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Regulating complementary medicine – DC's Improbable Science

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Download Lectures on Biostatistics (1971).
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This letter to The Times points out the folly of making regulations that do not require any demonstration that the product works. Can you imagine a regulation for television sets that required only that they do no harm, but did not specify that they should show a picture?

From Professor D. Colquhoun, FRS

Sir, Congratulations on your report on the deficiencies found in complementary medicine practitioners (Body & Soul, January 10).

In the face of such evidence it is natural to ask for more effective regulation of this very profitable industry. But the question is quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This question has serious implications for the universities as well as for the public (and the industry).The House of Lords report and the Government’s response to it, pointed out that the first step was to find out whether the complementary treatment worked (better than a placebo). They recommended that the Department of Health should fund research on complementary medicine, the first priority being to find out whether each therapy worked. The problem is that you cannot regulate properly an area when it is not, in most cases, known whether the product being offered has no effect above that of wishful thinking.

This raises a serious question for universities, because it leads, naturally enough, to demands for better training. But how can a university run a course on a subject about which there is so little hard evidence?  Tragically (for their own reputation), some of the new universities are running three-year BSc courses in such subjects as complementary therapies. I’m quite happy to believe that nice smells produce good placebo effects, but aromatherapy is not, by any stretch of the imagination, science, and in my view it is not honest to award Bachelor of Science degrees in it.The effect of such courses will be not to promote better regulation, but to give spurious respectability to an industry that, according to the Government, should (but does not) have, as its first priority, to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Yours faithfully,

DAVID COLQUHOUN,

A. J. Clark Professor of Pharmacology,
University College London,
Gower Street, WC1E 6BT.
d.colquhoun@ucl.ac.uk
January 10.

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