By Dana Ullman MPH
[email January 21, 2004 to BBC Producer, Nathan Williams.Please note that the quotes below from Nathan Williams do not represent the views of the BBC. Please also note that there is no evidence that Mr. Williams knew that Wayne Turnbull changed the experiment from the one conducted by Professor Ennis, though Mr. Williams presently insists that there was nothing wrong with the program he produced.]
Your recent email is interesting for what it says and what it does not say. The fact that you didn’t respond to many of the concerns that Professor Ennis and I have raised sends its own message. Often times, an ill-conceived response that a journalist makes to a mistake creates a more serious problem for the journalist, just as a cover-up creates a larger problem for a politician than the original problem itself. Hopefully, you will do the right thing, acknowledge the mistakes that were made, and determine a fair way to air appropriate corrections.
Because you are journalist, not a scientist, I realize that you must rely on experts. And because you choose to not quote any experts in your email to me below, I can only assume that none wish to go on record to support the BBC experiment. That said, it is not adequate for any expert to assert the experiment was well-conducted or well-analyzed because such statements only assert that a poorly conceived experiment (for which consensus was never obtained) was “well-conducted” or “well-analyzed.” Garbage in, garbage out.
Your defense of the Horizon programme is extremely weak, and because you stand by it without any remorse or criticism of yourself or the experimenters you used, it is obvious to me that I must continue to proceed with my formal complaint with the BBC and that I must call on the scientists who participated in the BBC experiment to acknowledge that:
- The BBC experiment was not a “repeat” of Professor Ennis’ work nor of any previously conducted study. (This is so obvious that even your experimenter Wayne Turnbull has acknowledged it!)
- Wayne Turnbull of Guys Hospital has asserted that “consensus is vital” for this type of research, but when he sought to get consensus from Professor Ennis, he was told that his protocol was given a point-by-point listing of the differences between his experiment and Professor Ennis’. He never received consensus for this experiment from anyone in the homeopathic community.
- According to Martin Brand (the statistician for the BBC experiment), he and Marion Macey (who also conducted the BBC experiment) assumed that they were repeating Ennis’ experiment, and he reported this statement to the Royal Society. According to Brand, he and Macey had no idea that there were differences between the protocol that they used and the one that Ennis used.
The BBC experiment used 10% foetal calf serum (this is not a defined medium and could contain many things that might influence an assay).
You said, ” There is absolutely no contradiction that I can see between what was stated in the programme and the way in which the experiments were carried out.” And yet, when your programme stated (twice) that the BBC experiment was a “repeat” of Professor Ennis’ work, these statements were either an error or a lie, though you somehow do not consider it either (sorry for the harsh words here, but something needs to shake you out of complacency). I do not understand your logic, nor have you presented any. As a journalist, it seems that you consider it ethical and competent to say that someone is “repeating” an experiment if there is only a vague semblance of one experiment to the next. This thinking and reporting seems to be a classic example of sloppy journalism and junk science.
Your programme was explicit in saying that you were “repeating” Professor Ennis’ experiment. And yet, the lead experimenter for this TV programme, Wayne Turnbull, has gone on record saying that, “The degranulation protocol that we use was never portrayed as a replication of Dr Ennis’s methodology.” Which one is it: was it a repeat or not?
Your email below stated, ” There is no evidence that any of the procedures that Wayne Turnbull followed had any adverse affect on the outcome of the experiment.” On whose authority are you saying that the changes that Wayne Turnbull initiated had “no adverse affect?” The one leading expert on this study with whom Turnbull formally consulted, Professor Ennis, told him directly that his protocol needed to be changed. After Turnbull’s conversation with Professor Ennis, she was surprised and shocked at how little he knew about basophils. Turnbull has asserted that he “stands behind” his protocol. However, considering his inadequate expertise in this area of research, his assertion has little meaning.
The fact that a separate lab conducted this experiment and found the same negative result is of no consequence because both labs used the same incorrect protocol. Garbage in, garbage out.
Below is an email that Wayne Turnbull sent to me on November 12, 2003. Please note that he says that Professor Ennis was consulted, but he never says that she accepted the experiment’s protocol as valid. I’m pleased that he has been carefully honest here because he would have been less than candid if he said otherwise. In fact, Ennis expressed concern to him about his protocol. Further, Turnbull acknowledges that he asserts that other members of the homeopathic community were “consulted in preparation for the experiment,” but neither HE or YOU have told me WHO these people were (all of the people you interviewed for Horizon have told me that they did not consent to the protocol that was used).
FROM WAYNE TURNBULL…
And regarding supervision of the BBC work, the investigation as a whole was supervised by Professor John Enderby of the Royal Society. Prof Madeliene Ennis, upon whose work the degranulation assay was based, was consulted regarding the acceptability of the investigation. As far as I’m aware, members of the homeopathic community here in London were at least consulted in preparation for the experiment, in order to ensure that the methodology was deemed fair and rigorous and acceptable to all concerned. However, the details regarding the extent of this consultation would be known to the BBC production team at the time.
Do you still think that there isn’t a problem here?
I had hoped that you would try to be an objective journalist who would see the mis-statements that were aired in a programme that you produced and then figure out a way to provide some correction. Instead, you have chosen to provide a weak defense without quoting any experts and without responding to several important concerns that have been raised. There is still time to make corrections, and I sincerely hope that you will do so.
–Dana Ullman, MPH
(email on January 27, 2004, to Nathan Williams and to the BBC)
You may have heard from Dr. John Enderby by now. He has confirmed to me that he never knew that there was any difference in the BBC’s experiment and Professor Ennis’ experiment. While he was confident in his blind coding, he had no idea that Turnbull changed the experiment.
Please note that you have yet to confirm a single person, either involved in homeopathic medicine or not, who knew that there was any difference between the two studies, INCLUDING yourself.
You wrote to me saying, ” the experiments were perfectly in keeping with standard scientific practice .” However, you are a journalist, not a scientist. Please clarify which expert will stand behind this statement?
I have also gotten verified that the use of Ammonium Chloride as a lysis buffer is well-known for its ability to kill cells (that’s what it does!), including basophils. The experiment would be literally “dead in the water” even before any homeopathic doses of histamine get involved.
Needless to say, if nobody, except Turnbull, knew that he created a new and different experiment, he did not receive the consensus that he considered so “vital” for an experiment like this. That said, if I have stated anything incorrectly, please help clarify things for me.
In the near future, I will be sending you an email that will further put into question the protocol that Turnbull used.
It is in YOUR interests to come forward now and realize that there were serious problems in the programme you aired on homeopathy…and to make appropriate corrections on air and at the BBC’s website.
Dana Ullman, MPH