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More fails for the Freedom of Information, and a bit of history – DC's Improbable Science

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Every single request for information about course materials in quack medicine that I have ever sent has been turned down by universities,

It is hardly as important as as refusal of FoI requests to see climate change documents, but it does indicate that some vice-chancellors are not very interested in openness. This secretiveness is exactly the sort of thing that leads to lack of trust in universities and in science as a whole.

The one case that I have won took over three years and an Information Tribunal decision against the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) before I got anything.

UCLAN spent £80,307.95.(inc VAT at 17.5%) in legal expenses alone (plus heaven knows how much in staff time) to prevent us from seeing what was taught on their now defunct “BSc (Hons) homeopathy”. This does not seem to me to be good use of taxpayers’ money. A small sample of what was taught has already been posted (more to come). It is very obvious why the university wanted to keep it secret, and equally obvious that it is in the public interest that it should be seen.

UCLAN had dropped not only its homeopathy "degree" before the information was revealed, They also set up an internal inquiry into all the rest of their courses in magic medicine which ended with the dumping of all of them.

Well, not quite all, There was one left. An “MSc” in homeopathy by e-learning. Why this was allowed to continue after the findings of UCLAN’s internal review, heaven only knows. It is run by the same Kate Chatfield who ran the now defunct BSc. Having started to defend the reputation against the harm done to it by offering this sort of rubbish, I thought I should finish. So I asked for the contents of this course too. It is, after all, much the same title as the course that UCLAN had just been ordered to release. But no, this request too was met with a refusal

Worse still, the refusal was claimed under section 43(2) if the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That is the public interest defence, The very defence that was dismissed in scathing terms by the Information Tribunal less than two months ago,

To add insult to injury, UCLAN said that it would make available the contents of the 86 modules in the course under its publication scheme, at a cost of £20 per module, That comes to £1,720 for the course, Some freedom of information.

Because this was a new request, it now has to go through the process of an internal reviw of the decision before it can ne referred to the Information Commissioner. That will be requested, and since internal reviews have, so far, never changed the initial judgment. the appeal to the Information Commissioner should be submitted within the month. I have been promised that the Information Commissioner will deal with it much faster this time than the two years it took last time.

And a bit more unfreedom

Middlesex University

I first asked Middlesex for materials from their homeopathy course on 1 Oct 2008.  These courses are validated by Middlesex university (MU) but actually run by the Centre for Homeopathic Education. Thw MU site barely mentions homeopathy and all I got was the usual excuse that the uninsersity did not possess the teaching materials. As usual, the validation had been done without without looking at what was actually being taught. The did send me the validation document though [download it]   As usual, the validation document shows no sign at all of the fact that the usbject of the "BSc" is utter nonsense. One wonderful passage says

“. . . the Panel were assured that the Team are clearly producing practitioners but wanted to explore what makes these students graduates? The Team stated that the training reflects the professional standards that govern the programme and the graduateness is achieved through developing knowledge by being able to access sources and critically analyse these sources . . . “

Given that the most prominent characteristic of homeopaths (and other advocates of magic medicine) is total lack of critical ability, this is hilarious. If they had critical ability they wouldn’t be homeopaths. Hilarious is not quite the right word,  It is tragic that nonsense like this can be found in an official university document.

Middlesex, though it doesn’t advertise homeopathy, does advertise degrees in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Herbal Medicine and Ayurveda. On 2nd February 2010 I asked for teaching materials from these courses. Guess what? The request was refused. In this case the exemptions under FOIA were not even invoked but I was told that "All these materials are presently available only in one format at the University – via a student-only accessed virtual learning environment. ".  Seems that they can’t print out the bits that I asked for,  The internal review has been requested, then we shall see what the Information Commissioner has to say.

Two other cases are at present being considered by the Information Commissioner (Scotland), after requests under the Scottish FoIA were refused.  They are interesting cases because they bear on the decision, currently being considered by the government, about whether they should implement the recommendations of the execrable Pittilo report.

Napier University Edinburgh.  The first was for teaching material form the herbal medicine course at Napier University Edinburgh.  I notice that this course no longer appears in UCAS or on Napier’s own web site, so maybe the idea that its contents might be disclosed has been sufficient  to make the university do the sensible thing.

Robert Gordon University Aberdeen   The second request was for teaching material from the “Introduction to Homeopathy” course at the Robert Gordon University Aberdeen. The particular interest that attaches to this is that the vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon university is Michael Pittilo. The fact that he is willing to tolerate such a course in his own university seems to me to disqualify him from expressing any view on medical subjects.

Michael Pittilo, Crohn’s disease and Andrew Wakefield

Michael Pittilo has not been active in science for some time now, but Medline does show scientiifc publications for Pittilo RM, between 1979 anf 1998. Between 1989 and 1995 there are five papers published jointly with one Andrew Wakefield. These papers alleged a relationship between measles virus and Crohn’s disease. The papers were published before tha infamous 1998 paper by Wakefield in the Lancet (now retracted) that brought disgrace on Wakefield and probably caused unnecessary deaths.. The link between measles and Crohn’s disease is now equally disproved. 

The subject has been reviewed by Korzenik (2005) in Past and Current Theories of Etiology of IBD. Toothpaste, Worms, and Refrigerators

“Wakefield et al proposed that Crohn’s results from a chronic infection of submucosal endothelium of the intestines with the measles virus [Crohn’s disease: pathogenesis and persistent measles virus infection. Wakefield AJ, Ekbom A, Dhillon AP, Pittilo RM, Pounder RE., Gastroenterology, 1995, 108(3):911-6]”

"This led to considerable media interest and< public concern over use of live measles vaccine as well as other vaccines. A number of researchers countered these claims, with other studies finding that titers to measles were not increased in Crohn’s patients, granulomas were not associated with endothelium 49 , measles were not in granulomas50 and the measles vaccine is not associated with an increased risk of Crohn’s disease51–55 "

This bit of history is not strictly relevant to the Pittilo report, but I do find quite puzzling how the government chooses people from whom it wishes to get advice about medical problems.

Follow-up

I notice that the Robert Gordon university bulletin has announced that

“Professor Mike Pittilo, Principal of the University, has been made an MBE in the New Year Honours list for services to healthcare”.

That is a reward for writing a very bad report that has not yet been implemented, and one hopes, for the sake of patients, will never be implemented. I do sometimes wonder about the bizarre honours system in the UK.

Postcript.

On 16th February, the death of Michael Pittilo was announced. He had been suffeing from cancer and was only 55 years old. I wouldn’t wish that fate on my worst enemy.

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14 Responses to More fails for the Freedom of Information, and a bit of history

  • I am puzzled as to why these universities refuse a request that they now know will most likely be allowed by the Information Commissioner. Why the delaying tactics? Have they invested in military grade shredders?

  • One of the most intriguing figures in the Andrew Wakefield/Royal Free debacle, whose name almost never gets mentioned now, is Professor Roy Pounder, at the time seemingly a person of some influence. Pounder was the Professor of Medicine and senior adult gastroenterologist at the RFH, as well as being one of Wakefield’s mentors. He co-authored many of Wakefield’s papers, though interestingly not the infamous Lancet one. This latter fact presumably explains why Pounder’s name so rarely gets mentioned now when l’affaire Wakefield is discussed. Prof Pounder is long retired but is still involved with the Royal College of Physicians, particularly in stuff to do with doctors’ working hrs.

  • Prof DC: Excellent article as usual. I note that Prof Pittilo was spouting rubbish on the letters page of The Times on Tues 8 Feb, in response to some bollocks about herbal medicine from Simon Fielding in an earlier letter on Feb 4th. I was expecting your reply – I hope The Times gives you the opportunity of responding to them. Why don’t you ask to borrow their ‘Thunderer’ column and really have a go at them?

    Btw, Fielding in his letter was speaking as ‘Founder chairman of the general osteopathic council.’ Osteopathy is missing from your Patients’ guide to magic medicine. Why? And why is osteopathy managing to evade media and blog spotlights while chiroquacks are under attack – aren’t they all much the same thing?

  • 86 modules? Shome mishtake, surely? It’s actually nine, but three are for a dissertation so there are only six taught modules. Unless they are using a funny definition of the word “module”, it should only cost 120 quid.

    http://www.uclan.ac.uk/information/courses/msc_homeopathy_by_elearning.php

  • “UCLAN spent £80,307.95.(inc VAT at 17.5%) in legal expenses alone (plus heaven knows how much in staff time) to prevent us from seeing what was taught on their now defunct “BSc (Hons) homeopathy”.”

    Holy ****!

  • Glad you mentioned MMR,
    No field studies of the vaccine’s effectiveness were found but the impact of mass immunisation on the elimination of the diseases has been demonstrated worldwide (Cochrane).

    I like the phrase at the end to give some justification to the fact there are no field studies to show the MMR jab actually works.As usual, evidence base medicine only applies when criticising alternative medicine.
    Every wondered why asthma and atopic conditions are on the rise along with vaccination rates, David? Ever thought of thinking outside the box?

    Demicheli V, Jefferson T, Rivetti A, Price D. Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2005, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD004407. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004407.pub2.

  • Those of us with allergic and asthmatic children are of course easily worried and unsettled by suggestions that their childhood immunisations might be involved. But there has been a good deal of recent epidemiological research, which has not found evidence for an association. For example, this recent study from Denmark, involving over 800,000 children, “Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccination and Asthma-like Disease in Early Childhood” – available full-text from Medscape: you have to register but then it’s free – http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/585675

    It concludes “These results are compatible not with an increased risk of asthma following MMR vaccination but rather with the hypothesis that MMR vaccination is associated with a reduced risk of asthma-like disease in young children.” And a study in Pediatrics in March 2009 “Routine Vaccination Against Pertussis and the Risk of Childhood Asthma: A Population-Based Cohort Study” (PEDIATRICS Vol. 123 No. 3 March 2009, pp. 944-950 (doi:10.1542/peds.2008-0115) compared vaccinated and unvaccinated children and found no evidence of increased wheeze or asthma in the vaccinated cohort.

    Straying into anecdotage here & I haven’t verified it, but friends based in Germany tell me that atopy rates in former East Germany increased post unification, while the take up for childhood immunisations actually decreased in the same period.

  • p.s. another recent epidemiological study, (Tasmania) which also did not find associations between atopic diseases and childhood immunisations – “We found no association between any childhood immunization (Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Polio, Smallpox) and asthma (ORs ranged from 0.87 to 1.17 p > 0.05), eczema (ORs ranged from 0.99 to 1.07 p > 0.05), food allergy (ORs ranged from 0.97 to 1.11 p > 0.05), or hay fever (ORs ranged from 1.02 to 1.05 p > 0.05) at age 44. Nor did we find any association between childhood immunizations and an increased risk of incident asthma after the age of 7 yrs …”

    “Childhood immunization and atopic disease into middle-age – a prospective cohort study” – Paediatric Allergy & Immunology, Early Online view – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123206705/abstract

  • I’ve tended to look at data from the following study,
    http://www.ginasthma.com/download.asp?intId=29
    When you see the disparity between New Zealand and Albania in terms of asthma rates in 14 year olds you start to think that there is a major factor in play eg. now what couldn’t Albanians do up until recently that New Zealanders do more than anybody else. Travel? Vaccination?
    At the end of the day all of these are epidemiological studies in low impact journals. Shows how the evidence base for conventional medicines can be just as poor as for natural meds.

  • I think to pick two countries with widely different asthma rates and suggest vaccination as the ‘one true cause’ is a bit unsafe. The scientific consensus appears to be that the phenomonon of rising rates in richer, urbanised/westernised countries is complex and very likely multifactorial. In any case, WHO-Unicef estimates for childhood vaccination coverage in the Republic of Albania actually look pretty high, according to this – http://bit.ly/aVWCJe
    There is a link to a more detailed review from that page [pdf]

  • I prefer lurking but Dangerous unconventional has spouted too many stupidities.

    In particular the canard “epidemiological studies in low impact journals”
    Ignoring the fact that epidemiological studies are very good at identifying links. Pediatrics is not a low impact journal. To quote from the website:

    “PEDIATRICS has the second highest impact factor among all journals in the field of pediatrics.

    Total 2008 Citations: 36,158*

    PEDIATRICS is among the top 2% most-cited scientific and medical journals.

    PEDIATRICS is the most-cited journal in the field of pediatrics.”

    The comparison between NZ and Albania is ridiculous and stupid. There are huge differences between the two countries and you can make up virtually anything as a cause. You’ve missed double glazing which is much more common in Albania than New Zealand. on the other hand it could be down to the 70 million Brush tailed Possums in NZ with none in Albania.

    The data for vaccines is excellent – as the reduction in MMR rates has shown, high rates prevent disease, but asthma rates keep climbing

    What a load of homeopathy

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