In reply to Michael Fitzpatrick

In a recent article on Spiked, the author Dr Michael Fitzpatrick took to ‘slamming the campaign to ban a wacky health mag from shops’.  Fitzpatrick takes considerable dislike to my blog posts in his article, and although attempts to fairly discredit my view, fails to fully understand the context of what I wrote.

First off, Spiked editorial have made the mistake of throwing a sub-heading on the story claiming we are trying to ‘ban’ WDDTY.  This is simply not the case – what we are asking is for supermarkets to take responsibility for the content they choose to sell.  Yes, you could argue that there are much worse things on sale when it comes to damaging public health, such as tobacco and alcohol, but that isn’t the point.  This campaign calls upon supermarkets to be more vigilant over false and misleading health claims.  It is not a call to ban the magazine.

Fitzpatrick says that I have ‘accused the alternative-health magazine What Doctors Don’t Tell You of misusing scientific evidence and language and of providing ill-informed advice about breast cancer in a feature about the film star Angelina Jolie, who recently underwent a double mastectomy’.  I don’t think I have accused them of this, I have proven, through analysing their references that the claims they make are incorrect, ill-informed and dangerously misleading.  Fitzpatrick points out that WDDTY is not a scientific journal and by accusing them of being ‘unscientific is like accusing the Beano of lacking literary merit’.  From this statement I can assume that Fitzpatrick has not recently followed the WDDTY press releases where they repeatedly claim that (1) they report on scientific evidence and (2) they have researchers that check for accuracy and validity of their claims.  If this is the case then they would be more scientific then journalists and editors from other media outlets and thus, believe that they have scientific credibility to back up their articles.  It has been shown on many occasions that this is not the case.  It is commonplace for WDDTY to use references that don’t back up what they are claiming and misinterpret or misuse statistics.  I have also shown how they have just made up quotes from researchers without their knowledge.  This makes WDDTY more dangerous than a sensationalist health piece in a newspaper because they are attempting to appear scientific and be a trusted source on what they report.

Fitzpatrick has a point regarding the misuse of scientific evidence elsewhere and I agree wholeheartedly that more needs to be done across the board to change the way evidence is presented, disseminated and accessed.  But how does that mean that this campaign is worthless?  It’s not his business where I, or others, choose to focus our attention.  Some would say that the misuse of scientific evidence isn’t important at all but instead we should all focus our attention on world hunger and global warming.  Does that make standing up for evidence a waste of time?  I don’t think so.

His final remark is to say that I believe that ‘the general public and readers of supermarket magazines are mere passive dupes of propaganda who need the protection of an enlightened elite’.  This isn’t true at all.  The points I make always refer to the fact that WDDTY give their claims credibility by referencing scientific publications.  This is misleading to everyone because unless you take the time to check each reference you will assume that the author has been honest.  WDDTY are far from honest when it comes to references and so by me taking the time to present where the flaws are in their references means other don’t have to.  Anyone can do this (within limit due to paywalls etc.) and I have never suggested that questioning the evidence is beyond anyone.

I disagree with Fitzpatrick over the fact that asking supermarkets to stop stocking WDDTY is a bad idea.  Supermarkets are one of the most trusted retailers and as a result have a duty to protect their customers.  Selling magazines such as WDDTY actively promotes dangerous and misleading health advice and gives it undue credibility.  No one has asked WDDTY to stop selling their magazine.  If anything has been learned from this is that loyal followers of the magazine will always buy it and they would still be able to.

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18 thoughts on “In reply to Michael Fitzpatrick

  1. Pingback: WDDTY: My Master List | Josephine Jones

  2. Do you think it is possible that the ‘ask for evidence’ demand actually encourages people like those behind WDDTY to dress up their wacky ideas in scientific garb? I know in the field of family policy that using the phrase ‘the neuroscience tells us’ is a way of avoiding difficult arguments about where the boundaries between parental autonomy and the power of the state or professionals should lie. See reports by Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith with their use of brain images as ‘the last word’ on early intervention. I think they are encouraged to appropriate the language of science by the idea that scientific evidence should have the ultimate authority in public discourse.

    • I don’t think so. Encouraging people to ask for evidence leads to a better understanding of the ‘facts’ we are presented with. Citations are not enough evidence and in that sense WDDTY are a great example to showcase why you should be critical even when supplied with a scientific reference.

  3. Pingback: Fitzpatrick on WDDTY | The Quackometer Blog

  4. Neither of those links above point to anything which suggests the harm was caused by reading glossy magazines they bought in a UK supermarket. Lots of people have lots of stupid ideas about what will make them better and there are plenty of people willing to take advantage of this stupidity. What made you decide that the best starting point was WDDTY? You must surely have some evidence that it was that magazine which is causing the damage.

    • Did I not answer ‘no’ to your original question? You asked for evidence for my comment so I gave it.

      And in answer to your question here I will refer to what I wrote in this post:

      “[Fitzpatrick]…It’s not his business where I, or others, choose to focus our attention.”

      I had a particular issue with WDDTY and acted on it. Others can pursue other avenues if they wish.

  5. Fundamentalist libertarianism almost always finds itself in the position of making itself look silly when it defends its principles to the point where they could actually have dangerous consequences. It’s interesting that two by-products of the same now-defunct political group now find themselves at loggerheads when one of them finds that its day-to-day work clashes with the fundamentalist viewpoint of the other in this very respect.

    Should someone have an automatic right to state something that is scientifically very dubious and liable to cause injury or lead to actual death, particularly if that person is able to obtain a high-profile sales platform, such as the glossy magazine in this instance? We are here not playing with abstract principles that might provoke at most a minor frisson in a university lecture hall, but with the health and indeed lives of people, some of whom, faced with what could be terminal illnesses, are in a delicate emotional condition.

    When a fundamentalist libertarian is confronted by the broadcasting of something with which he disagrees, he will say that the danger posed by the banning or restriction of such views is more dangerous than the consequences of those views. Once an opinion is censored, he will argue, then the grounds will be set for the banning of other opinions, and free speech will be in danger. Much as I dislike censorship and much as I want a free exchange of information, I feel that WtDDTY should only be sold if accompanied by a health warning, as it were, stating that the opinions expressed within are unscientific and could be harmful and even deadly if they are acted upon.

  6. How do you propose to protect the public from politically motivated public health pseudoscience promoted by the BMJ? There has been an absolute glut of it recently. As the BBC have frequently disseminated some of the worst of it on state television and radio, it is much higher impact than the content of a magazine with a relatively small circulation. I do take your point that this unsatisfactory state of affairs is not in itself a reason not to highlight misrepresentation of science elsewhere but I do question your priorities.

    • Most media have some sort of protocol for correcting mistakes or misleading information. I am not sure that WDDTY has. It deletes critical comments from Facebook, for example, which is hardly the best example for a magazine that proclaims itself in favour of free speech. Making stuf up should be corrected and challenged.

      • Agreed on your last point but the BBC is not going to correct articles based on misleading studies published in medical journals because it is naturally establishment biased. I understand the BBC s position but I do wish that it was a bit more skeptical with respect to editorial standards particularly in cases where politics and science collide. To my mind, misleading material disseminated by media trusted sources is much more of a concern than the junk published in populist magazines. I am with you and Fitzpatrick in that I think that junk should be exposed but I lean more towards challenging it in public than trying to restrict its circulation. I also agree with you on free speech and comment deletion. WDDTY should be prepared to take the knocks if it chooses to publish controversial stuff, made up or otherwise.

  7. Pingback: WDDTY and Tesco's corporate irresponsibility

  8. Pingback: WDDTY and Tesco's corporate irresponsibility - What "What Doctors Don't Tell You" Don't Tell You

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