Carmel Cunningham 19 February 2019, 6:02 am

    I wish our health came before Mr Sharpe’s ego. Thank you David

  • Peter Trewhitt 19 February 2019, 8:38 am

    I want to thank Prof Sharpe for drawing my attention to both these important articles that I had not previously read.

    Let’s hope his rather foolish intervention will also encourage more people to read these articles and understand more of the many problems with the PACE research. If Prof Sharpe is unable to understand this issues these articles raise, perhaps his colleagues might advise him to keep quiet rather than repeatedly shoot himself in the foot.

  • Kesm 21 February 2019, 9:37 pm

    I think one of the reasons the psychiatric profession are unable to see the flaws in their research is that they are so used to manipulating patient data on a daily basis in clinic that manipulation seems entirely normal to them. Unlike a blood test result or ultrasound they use very woolly tools. They carry out assessments without using any tools at all beyond their personal judgment, which is a narcissist’s dream job. When they do use assessment tools and don’t like the results they simply override them – great if they want to discredit a client complaint – just delete the assessment questionnaire results. So many of their assessment tools are rubbish anyway. You have ridiculous things like the HADS depression score that considers there to be no other possible reason why a person might ‘feel slowed down’ besides depression. Never mind the fact that I had a broken foot and was on crutches at the time the CFS clinic carried out this questionnaire. That gave me 3 points for depression, lol, because as everyone knows, people on crutches are fast movers. Whether they purposefully come up with such crud or whether they are so blinkered that they can’t see beyond their own discipline (which is a problem in medicine generally) who knows.