Patrick Holford’s feel-good quackery

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

At times it appears alarmingly easy to be considered an expert in any given field. This is sometimes the case even when objective criteria for expertise are available, and you manifestly fail to meet them. Granted, there are some fields of knowledge where consensus is difficult to reach, and where equally qualified people can have opposing viewpoints. But this is rare, and (thankfully) becoming steadily more rare.

Consider some relatively new field, such as neuroscience. It’s still unclear what it is we are studying, in that our state of knowledge regarding the brain is limited by how accurately we can scan it, and legitimate debates around what data from fMRI scans actually reveal. We can’t yet be sure how increased oxygenation and blood-flow to certain areas of the brain correlate to particular functions.

Then, given debates around concepts like neuroplasticity, we can’t even be sure that many of our findings are conclusive, in the sense of revealing something about human brains generally, rather than this brain, under these experimental conditions. What this adds up to, at least in part, is that while our findings in a field like neuroscience can be indicative of interesting mechanisms or locations for various neural functions, they stop short – for now, at least – of offering proofs, despite the giddy enthusiasm of much popular science writing.

The fact that some domains of knowledge are in their infancy, and open to debate, does not mean that all knowledge is. Nor does it imply that some people can’t legitimately be described as quacks. Whether they intend to defraud us through peddling some unproven remedy, or perhaps a PowerBalance band, is a different matter – such intent would speak to their character, while the possible confusions around expertise, and which products should be believed to work, speak to gullibility and ignorance.

Buyers and sellers can of course both be gullible, and reach agreement to buy and sell things with no intrinsic value. And we can have little complaint if things are marketed as potentially placebos (or maybe entertainments) only, where inflated and potentially – sometimes even probably – false claims are made regarding the benefits accrued through use of those products. But when a seller has a track record of making claims that are (to the best of our knowledge) false, surely we should try to wean ourselves off those goods and those sellers?

This question is currently foregrounded in the area of health (think organic food, size zero models, the so-called obesity epidemic and so forth), and embodied in the presence of Patrick Holford (or, to borrow a line from Dr. Ben Goldacre, and to give Holford his full medical title, “Patrick Holford”). Holford recently visited South Africa to present a series of seminars relating to what he has branded the “Feel Good Factor”.

In case you haven’t heard the promotional advertisements on CapeTalk567 and Radio702, “the Feel Good Factor seminar will help you transform the way you think and feel right now and give you an action plan to prevent memory decline later in life and stay free from depression”. What the seminars apparently will not do is teach you to use punctuation, but perhaps your newly transformed self won’t be too concerned about that.

Of course, transformation doesn’t come cheap, and in this case it serves as a vehicle for selling plenty of books and plenty of vitamin supplements, thanks to Holford’s South African partner, Dis-Chem. Why should we care, though, if people are made to feel better as a result of these interventions? Because, in this case, we do have evidence that Holford is a huckster, and a potentially dangerous one at that.

We can perhaps forgive him for continuing to endorse nutritional supplements generally, despite the exhaustive findings of the Cochrane review (pdf) from 2008 which, in a meta-analysis of 232 000 people, found that antioxidant vitamin pills ‘do us no good and may be harmful’. We could nitpick about the significance of meta-analysis, or anti-oxidant supplements generally versus other supplements, and so forth. Or, perhaps more sensibly, we could concede that supplements do no good for most people, but that they could still be useful for certain people suffering from certain conditions.

Holford does do this, by the way, in that he has formulated, and endorses, a range of supplements for four quite specific conditions, namely “children”, “mood”, “weight” and “body”. So if you have one or more of those, he has a targeted pill just for you. For the rest of us, who might feel we haven’t yet achieved “optimum health and vitality”, he offers a concoction labelled “essentials”. No child (or adult, in this case) is left behind.

More worrying, perhaps, is a statement like “AZT is potentially harmful and proving less effective than vitamin C”, which is derived from the research of Dr. Rixit Jariwalla, a researcher who was at the time employed by the Dr. Rath Research Institute. Dr. Rath is of course well known to South Africans – perhaps particularly those South Africans who had relatives die as a result of shunning (or not being granted easy access to) ARVs in favour of sweet potatoes and garlic.

Or, we could be concerned by the fact that Holford has no relevant qualifications. He completed a B.Sc. in Psychology, and later failed to complete an MPhil at Surrey University. While it’s true that he’s a nutritionist, so is Gillian McKeith – the title of “nutritionist” is not a protected one in the UK, and anyone is free to grant themselves this honorific. While no less an authority than the Daily Mail tells us that “Patrick Holford is one of the world’s leading authorities on new approach to health and nutrition”, there seems little reason to consider him an expert in this field.

There is more to tell, such as the fact that his honorary diploma in nutrition was awarded by the Institute for Optimum Nutrition – while Holford served as director of that institute. Or his endorsement of a different magic bracelet to PowerBalance, namely the QLink pendant, which somehow corrects your “energy frequencies”, despite the fact that no frequencies can be detected emitting from the pendant, and the pendant contains electrical components that are not connected to anything.

You can read about his connections to Scientology elsewhere, or (on the same site) learn about the inaccurate details presented on his CV. On two occasions (that I am aware of), the Advertising Standards Authority has upheld complaints regarding his alleged expertise and the efficacy of the supplements he endorses. While he might be a well-meaning fellow, if he looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, he might well be a quack.

And if he is a quack, or even if it’s likely that he is a quack, it is regrettable that a nationwide pharmacy chain endorsed his Feel Good Factor roadshow. As for the advertising revenue Primedia received for promoting this roadshow, one can only hope they’re spending it on AIDS-related charities, rather than on vitamin C supplements.

Related links:
Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.