Thursday 14 May 2015

Aseem Malhotra screws up again

Our old friend Aseem Malhotra is starting to become a regular at Retraction Watch. A year after sparking an investigation at the British Medical Journal, Malhotra found himself in hot water with the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

You almost certainly heard about Malhotra's article in the BJSM attacking the 'myth' that exercise helps people lose weight. This risible claim was broadcast around the world. What you probably did not hear is that the article was taken offline within 48 hours and only reappeared last week.

Why was it suspended? Any number of factual inaccuracies could have been responsible (see here for an example), but rumour had it that undisclosed conflicts of interest were the main reason. As I mentioned at the time, Malhotra's co-authors are neck deep in the low-carb/Atkins/banting diet and one of them has a book to sell. This is a fairly mild competing interest, but it is typical of a BMJ publication to be more concerned about an author receiving an indirect financial benefit than about his article being truthful.

The competing interest was not the only reason, however. The article has been subtly altered and the following notice has been added...

Correction notice This article has been amended from the original published on 29th April 2015. The body of the text was slightly edited and a reference removed. Competing interests have been added.

The edited part looked like this in the original...

It now looks like this...

As you can see, the journal has removed the part about the tobacco industry "buying the loyalty of bent scientists". This is important because the paragraph in question accuses the food industry of using "tactics chillingly similar to those of big tobacco."

And, in case anybody was in any doubt that Malhotra et al. are accusing the food industry of hiring 'bent scientists', reference 5 (which has now also been removed) was 'Sugar: spinning a web of influence' by Jonathan Gornall. I wrote about Gornall's article (which was published in the BMJ) a few months ago.

A theme is emerging in his hatchet jobs. First, he takes a policy which is controversial with the public but which has legitimate arguments for and against. He then treats the policy as a no-brainer which could only possibly be opposed by vested interests. He then looks for any kind of funding from business to civil society and the public sector; if he cannot find any he implies that it exists. Finally, he pads out his articles with quotes from activists and presents their failure to persuade government to bring in the controversial policy as being the result of 'webs of influence'.
Last year it was minimum pricing with the Alcohol Health Alliance. This time it's food reformulation with Action on Sugar.

Gornall's articles for the BMJ have all been of a very low quality and the journal embarrassed itself by publishing the sugar article, in particular. Gornall failed to understand that collaborations between the government and the food industry are not a dirty secret. On the contrary, they are the norm, and everybody who works in the field understands this.

The great and the good of 'public health' nutrition lined up in the Rapid Responses to attack the article. Prof Barry Popkin described it as "not only naïve but misguided" and said that Dr Susan Jebb, who bore the brunt of Gornall's poison pen, was "quite incorrectly impugned". The Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council said "please add my name to your 'tangled web'. It would be an honour to stand alongside scientists such as Susan Jebb, Ann Prentice and Ian Macdonald, who are committed to improving public health through research." It's worth reading the Rapid Responses in full.

This should have been enough for the BMJ to end its association with Gornall but I understand that he is currently carrying out more "research" for the journal. Even Gornall, however, did not describe Susan Jebb, Ian MacDonald et al. as "bent scientists". By using that phrase and citing Gornall's article as proof, Malhotra and his chums came very close to doing so. In the eyes of the libel lawyers, they may actually have done so, hence the retraction and correction.

Here we have two people—Malhotra and Gornall—who should not be allowed within a hundred miles of a medical journal publishing utter tripe, with one referencing the other. This Laurel and Hardy act would be quite amusing if it didn't push, and indeed exceed, the boundaries of what can be printed in a serious magazine. As I have shown time and again on this blog, Malhotra writes down the first thing that comes into his head. He is extremely credulous and not terribly bright. This is the second time in twelve months that he has got a journal into trouble, despite the fact that he rarely writes for journals. How many more chances is he going to be given?

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