*April is crowdfunding month at Berkeley. I conduct this project as a senior fellow in public health and journalism at the university’s Center for Global Public Health. If you would like to support the project with a donation to Berkeley (tax-deductible for US taxpayers), here’s the place: https://crowdfund.berkeley.edu/project/25504
By David Tuller, DrPH
Poor Professor Michael Sharpe. The distinguished psychiatrist from Oxford University has a dilemma. His science sucks big-time, and he can’t defend it effectively with standard argumentation. He does not seem to grasp why people have called the PACE trial fraudulent, so he lashes out, trying to bully and bluff his way through the mess by accusing critics of harassment. In doing so, he has a tendency to score own goals, such as insulting a member of Parliament for engaging in behavior €œnot becoming€ her post. (In the UK, these are apparently fighting words when you’re talking about a member of Parliament. The behavior in question involved criticizing the PACE trial.)
And now Professor Sharpe has stumbled into a major pissing match with Guardian columnist George Monbiot. Hey, grab some beers and pull up the chairs! This could be fun!
I’ve also been one of Professor Sharpe’s targets. Luckily, he hasn’t accused me of causing Long COVID, as he has Monbiot. But in recent years, he has blamed me personally and explicitly for his ocean of woes, complaining publicly about Berkeley’s crowdfunding support for my Trial By Error project, for example. He has also paraded his persecution and victimization complex in news stories that have portrayed me in ways that are not consistent with reality. Both Reuters and The Guardian have run articles that have functioned as hit pieces on me as well as on patients. These efforts to harm my reputation have in fact raised my profile and boosted Berkeley’s crowdfunding totals.
I guess Professor Sharpe believes his tweets and other public braying are effective strategies for conveying whatever it is he is trying to convey. Someone who cares about him would be doing him a kindness to advise him that he does not advance his cause when he poses as a martyr on the altar of great science. At this point, that stance is a non-starter: We all know PACE is a piece of crap. (Is PACE fraudulent? That’s a question for attorneys and/or the courts. I’m not a lawyer, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the position of having wasted millions of pounds in taxpayer funds to produce what can only be called scientific garble.)
Professor Sharpe’s strategy worked better for him and his colleagues in years past, when it was easier to portray PACE critics, in those days almost all patients–as unhinged and dangerous. The PACE sycophants and true believers at London’s corporate-backed Science Media Centre and among the UK press corps, like Reuters’ UK science correspondent Kate Kelland, have seemingly been eager to disseminate these and related charges from Professor Sharpe and his colleagues.
Not surprisingly, British journalists like Kelland, who wrote the Reuters “special report” about abuse purportedly directed at Professor Sharpe, have routinely failed to take the PACE criticisms seriously and to acknowledge that the trial appears to meet standard definitions of research misconduct. Although I tried repeatedly to point out the self-evident flaws to Kelland, she seemed completely uninterested in these pesky details, as if they were irrelevant to the issue and to her story.
Understandably, it might be hard for Kelland to diverge from the SMC’s ideological but indefensible position on PACE, given her close links with the organization. Kelland has appeared in SMC promotional materials. In an essay for the organization’s tenth anniversary pamphlet, for example, Kelland described how much help she received from the SMC in covering the Fukashima nuclear disaster. Here’s what she wrote:
The best that reporters stuck here [in the UK rather than in Japan] could do was ensure that the scientists we talked to were the best kind of experts giving their best judgment on the best levels of information they could get hold of…The SMC made that happen. We could not have done it without them. Yes, we could have gone through the same motions, and certainly we could have made the same number of phone calls and asked the same questions every day. But I have no doubt that the people we would have talked to would have had less credibility and fewer answers. Our sources would have been less intelligent, less scrutinised, and less newsworthy.
Coming from someone functioning as a reporter, that is a disturbing statement. In essence, Kelland seemed to suggest that she preferred to outsource her independent professional judgment on scientific matters to the smart people at the SMC. (When I worked for news organizations in the US, I would have been severely disciplined or even fired for engaging in public relations for an organization that served as a prime source for my stories. Apparently Reuters operates by different ethical standards.)
Given Kelland’s glowing praise for the SMC, it is understandable that she would unquestioningly defer to its views about the PACE trial rather than conduct her own due diligence. It is not a surprise that she would defend Professor Sharpe fiercely against those, like me, who have pointed out that he and the other PACE emperors have no clothes. In any event, her behavior has been the norm in the UK when it comes to this field of research and this particular study. That such a methodological and ethical disaster has been accepted by the entire British academic and medical hierarchy as €œa thing of beauty€, in the memorable words of Professor Sir Simon Wessely–is a tale for the ages.
The widely held but false beliefs about the merits of the PACE trial might best be interpreted as a form of mass hysteria. It is hard to understand the phenomenon otherwise.
The Oxford bully scores another own goal
Anyway, Professor Sharpe has scored a huge own goal this time. In February, he did something very stupid, at a cozy insurance industry gathering, he accused George Monbiot of causing Long COVID. (Yes, he actually did. Like I said, very stupid.)
Well, Monbiot didn’t take kindly to Sharpe’s suggestion that he was responsible for Long COVID just because he had written about it. Nor, I guess, did Monbiot agree with Professor Sharpe’s claim that Long COVID support groups are also part of the reason such cases are proliferating. On Wednesday, he published a blistering and well-deserved take-down of Professor Sharpe’s position, covering the sorry history of the PACE trial and suggesting that the various studies might warrant retraction. (I agree 100% with that assessment.)
When a top Guardian columnist can call out PACE and one of its lead investigators in this uncompromising manner, we’re in a new world. I would guess there is some agonizing and strategizing going on over at the SMC this week, and perhaps some grumbling about Professor Sharpe’s ineptitude in picking this particular fight. Will Reuters soon be assigning Kate Kelland to write a piece accusing George Monbiot of harassing and abusing Professor Sharpe? Stay tuned!
For now, Professor Sharpe has responded to Monbiot’s column by tweeting out the two-year-old Guardian article about how patients and I are responsible for making his life miserable. (Headline: “ME and the Perils of Internet Activism”) The article is inaccurate on multiple points, but I did actually appreciate its critique of my work. (Unlike Kelland, the Guardian journalist, someone named Andrew Anthony, made no attempt to contact me, as far as I know.) Professor Sharpe told Anthony that the reception of the PACE results, although contentious, was manageable until €œthe Americans got involved.€ And €œAmericans,” as I read it, was shorthand for €œDavid Tuller.€ Here’s an excerpt from the Guardian article:
The United States has a very different system of healthcare, which is largely private and insurance-based. That means the validity of diagnosis, what will and will not be accepted by insurance firms, is critical€¦It’s a harsh environment, fraught with lawsuits, that has bred a tough kind of activist. One of these is a man called David Tuller, a former HIV campaigner, who has become something of a hero to the ME/CFS community in the UK. He takes a highly detailed approach to medical papers, closely reading them to uncover any inconsistencies or potential flaws. He publishes his findings on a well-read blog called Virology. [Actually, the name is Virology Blog, not Virology.]
That’s it. I mean, there’s more, but that’s the gist of the criticism. I guess that’s why Professor Sharpe dislikes me so much, because of my “highly detailed” approach and my €œclose reading”of papers “to uncover any inconsistencies or potential flaws.€
How nefarious of me.
But wait a second. First, rather than describing me solely as “a tough kind of activist,” shouldn’t The Guardian and Anthony have at least mentioned that I’m a public health academic at one of the world’s leading research institutions and that my investigation of PACE and related issues is part of my university-sponsored project? And isn’t uncovering discrepancies and flaws in research a positive thing, not a negative one? Especially when an expensive, government-funded study is really, really bad? Like, really bad?
Not, apparently, in the world according to Sharpe, at least as conveyed via The Guardian. I hope for better now that Monbiot is on the case.