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Congratulations to the vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, Michael Harloe.

Times Higher Education announced on 15th January 2009 Salford to shut complementary medicine BSc.

“The University of Salford is to stop offering undergraduate degrees in acupuncture and complementary medicine because they are no longer considered “a sound academic fit”.”

This is the first time that a University has decided to stop teaching quackery altogether.  The university’s press officer told me (22 January 2009)

“all the University’s programmes associated with complementary medicine within the School of Community, Health Sciences & Social Care will be run out. This includes the Homeopathy in Practice programme. “
Salford, before it became a university, was home to the great L.S. Lowry


Salford’s Peel building, where L.S.Lowry worked

“Managers concluded last year that the BSc traditional Chinese medicine and other degrees with a complementary medicine element “cannot really be held to be a good fit with the strategic direction of the school, and resource and energy would be better directed elsewhere”.

There are more than 70 students registered on the Chinese medicine degree course.

The university will continue to offer these subjects at postgraduate level, as short courses and as part of continuing professional development programmes.  Traditional Chinese medicine work will also be linked to the university’s allied
health professions courses.”

Another report appeared in the Manchester Evening News: “Needle over acupuncture course”. “A UNIVERSITY has scrapped a course in acupuncture and aromatherapy branded `anti-science’ by critics.

Salford University said the three-year degree in traditional Chinese medicine didn’t fit with the `strategic direction’ bosses want to adopt.

The move is part of wider cuts which will see 150 teaching and support staff jobs axed.”

One of their students raised the question that the university must dread.

“First-year student Gary Leese, who is organising a petition, said: “Why did the university launch the course if they didn’t think it was good enough?”

The comments left by the readers of the Manchester Evening News were mostly very sensible. The first to come in, from someone with the beautifully Lancastrian name, Gladys Rowbotham, said “Some common sense at last!”.

A brief report appeared also in the Manchester Confidential

Why now?

This is rather an interesting development.  On 19th April 2007, I sent a Freedom of Information request to Salford to ask for course validation documents for their courses in Homeopathy and in Traditional Chinese Medicine.  I also asked for course materials for specified courses.  This request was even less successful than usual.  Not only were the course materials refused (as they always are), but, unusually, the validation documents were refused too.  The excuse for this was more pathetic than usual too.  They claimed it would cost more than £450 to email a few documents and powerpoints, and claimed exemption under Section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act, “Information Reasonably Accessible to the Applicant by Other Means”, rather than the more usual excuse (Section 43, “Commercial interests”).
It was never explained what “other means” were meant to be available. Perhaps they thought I should pay £3000 in fees and enrol for the course?

On 6th April 2007, Times Higher Education (THE) ran an opinion piece “Credible endeavour or pseudoscience?“.  In this, I wrote, as follows.

“Clearly the buck stops with university vice-chancellors who award the degrees. Two weeks ago, after the publication of my opinion article and a special report on university homoeopathy courses in the journal Nature , the BBC tried to get one of the vice-chancellors to defend themselves. They did not succeed. Letters to vice-chancellors on this go unanswered. Requests to see course materials have repeatedly been refused. The QAA is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Teaching materials and the names of examiners are kept secret. This I find incomprehensible and indefensible.”

After this appeared, I was sent by the University of Salford a copy of Michael Harloe’s defence of their position at that time, as sent to THE. It relied heavily on validation by the Quality Assurance Agency.  But the QAA is merely a box-ticking organisation that would give top marks to a course in astrology, given a sufficient mound of paperwork, as I pointed out in Nature, “Their own rules prevent them from doing anything useful”.

The statement also said that the courses teach critical thinking about alternative medicine. But it has been pointed out over and over again that what alternative medicine advocates lack, above anything else, is any faculty of critical self-appraisal.

One has to have some sympathy with a vice chancellor who is put on the spot and forced to defend courses in which he probably does not really believe himself. Perhaps it is not surprising that letters so often go unanswered. What can they say?  There really is no answer that doesn’t leave the hapless VC with egg on his face.

If there is one lesson from this, it is not to be discouraged if you get no answer from a vice-chancellor. It has probably been read and may well get acted on eventually.   Shutting down a course is no easy matter.  It takes time.

I said the buck stops with the vice chancellor. Professor Harloe has grasped the nettle and done the right thing.  Let’s hope a few more now follow his excellent lead..

What does this mean for the Pittilo report?

The gamma-minus Pittilo report (see also. The Times) recommended more degrees in alternative medicine, but there seems to be something of a trend developing in exactly the opposite direction.

The University of Central Lancashire has closed the first year entry to its “BSc”  in Homeopathy, and announced a review of all its activities in the area of alternative medicine. Now we have Salford.  There are stirrings among the good scientists even at the University of Westminster which has a new Dean and VC.

This rather absurd situation has arisen because of the adamant refusal of the government, and of a dozen or more quangos, to grasp the nettle of whether or not the alternative treatments work. Time and time again, the one important question that you want to know about any sort of treatment, namely, is it effective, has been pushed under the carpet.

The sort of absurd political correctness that leads to the fraudulent conjurers known as ‘psychic surgeons’ being referred to as a “profession” by the Department of Health has obscured reality. Even the MHRA was persuaded to allow misleading labelling of homeopathic and herbal “remedies”. thus betraying its job.  In its own words “The MHRA is the government agency that is responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices work, . . .”.

There is a lesson here.  You can’t go on avoiding reality for ever.  One consolation is that, in the end, it is the universities who are leading the way, albeit slowly.

All we need now is for the Department of Health, the MHRA and the endless box-ticking quangos to wake up too.

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20 Responses to University of Salford abandons “complementary” medicine

  • Great post as always, DC.

    It’s so important to cut off any legitimacy to quackademics – it breeds the kind of skewed thinking which encourages zealots to try and cure AIDS with homeopathy. At the same time, the anti-medicine ideology that quacks have no only treats fatal diseases with sugar pills, they encourage removal of effective medicine!

    T

  • 1 down, 4 to go…

  • This is certainly good news, but it is not quite true that Salford have decided to stop teaching quackery altogether. As the press release explains further down, the university will continue to offer these subjects at postgraduate level. So it’s one-nil but not yet the final whistle.

    I am also concerned about the UCU position on this. The THES quoted local branch president John Dobson as saying “It’s tragic that they are closing down a profitable course for spurious reasons related to it not having a social-science methodology.” This grossly understates the problems with complementary medicine degrees, of course, but it does suggest there will be problems ahead if Salford tries to justify the closure on largely financial grounds, as part of its larger package of cuts. Of course, UCU should defend members’ jobs. If this were any other kind of course, and a University wanted to close it because it didn’t fit with their “strategic vision” or somesuch weasel words, we would all be taking to the barricades (I speak as an active UCU member at my own Uni).

    Salford has to be very clear about WHY complementary medicine doesn’t fit, and UCU will have to be careful what grounds it uses to dispute the closure. How many people would take to the picket lines on behalf of quacks and charlatans?

  • Splendid news. I am a bit less worried about them doing postgrad short courses. It was the “Bachelor Degree in Anti-Science Bullshit” aspect that really stuck in the craw. The hope, I guess, is that people with a grounding in facts / evidence / reality should then have the tools to distinguish reality from unreality if they meet unreality at post-grad levels.

    The comments from the UCU rep are predictable but a bit ill-judged. I guess Salford could have simply re-badged the degrees as BAs. It will be interesting to see what formal line Salford ultimately come up with to justify the closure. What is clear is that they would have been better off (academically at least) never having started the idiotic degrees in the first place.

  • Yes, very sad to see UCU defending the indefensible. I guess that’s why I haven’t been a member for many years.

    It still, even now, isn’t totally clear exactly what will not be closed down. Hoping to find that soon.

    Of course it’s true they should never have started them in the first place, but I can understand it isn’t easy to close them down once going, so all credit to Salford.

  • Glad to see the world is getting a little less crazy. How long before they start to phase out Theology too?

  • Good news re Salford and I live in hope UCLan will follow suit. Thinking of the postgrad stuff that is still out there – I won’t speak for other groups but unfortunately there is not a lot of evidence that all the GPs out there seem to seem have the necessary tools Dr Aust refers to in order to distinguish between reality and unreality.

    The BMJ regularly runs ads for various CAM courses and presumably the various orgs (BMAS etc) are picking up enough trade to justify the expense.

  • Does this mean we’re winning?

    And by “we”, I mean “you”, of course.

  • Northerndoctor. You are dead right, i fear, about the BMA, the RCGP, RSM etc. In stark contrast to the scientific organisations, they have been disgracefully reluctant to take any firm stand. I hope their members will keep up the pressure.

  • Professor Colquhoun is to be applauded for his sterling work in persuading British Universities not to introduce undergraduate courses in pseudoscience. However, a glance at the list of departments at his institute shows that the Anna Freud Centre (AFC) features as part of UCL. Not only does this Department have a UCL chair associated with it (Freud Memorial Chair of Psychoanalysis) but it also confers postgraduate Science degrees (eg. MSc in Psycho-dynamic Developmental Neuroscience). This course in advanced Psycho-Analytical techniques apparently entails classes on “Developmental Psychology and Neuroscience Methods” which are “compulsory to attend but are not currently assessed”.
    My advice to budding and established complementary therapists and homeopaths who want to get a very significant toehold in one of our most prestigious Universities is to study the history of psycho-analysis very carefully for clues. A cursory glance at some of the literature on the AFC site gives some pointers… here’s an extract in which they comment on one of their studies on treating diabetic children with short term psychoanalysis. “This promising series of studies suffers from an absence of replication. The samples are small, the length of hospitalisation is not matched, with the psychotherapeutically-treated group having significantly longer admissions, and the absence of psychological measures of change leaves open the question of whether psychological or physical changes were responsible for the effects observed.” Get the idea? Substitute marigold paste for psycho-analysis and away you go. If your stats or experimental design aren’t up to much try

    “Making the case that outcome studies, especially the randomised controlled trials RCT design, do not deliver all the answers about the usefulness of a form of therapy, and that the current evidence-base across treatments has serious limitations, including its uneven coverage of different therapeutic approaches. (AFC website). Hey presto!

    Below are what some distinguished people had to say about Freud and psycho-analysis in the past 4 decades:

    “…..psycho-analytic theory is the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century…”. P.B. Medawar (1975).

    “Freud set psychiatry back one hundred years, consistently mis-diagnosed his patients, fraudulently misrepresented case histories…”. H.J. Eysenck, (1986).

    “..the idea that boys want to sleep with their mothers strikes most men as the silliest thing they have ever heard”, S. Pinker (1998).

    Oh and …..

    “I’m no expert on psychology but I do know that most of those that I meet would be happy to agree that Freudian psychoanalysis is junk pseudo-science.” Prof. D. Colquhoun (5 Sept 2008)

    Seems some dragons are easier to kill than others. My guess is that the best DC can hope for is that during the next re-organisation at UCL the AFC gets transferred from the Faculty of Life Sciences to the Faculty of Theology.

  • Thanks for that CrewsControl. I couldn’t agree more and I stick by my quotation.

    The chair in psycho-analysis was opposed tooth and nail by one of my predecessors, Donald Jenkinson, while he was head ot the erstwhile pharmacology department.

    At least they aren’t awarding BScs, but it should undoubtedly be on the list of unfinished business. Why not start writing letters to UCL’s provost about it?

  • The trouble with psycho-analysis is that it fails Poppers test and frustratingly explains everything and nothing simultaneously!
    Surely we shouldn’t give budding CAM practioners clues or toe holds into UC? We should give them positive lessons in logic and science.

  • David,
    Though it all took place a long time ago, and my memory is increasingly fallible, my recollection of the events mentioned in your comment of March 4th above is a bit different. I think that what may have happened is that one or more retellings of another fracas I got into has resulted in a new version of events – the ‘Chinese Whispers’ effect.
    I had no input on the establishment of the Chair held by the Freud Memorial Professor of Psychoanalysis (so far as I recall and I think I would still remember). But when I served on the UCL Medical Faculty’s Postgraduate Degrees Committee I did raise strong objections to the course content of a proposed MSc in Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies. It was entirely Freudian School and was to be taught and examined by individuals with that approach. It seemed to me that this was not in keeping with UCL’s eclectic traditions. What a hornet’s nest I had disturbed! Also present was UCL’s distinguished Freud Memorial Professor of Psychoanalysis who proceeded to point out to the Committee that the inclusion of the term psychoanalysis implied (to anyone informed) that the approach would follow the insights of Freud and his school. Other practitioners of psychotherapy based on the work of e.g Jung, Adler or the Humanist School could not use the term psychoanalysis.
    Though I argued on and on for the inclusion of other strands of thought on analysis and psychotherapy, I found myself in a minority of one and the course was duly approved. It still runs. Later on I was given to understand that my intervention had not been entirely fruitless as it had led to a closer scrutiny of how the course was to be examined.
    I agree fully with ‘CrewsControl’ that the proliferation of taught, non-laboratory MSc courses (often with high fees and therefore lucrative to their instigators) needs careful scrutiny.

  • Thanks to Donald Jenkinson for this correction to the history. That will teach me to write from memory without checking with him.

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