This is a web version of a review of Peter Gotzsche’s book. It appeared in the April 2014 Healthwatch Newsletter. Read the whole newsletter. It has lots of good stuff. Their newsletters are here. Healthwatch has been exposing quackery since 1989. Their very first newsletter is still relevant.
Most new drugs and vaccines are developed by the pharmaceutical industry. The industry has produced huge benefits for mankind. But since the Thatcherite era it has come to be dominated by marketing people who appear to lack any conscience. That’s what gave rise to the Alltrials movement. It was founded in January 2013 with the aim of ensuring that all past and present clinical trials are registered before they start and that and their results are published The industry has been dragged, kicking and screaming, towards a new era of transparency, with two of the worst offenders, GSK and Roche, now promising to release all data. Let’s hope this is the beginning of real open science.
This version is not quite identical with the published version in which several changes were enforced by Healthwatch’s legal adviser. They weren’t very big changes, but here is the original.
Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime
By Peter Gøtzsche, reviewed by David Colquhoun
Published by Radcliffe Publishing Ltd on 1 August 2013. RRP £24.99 (320 pages, paperback)
ISBN-10: 1846198844 ISBN-13: 978-1846198847
As someone who has spent a lifetime teaching pharmacology, this book is a bitter pill to swallow. It makes Goldacre’s Bad Pharma seem quite mild.
In fairness, the bits of pharmacology that I’ve taught concern mostly drugs that do work quite well. Things like neuromuscular blocking agents, local anaesthetics, general anaesthetics, anticoagulants, cardiac glycosides and thyroid drugs all do pretty much what is says on the label.
Peter Gøtzsche is nothing if not evidence man. He directs the Nordic Cochrane group, and he talks straight. His book is about drugs that don’t work as advertised. There is no doubt whatsoever that the pharmaceutical industry has behaved very badly indeed in the last couple of decades. You don’t have to take my word for it, nor Peter Gotzche’s, nor Ben Goldacre’s. They have told us about it themselves. Not voluntarily of course, but in internal emails that have been revealed during court proceedings, and from whistleblowers.
Peter Rost was vice president marketing for the huge pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, until he was fired after the company failed to listen to his complaints about illegal marketing of human growth hormone as an anti-ageing drug. After this he said:
“It is scary how many similarities there are between this industry and the mob. The mob makes obscene amounts of money, as does this industry. The side effects of organized crime are killings and deaths, and the side effects are the same in this industry. The mob bribes politicians and others, and so does the drug industry … “
The pharmaceutical industry is the biggest defrauder of the US federal government under the False Claims Act. Roche led a cartel that, according to the US Justice Department’s antitrust division, was the most pervasive and harmful criminal antitrust conspiracy ever uncovered. Multibillion dollar fines have been levied on all of the big companies (almost all in the USA, other countries have been supine), though the company’s profits are so huge they are regarded as marketing expenses.
It’s estimated that adverse effects of drugs kill more people than anything but cancer and heart disease, roughly half as many as cigarettes. This horrifying statistic is announced at the beginning of the book, though you have to wait until Chapter 21 to find the data. I’d have liked to see a more critical discussion of the problems of causality in deciding why someone died, which are just as big as those in deciding why somebody recovered. Nevertheless, nobody seems to deny that the numbers who are killed by their treatments are alarmingly high.
Gøtzsche’s book deals with a wide range of drugs that don’t do what it says on the label, but which have made fortunes because of corruption of the scientific process. These include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), an area described as “a horror story filled with extravagant claims, bending of the rules, regulatory inaction, . . .”. Other areas where there has been major misbehaviour include diabetes (Avandia), and the great Tamiflu scandal. and the great Tamiflu scandal. It took five years of pressure before Roche released the hidden data about Tamiflu trials. It barely works. Goldacre commented “government’s Tamiflu stockpile wouldn’t have done us much good in the event of a flu epidemic”
But the worst single area is psychiatry.
Two of the chapters in the book deal with psychiatry. Nobody has the slightest idea how the brain works (don’t believe the neuroscience hype) or what causes depression or psychosis. Treatments are no more than guesses and none of them seems to work very well.
The problems with the SSRI antidepressant, paroxetine (Seroxat in UK, Paxil in USA) were brought to public attention, not by a regulator, but by a BBC Panorama television programme. The programme revealed that a PR company, which worked for GSK, had written
"Originally we had planned to do extensive media relations surrounding this study until we actually viewed the results. Essentially the study did not really show it was effective in treating adolescent depression, which is not something we want to publicise."
This referred to the now-notorious study 329. It was intended to show that paroxetine should be recommended for adolescent depression. The paper that eventually appeared in 2001 grossly misrepresented the results. The conclusions stated “Paroxetine is generally well tolerated and effective for major depression in adolescents”, despite the fact that GSK already knew this wasn’t true. The first author of this paper was Martin Keller, chair of psychiatry at Brown University, RI, with 21 others.
But the paper wasn’t written by them, but by ghost authors working for GSK. Keller admitted that he hadn’t checked the results properly.
That’s not all. Gøtzsche comments thus.
“Keller is some character. He double- billed his travel expenses, which were reimbursed both by his university and the drug sponsor. Further, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health had paid Brown’s psychiatry department, which Keller chaired, hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund research that wasn’t being conducted. Keller himself received hundreds of thousands of dollars from drug companies every year that he didn’t disclose.”
His department received $50 million in research funding. Brown University has never admitted that there was a problem. It still boasts about this infamous paper
The extent of corruption at Brown University rivals the mob.
The infamous case of Richard Eastell at Sheffield university is no better. He admitted in print to lying about who’d seen the data. The university did nothing but fire the whistleblower.
Another trial, study 377, also showed that paroxetine didn’t work. GSK suppressed it.
“There are no plans to publish data from Study 377” (Seroxat/Paxil Adolescent Depression. Position piece on the phase III clinical studies. GlaxoSmithKline document. 1998 Oct.)
Where were the regulatory agencies during all this? The MHRA did ban use of paroxetine in adolescents in 2003, but their full investigation didn’t report until 2008. It came to much the same conclusions as the TV programme six years earlier about the deceit. But despite that, no prosecution was brought. GSK got away with a deferential rap on the knuckles.
Fiona Godlee (editor of the BMJ, which had turned down the paper) commented
“We shouldn’t have to rely on investigative journalists to ask the difficult questions”
Now we can add bloggers to that list of people who ask difficult questions. The scam operated by the University of Wales, in ‘validating’ external degrees was revealed by my blog and by BBC TV Wales. The Quality Assurance Agency came in only at the last moment. Regulators regularly fail to regulate.
Despite all this, the current MHRA learning module on SSRIs contains little hint that SSRIs simply don’t work for mild or moderate depression. Neither does the current NICE guidance. Some psychiatrists still think they do work, despite there being so many negative trials.
The psychiatrists’ narrative goes like this. You don’t expect to see improvements for many weeks (despite the fact that serotonin uptake is stopped immediately). You may get worse before you get better. And if the first sort of pill doesn’t work, try another one. That’s pretty much identical with what a homeopath will tell you. The odds are that its meaning is, wait a while and you’ll get better eventually, regardless of treatment.
It’s common to be told that they must work because when you stop taking them, you get worse. But, perhaps more likely, when you stop taking them you get withdrawal symptoms, because the treatment itself caused a chemical imbalance. Gøtzsche makes a strong case that most psychiatric drugs do more harm than good, if taken for any length of time. Marcia Angell makes a similar case in The Illusions of Psychiatry.
Gøtzsche will inevitably be accused of exaggerating. Chapter 14 ends thus.
“Merck stated only 6 months before it withdrew Vioxx that ‘MSD is fully committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity, ethics, and protection of patient’s wellbeing in our research. We have a tradition of partnership with leaders in the academic research community. Great. Let’s have some more of such ethical partnerships. They often kill our patients while everyone else prospers.
Perhaps Hells Angels should consider something similar in their PR: We are fully committed to the highest standards of integrity, ethics and protection of citizens’ well- being when we push narcotic drugs. We have a tradition of partnership with leaders in the police force”.
But the evidence is there. The book has over 900 references. Much of the wrongdoing has been laid bare by legal actions. I grieve for the state of my subject.
The wrongdoing by pharma is a disgrace.
The corruption of universities and academics is even worse, because they are meant to be our defence against commercial corruption.
All one can do is to take consolation from the fact that academics, like Gøtzsche and Goldacre, and a host of bloggers, are the people who are revealing what’s wrong. As a writer for the business magazine, Fortune, said
“For better or worse, the drug industry is going to have to get used to Dr. Peter Rost – and others like him.”
At a recent meeting I said that it was tragic that medicine, the caring profession, was also the most corrupt (though I’m happy to admit that other jobs might be as bad if offered as much money).
At present there is little transparency. There is no way that I can tell whether my doctor is taking money from pharma, data are still hidden from public scrutiny by regulatory agencies (which are stuffed with people who take pharma money) as well as by companies. Governments regard business as more important than patients. In the UK, the Government continued promotion of the fake bomb detector for many years after they’d been told it was fake. Their attitude to fake medicines is not much different. Business is business, right?
One side effect of the horrific corruption is that it’s used as a stick by the alternative medicine industry. That’s silly of them, because their business is more or less 100% mendacious marketing of ineffective treatments. At least half of pharma products really do work.
Fines are useless. Nothing will change until a few CEOs, a few professors and a few vice-chancellors spend time in jail for corruption.
Read this book. Get angry. Do something.
I had never intended to write about climate. It is too far from the things I know about. But recent events have unleashed a Palin-esque torrent of comments from people who clearly know even less about it than I do. In any case, it provides a good context to think about trust in science,
My interest in it, apart from little matters like the future of the planet, lies in the reputation of science and scientists.
I have been going on for years now about the lack of trust in science, and the extent to which it is a self-inflicted problem. The latest reactions to the developments at the University of East Anglia and the IPCC may show the nature of the problem with dreadful clarity,
Many of us came into science because, apart from the sheer beauty of nature, it seemed like one of the few honest ways of earning a living. Most scientists that I know still think like that, but recent
events invite some reexamination of honesty in science.
How dishonest is science?
The first thing to say is that I have never come across anything in my own field that would qualify as fraud, or even dishonest. I did once have a visit from a rather distressed postdoc (not in my area of work) who felt pressurised by her boss into putting an interpretation on her work that she did not agree with. In the end, the bit of work in question was left out of the paper. That could be held to be dishonest, in that the omission wasn’t mentioned, but it could also be held that the omitted result was too ambiguous to contribute much to the paper. It was just short of the point where I’d have felt compelled to do something about it. But only just. That is about the worst thing I’ve encountered in a lifetime.
There is, of course, an enormous difference between being wrong and being dishonest. Any research that is worth doing has an outcome that can’t be predicted before the work is done. At best, one can hope for an approximation to the truth. Mistakes in observations, analysis or interpretation will sometimmes mean the announced result is completely wrong, with no trace of dishonesty being involved. But when that happens, others soon fiind the mistake. It is that self-correcting characteristic of science that keeps it honest in the long run.
Of course there have been occasional cases of outright fraud, simple
falsification or fabrication of data. How often it occurs is not really known. There is a recent analysis in PLoS One, about verified cases of misconduct in the USA suggested that 1 in 100,000 scientists per year are to blame, but other ways of counting give larger numbers. For example, if asked around 2 in 100 scientists claim to be aware of misconduct by someone else., The numbers aren’t huge but they are much bigger than they should be.
It isn’t perhaps surprising that the Fanelli study found misconduct was most frequent in “medical (including clinical and pharmacological) research studies”, which are often funded by the pharmaceutical industry, Basic biomedical research and other subjects were better, though sadly that could be only because they are less often offered money.
What gives rise to dishonesty?
It seems obvious that one motive is money, as suggested by the worst rates of misconduct being found in the clinical pharmacological studies, It is well known that studies funded by industry are more likely to produce results that favour the product than those funded in other ways.
The other reason is presumably the human desire to win fame, promotion and to get grants.
It is no excuse, but it is perhaps a reason for misconduct that the pressure to publish and produce results is now enormous in academia. Even in good universities people are judged by the numbers (rather than the quality) of papers they produce and by what journal they happen to be published in. Contrary to public perception, even quite senior people have no guarantee that they can’t be fired, and life for postdoctoral fellows, who do a large fraction of experimental research, is harsh to the point of cruelty. They exist on a series of short term contracts, they work exceedigly hard and have poor prospects of getting a secure job. In conditions like that, the only surprising thing is that there is so little dishonesty.
The pressure to publish in particular journals is particularly invidious because it is known that the number of citations that a paper gets (itself a fallible measure of quality) is independent of the journal in which it appears. Bibliometrists are the curse of our age. (See, for example Challenging the tyranny of impact factors, 2003; and How to get good science, 2007 or its web version; and Peter Lawrence’s article, The mismeasurement of science)
The enormous competitive pressure under which academics work is imposed by vice-chancellors, research councils and other senior people who should know better, It is a self-inflicted wound.
In other words, the authorities provide a strong incentive to do poor, over-hurried and occasionally dishonest science. Perhaps the surprising thing in the circumstances is that there is so little outright fabrication. The very measures that have the aim of improving science actually have just the opposite effect. That is what happens when science is run by people who don’t do it.
For an idea of what life is like in science now, try Peter Lawrence’s Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research. Or, for someone at the other end of their career, Jennifer Rohn’s account on Nature blogs.
Given the high degree of insecurity for young researchers, compounded by well-intentioned but vacuous “training” from daft Robert’s’ "training courses", or the dismaly ineffective Concordat, the only surprise is that so many people remain honest and devoted to good science. Nothing raises the ire of hard-pressed scientists more than the constant emails form HR trying to force people to go to gobbledygook courses on "wellbeing". Times Higher Education recently did a piece on "Get happy", The comments are worth reading.
So what about climate change?
Out of thousands of pages in the IPCC reports, a single mistake was found, On page 493 of the IPCC’s second 1000-page Working Group report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” (WGII) it was said that Himalayan glaciers were “very likely” to disappear by 2035. Glaciers are melting but that date can’t be justified. This single mistake has been blown out of all proportion. Furthermore it is important to notice that the mistake was found by scientists, not by ‘sceptics’. It is a good example of the self-correcting nature of science. Nevertheless this single mistake has provoked something close to hysteria among those who want to deny that something needs to be done.
On the other hand, the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia (UEA) look bad. It simply isn’t possible at the moment to say whether they are as bad as they seem at first sight, We just don’t know whether anything of importance was concealed, but we should know.
One thing can be said with certainty, and that is that the reaction to their revelation by Dr Phil Jones, and by the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, was nothing short of disastrous. Fred Pearce put it very well in Climate emails cannot destroy proof that humans are warming the planet
Most unforgivably of all, UEA refused to comply with requests under the Freedom of Information Act, and there is some reason to think that relevant material was deleted. The deputy information commissioner, Graham Smith, said: in a statement that
“The emails which are now public reveal that Mr Holland’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act were not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation. Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act makes it an offence for public authorities to act so as to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information.”.
That seems to me to be a matter that requires the resignation of the vice-chancellor. On this matter, I think George Monbiot is spot on in his article “Climate change email scandal shames the university and requires resignations“.
There was a big feature about academic freedom in Times Higher Education recently. One of the problems was what happens to someone who brings their own university into disrepute. But when that term is used, it is always used about junior partners in the organisation (you know, professors and the like). It should apply equally to heads of communications and vice-chancellors who bring their own university into disrepute, whether the disrepute is brought about by failing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, or by promoting courses in junk medicine.
In general, conspiracy theories are wrong. I’m not sure how much of the distortion of climate data results from surreptitious funding of opposition to doing anything by the fossil fuel industry. The Royal Society is an organisation that is not usually prone to conspiritorialist views. That means one must take it seriously the fact that in 2006, the Royal Society wrote to ExxonnMobil to ask them to stop funding climate denialist organisations. This is a bit like the way Big Pharma has been caught funding “user groups” that endorse their products. Some newspapers like to stir up controversies about things that aren’t very controversial. For example there is a good analysis of a recent Sunday Times piece here.
Of course it is often alleged that "quackbusters" are funded by Big Pharma, though in fact the amounts of money involved are far too small for Big Pharma to bother. Climate deniers too like to suggest that there is some sort of conspiracy, arranged between hundreds of labs in the world to conceal the fact that there is no such thing as warming. I guess that shows only that deniers know little about how science works. it is an exceedingly competitive business, and getting hundreds of labs to say the same thing would be like trying to herd cats.
If there is a problem, it is the other way round. Labs are in such intense competition with each other, that it lcan lead to undesirable levels of secrecy.
Blogs in which researches have a direct dialogue with the public are a big help. As always in the blogosphere, the problem is to find the reliable sources. Two excellent sites, in which scientists (not journalists or lobbyists) talk directly with the public are realclimate.org and Andrew Russell’s blog. The post on RealClimate, IPCC errors: facts and spin, is especially worth reading.
Total openness is the only cure
All the raw data and all emails have to be disclosed openly. Everything should be put on the web as soon as possible. By appearing to go to ground, UEA has made enormous problems for itself and for the rest of the world. Some people object to total openness on the grounds that the other side tells lies. In the case of climate change (and in the case of junk medicine too) that is undoubtedly true. The opponents are ruthlessly dishonest about facts. The only way to counter that is by being ruthlessly and visibly honest about what you know, and why.
The UK’s Meteorological Office has, to its great credit, put raw data on line. That policy has already paid off, because a science blogger found a mistake in the way that some Australian data had been incorporated into forecasts. The Met Office thanked him and corrected the mistake. In fact the error makes no substantial difference to the warming trend, but the principle is just great. The more people who can check analyses and eliminate slip-ups the better.
Putting raw data on the web is an idea that has been gathering force for a while, in all areas of work, not just climate change. In my own are (stochastic properties of single ion channel molecules) our analysis programs have always been available on the web, free to anyone who wants them, despite the large amount of work that has gone into them. And we run a course. almost free, on the theory that underlies our analyses. Within the last couple of months we have been discussion ways of making public all our raw data (in any case, we would always have sent it to anyone who asked). Digitised single channel records are big files (around 100 Mb) and it is only recently that the web has been able to deal with such large amounts of raw data. There are also problems of how to format data so other people can read it, The way we are all heading is clear, and the fact that some people in climate science appeared to be hiding raw data is a disgrace.
Public relations is not the cure
It is not uncommon to read that science needs better PR. That is precisely what is not needed. PR exists to put only one side of the story. That makes it an essentially dishonest occupation. Its aims are the very opposite of those of science. The public aren’t stupid: often they recognise when they are getting half the story.
It is particularly unfortunate that many universities have developed departments with names like "corporate communications". Externally they are seen as giving information about science, and indeed some of the things they do are successful public engagement in science. Only too often, though, it is made clear internally that an important aim of these departments is to improve the image of the university.
But you have to choose. You can engage the public in science or you can be a PR image-builder. You can’t be both.
The matter came to a head in 2008 when, according to a report in Times Higher Education, the University of Nottingham issued a memo that defined public engagement as: “The range of activities of which the primary functions are to raise awareness of the university’s capabilities, expertise and profile to those not already engaged with the institution”.
The mainstream media and political blogs
The biggest problem of all with climate change is that it has become more about politics than about facts. It has become an essential credential for any conservative to deny that climate is changing. It is part of their public image, and most conservatives neither know nor care about evidence. Like Sarah Palin, they just know. In the USA especially, the argument is not really about climate at all. It is really about discrediting Barack Obama -a sort of swift-boat treatment that uses whatever lies are needed.
Just as with the great MMR fiasco and the promotion of its false link to autism, reports in newspapers and blogs must bear much of the blame for failing to inform readers of the actual underlying facts and, just as important, the uncertainties. Of course some papers have done a pretty good job, particularly the Guardian and the Independent in the UK, and the New York Times.. The political blogs, by and large, haven’t. The Huffington Post has made little effort (and publishes some appalling nonsense about medicine too).
The problem with political blogs and tabloid newspapers is that they are much more interested in sensation and circulation than they are in giving accurate news and information. Take, for example, the Guido Fawkes blog. To be fair, the blog itself says "The primary motivation for the creation of the blog was purely to make mischief at the expense of politicians and for the author’s own self-gratification. Its writer", so you know not to expect much, Paul Staines, was at the Westminster Skeptics event, Does Political Blogging Make a Difference? He makes no pretence of taking the news seriously, which, I guess, is why I don’t read his blog. After the talks I asked why his blog did little about climate change. His answer was "where are your sandals?". On the way home I tweeted, from a very overcrowded train (most trains from Euston being cancelled that night),
"On way home from #sitp political blogging. Learned that Guido serious about nothing but Guido. Narcissist not journalist."
At least one other person there agreed (thanks, Dave Cole).
It was good to hear Sunny Hundall of Liberal Conspiracy (the only one I read), but I found myself agreeing mostly with the chair, Nick Cohen. It would be a tragedy if the great national and local papers were to vanish. Guido Fawkes and Huffington Post are not remotely like proper newspapers.
Specialist blogs like this one are fine if you are interested in the topics we write about, but we don’t begin to supplant proper newspapers. Bloggers can and do occasionally get good stories. Those that are written by scientists can analyse more critically than most journalists have either the knowledge or the time to do. Bur they don’t come close to supplanting the detailed reporting in good newspapers of local events, what happens in law courts or in parliament. That’s why it is vital to buy newspapers, not just read them free on the web.
James Hayton, who is in nanoscience has posted his thoughts obout trust in science on his blog. I discovered this via Twitter (@James_Hayton). He also posted a beautiful clip from the Ascent of Man, in which Jacob Bronowski speaks, from Auschwitz, of the consequences of irrational dogma. I’m old enough to remember Bronowski on a 1950s radio programme, the Brains Trust, though James Hayton clearly isn’t. Now I enjoy equally his daughter, Lisa Jardine‘s talks about science and history.
1 March 2010. Phil Jones, and the vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, appeared before a parliamentary committee. I found their responses to questions very disappointing. The evidence submitted by the Institute of Physics was strongly worded, but spot on.
“The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions and freedom of information law. The principle that scientists should be willing to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others, which requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials, is vital.”
7 March 2010. Thanks to some kind remarks from Michael Kenward (see first comment). I sought wider coverage of this item in the mainstream media. Consequently, on Thursday 4 March, a much shortened version of this article appeared on the Guardian environment site. That piece has accumulated so far, 230 comments. The discussion of it has spread to the two blogs that I recommended, Andy Russell’s blog and RealClimate.org, though it has been diverted onto the side-issue of the letter from the Institute of Physics. The seemingly innocent idea that total openness would increase trust has, to my real astonishment, resulted in hysterical accusations that I’m a crypto-denialist. The constant politically-motivated attacks on climate science seem to have induced a paranoid siege mentality in some of them. There is a real danger that such people will harm their own cause, and that would be tragic.
The Yuletide edition of the BMJ carries a lovely article by Jeffrey Aronson, Patent medicines and secret remedies. (BMJ 2009;339:b5415).
I was delighted to be asked to write an editorial about it, In fact it proved quite hard work, because the BMJ thought it improper to be too rude about the royal family, or about the possibility of Knight Starvation among senior medics. The compromise version that appeared in the BMJ is on line (full text link).
The changes were sufficient that it seems worth posting the original version (with links embedded for convenience).
The cuts are a bit ironic, since the whole point of the article is to point out the stifling political correctness that has gripped the BMA, the royal colleges, and the Department of Health when it comes to dealing with evidence-free medicine. It has become commonplace for people to worry about the future of the print media, The fact of the matter is you can often find a quicker. smarter amd blunter response to the news on blogs than you can find in the dead tree media. I doubt that the BMJ is in any danger of course. It has a good reputation for its attitude to improper drug company influence (a perpetual problem for clinical journals) as well as for clinical and science articles. It’s great to see its editor, Fiona Godlee, supporting the national campaign for reform of the libel laws (please sign it yourself).
The fact remains that when it comes to the particular problem of magic medicine, the action has not come from the BMA, the royal colleges, and certainly not from the Department of Health, It has come from what Goldacre called the “intrepid, ragged band of bloggers”. They are the ones who’ve done the investigative journalism, sent complaints and called baloney wherever they saw it. This article was meant to celebrate their collective efforts and to celebrate the fact that those efforts are beginning to percolate upwards to influence the powers that be.
It seems invidious to pick on one example, but if you want an example of beautiful and trenchant writing on one of the topics dealt with here, you’d be better off reading Andrew Lewis’s piece "Meddling Princes, Medical Regulation and Licenses to Kill” than anything in a print journal.
I was a bit disappointed by removal of the comment about the Prince of Wales. In fact I’m not particularly republican compared with many of my friends. The royal family is clearly good for the tourist industry and that’s important. Since Mrs Thatcher (and her successors) destroyed large swathes of manufacturing and put trust in the vapourware produced by dishonest and/or incompetent bankers, it isn’t obvious how the UK can stay afloat. If tourists will pay to see people driving in golden coaches, that’s fine. We need the money. What is absolutely NOT acceptable is for royals to interfere in the democratic political process. That is what the Prince of Wales does incessantly. No doubt he is well-meaning, but that is not sufficient. If I wanted to know the winner of the 2.30 at Newmarket, it might make sense to ask a royal. In medicine it makes no sense at all. But the quality of the advice is irrelevant anyway. The royal web site itself says “As a constitutional monarch, the Sovereign must remain politically neutral.”. Why does she not apply that rule to her son? Time to put him over your knee Ma’am?
Two of the major bits that were cut out are shown in bold, The many other changes are small.
BMJ editorial December 2009
Secret remedies: 100 years on
Time to look again at the efficacy of remedies
Jeffrey Aronson in his article  gives a fascinating insight into how the BMA, BMJ and politicians tried, a century ago, to put an end to the marketing of secret remedies. They didn’t have much success.
The problems had not improved 40 years later when A.J. Clark published his book on patent medicines . It is astounding to see how little has changed since then. He wrote, for example, “On the other hand the quack medicine vendor can pursue his advertising campaigns in the happy assurance that, whatever lies he tells, he need fear nothing from the interference of British law. The law does much to protect the quack medicine vendor because the laws of slander and libel are so severe.”> Clark himself was sued for libel after he’d written in a pamphlet “ ‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous”. Although he initially tried to fight the case, impending destitution eventually forced him to apologise . If that happened today, the accusation would have been repeated on hundreds of web sites round the world within 24 hours, and the quack would, with luck, lose .
As early as 1927, Clark had written “Today some travesty of physical science appears to be the most popular form of incantation” . That is even more true today. Homeopaths regularly talk utter nonsense about quantum theory  and ‘nutritional therapists’ claim to cure AIDS with vitamin pills or even with downloaded music files. Some of their writing is plain delusional, but much of it is a parody of scientific writing. The style, which Goldacre  calls ‘sciencey’, often looks quite plausible until you start to check the references.
A 100 years on from the BMA’s efforts, we need once again to look at the efficacy of remedies. Indeed the effort is already well under way, but this time it takes a rather different form. The initiative has come largely from an “intrepid, ragged band of bloggers” and some good journalists, helped by many scientific societies, but substantially hindered by the BMA, the Royal Colleges, the Department of Health and a few vice-chancellors. Even NICE and the MHRA have not helped much. The response of the royal colleges to the resurgence in magic medicine that started in the 1970s seems to have been a sort of embarrassment. They pushed the questions under the carpet by setting up committees (often populated with known sympathizers) so as to avoid having to say ‘baloney’. The Department of Health, equally embarrassed, tends to refer the questions to that well-known medical authority, the Prince of Wales (it is his Foundation for Integrated Health that was charged with drafting National Occupational Standards in make-believe subjects like naturopathy .
Two recent examples suffice to illustrate the problems.
The first example is the argument about the desirability of statutory regulation of acupuncture, herbal and traditional Chinese medicine (the Pittilo recommendations) .
Let’s start with a definition, taken from ‘A patients’ guide to magic medicine’ . “Herbal medicine: giving patients an unknown dose of an ill-defined drug, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety”.
It seems to me to be self-evident that you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether what you are trying to regulate is nonsense, though this idea does not seem to have penetrated the thinking of the Department of Health or the authors of the Pittilo report. The consultation on statutory regulation has had many submissions  that point out the danger to patients of appearing to give official endorsement of treatments that don’t work. The good news is that there seems to have been a major change of heart at the Royal College of Physicians. Their submission points out with admirable clarity that the statutory regulation of things that don’t work is a danger to patients (though they still have a blank spot about the evidence for acupuncture, partly as a result of the recent uncharacteristically bad assessment of the evidence by NICE ). Things are looking up. Nevertheless, after the public consultation on the report ended on November 16th, the Prince of Wales abused his position to make a well-publicised intervention on behalf of herbalists . Sometimes I think his mother should give him a firm lesson in the meaning of the term ‘constitutional monarchy’, before he destroys it.
The other example concerns the recent ‘evidence check: homeopathy’ conducted by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee (SCITECH). First the definition : “Homeopathy: giving patients medicines that contain no medicine whatsoever”. When homeopathy was dreamt up, at the end of the 18th century, regular physicians were lethal blood-letters, and it’s quite likely that giving nothing saved people from them. By the mid-19th century, discoveries about the real causes of disease had started, but homeopaths remain to this day stuck in their 18th century time warp.
In 1842 Oliver Wendell Holmes said all that needed to be said about medicine-free medicine . It is nothing short of surreal that the UK parliament is still discussing it in 2009. Nevertheless it is worth watching the SCITECH proceedings . The first two sessions are fun, if only for the statement by the Professional Standards Director of Boots that they sell homeopathic pills while being quite aware that they don’t work. I thought that was rather admirable honesty. Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital, went through his familiar cherry-picking of evidence, but at least repeated his condemnation of the sale of sugar pills for the prevention of malaria.
But for pure comedy gold, there is nothing to beat the final session. The health minister, Michael O’Brien, was eventually cajoled into admitting that there was no good evidence that homeopathy worked but defended the idea that the taxpayer should pay for it anyway. It was much harder to understand the position of the chief scientific advisor in the Department of Health, David Harper. He was evasive and ill-informed. Eventually the chairman, Phil Willis, said “No, that is not what I am asking you. You are the Department’s Chief Scientist. Can you give me one specific reference which supports the use of homeopathy in terms of Government policy on health?”. But answer came there none (well, there were words, but they made no sense).
Then at the end of the session Harper said “homeopathic practitioners would argue that the way randomised clinical trials are set up they do not lend themselves necessarily to the evaluation and demonstration of efficacy of homeopathic remedies, so to go down the track of having more randomised clinical trials, for the time being at least, does not seem to be a sensible way forward.” Earlier, Kent Woods (CEO of the MHRA) had said “the underlying theory does not really give rise to many testable hypotheses”. These two eminent people seemed to have been fooled by the limp excuses offered by homeopaths. The hypotheses are testable and homeopathy, because it involves pills, is particularly well suited to being tested by proper RCTs (they have been, and when done properly, they fail). If you want to know how to do it, all you have to do is read Goldacre in the Guardian .
It really isn’t vert complicated. “Imagine going to an NHS hospital for treatment and being sent away with nothing but a bottle of water and some vague promises.” “And no, it’s not a fruitcake fantasy. This is homeopathy and the NHS currently spends around £10million on it.”
That was written by health journalist Jane Symons, in The Sun . A Murdoch tabloid has produced a better account of homeopathy than anything that could be managed by the chief scientific advisor to the Department of Health. And it isn’t often that one can say that.
These examples serve to show that the medical establishment is slowly being dragged, from the bottom up, into realising that matters of truth and falsehood are more important than their knighthoods. It is all very heartening, both for medicine and for democracy itself.
Declaration of interests. I was A.J. Clark chair of pharmacology at UCL, 1985 – 2004.
1. Aronson, JK BMJ 2009;339:b5415
2. Clark, A,J, (1938) Patent Medicines FACT series 14, London. See also Patent medicines in 1938 and now http://www.dcscience.net/?p=257
3. David Clark “Alfred Joseph Clark, A Memoir” (C. & J. Clark Ltd 1985 ISBN 0-9510401-0-3)
4. Lewis, A. (2007) The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing
5. A.J. Clark (1927) The historical aspect of quackery, BMJ October 1st 1927
6. Chrastina, D (2007) Quantum theory isn’t that weak, (response to Lionel Milgrom).
7 Goldacre, B. (2008) Bad Science. HarperCollins
8. Skills for Health web site
9. A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor
10. A Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine, and also in the Financial Times.
11. An excellent submission to the consultation on statutory regulation of alternative medicine (Pittilo report)
12. NICE fiasco, part 2. Rawlins should withdraw guidance and start again
13. BBC news 1 December 2009 Prince Charles: ‘Herbal medicine must be regulated’.
14. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1842) Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions.
15. House of Commons Science and technology committee. Evidence check: homeopathy. Videos and transcripts available at http://www.viewista.com/s/fywlp2/ez/1
16. Goldacre, B. A Kind of Magic Guardian 16 November 2007.
17. Homeopathy is resources drain says
There is a good account of the third SCITECH session by clinical science consultant, Majikthyse, at The Three Amigos.
16 December 2009.. Recorded an interview for BBC Radio 5 Live. It was supposed to go out early on 17th.
17 December 2009. The editorial is mentioned in Editor’s Choice, by deputy editor Tony Delamothe. I love his way of putting the problem "too many at the top of British medicine seem frozen in the headlights of the complementary medicine bandwagon". He sounds remarkably kind given that I was awarded (by the editor, Fiona Godlee, no less) a sort of booby prize at the BMJ party for having generated a record number of emails during the editing of a single editorial (was it really 24?). Hey ho.
17 December 2009. More information on very direct political meddling by the Prince of Wales in today’s Guardian, and in Press Association report.
17 December 2009. Daily Telegraph reports on the editorial, under the heading “ ‘Nonsense’ alternative medicines should not be regulated“. Not a bad account for a non-health journalist.
17 December 2009. Good coverage in the excellent US blog, Neurologica, by the superb Steven Novella.’ “Intrepid, Ragged Band of Bloggers” take on CAM‘ provides a chance to compare and contrast the problems in the UK and the USA.’
18 December 2009. Article in The Times by former special advisor, Paul Richards. “The influence of Prince Charles the lobbyist is out of hand. Our deference stops us asking questions.”
“A good starting point might be publication of all correspondence over the past 30 years. Then we will know the extent, and influence, of Prince Charles the lobbyist.”
Comments in the BMJ Quite a lot of comments had appeared by January 8th, though sadly they were mostly from the usual suspects who appear every time one suggests evidence matters. A reply was called for, so I sent this (the version below has links).
After a long delay, this response eventually appeared in the BMJ on January 15 2010.
It’s good to see so many responses, though somewhat alarming to see that several of them seem to expect an editorial to provide a complete review of the literature. I ‘ll be happy to provide references for any assertion that I made.
I also find it a bit odd that some people think that an editorial is not the place to express an opinion robustly. That view seems to me to be a manifestation of the very sort of political correctness that I was deploring. It’s a bit like the case when the then health minister, Lord Hunt, referred to psychic surgery as a “profession” when he should have called it a fraudulent conjuring trick. Anything I write is very mild compared with what Thomas Wakley wrote in the Lancet, a journal which he founded around the time UCL came into existence. For example (I quote)
“[We deplore the] “state of society which allows various sets of mercenary, goose-brained monopolists and charlatans to usurp the highest privileges…. This is the canker-worm which eats into the heart of the medical body.” Wakley, T. The Lancet 1838-9, 1
I don’t think it is worth replying to people who cite Jacques Benveniste or Andrew Wakefield as authorities. Neither is it worth replying to people who raise the straw man argument about wicked pharmaceutical companies (about which I am on record as being as angry as anyone). But I would like to reply directly to some of the more coherent comments.
Sam Lewis and Robert Watson. [comment] Thank you for putting so succinctly what I was trying to say.
Peter Fisher [comment]. I have a lot of sympathy for Peter Fisher. He has attempted to do some good trials of homeopathy (they mostly had negative outcomes). He said he was "very angry" when the non-medical homeopaths were caught out recommending their sugar pills for malaria prevention (not that this as stopped such dangerous claims which are still commonplace). He agreed with me that there was not sufficient scientific basis for BSc degrees in homeopathy. I suppose that it isn’t really surprising that he continues to cherry pick the evidence. As clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and Homeopathic physician to the Queen, just imagine the cognitive dissonance that would result if he were to admit publicly that is all placebo after all. He has come close though. His (negative) trial for homeopathic treatment of rheumatoid arthritis included the words "It seems more important to define if homeopathists can genuinely control patients’ symptoms and less relevant to have concerns about whether this is due to a ‘genuine’ effect or to influencing the placebo response” . [download
the paper]. When it comes to malaria, it matters a lot.
Adrian White [comment] seems to be cross because I cited my own blog. I did that simply because if he follows the links there he will find the evidence. In the case of acupuncture it has been shown time after time that "real" acupuncture does not differ perceptibly from sham. That is true whether the sham consists of retractable needles or real needles in the "wrong" places. A non-blind comparison between acupuncture and no acupuncture usually shows some advantage for the former but it is, on average, too small to be of much clinical significance . I agree that there is no way to be sure that this advantage is purely placebo effect but since it is small and transient it really doesn’t matter much. Nobody has put it more clearly than Barker Bausell in his book, Snake Oil Science 
White also seems to have great faith in peer review. I agree that in real science it is probably the best system we have. But in alternative medicine journals the "peers" are usually other true believers in whatever hocus pocus is being promoted and peer reveiw breaks down altogether.
R. M. Pittilo [comment] I’m glad that Professor Pittilo has replied in person because I did single out his report for particular criticism. I agree that his report said that NHS funding should be available to CAM only where there is evidence of efficacy. That was not my criticism. My point was that in his report, the evidence for efficacy was assessed by representatives of Herbal Medicine, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture (four from each). Every one of them would have been out of work if they had found their subjects were nonsense and that, no doubt, explains why the assessment was so bad. To be fair, they did admit that the evidence was not all that it might be and recommended (as always) more research I’d like to ask Professor Pittilo how much money should be spent on more research in the light of the fact that over a billion dollars has been spent in the USA on CAM research without producing a single useful treatment. Pittilo says "My own view is that both statutory regulation and the quest for evidence should proceed together" but he seems to neglect the possibility that the quest for evidence might fail. Experience in the USA suggests that is exactly what has, to a large extent, already happened.
I also find it quite absurd that the Pittilo report should recommend, despite a half-hearted admission that the evidence is poor, that entry to these subjects should be via BSc Honours degrees. In any case he is already thwarted in that ambition because universities are closing down degrees in these subjects having realised that the time to run a degree is after, not before, you have some evidence that the subject is not nonsense. I hope that in due course Professor Pittilo may take the same action about the courses in things like homeopathy that are run by the university of which he is vice-chancellor. That could only enhance the academic reputation of Robert Gordon’s University.
George Lewith [comment] You must be aware that the proposed regulatory body, the Health Professions Council, has already broken its own rules about "evidence-based practice" by agreeing to take on, if asked, practitioners of Herbal Medicine, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture. They have (shamefully) excluded the idea that claims of efficacy would be regulated. In other word they propose to provide exactly the sort of pseudo-regulation which would endanger patients They are accustomed to the idea that regulation is to do only with censoring practitioners who are caught in bed with patients. However meritorious that may be, it is not the main problem with pseudo-medicine, an area in which they have no experience. I’m equally surprised that Lewith should recommend that Chinese evaluation of Traditional Chinese medicine should be included in meta-analyses, in view of the well-known fact that 99% of evaluations from China are positive: “No trial published in China or Russia/USSR found a test treatment to be ineffective” . He must surely realise that medicine in China is a branch of politics. In fact the whole resurgence in Chinese medicine and acupuncture in post-war times has less to do with ancient traditions than with Chinese nationalism, in particular the wish of Mao Tse-Tung to provide the appearance of health care for the masses (though it is reported that he himself preferred Western Medicine).
1. Lord Hunt thinks “psychic surgery” is a “profession”. http://www.dcscience.net/?p=258
2. Fisher, P. Scott, DL. 2001 Rheumatology 40, 1052 – 1055. [pdf file]
3. Madsen et al, BMJ 2009;338:a3115 [pdf file]
4. R, Barker Bausell, Snake Oil Science, Oxford University Press, 2007
5. Vickers, Niraj, Goyal, Harland and Rees (1998, Controlled Clinical Trials, 19, 159-166) “Do Certain Countries Produce Only Positive Results? A Systematic Review of Controlled Trials”. [pdf file]
15 January 2010. During the SciTech hearings, Kent Woods (CEO of the MHRA) made a very feeble attempt to defend the MHRA’s decision to allow misleading labelling of homeopathic products. Now they have published their justification for this claim. It is truly pathetic, as explained by Martin at LayScience: New Evidence Reveals the MHRA’s Farcical Approach to Homeopathy. This mis-labelling cause a great outcry in 2006, as documented in The MHRA breaks its founding principle: it is an intellectual disgrace, and Learned Societies speak out against CAM, and the MHRA.
22 January 2010 Very glad to see that the minister himself has chosen to respond in the BMJ to the editorial
Rt Hon. Mike O’Brien QC MP, Minister of State for Health Services
I am glad that David Colquhoun was entertained by my appearance before the Health Select Committee on Homeopathy. But he is mistaken when he says, “you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether or not the thing you are trying to regulate is nonsense.”
Regulation is about patient safety. Acupuncture, herbal and traditional Chinese medicine involve piercing the skin and/or the ingestion of potentially harmful substances and present a possible risk to patients.
The Pittilo Report recommends statutory regulation and we have recently held a public consultation on whether this is a sensible way forward.
Further research into the efficacy of therapies such as Homeopathy is unlikely to settle the debate, such is the controversy surrounding the subject. That is why the Department of Health’s policy towards complementary and alternative medicines is neutral.
Whether I personally think Homeopathy is nonsense or not is besides the point. As a Minister, I do not decide the correct treatment for patients. Doctors do that. I do not propose on this occasion to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship.
Here is my response to the minister
I am very glad that the minister himself has replied. I think he is wrong in two ways, one relatively trivial but one very important.
First, he is wrong to refer to homeopathy as controversial. It is not. It is quite the daftest for the common forms of magic medicine and essentially no informed person believes a word of it. Of course, as minister, he is free to ignore scientific advice, just as the Home Secretary did recently. But he should admit that that is what he is doing, and not hide behind the (imagined) controversy.
Second, and far more importantly, he is wrong, dangerously wrong, to say it I was mistaken to claim that “you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether or not the thing you are trying to regulate is nonsense". According to that view it would make sense to grant statutory regulation to voodoo and astrology. The Pittilo proposals would involve giving honours degrees in nonsense if one took the minister’s view that it doesn’t matter whether the subjects are nonsense or not. Surely he isn’t advocating that?
The minister is also wrong to suppose that regulation, in the form proposed by Pittilo, would do anything to help patient safety. Indeed there is a good case to be made that it would endanger patients (not to mention endangering tigers and bears). The reason for that is that the main danger to patients arises from patients being given “remedies” that don’t work. The proposed regulatory body, the Health Professions Council, has already declared that it is not interested in whether the treatments work or not. That in itself endangers patients. In the case of Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is also a danger to patients from contaminated medicines. The HPC is not competent to deal with that either. It is the job of the MHRA and/or Trading Standards. There are much better methods of ensuring patient safety that those proposed by Pittilo.
In order to see the harm that can result from statutory regulation, it is necessary only to look at the General Chiropractic Council. Attention was focussed on chiropractic when the British Chiropractic Association decided, foolishly, to sue Simon Singh for defamation. That led to close inspection of the strength of the evidence for their claims to benefit conditions like infant colic and asthma. The evidence turned out to be pathetic, and the result was that something like 600 complaints were made to the GCC about the making of false health claims (including two against practices run by the chair of the GCC himself). The processing of these complaints is still in progress, but what is absolutely clear is that the statutory regulatory body, the GCC, had done nothing to discourage these false claims. On the contrary it had perpetrated them itself. No doubt the HPC would be similarly engulfed in complaints if the Pittilo proposals went ahead.
It is one thing to say that the government chooses to pay for things like homeopathy, despite it being known that they are only placebos, because some patients like them. It is quite another thing to endanger patient safety by advocating government endorsement in the form of statutory regulation, of treatments that don’t work.
I would be very happy to meet the minister to discuss the problems involved in ensuring patient safety. He has seen herbalists and other with vested interests. He has been lobbied by the Prince of Wales. Perhaps it is time he listened to the views of scientists too.
Both the minister’s response, and my reply, were reformatted to appear as letters in the print edition of the BMJ, as well as comments on the web..
.The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) is the first place I asked to see teaching materials that were used on its homeopathy “BSc” course. The request was refused, and subsequent internal appeals were refused too, Clearly UCLAN had something to hide.
An appeal to the information commissioner took almost two years to be judged, but the case was won. The eventual decision by the Information
Commissioner rejected all the grounds that UClan had used to evade the Freedom of Information Act.
UClan appealed against the judgement and I still haven’t got the stuff but that hardly matters now, because the course in question shut its doors. In any case, plenty of stuff from similar courses has leaked out already.
Meanwhile, in September 2008, UCLAN announced an internal review of all its courses in magic medicine, The review seemed to be genuine. For a start they asked me to give evidence to the review (something that no other university has done). They also asked Michael Eslea to give evidence. He is the UCLAN psychologist, whose magnificent open letter probably tipped the authorities into holding the review.
Just in case it is useful to anyone, here is a copy of the written evidence that I sent [download pdf],
Report of the Working Party on the Review of issues associated with Homeopathy, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine
As a consequence of concerns expressed by some colleagues within the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) Dr Malcolm McVicar, Vice Chancellor appointed a working party to review the issues associated with the University offering courses in Homeopathy, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine.
Eileen Martin (Chair) Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Faculty of Health and Social Care
The report was the subject of a special meeting of UCLAN’s Academic Board on 9th July 2009. The following resolutions were passed.
R1 That further minor revisions be made to the report prior to publication on the University’s website;
R2 That the University refrain from offering any practitioner-qualifying courses in Homeopathy, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine until such disciplines have achieved statutory regulation status;
R3 That the University consider offering a limited number of postgraduate research studentships (leading to Masters by Research of PhD) to suitably qualified UCLan students and staff in these disciplines. They should have interdisciplinary supervisory teams to facilitate development of a broad range of research skills and to contribute to the generation of knowledge in CAM;
R4 That the University consider how more interdisciplinary teaching can be achieved, where appropriate, within both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching to facilitate greater exposure to subject expertise and different paradigms.
Resolutions 1, 3 and 4 say very little. Resolution 4 sounds thoroughly relativist. We are talking about medicine, about treating sick patients. There is only one “paradigm”. That is to find treatments that are as effective and safe as possible. There aren’t two sorts of medicine, regular and alternative. There is just medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work. It’s a good illustration of DC’s rule number 2, “never trust anyone who uses the word paradigm”.
Resolution 2 is the really interesting one, because none if the topics, Homeopathy, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, is subject to statutory regulation.
If taken literally, resolution 2 means that all the UCLan courses in alternative medicine will close their doors. Bafflingly, this inevitable conclusion is not stated explicitly.
At least resolution 2 means that homeopathy, already closed, will stay closed. It is never likely to get statutory regulation.
For practical purposes, we can ignore for the moment the obvious fact that statutory regulation of nonsense subjects results only in nonsense. The only forms of alternative medicine that have got “statutory regulation” at the moment are chiropractic and osteopathy. The public has not been safeguarded by the General Chiropractic Council (GCC). The GCC, on the contrary, has endangered the public by allowing false health claims to be made with impunity. Perhaps the members of the review committee had not noticed that the Simon SIngh affair has resulted in almost 600 complaints being made to the GCC? The faith of the review in statutory regulation is clearly misplaced.
The Pittilo report is critical for what happens next
Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine are not subject to statutory regulation at present, so one would suppose that these degrees will close their doors too. However the infamous Pittilo report has proposed that they should become regulated by the Health Professions Council (HPC). The many problems of the Pittilo report have been documented here, in “A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor“. There was also a high-profile critique of the report in The Times (and on this blog).
The HPC has, as one of its criteria for regulation, “evidence-based practice”. Disgracefully, the HPC has already shown its willingness to ignore its own rules and to act as statutory regulator for Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal medicine. This rather disgraceful behaviour is documented in “Health Professions Council ignores its own rules: the result is nonsense“.
The UCLAN report seems to assume that the recommendations of the Pittilo report will be accepted. But the long-awaited consultation has still not opened. We can be sure that when it does, the opposition to it will be very strong indeed.
The report in full
Here are a few comments on the report itself. Download the full report (as of July 15th).
i have to say that when I visited Preston to give evidence, my views seem to be treated seriously, even sympathetically, so it was a great disappointment to see the outcome. So what’s wrong? The major disaster is declared early in the report.
Section 2, Context
The debate is centred on a number of key themes which relate to:-
1. The quality of and/or absence of an evidence base to support claims of the efficacy and benefits of such treatments, linked to issues of public safety/protection and professional regulation.
Sounds good. What matters about any sort of medicine is whether or not it works and whether it is safe. It therefore verges on the incredible that we read in section 4.1
“conclusions from research into the efficacy of the various CAM’s are outside the remit of this report.”
The whole point about CAM is that there is very little evidence that any of it works. So the review committee decided to ignore the most important problem of the lot. I can’t see how any rational decision can be made without first deciding whether the treatment is better than placebo. That, surely, is the main question, and it was dodged.
UCLAN has failed to grasp the nettle, just as the Department of Health has also consistently failed to do so.
Section 4,1 Efficacy This section repeats the assertion, absurd to my mind, that it is possible to judge CAM courses while declining to assess whether they work or not.
Section 4.2 Role of Universities in Society.
There is universal agreement that critical thinking is crucial to the idea of a university, but the judgement of whether CAM teaches critical thinking is simply fudged. Again the report fails to grasp the nettle.
“Disagreements about critical thinking within CAMs arises because some will argue that such substantiation and assessment can occur within the discipline, whilst others will argue that the methodology for substantiation, that is evidence provision, is universal. As a result, the latter will demand that evidence is provided using methods from one field (e.g. randomised controlled trials) for use in another.”
Sadly, the report dodged the crucial judgement once again. The most obvious characteristic of every form of alternative medicine is their total lack of critical self-appraisal. It is very sad that the review committee could not bring itself to say so.
Section 4.4 Nomenclature of degrees
The nomenclature of courses, leading to a professional as well as an academic award, should reflect the professional route; for example Bachelor with Honours in Complementary Medicine, B Comp. Med.(Hons) or B Acupuncture (Hons).
This sounds to me like another truly pathetic fudge. What on earth is solved by changing the name of the degree? You’d still be teaching students the same load of gobbledygook and then letting them loose on sick people, whether you call it a Bachelor of Science, a Bachelor of Arts, or, as is recommended here, a Bachelor of nothing whatsoever.
Well, I suppose there is a (doubtless unintended) irony in calling CAM degrees “Bachelor of nothing whatsoever”.
Section 4.4 Ethical, non-harm and economic considerations
This section list a lot of reasons why teaching alternative medicine should be unethical. but nevertheless manages to conclude that
” . . . it is not unethical to offer courses in Homeopathy, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine at a university.”
I find the logic by which this bizarre conclusion was reached quite impossible to follow. Like much of the rest of the report this conclusion seems to stem from a reluctance to grapple with the really important questions, like ‘does it work or not?’.
Despite this the recommendation is perhaps the most interesting of all.
• The University refrains from offering any CAM courses until such disciplines have achieved statutory regulation status.”
This recommendation was accepted, and passed as a resolution at Academic Board. If it is implemented now, than there will be no more alternative medicine degrees next year at the University of Central Lancashire. If and when this happens, the University must be congratulated on its return to rational medicine.
Michael Eslea, UCLAN’s hero in resisting nonsense from the inside, has posted on this topic.
17 July 2009. It seemed odd that that no announcement was made about the future if the remaining CAM courses at UCLAN. So I asked deputy Vice-Chancellor Patrick McGhee for clarification. After a couple of days, I got this response.
I have been asked to respond to your question below on the running of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine at UCLan. It is correct to assume that UCLan will not be taking any new entrants onto these programmes until further notice.
So the report may have been disappointing, but it has done the job. As several people have pointed out in comments, it would be asking too much to expect a university to say “sorry we just noticed that we have been running junk-science courses for years”. But they have done the right thing anyway.
It’s good to see the BMJ joining the campaign for free speech (only a month or two behind the blogs). The suing of Simon Singh for defamation by the British Chiropractic Association has stirred up a hornet’s nest that could (one hopes) change the law of the land, and destroy chiropractic altogether. The BMJ’s editor, Fiona Godlee, has a fine editorial, Keep the libel laws out of science. She starts “I hope all readers of the BMJ are signed up to organised scepticism” and says
“Weak science sheltered from criticism by officious laws means bad medicine. Singh is determined to fight the lawsuit rather than apologise for an article he believes to be sound. He and his supporters have in their sights not only the defence of this case but the reform of England’s libel laws.”
Godlee refers to equally fine articles by the BMJ’s Deputy Editor, Tony Delamothe, Thinking about Charles II“, and by Editor in Chief, Harvey Marcovitch, “Libel law in the UK“.
The comments on Godlee’s editorial, show strong support, (apart from one from the infamous quantum fantasist, Lionel Milgrom). But there was one that slighlty surprised me, from Tricia Greenhalgh, author of the superb book, “How to read a paper”. She comments
“the use of the term ‘bogus’ seems both unprofessional and unscholarly. The argument would be stronger if expressed in more reserved terms”
That set me thinking, not for the first time, about the difference between journalism and scholarship. I can’t imagine ever using a word like ‘bogus’ in a paper about single ion channels. But Singh was writing in a newspaper, not in a scientific paper. Even more to the point, his comments were aimed at people who are not scholars and who, quite explicitly reject the normal standards of science and evidence. The scholarly approach has been tried for centuries, and it just doesn’t work with such people. I’d defend Singh’s language. It is the only way to have any effect. That is why I sent the following comment.
The ultimate irony is that the comment was held up by the BMJ’s lawyers, and has still to appear.
Thanks for an excellent editorial.
I doubt that it’s worth replying to Lionel Milgrom whose fantasy physics has been totally demolished by real physicists. Trisha Greenhalgh is, though, someone whose views I’d take very seriously. She raises an interesting question when she says “bogus” is an unprofessional word to use. Two things seem relevant.
First, there is little point in writing rational scholarly articles for a group of people who do not accept the ordinary rules of evidence or scholarship. We are dealing with fantasists. Worse still, we are dealing with fantasists whose income depends on defending their fantasies. You can point out to your heart’s content that “subluxations” are figment of the chiropractors’ imagination, but they don’t give a damn. They aren’t interested in what’s true and what isn’t.
Throughout my lifetime, pharmacologists and others have been writing scholarly articles about how homeopathy and other sorts of alternative medicine are bogus. All this effort had little effect. What made the difference was blogs and investigative journalism. When it became possible to reveal leaked teaching materials that taught students that “amethysts emit high yin energy“, and name and shame the vice-chancellors who allow that sort of thing to happen (in this case Prof Geoffrey Petts of Westminster University), things started to happen. In the last few years all five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy have closed and that is undoubtedly a consequence of the activities of bloggers and can assess evidence but who work more like investigative journalists. When the BCA released, 15 months after the event, its “plethora of evidence” a semi-organised effort by a group of bloggers produced, in less than 24 hours, thoroughly scholarly analyses of all of them (there is a summary here). As the editorial says, they didn’t amount to a hill of beans, They also pointed out the evidence that was omitted by the BCA. The conventional press just followed the bloggers. I find it really rather beautiful that a group of people who have other jobs to do, spent a lot of time doing these analyses, unpaid, in their own time, simply to support Singh, because they believed it is the right thing to do.
Simon Singh has analysed the data coolly in his book. But In the case that gave rise to the lawsuit he was writing in a newspaper. It was perfectly clear from the context what ‘bogus’ meant. but Mr Justice Eady (aided by a disastrous law) chose to ignore entirely the context and the question of truth. The description ‘bogus’. as used by Singh, seems to be entirely appropriate for a newspaper article. To criticise him for using “unprofessional” language is inappropriate because we are not dealing with professionals. At the heart of the problem is the sort of stifling political correctness that has resulted in quacks being referred to as “professions” rather than fantasists and fraudsters [of course I use the word fraudster with no implication that it necessarily implies conscious lying].
At least there are some laughs to be had from the whole sorry affair. Prompted by that prince among lawyers known as Jack of Kent there was a new addition to my ‘Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine‘, as featured in the Financial Times.
It is, perhaps, misplaced political correctness that lies at the heart of the problem. Who can forget the letter from Lord Hunt, while he was at the Department of Health, in which he described “psychic surgery” (one of the best known fraudulent conjuring tricks) as a “profession”.
Two days later, the comment has appeared in the BMJ at last. But it has been altered a bit.
Unprofessional language is appropriate when dealing with unprofessional people
Thanks for an excellent editorial.
I doubt that it’s worth replying to Lionel Milgrom whose fantasy physics has been totally demolished by real physicists. Trisha Greenhalgh is, though, someone whose views I’d take very seriously. She raises an interesting question when she says “bogus” is an unprofessional word to use. Two things seem relevant.
First, there is little point in writing rational scholarly articles for a group of people who do not seem to accept the ordinary rules of evidence or scholarship. You can point out to your heart’s content that “subluxations” are figment of the chiropractors’ imagination, but they don’t give a damn.
Throughout my lifetime, pharmacologists and others have been writing scholarly articles about how homeopathy and other sorts of alternative medicine are bogus. All this effort had little effect. What made the difference was blogs and investigative journalism. When it became possible to reveal leaked teaching materials that taught students that “amethysts emit high yin energy”, and name and shame the vice-chancellors who allow that sort of thing to happen (in this case Prof Geoffrey Petts of Westminster University), things started to happen. In the last few years all five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy have closed and that is undoubtedly a consequence of the activities of bloggers and can assess evidence but who work more like investigative journalists. When the BCA released, 15 months after the event, its “plethora of evidence” a semi-organised effort by a group of bloggers produced, in less than 24 hours, thoroughly scholarly analyses of all of them (there is a summary here). As the editorial says, they didn’t amount to a hill of beans, They also pointed out the evidence that was omitted by the BCA. The conventional press just followed the bloggers. I find it really rather beautiful that a group of people who have other jobs to do, spent a lot of time doing these analyses, unpaid, in their own time, simply to support Singh, because they believed it is the right thing to do.
Simon Singh has analysed the data coolly in his book. But In the case that gave rise to the lawsuit he was writing in a newspaper. It was perfectly clear from the context what ‘bogus’ meant. but Mr Justice Eady (aided by a disastrous law) chose to ignore entirely the context. The description ‘bogus’. as used by Singh, seems to be entirely appropriate for a newspaper article. To criticise him for using “unprofessional” language is inappropriate because we are not dealing with professionals.
At least there are some laughs to be had from the whole sorry affair. Prompted by that prince among lawyers known as Jack of Kent there was a new addition to my ‘Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine’, as featured in the Financial Times.
Here are the changes that were made. Hmm.very interesting.
BSc courses in homeopathy are closing. Is it a victory for campaigners, or just the end of the Blair/Bush era?
The Guardian carries a nice article by Anthea Lipsett, The Opposite of Science (or download pdf of print version).
Dr Peter Davies, dean of Westminster’s school of integrated health, says
“he welcomes the debate but it isn’t as open as he would like.”
Well you can say that again. The University of Westminster has refused to send me anything much, and has used flimsy excuses to avoid complying with the Freedom of Information Act. Nevertheless a great deal has leaked out. Not just amethysts emit hig Yin energy, but a whole lot more (watch this space). Given what is already in the public, arena, how can they possibly say things like this?
“Those teaching the courses insist they are academically rigorous and scientific.”
There’s another remark from an unlikely source that I can agree with too. George Lewith, of Southampton University and Upper Harley Street, is quoted as saying
“The quality of degrees is an open joke . . . ”
Whatever next? [Note: Lewith told me later that he was quoted out of context by the Guardian, so it seems that after all he is happy with the courses. So sadly I have to withdraw the credit that I was giving him].
The article emphasises nicely the view that universities that run BSc degrees in things that are fundamentally the opposite of science are deceiving young people and corrupting science itself.
Professor Petts of Westminster seems to think that the problem can be solved by putting more science into the courses The rest of the world realises that as soon as you apply science to homeopathy or naturopathy, the whole subject vanishes in a puff of smoke, I fear that Professor Petts will have to do better,
“He [DC] believes the climate is starting to change after the Bush/Blair era where people believed in things because they wished they were true. “This has been going on for a generation and it’s about time for a swing in the other direction,” he suggests.”
Well, one can always hope.
Alfred Joseph Clark FRS held the established chair of Pharmacology at UCL from 1919 to 1926, when he left for Edinburgh. In the 1920s and 30s, Clark was a great pioneer in the application of quantitative physical ideas to pharmacology. As well as his classic scientific works, like The Mode of Action of Drugs on Cells (1933) he wrote, and felt strongly, about the fraud perpetrated on the public by patent medicine salesmen. In 1938 (while in Edinburgh) he published a slim volume called Patent Medicines. The parallels with today are astonishing.
Alfred Joseph Clark FRS (1885 – 1941)
I was lucky to be given a copy of this book by David Clark, A.J. Clark’s eldest son, who is now 88. I visited him in Cambridge on 17 September 2008, because he thought that, as holder of the A.J. Clark chair at UCL from 1985 to 2004, I’d be a good person to look after this and several other books from his father’s library. They would have gone to the Department of Pharmacology if we still had one, but that has been swept away by mindless administrators with little understanding of how to get good science.
Quotations from the book are in italic, and are interspersed with comments from me.
The book starts with a quotation from the House of Commons Select Committee report on Patent Medicines. The report was submitted to the House on 4 August 1914, so there is no need to explain why it had little effect. The report differs from recent ones in that it is not stifled by the sort of political correctness that makes politicians refer to fraudsters as “professions”.
“2.2 The situation, therefore, as regards the sale and advertisement of proprietary medicines and articles may be summarised as follows:
For all practical purposes British law is powerless to prevent any person from procuring any drug, or making any mixture, whether patent or without any therapeutical activity whatever (as long as it does not contain a scheduled poison), advertising it in any decent terms as a cure for any disease or ailment, recommending it by bogus testimonials and the invented opinions and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians, and selling it under any name he chooses, on payment of a small stamp duty. For any price he can persuade a credulous public to pay.”
Select Committee on Patent Medicines. 1914
“The writer has endeavoured in the present article to analyse the reasons for the amazing immunity of patent medicines form all attempts to curb their activity, to estimate the results and to suggest the obvious measures of reform that are needed.”
|Clark, writing in 1938, was surprised that so little had changed since 1914. What would he have thought if he had known that now, almost 100 years after the 1914 report, the fraudsters are still getting away with it?
Chapter 2 starts thus.
The Select Committee appointed by the House of Commons in 1914 ‘to consider and inquire into the question of the sale of Patent and Proprietary Medicines’ stated its opinion in 28 pages of terse and uncompromising invective. Its general conclusions were as follows:
That the trade in secret remedies constituted a grave and widespread public evil.
That the existing law was chaotic and had proved inoperative and that consequently the traffic in secret remedies was practically uncontrolled.
In particular it concluded ‘”that this is an intolerable state of things and that new legislation to deal with it, rather than merely the amendment of existing laws, is urgently needed in the public interest.”
The “widespread public evil”continues almost unabated, and rather than introduce sensible legislation to cope with it, the government has instead given a stamp of approval for quackery by introducing utterly ineffective voluntary “self-regulation”.
Another Bill to deal with patent medicines was introduced in 1931, without success, and finally in 1936, a Medical and Surgical Appliances (Advertisement) Bill was introduced. This Bill had a very limited scope. Its purpose was to alleviate some of the worst abuses of the quack medicine trade by prohibiting the advertisement of cures for certain diseases such as blindness, Bright’s disease [nephritis] , cancer, consumption [tuberculosis], epilepsy, fits, locomotor ataxy, fits, lupus or paralysis.
The agreement of many interests was secured for this measure. The president of the Advertising Association stated that the proposed Bill would not affect adversely any legitimate trade interest. Opposition to the Bill was, however, whipped up amongst psychic healers, anti-vivisectionists and other opponents of medicine and at the second reading in March 1936, the Bill was opposed and the House was counted out during the ensuing debate. The immediate reason for this fate was that the Bill came up for second reading on the day of the Grand National! This is only one example of the remarkable luck that has attended the patent medicine vendors.
The “remarkable luck” of patent medicine vendors continues to this day, Although, in principle, advertisement of cures for venereal diseases was banned in 1917, and for cancer in 1939, it takes only a few minutes with Google to find that these laws are regularly flouted by quacks, In practice quacks get away with selling vitamin pills for AIDS, sugar pills for malaria and homeopathic pills for rabies, polio anthrax and just about anything else you can think of. Most of these advertisements are contrary to the published codes of ethics of the organisations to which the quack in question belongs but nothing ever happens.
Self-regulation simply does not work, and there is still no effective enforcement even of existing laws..
“It has already been stated that British law allows the advertiser of a secret remedy to tell any lie or make any claim that he fancies will sell his goods and the completeness of this licence is best illustrated by the consideration of a few specific points.
Advertisements for secret remedies very frequently contain a list of testimonials from medical men, which usually are in an anonymous form, stating that ………….. M.D., F.R.C.S., has found the remedy infallible. Occasionally, however, the name and address of a doctor is given and anyone unaware of the vagaries of English law would imagine that such use of a doctor’s name and professional reputation could not be made with impunity without his consent. In 1899, however, the Sallyco Mineral Water Company advertised that ‘Dr. Morgan Dochrill, physician to St. John’s Hospital, London and many of the leading physicians are presenting ‘Sallyco’ as an habitual drink. Dr. Dochrill says nothing has done his gout so much good.
Dr. Dochrill, whose name and title were correctly stated above, sued the company but failed in his case. ”
“The statement that the law does not prevent the recommending of a secret remedy by the use of bogus testimonials and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians is obviously an understatement since it is doubtful how far it interferes with the use of bogus testimonials from real physicians.”
Dodgy testimonials are still a mainstay of dodgy salesman. One is reminded of the unauthorised citation of testimonials from Dr John Marks and Professor Jonathan Waxman by Patrick Holford to aid his sales of unnecessary vitamin supplements. There is more on this at Holfordwatch.
The man in the street knows that the merits of any article are usually exaggerated in advertisements and is in the habit of discounting a large proportion of such claims, but, outside the realm of secret remedies, the law is fairly strict as regards definite misstatements concerning goods offered for sale and hence the everyday experience of the man in the street does not prepare him for dealing with advertisements which are not merely exaggerations but plain straightforward lies from beginning to end.
Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums. One imagines that no one today would be willing to spend money on pills guaranteed to prevent earthquakes but yet the claims of many of the remedies offered appear equally absurd to anyone with an elementary
knowledge of physiology or even of chemistry. A study of the successes and failures suggests that success depends chiefly on not over-rating the public intelligence. (Page 34)
This may have changed a bit since A.J. Clark was writing in 1938. Now the main clients of quacks seem to be the well-off “worried-well”. But it remains as true as ever that “Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums.” In 2008, it is perhaps more a problem of Ben Goldacre’s dictum ““My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour.”
Clark refers (page 36) to a successful conviction for fraud in the USA in 1917. The subject was a widely advertised ‘get fat quick’ pill that contained lecithin, proteins and sugar. The BMA analysis (in 1912)
suggested that the cost of the ingredients in a box of 30 tablets sold for 4/6 was 1 1/4 d. [4/6 meant 4 shillings and six pence, or 22.5 pence since 1971, and 1 1/4 old pence, a penny farthing, is 0.52 new pence]. He comments thus.
The trial revealed many interesting facts. The formula was devised after a short consultation with the expert of one of the largest drug manufacturers in the U.S.A. This firm manufactured the tablets and sold them to the proprietary medicine company at about 3/- per 1000, whilst they were retailed to the public at the rate of £7 10s. per 1000. The firm is estimated to have made a profit of about $3,000,000.
These trials in the U.S.A. revealed the fact that in a considerable proportion of cases the ‘private formula’ department of the large and well known drug firm already mentioned had first provided the formula for the nostrum and subsequently had prepared it wholesale.
Nothing much has changed here either. The alternative medicine industry (and it is a very big industry) is fond of denouncing the evils of the pharmaceutical industry, and sadly, occasionally they are right. One of the less honest practices of the pharmaceutical industry (though one never mentioned by quacks) is buying heavily into alternative medicine. Goldacre points out
“there is little difference between the vitamin and pharmaceutical industries. Key players in both include multinationals such as Roche and Aventis; BioCare, the vitamin pill producer that media nutritionist Patrick Holford works for, is part-owned by Elder Pharmaceuticals.”
And then. of course, there is the deeply dishonest promotion by Boots the Chemists of homeopathic miseducation, of vitamins and of CoQ10 supplements.
The manner in which secret remedies can survive repeated exposure is shown by the following summary of the life history of a vendor of a consumption [tuberculosis] cure.
1904, 1906: Convicted of violating the law in South Africa.
1908: Exposed in British Medical Association report and also attacked by Truth.
1910: Sued by a widow. The judge stated: ‘I think this is an intentional and well-considered fraud. It is a scandalous thing that poor people should be imposed upon and led to part with their money, and to hope that those dear to them would be cured by those processes which were nothing but quack remedies and had not the slightest value of any kind.’
1914: A libel action against the British Medical Association was lost.
1915 The cure was introduced into the United States.
1919 The cure was sold in Canada.
1924 Articles by men with medical qualifications appeared in the Swiss medical journal boosting
Secret remedies have a vitality that resembles that of the more noxious weeds and the examples mentioned suggest that nothing can do them any serious harm.
Most of the time, quacks get away with claims every bit as outrageous today. But Clark does give one example of a successful prosecution. It resulted from an exposé in the newspapers -wait for it -in the Daily Mail.
There is, however, one example which proves that a proprietary remedy can be squashed by exposure if this is accompanied by adequate publicity.
The preparation Yadil was introduced as an antiseptic and was at first advertised to the medical profession. The proprietor claimed that the remedy was not secret and that the active principle was ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’. The drug acquired popularity in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the proprietor became more and more ambitious in his therapeutic claims. The special virtue claimed for Yadil was that it would kill any harmful organism that had invaded the body. A more specific claim was that consumption in the first stage was cured with two or three pints whilst advanced cases might require a little more. Other advertisements suggested that it was a cure for most known diseases from cancer downwards.
These claims were supported by an extraordinarily intense advertising campaign. Most papers, and even magazines circulating amongst the wealthier classes, carried full page and even double page advertisements. The Daily Mail refused these advertisements and in 1924 published a three column article by Sir William Pope, professor of Chemistry in the University of Cambridge. He stated that
the name ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’ was meaningless gibberish and was not the chemical definition of any known substance. He concluded that Yadil consisted of :
‘About one per cent of the chemical compound formaldehyde.
About four per cent of glycerine.
About ninety-five per cent of water and, lastly, a smell.
He calculated that the materials contained in a gallon cost about 1/6, whilst the mixture was sold at £4 10s. per gallon.
This exposure was completely successful and the matter is of historic interest in that it is the only example of the career of a proprietary medicine being arrested by the action of the Press.
Clark goes on to talk of the law of libel.
“On the other hand the quack medicine vendor can pursue his advertising campaigns in the happy assurance that, whatever lies he tells, he need fear nothing from the interference of British law. The law does much to protect the quack medicine vendor because the laws of slander and libel are so severe.”
The law of libel to this day remains a serious risk to freedom of speech of both individuals and the media. Its use by rogues to suppress fair comment is routine. My first encounter was when a couple of herbalists
threatened to sue UCL because I said that the term ‘blood cleanser’ is gobbledygook. The fact that the statement was obviously true didn’t deter them for a moment. The herbalists were bluffing no doubt, but they caused enough nuisance that I was asked to take my pages off UCL’s server. A week later I was invited back but by then I’d set up a much better blog and the publicity resulted in an enormous increase in readership, so the outcome was good for me (but bad for herbalists).
It was also good in the end for Andy Lewis when his immortal page “The gentle art of homoeopathic killing” (about the great malaria scandal) was suppressed. The Society of Homeopaths’ lawyers didn’t go for him personally but for his ISP who gave in shamefully and removed the page. As a result the missing page reappeared in dozens of web sites round the world and shot to the top in a Google search.
Chiropractors are perhaps the group most likely to try to suppress contrary opinions by law not argument. The only lawyers’ letter that has been sent to me personally, alleged defamation in an editorial that I wrote for the New Zealand Medical Journal. That was a little scary, but the journal stuck up for its right to speak and the threat went away after chiropractors were allowed right of reply (but we got the last word).
Simon Singh, one of the best science communicators we have, has not been so lucky. He is going to have to defend in court an action brought by the British Chiropractic Association because of innocent opinions expressed in the Guardian.
Chapter 6 is about “The harm done by patent medicines”. It starts thus.
“The trade in secret remedies obviously represents a ridiculous waste of money but some may argue that, since we are a free country and it pleases people to waste their money in this particular way, there is no call for any legislative interference. The trade in quack medicines cannot, however, be regarded as a harmless one. The Poisons Acts fortunately prevent the sale of a large number of dangerous drugs, but there are numerous other ways in which injury can be produced by these remedies.”
The most serious harm, he thought, resulted from self-medication, and he doesn’t mince his words.
“The most serious objection to quack medicines is however that their advertisements encourage self-medication as a substitute for adequate treatment and they probably do more harm in this than in any other manner.
The nature of the problem can best be illustrated by considering a simple example such as diabetes. In this case no actual cure is known to medicine but, on the other hand, if a patient is treated adequately by insulin combined with appropriate diet, he can be maintained in practically normal health, in spite of his disability, for an indefinite period. The expectation of life of the majority of intelligent diabetics, who make no mistakes in their regime, is not much less than that of normal persons. The regime is both irksome and unpleasant, but anyone who persuades diabetics to abandon it, is committing manslaughter as certainly as if he fired a machine gun into a crowded street.
As regards serious chronic disease the influence of secret remedies may be said to range from murderous to merely harmful.
‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous, since they are likely to cause the death of anyone who is unfortunate enough to believe in their efficacy and thus delay adequate treatment until too late.
The phrase “‘Cures for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous” made Clark himself the victim of suppression of freedom of speech by lawyers. His son, David Clark, wrote of his father in “Alfred Joseph Clark, A Memoir” (C. & J. Clark Ltd 1985 ISBN 0-9510401-0-3)
“Although tolerant of many human foibles, A. J. had always disapproved fiercely of quacks, particularly the charlatans who sold fraudulent medicines. During his visits to London he met Raymond Postgate, then a crusading left wing journalist, who persuaded A.J. to write a pamphlet which was published in an ephemeral series called ‘Fact‘ in March 1938. It was a lively polemical piece. . To A.J.’s surprise and dismay he was sued for libel by a notorious
rogue who peddled a quack cure for for tuberculosis. This man said that A.J.’s remarks (such as “‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous”) were libellous and would damage his business. A.J. was determined to fight, and he and Trixie decided to put their savings at stake if necessary. The B.M.A. and the Medical Defence Union agreed to support him and they all went to lawyers. He was shocked when they advised him that he would be bound to lose for he had damaged the man’s livelihood! Finally, after much heart searching, he made an apology, saying that he had not meant that particular man’s nostrum”
Talk about déjà vu!
On page 68 there is another very familiar story. It could have been written today.
“The fact that the public is acquiring more knowledge of health matters and is becoming more suspicious of the cruder forms of lies is also helping to weed out the worst types of patent medicine advertisements. For example, in 1751 a bottle of oil was advertised as a cure for scurvy, leprosy and consumption but today such claims would not be effective in promoting the sale of a remedy. The modern advertiser would probably claim that the oil was rich in all the vitamins and the elements essential for life and would confine his claims to a statement that it would alleviate all minor forms of physical or mental ill-health.
The average patent medicine advertised today makes plausible rather than absurd claims and in general the advertisements have changed to conform with a change in the level of the public’s knowledge.
It is somewhat misleading, however, to speak of this as an improvement, since the law has not altered and hence the change only means that the public is being swindled in a somewhat more skilful manner.
The ideal method of obtaining an adequate vitamin supply is to select a diet containing an abundant supply of fresh foods, but unfortunately the populace is accustomed to live very largely on preserved or partially purified food stuffs and such processes usually remove most of the vitamins.”
The first part of the passage above is reminiscent of something that A.J Clark wrote in the BMJ in 1927. Nowadays it is almost unquotable and I was told by a journal editor that it was unacceptable even with asterisks. That seems to me a bit silly. Words had different connotations in 1927.
“The less intelligent revert to the oldest form of belief and seek someone who will make strong magic for them and defeat the evil spirits by some potent charm. This is the feeling to which the quack appeals; he claims to be above the laws of science and to possess some charm for defeating disease of any variety.
The nature of the charm changes with the growth of education. A naked n****r howling to the beat of a tom-tom does not impress a European, and most modern Europeans would be either amused or disgusted by the Black mass that was popular in the seventeenth century. Today some travesty of physical science appears to be the most popular form of incantation.”
A.J. Clark (1927) The historical aspect of quackery, BMJ October 1st 1927
Apart from some of the vocabulary, what better description could one have of the tendency of homeopaths to harp on meaninglessly about quantum theory or the “scienciness” and “referenciness” of
modern books on nutritional therapy?
So has anything changed?
Thus far, the outcome might be thought gloomy. Judging by Clark’s account, remarkably little has changed since 1938, or even since 1914. The libel law in the UK is as bad now as it was then. Recently the United Nations Human Rights Committee said UK laws block matters of public interest and encourage libel tourism (report here, see also here). It is unfit for a free society and it should be changed.
But there are positive sides too. Firstly the advent of scientific bloggers has begun to have some real influence. People are no longer reliant on journalists to interpret (or, often, misinterpret) results for them. They can now get real experts and links to original sources. Just one of these, Ben Goldacre’s badscience.net, and his weekly column in the Guardian has worked wonders in educating the public and improving journalism. Young people can, and do, contribute to the debate because they can blog anonymously if they are frightened that their employer might object.
Perhaps still more important, the law changed this year. Now, at last, it may be possible to prosecute successfully those who make fraudulent health claims. Sad to say, this was not an initiative of the UK government, which remains as devoted as ever to supporting quacks. Remember that, quite shamefully, the only reason given by the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) gave for allowing false labelling of homeopathic pills was to support the “homeopathic industry”. They suggested (falsely) that the EU required them to take this irresponsible step, which was condemned by just about every scientific organisation. But the new unfair trading regulations did come from the EU. After almost 100 years since the 1914 report, we have at last some decent legislation. Let’s hope it’s enforced.
The back cover of the series of ‘Fact‘ books in which A.J. Clark’s article appeared is reproduced below, simply because of the historical portrait of the 1930s that it gives.
This post got a lot of hits from Ben Goldacre’s miniblog which read
- Prof David Colquhoun gets into a time machine and meets himself
A truly classic DC post.
My original piece on Integrative Baloney@Yale was posted on May 16th, after I got back from a visit there. The talk I gave there included a short video. My movie, Integrative baloney@Yale, was made entirely from clips taken from Yale’s own YouTube movies which showed something approaching three hours of its “1st Annual Scientific [sic] symposium”, entitled “Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Evidence for Integration”. I had merely interspersed a few titles to show the worst scientific absurdities of that rather pathetic event. YouTube removed the movie last week.
You can download the movie here [15.8 Mb, wmv file].
It should soon reappear on YouTube (actually it took over a month and several reminders, but eventually they kept their word in the end).
Yale’s lawyers had written to YouTube, to have my movie removed. I guess if you have no evidence, all you can do is resort to law to suppress the views of those who have the temerity to point out that the emperor is naked. Last week it was New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association Inc. This week the rather more substantial Yale University. We live in interesting times.
This is what I got on 15th August.
This is to notify you that we have removed or disabled access to the following material as a result of a third-party notification by Yale University, Yale School of Medicine (CME) claiming that this material is infringing:
Integrative baloney@Yale: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=HEl2fhfGBdI
Please Note: Repeated incidents of copyright infringement will result in the deletion of your account and all videos uploaded to that account. In order to prevent this from happening
If you clicked on the link you saw
“This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Yale University, Yale School of Medicine (CME)”
It seems that Yale’s Continuing Medical Education (CME) department was responsible.
Of course Yale is correct. I expect they own the copyright of their original movies, but they are not what I posted. I would argue that selecting 6 minutes from a 3 hour original amounts to “fair quotation”, no different from when one cites a short passage from somebody else’s book or paper. Perhaps Yale was just a bit jealous that my movie was getting viewed a lot more times than theirs. Or perhaps they were a bit peeved that a Google search for “Yale Integrative Medicine” produced my movie as #2 (add the word movie and I was #1).
My movie seems to me to be fair comment from someone who is a pharmacologist by trade. Apparently it didn’t seem that way to the apparatchiks of Yale Medical School, who seem to think that academic arguments should be settled by paying lawyers to suppress views they don’t like, rather than by rational discussion.
It’s interesting that the three hours of Yale’s own movie have also vanished from YouTube. Could that be because they realise that the remarks made at the meeting are so embarrassing intellectually that it would be better not to make them public? Actually, no.
What does Yale CME say?
Rather than publishing this straight away, I thought it better to delve a bit further into what had happened. I lodged an appeal with YouTube and I wrote to Ronald J. Vender, MD (Associate Dean, YSM Clinical Affairs, CMO, Yale Medical Group, Medical Director, Yale CME ). The outcome was rather interesting.
First, it turned out that the original posting of the three hours of the symposium proceedings on YouTube was itself unauthorised, which is why it suffered the same fate as my movie.
Dr Vender told me that he is new to the job, and didn’t know about the incident. What’s more surprising, he said he “did not know an Integrative Program even existed at Yale”. That does seem a bit odd indeed for an Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs.
However, Dr Vender turned out to be a very reasonable man,.After some amiable correspondence over the weekend, it took him only a day and a half to sort the matter out. After talking to Yale’s attorney, he wrote on 19th August, thus
“The University attorney believes that there is in fact a difference between the initial unauthorized filming of an entire conference as opposed to quoting from that conference. Therefore, she has agreed to withdraw the injunction that has been imposed on your use of the material. YouTube will be contacted.”
That’s good for me, but it isn’t the main thing. The movie would doubtless have been seen by more people if Yale had tried to maintain the ban. Much more impressively, Dr Vender also said
“As for this particular program, I will be speaking with Dr Belitsky and the program directors to encourage them to adopt a more critical view of the scientific basis for claims made by proponents of CAM. They will also be encouraged to develop a future program that includes faculty who have opposing points of view.”
It remains to be seen what actually happens, but so far, so good.
The removal of the original videos of the meeting is understandable because they were pretty embarrassing to Yale. But can that be the real reason? I was told that it is simply because their posting was “unauthorised”. But Yale Continuing Medical Education still boasts about the meeting on their own web site. They describe the meeting as “successful”, but if they are so proud of it, why remove the video from YouTube whether it was authorised or not? We are told
“The symposium, accredited for 7.5 AMA PRA Category 1 Credits, began what is hoped to be a long tradition at the Yale School of Medicine.”
They give credits for such miseducation?
Dr Katz’s phrase “we need a more fluid concept of evidence” now gets about 148 hits in Google, since I first helped him to publicise it.
Two of the six “learning objectives” that Yale CME lists for this symposium are particularly revealing.
- Describe therapeutic benefits and recent scientific evidence supporting a wide range of safe and practical complementary treatments, including acupuncture, massage, yoga, meditation, nutrition and exercise
- Identify and discuss barriers to CAM use, practice and research, as well as propose ways of overcoming these barriers
‘Describe the evidence supporting complementary treatments’? But don’t on any account describe the much more substantial evidence that does not support them? A question (or “learning objective”) put in this loaded way is the very antithesis of education.
Equally the second ‘learning objective’ carries with it the assumption that CAM works, otherwise why would anyone want to overcome the barriers to it?
This is indoctrination, not education. It betrays everything that a university should stand for.
Let’s hope the new head of CME, the admirable Dr Vender, succeeds in doing something about it
Success!. Well I think it is success. On 26 November 2008, the admirable Dr Vender wrote to me as follows.
“I do not know if another CAM/Integrative Medicine program is planned at Yale. However, based on the new ACCME standards, this program does not fulfil the standards for receiving CME accreditation (by my interpretation of the standards). At least one of last year’s program directors has been notified already.”
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.
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
About placebos and effects
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.
(Genetically he was ahead
Since daddy had the nation led.)
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
In person of Saddam Hussein.
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,
Depose the tyrant, and instead
Lead on his troops –at least he’d send
Them forth to bring about this end.
God chose him evil to despoil
(And as reward he’d get the oil).
Despite the cautions he received
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 problems only had begun.
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
Was not forthcoming, but instead
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.
This was not written by me, but by a homeopath, in an email that has been circulating recently. It comes from the editor of hpathy.com, not one of the bigger players in the homeopathic fantasy business.
Serious panic seems to be setting in.
One amusing aspect is the description of the “huge and systematic campaign”. Actually it’s just a few dozen people who decided it was time to speak up. After all, anyone can understand “the medicine contains no medicine”. And don’t you just love “Those who are organizing this anti-homeopathy campaign have been SO SUCCESSFUL that most homeopaths in UK have seen a 50% drop in their practice in the last 2 years. In fact most of them get to see only 3-4 patients a week.” I hope that is more reliable than most numbers one gets from homeopaths.
Once again we see the ambivalent attitude to the dangerous malaria scam, the “Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing“. It is that problem that has set the Faculty of Homeopaths and the Society of Homeopaths on opposite sides in internecine warfare.
Here are some excerpts. Download the whole email.
The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education: part 1
The next post is about examples from the UK.
The problem in the USA came to the fore with the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act (1980). This act allowed universities to patent ‘inventions’ that came from research funded by the taxpayer, and, far worse, allowed them to grant exclusive licences to a single commercial company. Although as originally formulated the act contained safeguards, these were mostly stripped out by the time it was passed. The nominal reason for the Act was “to bring ideas out of the ivory tower and into the market place more quickly”.
Nothing wrong with that of course. But Washburn chronicles how, not only did it fail to fulfil that aim, but corrupted universities as well. In fact with only a handful of exceptions, it did not even generate any large income for the universities. Nevertheless, the Act is still in place.Here are some examples from the USA. Examples from the UK are in a separate post.
Stanford University, Garry Nolan and Rigel Pharmaceuticals
David Zapol went from MIT to be a graduate student in Stanford, in June 1996. At the time he arrived his supervisor, Garry Nolan, set up a company, Rigel Pharmaceuticals Inc. to exploit genomic screening Stanford licensed to technology exclusively to Nolan’s company.
Although the lab was meant to be separate from the Company, that was obviously impossible. Zapol, and fellow student Michael Rothenberg,. were asked by Nolan to work on “proof of concept” for Rigel’s technology. The students found that “I can;t get time with my adviser and he’s completely preoccupied” [with the company]. A year later, Rothenberg came to the lab distraught, and told Zapol he’d been at Rigel’s offices hand had seen their “proof of concept” work shown in a company presentation for investors, with no acknowldegment of their authorship. Only they and Nolan knew about the work.
When I asked Nolan to to respond to Zapol’s allegations concerning Rigel’s misuse of his students’ data, he replied in writing
“I do not have a memory of this event”
The research on which the spin-off company was based was (as so often) still unproven, and the two graduate students found themselves competing with scientists in the (better-finded) company owned by their supervisor. If the latter won, the university graduate students would end up with nothing to publish.
When, in 1997, Rothenberg emailed his supervisor, Nolan, the reply he got was openly threatening
“Please, do not be referring to this situation as ‘Rigel’s inappropriate use of my data without referencing me’ “. “Be careful what you say”
In April 1997, Rothenberg (who worked in the university remember) was warned by an executive of the company, Donald Payan, not to communicate with a colleague in another university who was working in the same area.
“You should know that he is one of the founders of Selectide, a major competitor of ours . . . ” “. The guys here will be less than pleased if the ideas they give you re structures etc . . . end up in the hands of Selectide. Get my drift?”.
Stanford seems to have made few attempts to investigate the matter properly. Both graduate students left (with no peer-reviewed publications). Nolan is still there. Why is this? Stanford University (as well as Nolan) had substantial equity in Rigel (sold in 2000-01 for over $0.9m) and Stanford owned six of Nolan’s patents. What do the careers of two graduate studenst matter when there are big bucks at stake? Not much it seems.
Rigel, incidentally, has yet to produce a useful drug, eleven years after
Washburn’s book has many such examples. What is particularly upsetting about them is, in many cases, not so much the behaviour of greedy or dishonest scientists, but the behaviour of their employers. In any case where much money is at stake, the university fails to defend the honest scientists, but is more interested in its income than in truth. One has come to expect companies to behave in this way. It is a shock to see universities do the same.
GSK, Seroxat and Brown University: academics for hire, a shocking story
BBC TV’s Panorama programme showed the latest investigation of GlaxoSmithKline’s suppression of evidence of side effects of Paroxetine (Seroxat, Paxil). It seems that television journalists and lawyers have been a great deal more effective in unearthing the evidence than the regulatory authorities or the police. The MHRA has been working on the case for three years and has still not produced its report. Read the transcript here .
Lawyers in the USA managed to extract many secret emails from GSK, and they tell a sad story. Since the deregulation of industry that started around 1979 with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, one has become accustomed to dishonesty by big business. But academics are involved too GSK organised three large scale clinical trials of Seroxat on children with depression, in the hope of getting Seroxat licensed for this use. The biggest of these is known as ‘Study 329’. It is these trials that have given rise to the charge that GSK tried to suppress evidence that Seroxat caused an increase risk of suicide in young people.
|Martin Keller is chair of psychiatry at Brown University. The evidence found by Panorama also shows that his reputation seems to be for hire. His university home page shows that he holds many influential politicians. It does not mention that in one year he got half a million dollars from drug companies including GSK.In one email Keller thanks a ghost writer who worked for a PR company hired by GSK.
In another mail from the ghost writer to Dr Keller says that all the necessary materials are enclosed so that he can submit study 329 for publication, even down to the covering letter which says: “please re-type on your letterhead. Revise if you wish.”. Perhaps Keller at least checked the results carefully? But it seems not. Keller said
“I’ve reviewed data analytic tables, I don’t recall how raw it was. The huge printouts that list items by item number.. you know, item umbers, invariable numbers and don’t even have words on ’em. I tend not to look at those. I do better with words than I do with symbols.”
The BBC reporter , Shelley Jofre, comments “Inside GSK, though, the discussion was all about what a failure study 329 had been. This is what another of its PR people wrote when asked if the journal article would be publicised.” “Originally we had planned to do extensive media relations surrounding this study until we actually viewed the results. Essentially the study did not really show it was effective in treating adolescent depression which is not something we want to publicise.” [Email dated: 5th March 2001]
This is bad as any quackery, and the collusion of academics is very sad.
Brown University does not appear to have learned the lesson. The news section on their web site boasts of this ghost written work
“The largest clinical trial studying the use of antidepressants for treating major depression in adolescents suggests that paroxetine, sold under the brand name Paxil, may be successful.
“This is the first substantial evidence of a safe and effective treatment with an antidepressant for adolescents,” said Martin B. Keller, M.D., who led the study, which appears in the July issue of the Journal of the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry .”
Fiona Godlee , editor of the British Medical Journal, spoke on the programme. She had spotted the problems with the paper and declined to publish it. She comments “Another journal had peer reviewers who also spotted a number of the problems but the paper was published nonetheless relatively unchanged, and I think the journal must take some responsibility for that.”The editor of the ‘other journal’ ( Journal of the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry ) expressed no regrets.
See also “Ghost Authorship in Industry-Initiated Randomised Trials” by Gotzsche et al. ( PLOS Medicine 2007 ), and the commentary by Wagner , “Authors, Ghosts, Damned Lies, and Statisticians”. The latter concludes
“perhaps we should now admit that there are four types of lie: lies, damned lies, statistics, and the authorship lists of scientific papers, and that statisticians may be able to help prevent both the third and fourth types.”.
Many people now have written about the disgraceful and dangerous claims by homeopaths to be able to prevent and cure malaria. My contribution was “Homeopathic ‘cures. for malaria: a wicked scam”
One of the best contributions was on the Quackometer blog, The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing.
But the post vanished at midday on Thursday 11 October. Quackometer’s ISP has received threatening letters sent by lawyers on behalf of the Society of Homeopaths, who claim that the truth is defamatory, while being unwilling to say which statements are wrong. These threats have forced the removal of the post (for the moment), though you can still read it from the Google cache. And a lot of other places too.
.. . .
At the very least, we could expect the Society of Homeopaths to try to stamp out this wicked practice? Could we?
OK it’s fun to see the fantasy world of homeopaths riven by their internecine squabbles, but this is a serious matter.The Society of Homeopath’s substitute for answering reasonable questions is to try to suppress legitimate comment by brute (legal) force. It is hard to imagine such cowardly behaviour. I fear, though, that they may be in for a big surprise.Watch this space for developments.
The storm begins.
Within 24 hours of the post being removed, it has sprung up again, all over the world. These are just the links that reproduce the whole text. Countless more refer to them.
“Blog post taken down by homeopathic complaint: a chill wind is blowing”
Gimpy’s blog: “The Society of Homeopaths silence criticism through cowardly legal means”
Andrew Clegg lends support: “A run-in with the Homeopathic Thought Police”. He reproduces the banished page.
And on Google groups in several places, for example here.
Another reproduction of the whole banished page at A day at the pharmacy (“from a provincial, small-town pharmacy in the United Kingdom”).
A mirror of the whole original page has appeared at semiskimmed.net
and “The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing (Cowards and Bullies)” appeared on JDC325’s weblog.
Another at badchemist.net.
Apathysketchpad , from Andrew Taylor, in Manchester,
Very soon it appeared in the USA too
Orac’s Respectful Insolence site: “Homeopathic thuggery”. The Yale surgeeon/scientist has also reproduced the full text.
The whole banned page is at skepticaldog.com too.
And on the Inalienable Rights blog (Portland, Oregon). They add the forthright comment “Go Society of Homeopaths, good on you for being complicit in murder, you bloody moronic cowards.”
The whole text is on the NNSEEK news group search engine too.
And in Russia
The whole text is here.
And all this within 24 hours since the page was pulled. The lawyers for the Society of Homeopaths are going to be very busy.
They keep coming. More full texts here.
Some are so anonymous that you can’t even be sure which country they come from, though often the US ones are distinguishable because the link mainly to US sources. Now Saturday.
- The Voyage. A blog from Ireland “Big Altie Gags the Truth, or tries to”.
- White coat underground. A doctor from the US midwest speaks out.
- Science after Sunclipse. An east coast US blog “for math, physics and the New Enlightenment”
- Conspiracy Factory. Factition’s blog: “Homeopathy, Malaria & Free Speech”.
- The Bronze Blog. “Big Altie attempts to suppress truth”. A very anonymous US blog.
- Infophilia. The Streisand Effect. From Arlington Heights, Illinois,USA.
- HappyJihad’s House of Pancakes. Another anonymous US blog, with full text.
- The GAS blog
- Skeptico. Another site from USA.
- Be Lambic or Green. From Canada (I think)
That’s 25 reproductions of the page so far. Now Sunday 14 Oct,
- Nana’s Notions. Blog from a US accountant.
- A Night on the Tiles. From Stew who works in a tile factory in France.
- Powerup. From Tyler DiPietro, a student in New England, USA.
- Unfiltered Perception. blog.tjomlid.com, from a young Norwegian.
- Action Skeptics. “Kick my ass. Society of Homepaths”, From Indiana, USA.
- bankrupt artist v3. Nice version from Canada
- Sceptiphrenia . Another from the UK.
- Thinking is Dangerous. “Be shamed, Society of Homeopaths”, for Dr T, UK.
- Rants and Raves, From Kulvinder Singh Matharu. “Homeopathy; Failure of truth and integrity (again)”.
On Sunday night, for the first time, one of them comes up on the first page of Google search for “The Society of Homeopaths”
More on Monday 15 Oct. Now five of the first ten hits on a Google search for “The Society of Homeopaths” refer to this row.
- Skeptix, The Central Alberta Skeptics Association.
- No Nonsense. “Society of Homeopathetics – censoring unfavorable comment!”. From Italy?
- The Millenium Project, From Australia. “The constant misspelling of the word “millennium” with only one “n” inspired me to create a millenium – that is, a collection of a thousand arseholes.”
- Rich Speaks. From Richer Lockwood, UK.
And from Tuesday onwards, they kept coming.
- A rather fine rant from Song, by Toad. “The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing – Fuck You, Society of Homeopaths”
- EnoNomi. Another complete text, from Phoenix Arizona
- D-notice: homeopathic killing. From London
- The Macho Response. From Oakland California
- Ordinarygirl. “Homeopaths censor blogger” from Kansas, USA.
- Tabasco da Gama From USA “Society of Homeopaths thug tactics”
- Planet Atheism
- Blogher. A curious on from US. The full text has been posted as a comment on a pro-homeopathy site.
- Dikki’s diatribe. Another from AUSTRALIA.
- Freeborn John. Internet censorship again
- Skeptobot. A UK PhD student
- And, at last, James Randi (with comments)
- Skeptigator Another US one
- Bishop Hill From “an Englisman lvining in rural Scotland”
- Counterknowledge. “This you have to read”. From UK writers.
- Ministry of Truth. “Shades of Uzmanov”
- The Wardman Wire. “Society of Homeopaths are doing an Usmanov”.
- Mike Powers. “Not just fat oligarchs” (another allusion to the Usmanov affair).
- Aharonic.net. Art and culture.
- Amused cynicism. From “a computer programmer living in north west Europe”.
- Chicken Yoghurt. from Justin McKeating. “The Usmanov strain -mutating”
- The Devil’s Kitchen. “Homeopathic, sociopathic, psychopathic”.
- Starshun.com. “Society of Homeopaths threaten blogger”
That’s 64 now, from UK, USA, Russia, Canada, France, Norway and Australia. And still counting. The story is now reaching the political blogs too.
On the morning of 25 October, six of the first ten links ona Google search fot the “The Society of Homeopaths” led to re-postings of “The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing”.
By 1st November, all the Google front page links apart fron the first two pointed to sceptical sites (one was to the BBC’s “Homeopathy’s Benefit Questioned“, the rest to harder-hitting criticism).
Andy Lewis and Ben Goldacre have both posted Andy’s incredibly polite email to the Society of Homeopaths. This is the letter that got no reply apart from another letter from lawyers.
More from quackometer
“You Very Naughty Girls and Boys.” Tut tut, look at al those postings!
“The Society of Homeopaths: Truth Matters” A follow up on recent events. In particular, a letter that the Society of Homeopaths wanted to publish is demolished.
Two definitions of lawyers
Dice, n. Small polka-dotted cubes of ivory, constructed like a lawyer to lie on any side, but commonly the wrong one. [Bierce, Ambrose, The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary, 1967]
The duty of an advocate is to take fees, and in return for those fees to display to the utmost advantage whatsoever falshoods the solicitor has put into his brief. [Bentham, Jeremy, The Elements of the art of packing as applied to special juries, 1821]
The British Medical Journal ran an article on “doctor bloggers” last week.
Photo ©Mark Thomas
The BMJ put the article behind a paywall, but you can download a reprint here.
Oops, no you can’t. The BMJ have dictated that their piece on bloggers should not be available to bloggers. If you want a copy, email me. The question of availability is more interesting than the article itself anyway. It is by a journalist, Rebecca Coombes. Contrary to what you might think from reading it, I have never met her. She asked for opinions by email, so I spent a while writing something out, which she cut and pasted into an article (and I spent another hour with their photographer, Mark Thomas, who took a lot of pictures). But I can’t use either the article or the photos freely. I don’t even get paid. The commercial journals, as always, do pretty well out of exploiting academics.
|The picture at the top should have been Ben Goldacre, whose badscience.net is now number two in the world. That picture prompted the child of a friend to ask if I was doing an impression of a velocirapter, I guess that is one better that gimpyblog’s perception of me as being a dead ringer for some computer game thug.
So here is another one (possibly no less scary).
Photo Â©Mark Thomas
By way of compensation, here is a picture of Goldacre.
Science writer award 2005
“. . . blogs are popular because they are more honest than other media. It is hard to get away with misrepresenting stuff when the original source is but a click away. I see it as a way of making conversation public. What is good about it is you get unmediated expertise.”
“In the press it’s hard to know what is true. But with blogs people can link directly to the original source: this never happens in a newspaper.”
“I think they [blogs] have really had some success in spreading public understanding of science and even in influencing public affairs (firstly with the merger [of Imperial and UCL] and more recently with withdrawal of NHS funding for homoeopathy). My own research is on the stochastic properties of single ion channels. I love it, but it is specialist and of zero interest to the public. So it’s fun to talk about things that do interest the public. It’s also fun to be able to influence politicians and vice chancellors, though that is rather harder.”