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management bollocks – DC's Improbable Science

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management bollocks

Jump to follow-up

Stop press. Financial report casts doubt on Trainor’s claims

Science has a big problem. Most jobs are desperately insecure. It’s hard to do long term thorough work when you don’t know whether you’ll be able to pay your mortgage in a year’s time. The appalling career structure for young scientists has been the subject of much writing by the young (e.g. Jenny Rohn) and the old, e.g Bruce Alberts. Peter Lawrence (see also Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research, and by me.

Until recently, this problem was largely restricted to post-doctoral fellows (postdocs). They already have PhDs and they are the people who do most of the experiments. Often large numbers of them work for a single principle investigator (PI). The PI spends most of his her time writing grant applications and traveling the world to hawk the wares of his lab. They also (to variable extents) teach students and deal with endless hassle from HR.

The salaries of most postdocs are paid from grants that last for three or sometimes five years. If that grant doesn’t get renewed. they are on the streets.

Universities have come to exploit their employees almost as badly as Amazon does.

The periodical research assessments not only waste large amounts of time and money, but they have distorted behaviour. In the hope of scoring highly, they recruit a lot of people before the submission, but as soon as that’s done with, they find that they can’t afford all of them, so some get cast aside like worn out old boots. Universities have allowed themselves to become dependent on "soft money" from grant-giving bodies. That strikes me as bad management.

The situation is even worse in the USA where most teaching staff rely on research grants to pay their salaries.

I have written three times about the insane methods that are being used to fire staff at Queen Mary College London (QMUL).
Is Queen Mary University of London trying to commit scientific suicide? (June 2012)
Queen Mary, University of London in The Times. Does Simon Gaskell care? (July 2012) and a version of it appeared th The Times (Thunderer column)
In which Simon Gaskell, of Queen Mary, University of London, makes a cock-up (August 2012)

The ostensible reason given there was to boost its ratings in university rankings. Their vice-chancellor, Simon Gaskell, seems to think that by firing people he can produce a university that’s full of Nobel prize-winners. The effect, of course, is just the opposite. Treating people like pawns in a game makes the good people leave and only those who can’t get a job with a better employer remain. That’s what I call bad management.

At QMUL people were chosen to be fired on the basis of a plain silly measure of their publication record, and by their grant income. That was combined with terrorisation of any staff who spoke out about the process (more on that coming soon).

Kings College London is now doing the same sort of thing. They have announced that they’ll fire 120 of the 777 staff in the schools of medicine and biomedical sciences, and the Institute of Psychiatry. These are humans, with children and mortgages to pay. One might ask why they were taken on the first place, if the university can’t afford them. That’s simply bad financial planning (or was it done in order to boost their Research Excellence submission?).

Surely it’s been obvious, at least since 2007, that hard financial times were coming, but that didn’t dent the hubris of the people who took an so many staff. HEFCE has failed to find a sensible way to fund universities. The attempt to separate the funding of teaching and research has just led to corruption.

The way in which people are to be chosen for the firing squad at Kings is crude in the extreme. If you are a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry then, unless you do a lot of teaching, you must have a grant income of at least £200,000 per year. You can read all the details in the Kings’ “Consultation document” that was sent to all employees. It’s headed "CONFIDENTIAL – Not for further circulation". Vice-chancellors still don’t seem to have realised that it’s no longer possible to keep things like this secret. In releasing it, I take ny cue from George Orwell.

"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

There is no mention of the quality of your research, just income. Since in most sorts of research, the major cost is salaries, this rewards people who take on too many employees. Only too frequently, large groups are the ones in which students and research staff get the least supervision, and which bangs per buck are lowest. The university should be rewarding people who are deeply involved in research themselves -those with small groups. Instead, they are doing exactly the opposite.

Women are, I’d guess, less susceptible to the grandiosity of the enormous research group, so no doubt they will suffer disproportionately. PhD students will also suffer if their supervisor is fired while they are halfway through their projects.

An article in Times Higher Education pointed out

"According to the Royal Society’s 2010 report The Scientific Century: Securing our Future Prosperity, in the UK, 30 per cent of science PhD graduates go on to postdoctoral positions, but only around 4 per cent find permanent academic research posts. Less than half of 1 per cent of those with science doctorates end up as professors."

The panel that decides whether you’ll be fired consists of Professor Sir Robert Lechler, Professor Anne Greenough, Professor Simon Howell, Professor Shitij Kapur, Professor Karen O’Brien, Chris Mottershead, Rachel Parr & Carol Ford. If they had the slightest integrity, they’d refuse to implement such obviously silly criteria.

Universities in general. not only Kings and QMUL have become over-reliant on research funders to enhance their own reputations. PhD students and research staff are employed for the benefit of the university (and of the principle investigator), not for the benefit of the students or research staff, who are treated as expendable cost units, not as humans.

One thing that we expect of vice-chancellors is sensible financial planning. That seems to have failed at Kings. One would also hope that they would understand how to get good science. My only previous encounter with Kings’ vice chancellor, Rick Trainor, suggests that this is not where his talents lie. While he was president of the Universities UK (UUK), I suggested to him that degrees in homeopathy were not a good idea. His response was that of the true apparatchik.

“. . . degree courses change over time, are independently assessed for academic rigour and quality and provide a wider education than the simple description of the course might suggest”

That is hardly a response that suggests high academic integrity.

The students’ petition is on Change.org.

Follow-up

The problems that are faced in the UK are very similar to those in the USA. They have been described with superb clarity in “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws“, This article, by Bruce Alberts, Marc W. Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus, should be read by everyone. They observe that ” . . . little has been done to reform the system, primarily because it continues to benefit more established and hence more influential scientists”. I’d be more impressed by the senior people at Kings if they spent time trying to improve the system rather than firing people because their research is not sufficiently expensive.

10 June 2014

Progress on the cull, according to an anonymous correspondent

“The omnishambles that is KCL management

1) We were told we would receive our orange (at risk) or green letters (not at risk, this time) on Thursday PM 5th June as HR said that it’s not good to get bad news on a Friday!

2) We all got a letter on Friday that we would not be receiving our letters until Monday, so we all had a tense weekend

3) I finally got my letter on Monday, in my case it was “green” however a number of staff who work very hard at KCL doing teaching and research are “orange”, un bloody believable

As you can imagine the moral at King’s has dropped through the floor”

18 June 2014

Dorothy Bishop has written about the Trainor problem. Her post ends “One feels that if KCL were falling behind in a boat race, they’d respond by throwing out some of the rowers”.

The students’ petition can be found on the #KCLHealthSOS site. There is a reply to the petition, from Professor Sir Robert Lechler, and a rather better written response to it from students. Lechler’s response merely repeats the weasel words, and it attacks a few straw men without providing the slightest justification for the criteria that are being used to fire people. One can’t help noticing how often knighthoods go too the best apparatchiks rather than the best scientists.

14 July 2014

A 2013 report on Kings from Standard & Poor’s casts doubt on Trainor’s claims

Download the report from Standard and Poor’s Rating Service

A few things stand out.

  • KCL is in a strong financial position with lower debt than other similar Universities and cash reserves of £194 million.
  • The report says that KCL does carry some risk into the future especially that related to its large capital expansion program.
  • The report specifically warns KCL over the consequences of any staff cuts. Particularly relevant are the following quotations
  • Page p3 “Further staff-cost curtailment will be quite difficult …pressure to maintain its academic and non-academic service standards will weigh on its ability to cut costs further.”
  • page 4 The report goes on to say (see the section headed outlook, especially the final paragraph) that any decrease in KCL’s academic reputation (e.g. consequent on staff cuts) would be likely to impair its ability to attract overseas students and therefore adversely affect its financial position.
  • page 10 makes clear that KCL managers are privately aiming at 10% surplus, above the 6% operating surplus they talk about with us. However, S&P considers that ‘ambitious’. In other words KCL are shooting for double what a credit rating agency considers realistic.

One can infer from this that

  1. what staff have been told about the cuts being an immediate necessity is absolute nonsense
  2. KCL was warned against staff cuts by a credit agency
  3. the main problem KCL has is its overambitious building policy
  4. KCL is implementing a policy (staff cuts) which S & P warned against as they predict it may result in diminishing income.

What on earth is going on?

16 July 2014

I’ve been sent yet another damning document. The BMA’s response to Kings contains some numbers that seem to have escaped the attention of managers at Kings.

10 April 2015

King’s draft performance management plan for 2015

This document has just come to light (the highlighting is mine).

It’s labelled as "released for internal consultation". It seems that managers are slow to realise that it’s futile to try to keep secrets.

The document applies only to Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London: "one of the global leaders in the fields" -the usual tedious blah that prefaces every document from every university.

It’s fascinating to me that the most cruel treatment of staff so often seems to arise in medical-related areas. I thought psychiatrists, of all people, were meant to understand people, not to kill them.

This document is not quite as crude as Imperial’s assessment, but it’s quite bad enough. Like other such documents, it pretends that it’s for the benefit of its victims. In fact it’s for the benefit of willy-waving managers who are obsessed by silly rankings.

Here are some of the sillier bits.

"The Head of Department is also responsible for ensuring that aspects of reward/recognition and additional support that are identified are appropriately followed through"

And, presumably, for firing people, but let’s not mention that.

"Academics are expected to produce original scientific publications of the highest quality that will significantly advance their field."

That’s what everyone has always tried to do. It can’t be compelled by performance managers. A large element of success is pure luck. That’s why they’re called experiments.

" However, it may take publications 12-18 months to reach a stable trajectory of citations, therefore, the quality of a journal (impact factor) and the judgment of knowledgeable peers can be alternative indicators of excellence."

It can also take 40 years for work to be cited. And there is little reason to believe that citations, especially those within 12-18 months, measure quality. And it is known for sure that "the quality of a journal (impact factor)" does not correlate with quality (or indeed with citations).

Later we read

"H Index and Citation Impact: These are good objective measures of the scientific impact of
publications"

NO, they are simply not a measure of quality (though this time they say “impact” rather than “excellence”).

The people who wrote that seem to be unaware of the most basic facts about science.

Then

"Carrying out high quality scientific work requires research teams"

Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. In the past the best work has been done by one or two people. In my field, think of Hodgkin & Huxley, Katz & Miledi or Neher & Sakmann. All got Nobel prizes. All did the work themselves. Performance managers might well have fired them before they got started.

By specifying minimum acceptable group sizes, King’s are really specifying minimum acceptable grant income, just like Imperial and Warwick. Nobody will be taken in by the thin attempt to disguise it.

The specification that a professor should have "Primary supervision of three or more PhD students, with additional secondary supervision." is particularly iniquitous. Everyone knows that far too many PhDs are being produced for the number of jobs that are available. This stipulation is not for the benefit of the young. It’s to ensure a supply of cheap labour to churn out more papers and help to lift the university’s ranking.

The document is not signed, but the document properties name its author. But she’s not a scientist and is presumably acting under orders, so please don’t blame her for this dire document. Blame the vice-chancellor.

Performance management is a direct incentive to do shoddy short-cut science.

No wonder that The Economist says "scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying—to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity".

Feel ashamed.

Nobody could have been more surprised than I when I found myself nominated as an academic role model at UCL. I had to answer a few questions. It is not obvious to me what the object of the stunt is, but the person who asked me to do it seemed to find the answers amusing, so I’ll reproduce here what I said. I apologise for the temporary lapse into narcissism.

The final version has now been printed [download a copy]. Sadly the printed edition was “corrected” by someone who replaced “whom I asked to submit the first theoretical paper by Hawkes and me to the Royal Society” (as written below), with “paper by Hawkes and I”. Aaargh.

DC 2013

Your nomination – Why you were nominated as an Academic Role Model?

"David Colquhoun has made major contributions to our understanding of how ion channels (proteins which allow charged ions to pass across cell membranes) function to mediate electrical signalling in nerve and muscle cells. This work elegantly combines experimental and theoretical aspects, and resulted in David being made a Fellow of the Royal Society. David Colquhoun played a key role in resisting the notion that UCL should merge with Imperial College in 2002, by running a website opposed to the merger. He thus facilitated the continued existence of an independent UCL. He is also well-known for his principled opposition to therapies that are not based on scientific evidence, and for his blog which comments on this issue as well as on university bureaucracy and politics."

Role models’ questions

1.  What is your response to being nominated?

Astounded.

We are interested in giving people a very brief ‘snapshot’ description of their career trajectory, to help a broad range of people see how you got to where you are:

2.   What has your career path been?

My first job (in 1950s) was as an apprentice pharmacist in Timothy Whites & Taylors (Homeopathic Chemists) in Grange Road, Birkenhead.  You can’t get a more humble start than that.  But it got me interested in drugs, and thanks to my schoolmaster father, I got to the University of Leeds. 

pa 1955
My father (1907 – 2001), in 1955

One of the courses involved some statistics, and that interested me.  I think I made a semi-conscious decision that it would be sensible to be good at something that others were bad at, so I learned quite a lot of statistics and mathematics. I recall buying a Methuen’s Monograph on Determinants and Matrices in my final year, and, with the help of an Argentinian PhD student in physical chemistry (not my lecturers) I began to make sense of it. 

aitken

I purposely went into my final viva with it sticking out of my pocket. The examiner was Walter Perry, then professor of Pharmacology in Edinburgh (he later did a great job setting up the Open University).  That’s how I came to be a PhD student in Edinburgh. 

Although Perry was one of my supervisors, the only time I saw him was when he came into my lab between committee meetings for a cigarette.  But he did make me an honorary lecturer so I could join the Staff Club, where I made many friends, including a young physics lecturer called Peter Higgs. The  staff club exists no longer, having been destroyed in one of those acts of short-sighted academic vandalism that vice-chancellors seem so fond of.

The great university expansion in the 1960s made it easy to get a job.  The most famous pharmacology department in the world was at UCL so I asked someone to introduce me to its then head, Heinz Schild, and asked him if he had a job.  While interned during WW2 he had written a paper on the statistics of biological assay and wanted someone to teach it to students, so I got a job (in 1964), and have been at UCL ever since apart from 9 years.  Between 1964 and 1970 I published little, but learned a great deal by writing a textbook on statistics.

That sort of statistics is now thought too difficult for undergraduates, and the famous department that attracted me was itself destroyed in another act of academic vandalism, in 2007.

I have spent my life doing things that I enjoy.  Such success as I’ve had, I attribute to a liking for spending time with people cleverer than I am, and wasting time drinking coffee.  I found a very clever statistician, Alan Hawkes, in the Housman Room in the late 1960s, and we began to collaborate on the theory of single ion channel analysis in a series of papers that still isn’t quite finished.  He did the hard mathematics, but I knew enough about it to write it up in a more or less comprehensible form and to write computer programs to evaluate the algebra.  When I got stuck, I would often ask Hyman Kestelman (co-author of the famous mathematics textbook, Massie & Kestelman) to explain, usually in what was then the Joint Staff Common Room at lunch time (it is now the Haldane room, the common room having been confiscated by unenlightened management).  Before leaving for the USA in 1970, I, in league with the then professor of French, Brian Woledge, eventually got through a motion that allowed women into the Housman room.

I’d also talk as much as I could to Bernard Katz, whom I asked to submit the first theoretical paper by Hawkes and me to the Royal Society. His comments on the first draft led to the published version making a prediction about single ion channel behaviour before channels could be observed. 

The next step was sheer luck.  As this was going on, two young Germans, Neher & Sakmann, succeeded in observing the tiny currents that flow through single ion channel molecules, so it became possible to test the theory.  In series of visits to Göttingen, Sakmann and I did experiments late into the night.  Neher & Sakmann got a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1991, and I expect I benefitted from a bit of reflected glory

The work that I have done is nothing if not basic.  It doesn’t fit in with the current vogue for translational research (most of which will fail), although I would regard it as laying the basis for rational drug design. My only regret is that rational drug design has proved to be so difficult that it won’t be achieved in my lifetime (please don’t believe the hype).

We’d also like you to take a slightly more personal view:

3.  What have been the highs (and the lows?) of your career so far?

The highs have been the chance to work with brilliant people and write a handful of papers that have a chance of having a lasting influence.  Because I have been able to take my time on those projects there haven’t been too many lows, apart from observing the continuous loss of academic integrity caused by the intense pressure to publish or perish, and the progressive decline in collegiality in universities caused by that pressure combined with the rise in power of managerialism.  Luckily the advent of blogs has allowed me to do a little about that. 

I’m saddened by the fact that the innumeracy of biologists that I noticed as an undergraduate has not really improved at all (though I don’t believe it is worse).  Most biologists still have difficulty with even the simplest equations.  Worse still, they don’t know enough maths to communicate their problem to a mathematician, so only too often one sees collaborations with mathematicians produce useless results.

The only real failure I’ve had was when, in a fit of vanity, I applied for the chair of Pharmacology in Oxford, in 1984, and failed to get it.  But in retrospect that was really a success too.  I would have hated the flummery of Oxford, and as head of department (an increasingly unattractive job) I would have spent my time on pushing paper, not ion channels.  In retrospect, it was a lucky escape.  UCL is my sort of place (most of the time).

We would like to hear what our role models have to say about the next generation:

4.  What advice would you give to people finishing off their PhD?  

My career course would be almost impossible now.  In fact it is very likely that I would have been fired before I got going in the present climate.  There were quite long periods when I didn’t publish much.  I was learning the tools of my trade, both mathematical and experimental.  Now there is no time to do that.  You are under pressure to publish a paper a week (for the glory of your PI and your university) and probably rarely find time to leave the lab to talk to inspiring people. If you are given any courses they’ll probably be in some inane HR nonsense, not in algebra.  That is one reason we started our summer workshop, though bizarrely that has now been dropped by the graduate school in favour of Advanced Powerpoint.

The plight of recent PhDs is dire.  Too many are taken on (for the benefit of the university, not of the student) and there aren’t many academic jobs.  If you want to stay in academia, all I can suggest is that you get good at doing something that other people can’t do, and to resist the pressure to publish dozens of trivial papers. 

Try to maintain some academic integrity despite the many pressures to do the opposite that are imposed on you by your elders (but not always betters).  That may or may not be enough to get you the job that you want, but at least you’ll be able to hold your head high. 

Finally, we want to give a balanced impression of our role models because many were nominated for their ability to motivate others, and to balance life and work:

5.  How do you keep motivated?

Work-life balance is much talked about by HR, though they are one of the reasons why it is now almost impossible, In the past it wasn’t a great problem.  I’m fascinated by the problems that I’m trying to puzzle out.  I’ve had periods of a year or two when things haven’t gone well and I’ve felt as though I was a failure, but luckily they haven’t lasted too long, and they occurred in a time before some idiotic performance manager would harass you for failing to publish for a year or two.  The climate of “performance management” is doing a lot to kill innovation and creativity.

6.  What do you do when are not working in SLMS?                                                               

I’ve had various phases. For a while I carried on boxing (which had been compulsory at school). When I was first at UCL in 1964 I bought a 21 foot sloop (and as a consequence could barely afford to eat), and in 1970 (at Yale) I learned to fly. I had a lot of fun sailing right up to the early 1980s, when I found I could not afford a son as well as a boat. That was when running came into fashion and that could be done for the price of a pair of shoes.  I did marathons and half marathons for fun (the London in 1988 was great fun).  And that was supplanted by walking country trails in the early 2000s.  

There is never a clear division between work and play, especially with algebra. You can continue to struggle with a derivation on a boat, or even get a new angle on it while running.  That, of course, is why the transparency review is such total nonsense.

The main cause of stress has never been work for me. Stress comes mainly from the imposition of dim-witted managerialism and incompetent HR policies.  And that has become progressively worse.  I doubt that if I were a young academic now I’d have the time to spend the weekend sailing.

I’m not sure whether the blogging that has taken up something like half my time since my nominal retirement in 2004 counts as work or not.  It certainly depends on things that I have learned in my academic work.  And it’s fun to have effects in the real world after a life spent on problems that many would regard as esoteric. 

If you want a hobby that costs very little, and allows you to say what you want, start a blog.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

Academic staff are going to be fired at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). It’s possible that universities may have to contract a bit in hard times, so what’s wrong?

What’s wrong is that the victims are being selected in a way that I can describe only as insane. The criteria they use are guaranteed to produce a generation of second-rate spiv scientists, with a consequent progressive decline in QMUL’s reputation.

The firings, it seems, are nothing to do with hard financial times, but are a result of QMUL’s aim to raise its ranking in university league tables.

In the UK university league table, a university’s position is directly related to its government research funding. So they need to do well in the 2014 ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF). To achieve that they plan to recruit new staff with high research profiles, take on more PhD students and post-docs, obtain more research funding from grants, and get rid of staff who are not doing ‘good’ enough research.

So far, that’s exactly what every other university is trying to do. This sort of distortion is one of the harmful side-effects of the REF. But what’s particularly stupid about QMUL’s behaviour is the way they are going about it. You can assess your own chances of survival at QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences from the following table, which is taken from an article by Jeremy Garwood (Lab Times Online. July 4, 2012). The numbers refer to the four year period from 2008 to 2011.

Category of staff

Research Output ­ Quantity
(No. of  Papers)

Research Output ­
Quality
(No. of  high quality papers)

Research Income (£)
(Total)

Research Income (£)
As Principal Investigator

Professor

11

2

400,000

 at least 200,000

Reader

9

2

320,000

at least 150,000

Senior Lecturer

7

1

260,000

 at least 120,000

Lecturer

5

1

200,000

 at least 100,000

In addition to the three criteria, ‘Research Output ‐ quality’, ‘Research Output – quantity’, and ‘Research Income’, there is a minimum threshold of 1 PhD completion for staff at each academic level. All this data is “evidenced by objective metrics; publications cited in Web of Science, plus official QMUL metrics on grant income and PhD completion.”

To survive, staff must meet the minimum threshold in three out of the four categories, except as follows:

Demonstration of activity at an exceptional level in either ‘research outputs’ or ‘research income’, termed an ‘enhanced threshold’, is “sufficient” to justify selection regardless of levels of activity in the other two categories. And what are these enhanced thresholds?
For research quantity: a mere 26 published items with at least 11 as significant author (no distinction between academic level); research quality: a modest 6 items published in numerically-favoured journals (e.g. impact factor > 7). Alternatively you can buy your survival with a total ‘Research Income’ of £1,000,000 as PI.

The university notes that the above criteria “are useful as entry standards into the new school, but they fall short of the levels of activity that will be expected from staff in the future. These metrics should not, therefore, be regarded as targets for future performance.”

This means that those who survived the redundancy criteria will simply have to do better. But what is to reassure them that it won’t be their turn next time should they fail to match the numbers? 

To help them, Queen Mary is proposing to introduce ‘D3’ performance management (www.unions.qmul.ac.uk/ucu/docs/d3-part-one.doc). Based on more ‘administrative physics’, D3 is shorthand for ‘Direction × Delivery × Development.’ Apparently “all three are essential to a successful team or organisation. The multiplication indicates that where one is absent/zero, then the sum is zero!”

D3 is based on principles of accountability: “A sign of a mature organisation is where its members acknowledge that they face choices, they make commitments and are ready to be held to account for discharging these commitments, accepting the consequences rather than seeking to pass responsibility.” Inspired?

I presume the D3 document must have been written by an HR person. It has all the incoherent use of buzzwords so typical of HR. And it says "sum" when it means "product" (oh dear, innumeracy is rife).

The criteria are utterly brainless. The use of impact factors for assessing people has been discredited at least since Seglen (1997) showed that the number of citations that a paper gets is not perceptibly correlated with the impact factor of the journal in which it’s published. The reason for this is the distribution of the number of citations for papers in a particular journal is enormously skewed. This means that high-impact journals get most of their citations from a few articles.

The distribution for Nature is shown in Fig. 1. Far from being gaussian, it is even more skewed than a geometric distribution; the mean number of citations is 114, but 69% of papers have fewer than the mean, and 24% have fewer than 30 citations. One paper has 2,364 citations but 35 have 10 or fewer. ISI data for citations in 2001 of the 858 papers published in Nature in 1999 show that the 80 most-cited papers (16% of all papers) account for half of all the citations (from Colquhoun, 2003)

impact

The Institute of Scientific Information, ISI, is guilty of the unsound statistical practice of characterizing a distribution by its mean only, with no indication of its shape or even its spread. School of Biological and Chemical Sciences-QMUL is expecting everyone has to be above average in the new regime. Anomalously, the thresholds for psychologists are lower because it is said that it’s more difficult for them to get grants. This undermines even the twisted logic applied at the outset.  

All this stuff about skewed distributions is, no doubt, a bit too technical for HR people to understand. Which, of course, is precisely why they should have nothing to do with assessing people.

At a time when so may PhDs fail to get academic jobs we should be limiting the numbers. But QMUL requires everyone to have a PhD student, not for the benefit of the student, but to increase its standing in league tables. That is deeply unethical.

The demand to have two papers in journals with impact factor greater than seven is nonsense. In physiology, for example, there are only four journals with an impact factor greater that seven and three of them are review journals that don’t publish original research. The two best journals for electrophysiology are Journal of Physiology (impact factor 4.98, in 2010) and Journal of General Physiology (IF 4.71). These are the journals that publish papers that get you into the Royal Society or even Nobel prizes. But for QMUL, they don’t count.

I have been lucky to know well three Nobel prize winners. Andrew Huxley. Bernard Katz, and Bert Sakmann. I doubt that any of them would pass the criteria laid down for a professor by QMUL. They would have been fired.

The case of Sakmann is analysed in How to Get Good Science, [pdf version]. In the 10 years from 1976 to 1985, when Sakmann rose to fame, he published an average of 2.6 papers per year (range 0 to 6). In two of these 10 years he had no publications at all. In the 4 year period (1976 – 1979 ) that started with the paper that brought him to fame (Neher & Sakmann, 1976) he published 9 papers, just enough for the Reader grade, but in the four years from 1979 – 1982 he had 6 papers, in 2 of which he was neither first nor last author. His job would have been in danger if he’d worked at QMUL. In 1991 Sakmann, with Erwin Neher, got the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

The most offensive thing of the lot is the way you can buy yourself out if you publish 26 papers in the 4 year period. Sakmann came nowhere near this. And my own total, for the entire time from my first paper (1963) until I was elected to the Royal Society (May 1985) was 27 papers (and 7 book chapters). I would have been fired.

Peter Higgs had no papers at all from the time he moved to Edinburgh in 1960, until 1964 when his two paper’s on what’s now called the Higgs’ Boson were published in Physics Letters. That journal now has an impact factor less than 7 so Queen Mary would not have counted them as “high quality” papers, and he would not have been returnable for the REF. He too would have been fired.

The encouragement to publish large numbers of papers is daft. I have seen people rejected from the Royal Society for publishing too much. If you are publishing a paper every six weeks, you certainly aren’t writing them, and possibly not even reading them. Most likely you are appending your name to somebody else’s work with little or no checking of the data. Such numbers can be reached only by unethical behaviour, as described by Peter Lawrence in The Mismeasurement of Science. Like so much managerialism, the rules provide an active encouragement to dishonesty.

In the face of such a boneheaded approach to assessment of your worth, it’s the duty of any responsible academic to point out the harm that’s being done to the College. Richard Horton, in the Lancet, did so in Bullying at Barts. There followed quickly letters from Stuart McDonald and Nick Wright, who used the Nuremburg defence, pointing out that the Dean (Tom Macdonald) was just obeying orders from above. That has never been as acceptable defence. If Macdonald agreed with the procedure, he should be fired for incompetence. If he did not agree with it he should have resigned.

It’s a pity, because Tom Macdonald was one of the people with whom I corresponded in support of Barts’ students who, very reasonably, objected to having course work marked by homeopaths (see St Bartholomew’s teaches antiscience, but students revolt, and, later, Bad medicine. Barts sinks further into the endarkenment). In that case he was not unreasonable, and, a mere two years later I heard that he’d taken action.

To cap it all, two academics did their job by applying a critical eye to what’s going on at Queen Mary. They wrote to the Lancet under the title Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

"For example, one of the “metrics” for research output at professorial level is to have published at least two papers in journals with impact factors of 7 or more. This is ludicrous, of course—a triumph of vanity as sensible as selecting athletes on the basis of their brand of track suit. But let us follow this “metric” for a moment. How does the Head of School fair? Zero, actually. He fails. Just consult Web of Science. Take care though, the result is classified information. HR’s “data” are marked Private and Confidential. Some things must be believed. To question them is heresy."

Astoundingly, the people who wrote this piece are now under investigation for “gross misconduct”. This is behaviour worthy of the University of Poppleton, as pointed out by the inimitable Laurie Taylor, in Times Higher Education (June 7)

The rustle of censorship

It appears that last week’s edition of our sister paper, The Poppleton Evening News, carried a letter from Dr Gene Ohm of our Biology Department criticising this university’s metrics-based redundancy programme.

We now learn that, following the precedent set by Queen Mary, University of London, Dr Ohm could be found guilty of “gross misconduct” and face “disciplinary proceedings leading to dismissal” for having the effrontery to raise such issues in a public place.

Louise Bimpson, the corporate director of our ever-expanding human resources team, admitted that this response might appear “severe” but pointed out that Poppleton was eager to follow the disciplinary practices set by such soon-to-be members of the prestigious Russell Group as Queen Mary. Thus it was only to be expected that we would seek to emulate its espousal of draconian censorship. She hoped this clarified the situation.

David Bignell, emeritus professor of zoology at Queen Mary hit the nail on the head.

"These managers worry me. Too many are modest achievers, retired from their own studies, intoxicated with jargon, delusional about corporate status and forever banging the metrics gong. Crucially, they don’t lead by example."

What the managers at Queen Mary have failed to notice is that the best academics can choose where to go.

People are being told to pack their bags and move out with one day’s notice. Access to journals stopped, email address removed, and you may need to be accompanied to your (ex)-office. Good scientists are being treated like criminals.

What scientist in their right mind would want to work at QMUL, now that their dimwitted assessment methods, and their bullying tactics, are public knowledge?

The responsibility must lie with the principal, Simon Gaskell. And we know what the punishment is for bringing your university into disrepute.

Follow-up

Send an email. You may want to join the many people who have already written to QMUL’s principal, Simon Gaskell (principal@qmul.ac.uk), and/or to Sir Nicholas Montagu, Chairman of Council, n.montagu@qmul.ac.uk.

Sunday 1 July 2012. Since this blog was posted after lunch on Friday 29th June, it has had around 9000 visits from 72 countries. Here is one of 17 maps showing the origins of 200 of the hits in the last two days

map

The tweets about QMUL are collected in a Storify timeline.

I’m reminded of a 2008 comment, on a post about the problems imposed by HR, In-human resources, science and pizza.

Thanks for that – I LOVED IT. It’s fantastic that the truth of HR (I truly hate that phrase) has been so ruthlessly exposed. Should be part of the School Handbook. Any VC who stripped out all the BS would immediately retain and attract good people and see their productivity soar.

That’s advice that Queen Mary should heed.

Part of the reason for that popularity was Ben Goldacre’s tweet, to his 201,000 followers

“destructive, unethical and crude metric incentives in academia (spotlight QMUL) bit.ly/MFHk2H by @david_colquhoun

3 July 2012. I have come by a copy of this email, which was sent to Queen Mary by a senior professor from the USA (word travels fast on the web). It shows just how easy it is to destroy the reputation of an institution.

Sir Nicholas Montagu, Chairman of Council, and Principal Gaskell,

I was appalled to read the criteria devised by your University to evaluate its faculty.   There are so flawed it is hard to know where to begin. 

Your criteria are antithetical to good scientific research.  The journals are littered with weak publications, which are generated mainly by scientists who feel the pressure to publish, no matter whether the results are interesting, valid, or meaningful.  The literature is flooded by sheer volume of these publications.

Your attempt to require “quality” research is provided by the requirement for publications in “high Impact Factor” journals.  IF has been discredited among scientists for many reasons:  it is inaccurate in not actually reflecting the merit of the specific paper, it is biased toward fields with lots of scientists, etc.  The demand for publications in absurdly high IF journals encourages, and practically enforces scientific fraud.  I have personally experienced those reviews from Nature demanding one or two more “final” experiments that will clinch the publication.  The authors KNOW how these experiments MUST turn out.  If they want their Nature paper (and their very academic survival if they are  at a brutal, anti-scientific university like QMUL), they must get the “right” answer.  The temptation to fudge the data to get this answer is extreme.  Some scientists may even be able to convince themselves that each contrary piece of data that they discard to ensure the “correct” answer is being discarded for a valid reason.  But the result is that scientific misconduct occurs.  I did not see in your criteria for “success” at QMUL whether you discount retracted papers from the tally of high IF publications, or perhaps the retraction itself counts as yet another high IF publication!

Your requirement for each faculty to have one or more postdocs or students promotes the abusive exploitation of these individuals for their cheap labor, and ignores the fact that they are being “trained” for jobs that do not exist. 

The “standards” you set are fantastically unrealistic.  For example, funding is not graded, but a sharp step function – we have 1 or 2 or 0 grants and even if the average is above your limits, no one could sustain this continuously. Once you have fired every one of your faculty, which will almost certainly happen within 1-2 rounds of pogroms, where will you find legitimate scientists who are willing to join such a ludicrous University?

4 July 2012.

Professor John F. Allen is Professor of Biochemistry at Queen Mary, University of London, and distinguished in the fields of Photosynthesis, Chloroplasts, Mitochondria, Genome function and evolution and Redox signalling. He, with a younger colleague, wrote a letter to the Lancet, Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. It is an admirable letter, the sort of thing any self-respecting academic should write. But not according to HR. On 14 May, Allen got a letter from HR, which starts thus.

14th May 2012

Dear Professor Allen

I am writing to inform you that the College had decided to commence a factfinding investigation into the below allegation: That in writing and/or signing your name to a letter entitled "Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition," (enclosed) which was published in the Lancet online on 4th May 2012, you sought to bring the Head of School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and the Dean for Research in the School of Medicine and Dentistry into disrepute.

. . . .

Sam Holborn
HR Consultant- Science & Engineering

Download the entire letter. It is utterly disgraceful bullying. If anyone is bringing Queen Mary into disrepute, it is Sam Holborn and the principal, Simon Gaskell.

Here’s another letter, from the many that have been sent. This is from a researcher in the Netherlands.

Dear Sir Nicholas,

I am addressing this to you in the hope that you were not directly involved in creating this extremely stupid set of measures that have been thought up, not to improve the conduct of science at QMUL, but to cheat QMUL’s way up the league tables over the heads of the existing academic staff.

Others have written more succinctly about the crass stupidity of your Human Resources department than I could, and their apparent ignorance of how science actually works. As your principal must bear full responsibility for the introduction of these measures, I am not sending him a copy of this mail. I am pretty sure that his “principal” mail address will no longer be operative.

We have had a recent scandal in the Netherlands where a social psychology professor, who even won a national “Man of the Year” award, as well as as a very large amount of research money, was recently exposed as having faked all the data that went into a total number of articles running into three figures. This is not the sort of thing one wants to happen to one’s own university. He would have done well according to your REF .. before he was found out.

Human Resources departments have gained too much power, and are completely incompetent when it comes to judging academic standards. Let them get on with the old dull, and gobbledigook-free, tasks that personnel departments should be carrying out.


Yours,

5 July 2012.

Here’s another letter. It’s from a member of academic staff at QMUL, someone who is not himself threatened with being fired. It certainly shows that I’m not making a fuss about nothing. Rather, I’m the only person old enough to say what needs to be said without fear of losing my job and my house.

Dear Prof. Colquhoun,

I am an academic staff member in SBCS, QMUL.  I am writing from my personal email account because the risks of using my work account to send this email are too great.

I would like to thank you for highlighting our problems and how we have been treated by our employer (Queen Mary University of London), in your blog. I would please urge you to continue to tweet and blog about our plight, and staff in other universities experiencing similarly horrific working conditions.

I am not threatened with redundancy by QMUL, and in fact my research is quite successful. Nevertheless, the last nine months have been the most stressful of all my years of academic life. The best of my colleagues in SBCS, QMUL are leaving already and I hope to leave, if I can find another job in London. 

Staff do indeed feel very unfairly treated, intimidated and bullied. I never thought a job at a university could come to this.
Thank you again for your support. It really does matter to the many of us who cannot really speak out openly at present.
Best regards,

 

In a later letter, the same person pointed out

"There are many of us who would like to speak more openly, but we simply cannot."

"I have mortgage . . . . Losing my job would probably mean losing my home too at this point."

"The plight of our female staff has not even been mentioned. We already had very few female staff. And with restructuring, female staff are more likely to be forced into teaching-only contracts or indeed fired"."

"total madness in the current climate – who would want to join us unless desperate for a job!"

“fuss about nothing” – absolutely not. It is potentially a perfect storm leading to teaching and research disaster for a university!  Already the reputation of our university has been greatly damaged. And senior staff keep blaming and targeting the “messengers"."

6 July 2012.

Througn the miracle of WiFi, this is coming from Newton, MA. The Lancet today has another editorial on the Queen Mary scandal.

"As hopeful scientists prepare their applications to QMUL, they should be aware that, behind the glossy advertising, a sometimes harsh, at times repressive, and disturbingly unforgiving culture awaits them."

That sums it up nicely.

24 July 2012. I’m reminded by Nature writer, Richard van Noorden (@Richvn) that Nature itself has wriiten at least twice about the iniquity of judging people by impact factors. In 2005 Not-so-deep impact said

"Only 50 out of the roughly 1,800 citable items published in those two years received more than 100 citations in 2004. The great majority of our papers received fewer than 20 citations."

"None of this would really matter very much, were it not for the unhealthy reliance on impact factors by administrators and researchers’ employers worldwide to assess the scientific quality of nations and institutions, and often even to judge individuals."

And, more recently, in Assessing assessment” (2010).

29 July 2012. Jonathan L Rees. of the University of Edinburgh, ends his blog:

"I wonder what career advice I should offer to a young doctor circa 2012. Apart from not taking a job at Queen Mary of course. "

How to select candidates

I have, at various times, been asked how I would select candidates for a job, if not by counting papers and impact factors. This is a slightly modified version of a comment that I left on a blog, which describes roughly what I’d advocate

After a pilot study the entire Research Excellence Framework (which attempts to assess the quality of research in every UK university) made the following statement.

“No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs”

It seems that the REF is paying attention to the science not to bibliometricians.

It has been the practice at UCL to ask people to nominate their best papers (2 -4 papers depending on age). We then read the papers and asked candidates hard questions about them (not least about the methods section). It’s a method that I learned a long time ago from Stephen Heinemann, a senior scientist at the Salk Institute. It’s often been surprising to learn how little some candidates know about the contents of papers which they themselves select as their best. One aim of this is to find out how much the candidate understands the principles of what they are doing, as opposed to following a recipe.

Of course we also seek the opinions of people who know the work, and preferably know the person. Written references have suffered so much from ‘grade inflation’ that they are often worthless, but a talk on the telephone to someone that knows both the work, and the candidate, can be useful, That, however, is now banned by HR who seem to feel that any knowledge of the candidate’s ability would lead to bias.

It is not true that use of metrics is universal and thank heavens for that. There are alternatives and we use them.

Incidentally, the reason that I have described the Queen Mary procedures as insane, brainless and dimwitted is because their aim to increase their ratings is likely to be frustrated. No person in their right mind would want to work for a place that treats its employees like that, if they had any other option. And it is very odd that their attempt to improve their REF rating uses criteria that have been explicitly ruled out by the REF. You can’t get more brainless than that.

This discussion has been interesting to me, if only because it shows how little bibliometricians understand how to get good science.

I was asked recently to write a reply to an article about "research managers" for the magazine Research Fortnight. This is a magazine that carries news of research and has a very useful list of potential research funding agencies.

The article to which I was asked to respond originally had the title “Researchers and Research Managers, a match made in heaven?“, before the subeditors got hold of it. It was written by Simon Kerridge, who is secretary of the Association for Research Managers and Administrators The printed version of his article can be downloaded here, and the printed version of my response here. My response, as submitted, is below with live links.

This invitation came at a strangely appropriate time, just at the moment that every university is having serious budget cuts, Well, here is a chance to make a good start on cutting out non-jobs..

Researchers and Research Managers: an imminent divorce?

David Colquhoun, UCL.

The web site of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators says it has 1600 individual members [1], but every scientist I have met is baffled about why they have suddenly sprung into existence.  The web site says “Our mission is to facilitate excellence in research by identifying and establishing best practice in research management and administration”.  I had to read that several times in an attempt to extract a meaning from the mangled bureaucratic prose.  “Our mission is to promote excellence in research”.  How can non-scientists with no experience of research possibly “promote excellence in research”?  They can’t, and that’s pretty obvious when you read the second half of the sentence.  They propose to improve science by promoting research management, i.e.  themselves.

res fortnight

Kerridge’s article didn’t help much either.  He seems to think that research managers are there to make that scientists fulfil “overall strategic aims of the University”.  In other words they are there to make sure that scientists obey the orders of non-scientists (or elderly ex-scientists) who claim to know what the future holds.  I can think of no better way to ruin the scientific reputation of a university and to stifle creativity.

We all appreciate good support.  We used to have a very helpful person in the department (not a ‘manager’) who could advise on some of the financial intricacies, but now it is run by a ‘manager’ it has been centralised, depersonalised and it is far less efficient.

The fact of the matter seems to be that “research managers” are just one more layer of hangers-on that have been inflicted on the academic enterprise during the time new labour was in power.  They are certainly not alone.  We have now have “research facilitators” and offshoots of HR running nonsense courses in things like Brain Gym [2].  All of these people claim they are there to support research.  They do no such thing.  They merely generate more paper work and more distraction from the job in hand.  Take a simple example.  At a time when there was a redundancy committee in existence to decide which academics should be fired in my own faculty, the HR department advertised two jobs (on near professorial salaries) for people trained in neurolinguistic programming (that is a well-known sort of pseudo-scientific psychobabble, but it’s big business [3]).

A quick look at what research managers actually do (in two research-intensive universities) shows that mostly they send emails that list funding agencies, and to forward emails you already had from someone else.  Almost all of it can be found more conveniently by a couple of minutes with Google.  Although they claim to reduce administrative work for scientists, it is usually quicker to do it yourself than to try to explain things to people who don’t understand the science.  They don’t save work, they make it.

One might well ask how it is that so much money has come to be spent on pseudo-jobs like “research managers”.  I can only guess that it is part of the ever-expanding tide of administrative junk that encumbers the work of people who are trying to do good creative science.  It also arises from the misapprehension, widespread among vice-chancellors, that you can get creative science by top down management of research by people who know little about it.

I’m reminded of the words of the “unrepentant capitalist”, Luke Johnson [4] (he was talking about HR but the words apply equally here).

“HR is like many parts of modern businesses: a simple expense, and a burden on the backs of the productive workers”,

“They don’t sell or produce: they consume. They are the amorphous support services”.

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

The dangers are illustrated by the report [5] of a paper by the professor of higher education management at Royal Holloway (yes, we already have a chair in this non-subject).  It seems that “Research "can no longer be left to the whims and fortunes of individual academics" “.  It must be left to people who don’t do research or understand it.  It’s hard to imagine any greater corruption of the academic enterprise.

Oddly enough, the dire financial situation brought about by incompetent and greedy bankers provides an opportunity for universities to shed the myriad hangers-on that have accreted round the business of research.  Savings will have to be made, and it’s obvious that they shouldn’t start with the people who do the teaching and research on which the reputation of the university depends.  With luck, it may not be too late to choke off the this new phenomenon before it chokes us. If you want research, spend money on people who do it, not those who talk about it.

 [1] Association of Research Managers and Administrators http://www.arma.ac.uk/about/

[2] When HR gets hold of academe, quackery and gobbledegook run riot. Times Higher Education 10 April 2008, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=401385  and expanded version at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=226

[3] What universities can do without. http://ucllifesciences.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/what-universities-can-do-without/

[4] Luke Johnson The Truth About the HR Department, Financial Times, Jnauary 30 2008 http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9e10714c-ced7-11dc-877a-000077b07658.html  and http://www.dcscience.net/?p=226

[5] Managers must be qualified to herd the academic cats. Times Higher Education 20 May 2010 http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=411643

 

Follow-up

A momentous decision was promulgated (as lawyers say) by the Information Tribunal on December 8th 2009.  It marks a step forward in Freedom of Information about how universities spend your money. It has taken 3.5 years to get to this point. Perhaps now there will be an end to the attempts of every single university that I’ve
approached to conceal what they teach.

Decision

"The Tribunal upholds the decision notice dated 30th. March, 2009, dismisses the appeal and directs that all the steps required by the Decision Notice be taken within 28 days of the date of this Decision"

Back story for this case

24th July 2006.  I asked the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) for copies of teaching materials and validation documents for their "BSc" degree in homeopathy (this degree no longer exists: it was abolished in 2008). A year later, UCLAN shut the rest of its courses in alternative medicine, after an internal review

21 August 2006. I was sent the validation documents but refused the teaching materials as UCLAN claimed they were exempt under section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)(commercial interests). Two days later I sent a request for the mandatory internal review of the refusal.

4th October 2006. The internal review confirmed the original decision (it always does), and cited, as well as section .43(2) of FOIA, section 21.

21 October 2006.  I appealed to the Information Commissioner.  The basis of the appeal was that the university might have financial interests in the outcome, but not commercial interests, because universities are not commercial organisations as defined in section 43(2) of the FOIA.  In addition, even if the commercial argument was not allowed, the public interest in knowing what was taught was sufficient to justify release of the requested materials.

21 January 2008.  The Information Commissioner finally got round to starting on the case.

29 September 2008  The vice-chancellor, Malcolm McVicar, raised an objection to complying with my request under s.36(2)(c) of FOIA. This states that “In the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act” “(c) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs..”

30 March 2009.  The decision of the Information Commissioner was published. It has already been described here.  Apart from one trivial matter, my appeal was upheld, and UCLAN was ordered to release the requested material within 35 days.  However UCLAN did not release the material, but rather launched an appeal against the Information Commissioner.  The appeal was heard by an Information Tribunal.

The full text of the Freedom of Information Act is here.

The Information Tribunal

The Tribunal heard the case of University of Central Lancashire v Information Commissioner in Manchester on November 3, 4 and 5.  I was an ‘additional party’ to the proceedings and attended in person for the first two days, with the aim of helping the Information Commissioner’s case. This is what the tribunal looked like.

Info tribunal

I was amazed to find myself sitting next to the barrister for the Information Commisioner, and still more amazed to be invited to cross-question the witnesses, after she had questioned them.

The witnesses were Malcom McVicar (vice-chancellor of UCLAN), Peter Hyett, (executive director of finance at UCLAN) and David Phoenix (Deputy vice-chancellor, UCLAN).

The outcome

The decision in full can be read here.

Decision

The Tribunal upholds the decision notice dated 30th. March, 2009, dismisses the appeal and directs that all the steps required by the Decision Notice be taken within 28 days of the date of this Decision.

So we won.

The details of the decision contain some matters of great interest for universities, in particular the dismissal of the idea that the public can be reassured by either internal or external (e.g. QAA) validation procedures. I’ll try to summarise them (paragraph numbering as in the decision
notice
).

Commercial interests

The one disappointing thing about the Tribunal’s decision was that it contradicted the Information Commissioner’s decision on the meaning of commercial interests.

31  "Therefore, whether on a broad or narrow construction of the statutory words, we are satisfied that UCLAN `s interests in teaching material produced for its degree courses are properly described as “commercial”.

However, that does not affect the outcome because the Tribunal decided that there was no reason to think that the course materials actually had the commercial value that UCLAN said they did.  For
example:

36  We were not impressed by the claim that third parties with copyright in the disclosed materials would be alienated by UCLAN `s compliance with a decision that this information must be provided. None gave evidence to that effect.

37 It was not clear to us how a competitor could significantly exploit access to this material, without infringing UCLAN `s copyright or brazenly aping the content of a course, which would surely attract the scorn of the wider academic community.  Moreover, it seemed to us likely that most potential students would be attracted to a particular course by the reputation of the teaching staff and a range of extra – curricular factors at least as much as by a comparative study of the powerpoint presentations and notes provided to current students.

and

39 Finally, in this particular case, we doubt whether this course had a significant commercial value, given the limited enrolment and the virtual absence of overseas interest.

At this point, the appeal is essentially dismissed.  Nevetheless, the Tribunal went on to discuss the other defences offered by UCLAN, and some of their conclusions are more interesting than the subtle distinction between ‘financial interests’ and ‘commercial interests’.

40 In the light of this finding, it is not strictly necessary to decide the balance of public interest as to disclosure.  Nevertheless, since the issue has been carefully and very fully argued, we shall shortly indicate our view, had the likelihood of prejudice been established. 

Public Interest

The commercial interest defence is subject to the public interest argument in s.1(2((b) of the FOIA’

(b) in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exclusion of the duty to confirm or deny outweighs the public interest in disclosing whether the public authority
holds the information.

Hence, the decision notice says

41 As ever, the question is whether the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the interest in disclosure.

On the question of public interest, the Tribunal comes down strongly on the side of the Commissioner and me.

46 The public interest in disclosure seems to us appreciably stronger. Apart from the universal arguments about transparency and the improvement of public awareness, we find that there are particular interests here, arising from the nature of a university and the way it is funded.

It is particularly interesting that the Tribunal dismissed the role of internal and external validation as a substitute for transparency.  As part of their case (para 18) UCLAN had argued

"Moreover, standards were ensured by the validation procedures which were required before a course was launched and which involved independent expert external monitors and by quality assurance (Q.A.A.) which demands a continuing compliance with national standards."

This cut no ice with the Tribunal.  In one of his few direct interjections the Tribunal Chairman, David Farrar Q.C., questioned a witness directly about the internal validation processes,  Evidently he was not impressed by the answers.  During my own cross questioning of the deputy vice-chancellor, I put to him the view that since the QAA [Quality Assurance Agency] was not allowed to take any notice of the content of courses, that getting a high mark from the QAA was not a substitute for seeing what was actually taught.  The deputy vice-chancellor did not seem to disagree strongly with that view.

47 First, the public has a legitimate interest in monitoring the content and the academic quality of a course, particularly a relatively new course in a new area of study, funded, to a very significant extent, by the taxpayer. It is no answer, we consider, to say that this function is performed by the process of validation or the continuing monitoring of standards with external input. Whether or not these processes are conducted with critical rigour, it must be open to those outside the academic community to question what is being taught and to what level in our universities. The apparent perception in some quarters that the intellectual demands of some or many degree courses have been relaxed, that higher classes of degree are too lightly earned, may be largely or entirely unfounded. But it is highly important that the material necessary to a fair judgement be available. That material will often, if not always, include the basic content of the course, such as is requested here.

48 Secondly, this is especially the case where, as with the BSc. (Homeopathy), there is significant public controversy as to the value of such study within a university. In this case, that factor standing alone would have persuaded us that the balance of public interest favoured disclosure.

49 We are not attracted by the somewhat patrician argument that the general public, uninstructed in the specialist subject under scrutiny, would be incapable of forming a proper judgement. That might be so, were it impossible to seek independent expertise to assist in making an assessment. Happily, it is not.

50 Finally, there is a public interest in opening up new methods of teaching and new insights as to the content of courses, so as to stimulate the spread of good practice.

So, a hands down win on the public interest argument.

Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs

I found incomprehensible the argument that disclosure would ‘prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs’. But it was raised (at the last minute) by UCLAN, and it was considered by the Tribunal. This defence refers to s.36(2)(c) of FOIA. It states that “In the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act” “(c) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs..”

As noted at paragraph 17, it is common ground, established as to (iii), by the jurisprudence of the Tribunal, that this exemption is engaged if three requirements are met. They can be shortly labelled

(i) qualified person

(ii) reasonable opinion

(iii) reasonably arrived at.

The Tribunal seemed to be distinctly unimpressed by the arguments presented by UCLAN.

56 A reasonable opinion may be one with which the Tribunal emphatically disagrees, provided it is based on sound argument and evidence. With great respect to Professor McVicar, whose sincerity is not in question, we can find no adequate evidential basis for this opinion and consider that it rests on two misconceptions as to the application of FOIA. We do not find that it passes the required test of objective reasonableness.

57 We considered separately whether the opinion was reasonably arrived at. Again, our answer is no.

58 Section 36 provides for an exceptional exemption which the public authority creates by its own action, albeit subject to scrutiny of its reasonableness, the likelihood of prejudice and the question of the public interest. That factor of itself justifies a requirement that the authority provide substantial evidence as to the advice (other than legal advice) and the arguments presented to the qualified person upon which his opinion was founded. We emphasise that no set formula is required,  just a simple clear record of the process.

59 The need for such evidence is all the greater where, as here, the authority invokes s.36 for the first time after the complaint to the IC [Information Commissioner].

60 The evidence consists of a briefly argued email from Dr. Bostock suggesting that s.36(2)(c) be invoked on the very broadly argued grounds already reviewed. The tone implicitly acknowledges that the claim is rather speculative. We are not concerned with the slightly uncertain use of possibility and likely but the impression left is of a last  minute idea, not really thought through or investigated
but merely discussed with solicitors to tie it in to the FOIA. It was sent to the Vice  Chancellor at 3.20pm. on a Friday afternoon, 26th. September, 2008, asking for the Vice  Chancellor’s agreement. That agreement was forthcoming in a single sentence without further comment in an email reply timed at 12.05pm.on the following Monday.

61 We find that the process of forming the necessary opinion was, to say the least, perfunctory, indeed far short of the careful assessment and investigation that normally supports a qualified opinion for the purposes of s.36.

62 Accordingly, we do not find that it was reasonably arrived at.

Conclusion

62 It is for these reasons that we uphold the Decision Notice. We record our gratitude for the helpful and succinct submissions of counsel on both sides and the incisive contribution of Professor Colquhoun. We wish to add that, whilst we have not accepted the great majority of the arguments advanced by UCLAN, we do not in any way seek to cast doubt on the veracity of the evidence of its witnesses, nor the honesty and loyalty with which they have sought to serve its interests.

63 Our decision is unanimous.

Signed David Farrar Q.C.

 

Watch this space to see what can now be revealed.

Follow-up

It seems very reasonable to suggest that taxpayers have an interest in knowing what is taught in universities.  The recent Pittilo report suggested that degrees should be mandatory in Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine. So it seems natural to ask to see what is actually taught in these degrees, so one can judge whether it protects the public or endangers them.

Since universities in the UK receive a great deal of public money, it’s easy.  Just request the material under the Freedom of Information Act.

Well, uh, it isn’t as simple as that. 

Every single application that I have made has been refused.  After three years of trying, the Information Commissioner eventually supported my appeal to see teaching materials from the Homeopathy "BSc" at the University of Central Lancashire.  He ruled that every single objection (apart from one trivial one) offered by the universities was invalid.  In particular, it was ruled that univerities were not "commercial" organisations for the purposes of the Act.

So problem solved?  Not a bit of it.  I still haven’t seen any of the materials from the original request because the University of Central Lancashire appealed against the decision and the case of University of Central Lancashire v Information Commissioner is due to be heard on November 3rd, 4th and 5th in Manchester. I’m joined (as lawyers say) as a witness. Watch this space.

UCLan  is not the exception.  It is the rule.  I have sought under the Freedom of Information Act, teaching materials from UClan (homeopathy), University of Salford (homeopathy, reflexology and nutritional therapy), University of Westminster (homeopathy, reflexology and nutritional therapy), University of West of England, University of Plymouth and University of East London, University of Wales (chiropractic and nutritional therapy), Robert Gordon University Aberdeen (homeopathy), Napier University  Edinburgh (herbalism).

In every single case, the request for teaching materials has been refused. And that includes the last three, which were submitted after the decision of the Information Commissioner.  They will send things like course validation documents, but these are utterly uninformative box-ticking documents.  They say nothing whatsoever about what is actually taught.

The fact that I have been able to discover quite a lot about what’s being taught owes nothing whatsoever to the Freedom of Information Act. It is due entirely to the many honest individuals who have sent me teaching materials, often anonymously. We should be grateful to them. Their principles are rather more impressive than those of their principals.

Since this started about three years ago, two of the universities, UCLan and Salford, have shut down entry to all of their CAM courses. And Westminster has shut two of them, with more rumoured to be closing soon. They are to be congratulated for that, but is far from being the end of the matter. The Department of Health, and some of the Royal Colleges, have yet to catch up with the universities, The Pittolo report, which recommends making degrees compulsory, is being considered by the Department of Health. The consultation ends on November 2nd:  if you haven’t yet responded, please do so now (see how here, and here).

A common excuse: the university does not possess teaching materials (yes, really)

Several of the universities claim that they cannot send teaching materials, because they have no access to them. This happens when the university has accredited a course that is run by another, privately run, institution. The place that does the actual teaching, being private, is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

The ludicrous corollary of this excuse is that the university has accredited the course without checking on what is taught, and in some cases without even having seen a timetable.

The University of Wales

In fact the University of Wales doesn’t run courses at all. Like the (near moribund) University of London, it acts as a degree-awarding authority for a lot of Welsh Universities. It also validates a lot of courses in non-university institutions, 34 or so of them in the UK, and others scattered round the world. 

Many of them are theological colleges. It does seem a bit odd that St Petersburg Christian University, Russia, and International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, should be accredited by the University of Wales.

They also validate the International Academy of Osteopathy, Ghent (Belgium), Osteopathie Schule Deutschland,  the Istituto Superiore Di Osteopatia, Milan,  the Instituto Superior De Medicinas Tradicionales, Barcelona, the Skandinaviska Osteopathögskolan (SKOS) Gothenburg, Sweden and the College D’Etudes Osteopathiques, Canada.

The 34 UK institutions include the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine,  the Northern College of Acupuncture and the Mctimoney College of Chiropractic.

The case of the Nutritional Therapy course has been described already in Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy. It emerged that the course was run by a grade 1 new-age fantasist. It is worth recapitulating the follow up.

What does the University of Wales say? So far, nothing. Last week I sent brief and polite emails to Professor Palastanga and to

Professor Clement to try to discover whether it is true that the validation process had indeed missed the fact that the course organiser’s writings had been described as “preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense” in the Guardian.

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

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



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

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

Incidentally, Professor Nigel Palastanga has now been made Pro Vice-Chancellor (Quality) at the University of Wales and publishes bulletins on quality control. Well well.

The McTimoney College of Chiropractic was the subject of my next  Freedom of Information request to the University of Wales. The reasons for that are, I guess, obvious. They sent me hundreds of pages of validation documents, Student Handbooks (approx 50 pages), BSc (Hons) Chiropractic Course Document. And so on. Reams of it. The documents mostly are in the range of 40 to 100 pages. Tons of paper, but none of it tells you anyhing whatsover of interest about what’s being taught. They are a testament to the ability of universities to produce endless vacuous prose with
very litlle content.

They did give me enough information to ask for a sample of the teaching materials on particular topics. But I gor blank refusal, on the grounds that they didn’t possess them. Only McTimoney had them. Their (unusually helpful) Freedom of Information officer replied thus.

“The University is entirely clear about the content of the course but the day to day timetabling of teaching sessions is a matter for the institution rather than the University and we do not require or possess timetable information. The Act does not oblige us to request the information but there is no reason you should not approach McTimoney directly on this.”

So the university doesn’t know the timetable. It doesn’t know what is taught in lectures, but it is " entirely clear about the content of the course".

This response can be described only as truly pathetic.

Either this is a laughably crude form of obstruction of my request, or perhaps, even more frighteningly, the university really believes that its endless box-ticking documents actually provide some useful control of quality. Perhaps the latter interpretation is more charitable. After all, the QAA, CHRE, UUK and every HR department share similar delusions about what constitutes quality.

Perhaps it is just yet another consequence of having science run largely by people who have never done it and don’t understand it.

Validation is a business. The University of Wales validates no fewer than 11,675 courses altogether. Many of these are perfectly ordinary courses in universities in Wales, but they validate 594 courses at non-Welsh accredited institutions, an activity that earned them £5,440,765 in the financial year 2007/8. There’s nothing wrong with that if they did the job properly. In the two cases I’ve looked at, they haven’t done the job properly. They have ticked boxes but they have not looked at what’s being taught or who is teaching it.

The University of Kingston

The University of Kingston offers a “BSc (Hons)” in acupuncture. In view of the fact that the Pittilo group has recommended degrees in acupuncture, there is enormous public interest in what is taught in such degrees, so I asked.

They sent the usual boring validation documents and a couple of sample exam papers . The questions were very clinical, and quite beyond the training of acupuncturists.  The validation was done by a panel of three, Dr Larry Roberts (Chair, Director of Academic Development, Kingston University), Mr Roger Hill (Accreditation Officer, British Acupuncture Accreditation Board) and Ms Celia Tudor-Evans (Acupuncturist, College of Traditional Acupuncture, Leamington Spa).   So nobody with any scientific expertise, and not a word of criticism.

Further to your recent request for information I am writing to advise that the University does not hold the following requested information:

(1) Lecture handouts/notes and powerpoint presentations for the following sessions, mentioned in Template 3rd year weekend and weekday course v26Aug2009_LRE1.pdf

(a) Skills 17: Representational systems + Colour & Sound ex. Tongue feedback 11

(b) Mental Disease + Epilepsy Pulse feedback 21

(c) 18 Auricular Acupuncture

(d) Intro. to Guasha + practice Cupping, moxa practice Tongue feedback 14

(2) I cannot see where the students are taught about research methods and statistics. I would like to see Lecture handouts/notes and PowerPoint presentations for teaching in this area, but the ‘timetables’ that you sent don’t make clear when or if it is taught.

The BSc Acupuncture is delivered by a partner college, the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine (CICM), with Kingston University providing validation only. As such, the University does not hold copies of the teaching materials used on this course. In order to obtain copies of the teaching materials required you may wish to contact the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine directly.

This completes the University’s response to your information request.

So again we see that Kingston has validated the course but has not seen a timetable, far less what is taught.  My reply was thus

Yes I am exceedingly unhappy about it.  The university attaches its name to the course so it must obviously be able to get the material simply by asking for it (I’m surprised that the university should endorse a course without knowing what is taught on it, but that’s another matter).

I request formally that you obtain this material.  If necessary please read this as a formal appeal.

I await with interest. In every single case so far, the internal review has merely confirmed the initial refusal.  It means a bit of a delay before the case goes to the Information Commisssioner’s Office.

Napier University Edinburgh

Napier University runs a "BSc (Hons) Herbal medicine". (brochure here).  Since herbal medicine is a subject of the Pittilo recommendations, there is enormous public interest in what they teach. So I asked, under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (2002).  They sent quite quickly validation and accreditation documents, some examination papers, timetables and lecture lists.

The validation was the usual vacuous box-ticking stuff though it did reveal that the course “made extensive use of techniques such as tongue and pulse diagnosis”, which are well known phoney diagnosis methods, about as much use as a pendulum (as used at Westminster University).

As at Kingston University, the exam papers they chose to send were mostly "pretend doctor" stuff. One of them was

Discuss the herbal practitioner’s role in the management of IHD [ischaemic heart disease)

How one would like to see what the students said, and, even more one would like to see the model answer.  Amateurs who try to treat potentially serious conditions are a danger to the public.

So then we got to the interesting bit, the request for actual teaching materials.

I have looked at the material that you sent and I’d now like to make the following supplementary request

(A) Lecture notes/handouts and powerpoint slides for the following small smaple of lectures

HRB09102 Materia Medica 4
(1) Zingiber officinalis, Eleutherococcus senticosus, Valeriana officinalis
(2) Gelsemium sempervirens, Cimicifuga racemosa, Datura stramonium, Piscidia erythrina
(3) Betula pendula, Capsella bursa-pastoris, Ephedra sinica, Solidago virgaurea

Materia Medica 3 HRB08103
(1) Cardiovascular system
(2) Nervous system

Clinical Medicine and Diagnosis 4 (HRB09104)
(1) Neuro-sensory deficits, paraesthesiae, head pain

HRB09100 Materia Medica & Herbal Practice
Week 7  Compiling a therapeutic plan and prescription building

BSc Herbal Medicine : Materia Medica HRB07102
Week 3   History of Herbal Medicine Gothean tasting session
Week 10  Energetics  the basic concepts Ayurveda

Lastly, I can see nowhere in the timetable, lectures that deal with

Research methods, clinical trial design and statistics.
If such lectures exist, please send notes and powerpoints for them too

No prizes for guessing the result   Total refusal to send any of them.  To make matters worse, the main grounds for refusal were the very "commercial interests" which, after careful legal examination, the Information Commissioner (for England and Wales) had decided were invalid.  They say too that "The public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in its release".. It is hard to see how the public interest is served by concealing from the people who pay for the degrees what is taught on degrees that Pittilo wants to make compulsory. [Download the whole response]

The matter is now under internal appeal (read the appeal) and eventually we shall find out whether the Scottish Information Commissioner backs the judgement.

Robert Gordon University Aberdeen

This case has particular interest because the Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University is Professor Michael Pittilo, chair of the highly contentious steering group that recommended degress in CAM.  Robert Gordon University (RGU) does not teach herbal medicine or acupuncture. But they do run An Introduction to Homeopathy. All the degrees in homeopathy have closed. It is perhaps the daftest and most discredited of all the popular forms of Magic Medicine.  But Professor Pittilo thinks it is an appropriate subject to teach in his university.

So again I asked for information under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. They sent me quite quckly a list of the powerpoint presentations used on the courses [download it]. I asked for a small sample of the powerpoints.  And again the university did not possess them!

I should like to see only the following three powerpoint presentations in the first instance, please.

Please can you let me know also who produced the powerpoints.

(1) Evidence for homeopathy
(2) First aid remedies
(3) Allergies

I note that you will have to request them but since they are being offered as part of a course offered by RGU, so RGU is responsible for their quality, I presume that this should cause no problem.

The request was refused on much the same grounds as used by Napier University.  As usual, the internal review just confirmed the initial proposal (but dropped the obviously ludicrous public interest defence).  The internal review said

“it is mainly the quality of our courses (including course material) and teaching which has given us the position of "the best modern university in Scotland"

I am bound to ask, if the university is so proud of its course material, why is it expending so much time and money to prevent anyone from seeing a small sample of it?

My appeal has been sent to the Scottish Information Commissioner [download the appeal].

What are vice-chancellors thinking about?

I find it very difficult to imagine what is going through the heads of vice-chancellors who run courses in mumbo-jumbo.   Most of them don’t believe a word of it (though Michael Pittilo might be an exception) yet they foist it on their students. How do they sleep at night?

Recently the excellent Joe Collier wrote a nice BMJ blog which applauded the lack of respect for authority in today’s students, Joe Collier says good riddance to old-fashioned respect. I couldn’t resist leaving a comment.

I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing quite so unnerving as being addressed as “Sir”.

It is an advantage of age that you realise what second-rate people come to occupy very grand positions. Still odder since, if occasionally they are removed for incompetence, they usually move to an even grander position.

I guess that when I was an undergraduate, I found vice-chancellors somewhat imposing. That is, by and large, not a view that survives closer acquaintance.

Should teaching materials be open to the public?

There is only one university in the world that has, as a matter of policy, made all of its teaching material open to the public,  that is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  I can recommend strongly course 18.06, a wonderful set of lectures on Linear Algebra by Gilbert Strang.  (It is also a wonderful demonstration of why blackboards may be better than Powerpoint for subjects like this). Now they are on YouTube too.

A lot of other places have made small moves in the same direction, as discussed recently in Times Higher Education, Get it Out in the Open

Now the OU is working with other British universities to help them develop and share open course materials. In June, at the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the OU, Gordon Brown announced funding to establish the Support Centre for Open Resources in Education at the OU, as part of a £7.8 million grant designed to enhance the university’s national role.

The funding follows a separate grant of £5.7 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for universities across the sector to make thousands of hours of free learning materials available. 

Much material is available on the web, when individual teachers choose to place it there, but at the same time there is a move in the other direction. In particular, the widespread adoption of Moodle has resulted in a big decrease in openness. Usually you have to be registered on a course to see the material. Even other people in the university can’t see it. I think that is a deplorable development (so, presumably, does HEFCE).

Conclusion

I was told by the Univerity of Kingston that

“The course is one which the University has validated and continues to be subject to the University’s quality assurance procedures, such as internal subject reviews, annual monitoring and external examining”

The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that “quality arrurance procedures” work about as well in universities as they did in the case of baby Peter. No doubt they were introduced with worthy aims. But in practice they occupy vast amounts of time for armies of bureaucrats, and because the brain does not need to be engaged they end up endorsing utter nonsenes. The system is broken.

Resistance is futile.  You can see a lot of the stuff here

It is hard to keep secrets in the internet age. Thanks to many wonderful people who have sent me material. you can see plenty of what is taught, despite the desperate attempts of vice-chancellors to conceal it.  Try these links.

What is actually taught

Chinese medicine -acupuncture gobbledygook revealed
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1950

Consultation opens on the Pittilo report: help top stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself 
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2007

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients 
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2043

More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time its Naturopathy
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1812
 
The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University.
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1329
 
The opposite of science
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1191
 
Bad medicine. Barts sinks further into the endarkenment.
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1143
 
A letter to the Times, and progress at Westminster
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=984
 
Nutritional Fairy Tales from Thames Valley University
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=260
 
Westminster University BSc: amethysts emit high yin energy
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=227
 

References for Pittilo report consultation
 
A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=235

The Times (blame subeditor for the horrid title)
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article4628938.ece

Some follow up on the Times piece
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=251

The Health Professions Council breaks its own rules: the result is nonsense
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1284

One month to stop the Department of Health endorsing quackery.  The Pittilo questionnaire,
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2310

An excellent submission to the consultation on statutory regulation of alternative medicine (Pittilo report) 
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2329

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

Now back to the Ed Biz, for a moment.  An article in Times Higher Education last week caused something of a stir.

V-cs’ candid views slip out online. 2 July 2009 By Zöe Corbyn
Prematurely released paper reveals fears of staff revolution and desire to cash in, writes Zöe Corbyn

The article refers to a paper that appeared on the web site of the journal Higher Education Quarterly. It is Perspectives of UK Vice-Chancellors on Leading Universities in a Knowledge-Based Economy by Lynn Bosetti, University of Calgary, and Keith Walker, University of Saskatchewan. The paper quotes ten different university vice-chancellors (presidents) of UK universities. Some of the comments caused quite a stir when they were quoted anonymously in an article in Times Higher Education. But the paper soon vanished and still has not reappeared. A version that lacks some of the names is expected to appear soon. The original uncensored version has now appeared on Wikileaks. Its source is no great mystery since it was available to the public for a short time.  It seems a pity if vice-chancellors want to hide their views, so here are a few quotations from the original version.

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Colin Lucas, cautions:

“One of the greatest distortions is this sense that the only thing that universities are for, is to drive the economy. The core mission of universities is threatened by a narrow value system.”

Steven Schwartz was vice-chancellor of Brunel University until February 2006 when he became Vice Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He’s quoted as saying

We all know that education is a commodity that can be bought and sold, often at a very high price. So universities are busy doing that – charging students a large amount of money to study in England because it is a popular destination. Branding and marketing take the font seat and education is in the back. (S. Schwartz, Brunel University)

Reflecting on the traditional role of the university, the Vice-Chancellor of University of Oxford, Colin Lucas, is concerned that

“commodification threatens to destroy not only scholarly democracy but civilisation itself.”

“The vice-chancellor needs to have a network of people involved in ‘intelligence gathering’ to be able to swiftly deal with ‘even the faintest hint of a revolution’ (S. Schwartz, Brunel University)”

That sounds a bit like the secret police and their network of informers. Hardly a good way to get the loyalty of your staff.

“you have to lead with flow and authority.You can never be out of touch with what faculty are thinking . . . if in the end faculty don’t follow you, it isn’t because they are stupid, it’s because you are out of touch’ (S. Schwartz)”

And that seems to say that you need to know how faculty think, not in order to listen to their views, but only to know how to beat them. Perhaps it has never occurred to Steven Schwartz that he might, just occasionally, be wrong?

Drummond Bone succeeded Howard Newby (of whom more here) as vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool. he also seems to regard the drive to corporatisation of univeristies as a war against his own staff.

“You need to start by setting the agenda for change, then you have to look at who is going to be a driver or champion of that change, who is going to be a passenger and who, quite frankly, is going to stand against it’ (J. Drummond Bone)”.

Steven Schwartz again.

“we filled our senior management positions with people who had never worked in universities before. The HR [human relations] person came from mining, another from banking. It’s probably made a big difference to Brunel and its ability to move, in that people aren’t weighted down with a lot of public service type history.”

This attitude seems to me to be at the heart of the problem. it is based on a mistaken idea of what it is that gives a university a good reputation. The reputation, at least in academia, is the sum of the reputations of eminent people who work there, Physiologists will think of Bernard Katz and Andrew Huxley. Pharmacologists will think of Heinz Schild and James Black, People in English literature may never have heard of them, but they will think of John Sutherland and Rosemary Ashton, Each of them gives UCL a bit of reflected glory..But nobody will think about our Public Relations attempts at corporate image building. The only way to have a great university is to have great people doing the research and teaching. Anything that makes a university unattractive to them will, in the long run, harm the place. And one thing that makes a university unattractive is the perception that it is run by people who view it as a business, and who know nothing about what makes the place great. The sort of people whom Steven Schwartz seems to have gone out of his way to employ.

I was asked recently by the head of media relations to answer some questions about UCL’s attempts to build its “corporate identity” (nice to be asked, for a change). My answer was that I though they probably did more harm than good. The reason for saying that is that they are, only too often, downright embarrassing. I’ve mentioned the examples of ‘sustainable degrees‘, the concordat fiasco and ‘research days‘. And the new-age junk forced on our research staff by Human Resources is acutely embarrassing. Luckily for UCL, all universities have pursued this corporate path, so there is nowhere to run to,

The general public, having lived through the Blair era, is able to detect vacuous spin when it hears it. And there is no shortage of that in universities now. The aim of science is to discover truth. The aim of PR is to disguise truth, They are utterly incompatible. In the words of the “unrepentant capitalist” Luke Johnson, in the Financial Times,

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

Another way to dismepower academics Steven Schwartz, with his spy network, is quite excessively conspiritorial. There is a much easier way to do it, You have a consultation. You hold open “town meetings”. The opposition then reveal themselves. Having taken the precaution of neutering the academic board, you are under no obligation to take the slightest notice of what anyone else says, and public humiliation of opponents will ensure there aren’t too many of them. I have seen this plan in action. It works rather well, in the short run.   In the long run, though, academics lose morale, loyalty and altruism when treated in that way. Vice-chancellors who behave like that are bringing their institution into disrepute.

This was poeted from the train to Edinburgh,where I’ll be giving the Paton lecture, on a related topics.

Follow-up

The modified paper has now been published in Higher Education Quarterly. And, guess what, Steven Schwartz’s name is not mentioned in it.

Here is a short break from the astonishing festival of chiropractic that has followed the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) v Simon Singh defamation case, and the absurd NICE guidance on low back pain.

Singh’s statement already has over 10000 signatories, many very distinguished, Sign it now if you haven’t already. And getting on for 600 separate complaints about exaggerated and false claims by chiropractors have been lodged with the General Chiropractic Council and with Trading Standards offices.

free debate
Click to sign

The BCA has exposed the baselessness of most of chiropractic’s claims more effectively than any sceptic could have done.

The University of Westminster is seeing the light?

It is only recently that the University of Westminster suspended entry to degrees in homeopathy and remedial massage and neuromuscular therapy.  Luckily for science, they have a new Dean who knows bullshit when she sees it.  I suspect than she has been instrumental in starting to restore Westminster’s reputation.  The job isn’t finished yet though.  According to the UCAS site Westminster still offers

  • Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture with Foundation (B341) 4FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Complementary Ther with Foundn (B300) 4FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Complementary Therapies (B255) 3FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Herbal Medicine (B342) 3FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Herbal Medicine with Foundation (B340) 4FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Naturopathy (B391) 3FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Naturopathy with Foundation (B392) 4FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Nutritional Therapy (B400) 3FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Nutritional Therapy with Foundn (B402) 4FT Hon BSc

With the possible exception of herbal medicine, which could be taught scientifically. all the rest is as delusional as homeopathy.

Rumour has it that Naturopathy may be next for the chop, so it seems appropriate to help the dean by showing a bit more of what the hapless students get taught.  Remember that, according to Westminster, this is a bachelor of science degree!

Psychotherapeutic Approaches in Naturopathy 3CMW606

“This module is a core subject for BSc (Hons) Health Sciences: Naturopathy and option for BSc (Hons) Health Sciences: Complementary Therapies; BSc (Hons) Health Sciences: Therapeutic Bodywork; Graduate Diploma in Therapeutic Bodywork.”

Lectures 3 – 5 of this course are about the Theory and Application of EmoTrance.

EMOTRANCE?  No I had never heard of it either. But it takes only two minutes with Google to discover that it yet another product of the enormous navel-gazing self-help industry. A new variant is born almost every day, and no doubt they make buckets of money for their inventors.  You can download a primer from http://emotrance.com/. The web site announces.

“EmoTrance REAL energy healing for the 21st Century”

Here are three quotations from the primer.

And then I thought of the lady in the supermarket whose husband had died, and I spend the following time sending her my best wishes, and my best space time quantum healing efforts for her void.

It doesn’t matter how “bad”; something is or how old, it is ONLY AN ENERGY and energy can be moved with consciousness in quantum time, easily, and just for the asking.

Is EmoTrance a Science?
Yes! But only if you can accept that all living creatures have an energetic/emotional system. Once you make that leap then EmoTrance is completely logical and just makes sense. Like all great discoveries, EmoTrance is simple, natural and you might find you have always been aware of these processes subconsciously.

Now back to Westminster

Here are a few slides about EmoTrance

day 2 slide 2 day 2 slide 3
day 2 slide 13 day 3 slide 9

So it is pure vitalistic psycho-babble. The usual undefined use of impressive sounding words like “energy” and “quantum” with no defined meaning. Just preposterous made-up gobbledygook. 

Before getting to EmoTrance, the course Psychotherapeutic Approaches in Naturopathy (3CMW606) had a lecture on Flower Essences. The evidence says, not surprisingly, that the effects of flower essences is not distinguishable from placebo “The hypothesis that flower remedies are associated with effects beyond a placebo response is not supported by data from rigorous clinical trials.” (See Ernst Wien. Klin. Wochenschr. 2002 114(23-24):963-6).  Here are two of the slides.

slide 19

 

slide 4

This last slide departs from the simply silly  to the totally mad.  Dowsing?  Kinesiology? 

Pendulums I’m told from more than one source that the use of pendulums is not uncommon. both in teaching and by students in the Westminster University polyclinic  Apparently they provide an excellent way to choose a ‘remedy’ or make a diagnosis (well, I expect they are as good as the alternatives). If in doubt, guess.

Of course pendulums were popular with Cherie Blair who is reported to have taken her son Leo to a pendulum waver, Jack Temple, rather than have him vaccinated with MMR.  At least her delusions affected fewer people than those of her husband (the latest Iraq body count is about 100,000).

Kinesiology was originally a word that applied to the perfectly sensible science of human movement.  But Applied Kinesiology more often refers now to a fraudulent and totally ineffective diagnostic method invented by (you guessed) a chiropractor.   It has been widely used by alternative medicine to misdiagnose food allergies. It does not work (Garrow, 1988: download reprint).

General Chiropractic Council  It is a mind-boggling sign of the incompetence of the General Chiropractic Council that they manage to include kinesiology within their definition of “evidence based care”. Their definition is clearly sufficiently flexible to include anything whatsoever.  The incompetence of the GCC is documented in superb detail on jdc325’s blog (James Cole).

Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) is yet another example of the network of ineffective and incompetent quangos that plague us.. It is meant to ensure that regulation is effective but utterly fails to do so. The CHRE is quoted as saying “[The GCC] takes its role seriously and aspires to, and often maintains, excellence.”. Like endorsing kinesiology and ‘craniosacral therapy’ perhaps? Quangos like the CHRE not only fail to ensure regulatory excellence, they actually endorse rubbish. They do more harm than good.

The reading list for the course includes the following books.  I guess the vibrational medicine (whatever that means) was covered already in the now infamous ‘amethysts emit high yin energy‘ lectures.

Reading List
Essential:
Hartman S (2003) Oceans of Energy: The Patterns and Techniques of EmoTrance: Vol 1.DragonRising. ISBN: 1873483732.
Lynch V and Lynch P (2001) Emotional Healing in Minutes. Thorsons: London. ISBN: 0007112580

Recommended:
Gerber R (2001) Vibrational Medicine for the 21st Century. Piatkus Publishers: London.
Gurudas (1989) Flower Essences and Vibrational Medicine. Cassandra Press: California, USA
Hartman S (2000) Adventures in EFT: The Essential Field Guide to Emotional Freedom Techniques. DragonRising. ISBN: 1873483635.
Hartman S (2004) Living Energy: The Patterns and Techniques of EmoTrance: Vol 2. DragonRising.ISBN: 1873483740.
Hartman S (2006) Energy Magic: The Patterns and Techniques of EmoTrance: Vol 3. Dragon Rising.ISBN: 1873483767.

Real magic.

Sylvia Hartman’s books seem to feature heavily in the reading list. I just got news of her latest effort

Welcome to a special update to the June 2009 newsletter to announce Silvia Hartmann’s latest book “Magic, Spells & Potions” is now available to pre-order from our site. The eBook edition will be released this Sunday, the most magical day of the year.

http://DragonRising.com/store/magic_spells_and_potions/?r=DR0609MSAP

If you do pre-order this exciting new book, not only will you be amongst the first to receive your copy, but you will also be entered into an exciting competition for Silvia Hartmann’s handmade copal amber magic pendant. Each paperback book pre-ordered will also be signed by the author and contain a unique blessing for the reader.

Because this is a serious book on real magic, potions and fortune telling if you are a beginner Silvia has provided ample sample spells and potions for you to practice working with before you start covering the advanced material.

What? No honestly, I didn’t invent that.

The idea that stuff of this sort is appropriate for a bachelor of science degree is simply ludicrous.  I have no doubt that Westminster’s new dean can see that as well as anyone else. She has the delicate diplomatic job of extirpating the nonsense,  I wish her well.

Follow-up

Des Spence, a general practitioner in Glasgow, has revealed a memorandum that was allegedly leaked from the Department of Health. It was published in the Britsh Medical Journal (17 June 2009, doi:10.1136/bmj.b2466, BMJ 2009;338:b2466). It seemed to me to deserve wider publicity, so with the author’s permission, I reproduce it here. It may also provide a suitable introduction to a forthcoming analysis of a staff survey.

Re: The use of ‘note pads’ in the NHS and allied service based agencies.

Hi, all care providers, managers of care, care managers, professions allied to care providers, carers’ carers, and stakeholders whose care is in our care. (And a big shout to all those service users who know me.)

We report the findings from a quality based review, with a strong strategic overview, on the use of “note pads” across all service user interfaces. This involved extensive consultation with focus groups and key stakeholders at blue sky thinking events (previously erroneously known as brain storming). This quality assured activity has precipitated some heavy idea showers, allowing opinion leaders to generate a national framework of joined-up thinking. This will take this important quality agenda forward. A 1000 page report is available to cascade to all relevant stakeholders.

The concentric themes underpinning this review are of confidentiality. Notes have been found on the visual interface devices on computers and writing workstations throughout the NHS work space. Although no actual breach of confidentiality has been reported, the independent external consultants reported that note pads “present a clear and present danger” to the NHS, and therefore there is an overarching responsibility to protect service users from scribbled messages in felt tip pen. Accordingly all types of note pads will be phased out in the near time continuum. A validated algorithm is also attached to aid this process going forward.

This modernising framework must deliver a paradigm shift in the use of note pads. Care provider leaders must employ all their influencing and leverage talents to win the hearts and minds of the early adopter. A holistic cradle to grave approach is needed, with ownership being key, and with a 360 degree rethink of the old think. All remaining note pads must be handed over in the next four week ” note pad armistice” to be shredded by a facilitator (who is currently undergoing specialist training) and who will sign off and complete the audit trail.

(Please note that the NHS’s email system blocks all attachments, so glossy, sustainable, wood based hard copies will be sent directly to everyone’s waste recycling receptacles.)

Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2466


Spence added a footnote, Note: The BMJ’s lawyers have insisted that I make it clear that this is a spoof, just in case you were wondering.

 

Here are a few more

There is an initiative underway to determine what we do as an organisation in the realms of drug discovery. The intention is to identify internal and appropriate external capabilities to foster a pipeline of competencies that enable some of our basic research outputs to better impact healthcare.

Follow-up

First the MHRA lets down the public by allowing deceptive labelling of sugar pills (see here, and this this blog). Now it is the turn of NICE to betray its own principles.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) describes its job thus

“NICE is an independent organisation responsible for providing national guidance on promoting good health and preventing and treating ill health.”

Its Guidance document on Low Back Pain will be published on Wednesday 27 May 2009, but the newspapers have already started to comment, presumably on the assumption that it will have changed little from the Draft Guidance of September 2008. These comments may have to be changed as soon as the final version becomes available.

The draft guidance, though mostly sensible, has two recommendations that I believe to be wrong and dangerous. The recommendations include (page 7) these three.

  • Consider offering a course of manual therapy including spinal manipulation of up to 9 sessions over up to 12 weeks.
  • Consider offering a course of acupuncture needling comprising up to 10 sessions over a period of up to 12 weeks.
  • Consider offering a structured exercise programme tailored to the individual.

All three of this options are accompanied by a footnote that reads thus.

“A choice of any of these therapies may be offered, taking into account patient preference.”

On the face if it, this might seem quite reasonable. All three choices seem to be about as effective (or ineffective) as each other, so why not let patients choose between them?

Actually there are very good reasons, but NICE does not seem to have thought about them. In the past I have had a high opinion of NICE but it seems that even they are now getting bogged down in the morass of political correctness and officialdom that is the curse of the Department of Health. It is yet another example of DC’s rule number one.

Never trust anyone who uses the word ‘stakeholder’.

They do use it, often.

So what is so wrong?

For a start, I take it that the reference to “spinal manipulation” in the first recommendation is a rather cowardly allusion to chiropractic. Why not say so, if that’s whar you mean? Chiropractic is mentioned in the rest of the report but the word doesn’t seem to occur in the recommendations. Is NICE perhaps nervous that it would reduce the credibility of the report if the word chiropractic were said out loud?

Well, they have a point, I suppose. It would.

That aside, here’s what’s wrong.

The Evidence

I take as my premise that the evidence says that no manipulative therapy has any great advantage over the others.  They are all more or less equally effective.  Perhaps I should say, more or less equally ineffective, because anyone who claims to have the answer to low back pain is clearly deluded (and I should know: nobody has fixed mine yet).  So for effectiveness there are no good grounds to choose between exercise, physiotherapy, acupuncture or chiropractic.  There is, though, an enormous cultural difference.  Acupuncture and chiropractic are firmly in the realm of alternative medicine.  They both invoke all sorts of new-age nonsense for which there isn’t the slightest good evidence. That may not poison your body, but it certainly poisons your mind.

Acupuncturists talk about about “Qi”, “meridians”, “energy flows”. The fact that “sham” and “real” acupuncture consistently come out indistinguishable is surely all the evidence one needs to dismiss such nonsense. Indeed there is a small group of medical acupuncturists who do dismiss it. Most don’t. As always in irrational subjects, acupuncture is riven by internecine strife between groups who differ in the extent of their mystical tendencies,

Chiropractors talk of “subluxations”, an entirely imaginary phenomenon (but a cause of much unnecessary exposure to X-rays). Many talk of quasi-religious things like “innate energy”. And Chiropractic is even more riven by competing factions than acupuncture. See, for example, Chiropractic wars Part 3: internecine conflict.

The bait and switch trick

This is the basic trick used by ‘alternative therapists’ to gain respectability.

There is a superb essay on it by the excellent Yale neurologist Steven Novella: The Bait and Switch of Unscientific Medicine. The trick is to offer some limited and reasonable treatment (like back manipulation for low back pain).  This, it seems, is sufficient to satisfy NICE.  But then, once you are in the showroom, you can be exposed to all sorts of other nonsense about “subluxations” or “Qi”.  Still worse, you will also be exposed to the claims of many chiropractors and acupuncturists to be able to cure all manner of conditions other than back pain.  But don’t even dare to suggest that manipulation of the spine is not a cure for colic or asthma or you may find yourself sued for defamation.  The shameful legal action of the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh (follow it here) led to an addition to DC’s Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine.
(In the face of such tragic behaviour, one has to be able to laugh).

Libel: A very expensive remedy, to be used only when you have no evidence. Appeals to alternative practitioners because truth is irrelevant.

NICE seems to have fallen for the bait and switch trick, hook line and sinker.

The neglected consequences

Once again, we see the consequences of paying insufficient attention to the Dilemmas of Alternative Medicine.

The lying dilemma

If acupuncture is recommended we will have acupuncturists telling patients about utterly imaginary things like “Qi” and “meridians”. And we will have chiropractors telling them about subluxations and innate energy.  It is my opinion that these things are simply make-believe (and that is also the view of a minority of acupuncturist and chiropractors).   That means that you have to decide whether the supposed benefits of the manipulation are sufficient to counterbalance the deception of patients.

Some people might think that it was worth it (though not me).  What is unforgivable is not to consider even the question.  The NICE guidance says not a word about this dilemma.  Why not?

The training dilemma

The training dilemma is even more serious.  Once some form of alternative medicine has successfully worked the Bait and Switch trick and gained a toehold in the NHS, there will be an army of box-ticking HR zombies employed to ensure that they have been properly trained in “subluxations” or “Qi”.   There will be quangos set up to issue National Occupational Standards in “subluxations” or “Qi”. Skills for Health will issue “competences” in “subluxations” or “Qi” (actually they already do). There will be courses set up to teach about “subluxations” or “Qi”, some even in ‘universities’ (there already are).

The respectability problem

But worst of all, it will become possible for aupuncturists and chiropractors to claim that they now have official government endorsement from a prestigious evidence-based organisation like NICE for “subluxations” or “Qi”.  Of course this isn’t true.  In fact the words “subluxations” or “Qi” are not even mentioned in the draft report.  That is the root of the problem. They should have been.  But omitting stuff like that is how the Bait and Switch trick works. 

Alternative medicine advocates crave, above all, respectability and acceptance.  It is sad that NICE seems to have given them more credibility and acceptance without having considered properly the secondary consequences of doing so,

 

How did this failure of NICE happen?

It seems to have been a combination of political correctness, failure to consider secondary consequences, and excessive influence of the people who stand to make money from the acceptance of alternative medicine.

Take, for example, the opinion of the British Pain Society. This organisation encompasses not just doctors. It
includes
“doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, scientists, psychologists, occupational therapists and other healthcare professionals actively engaged in the diagnosis and treatment of pain and in pain research for the benefit of patients”. Nevertheless, their response to the draft guidelines pointed out that the manipulative therapies as a whole were over-represented.

Manipulation

The guidelines assess 9 large groups of interventions of which manual therapies are only one part. The full GDG members panel of 13 individuals included two proponents of spinal manipulation/mobilisation (P Dixon and S Vogel). In addition, the chair of the panel (M Underwood) is the lead author of the UKBEAM trial on which the positive recommendation for
manipulation/mobilisation seems to predominately rest. Proponents of spinal manipulation/mobilisation were therefore over-represented in the generation of these guidelines, which, in turn could have generated the over-optimistic conclusion regarding this intervention.

It seems that the Pain Society were quite right.

LBC 97.3 Breakfast Show (25 May 2009) had a quick discussion on acupuncture (play mp3 file). After I had my say, the other side was put by Rosey Grandage. She has (among other jobs) a private acupuncture practice so she is not quite as unbiassed as me).  As usual, she  misrepresents the evidence by failing to distinguish between blind and non-blind studies. She also misrepresented what I said by implying that I was advocating drugs. That was not my point and I did not mention drugs (they, like all treatments, have pretty limited effectiveness, and they have side effects too). She said “there is very good evidence to show they (‘Qi’ and ‘meridians’] exist”.  That is simply untrue.

There can’t be a better demonstration of the consequences of falling for bait and switch than the defence mounted by Rosey Grandage. NICE may not mention “Qi” and “meridians”; but the people they want to allow into the NHS have no such compunctions.

I first came across Rosey Grandage when I discovered her contribution to the Open University/BBC course K221. That has been dealt with elsewhere.  A lot more information about acupuncture has appeared since then.  She doesn’t seem to have noticed it.  Has she not seen the Nordic Cochrane Centre report? Nor read Barker Bausell, or Singh & Ernst?  Has she any interest in evidence that might reduce her income?  Probably not.

Where to find out more

An excellent review of chiropractic can be found at the Layscience site. It was written by the indefatigable ‘Blue Wode’ who has provided enormous amounts of information at the admirable ebm-first site (I am authorised to reveal that ‘Blue Wode’ is the author of that site). There you will also find much fascinating information about both acupuncture and about chiropractic.
I’m grateful to ‘Blue Wode’ for some of the references used here.

Follow-up

The Health Professions Council (HPC) is yet another regulatory quango.

The HPC’s strapline is

“Working with health professionals to protect the public”

At present the HPC regulates; Arts therapists, biomedical scientists, chiropodists/podiatrists, clinical scientists, dietitians, occupational therapists, operating department practitioners, orthoptists, paramedics, physiotherapists, prosthetists/orthotists, radiographers and speech & language therapists.

These are thirteen very respectable jobs. With the possible exception of art therapists, nobody would doubt for a moment that they are scientific jobs, based on evidence. Dietitians, for example, are the real experts on nutrition (in contrast to “nutritional therapists” and the like, who are part of the alternative industry).  That is just as well because the ten criteria for registration with the HPC say that aspirant groups must have

“Practise based on evidence of efficacy”

But then came the Pittilo report, about which I wrote a commentary in the Times, and here, A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor, and here.

Both the Pittilo report, the HPC, and indeed the Department of Health itself (watch this space), seem quite unable to grasp the obvious fact that you cannot come up with any sensible form of regulation until after you have decided whether the ‘therapy’ works or whether it is so much nonsense.

In no sense can “the public be protected” by setting educational standards for nonsense.  But this obvioua fact seems to be beyond the intellectual grasp of the quangoid box-ticking mentality.

That report recommended that the HPC should regulate also Medical Herbalists, Acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners. Even more absurdly, it recommended degrees in these subjects, just at the moment that those universities who run them are beginning to realise that they are anti-scientific subjects and closing down degrees in them.

How could these three branches of the alternative medicine industry possibly be eligible to register with the HPC when one of the criteria for registration is that there must be “practise based on evidence of efficacy”?

Impossible, I hear you say.  But if you said that, I fear you may have underestimated the capacity of the official mind for pure double-speak.

The HPC published a report on 11 September 2008, Regulation of Medical Herbalists, Acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners.

The report says

1. Medical herbalists, acupuncturists and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners should be statutorily regulated in the public interest and for public safety reasons.

2. The Health Professions Council is appropriate as the regulator for these professions.

3. The accepted evidence of efficacy overall for these professions is limited, but regulation should proceed because it is in the public interest.

But the last conclusion contradicts directly the requirement for “practise based on evidence of efficacy”.  I was curious about how this contradiction
could be resolved so I sent a list of questions.  The full letter is here.

The letter was addressed to the president of the HPC, Anna van der Gaag, but with the customary discourtesy of such organisations, it was not answered by her but by Michael Guthrie, Head of Policy and Standards   He said

“Our Council considered the report at its meeting in July 2008 and decided that the regulation of these groups was necessary on the grounds of public protection. The Council decided to make a recommendation to the Secretary of State for Health that these groups be regulated.
http://www.hpc-uk.org/assets/documents/100023FEcouncil_20080911_enclosure07.pdf
“.

This, of course, doesn’t answer any of my questions. It does not explain how the public is protected by insisting on formal qualifications, if the qualifications
happen to teach mythical nonsense. Later the reply got into deeper water.

“I would additionally add that the new professions criteria are more focused on the process and structures of regulation, rather than the underlying rationale for regulation – the protection of members of the public. The Council considered the group’s report in light of a scoring against the criteria. The criteria on efficacy was one that was scored part met. As you have outlined in your email (and as discussed in the report itself) the evidence of efficacy (at least to western standards) is limited overall, particularly in the areas of herbal medicines and traditional Chinese medicine. However, the evidence base is growing and there was a recognition in the report that the individualised approach to practice in these areas did not lend themselves to traditional RCT research designs.”

Yes, based on process and structures (without engaging the brain it seems). Rather reminiscent of the great scandal in UK Social Services. It is right in one respect though.

The evidence base is indeed growing, But it is almost all negative evidence. Does the HPC not realise that? And what about “at least by Western standards”?   Surely the HPC is not suggesting that UK health policy should be determined by the standards of evidence of Chinese herbalists?  Actually it is doing exactly that since its assessment of evidence was based on the Pittilo report in which the evidence was assessed (very badly) by herbalists.

One despairs too about the statement that

“there was a recognition in the report that the individualised approach to practice in these areas did not lend themselves to traditional RCT research designs”

Yes of course the Pittilo report said that, because it was written by herbalists! Had the HPC bothered to read Ben Goldacre’s column in the Guardian they would have realised that there is no barrier at all to doing proper tests. It isn’t rocket science, though it seems that it is beyond the comprehension of the HPC.

So I followed the link to try again to find out why the HPC had reached the decision to breach its own rules. Page 10 of the HPC Council report says

3. The occupation must practise based on evidence of efficacy This criterion covers how a profession practises. The Council recognizes the centrality of evidence-based practice to modern health care and will assess applicant occupations for evidence that demonstrates that:

  • Their practice is subject to research into its effectiveness. Suitable evidence would include publication in journals that are accepted as
    learned by the health sciences and/or social care communities
  • There is an established scientific and measurable basis for measuring outcomes of their practice. This is a minimum—the Council welcomes
    evidence of there being a scientific basis for other aspects of practice and the body of knowledge of an applicant occupation
  • It subscribes to the ethos of evidence-based practice, including being open to changing treatment strategies when the evidence is in favour
    of doing so.

So that sounds fine. Except that research is rarely published in “journals that are accepted as learned by the health sciences”. And of course most of the good evidence is negative anyway. Nobody with the slightest knowledge of the literature could possibly think that these criteria are satisfied by Medical Herbalists, Acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners.

So what does the HPC make of the evidence?  Appendix 2 tells us. It goes through the criteria for HPS registration.

“Defined body of knowledge:  There is a defined body of knowledge, although approaches to practice can vary within each area.”

There is no mention that the “body of knowledge” is, in many cases, nonsensical gobbledygook and, astonishingly this criterion was deemed to be “met”!.

This shows once again the sheer silliness of trying to apply a list of criteria without first judging whether the subject is based in reality,

Evidence of efficacy. There is limited widely accepted evidence of efficacy, although this could be partly explained by the nature of the professions in offering bespoke treatments to individual patients. This criterion is scored part met overall.

Sadly we are not told who deemed this criterion to be “part met”. But it does say that “This scoring has been undertaken based on the information outlined in the [Pittilo] report”. Since the assessment of evidence in that report was execrably bad (having been made by people who would lose their jobs if
they said anything negative). it is no wonder that the judgement is overoptimistic!
Did the HPC not notice the quality of the evidence presented in the Pittilo report?   Apparently not.  That is sheer incompetence.

Nevertheless the criterion was not “met”, so they can’t join HPC, right?   Not at all. The Council simply decided to ignore its own rules.

On page 5 of the Council’s report we see this.

The Steering Group [Pittilo] argues that a lack of evidence of efficacy should not prevent regulation but that the professions should be encouraged and funded to strengthen the evidence base (p.11, p. 32, p.34).

This question can be a controversial area and the evidence base of these professions was the focus of some press attention following the report’s publication. An often raised argument against regulation in such circumstances is that it would give credibility in the public’s eyes to treatments that are not proven to be safe or efficacious.

This second point is dead right, but it is ignored. The Council then goes on to say

In terms of the HPC’s existing processes, a lack of ‘accepted’ evidence of efficacy is not a barrier to producing standards of proficiency or making decisions about fitness to practise cases.

This strikes me as ludicrous, incompetent, and at heart, dishonest.

There will be no sense in policy in this area until the question of efficacy is referred to NICE.  Why didn’t the HPC recommend that?  Why has it not been done?

One possible reason is that I discovered recently that, although there are two scientific advisers in the Department of Health,. both of them claim that it is “not their role” to give scientific advice in this area.  So the questions get referred instead to the Prince of Wales Foundation. That is no way to run a ship.

The fact of the matter is that the HPC, like so many other regulatory agencies, fails utterly to protect the public from fraudulent and incompetent practitioners. In fact it actually protects them, in the same way that the financial ‘regulators’ protected fraudulent bankers.  They all seem to think that ticking boxes and passing exams is an effective process. Even if the exams require you to memorise that amethysts “emit high Yin energy so transmuting lower energies and clearing and aligning energy disturbance as all levels of being”.

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.

Follow-up

From time to time, Private Eye Magazine takes a look at university vice-chancellors (aka presidents/rectors/principals) in its High Principals column.

The current issue (No, 1239, 20, Feb – 5 Mar, 2009) features Professor Geoffrey Petts, vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster,

Well well. Who’d have thought such things were possible?

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

Thames Valley University is one of those shameful institutions that offer Bachelor of Science degrees in homeopathy. They don’t stop there though. They’ll teach you several other forms of make-believe medicine. Among these is “nutritional medicine”. This is taught at the Plaskett Nutritional Medicine College which is now part of Thames Valley University.

Everyone is for good nutrition of course, but ‘nutritional medicine’, or ‘nutritional therapy’ pretends to be able to cure all sorts of diseases by changes in diet or by buying expensive nutritional supplement pills. It has no perceptible relationship to the very important subjects of ‘nutrition’ or ‘dietetics’.  Nutritional therapy is very firmly part of alternative medicine, in other words it is largely quackery. If you don’t believe that, read on.

The subject of nutritional therapy was in the news recently because of Matthias Rath. He is the person who is reponsible for the death of many Africans because of his advocacy of vitamin pills for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. He didn’t just (mis)treat people, but also played a role in persuading the recently departed Thabo Mbeki, and his health minister (“Mrs Beetroot”) to abandon effective therapies for AIDS sufferers. See reports in The Guardian, by Ben Goldacre, and here,

I’ve written a lot about the penetration of quackery into universities, and I thought I’d seen the worst with ‘amethysts emit high yin energy‘.  But, as Goldacre said, let me tell you how bad things have become. .

Recently I came into possession of a lengthy set of notes for a first year course on “The Holistic Model of Healthcare”.  The notes are from the 2005 course at Thames Valley University,  They are not signed, but appear to have been written by Dr Lawrence Plaskett himself. . You can download the whole set of notes here.

Here are a few choice quotations. The basis of them is pure vitalism. They read like a throwback to the dark ages.  Little comment is needed.  They speak for themselves.

1.3 What do Orthodox Dieticians know about Food and Health?

Dieticians working in the National Health Service and private clinics and hospitals are usually well trained in the basics of the subject, though they too have an entirely orthodox slant.  By and large they seem to accept the general view of most of the medical profession that nutrition does not affect illness much. Hence, they restrict themselves to designing diets required by the doctors for whom they work – usually for specified narrow purposes, such as low fat diets, low sodium diets etc. Such diets are, indeed, important in the hospital management of certain diseases (once these have become established) but they represent extremely limited horizons. Much that is in the basic and essential training of alternative nutritional practitioners is missing from the training of dieticians. As a result, most hospital diets are not very good for health judging from the parameters that will be set down in the following Sessions

Well, it is true that real dietitians prefer not to base their practice on mediaeval vitalism. That is what marks them out as professionals.

1.4 Relationship to Science and the Limitations of Orthodox Methods

However, the subject of Wholistic Nutrition transcends the area of human understanding for which science, alone, is appropriate. The reason is that it is ‘vitalistic’. It recognises the presence in all life forms including the human body, of subtle (or ‘etheric’) energy forces not easily measurable by the physicist’s equipment.  It shares that position with the ‘energy medicine’ disciplines such as homoeopathy, traditional acupuncture and spiritual healing. It follows an approach to those subtle energies that is embodied in the discipline and philosophy of naturopathy.

Vitalism is the notion that life in living organisms is sustained by a vital principle that cannot be explained in terms of physics and chemistry.   This vital principle, often called “the life force”, is something quite distinct from the physical body and is responsible for much that happens in health and disease.

Naturopathy is a relatively modem term for an ancient concept (dating back to 400 BC). This concept embraces the notion that the body is inherently self-healing and that it is the practitioner’s job to stimulate and support this process.  Each patient is recognised as having a unique life experience and a unique genetic inheritance. All diseases are seen as one and as attempts by the body to purify itself of toxins. Treatment focuses on causes rather than on symptoms and always addresses the whole person. The wise words of Hippocrates (often called the Father of Medicine) express some of the main tenants of naturopathic thought. He said:

  • It is only nature that heals and wherever and whenever possible nature should be given the opportunity to do so.
  • Disease is only an expression of purification.
  • All disease is one.
  • Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.”

Hence, most ‘alternative’ nutritionists see conventional nutrition. as being rather rigid and unmoving. Hence, they also see it as very limited. This happens because orthodox nutritionists tend to be locked into science alone. They fail to grasp the significance (or the reality of) the subtle energies and they reject the philosophy of vitalism. It is generally the view of ‘alternative’ nutritionists that understanding these things is a major step to healing the patient.

“Understanding” vitalism sounds more like a way of harming patients than healing patients.

1.5 The Pressure of the Orthodox model

Almost everyone who takes steps towards ‘alternative’ medicine experiences a backlash from others around them who have not been able to make the same conceptual change. Patients wanting to settle into an ‘alternative’ approach can be subject to negativity from their doctors (and as a result many patients do not ask the doctor’s opinion). But students and practitioners alike are frequently subject to negative expressions and even frank hostility from relatives
who can understand only orthodox, symptomatic treatment. It is therefore best to be forewarned that your adherence to ‘alternative’ principles will be tested in these ways.

The “Life Force” gets capital letters, like God, But what is it? Pure fantasy.

2 THE LIFE FORCE

2.1 What does our Energy Consist of?

At the root of most hoIistic therapies lies the belief that all life is animated by a subtle force. We call this the Life Force. You either believe it or you do not. It cannot exactly be proved at the moment and the belief is not in accord with the yardsticks that we call ‘scientific’, The belief is a little akin to the belief in God or in spirits or ghosts, and yet at the same time it is not,
because the Life Force is by no means so remote from us. It is not necessarily difficult for an agnostic to accept the Life Force. The writer was once asked for a definition of the Life Force and wrote:

” The Life Force is that non-material. non-physical force that animates all life forms and distinguishes them from non-living matter. It Is seen as a determining Force, not as a mere accompaniment to the phenomenon of Life. That is, it determines whether Life can exist or not. It determines the physical form that a life form takes: by its quality and its strength it determines the health, vigour and vitality of the life form. Hence it determines our freedom from, or our  susceptibility to illnesses, and our general ability to come through and to recover from Life’s stresses and traumas.”

A bit later it gets even better, when we get to astral travel and even survival after death. Truly bonkers.

The postulate of a subtle Life Force makes a natural connection with such topics as out of body experiences, astral travel and even survival after death. This happens because the subtle Life Force appears by its very nature to be “life within a different medium” and if life can exist in
a different medium, then why should it not exist quite independently of the physical body?

So what’s the evidence?

2.2 Evidence Concerning the Life Force

Since our ‘usual’ human senses only work through the medium of the human body we can only expect to detect the Life Force or other subtle forces, through their interactions with matter. It is clear that these interactions are themselves subtle and sensitive because one level or state is impinging upon another. It is postulated that they are not entirely of our world, not physical, only detectable with physical apparatus under special conditions.
Often they are described as “that which science cannot see”. Not surprisingly, therefore, when investigators come forward convinced that they have a phenomenon that demonstrates the Life Force. the physicists, looking at it with a steely scientific eye, are not usually ready to accept the conclusions claimed. Hence, we have several delicate phenomena that are often claimed to be manifestations of the Life Force, yet not accepted as such scientifically.

• The experiments done by Harold Saxton Burr on the “Fields of Life”.

• The experimen1s performed on detecting and measuring “Electrodynamic fields”

• The phenomenon of “Capillary dynamolysis”

• Homoeopathic effects.

• The Chinese ‘energy pulses’ at the human wrists.

From experience it is clear that many students will simply accept the Life Force as ‘obvious’.  Some will say they have always known about it. Others are able to accept the concept now as a reasonable principle.  Others perhaps (though we have rarely come across it) will never accept the Life Force. If that occurs, it seems a shame, for it removes some of the excitement from wholistic nutrition, . . .

What’s said about the homeopathic evidence?

2.6 Homoeopathic Effects

It is not until Nutritional Medicine students have qualified and got into practice that they usually employ any homoeopathy as an adjunct to their therapy in anything other than a first-aid role. That is because homoeopathy is a complex training in its own right and a quite separate discipline. However, any demonstration of the effectiveness of homoeopathic medicines at potencies higher than 12C is evidence for the existence of the subtle etheric energies. Such remedies have been diluted beyond the point at which the last traces of material substance derived from the Mother tincture, have been removed, leaving only the residual energy associated with the original material.

Of course the notes go on to misrepresent the clinical trials which actually show that homeopathy is mere placebo.

2.9 Toxic Effects upon the Life Force

The Life Force is generally seen as an abundant ebullient and beautiful manifestation of Nature’s energy. Although some forms of acupuncture take in the concept of a form of polluted Life Force called Aggressive Energy”, that idea is not shared much by other whoIistic disciplines. We are left for the most part with the idea of a rather perfect form of energy.

In Western Naturopathic thought, the enemy of the Life Force is toxicity. The Life Force inhabits a potentially perfect physical body. The main threat to the integrity of that body consists of the body’s own metabolic wastes, if they are not properly cleared out. Plus environmental toxins that gain access to the body from outside, or that are generated in the bowel. In that way the bowel gains a high level of importance in Naturopathy and ‘”Nature Cure”.

The Life Force, then, with its almost holy purity, is in danger of being inhibited, dampened down and threatened by what amounts to some entirely physical dirt that gains access to that temple of the soul the human body. Whilst in Traditional Chinese Medicine impurities in the mind, emotions or spirit are just as important as physical impurity, it is naturopathy that focuses upon the actual physical sewers of the body.

Aha, that’s it. Holy water.

The inability of naturopaths in the past to identify specific toxins or to point with sufficient exactitude to the ways in which they can be removed, has been the Achilles Heel of the naturopaths in trying to represent their views in the past to orthodox doctors or medical scientists.

And it still is. The alleged toxins have never been identified, still less removed. Detoxification is a myth of downmarket women’s magazines and profiteering spas. And, of course, of some Bachelor of Science  degrees.

2.10 Nutritional Effects upon the Life Force

2.10.1 Bulk nutrients

Next comes the consideration of the bulk nutrients – the protein, carbohydrate and fat. These are our source of biochemical energy and we obviously starve without them. Their purity is crucial.  If they have been chemically modified or damaged by toxic interactions, then they will entrain toxicity and also be hard to break down. Even at best, their digestion and assimilation costs energy, which may well be both biochemical and subtle.

What “toxic interactions”? This is all sheer fantasy.

2.10.3 The micronutrients

When you practice [sic] nutritional therapy in a naturopathic setting, being aware at the same time of the on-going biochemistry, you become critically aware of the role of the  micronutrients in a way that the classical naturopaths were not.

Biochemical reactions will flow better when they are present in the correct balance. Therefore the minerals have a key interaction with the Life Force. Without the right minerals the Life Force can be conceived of as pushing forward to achieve high activity in the body, yet being blocked through the chemical composition not being correct. If you apply the minerals in this situation, there may, indeed. be a surge forward of the energy.

Whatever that may mean.

3 THE EBULLIENCE OF THE LIFE FORCE: STOPPING THE ROT AND STARTING TO RECOVER

3.1 The Horror of Deterioration: The Chronic State

All that has gone before has already shown that the grassroots of deterioration in the physical body are:

  • Weakened Life Force
  • Nutritional Deficiency and Imbalance
  • Toxic Attack

If nutritional error or deprivation are the more strongly implicated primary cause, then the Life Force struggles with an unbalanced physical body, getting the tissue biochemistry to work at full integrity is impossible; hence. the body’s detoxification system becomes incompetent and the body’s toxic burden may rise steeply. At the same time the Life Force ails.

So, focusing as we do now upon elimination of toxins (the very nub of classical naturopathy), we perceive that it is a process that depends upon a good strong Life Force and also upon adequate nutrient intake. Therapies that directly stimulate the Life Force (homoeopathy, acupuncture and spiritual healing) therefore make an indirect, though real, contribution to toxic elimination through increasing the Life Force or otherwise improving its health and balance.

So according to this, all CAM is much the same. That idea will provoke bitter internecine warfare.

3.5 The Law of Cure

We have above depicted the move from relative health to chronic illness as a downward path. Equally, the route back from the edge of the abyss of chronic illness is one of revitalisation and detoxification. The idea of the ‘route back’ was spotted years ago by the homoeopath, Constantine Hering, and has become known as ‘Hering’s Law of Cure’.

The Law further embodies the notion that toxins, and therefore symptoms, tend to move outward from within as recovery or cleansing occurs. This is fully in accord with the classical naturopath’s idea. Toxins close to the surface of the body are conceived to be most likely on their way out. The skin is an eliminatory organ and toxins at or near the skin level are not so much of a threat to well being. Naturally, the patient may well be horrified at the disfiguring
rash that may be seen by all. Nonetheless, the patient is seen to be far better off than when having these toxins deep within the body, held, perhaps within essential organs that are becoming progressively damaged.

This sounds increasingly like a ‘do-nothing’ approach (much like homeopathy then).

3.6 Suppression

Boils used to swell up into a red sore and then burst. Very bad ones, or carbuncles, might be lanced to cause the pus (morbid matter) to run out. These days, boils and carbuncles tend to occur much less than formerly, presumably because of the lower Life Force of the population and the generally suppressive medical culture. The chances are that they get treated with an antibiotic long before they get a chance to come to a head and burst. Such treatment is suppressive in the strictly naturopathic sense of the word. The same is absolutely true with regard to bringing down artificially the temperature during a fever, whereas ‘sweating it out’ is the natural thing to do.

More of the do-nothing approach.

4.2 How lridology Helps us to See Toxic Foci

As mentioned above, toxic foci (deposits) in the body show up in the iris of the eye. The iris is arranged so as to encompass a complete ‘map’ of the body. with all the organs and systems laid out upon it. Hence the location of a toxic deposit in the iris shows the iridologist its position within the body. The toxins may appear as colours, spots. blobs and smears in particular
places in the iris, or as darkened areas.

Now iridology, another sort of fantasy medicine, creeps in.

5.5 What Place for Immunisations?

Here we shall restrict ourselves to saying as little as possible. We shall. indeed, make no recommendations. However. the classical naturopaths and homoeopaths have all been of one voice in condemning the use of morbid diseased matter for injection into the human body to prevent disease. It was not, they said, a proper procedure. There has also been much disagreement about how effective such measures are. Of course, whenever there is danger of infection. it is wrong to do nothing. At least you should use the homoeopathic equivalent treatment. As to the effectiveness of those methods, that is beyond the scope of this course.

As to the personal view of the writer, it is that the natural therapists who have declared thernselves on this topic in the past are probably right. They have maintained that immunisation is just another form of toxin and an especially potent one capable, on its own, of sparking a downward spiral into ill health in susceptible people. As to what extent that effect might be balanced by benefit, that is an unresolved argument.  The writer does not use immunisations himself.

Well there is a surprise. Just like almost every other quack, the writer would endanger the whole population by opposing immunisation.

The quiz

The notes contain a number of questions, and, more interestingly, model answers are given at the end. Here is one example.

Question.    Why do some patients respond well to very little treatment?

Answer.  The size of the toxic burden, the strength of the Life Force and micro nutrient status strongly influence a person’s response to treatment. Therefore a person with a low toxic burden, high micro nutrient status and strong life force should respond well to very little treatment.

Or, to put it differently, echinacea cures your cold in seven days, when otherwise it would have taken a week.

Conclusion

We’ll always have crackpot ideas about medicine, at least until real medicine gets much more effective than it is now. For example, in low back pain, the cause is usually not known, the treatments are only palliative, and it isn’t very effective palliation either. The big difference between real medicine and crackpot medicine, is that in real medicine you aren’t allowed to invent the answer when you don’t know it.

No doubt the author of these fantasy notes was entirely sincere in his delusions.  But how can any self-respecting vice-chancellor tolerate having this sort of stuff as part of a Bachelor of Science degree?   Professor Peter John, vice-chancellor of Thames Valley University is not a scientist. His background is in education. But you don’t need to be a scientist to see what nonsense is being taught as science in his university.

Perhaps he didn’t know what is going on. Well, he does now.

Follow-up

Thanks to Ben Goldacre for the link from his miniblog.?

Thames Valley University and their degree in “Nutritional Medicine”

Why? Why do they pretend it’s science? Why don’t they just call it “some stuff we made up”