Category Archives: academic principle

Always distrust a consultant, an academic or a think-tanker

Yet another story reveals just how sceptical one has to be when listening to research produced and opinions deployed by consultants, academics and think tanks.

And also the need to ask questions when a famous name – particularly a semi-retired one – is presented as the author of an article that is not linked to their professional responsibilities.

Yesterday’s Sunday Times has stated that the think tank, Henry Jackson Society – http://henryjacksonsociety.org/ – was being paid “about £10,000 a month by Japan to wage a propaganda campaign against China.”

As part of that campaign, the former British foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind was approached by the HJS to put his name to an article published in the Daily Telegraph last August, headlined “How China could switch off Britain’s lights in a crisis if we let them build Hinkley C” – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/16/how-china-could-switch-off-britains-lights-in-a-crisis-if-we-let/

I have written on a number of occasions about the need to be very cautious about research and analysis which purports to be independent and is often cited in support of their positions as such by the biggest commercial and political organisations, including governments.

All too often there is a commercial/professional link of some sort between organisation and the consultant producing the research.

I produce evidence in these blogs

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/is-there-any-ndependent-academic-integrity-left/

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/07/02/dont-trust-the-independent-expert/

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/04/09/the-fraud-of-independent-research/

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/the-secret-allies/

In fairness to the HJS, it is one of the few consultants/academics/think tanks not to flaunt the word independent in its aims and values. It makes no pretence of being anything other than an advocate of an interventionist pro-western foreign policy.

No-one looking at its web site could be in any doubt where the think tank is coming from – http://henryjacksonsociety.org/about-the-society/statement-of-principles/

However, there was no suggestion in the article that the origins of the idea might have come from an organisation with a commercial interest in promoting the interests of Japan. Indeed Sir Malcolm says he was not aware of HJS’s financial relationship with the Japanese embassy. Nor could I see the mention of Japan as a client on HJS’s website – though I could be mistaken on this.

Moreover, HJS executives are invariably represented as independent experts when they appear on broadcasting outlets like the BBC. Perhaps the time has come for the BBC to identify them more directly.

The Sunday Times story is a reminder of just how critical we need to be when looking at the often overlapping world of think tanks, consultants and academics. Whenever their findings are cited to support a particular case, it is worth looking them up and examining carefully their political and commercial interests.

The article also lifts the lid a little on that murky world in which the name attached to an article bears no relationship to the actual author – a concept known as “ghosting.”

There can be no objection in principle to ghosting. No cabinet minister can have time to write all the articles written in their name for the national and local press, nor indeed to have the skills to switch from writing for the most populist of tabloids like The Sun to the most heavyweight broadsheets like the Financial Times.

And no non-journalist can be expected to pick up the peculiar style required to write for the Daily Mail.

There is a perfectly legitimate trade of ghost-writing. Special advisers write speeches and articles which appear in their boss’s names. And almost every article written by celebrities, from sports stars to celebrity chefs and accident victims, will be re-engineered to fit the house style of the paper they appear in.

The key point here is that the views expressed are an accurate reflection of the beliefs of the person signing the article.

It becomes much less acceptable where distinguished people attach their names to articles expressing views they do not care deeply about. They give credibility to a view they do not necessarily share.

I have no idea if Sir Malcolm shares the views he expressed in the Telegraph article or whether he accepted payment. But it does seem clear that he neither had the idea for the article nor wrote it.

I learnt where my red line was some years ago. I was approached by the Hinduja Brothers and, when I met them, they asked me to write a book, expressing some rather eccentric but essentially harmless views about the world – I can’t remember the details.

The meeting proceeded happily and I concluded by saying I would be delighted to ghost the book in exchange for the usual sum of money. They looked at me in surprise. The money was no problem, but they expected the book to appear in my name and that there was to be no suggestion it was their idea.

Others may have been happy to do this – but I could not.

So the Sunday Times article reminds of two things.

  1. Always be sceptical of anything produced by academics, consultants or think tanks.
  2. Unless it is someone writing about their direct responsibilities, never take at face value articles written by famous names and ask whether they wrote it and believed it or whether they were attaching their name to it for money or other reasons.
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Is there any independent academic integrity left?

The stories have been dripping out one by one. But, taken together, they demonstrate the way in which big business is successfully subverting the way in which it is regulated and the evidence on which that regulation is based.

Today, for example, Joanna Blythman highlights the way in which Big Food has manoeuvred so that it can effectively regulate itself https://twitter.com/JoannaBlythman/status/786101474145239046

And The Times published a story explaining how the tobacco giants funded studies into vaping.

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/tobacco-giants-fund-vaping-studies-kl32vtt9h

But these are only the most recent examples. A few days ago a story in Medical News Today revealed the big soda companies had been funding almost 100 national health organisations at the same time as they were campaigning against legislation designed to reduce soda intake.

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313363.php

Last month an article in the New York Times reports on research which argues that “the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html

Before that there was the controversy over the dispute over the benefits or otherwise of statins – particularly the role of the drug industry in funding Sir Rory Collins who supports the use of statins.

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/can-we-trust-sir-rory-collins-on-statins/

And then there was the way the Soft Drinks Association’s Gavin Partington was brilliantly caught out by Mishal Hussain on the Today programme. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07p152r

He cited research which he said proved the case against the British government’s proposal to put a levy on sugary drinks. Hussain forced him to admit that this research had been commissioned by his organisation.

For further example, please look at my earlier blogs on academic integrity, including

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/a-smoking-gun-for-academic-integrity/

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/how-academic-research-gets-distorted/

I am sure I have missed many further examples of these potential clashes of interest.

But there is more than enough evidence now to show that we can no longer take as read the integrity of academic research.

Indeed it is perhaps not just the products we consume that should carry detailed labelling. It is time to impose the same disclosure obligations on all academics, particularly when they claim their research is “independent”

Does academic integrity exist?

 

There is yet more evidence of the way in which big business has financed academic research with the sole purpose of shaping the debate about the healthiness or otherwise of various products.

An article in the New York Times reports on research which argues that “the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/well/eat/how-the-sugar-industry-shifted-blame-to-fat.html

It cites internal sugar industry documents, recently discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published in JAMA internal Medicine.

They suggest that five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

While it is true, as one of those quoted in the article says, that academic conflict-of-interest rules have changed significantly since the 1960s, this article is still a salutary warning about the way in which industry operates.

It would be naive to assume that industrial lobbyists have not adjusted their lobbying tactics and support of research to take account of modern media scrutiny.

They may not hand over used dollar bills as appears to be the case of the sugar industry in the 1960s, but through sponsorship of academic institutions, there is at least the possibility that they can influence research.

I have tried to highlight a number of occasions where a potential conflict of interest occurs – though I lack the scientific expertise to judge research, I believe that the more information we know about commercial, the better equipped we are to decide whether to take academic research at face value.

This includes the debate about statins https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/can-we-trust-sir-rory-collins-on-statins/

And also the wider commercial and funding links of academics. https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/a-smoking-gun-for-academic-integrity/

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/how-academic-research-gets-distorted/

I doubt if it will ever be possible track the extent of the influence of the drug, sugar and salt industries. They have the resources and the expertise to keep one step ahead of those who try to monitor and expose them, even when it is done by someone as effective as for example Joanna Blythman.

They have more opportunities to publicise their findings. Ever more articles in newspapers and items on radio and television are based on academic research – one issue of the Daily Mail had at least seven articles based on academic studies.

University PR departments, desperate for the headlines that will attract students, are ever more ready to process the research into marketable stories.

And we should also be careful when we read research findings we agree with. It is human nature to be more trusting of findings that support our beliefs – so perhaps I should now check the interests of the JAMA article!!

So, don’t trust anything written by an academic until you have checked on line to see the commercial and funding interests of the lead authors. We can no longer take any academic’s integrity for granted.

The “independence” of Sir Rory Collins

Just a brief addition to my blog on the credibility of Sir Rory Collins from the Clinical Trial Service Unit at the University of Oxford in the statins debate. He was the lead author of research that suggested statins are safe and effective.

I lack the skills to enter the medical debate but I did suggest that we should make ourselves better informed about Sir Rory by googling the relevant information about him.

I am always interested in the lead figures in any inquiry and what their external links may be – particularly on issues where opinion is still ferociously divided.

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/can-we-trust-sir-rory-collins-on-statins/

It did not take long for questions to be raised about Sir Rory’s connections with the drug industry.

His response was that “we get funding from the pharmaceutical industry  to do research which is run independently through Oxford University. We hold the data, we analyse the data, we interpret the data.”

Now, I have warned a number of times in my blogs on the way cases are presented of the need to be careful when anyone claims their research is independent.

There may be examples where funded research reaches conclusions that do not support the case of the funders and that these conclusions are presented energetically to the press and public.

But I doubt if there are many. And I am always suspicious about anyone funded by organisations with an interest who keeps insisting that the research is “independent.”

The principle is simple. Research of any kind, whether or not it is credible,  should not be described as “independent” if it is financed by someone with a commercial interest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can we trust Sir Rory Collins on statins?

 

The results of research that suggested statins are safe and effective are being given extensive coverage today in the print and broadcast media http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-37306736

And Professor Rory Collins from the Clinical Trial Service Unit at the University of Oxford was quoted and interviewed about the research.

Now it is not for me to even dip a toe into the debate on the relative merits of the different piece of research into the subject. I have no medical knowledge and no close contacts with anyone using the drug.

But I am always interested in the lead figures in any inquiry and what their external links may be – particularly where opinion is still ferociously divided.

And in the last year or so i have written about the links that academics have with outside commercial organisations. Here are a couple of examples.

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/a-smoking-gun-for-academic-integrity/

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/how-academic-research-gets-distorted/

Academics will always insist that they preserve academic integrity and supporters of the sponsors will complain that sceptics should address the message rather than the funding of the messenger.

It is not for me to judge this.

But I also think it is wise to dig deeper and ask about the interests of all those responsible for major research. Then at least we are informed about the external interests of the leading protagonists.

So it is worth googling in “Sir Rory Collins drug industry links.”

The results are interesting. Some clearly distrust Sir Rory because he runs a unit called the Clinical Trials Service Unit at Oxford, which has received nearly £300m ($500m) in funding from pharmaceutical companies over the years.

http://www.zoeharcombe.com/2014/08/ctsu-funding-from-drug-companies/

http://www.drbriffa.com/2014/08/22/how-accurate-are-professor-collins-claims-about-the-rates-of-muscle-problems-with-statins/

https://drmalcolmkendrick.org/2014/08/11/what-is-a-conflict-of-interest-anyway/

 

But Sir Rory’s supporters defend his economic independence and say that he is not directly funded by the industry.

As I say I don’t have expertise to enter this debate at any level.

All I would say is that it is yet more evidence of the need to look behind the headlines when important “independent” research is published.

It is then up to us to decide whether their outside interests harm their freedom of thought to the extent that we question the credibility of their findings.

Above all we need to remain sceptical.

Home-made is the real convenience food

 

The research carried out by Zoe Harcombe on the conflicts of interest of those set up to advise on changes to the ‘eatwell plate’ (what we should eat to have a well-balanced diet) is very revealing http://www.zoeharcombe.com/2016/03/eatwell-guide-conflicts-of-interest/

By analysing the other interests of the group’s members she shows how determined the supermarkets and food industry are to control over any decisions that restrict what they put in our food.

Her research also reminds us to be sceptical about all those organisations – not just in the food industry – with soft friendly sounding names which disguise the reality that they are lobbies for commercial interests.

In my blogs over the last year, I have highlighted when alarm bells should ring.

Here are a couple of examples.

First the wonderful phrase that one hears so often: “We have commissioned independent research.” If you commission something, its reports cannot be independent. Have you ever seen this sort of research producing results that embarrass the sponsor?

Secondly the people I call secret allies https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/the-secret-allies/

These are a mix of academics, consultants, research institutes. Always double check to see if academics have a private commercial business whose interests are helped by their research: also whether consultants have commercial clients whose interests their research endorses; and check who is funding the research institutes. https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/is-academic-research-exactly-what-it-seems/

Thirdly – and this brings us back to the food industry, but does apply elsewhere – distrust any organisation with a name that oozes integrity – it probably supports the exact opposite of what the name implies.

And the classic example of this is the way food products are made to sound nicer and friendlier. Take the fascinating research by Joanna Blythman into the way E numbers have been replaced by wholesome-sounding ingredients. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinkadvice/11458409/From-rosemary-extract-to-sugar-syrup-the-new-food-label-nasties.html

And, most recently, look at the Guardian’s analysis of the decision by supermarkets to launch 76 lines with fictitious farm names. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/mar/21/tesco-revamps-own-label-range-fight-discounters-aldi-lidl

(How weird it is that supermarkets are creating mythical places for the origins of our food at the very time consumers want to know more about where their food comes from)

How are all these organisations – particularly the supermarkets and those in the food industry – able to get away with this?

The main reason is surely that while they claim to be in competition, their strategies are all variations on a similar theme. They want us to buy products rather than ingredients; and they do so by delivering a clear message that their products are healthier, cheaper, easier to prepare and tastier than anything we make ourselves.

In contrast to this coherent strategy there is what appears to me, as an outsider, as a disunity of purpose.

I don’t want for one moment to understate the skill and often personal bravery of those who expose what the food industry does. But they sometimes seem more focused on their own area of expertise, whether it is labelling, salt, sugar etc.

The power of the supermarkets and food industry can’t be beaten until every analysis of what they do challenges their core marketing strategy.

For example:

Healthier: food scientists rightly call for better labelling. But shouldn’t they also add that the best way to know what you are eating is to cook with your own ingredients.

Cheaper: I doubt if supermarkets would focus on marketing products if they could make a similar margin by selling ingredients. But, perhaps those columns comparing the merits of products sold by the different supermarkets could include the home-made equivalent.

Easier to prepare: why don’t more recipe books follow the example of Mary Berry who, in one recipe book, includes notes on what to prepare in advance and what you can freeze.

Tastier: Would supermarkets invent the names of farms etc if they felt their products could stand judgement on taste?

Of course most people eat food products from time to time – and there are some products which are hard for journeyman cooks like me – like ravioli – to replicate. And I am not offering to smoke my own fish.

But no-one should be conned into buying a ragu sauce when it can, if necessary, be prepared in advance and frozen.

Surely the way ahead is to persuade to ask this question when they go to the supermarket: if I made this myself, would it be cheaper, healthier, tastier and easier to prepare.

It is to reclaim the phrase “convenience food” from the industrial producers.

We should all endorse Joanna Blythman’s message that there is always time to cook. https://twitter.com/JoannaBlythman/status/712292965763440640

The BBC and junior doctors strike

 

The appearance of Professor Roger Seifert on BBC Radio to talk about the junior doctors’ strike demonstrated how careful one has to be about the external interests of those who appear on radio and television. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06vfcfv – about one hour 45 minutes into the programme.

For Professor Seifert, presented an independent commentator who knows a lot about conciliation, is not only Professor of Industrial Relations at Wolverhampton University but a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class).

Class – http://classonline.org.uk/about – is, according to its website a “think tank established in 2012 to act as a centre for left debate and discussion. Originating in the labour movement, Class works with a broad coalition of supporters, academics and experts to develop and advance alternative policies.

Through the production of high quality, intellectually compelling publications and events Class seeks to shape ideas that can inspire the left, cement a broad alliance of social forces and influence policy development to ensure the political agenda is on the side of working people.”

I am not making a political point here – nor is my concern just about the BBC. If you look at my earlier blogs in the “academic principle” file – https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/category/academic-principle/

you will see that I have pointed out occasions where academics, representatives or think tanks and management consultants are presented as independent commentators when they also commercial or political interests.

Take for example https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/10/09/research-goes-better-with-coke/

or

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/a-smoking-gun-for-academic-integrity/

My concern is that media outlets all too often fail to ensure that viewers, listeners or readers are fully informed about the all the relevant interests of their guests.

In fairness to Peter Allan, he realised very quickly that he was not dealing with a neutral academic interested in conciliation and the tone of his questioning became much more inquisitorial.

The message for all those who hear an academic, a consultant or a think tanker is clear. Don’t take their neutrality for granted. Nor should you regard the media-description of them as sufficient in itself.

Always check all the organisations they are associated with – and particularly the advisory boards and clients of those bodies.

This doesn’t mean the academic is biased or analysis flawed – but I always like to know what their other interests are.

Research goes better with coke

The London Times today (09/10/2015) provides yet more evidence of the need to approach academic research with considerable caution. Conclusions should not be taken at face value until one has checked the political, commercial and religious connections of the university concerned.

And this health warning extends to think tanks and consultants, so many of whom present themselves as independent when they appear on the media – a little research can show that they are not nearly as independent as they represent themselves.

The Times reports that Coca Cola has “poured millions of pounds into British scientific research and healthy eating initiatives to counter claims that its drinks help to cause obesity.”

It says that the company “has financial links to more than a dozen British scientists, including government health advisers and others who cast doubt on the commonly accepted link between sugary drinks and the obesity crisis.”

This is only the latest instance where these types of links have been exposed and cast doubt on the credibility of research.

In August – https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/29/a-smoking-gun-for-academic-integrity/ – I highlighted the row over a report suggesting that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent safer than smoking tobacco.

The Lancet – http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2815%2900042-2/fulltext – argues that this conclusion depends, at least in part, on a study that itself relies heavily on evidence produced by industry-funded scientists.

And I have tracked a number of instances where links appear to be too close – and many more distinguished people than me are worried about this and the way in which lobbies distort the findings of research to suit their own interests.

One of my recent blogs summarises this – https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/how-academic-research-gets-distorted/

Academics will always insist that they preserve academic integrity and supporters of the sponsors will complain that sceptics should address the message rather than the funding of the messenger.

But we must be more sceptical and keep asking the key questions. Do the universities have commercial sponsors, whose views just happen to coincide with the research findings? Do the researchers have a track record of supporting a particular view on a subject? Do the academics have a commercial company whose interests will benefit from the findings of the research?

There is a particular obligation on newspapers and broadcasters, who rely for many good stories on academics, think tanks and consultants – many of them spun by energetic PR departments eager to promote their institutions.

Media outlets, particularly those like Radio5Live which is all too easily attracted by lurid research, should be much more rigorous in examining the researchers before they accept the research without question.

A smoking gun for academic integrity

The latest row over the credibility of evidence which says that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent safer than smoking tobacco shows yet again just how careful one has to be over the integrity of academic research.

The Lancet – http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2815%2900042-2/fulltext – argues that this conclusion depends, at least in part, on a study that itself relies heavily on evidence produced by industry-funded scientists.

This allegation was seized on gleefully by the British press, with the Daily Mail proclaiming: “E-cigarette industry funded experts who ruled vaping is safe.”

Others turned on The Lancet, with the Spectator accusing the magazine’s editors of “shooting the messenger” rather than addressing the evidence provided by the research.

It is not for me to judge the credibility of the respective arguments – I am interested whether the research carried out by academics, consultants and think tanks is genuinely independent. If this had been the first instance where an academic had been too close to a commercial organisation, then one could back the Spectator’s view that this was “shooting the messenger.”

However, I have tracked a number of instances where links appear to be too close – and many more distinguished people than me are worried about this and the way in which lobbies distort the findings of research to suit their own interests.

One of my recent blogs summarises this – https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/how-academic-research-gets-distorted/

The solution is not to set lots of compliance standards and force every researcher to produce lists of their commercial interests. That would simply provide extra work for compliance officers and that most-evil trade the lawyers.

The solution lies in our own hands. Whenever we see research, we should ask starting questions>

For example, do the universities have commercial sponsors, whose views just happen to coincide with the research findings? Do the researchers have a track record of supporting a particular view on a subject? Do the academics have a commercial company whose interests will benefit from the findings of the research?

Simply adopt this motto: Take nothing at face value.

How academic research gets distorted

David Aaronovitch is right to warn us in his Times column today about the “use of evidence by the committed to sway the uncommitted.” http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/article4525611.ece

He cites as an example the way selective use of academic research into sex workers in New Zealand is being used by both those supporting and opposing the decriminalisation of prostitution.

This is far from the only example he could have cited. More and more stories in the media are based on research by consultants and academic institutions (sometimes as many as five a day in a newspaper).

This is probably inevitable as these groups are obsessed with increasing their profile and have public relations departments ready to spin the research in the best way to win column inches or radio and TV minutes.

In his analysis of the argument about the safety of sex workers, Aaronovitch went back to the actual findings produced by the University of Canterbury to determine which of the two protagonists had the stronger case.

He is correct when he says we should all make a greater effort to look at the original evidence.

But, I think we need also to examine the interests and motives of the universities, think tanks and consultants who produce the research that generate headlines.

For example, do the universities have commercial sponsors, whose views just happen to coincide with the research findings? Do the researchers have a track record of supporting a particular view on a subject? Do the academics have a commercial company whose interests will benefit from the findings of the research?

So Aaronovitch should also have been asking questions about the track record of the University of Canterbury and those who carried out the research – though I would hasten to add that, having done so, I saw nothing to suggest that this piece of work was anything other than genuine research.

I am not suggesting that they have behaved improperly, only that we should make ourselves aware of all the interests of academics before we assess their research.

I have traced some of the links between academics and their other activities https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/is-academic-research-exactly-what-it-seems/

We should adopt the same scepticism when we examine the evidence from “independent experts,” consultants and think tanks, cited by industries, particularly the energy sector, when they are trying to justify themselves.

In https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/04/09/the-fraud-of-independent-research/

and

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/07/02/dont-trust-the-independent-expert/

I show that the independent experts are not quite as independent as they are presented. Look at some of the connections I illustrate and see if it raises doubts in your mind.

And have you ever read opinion research commissioned by an organisation that fails to deliver the results that suit the interests of the body that paid for it.

Scepticism is also needed when looking the think tanks that analyse international politics. When a report on for example the Middle East, from a think tank which boasts of its independence, it is always useful to look at the past employment of their senior executives and particularly to see who is on their advisory boards.

Think tanks on both sides of the Middle East debate like to disguise the identities of their backers but more often than not one can guess the conclusions of their analysis by looking at the views of these people

https://deceivingus.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/the-secret-allies/

When we read a piece of apparently research, analysis or advocacy, we should ask questions and we should certainly not take their conclusions at face value.

So what should we do? Always be sceptical about any evidence cited in support of any case. The alarm bells should really ring when we hear the word “independent.” And be doubly suspicious of anyone who says “research proves” or “research shows” without citing any example.

Ultimately, as Aaronvotich says, we need to “to keep ourselves ferociously well informed and investigate all claims” though I suspect he is correct when he says most of us would rather go to the pictures.