When Simon Wessely shoved a Hans Eysenck scandal under the rug

Updated May 7, 2016

I have also now responded to Sir Simon Wessely ‘s comment on Twitter about this post. I invite a further reply from him.

  • Soon there may be a renewed call for an investigation of misconduct by famous UK psychologist Hans Eysenck.
  •  What happened the last time reflects on the ability of UK academia to self-correct atrociously bad science and bad publication practices.
  •  As we are currently seeing in other scandals, UK academia looks after its own, no matter what.

swept-rug-BruceKrasting-flickr-370x242The centenary of the birth of UK psychologist Hans Eysenck in March has already been marked by release of a special collection of articles from  about Eysenck from the archives of the British Psychological Association’s The Psychologist.

The centenary  will be also be celebrated with a special commemorative issue of Personality and Individual Differences, one of the journals that he started and edited. I assume many of the articles will praise Eysenck’s accomplishments as the founder of British clinical psychology, his key contribution to establishing cognitive behavior therapy in the UK, and his overall status as one of the most cited psychologists of all time.

If that’s the case, one contribution by UK psychiatrist Anthony Pelosi will stand out like a tuba joining a string ensemble, if it is anything like his past writings. Stay tuned.

Hans Eysenck oneIf he is consistent with his past writings, Tony may reignite earlier charges that Hans Eysenck was a fraudster, abused editorial privilege, and had huge, corrupting undisclosed conflicts of interest – payments not only from American tobacco companies but from their lawyers desperately trying to muster evidence that smoking did not cause cancer. Evidence that Hans Eysenck cooked up for them.

Then editor of The BMJ Richard Smith had backed Pelosi decades ago, as seen in Smith’s slides about editorial misconduct.

slide1 R Smith Eysenckslide 2 r smith should editors

Pelosi and fellow psychiatrist Louis Appleby had made their case earlier in two articles in The BMJ:

Pelosi AJ, Appleby L. Psychological influences on cancer and ischaemic heart disease. BMJ: British Medical Journal. 1992 May 16;304(6837):1295.

Pelosi AJ, Appleby L. Personality and fatal diseases. BMJ: British Medical Journal. 1993 Jun 19;306(6893):1666.

It was an extraordinary move for The BMJ to publish these articles. Lawyers had to clear them before they could be published. Note that Pelosi and Appleby’s scathing criticism of Eysenck’s work did not concern anything that The BMJ had published. Rather, they focused on articles that Eysenck had published in journals that he had founded and over which he still had editorial control. Try to find another example of The BMJ becoming a forum for this kind of thing, before or since.

Eysenck responded with a characteristically evasive and dismissive reply:

Eysenck HJ. Psychosocial factors, cancer, and ischaemic heart disease. BMJ: British Medical Journal. 1992 Aug 22;305(6851):457.

Pelosi made a formal complaint to the British Psychological Society.

According to Rodrick Buchanan’s biography of Eysenck, Playing with Fire:

The BPS investigatory committee deemed it “inappropriate” to set up an investigatory panel to look into the material Pelosi had sent them, and henceforth considered the matter closed. Pelosi disagreed, of course, but was left with little recourse.

Pelosi also made a complaint to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE):

Pelosi AJ. The responsibility of academic institutions and professional organisations after accusations of scientific misconduct. The COPE report 1998. London, BMJ Publishing 1998.

One might have thought that the fuss would grab attention in the British media. The only mention was an article by Simon Wessely in The Times. Wessely put out the fire.

Simon on Eysenck

 The normally calm pages of the British Medical Journal have carried a series of critical articles questioning the basis of what must be the most extraordinary claims ever made for the origin of cancer. At the heart of the dispute lies the ever controversial figure of Hans Eysenck, until recently professor of psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, and his  Croat collaborator, Ronald Grossarth-Maticek.

Wessely identified Eysenck’s critics as members of the fold.

 … In a penetrating article, Tony Pelosi and Louis Appleby subjected Eysenck and Grossarth-Maticek’s series of papers to a critical analysis, which they have followed up with a second piece this week. According to the two psychiatrist, who both trained at the Institute of Psychiatry, the claims were too good to be true.

First, those with the cancer-prone personality died at an extraordinary rate – 121 times faster than the controls.

But there was praise for Hans Eysenck as well.

 Of course, Professor Eysenck, the most influential psychologists of our time, has faced many assaults before (including, unforgettably, physical ones). It would take more than a couple of psychiatrists to ruffle him.

And so it proved. His replies made no concessions to his critics. In essence, his reply was “either you believe these findings, or you don’t”. He was certainly correct on one point. If his results are true, the doctors have been scandalously negligent in ignoring what is the most dramatic breakthrough in the treatment of cancer for many years.

Wessely knew damn well these claims were not just too good to be true. Independent investigation by numerous scientists had revealed them to be fraudulent. Wessely missed his chance to join in calling for an investigation of Hans Eysenck. He passed on it and called for calm.

Of greater concern is that this affair has drawn attention away from the real progress has been made in the psychological management of cancer. In a series of careful studies spread over many years, British psychiatrists and psychologists have described the psychological impact of both the diagnosis of cancer and  the painful treatments that frequently follow. They’ve shown the effect of coping strategies on the prognosis of breast cancer – those who show either “fighting spirit”, or those who deny that there is any danger, seem to do better.

Simon was referring to a single, small, methodologically poor study making claims that having a fighting spirit prolonged life of cancer patients. As I have described elsewhere, a subsequent better designed study by the same authors could not replicate these findings. The authors expressed relief that their negative results provided some correction to the impression there earlier study had created. Namely, if having a fighting spirit does not matter for survival, patients who are dying from cancer cannot blame themselves or be blamed for not fighting harder.

As far as I can tell, there was no further comment in the British media.

Somehow, I don’t think Simon Wessely will be calling for an investigation of Hans Eysenck’s nefarious doings. As Yogi Berra would’ve said, it will be déjà vu all over again.theres-nothing-to-see-here

 Updated May 7, 2016.

Sir Simon Wessely has responded to my blog post on Twitter. I have invited him to respond further with a comment posted at this blog site. Meanwhile, I will reply to his tweet.

Simon tweet

My reply: Dr. Wessely, you conceded that for Pelosi’s articles to appear in The BMJ was truly extraordinary. There was pressure on the Institute of Psychiatry to investigate. There as also a formal complaint to the British Psychological Society. But instead of joining in a call for an investigation, you identified the “greater concern” that the “affair” has “drawn attention away from the real progress has been made in the psychological management of cancer.” What “real progress”?

Psychologist Maggie Watson would later express relief that a larger, better designed study did not replicate her very preliminary findings that adopting a “fighting spirit” allowed cancer patients to live longer. She was relieved because not replicating these findings meant cancer patients would not be blamed for succumbing to a dreadful disease. In retrospect, it was an improbable idea that could potentially hurt patients. And it was wrong.

In an 800 word editorial in The Times, you basically dismissed the serous issues that Pelosi and Appleby raised as a mere distraction. There was no further mention in the UK Press, no further investigation of Eysenck’s well documented fraud and scientific misconduct.

Do you think that was a good outcome? Does this “affair” have relevance to contemporary difficulties in UK academia correcting bad science and bad publication practices?

I welcome your reply. Thanks for having publicized my blog on Twitter.