Jun 13 2007

Science Bloggers Unite: An Open Letter to the Provost of UCL

David Colquhoun, who writes the Improbable Science blog, wrote a recent entry in which he characterized (in what to me was typical British understatement) the claim that red clover “cleanses the blood” as “gobbledygook.” The Provost of University College London (UCL) where Dr. Colquhoun is a professor of pharmacology, received complaints from Alan Lakin, husband of Ann Walker, an herbalist who is a course director for New Vitality, whose website provided the “cleanses the blood” quote criticized by Colquhoun. He also received a complaint from the marketing director for the University of Reading, with whom Ann Walker has a one-tenth full time appointment as a lecturer.

In response to these complaints, Malcolm Grant, the Provost of UCL, asked Colquhoun to remove the Improbable Science blog from the UCL pharmacology website where it was hosted. (It has been moved to the location linked to above.) Dr. Grant defends this decision by saying that it was based upon advice from lawyers and that the blog entry opened UCL to liability.

Read through the website and decide for yourself. David Colquhoun uses his blog to educate the public about science and to attack nonsense and pseudoscience. Of course I stand in complete support and solidarity with Dr. Colquhoun in his efforts, and so should his university. Alternative medicine proponents, and others who sell pseudoscience, are quick to attack their critics, to try to silence them through intimidation, and to smear them with accusations of being closed-minded, protectionist, culturally insensitive, or even on the take. It is sad to see such intimidation work so easily, over so innocuous a blog entry.

This is a chronic threat faced by the skeptical movement. Uri Geller at one time sued CSICOP and James Randi, for example, and although he lost the case it had a chilling effect on the skeptical movement for years. The people that we criticize, whose false or unscientific claims we expose, are often con-artists and charlatans and they do not play fair, or even nice. Even when they are merely self-deluded ideologues, their respect for truth and academic freedom is often severely lacking.

Further, there is a struggle going on for the high ground of academic respectability. The proponents of pseudoscience tirelessly seek the trappings of legitimacy, and the holy grail of legitimacy is entry into the halls of academia. In the field of alternative medicine in particular they have been successful in infiltrating academia at all levels, and then using the attendant patina of legitimacy to sell their snake oil to the public.

That minority of scientists and academics who have the courage to point out that the emperor has no clothes come under attack by true believers as being biased, or even fanatics, and at times their academic freedoms are threatened. So while universities are allowing pseudoscientists into the gait, they are also kicking out real scientists who criticize the pseudoscience. The message is clear – nonsense is in and critical thinking is out, and the purveyors of nonsense are very adept at exploiting that fact as propaganda to promote their nonsense.

Below is an open letter from me to Dr. Grant, the UCL Provost. If Colquhoun’s own institution will not stand behind him, then at least his fellow science bloggers will.

Dr. Grant,

I am writing to express my disappointment in your decision to force Dr. Colquhoun to remove his blog from the UCL website. I have read your response to other complaints and I have also read the offending blog entry. Aside from the minor issue of copyright infringement, which was quickly and easily corrected, nothing in Dr. Colquhoun’s blog entry rises even remotely to the level of libel. The Improbable Science blog is an excellent resource for improving the public understanding of science, and Dr. Colquhoun should be commended for his efforts and supported by his institution.

I understand the need to protect UCL from liability but to acquiesce so quickly to such a frivolous complaint is to empower the promoters of dubious science to silence their critics. It is those critics who would defend the standards of legitimate science in the arena of public opinion and understanding. Your actions are yet another example of academia selling out to political correctness, of shrinking from defending quality science from vocal charlatans.

In my opinion and that of many others, science and academia are under attack by the forces of anti-science and irrationality. Will academic institutions like UCL stand in solidarity and defense of legitimate science, or will they cower and retreat at the slightest adversity?

The public is watching, and you have handed an easy and undeserved victory to the purveyors of nonsense. Your decision, if it is not remedied, will be used to defend pseudoscience and further marginalize those few who are earnestly trying to defend the integrity of science from this current cultural onslaught.


Steven Novella, MD
Assistant Professor of Neurology
Yale University School of Medicine

Fellow Science Blogger

Ben Goldacre from BadScience has also written in defense of David Colquhoun. Perhaps we need a campaign of letter and blog writing by the science blogger community. The issue is a critical one. Science bloggers are taking up the very important role of promoting the public understanding of science. We are closing a gap left wide open by the educational institutions of the world. Now some of those institutions won’t even defend us against those who are promoting the misunderstanding of science. It is time they are called to task for this failure.

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