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The Open University is a great institution.  Its first vice-chancellor was Walter Laing Macdonald Perry . Before he took that job, he was professor of Pharmacology in Edinburgh (and one of my Ph.D. supervisors). He must be turning in his grave at the new OU course, K221 – Perspectives on Complementary and Alternative Medicine .

The course description sounds harmless enough, ” This course provides an accessible but rigorous introduction to complementary and alternative approaches to health.”.  But just how rigorous is it?  The game is given away when you see that the “experts” seem mostly to be true believers, people who make their living from alternative medicine. How can such people be expected to the merits of the systems of beliefs
that are the basis of their livelihood?   It is rather like having a rigorous discussion about the existence of god in which all the course tutors are priests. Take some examples.

The bit about Testing Therapies is by Elaine Weatherley-Jones, She is in clinical practice as a homeopath. And as you might expect the three pages on the web about ‘testing therapies’ are highly partisan and selective.  Try these quotations.

“In homeopathy, the vital force is said to be responsible for maintaining health, combating disease by recruiting the body’s natural tendency to cure itself. In the homeopathy model, disease occurs when the vital force is not working efficiently to keep the balance of health.”

“. . . in The Manual of Conventional Medicine for Alternative Practitioners : “The essence of alternative medical thought is that there is a vitalistic principle behind and encompassing any physical object”, explaining that “vitalistic” means that there are “objects which are non-physical in part or whole”. The vital
force of homeopathy and qi of TCM are non-physical – it’s impossible to see them, no matter how powerful an electron microscope was used. Qi and the vital force are ideas that are put forward to explain how the body heals itself.”

“Vital forces”? Which century are we living in? If this were offered as social studies, perhaps it would not matter, but the Open University is offering this course as part of a B.Sc. degree. Then we get the usual weasel words about the impossiblity of testing empirically whether alternative medicines (CAM) produce an effect, regardless of how they work. That is the important question. After all we are pretty vague about how some conventional drugs work. In a mind-boggling passage we are told that it is impossible to test CAM against a placebo, but quite possible to test CAM against an orthodox treatment.

It seems, incidentally, that the author’s grasp of pharmacology, and of the literature, is a bit weak. “. . . when Belon and his colleagues reported research in 2004 in the journal Inflammation Research , they showed that ultra-high dilutions of histamines (which are proteins involved in allergic reactions and causes, for example, inflammation of the breathing tubes in asthma) are active in influencing human cell activity. ”

Histamine (there is only one), is not a protein? This is meant to be a university course! Belon, of course, is a committed homeopath. This passage conveniently ignores the fact that his experiments have been repeated at least twice by respectable scientists, and they find no such effect. Surprisingly enough, they find that no drug gives no response. Amazingly, it seems that the OU would have us think otherwise.

The rest of the course seems to be much the same. The dispassionate expert on Herbal medicine is a herbal practitioner who makes his living from it, and is just as uncritical as one might expect in that circumstance. Unlike Weatherley–Jones, though, he does come clean (more or less) about the lack of evidence as to efficacy of herbal remedies (though that evidently does not deter him from practising the subject).

The “expert” on acupuncture , Rosey Grandage, is a bit more interesting on the history of her subject, but is every bit as committed to CAM as the others. She works at the University of Westminster as course leader of the Diploma in Qi Gong Tuina and also lectures on the BSc Acupuncture course. ” Rosey practices as a physiotherapist, acupuncturist and tuina practitioner in West London”. Hardly an unbiased observer. “ . . . it is this growing popularity which answers the question of whether acupuncture has a place in the modern world.”

Is it not obvious that the long persistence, and popularity, of an idea cannot possibly be used as an index of truth? One merely has to think of the long-persistent and popular ideas about the ‘one true god’. Clearly at most one of these can be true. The history of medicine is replete with popular and persistent ideas that turned out to be untrue. Take nux vomica . For hundreds of years conventional medicine regarded strychnine as a ‘tonic’. That persisted right up to the 1950s. But it became apparent that it just did not work, and strychnine, and the very word ‘tonic’, vanished from the vocabulary of rational medical people. You
won’t be surprised to find, though, that is still widely touted by fraudulent herbalists.

It could be argued that the course is intended as sociology rather than science, though the course description does not say so, and the course can count towards a BSc. Even as sociology though, it would seem better if the viewpoint of the tutors was rather broader.

The course books

I have now obtained copies of the three course books that were used for K221last year.  They are indeed written largely as sociology not as science.  But it is a highly biased sort of sociology, as one might have expected from the commitments of the authors.   Although there are occasional references to lack of evidence, this does not seem to deter the authors from their relentless pursuit of the ‘integration’ of CAM into medical practice.

A superficial reading by a naive student might give an impression that the books are a “rigorous introduction to CAM”.  The more sophisticated student is likely to see them as subtle, even insidious, propaganda. I won’t claim to have read all three books. Opening almost any page makes obvious their not-very-hidden agenda.

Here are a few examples from CAM: Structures and Safeguards (eds. Geraldine Lee–Treweek, Tom Heller, Hilary MacQueen, Julie Stone and Sue Spurr).

Chapter 5 (Homeopathy: principles practice and controversies) contains a ludicrously biased account ot the affair of Jacques Benveniste (see here and here ).  There is no mention of the fact that his results were disproved at the time, and at least twice since, I know of only one group that has claimed similar results, and that group, like Benveniste’s, contained committed homeopaths. There is no mention of Beneveniste’s two Ignobel prizes. There is no mention of the fact that after he left France in disgrace, he went on to claim that the properties of the alleged memory of water could be sent by email, a claim so absurd that it has not persisted even within CAM.

This chapter uses the standard CAM trick of redefining the word efficacy.   Rather than its usual meaning of having an effect greater than placebo, it is conveniently redefined to mean, roughly, ‘patients say they feel better’,

“Although the issue of whether or how homeopathic remedies ‘work’ is a major bone of contention for medical scientists, the fact that they perceive that the remedies do work makes it attractive to many orthodox medical practitioners.”

So that’s OK then. Don’t trouble yourself with what’s true.

Chapter 1 of ‘CAM: Structures and Safeguards’ has the title “Knowledge, names, fraud and trust”, and is by Geralidine Lee-Treweek. It is a fine example of relativism -almost post-modernist in style. This is a discussion of knowledge in which the words ‘true’ and ‘false’ barely appear. The student who lent me
the book has scribbled in the margin “If it is not true and right –then it is not knowledge”. Pass the student, fail the tutor . (in fairness, it has to be pointed out that the student passed with distinction, despite her scepticism.)

So does Open University course K221 really give you a “rigorous introduction to complementary and alternative approaches to health. ” No it seems that it does not. Here are some more reasons.

A student who has successfully completed course K221 has told me that

  • “It was very anti-science and anti-orthodoxy in places”
  • “I had several ‘discussions’ with her [OU tutor] in our online tutor group, some about her anti-vaccination stance and the fact that she was happy to give homeopathic anti-malarials to travellers.”

The argument that homeopaths at least do no harm ( see above ) seems to be destroyed by their advocacy of policies that will lead to more children getting measles, and which will contribute to the spread of malaria. There is an ultimate irony in OU tutors preaching against vaccination. Walter Perry, the first vice-chancellor of the OU, before he was my supervisor in Edinburgh, had been Director of Biological Standards at the Medical Research Council’s labs. In that job he had responsibility for introduction of polio vaccine in UK. That effectively eliminated the scourge of polio.

This is not what a real university should be doing, as part of a B.Sc. degree.

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