It is with a sinking heart that I write this post. Last summer, my son graduated from Aberdeen (in politics and international relations). He enjoyed his time there. It’s a wonderful place with some very distinguished alumni. It’s had a good reputation in science and medicine.
So why has the University of Aberdeen been dabbling in the mystical barmpottery of the Steiner cult?
According to a rumour on twitter yesterday, the university has avoided making an idiot of itself. Nonetheless there are lessons to be learned from this episode and it needs to be recorded for posterity.
The University of Aberdeen owes a huge debt to James Gray who, more than anyone else, revealed the facts about their anthroposophical involvement. They should give him an honorary degree.
Aberdeen has two connections with the Steiner movement. One is the BA (Hons) in Social Pedagogy. The other is a potentially more dangerous proposal to establish a chair in anthroposophical "medicine" in return for large donations, partly from Germany.
The BA (Hons) Social Pedagogy appears on the university’s web site, though I’m told that it isn’t running this year. I’ve applied under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 to see exactly what’s taught. But James Gray has already revealed the gist of it on his blog, Heavenly beings and astral forces: the real meaning of ‘social pedagogy’. Does the vice-chancellor believe in astral forces and reincarnation? I doubt it, so why does he allow this sort of nonsense to be taught to hapless students?
The Dunlop chair of Integrative Health Care and Management
The word "integrative" is (US version of) the euphemism that is currently fashionable among quacks in an attempt to make alternative medicine sound respectable. Is the University not aware of that? See Prince of Wales Foundation for magic medicine: spin on the meaning of ‘integrated’.
The print media caught up with bloggers at last, with a rather good article by Paul Jump in Times Higher Education this week, Aberdeen looks to feather its nest in a field dubbed ‘pure quackery’. This article doesn’t feature in the University’s media list, though a visit from the Prince of Wales’ wife does (she will, no doubt, approve).
Documents obtained by James Gray show that reveal that Dr Stefan Geider, co-ordinator of the Anthroposophic Health, Education and Social Care Movement (AHaSC) and anthroposophical doctor at Camphill Aberdeen, proposed that the University host a centre for anthroposophic medicine in 2010.
Some of the documents have (temporarily I hope) vanished from James Gray’s site. Luckily I have copies of them
- Starter paper and draft invitation to tender. This shows the proposals have been around at last since April 2010.
- Draft job description for Dunlop Chair
- Governance and Nominations Committee paper
- Professor Mike Greaves’s response
James Gray obtained the job description for the proposed chair. It says
"The University of Aberdeen, College of Life Sciences and Medicine, School of Medicine and Dentistry seeks to appoint a Professor of Integrative Health Care and Management (Dunlop Chair)."
The job is described with the usual weasel words about world class research. But read on and you find
"To develop collaboration within the [insert appropriate division please] and with the School of Education
particularly regarding BA in Social Pedagogy "
And, under ‘essential knowledge skills and experience’,
- In depth knowledge of and practice experience in the system of anthroposophic medicine as an integrative
- Strong track record of applied and methodological research published in leading peer-reviewed journals
What’s amazing about this, apart from the obvious incompatibility of these two requirements, is that the job description was approved by none other than Professor Mike Greaves, head of the College of Life Sciences and Medicine. On 12 December 2011, Professor Greave comments "This looks OK to me".
It is astonishing that high-ranking medical people in the university seem to be totally unaware of the nature of the Steiner movement, and the mumbo jumbo of anthroposophical medicine. Does Professor Greaves really believe in reincarnation? Does he think that mistletoe is an appropriate treatment for cancer?
After reading James Gray’s blog, Will Aberdeen University give green light to anthroposophic medicine centre?, I wrote to the vice chancellor, Professor Ian Diamond, and others, as follows.
Dear Professor Diamond
I was pleased to hear that Aberdeen was reconsidering the “social pedagogy” course. I was also pleased to see that someone appreciates the extreme reputation risk that this poses to Aberdeen’s reputation in medical sciences. I have no doubt that Hans Kosterliz, whom I knew well, would be turning in his grave if he were aware of the proposal that to appoint a Dunlop chair. You would go from Lasker prize to booby prize in a couple of decades.
This summer. my son graduated from Aberdeen (in a quite different area), and I don’t want the value of his degree to be tainted by the ridicule that will be poured on his alma mater for teaching about “astral forces”.
I was astounded by Professor Greaves assertion that “The College of Life Sciences and Medicine wish to establish a Chair in Integrative Health Care and Management”. Has Prof Greaves not seen the nature of the material advocated by these people? I simply can’t believe that this sort of stuff is supported by your scientists. May I suggest that the university should conduct a secret ballot among it’s many good medical scientists. They are the people whose reputation will be besmirched if this development were to go ahead. I realise that it can’t be expected that those who run the university can be aware of what’s taught on all the courses, so I suggest that the ballot should contain references to James Gray’s blog (you should be very grateful to him for doing a job which should really have been done by the validation committee). You might also wish to refer the committee and governors to the three scholarly guest posts on my own blog that analyse the bizarre cult-like nature of the Steiner movement and the sheer dangerous quackery of “anthroposophical medicine”.
None of this is apparent in the official documents revealed here, but it should be.
It is astonishing that the documents should refer to “hospital centres such as The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (RLHIM)” as though that were a recommendation. Are you not aware that most of the RLHIM building is occupied by real medicine: the homeopaths etc have been reduced to small rump? Are are you not aware of how often the RLHIM has been condemned by the Advertising Standards Authority because of the false claims it makes?
It is equally astonishing that the documents should say “Aberdeen would be the first university outside central Europe and the first in the UK to establish a chair in this area” as though that were a recommendation, rather a giant step back to 19th century medicine and mysticism. There are very good reasons why other universities do not have a chair like that which you are proposing.
I hope that, when considering this proposal, you will consider very seriously the damage to your reputation that would be incurred by taking money from organisations with such an obvious axe to grind. It will be all over the blogs, and then the newspapers if you were to go ahead. It is not unknown, even in the USA, for universities to turn down donations. Florida State University turned down $10m that someone wished to donate to found a chiropractic college, though admittedly only after one of their own eminent chemistry professors posted the attached picture. Is that really the sort of reputation that you want for Aberdeen?
I’m preparing my own blog post on the matter, but I won’t put it up until I have had a response from you.
Well, I have had no response from Professor Diamond, so I’m going to post it now.
Again, all has been revealed by James Gray.
"The correspondence shows that millions of pounds has been pledged by anthroposophical organisations to fund the Centre’s work. The bulk (£1.5m) will come from the foundation of the Raphael Centre, a private anthroposophical clinic in Kent that works with those suffering from complex neurological disabilities and from cancer. The Centre’s treatments include eurythmy, chiropractic, mistletoe therapy, oil-dispersion bath therapy and therapeutic hyperthermia.
A further €1.5m has been pledged by the Software AG Foundation. The Foundation – the charitable arm of a German software firm – funds various anthroposophical projects around the world, including the Steiner Academy in Hereford. (See Alicia Hamberg’s blog for more on Software AG’s relationship with anthroposophy.)"
It’s fascinating that the Hereford Steiner Academy tried to disguise the source of its funding.
According to a rumour on Twitter, the University has decided not to proceed with the chair. And I was also told that the BA (Hons) Social Pedagogy degree is not in fact running this year. Will that be abandoned too?
If the rumour is right, one wonders what Stefan Geider will say in his talk. "Head, Heart and Hands: Dunlop Centre for Integrative Health Care and Management”, at the anthroposophists’ conference in New Lanark (22 – 24 May). Incidentally it’s worrying that this conference appears to be sponsored by "NHS National Services Scotland".
Although, if the rumour is correct, the University has made the right decision in the end, it is worrying that serious academics in dark suits have spent two years discussing the matter, The proper reaction would have been, when the proposal was first made, to say "you must be joking, this is a medical school". That would have saved endless time spent in meetings to discuss what’s obviously a preposterous proposal. But according to the documents that Gray revealed, it seems very likely that it would have gone through if it were not for the fuss raised by bloggers. Can these senior academics not use Google? Why weren’t they aware of the nature of their proposals?
The really bad interpretation of these events is that they were well aware that they were promoting dangerous pseudo-science, but allowed themselves to be blinded to that fact by the sight of large cheques. Donations of almost £3 million can have a hypnotic effect on vice-chancellors. I do hope that isn’t the case. It would be even worse than the only alternative that I can see, and that is that senior managers can’t distinguish between pseudo-science and real science.
Watch this space for further developments.
28 April 2012. The comments on Paul Jump’s article in Times Higher Education seem to have disappeared. You can still see them, as of 08.49 this morning, in the Google cache, preserved at freezepage.com.
29 April 2012. Comments now restored at Times Higher, and a new one from Ben Goldacre
"Senior people from Aberdeen University reading this comment thread should take note of exactly who supports them: anonymous unnamed shouters who offer only childish abuse and dishonest personal smears. These are your allies now. It is downhill from here"
Robin McKie and Lauura Hartmann cover the Aberdeen scandal nicely in the Observer: Holistic unit will ‘tarnish’ Aberdeen University reputation. But they fail totally to acknowledge their sources, in particular James Gray. That is pretty smelly journalistic ethics.
3 May 2012. As so often, the last word on the scandal of Aberdeen’s flirtation with the endarkenment has come from Laurie Taylor, in Times Higher Education.
“Hands off our northeastern Scottish colleagues.”
That was the vigorous response of Janet Fluellen, our Director of Curriculum Development, to all those critics who have lined up to attack the University of Aberdeen’s proposed chair in alternative medicine.
Ms Fluellen admitted that she was not “totally familiar” with the anthroposophical basis of the new post, or indeed with the manner in which this distinctive philosophy allowed for the complex interplay between physiological and spiritual processes in healing. Neither was she “thoroughly au fait” with the empirical basis for the discipline’s claim to cure cancer with the use of mistletoe.
She did, however, feel that “a proper university” should always be open to “new, exciting disciplines”, and instanced our own university’s Department of Rectal Communication, which had gone “from strength to strength in recent years under the exemplary leadership of Professor D.C. Butt”.
She reminded our reporter Keith Ponting (30) that there had been widespread scepticism about a discipline that stressed the psychological importance of shifting the site of consciousness from the cortex to the rectum. But advances in thermal imaging had now confirmed many of the discipline’s original claims about the crucial part played by the rectum in unconscious communication.
Professor Butt himself told Ponting that he appreciated Ms Fluellen’s “vote of confidence” in his discipline.
“In the early days, I was one of the very few people in UK universities who made a habit of speaking through my arse. But even a cursory survey of higher education today would show that the practice has now become widespread. That itself is a great testament to the discipline of rectal communication.”
8 May 2012
It seems the rumour was true. It seems that this mail was sent only internally. It will be interesting to see what public announcement is made.
Subject: Update on proposed Chair in Integrative Health Care Management
As some of you may be aware from press reports and social media, the University’s Governance and Nominations Committee met today to consider a proposal to establish a Chair in Integrative Health Care Management.
The statement below gives the Committee’s decision and how this was reached:
The University has decided not to take forward a current proposal to establish a Chair in Integrative Health Care Management.
Following discussion and consideration of the issues involved, the University’s Governance and Nominations Committee agreed that given the need for sustainability of funding for the longer-term, the University could not satisfy its requirement for the highest standards of scientific rigour with the funding model proposed, in particular the aspirations of potential donors to establish a Centre of Complementary Medicine.
The Committee further agreed that research to investigate the evidence base for the effectiveness or otherwise of complementary therapies in the treatment of disease was a legitimate academic endeavour, provided that it could be supported by sustainable and unrestricted academic research funding.
The dropping of this daft proposal was undoubtedly a triumph for bloggers, especially James Gray. My guess is that if there had been no fuss, the money would have been taken quietly. Of course it wouldn’t have stayed quiet for long. It amazes me just how ignorant of the blogosphere some senior academics seem to be.
The statement is, I must say, pretty disgraceful. It makes no admission at all that anthroposophy is a nonsensical mystical cult. All universities, in fact all big organisations, engage in this sort of dishonest doublespeak, but it’s particularly unpleasant when universities do it. They have done the right thing, probably for more or less the right reasons, but then give false reasons. I suppose they do this to try to save face. In fact it has the opposite effect.
11 May 2012. Paul Jump, in Times Higher Education, reported on the official withdrawal: Aberdeen decides against alternative medicine chair. He quotes form this letter, sent to Aberdeen’s VC on the day the annuncement was made public.
Dear Professor Diamond and Mr Purdon,
Thanks for sending the press release. Actually I got it last night (I have a lot of friends in Aberdeen since my son graduated there last summer).
I posted it on my blog, at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=5261#080512
As you see, I am delighted to see that you made the right decision. But, if I may say so, the wording of your press release is a bit of a PR disaster.
It is almost incomprehensible and (as you see from the comments too), rather than protecting your reputation, it invites laughter. All you had to do was to say something like “we have decided that a chair of anthroposophical medicine is not appropriate in a medical school and we shall therefore decline the offer of funding for the chair”. That would have been simple, it would (I imagine) be true and it would have brought credit on the university.
It’s true that for anyone who knew about anthroposophy, the decision should have taken 5 minutes not two years, but no need to emphasize that in the press release.
I do hope, quite seriously, that you consider offering an honorary degree to James Gray. It was, above all. his blog that saved Aberdeen for making a dreadful mistake, His blog (I imagine), and mine (certainly) were not intended to denigrate the university, but to save it from denigrating itself.
Schools of pseudoscience pose a serious threat to education
Maharishi and Steiner schools are just as dangerous as creationist schools
A lot of public concern has been expressed over the potential establishment of creationist free schools. This concern resulted in the government changing the rules for free schools to prevent them from teaching pseudoscience (“Richard Dawkins celebrates a victory over creationists“).
However, not enough attention has been paid to two equally grave threats to science education, namely Maharishi and Steiner schools. Maharishi schools follow the educational methods of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru of the transcendental meditation movement, while Steiner education is based on an esoteric/occultist movement called anthroposophy, founded by Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner (“Holistic unit will ‘tarnish’ Aberdeen University reputation“). The Maharishi school has as its specialist subject the “science of creative intelligence”, which is not based on science. It also teaches a system of herbal medicine, most of which lacks evidence of efficacy and safety. Anthroposophy is centred on beliefs in karma, reincarnation and advancing children’s connection to the spirit world.
The first Steiner academy opened in 2008, with a free school to open this September. The first Maharishi school opened last September. Both groups have interviews to open more schools in 2013. We believe that the new rules on teaching pseudoscience mean that no more of these schools should open.
Pavan Dhaliwal head of public affairs, British Humanist Association; Edzard Ernst professor of complementary medicine, Exeter University; David Colquhoun professor of pharmacology, University College London and blogger, dcscience.net; Simon Singh science writer; Andy Lewis Quackometer.net; Alan Henness zenosblog.com; Melanie Byng; Richard Byng medical academic; James Gray; Mark Hayes; David Simpson