This is our 350th post on HolfordWatch. Over the course of these posts, we have found a number of inaccuracies in Holford’s self-presentation and many serious errors in his work. These errors overwhelmingly remain uncorrected or inadequately corrected, and Holford has failed to respond to almost all of the issues raised (what responses we have had from Holford are not at all convincing). However, we would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Patrick Holford: despite embarrassingly poor-quality work, an inaccurate CV and very public demolitions of his research, Patrick Holford has achieved a great deal in his career, in academia and in the media.
While we have been running this blog, Holford managed to sell his Health Products for Life business to Biocare (owned by Neutrahealth, who 30% owned by Elder Pharmaceuticals) for £464,000, and currently works as Head of Science and Education at Biocare. We have ethical quibbles about taking money from the pharmaceutical industry – we don’t do it – but careers in this industry are competitive, and Holford should be congratulated for getting so much money from Biocare (and thus, indirectly, from Elder Pharmaceuticals).
Holford should also be congratulated for having his application to be a visiting professor at Teesside University approved. Despite the massive – and publicly discussed – errors in Holford’s work and inaccuracies in his CV, Teesside were happy to offer him a professorial post. Holford has recently resigned but, given the quality of his work, should have a real sense of achievement that he gained a professorial post in the first place.
Holford’s pundit brand equity and reputational resilience are remarkable. Despite ASA rulings against his companies and extensive criticism in the Guardian, Telegraph, Private Eye, Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge book and online, Holford is still widely presented as a nutritional expert by certain parts of the media and he is given prominent platforms to offer his advice (often inaccurate) on a range of serious medical conditions. Despite Holford featuring prominently in a BBC documentary on Lifestyle Nutritionists – with the eminent nutritionist Prof Tom Sanders assessing the poor quality of Holford’s research in a way that would leave many of us sobbing in a corner and swearing never to write again – Biocare’s Head of Science and Education continues his media and research careers undaunted.
Holford is also founder and CEO of the charity Food for the Brain: this charity has achieved massive media coverage, was planning to work with Teesside University (although it now looks like this won’t come to fruition), has ‘approved’ University catering facilities (step forward Bath and Edinburgh) and is currently advertising for an MSc student. Despite a number of concerns about its research (we spent 10 posts outlining some of the problems with the Report that is its most prominent research output) and its health advice (they modified their advice after HolfordWatch pointed out that it could be harmful to children), Food for the Brain should be congratulated for the fact that it is still going strong. Did I mention that we’re talking about the health of (often vulnerable) children here, and that Food for the Brain have carried out – and seem likely to continue carrying out – research on vulnerable children and adults?
Some people have complained that we have been unduly harsh on Holford. However, at this point it’s worth quoting Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science (p. 160),
If you think I have been overly critical, I would invite you to notice that they win.
Holford is – notwithstanding the fact that his research and advice is riddled with embarrassingly serious errors, and that there have been regulatory rulings against his companies – quite able to work successfully with those in the CAM and pharmaceutical industries, to maintain an impressive media profile, to gain support from various sectors of academia, and to be involved in research on (and offer health advice to) a wide range of people. This is really quite an achievement.
We might be right a higher percentage of the time than Holford but – on media profile and profit – Holford clearly wins. And it won’t end here. Despite a number of honourable exceptions, registered dietitians and serious academic nutritionists largely fail to challenge the rise of ‘alternative’ nutrition: as Goldacre argues in Bad Science (p. 315) those in the ‘alternative’ health industry now
have almost full spectrum dominance.
If ‘nutritionism’ has not already been reduced to a type of ‘alternative’ therapy rather than a serious field of academic research, it soon will be. If ‘alternative’ nutritionists have not already usurped dietitians as the first point of call when members of the public have questions about nutrition and health, this is going to come pretty soon.
So, why do we carry on? Well, aside from suffering from an unfortunate compulsion to point out when someone is wrong on the Internet, we do have a couple of things in the pipeline – so it will be interesting to see where we stand in another year. At least, we hope we can help to prevent ‘alternative’ nutrition from winning too quickly.
As ‘alternative’ nutrition continues to expand – which it will – so does the size of the audience to engage with: if even a small proportion of those who read Holford’s sciency health advice in the mainstream media and elsewhere are persuaded to reconsider after reading this site, that will still be a worthwhile achievement.
A final point to note is that, as the ‘alternative’ nutrition industry goes from strength to strength, it may increasingly attract the attention of critical bloggers, journalists, politicians, academics and dietitians. As recent market events have made reminded us, large organisations can come apart remarkably quickly, especially when their work lacks any solid foundation.
So, once again, our congratulations to Patrick Holford. It will be interesting to see how long this winning streak can last.