James Penston was born in Liverpool in 1950. He qualified in medicine at King’s College Medical School, University of London, in 1975.
After working in various hospitals in England, he moved to Ninewells Hospital in Dundee in 1984 where he was involved in research in gastroenterology for ten years. In 1991, he was awarded a M.D. (London) for his thesis on the management of duodenal ulcer disease. He published many papers in medical journals, including original research and review articles on a variety of different topics in gastroenterology. He lectured widely throughout the UK and Europe, as well as North and South America, the Far East and Australasia. Later, he worked for a multi-national pharmaceutical company for two years.
Since 1996, he has worked as a consultant physician and gastroenterologist in the north of England. He is also an honorary senior lecturer in clinical medicine.
For the past decade, he has been interested in the methodology of medical research. He believes that the current pre-occupation with very large studies is misguided. In Fiction and Fantasy in Medical Research, published in 2003, he argued that the large-scale randomised trial, the gold standard of medical research, is deeply flawed. This has been followed by articles and letters published in medical journals on the same subject.
In his most recent publication, stats.con (2010), he argues that the claims of statistics-based research in medicine are, for the most part, imaginary, that the apparent success is based on the presentational skills of its advocates and that the studies are devoid of anything of real value. The implications of his arguments extend well beyond the sphere of medicine to many other disciplines that use the statistical approach to research.