In March 2007 I wrote a piece in Nature on Science degrees without the science. At that time there were five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy. A couple of weeks ago I checked the UCAS site for start in 2009, and found there was only one full “BSc (hons)” left and that was at Westminster University.
Today I checked again and NOW THERE ARE NONE.
A phone call to the University of Westminster tonight confirmed that they have suspended entry to their BSc (Hons) homeopathy degree.
They say that they have done so because of “poor recruitment”. It was a purely financial decision. Nothing to do with embarrasment. Gratifying though it is that recruits for the course are vanishing, that statement is actually pretty appalling It says that the University of Westminster doesn’t care whether it’s nonsense, but only about whether it makes money.
Nevertheless the first part of this post is not entirely outdated before it even appeared, because homeopathy will still be taught as part of Complementary Therapies. And Naturopathy and “Nutritional Therapy” are still there..
According to their ‘School of Integrated Health‘, “The University of Westminster has a vision of health care for the 21st Century”. Yes, but it is what most people would call a vision of health care in the 18th century.
The revelation that the University of Westminster teaches that Amethysts emit high Yin energy caused something of a scandal.
Since then I have acquired from several sources quite a lot more of their teaching material, despite the fact that the university has refused to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
In view of the rather silly internal review conducted by Westminster’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Geoffrey Petts, this seems like a good moment to make a bit more of it public,
I think that revelation of the material is justified because it is in the
public interest to know how the University if Westminster is spending taxpayers’ money. Another motive is to defend the reputation of the post-1992 universities. I have every sympathy with the ex-polytechnics in their efforts to convert themselves into universities. In many ways they have succeeded. That effort
is impeded by teaching mystical versions of medicine.
If the University of Westminster is being brought into disrepute, blame its vice-chancellor, not me.
Here are a few slides from a lecture on how good spider venom is for you. It is from Course 3CTH502 Homeopathic Materia Medica II. No need to worry though, because they are talking about homeopathic spider venom, so there is nothing but sugar in the pills. The involvement of spiders is pure imagination. No more than mystical gobbledygook.
You are in hurry, or play with your fingers? You need spider venom pills (that contain no spider venom).
You break furniture? Time goes too fast for you? Try the tarantula-free tarantula pills.
You are preoccupied with sex? You play with ropes? What you need is Mygale (which contains no Mygale)
Much more seriously, the same sugar pills are recommended for serious conditions, chorea, ‘dim sight’, gonorrhoea, syphilis and burning hot urine.
This isn’t just preposterous made-up stuff. It is dangerous.
There is a whole lot more fantasy stuff in the handouts for Homeopathy Materia Medica II (3CTH502). Here are a couple of examples.
Aurum metallicum (metallic gold) [Download the whole handout]
Affinities MIND, VASCULAR SYSTEM, Nerves, Heart, Bones, Glands, Liver, Kidneys, RIGHT SIDE, Left side.
Causations Emotions. Ailments from disappointed love and grief, offence or unusual responsibility, abuse of mercury or allopathic drugs.
Aurum belongs to the syphilitic miasm but has elements of sycosis (Aur-Mur).
Potassium salts are the subject of some fine fantasy, in “The Kali’s” [sic]. (there is much more serious stuff to worry about here than a few misplaced apostrophes.). [Download the whole handout]
“The radioactive element of potassium emits negative electrons from the atom nucleus and is thought to be significant in the sphere of cell processes especially in relation to functions relating to automatism and rhythmicity.”
“Kali people are very conscientious with strong principles. They have their rules and they stick to them, ‘a man of his word’.”
“Potassium acts in a parasympathetic way, tending towards depression”
“They [“Kali people=] are not melancholic like the Natrum’s but rather optimistic.”
Radioactive potassium is involved in automaticity? Total nonsense.
Where is the science?
Yes, it is true that the students get a bit of real science. There isn’t the slightest trace that I can find of any attempt to resolve the obvious fact that what they are taught in the science bits contradict directly what they are told in the other bits. Sounds like a recipe for stress to me.
They even get a bit of incredibly elementary statistics. But they can’t even get that right. This slide is from PPP – Res Quant data analysis.
“Involves parameters and/or distributions”. This has no useful meaning whatsoever, that I can detect.
“Tests hypotheses when population distributions are skewed”. Well yes, though nothing there about forms of non-Gaussian properties other than skew, nothing about normalising transformations, and nothing about the Central Limit theorem.
“Ranks data rather than the actual data itself”. This is plain wrong. Randomisation tests on the original data are generally the best (uniformly most powerful) sort of non-parametric test. It seems to have escaped the attention of the tutor that ranking is a short-cut approximation that allowed tables to be constructed, before we had computers.
The students are told about randomised controlled trials. But amazingly in the lecture PPP-RCTs, the little matter of blinding is barely mantioned. And the teacher’s ideas about randomisation are a bit odd too.
Sorry, but if you fiddle the randomisation, no amount of “careful scrutiny” will rescue you from bias.
An Introduction to Naturopathic Philosophy
Naturopathy is just about as barmy as homeopathy. You can see something about it at the University of Wales. How about this slide from Westminster’s An Introduction to Naturopathic Philosophy.
So if you get tuberculosis, it isn’t caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis? And the symptoms are “constructive”? So you don;t need to do anything. It’s all for the best really.
This isn’t just nonsense. It’s dangerous nonsense.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Ever wondered what the mysterious “Qi” is? Worry no more. All is explained on this slide.
It means breath, air, vapour, gas, energy, vitalism. Or perhaps prana? Is that quite clear now?
What can we make of this one? Anyone can see that the description is barely written in English and that vital information is missing (such as the age of the woman). And it’s nonsense to suggest that “invasion of cold” (during keyhole surgery!) would cause prolonged constriction of blood vessels (never mind that it would “consume yang qi”). Not being a clinician, I showed it to an oncologist friend. He said that it was impossible to tell from the description whether the problem was serious or not, but that any abdominal pain should be investigated properly. There isn’t anything here about referral for proper investigation. Just a lot of stuff about ginger and cinnamon. Anyone who was taught in this way could be a real danger to the public. It isn’t harmless nonsense It’s potentially harmful nonsense.
And finally, it’s DETOX
Surely everyone knows by now that ‘detox’ is no more than a marketing word? Well not at the University of Westminster. They have a long handout that tells you all the usual myths and a few new ones.
It is written by Jennifer Harper-Deacon, who describes herself modestly, thus.
Jennifer Harper-Deacon is a qualified and registered Naturopath and acupuncturist who holds a PhD in Natural Health and MSc in Complementary Therapies. She is a gifted healer and Reiki Master who runs her own clinic in Surrey where she believes in treating the ‘whole’ person by using a combination of Chinese medicine and naturopathic techniques that she has qualified in, including nutritional medicine, Chinese and Western herbalism, homoeopathy, applied kinesiology, reflexology, therapeutic massage, aromatherapy and flower remedies.
It seems that there is no limit on the number of (mutually incompatible) forms of nuttiness that she believes. Here are a few quotations from her handout for Westminster students.
“Detoxification is the single most powerful tool used by natural health professionals to prevent and reverse disease”
What? To “prevent and reverse” malaria? tuberculosis? Parkinson’s disease? AIDS? cancer?
“When you go on to a raw food only diet, especially fruit, the stored toxins are brought up from the deep organs such as the liver and kidneys, to the superficial systems of elimination.”;
Very odd. I always though that kidneys were a system of elimination.
“The over-use and mis-use of antibiotics has weakened the body’s ability to attack and destroy new strains of resistant bacteria, virulent viruses, which have led to our immune system becoming compromised.”
Certainly over-use and mis-use are problems. But I always thought it was the bacteria that became resistant.
“The beauty about detoxification therapy is that it addresses the very causative issues of health problems”
That is another dangerous and silly myth. Tuberculosis is not caused by mythical and un-named “toxins”. It is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
“Naturopathy follows the logic of cause and effect therefore believes that we simply need pure food and water, sunshine, air, adequate rest and sleep coupled with the right amount of exercise for health.”
Try telling that to someone with AIDS.
“Colon cleansing is one of the most important parts of any detoxification programme.”
The strange obsession with enemas in the alternative world is always baffling.
“Frankincense: holds the capacity to physically strengthen our defence system and can rebuild energy levels when our immune system is weak. Revered as a herb of protection, frankincense can also strengthen our spiritual defences when our Wei qi is low, making us more susceptible to negative energies. This calming oil has the ability to deepen the breath, helping us to let go of stale air and emotions, making it ideal oil to use inhale prior to meditating.”
This is so much hot air. There is a bit of evidence that frankincense might have some anti-inflammatory action and that’s it.
But this has to be my favourite.
“Remember when shopping to favour fruits and vegetables which are in season and locally grown (and ideally organic) as they are more vibrationally compatible with the body.”
Locally grown vegetables are “more vibrationally compatible with the body”? Pure mystical gobbledygook. Words fail me.
OK there’s a whole lot more, but that will do for now.
It’s good that Westminster is shutting down its Homeopathy BSc, but it seems they have a bit further to go.
A stunning result. Well done, David.
I now feel sorry for the students left in the final years of the degree. If I was one of them, I would sue the University for misrepresenting their courses.
Simon Singh and Michael Baum are going to have a field day debating AltMed with Prof David Peters Clinical Director, School of Integrated Health at the University of Westminster!
‘This house believes that complementary and alternative therapies do more harm than good’.
28 April at Guy’s hospital.
“Health journalist of the Year 2008”
says a lot for the competition – and for those judging it.
excellent work in deconstructing the stupidity of alt.med practitioners and their ilk. It would be laughable if not so tragic that gullible individuals would seek out such a silly woman – sorry ‘Dr’ – and consider her ‘integrative treatments’ a valid therapeutic approach.
I got my degree at the University of Westminster, though back then it was called the Polytechnic of Central London.
(And the degree was in architecture, so I think I’m off the hook…)
Brilliant posting David, this has to be one of your best.
I like the very sciencey ‘Potassium acts in a parasympathetic way…’.
And Naturopathic Philosophy is just so much post-modern nonsense with its bloomin’ constructs.
I see from Alan Heness’s link above that FIH has other meetings planned such as its ‘Breath of Life Conference’.
Amongst the speakers – although I really think this must be a piss-take – are these:
Gabrielle Roth – internationally renowned artist, philosopher, teacher and dancer. She is the originator of 5-Rhythms, a movement practice for spiritual awakening, and is author of the best-selling books Maps to Ecstasy, Sweat Your Prayers and Connections: The 5 Threads of Intuitive Wisdom.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake – biologist and author of more than sixty papers in scientific journals. His books include A New Science of Life, The Presence of the Past, Seven Experiments that Could Change the World, the award winning Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and The Extended Mind: Recent Experimental Evidence.
I specially like the one about dogs which sounds like Private Eye or Monty Python.
I guess that when loonies get really desperate, which they will do increasingly if their pseudo-respectable degree courses are closed down, this is what remains.
PaulJ. That’s the great tragedy. Most of the people at Westminster are excellent. Why does their VC have to embarrass them with stuff like this?
On the student health pages a month or so ago, I noticed the UofW recommended homeopathy for hay fever!
Interested in upholding the integrity of the University, I emailed their Heath Team and they have now removed that nonsense! Read all about it on Think Humanism x
I still wonder if they consulted their AltMed department!
Another fantastic post David.
The contact I have had from the woowoo lot has been truly astounding so far.
At least this is part of the battle won. Still a long way to go.
So sorry for you all. Glad nobody reads this web page except a load of smug infantile people who don’t know that to say something is “crap” is hardly intelligent criticism….and by the way is your penis as small as your brain…
Corrine, Thanks very much for your “intelligent criticism”. You make my case more eloquently than I ever could.
So much for being a scientist, the girl asks you a simple questions, and you dont answer it
small head havent you…
Actually, she didn’t ask a question, just shouted abuse, as you have too. I approved both posts, because they show the standard of argument you use, and also because they show such obvious signs of desperation.
I suppose that, since you are obviously true believers, it must be galling that the brief resurgence in homeopathy that we have seen in the last 30 years is so clearly coming to an end.
I suspect that we are now seeing signs of the end of the Bush/Blair era in which wishful thinking temporarily replaced thought. I hope so, anyway.
And if you want the evidence, it isn’t hard to find. For example, here http://dcscience.net/?p=239
David – generally an excellent post – but one minor quibble regarding your comments on the University of Wales slides. Of course, symptoms may ultimately caused by a pathogen. But it’s not complete nonsense to talk about some symptoms as being an organism’s attempt to defend itself against a pathogen (e.g. fever, vomitting, diarrhea).
That’s not to say that all symptoms can be thought of like this, or that they are not worth treating. Just that there was a kernel of truth in that slide – albeit hidden behind vitalistic guff.
Oh yes of course you are right. The problem is surely that naturopaths, Steiner people and so on, deny the primary cause and concentrate solely on the secondary consequences. That seems to deny a century and a half of progress and what’s worse, it endangers lives.
Could you give us evidence? Perhaps a link or two to some publications?
The University of Westminster “diagnosis” described above is actually extremely worrying. Plainly this is a woman of child bearing age, and there is a possibility of an ectopic pregnancy, with bleeding being mistaken for a period. This requires immediate medical referral. Alternatively, there could be endometriosis or a variety of cancers. The ‘advice’ to scan for fibroids suggests neither necessity nor urgency. Waiting 3 cycles while moxibustion makes no difference could lead to sterility, serious illness or worse.
Like Ben Goldacre, I can see why one might be tempted by alternative medicine as placebo in diagnosed conditions: but it should never be used for diagnosis. I’ve mailed the UoW VC on this, and await his views with interest.
To the tune of Corrina, Corrina
Corrine,Corrine where can your woo woo be ?
Corrine,Corrine where can your woo woo be ?
woo been diluted, to thirty C.
We’ve got brain shrink and a little chap
We’ve done got brain shrink and a little chap
We’ve gone smug now, and we talk craptrap.
A poor substitute for Dr. Aust’s lyrics I know. Sing to the accompaniment of a vibrational potato or talking carrot.
An excellent post and good outcome at UoW. Psycho’s comment’s underline how serious the consequences of woo can be.
[…] closing down no comments April 2nd, 2009 • Filed under: Health, Pseudoscience As I have learned from Prof. Colquhoun, there is currently not a single homeopathy degree left in English Universities! The last one […]
Let’s not stop here. Stopping the teaching of pseudoscientific nonsense is a start; teaching that homeopathy is fraudulent nonsense on proper BSc courses should now begin.
I plan to start in the next academic year.
The fun you could have!
Q1. Which of the following are characteristics of irreversible receptor antagonists:
(a) Bright and glittery
(b) Lively and excited
(c) Strong but Malleable
(f) None of the above
I am curious to know if you are including western herbal medicine in these comments? There seems to be a considerable amount of evidence available about the efficacy of various plants; much of which appears to be used by pharmaceutical research and developing.
The majority of the Herbal Medicine degree is science based with much emphasis placed on recent primary research. I feel it is unfair to generalise about all of the degrees which the School of Intergrated Health offers, they are not the same.
I didn’t include western herbal medicine because I haven’t got much material about it.
I have heard from an alumnus of the Westminster course that they were disappointed about the amount and standard of the pharmacology teaching that they got.
Herbal medicine is really just pharmacology and could be taught as such. Often it is not though, because it is overlaid with nonsense about hot and cold herbs.
Although there is a lot known about plant chemistry there is very little known about how effective herbs are for treating sick patients. I doubt that enough is known to justify a vocational degree. I just can’t see the sense in restricting pharmacology to a subset of compounds that happen to occur naturally.
In addition there is the problem of lack of standardisation, which makes herbal medicine potentially dangerous. That was solved by pharmacologists in the 1930s by using biological standardisation for things like tincture of digitalis, but herbal medicine is still operating in the way that pharmacology did around 1900.
These things are what made me say in the patients’ guide
That is an exaggeration perhaps, but not a very big exaggeration.
I’m happy to agree that some of the Westminster degrees are better than others, and that herbal medicine is better than naturopathy. But I’m still not convinced that is is a subject that should be taught as a vocational degree.
David, I was interested to see your mention of Harper-Deacon. She used to have a regular weekly page in the Sunday Times Style section, but a couple of years ago I took exception to her recommendation of the use of ‘Hopi’ ear candling to a deaf reader whose use of hearing aids was affected by a regular build up of wax.
My letter pointing out that ear candling had been shown experimentally not to work, and indeed could not work as claimed and had even caused actual injury, did produce an initial reply, but not my follow up to it.
However, I was amused by one statement she made which was: None of the practitioners with whom I work…have claimed that ear candling can improve hearing.’
This begged the question, why was she then recommending it to a reader in order to ‘treat’ (her word) the earwax that was further impairing his hearing!
Shortly after this exchange, her regular whole page seemed to become an occasional column – and now, as far as I can see, her last contribution was October last year.
Of course, it may be just coincidence…
And it may not be a coincidence. I suspect it has an effect if every time nonsense rears its head you take a pot shot at it. If it goes unchallenged it becomes accepted as normal.
I agree. Since becoming “regularized” by these pages I’ve written a few letters to newspapers & the BBC. Although not published my guess is each (logical) letter causes editors/journalists to stop and think at least for a moment. Otherwise printing fabricated baloney and nonsense becomes normal.
I just can’t see the problem in restricting pharmacology to a subset of compounds that occur naturally.
I can’t see the value in restricting pharmacology to a subset of compounds that occur naturally.
There is value if you are training to work with medicinal plants. Of course more general pharmacology is studied. Many patients are using polypharmacy so knowledge of the pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and contra-indications of pharmaceutical drugs is extremely important.
But why restrict your options to the subset of compounds that happen to occur naturally? It’s not as if the plants they are found in evolved them for our benefit.
Obviously not, but we can take advantage of the secondary metabolites which the plants use for their own health and defence. I am not against orthodox drugs, they have saved my life a couple of times, but herbal medicine can be and indeed is used effectively along side orthodox medicine in many medical situations. Many members of the public want to be treated with more natural medicines, orthodox health practitioners and western herbalists should be working together not against each other.
You weren’t suggesting using herbal medicine alongside “orthodox medicine”, or the two approaches working together, you were suggesting “restricting pharmacology to a subset of compounds that occur naturally”.
My goodness there do seem to be some active polemicists on this site! It is one thing to enagage in a robust discussion about alternative therapies versus orthodox treatments but quite another to be launching an attack against a neighbouring university just because you don’t agree with the content of their courses – dangerous ground indeed! Well I’m not a fan of homeopathy or naturopathy but it does so happen that I am a student of western herbal medicine at Westminster, a mature student at that and someone who holds a first degree and a Master’s degree (Bristol University, and no…it wasn’t in hairdressing). Now I’m sure I have lost a few brain cells in the intervening years but, in my opinion, the course is not a doddle and neither does the uni “hand out” degrees. Like all academic institutions there is good quality lecture material and not such good quality material, excellent and enthusiastic lecturers and rather more mediocre lecturers.
Throughout the course we are expected to refer to primary sources of up-to-date scientific research and indeed we are penalised if we refer to eclectics without evidence – based substantiation.
Overall I feel greatly saddened reading these pages as there seems to be a fundamental unwillingness on your part to enter into constructive dialogue with ourselves, you would rather take “potshots” and endeavour to silence us once and for all!
I’m a bit puzzled, If I have looked at the evidence, and decided that homeopathy, for example, is fraudulent, then surely it is my duty to try to condemn universities who run BSc degrees in it. It makes no difference whether or not they are “neighbouring”.
Since I and many others started pointing out the facts about homeopathy, either the students or the vice-chancellors, or both, seem to have accepted out arguments, since all five of the honours degrees have shut their doors. Somebody must believe what we say.
Perhaps you’d care to give your opinion about the slides that I’ve posted from Westminster, here and here.
You say you are “not a fan of homeopathy or naturopathy”. I’m not sure what that means. If it means that, after looking at what’s taught, you think it is nonsense, then you too should be opposing the award of degrees in them. You are too late for homeopathy: it’s dead, But naturopathy is still there at Westminster, so how about it?
Certainly I’m willing to enter into dialogue. It’s a pity that I can’t say the same of your vice-chancellor, who simply refuses to talk.
As you know, I have said less about Western Herbal Medicine than other subjects, simply because I know less about what is taught in that area. I did respond to a question on that in comment #21 above, and I’d be happy to hear your opinion about what I said.
Hi David you make some interesting points but it is the way that you seek to impose them that I have the problem with. I thought that one of the principal concepts held dear by the scientific community was the freedom of discourse – I fail to see how closing down courses whose content you do not personally agree with furthers this aim! Anyway to address some of your points – sorry about the “neighbouring” university bit, I live in NE Derbyshire and I have to say that from my perspective it still DOES look like you have it in for one university above all others. After all it’s not just the homeopathic degree that you have your sights set on is it?
You say our VC refuses to talk, well I’m not altogether surprised. It reminds me rather of the class bully striding up to a (let’s face it smaller and weaker) classmate with a swagger in his stride and a sneer in his voice “hand over your homework, gimme it now!” What would you do knowing that the work would be derided, torn to shreds and thrown back in your face?
The use of the word “fraudulent” applied to homeopathy is simply wrong. Fraudulent implies that someone is deliberately trying to mislead someone else, but can you demonstrate that this is the case? The various homeopaths that I have encountered believe passionately in what they do and it appears that there are plenty of cases where patients health and quality of life does improve. Ok you and I might talk about the placebo effect – and what a powerful drug that is! But the fact remains that it cannot be regarded as fraudulent just because it doesn’t fit into the scientific paradigm as we know it. As for my opinion on the slides they make no sense to me at all but may that be because I have no wish to engage with the subject and is there not a chance these slides have been taken out of context?
Is what disturbs you most the award of science degrees to these subjects? Would it be better coming under arts instead? I for one would have no problem practicing the Art of Herbal Medicine!
The thing is, David, that we live in a diverse, tolerant and respectful society (or at least endeavour to!). Waging a war against other people’s opinions and belief systems is the way to a totalitarian system. To explain why I have been moved to post on this site I will borrow (and somewhat amend!) those immortal words of Niemoller: “First they came for the homeopaths and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a homeopath. Then they came for the naturopaths and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a naturopath. Then they came for me and by that time there was no-one left to speak up.”
I know I haven’t said anything yet about herbal medicine but it’ll have to wait for the next posting as gotta go pick some nettles and cleavers for soup – great blood and lymphatic cleansers don’t you know!
Dear Mojo, when I talked about ‘restricting pharmacology to a subset of compounds that occur naturally’ I was refering to how we study and use phytochemistry to medically treat patients. But as I said before, a more general knowlegde of pharmacology is essential to safely treat patients who take orthodox drugs. Orthodox and herbal medicines can and do work well together. For example herbal medicine can lessen the terrible side effects of chemotherapy whilst allowing the drugs to do their work. We could also help save money for the NHS – for instance, not every case of ezcema needs hydrocortisone when a simple herbal cream can be as effective, cheaper and with less adverse reactions.
Thanks for that response. First, I’m amused to see that you think vice-chancellors are “smaller and weaker” than I am. I can’t say I’d noticed that myself. I have only the strength of my arguments, but no other power whatsoever. I suppose it could be relevant that I have some sort of scientific reputation apart from a side interest in alternative medicine, but I haven’t noticed that that cuts much ice.
You are quite right and I am simple exercising my freedom of discourse. You can do the same. Science, real science, is full of disagreements and there are lots of arguments to try resolve them. And it is surely obvious that courses wouldn’t shut if I were the only one to disagree with them. It isn’t me who shuts courses but VCs, They shut them either because students no longer wish to become homeopaths (like you) or because they realise that it isn’t really honest to give Bachelor of Science degrees in subjects like homeopathy which are not just non-scientific but actively anti-scientific.
The fact of the matter is that subjects like naturupathy and homeopathy are derided not only by virtually all scientists but also now by many journalists. You say that I deride the teaching materials that have come my way, but I ask again what your opinion of them is? If, as I suspect, you are as appalled by them as I am, then why don’t you speak out?
I take your point entirely about the use of the word fraudulent. In my experience too, most homeopaths really believe what they say. I’m not convinced that is always the case. For example nutritonal therapists always seem to end up trying to sell you some expensive supplement whether you need it or not. But I have yet to meet any vice-chancellor who believes that homeopathy works. If they don’t believe it works then offering degrees in it amounts to fraud, in my view.
You ask if I think it would be better if the degrees were in arts rather than science. The answer is that I don’t think that changing the name would make any difference at all. Remember that these are vocational degrees. Ther graduates are going to go out and treat sick people. You can’t do that safely with an arts education.
Having only recently put up a post with the title “And then they came for me“, this cuts to the quick.
All that I can say is that nobody is seeking to make illegal homeopathy, naturopathy or crystal healing, Nobody is trying to ban them from advocating whatever barmy beliefs they like. All I’m trying to do is to ensure that the limited resources of universities and of the NHS are spent in the best possible way, and that vice-chancellors behave honestly (not just in a way that maximises their income). Of course it is also the responsibility of all of us to obey the law of the land. That is what makes a country civilised. Since the law prohibits the making of false health claims, that does place constraints on everyone, including homeopaths and naturopaths. I really don’t think there is anything remotely totalitarian about this.
Finally, I’m intrigued that you use the word “blood cleanser”. This is the very term that got me into trouble when I described it as gobblydegook. In fact it is an undefined term that has been used by quacks for centuries, as the great Michael Quinion pointed out. Perhaps you would care to tell us precisely what you mean by the term "blood cleanser"? That would make a good start for a discussion of herbalism.
The idea of DC as some sort of scientific neo-Nazi is quite hilarious. I spent a significant chunk of my time in science being well wide of the mark and DC was more or less totally responsible for putting me right several times. He was probably not even aware that was what he was doing.
When you talk about freedom of expression, you are wide of the mark. Science does not work on the principle of “if you can’t prove me wrong, I must be right”; it works on the principle of “if you can prove me wrong, I’m wrong”. You can’t just say what you like and still be scientific. If you seek to knock down the old order, you have to show why it must be knocked down. Consequently, ludicrous untestable claims dressed up as science and presented in university degrees are nothing more than a joke. The fraudulent aspect comes when they are associated with claims that magical potions and the like can cure illnesses. As DC has said many times, this just exploits the desperation of the poor folk who are suffering.
As far as I can see DC has spent most of his scientific life trying to (quite gently) point out to people when their claims are unsupportable and how to do proper experiments. If you want to see early evidence, take a look at his super book on biostatistics, published in 1971.
Keep up the good work, David.
David, thank you for you comments and thank you also for conceding that homeopaths are not inherently fraudulent! I can’t however buy into the argument that just because VCs don’t “believe” in homeopathy they shouldn’t run courses in it. On the contrary VCs should be looking beyond their own belief systems in order to promote diversity and give other people choice in what they study. Anyway until the NHS find another way to fund placebo treatment maybe homeopathy is the answer. I put it to you, what is better, the patient who leaves his GP empty handed and in despair or the one who is prescribed an active substance for a condition for which a placebo would be more appropriate? There are enormous ethical issues around knowingly prescribing placebos and even if there were a way GPs could prescribe them it may potentially undermine people’s confidence in medicine were the news to get out into the public domain. What better then than a group of practitioners who sincerely and passionately believe in the efficacy of their treatments helping their patients acheive spontaneous healing? Alright I know the pseudoscience that accompanies it gets right up your nose but would it be as effective without it I wonder?
I’m sorry if my interpretation of Niemoller cut you to the quick, I actually didn’t see that posting until after I had submitted and took time to peruse your site a little further. I have to tell you though that what cuts me to the quick is being labelled greedy, fraudulent and dangerous (not all your terms I know but nevertheless posted on your blogs).
I was being facetious when I used the term “blood cleanser” and I already knew it was the term that got you “into trouble” ! I’m quite happy to share my thoughts with you on herbalism but you must understand that I do so with the knowledge and understanding of a second year herbal medicine student and not as a herbal practitioner with years of experience and research behind them. The old word “blood cleanser” (often now comes under the heading of “alterative” ) these include herbs which contain compounds that may assist the liver in the detoxification and elimination of other compounds. An example of a herb in this category would be Silybum marianum (Milk Thistle). As you probably know there has been a fair amount of research done on this herb in vivo and in vitro and it has been shown to raise glutathione levels as well as decreasing the production of leukotrines by inhibiting lipooxygenase.12 (relevant to conditions such as psoriasis).
OK but you still didn’t define “blood cleanser” and neither do you cite any evidence that milk thistle affects liver function in man, or that it helps psoriasis.
I am shocked to learn that U of W’s herbal med department recommends herbs for schizophrenia – do they know something no-one else does?
Good question. Can anyone from Westminster answer it?
When I was a child I seem to remember hearing that GPs used to prescribe ‘medicines’ with no effective contents, as ‘placebos’, but that this is no longer allowed….um…because it’s…unethical. Is that right? In which case, renukarussell’s suggestion below couldn’t work.
“Anyway until the NHS find another way to fund placebo treatment maybe homeopathy is the answer. I put it to you, what is better, the patient who leaves his GP empty handed and in despair or the one who is prescribed an active substance for a condition for which a placebo would be more appropriate? There are enormous ethical issues around knowingly prescribing placebos and even if there were a way GPs could prescribe them it may potentially undermine people’s confidence in medicine were the news to get out into the public domain. What better then than a group of practitioners who sincerely and passionately believe in the efficacy of their treatments helping their patients acheive spontaneous healing? Alright I know the pseudoscience that accompanies it gets right up your nose but would it be as effective without it I wonder?”
Thiona you’re going to have to give us a bit more information if you want an answer to that one!
David, it is so difficult to enter into any kind of constructive dialogue when your people are throwing missiles all the time. I must admit I am tempted to walk away from this blog, I’m sure I can find better things to do than stand in a firing range! I’ll try one last time – I don’t think the way to address what you consider to be pseudoscience is campaign to close down courses. Do you really think that CAM and herbal medicine will go away of there are no more degree courses? No what will happen is there will be a load of practitioners out there with no training whatsoever, I think that’s rather dangerous don’t you?
I’ve been following the renukarussell/DC debate in this thread with some interest. May I suggest that the rest of us “hold our tongues” just for a few days and comment if/as necessary after that.
(If we all hold our tongues, watch the screens, keep our ears to the ground and our noses to the grindstone, we will be able to keep our th(r)ead above water!)
There is a lot of banter in science -you get used to it. I don’t like to censor comments whether I agree with them or not.
I’m happy to have a dialogue if you want.
I don’t think people are ‘throwing missiles’, more like not agreeing with you 😉 I thought your suggestion about GPs being able to offer placebos in the form of homeopathy was interesting but wonder whether it would be allowed because of ethical issues, because I think GPs used to be able to prescribe such ‘placebos’ in the form of ‘medicine’ with no effective contents, like sugary water, but this is now unethical….
I’m afraid you rather missed my point. The point is that homeopaths do not believe they are prescribing placebos. Therefore not only is what they do not unethical but they are the only ones who can prescribe these because as you said, quite rightly, if GPs gave out placebos knowingly that would be unethical
If homoeopaths knowingly or unknowingly give out placebo medicine, why do they need a 3 year degree to learn how to do it? I am not completely against homoeopathy but your argument about placebos is actually obfuscating the real issue.
Are you in charge of this site? I am bemused at your request that everyone should shut up for a few days – do you have some power issues? Is the idea that one of the two main debaters will somehow be caught out and discredit him/herself? What happened to freedom of speech?
I understand that students of herbal med at the U of W are expected to be able to carry out detailed physical examinations of patients – eg, numerous neurological tests including differentiating between upper and lower neurone diseases; auscultation to detect heart murmurs and differentiate between aortic and mitral valve problems; detection of heart failure; detection of hepatic and splenic enlargement and of oedema and ascites; detection of fibroids by abdominal palpation; palpation to detect aotic aneurysm and coarctation of the aorta (believe it or not!); detection of testicular tumours; detection of nasopharyngeal tumours and perforated eardrums using an otoscope; examination of the eyes with an ophthalmoscope for glaucoma and all manner of other abnormalities; palpation of the renal artery; detailed examination of cranial nerves. Respiratory exam for lung cancer ….the list goes on…
Don’t understand why doctors undergo such a long training.
I’ll try to go through this logically, please bear with me and excuse any infelicities: let me try to go through this bit by bit:
1. there is certainly a placebo effect, measurable if not completely understood
2. a lot of people have charisma or skills or the environment or opportunity in which they can invoke the placebo effect in a patient…I mean, I could massage someone’s feet, quite nice, but how much more impressive if I talk about meridians and Ancient Egyptians or something like that. And wear a white coat. Wow, the patient is very impressed and gets better, either because they were going to anyway, or due to some placebo effect. And because they weren’t suffering from anything too serious..
3. But this placebo effect is pretty useless for serious conditions. I might *feel* better after consulting a homeopath if I have HIV, but it is highly likely that if I don’t take retroviral drugs I will develop AIDS and then die.
4. So we could envisage a situation where homeopaths can help patients feel better, just as reflexologists massaging feet made my mum and dad feel better from their aches and pains.
But *anybody* with the requisite amount of charisma/mumbo jumbo/white coat/apparently meaningful system could invoke the placebo effect, couldn’t they. So why go to all these lengths, as thiona says, why three years?
Let me try to put it in a nutshell. I feel a bit peaky: I could visit a variety of people who might or might not make me feel better. Personally, I’d always visit a very highly qualified medical doctor, my GP, thanks to the NHS, it seems worth it, what if I have the first stages of something deeply unpleasant?
Supposing I have a lump in an intimate area. I need to get hold of a real doctor, and quick.
“The point is that homeopaths do not believe they are prescribing placebos. Therefore not only is what they do not unethical…”
Non sequitur. Their ignorance and delusion may absolve them of willfully unethical practise but not of unethical practise.
“Do you really think that CAM and herbal medicine will go away of there are no more degree courses? No what will happen is there will be a load of practitioners out there with no training whatsoever, I think that’s rather dangerous don’t you?”
A non sequitur and a false dilemma.
I am not sure that this is quite right. Before all the degree courses came into being, people were still training in homeopathy through all the private homeopathic colleges that still exist country wide. People will probably go back to training here if no university courses exist.
I believe that the homeopathy course at Westminster was what used to be The London College of Classical Homeopathy course that Westminster took over. They were in the same premises as the College of Homeopathy which closed down a few years ago now – I think they went out of business and the slack was taken up by the Centre for Homeopathic Education based at Regent’s College. Their own homeopathy course is validated by Middlesex University, but is not listed under UCAS, as the course is run at Regent’s College rather than through the university itself – they just validate it.
I know all this because I did study at Westminster myself and no I didn’t study homeopathy either.
Sarah Webster. Thanks for that information. I guess there is nothing one can do about private colleges apart from applying the law if they make false health claims. If that law were enforced properly it would probably put them out of business, http://dcscience.net/?p=790
The bit that is really ludicrous is the so-called validations that you mention. It’s usually quite easy to get hold of the validation documents and every one I’ve seen is pathetic box-ticking nonsense. Sort of academic prostitution. There are some examples at http://dcscience.net/?p=84 and at http://dcscience.net/?p=259
@Sarah Webster (“I am not sure that this is quite right.”)
And I am sure that it is quite wrong – which is why I quoted it and described it as a non sequitur and a false dilemma! Full marks for the explanation of exactly why it is a non sequitur though. 🙂
This further indicates just how unlikely it is that the forthcoming legislative regulation of some complementary medicine routes, eg herbalism, will have any impact at all on its safety. The university graduates of these modalities will be the therapists who will be sanctioned as being “safe practitioners” and yet there is no difference between them and those who “qualified” elsewhere. The university courses have appealed to many wannabe doctors who think that when they qualify they can diagnose and treat anything. It is a pity that the medical profession can’t get its act together, then perhaps people wouldn’t need to desperately seek treatment elsewhere. But this will never be.
In the interests of democracy, it is essential that people are free to use alternative forms of medicine (I say “alternative” not “complementary” since the latter term simply seeks to “respectalise” itself by its association with conventional medicine). The dilemma is that dubious alternative practice is almost impossible to challange.
I think the reason that homeopathy courses were taken over by some of the universities was to make them more legitimate – if you are awarded a BSc in the subject it must be okay! Hasn’t really worked though has it?
If you take a look at the Society of Homeopaths website there are still a lot of private colleges in existence all across the country that if not affiliated or validated by a university award their own qualifications in homeopathy – that will be mostly be Diplomas.
I have to say that apart from the Integrated Health department, the University of Westminster has a good reputation – I studied there myself in the School of Biosciences. It also had a good reputation when it was Central London Poly too – a friend studied computer science there in the late 70’s, early 80’s.
Sarah Webster. You are right of course. The one thing that alties care about above all is respectability. As you say, it misfired rather badly.
I know a few people in biosciences at Westminster. They are excellent people and of course they are deeply embarrassed at being merged with the alternative people. It is one of the sad things about universities that academics are often scared that they’ll suffer if they rock the boat too obviously. I expect, or hope anyway, that some of them have expressed their views internally. They have certainly supported my efforts.
It made quite a big difference at UCLAN when one of their own people,the psychologist Michael Eslea, went public http://dcscience.net/?p=249
As a final-year student at WMIN (studying a more evidence-based course, I daresay), I’m pretty alarmed at the amount of non-science associated with the place. I can’t say I’m surprised at this decision being purely financial, sadly; they are also closing their widely renowned ceramics course for the same reason, and I’ve heard that they’ve had delivery of art supplies suspended in the past thanks to non-payment of suppliers.
When I decided a few years ago that I wanted to be a herbalist I had two options, I could set myself up there and then as a herbalist having done a couple of basic short courses or I could invest a considerable amount of time and effort studying the subject in depth in conjunction with learning anatomy, physiology and pharmacology. Well I chose the latter option not so much for the credibility (I’ve discovered that most people really don’t seem to care what qualifications you hold in alternative field!) but because I want to be a safe and knowledgeable practitioner. Well the course I’m doing is not perfect but I do think it very misguided to launch attacks on these universities with the intent of closing them down. Maybe you should direct your energies to helping them to improve the science content of the courses. Already Wmin has stated it is committed to improving the science base of the courses (and it’s dropped homeopathy) so why not give credit where credit is due and leave off attacking, for a little while anyway?
By the way I’ve heard that the standard of teaching in medical schools has declined rapidly over the past few years and there is a policy of getting students through the course regardless of merit or ability. A lecturer I know was appalled recently when none of his post-grad med students could give him a proper definition of a partial agonist! Maybe this is another area demanding your urgent attention.
Let me say again that I have not attacked herbalism, which I believe to be in a quite different category from naturopathy or homeopathy. There is (or at least should be) nothing mystical about herbal medicine, though I gather you are forced to do several very mystical courses, including the infamous “amethysts emit high yin energy“.
It is true that I still don’t understand the merits of restricting your scope to drugs that happen to occur naturally in plants, so I do have doubts about its value as method of treating patients. but it could be turned into a good course on phytochemistry and pharmacology.
Perhaps that will now happen. If it does, you might even be willing to give me a bit of credit for having played a part in bringing it about.
I’m also interested in your other question about the standard of teaching in medical schools. It is quite true that there has been a tendency to reduce the science content of the courses, though up to now that has not gone too far at UCL. Insofar as it has happened, I would attribute it to people in the GMC who suffer from the same sort of anti-scientific attitudes that allowed universities to give degrees in things like naturopathy, and the same sort of stifling political correctness that makes them describe homeopaths as “professionals”.
I certainly don’t believe that endarkenment thinking is restricted to mystical forms of medicine. It influences far more important things than that.
Thanks David, I was a little concerned that you were lumping herbalism in with the other alt therapies! We don’t have any crystal therapy as part of our course to my knowledge. It’s possible it was covered briefly in the Complementary Therapies module in the first year but as I wasn’t there I can’t say. I’m bowing out of posting on your blog for a little while as I have exams coming up in the very near future. But I’ve enjoyed it and I’ll probably be back!
If we don’t keep an open mind about what medicine is, the pharmaceutical companies will continue to run the show. Alternative practitioners are often individuals and wouldn’t have the spending power to produce the evidence to be approved by NICE. Pharmaceuticals use many of the plants a herbalist does but with a twist they can research and then patent. I don’t see why we have to chose. Why can’t there be room for both? There are cases where alternatives work and there are cases (many) where main stream medicine fails but we don’t shut down all the medical degrees. And if you are saying, yes but that’s because they are evidence based, please see my earlier point. And so the circle continues…
@Stage 4 Cancer Survivor
Pharmaceutical companies have too often behaved unethically. But, on the other hand, they are the source of almost every useful drug. Do you refuse to have a local anaesthetic at the dentist on the grounds that it isn’t naturally-occurring? Would you refuse to take an antibiotic when suffering from bacterial meningitis?
The division that matters is not that between normal and alternative medicines. It’s the division between medicines that work and medicines that don’t. The reason that a medicine is given the label ‘alternative’ is because there is no good evidence that it works. If such evidence existed then it would be called ‘medicine’.
As I have often said, one reason why alternative medicine exists is because of the large number of conditions for which medicine can still do very little. When people are desperate, they are easy prey for those who sell fairy tale cures.
The fact that many problems still can’t be solved is not for want of trying. The human body is very complicated and serious medical research has existed for barely 100 years -a tiny amount of time in which huge progress has been made in some areas, and next to no progress in others. But making up imaginary answers helps nobody.
Good luck with your exams.
[…] university ‘degrees’ in homeopathy have closed their doors in the last two […]
[…] programmes in complementary and alternative medicine. The largest provider of such degrees, the University of Westminster has already shut down two of them, and the rest are being assessed at the moment. It is likely that […]
[…] of Central Lancashire, Robert Gordon University, the University of Buckingham, and even at the University of Westminster (the worst offender), one course has closed (with rumours of more to […]
The comments about universities not giving away degrees are meaningless. I am not suggesting that it is easy to get your BSc honours in naturopathy. It must be really hard to remember all that mumbo-jumbo. Especially when there are no proper published papers, or even any real logic behind their teachings. It must be even harder to remember contradictory teachings and remember which ones to apply depending on which branch of CAM you happen to be talking about at that moment.
But the real danger is that people who take these degrees have a BSc (or even an MSc or PhD). This not only gives them credibility in the minds of their victims, but many of them genuinely believe their own mindless rubbish.
I have seen countless people who have been helped by Reflexology. And it it helps to sit in a room and have someone stroke your feet whilst giving 100% attention to you and listening to your problems then great. But some (or probably most) of them would stand 100% behind the fact that the entire body is reproduced on the soles of the feet – because somebody told them that. They do not question it, and do not ask for any proof. That doesn’t sound like a scientist to me. But the degree has Sc on the end of it.
I am about to embark on an MSc and will have to design a well-designed test and carry it our for my research dissertation. I will most definitely be taught things on the course, and will then set some hypothesis based on this and test it. I will accept little without seeing reasonable evidence for it – hence the Sc on the end of my degree.
Thanks for that comment. You put it very well. The existence of degrees like this is really an enormous insult to every student who works hard for a real BSc, possibly in the different part of the same university.
I am still at a loss to understand why this is not as obvious to vice-chancellors as it is to you and me, and every other person with half a brain. I can only conclude that universities have a real problem in recruiting people with brains. I don’t mean students either. I mean the people at the very top.
Can I recommend a good book written by Massimo Pigliucci, a professor at the City University of New York, entitled Nonsense on Stilts (IBSN 13:978-o-226-66786-7).
The basic premise of the book is to learn how to tell science from bunk. The catch is that it is not as easy as it seems, well at least according to the author (who is of course right).
[…] Much has been wriiten here about the University of Westminster, which remains the biggest provider of junk sciencne degrees in the UK, despite having closed two of them. […]
[…] at University College London, the last BSc in homeopathy was suspended by Westminster University in March after it failed to recruit enough students. Five homeopathy degrees have been scrapped since […]
[…] Qusetions: from the UK, the amount of universities providing a BSc in homeopathy has declined from five to 0 in only two decades (maybe as being a end result of higher availability of facts by way of the internet? who is aware….) http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1329 […]
[…] By that time Salford University had closed down all its CAM, and the University of Central Lancashire was running an honest internal review which resulted in closure of (almost) all of their nonsense degrees. But Westminster proved more resistant to sense and, although they closed down homeopathy, they still remain the largest single provider of degrees in junk medicine. See, for example More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time it’s Naturopathy, and The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University. […]
[…] is already quite a bit here about the dangers of Chinese medicine, e.g. here and, especially, here. A submission to the Department of Health gives more detail. There has been a […]
[…] from these university courses – as they did in the UK, to publicly shame the universities into closing the courses down and to show how dangerous they […]
[…] Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy Nutritional Fairy Tales from Thames Valley University College of Natural Nutrition: bizarre teaching revealed Nutriprofile: useful aid or sales scam? Response to a threatening letter from Mr Holford Food for the Brain: Child Survey. A proper job? Teaching bad science to children: OfQual and Edexcel are to blame The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University. […]
[…] courses on their hands. And the sooner someone gets hold of some really dodgy course material to embarrass them into closing the better. A screen grab from Southern Cross University's […]
[…] examples out there. David Colquhoun published some worrying handouts from CAM university programs here in 2009. These are worth a look, and I particularly liked that Westminster College was teaching […]
Reviewing the research methods content of these courses is important to see how they are being taught how to assess evidence. But I am concerned that your analysis of these lacks a control group. Instead your criticism is against your own standards which are essential to the aim but rather high. It would be reasonable to compare what is being taught to what is taught to other Allied Health Professions. I say this because I believe you would be disappointed by the extent of the curriculum they are offered.
On a particular point in the slide shown: “Involves parameters and/or distributions” this is a bizarre error. A non-parametric test is designed not to assume distributions or parameters. But the inference made is less powerful and lacks the opportunity for confidence intervals based on CLT, as you point out. However, this is standard practice in clinical trials – do a parametric test, often ANOVA, but if some assumptions (e.g. equality of variances) are not met do the non-parametric alternative. Papers following this procedure are published so it seems reasonable to teach students this practice so they can interpret published evidence.
The point that there are better alternatives to the testing approach advocated here is perfectly sensible. However, it would seem advanced in the context of the training of AHPs. While you might disagree, comparing to research methods as taught on such courses would make your criticism fair. There are lots of examples of clinicians who have been trained in such things getting papers with errors published in big journals. Have you considered looking at what is recommended for teaching in clinical courses in other professions? I hope you would resolve that the challenge there was to encourage better, and more advanced methods for evaluating evidence.
Thanks for the comment. I’m not convinced that the people who run these courses have the slightest knowledge of statistics. Their slides make little sense. If they did have any understanding, they wouldn’t be advocating unproven and disproved treatments
As you point out. ignorance of statistics is not limited to alternative medicine advocates, but it is only alt med people whose income depends on misunderstanding statistics.
What these comments make me think is to not study at these universities at all for these pathetic attacks. Well done for making degree students look stupid
The syntax in your comment is so mangled that I may have misunderstood it. But if it’s intended as a defence of “degrees” in homeopathy, you are too late. It’s gone, from universities and from the NHS. What’s astonishing is that it took 200 years.