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Holy Smoke by Damian Thompson
Patrick Holford's counterknowledge
Posted by Damian Thompson on 17 Jan 2008 at 15:00
Tags: Counterknowledge, Patrick Holford, Dr Andrew Wakefield, Ben Goldacre
Does the name Patrick Holford mean anything to you? He’s Britain’s premier nutritionist and a visiting professor at Teesside University – despite holding no degree higher than a BSc (in psychology). Anyway, he’s one of the stars of my book Counterknowledge, and I thought I’d carry a few pars from it to explain why. So here goes:
One could easily devote a whole book to the dubious claims in Holford’s oeuvre, so let me confine myself to three specimen charges.
First, Holford circulates misleading information about autism to the parents of children affected by this often devastating developmental disorder. Holford is a supporter of Dr Andrew Wakefield, whose claim that the MMR vaccine triggers autism is unsupported by a single peer-reviewed study; in 2007, he gathered signatures for a petition to stop Wakefield being struck off by the General Medical Council. Holford thinks that MMR may be “the last straw” that causes autism in susceptible children. He also cites a “recent review of all the available evidence” that concludes that Wakefield’s thesis has not been refuted (which it has); the footnote for this review directs the reader to the website of the charity Food for the Brain (CEO: P. Holford), where it is available only to paid subscribers.
In the section of his website devoted to the causes of autism, Holford writes: “As with many conditions, there is debate as to whether autism is inherited or caused by something like diet or environment.” This is grossly misleading. The scientific literature shows clearly that, in over 90 per cent of cases, autism is genetic. Holford does not tell parents this, either on his website or on that of Food for the Brain. The latter provides an “action plan” for parents of autistic children that involves giving them enormous quantities of vitamins and other diet supplements. For more help in “overcoming autism” – a dubious choice of words, given that autism is incurable and does not go into remission – parents are recommended to visit the Brain Bio Centre (Director: P. Holford), whose promotional literature says that “over several months, most patients spend between £600 and £1,100 on consultations and tests, plus between £2 to £3 per day for supplements.”
Second, Holford has promoted and sold an electronic pendant called a QLink that is supposed to protect against radiation from mobile phones and laptop computers. As he explains on the manufacturers’ website: “The scientific proof is deeply impressive … This revolutionary pendant provides continuous support against electromagnetic radiation via a microchip which resonates at the same frequencies as the body’s own energetic field.” Dr Ben Goldacre of the Guardian’s Bad Science column saw that Holford was selling QLinks through his Health Products for Life catalogue, and decided to examine one closely by taking it apart.
There was no microchip. Goldacre contacted the inventors of the QLink. “They informed me they have always been clear the QLink does not use electronics components ‘in a conventional electronic way’. And apparently the energy pattern reprogramming work is done by some finely powdered crystal embedded in the resin. Oh, hang on, I get it: it’s a New Age crystal pendant.” Goldacre estimates that the key component of the QLink costs £0.005 to manufacture; Holford was charging £69.99 per pendant.
Third, and most disturbingly, Holford is sceptical not only about MMR but also about the value of vaccination in general. He writes: “The alternatives to vaccination are to ensure that you or your child has a fighting fit immune system. There is no better way to confer immunity to an infant than breast feeding and, once weaned, ensuring an optimal intake of immune-boosting nutrients. Vitamin A, for example, offers protection against measles and probably polio.”
The suggestion that breast-feeding and vitamins are an alternative to immunisation is dangerous nonsense. The NHS website for Great Ormond Street Hospital says that no measure, such as breast-feeding or an organic diet, provides better protection against serious illnesses than orthodox vaccination. UNICEF estimated in 2003 that vaccines against measles and influenza could save half a million lives in Africa every year.