The John Diamond Challenge

In which I discover that WDDTY’s bad behaviour goes back a long way, and rediscover an old friend.

Good news, everyone!

expertclose

I don’t want to rain on the ticker tape parades and street parties that will inevitably result from the wonderful news that it’s apparently now possible to bypass all that tedious book-learning and become a health expert simply by subscribing to What Doctors Don’t Tell You magazine, but I feel I must sound a note of caution.

It’s an area I’ve looked at before. WDDTY calls itself a medical journal, and while its editors claim in interviews and on Facebook that they don’t give health advice they paradoxically spend a lot of time telling you about all the health advice in their magazine and on their website. Now, any reputable journal will have some sort of mechanism for correcting errors. Everybody makes mistakes, or research that initially looks promising fails to pan out, and if you’re giving health advice it’s important that if you do make a mistake you correct it, otherwise people can get hurt. Even the tabloid newspapers will issue the occasional correction, albeit as grudging and buried as they feel they can get away with, but WDDTY’s editors claim to aspire to the highest journalistic standards. They’d surely be better than this, wouldn’t they?

Well, it seems not. Up to now, I’ve only had access to the last couple of dozen issues of the magazine, but based on that sample I’ve not noticed a single case of corrective action being taken. Not one.

As far as I can tell there has really only been a public storm over the content of this magazine since it started presenting itself as a glossy, seemingly-mainstream title in supermarkets and newsagents, over the past year or so. I know that a lot of people have written to the editors and about them since then, pointing out errors in their articles, so they cannot now be unaware of the concerns being raised. But maybe it just takes a very long time to review concerns and issue a correction. Maybe we haven’t given them long enough to reflect, put their hands up and say “Sorry, we claimed homeopathy could cure cancer and we were wrong. We claimed Vitamin C could cure AIDS, and we were wrong.” If only, I’ve been telling myself, I could have a chance to reach further back in time and see if there has been a long-standing culture of anti-mainstream-medicine imperviousness to accuracy at WDDTY. It would help us to understand whether the editors of this magazine are simply slow to act or are wilfully ignoring the evidence.

I got my chance, and it came from an unexpected quarter.

snakeoil

Just before Christmas, Victoria Coren wrote a wonderful article about John Diamond, and I suddenly remembered that I’d bought a copy of his book Snake Oil but never got round to reading it. I quickly put that omission right, and in the process remembered just how much I enjoyed his writing.

John Diamond, if you don’t already recall, was a writer and broadcaster who – among many other things – wrote openly and movingly about the progression of the cancer that ultimately claimed his life. When he died in 2001, he was working on a book about the alternative medicine industry. He had been bombarded with so many well-meaning but utterly unhelpful suggestions for alternative treatments for his cancer that he started writing Snake Oil – “an uncomplimentary look at the world of complementary medicine.” He never had a chance to finish. Poignantly, his editor reports finding that, on entering John’s study the day after his death, his computer was still switched on and showing the unfinished draft, the last sentence he wrote a prelude to an intended chapter on homeopathy: “Let me explain why.” He never did.

What he managed to complete was an all-too-brief 80 page introduction to the alternative medicine industry. I heartily recommend you seek this out – it is brilliant. For me, reading Diamond’s work was like coming back to an old friend. He wrote how I kid myself I would write if I was any good at it. There is a beautiful analogy for how alt-med proponents treat evidence (based on a story of counting chairs), there is an early statement of the principle that has since become enshrined as Minchin’s Law (You know what they call alternative medicine that has been proven to work? Medicine.), and it is all written in a very clear, engaging way, by somebody who lived with (and eventually died from) a disease that acts as a dog-whistle for the very worst in alt-med charlatanry.

Why do I mention all this? Well, about five pages back from that final “Let me explain why”, Diamond undertakes a discussion of how we tend to trust people who sound like they know what they are talking about, and this is one of the weaknesses exploited by peddlers of useless remedies. He mentions a couple of examples of statements which “are heaved about the place as if they are true”, such as the claim that more people die in hospitals as a result of their treatment than of the disease they are admitted with, and that 90-95% of drugs used in mainstream medicine have not been formally tested. These oft-debunked examples, here presented in a 13-year old text, will still ring true to us today; I found myself wishing that John Diamond was still alive and writing, and wondering what mincemeat he would have made of WDDTY or its editors, Lynne McTaggart and Bryan Hubbard.

And then.

Discussing the claim that “scientists have no idea how aspirin works”, Diamond writes:

So if you heard somebody who seems to know what she’s talking about – and seems to know more than you do on a subject – say that on a serious BBC radio discussion, you’d probably assume that it was true. I use it as an example because it was precisely what Lynne McTaggart of the What Doctors Don’t Tell You newsletter and lobbying group said on a Radio Four discussion when she was debating with somebody from the Healthwatch organisation the wisdom of Middlesex University spending its money establishing a department to study Chinese traditional medicine.

 

I really really wish John Diamond was still with us.

The John Diamond Challenge

I don’t know whether Lynne McTaggart should or would regard her mention in this book – the last project John Diamond was working on – as a badge of honour. I’ve no way of knowing whether the final draft of Snake Oil and its remaining chapters would have named more people, but as it stood in front of me the only people names I could recall being used anywhere in the text were Gerson, Ernst and McTaggart. Rarified company indeed.

It strikes me that the behaviour of the editors of WDDTY, their cavalier mistreatment of evidence, the egregious invention and the imperviousness to the idea they may ever be wrong, has been going on for a much longer time than most of us have been blogging about it. It is clear that a total blindness to errors is completely ingrained in its editorial team. And that gives me an idea.

In dedicating this blog to John Diamond, pale shadow of his writing though it is, I hereby inaugurate the John Diamond Challenge. The first challenge, should you choose to accept it, is this: find a single instance, in the published edition of WDDTY, of the editors retracting or correcting an error they have previously published. Winning answers will be entered into a draw to win a (second-hand, from Amazon) copy of Snake Oil. Organisers’ decision is final, correspondence will be composted before being recycled as paper plates etc etc etc. Your deadline is March 1st 2014. If (as I suspect) we have no winner by the closing date, I may instead send the copy of Snake Oil to the editors of WDDTY, as an example of what real journalism looks like.

The next blog post will give us another example of real investigative journalism in stark contrast to what passes for it in WDDTY. Because, beyond all the flippancy, journalistic integrity matters.

Let me explain why.

 

The Second John Diamond Challenge

Back to What Doctors Don’t Tell You

4 Responses to “The John Diamond Challenge”

  1. Rich Scopie January 17, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

    Excellent.

  2. Fragmeister January 17, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

    Excellent. It’s a great book and you have reminded me to go dig in my shit heap of a storage system to find and retread my copy. As an aside, I resigned from Middlesex University in protest at the suggestion they run a course on homeopathy in the department of health studies in which I worked.

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