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The Academic Impostor Behind the Pit Bull Hysteria

09/24/2014 12:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 24, 2014
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The most influential advocate for the eradication of pit bulls is an academic fraud. Merritt Clifton is prominent not simply because he has been making noise for decades, but because he uniquely claims to be a rigorous statistician: a scholarly expert. People who hate pit bulls lean on this man's putative expertise.

And he's a charlatan.

The loudest voice in favor of eliminating pit bulls in Canada is probably Barbara Kay, a journalist with the National Post. Her campaign is largely successful: Canada has some of the most punitive breed-specific laws (BSL) in the world. And she told me proudly, in an email:

My primary source, you will not be surprised to learn, is animal-industry historian and investigative reporter for more than 40 years, Merritt Clifton, until recently editor of Animal People News and now editor of his own site, Animals 24/7. My other primary source is Colleen Lynn of Dogsbite.org.

Colleen Lynn is a menace; she's a web designer who was once bitten by a dog, and has been on a vicious campaign to eliminate the pit bull type ever since. Still, she makes no pretense to academic credibility. Merritt Clifton, on the other hand, very much pretends to be an eminent scholar, and is truly dangerous.

In the first few minutes of the video linked here, for instance, you will see him pronounce: "I have more than a hundred peer-reviewed publications."

This would seem truly impressive -- that's a hefty body of published work. It's troubling, however, that not one of these publications shows up in a search on JSTOR, the comprehensive academic database online. Nor can I find a single example of his copious oeuvre in Harvard's library, which can also be searched online. One hundred publications, admirably invisible.

I finally found one. Clifton mentions Asian Biomedicine in the video, and floating around the internet is a single article that this obscure journal published in 2011. The journal's own website seems to have vanished, but they do say on their Facebook page that they are "peer-reviewed." Perhaps there are a hundred such articles? Probably not: a sandbox draft of somebody trying desperately to get Clifton and his projects on Wikipedia lists one academic publication. This one.

The video is posted on a blog maintained by Josh Liddy, an activist against BSL, who notes that Clifton's claims are "dubious." Mr. Liddy is far too polite. These claims are "fictional."

Barbara Kay and I have been having an ongoing email correspondence. My contempt for Clifton has grown over the course of this conversation, and she has been doing her best to prop up his tottering credibility. I do not speak to Clifton directly -- comments I've left on his blog somehow never show up -- but she conveys my disappointment to him, and speaks to me on his behalf.

In response to his boast in the video, Ms. Kay said: "Clifton's remark about peer review was not meant to imply that he had himself written 100 peer-reviewed articles but that he has been cited in many peer-reviewed articles."

Is that so. From Dr. Mark Hogarth, a philosopher of science at Cambridge University: "What he says on the video unambiguously implies he is the author of over 100 different peer-reviewed articles."

And what kind of misstatement is Clifton's? "It's basically the same as lying about your qualifications. Articles are your qualifications."

Merritt Clifton -- the "primary source" for people who are feverishly trying to eradicate pit bulls, like Barbara Kay -- has falsified his credentials.

I tried this out on a few other people intimately familiar with the protocols of academia. Rafael Newman, a classicist and translator with a PhD from Princeton, agreed with Hogarth: "I believe that, in technical parlance, the first statement is known as a 'lie'."

Professor Amy Kaler at the University of Alberta concurred: "Contributing data and being cited is not the same as 'having' publications. You can only claim a publication as yours if you are an author."

Professor Michael E. Harkin at the University of Wyoming -- his PhD is from the University of Chicago -- also agreed: "This is an instance of academic fraud. You cannot conflate these two: the number of peer-reviewed articles authored, and the number of citations."

Dr. Hogarth elaborated upon his observation. This particular genre of lie -- inventing academic qualifications -- is associated with people "like Gillian McKeith."

If you're British, you'll understand this reference: McKeith is a famous television presenter, who describes herself as a qualified nutritionist, while pedaling comically inaccurate science. She was exposed by Ben Goldacre -- a famous scientific fraud-buster. He was interested in her diploma from the American Association of Nutritional Consultants. So he applied for one himself. The diploma was awarded. The vaunted Association was unaware that -- after the proper application and payment -- they had awarded this diploma to Goldacre's dead cat, Henrietta.

I do not mean to suggest that Merritt Clifton is precisely analogous to Goldacre's dead cat. No: Clifton is very much alive and doing mischief.

I made Barbara Kay aware that this article was going to be published, discrediting her "primary source." She was apoplectic: "I am sure I won't be the first one to comment that your bile is not disinterested, your book having received a negative review in Clifton's publication. The highway of literature is strewn with angry screeds against their reviewers and reviewers' hosts by spurned authors of (what they perceive as) Pulitzer Prize material. Once objective readers see that connection, they roll their eyes and move on."

Prepare to roll your eyes, friends. That review was written by one Barbara Kay. She wrote it on July 23. Unfortunately, I have in my files an email that I sent to this same Barbara Kay on July 12, in which I said: "Clifton's elementary math has been proven dismally inadequate by another blogger. This is easy enough for a non-expert to evaluate -- we can all do basic arithmetic. It would be interesting (and I imagine devastating) to have a statistician take a microscope to his methodology."

So. My disinterested interest in Clifton's fraudulence predates Ms. Kay's review. In fact, when you think about it, for her to have written that review -- and for Clifton to have published it on his blog -- was not precisely "disinterested." You might even call it "retaliatory." Or, to be more precise: "a preemptive strike." I'll settle for "unprofessional."

If you read Ms. Kay's review, you'll find that there's very little for me to complain about, personally. I don't feel at all spurned. Some of it is even flattering. It doesn't bother me in the slightest that she has written a review of a book that doesn't yet exist. (I serialized a fraction of an early draft on the Huffington Post.)

I would approve of her lovely review wholeheartedly, if it weren't contributing to mass hysteria: bigotry that results in the unnecessary death, yearly, of some million or so innocent creatures. That is a very rough estimate of how many shelter dogs in America are identified as "pit bulls" -- often with ludicrous inaccuracy -- and then killed.

Apoplectic seems to express itself in oddly similar ways when you question either Clifton or an acolyte. One reader expressed her disappointment in Clifton, and he responded, "Ask me if I give a crap."

Barbara Kay, when I expressed my disappointment, wrote: "Douglas, you are confusing me with someone who gives a shit about whether a good researcher is writing for peer-reviewed academic journals or is simply researching in order to publish his findings on listservs, or as the lead investigative journalist for the venerable Animal Agenda (sic) or for Animal People or for Animals 24-7."

I invite you to look up those publications, to determine just how venerable they are. Clifton was fired from Animal's Agenda, where his wife was an editor. The board felt that it "had become too much the vehicle for one couple's opinions." He then founded the tabloid Animal People. Recently he parted ways with that organization as well; the "editorial and managing group" now consists of three people, two of whom are his ex-wife and son. (Venerability is a family affair.) Animals 24-7 is his blog.

Now, all will be forgiven if Clifton proves to be that remarkable species: an amateur scientist who nevertheless produces rigorous and valuable studies. I have an expert statistician, Mike McCaffrey, prepared to look into Clifton's research to establish whether that is the case: whether Merritt Clifton, despite lying about his credentials, is doing credible work. Mike McCaffrey teaches data librarianship at the University of Toronto, and he explained the issues involved:

The biggest problems are often found in one or more of three areas: collection, presentation, and interpretation. To my mind, collection is the big one when amateurs, especially those with an axe to grind or a position they've staked out in advance, are involved. To be believable, the dataset has to be available in its entirety for examination and the collection methodology had to be described in full. In essence, one must be able to replicate and reach the same conclusion.

And here is what this genuine, qualified expert says that we require, to lay these concerns to rest: "May we see the raw data (a file with all the incidents logged separately with all the variables/characteristics laid out) instead of just the aggregated data (the tallies produced for the report)? If not, why?"

Apparently, Merritt Clifton does make his raw data available. He just refuses to make it available to me. Via Barbara Kay: "The short version is, I have shared my input data with many legitimate researchers over the years, Colleen included. I don't share it with pit nutters."

In shorter: he does not share it with people who disagree with him.

If this data even exists, my guess is that it's embarrassing: inaccurate, incomplete, or incomprehensible. Otherwise, who better to share it with than pit bull advocates ("nutters") -- so that they might be convinced of the error of their ways?

I have given Merritt Clifton plenty of time to defend himself. All I require, I've explicitly said, is the raw data. I've offered to have it examined not simply by an expert of my choice, but -- if he is worried about bias -- also by a qualified expert chosen by him. (By "qualified," I mean someone with qualifications.)

Nothing. Eloquent silence. No data from Mr. Clifton: neither raw nor cooked.

Note that Clifton is no ordinary impostor. He is pretending here to be academically qualified in the realm of epidemiology: a medical field. Reputable analyses of dog-bite statistics are published by specialized doctors -- epidemiologists -- in peer-reviewed scientific publications. Merritt Clifton is worse than your average academic fraud: he is a medical fraud.

I believe the technical term for a medical fraud is a "quack."

If you're interested in what actual epidemiologists have to say, here is an abstract of the most recent academic study: "Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States (2000-2009)." The study found that "Most DBRFs (dog-bite-related fatalities) were characterized by coincident, preventable factors; breed was not one of these."

This is a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. It is a moderately venerable journal: published by AVMA, the association established in 1863 to represent the nation's veterinarians.

If you watch another couple of minutes of the Clifton video on Josh Liddy's blog, you'll see him refer to this very paper: "That article is actually authored by paid professional pit bull activists."

That's a pretty serious accusation. Liddy sounds unconvinced. So let's examine it.

The lead authors on this article are Gary Patronek VMD, PhD, and Jeffrey J. Sacks, MD, MPH. Dr. Patronek's PhD is in Epidemiology. Dr. Sacks is an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: the official body in the United States devoted to the study and containment of epidemics. Sacks writes about dog-bite issues not simply for JAVMA, but for the CDC itself.

Clifton's charge is that an epidemiologist with the CDC -- a doctor tasked with the study of dog-bite prevention, nationwide -- is for sale. And has been bought by crazed dog lovers bent on making America less safe.

Must be a wacky, free-wheeling bunch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; let's hope nobody slips money to the doctors working on Ebola.

Your choice here is to embrace Merritt Clifton -- a jaw-dropping conspiracy theorist, and a quack who lies about his academic qualifications -- or a specialized medical epidemiologist attached to the national public health institute.

A distressing number of people have sided with the charlatan. Merritt Clifton's quackery is the research underlying breed specific legislation across North America. Pit bulls are being banned, confiscated and killed based on numbers that have no demonstrable foundation in reality.

We are plagued these days by superstitious zealots who prefer cranks to experts. Epidemiology in particular seems to suffer from this -- all sorts of people take Jenny McCarthy more seriously than they do tenured professors at Harvard Medical School. The sheer disdain for actual expertise is depressing: Barbara Kay dismisses Dr. Sacks as a "guru." Excuse me? He's a specialized medical doctor on staff at the most important body in America charged with preventing epidemics.

If I need heart surgery, I go to a heart surgeon -- not some Clifton-like crank who has personal theories about how heart surgery really should be done, and who dismisses actual heart surgeons as biased and corrupt.

It's frankly shocking that it's come to this. Canadian legislators would seem to be influenced strongly by Barbara Kay of the National Post -- we certainly see all sorts of worthless breed-specific legislation that echoes her fear-mongering agenda. And this is a woman who announces with pride that her venomous articles rest on "statistics" ginned up and pushed by an impostor, Merritt Clifton.

Perhaps it is time to revisit the Canadian laws.

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Clarification (7:10pm EST, 9/24/2014): I've received a bizarre request -- perhaps the most bizarre in the time I have been writing about animal welfare -- but a journalist wishes me to clarify that she has less influence than I have ascribed to her.

Barbara Kay was not writing about pit bulls when the Canadian laws were initially passed, but I was under the distinct impression that she was crucial to recent efforts to thwart repeal. These efforts have been absurdly successful, and the article above indeed implies that her voice was integral to this achievement. She wrote this to me in an email, today: "Yes, you can tell your readers that I was in no way responsible for the bans being put in place. As for my influence regarding any failures to repeal the bans, I have no idea if or how much such influence would be."

This is correct, and I did conclude that she was influential, without demonstrable proof. My apologies. In order to be absolutely accurate, I inquired: "Would Merritt Clifton too like me to suggest that his influence is limited? Which of course would demonstrate that the publications he edits and writes for are impotent."

Her response: "No, Merritt would not like you to suggest he has no influence. I am sure he does have influence."

I hope this clarifies the matter.

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NOTE: The blogger who dissected Clifton's math, Brent Toellner, has written at length about various Clifton inaccuracies. I recommend his article: "Misusing data to support personal agendas", as well as the piece linked to above: "Merritt Clifton -- when the numbers just don't add up".