Trial By Error: Bristol’s Report Due Soon; My Oxford Talk

By David Tuller, DrPH

A day of reckoning could be coming for Bristol University and Professor Esther Crawley, the ethically challenged pediatrician whose work has come under official scrutiny (that is, under scrutiny from people with greater authority than me) on multiple fronts. According to the Health Research Authority, the National Health Service unit that oversees research ethics (or in this case, the lack of research ethics), Bristol’s supposedly “independent” investigation of Professor Crawley’s decision to exempt multiple studies from ethical review on the questionable grounds that they were “service evaluation” is due out this week–more than three months late. That’s on top of the massive “correction/clarification” posted in July by Archives of Disease in Childhood about the methodological violations involved in the conduct and reporting of the pediatric study of the woo-woo Lightning Process.

I have written dozens of blog posts about these two egregious studies. Instead of acting like a bonafide Russell Group university and addressing serious questions about breaches of the scientific process by high-profile investigators, Bristol has generally taken a more Sopranos-like approach by complaining about my “behaviour” to my own academic institution. The university agreed to undertake this current review of Professor Crawley’s studies only after being pressed to do so by the HRA, which took my concerns seriously. I am extremely curious to see how Bristol will choose to explain the anomalies of these purported “service evaluation” studies. (I have discussed at length elsewhere the differences between “research,” which requires ethical review, and “service evaluation,” which does not.)

In the case of the dung-heap otherwise known as the Lightning Process trial, BMJ has engaged in what I consider to be editorial misconduct in “correcting” and “clarifying” the study while leaving the original findings intact. The decision to republish the exact same results can only be regarded as a self-serving and craven effort to avoid accountability for having published this nonsense in the first place. My presumption is that, with the upcoming report, Bristol will try to protect itself and Professor Crawley in similar fashion. That would be unfortunate, but my expectations are low. Perhaps I will be surprised and the “independent” investigation will turn out to have been independent after all.

In the school absence study, at least, the violations are shocking. If any experienced investigator actually believes she has the right to interview more than 100 minors and their families without any ethical review, she has no place being involved in research at all. And certainly the senior author of such a research paper has no place being the lead author for Cochrane’s new risk of bias tool. I cannot stress enough how disturbing it is to many distinguished researchers that investigators from Bristol have engaged in such behavior, and that their missteps have been enabled and endorsed by one of Britain’s most renowned publishers of medical research. My colleagues at Berkeley and elsewhere cannot fathom why BMJ and its editorial director, Dr Fiona Godlee, are choosing to engage in actions that demonstrate such indifference to their own professed scientific standards, not to mention the health and well-being of children.

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In any event, I thought my October 19th talk in Oxford (not at Oxford) went pretty well–thanks to the Oxfordshire ME Group for Action, or OMEGA, for organizing it! During the talk, I noted that, as a public health professional, I have a right to share my thoughts on possible research and editorial misconduct. (I made sure to note as well that no one has deputized me to make such pronouncements in any official capacity–these are just my own opinions, although I know many other academics who share my views.) I pointed out that tearing up papers in public is a legitimate way of expressing those opinions. I also pointed out that there are legal remedies for libel and harassment, a fact well known to those who have accused me of such things.

And yes, I reprised my “signature” act of academic performance art–as a finale, I ripped up the Lightning Process paper and tossed the shreds in the air. Thanks to my friend and colleague Jonathan Edwards, professor emeritus at University College London, for providing me with the print-out! The video of the talk will be posted in the near future.

 

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Margaret Laverick 21 October 2019, 2:19 pm

    Dung heap spot on description. Thank you for your tenacity.

  • CT 21 October 2019, 2:35 pm

    Keeeeeeep tearing!

  • H.Holddworth 21 October 2019, 3:27 pm

    Thank you, Sir.

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt 21 October 2019, 3:31 pm

    I love how you’ve gotten bolder with each more-outrageous-and-egregious-than-the-previous incident. Performance art, indeed! Have a bit of fun with it, since you’re always careful to stay on the right side or the ethical and moral line.

    Wish I could have watched.

  • Paul Fox 21 October 2019, 3:34 pm

    Another excellent piece of work from Dr David Tuller. The video will make great viewing, there can be no doubt. As for the HRA, I hope for rather better than in respect of the PACE trial, in respect of which Prof (of Law) Montgomery, HRA Chair, said he couldn’t see how connections between the authors and relevant commercial interests could have influenced the “trial”.

  • jimells 21 October 2019, 3:34 pm

    Even if these studies are retracted, we will never be completely free from this psycho rubbish.

    I’ve been reading about another dirtbag named Hans Eysenck. [1] It’s very disturbing to think that old fraud Sigmund Freud is *still* “Most Frequently Cited in the Professional Psychological Journal Literature”. How is that even possible? Is an inability to think an entrance requirement for psychology and psychiatry programs?

    The scientific literature in many fields is now so polluted that I often think, why should I believe any of it is correct? The usual defenders of the status quo, like the Science Media Centre, would of course insist that my attitude is “anti-science” when the reality is I am anti- being lied to about nearly everything.

    [1] https://cosmosmagazine.com/society/is-this-one-of-the-worst-scientific-scandals-of-all-time

  • jimells 21 October 2019, 5:15 pm

    I have just finished reading the attached “LP Study Talk” document. I had forgotten that we have been agitating against this study since it was announced nearly a decade ago.

    During the past decade there has not been a single advance in treating the disease, no improvements in physician knowledge, no improvements in physician attitudes, no improvements in obtaining social benefits or how we are treated by society, and no adequate national research programs.

    Meanwhile no one can even tell us how many new cases or how many patients have died during the past decade.

    Eugenics never died. It is now so deeply ingrained in society that no one notices the social messages we get all day everyday that ME patients and other low-status people are “Useless Eaters” and should just do everyone a favor and kill themselves. The name I use for this new eugenics is “social apoptosis” (apoptosis = programmed cell death). But like a cancer cell that ignores cell apoptosis signals, I will continue to ignore social messages to die, for as long as I can stand it.

    So far as I can tell, social apoptosis has only been studied in honey bees. I might suggest that it would be a good topic for someone to study, except that research in this area would probably just be used to perfect its use on humans.

  • CT 22 October 2019, 4:32 am

    Paul Fox – I think you missed out a ‘Sir’ there. I think you’re referring to Professor SIR Jonathan Montgomery who was awarded a knighthood in the New Year’s Honour list for Services to Bioethics and Healthcare Law. I guess somebody must have thought that he had ‘something of the knight about him’.

  • Lady Shambles 22 October 2019, 6:29 am

    Firstly ‘Happy Birthday’ Trial by Error. Or rather ‘unhappy birthday’ given that Trial by Error’s ‘moment of conception’ happened when The Establishment mother-egg of supposedly reputable journals was impregnated by the seed of Bristol University’s favourite, ethically non-compliant sperm donor and before that by the spore of PACE’s Establishment-useful numpties. In terms of heritable DNA this child was never going to be healthy was it?

    Do I have any expectation that Bristol University will behave ethically and ‘do the right thing’ in this instance? Not by a jugful.

  • CT 22 October 2019, 4:11 pm

    By jugfuls, Lady Shambles, I think your hunch may have been correct.

  • Caroline Atkinson 23 October 2019, 9:37 am

    What a fabulous and informative talk. I am so pleased that someone (David) is trying to hold the medical Journals industry to a higher standard. They need to be responsible for their actions and aware of the far reaching consequences of their negligence. As far as I am concerned they have an ethical and moral duty to publish GOOD research. And when errors occur or research is questionable – they should make this known- immediately!
    However, as David’s reporting proves, this is simply not the case.
    I am appalled that, what I considered to be, one of the most prestigious British journals (The BMJ) is so far lacking in good conduct that patients are being put at risk.
    As for those researchers involved in these papers – I am deeply concerned that, rather than admit that there are serious issues with your work, you would endanger the lives of those on whom your research impacts.
    A huge thank you to you, David – I am so grateful to you for challenging the Scientific Journals and research industry. They need to be held accountable and quite frankly- do their job properly.
    It was a pleasure meeting you!
    Caroline

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