Guardian Columnist George Monbiot Calls Out the GET/CBT Charlatans and the Fraudulent PACE Trial

By David Tuller, DrPH

In a blistering take-down published on Tuesday, Guardian columnist George Monbiot indicted Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Professor Michael Sharpe and the rest of the GET/CBT ideological brigades for their decades-long promotion of discredited theories about and bogus research into the cluster of illnesses now being called ME/CFS. Those theories and research strategies reached their apotheosis, of course, in the fraudulent PACE trial.

And “fraudulent” is the right word for a study in which—unknown to readers–13% of participants had met the threshold for “recovery” on a key measure at baseline. Moreover, anyone who seriously argues that this bizarre anomaly is not fraudulent—as in deliberately deceptive–is a charlatan. (That’s not to say that PACE meets legal definitions of “fraud.” I’m not a lawyer so can’t speak to that. The trial certainly meets current definitions of research misconduct.) As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s a piece of crap.

The first sentence of Monbiot’s column calls the treatment of ME/CFS patients “the biggest medical scandal of the 21st century,” echoed the words of Carol Monaghan, a member of Parliament, about the PACE trial itself. But whether we’re talking about the trial or the overall treatment of patients, here my question about that “21st century” thing: Is it too early to call this biggest medical scandal of the millennium? Similarly, when Battlefield Earth, John Travolta’s cinematic rendition of the sci-fi novel penned by Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, was released in May, 2000, one review wondered whether it was too early to call this galactic-scale disaster “the worst movie of the millennium.” So is PACE the Battlefield Earth of clinical trials?

Monbiot collided into Professor Sharpe in a roundabout way. In 2021, Monbiot wrote a column about the wave of people experiencing prolonged symptoms after an acute bout of Covid-19. The following month, Professor Sharpe highlighted Monbiot’s column in a presentation at an insurance industry conference, suggesting that such public discussion of Long Covid was a key factor in generating similar reports from patients and perpetuating this world-wide phenomenon. In other words, Professor Sharpe was casting Monbiot as something of a Long Covid super-spreader while suggesting that Long Covid itself was essentially a form of global mass hysteria or pandemic-related anxiety, depression and PTSD.

That incident triggered Monbiot’s further interest in this cabal of “experts” and their claims about ME/CFS as well as Long Covid. And this much is clear to any neutral observer who reviews the facts: Like cult members and Trumpists, these GET/CBT fanatics are wedded to dogma. They cannot be reasoned with. They reject proper science. They practice “eminence-based medicine,” as my friend and colleague Brian Hughes, a psychology professor at the University of Galway, has written.

Monbiot’s column is a welcome rebuttal to decades of bad journalism as well as bad science. Journalists, like others, have been bamboozled by Sir Simon, Professor Sharpe and their sycophants at the Science Media Centre, a London propaganda mill for industry and other interests that poses as a neutral arbiter of debate. (Maybe on some issues they are a neutral arbiter; my experience with them is based on their handling of this matter.) The SMC relentlessly promoted the self-deluded pooh-bahs behind the GET/CBT approach and orchestrated a smear campaign against patients objecting to the science. As a result, multiple news stories in prominent outlets portrayed these desperately ill people as a howling pack of demented, dangerous, and science-denying crazies. (In a memoir, longtime SMC head Fiona Fox actually compared patients who challenged this awful science to Nazis.)

In his piece, Monbiot links to a prime example of this journalism malfeasance: a laughable “special report” from Kate Kelland, a former Reuters correspondent in London. In the article, Kelland hagiographed Professor Sharpe as a scientific martyr hounded out of the ME field by mean tweets, but she provided no substantive discussion of the PACE trial’s unacceptable methodological flaws. She portrayed me as a sort of Pied Piper for deluded ME/CFS patients, scooping up their cash as I lead them merrily away from the therapies that could cure them. It should be noted that Kelland was a bestie of the SMC. In 2012, she wrote a glowing testimonial for the center’s tenth anniversary booklet.

In the essay, Kelland indicated that she trusted experts selected by the SMC more than she would trust experts she herself had identified and found. In other words, Kelland essentially outsourced to the SMC much or all of the thinking process she should have devoted to assessing whether sources were or were not credible. In the case of ME/CFS, she made a spectacularly stupid and incompetent choice.

Kelland’s piece has had an impact—it has been cited a number of times in the medical literature as “evidence” of the purported harassment of scientists. In other words, the very existence of the article somehow retroactively proves the harassment claims. It is refreshing to see Monbiot cite this piece as an example of where journalism has gone wrong in this field. Luckily for me personally, however, the article appeared right before a Berkeley crowdfunding month. Kelland’s decision to lavish so much attention on me in her attempt to discredit my work was really an enormous compliment–a testament to the impact I’d already had in damaging the reputations of Professor Sharpe and his colleagues. It certainly boosted Berkeley’s crowdfunding prospects in the subsequent campaign. (Thanks again, Kate!)

It is, as Monbiot notes, a huge scandal that the entire UK academic and medical establishment accepted the anti-scientific crap purveyed by the likes of Professor Sharpe and Sir Simon. The entire UK academic and medical establishment accepted the fraudulent PACE trial as a terrific piece of research. How could this have happened? How could deference to authority be so extreme as to lead seemingly smart people to defend research in which participants could be “recovered” on key measures at baseline? It’s an insane state of affairs, and has been for a very long time.

But Monbiot’s Guardian column marks a significant milestone in this extended saga. He deserves enormous thanks for taking this on; let’s hope there’s more to come. This seemingly interminable ‘reign of error,’ which has brought so much misery to millions of patients, needs to come to an end.