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The extent to which irrationality has become established in US Medicine is truly alarming I wrote about Quackademics in the USA and Canada on my last trip to the USA, and on my May trip I visited Yale, where I decided to try a full frontal attack. [download the poster]

Several US blogs have written about this phenomenon. For example the incomparable Orac at the The Academic Woo Aggregator , and Dr RW (R.W. Donnell) , see particularly his articles on How did pseudoscience get admitted to medical school? and What is happening to our medical schools? Abraham Flexner is turning over in his grave. Excellent US stuff too at Science-based Medicine (try this and this). There is also a good analysis of what’s happening at Yale by Sandy Szwarc at Junkfood Science.

Remember that the terms ‘integrative’ and ‘complementary’ are euphemisms coined by quacks to make their wares sound more respectable, There is no point integrating treatments that don’t work with treatments that do work.

‘Integrative Medicine’ at Yale says, like all the others on the roll of shame, says “we aim to improve awareness and access to the best in evidence-based, comprehensive medical care available worldwide”. They all pay lip service to being “evidence based”, but there is just one snag. It is untrue. In almost all cases, the evidence is either negative or absent. But this does not put them off for a moment. The whole process is simply dishonest.

The evidence

The evidence has been summarised in several books recently, The following books are particularly interesting because they are all ‘views from the inside. Edzard Ernst is the UK’s first Professor of Complementary Medicine. Barker Bausell was research director of an NIH funded Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialized Research Center at the University of Maryland.

The first two books go through the evidence fairly and carefully. They show no bias against alternative treatments (if anything, I’d say they are rather generous in cases of doubt).

For a first class US account try Barker Bausell’s Snake Oil Science

 Bausell’s book gives an excellent account of how to test treatments properly, and of all the ways you can be fooled into thinking something works when it doesn’t. Bausell concludes “There is no compelling, credible scientific evidence to suggest that any CAM therapy benefits any medical condition or reduces any medical symptom (pain or otherwise) better than a placebo”.
 For an excellent account of how to find the truth, try Testing Treatments (Evans. Thornton and Chalmers). One of the authors, Iain Chalmers, is a founder of the Cochrane library and a world authotity on how to separate medical fact from medical myth.

It can now be said with some certainty that the number of alternative treatments that have been shown to work better than placebo is very small, and quite possibly zero,

With that settled, what’s going on at Yale (and many others on the roll of shame)?

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is founder and director of the Integrative Medicine Center (IMC) at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticut. He is also an associate professor, adjunct, of Public Health and director of the Prevention Research Center (PRC) at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.

That sounds pretty respectable. But he is into not just good nutrition, exercise, relaxation and massage, but also utterly barmy and disproved things like homeopathy and ‘therapeutic touch’.

 Watch the movie It so happens that Yale recently held an “Integrative Medicine Scientific Symposium”. Can we find the much vaunted evidence base there? That is easy to answer because three hours of this symposium have appeared on YouTube. So this is the public face of Yale medical school. There’s some interesting history and a great deal of bunkum and double-speak. To save you time, I’ve cut out about 6 minutes from the movies.

Dean of education Richard Belitsky and Dr David Katz

Pretty remarble uh? Dr Katz goes through several different trials, all of which come out negative. And what is his conclusion? You guessed.
His conclusion is not that the treatments don’t work but that we need a “more fluid concept of evidence” .

It’s equally bizarre to hear Richard Belitsky, Dean of Medical Education at Yale saying he is “very proud” of this betrayal of enlightenment values. If this is what Yale now considers to be education, it might be better to go somewhere else.

This is not science. It isn’t even common sense. It is a retreat to the dark ages of medicine when a physician felt free to guess the answer. In fact it’s worse. In the old days there was no evidence to assess. Now there is a fair amount of evidence, but Dr Katz feels free to ignore it and guess anyway. He refers to teaching about evidence as ‘indoctrination’, a pretty graphic illustration of his deeply anti-scientific approach to knowledge. And he makes a joke about having diverted a $1m grant from CDC, for much needed systematic reviews, into something that fits his aims better. Katz asks, as one must, what should we do if there is no treatment that is known to help a patient. That is only too frequent a problem. The reasonable thing to say is “there is no treatment that is known to help”. But Dr Katz thinks it’s better to guess an answer. There is nothing wrong with placebo effects but there is everything wrong with trying to pretend that you are doing more than give placebos. Perhaps he should consider the dilemmas of alternative medicine. You can read about more about Yale’s activities here and in interviews here. Dr Katz says “The founding approach—and I think Andrew Weil, MD, gets the lion’s share of credit for establishing the concept —is training conventional practitioners in complementary disciplines”. Let’s take a look at this hero. Try, for example, Arnold Relman’s “A trip to Stonesville“. “According to Weil, many of his basic insights about the causes of disease and the nature of healing come from what he calls “stoned thinking,” that is, thoughts experienced while under the influence of psychedelic agents or during other states of “altered consciousness” induced by trances, ritual, magic, hypnosis, meditation, and the like.” “To the best of my knowledge, Weil himself has published nothing in the peer-reviewed medical literature to document objectively his personal experiences with allegedly cured patients or to verify his claims for the effectiveness of any of the unorthodox remedies he uses.” Here is the advertisment for Andrew Weil’s nutrition symposium. Not only does this yet again propagate the great antioxidant myth, but a few moments with Google show that it is riddled with vested interests, as already pointed out on Quackademics in USA and Canada. What has brought medical schools down to this level? That isn’t hard to see, The main thing is simply money. Very few university administrators have the intellectual integrity to turn down money, whatever the level of dishonesty that is required by its acceptance. You can buy a lot of silence for$100m

The US Taxpayer has given almost a billion dollars, via NIH.

Wallace Sampson, MD says of NCCAM

“. . it has not proved effectiveness for any ‘alternative’ method. It has added evidence of ineffectiveness of some methods that we knew did not work before NCCAM was formed”

“Its major accomplishment has been to ensure the positions of medical school faculty who might become otherwise employed in more productive pursuits.”

“Special commercial interests and irrational, wishful thinking created NCCAM. It is the only entity in the NIH devoted to an ideological approach to health.”

NCCAM has given money from some very dubious trials too, Both Orac on Respectful Insolence and Dr RW (R.W. Donnell) have written recently about the NCCAM-funded trial of “chelation therapy”, as first exposed in a devastating article by Kimball C. Atwood IV, MD; Elizabeth Woeckner, AB, MA; Robert S. Baratz, MD, DDS, PhD; Wallace I. Sampson, MD on Medscape Today. This is a $30 million, 5-year, phase 3 Trial to Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT) for coronary artery disease. “But how did such a crappy study ever come to be, much less be funded by the NIH to the tune of$30 million? The answer, not surprisingly, involves one of the foremost promoters of quackery in the federal government, Representative Dan Burton (R-IN).”

We conclude that the TACT is unethical, dangerous, pointless, and wasteful. It should be abandoned.”

“TACT is not the only example of an unethical and scientifically worthless trial being funded not because the science is compelling but because powerful lobbies and legislators who are true believers in woo applied pressure to the NIH to do them”

The Bravewell Collaboration is the other major source of money. Forbes Business says “Bravewell is not some flaky New Age group”. Well dead wrong there, That is precisely what it is.

 This group of ultra-rich people, according to its boss, Christy Mack, has a ” . . common goal —fast-tracking integrative medicine into mainstream medicine” So Bravewell is corrupting the search for real knowledge and real cures with big bucks. You can buy a lot of hokum for $100m. The money comes from Morgan Stanley,  “John Mack earned the nickname “Mack the Knife” during his ascension to the top of the company [Morgan Stanley] ladder, known for his aggressive cost cutting and consolidation, managerial efficiency, yelling matches, and brutal treatment of others.” “From 2002 until July 2004, Mack was Co-CEO of Credit Suisse, where he eliminated about 10,000 jobs, cut costs by about$3 billion, and turned the company around to post a huge profit. Accused by SEC of insider trading in 2001, but escaped despite pressure from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley in 2006. Returned as CEO of Morgan Stanley in 2005.”

Bravewell is run by his wife, Christy Mack (Mack-the-wife?) Vice-President, The C.J. Mack Foundation, Member, Board of Directors, The Bravewell Collaborative.

The Flexner report.

The story of Bravewell stands in chilling contrast to another case of philanthropy. Andrew Carnegie’s foundation financed the report by Abraham Flexner, “Medical Education in the United States and Canada” (1910) [download, 15 Mb] . That report was responsible for dragging medical education out of the dark ages
almost a century ago. It resulted in creation of some of the best medical schools anywhere (including Yale).

“By educational patriotism I mean this: a university has a mission greater than the formation of a large student body or the attainment of institutional completeness, namely, the duty of loyalty to the standards of common honesty, of intellectual sincerity, of scientific accuracy.”

“The tendency to build a system out of a few partially apprehended facts, deductive inference filling in the rest, has not indeed been limited to medicine, but it has nowhere else had more calamitous consequences.”

Flexner (1910).

Now another philanthropist is using big bucks to reverse the process and push medicine back into the 19th century.

Flexner would have thought it quite inconceivable that in 2007 medical schools would be offering Continuing Medical Education in homeopathy.

Perhaps they don’t even know it’s happening. If they say firmly that they don’t want it, it will go,

It’s been done before

Florida State University, allegedly under political pressure, proposed to set up a school of Chiropractic. That would have made it Florida State school of snake-oil salesmanship. What a sad fate. [ Science magazine comment] [comment form Paul Lee] [Comment in St Petersburg Times]

But the academics stopped it. An FSU professor, Albert Stiegman, predicted the future campus map.

According to FSUnews

“The Florida Board of Governors voted 10-3 Thursday to deny Florida State University’s request to build a chiropractic school.”

“However, the passage of the bill for the chiropractic school by the Legislature seemingly bypassed the Board of Governors.”

In the end, reason won. Let’s hope that Yale follows their example.

The problem of Yale has been taken up with great eloquence by some US commentators

Dr RW (R.W, Donnell): “Quackademic Medicine at Yale

“By the way, where’s the AAMC in all this? Aren’t they supposed to be guardians of integrity and professionalism in medical education? Are they asleep at the switch or is money silencing them too?”

Orac (Respectful Insolence): “Integrative” medicine at Yale: A more “fluid” concept of evidence?

“after the Dean of the Yale School Medicine embarrassed himself in the introduction by saying he’s proud of how far this nonsense has come, Dr. Katz takes the stage and demonstrates the sort of hostile attitude towards science that, if allowed to take root will be the death of scientific medicine in any meaningful form at U.S. medical schools”

Junkfood Science. Sandy Szwarc on “Quote of the day: ;We need a more fluid concept of evidence’

“Will healthcare professionals and consumers . . . . speak out against these wellness programs being enacted by government agencies, insurers and employers? Or is the money too good?”

Science-based Medicine. Steven Novella writes on “Changing the rules of evidence“. When alternative medicine people do not like the evidence, they change the rules to get the outcome that they want, as seen so graphically in this post. They have always done this, but it is only recently that this sort of behaviour has been endorsed by places like Yale.

The Macho Response, another US blog, comments bluntly, in “Yale wants a more fluid concept of evidence

This is beyond embarrassing – it’s a fucking crime – and it’s happening at Yale University and many others.

If you’re in the medical profession (and I know many of my readers are) you need to go here – now.

Kiosque Médias writes as follows

Pour ceux qui s’intéressent à la médecine et à la santé, le blog de David Colquhoun vaut probablement le détour. Ce professeur-chercheur au département de neurosciences, de physiologie et de pharmacologie de l’University College London y décrypte les résultats d’études médicales, en mettant l’accent sur les médecines alternatives. Et il est rarement tendre!

James Randi Newsletter. The hit rate soars after a recommendation this piece by the amazing Randi.

Hokum-Balderdash Assay. Edwardson writes

“Yale University is going to the ducks. It now has an Integrative Medicine program and in April held its first annual Integrative Medicine Scientific Symposium. I think there must’ve been a typo there. They must’ve meant “Ist Annual I.M. Pseudoscientific Symposium.” There! Now we’ve done away with the oxymoron.”

Why is Yale so secretive about its quackery department?,

Most universities are only to keen to boast about their grant income. Not in this case though. When I asked how they funded their quackery, all I got was a letter that had very obviously been drafted by a lawyer.

“As a private institution, Yale University is not generally subject to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. We therefore respectfully decline to compile and provide the information you have requested.”

So pretty clear signs of guiltiness there.

Dr David Katz, yes, he of the “fluid concept of evidence”, has posted an article, Health Hazards of rhe Blogoshere. If it quacks like a duck . . .

It seems that he has been a bit alarmed by the reaction of the bloggers. It starts, rather pompously, thus.

“Being well educated does not guarantee you’ll always be right, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee everyone will agree with you. But it still matters. Or at least it used to “

But the rest if it reads less like a defence than as an admission of guilt, thus prompting the next item.

Paul Hutchinson’s blog

 A quack who admits it picks out a quotation from Dr Katz’s response and turned into a cartoon, released to the public domain, So here it is.

Respectful Insolence.

Orac comments too, in “Fluid evidence” strikes back: Dr. Katz versus the skeptical blogsophere”. He does a terrific job in taking apart the response from the hapless Dr Katz.

“No, Dr. Katz does not like his first encounter with the medical blogosphere at all. Indeed, he is so unhappy that apparently a few weeks ago he tried t answer the bloggers who had raked him over the coals for blatantly advocating “integrating” unscientific woo like homeopathy with scientific medicine. Unfortunately for him, he did not do a particularly good job of it. Indeed, what most stood out as I read his rejoinder was that he does not answer a single substantive criticism leveled at his comments. Not one. Instead, he does what pretty much all woo-meisters do when criticized for shifting goalposts and appealing to other ways of knowing besides science as a means of “proving” that their preferred fairy dust works; he wraps himself in the mantle of the brave iconoclast willing to challenge accepted dogma and whines about the peons who criticized him, heaping contempt on the bloggers who had the temerity to criticize his advocacy for pseudoscience because to him they have not earned the right to criticize his (at least in his opinion, apparently) greatness in comparison to him.”

 Last year, Nature published a pretty forthright condemnation of the award of Bachelor of Science degrees in subjects that are not science: in fact positively anti-science. This topic has come up again in Times Higher Education (24 April 2008). A league table shows that the largest number of anti-science courses is run by the University of Westminster [download paper version].

Vice chancellors have consistently refused to answer letters, from me, from the Times Higher Education or from the BBC, asking them to defend their practices.

The vice chancellors union, Universities UK, has simply refused to consider this very basic threat to academic standards.

It is particularly amazing that vice-chancellors continue to support courses in homeopathy when they have been condemned by no less a person than the head honcho of homeopathy in the UK, Dr Peter Fisher. He is clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and Homeopathic Physician to the Queen. Peter Fisher and I were interviewed on BBC London News after publication of the Nature article. At the end, Fisher was asked by the presenter, Riz Lateef, about whether homeopathy was a suitable subject for a science degree.[Watch the movie]

 Riz Lateef (presenter): “Dr Fisher, could you ever see it [homeopathy] as a science degree in the future? Dr Peter Fisher: “I would hope so. I wouldn’t deny that a lot of scientific research needs to be done, and I would hope that in the future it would have a scientific basis. I have to say that at the moment that basis isn’t comprehensive. To that extent I would agree with Professor Colquhoun.”

The one exception was a response, of sorts, that I got from Westminster University.

I can interpret this lack of response only as a sign of guilt on the part of the vice chancellors of the 16 or so universities who teach this stuff. That interpretation is reinforced by the refusal of two of them to release their teaching materials, despite requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Both the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Westminster have turned down appeals, and refused to hand over anything. The former case has been with the Information Commissioner for some time now, and if the ruling goes as a hope, the taxpayer may soon be able to see how their money is being spent.

But the wonderful thing about the electronic age is that it has become really quite difficult to keep secrets. Last year I managed to find an exam paper set by the University of Westminster in Homeopathic Materia Medica, and a question from that paper has already appeared in Nature.

I recently acquired copies of a course handbook. and of the powerpoint slides used for the lecture on ‘Vibrational Medicine’ by the University of Westminster. This appears to be from a course in Complementary Therapies, part of “Health Sciences: Complementary Therapies BSc Honours”, according to Westminster’s web site. A lot of people have access to this first year course material, so Westminster needn’t bother trying to guess how I got hold of this interesting material

In the public interest, here are a few quotations. Taxpayers should know how their money is being spent.

According to the handbook

“Complementary Therapies is a core module for the Therapeutic Bodywork, Herbal Medicine, Homœopathy, Nutritional Therapy and Complementary Therapies courses. Therefore all students of these degree courses are required to take this module.”

The University of Central Lancashire also has “Vitalistic Medicine” as part of its BSc Homeopathy (but, like Westminster, has some excellent people too).

There is a rather good Wikipedia entry on Vitalism, a topic that is now largely the preserve of cranks.

The handbook is wonderful. The word ‘evidence’. in the context of ‘does it work?’, does not occur a single time. There is plenty of the usual edu-bollocks jargon that is so beloved by bureaucrats, but not the slightest hint of critical thinking about assessment of the ‘therapies’.

The course seems to be a romp through almost every form of battiness known to humankind. Not just homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine and nutritional therapy, but also dowsing, crystal healing and other forms of advanced delusional thinking. Before somebody grumbles, let me emphasise that ‘nutrition’ is to be distinguished from ‘nutritional therapy’: the latter involves imaginative claims that buying expensive supplements can prevent or cure almost anything. There’s a lot more about that here, and here.

Here are just 5 days from the timetable.

 9am-1.00pm : Homœopathy (group work and video) 9am-1.00pm : Traditional Chinese Medicine 9am-10.45pm : BODYWORK THERAPIES 11.15-1.00pm : Nutritional Therapy 9am-1.00pm : Vibrational Medicine/Energy Concepts (L&P)

All this can be yours -at a cost.
Full-time UK/EU fee – £3,145
Full-time Overseas fee – £9,450

The slides for the last of these lectures show some of the most glorious examples of the abuse of sciencey-sounding words that I’ve seen in a while.

Sigh. All this is sheer imagination. It is ancient vitalism dressed up pretentiously in sciencey words.Then a bit later we come to the general theory -“energy concepts”.

More plausible-sounding, but utterly meaningless words about vibrations. And then on to old superstitions about dowsing with rods and pendulums.

.

Not a single word of scepticism appears about any of this mumbo jumbo. Can it get worse? Yes it can. CRYSTAL HEALING comes next.

Are you having difficulty in understanding what all these words mean? I certainly hope so, because they have no meaning to understand. Don’t worry too much though, There are some helpful diagrams.

Aura photographs? They are just fairground conjuring tricks. Well, that is what you thought. But here we see them presented, apparently in all seriousness, as part of a vocational bachelor of science degree in a UK
university.Never mind, it is all assessed properly, with all the right box-ticking jargon. The course handbook says

 Learning Outcomes On successful completion of this module you will be able to: • describe the theoretical basis and classification of a range of complementary therapies

What theoretical basis? There isn’t any theoretical basis, just a meaningless jumble of words.

You just couldn’t make it up.

### Westminster University is not all like this

This post is not intended as an attack on the University of Westminster as a whole. Last year I had an invitation from their biomedical people to give a talk there. They asked for a talk on “What is is the evidence for Alternative Medicine?”. But then I got an email from them saying

“I was surprised to be sat on heavily on return from said trip by the VC, Provosts and Deans (including Peter Davies the leader of the Alt Med School !) once news of your talk leaked out. Could you give a talk on your research instead- yep I know its pusillanimous of me and yep I know unis stand for freedom of speech and yep I know that fellow members of staff suggested you come and others were keen to listen to your views on quackery.”

So on November 2nd 2007 I gave a seminar about single ion channel work (our new ideas about partial agonists). Of course all the excellent staff whom I met agreed with me about the embarrassment that having degrees in homeopathy etc. The fault lies not with their academic staff, but with their administration. Freedom of speech does not seem to be high on their agenda.

Postscript I recently learned that when Times Higher Education asked Westminster about my seminar, they were given the following statement.

“Prof David Colquhoun was invited to take part in a research seminar series organised by the University’s School of Biosciences last year. As part of this series, on Friday 2 November 2007, he gave a talk on the agreed topic of “Single ion Channel studies suggest a new mechanism for partial agonism” – his area of research.”

Perhaps I am naive, but it truly shocks me that a university can issue such a dishonest account of what happened.

This blog, along with many others, has had plenty to say about the Prince of Wales’ unconstitutional meddling in public affairs. The lovely description, Quacktitioner Royal, was coined by NHS Blog doctor.

The Times published a letter from Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh on April 16th. In their forthcoming book, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, they go carefully through all the evidence for all sorts of ‘alternative’ treatments. They find some evidence that a handful of them work. For most the answer is ‘not enough evidence’, and for a number there is good evidence that many of them don’t work to any useful extent.

“Sir, For over two decades the Prince of Wales has been actively promoting alternative medicine and his Foundation for Integrated Health continues to encourage the use of treatments such as homoeopathy or reflexology.””In light of this “rigorous scientific evidence”, we strongly advise that the Prince of Wales and the Foundation for Integrated Health withdraw the publications Complementary Health Care: A Guide for Patients and the Smallwood report. They both contain numerous misleading and inaccurate claims concerning the supposed benefits of alternative medicine. The nation cannot be served by promoting ineffective and sometimes dangerous alternative treatments.”

Thank heavens that someone has the courage to say it as it is.

If only the ineffectual and ill-educated people in the Department of Health wouold do the same. But no, instead they gave £37 000 to the Prince of Wales Foundation to write their make-believe guides. And £900 000 to write nonsense for the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (also known as Ofquack), and Skills for Health,

The next day The Times ran an article by their science editor, Mark Henderson, Prince of Wales’s guide to alternative medicine ‘inaccurate’. Natasha Finlayson, of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, is quoted as saying “The foundation does not promote complementary therapies.”. That takes some beating for sheer bare-faced dishonesty.

Edzard Ernst appeared on the Today Program on 18th April. He was interveiwed by the formidable John Humphrys, along with Kim Lavely, Chief Executive, The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health (FIH). Ernst points out that the FIH guide suggests that chiropractic is effective in asthma, and that acupuncture is good for addiction, whereas the evidence says the opposite. Lavely retorts, rather lamely (OK I’m biassed).

Lavely: ” . . . we didn’t attempt to give detailed evidence on every therapy”. “We think they [the public] have the right to know and what doesn’t”

Humphrys: “Well isn’t that the whole point? the professor is saying here is that these things do not work, at least in terms of the claims that are made for them, such as homeopathy and chiropractic . . . ”

Lavely: “There are no claims made in this guide for what works and what doesn’t. What we have said is that some therapies are used for some things but we aren’t saying they are effective for those things . . . “

So, one might ask, what on earth is the use of a guide is it that offers no indication of effectiveness? Lavely’s second quotation contradicts directly her first. A pretty pathetic performance.
Listen to the interview [mp3 file]

The Sunday Times, on April 20th, pblished a pretty good review of Trick of Treatment?. “Their case against the folly, vanity and damage of HRH et al. is hard to argue with.”

Of course, the letters column drew the expected response from the quacks, most verging on the hilarious.

Another blow for the alternative industry came in the same week, The authoratitve Cochrane review confirmed earlier reports that vitamin supplements not only do not help you but some actually increase mortality. The antioxidant myth nevertheless rumbles on, and on, and on. There is too much money in it for it to die easily.

Predictably enough, the conclusions were denied by the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA). They wheeled out several pop singers to say how wonderful their products are. Read about that pathetic defence on Holfordwatch.

Who is behind HFMA? Incidentally, HFMA are strangely reticent about the identity of their 120 members. They will not reveal who they are. Does anybody out there know the answer? I’ll buy a good dinner for anyone who can root this out.  If it is anything like the ‘Health Supplements Information Service‘ it is likely to be backedby the very big pharmaceutical companies that the alternative industry loves to hate.

### Take the test

Prince of Wales Guide

“Reflexologists work with a wide range of conditions including certain types of pain, particularly back and neck pain, migraine and headaches, chronic fatigue, sinusitis, arthritis, insomnia, digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation, stress-related disorders and menopausal symptoms.”

Singh & Ernst

“The notion that reflexology can be used to diagnose health problems has been disproved and there is no convincing evidence that it is effective for any condition.”

This is a fuller version, with links, of the comment piece published in Times Higher Education on 10 April 2008. Download newspaper version here.

If you still have any doubt about the problems of directed research, look at the trenchant editorial in Nature (3 April, 2008. Look also at the editorial in Science by Bruce Alberts. The UK’s establishment is busy pushing an agenda that is already fading in the USA.

Since this went to press, more sense about “Brain Gym” has appeared. First Jeremy Paxman had a good go on Newsnight. Skeptobot has posted links to the videos of the broadcast, which have now appeared on YouTube.

 Then, in the Education Guardian, Charlie Brooker started his article about “Brain Gym” thus “Man the lifeboats. The idiots are winning. Last week I watched, open-mouthed, a Newsnight piece on the spread of “Brain Gym” in British schools “ Dr Aust’s cogent comments are at “Brain Gym” loses its trousers.

The Times Higher’s subeditor removed my snappy title and substituted this.

So here it is.

“HR is like many parts of modern businesses: a simple expense, and a burden on the backs of the productive workers”, “They don’t sell or produce: they consume. They are the amorphous support services” .

So wrote Luke Johnson recently in the Financial Times. He went on, “Training advisers are employed to distract everyone from doing their job with pointless courses”. Luke Johnson is no woolly-minded professor. He is in the Times’ Power 100 list, he organised the acquisition of PizzaExpress before he turned 30 and he now runs Channel 4 TV.

Why is it that Human Resources (you know, the folks we used to call Personnel) have acquired such a bad public image? It is not only in universities that this has happened. It seems to be universal, and worldwide. Well here are a few reasons.

Like most groups of people, HR is intent on expanding its power and status. That is precisely why they changed their name from Personnel to HR. As Personnel Managers they were seen as a service, and even, heaven forbid, on the side of the employees. As Human Resources they become part of the senior management team, and see themselves not as providing a service, but as managing people. My concern is the effect that change is having on science, but it seems that the effects on pizza sales are not greatly different.

The problem with having HR people (or lawyers, or any other non-scientists) managing science is simple. They have no idea how it works. They seem to think that every activity
can be run as though it was Wal-Mart That idea is old-fashioned even in management circles. Good employers have hit on the bright idea that people work best when they are not constantly harassed and when they feel that they are assessed fairly. If the best people don’t feel that, they just leave at the first opportunity. That is why the culture of managerialism and audit. though rampant, will do harm in the end to any university that embraces it.

As it happens, there was a good example this week of the damage that can be inflicted on intellectual standards by the HR mentality. As a research assistant, I was sent the Human Resources Division Staff Development and Training booklet. Some of the courses they run are quite reasonable. Others amount to little more than the promotion of quackery. Here are three examples. We are offered a courses in “Self-hypnosis”, in “Innovations for Researchers” and in “Communication and Learning: Recent Theories and Methodologies”. What’s wrong with them?

“Self-hypnosis” seems to be nothing more than a pretentious word for relaxation. The person who is teaching researchers to innovate left science straight after his PhD and then did courses in “neurolinguistic programming” and life-coaching (the Carole Caplin of academia perhaps?). How that qualifies him to teach scientists to be innovative in research may not be obvious.

The third course teaches, among other things, the “core principles” of neurolinguistic programming, the Sedona method (“Your key to lasting happiness, success, peace and well-being”), and, wait for it, Brain Gym. This booklet arrived within a day or two of Ben
Goldacre’s spectacular demolition of Brain Gym “Nonsense dressed up as neuroscience”

“Brain Gym is a set of perfectly good fun exercise break ideas for kids, which costs a packet and comes attached to a bizarre and entirely bogus pseudoscientific explanatory framework”

“This ridiculousness comes at very great cost, paid for by you, the taxpayer, in thousands of state schools. It is peddled directly to your children by their credulous and apparently moronic teachers”

And now, it seems, peddled to your researchers by your credulous and
moronic HR department.

Neurolinguistic programming is an equally discredited form of psycho-babble, the dubious status of which was highlighted in a Beyerstein’s 1995 review, from Simon Fraser University.

“ Pop-psychology. The human potential movement and the fringe areas of psychotherapy also harbor a number of other scientifically questionable panaceas. Among these are Scientology, Neurolinguistic Programming, Re-birthing and Primal Scream Therapy which have never provided a scientifically acceptable rationale or evidence to support their therapeutic claims.”

The intellectual standards for many of the training courses that are inflicted on young researchers seem to be roughly on a par with the self-help pages of a downmarket women’s magazine. It is the Norman Vincent Peale approach to education. Uhuh, sorry, not education, but training. Michael O’Donnell defined Education as “Elitist activity. Cost ineffective. Unpopular with Grey Suits . Now largely replaced by Training .”

In the UK most good universities have stayed fairly free of quackery (the exceptions being the sixteen post-1992 universities that give BSc degrees in things like homeopathy). But now it is creeping in though the back door of credulous HR departments. Admittedly UCL Hospitals Trust recently advertised for spiritual healers, but that is the NHS not a university. The job specification form for spiritual healers was, it’s true, a pretty good example of the HR box-ticking mentality. You are in as long as you could tick the box to say that you have a “Full National Federation of Spiritual Healer certificate. or a full Reiki Master qualification, and two years post certificate experience”. To the HR mentality, it doesn’t matter a damn if you have a certificate in balderdash, as long as you have the piece of paper. How would they know the difference?

A lot of the pressure for this sort of nonsense comes, sadly, from a government that is obsessed with measuring the unmeasurable. Again, real management people have already worked this out. The management editor of the Guardian, said

“What happens when bad measures drive out good is strikingly described in an article in the current Economic Journal. Investigating the effects of competition in the NHS, Carol Propper and her colleagues made an extraordinary discovery. Under competition, hospitals improved their patient waiting times. At the same time, the death-rate e emergency heart-attack admissions substantially increased.”

Two new government initiatives provide beautiful examples of the HR mentality in action, They are Skills for Health, and the recently-created Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council.(already dubbed OfQuack).

The purpose of the Natural Healthcare Council .seems to be to implement a box-ticking exercise that will have the effect of giving a government stamp of approval to treatments that don’t work. Polly Toynbee summed it up when she wrote about “ Quackery
and superstition – available soon on the NHS
“ . The advertisement for its CEO has already appeared, It says that main function of the new body will be to enhance public protection and confidence in the use of complementary therapists. Shouldn’t it be decreasing confidence in quacks, not increasing it? But, disgracefully, they will pay no attention at all to whether the treatments work. And the advertisement refers you to
the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health for more information (hang on, aren’t we supposed to have a constitutional monarchy?).

Skills for Health, or rather that unofficial branch of government, the Prince of Wales’ Foundation, had been busy making ‘competences’ for distant healing, with a helpful bulletted list.

“This workforce competence is applicable to:

• healing in the presence of the client
• distant healing in contact with the client
• distant healing not in contact with the client”

And they have done the same for homeopathy and its kindred delusions. The one thing they never consider is whether they are writing ‘competences’ in talking gobbledygook. When I phoned them to try to find out who was writing this stuff (they wouldn’t say), I made a passing joke about writing competences in talking to trees. The answer came back, in all seriousness,

“You’d have to talk to LANTRA, the land-based organisation for that”,
“LANTRA which is the sector council for the land-based industries uh, sector, not with us sorry . . . areas such as horticulture etc.”.

Anyone for competences in sense of humour studies?

The “unrepentant capitalist” Luke Johnson, in the FT, said

“I have radically downsized HR in several companies I have run, and business has gone all the better for it.”

Now there’s a thought.

### The follow-up

The provost’s newletter for 24th June 2008 could just be a delayed reaction to this piece? For no obvious reason, it starts thus.

Human resources often gets a bad name in universities, because as academics we seem to sense instinctively that management isn’t for us. We are autonomous lone scholars who work hours well beyond those expected, inspired more by intellectual curiosity than by objectives and targets. Yet a world-class institution like UCL obviously requires high quality management, a theme that I reflect on whenever I chair the Human Resources Policy Committee, or speak at one of the regular meetings to welcome new staff to UCL. The competition is tough, and resources are scarce, so they need to be efficiently used. The drive for better management isn’t simply a preoccupation of some distant UCL bureaucracy, but an important responsibility for all of us. UCL is a single institution, not a series of fiefdoms; each of us contributes to the academic mission and good management permeates everything we do. I despair at times when quite unnecessary functional breakdowns are brought to my attention, sometimes even leading to proceedings in the Employment Tribunal, when it is clear that early and professional management could have stopped the rot from setting in years before. UCL has long been a leader in providing all newly appointed heads of department with special training in management, and the results have been impressive. There is, to say the least, a close correlation between high performing departments and the quality of their academic leadership. At its best, the ethos of UCL lies in working hard but also in working smart; in understanding that UCL is a world-class institution and not the place for a comfortable existence free from stretch and challenge; yet also a good place for highly-motivated people who are also smart about getting the work-life balance right.”

I don’t know quite what to make of this. Is it really a defence of the Brain Gym mentality?

Of course everyone wants good management. That’s obvious, and we really don’t need a condescending lecture about it. The interesting question is whether we are getting it.

There is nothing one can really object to in this lecture, apart from the stunning post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy implicit in “UCL has long been a leader in providing all newly appointed heads of department with special training in management, and the results have been impressive.”. That’s worthy of a nutritional therapist.

Before I started writing this response at 08.25 I had already got an email from a talented and hard-working senior postdoc. “Let’s start our beautiful working day with this charging thought of the week:”.

He was obviously rather insulted at the suggestion that it was necessary to lecture academics with words like ” not the place for a comfortable existence free from stretch and challenge; yet also a good place for highly-motivated people who are also smart about getting the work-life balance right.”. I suppose nobody had thought of that until HR wrote it down in a “competence”?

To provoke this sort of reaction in our most talented young scientists could, arguably, be regarded as unfortunate.

I don’t blame the postdoc for feeling a bit insulted by this little homily.

So do I.

Now back to science.

In a wonderful demonstration of common sense, the BBC has removed all the alternative medicine pages from BBC Health web site. I expect that it was helped in making that decision by the many complaints it had received about statements on these pages that were simply not true, The existence of these pages was just not compatible with the BBC’s commitment to accuracy.

 Needless to say, this decision was greeted with howls of rage from the alternative world. Some wrote to the BBC to complain (and I wrote to congratulate them). Until today I haven’t been able to find any BBC statement on the matter. This one appeared on Healthypages, one of the zaniest sites on the net. Nothing is too barmy for them. This is the picture they used to show how wrong the BBC is Picture from Healthypages

A recent offer on Healthypages, not to be missed, comes from “Innerjoy”.

“I do a range of spiritual healing practices and can offer an energetic healing session including techniques from the Order of Melchizedek and about 10 forms of Reiki in exchange for a Theta Healing session.”

And just in case you don’t know about the Melchidezek method, here is a picture of a poster in the window of my local “health food” shop.

The explanation says

“Using ancient holographic technology, the basis of the techniques presented is the activation of the Merkaba, a rotating lightfield awakening your spherical consciousness. This raises one’s quotient of light vibration within the human atomic cell structure. Once activated. the merkaba assists us in accessing our naturally ascended consciousness state: the healing capabilities are enhanced a hundred-fold. The Hologram of Love has the ability to heal and rejuvenate any form of creation as it is the living conscious holographic pattern of God Source vibration.”

There, and I’ll bet you thought holography was a recent invention. As an example of sciencey-sounding words used in random order, this one takes a bit of beating. It really is an insult to human intellect.

Anyway, back to the BBC. This is their diplomatic response (what they should have said really was, ‘those pages were nonsense so we removed them’).

BBC issued the following statement, dated 22 Feb 2008:

 Complaint We received complaints about the Complementary section of the BBC Health website being disbanded The BBC’s response The decision to remove the complementary medicine area of the health website was taken as part of a wider review of all the health content in order to enable the BBC to focus its efforts on creating new and exciting content. In order to release resources for this redevelopment work, we’re reviewing existing content from an editorial and value-for-money perspective.The complementary health section was incomplete and, therefore, not of a satisfactory editorial standard. It also represented a small proportion of traffic to the site but was disproportionately time-consuming.Therefore, the decision to take it down was based on a combination of factors: how much work it needed to maintain to a high editorial standard, how much this cost and how popular it was with site users.We have already removed other sections of the health site and plan to reduce or remove others. We appreciate people are disappointed this area of the site has been removed and apologise if the decision has appeared abrupt to site users or inconvenienced other sites linking to BBC Health. The BBC will continue to cover complementary health in other areas of its output, such as TV, radio and news programmes, and may reassess its complementary health content in future.

The news of the BBC’s return to honesty was greeted with consternation in CAM magazine too. The March 2008 issue notes that there used to be over 40 pages of alternative medicine on the BBC, now all gone, They quote an email from ‘Mardi’, thus,

” . . . However the site has in recent months been targetted by the self-appointed ‘quackbusters’ ( . . . such as David Colquhoun), who sent a deluge of letters and emails claiming that complementary therapies such as homeopathy and cranial osteopathy were ‘unscientific’ and should be removed.”

Well thanks for the credit, but sorry, there was no deluge. I wrote no more than a couple of times myself, and I suspect that a handful of friends did the same. I didn’t even ask them to remove the whole lot, merely to correct particular statements that were not true,

‘Mardi’ goes on

“Rather than taking a reasoned view and considering the evidence from good research studies on complementary medicine, these individuals seem simply hell bent on trying to stamp out complementary medicine”

That really is a bit rich. Suddenly the alternative industry are invoking evidence from good research studies. It is precisely the other way round. It is because that evidence is almost all negative that the BBC have decided to remove their coverage.

Of course it may have helped that the BBC had to spend a lot of time defending itself against criticism of the BBC 2 TV series on Alternative Medicine from February 2006. After initially rejecting complaints, an appeal to the highest level, the Board of Trustees, two of the most serious complaints were upheld against these programmes.

Boots the Chemists have proved themselves dishonest before, over their promotion of homeopathy and of B Vitamins “for vitality”

In a press release dated 12 March 2008, they have hit a new low in ethical standards

 Boots help boost the nation’s energy levels in just one week “Health and beauty expert Boots has launched an exclusive energising vitamin supplement that helps boost depleted energy levels and maintain vitality. It is the first time that this exclusive form of CoQ10 has been made available on the high street.” ” . . .supplementation can help to supply higher levels of CoQ10 than are available in the diet. Boots Energy Super Strength CoQ10 containing natural Kaneka CoQ10 is a way of boosting energy levels that can help people who lack energy to see results in a week”

This is as bad a bit of nutribollocks as I’ve ever seen. It is based on the confusion between two totally different meanings of the word “energy”. I see only two interpretations. Either the people who wrote and checked the promotional material are utterly ignorant about biochemistry and psychology. Or it is a deliberate attempt to mislead the public in order to shift the product.

You decide.

Last year there was an equally misleading press release about CoQ10 from Solgar/Boots Herbal. That one was headed “Need More Energy – Solgar’s Nutri Nano™ Uses Nanotechnology to Deliver Unprecedented Bioavailability of CoQ10”. Not only is the word ‘energy’ misused but notice that the trendy term ‘nanotechnology’ is worked in for extra sciencey effect. It turns out that all this means is that the preparation contains micelles. So nothing new there either. Micelles have been known for almost 100 years.

In contrast, the Boots online store is noticeably more restrained. Could that be because the Advertising Standards People can’t touch press releases, just as they can’t control what Boots Expert Team tell you face to face in the shop?

Boots PR contact is given as: Carrie Eames, PR Manager, Boots The Chemists, D90W WG14, Thane Road, Nottingham NG90 1BS. I’m not sure how Ms Eames sleeps at night. Perhaps you should write to her and let her know what you think.

You might point out to her Boots (anti) Social Corporate (ir)Responsibility Page. It says

 “So it’s part of our heritage to treat our customers fairly and act with integrity in everything we do, rather than seizing on the quickest and easiest way to turn a profit.”

### CoQ10 and “energy”

Coenzyme Q10 (also known as ubiquinone) is a relatively small molecule. It cooperates with cytochrome enzymes (big proteins) to synthesize a molecule called ATP. This is a chemical form of energy that can be used to do work, such as making a muscle fibre contract.

The word “energy ” here is used in the sense that a physicist would use it. It is measured in joules or in calories. The meaning of the word ‘energy‘ is described nicely in the Wikipedia entry. For example, when an electric current passes through a resistor (like a kettle) the electrical energy is converted to heat energy, and the energy used is potential difference (volts) X current (amps) X time. In other words energy is power (in watts) times time. So another unit for energy is kilowatt-hours (one kilowatt-hour is about 3.6 megajoules).

Energy in this sense has nothing whatsoever to do with the everyday use of ‘energy’ to indicate your vitality, or how lively you feel.

Furthermore there is not the slightest empirical reason to think that CoQ10 makes you feel more lively. None. The press release cites a sciencey-sounding reference (Ernster L, Dallner G. Biochemical, physiological and medical aspects of ubiquinone function. Biochim Biophys Acta. 1995 May 24;1271(1):195-204.). But this paper is just a review of the biochemistry, nothing whatsoever to do with feeling good.

### CoQ10 and the supplement business

There is nothing new in this big push by Boots. CoQ10 has been a staple of supplement business for a long time now. All sorts of medical claims have been made for it. Everything from migraine, to Parkinson’s disease to cancer has been raised as possible benefits of the magic drug, oops, I mean ‘supplement’. This is quite improper of course, since it is being sold as a food not as a medicine, but it is standard practice among supplement hucksters, and so far they have been allowed to get away with it.

What’s interesting though is that until Boots PR machine swung into action, one thing that hadn’t been claimed much is that it made you feel more lively. That’s one they just invented.

### CoQ10 and the press

It’s standard technique to get free advertising by hoping that journalists will dash off an article on the basis of a press release, with the hope that they will be in too much hurry to check the spin. Too often it works.

The Daily Mail has big coverage of the press release, under the title “Can a 60p pill from the chemist really add years to your life?“. This was written by Anna Hodgekiss and it’s not bad. It starts with a nice note of scepticism

“Forget vitamins C, E or even B12. The real wonder supplement is Coenzyme Q10 or CoQ10. That’s what Boots would have you believe, anyway. ”

“So should we all be taking this supplement?

Not according to David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, who says Boots’ claims are “deliberately misleading customers”.

“Yes, CoQ10 helps the body convert glucose into energy, but it’s not the psychological get-up-and-go energy you feel day to day.

“The type of energy it does produce powers our muscles and cells – physical energy. They have confused the two here to promote a product that I’m not convinced would make any difference to how you actually feel at all.”

The article goes on

Among the other sceptics is Scott Marsden, a senior dietician at The London Clinic.

“There haven’t been enough trials to warrant us all taking CoQ10,” he says.

“It sounds boring, but if you are healthy and eating a balanced diet, you will get all the nutrients you need and shouldn’t have to take supplements.

“Not only could you be spending money unnecessarily, you could also be putting your health at risk. Buy some wholesome food instead.” “

Dr Clare Gerada, vice chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, is more forthright.

“While there is some evidence to suggest CoQ10 supplements may help patients with heart failure or severe respiratory disorders, more work is needed,” she says.

“This is just another example of normal health being medicalised, and it’s an issue that worries me.

“The human body is an amazing machine, and we have never been in better health. The fact that more people are living well into their 80s and 90s is proof.

“People need to stop looking for a wonder pill in their quest to live for ever.”

But guess who comes out fighting for Boots? None other than my old friend Dr Ann Walker. Little wonder then that my Nutriprofile result recommended a co Q10 supplement, because she is involved in that too.

Ann Walker’s colleague on the Nutriprofile project, Dr Sarah Brewer comments on CoQ10 on the Healthspan site, thus.

“As CoQ10 is vital for energy production in muscle cells, lack of CoQ10 is linked with lack of energy, physical fatigues, muscle aches and pains . . .”

It seems that she also can’t distinguish between energy in joules and energy as vitality,

Female First and Marie Claire also carry a story “Boots Sell ‘Life Extending’ Pill

“A new pill that claims to add years to our lives is due to hit shelves in Boots stores this week but scientists say the drug is misleading.”

“Despite these claims Professor David Colquhoun told Marie Clare that he believes the drug is ‘deliberately misleading customers’: “Yes, CoQ10 helps the body convert glucose into energy, but it’s not the psychological get-up-and-go energy you feel day to day,” he said.”

(Funny, I never consciously spoke to Marie Claire but the quotation is OK.)

The Times, in contrast, carries an appalling column by their Dr Thomas Stuttaford, “A natural solution to tiredness“. There isn’t even a question mark in the title, and the content is totally uncritical. Private Eye has nicknamed the author ‘Dr Thomas Utterfraud’. How very cruel.

See also, excellent articles on CoQ10 by Ben Goldacre in the Guardian, and at badscience.net, and at Holfordwatch and Dr Aust’s Spleen

This appeared in the Guardian on 18 March, and I’m told it was in the Mail too.

The small print says

“The new Boots Energy supplement contains Kaneka Q10 to help boost your energy levels throughout the day”

Here is what I just sent to the Advertising Standard Authority, or email new.complaints@asa.org.uk . Why not have a go yourself?

 “The words “boost your energy levels” and “still lacking energy” constitute a (presumably deliberate) confusion beteen ‘energy’ measured in joules and the everyday use of the word ‘energy’ to mean vitality. The former usage would be justified in viewof the role of Coenzyme Q10 in ATP production. There is neither theoretical justification nor any empirical evidence that CoQ10 helps your vitality or ‘energy’ in the latter sense.”

We are all interested in the relationship between our health and what we eat. What a pity that so little is known about it.

The problem, of course, is that it almost impossible to do randomised experiments, and quite impossible in most cases to make the experiments blind. Without randomisation there is no way to be sure about causality, and causality is all that matters. All you can do is measure “associations” and that sort of information is simply unreliable.

For example, if you simply observe that people who eat a lot of dark green vegetables are healthier than those who don’t, there is no reliable way to tell whether their health is caused by eating the vegetables. It is just as likely that, for example, rich people are healthier because the are rich, not because they eat more vegetables. The answer, though usually not known, is the only thing that matters for offering advice. The crucial problem is that, in the latter case, it will do no good at all to bully a poor person to eat more vegetables: their health will not improve because their bad health was caused by poverty, not by lack of vegetables.

It is precisely this difficulty that results in the constantly conflicting advice that we are given about diet. I can’t think of any single thing that does more harm to real science than the fact that one week we are told that red wine is bad and the next week we are told that red wine is good. No doubt both statements were based on a naive observational studies, the significance of which is vastly exaggerated by its authors (and often by their university’s media department too).

The first job of a scientist is to be able to say “I don’t know”. Under pressure from the government’s audit culture, and the HR apparatchiks who embrace it so eagerly, all that is forgotten only too easily. he lack of certain answers about diet leaves a vacuum into which not only naive scientists are sucked, but also it is a gift for hucksters who are eager to sell you expensive ‘supplements’, whether or not you need them. As always, it is a case of caveat emptor.

The questions are important to us all, so when sciencepunk pointed out to me a chance to check my own diet, I went for it. I try to keep pretty close to the current guidelines. Unreliable though they may be, they are the best we’ve got. So I went to the Nutriprofile site, and filled in the questionnaire, quite honestly (apart from saying I was 37 -I wish).

I eat plenty of fruit and oily fish every week so I though I’d do quite well. No such luck. I ended up being told I was deficient in iron and selenium, and at “risk of deficiency” in vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), folate, vitamins D, E, K, magnesium, copper and potassium.

Uhuh, I must really be ill and I’d never realised it.

At the bottom of this analysis of all my deficiencies comes the sales pitch, “your personalised supplement recommendations”.”Strongly recommended” for me is Gold Standard A-Z Multivitamins (just click on the “buy now” button). I’m also “recommended” to buy Omega 3 1000mg capsules.

And then I’m invited to consider a whole list of other supplements

“The following products have been given a 1 star rating. This usually means they have been recommended to meet a specific issue raised by your NutriProfile. You should consider these supplements where you feel they could help if the issue is particularly important to you”

Here is the list.

• Selenium + A,C,E,
• OptiFive (antioxidant supplement)
• Co-enzyme Q10 (“may help you maintain energy levels” -look out for a forthcoming post on this scam)
• Memo Plus (“may help you maintain brain health and cognitive function”),
• Psyllium Husks
• Magnesium
• Vitamin D
• Ginkgo Biloba
• Probiotic

As always, there are lots of fantasies about “strengthening the immune system”. And the great antioxidant myth is exploited to the full.

Puzzled by this result, I got my wife to do the questionnaire, and also a particularly healthy and diet conscious colleague.

My wife was recommended to buy Omega 3 1000mg, Osteo Plus Bone health supplement (despite telling them that she already took calcium) and 50 Plus Multivitamins (“may help you address any deficiency in essential vitamins and minerals and may also help you maintain a healthy immune system and maintain energy levels. “). And then it may not.

My spectacularly healthy and diet conscious colleague got a strongly recommended (maximum 5 stars like me) for Gold Standard A-Z Multivitamins and for Omega 3 1000mg, as well as “recommended” for plant sterols, garlic and Opti-Omega 3.

Either I’m a lot unhealthier than I thought, or Nutriprofile is a sales scam.
You decide.

### Is there anyone at all who does NOT need supplements?

By this stage I was getting suspicious so I sent the link to a professional dietitian, Catherine Collins of St George’s Hospital London. Unlike the people running the site, she has no financial interest in selling you pills. I asked her to fill in the questionnaire as a hypothetical person who had an ideal diet, based on current nutritional knowledge . Surely such a paragon of dietetic virtue would not need to buy pills too?

Don’t you believe it. At least she didn’t get any 5 star “strongly recommended”, but she did get “Recommended for you” Opti-Omega 3 (3.5 stars) and Gold Standard A-Z Multivitamins (3 stars). Plus, of course the whole list of “you may like to consider”, same as everyone seems to get.
So I asked Collins how it came about that everyone seems to end up being recommended to buy pills after going through all the questions. Here is what she said.

“Apparently my ratio of omega3:6 is unbalanced. not if you ate the amount of oily fish i’d put in, and used ‘vegetable’ oil which is mono-rich rapeseed. I think they’ve used the sunflower analysis to generate this distortion.

I disagree with absolute amounts of omega-3 per day. The amount I recorded meant I would easily exceed a daily intake of 500 mg of the important omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA

Low Vitamin B6 and folate – totally incorrect recommendation based on my entries

Potassium – the survey indicated concern that diet provided 200mg per day less potassium than recommended. This was incorrect, the flaw I assume being due to inability of the questionnaire to handle portion sizes. Should I have been worried even if this had been accurate? Of course not. Potassium is widespread across food groups, the most concentrated being fruit and vegetables. It is an essential nutrient, but its requirements are relative to sodium (‘salt’) intake.

Their omega-3 fat recommendation is double the FSA/ SACN suggestion of 450mg/d – they actually quote this in their supporting information but then say ‘experts say we need double’ [their experts are below]. This is highly misleading. We need a combination of omega-3 fats in our diet for health – not only the ‘fishy’ EPA and DHA, but also the readily available ALA, found in vegetable (rapeseed) oil

Omega 3:6 ratio -completely wrong based on the foods entered. Demonstrates a major flaws in the assumptions made about type and amount of foods in the diet.

Water recommendations. Totally inaccurate information based on the myth expounded by the health food industry and its workers that caffeine is a diuretic. This been extensively researched and proven to be not true ( Grandjeans excellent work). The only way in which a caffeinated beverage is ‘diuretic’ to someone who takes caffeinated drinks regularly is in the volume of drink consumed.

She concludes

“”This appears an elaborate pill-pushing exercise. Superficially reassuring in promoting the recognised FSA (Food Standards Agency] line – but then giving undue – and unjustifiable – support to the anecdotal ‘experts recommend’ to create what will be a powerful sell”

The comment about water intake stems from this bit of Collins’ Nutriprofile:

“Caffeinated drinks, fizzy drinks and alcohol do not count because, whilst they contain water, they are mild diuretics, ie. they boost urine output and therefore should only form a small part of your total fluid intake.”

This myth (aka nutribollocks) is quite contrary to what the real research (going back to 1928) says, Check “Laying the caffeine myth to rest” for the real story..

I’m told that Healthspan are now sending out the paper questionnaire in newspapers. Presumably this is to ensure that the poor, the elderly etc and others who that aren’t computer literate don’t miss their buying opportunity. How considerate of them.

### Nutriprofile’s expert team

Who is the expert team behind Nutriprofile? Here they are.

Yes, that is the Ann Walker, the one who recently wasted so much time for the Provost of UCL. Luckily that little episode worked out fine in the end. At the last check she worked one tenth of her time for the University of Reading, and ran a herbal practice from her house. It is her recommendation of red clover as a “blood cleanser” that is responsible for the picture of clover in the header of this blog.

### What do the real experts say about supplements?

The story you get is quite different when you ask somebody who is not trying to sell you something

Most people should be able to get all the nutrients they need by eating a varied and balanced diet. But if you choose to take supplements, it’s important to know that taking too much or taking them for too long can cause harmful effects.”

Harvard Men’s Health Watch says

“Harvard Men’s Health Watch suggests that the average man give up the multivitamin, at least until scientists solve the puzzle of folic acid and cancer.”

“If you eat a balanced diet that includes food from all the major groups, there should be no need to take vitamin supplements. The food you eat will provide you with all the vitamins and minerals you need. “

I guess we should not be surprised at the direct contradiction between this advice and that of the Nutriprofile questionnaire. After all, Nutriprofile was developed by a company, Healthspan, that is devoted to selling “supplements” with all the dubious claims and customer testimonials associated with the alternative health industry.

But this is what always happens when big business controls science.

### Postscript

Oddly enough, Ann Walker’s experience seems to be much the same as ours. In an interview on the Healthspan site we read this.

Q: Which nutritional supplements do you choose to take?

A: I regularly take a multivitamin, vitamins C and E, fish oil, and a calcium and magnesium combination. I also take vitamin D during the winter and some herbs as and when they are needed.

Even if I have improved my diet, each time I complete the NutriProfile questionnaire my requirement for a multivitamin, calcium and magnesium, and a fish oil supplement are always thrown up.

Didn’t it occur to her to wonder why?

The sales pitch was followed up on 27 March the email arrived from Healthspan “Healthspan are offering you £5 to spend towards your recommended supplements”. One can’t say whether this offer goes to people who were not recommended supplements, because so far no such person has been found.

This is the third post based on a recent trip to North America (here are the first and second)

One aspect of the endarkenment, the Wal-Mart model of a university, is very much the same in the US as in the UK. At one US university, an excellent scientist offered the theory that an alien spacecraft had scattered spores across the land which developed into HR staff who appeared at first sight to be human, and who colonised academia.

The penetration of quackademics into US universities is a bit different from in the UK.

In the UK, the plague is restricted to sixteen or so ex-polytechnic universities which, to their great shame, actually offer Bachelor of Science degress in subjects like homeopathy. There are bits of quackery in good teaching hospitals (such as laying-on-of-hands at UCLH), but not very much.

In the USA and Canada, this sort of “vocational” training does not occur much in universities, but in separate colleges. The situation is worse there though, insofar as these colleges have been allowed to award titles like ‘doctor of naturopathic medicine (ND)’, for work that in no respect compares with what the rest of the world has to do to earn a doctorate. This prostitution of academic titles has not happened to anything like the same extent in the UK. How our own quacks would love it if they were allowed to call themselves ‘doctor’ and sport the initials ND (so easily mistaken for MD at first sight).

It is on the clinical side where the situation is far worse than in the UK. Almost every university hospital, including Harvard, Yale and Stanford, has departments devoted to fairy-tale medicine.

Quacks use a number of euphemisms to make themselves sound more respectable. First they became ‘alternative medicine’, then ‘complementary medicine’. Now the most-used euphemism is ‘integrative medicine’, which is favoured by most US universities (as well as by the Prince of Wales). Raymond Tallis pointed out that this seems to mean integration of treatments that don’t work with treatments that do work.

An official roll of shame for North American universities can be seen here (35 in USA and 4 in Canada).

A bigger collection of 44 universities has been posted by the incomparable Orac at the The Academic Woo Aggregator. He’s had good support in the USA from DrRW (R.W. Donnell), see particularly his articles on How did pseudoscience get admitted to medical school? and What is happening to our medical schools? Abraham Flexner is turning over in his grave.

All these outfits have two things in common. They all claim to be scientific and evidence-based, and none has produced any real evidence that any of their treatments work.

Here are a few examples of what’s going on.

### Yale University School of Medicine

The usual theme is expressed thus.

“Through open-minded exploration and rigorous scientific inquiry, we aim to improve awareness and access to the best in evidence-based, comprehensive medical care available worldwide, with the goal of optimizing health and healing for patients”

The driving force behind the woo seems to be a fourth year medical student, Rachel Friedman, so I wrote to her to ask what useful alternative treatments had been established by research at Yale. But she could not identify any. All I got was this.

“My best advice would be to do some medline searching of metaanalyses” there’s been enough research into some of these modalities to provide for a metaanalysis.”

So she was unable to produce nothing (and anyway. metanalyses, useful though they may be, are not research).. A glance at the Yale publications page shows why.

### The Scripps Institute

“In use at Scripps since 1993, Healing Touch is an energy-based, non-invasive treatment that restores and balances energy to help decrease pain and relieve associated anxiety.

Healing Touch is performed by registered nurses who recognize, manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body, thereby promoting healing and the well-being of body, mind and spirit.”

“Balances energy”?

“manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body”?

This is just meaningless baloney. And it come from the Scripps Institute.

### The Oregon Health & Science University

OHSU is an excellent and well-respected research university where I have many friends. It was a pleasure to meet them recently.

But it also has a big department of “Complementary and alternative medicine” and an “Integrated medicine service”. There are some good bits of advice mixed up with a whole range of crazy stuff. Take their page on homeopathy.

“This therapy treats ailments with very small amounts of the same substance that causes the patient’s symptoms.”

WRONG. In most cases it is zero amount. To brush this fact under the carpet is simply dishonest (and perhaps a sign of guilt). Then comes this (my emphasis)..

Explanations for why homeopathy works range from the idea that homeopathic medicine stimulates the body’s own natural defenses to the idea that homeopathic medicine retains a “memory” of the original substance.

However, there is no factual explanation for why homeopathy works and more research is needed.”

WRONG. This statement carries (twice) the expicit message that homeopathy does work, quite contrary to a mountain of good evidence that it is merely a placebo. The statement is deceptive and dishonest. And it comes with the OHSU logo.

### The University of Arizona

” Heal medicine”, “Transform the world?” Modest uh?

The University of Arizona Program in Integrative Medicine is certainly not modest in its claims, but its publications page shows that it doesn’t even attempt to find out if its “therapies” actually work.

Here is an example. They are advertising their Nutrition and Health conference
heavily.

There’s nothing wrong with good nutrition of course, but the ‘alternative’ approach is instantly revealed by the heavy reliance on the great antioxidant myth.

And look at the sponsors. The logo at the top is for Pistachio Health, a company that promotes pistachio nuts: “Delicious and good-for-you, pistachios are nature’s super heart-healthy snack. Nutrient dense, full of fiber and antioxidants, pistachios give you more bang per calories than any other nut.”.

The other advertisement is ‘POM Wonderful’, a company that sells and promotes pomegranate juice, “POM is the only pomegranate juice you can trust for real pomegranate health benefits”

No doubt pistachio nuts and pomegranate juice are perfectly good foods. But the health claims made for them are just marketing and have very little basis in fact.

Now let’s look at the speakers. Take, for example, Dr David Heber, MD., PhD. He is director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, a professor of Medicine and Public Health, and the founding Chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition in the Department of Medicine. He is the author of several books including “What Color is Your Diet” and the “L.A. Shape Diet.” With the possible exception of the books, you can’t sound like a more respectable and impartial source of advice than that.

But hang on. Dr Heber is to be seen in a video on the Pistachio Health web site doing what amounts to a commercial for pistachio nuts.

OK let’s take a look at one of Dr Heber’s papers. Here’s one about, guess what, pomegranate juice. “Pomegranate Juice Ellagitannin Metabolites Are Present in Human Plasma and Some Persist in Urine for Up to 48 Hours”. The work was “Supported by the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Revocable Trust and from the NIH/NCI grant P50AT00151”. So no problems there. Well not until you check POM Wonderful in Wikipedia, where you find out that Stewart and Lynda Resnick just happen to be founders of POM.

Of course none of these interesting facts proves that there is anything wrong with the work. But they certainly do show that the alternative nutrition business is at least as much hand-in-glove with big business as any other form of medicine. And we know the problems that that has caused.

So, if you want impartial advice on nutrition, sign up for the 6th Annual Nutrition and Health meeting. For “MD, DO, ND & other doctors”, it will cost you only $845 to register . The meeting is being run by The University of Arizona College of Medicine and Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. The University of Arizona is, incidentally, also the home of the famous (or perhaps infamous) Gary Schwartz (see also, here). He “photographs” non-existent “energy fields” and claims to be able to communicate with the dead, and he is director of its Human Energy Systems Laboratory at the University of Arizona. He is also head of the inappropriately-named Veritas Research Program and “Centre for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science”. All of these activities make homeopathy look sane, but he is nevertheless part of an otherwise respectable university. In fact he is He is Gary E. Schwartz, Ph.D. is professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry and surgery at the University of Arizona. Even more incredibly, this gets NIH funding. Columbia University, along with Cornell, also has its own “Complementary, alternative, and integrative medicine“, defined as “the use of treatments, such as homeopathic medicine, ayurveda, botanical dietary supplements”. And their “Integrative Therapies Program for Children” is intimately tied up with a company called Origins, which is more a cosmetics company, Origins” (with all the mendacity that implies). They say “Origins understands the importance of addressing wellness through an integrative approach,” says Daria Myers, President of Origins Natural Resources. “With our recent Dr. Andrew Weil collaboration, Origins demonstrated its support for the integrative wellness concept. Now, with the introduction of the new Nourishing oil for body and massage, we hope to bring not only a moment of comfort but also a healthy future to children enduring the fight of their life.” Andrew Weil is, of course, the promoter of the Arizona meeting. The corruption of Universities by this sort of activity is truly amazing. Thursday 24 Jan. One of the original reasons for going to North America was an invitation from the Toronto Secular Alliance and Center for Inquiry. The talk for them was given a lot of publicity, for example here and here and from the totally admirable Orac. Toronto seems to be no worse than anywhere else when it comes to delusional thinking about medicine. It is, of course, the home of Ryerson University, the place that produced one of the most outrageous pieces of postmodernist nonsense on record. But when this sort of thing gets into really good universities, it is more worrying. As a result of the publicity there was some media coverage (and a record 7109 hits on this site on Sunday).  Friday 25th January, Reception and talk: Center for Inquiry. Science in an Age of Endarkenment: Some Examples from Scientific Fraud, Quackery, Religion and University Politics An interview to the National Post (a newish right-of-centre national Canadian paper that was founded by the now-notorious Conrad Black). It was interesting that the reporter had views not unlike my own about the rise of the MBA mentality. That, he said, was what gave us Enron. The article appeared on page 3 of the National Post on Saturday 26 January under the heading “Anti-Nutty Professor” (or download newspaper version as pdf file). Friday morning was spent at CBC recording with Michael Enright, for the Sunday Edition.  The interview was broadcast on Sunday morning (28 Jan) and elicited a lot of correspondence. CBC made it available as a podcast which can be downloaded from CBC here. The endarkenment interview was the last 22 minutes (out of 64 minutes) [play the interview here (mp3, 20 Mb)]. Sunday Edition: the follow-upThe week following this CBC show, the backlash started. The Sunday Edition wrote “A stirred-up hornet’s nest is a mild disturbance compared to the firestorm we unleashed last week over my conversation with Dr. David Colquhoun. Dr. Colquhuon [sic] is a gangly, pipe-puffing British pharmacologist who thinks all alternative medicine, all of it, is a fraud perpetrated by quacks. But he went further, somehow suggesting that those who believe in it probably supported Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the Ayatollah Khomeini. He pooh-poohed acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, even vitamins. Well, his remarks opened the floodgates of listener mail, screaming for Dr. Colquhoun’s head on a pike. In a few moments, alternative or complimentary [sic] medicine strikes back. With the help of two experts, we will try to give the other side of contentious Colquhounism.” The programme for 3 Feb 2008 started with a few emails from listeners, mainly of the “homeopathy cured my granny” type. Nothing of much significance there. But then Enright interviewed Dugald Seely of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine and Dr. Kien Trinh of the DeGroote School of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton. You can download the podcast here. The flat earth problem. Michael Enright was a good interviewer, but Sunday Edition suffers, like the BBC, from a problem. It is admirable that CBC, like the BBC, should strive to be ‘fair and balanced’, but it is not always easy to see what that means in practice. Is it fair and balanced to give equal time to people who think that the earth is flat and those who think it is spherical (OK, an oblate ellipsoid)? Perhaps, but it also quite misleading because it can easily convey a very distorted idea of the balance of informed opinion. In this case the flat-earthers are the homeopaths and other alternative medicine advocates. That would not matter so much if the interviewers had enough knowledge of the subject to pin down the falt-earth advocates with the sort of penetrating questions that people like John Humphrys (of the BBC’s Today programme) are so very good at. When it comes to science, though, the flat-earthers tend to get away with murder, and the public can easily be left with a very distorted view. Which “expert” should they believe? If I had been given the option, I would have loved to debate the problems of alternative medicine directly with Trinh and Seely I could have asked then a few questions that Enright missed. Let’s take a look at what happened at the follow-up. ### Quackery at McMaster University McMaster is one of many universities in North America that has chosen to betray the intellectual tradition of the enlightenment by buying into superstition (see the roll of shame here). The ‘contemporary medical acupuncture program appears to run under the aegis of the anaesthesia department, though the fact that is doen’t appear on the department’s front page suggests there may be some embarrassment about it. The medical acupuncture program itself, has separate web pages which don’t seem to be on the McMaster server at all (they are on a private server, ThePlanet.com Internet Services, Inc. As so often, these pages pay lip service to an ‘evidence based’ or ‘scientific’ approach, while doing nothing of the sort. In his CBC interview Kien Trinh agreed (twice) with my contention that trials had shown that it doesn’t matter where you put the needles. But then he failed totally to draw the obvious conclusion that ‘meridians’ are mumbo jumbo. He went right on taking the conventional mystical view of meridians and “energy” flow. Like most proponents of alternative medicine, Trinh seems to live in some sort of parallel universe in which the normal rules of logic don’t apply. On wouldn’t expect regular anaesthetists to accept this sort of mystical nonsense, but it seems one would be wrong. When I wrote to the Chair of the Department of Anesthesia, at McMaster to ask about their relationship with acupuncturists there was no hint of embarrassement. Dr Norman Buckley, BA (Psych), MD, FRCPC, wrote “It operates under the principles of evidence based medicine, and relates the concepts raised by the Acupuncture/traditional Chinese medicine to physiology anatomy et as it is more usually taught in Western schools.” That would be all very well if it were true, but it simply isn’t true. The evidence just isn’t there, and the departments involved make no serious attempts to get evidence. In a later letter, Dr Buckley seems to acknowledge that it may be all placebo, but seems reluctant to offend anyone by saying so. That, I suspect, is how quackery has gained such a foothold. It is good to keep an open mind, but if it is too open your brains fall out. Or, in another variant, if it is too open, someone will fill it with trash. One looks in vain on Trinh’s web site for any good evidence. They quote approvingly the conclusion of a 1997 NIH Consensus statement that says “There is sufficient evidence of acupuncture’s value to expand its use into conventional medicine and to encourage further studies of its physiology and clinical value.”, but forget to mention that this document is headed “This statement is more than five years old and is provided solely for historical purposes.”. The department doesn’t seem to do much original research, just to write endless reviews of other peoples’ work. The reviews aren’t too bad, and mostly they come to the right conclusion, that there is not enough evidence to come to firm conclusions. The difference from science is that this doesn’t dent their confidence for a moment. A typical sort of conclusion seems to be Elbow pain. A review by Green et al. concluded “needle acupuncture [is] of short-term benefit with respect to pain, but this finding [is] based on the results of two small trials, the results of which [are] not able to be combined in metaanalysis.” The results of thousands of years experience with acupuncture seem to be pretty pathetic so far.. ### Quackery at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM) Unlike McMaster, CCNM isn’t a proper university, though nonetheless is hands out ‘doctorates’. Dugald Seely’s contribution was interesting insofar as he admitted that there was a lot of fraud and unjustified claims in the alternative medicine industry (never forget there are megabucks involved). What he didn’t explain was how he himself could be distinguished from the frauds. The problem, as always is the second-rate research that goes on in this area. Take one of Seely’s papers, Adaptogenic Potential of a Polyherbal Natural Health Product: Report on a Longitudinal Clinical Trial . Is only too typical: a small non-randomised, open-label (not blind) “trial” of a complex herbal mixture on 17 patients. The conclusion was, as it almost always is, “Further research using a randomized controlled design is necessary to confirm the findings from this pilot study.” In other words, no conclusion at all. Why is it that the proper trial never seems to appear? Could it be that naturopaths, and the wealthy industry behind them, are afraid to do proper trials? That is certainly the impression they give. One way in which the alternative medicine industry operates is to invent new words with ill-defined meanings (and Big Pharma does it too). In case you were wondering about the word “adaptogen” it is defined as “Essentially the adaptogen supports the body’s ability to ‘adapt’ ideally to its environment. Essentially the adaptogen supports the body’s ability to ‘adapt’ ideally to its environment. ” Whatever that means. The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine offers the following “therapies”. • acupuncture/Asian medicine • botanical medicine • physical medicine (massage, hydrotherapy, etc.) • clinical nutrition • homeopathic medicine • lifestyle counseling Well, nothing wrong with nutrition and lifestyle counseling as long as the claims aren’t exaggerated. But, as always, the claims that are made are vastly exaggerated. For example they claim Homeopathic remedies are particularly effective for: • depression • anxiety • allergies • infections • gynecological concerns • skin conditions • digestive problems • chronic and acute conditions including colds and flu These claims are simply not true, in my view. If you don’t believe me, check NELCAM (the NHS Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialist Library). This is written by advocates of alternative medicine, yet it finds no convincing evidence for effectiveness of homeopathy in any of the conditions listed above. Or, even more remarkably, from a report in Newsweek. “Dr. Jack Killen, acting deputy director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, says homeopathy “goes beyond current understanding of chemistry and physics.” He adds: “There is, to my knowledge, no condition for which homeopathy has been proven to be an effective treatment.” The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has, incidentally, spent almost one billion US$ billion of US taxpayers’ money and has come up with next-to-nothing useful.

So the claims made by the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine are not backed up even by people who are directly involved in alternative medicine You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that the medicine contains no medicine.

 “the report is more hypothesis-generating for future research than a rigorous scientific study. Find us some money and we will do a proper job. You can quote me for that.” Professor David Smith (Oxford). Scientific adviser for Food for the Brain.

A great deal has been written about media ‘nutritionist’, Patrick Holford. He’s the chap who thinks that chromium and cinnamon can treat diabetes (watch the video), among other odd beliefs. For all the details, check badscience.net, holfordwatch and here.
For a quick synopsis, look at Holfordmyths.org.

Patrick Holford and Drew Fobbester are joint researchers and authors of the Food for the Brain Child Survey , September 2007 (pdf). Holfordwatch has made a very thorough study of this report, in eight parts (so far). They conclude

HolfordWatch can not share the optimism for these claimed benefits and finds that there is insufficient data to support them in a robust manner.”

There are many detailed questions, but the basic problem with the report is very simple. The fact that is (a) self-selected and (b) not randomised make it just another naive observational study. The stunningly obvious confounder in this case is, as so often, the socio-economic background of the kids. That was not even assessed, never mind any attempt being made to allow for it.

This isn’t just pedantry because what matters is causality. It is worth very little to know that eating vegetables is correlated with high SAT score if the correlation is a result of having well-off parents. If that were the reason, then forcing kids with poor parents to eat vegetables would make no difference to their SAT score because their parents would still be poor. The only conclusion of the study seems to be that we should eat more fruit and vegetables, something that we are already lectured about in every waking moment.

Many questions about the report have not yet been answered by its authors. But the report has a panel of scientific advisors, some of whom at least seem to be very respectable (though not ‘orthomolecular medicine‘, which is a cult founded on the batty late-life beliefs of the once great Linus Pauling that Vitamin C is a magic bullet).

Furthermore they are thanked thus

As it happens, David Smith is an old friend, so I wrote to him, and also to Philip Cowen, with some detailed questions. I didn’t get detailed answers, but the responses were none the less interesting. Cowen said

“I did see the report and quite agree with your conclusions that it an observational study and therefore not informative about causality.”

“The advice about diet seems reasonable although, as you point out, probably somewhat redundant.”

But still more interesting, David Smith told me (my emphasis)

“the survey was the largest of its kind and was done on minimal funding; hence several matters could not be dealt with and so the report is more hypothesis-generating for future research than a rigorous scientific study. Find us some money and we will do a proper job. You can quote me for that, if you wish.”

I’d grateful to David for his permission to quote this comment, It seems that Holford’s top scientific advisor agrees that it is not a rigorous study, and even agrees that the “proper job” is still to be done.

But it does seem a shame that that was not made clear in the report itself.

This is the first of a several posts that have arisen from a visit to North America. One thing that the trip led to was an interest in how HR departments influence science -if you have a story about that, please email me.

Following the media publicity that surrounded the lecture in Toronto, I was sent this poem by Anne Spencer, of Canada.

It is based on the style of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), and she had earlier went a more political version, below, which was a runner up in the international Swift satire poetry competition, 2004. Anne Spencer has been kind enough to let me reproduce both her poems here.

What men wish, they like to believe.
Julius Caesar

## Verses on folly, faith and fantasy

Great Caesar saw what we still find

In much of modern humankind,

That wishful thinking will suppress

The reason we should all possess.

Take health. That is a main concern.

We look for cures at every turn

For sicknesses that cause unease

And nasty things that bring disease.

But from the science of the age

Too many now will disengage,

Forget the studies, evidence

Of remedies that will dispense

A tested way of healing those

Conditions doctors diagnose.

They say they’ve lost their confidence

In science, and have a preference

For substances that they perceive

Fit in with what they all believe

In nature’s realm of field and flowers,

Along with supernatural powers

Or energies that ebb and flow

And are released by those who know

The proper touch or breath or spell

For proper paying clientele.

And other forms of therapy

Like healing touch they all agree

Despite their failure to explain

Result in easing of their pain.

For grave conditions that could kill

It’s nature’s bounty fills the bill,

From goats a serum crushes AIDS

And grape juice makes Altzheimers fade,

Red clover makes the blood come clean

And sugar pills become routine

As remedies for things they feel

They cannot count on science to heal.

And substances that they produce

To cure complaints or pain reduce

They say they must dilute and then

Dilute, dilute, dilute again

Because the less you have, not more

Will guarantee a better cure.

(Conclusions such as this imply

There’s no attempt to reason why.)

And quite impervious they stay

To anything their critics say

That challenge rational intellects.

Their gurus sanction their belief

That things they give them bring relief

From anything they want to try,

(Because the more they wish, they buy)

If people give them hope and say

That black is white, then that’s OK.

But there’s the rub – for harm can come

By seeing this as rule of thumb

For if you disregard the facts

That science tells, then this detracts

From treatments that show evidence

Of beneficial consequence.

More harm than good can come to those

Rejecting treatments that propose

Results that doctors can compile

Which don’t depend upon a smile

Or harmony with sundry forces

Brought to bear by doubtful sources.

So those who wish upon a star

Or herb or potion in a jar

To grant relief from ache or pain

Could well decide to think again

And weigh the chances that desire

Not reason is what we require

To make us well when we succumb

To ailments that are troublesome.

For wishful thoughts beguile the mind

But leave reality behind.

### And here is the political version of Anne Spence’s poem

Great Caesar, famed in Gallic wars,

A champion of the Roman cause,

Who came, and saw and conquered when

The sword was mightier than the pen,

Was yet a statesman, author, who

Knew much of human nature too.

For Caesar saw what we still find

In much of modern humankind,

That wishful thinking reason dims

And validates our selfish whims.

But more we see in public spheres

How much this maxim oft appears,

To show how leaders are consumed

By things believed their wish presumed.

And lately this seems quite okay

With rulers of the USA.

(But we, like Swift, will make our claim

By ‘lashing vice’ but sparing name).

With politics that are complex

Illusions tend to blur the specs

When men believe whate’er they wish

Some policies get devilish.

And when you add religion too

We have a complicated brew,

And here a leader we can see

Who joins the ruling company

Of men who demonstrate the state

Of those who wish with truth equate.

He left a weak addicted past

To seek his destiny at last.

Became a Christian, born again

Aspiring to a higher plane.

But, once elected by a fluke,

(That all just men would sure rebuke)

He saw his mission godly sent

To show the world enlightenment.

And he believed that evil dwelt

Within an oil producing belt,

Its ruler evil incarnate

A tyrant quite degenerate.

And so when terrorists attacked

The World Trade towers, this proved the fact,

Or so he said, for who could not

Connect events with dot to dot?

He’d purge the world of evil’s stain

He would not shrink from duty’s call

To seek Saddam’s decline and fall,

For he believed his destiny

Proclaimed by God – Divine decree.

He’d find the hidden weapons and

He’d bring new freedom to the land

Where western values were deplored

By villains who lived by the sword

(Or torture, rape, or nasty gases

With which they murdered ethnic masses).

And so he would avenge the dead,

Lead on his troops –at least he’d send

God chose him evil to despoil

(And as reward he’d get the oil).

He was inspired, he still believed

His mission was to crush this foe

Both God and Tony told him so.

So off to conquer all that’s bad

The forces left to bomb Baghdad.

Their leader stayed at home to see

How his crusade looked on tv.

The mighty tanks, the skies aflame

Were better than a video game.

The statues fell, the prisoners freed

The regime’s downfall guaranteed

The patriot missiles, patriot men

Would soon, he thought, be home again.

Though some had breathed their final breath

The ‘victory’ justified their death

And they’d be heroes ever more

While blest upon another shore.

They played their part, they fought the fight,

Their president bid them goodnight.

They left behind a populace

Who now could western life embrace.

Well, most of it – religiously

They kept their views on sanctity.

Their heaven, they said, was nicer, and

They could have virgins on demand.

(It seems this wish- belief thing will

For any culture fill the bill).

But though the war, it seemed, was won

The leader’s view that freedom would

Make people act the way they should

Once out from under evil’s thrall,

It turned out didn’t work at all.

Because he’d only wished , not thought

Things through with wisdom as he ought,

The leader found his plans rejected

Much more than he had once expected.

His mandate from his holy source

Was not so easy to enforce.

His ignorance of tribal clans,

Of loyalties and partisans,

Reliance on intelligence

Which didn’t make a lot of sense,

Attending to his favourites

And lots of other deficits,

Caused wild confusion in the land

So hard for him to understand.

The law and order that he craved,

Now he’d removed the ones depraved

A lot more people ended dead.

But still he had to carry on,

With pressure from the Pentagon,

Because he thought and wished it so

That God would help him beat the foe,

Despite continual loss of life

Of those confronting all the strife.

But strange! His enemies were sure

That Allah would their cause secure.

So God to God and wish to wish

The conflict grew more feverish.

And back at home the leader found

Himself on much more shaky ground,

And world opinion, never sure

He really had the grounds for war

Began to further criticize

His too aggressive enterprise.

(As still ongoing was the strife

With still ongoing loss of life).

And God and Allah seem, to date,

Not sure which side to vindicate.

And so men’s own reality

Ignores that it’s their vanity

That is at root the primal cause.

This makes us think and gives us pause.

For men in highest places show

How vain beliefs can bring us low.

And those our leaders who are prone

To wish for things we can’t condone,

Believing they are in the right,

Might look up at the sky at night.

To wish upon a star is nice

Less likely to elicit vice,

Corrupt belief and common sense

Or make ambition too intense.

(And Judy Garland did endorse

The great celestial resource)

But when as president they act

They’d better base beliefs on fact.

The truth will out, and leaders who

Ignore it, they should exit too.

As I have often said, you don’t need to be a scientist to see that most alternative medicine is bunk, though it is bunk that is supported and propagated by an enormously wealthy industry..

There were two good examples this week, John Sutherland, who was until recently professor of English literature at UCL, understands it very well. And so does political columnist, Polly Toynbee.

### “Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council”

Polly Toynbee’s column, “Quackery and superstition – available soon on the NHS“, was prompted by the announcement in The Times that the government was to set up a “Natural Healthcare Council”.  It was soon renamed the “Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council” (CNHC)   It  was instantly dubbed ‘OfQuack’ in an admirable analysis by quackometer.a>

The very name is tendentious and offensive to any thinking person. What is “natural” about sticking needles in yourself, or taking homeopathic polonium?

“Put not your trust in princes, especially not princes who talk to plants. But that’s what the government has decided to do. The Department of Health has funded the Prince of Wales Foundation for Integrated Healthcare to set up the Natural Healthcare Council to regulate 12 alternative therapies, such as aromatherapy, reflexology and homeopathy. Modelled on the General Medical Council, it has the power to strike therapists off for malpractice.”

“The alternative lobby replies that conventional medicine can also do more harm than good. They chortle with glee at an article in the Lancet suggesting there is no scientific evidence for the efficacy of 46% of conventional NHS treatments. But that’s no reason to encourage more of it.”

Professor John Garrow has pointed out (see, also Healthwatch )

“It is true they chortle, but they have got their facts wrong. The 46% of treatments which are not proven to be effective is 46% of all treatments for 240 common conditions – and very few are used in the NHS. The great majority are treatments used by alternative practitioners. “

The unconstitutional interference by the Prince of Wales in public affairs has been noted often before, and it seems that it’s happening again.

For example, there is the TV programme, “Charles, the Meddling Prince”, or, for a US view, see “Homeopathy: Holmes, Hogwarts, and the Prince of Wales“. And then there’s Michael Baum’s superb “An open letter to the Prince of Wales: with respect, your highness, you’ve got it wrong“.

It isn’t that regulation isn’t needed, but that the sort of regulation being proposed won’t do the trick. The framework for the “Natural Healthcare Council” has been set up by Professor Dame Joan Higgins, and it seems to be very much along the lines proposed by the Prince of Wales. Here’s what’s wrong.

 Professor Dame Joan Higgins (Jan 10th) says “Complementary therapists have been in practice for many years” and “If complementary therapy is not to be banned, is it not, therefore, wise to regulate it and offer the public some measure of protection”. That’s fine, but I think the sort of regulation that she, and the Prince of Wales, are proposing won’t do the trick. We don’t need new laws, or new quangos, just the even-handed application of existing laws. Homeopathic arnica 30C contains no arnica, and one would expect that the Office of Fair Trading would have banned it. It is no different from selling strawberry jam that contains no strawberries. But absurd legal loopholes make homeopaths immune to prosecution for this obvious mislabeling, whereas jam fraudsters would be in deep trouble. The Advertising Standards Authority, likewise, is prevented from doing its job by legal loopholes, and by the fact that it has no jurisdiction over web advertising, which is now the main source of untrue claims. If alternative medicine advocates had to obey the same laws as the rest of us, the public would be better protected from fraud and delusion. What won’t work is to insist that homeopaths are “properly trained”. If one takes the view that medicines that contain no medicine can’t work, then years of being trained to say that they do work, and years spent memorizing the early 19th century mumbo-jumbo of homeopathy, does not protect the public, it imperils them.

The “Natural Healthcare Council” isn’t the only example either. Try Skills for Health.

### Skills for Health

This appears to be a vast bureaucratic enterprise devoted to HR-style box-ticking. Just in case you don’t know about this latest bit of HR jargon, there is a flash movie that explains all.

“Competences are descriptors of the performance criteria, knowledge and understanding that are required to undertake work activities. They describe what individuals need to do, and to know, to carry out the activity -regardless of who performs it.”

That sounds OK until you realise that no attention whatsoever is paid to the little problem of whether the “knowledge and understanding” are pure gobbledygook or not. It’s rather like the HR form that ensures UCLH that you are a fully-qualified spiritual healer “Laying on of hands: just tick the box“.

It is an invidious insult to human intelligence to suppose that exercises like this are an appropriate way to select people for jobs. They have precisely the opposite effect to that intended.

An indication of the level of their critical thinking is provided what is written about the 62 items listed under “Complementary Medicine” These include “CHH5 Provide Healing”.

“This workforce competence is applicable to:

• healing in the presence of the client
• distant healing in contact with the client
• distant healing not in contact with the client

Both healing in the presence of the client and distant healing use exactly the same mental and spiritual processes. Clearly, however, distant healing does not involve many of the physical aspects of healing in the presence of the client. The performance criteria have been written so as to be able to be interpreted for use in any healing situation.

The workforce competence links to CHH6 which is about evaluating the effectiveness of the healing.”

It also includes homeopathy, for example “HM_2: Plan, prescribe and review homeopathic treatment“.

I sent an email to Skills for Health to ask who wrote this stuff. A reply from their Technical Development Director failed to elicit any names.

 We develop competences to fit sector needs and demands. When that need is moved into a competence project we establish a number of groups from the specific area to work with us to develop the competences. One of these groups is a “reference” group which is made up of experts from the field. In effect these experts give us the content of the competences, we write them in our format. So I guess the answer as to who is the author is Skills For Health, but with more complexity behind statement.Please do not hesitate to get in touch with me for further clarity.

A conversation with Skills for Health

I did want more clarity, so I phoned Skills for Health. Here are some extracts from what I was told.

“It’s not quite as simple as that”

“the competencies on our data base are written by “experts in the field”

DC. Yes and it is their names that I was asking for

“I’m not sure I can give you the names . . . We’re starting to review them in the New Year. Those competencies are around six years old. ”

“We are working with the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health [FIH] via Ian Cambray-Smith to review these competencies, all the complementary therapy competences on our web site”

“They are written as a consensus decision across a wide number of stakeholders across that area of …”

DC. Written by whom though?

“written by a member of Skills for Health staff or a contractor that we employ simply to write them, and the writing is a collation of information rather than their original thoughts, if you like”

DC yes, I still think the sources can and should be given.

“FIH didn’t spend any money with us on this project. This project was funded by the Education act regulatory bodies, QCA, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority . . . ”

“They [FIH] may well have put in and supported members of their professions or groups to do part of this . . they were there as experts on that particular area of complementary therapy ”

DC it’s their names that I was after

“There may well have been members [of FIH] on the reference groups that I’ve referreed to who are members of the FiH . . .they were there as experts from that area of complementary therapies.”

DC Oh, and are the names of [the people on] these reference groups published?

“No they are not published”

DC ah, why not?

“We do not consider it necessary”

DC Well, I consider it very necessary myself

“Tell me why”

DC It’s a question of public accountability

“I guess the accountability lies with us as the owners of those competencies”

DC Uh I’m afraid your bureaucratic jargon is a bit much for me there. “The owners of those competencies”? I’m not sure what that means

“Why do you want the information?”

DC haha, well if you want me to be entirely blunt, it’s because I’m appalled that this black magic is appearing on a government web site

“. . . can I say that as an organisation funded by a number of sources, one being Department of Health England, none of our work condones the practice you’ve just suggested. Our work supports best practice in areas that are evidence- and research-based”

DC Ah would you mind pointing me to the evidence for homeopathy and distant healing?

“Uh [pause] there is [pause]”

DC Yes, go on

“Well homeopathy is a contentious issue, because every newspaper article I read seems to suggest that homeopathy, in itself, is not an appropriate, uh, not an, uhm, appropriate, uh, therapy.”

DC Yes so why are you laying down standards in it?. You know I’m curious. I’m genuinely curious about this

“The areas involved in them have asked us to, including the Prince’s Trust hence the reason we are doing . . .”

DC But the Prince’s Trust is not part of government. Ha, it behaves as though it was , I agree, sometimes but it is surely for the Department of Health to ask you to do these things, not the Prince of Wales.

“We cover the whole health sector.. We don’t purely work for, or are an organisation of, the Department of Health.”

DC. I’m very baffled by the fact that you say, you very accurately the research on homeopathy, namely that it doesn’t work, but you are still setting standards for it. It’s quite baffling to me.

“Working with the Foundation for Integrated Health, as we are doing, homeopathy is one of the 10 areas that is listed for regulation by FIH ”

DC. Well yes the Prince of Wales would like that. His views on medicine are well known, and they are nothing if not bizarre. Haha are you going to have competencies in talking to trees perhaps?

“You’d have to talk to LANTRA, the land-based organisation for that.”

DC. I’m sorry, I have to talk to whom?

“LANTRA which is the sector council for the land-based industries uh, sector, not with us sorry . . . areas such as horticulture etc.”

DC. We are talking about medicine aren’t we? Not horticulture.

“You just gave me an example of talking to trees, that’s outside our remit ”

After explaining that talking to trees was a joke, the conversation continued

DC So can I clarify then? Who is it that said you must include these fairly bizarre things like distance healing and homeopathy? Who decides whether it goes in?

“We did”

“We are going to do a major review. We are doing that review in partnership with the FiH and the awarding bodies that award the qualifications that are developed from these competencies”

“When that need is moved into a competence project we establish a number of groups from the specific area to work with us to develop the competences. One of these groups is a “reference” group which is made up of experts from the field. In effect these experts give us the content of the competences, we write them in our format.”

Conclusions from this dialogue

We still don’t know the names of the people who wrote the stuff, but a Freedom of Information Act request has been submitted to find out

The Skills for Health spokesperson seems to a a bit short of a sense of humour when it comes to talking to trees.

The statement that “Our work supports best practice in areas that are evidence- and research-based” is not true, and when pressed the spokesperson more or less admitted as much.

Most importantly, though, we do now know that the revision of this gobbledygook will be carried out entirely by the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health and the people who set exams in the relevant form of gobbledygook. No critical voice will have an input, so don’t expect much improvement. “We are working with the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health [FIH] via Ian Cambray-Smith to review these competencies”. And in case you don’t know about the medical expertise of Ian Cambray-Smith, it is described on the FIH web site. He is the FIH’s Health Professionals Manager.

 Ian Cambray-Smith acts as the focus for FIH’s involvement with healthcare professionals. He works collaboratively to develop a range of work programmes, policies and initiatives to support healthcare professionals and help them to deliver a truly integrated approach to health. Ian’s background is in plastics research, project management and business development; he has an MSc in polymer technology. He joined the Foundation in 2006.

Happy new year. not least to the folks at the homeopathy4health site .  They are jubilant about a “proof” that homeopathic dilutions could produce effects. albeit only on wheat seedlings. But guess what? After some questioning it was found that they hadn’t actually read the paper. Well I have read it, and this is the result.

The paper is “A Biostatistical Insight into the As2O3 High Dilution Effects on the Rate and Variability of Wheat Seedling Growth”. Brizzi,
Lazzarato, Nani, Borghini, Peruzzi and Betti, Forsch Komplementärmed Klass Naturheilkd 2005;12:277–283

The authors compared these treatments (30 seedlings each).

• C1, C2, C3 (untreated water p.a. Merck, control);
• WP (potentized water p.A. Merck) 5x, 15x, 25x, 35x, 45x;
• AD (diluted arsenic trioxide) 10–5, 10–15, 10–25, 10–35, 10–45;
• AP (potentized arsenic trioxide) 5x, 15x, 25x, 35x, 45x.

The allocation of seedlings to treatments was stated to be blind and randomised. So far, so good.

But just look at the results in Figure 1. They are all over the place, with no obvious trend as ‘potency’ (i.e. dilution) is increased. The
results with homeopathic arsenic at 45 days (the only effect that is claimed to be real) is very little different from the that of shaken water (water that has been though the same process but with no arsenic present initially).

For some (unstated) reason the points have no standard errors on them. Using the values given in Table 3 I reckon that the observation for AP45 is 1.33 ± 0.62 and for the plain water (WP45). it is 1.05 ± 0.69. The authors claim (Table 3) that the former is ‘significant’ (with a profoundly unimpressive P = 0.04) and the latter isn’t. I can’t say that I’m convinced, and in any case, even if the effect were real, it would be tiny.

Later the authors do two things that are a very dubious from the statistical point of view. First they plot cumulative distributions which are notoriously misleading about precision (because the data in adjacent bins are almost the same). They then do some quite improper data snooping by testing only the half of the results that came out lowest. If this were legitimate (it isn’t) the results would be even worse for homeopaths, because the difference between the controls and plain water (WP45) now, they claim, comes out “significant”.

Homeopaths claim that the smaller the dose, the bigger the effect (so better water down your beer as much as possible, making sure to bang the glass on the bar to potentise it). I have yet to see any dose-response curve that has the claimed negative slope. Figure 1 most certainly doesn’t show it.

Of course there is no surprise at all for non-homeopaths in the discovery that arsenic 45x is indistinguishable from water 45x.

That is what we have been saying all along.