Friday 6 November 2015


The British Medical Journal seems to be on auto-destruct at the moment. More than ever, the magazine is filled with crackpots and conspiracy theorists. I don't how much tolerance its readers have for student politics and junk journalism, but some of them must be reconsidering their subscription by now.

I mentioned recently that the BMJ had refused to publish an article that they had requested for their head-to-head column about banning smoking in psychiatric hospitals. Michael Fitzpatrick stepped in to give a fine defence of patient autonomy, but the published article contains no explanation of why only one side of the forthcoming Maudsley debate has been represented in print. The magazine has not covered itself in glory this week, and it gets worse...

In September, it gave the front cover and lead story to Nina Teicholz, an Atkin's Diet crank who wrote a poorly researched book called The Big Fat Surprise. Among other peculiar beliefs, she thinks that Americans have a 'near-vegetarian diet' (the USA has the highest per capita meat consumption in the world). She is obsessed with government dietary guidelines, which she wrongly thinks Americans adhere to, and this was the subject of her BMJ article.

As often happens when low carb zealots are given column inches in journals, a factual error in the article had to be subsequently corrected (see also Aseem Malhotra and Aseem Malhotra again), but others remain and 183 scientists have now signed a letter requesting the article be retracted in full. They say it is 'so riddled with errors' that it has 'no place in the pages of a prominent scientific journal.'

So it is, but does the BMJ even want to be regarded as a 'scientific journal'? 'Activist magazine' would be more accurate given its repeated employment of Jonathan Gornall, a clown show conspiracy theorist with whom regular readers will be familiar. He's back yet again in this week's edition, this time donning his tin helmet for an 'investigation' into Public Health England's report on e-cigarettes. Clive Bates has fisked it to death in an excellent blog post so I won't go into details, suffice it to say that it is the usual mish-mash of ad hominem attacks based on binge-googling, LinkedIn profiles and quotes from anonymous sources.

One characteristic of Gornall's efforts is that he never makes any attempt to evaluate evidence or argument. He is intellectually incurious to an extraordinary degree, taking an a priori position - in this instance, that e-cigarettes are a Bad Thing - and then smearing anyone who disagrees with it (Public Health England, in this case). He did the same when he decided that the government should bring in a sugar tax and when he decided that minimum pricing was a Good Thing. As I wrote in February...

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'.

On that occasion, he was attacking Susan Jebb, a respected food scientist, because she has 'links' to 'Big Food'. What Gornall failed to mention is that most food scientists have worked for or with the food industry. As it happens, Jebb is something of a nanny statist and she actually supports the idea of a sugar tax. Again, Gornall failed to mention this, presumably because it would undermine his conspiracy theory.

The reaction from people who know what they're talking about was a joy to behold, including these expert reactions and this response from the chief executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC)...

As I am ultimately responsible for everything MRC does, 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.

Gornall made such a fool of himself with that particular smear job that I really thought it would be the end of his relationship with the BMJ. How wrong I was. To promote his latest drivel, the BMJ even tweeted an infographic which attempts to tie the authors of one of the studies cited in the Public Health England report together in one web of corruption. It nicely sums up Gornall's approach to journalism by connecting dots without saying anything.

Employing this chump once would be a mistake. Employing him again and again says a great deal about the BMJ's spiralling decline. What other conclusion can one draw than that Gornall's approach to journalism is also that of the once proud BMJ?

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