Rob Verkerk PhD, founder, executive and scientific director

Expulsion of a whistleblower

The scientific community was rocked last September by the acrimonious expulsion of Dr Peter Gøtzsche, one of the founding members of Cochrane, from the international network of scientists that aims to help clinicians make evidence-based decisions about drugs, surgery and other interventions. The vote for Gøtzsche’s expulsion was carried by a very narrow majority (6 out of 11) of the Cochrane board, and 4 out of 5 board members, who supported Gøtzche, resigned in protest.  

Cochrane’s principle founder, Ian Chalmers of Oxford University had established 10 principles with which Cochrane Collaboration was founded, that included the minimisation of bias, opposition to central control and ensuring open decision-making and teamwork. Chalmers said at the time, “The international collaboration" should be “committed to opposing any tendency for it to become dominated by any nation, institution, or individual.”

How things changed, especially with the appointment of Mark Wilson as CEO. You can read the inside story in Peter Gøtzsche’s tell-all tale, Death of a Whistleblower and Cochrane’s moral collapse. For balance, you may care to also review Hilda Bastian’s ‘Absolutely Maybe’ blog from September 18, 2018, in PLoS Blogs.

The reality is that Gøtzsche wasn't and isn’t afraid to speak out in the name of scientific integrity. That means saying things, based on available evidence, that those who are more in ‘the system’ are often afraid to say. That includes the fact that mammography screening and the vast majority of psychiatric drugs do more harm than good in most people. Or that prescription medicines are the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer. But in his quest for scientific integrity, Gøtzsche dared scrutinise available data on vaccines. He and colleagues then criticised Cochrane’s own deficient review of the HPV vaccine showing it was both incomplete and ignored important evidence of bias. That may have been the last straw, especially in the light of a $1.15 million donation to Cochrane by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This donation was received during Gates' self-declared “decade of vaccines” (2010 - 2020), in which his Foundation pledged to commit $10 billion to vaccine development and roll out.

The Copenhagen phoenix

Out of bad things often emerges good. It was US anti-drug psychiatrist, Dr Peter Breggin – a close confidante of Gøtzsche’s – who inspired Gøtzsche to consider establishing a new institute that would do things properly. Its key aim would be not only to maintain its own integrity – but to lobby for integrity and transparency in the wider scientific community, including in relation to the triad of government, academia and business interests. It wouldn’t be swayed by the powers-that-be in the medical establishment or in government authorities. Nor would it fall victim to domination by special interests.

Last Saturday, in the Bethesda chapel in Copenhagen, around 200, primarily doctors and scientists, myself included, witnessed the inauguration of the Institute of Scientific Freedom at an international symposium.  It was as if a phoenix had risen from Peter Gøtzsche’s ashes.

The two Peters: Drs Peter Gøtzsche and Breggin opening the symposium

Identifying the rot

The conference speakers were a carefully selected group of academics or journalists who had fallen victim to extreme attack by the medical establishment after they’d each blown the whistle. Another secondary characteristic that appeared to aid selection to male speakers at the event was to have the forename Peter. It was an attribute of half (4) of the male speakers! Paul Thacker, a Madrid-based health journalist was unable to attend and was ably replaced by drug safety advocate Kim Witczac.

It’s only natural that these individuals should now come together to oppose the ‘dark forces’ that have been corrupting integrity and freedom in science and medical research. 

A brief snapshot of some of the issues covered by individual speakers is provided below.

US psychiatrist and author, Peter Breggin MD, who put a halt to lobotomies in the USA and has on multiple occasions represented plaintiffs in legal cases against drug companies, opened. He detailed elements of his 60+ year career that has turned him into a leading advocate of drug-free approaches. He argued powerfully that it is the disconnect between individuals in society – as people have been turned into mass consumers – that is now the major driver of mental health problems. Psychiatric drugs simply make things worse and they definitely don’t deal with the underlying causes.

Robert Whitaker, health journalist and the man behind the science, psychiatry and social justice website Mad in America, that last month had 500,000 visitors, exposed the deep-rooted biases in the leading scientific journals. He showed, for example, how the common and serious side effect of SSRI antidepressants, post-SSRI sexual dysfunction (PSSD), is hidden from clinicians because not one of the top 5 psychiatry journals has published even a single study about it.

Robert Whitaker addressing the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence in 2016, Westminster, London

Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a British consultant cardiologist is the exemplary whistleblower. He was legally challenged through vexatious libel actions on multiple occasions by drug and medical device makers after he demonstrated gross research misconduct and data manipulation. Ex-BMJ editor Richard Smith (who was to attend the symposium in Copenhagen but had to cancel for personal reasons at the last moment) provided a useful outline of Wilmshurst’s battles in a 2012 opinion piece in the BMJ. By pursuing his legal rights, Dr Wilmshurst indicated he had now been almost compensated for his losses by the courts. Few others would have the same resilience and perseverance to see this through while maintaining his stance on exposing research misconduct. One US company, NMT Medical, which was in the process of suing Dr Wilmshurst for the fourth time, after three unsuccessful previous attempts, was forced into liquidation. Call it karma.

The third Peter: Dr Peter Wilmshurst discussing a selection of the vexatious libel claims made against him for maintaining integrity and exposing gross scientific misconduct

Researcher, journalist and science reporter Maryanne Demasi PhD detailed the torrid time she had as a journalist working with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in Australia after blowing the lid on statins. Despite record viewing audiences when the two-part programme was screened in 2013, Demasi was singled out, issued with a gagging order for 5 years, called a murderer by the ABC for causing many to come off statins, and was then promptly fired. The essence of her discussion on ‘statin wars’ was given in a talk at Sydney University last year.


Dr Maryanne Demasi presenting on ‘Statin Wars’ at Sydney University, 28 June 2018


Dr Tom Jefferson from Oxford University proceeded to blow the lid on his work with the antiviral drug Tamiflu, which, as a Cochrane collaborator, he was asked to review as manufactured fear about a possible global swine flu pandemic ramped up. Jefferson and his team had to go to extraordinary lengths to acquire meaningful data from Roche (the manufacturer and patent holder of Tamiflu), and the end result of its analysis did not suggest a balance of evidence in favour of benefit over harm even with seasonal, symptomatic influenza. Let alone any data on its relevance for stockpiling. His group’s findings were another trigger, post Dr Wilmhurst’s disclosures, for the BMJ’s decision to become so outspoken on issues of transparency, data disclosure and conflicts of interest, as well as an inspiration for its Too Much Medicine campaign. When asked by the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine what Jefferson would do with £1 million, he answered: “I’d do an overview of regulatory procedures worldwide.”

Kim Witczac gave a moving account of how the loss of her young husband Woody to antidepressant-induced suicide turned her into an ‘accidental advocate’ for drug safety and pharma transparency through her work with Woody Matters and the Consumer Union’s Safe Patient Project. She co-authored “A call to the challenge of “Selling of Sickness"” in (wait for it!) the BMJ in 2013, that proposes fundamental changes to the way in which citizens learn about drugs – to counter the problems linked to the culture of over-diagnosis and over-treatment induced by Big Pharma.


Report on KSTP-TV on Kim Witczak’s work after losing her husband Woody


US naturopath Dr Pam Popper from the Wellness Forum discussed a subject, close to our own hearts, that was clearly not as familiar with many of the speakers: the role of nutrition on health, as well as its deliberate relegation to the sidelines of mainstream medicine and dysfunctional dietetics. She revealed the big corporate biases of many professional associations, the pre-occupation with disease states, efforts by Big Food to ignore the role that its foods play in causing disease, and the distorted and manipulative ways of regulatory authorities and licensure boards.

There had to be a speaker on the subject of vaccines. That duty fell to Dr Peter Aaby, a Danish anthropologist (with a doctorate in medicine) who has worked on evaluating World Health Organization (WHO) vaccination programs in sub-Saharan Africa, most notably in Guinea-Bisseau, for over 4 decades. Dr Aaby is widely credited for ‘discovering’ the non-specific (off-target) effects of vaccines – that may be harmful or beneficial, more commonly the former. During his presentation, Dr Aaby revealed disturbing data – that had been roundly ignored by the WHO – showing that children, especially girls, exposed to so-called ‘safe’ vaccines like DTP had twice the mortality rate of those who were unvaccinated.


The fourth and first Peter: Drs Aaby and Gøtzsche before Peter A commenced his exposition about an apparent cover-up in the WHO over DTP-vaccine related deaths in Guinea-Bisseau


Consumer advocate David Hammerstein and Dr Peter Gøtzsche rounded off the symposium. Hammerstein spoke passionately about his work with the Commons Network to support commoners and defend the commons. His talk drew heavily on the Commons Network’s paper ‘From Lab to Commons: Shifting to a Biomedical System that’s in the Public Interest’, published mid-2018.

Peter Gøtzsche spoke briefly about his recent fate with Cochrane but was much more focused on what could be done moving forward with the new Institute. Gøtzsche's mission and determination were clear, and he also appeared open to working in areas that were perhaps less familiar to him. Like all good doctors, his priority - as well as that of the Institute - is to work in ways that improve informed choices and outcomes for citizens. 

Dr Peter Gøtzsche outlining the mission of the newly-inaugurated Institute for Scientific Freedom

Memorable quotes

“No science today is free from government and business interests”

“You’ve got to get out of the system. You get eaten alive in the system.”

“It’s the parents who need to learn how to relate to their kids. The answer
[to mental health problems in children and adolescents] is to help families become more loving and respectful to each other. It always requires needing to learn to respect, to love, and to create safer environments.”

“It’s a power-based system that includes authoritarian, remote, know-it-all-isms. Psychiatric training doesn’t in any way equip people to deal with patients in a caring manner.”

- Dr Peter Breggin, US psychiatrist

“Editors of high impact journals act as gate keepers. Studies that contradict the prevailing story have a very difficult or impossible time getting published in these journals.

- Rob Whitaker, health journalist

“It was too dangerous to tell the public that antidepressants were dangerous”

-  Dr Peter Gøtzsche, quoting what he was told by a Swedish journalist after the two leading newspapers refused to publish an interview with Gøtzsche revealing incontrovertible data on antidepressant harms

“The pharmaceutical industry has shifted from blockbuster drugs to niche-buster and orphan drugs. That way they can get them to market with much smaller trials, and see if they work through post-marketing surveillance.”

“We need a new biomedical system for creating medicines. It involves public-civic partnerships, not public-private partnerships.”

- David Hammerstein, the Commons Network

We learn in life that gratitude helps to make the wheels of life turn better. In that spirit, we can thank Mark Wilson at Cochrane and the perpetrators of bullying and aggression in the media, in academia, in regulatory agencies and licensing boards – and, perhaps most of all – in Big Pharma, for creating an environment that brought together so many highly motivated like-minded, change-orientated people in a church in Copenhagen last Saturday.

We’ll keep you posted as more information is available about the next steps for the newly-established Institute for Scientific Freedom.


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