A controversial researcher into treatments for ME/CFS claims she is being harassed by patients, but university’s official records don’t back claims. By Adam Lowe on 30 October, 2017
Controversial Bristol University researcher Esther Crawley, who claims to have treated children with ME/CFS by using a treatment based on two pseudosciences, has made waves among her colleagues in academia after implying she had received numerous threatening communications over many years. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/aug/21/chronic-fatigue-syndrome-myalgic-encephalomyelitis
However, a Freedom of Information request to her own institution by The Tymes Trust, revealed that no such incidents had been reported to them. Furthermore, a previous tribunal with the Information Commissioner, which had examined the claims by a small segment of researchers (who use primarily psycho-social approaches to treating this biological illness) that they were being harassed and abused by ‘vexatious’ disabled people, found such claims to be ‘grossly exaggerated’ and at risk of undermining researchers’ claims of objectivity.
After years of claiming she was being victimised by militant patients (many of them confined to their beds or house by this crippling illness), and likening them to animal rights’ activists, Esther Crawley’s claims were put to the test by The Young ME Sufferers’ Trust, who contacted Bristol University for clarification. The result showed that no records of any harassment existed, despite Crawley’s claims colleagues at the university opened her mail for her and sifted potentially abusive emails.
(EDIT: Crawley previously claimed the bulk of the abuse started in 2010 when her Lightning Process research was announced, that training was given to staff, and that police were notified. The FOI reveals no harassment recorded at all from September 2010 to January 2017, although her employer might be obligated to log such incidents if she had indeed experienced a crime at work or if they were monitoring her communications for threats.)
Complicating matters, Crawley showed a picture of a threatening note she implied she had received from harassers on-screen during her presentation at the #scidata17 conference. However, quick Twitter users were prompt to identify the ‘letter’ as a Sunday Times magazine front cover image from 2013.
Simon Wessely, which he claimed had been abusive in nature. Crawley, however, seemed to leave audience members with the impression that she’d received letters like this herself.
The ‘letter’ was revealed as fake by Andy Hugh, who pinpointed its origin to set the record straight.
Crawley also referenced a ‘vexatious’ FOI request to reveal the data behind the now debunked PACE trial, although what she didn’t tell her audience was that that tribunal found claims of harassment ‘grossly exaggerated’ and the PACE trial authors were eventually forced to reveal their data by concerned patients and scientists who objected to poor methodologies and flimsy inclusion criteria – prompting an entire special issue of the Journal of Health Psychology to address the flaws of the research.
Crawley published research recently that one former teacher claimed may constitute child abuse under Bristol’s own child protection policy. Retired Deputy Head Teacher Christine Fenton, who isn’t from Bristol herself, was nevertheless responsible for child protection in her job and referred to the Bristol Safeguarding/Child Protection Policy. She expressed the following concern about the basic conflict of Lightning Process (Crawley’s most recent and controversial trial) and tenets of childhood protection:
‘LP participants are directed to not talk to others about it – keep secrets – to report positively regardless of their internal view is appalling to me. Child Protection has a key tenet “secrets are not OK” – if an adult tells a youngster to keep a secret it is a form of control and creates an environment in which abuse can occur more easily.’
ME charities and fellow academics alike have likewise criticised Crawley for the trial, which uses elements of the ‘brain-washing’ tool neurolinguistic programming and osteopathy – both of which are considered pseudosciences by the medical establishment.
ME Research UK also denied claims that ME/CFS researchers faced harassment or threats.
Response from the University of Bristol
A spokesperson from the University of Bristol said, ‘The recent FOI request to the University of Bristol asked for information relating to “official records” of harassment of our staff. The request was general and not specific to any member of university staff. The University does not have a process for “official recording” of harassment by third parties of our members of staff hence the response to this FOI request. However, we are aware that some members of staff have experienced harassment and have provided those colleagues with the necessary support and advice to help with this.
‘The University has long been aware that Professor Crawley in particular has experienced significant harassment and personal abuse over several years. This has included but is not limited to: vexatious FOIs; cyber stalking; malicious emails; blogs/tweets and other social media posts that could be regarded as defamatory; unsubstantiated complaints to multiple institutions including Ethics Committees, The University of Bristol, The Advertising Standard Authority, the GMC and funders. The University considers this behaviour to be unacceptable.
‘The University has previously reviewed Professor Crawley’s research projects and found they are being conducted in line with applicable research ethics and governance requirements. The University has supported Professor Crawley in dealing with the harassment and provided legal, governance and research advice and support when required.’
Adam Lowe is an award-winning author, editor and publisher from Leeds, now based in Manchester. He runs Dog Horn Publishing and is Director and Writing Coordinator for Young Enigma, a writer development programme for LGBT young people.