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Best of AofA: What's Behind Ben Goldacre?

Ben Goldacre GSK

(Reprinted from August, 2010)

By John Stone

After years of secrecy on the matter confirmation has finally come to light that Guardian ‘Bad Science’ journalist Ben Goldacre is the son of Oxford professor of public health  Michael  J Goldacre (HERE). Prof Goldacre has been director since 1986 of the UK Department Health funded Unit of Healthcare Epidemiology (HERE).  The family relationship is mentioned in a review of Goldacre junior’s Bad Science book in the peer-review journal Medicine, Conflict and Survival  (25, p.255-7, 2009)by Dr Ian Fairlie, but there has been a long term lack of candour about the matter. While the reasons for the secrecy remain unknown it is possible that if the relationship, which has never before been mentioned in the mainstream media or scientific publications, had been common knowledge it might have raised questions about the independence of the younger Goldacre’s views.  Goldacre senior was a co-author of a study of the effects of GlaxoSmithKline’s notorious Urabe strain version of MMR, Pluserix, after it was suddenly withdrawn from public use in 1992 (HERE): the Unit has produced several MMR related studies.

Ben Goldacre’s column which started in 2003 has featured his largely epidemiological approach to health issues, most prominently MMR and autism. Coming apparently from nowhere, journalistically speaking, he was promoted to the role of an “opinion leader” from the outset. His early article MMR: Never mind the facts won the accolade of the GlaxoSmithKline sponsored Association of British Science Writers’ award for the best feature article of 2003.
The article, however, used flawed epidemiology for which he later offered no defence (HERE), as well as including an anonymous attack on Andrew Wakefield by one of Wakefield’s colleagues. This was just the first of several notable interventions Ben Goldacre in the MMR affair. A stock-in-trade has been his generalised attacks on parents of MMR damaged children. His Bad Science blogsite for a long time offered this intimidatory advice to would-be contributors:

“..personal anecdotes about your MMR tragedy will be deleted for your own safety”

A fundamental of Ben Goldacre’s journalistic method is the ad hominem and he always talks across opponents: he can always depend on the greater prominence of his published views and he never answers the many awkward criticisms.

The Goldacre dynasty seem to be one of several with on-going connections with the MMR affair:

  • *Dr Evan Harris, the former MP, who accompanied Brian Deer to make accusations against Andrew Wakefield and colleagues, and led a debate under privilege in the House of Commons making further allegations of unethical practices (HERE) is the son of paediatrician Prof Frank Harris who sat on the Committee on Safety in Medicines and the adverse reactions to vaccine committee ARVI in the early 1990s when Pluserix MMR vaccine had to be withdrawn (HERE) , (HERE) , (HERE).
  • *Paul Nuki, the Sunday Times features editor, who hired journalist Brian Deer to investigate Andrew Wakefield with the statement “I need something big” on “MMR” ( HERE) was the son of Prof George Nuki who was on the Committee on Safety of Medicines when MMR and Pluserix were introduced in the late 1980s.
  • *The Davis brothers Sir Crispin and Sir Nigel. Sir Crispin was CEO of Reed Elsevier, publishers of the Lancet, when Lancet editor Richard Horton denounced Andrew Wakefield to the BBC but was also a non-executive director of MMR defendants GlaxoSmithKline, and Sir Nigel was the High Court judge who upheld the Legal Services Commission to withhold funding from the MMR case a week later without disclosing a family connection to the case (HERE). Sir Crispin gave evidence against Andrew Wakefield to a Commons committee as CEO of Reed Elsevier, cross-examined by Evan Harris, in which he neither disclosed his GSK directorship or his brother’s judicial involvement in the case (HERE).
  • * In 2009 James Murdoch CEO of News International, publishers of the Sunday Times joined the board of GSK, with a responsibility to "review external issues that might have the potential for serious impact upon the group's business and reputation" (HERE). This was immediately followed by renewed “overkill” type attacks in Times newspapers on Andrew Wakefield by Brian Deer and others.
  • For several years Ben Goldacre kept his distance from the Deer allegations against Wakefield, preferring to use the epidemiological literature to combat and deride concern about MMR and autism. In another ABSW award winning article Don’t dumb me down sponsored by Syngenta he wrote:

    “people periodically come up to me and say, isn't it funny how that Wakefield MMR paper turned out to be Bad Science after all? And I say: no. The paper always was and still remains a perfectly good small case series report, but it was systematically misrepresented as being more than that, by media that are incapable of interpreting and reporting scientific data.”

    Remarkably, Evan Harris - who originally made the allegations about scientific fraud against Wakefield and colleagues under privilege in a House of Commons debate in March 2004  – was on the panel of judges that made the award (HERE).

    Indeed, Goldacre was right: the claims were convoluted and tenuous. When the GMC finally brought in its verdict against the three doctors in January 2010 it managed to find them guilty both of conducting the Legal Aid Board protocol in the Lancet study and guilty of not conducting it at the same time. Since the Lancet paper was as Goldacre had stated a ‘a perfectly good small case series report’ and “ an early report” as paper itself stated, Wakefield and colleagues were found with remarkable ingenuity to be in innumerable respects in breach of the terms of the protocol which they had reasonably pleaded they were not doing.

    By this stage, however, Goldacre had “dumbed” himself “down” and welcomed the verdict (HERE). In retrospect this looks like nothing so much as an elaborate ploy in which the medical and political establishment were giving themselves an insurance policy in case the GMC failed to bring in a guilty verdict. If this had happened the polemical position evolved by Ben Goldacre over seven years, based on dodgy epidemiology, might have provided the main defence for MMR.

    There have been a number of other key moments when Ben Goldacre has intervened in the MMR debate. In 2005 Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, alone in the journalistic profession, correctly spied the weakness in the newly published Cochrane review of MMR (HERE). While this had been successfully spun to give the impression MMR was safe, the real findings were that after sifting 5000 related studies and reviewing the 31 best the evidence base for MMR safety was “largely inadequate”, while individually several of the autism studies had come in for scathing criticism, and none of them was strong (HERE). Goldacre berated Phillips for knowing nothing about science, but the reality was that she was the only journalist who had taken the trouble to read the small print and dared to say the emperor had no clothes. There is no doubt in this attack that ad hominem prevailed over substantive discussion of the science (HERE). There is a dangerous message here from Goldacre of ‘leave it to the scientists’, but scientists are human, subject to institutional bullying and manipulation: many will not speak up against the powerful interests, or they speak, as did Cochrane, “with forked tongue”.  Goldacre’s attack on Phillips sounded plausible, but the problem with the literature that Cochrane reviewed was not that the science was “imperfect” as Goldacre put it, it was that it was mostly no good whatsoever. And hiding behind a few weasel statements Cochrane had said just that.

    In 2007 Goldacre led an attack via the Guardian on its sister newspaper the Observer contributing to the dismissal of its editor, Roger Alton. The Observer had published ahead of the GMC hearing against Drs Wakefield, Walker-Smith and Murch an account of a study which showed the autism rate amongst Cambridgeshire schoolchildren to be running at 1 in 58. One of the authors concerned about the seriousness of the situation and delays in publication had leaked an early version of the paper to the newspaper. The story was denied by lead author Simon Baron-Cohen, ridiculed by Goldacre, and the Rwanda massacre denying director of Science Media Centre, Fiona Fox, organised an institutional hanging party against the newspaper. Then, a few months later, when the furore had died down, the article had been removed, the Observer editor sacked, Baron-Cohen gave a presentation at the London IMFAR conference, which showed that story had been  correct all along (HERE) .

    It has been a lamentable feature of Ben Goldacre’s contribution to the public discussion of science in the UK that he has everywhere generated an atmosphere of intolerance in support of his views, and rather than raise the tone of the debate it has encouraged a new kind of scientific infantilism, in which you deride your opponents and defer to authority. The ruthlessness of this power was demonstrated when LBC radio journalist Jeni Barnett questioned the heavy-hand of the MMR lobby. She could not have been proved more right when the station was inundated by protests from Goldacre’s website, LBC removed the broadcast from its website, and Goldacre arranged for Liberal-Democrat Members of Parliament to organise a motion censuring Barnett: the second signatory inevitably being Evan Harris (HERE , HERE).

    A recent development in Ben Goldacre’s career has been the projection of himself as an arbiter of research ethics. It remains hard to judge the sincerity of his position. While he has recently attacked GSK over the diabetes drug Avandia  (HERE) this is only after many years of controversy surrounding the product and with the US Food and Drugs Administration about to take action. Only last year he led a hostile campaign against Express journalist, Lucy Johnston, for her reporting of GSK’s HPV vaccine Cervarix. (HERE). Yet the long term efficacy of the product is still to be demonstrated, and to attack concerns about safety is to prejudice the issue in relation to those who suffer adverse effects. Goldacre’s angry denunciation is an essence no better than a public relations agenda (on behalf of whom?), and can only prejudice the science. Johnston, on the other hand, was just trying to report.

    There is not a little irony in the doctor-journalist who sells ‘MMR is Safe’ T-shirts, mugs and baby-bibs from his website (HERE ) calling for an end to scientific spin (HERE). Did Cochrane say that? No, Cochrane said “The design and reporting of safety outcomes in MMR vaccine studies, both pre- and post-marketing is largely inadequate HERE, which is quite different. The calculation apparently would appear to be that we are by now all too stupid or too intimidated to call his bluff. 

    I agree with Ben Goldacre, we need an end to spin and he can start at home: we not only need to know what we are being told, we also need to know why. And we can do with an end to the totalitarian tactics.

    John Stone is UK Editor for Age of Autism.





    We can always count on John to get to the truth thanks John great piece

    Eugene Nicks

    Oh delight , thanks guys I can finally fire in a few questions to this numpty , GoldDigger . Poul Thoresen and the Danish study comes immediately to mind (particularly as the SSI study was used heavily in his rubbish book "Bad Scientists")? and the Walker Smith ruling ? And the broken refridgerators at Havard . And the David Lewis comments , and the Donald Trump comments ..... the gardasil pictures (before and after)? Its been quite a year . I'm sure there is more I could ask him about , a scoundrel such as he , should be made to squirm .

    John Stone


    When it comes to Nuki don't forget:


    Melanie Phillips' article about the Cochrane review of MMR is here:

    Angus Files

    I don`t know if us on here are worthy of a question to a pharma shill second to none ...

    Ben Goldacre: you ask the questions
    Do you want to quiz the author of Bad Pharma about the drugs industry? Here's your chance

    Ben Goldacre, exposer of bad science. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
    If you read the extract from Ben Goldacre's brilliant new book Bad Pharma in Saturday's Guardian, you'll know it is an eye-opening account of how a drug comes to market – an alarming tale of missing data, badly designed trials and lax regulation – getting a prescription from your GP will never feel the same again.

    In a couple of weeks we will be publishing an interview with Ben where all the questions have been posed by you, the readers. So if you have a question for the bestselling author of Bad Science, epidemiologist and self-described "nerd evangelist", whether it be about the trouble with pharmaceutical trials, how to spot pseudo-science or whether it's worth buying branded rather than generic ibuprofen, please send it to [email protected] or the usual postal address marked "Ben Goldacre question".

    Mark Struthers

    Paul 'I need something big on MMR' Nuki doesn't do fishing.[1] But he loves Big Fish like Bad Ben ... and skewering eminence based medicine.[2]

    Fishy, huh?


    [2] See the comments on,


    From "The drugs don't work: a modern medical scandal" by Ben Goldacre,

    "In 2006, a paper was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jama), one of the biggest medical journals in the world, describing how common it was for researchers doing industry-funded trials to have these kinds of constraints placed on their right to publish the results. The study was conducted by the Nordic Cochrane Centre and it looked at all the trials given approval to go ahead in Copenhagen and Frederiksberg. (If you're wondering why these two cities were chosen, it was simply a matter of practicality: the researchers applied elsewhere without success, and were specifically refused access to data in the UK.) These trials were overwhelmingly sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry (98%) and the rules governing the management of the results tell a story that walks the now familiar line between frightening and absurd.

    For 16 of the 44 trials, the sponsoring company got to see the data as it accumulated, and in a further 16 it had the right to stop the trial at any time, for any reason. This means that a company can see if a trial is going against it, and can interfere as it progresses, distorting the results. Even if the study was allowed to finish, the data could still be suppressed: there were constraints on publication rights in 40 of the 44 trials, and in half of them the contracts specifically stated that the sponsor either owned the data outright (what about the patients, you might say?), or needed to approve the final publication, or both. None of these restrictions was mentioned in any of the published papers.

    When the paper describing this situation was published in Jama, Lif, the Danish pharmaceutical industry association, responded by announcing, in the Journal of the Danish Medical Association, that it was 'both shaken and enraged about the criticism, that could not be recognised'. It demanded an investigation of the scientists, though it failed to say by whom or of what. Lif then wrote to the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty, accusing the Cochrane researchers of scientific misconduct. We can't see the letter, but the researchers say the allegations were extremely serious – they were accused of deliberately distorting the data – but vague, and without documents or evidence to back them up.

    Nonetheless, the investigation went on for a year. Peter Gøtzsche, director of the Cochrane Centre, told the British Medical Journal that only Lif's third letter, 10 months into this process, made specific allegations that could be investigated by the committee. Two months after that, the charges were dismissed. The Cochrane researchers had done nothing wrong. But before they were cleared, Lif copied the letters alleging scientific dishonesty to the hospital where four of them worked, and to the management organisation running that hospital, and sent similar letters to the Danish medical association, the ministry of health, the ministry of science and so on. Gøtzsche and his colleagues felt 'intimidated and harassed' by Lif's behaviour. Lif continued to insist that the researchers were guilty of misconduct even after the investigation was completed."

    You'd think maybe a light bulb would go on.


    Thanks John!

    Elizabeth Gillespie

    Jim Thompson

    John: Thank you again

    Mark: More inclusive and less elitist views were already presented in “Evidence of Harm” (2006) by David Kirby and “Powerful Medicines” (2005) by Jerry Avorn.


    Honourable People

    Further to my reply to - "For Honourable people"

    Marcia Angell - NEJM (Wiki)

    She joined the editorial staff of NEJM in 1979, and became executive editor in 1988 and interim editor-in-chief from 1999 until June 2000.[2][3] ...She retired from the journal in June 2000 and was replaced by Jeffrey Drazen, M.D. Angell is the only woman to have served as editor-in-chief of the journal since it was founded in 1812

    That would probably mean she was not Editor for the either the Madsen paper or the Suissa letter.

    Honourable People

    For Honourable People

    Times change people's opinions change ...

    ASD is undergoing a profound change in our understanding of aetiology and pathology.


    Marcia Angell is adept at making disinformation appear honest to the casual reader. She is a mouthpiece for medical corporate interests and over her career has done much to villify and harm victims of defective medical devices.

    Deborah Nash

    An excellent article as always . I wish all those who continue to believe what they read about the safety of vaccines, from the likes of B.G. knew the truth about these family ties. The undeniable influence of certain families over vaccine safety press coverage is a real eye opener when put in a single article.

    Well done John Stone.

    Personally I doubt Mr G's sincerity as arbiter of research ethics. Once Pharma has been found guilty of dirty tricks, he can't be seen to be ok with it. I think he just takes the populist view.

    John Stone


    As to Goldacre and Deer I am reminded of the saying of British Conservative politician David Mellor when the party began to fall apart in the 90s "If we don't hang together we will sure as anything hang seperately". Goldacre had the opportunity to blow the whistle, he shilly shallied (emphasis perhaps on the shill bit) but jumped back into line. Very conveniently when John Walker-Smith was cleared earlier this year - endorsing his earlier doubts - his blog was no longer being published. Now he surfaces six months later and hopes no one will have noticed.

    Well, we have noticed.


    Mark Struthers

    After quoting from Bad Ben's intro to his new book, Carol said,

    "Hm. Conspiracy: A secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful."

    GSK were fined $3 billion by the US government for repeated criminal misdemeanour ... and then the CEO was honoured with a knighthood. Hmmmm!

    In the intro to his new book, Bad Ben also said,

    "The true scale of this murderous disaster only fully reveals itself when the details are untangled. Good science has been perverted on an industrial scale, but this has happened slowly, and evolved naturally, over time. This has all been perpetrated by ordinary people, but many of them may not even know what they’ve done."

    I think the ordinary folk at GSK knew what they were doing when they deployed attack dogs (aka hacks) like James Murdoch, Brian Deer, Fiona Godlee and Ben Goldacre ... to perpetrate their murderous disaster on vaccine safety science. I'll bet Sir Andrew Witty and Sir Mark Pepys knew too.

    Mark Struthers

    Ha ha ha ha ha! The crap is back ... except that now it's cow ... and it's a "thing of beauty and power"



    "This isn’t a simple story of cartoonish evil, and there will be no conspiracy theories....Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments....And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure. Sometimes whole academic journals are even owned outright by one drug company....But several tricks have been introduced, over the course of many years, which allow researchers to overstate and exaggerate the benefits of the treatments they are testing. When you get here, you might think that some of these are innocent mistakes; in all seriousness, while I doubt that, I’m more interested in how clever they are. More importantly, we will see how obvious these tricks are, and how people who should know better at every step of the chain, from ethics committees, through to academic journals, have allowed companies and researchers to engage in these shameful, outright distortions....Medicine changes completely in four decades, and as they try to keep up, doctors are bombarded with information: from adverts that misrepresent the benefits and risks of new medicines; from sales reps who spy on patients’ confidential prescribing records; from colleagues who are quietly paid by drug companies; from ‘teaching’ that is sponsored by industry; from independent ‘academic’ journal articles that are quietly written by drug company employees; and worse."

    Hm. Conspiracy: A secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.

    And somehow, in the world according to Ben, the people who perpetrate all these horrors aren't bad; they're forced to do bad things by inadequate regulation.

    Mark Struthers

    Bad Ben is a simple creature complicated by conflicts. His Achilles heel is vaccines, particularly the MMR.

    The problem was that Dr Goldacre could not find fault with Wakefield's paper, because he knew it was a largely faultless example of a scientific case series study. This was also a problem for Bad Pharma and all those silly establishment goons at home and abroad. What was needed was a journalist, and an exceptionally bad example of the fraternity.

    Of course, Deer was the godsend sent by Godlee ... which is why Dr Ben has been "unswervingly" devoted to Brian ... and always will be devoted to the horrible hack ... despite otherwise blaming the "gigantic and lengthy scare” ... on ignorant journalists.

    John Stone

    Thanks Otto, should be fixed now, John

    For Honourable People

    Unfortunately, Marcia Angell's track record in autism includes publishing the utterly corrupt Madsen MMR study in NEJM in 2002 and blocking the Suissa letter.

    We have a big problem with lions of justice who turn a blind eye: may be they are just really promoting specific agendas.


    Thank you Mr. Stone for revealing reporting.

    Please be aware the hyperlink to Cochrane review of MMR studies in last paragraph is not functioning.

    Honourable People

    There are many fine and distinguished doctors and medical professionals from paediatric gastroenterologists like Professor John Walker-Smith that are sincerely doing or have done their best for the autism and wider community.

    Marcia Angell is one of them, read her books or read through her articles at New York Review of Books

    and this on psychiatry

    The Reinvention of the ProVAX World

    Wow ... Ben Goldacre reinvents himself as did Brian Deer recently ... Evan Harris ... champion of ...well who know's what ?

    What's going on ?

    Marcia Angell former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine has been writing this stuff for over 13 years and Ben suddenly jumps on the 'band wagon' ... now that's sincere.

    ...and guess what her article in the Boston Review was titled

    ...Big Pharma, Bad Medicine
    How corporate dollars corrupt research and education.

    Here's her book published in 2005

    Video lecture and Introduction here ...

    Eugene Nicks

    GoldDiggers best seller "Bad Science" is the biggest load of tripe I've ever had the misfortune to read .... and no I refused to buy it on principle . All that I can remember from his pointless scribbling is he holds multiple degrees and therefore considers himself intellectually more powerful than most of the universe , so that makes him ........... yes thats right , a supremacist . I have nothing good to say about the man and never will .The guardian should be ashamed to have him on board too .

    Mark Struthers

    For John O'Neill

    Please read John Stone's article above; he has very cogently articulated the origins of my profound scepticism for the author of 'Bad Pharma' (aka 'Holy Crap: a story of Bad Science and Big Pharma'). I hope it sells well. The shameless extent of plugging will no doubt ensure it does.

    John Stone

    John O'Neill

    No, you sense a hint of scepticism.

    John O'Neill

    In other news, Dr Goldacre has a new book out today; "Bad Pharma" will probably sell very well. Do I sense a hint of jealousy?

    Mark Struthers

    Of course, 'Bad Ben' has been using the dubious offices of the Guardian to shamelessly plug his new book,

    Mark Struthers

    'Holy crap', the shameless plug has gone!!

    Mark Struthers

    'Bad Ben' has a new book to sell ... and here he can be seen plugging it shamelessly.

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