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More students apply for CAM courses: Celia Bell’s defence – DC's Improbable Science

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Download Lectures on Biostatistics (1971).
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Sigh! The Times Higher Education Supplement (27 July 2007) reports an 31.5% increase in applications for ‘university’ courses in complementary medicine.

Compare this with 19 per cent fall in applications for places on anatomy, physiology and pathology courses, and a relatively low 6 per cent rise in applications for pharmacology, toxicology and pharmacy.

David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, said he was “appalled” by the development. “These courses are basically anti science. Universities that run them should be ashamed of themselves,” he said. “They are cashing in on people’s wishful thinking when there is no evidence that complementary medicine works.They might as well offer degrees in astrology


.”Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine research at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, said most complementary medicine degrees were “scandalously unacademic”.He said: “I am quite cross with British universities for teaching these subjects in such an uncritical way. We need to build up research evidence of what works and what doesn’t before offering courses.


But Celia Bell, head of Middlesex University’s department of natural sciences, which runs courses in Western and Chinese herbal medicine, said the critics were “out of step with the times”.She said: “There are now millions of people seeking complementary medicine treatments, and we have to ensure that the practitioners are safe and competent and properly trained.”




Hang on a moment. Something is missing surely? How can a practitioner be “competent and properly trained” if the whole basis of their practice is nonsense and anti-scientific? And there are “millions of people” who read astrology columns. There are “millions of people” who believe they have been abducted by aliens. There are “millions of people” who don’t believe in evolution. Can Dr Bell believe seriously that this is a good argument for providing degrees in astrology, the physics of flying saucers and Creationism?”


Dr Celia Bell is Chair, Human and Healthcare Sciences Academic Group at Middlesex University (soon to become “Natural Sciences”). She is not a herbalist by training. She has a B.Sc. in Human Sciences from University College London, a Masters Degree in Human Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a PhD in Biochemistry at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School.So what happened to her critical faculties? I can find in Medline only two recent publications, and they are only short abstracts of the proceedings of a conference in 2003. Before that you have to go back to 1991. See here and here.The second abstract has the title “Herbal treatment for osteoarthritis: a pilot study investigating outcomes”. The conclusion is “These preliminary results suggest that the herbal treatment for osteoarthritis provided during this study does appear to benefit patients.”. But there appears that there is no control group whatsoever!. If that is really the case (Dr Bell declined to confirm or deny this), the results are absolutely worthless. No better than the infamous Spence (2005).


The only other publication I can find is back in 1991, Chocolate is a migraine-provoking agent. This was a very small study (12 patients on chocolate, 8 on placebo) but a least it did have a control group.

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One Response to More students apply for CAM courses: Celia Bell’s defence

  • As someone who also gained a B.Sc. in Human Sciences from University College London, I am appalled at Celia Bell’s response. You would have thought a grounding in anatomy, anthropology, biochemistry, evolution, genetics, physiology and psychology (all basic components of the Human Sciences degree) would have taught her something about how science works. Or perhaps Herbology now forms part of the degree? Just checked, and it doesn’t, thank god. But one 3rd year project was “Placebo Effect of Alternative Medicine” – Hurrah!

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