We’ve been looking over Damian Thompson’s fascinating new book Counterknowledge. Professor Patrick Holford of Teesside University is given a prominent role in Chapter 5: Thompson argues that Holford is
one of Britain’s most influential propagators of potentially dangerous counterknowledge. That does not mean that, by definition, he is a liar or a fraud: it means that he disseminates information that is untrue or that is unsupported by evidence. He certainly seems to believe his own bullshit. The problem is that so do countless thousands of other people.
Thompson looks – among other things – at Holford’s advocacy of Qlink pendants, dubious autism treatnents, and at Holford’s unjustified optimism about Vitamin C as an HIV/AIDS treatment and pessimism about vaccination.
Perhaps more biting, though, is Thompson’s critique of the ethics of this counterknowledge:
Holford is also the author of Say No to Heart Disease (1998), 100 per cent Health (1999), Say No to Cancer (1999), Six Weeks to Superhealth (2000) and The Alzheimer’s Prevention Plan (2005). Each of these titles reeks of counterknowledge. People who suffer from cancer or heart problems are not ill because they have failed to say “no” to the disease (the only possible exception being people who have contracted lung cancer through smoking); to imply that chronic illness is the sufferer’s fault is cruel and wrong. It is also one of the hallmarks of the quack. There is no such thing as 100 per cent health or superhealth, and the idea that a complete physical transformation can be attained in six weeks merely compounds the nonsense. Alzheimer’s is not yet a preventable disease, and even to hint as much is also cruel.
Thompson also offers an interesting discussion of Holford’s relationship with the Higher Education Sector – and, in particular, with the University of Bedfordshire (which accredits the Institute for Optimum Nutrition’s DipION as a Foundation Degree):
The arrangement between the Institute of Nutrition and the University of Bedfordshire…has many parallels in the counterknowledge industry. An entrepreneur with a ready-made following offers a product to a business with a huge and hungry customer base. This big player – a university, a publisher, a national chain of pharmacies or a newspaper – realises that the entrepreneur is driving a fashion that has seized the public imagination; the entrepreneur is keen to exploit the marketing tools and distribution channels of big business. So a (perfectly legal) deal is struck.
In most respects, this deal is identical to any commercial agreement between an independent producer and a wholesaler. The difference is that a disseminator of counterknowledge is dealing in untrue information…The interesting question is: do the big businesses realise this?…In most cases, the businesses must know. And, if they do not, it is because they have not done their homework. Enter the name “Patrick Holford” into a search engine and you immediately find several websites dedicated to exposing his junk science. The University of Bedfordshire cannot be unaware of the controversies surrounding Holford; yet it continues to shunt prospective students towards the Institute of Nutrition.
Thompson thus uses Holford as an effective example of the ethics and practice of the counterknowledge industry, and how counterknowledge can become embedded into the academic institutions that have previously played such key roles in developing the (incomplete) project of the Enlightenment. However, unlike other examples that Thompson uses – for example, some of the ridiculous conspiracy theories which have ensnared the cynical and credulous – Holford appears to have struggled to engage with the interactivity, openness and unpredictability of ‘web 2.0’. While conspiracy theory videos such as Loose Change have been able to use the Internet as a very effective means of dissemination, Holford has not been so successful.
I can’t help but think that Holford’s brand of counterknowledge and his operational strategies might – by now – be somewhat outdated. I wonder how long it will take Bedfordshire University, Teesside University, Biocare and others to catch onto this?