Tag: PACE Trial

The HRA report does not exonerate the PACE trial, it merely confirms that its Research Ethics approval was in order

Great news. The PACE Trial controversy has been resolved! Oh, wait…er, no it hasn’t.

Rather, the spin cycle of eminence-based medicine continues.

The UK’s Health Research Authority have released a report on their assessment of the beleaguered PACE Trial, and have concluded that they are happy with it.

Cue the usual well-paid, eminent, professorial figures haughtily patronizing the great unwashed with their I-told-you-so put-downs and human webs of self-congratulatory mutual back-slapping.

You know the drill. Patients, scientists, academics, advocates, and public representatives point out glaring errors in the PACE Trial design — errors that would return a failing grade in an undergraduate research methods assignment — and call on regulatory bodies to withdraw their approvals accordingly.

Meanwhile, the PACE Trial’s authors, together with their extensive network of professional contacts (which in a place like the UK is so intertwined, convoluted, and overlapping as to make genuine peer-review a real practical challenge) chime together to defend what is literally bad science and, moreover, to condemn those who criticize it as amateurs, upstarts, and know-nothings.

It’s a true class system. The aristocracy have produced their PACE Trial, as befits their status as well-off denizens of civil society. The patients — those proles — must shut up and learn to know their place.

Now that the HRA say they are happy with PACE, the aristocrats have been crowing, as aristocrats are wont to do.

However, it is worth paying close attention to what the HRA set out to do here. See, for example, their own very words (emphasis added by me):

In assessing the HRA’s findings, it is important to remember that the agency’s remit is relatively narrow—it focuses on process. As the report notes: “Our concern as a regulator is whether the study was properly approved by the Research Ethics Committee (REC).

The report includes this important disclaimer: “It would not be appropriate for the HRA to seek to resolve…debates about the quality of the study. Discussion of the meaning and robustness of results is how science is expected to proceed.

And this: “We also note that some of the criticisms of the PACE trial which have been brought to our attention are outside our regulatory remit and so we are not in a position to comment on them.”

In short, the HRA do NOT find that all with the PACE Trial is ay-yippety-eye-okay.

They do not find this because they do not even try to find it. Let me — or, rather, let them — repeat the point:

“We also note that some of the criticisms of the PACE trial which have been brought to our attention are outside our regulatory remit and so we are not in a position to comment on them.”

Here it is again in larger font:

“We also note that some of the criticisms of the PACE trial which have been brought to our attention are outside our regulatory remit and so we are not in a position to comment on them.”

The good news of course is that several other authoritative figures have been “in a position” to comment on these criticisms, and have done so very extensively.

Hence the panic among the PACE Trial community to find anything — anything at all — that they can use to muddy the waters of debate, and make it look like they have been wronged. David Tuller has elaborated on several points made in the HRA report that reflect the pernicious spread of argumentation errors and groundless assertions that such efforts provoke.

Caution: Spin cycle alert!
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One final thought.

Academics, scientists, and researchers — even professors — carry ethical obligations to ensure that facts are conveyed accurately to audiences at all times. The HRA report simply does not vindicate the rigour or soundness of the methods used in PACE, or the soundness of its research design. The HRA report simply assesses whether the trial met the requirements of research ethics committee approval at the sites where it was carried out.

Anyone who uses this report to imply anything other than that the relevant paperwork was filed correctly is misrepresenting the role of the HRA and the scope of their review.

If this is not stated clearly by those with vested interests in the PACE Trial, then I really do hope it is as a result of genuine human error on their part. After all, everyone is subject to human fallibility (even aristocrats).

Anything else would constitute a deliberate effort to mislead, and would be — simply — shameful.

Here is a video of my lecture on the PACE Trial controversy

(Link points to 
https://pwme.uk/VIDEO/PACE1080p.mp4. My talk runs from 0:00 to 42:25)

I am behind on posting it, but here we go. This video has already attracted a staggering number of worldwide views, but I thought I would (should) present it here for posterity. Kudos to everyone at the charity Hope 4 ME & Fibro NI who organised the event (back in October), shot the video, and edited in the slides to create such a polished finished product.

The video concerns the PACE Trial, a highly troubled British research study into therapies for chronic fatigue syndrome (and, by extension, myalgic encephalomyelitis). You might recall that I’ve blogged about this before (here), as well as featuring it in Psychology in Crisis.

The video is a twofer: after my talk (the first forty minutes or so), you will see a second lecture by David Tuller, senior fellow in public health and journalism at the University of California–Berkeley’s Center for Global Public Health, and high-profile commentator on ME/CFS issues.

I am aware that the video has been widely viewed within ME/CFS circles, but I believe the issues involved have much wider relevance, relating as they do to the state of psychology as a science, the way research design impacts directly on public health, and the pernicious manner in which medical and academic establishment-types can prove resistant, if not outright hostile, to well-informed professional critique.

(TL;DR: Some parts of psychology are a mess. I talk about it in a video.)

Do enjoy.

The Triumph of Eminence-Based Medicine

Lines are drawn

A quarter of a million Britons have been diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), the condition also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). ME/CFS is a severe debilitating illness that renders patients either temporarily or perennially immobile. Sufferers will have often led very active lives before being struck down. After onset, they are forced to give up work or education. Many patients become bedridden for decades. People with ME/CFS experience a full syndrome’s worth of symptoms, dominated by ‘crashes’ of extreme unrelievable tiredness (formally referred to as ‘post-exertional malaise’), along with muscle weakness, digestive problems, pain, and hypersensitivity to light or sound.

The World Health Organisation classified ME/CFS as a neurological disease as far back as 1969. Since then, extensive research has shown that ME/CFS involves disruption of several bodily systems, including the nervous, immune, endocrine, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal systems. Recent studies have revealed extensive cell-functioning impairment arising from irregularities in patients’ DNA.

Despite all the signs that ME/CFS is an organic disease, the precise biomechanics — and therefore, the most appropriate biomedical treatments — are still unclear. Some patients seem to do well with rintatolimod, an immunostimulant, but not enough to suggest it as a universal therapy.

But if you don’t have ME/CFS or know someone who has, chances are you’ve heard of it anyway. Most likely you will know that the condition is controversial. This is because, well, it is. From diagnostics to treatment to research, the world of ME/CFS is mired in never-ending acrimony. Some researchers claim to have been threatened with violence. A number have won humanitarian awards for standing up for their clinical views. Doctors defending medicine — from patients.

healthy clinic doctor health

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“All in the mind”

A recurring problem relates to how some doctors perceive the nature of ME/CFS, and the treatment decisions that flow from their assumptions. In Britain especially, the dominant clinical view is that ME/CFS is effectively a psychogenic disorder — one that is caused, or at least exacerbated, by patients’ thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs — and not a truly organic illness that involves irregular body chemistry, treatable using pharmacological or surgical intervention.

In other words, in Britain the ME/CFS world is dominated by psychologists, psychiatrists, and behavioural practitioners. Accordingly, the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) have adopted guidelines stating that ME/CFS should be treated using either cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), graded exercise therapy (GET), or a combination of the two.

For years, patients have complained that these treatments are of no use. GET is especially disliked. For most people with ME/CFS, exercise leads to extreme pain and debilitation. The very thought of more physical activity is abhorrent. The fact that doctors prescribe exercise as therapy, and dismiss patients as malingerers when they refuse to comply, is endlessly horrifying. In the minds of some, it is little short of cruel and inhumane abuse.

Many UK clinicians are dogged in their defence of what has become known as the biopsychosocial model of ME/CFS. This is despite the physiological science that suggests they are wrong. Such is the root of the controversy: these doctors are sticking to their guns no matter what scientists — or patients — have to say.

British clinicians, you see, have done their own research, duly published in the best medical journals. They say their findings justify the use of CBT and GET — and nothing else — to treat ME/CFS. Unfortunately, their research serves to compound the controversy, rather than to calm it. The very fact these medics refuse to budge in the face of criticism makes the whole situation worse. The atmosphere has become truly toxic. Patients are haughtily dismissed as aggressive and unreasonable know-nothings.

It’s no wonder they are angry.

Keeping PACE

One of the biggest ever psychology studies to be conducted in a healthcare setting in Britain was the PACE Trial, a five-year investigation involving more than six hundred patients that set out to test the effectiveness of CBT and GET as treatments for ME/CFS. Since its inception in 2005, the PACE Trial has been plagued by problems, ranging from disputed diagnostics, to legal proceedings, to claims of dodgy data. In truth, the study’s a right mess.

Despite being extremely well resourced — and its main results appearing in The Lancet, no less — the PACE Trial contained a number of highly odd design features. For example, it relied heavily on self-report measures, but did not employ blinding. Any psychology undergraduate will tell you that self-report studies need to be blinded. Therefore — by design — the PACE Trial stands as a textbook example of bad research. (Literally, this year, it has appeared as such in a textbook.)

As a result of this flaw, we know that the PACE Trial findings must be untrustworthy. This is even before we see any data. The research was holed below the waterline from the very beginning.

white and black desk calculator on white graphing paper

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As it happens, the data make for gruesome viewing. The biggest defects relate to outcome-switching. After the PACE Trial investigators began their research — presumably, once they crunched some numbers — they decided to change their definition of “recovery”. They did this by reducing the threshold of (self-reported) physical fitness required for patients to be deemed “well”. In short, they moved the goalposts.

This allowed them to report that one-in-five patients were classified as “recovered” when treated with CBT or GET, a lot more than would have been the case had they stuck to the original study protocol. The problem is that they forgot to do anything about the threshold they set for patients to be declared “sick” in the first place. Hilariously (in the ‘gallows humour’ sense), the result of their on-the-hoof adjustments was that their new threshold for “recovery” was now below the threshold for “sickness”.

Patients could be classified as “recovered” even if their scores for physical well-being declined. Somewhere in the region of one-in-eight patients fell into this surreal category. These patients were sick enough to take part. Their conditions deteriorated after therapy. But the investigators still presented their trajectories as evidence that the PACE Trial treatments had worked.

A lay person would be forgiven for calling this method “absurd”.

To say that the PACE Trial is an extremely weak study is to understate an obvious calamity. Such has been the resulting criticism from around the world that last year the Journal of Health Psychology was able to set aside an entire issue just to publish peer-reviewed articles tearing the PACE Trial to smithereens.


In Psychology in Crisis, I use the PACE Trial as an archetypal example of bad psychological science. It is truly emblematic of the chaos currently engulfing psychology. In recent years paranoia about psychology’s poor replication record has become endemic. Studies like PACE make psychology seem a truly dubious endeavour, and worsen the field’s already dodgy reputation. For scientifically-minded psychologists, it is the stuff of nightmares.

But the PACE Trial is not just a case study in flawed research design and iffy methods. It also highlights the way professional politics can intrude on the scientific process. It shows us how professional groups sometimes try to face down objective criticism, look the other way when ineptitude is exposed, and doggedly stick to their guns in order to avoid threatening their own interests.

These days we have a term to describe how repeated mantra-like talking-points can be employed to suppress legitimate and objective rebuttals. We call it “post-truth” argumentation. Such gamesmanship is not confined to traditional politics. Psychologists can do “post-truth” too.

The world of clinical disease management, especially that of ME/CFS, is just as likely to become embroiled in a culture war.

Wagons being circled

Last month, Reuters published an exclusive story reporting how an influential Cochrane review, which had originally concluded that GET is an effective treatment for ME/CFS, is now to be “temporarily withdrawn” in light of “feedback” received regarding its methods and analysis. The review, published in 2017, had attracted scathing criticisms for what were identified as serious methodological flaws.

For example:

  • The sample of studies included was highly selective
  • Positive outcomes were exaggerated
  • An overall lack of significant treatment effects was either overlooked or misreported
  • Studies relying on self-report measures, which are usually considered weak in research terms, were analysed as though they were just as strong as studies that used objective measures
  • The reviewers decided to shift their analytic approach after they had started their work (in psychology, we might refer to this as “a pattern of behaviour”). Their adjustments ultimately enabled them to report maximum effects for GET. Deviating from pre-planned protocols is a huge risk to the validity of any review, and is contrary to Cochrane good practice guidelines.

Many observers also pointed out that the review’s authors included investigators involved in the now beleaguered PACE Trial, meaning that they were effectively involved in a process of marking their own homework.

These criticisms, along with many others, were formally submitted to Cochrane and are currently viewable on their website.

In explaining Cochrane’s decision, Reuters highlighted pressure from patient activists who object to ME/CFS being depicted as a psychological condition. Discernible in the Reuters report was the sound of professional wagons being circled. A former head of Britain’s Medical Research Council was quoted as complaining that withdrawal decisions should not be dictated by patient lobbying.

This week, the Guardian posted a ‘science’ podcast discussing the Cochrane review withdrawal. In the blurb, they perpetuated the (inaccurate) Reuters reporting line, embellishing it with their own reference to “verbal abuse”:

…researchers looking at efficacy of these therapies claim they are verbally abused. But now, it may have gone a step further. Reuters recently reported that ‘a respected science journal is to withdraw a much-cited review of evidence on an illness known as chronic fatigue syndrome amid fierce criticism and pressure from activists and patients.’

More strikingly — perhaps even suspiciously — the producers of the Guardian science podcast decided that this week’s guest should be none other than a colleague of one of the authors of the withdrawn Cochrane review, and — for good measure — himself an author of the maligned PACE trial. Not just marking his own homework anymore, but now — in defiance of expert criticism — defending how well it had been marked.

In post-truth terms, it all felt a bit like an episode of Fox & Friends.

Cochrane doesn’t withdraw reviews lightly. In reality, this review was withdrawn from the public record because for nearly two years independent researchers had highlighted a steady stream of specific scientific criticisms. The Editor in Chief of Cochrane stated clearly that “this is not about patient pressure.”

In other words, the methodological problems proved to be just too glaring. Someone who headed the Medical Research Council should really be able to see that, as should the producers of the Guardian’s science podcast.

Perhaps they are the ones who are succumbing to partisan pressures.

two person doing hand shake

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Friends of friends

It is worrying that review practices intended to be scientifically objective seem so susceptible to distortion by social network effects, cultural etiquette, and a prerogative to preserve colleagues’ professional reputations.

The hegemony of the cognitive approach to ME/CFS is clearly partisan. It is at variance with much of the scientific literature. The very fact that its status is disputed exposes as logically unwise any claim that there is only one side to the ME/CFS story.  Its endurance results from professional politics, not scrupulous science.

It is eminence-based, rather than evidence-based, medicine.

It is also very much a British thing. The corresponding American authority — the National Academy of Medicine — has declared ME/CFS an organic condition requiring biomedical treatment. Its genetic and neurochemical signs are well recognised (although its precise physiology is not yet established), as are the damaging effects of exercise therapies of the kind promoted as standard in the UK. It is the British clinical professions whose establishments believe that ME/CFS is psychogenic, that its main dynamics are “all in the mind”.

Medical conditions are not supposed to vary by international border. An infection contracted in one country should be expressed the same anywhere, and biomedical treatments should have a uniform effect regardless of what nation you live in. That the UK is an outlier when it comes to ME/CFS simply makes no sense.

Except possibly in one respect. We should not see ME/CFS as resulting from mass cognitive hysteria among a quarter of a million UK citizens. Rather, we could see the biopsychosocial theory of ME/CFS as a grand sanctimonious delusion shared by a professional clique who, for circumstantial reasons, find themselves dominant in British behavioural healthcare.

The echo chamber in which reviewers review each other’s work, award each other’s grants, and line up as one other’s acolytes, suggests that little of this will change any time soon.

Bad science is bad enough when it is just science. In the case of ME/CFS, where flawed research materially damages the lives of hundreds of thousands of blameless people, it is nothing short of a scandal, about which the establishment should feel acute embarrassment and, ideally, shame.

* * *


Edited, 3/11/18: Description of podcast rephrased to clarify that its guest was a colleague of one of the Cochrane review authors, as well as an author of PACE trial 

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