One of the lessons of reading material – especially on the internet – that deals with Alternative Therapy is that when people cite scientific-sounding “authority figures”, these luminaries aren’t always quite what they are being presented to you as.
Digging online will often reveal all, or at least a fair bit. But how many people bother?
Let’s take the example of media nutritionist Patrick Holford, and the mentors and teachers he mentions on his CV.
Diversion – skip the next bit if you are already familiar with the ongoing “Patrick Holford vs. the Bad Science Blogosphere” saga
The backstory – on the blogs I read that deal with pseudoscience, like Ben Goldacre’s Badscience, David Colquhoun’s Improbable Science, and the Quackometer, Patrick Holford has been getting a bit of a trashing. The Bad Science blogosphere has been examining his work, including his claims, in print and on TV, about such things as Vitamin C and HIV
Several of the bloggers have pointed out that Patrick’s CV, as printed on his website, contains a number of inaccuracies. They suggest that the net effect of these inaccuracies has been to tend to make Patrick seem more expert and scientifically-based than he actually is. For anyone wishing to catch up with all this, apart from the three blogs already mentioned, there is one devoted (if that’s the word) almost entirely to Patrick called Holfordwatch
Anyway, back to Patrick Holford’s mentors. I love a bit of Internet digging – especially when I’m dodging writing a turgid lecture – so thought I would investigate.
Let’s look at a key section of Holford’s CV, the bit detailing how he got started in looking into “nutrition and mental health”, which appears on his website here
“[Patrick] started his academic career in the field of psychology. While completing his bachelor degree in Experimental Psychology at the University of York he researched the role of nutrition in mental health and illness. He became a student of the late Dr Carl Pfeiffer, director of Princeton’s Brain Bio Center, and later a student of Dr Abram Hoffer, Director of the International Schizophrenia Foundation in Canada, who were leading the field in mental health and nutrition. In 1980 he started treating mental health patients with nutritional medicine.”
As has been observed by Patrick’s critics in the Blogosphere, the last sentence is interesting in itself since we don’t know where this happened. We also don’t know in what capacity Holford treated them, since he has no recognized postgraduate training or qualification in clinical psychology (either or sometimes both is necessary to become a psychologist treating patients in the NHS, for instance).
However, I want to focus on the two people Holford’s CV says he studied with after his degree – Drs Pfeiffer and Hoffer, described as “leading the field in mental health and nutrition”.
These two gentlemen are not quite what you might think. A different bio might read like this.
“Carl Pfeiffer and Abram Hoffer are controversial figures, known for their belief in treating psychiatric disorders with vitamin “therapies”. These practices were, and continue to be, regarded as having no real basis by mainstream medicine and psychiatry. By the 1970s Pfeiffer and Hoffer had largely ceased to publish in the mainstream scientific and medical journals, which they claimed were biased against their vitamin work. Hoffer quit academia for good in 1967 (many years before Patrick Holford came in contact with him) to go into private psychiatric practice (he later seems to have also used vitamin therapies to treat cancer sufferers). The “Princeton Brain Bio Center” which Pfeiffer directed was not affiliated in any way with Princeton University (as the name might suggest) but was a private clinic set up by Pfeiffer and his associates in the early 70s to offer nutritional therapies.
Pfeiffer and Hoffer’s work from the late 60s on appeared mainly (or pretty much wholly in Hoffer’s case) in the alternative literature, mostly in Hoffer’s own journal, founded in 1967 as the Journal of Schizophrenia. After several name changes the journal is now called The Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine (JOM) .The JOM is where Patrick Holford has published several of the recent research papers listed on his CV.
The JOM is not listed on Medline (generally a prerequisite for a “serious” academic journal in the sciences), and espouses or has espoused many viewpoints regarded by mainstream medicine as dangerous and unfounded nonsense, e.g. the idea that mercury amalgam fillings cause mercury toxicity, the use of “chelation therapy” to address such mysterious supposed heavy metal toxicities and for other conditions, and dietary therapies for cancer. A brief list of areas of interest for the journal can be found on their front page
Apart from Pfeiffer and Hoffer (who between them authored over a hundred papers in the journal), other names familiar to those who follow the “Alternative Health” field appear as authors in the JOM, including Matthias Rath and the late Bernard Rimland. Rimland was the founder of the Autism Research Institute, which now promotes chelation and unproven nutritional therapies for autism, and supports Dr Andrew Wakefield. Rimland was a high-profile supporter of the discredited idea that the mercury preservative thimerosal in vaccines caused autism.”
Given all the above, you may feel that an alternative to Pfeiffer and Hoffer “leading the field in mental health and nutrition” would be that Pfeiffer and Hoffer were “convinced that much mental illness was caused by nutritional imbalances and deficiencies, and were consequently regarded by mainstream psychiatrists as cranks”
As a final note, an extensive bibliography of Hoffer’s published work here reveals no articles co-authored with Patrick Holford, around 1979-1980 or since.
So when you see claims that Patrick Holford is “one of the world’s leading authorities on nutrition and mental health”:
…caveat emptor, as they say. All is not what it seems.