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August 2007 – DC's Improbable Science

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There was some surprise when the University of Teesside recently appointed as a visiting professor, Patrick Holford, the “media nutritionist” and supplement salesman. This has elicited some indignation from within Teesside as well as without.

The CV that was submitted to the University of Teesside in support of his appointment at Teesside included the following glowing endorsement from “Dr John Marks, Life Fellow and former Director of Medical Studies, Cambridge University.”

“There have been dramatic changes over the past decade in our views about healthcare and Patrick Holford has been right at the forefront of many of these changes, particularly with our revised appreciation of nutrition. The road to bad medicine and bad health is built on the foundation of dogma. It is refreshing to have this dogma subjected to fresh examination.”
Dr John Marks, Life Fellow and former Director of Medical Studies, Cambridge University

Download the CV that was submitted.

The same endorsement appears in the CV on Holford’s web site.

Dr Marks is also cited prominently as a reviewer of Holford’s book, “The H factor” (2003 edition), thus.

“This book covers the exciting developments of the story of homocysteine in current clinical nutrition and medicine. The authors have examined with commendable clarity the controversy which inevitably surrounds any such cutting-edge subject.”
Dr John Marks, former Director of Medical Studies at Girton College, University of Cambridge

And this is the top of the back cover of Holford’s book, “Optimum Nutrition for the Mind (2003 edition)”, as it appears on the Amazon
web site

Dr Marks appears again in a 2004 press release at on Holford’s site.

“Monday 25 October 2004

OPTIMUM NUTRITION UK SURVEY

Britain’s Largest – Ever Health and Diet Survey

. . . .
“Scientific advisors to the survey include Professor Helga Refsum, Professor Jeff Holly, Professor Jane Plant, Professor Andre Tylee, Dr John Marks and Dr Derek Shrimpton. “

Who is Dr Marks?

It turns out that he is now long-retired from his job as Director of Medical Studies at Girton College. Clearly, and very understandably, Dr Marks would now much rather tend his garden than get involved in this sort of unpleasantness. When I drew his attention to the way his name was being used. he said “I agree that he must be stopped but not by running myself into yet more difficulties I want to reduce difficulties for myself having reached middle age (83).”.

Nevertheless, as a public service, he has kindly given me permission to reproduce his initial response.

Dear Professor Colquhoun



Oh dear, my foolishness of youth has come home to haunt me, luckily too late to hurt me.



Way back in, I would guess, the late 1970s or early 1980s I was doing some writing on the vitamins. Essentially my contention was that because of inappropriate eating patterns, it was not possible to say that “a normal mixed diet (as consumed today) provided all the nutrients that are needed”. I used the term “optimum nutrition” to indicate one which did precisely that. Some of this was at least reasonable given the understanding of the day. I know that much of it is no longer accepted (certainly by me), but I have a suspicion that we have swung probably a little too far the other way recently. At that stage Patrick Holford wrote an article or a book on “optimal nutrition” quoting me, inter alia. I did write at his request some comments which were broadly favourable about it, though the text that you quote does not look like mine. Thereafter he has hounded me with pre-publication copies of books etc, each of which has been more exaggerated and less scientific. I was also involved with him at the start of his work on nutritional standards in ordinary members of the public, but it soon became obvious that the whole study was unsupportable and I withdrew completely from it. I also challenged one of his books but got nowhere, even though I suggested that it be not published until he had confirmed some of his ‘observations’.

Shortly after that I wrote to him to say that I was not prepared any longer to support his work or views in any way and to please stop using my name as a supporter of his work, and stop writing to me. I had thought and hoped that the whole sad story of my early support for him had died a death, but from what you tell me it seems not.



I have to admit that I have not wasted time and effort reading any of his recent work. In fact I should have difficulty doing so since I am effectively blind.



I hope that this puts you in the picture. I hope that the wording you quote was from his first book, but even that wording does not look what I might have written even in my foolish youth.



Thank you for drawing my attention to the situation but I shall not waste my time issuing denials. It is too late now.



With my thanks and best wishes


John Marks

So it is some time now since Dr Marks wrote to Holford

” to say that I was not prepared any longer to support his work or views in any way and to please stop using my name as a supporter of his work and stop writing to me.”

Dr Marks has now written to Holford to ask for the source of these quotations, having destroyed all his own records that relate to Holford some time ago. If and when he gets a reply it will be posted here.

It is for you, and the luminaries of the University of Teesside, to decide whether or not this amounts to falsification of the CV that Holford submitted in support of his appointment as a visiting professor.

It isn’t just Marks

According to some investigation by HolfordWatch, it seems the Prof Andree Tylee has suffered a similar fate to that of Dr Marks. Tylee is Professor of Primary Care Mental Health, at the Institute of Psychiatry, Holford has been citing him too, contrary to his wishes.

A recent post, Homeopathic “cures” for malaria: a wicked scam, revealed two more cases of claims to cure malaria with homeopathic funny water.

One was the claim of Kate Birch, the vice president of the North American Society of Homeopaths, that “Homeopathy is more effective that any western medication”
for treatment of malaria.

This is so dangerous that some action was needed.

The other was a claim by a UK company that claims for Demal 200 (which contains nothing but 15% alcohol)

“Demal 200 is highly effective in treating all types of Malaria even the strains that have developed a resistance to chemical based drugs”

But on checking the web site in 28 Aug, 18 days after the original post, guess what? Demal 200 has vanished. I wonder who told them to do that? The advert was still in the Google cache, and you can download it here, as it appeared on 10th August. Don’t worry though, 20 seconds with Google shows that there are plenty of other people willing to sell this expensive hooch. For example ‘Blueturtle Remedial Sciences’. They give a lot of email addresses to which you can write for further information.

I made a lot of complaints about these wickedly dangerous claims. So far, the result is close to zero.

The Society of Homeopaths, both UK and USA, refuse point blank to give any opinion about the ability of homeopaths to cure malaria.

The Society of Homeopaths is also making its contribution to deaths in Africa by its utterly delusional attitude to AIDS.

They do nothing to stop their many members who do make such claims from killing people. As regulatory organisations, they are just a sick joke.

The Advertising Standards Authority and the Trading Standards people disclaim any responsibility, as does the Center for Disease Control (USA). The FDA and the MHRA have yet to reply, but they did very little after the revelation that homeopaths claimed to be able to prevent malaria.

Nobody seems willing to do anything at all.

But is characteristic of quasi-religious organisations that they split in to warring sects. The Faculty of Homeopaths (UK), in stark contrast to the Society of Homeopaths,

” . . . does not promote the use of homeopathy for the prevention of malaria.

It also supports steps to inform the public of the dangers of malaria and the need to follow government guidance. Last year the Faculty worked with the Health Protection Agency (HPA) on a statement for the HPA website: http://www.hpa.org.uk/infections/topics_az/malaria/homeopathic_statement_260705.htm

All that can be said for the malaria scandal is that it has revealed that the curious world of homeopathy is in in chaos when it comes to serious diseases. And it shows very starkly how utterly meaningless self-regulation of homeopathy is, and how government agencies disclaim responsibility

There is lots more about this wickedness on the web: try The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing.

Here are some of the results of complaints.

Society of Homeopaths (SoH) (UK)

I wrote (13 Aug) to the Society of Homeopaths (SoH) to ask about the use of the initials RSHom and RSHom (NA), and to ask about their attitude to the claims made for Demal 200.”Please could you tell me the opinion of the Society of Homeopaths about someone describing herself as RSHom behaving in this way, and also about Demal 200.”

I had a very quick reply from Paula Ross, chief executive of the SoH. She said

“There is no connection between The Society of Homeopaths (whose registered members use the designation ‘RSHom’) and the North American Society of Homeopaths (whose registered members use the designation ‘RSHom NA’).”

But she ignored the second question.

My other question was about whether SoH would like to comment on Demal 200.A company called giftofafrica says of its homeopathic malaria treatment. “Demal 200 is highly effective in treating all types of Malaria even the strains that have developed a resistance to chemical based drugs.” The company selling this is based in Wolverhampton, UK. and their claim seems to contradict directly your statement at http://www.homeopathy-soh.org/whats-new/patientinfo.aspxBest regardsDavid Colquhoun

After more than a week, and two reminders, I got no reply whatsoever.from
Paula Ross. However a correspondent sent a similar enquiry to the Society of Homeopaths, asking of Demal 200

“Would you recommend this product for use in Malaria regions or are the claims bogus?”

This was the ‘response’.

Dear ***,
Thank you for your email.May I suggest you contact one of the Homeopathic manufacturers who will be able to advise you and give you more information regarding Demal 200.For our list of Pharmacies please visit our website www.homeopathy-soh.org
Regards
Melissa Wootton
Office Administrator
The Society of Homeopaths.
11 Brookfield, Duncan Close,
Moulton
Park, Northampton NN3 6WL
Website: www.homeopathy-soh.org

It is hard to imagine any more irresponsible evasiveness than this.The North American Society of Homeopaths was less reticent when I asked about their attitude to claims to be able to treat serious infectious diseases.

13 Aug 2007

Please can you clarify for me the policy of NASH regarding infectious diseases.

Recently the Society of Homeopaths (UK) issued a statement that read thus
“The Society of Homeopaths, the UK’s largest register of professional homeopaths, acknowledges that malaria is a serious and life-threatening condition and that there is currently no peer reviewed research to support the use of homeopathy as an anti-malarial treatment. ”
(see http://www.homeopathy-soh.org/whats-new/patientinfo.aspx )

I can see no such statement on the NASH web site. In fact there are some things that seem to suggest that NASH approves of homeopathic treatment of infectious diseases (not least Kate Birch’s book), despite the fact that your Standards of Practice Guidelines says

“Do not claim that you can treat any disease, condition or ailment or imply that you can do so.
Be extremely careful when speaking or writing about the treatment of particular diseases or conditions (and never offer or claim to help anybody)”

Please could you give me a clear statement of your policy concerning homeopathic treatment of malaria, AIDS, cholera, typhoid fever, yellow fever and tuberculosis.

Best regards

David Colquhoun

The reply ignored entirely the question about their own code of practice

Dear Mr. Colquhoun,

Thank you for your inquiry of 8/13/07. NASH does not have a policy on the treatment of any disease category, in accordance with the tenet that homeopathy treats the whole person based on characteristic symptoms rather than a diagnosis.
Sincerely,

Liz Bonfig
NASH Administrator==============================

The NORTH AMERICAN SOCIETY OF HOMEOPATHS
PO BOX 450039, Sunrise, FL 33345-0039, USA ~ Tel: 206-720-7000 ~ Fax:
208-248-1942 343 Carrville Road, Richmond Hill, ONT L4C 6E4, CANADA ~ Tel:
905-886-1060 ~ Fax: 905-886-1418

Again, the question was totally evaded. These people can’t be serious. But then, on 17th August I got from Ms Birch a note that suggests that there has been a bit of internal dissension within NASH. Have they censured their vice president for going too far? If so will she recant? Don’t hold your breath.

X-UCL-MailScanner-From: katebhom@hotmail.commy final statement to you is: The personal response that was solicited from me on my private e-mail does not represent the views of the North American Society of Homeopaths.

Next, here is my mail to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, concerning the claims of Kate Birch, “Homeopathy is more effective that any western medication“.

It has come to my attention that a Ms Kate Birch (vice chair of the North American Society of Homeopaths), is advocating homeopathic treatment of malaria and also yellow fever, typhoid, dengue fever and cholera. She does this through her book and also in emails to potential customers.This seems to me to be very dangerous, so I have asembled some of the relevant evidence at http://dcscience.net/?p=24Please can you tell me if it is legal in the USA to claim to cure serious diseases like these with “remedies” that contain nothing but water and alcohol?

Their reply was nothing if not blunt (but not very helpful).

Dear Mr. Colquhoun,I forwarded your email to one of our staff scientists; his response was as follows:—–Original Message—–FDA regulates medicines, vaccines, and drugs. States regulate the practice of medicine.Charlatans and quacks can be reported to these regulatory agencies.However, the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and authors can write all kinds of wacky stuff that is bad for your health.

Thank you for your inquiry.

Internet Response Team National Center for Infectious Diseases Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Demal 200 UK

This UK company makes the outrageuous claim that their 15% alcohol “”Demal 200 is highly effective in treating all types of Malaria even the strains that have developed a resistance to chemical based drugs”

A complaint about this to the Advertising Standards Authority about this mendacious
advertisement produced a quick reply which said it did not come under their remit,

They suggested trying the Trading Standards people. The Trading Standards Authority replied on 28 Aug 07 (Adrian Winter).

” . . . this is not a matter that falls under the jurisdiction of
Trading Standards. The Medicines and Heathcare

Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is the appropriate body in this instance.”

I’d already written to the MHRA (13 Aug 2007) thus,

A company called giftofafrica says of its homeopathic malaria treatment:

“Demal 200 is highly effective in treating all types of Malaria even the strains that have developed a resistance to chemical based drugs.”

This direct claim of effectiveness seems to me to be mind-bogglingly irresponsible.

The company selling this stuff is based in Wolverhampton, UK. It costs £31.99 (or $56.40) for 30 ml of 15% alcohol (and 200C homeopathic dilutions, .i.e., nothing)

Please can you tell me about the legal position concerning claims to be able to cure infectious diseases, and whether or not the MHRA has any responsibility in cases like this.

Best regards

David Colquhoun

The MHRA are taking their time. No response by yet. But all they did after the Newsnight programme was to issue a statement which nobody is likely to read. They have done nothing to stop these dangerous advertisements.

On 21 August 2007, the Taxpayers’ Alliance produced a report that

“compiled Britain’s first ever list of university ‘non-courses’;  university degrees that lend the respectability of scholarly qualifications to non-academic subjects and calculated their annual cost to students and taxpayers.”

In this they list 400 degree course, at 91 institutions in the UK, which they describe as “non-courses”. They claim that these courses cost the taxpayer £40 million per year.

At the top of their list they place a BA (Hons) degree in Outdoor Adventure and Philosophy, at Marjon College in Plymouth. They include also in their list 60 different courses in alternative medicine.

I don’t agree entirely with the Alliance. They fail, I think, to make a vital distinction, between things that are untrue, and things that a merely not a great intellectual challenge. In “Science degrees in anti-science” I said

“What matters here is that degrees in things such as golf-course management are honest. They do what it says on the label. That is quite different from awarding BSc degrees in subjects that are not science at all, but are positively anti-science.”

Nevertheless the 400 “non-courses” include 60 in alternative medicine, and they are quite unacceptable.

So how does Universities UK (UUK) react? (They are the folks who used to have the sensibly self-explanatory title “Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals”, before they had their Consignia moment). Nothing short of a blanket defence, according to the BBC News

But Universities UK said the alliance had failed to understand developments in higher education or the labour market.

“Had they done a little more research, they would have found that these so-called ‘non-courses’ are in fact based on demand from employers and developed in association with them,”

“Graduates on these courses are in demand from employers who are looking for people with specific skills alongside the general skills acquired during a degree such as critical thinking, team-working, time management and IT skills – a point lost on the authors of this rag-bag of prehudices and outdated assumptions.”

All courses were checked rigorously to ensure they met appropriate standards. “This is academic snobbery, as predictable as it is unfounded.”

Does UUK really think that that is a sufficient justification for BSc degrees in homeopathy?

Does UUK really think that degrees in homeopathy teach “critical thinking”?

Does UUK really think that “rigorous checking” of a degree in homeopathy is possible?

If so, the endarkenment has certainly reached high places.

Postcript

An email from the president of UUK, Rick Trainor says that

“. . . degree courses change over time, are independently assessed for academic rigour and quality and provide a wider education than the simple description of the course might suggest”

Professor Trainor, Principal of King’s College London, is a social historian, not a scientist. But you don’t have to be a scientist to understand that it is simply preposterous to think that the smaller the dose the bigger the effect. The defence of such ideas on the basis that they have been “independently assessed for academic rigour” (assessed, of course, by fellow believers in magic) is equally preposterous.

SO I wrote again to explain the difference between honest and dishonest vocational degrees. It reall isn’t very difficult to grasp. This time all I got was

Dear David

Thank you very much for your comments, which I have read with interest.

Best wishes

Rick Trainor

UUK, like the Taxpayers’ Alliance, has failed totally to make the distinction betweeen honest vocational degrees and dishonest degrees.The attitude of UUK appears to be that of an old-fashioned trade union -defend your members, right or wrong. It is time they grasped the nettle.

There is no nutrional “therapist” whose doings have been the butt of more attention on the web. Ben Goldacre has been through his writings in meticulous detail. “Patrick Holford – “Food Is Better Than Medicine” South Africa Tour Blighted By HIV Claim” is particularly rivetting. The Holfordwatch web site is a mine of carefully-researched information.

It is bad enough that the University of Bedfordshire (in its previous incarnation as the University of Luton) accredited a Foundation Degree course in ‘nutritional therapy’, at`his Institute of Optimum Nutrition (IoN).

That saga was discussed in “Science in an age of endarkenment” as an example of how university accreditation committees can produce long pompous official reports that fail to discuss anything that matters (like ‘is it true?’).

Then came the even more mind-boggling news that Patrick Holford had been made a visiting professor at the University of Teesside. What on earth can be the university’s criteria be for awarding the title of professor? Download them and find out.

One criterion is “their contribution by research to the furtherance of knowledge”. Well it’s obviously not that one.

Another criterion is

“the application of knowledge in a systematic and original manner, designed to enhance wealth creation and/or the quality of life”

Well he has certainly created a lot of wealth for himself. The “application of knowledge” bit is just a little worrisome though.

Case for Patrick Holford as a Visiting Professor is a university document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (download the whole document). The opening words are “Patrick Holford has an international reputation in terms of nutrition and mental health.”

I guess he has an international reputation. But to find what sort of reputation, just check the references at the top of this post. Unfortunately the document is anonymous. I guess that makes it safe to say that whoever wrote it must be a scientific ignoramus.


The case for Holford mentions the possibility of starting a northern Brain Bio centre. If you want to know more about that wheeze, check Holfordwatch. And now Holfordwatch has done a nice analysis of the whole document

Teesside’s Assistant Dean Research, Dr Barry Doyle sent an email to his vice chancellor, Graham Henderson, with this case document and “curriculum vitae, with extensive personal commentary” (missing -I’ve asked for it) (download the email).

It did the trick.

An “Extract from minutes of University of Teesside Professorial Conferment Committee, 25/06/2007” (download it) recorded the conferment of title. If there was any real discussion it has been cut out (I’ve asked for more). Or perhaps there was no discussion. It seems to be just another example of the box-ticking mentality that has become so prominent as universities succumb to the cult of managerialism. Those present were

Professor G Henderson, Vice-Chancellor (Chair)

Professor A Unsworth, University of Durham

Professor C Hardcastle, Deputy-VC (Research & Enterprise)

Professor E E Green, School of Social Sciences & Law

Professor F Nabhani, School of Science & Technology

Professor M Rampley, School of Arts & Media

How is it that the combined intellect of these luminaries seemed to be incapable of finding out about the candidate the facts that any teenager could unearth on five minutes with Google?

One despairs

Postscript

It seems that some of the staff at Teesside are not at all happy about the appointment either. On 24th August, this email arrived.

Colleagues

I wish to confirm that Professor Patrick Holford has been Conferred with the title of Visiting Professor at the University of Teesside through the School of Social Sciences and Law.He has not been Conferred with the title of Visiting Professor in Nutrition. He has no association with the School of Health & Social Care and in particular, the Institute of Health Sciences and Social Care Research which is led by Professor Carolyn Summerbell, Professor in Nutrition and Assistant Dean for Research.PaulProfessor Paul Keane, Dean
School of Health & Social Care
Centuria Building
University of Teesside


Some more information

In response to a Freedom of Information act request, sent on 7 December 2007, the University of Teesside has been quite forthcoming in providing documents that relate to Holford’s appointment. It is pretty clear that the whole episode has been a bit of an embarrassment to them. As a result of internal dissension within Teesside, Holford was banned from using the title “Visiting Professor” or “Visiting Professor in mental health and/or nutrition” but to use only “Visiting Professor in the School of Social Sciences”.

Download all the documents. (zip file, i.5 Mb)

There are comments on some of these documents here.

This post is nerdy university politics stuff, but it matters a lot to some of us.

I have always been impressed by the lack of interest that management theorists, and education theorists, show in subjecting their ideas to empirical tests. Edinburgh University was one of the first to go down the path down which other places (including UCL) are now heading like so many lemmings.

Edinburgh abolished their departments in 2002, and, in 2005 they conducted a review of what had ensued, The responses make interesting reading (not least because much of what they say is remarkably similar to points that I have made again and again, to no effect).

Sadly, I have only just come across these documents. I wonder if our own managers have read them?

Let’s start with quotations from the university’s 2005 review document

“In 2002 the University made some radical changes to its structures. It abolished its previous structure of Faculties and Departments for academic purposes and Faculty Groups and Planning Units for planning and resourcing, and replaced these with a single integrated structure consisting of three Colleges and 21 Schools. Previous arrangements for electing Heads of Department and Deans were replaced by competitive appointment to the new management positions, after external advertisement for Heads of College.”

. . .

3.1
The Review Group found, from the evidence provided and gathered, that the implementation of a new organisational structure in 2002 had been strategically astute, leading to clear benefits to the institution as a whole.

. . .

This is not to say that feedback provided by colleagues to the Review was wholly positive

That last quotation must rank as as the understatement of the decade. You can read the responses at http://www.aaps.ed.ac.uk/restreview/responses/. Here are some quotations from them,

Professor R G M Morris, FRS, School of Biomedical & Clinical Laboratory Sciences

Like the Principal, I also think there are merits in the new arrangements that have already and will continue to yield benefits.

However, I think we should also have the courage and self-confidence to recognise a major downside. As I write, Harvard University is in uproar about some reported comments of their President, Larry Summers, about the paucity of women in science.

It would never happen at Edinburgh because – bluntly – we have become comatose. Perhaps I am not in the right place, but no one seems to discuss openly about anything that really matters to the University. We simply keep our heads down and try to get on with our teaching and research. Perhaps that is a good thing, and the debate at Harvard is but “hot air” when everyone would be better spending time in the lab or the library. But ‘m not sure. For there is a confidence and elan about the Harvard academic staff that, presently, seems to have been lost in Edinburgh – a loss that has coincided with the introduction of the Schools.

This loss is particularly reflected in the very few responses you have received to date to this circular. It is as if no one cares. And that, frankly, is deeply worrying. In the old rough and tumble of the ostensibly “inefficient”  Departmental system, we would have regular staff meetings and actually debate things – and we did this because the voice of everyone in a Department mattered. We had postdoctoral staff and postgraduate students at our staff meetings – their voice mattered too and we listened to what they had to say. It feels to me that this overt recognition of the value of the academic community in Edinburgh is no longer the case. The School of which I am now a member has had two meetings in three years, and with so many people present in a large lecture theatre, the atmosphere was not conducive to discussion and debate.

In conclusion, Edinburgh University is at risk of becoming a place where bland, respectable comment replaces genuine debate. I am wary of this absence, because I am deeply distrustful of the credibility of anyone unprepared to debate openly and honestly. The senior management may, of course, be so busy juggling their managerial role with continuing academic life that they are unaware of this developing problem. Surely the business model can work hand-in-hand with a managerial framework that supports genuine intellectual debate?

Richard Morris, D.Phil., F.R.S.
Professor of Neuroscience
Division of Neuroscience
School of Biomedical & Clinical Laboratory Sciences

Dr Ian Astley, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

I hardly know where to start with all this. It is abundantly clear, both from my own meditations and from discussions with colleagues — academic colleagues — that the recent changes to the university’s structure have been a radical contravention of everything which a university should stand for. Real opportunities for debate and democratic determination have been stifled, all in the service of a dogma of efficiency which it is impossible to describe or account for.

Professor Alan Murray, School of Engineering and Electronics, 4/02/05

One aspect of the old system that has, sadly, been largely lost, particularly in areas where modestly-sized departments have been merged in to larger schools, is the feeling of community and common purpose across research and teaching activities. The replacement of Departments by Research Institutes (and I am head of one) has not created new communities of the same nature and size. One particularly unfortunate result of this change has been the effective marginalisation of colleagues whose primary focus is on teaching and support of teaching activities.

Alan Murray
Professor Alan F. Murray,
Head of the Institute for Integrated Micro and Nano Systems,
School of Engineering and Electronics,

Dr Don Glass, School of Engineering & Electronics, 14/02/05

The restructuring has transformed the University into a rather top-down structure with a much smaller number of much larger administrative units.

The Research Institutes do not yet provide the sense of identity, cohesion and support that the old departments (whatever their failings) did. The Heads of Institute have done their best but are hampered by the physical dispersion of their staff and by restricted budgets.

Academic staff in particular, and technical and clerical staff to a lesser degree, feel that they are much less in control of their lives than was previously the case. This leads to stress and poor morale.

The Teaching Organisation has worked well at the strategic level (compliance with the requirements of the Curriculum Project, for example) and at the most basic level of timetabling, classroom allocation, collection of completed coursework, recording of marks etc. However, the diversity of the engineering disciplines and the curriculum requirements of the professional institutions have meant that accreditation, curriculum development and the allocation of teaching duties have fallen to the Heads of Discipline. These individuals have no budget at their disposal, no formal authority, no clerical or other support, no formal reward and little recognition. It is surprising that anyone can be found to take on the job.

Heads of School are expected to act as Line Managers for units containing in most cases over 100 academic and support staff. In industry or the civil service, this would be regarded as ludicrously burdensome, and I am at a loss to understand why the university feels that it can expect this level of output from its senior staff.

Improvement of the dissemination of information to ordinary members of staff would improve morale. In the old days, heads of department would ensure that their staff were kept abreast of developments: this does not happen to the same extent now. Equally, inclusion of more staff at an earlier stage in decision-making would not merely improve acceptance of change but would also possibly deliver better thought-out policy My suggestion would be to recognise the Disciplines as bodies responsible for professional representation, curriculum development and accreditation. They would provide a ‘home’ for staff excluded from the Research Institutes.

Professor Andrew Barker, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 14/02/05

You write:

‘The process has been generally been well received and, as Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Timothy O’Shea points out, “has aroused interest (and even emulation) in other institutions”.’

And in so doing you simply add to the disenchantment which, as you must surely know, has followed upheavals of the last couple of years. Could you not have initiated the debate without such self-congratulatory spin?

At the same time as there have been gains, there have also been losses. Above all, and one hears the complaint time and again, it is felt that restructuring has led to a diminished sense of belonging to an academic community. The abolition of the democratic faculty structure has fuelled a feeling of disempowerment and atomisation which does not help morale at a time when colleagues are assailed by new developments on all sides

What is needed, I feel, is a movement to re-engage colleagues with the
university: to let them feel that it is indeed ‘their’ university, that they are not merely a workforce which is expected to respond to a series of diktats from above. At a quite mundane level, provision of common room facilities (so spectacularly absent for those working in the George Square area) would enable us to re-establish contact with colleagues from other disciplines.

Professor Charles Warlow, Professor of Medical Neurology, Molecular and Clinical Medicine, 14/02/05

I start from the position that the structure of a University should enable academics to do research and teach, and have time to think and write which are so important in both.

Clinical academics like myself are -for better or worse – often rather disconnected from the rest of their Universities, partly because we often work way from the centre of the University, partly because we don’t think in terms (or now semesters), and partly because we have patient care concerns. Nonetheless it is good to feel part of and supported by an institution which facilitates and nurtures our research and teaching. I did feel this, when I was in a group then called a Department of Clinical Neurosciences which was part of a faculty then called Medicine, all of which I could naturally relate to and which mapped on to my clinical work and teaching. But now we have Divisions (in my case more or less the same as the old Department), Centres and Schools -two extra layers of management between us in the trenches and the College (was faculty) and Head of College (was Dean). And we do not seem to have any ‘faculty’ meetings any more, one of the very few opportunities to meet up with colleagues from not just my own hospital but with others across town (the Royal Infirmary, Royal Edinburgh Hospital etc). It as an irony that as we have moved to Colleges we have become less ‘collegiate’.

For me there has not only been a loss of collegiality, and so opportunity for cross fertilisation between medical disciplines, but there has been no advantage in terms of teaching or research. As far as teaching goes, the Divisional, Centre and School structure seems to be all about research with an eye on the RAE – not teaching. And it is particularly inappropriate to exclude researchers from Centres, these people may well be struggling and so in need of support. The notion that the new administrative structure encourages inter-disciplinarity – in medical research at least – is just not true.

I cannot see any efficiency gains from where I sit. Personally, I feel more disconnected from the Heads of this and that than ever I did before (but I certainly do not envy them their task, far more complicated, bureaucratic and time consuming than ever it was when I was Head of Clinical Neurosciences)

Sadly however, although I once felt a sense of belonging and so loyalty to the University as a collegiate bunch of academics, in it for teaching and research, this is not so much how I feel now that it seems more of an impersonal business hierarchy.

Professor Jean Duffy, Professor John Renwick, Mr Philip Bennett, Dr Véronique Desnain, Dr Marion Schmid, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 17/02/05

The new structures were originally presented to us, at the open meeting held by Stewart Sutherland, as a means of streamlining and reducing bureaucracy. Yet, the restructuring has involved the interposition of an extra administrative layer, the creation of a substantial number of administrative posts, including new senior management posts and a labyrinthine bureaucracy.

In an earlier exchange with Senior Vice-Principal Anderson regarding space matters, he commented that it is ‘virtually impossible to work out in any realistic way what the net cost [of the restructuring] (and the medium-term benefit) has been’. We find this extraordinary: any organisation employing a large workforce (in this case, 6,800 and Edinburgh’s third biggest employer, according to the web site) and with responsibility for the education of over 20,000 students and large amounts of taxpayers’ money ought to be able work out such sums.

Faculty meetings have been replaced by “plenaries” in which very little, if any, real business is done, no major decisions are ever taken (even in a School which voted to retain decision-making powers), and in which academics are informed about decisions that have been taken elsewhere. The former Faculty of Arts did have the capacity to influence the decisions of Central Management, even if it exercised that power rather too rarely. In the new structures, any power to influence has been effectively diluted, largely because we do not have an equivalent formal assembly designed to encourage or even permit full participatory debate and because the burden of representation falls upon a few individuals. Thus divided, we are much easier to rule, even if that was not the intention.

To be fair to the new Management Team, it did not create the original template for restructuring; as we understand it, it was presented with a fait accompli and a huge task of implementation. No doubt the new structures can be made to work in more user-friendly ways, but the University needs to relearn -and fast – how to listen to its academic staff. This institution has a great many staff who are committed to teaching and to research, who have willingly shouldered heavy administrative burdens often over long periods, and they have to feel that they have a voice.

The good will of academic staff is one of the University’s most precious resources; it is certainly its cheapest: after all, it is that good will which makes so very many individuals start work early, finish late, work every weekend and not take their full annual leave. If the University has common sense, it will invest in it, not exhaust it.

Professor Colin Nicholson, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

In its 2001 Resolution concerning proposed changes to academic management the University Court made its intentions clear. In order to enable the university to respond effectively to the altered economic circumstances in which we must now operate, Court deemed it desirable:

to reorganise the system of academic management in the University “in a way which sustains the teaching and research of the University to the highest standards and which maintains and enhances the quality of the university as an academic community of international standing”.

These sensible priorities were echoed in a Court paper of March 2002 . . .

These intentions have been radically betrayed. In a range of senior voices all across the University, from Kings Buildings to George Square to High School Yards we are hearing the same thing -that an academic community now feels reduced to an atomised and disempowered workforce which is expected to respond to a series of diktats from above.

The expression and experience within and across the academic community, of disaffection, demoralisation, disenfranchisement and alienation that we have been reporting on for several months requires urgent redress.

Dr Sarah Carpenter, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

But for equally practical reasons it actually it seems to have reduced the opportunities for academic co-operation with subject areas beyond the School. As a member of the former Faculty of Arts I encountered regularly colleagues from a range of disciplines across the Faculty, not only in Faculty meetings, but in administrative and other activities from which academic co-operation might flow. There is no longer any forum or space in which I encounter these colleagues.

There is certainly a strong perception among academic staff that the new system is in a phrase many have used “top-heavy”, and in some areas more rather than less cumbersome. In terms of streamlining and simplifying administrative procedure the system is experienced as adding a new layer.

The new structures have not allowed for any forums beyond the School in which staff can express and debate views, and pass them on to those who will make decisions (this is allied to the loss of meeting opportunities).

Probably allied to this is a perception that not only are decisions for implementation handed down from the centre, often by rather tenuous chains of information distribution, but that the university does not recognise or acknowledge the level of effort required to implement them.

Professor Brian Charlesworth, School of Biological Sciences, 04/02/05

I do not regard developments associated with the restructuring at all favourably. This has introduced a far more ‘top-down’ style of management, with over large units whose heads know little of what is going on at the grassroots level. The academic staff are being issued with orders instead of being consulted, and constantly being forced to implement ever more bureaucracy. In the long term, this will lead to creative people leaving the university, and only the mediocrities who are prepared to cringe to the men in suits will remain. I sense that this is already starting to happen.

It seems that little notice was taken of any of these comments. Well well, There’s a surprise.

Guardian science web site image
How irrational thinking in government and universities has led to the rise of new-age nonsense in the name of science.

This article appeared on 15th August 2007, on the Guardian Science web site.

The Guardian made very few cuts to the original version, but removed a lot of the links. If you want to have references to some of the claims that are made, try the original, which I reproduce here. [Download this as pdf]

The Guardian Science site also has a piece on this topic by Alok Jha: Reigniting the enlightenment How do we win back our civilisation from the jaws of darkness?
Comments can be left there too.

A German translation of this piece has been posted at the Mental health blog.

A Russian translation (draft version) has appeared here . There is also a Russian translation of How to Get Good Science which can be found here.

Etymological note. The word endarkenment has been used by several people as an antonym for the enlightenment, but the first time it caught my eye was in an article in 2005 by Gerald Weissman, The facts of evolution: fighting the Endarkenment. The article opens thus.

“Those of us who practice experimental science are living in the best of times and the worst of times, and I’m not talking about A Tale of Two Cities, but a tale of two cultures.”


Science in an Age of Endarkenment


“Education: Elitist activity. Cost ineffective. Unpopular with Grey Suits. Now largely replaced by Training.”
Michael O’Donnell, in A Sceptic’s Medical Dictionary (BMJ publishing, 1997).

The enlightenment was a beautiful thing. People cast aside dogma and authority. They started to think for themselves. Natural science flourished. Understanding of the real world increased. The hegemony of religion slowly declined. Real universities were created and eventually democracy took hold. The modern world was born. Until recently we were making good progress. So what went wrong?

The past 30 years or so have been an age of endarkenment. It has been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable.

This matters when people delude themselves into believing that we could be endangered at 45 minute’s notice by non-existent weapons of mass destruction.It matters when reputable accountants delude themselves into thinking that Enron-style accounting is acceptable.

It matters when people are deluded into thinking that they will be rewarded in paradise for killing themselves and others.

It matters when bishops attribute floods to a deity whose evident vengefulness and malevolence leave one reeling. And it matters when science teachers start to believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago.

These are serious examples of the endarkenment mentality, but I’ll stick with my day job and consider what this mentality is doing to science.

One minor aspect of the endarkenment has been a resurgence in magical and superstitious ideas about medicine. The existence of homeopaths on the High Street won’t usually do too much harm. Their sugar pills contain nothing. They won’t poison your body; the greater danger is that they poison your mind.

It is true that consulting a homeopath could endanger your health if it delays proper diagnosis, or if they recommend sugar pills to prevent malaria, but the real objection is cultural. Homeopaths are a manifestation of a society in which wishful thinking matters more than truth; a society where what I say three times is true and never mind the facts.

If this attitude were restricted to half-educated herbalists and crackpot crystal gazers, perhaps one could shrug it off. But it isn’t restricted to them. The endarkenment extends to the highest reaches of the media, government and universities. And it corrupts science itself.

Even respectable newspapers still run nonsensical astrology columns. Respected members of parliament seem quite unaware of what constitutes evidence. Peter Hain (Lab., Neath) set back medicine in Northern Ireland. David Tredinnick (Cons., Bosworth) advocated homeopathic treatment of foot and mouth disease. Caroline Flint condoned homeopathy, and Lord Hunt referred to ‘psychic surgery’ as a “profession” in a letter written in response to question by a clinical scientist

Under the influence of the Department of Health, normally sane pharmacologists on the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority, which is meant to “ensure the medicines work”, changed the rules to allow homeopathic and herbal products to be labelled, misleadingly, with “traditional” uses, while requiring no evidence to be produced that they work.

Tony Blair himself created religiously-divided schools at a time when that has never been more obviously foolish, and he defended in the House of Commons, schools run by ‘young-earth creationists‘, the lunatic fringe of religious zealots. The ex-Head Science teacher at Emmanuel College said

“Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm . . . is explicitly mentioned . . . we must give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data”:

That is not from the fundamentalists of the southern USA, but from Gateshead, UK.


The Blairs’ fascination with pendulum wavers, crystals and other new age nonsense is well known. When their elders set examples like that, is it any surprise that over 30% of students in the UK now say they believe in creationism and “intelligent design”? As Steve Jones has pointed out so trenchantly, this makes it hard to teach them science at all. Welcome back, Cardinal Bellarmine.

Homeopaths and herbalists may be anti-science but they are not nearly as worrying as the university vice-chancellors who try to justify the giving of bachelor of science degrees in subjects that are anti-science to their core. How, one may well ask, have universities got into the embarrassing position of having to answer questions like that?

Here are a couple of examples of how. The University of Bedfordshire (in its previous incarnation as the University of Luton) accredited a Foundation Degree course in ‘nutritional therapy’, at`the Institute of Optimum Nutrition (IoN). The give-away is the term Nutritional Therapy . They are the folks who claim, with next to no evidence, that changing your diet, and buying from them a lot of expensive ‘supplements’, will cure almost any disease (even AIDS and cancer).


The IoN is run by Patrick Holford, whose only qualification in nutrition is a diploma awarded to himself by his own Institute. His advocacy of vitamin C as better than conventional drugs to treat AIDS is truly scary. His pretensions have been analysed effectively by Ben Goldacre, and by Holfordwatch.. See the toe-curling details on badscience.net .

The documents that relate to this accreditation are mind-boggling. One of the recommended books for the course, on “Energy Medicine” (a subject that is pure fantasy) has been reviewed thus.

“This book masquerades as science, but it amounts to little more than speculation and polemic in support of a preconceived belief.”.


The report of Luton’s Teaching Quality and Enhancement Committee (May 24th 2004) looks terribly official, with at least three “quality assurance” people in attendance. But the minutes show that they discussed almost everything about the course apart from the one thing that really matters, the truth of what was being taught. The accreditation was granted. It’s true that the QAA criticised Luton for this, but only because they failed to tick a box, not because of the content of the course.

The University of Central Lancashire ‘s justification for its BSc in Homeopathic Medicine consists of 49 pages of what the late, great Ted Wragg might have called “world-class meaningless bollocks”. All the buzzwords are there “multi-disciplinary delivery”, “formative and summative assessment”, log books and schedules. But not a single word about the fact that the course is devoted to a totally discredited early 19th century view of medicine. Not a single word about truth and falsehood. Has it become politically incorrect to ask questions like that? The box-ticking mentality is just another manifestation of the endarkenment thought. If you tick a box to say that you are fully-qualifed at laying-on-of-hands, that is good enough. You have done the course, and it is irrelevant whether the course teaches rubbish.

These examples, and many like them, result, I believe from the bureaucratisation and corporatisation of science and education. Power has gradually ebbed away from the people who do the research and teaching, and become centralised in the hands of people who do neither.

The sad thing is that the intentions are good. Taxpayers have every right to expect that their money is well spent, and students have every right to expect that a university will teach them well. How, then, have we ended up with attempts to deliver these things that do more harm than good?

One reason is that the bureaucrats who impose these schemes have no interest in data. They don’t do randomised tests, or even run pilot schemes, on their educational or management theories because, like and old-fashioned clinician, they just know they are right. Enormous harm has been done to science by valuing quantity over quality, short-termism over originality and, at the extremes, fraud over honesty. Spoofs about the pretentiousness and dishonesty of some science, like that published in The New York Times last year, are too close to the truth to be very funny now.

Science, left to itself, and run by scientists, has created much of the world we live in. It has self-correcting mechanisms built in, so that mistakes, and the occasional bit of fraud, are soon eliminated. Corporatisation has meant that, increasingly, you are not responsible to your conscience, just to your line manager. The result of this, I fear, is a decrease in honesty, and in the long run inevitably a decrease in quality and originality too.

If all we had to worry about was a few potty homeopaths and astrologers, it might be better to shrug, and get on with trying to find some truths about the world. But now the endarkenment extends to parliament, universities and schools, it is far too dangerous to ignore.

Jump to follow-up

Peter A. Lawrence of the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge has written a beautifully argued article, The Mismeasurement of Science. It appeared in Current Biology, August 7, 2007: 17 (15), r583. [Download pdf]

It should be read by every scientist. Even more importantly, it should be read by every vice chancellor and university president, by every HR person and by every one of the legion of inactive scientists who, increasingly, tell active scientists what to do.

Here are some quotations.

“The use of both the H-index and impact factors to evaluate scientists has increased unethical behaviour: it rewards those who gatecrash their names on to author lists. This is very common, even standard, with many people authoring papers whose contents they are largely a stranger to.”

  “. . . trying to meet the measures involves changing research strategy: risks should not be taken . . .”

  “. . . hype your work, slice the findings up as much as possible (four papers good, two papers bad), compress the results (most top journals have little space, a typical Nature letter now has the density of a black hole), simplify your conclusions but complexify the material (more difficult for reviewers to fault it!), . . . .it has become profitable to ignore or hide results that do not fit with the story being sold — a mix of evidence tends to make a paper look messy and lower its appeal.”

“These measures are pushing people into having larger groups. It is a simple matter of arithmetic. Since the group leader authors all the papers, the more people, the more papers. If a larger proportion of young scientists in a larger group fail, as I suspect, this is not recorded. And because no account is taken of wasted lives and broken dreams, these failures do not make a group leader look less productive.”

“It is time to help the pendulum of power swing back to favour the person who actually works at the bench and tries to discover things.”

The position of women

Lawrence argues eloquently a point that I too have been advocating for years. It is well known that, in spite of an increased proportion of women entering biomedical research as students, there has been little, if any, increase in the representation of women at the top. This causes much hand-wringing among university bureaucrats, who fail to notice that one reason for it is the very policies that they themselves advocate. Women, I suspect, are less willing to embrace the semi-dishonest means that are needed to advance in science. As Lawrence puts it

“Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them [17]. Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”

The success of the LMB

It is interesting that Peter Lawrence is associated with the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, one of the most successful labs of all time. In an account of the life of Max Perutz, Danielle Rhodes said this.

“As evidenced by the success of the LMB, Max had the knack of picking extraordinary talent. But he also had the vision of creating a working environment where talented people were left alone to pursue their ideas. This philosophy lives on in the LMB and has been adopted by other research institutes as well. Max insisted that young scientists should be given full responsibility and credit for their work. There was to be no hierarchy, and everybody from the kitchen ladies to the director were on first-name terms. The groups were and still are small, and senior scientists work at the bench. Although I never worked with Max directly, I had the great privilege of sharing a laboratory with him for many years. The slight irritation of forever being taken to be his secretary when answering the telephone—the fate of females—was amply repaid by being able to watch him work and to talk with him. He would come into the laboratory in the morning, put on his lab-coat and proceed to do his experiments. He did everything himself, from making up solutions, to using the spectrophotometer and growing crystals. Max led by example and carried out his own experiments well into his 80s.”

Max Perutz himself, in a history of the LMB said

“Experience had taught me that laboratories often fail because their scientists never talk to each other. To stimulate the exchange of ideas, we built a canteen where people can chat at morning coffee, lunch and tea. It was managed for over twenty years by my wife, Gisela, who saw to it that the food was good and that it was a place where people would make friends. Scientific instruments were to be shared, rather than being jealously guarded as people’s private property; this saved money and also forced people to talk to each other. When funds ran short during the building of the lab, I suggested that money could be saved by leaving all doors without locks to symbolise the absence of secrets.”

That is how to get good science.

Now download a copy of Lawrence’s paper and send it to every bureaucrat in your university.


Follow up

  • The Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 Aug 2007. had a feature on this paper. Read it here if you have a subscription, or download a copy.
  • In the same issue, Denis Noble and Sir Philip Cohen emphasise the importance of basic research. Cohen says

    “In 1994, after 25 years in the relative research wilderness, the whole thing changed.

    “Suddenly I was the best thing since sliced bread,” Sir Philip said. “We set up the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, which is the largest-ever collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry and academia in the UK.”

    But the present research funding culture could prevent similar discoveries. “In today’s climate that research would not have been funded,” Sir Philip said. “The space programme hasn’t allowed us to colonise the universe, but it has given us the internet – a big payoff that industry could never have envisaged.” (Download a copy.)

  • Comments from Pennsylvania at http://other95.blogspot.com
  • How to slow down science. Another reference to Lawrence’s paper from a US (but otherwise anonymous) blog, BayBlab.

How to select candidates

I have, at various times, been asked how I would select candidates for a job, if not by counting papers and impact factors. This is a slightly modified version of a comment that I left on a blog, which describes roughly what I’d advocate

After a pilot study the entire Research Excellence Framework (which attempts to assess the quality of research in every UK university) made the following statement.

“No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs”

It seems that the REF is paying attention to the science not to bibliometricians.

It has been the practice at UCL to ask people to nominate their best papers (2 -4 papers depending on age). We then read the papers and asked candidates hard questions about them (not least about the methods section). It’s a method that I learned a long time ago from Stephen Heinemann, a senior scientist at the Salk Institute. It’s often been surprising to learn how little some candidates know about the contents of papers which they themselves select as their best. One aim of this is to find out how much the candidate understands the principles of what they are doing, as opposed to following a recipe.

Of course we also seek the opinions of people who know the work, and preferably know the person. Written references have suffered so much from ‘grade inflation’ that they are often worthless, but a talk on the telephone to someone that knows both the work, and the candidate, can be useful, That, however, is now banned by HR who seem to feel that any knowledge of the candidate’s ability would lead to bias.

It is not true that use of metrics is universal and thank heavens for that. There are alternatives and we use them.

Incidentally, the reason that I have described the Queen Mary procedures as insane, brainless and dimwitted is because their aim to increase their ratings is likely to be frustrated. No person in their right mind would want to work for a place that treats its employees like that, if they had any other option. And it is very odd that their attempt to improve their REF rating uses criteria that have been explicitly ruled out by the REF. You can’t get more brainless than that.

This discussion has been interesting to me, if only because it shows how little bibliometricians understand how to get good science.

That is the title of a paper in the BMJ (11 August 2007, 335, 304) by Anisur Rahman (reader in rheumatology, University College London). He points out the strong disincentives to collaborative work that now exist. One disincentive is the enormous amounts of documentation that is now needed for any sort of clinical research. Another disincentive lies in the daft assessment methods that are becoming fashionable, because they give you very little credit for being one among many authors.

“it could be argued that clinical academics who wish to thrive should avoid taking part in such collaborations—unless they are a lead author”.

Download Rahman’s paper

Contradictions and stress

This paper highlights one of the things that makes academic life so stressful. We are constantly getting contradictory instructions, often from the same department (usually HR). Here are a few to start with.

  • You must produce at least three world-shattering results per year, and everyone must all publish them in the same half-dozen journals. And you must do lots of teaching. And you must fill in all the forms sent to you by HR to say how long you spend on research (but not the hours please, just the percentage). Then the next letter says you must take your full holidays and work a 38 hour week for your work-life balance.
  • We must have no bias against the appointment of women. But remember that the rules of the game make it almost impossible for a woman to get to the top in science if she wants to have children too.
  • You must do lots of collaborative and interdisciplinary work (because that is the buzzword of the moment for the failed postdocs who staff the research councils and journals. Oh, and remember that you must not submit for RAE purposes
    any paper that bears the name of a colleague with whom you collaborate.
  • You must employ only the most brilliant postdocs, but don’t be too assiduous about assessing their ability because that might cause bias. And, by the way, remember that it is essentially impossible to get rid of anyone, however incompetent.
  • In order to ensure a big grant income (to be used in assessing promotion), you must employ lots of postdocs. That ensures you won’t have time to check too carefully what they do, much less do anything original yourself.
  • You must have lots of collegiate spirit, and be able to recite by heart that excruciatingly embarrassing mission statement (oh, and by the way, your department has just been abolished).

Homeopathy doesn’t poison your body, it poisons your mind

Often that is true. Not always though. Homeopathy is worse than just a cultural poison if you die of malaria as a result of advice from a homeopath.

The Newsnight TV programme exposed the fact that many UK homeopaths advise homeopathic pills for prevention of malaria. This strikes me as nothing short of criminal, and it was condemned roundly by more responsible homeopaths like Peter Fisher.

Bur a correspondent has pointed out that there are even more dangerous fantasies around. Direct claims to cure malaria with homeopathic ‘funny water’. [See postscript for some of the US rules.]

He spotted an entry in Facebook that is nothing more than an advertisement for a book, by a Kate Birch.

Kate Birch and malaria treatment

The book being advertised is called Vaccine Free – Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Contagious Diseases with homeopathy. This prompted my correspondent to write to Kate Birch, thus.

3 August 2007

Kate

I am planning to work in Nigeria (rather I’m returning to work in Nigeria). I am not keen on subjecting myself once again to anti malarial drugs. I have looked at your facebook page and I am curious as to what Homeopathic remedy would be suitable for Nigeria.
I know that Dr Peter Fisher of the University College Homeopathic Hospital states that Homeopathy is not suitable for prevention or treatment of Malaria. You obviously disagree, and I would like to follow your approach.
Can you advise me please.

He got a long reply to this query (reproduced without copy-editing). The emphasis is mine.

“Thank you for your inquiry. There is a complete chapter on malaria in my book. and Homeopathy is more effective that any western medication.There is a protocol to follow. I have attached it below. however if you need more information I would recommend the book as it goes ointo more detail on the specific remedies and also deals with Yellow fever, dengue, hep A, typhoid etc. just in case. a small remedy kit can get you very far with many of these conditions. check out Washington homeopathics for their travel kits or 50 C potency kit. just watch that the remedies don’t go through the x-ray at the airport or sustain too much heat. both will ruin the remedies. Not only can you help your self but once you get used to understanding the remedies you can help many people.There is a clininc in Tanzania that treats 35,000 people a year with homeopathy. most of their caes are malaria and they have tremendous success rate. get the book and tell your doctor that his information is incomplete.Good luck,

Happy travels,
Kate

What? “Homeopathy is more effective that any western medication”? There isn’t of course the slightest bit of reason to believe that sugar pills cure malaria. There follows a long quotation from her book. It is, of course, all fantasy, so I won’t reproduce it. But to give you a feel for the style, just try this bit of high grade new-age boloney from her publisher’s web site.

“Miasmatic influences can accumulate in an individual or in select populations based on their exposure to pathological agents and the ability of the individual to develop immunity. There is a pre-miasmatic state that exists prior to incarnation. It is described as a state of bliss and connection to the universe.”

Who is it who is giving this dangerous and irresponsible advice? Kate Birch is not a back-street quack. ” Since 1990 Kate has over 1900 hours in homeopathic and clinical education”. She is vice president of the North American Society of Homeopaths (NASH). The mind boggles.

Legal and ethical stuff

The North American Society of Homeopaths (NASH) has a code of ethics. It includes this.

“3.01 Where the homeopath considers that the treatment is beyond his/her capacity or skill, the patient with the homeopath’s consent shall refer to or consult with a homeopathic colleague or appropriate health care practitioner.”

and their Standards of Practice Guidelines say

“Do not claim that you can treat any disease, condition or ailment or imply that you can do so.

Be extremely careful when speaking or writing about the treatment of particular diseases or conditions (and never offer or claim to help anybody). “

If you consider that Ms Birch is “acting beyond her capacity” in recommending treatment for malaria, contact NASH at NashInfo@homeopathy.org

The UK Society of Homeopaths made the following statement, after the Newsnight TV programme.

The Society of Homeopaths, the UK’s largest register of professional homeopaths, acknowledges that malaria is a serious and life-threatening condition and that there is currently no peer reviewed research to support the use of homeopathy as an anti-malarial treatment.

The North American Society seems to take a very different view.

The American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists (AAHP) says

“Remember, although homeopathy has been shown to treat symptoms of infectious and epidemic diseases, Federal law prohibits the sale of products for these symptoms as OTC products. Accordingly, the AAHP makes clear its position that websites and marketers selling homeopathic medicines as OTC products for epidemic and infectious diseases may be in violation of Federal law.”

Question for US readers. Does this mean Ms Birch is breaking the law?

Kate Birch replies

Soon after posting this, I got this email from Kate Birch, vice president of the North American Society of Homeopaths. She has also posted a comment below.

Believe it or not, I don’t really like the ad hominem stuff at all.
But there are limits, and one limit is when people are given advice that is likely to kill them.

Thanks for all the publicity. I hope books sales will go through the roof now seeing as every homeopath around the world is following what you are up to. We know what we are doing even if you don’t understand it. You must be really bored, preoccupied, or need attention in order to spend your time instigating controversy, hype, and slander.What you resist will persist.
Kate Birch

PS I didn’t appreciate being set up for your antics. And it is a good thing you didn’t post the excerpt from my book or you would be liable for copy write infringement. And FYI the letter you posted (as below) isn’t the letter I received. The doctor was never named in the letter I received. You could be liable for fraud too as this is not the letter I responded to. Therefore my comments were taken out of context and made to look like I was disagreeing with Dr Peter Fisher. “I know that Dr Peter Fisher of the University College Homeopathic Hospital states that Homeopathy is not suitable for prevention or treatment of Malaria. You obviously disagree,” This sentence was not in the original letter and has been added in your blog to inflame the situation. get your facts strait before you go making such accusations.

I’m trying to establish exactly what letter was sent to her (it wasn’t sent by me), but it really hardly matters whether the sentence about Dr Fisher was in it or not.Yes, I presume the original letter was designed to elicit Ms Birch’s opinions about the treatment of malaria. And it did. “There is a complete chapter on malaria in my book. and Homeopathy is more effective that any western medication“.Here is part of my reply.

Peter Fisher, as I imagine you know, is clinical director of the Royal London Homeooathic Hospital (which will probably close soon), and homeopathic physician to the Queen (our royal family, I fear, is better at pageantry than intellect). On the occasion when it was revealed that London homeopaths were recommending homeopathic pills for prevention (not even cure) of malaria, Fisher’s words were

“I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.”

You can read this on the BBC report.

At least it seems that there is very radical disagreement between one homeopath and another.

Now let’s get back to the clinic in Tanzania that has achieved such miracles?

Sham cures in Africa

Use Google to search for ‘homeopathic malaria Tanzania’ and you will get an astonishing number of direct claims to cure malaria with sugar pills. Claims are all you will get though, no evidence that any of them work.

For example, The Abha Light College in Nairobi, Kenya, refers to a report about homeopathic malaria prevention in 152 Tanzanian patients. This “study” had no control group with which to compare the effects of homeopathic neem leaves, and comments “Considering the exploratory nature of the study, no statistical significance testing was planned”.

It is not worth the paper it’s written on.

The same “study” is cited by the Global Resource Alliance, Inc., based in California. This seems to be a well-meaning organisation which, through its devotion to quackery, is helping to spread malaria in Africa.

Demal 200

A company called giftofafrica says of its homeopathic malaria treatment.

“Demal 200 is highly effective in treating all types of Malaria even the strains that have developed a resistance to chemical based drugs.”

This direct claim of effectiveness is mind-bogglingly irresponsible.

This “remedy” contains nothing whatsoever apart from 15% alcohol, It is a 200C homeopathic preparation. That is a dilution if 1 part in 10 to the power 400. There would not be a single molecule in a volume vastly larger than that of all the water on the earth (a mere 13 times 10 to the power 21 litres).

There is, of course, the usual small print at the bottom of the page, that contradicts the claims in large print.

*Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease. Any form of self-treatment or alternative health program necessarily must involve an individual’s acceptance of some risk. It is advised that you consult your doctor before making any health decision. Demal 200 is primarily sold as a malaria treatment, it’s prophylactic qualities are secondary to it’s intended use which is to treat chronic or acute malaria.

. . .

Because Demal 200 has not yet been conclusively scientifically tested, it is not licensed for medical use in European Union; North America and Australasia. Please note: The staff of Shoponlion Ltd and their families have successfully used Demal 200 as a prophylactic but are not in a position to guarantee the efficacy of this medicine.

The company selling this stuff is based in Wolverhampton, UK. It costs £31.99 (or $56.40) for 30 ml of 15% alcohol. That is an £1066 per litre: expensive way to get drunk (which is all this stuff will do for you).

Unbelievable.

Of course no evidence at all is offered that it works. Just the usual list of testimonials from people who didn’t happen to get malaria.

If you like anecdotes, you can read here the stories of some people who were less lucky.

Postscript

“Quackery hinders AIDS treatment efforts” is the title of an article in Science in Africa.

And let’s not forget the efforts of Patrick Holford for health in Africa.

FDA rules about homeopathy

The FDA’s rules include the following statement.

7. Health Fraud: The deceptive promotion, advertisement, distribution or sale of articles, intended for human or animal use, that are represented as being effective to diagnose, prevent, cure, treat, or mitigate disease (or other conditions), or provide a beneficial effect on health, but which have not been scientifically proven safe and effective for such purposes. Such practices may be deliberate, or done without adequate knowledge or understanding of the article.*

Federal Trade Commission

The FTC is running Operation Cure All. This encourages reporting of health scams

Unfortunately, consumers spend millions of dollars every year on unproven – and often useless – health products and services. Health fraud trades on false hope. It promises quick cures for dozens of medical conditions – from arthritis and obesity to osteoporosis, cancer and AIDS.
. . .
The Federal Trade Commission is targeting false and unsubstantiated health claims on the Internet through Operation Cure.All – a law enforcement and consumer education campaign.

.

For once, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has done a good job. Legal loopholes prevent them from doing much about fraudulent advertisements for homeopathy, but they have upheld complaints about the Body Detox Clinic in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The ASA

“. . .considered that, because the substantiation supplied was anecdotal in nature, it was not robust enough to support the implication that colonic irrigation could relieve the symptoms of: diarrhoea; bloating; haemorrhoids; I.B.S.; colitis; flatulence; bad breath; body odour; headaches; fatigue; M.E.; eczema; psoriasis; dandruff; acne; joint pain; P.M.T; and water retention. Because of that, we concluded that the ad breached the Code.”

“Detoxification” is, of course a bit of meaningless mumbo jumbo that is widely used in the healhfraud industry (see, for example, here and here).

If the ASA can do this, why do they do nothing at all about the mountain of mendacious advertisements for “supplements”and  cosmetics?

Channel 4 TV, Monday 13 August, 8.00 pm in the UK

The Enemies of Reason: new age therapies cause ‘retreat from reason’

The Sunday Telegraph (5 August 2007) gave a bit of advance publicity for “The Enemies of Reason”.

Prof Dawkins says that alternative remedies constitute little more than a “money-spinning, multi-million pound industry that impoverishes our culture and throws up new age gurus who exhort us to run away from reality”.

The first episode can be seen at http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=8669488783707640763


.

An entire issue of the journal Homeopathy has been devoted to speculations about the memory of water.

The link to this issue is http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/14754916 , but sadly you can’t read the papers without a subscription to the journal (and believe me, they aren’t worth paying much for). With luck, Ben Goldacre will be able to post the full text at badscience.net.

The first paper, The Memory of Water: a scientific heresy?, is by Peter Fisher, the editor of the journal. Peter Fisher, Homeopathic physician to the Queen, is a person whose name appears often in the original IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page, is not at unreasonable man, by the standards of homeopaths. He condemned roundly the recommendation by less-educated homeopaths of homeopathic pills for prevention of malaria. And he did agree with me that homeopathy had not got sufficient scientific basis to justify a BSc degree.

Peter Fisher’s introduction to the issue admits quite frankly that there is no strong evidence for water having memory of the sort that would be needed to explain the claims of homeopaths. There is nothing that explains the bizarre proposition that the medicine gets stronger the more you dilute it. There is nothing that explains the equally bizarre proposition that the water ‘remembers’ only the ingredient that you add, but conveniently forgets the countless other substances that it has encountered in the oceans and the bodies of the vast numbers of animals and plants through which it has passed.

Fisher is also sufficiently honest to include in his special issue a contribution “Can water possibly have a memory? A sceptical view“, written by José Teixeira (a physicist from the European Neutron scattering lab -see some of his publications).

Conclusion

To summarize this short overview, one can say that water is a ‘complex’ liquid with many fascinating, sometimes unique aspects. Except for some academic aspects concerning supercooled water, the structure of the liquid is well known. In particular, it is certain that:

(a) There are no water clusters in pure liquid water, but only density fluctuations.

(b) The longest life of any structure observed in liquid water is of the order of 1 ps [one millionth of a millionth of a second]

This is why any interpretation calling for ‘memory’.effects in pure water must be totally excluded.

The special issue on the memory of water takes us no further. After 200 years, there is still no good evidence.

The UK government, and UK vice chancellors, are exerting a lot of pressure to increase industrial funding in Universities. So far they haven’t listened at all to suggestions that research and commerce don’t mix well. It is asking too much of human nature to think that judgment about an experiment will not be influenced if you have a financial interest in one outcome rather than another. That is why the best researchers (at least in the biomedical field) avoid industry funding whenever possible: they want their results to be seen as independent.

It is well documented now that clinical trials tend to be distorted when they are funded by the pharmaceutical industry. See, for example, Lexchin, Bero et al,. in the British Medical Journal (2003), and Brennan et al. (2006) in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the excellent book. The Truth About the Drug Companies, by Marcia Angell.

Brennan’s proposals for reducing this influence were well received on the whole, though they were opposed by a Dr K.J. Meador of Florida. But them Dr Meador’s letter ended with “Financial Disclosures: Dr Meador reported receiving grants from GlaxoSmithKline, Neuropace, SAM Technology, UCB, and the NIH; acting as a consultant to Abbott, Cyberonics, Eisai, GlaxoSmithKline, Neuropace, Novartis, Ortho McNeil, and UCB; obtaining honoraria from GlaxoSmithKline, Ortho McNeil, and UCB; and receiving salary from clinical electrophysiology, patient care, and an endowed chair at the University of Florida.”. Well, there’s a surprise.

It seems that this has dawned on the University of California. Their central administration, according to a report in Nature magazine (July 2007), has attempted to restrict the way the pharmaceutical industry buy favour in academia. The Nature editorial ends thus,

“. . . the latest policy tries to put the brakes on a trend towards heavier reliance on private funding that this fiscal squeeze has unleashed. The university’s campuses are understandably concerned about their ability to attract funding from all sources so that they can continue to operate at world-class levels. The best course available to them, nonetheless, is to follow the high standards that have recently been set at other academic medical centres, such as those at Stanford University, and to embrace the proposed policy. ”

Quite. It seems that the UK government and UK vice chancellors are going flat out for a policy that is already out of favour at Stanford. They are one step behind again. But then neither are Stanford, Yale and Harvard heading quite so enthusiastically down a path that takes power out of the hands of those who teach and do research.

Of course, Yale still has a Department of Pharmacology. Which is more than UCL has.


Postscript. There is nothing that the quackery industry likes to talk about more than the evils of Big Pharma. What they should remember is that the quackery industry is not only rich, but it is almost 100% fraud. Big Pharma may behave badly at times, but, with on the basis of pure research done largely in universities, they are also the folks who brought you general anaesthetics, antibiotics and all manner of things that have improved and lengthened lives.


Follow up

  • There are some sensible comments about industry funding here. There are always problems, but in some areas they are perhaps not as big as in the biomedical business.

Jump to Times Higher Education coverage


This is a longer version of comments published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, June 1, 2007. This longer version has now been printed in full in Physiology News, 69, 12 – 14, 2007 [download the pdf version].

It has now been translated into Russian.

Download pdf version of this paper.

I should make it clear that the term ‘bean counter’ is not aimed at accountants (we need good honest accountants). Rather it is aimed at a small number of senior academics and HR people who do not understand how to assess people.

How to get good science

David Colquhoun, Department of Pharmacology, University College London (May 2007).
email me

The aim of this article is to consider how a university can achieve the best research and teaching, and the most efficient administration.

My aims, in other words, are exactly the same as every university vice-chancellor (president/rector/provost) in the country. Continue reading

When one thinks of the cult of managerialism, one name that comes to mind is Howard Newby. During his time at HEFCE, research funding became enormously concentrated, rather than being spent on good work wherever it occurred. But Newby is not a scientist, so I suppose he just doesn’t understand how it’s done. Some recent developments in his career seemed worth noting. I make no comment on the changes that left staff at the University of the West of England (UWE) so demoralised, because I don’t know enough about them.

In Nature (December 2001), Newby was quoted as saying

“The improvements in performance since the last RAE are a direct result of institutions managing their research strategically,”

Anybody who thinks that is totally out of touch with how science works. What actually happened, of course, is that universities learned out to fiddle their submissions better. It is just another example of Goodhart’s law.

But what about the following facts?

In the Guardian, Stephen Bates writes thus.

“Sir Howard Newby is continuing his progress through the groves of academe like a ballbearing in a pinball machine, with the announcement yesterday that he is to become the next vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, barely a year since he took up the same post at the University of the West of England [UWE] in Bristol. Sir Howard is gathering such titles – he was previously vice-chancellor at Southampton, before becoming chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and president of Uni versities UK.”

The Guardian in “Will the Newby broom sweep clean?” shows the quality if the argument.

“”Steven West, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor, who officially takes over
as acting vice-chancellor on September 1, said that the plans set in place by
Sir Howard would be taken forward and delivered.

“The strategy is right and many
other universities are now going down this road. That’s testimony to the fact
we have got it right,”

Everyone is doing it so it must be right? Ahem, just one problem there surely. Everyone is doing it, but nobody has bothered to try to discover if it has done any good, West’s argument is only too typical of the circular, and data-free, argument so beloved of the management-speak folks, It seems that fashion, rather than results, guide what happens in the world of management bollocks.

The Guardian continues

” . . . university officials said staff were consulted, academics
felt decisions had been made ahead of any conclusions, particularly regarding
the reconfiguring of faculties and a controversial new policy on intellectual
property.”

Uhuh. Decisions made before the consultation? Sounds familiar?

But it gets worse,

“The use of management consultancy firms linked to both Sir Howard and his wife, assistant vice-chancellor Lady Sheila Newby, also caused concern.

“They were private companies with no idea about university or academe telling us how to do things and what to do. People got upset because he was running the university life a little fiefdom and giving very big contracts to his mates,”

said one academic, who preferred not to be named.”

And. from Wikipedia, we learn this.

“He was appointed as the vice chancellor of the University of the West of England , starting in March 2006. In May 2007 Private Eye (Eye 1185) reported that Sir Howard has used his position at the University to secure a highly paid job for his wife and to contract services to a company, Carter and Carter, of which Sir Howard is a non-executive director.
Following these revelations it was announced in July 2007 that he will be taking up the post of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool from September 2008. “

The Bristol Blogger puts it rather more bluntly.

“UWE Vice-Chancellor Sir Howard Newby is quitting the university, less than two years in to the job, after becoming embroiled in a major conflict of interest scandal between the university and his private education business Carter and Carter. The episode is said to have caused “disquiet” among many on the university’s governing body.”

“Serious concerns were raised about Newby when it was revealed recently he had concluded a deal on UWE’s behalf with a private sector training company, Carter and Carter. Newby, however is a director of the company and was therefore effectively awarding himself a lucrative public sector contract! Questions have also been asked about his relationship to the university’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Her name is Lady Sheila Newby!”

“As for Newby’s big idea to turn UWE into a piece of jargon called a “knowledge exchange” that lies well and truly in tatters. The only exchange that’s gone on at UWE recently seems to be public cash into Newby’s private hands.”

Well, at least the UWE’s “knowledge exchange” doesn’t extend to promoting anti-scientific quackery. But it seems that they may be working on that omission.

More on Newby can be found at Eco-Logic, from someone with first hand experience.