David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London for 30 years, has lately led a double life. In his day job, he has pioneered painstaking research into the binding properties of molecules and contributed extensively to understanding the particular influences on ion channel function in the development of drugs. In his after-hours alter ego, however, he is the take-no-prisoners scourge of quackery and mumbo-jumbo in his unmissable blog, DC's Improbable Science.
For a decade or more, no homeopath or acupuncturist has been safe from Professor Colquhoun's scathing, and often comic, online analysis. No newspaper report of the latest carcinogen – sausages or coffee or cheese – can survive his statistical scrutiny. He wages rigorous war against the march of managerialism and corporate speak through academia and the NHS. And, at 76, you would have to say he rather enjoys it.
Sitting in his office at UCL, surrounded by shelves of box files yellowed with the smoke of the pipe that was always a necessary accompaniment to his algebra, he dwells with some amusement on the two halves of his public life. "I once wrote a textbook on statistics, which has been enormously useful to me in many ways," he says. "But that book, though pretty well received, sold 5,000 copies over several years. The latest blog I did on the Department of Health had 7,000 hits in three days. I have to say it is fun to have a big audience. All my life, I have been writing papers that have been read by a handful of people around the world. I love the science and I remain addicted to stochastic processes, but to write something that gets picked up on Twitter and has an immediate response is a different kind of addiction. If I get asked to go to a university these days to speak they ask me to do a seminar on ion channels and another on management gobbledegook or something. One gets a dozen committed students, the other fills a large lecture hall…"
The General Medical Council currently requires all medical students to be familiarised with alternative medicine as part of their studies. Some universities apparently ask practising homeopaths to conduct this briefing; others, such as King's in London, invite Colquhoun. "I tend," he says, with a guffaw, "to give them a version of my 'Patient's Guide to Magic Medicine', which was originally written as a response to the witterings of the Prince of Wales on the subject."