By David Tuller, DrPH
This morning I e-mailed the following letter to Sue Paterson, the University of Bristol’s Director of Legal Services and Deputy University Secretary, to protest Professor Esther Crawley’s accusation that I libeled her in blogging about her work. I cc’d the office of the university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady.
Dear Ms. Paterson:
I have recently learned that Professor Esther Crawley of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Child and Adolescent Health, in her inaugural lecture on February 24th of this year, accused me of libel. During her talk, she showed a slide with the phrase libellous blogs, accompanied by a screen shot of one of my blog posts on Virology Blog. While that slide was on the screen, she also mentioned libellous blogs, obviously referring to the Virology Blog post, among others.
This libel accusation is false. Given that Professor Crawley made this unsupported charge in such a high-profile academic setting, I felt that it was important to bring the matter to your attention and express my surprise and displeasure. (I have also cc’d the office of the university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady.)
Virology Blog is a well-regarded science site hosted by Professor Vincent Racaniello, a prominent virologist at Columbia University. (I have also cc’d Professor Racaniello.) For the last year and a half, I have been writing an investigative series for Virology Blog called Trial by Error, about the many flaws of the PACE trial and related research, including Professor Crawley’s work. In accusing me of libel, she was also accusing my colleague, Professor Racaniello, of publishing libellous material. Professor Crawley used this slide again during a talk in April to the British Renal Society. I have written several subsequent posts about the libel accusation itself.
It is certainly true that the post highlighted in the slide, titled The New FITNET Trial for Kids, is harsh on Professor Crawley’s recent work. It is my opinion, as a public health expert from the University of California, Berkeley, that her research and the FITNET-NHS protocol are highly problematic in their presentation of the illness variously called chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalomyelitis, ME/CFS, or CFS/ME. In the post in question, I outlined these issues and carefully documented the facts on which I based my arguments. My concerns are shared by many leading scientists and experts in study design and research methodology.
In my post, I explained how Professor Crawley has misstated the NICE guidelines in both her research and her FITNET-NHS proposal, in ways that appear to eliminate post-exertional malaise as a required symptom. I also noted that she has conflated the symptom of chronic fatigue, a hallmark of many illnesses, with the specific disease entity she prefers to call chronic fatigue syndrome. As many have previously noted, this conflation generates samples that are far too heterogeneous to yield reliable and valid conclusions about prevalence, causes and treatments.
I acknowledge that I have expressed myself in sharp, colorful and–some would say–offensive terms. That just makes me sharp, colorful and possibly offensive. It does not make me libellous. Professor Crawley has a right to disagree with my interpretation of the facts and explain why I am wrong. And she is free to make her points in hard-hitting language, as I have chosen to do. But without providing evidence or documentation that what I wrote was inaccurate, she has no legitimate grounds to accuse Professor Racaniello and me of libel.
I have e-mailed Professor Crawley several times asking her to explain her charge of libel, or to apologize. In my e-mails, I have let her know that I would be happy to post her full statement on Virology Blog. In other words, I have offered her the opportunity to make her case, at whatever length she wants, in the same forum in which I purportedly libeled her. Moreover, should she document any factual errors in my work, I am of course happy to correct the public record, as I have done throughout my career as a journalist. Even though she has not so far responded with evidence to back up her accusation, the offer to post her full statement on Virology Blog and correct any documented factual errors still stands.
My main goal in sending this letter is to let you know that Professor Crawley’s accusation will not deter me from my work. Nor will it impact Professor Racaniello’s support for this project, which involves accurate reporting and opinionated commentary on PACE and other issues involving ME/CFS. In the meantime, I suggest that someone should explain to Professor Crawley that accusing other academics or anyone of libel without providing evidence, and then refusing to respond to reasonable requests for clarification–is unacceptable, unjustified and reckless on many levels. Professor Crawley should not make public accusations that she cannot or will not defend when challenged.
I have not cc’d Professor Crawley on this letter. Because she has declined to respond to my recent requests for an explanation and my offers to publish her full statement on Virology Blog, I see no point in further efforts to communicate with her. I therefore trust you will convey to Professor Crawley the concerns I have expressed here on behalf of Professor Racaniello and myself, as well as our determination to keep pursuing this investigation.
David Tuller, DrPH
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