Wearing a Forced Smile

Time after time over the years, people with M.E. (myalgic encephalomyelitis) have had to put up with hearing total bunkum about their condition, but rarely does the ‘science’ get as flaky as last Thursday’s announcements on the ‘Smile’ Trial, a study which purported to assess the efficacy of the ‘Lightning Process’ for children with M.E. This process (known as LP for short) could be described as a cross between neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and amateur dramatics, or (to put it less kindly though perhaps more accurately) as a form of brainwashing.

The precise nature of LP is wreathed in secrecy and participants are told not to disclose the details. However, according to anecdotal reports, patients undergoing the process are told that they are responsible for their illness and are free to choose to live their life without it if they wish. They are told they can achieve this through LP but it will only work if they believe in it. Everything they think and say must be positive. They must tell everyone they are better. When they feel any symptoms or negative thoughts, they must stretch out their arms with the palms facing out and shout “Stop!” If the process doesn’t work, they’re doing something wrong: it is their fault if they’re still ill.

Can you guess what results this trial has achieved?

Well, the researchers reported that LP combined with standard medical care produced better results than standard medical care alone. If you look at how they assessed this, the outcome was scarcely surprising. In common with other similar trials assessing ‘psychological’ treatments for M.E. (including the controversial £5m publically funded PACE trial) it was unblinded and there was very little in terms of objective assessment of outcomes. The results were almost entirely assessed using self-completed questionnaires. So in other words what they did was to tell the children they were better and then ask them if they were better. Just in case this didn’t achieve the desired outcome, remember that the children had also been told that the process would only work if they believed in it and if they didn’t recover it would be their fault.

Remember too that these were children being questioned by adults in positions of perceived authority.

Now what was that answer again, children?

Apparently we are supposed to treat this extraordinary procedure as a piece of serious science. After all, we have the science editors at the BBC and the Guardian as our role models. As with the many previous papers from the PACE researchers and their colleagues, these so called professional journalists swallow the whole thing without so much as a grimace and repeat it all back just as they have been told it, like performing parrots. The source on which they rely to tell them what to think is the Science Media Centre, a shadowy organisation which purportedly exists to provide a balanced view of science but in fact appears to promote the agenda of vested interests: in this case those who have built careers on the backs of patients with M.E., promoting their unproven psychological theories, misdirecting patients and their families, and effectively diverting funds from much-needed biomedical research.

On top of all the nonsense they spouted in Thursday’s coverage about the trial itself, these ‘journalists’ have also been coached to repeat yet again the habitual misinformation about M.E. researchers being abused by patients, apparently to such an extent that most of them have left the field altogether. This simply isn’t true. While one or two psychiatrists have announced their retirement, at least one purportedly in fear of his life, this doesn’t seem to stop them continuing to write about M.E. or, in at least one case, issuing further papers on the subject. These accusations against patients reached their peak at the Freedom of Information Tribunal which released important data about the PACE Trial. The Tribunal ruled that the accusations had been greatly exaggerated. Apparently the sole piece of evidence produced for all the so-called threats was that one of the researchers had been heckled at a lecture.  In reality, while any abuse which may occur is regrettable, by far the bulk of what these researchers complain about is simply legitimate criticism about abysmal so-called ‘science’ such as the Smile trial.

Meanwhile, those scientists researching the biomedical roots of M.E., of whom there are many worldwide – though precious few in the UK where psychiatrists take most of the funding – get on extremely well with patients, who in many cases raise the money they need to do their work.

Though such research remains grossly underfunded, progress is slowly being made. As Prof Jose Montoya announced at a conference just last week, it is no longer true to say that this is a mystery illness. It is one whose pathogenesis is slowly being unveiled.

Only a small proportion of such progress is reported in the UK media. The Science Media Centre don’t tell the journalists about it and, it seems, they can’t be bothered to look for themselves.

To add to the misinformation: on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme (approx 7-50 am), lead Smile researcher Esther Crawley grossly misrepresented the patient support group the M.E. Association by claiming that they didn’t want M.E to be researched in children. In fact, their complaint was not against research for children with M.E. in general, but the Smile Trial in particular, which they considered to be unethical. I have to say that I agree with them. Children frame their view of the world at least partially according to what adults tell them, so for them to be told they are not ill, contrary to their own perceived experience and to what is now understood about the physical reality of this neuroimmune condition, appears to be a betrayal of their trust. Research evidence by VanNess et al, among others, strongly suggests that it is harmful for M.E. patients to ignore the way they feel and push themselves beyond their capability. This can bring about a long-term deterioration in their condition. Unlike adults, children have a good chance of making a full recovery if they are simply allowed to take the rest they need. To encourage them to ignore the way they feel, as does the lightning process, is therefore particularly unfortunate. It can push children who might otherwise have recovered into a lifetime of chronic illness.

This is not the only potential damage to children. Others have been driven into anxiety and depression under the pressure of being made to act as if they are well when they are not. Some have even attempted suicide under the strain of this.

The Guardian article reported that Esther Rantzen’s daughter Emily had been cured of M.E. by the Lightning Process: another piece of misinformation. It was reported some years ago that Emily actually had coeliac disease, not M.E., and she described the pressure of going for several years after her so called ‘recovery’ pretending she was well when she wasn’t:

“I’ve been used to secretly feeling I have to drag myself through life, forcing my body to be active and using mind over matter to ‘fake it till I feel it’. “

How many more children will be subjected to these various forms of harm following Thursday’s inaccurate coverage? And how long will it be till UK journalists start reporting M.E. responsibly?


Looking at the Evidence

As you may know, a few days ago the Journal of Health Psychology published a very important special issue critiquing in depth the controversial, deeply flawed PACE Trial, a study which purported to provide evidence for the use of graded exercise and a very specific type of CBT in the treatment of ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known – misleadingly – as chronic fatigue syndrome or CFS). Congratulations to the journal’s editor Prof David F Marks for taking the trouble to inform himself about the true situation regarding ME. He is one of very few scientists and health professionals who despite having no personal or pre-existing professional interest in the condition has made the effort to look at the facts and realise that – unlikely as it may seem to many – the PACE Trial and similar ‘research’ into ME by those with a fixed biopsychosocial mindset really is every bit as flawed, misleading and potentially damaging as patients have been claiming for years. Dr David Tuller, Prof James Coyne, and Prof Jonathan Edwards are other rare free thinkers who have not been afraid to get informed and challenge the status quo – or to put it another way, to point out that the emperor is naked because that is what he is.

By contrast, those who persist in defending PACE give the impression that they have simply taken the word of the PACE investigators rather than study the actual evidence. Prof Malcolm Macleod, who was trotted out by the Science Media Centre as an ‘expert’ in response to the special issue, seemed only aware of one of PACE’s many flaws and seemed to base his defence of the study chiefly on the ‘doubtful provenance’ of some of its critics. It is another example of people being judged on the basis of who they are, rather than what they say or where the truth lies.

As for Prof George Davey Smith, who left the JHP’s editorial board in protest at the PACE-related special issue, he seemed to positively gloat about his ignorance of ME at last year’s CMRC conference, this in spite of his involvement with the much vaunted though controversial MEGA study, and even referred to it as CSF rather than CFS, apparently mixing up chronic fatigue syndrome with cerebrospinal fluid.

Speaking on Twitter, David F Marks described his disappointment that George Davey Smith did not ‘offer a pro-PACE commentary instead of leaving in a huff’. He (Marks) has offered to debate with PACE supporters in a public forum at any time. I don’t suppose he’ll get any takers. That would put them to the trouble of actually sitting down and informing themselves of the true situation.

Marks, meanwhile, has studied the facts and has drawn his own conclusion. He says: ‘“The many wrongs committed by psychiatry and medicine to the ME/CFS community can only be righted when the Pace trial is ultimately seen for what it is: a disgraceful confidence trick to reduce patient compensation payments and benefits.’ To which I would add: ‘also an exercise to try to protect the reputations of a small number of health professionals who have built their illustrious careers on the back of an unproven ‘biopsychosocial hypothesis’.

Meanwhile the proponents of PACE continue to take the cream of the research money here in the UK, so inhibiting much-needed biomedical progress; unsuspecting patients are given potentially damaging courses of graded exercise; and the number of parents threatened with ME-related child custody proceedings appears to be spiralling upwards, all this fuelled by the unproven biopsychosocial hypothesis.

As The Times article reported with great relish, James Coyne allegedly called the departing Davey-Smith ‘a disgusting old fart neoliberal hypocrite’. This may seem a little harsh but if language like that helps to get the truth about PACE in the newspapers, then so be it as far as I am concerned. And in view of the human suffering which underlies the farce that is PACE, perhaps such language is restrained.

Note: David Tuller’s response to the Science Media Centre’s ‘expert comments’ on the JHP special issue is here.

More Voices

Many patients and carers left additional comments for Professor Holgate of MEGA when they signed our recent letter. I wasn’t able to carry these over when I transferred the post to its permanent home, so I’m reprinting some of them here.  Sorry I haven’t included them all but I am grateful for all your comments and signatures nevertheless. I shall link to this post when I send the follow-up letter to Prof Holgate (which I hope till be tomorrow). I will post the follow-up letter here on the blog as well.

Here are the comments: Continue reading “More Voices”


Over the past 48 hours, many patients have been expressing concern about the involvement of Prof Peter White in the proposed MEGA biomedical ‘big data’ study of ME/CFS. It seems extraordinary that someone who believes in the simplistic ‘fear-avoidance’ model of ME/CFS should even wish to be involved in this study. Of what relevance is psychiatry to genomics?

Then, yesterday, came a timely reminder of why we can’t allow Prof White anywhere near this project. His Guardian article in defence of PACE was an extraordinary illustration of a) his refusal to accept the truth about his fatally flawed research and b) his determination to say whatever it takes to try to defend the trial, however much deceit this may involve.

It has long been obvious to those who have studied PACE that the trial involved blatant trickery, juggling outcome measures to produce the results they wanted, but these deceits were not always obvious to those unschooled in statistics and/or without the time to sit down and read through the details. Just recently, however, as the whole PACE edifice comes closer to collapse, the lies seem to be getting both more desperate and more transparent. Yesterday’s article contains a real transparent whopper, but I’ll work through the piece in order, saving the whopper for last:

  • White dismissively mentions an earlier post which claimed that sexism was part of the cause of ME patients’ mistreatment. He must surely be aware, however, that McEvedy and Beard, the two psychiatrists who first claimed ME to be a ‘hysterical’ condition cited ‘the high attack rate in females compared with males’ as part of their argument. Sexism therefore certainly played a part in the emergence of the PACE authors’ view of the condition.
  • White goes on to make several mentions of ‘fear’ among patients. “The idea of exercise was scary for some patients” he writes, though he seems to have forgotten his own 2005 study which demonstrated that “CFS patients without a comorbid psychiatric disorder do not have an exercise phobia”.
  • White speaks disparagingly of the newspaper articles which followed the various PACE announcements, accepting that headlines such as “just get out and exercise, say scientists” were harmful and misleading. At the time, however, he and his fellow PACE authors did little or nothing to try to correct such coverage. Furthermore, these very articles were written by journalists who had been briefed by the Science Media Centre, the shadowy organisation purporting to support “balance” in science reporting, which in turn was briefed by the PACE authors themselves and their associates.
  • White continues to quote his figure of 22% for ‘recovery’ in patients receiving GET or CBT, making clear that by ‘recovery’ he really means ‘remission’. (This was another sleight of hand. White and his fellow authors failed to correct media reports which – not unreasonably – assumed that ‘recovery’ meant ‘recovery’). Yet those of us who have been following the PACE saga know that the 22% result no longer stands. Alem Matthees, Tom Kindlon and their colleagues have shown in their reanalysis that the true result is only 7% for CBT and 4% for GET, a statistically insignificant outcome, being scarcely above the 3% figure for standard medical care which everyone on the trial received anyway (including those on CBT and GET.)

This leads on to the whopper, for White gives the impression in the Guardian article that Matthees and his team got their result by playing around with the figures. The implication is that this was a fiddle. In actual fact, of course, Matthees used the original trial protocol which White and his colleagues had said they would use but changed when (we can only assume) it failed to give them the results they wanted. Yes, there was fiddling going on, but it wasn’t Matthees that was doing it.

White must know that Matthees was using the original protocol. This was explicitly why Matthees requested the data – because White and his team had protested they didn’t have time to do the calculations themselves. White must have sat through – or at least paid close attention to – the Freedom of Information Tribunal which issued the order to release the data. It can’t have escaped his attention that it had been requested specifically to reanalyse the figures according to the PACE authors’ own original protocol. Yet in the Guardian article, White gave the impression that Matthees and his team had simply been making random tweaks to fiddle the figures. The only possible explanation for why he wrote it like that was to deliberately mislead Guardian readers. He must have known better. He did know better. He was telling a barefaced lie to try to save his reputation.

I’m sorry. A man who will do something like that is not to be trusted. It is totally unreasonable for the ME organisations who are supposed to be protecting patients’ interests to think it is OK for him to be involved in an important piece of biomedical research into this illness. Why they even talk to him any longer is beyond me. It is high time we move on from PACE – and move on from Peter White. We’re really suffering here. We deserve better.

 Note: I’ve been asked to include details of ‘unsigning’ in case you previously signed the MEGA petition and wish to un-sign pending further information about the study. I covered it here