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Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy

October 14th, 2008 · 39 Comments

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It seems that validation committees often don’t look beyond the official documents. As a result, the validations may not be worth the paper they are written on. Try this one.

One of the best bits of news recently was the downfall of Matthias Rath.  He’s the man who peddled vitamin pills for AIDS in Africa, and encouraged the AIDS denialists in the South African government.  Thabo Mbeki and his Health Minister, Mrs Beetroot, have gone now, thank heavens.

Rath was one of the best illustrations of the murderous effect of selling ineffective treatments.  The fact that nobody in the “nutritional therapy” industry has uttered a word of condemnation for this man illustrates better than anything one can imagine the corrupt state of “nutritional therapy”.  The people who kept silent include the British Association of Nutritional Therapists (BANT).

It might be surprising, then, to find the Northern College of Acupuncture proudly adding a course in alternative nutrition to its courses in acupuncture (now known to be a theatrical placebo) and Chinese herbal medicine (largely untested and sometimes toxic).  It might be even more surprising to find the boast that the course is validated by the University of Wales.  It seemed a good idea to find out a bit more about how this came about.  Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, some interesting things can be discovered.

Polly Toynbee’s superb article, Quackery and superstition – available soon on the NHS,  written in January 2008, mentioned diplomas and degrees in complementary therapies offered by, among others, the University of Wales.  This elicited a letter of protest to Toynbee from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales, Professor Marc Clement BSc, PhD, MInstP, CEng,CPhys,FIET.   He invited her to visit the university to see their “validation and monitoring procedures (including the University’s very specific guidelines on health studies disciplines”.

So let’s take a look at these validation procedures and guidelines.

The validation process

The Northern College of Acupuncture submitted a 148 page proposal for the course in October 2007.   The document has all the usual edu-bollocks jargon, but of course doesn’t say much about clinical trials, though it does boast about an unblinded trial of acupuncture published in 2006 which, because of lack of appropriate controls, served only to muddy the waters.  : This submission was considered by the University’s validation committee last December.


Panel of Assessors:

Professor Nigel Palastanga (Chair), Cardiff University

Dr Celia Bell (School of Health and Social Sciences Middlesex University)

Dr John Fish (Moderator designate) (Institute of Biological Sciences University of Wales, Aberystwyth)

Ms Rhiannon Harris (Centre for Nutrition & Dietetics University of Wales Institute,
Cardiff (UWIC))

Ms Felicity Moir (School of Integrated Health University of Westminster)

The whole validation document is only four pages long [download it]. The most interesting thing about it is that the words ‘evidence’ or ‘critical’ do not occur in it a single time.  It has all the usual bureaucratic jargon of such documents but misses entirely the central point.

Does that mean that the University of Wales doesn’t care about evidence or critical thinking?  Well, not on paper. Two years previously a short document called Health Studies Guidelines had been written by Dr Brian Spriggs (Health Studies Validation Consultant, since retired) for the Health Studies Committee, and it was approved on 21 April 2005.  It starts well.

“Degrees in the Health Studies field are expected to promote an understanding of the  importance of the scientific method and an evidence-base to underpin therapeutic interventions and of research to expand that base.”

It even goes on to say that a BSc degree in homeopathy is “unacceptable”.  Don’t get too excited though, because it also says that acupuncture and Chinese herbal  stuff is quite OK.  How anyone can imagine they live up to the  opening sentence beats me.   And it gets worse. It says that all sorts of rather advanced forms of battiness are OK if they form only part of another degree.  They include Homeopathy, Crystal therapy. Dowsing, Iridology; Kinesiology, Radionics, Reflexology, Shiatsu, Healing, and Maharishi Ayurvedic Medicine.

Dowsing? Crystal therapy?  Just let me remind you. We are living in 2008. It is easy to forget that when ploughing through all this new age junk.

The Validation Handbook of Quality Assurance: Health Studies (2007) runs to an astonishing 256 pages [download the whole thing]. On page 12 we find the extent of the problem.

“The University of Wales validates a number of schemes in the Health Studies field. At the current time we have undergraduate and/or postgraduate degree schemes in Acupuncture, Animal Manipulation, Chiropractic, Herbal Medicine, Integrative Psychotherapy, Osteopathy, Osteopathic Studies, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Regulatory Affairs, both in the UK and overseas.”

That sounds pretty shocking.   Further down on page 12, though, we find this.

“Degrees in the Health Studies field are expected to promote an understanding of the importance of the scientific method and an evidence-base to underpin therapeutic interventions and of research to expand that base. The mission is to promote and require the critical evaluation of the practices, doctrines, beliefs, theories and hypotheses that underlie the taught therapeutic measures of the discipline.”

They are indeed fine words. The problem is that I can detect no sign in the submission, nor in its consideration by the validation committee, that any attempt whatsoever was made to ensure that the course complied with these requirements.

The only sign of concern I could detect of any concern about the quality of what was being taught came in a minute to a meeting of the Health Studies Committee meeting on 24th April 2008.

“Members received a copy of an article entitled Quackery and superstition available soon on the NHS which appeared in The Guardian newspaper in January 2008, and a copy of the Vice- Chancellors response. Members agreed that this article was now historical but felt that if/when the issue were to arise again; the key matter of scientific rigour should be stressed. The Committee agreed that this was the most critical element of all degree schemes in the University of Wales portfolio of health studies schemes. It was felt it would be timely to re-examine the schemes within the portfolio as well as the guidelines for consideration of Health Studies schemes at the next meeting. The Committee might also decide that Institutions would be required to include literature reviews (as part of their validation submission) to provide evidence for their particular profession/philosophy. It was agreed that the guidelines would be a vital document in the consideration of new schemes and during preliminary visits to prospective Institutions. “

The Press Office had passed Polly Toynbee’s article to them.  Curiously the Health Studies Committee dismissed it as “historical”, simply because it was written three months earlier.  That is presumably “historical” in the sense that the public will have forgotten about it, rather than in the sense that the facts of the matter have changed since January.  So, at least for the nutrition degree, Toynbee’s comments  were simply brushed under the carpet.

After a few cosmetic changes of wording the validation was completed on 16th January 2008. For example the word “diagnosis” was removed in 43 places and “rewritten in terms of evaluation and assessment”.  There was, needless to say, no indication that the change in wording would change anything in what was taught to students.

You may think that I am being a bit too harsh. Perhaps the course is just fine after all? The problem is that the submission and the reaction of the validation committee tell you next to nothing about what actually matters, and that is what is taught. There is only a vague outline of that in the submission (and part of it was redacted on the grounds that if it were made public somebody might copy ;it.  Heaven forbid).

That is why I have to say, yet again, that this sort of validation exercise is not worth the paper it’s written on.

How can we find out a bit more? Very easily as it happens. Just Google. What matters is not so much formal course outlines but who teaches them.

The nutrition course

The title of the course is just “Nutrition”, not ‘Nutritional Therapy’ or ‘Alternative Nutrition’.  That sounds quite respectable but a glance at the prospectus shows immediately that it is full-blown alternative medicine.

Already in July 2007, the glowing press releases for the course had attracted attention from the wonderfully investigative web site HolfordWatch.   I see no sign that the validation committee was aware of this. But if not, why not? I would describe is as dereliction of academic duty.

“This pioneering course is unique in that it is firmly rooted in both Western nutritional science and naturopathic medicine and also covers concepts of nutrition within traditional Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicine.

This means that graduates will gain comprehensive understanding of both modern scientific knowledge and ancient wisdom concerning nutrition and dietetics.”

Ancient wisdom, of course, means something that your are supposed to believe though there is no good reason to think it’s true.  In the end, though, almost the only thing that really matters about any course is who is running it.  The brochure shows that all of the people are heavily into every form of alternative nuttiness.

Course Director and Tutor: Jacqueline Young nutritionist, naturopath, clinical psychologist and Oriental medical practitioner

Nutrition Tutors:

Elaine Aldred  (qualified as a chiropractor with the Anglo European Chiropractic College, as an acupuncturist with the British College of Acupuncture and as a Western Medical Herbalist with the College of Phytotherapy. She recently also qualified in Chinese herbal medicine with the Northern College of Acupuncture.)

Sue Russell (3 year diploma in nutritional therapy at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition. She currently practises as a nutritional therapist and also works part-time as a manager at the Northern College of Homeopathic Medicine.)

Anuradha Sharma (graduated as a dietician from Leeds Metropolitan University in 2002 and subsequently completed a Naturopathy certificate and a post-graduate diploma in acupuncture).

Guest Lecturers include : Dr John Briffa, Professor Jane Plant, M.B.E. (a geochemist turned quack), and, most revealingly, none other than the UK’s most notorious media celebrity and pill peddler, Patrick Holford.

So much has been written about Holford’s appalling abuse of science, one would have thought that not even a validation committee could have missed it.

“The course has been created by Jacqueline Young“, so let’s look a bit further at her track record.

Jacqueline Young has written a book, ‘Complementary Medicine for Dummies’ [Ed: ahem shouldn’t that be Dummies for Complementary Medicine?].  You can see parts of it on Google Books. Did the validation committee bother to look at it?  As far as I can tell, the words ‘randomised’ or ‘clinical trial’ occur nowhere in the book.

The chapter on Tibetan medicine is not very helpful when it comes to evidence but for research we are referred to the Tibetan Medical and Astrology Institute.  Guess what? That site gives no evidence either. So far not a single university has endorsed Astrology (there is a profitable niche there for some vice-chancellor).

Here are few samples from the book. The advice seems to vary from the undocumented optimism of this

Well researched?  No. Safe? Nobody knows.  Or this

Mandarin peel prevents colds and flu?  Old wive’s tale.  Then there are things that verge on the weird, like this one

or the deeply bizarre like this

The problem of Jacqueline Young’s fantasy approach to facts was pointed out at least as far back as 2004, by Ray Girvan., who wrote about it again in May 2005. The problems were brought to wider attention when Ben Goldacre wrote two articles in his Badscience column, Imploding Researchers (September 2005), and the following week, Tangled Webs.

“we were pondering the ethics and wisdom of Jacqueline Young dishing out preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense as if it was authoritative BBC fact, with phrases such as: “Implosion researchers have found that if water is put through a spiral its electrical field changes and it then appears to have a potent, restorative effect on cells.” “

and later

“Take this from her article on cranial osteopathy, riddled with half truths: “Sutherland found that the cranial bones (the skull bones encasing the brain) weren’t fused in adulthood, as was widely believed, but actually had a cycle of slight involuntary movement.” In fact the cranial bones do fuse in adulthood.

She goes on: “This movement was influenced by the rhythmic flow of cerebrospinal fluid (the nourishing and protective fluid that circulates through the spinal canal and brain) and could become blocked.” There have now been five studies on whether “cranial osteopaths” can indeed feel these movements, as they claim, and it’s an easy experiment to do: ask a couple of cranial osteopaths to write down the frequency of the rhythmic pulses on the same person’s skull, and see if they give the same answer. They don’t. A rather crucial well-replicated finding to leave out of your story.

That was in 2005 and since then all of Young’s “preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense” (along with most of the other stuff about junk medicine) has vanished from the BBC’s web site, after some people with a bit of common sense pointed out what nonsense it was.  But now we see them resurfacing in a course validated by a serious university.  The BBC had some excuse (after all, it is run largely by arts graduates). I can see no excuses for the University of Wales.

Incidentally,  thanks to web archive you can still read Young’s nonsense,  long after the BBC removed it.  Here is a quotation.

“Implosion researchers have found that if water is put through a spiral its ,field changes and it then appears to have a potent, restorative effect on cells. In one study, seedlings watered with spiralised water grew significantly faster, higher and stronger than those given ordinary water.”

The vice-chancellor of the University of Wales, Marc Clement, is a physicist (Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering), so can he perhaps explain the meaning of this?

Selection committees for jobs (especially senior jobs) and validation committees for courses, might make fewer mistakes if they didn’t rely so much on formal documents and did a little more investigation themselves. That sort of thing is why the managerial culture not only takes a lot more time, but also gives a worse result.

It would have taken 10 minutes with Google to find out about Young’s track record, but they didn’t bother. As a result they have spent a long time producing a validation that isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. That makes the University of Wales a bit of a laughing stock. Worse still, it brings science itself into disrepute.

Follow-up

What does the University of Wales say? So far, nothing.   Last week I sent brief and polite emails to Professor Palastanga and to Professor Clement to try to discover whether it is true that the validation process had indeed missed the fact that the course organiser’s writings had been described as “preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense” in the Guardian.

So far I have had no reply from the vice-chancellor, but on .26 October I did get an answer from Prof Palastaga.

As regards the two people you asked questions about – J.Young – I personally am not familiar with her book and nobody on the validation panel raised any concerns about it. As for P.Holford similarly there were no concerns expressed about him or his work. In both cases we would have considered their CV’s as presented in the documentation as part of the teaching team. In my experience of conducting degree validations at over 16 UK Universities this is the normal practice of a validation panel.


I have to say this reply confirms my worst fears. Validation committees such as this one simply don’t do their duty. They don’t show the curiosity that is needed to discover the facts about the things that they are meant to be judging. How could they not have looked at the book by the very person that they are validating? After all that has been written about Patrick Holford, it is simply mind-boggling that the committee seems to have been quite unaware of any of it.

It is yet another example of the harm done to science by an unthinking, box-ticking approach.

Pharmacology. A Handbook for Complementary Healthcare Professionals

Elsevier were kind enough to send me an inspection copy of this book, which is written by one of the nutrition course tutors, Elaine Aldred. She admits that pharmacology is “considered by most students to be nothing more that a ‘hoop-jumping’ exercise in the process of becoming qualified”.  She also says. disarmingly. that “I was certainly not the most adept scientist at school and found my university course a trial”.

The book has all the feel of a cut and paste job. It is mostly very simple (if not simplistic). though for no obvious reason it starts with a long (and very amateur) discussion of chemical bonding  Then molecules are admitted to be indivisible (but, guess what, the subject of homeopathy is avoided).  There is a very short section on ion channels, though, bizarrely, it appears under the heading “How do drugs get into cells?”. Since the author is clearly not able to make the distinction between volts and coulombs, the discussion is more likely to confuse the reader than to help.

Then a long section on plants. It starts of by asserting that “approximately a quarter of prescription drugs contain at least one chemical that was originally isolated and extracted from a plant”.. This cannot be even remotely correct.  There are vast tables showing complicated chemical structures, but the usual inadequate
list of their alleged actions  This is followed by a quick gallop through some classes of conventional drugs, illustrated again mainly by chemical structures not data.  Hormone replacement therapy is mentioned, but the chance to point out that it is one of the best illustrations of the need for RCTs is missed.

The one thing that one would really like to see in such a book is a good account of how you tell whether or not a drug works in man. This is relegated to five pages at the end of the book, and it is, frankly, pathetic.  It
is utterly uncritical in the one area that matters more than any other for people who purport to treat patients. All you get is a list of unexplained bullet points.

If this book is the source of the “scientific content” of the nutrition course, things are as bad as we feared.




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Tags: Academia · acupuncture · Anti-science · antiscience · Bad journalism · badscience · BBC · CAM · evidence · Freedom of Information Act · homeopathy · managerialism · Marc Clement · Matthias Rath · Northern College of Acupuncture · nutribollocks · nutrition · nutritional therapy · Politicians · supplements · Universities · UUK · validation · vice-chancellors

39 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mike Eslea // Oct 15, 2008 at 09:26

    Excellent post! It really saddens me that Universities fail to stop such obvious balderdash. OK, there is a continuum of woo and it may sometimes be difficult to draw a clear line, but this is just blatant intellectual dishonesty. And to write off criticism as “historical” just beggars belief. Do these people have no PRIDE?

    I wonder how much of this is down to the management structures in different institutions. Are more democratic Universities less likely to fall victim? Does it matter how many senior managers are real academics, rather than lawyers or bean-counters? How can we stop good Universities transforming into Hollywood Upstairs Medical College?

  • 2 Muscleman // Oct 15, 2008 at 11:06

    Well it looks like this isn’t going to cost the UoW much. They won’t be teaching it, the Northern College of Woo will. The university will just cream off some cash for the use of its logo and status on the qualifications. I can see why a VC might be attracted to this. What’s the betting the validation committee were under instruction not to make waves over this one?

    And in the current funding climate who in the UoW is feeling sufficiently secure in their jobs to make a stink over this? Besides the university is hardly putting up a Dept of Woo building or anything. Cheap as chips and as nutritious.

  • 3 Moochie // Oct 15, 2008 at 13:55

    I am absolutely stunned at the wanton stupidity being displayed by this “University”. Their licence to teach ought to be revoked and those responsible for this “validation” made to do 500 hours of community service.

  • 4 Dr Aust // Oct 15, 2008 at 21:55

    Well, to paraphrase an oft-quoted (though not certainly attributable) phrase:

    “All that is necessary for alternative bullshit to triumph in Universities is for people who actually care to do nothing”

    …which is why Mike Eslea deserves kudos for highlighting UCLan’s cosying up to Alt.Reality nonsense and evasions.

    So – what is really needed here is for some real UofW academics (especially scientists and medics) to protest sufficiently loudly for the local newspapers and the THE to notice.

    It would be nice if more senior academics got involved in such protests against Alt.Reality nonsense. Apart from anything else, if a University’s most famous and eminent scientist (say) puts his name to a protest against validating degrees in bullshit, then it makes all the more junior and less secure people who sign the same protest that bit more secure. So perhaps if anyone at UoW were going to take this one up, the first person they should contact is Sir Martin Evans.

  • 5 David Colquhoun // Oct 16, 2008 at 11:51

    Good idea. Done it. Perhaps anyone who knows someone in the University of Wales might draw their attention to what’s going on.

  • 6 crepuscule // Oct 16, 2008 at 13:16

    In psychology, I see Professor David Linden at Bangor Uni (Professor of Biological Psychiatry) published this letter (though I have no idea what it says):

    Linden, D. E. J. (2008). Placebo effect: Implementing placebo BMJ. 336, (7653) 1087.

  • 7 David Colquhoun // Oct 16, 2008 at 15:30

    The BMJ letter from David Linden is here.

  • 8 Dr Aust // Oct 17, 2008 at 01:39

    Yes, a glance at their website suggests the Bangor Psych people are a serious scientific bunch. Does Mike Eslea know any of them that could be enlisted in the anti-balderdash movement?

    Have realised that all my scientific cronies in Wales work for Cardiff Univ, as does Nobelist Prof Martin Evans. Cardiff apparently seceded from the federal U of Wales a few years ago. Bangor, however, is definitely a bit of the federal U of W, as are Aberystwyth and Swansea.

  • 9 Mike Eslea // Oct 17, 2008 at 14:50

    Good idea! I am shooting off a few emails now…

    Just noticed that UoW has a webpage to solicit applications for their validation services. The illustrations on this page include one of acupuncture & moxibustion paraphenalia, and one that looks like some chiropractic back-cracking on a skeleton (you may have to refresh the page a few times to see them). In other words, they actively seek out this stuff!

  • 10 Dr Aust // Oct 17, 2008 at 21:08

    Ah, the joys of franchising.

    “Got a course, Guv? Want to be able to call it an “accredited Bachelor Degree? Let us rubber-stamp it! Please!”

    *sigh*

    Is there anything some of these Vice-Chancellors won’t do for money?

    I don’t get how they cannot see that what they stand to lose (any belief in the wider world that they are a proper University with proper standards) has more value than what they stand to gain. I suppose the answer is that in the short term only the latter (the financial pay-back for the “accreditation” / franchising service) has a countable cash value.

  • 11 David Colquhoun // Oct 18, 2008 at 21:26

    Mike -that external validation huckstering page is really quite remarkable.

    “Almost 13,000 students are registered on validated schemes of study, in over twenty countries worldwide”

    And they’ll even provide advisors to make sure you include all the necessary management bollocks to make sure that your degree in voodoo gets validated. But they are very coy about what they charge you for this service.

    I wonder if someone is watching this blog because I notice that the two pictures that you mentioned have now changed. Here, in the public interest, are the original pictures, moxibustion and acupuncture, and the putative chiropractic,
    The acupuncture advert The chiropractor pic

  • 12 Mike Eslea // Oct 21, 2008 at 10:04

    Hmmm. A colleague at Bangor tells me they, like Cardiff, now award their own degrees, and are no longer “under the University of Wales umbrella”. Maybe this explains why UoW are so desperate for affiliates: if all the real Universities are leaving the umbrella ella ella eh eh eh they will soon have no students at all.

    Apologies for bursting into song there. It must be Dr Aust’s influence…

  • 13 John Hooper // Oct 22, 2008 at 13:13

    It would seem to me that kanpo remedies are indeed safe to use and have life preserving qualities. Every day I consume roots, leaves, fruit, fungi, minerals and animal ingredients. I have been doing this for 54 years now and am rarely ill.

    Sometimes I consume a mixture of all of these at once and I know it works as it has kept me alive and well for more than half a century.

    My mother introduced me to this remedy and gave it to me from birth. I am not sure she called it kanpo though because she was Irish.

    I find this site invaluable, so thank you. I was at university from 1975-81 when they seemed strangely pre-occupied with that science stuff. Until fairly recently had someone told me that British universities were teaching hokum like this, HY, reiki, bone-cracking and the rest of the mumbo-jumbo portfolio I would have seriously doubted them.

    I realised the world was awash with mumbo-jumbo of every shade and description but genuinely had no idea it had taken root in British universities.

    I wonder if there is a corollary here between universities and pharmaceutical companies. In both of them there seem to be genuine researchers interested in pursuing genuine scientific research but they are let down by the management guru-speak people who run them as businesses. The researchers do the science stuff but are let down by the management who will literally do anything for a fast buck.

    I just noticed the air bath bit. Please tell me this is not part of a course at a UK university. If so I would like to understand how the bed-ridden are supposed to walk around getting their air bath – which part of bed ridden did I misunderstand. I walked naked around my garden once whilst vigorously rubbing my body – £100 fine and 200 hours community service.

  • 14 David Colquhoun // Oct 22, 2008 at 23:32

    John Hooper. Lovely comment, I needed a laugh. I can’t guarantee that there is a practical class in air bathing on the course. That was just in her book.

    I think your analogy with pharmaceutical companies is spot on. In the post-Thatcher-Reagan-Khomeini era of delusions, I have the feeling that the gap between the (mostly) honest researchers and the (frequently) dishonest management has become much wider. More of this in the next post.

  • 15 John Hooper // Oct 23, 2008 at 15:28

    A colleague pointed out that I had been as sloppy as the mumbo-jumboists with respect to the bedridden getting air baths – it does in fact say you can just roll them around a bit in the bed rather than take their clothes off and stick them in the back garden. So I am only too happy to clear this matter up and apologise for my lack of methodological rigour.

    The reason I missed this bit was because I was so shocked on reading the air bath drivel that I needed 200C of arsenicum, St Johns wort, Bach Flower Remedy and twelve crystals just to calm my nerves down and I forgot to read the rest of it.

    I don’t wish to labour this point but as most people seem to sleep without nightclothes wouldn’t you automatically get an air bath between getting out of bed and getting dressed.

  • 16 Prasutigus // Nov 16, 2008 at 11:41

    I now realise I had a lucky escape when I failed to get on a funded research place at Lampeter seeing how that institution is now in meltdown. I think the problems there are in part due to Lampeter being a soley liberal arts univeristy. A real university offers real knowledge about real subjects and dsiciplines. To gain competence and knowledge should require a lot of commitment. There is even some research group in Lampeter that looks for evidence for divine or spritual reality. Dr Rowan Williams and Prince Charles acolyte Jonathon Porrit are both members.
    The other problem the federal U of Wales has are its roots in the church. Lampeter is Wales oldest degree awarding college having begun as a place for the clergy to study how to dominate Wales from the pulpit. It seems another bunch relativists in the form of alternative therapists etc are replacing the bible therapists.
    The sooner Cardiff University becomes completely independant of the U of Wales the better. The same goes for the breaking up of the federal U of Wales. The internal devolution of Welsh HE institutions will loosen the power of that clique, that bunch of romantic idiots, the Taffia.

    Diolch to that

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  • 21 chatie // Oct 12, 2009 at 08:26

    Hi,

    I’m reviving this issue. I’m interested in public health nutrition and went along to what I thought would be a decent public health conference on Thursday at the Barbican centre. The programme looked good and the likes of Hamish Meldrum (Chairman of BMA Council) and Richard Parish (Chief Exec of Royal Society of Public Health) were presenting, so I thought that this would be a pretty good way of fulfilling some self-education needs. I didn’t know anything about the main sponsor except that it was getting really good publicity by being the main sponsor. Its name, or rather abbreviated name, was literally plastered everywhere – UWIC! This name didn’t mean anything to me at all – and at first. [DC UWIC = University of Wales Institute, Cardiff]

    From the time I signed in, I was in utter disbelief at how nutritional therapy was conning its way into public health nutrition. I know that NT has been conning its way into “clinical nutrition” whereby these “practitioners” “practise” on individuals for large sums of money (a more accurate description would be chargeable sums of money in an inverse and strong correlation to the “practitioner’s” skill set), but to see NT infiltrating the domain of public health nutrition was something else. I know of so many nutritional therapists conning their way into the science world of clinical nutrition, pretending to be experts in the science of nutrition, but the concept or in fact the reality that they are now conning their way into the arena of public health nutrition really just stunned me.

    Massive alarm bells started ringing when I got my name badge – there was a free copy of “Optimum Nutrition” (the “journal” belonging to ION!) at the desk. At the bottom of the front cover was a picture of Holford and Ian Marber (aka the Food Doctor) which really irked me. What great free publicity for these con artists and their con industry.

    I wandered through the displays on show and the first one as I turned the corner from the sign-in desk was none other than that of the UWIC! I picked up a few things from them, including a pamphlet outlining the courses offered in their Centre for Complementary Therapies. I was thoroughly annoyed to see a BSc in Complementary Therapies being offered – a Bachelor of Science degree in therapies such as massage, reflexology and aromatherapy etc ‼! I’ve seen quite a few nutritional therapists offering their “complimentary” therapies, which is probably a more accurate depiction of such therapies – as your masseur is massaging you and treating you like royalty, or more like a fool parting with your money, you are complimenting the masseur on their great technique – a scientific technique I hasten to add…and these are indeed special techniques you learn at the UWIC. Everything is prefixed with wonderful, alluring adjectives, such as …”holistic massage, professional reflexology and clinical aromatherapy”.

    Anyway, I digress. Another stall was advertising their fitness programs and nutritional courses, including a DipNT which on successful completion would entitle a person to belonging to BANT – what a privilege! It gets better.

    After Dr Meldrum and Prof Parish each gave their inspiring 20 minute spiel to the whole audience, the dean of UWIC gave his – a 20 minute advert detailing the amazing scientific work done at UWIC and the amazingly scientific courses they provide. To prevent me from throwing up in disgust, I thought I’d delve into some of the information sheets provided in the delegate pack…I found a pamphlet advertising ION…at least I found something to throw up into.
    What I was and am really annoyed about is the fact that nutrition has become a fantastically lucrative vehicle for non-scientists impersonating scientists (for me that includes dieticians), for scientists in other fields trying to impersonate ratified nutritional scientists or similar, as well as public health nutritionists impersonating dieticians, biochemists impersonating public health nutritionists and all other sorts of other computations – I just am not that clever as all these con artists to figure out all of them and there would be too many. Nutrition is a diverse subject whereby dieticians, public health nutritionists, doctors, biochemists and many other people all contribute to this field but each of these groups has their own remit. Each has their own skill set and it is extremely bad science for people not to know their limitations (and I have had a massive dose of personal experience in such situations) but nutritional therapy is something else…it really is in a league of its own.

    My main point is this – by having speakers from distinguished organisations such as the BMA speak alongside those from the likes of UWIC, the former unwittingly endorse the latter. This is what happens at health shows such as those at the Olympia where I’ve seen a bona fide gastroenterologist (from UCL) speak at the same show that Holford speaks at! What can be done and who is accountable for this? – surely it should be the organisers? Yet many state in their brochures that the content of presentations aren’t necessarily congruent with their sentiments. What it comes down to is simple – money really is the root of all evil. With enough money, you can buy your way into places, just like UWIC did. Enough money and enough publicity, and then UWIC will start giving ION a run for their money. However, if people keep on letting the public know about the truth and keep on campaigning against these vile institutes and the vile people perpetuating them, then great things can be accomplished. I’ve seen lots of evidence of this on this site and elsewhere. I think that I’ll write to the organiser of that Barbican show later this week – you never know what could happen as a result of your letter; it could be the start of something or the straw that eventually breaks the camel’s back. Basically, if you feel strongly about something, do something about it and keep on persevering. I think this site is a great example of this.

    Thanks,
    Chatie

  • 22 David Colquhoun // Oct 12, 2009 at 20:29

    Chatie
    Thanks very much for that fascinating comment. I guess the event to which you are referring must be this one http://www.publicserviceevents.co.uk/main/programme.asp?event_ID=95

    It isn’t at all obvious from the speakers that it would be so permeated by nonsense. I can’t understand how the organisers could allow it.

  • 23 Lindy // Oct 12, 2009 at 21:05

    @ Chatie

    Another example of these pseuds worming their way into the arena of real science was a recent afternoon meeting at the Royal Society of Medicine. It was the section of general practice annual meeting which lasted a week. (I was not able to go to it).

    The first afternoon was a session on completmentary therapies. Edzard Ernst was giving the opening talk followed by workshops on various cranky ‘therapies’. I looked up some of the speakers and one of them apparently trained in Reiki (which I understand can heal you from the other side of the world) and had received her qualification at Stonehenge. I’ve known about this ludicrous meeting for many months and my mind is still boggling at the absurdity and, more seriously, puzzling at the fact that a learned institution such as the RSM will even contemplate such stuff.

    I will of course be complaining about my subscription to the RSM being used for such events. It is a tragedy when there is so much good science around.

  • 24 M Simpson // Oct 12, 2009 at 22:28

    David, the reason that the organisers of that event “could allow it” is because they are a private conference company, a purely profit-making concern unconnected with the NHS, the DH or any other aspect of public sector health provision.

    Public Sector Conferences is just one of many firms whose entire business is organising conferences for public sector managers to attend. It appalled me, during my time in the NHS, that so much public money – NHS, Civil Service, Local Government – is ploughed into attending these endless (and often very expensive) conferences which exist purely to make a profit. But that’s how it is.

    A company like that just wants bums on seats, so if they can attract both respectable punters and the loony fringe, they’re doubling their audience and boosting their profits. To expect them to care about what the speakers actually say is naive.

  • 25 Tweets that mention Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy -- Topsy.com // Oct 13, 2009 at 08:53

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  • 26 David Colquhoun // Oct 13, 2009 at 09:26

    @M Simpson
    Yes, of course you are quite right. Now you mention it, I get bombarded with emails inviting me to pay to go to these commercial conferences.

    That begs the question of why respectable speakers accept the invitations to speak at them. Perhaps they just don’t look carefully at who will be there.

    It has often occurred to me that some senior academics need lessons in how to use Google. rather than just looking at official documents. I’m amused that if you Google “”Michael Pittilo”, the second item on the frint page is A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor

  • 27 chatie // Oct 14, 2009 at 00:33

    @ Lindy

    Glad to hear that you will be complaining to the RSM. Unfortunately, I’ve got more bad news for you about the RSM. There is a well-known expert in nutrition – a Dr Marilyn Glenville. This lady is the President of the Food and Health forum at the RSM and she is indeed worthy of holding such an esteemed position, given her valid qualifications – this is for real and not meant to be sarcastic, although it may seem to be. Anyway, her ‘Memberships and Positions’ section of her biography (http://www.naturalhealthpractice.com/Dr_marilyn_glenville_W4.cfm) is the epitome of an oxymoron. As per scientifically-educated nutritionists, she is a member of the Nutrition Society yet she has also previously been the Chair of the governing council for the British Association of Nutritional Therapists! With the nutritional therapists having the backing of a bona fide scientist, the scientific world of nutrition is in real trouble of being close to extinction one day!

    I saw Marilyn Glenville give a talk a couple of years ago at a health show in Olympia – it might have been the same one that Holford and the bona fide gastroenterologist I mentioned previously were at, but I can’t say for sure – there are so many of these nutrition shows that I have attended as a member of the public – which also highlights the many opportunities these con artists get at showcasing their “skills” to the public. Anyway, I remember that at the time her talk made good scientific sense. The last talk in the Food and Health forum at the RSM (pregnancy-related) was delivered by worldwide experts and chaired by Marilyn Glenville. She gave no presentation but if you want to catch her presenting, you can go to the CAMexpo show at Earls Court later this month where she will be talking about nutrition and breast cancer.

    Now, when I first saw the name ‘CAMexpo’ I genuinely thought it stood for something along the lines of ‘complementary and alternative medicine – exposed!’ rather than the more subdued meaning of CAM exposition. Anyhow, ‘CAMexpo’ is a catchy-sounding word and that’s what all good nutritional therapists are about – they’re experts in PR with their catchy-sounding phrases, buzz words, and seemingly scientific jargon, i.e. words that are at least 10 syllables long that the public don’t understand and neither do the real scientists – only these highly trained and well-qualified therapists.

    Now who did you think will be featuring in this expo? – yup, none other than our friend – Holford. The show preview (http://www.camexpo.co.uk/camexpo2009/CUSTOM/images/web/camexpo_preview.pdf) makes me so outraged – not only because I see two pictures of Holford’s devious, smart-arse face on there but because he is touted as being one of Britain’s leading natural health experts, alongside Marilyn Glenville. Irrespective of my thoughts about Marilyn Glenville denigrating herself, the fact that Holford is mentioned first – as if he is more of an expert in nutrition than she is – is absolutely infuriating. She is referred to as Dr Marilyn Glenville, so why don’t they refer to him as Mr Patrick Holford – he doesn’t have a doctorate of any kind, let alone a BSc in nutrition. Furthermore, by juxtaposing these names together, greater authority is given to Holford than otherwise.

    How can Marilyn Glenville, with a history of such huge involvement with BANT, not know the true essence of Holford? Can this scientist be for real? Of course she knows – for the essence of Holford would appear to be hers too – money, and therefore, of course she is for real. She is a prime example of what I call a scientist turning to the dark side – the dark side of nutritional therapy – fuelled by the dreams of riches and wealth that it promises. (I really believe that a solution to the credit crunch crisis would be for bankers to become nutritional therapists as opposed to teachers – that way they would return to an equivalent salary in no time at all and also stop wasting their time on education – why bother training young minds?)

    Briefly back to the Barbican public health event…

    @ M Simpson

    You’re right – tickets were very expensive. The public sector rate for one delegate was about £175 and for the private sector about £895 – this I kid you not. If I had paid for a ticket I would have been livid at what I discovered and would have complained in the hope of getting my money back. I saw free tickets advertised in the BMA News and that’s the first time I became aware of this event. I was rather smug with myself to have wangled such a freebie but when I got in to the show my smugness morphed into a state of thankfulness that I’ve never parted with so much cash for a one day conference.

    Chatie

  • 28 Michael Kingsford Gray // Oct 14, 2009 at 11:16

    Is there a chance that perhaps they think that they ‘need’ the fees in th short-term, irrespective of the long-term dodginess of the quackery?

  • 29 Lindy // Oct 14, 2009 at 13:44

    Chatie

    Thanks for that stuff about RSM and about Dr Glenville, which is mind-blowing. (I did belong to the Food and Nut section of the RSM but a few years back there was some wacky conference proposed so I left it). It looks as if – and I may be wrong here – her Cambridge PhD was in psychology and nothing to do with nutrition. Furthermore she puts ‘Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine’ in her blurb as if that were conferred as an honour when it simply means being a member of the RSM, having been proposed by an existing fellow. When I joined you had to be a medical doctor or have an interest or work in real medical science, but I fear that, as you point out in relation to conferences etc., the priority appears to be bums on seats and of course once one woo-monger gets in there the sky’s the limit.

    In addition it is interesting that Dr G also features big on the website of Vitalia Health, with her very own formulations of nutritional supplements.

    Then there is the CAMexpo. Well I hope not too expo, when one of the therapies is ‘colon massage’. Then there seems to be a lot of strange stuff going on: soft tissue release (WHAT)?, Myofascial Release, plus ‘Bio-Aura School of Bio Energy Therapy, Working With Chakras’ (see link to hilarious A & E alternative style on this website) and I rather like Hands Free Chair Massage Techniques – (chairs? why? and hands free?) Gordon bloomin’ Bennett!

    The speaker after the said Dr G is a Professor Jane Plant who is, I think, a geologist of some note. However she has co-written a book about diet and cancer which a relative of mine was sent for review. He was horrified that yet another scientist could be hoodwinked by nutritional nonsense that he put it in the paper recylcing bin.

    Trouble is how on earth do we stop this infection from spreading further. it is rather like Obama trying to get his sensible and much needed health reforms through: he is up against huge sums of money poured into scaremongering etc.. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

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