Visiting Professor Patrick Holford of Teesside University and Head of Science and Education at Biocare regularly portrays himself as a fearless advocate for scientific accuracy and rigour. Despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, he is so convinced of his own competence that Holford regularly accuses others of inaccuracy and questions the integrity of leading researchers such as Professor Carolyn Summerbell (coincidentally, a senior academic at the University of Teesside; we should point out that Holford was in error, not Summerbell).
And, as HolfordWatch has documented on many, many occasions, Holford is not an adequate participant in discussions about research. He is not even an reliable intermediary for disseminating research findings or understanding them appropriately. He should certainly not be accepted at his own valuation as an expert or even competent commentator.
People send us extracts from Holford’s 100%health subscription newsletters and Special Reports because they believe that they prove that Holford is a gifted researcher and that we fail to give him due credit for his scientific rigour. They expect us to read these snippets and collapse sobbing as we are overcome with remorse at our unfounded criticisms of one of the UK’s leading thinkers and scientists.
One recent notification was that Holford has distributed a Special Report SP2rr1/08 on Natural Pain Killers. Rest assured that it wasn’t full of recommendations that people should brew and consume poppy syrup or chew cocoa leaves. However, this does highlight the problem with assuming ‘natural’ is an unmitigated good that would have you mobbed by dolphins in any appropriate stretch of water.
Now, like everyone, HolfordWatch would be delighted if there were a ‘natural pain killer’ that is capable of providing adequate pain relief with the minimum of undesirable side-effects. We wish that Holford’s claim were a reality, that “Nature Does It Better Than Drugs”, as he so pithily expresses it. However, leaving aside the issue of standardising extracts and therapeutic dosages, it really doesn’t look as if such products exist as yet. (It is understood that ‘Nature’ does not have an agreed definition, it is an ’emotional truth’ in this context-it has truthiness, if you will.)
We’ll deal with the majority of Holford’s claims for ‘natural pain killers’ at a later date, not least because it involves a special trip to a national library to look up some remarkably obscure resources. Because, cue the ominous music, no matter how much evidence you have for someone’s regular research faux-pas and errors (more than a year’s worth of archives), you check the research, even for a blog post (we think rather well of the quality of some blogs but Stephanie Fox and Patrick Holford affect to disdain them).
Holford’s Special Report heaps especial praise on the anti-inflammatory, pain-killing properties of fish oil.
Luckily, there are a number of natural anti-inflammatory agents, some of which have been proven to be as effective as drugs, without the side effects. One of the most popular is fish oils. Fish oils do not lubricate your joints, as is popularly believed. What they actually do is to reduce pain and inflammation. They are converted in the body into beneficial anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, which counteract the inflammatory substances NSAID drugs are used to suppress.
Good research now shows conclusively that fish oil supplementation can reduce the inflammation of arthritis. A case in point is a study in 2002 which found that 86% of patients with arthritis who took cod liver oil prior to knee replacement surgery had no or reduced levels of enzymes which cause cartilage damage, compare to just 26% of patients who took a placebo.
Now, it is possible that fish oil supplementation does have substantial therapeutic benefits for some groups. However, you might need some fine and good quality references to support the argument for fish oil supplements as ‘natural pain killers’ for debilitating conditions such as arthritis. Fortunately, Holford had provided a more or less correct reference for this citation (and yes, it is a little sad when one is legitimately pleased by this, but Holford did get this reference wrong in Food Is Better Medicine Than Drugs[a]).
Because HolfordWatch has prior experience of the quality of Holford’s interpretation of research papers, we thought that it would be prudent to check the Curtis et al paper for ourselves. Unfortunately, we couldn’t.
Visiting Professor Holford, the human klieg light for exposing what he perceives to be failures of competence or integrity in the work of researchers with fine academic records, has somehow failed to notice that Curtis et al. 2002 paper had been retracted by the authors. Professor Bruce Caterson retracted the paper in 2006.
As the corresponding author of the article Pathologic Indicators of Degradation and Inflammation in Human Osteoarthritic Cartilage Are Abrogated by Exposure to n-3 Fatty Acids (authors Curtis CL, Rees SG, Little CB, Flannery CR, Hughes CE, Wilson C, Dent CM, Otterness IG, Harwood JL, and Caterson B), I am requesting that this article be retracted from the scientific literature. Following further work in our laboratories, we have discovered that the article contains several examples of incorrect presentation of scientific data…Factual data related to this study will be submitted to scientific journals for peer review and future publication.
We have checked PubMed but as far as we can tell, the research data have still not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.[b]
Some readers will now be experiencing déjà vu. Yes, this is a similar situation to that recounted by Professor David Colquhoun when he recognised a substantial flaw in a homeopathy paper and helpfully published his reanalysis that corrected the authors’ report that the treatment was effective. (HolfordWatch has no idea if Colquhoun ever received the grateful thanks of the authors for pointing out that their statistical analysis was severely flawed and the treatment wasn’t effective, but we have our suspicions.[b]). Colquhoun was therefore somewhat taken aback sometime later when Professor George Lewith referred to the paper with some approbation and then claimed that he’d never noticed the correction.
Readers with good memories may recall that Dr Ben Goldacre has commented previously on what now seems to be Caterson’s heavily-jinxed research on fish oil and joint pain. As with Lewith, it is quite extraordinary that Holford, who regularly boasts that he keep up to date with the literature in a dizzying array of specialities, should somehow have missed this. It’s bad enough that he mis-reported matters to the readers of FIBMTD but perhaps understandable, given the timing issues and the publication date (but there should perhaps have been an erratum slip in the later paperback edition or at least an acknowledgement on his website). It is lamentable that he is still disseminating this mis-information in a subscription service. What sort of research quality is this?
What are Holford’s 100%health subscribers paying for? When is Holford going to acknowledge the scale of his errors and take appropriate action?[b][c] Just what does the University of Teesside hope to gain from their continuing association with Holford? In much the same way that Holford regularly questions the competence and integrity of researchers whose work he dislikes or whose findings contradicts his cherished beliefs, we have to question what sort of research standards Holford is imparting to impressionable young minds and to his research students. Only we have rather more grounds for our questions…
[a] Seriously, consult pg. 249 of Food Is Better Medicine Than Drugs, from which this entire Special Report seems to have been drawn (it does make you wonder precisely what information these 100%health members are paying for if they already own the books). You will be referred to reference 243 on pg. 432 where you will read that the first-named author of this paper is supposedly L Clare. Actually, that should read CL Curtis, as in Clare L Curtis…
[b] Sadly, but entirely correctly, a related conference paper[i] by this same group of authors has also been retracted.[ii] Because this is how good scientists behave when they realise that they have made a mistake-they acknowledge their errors and make a correction: if the scale of error is too serious, they retract publications and ensure the integrity of the research literature. Holford could learn much from this example.
[i] Curtis CL, Rees SG, Cramp J, Flannery CR, Hughes CE, Little CB, Williams R, Wilson C, Dent CM, Harwood JL, Caterson B. Effects of n-3 fatty acids on cartilage metabolism. Proc Nutr Soc. 2002 Aug;61(3):381-9.
[ii] Curtis CL, Rees SG, Cramp J, Flannery CR, Hughes CE, Little CB, Williams R, Wilson C, Dent CM, Harwood JL, Caterson B. Effects of n-3 fatty acids on cartilage metabolism. Proc Nutr Soc. 2006 Nov;65(4):434.
[c] Yet again, we refer interested readers to an overview of the Justin Kruger and David Dunning paper that discusses how difficulties in understanding one’s own incompetence can lead to inflated self-assessments.
What’s even more amazing is that when they then shared the performance of other participants with the people who performed poorly (hoping that they would then adjust their self-perception downward) people who scored poorly failed to adjust their self-perception of their performance. In other words, they are completely unaware of their own [in]competence, and can’t detect competence in others.
It really it a very helpful paper that explains many otherwise inexplicable actions. (Holford Myths offers an excellent discussion as to why pundit brand equity ensures that Holford still receives so much positive attention in the mainstream media.)
A Photon in the Darkness likewise offers a helpful discussion of this paper: The Arrogance of Ignorance
 Curtis CL, Rees SG, Little CB, Flannery CR, Hughes CE, Wilson C, Dent CM, Otterness IG, Harwood JL, Caterson B. Pathologic Indicators of Degradation and Inflammation in Human Osteoarthritic Cartilage Are Abrogated by Exposure to n-3 Fatty Acids. Arthritis Rheum. 2002 Jun;46(6):1544-53.
 Caterson B. Notice of retraction: “Pathologic indicators of degradation and inflammation in human osteoarthritic cartilage are abrogated by exposure to n-3 fatty acids” (Arthritis Rheum 2002;46:1544-53). Arthritis Rheum. 2006 Sep;54(9):2933.