‘We know little about the effect of diet on health. That’s why so much is written about it’. That is the title of a post in which I advocate the view put by John Ioannidis that remarkably little is known about the health effects if individual nutrients. That ignorance has given rise to a vast industry selling advice that has little evidence to support it.
The 2016 Conference of the so-called "College of Medicine" had the title "Food, the Forgotten Medicine". This post gives some background information about some of the speakers at this event. I’m sorry it appears to be too ad hominem, but the only way to judge the meeting is via the track record of the speakers.
Quite a lot has been written here about the "College of Medicine". It is the direct successor of the Prince of Wales’ late, unlamented, Foundation for Integrated Health. But unlike the latter, its name is disguises its promotion of quackery. Originally it was going to be called the “College of Integrated Health”, but that wasn’t sufficently deceptive so the name was dropped.
For the history of the organisation, see
The new “College of Medicine” arising from the ashes of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health
Don’t be deceived. The new “College of Medicine” is a fraud and delusion
The College of Medicine is in the pocket of
Crapita Capita. Is Graeme Catto selling out?
The conference programme (download pdf) is a masterpiece of bait and switch. It is a mixture of very respectable people, and outright quacks. The former are invited to give legitimacy to the latter. The names may not be familiar to those who don’t follow the antics of the magic medicine community, so here is a bit of information about some of them.
The introduction to the meeting was by Michael Dixon and Catherine Zollman, both veterans of the Prince of Wales Foundation, and both devoted enthusiasts for magic medicne. Zollman even believes in the battiest of all forms of magic medicine, homeopathy (download pdf), for which she totally misrepresents the evidence. Zollman works now at the Penny Brohn centre in Bristol. She’s also linked to the "Portland Centre for integrative medicine" which is run by Elizabeth Thompson, another advocate of homeopathy. It came into being after NHS Bristol shut down the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital, on the very good grounds that it doesn’t work.
Now, like most magic medicine it is privatised. The Penny Brohn shop will sell you a wide range of expensive and useless "supplements". For example, Biocare Antioxidant capsules at £37 for 90. Biocare make several unjustified claims for their benefits. Among other unnecessary ingredients, they contain a very small amount of green tea. That’s a favourite of "health food addicts", and it was the subject of a recent paper that contains one of the daftest statistical solecisms I’ve ever encountered
"To protect against type II errors, no corrections were applied for multiple comparisons".
If you don’t understand that, try this paper.
The results are almost certainly false positives, despite the fact that it appeared in Lancet Neurology. It’s yet another example of broken peer review.
It’s been know for decades now that “antioxidant” is no more than a marketing term, There is no evidence of benefit and large doses can be harmful. This obviously doesn’t worry the College of Medicine.
Margaret Rayman was the next speaker. She’s a real nutritionist. Mixing the real with the crackpots is a standard bait and switch tactic.
Eleni Tsiompanou, came next. She runs yet another private "wellness" clinic, which makes all the usual exaggerated claims. She seems to have an obsession with Hippocrates (hint: medicine has moved on since then). Dr Eleni’s Joy Biscuits may or may not taste good, but their health-giving properties are make-believe.
Andrew Weil, from the University of Arizona
gave the keynote address. He’s described as "one of the world’s leading authorities on Nutrition and Health". That description alone is sufficient to show the fantasy land in which the College of Medicine exists. He’s a typical supplement salesman, presumably very rich. There is no excuse for not knowing about him. It was 1988 when Arnold Relman (who was editor of the New England Journal of Medicine) wrote A Trip to Stonesville: Some Notes on Andrew Weil, M.D..
“Like so many of the other gurus of alternative medicine, Weil is not bothered by logical contradictions in his argument, or encumbered by a need to search for objective evidence.”
This blog has mentioned his more recent activities, many times.
Alex Richardson, of Oxford Food and Behaviour Research (a charity, not part of the university) is an enthusiast for omega-3, a favourite of the supplement industry, She has published several papers that show little evidence of effectiveness. That looks entirely honest. On the other hand, their News section contains many links to the notorious supplement industry lobby site, Nutraingredients, one of the least reliable sources of information on the web (I get their newsletter, a constant source of hilarity and raised eyebrows). I find this worrying for someone who claims to be evidence-based. I’m told that her charity is funded largely by the supplement industry (though I can’t find any mention of that on the web site).
Stephen Devries was a new name to me. You can infer what he’s like from the fact that he has been endorsed byt Andrew Weil, and that his address is "Institute for Integrative Cardiology" ("Integrative" is the latest euphemism for quackery). Never trust any talk with a title that contains "The truth about". His was called "The scientific truth about fats and sugars," In a video, he claims that diet has been shown to reduce heart disease by 70%. which gives you a good idea of his ability to assess evidence. But the claim doubtless helps to sell his books.
Prof Tim Spector, of Kings College London, was next. As far as I know he’s a perfectly respectable scientist, albeit one with books to sell, But his talk is now online, and it was a bit like a born-again microbiome enthusiast. He seemed to be too impressed by the PREDIMED study, despite it’s statistical unsoundness, which was pointed out by Ioannidis. Little evidence was presented, though at least he was more sensible than the audience about the uselessness of multivitamin tablets.
Simon Mills talked on “Herbs and spices. Using Mother Nature’s pharmacy to maintain health and cure illness”. He’s a herbalist who has featured here many times. I can recommend especially his video about Hot and Cold herbs as a superb example of fantasy science.
Annie Anderson, is Professor of Public Health Nutrition and
Founder of the Scottish Cancer Prevention Network. She’s a respectable nutritionist and public health person, albeit with their customary disregard of problems of causality.
Patrick Holden is chair of the Sustainable Food Trust. He promotes "organic farming". Much though I dislike the cruelty of factory farms, the "organic" industry is largely a way of making food more expensive with no health benefits.
The Michael Pittilo 2016 Student Essay Prize was awarded after lunch. Pittilo has featured frequently on this blog as a result of his execrable promotion of quackery -see, in particular, A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor.
Nutritional advice for patients with cancer. This discussion involved three people.
Professor Robert Thomas, Consultant Oncologist, Addenbrookes and Bedford Hospitals, Dr Clare Shaw, Consultant Dietitian, Royal Marsden Hospital and Dr Catherine Zollman, GP and Clinical Lead, Penny Brohn UK.
Robert Thomas came to my attention when I noticed that he, as a regular cancer consultant had spoken at a meeting of the quack charity, “YestoLife”. When I saw he was scheduled tp speak at another quack conference. After I’d written to him to point out the track records of some of the people at the meeting, he withdrew from one of them. See The exploitation of cancer patients is wicked. Carrot juice for lunch, then die destitute. The influence seems to have been temporary though. He continues to lend respectability to many dodgy meetings. He edits the Cancernet web site. This site lends credence to bizarre treatments like homeopathy and crystal healing. It used to sell hair mineral analysis, a well-known phony diagnostic method the main purpose of which is to sell you expensive “supplements”. They still sell the “Cancer Risk Nutritional Profile”. for £295.00, despite the fact that it provides no proven benefits.
Robert Thomas designed a food "supplement", Pomi-T: capsules that contain Pomegranate, Green tea, Broccoli and Curcumin. Oddly, he seems still to subscribe to the antioxidant myth. Even the supplement industry admits that that’s a lost cause, but that doesn’t stop its use in marketing. The one randomised trial of these pills for prostate cancer was inconclusive. Prostate Cancer UK says "We would not encourage any man with prostate cancer to start taking Pomi-T food supplements on the basis of this research". Nevertheless it’s promoted on Cancernet.co.uk and widely sold. The Pomi-T site boasts about the (inconclusive) trial, but says "Pomi-T® is not a medicinal product".
There was a cookery demonstration by Dale Pinnock "The medicinal chef" The programme does not tell us whether he made is signature dish "the Famous Flu Fighting Soup". Needless to say, there isn’t the slightest reason to believe that his soup has the slightest effect on flu.
In summary, the whole meeting was devoted to exaggerating vastly the effect of particular foods. It also acted as advertising for people with something to sell. Much of it was outright quackery, with a leavening of more respectable people, a standard part of the bait-and-switch methods used by all quacks in their attempts to make themselves sound respectable. I find it impossible to tell how much the participants actually believe what they say, and how much it’s a simple commercial drive.
The thing that really worries me is why someone like Phil Hammond supports this sort of thing by chairing their meetings (as he did for the "College of Medicine’s" direct predecessor, the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health. His defence of the NHS has made him something of a hero to me. He assured me that he’d asked people to stick to evidence. In that he clearly failed. I guess they must pay well.
Sarah Ferguson, ex-wife of Prince Andrew, Duke of York, seems to need a lot of money. Some of her wheezes are listed in today’s Times. That’s behind a paywall, as is the version reproduced in The Australian (Murdoch connection presumably). You can read it (free) here, with more details below the article.
Thomas Ough and David Brown
Published at 12:01AM, January 15 2015
In her seemingly endless quest to make money, Sarah, Duchess of York, has had little hesitation using her title to generate sales.
This week, though, she landed herself in trouble after appearing to use the name of Britain’s foremost scientific university to lend credibility to a promotion for her new diet system.
The duchess told NBC’s Today show during an interview to promote her “emulsifier” programme that she was aware of the dangers of obesity through her work as an ambassador for the Institute of Global Health Improvement at Imperial College London.
Last night she apologised for “any misunderstanding” after Imperial College, ranked the joint second-best university in the world, sought to distance itself from the duchess’s promotion.
A spokesman said: “The commercial activities promoted by Sarah Ferguson in the interview with Today are not connected in any way to Imperial’s staff or research activities, and the college does not endorse the suggestion of any possible link.”
The institute, which has more than 160 specialists, including clinicians, engineers, scientists and psychologists, is headed by Lord Darzi of Denham, a former Labour health minister.
The duchess told the Today presenter Matt Lauer that she had been a comfort eater since the age of 12 but the “turning point” was when she realised that she was the same weight as when pregnant with Princess Beatrice, now 25.
“I couldn’t bear looking at myself any minute longer,” she confided. “In fact, the size of my ass probably saved my life.” She said she discovered that the “emulsifier” was “a solution for behavioural change” and helped her to lose 55lbs. The $99 kit, which includes a blender, a couple of recipe books and some workout DVDs, is produced by Tristar Products, a direct marketing company for home and health items.
The duchess told the breakfast show: “I have just found out on my discoveries with Imperial College London . . . I’m an ambassador for the Institute for Global Health Innovation, and I found out that children, little children, are going to die before their parents because of obesity.”
The benefits of the kit were questioned yesterday by Ayela Spiro, a senior scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation.
She said: “In terms of the particular product, no juicer or blender on their own can enhance how much nutrition your body will absorb. Any claims made about such products such that it accelerates weight loss, boosts energy and strengthens the immune system need to be treated with caution.”
Professor David Colquhoun of University College London, said: “I find it pretty amazing that Imperial chose someone like her to be an ‘ambassador’. Imperial does have an interest in appetite suppression but hasn’t come up with any usable product yet and this research has nothing to do with blenders.
“[Her television appearance] was sheer name-dropping, something she’s quite good at. The only ‘discovery’ she seems to have made is that if you eat less you’ll lose weight. The $100 blender has nothing to do with it.”
A spokesman for the duchess said: “She is not trying to use her association with the institute to promote her personal interests. She was talking about ‘behavioural change’, which is endorsed by the institute, and her own behavioural change.”
With the article there’s an inset that gives details of other ways in which Sarah Ferguson has exploited her title to make money.
Fergie’s latest wheeze, Duchess Discoveries is being promoted heavily on US television. It bears a close resemblance to those ghastly daytime TV advertising channels. Watch her interview on a US TV programme, "Today".
It’s partly promoting her latest diet scam, and partly a vigorous defence of her ex-husbands innocence in the face of allegations of sexual shenanigans. Of course she doesn’t know whether the allegations are true. The Queen doesn’t know (so why bother with the denial from Buckingham Palace?). And I don’t know. We know plenty about Prince Andrew’s bad behaviour, but we don’t know whether he’s had sex with minors.
Worse still is the promotional video on the “Duchess Discoveries” site itself.
“I’m SO excited about my fusion accelerator system, accelerates weight loss, accelerates your energy, accelerates and strengthens your immune system.”
"accelerates weight loss" is certainly unproven. Mere hype
"accelerates your energy" is totally meaningless. It’s the sort of sciencey-sounding words that are loved by all quacks.
"accelerates and strengthens your immune system". Sigh. "strengthening the immune system is the perpetual mantra of just about every quack. It’s totally meaningless. Just made-up nutribollocks.
The promotional video is fraudulent nonsense. If it were based in the UK I have no doubt that it would be quickly slapped down by the Advertising Standards Authority. But in the USA the first amendment allows people to lie freely about nutrition, which is why it’s such big business.
It bothers me that the most that the best that the British Nutrition Foundation could manage was to say that such claims "need to be treated with caution". They are mendacious nonsense. Why not just say so?
One of my scientific heroes is Bernard Katz. The closing words of his inaugural lecture, as professor of biophysics at UCL, hang on the wall of my office as a salutory reminder to refrain from talking about ‘how the brain works’. After speaking about his discoveries about synaptic transmission, he ended thus.
"My time is up and very glad I am, because I have been leading myself right up to a domain on which I should not dare to trespass, not even in an Inaugural Lecture. This domain contains the awkward problems of mind and matter about which so much has been talked and so little can be said, and having told you of my pedestrian disposition, I hope you will give me leave to stop at this point and not to hazard any further guesses."
The question of what to eat for good health is truly a topic about "which so much has been talked and so little can be said"
That was emphasized yet again by an editorial in the British Medical Journal written by my favourite epidemiologist. John Ioannidis. He has been at the forefront of debunking hype. Its title is “Implausible results in human nutrition research” (BMJ, 2013;347:f6698.
The gist is given by the memorable statement
"Almost every single nutrient imaginable has peer reviewed publications associating it with almost any outcome."
and the subtitle
“Definitive solutions won’t come from another million observational papers or small randomized trials“.
Being a bit obsessive about causality, this paper is music to my ears. The problem of causality was understood perfectly by Samuel Johnson, in 1756, and he was a lexicographer, not a scientist. Yet it’s widely ignored by epidemiologists.
The problem of causality is often mentioned in the introduction to papers that describe survey data, yet by the end of the paper, it’s usually forgotten, and public health advice is issued.
Ioannidis’ editorial vindicates my own views, as an amateur epidemiologist, on the results of the endless surveys of diet and health.
- Diet and health. What can you believe: or does bacon kill you (2009) in which I look at the World Cancer Research Fund’s evidence for causality (next to none in my opinion). Through this I got to know Gary Taubes, whose explanation of causality in the New York Times is the best popular account I’ve ever seen.
- How big is the risk from eating red meat now: an update (2012) This was based on the WCRF update – the risk was roughly halved though it didn’t say that in the press release.
- Another update. Red meat doesn’t kill you, but the spin is fascinating (2013). Update after the EPIC results in which the risk essentially vanished: good news which you could find only by digging into Table 3.
There is nothing new about the problem. It’s been written about many times. Young & Karr (Significance, 8, 116 – 120, 2011: get pdf) said "Any claim coming from an observational study is most likely to be wrong". Out of 52 claims made in 12 observational studies, not a single one was confirmed when tested by randomised controlled trials.
Another article cited by Ioannidis, "Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity" (Casazza et al , NEJM, 2013), debunks many myths, but the list of conflicts of interests declared by the authors is truly horrendous (and at least one of their conclusions has been challenged, albeit by people with funding from Kellogg’s). The frequent conflicts of interest in nutrition research make a bad situation even worse.
The quotation in bold type continues thus.
"On 25 October 2013, PubMed listed 291 papers with the keywords “coffee OR caffeine” and 741 with “soy,” many of which referred to associations. In this literature of epidemic proportions, how many results are correct? Many findings are entirely implausible. Relative risks that suggest we can halve the burden of cancer with just a couple of servings a day of a single nutrient still circulate widely in peer reviewed journals.
However, on the basis of dozens of randomized trials, single nutrients are unlikely to have relative risks less than 0.90 for major clinical outcomes when extreme tertiles of population intake are compared—most are greater than 0.95. For overall mortality, relative risks are typically greater than 0.995, if not entirely null. The respective absolute risk differences would be trivial. Observational studies and even randomized trials of single nutrients seem hopeless, with rare exceptions. Even minimal confounding or other biases create noise that exceeds any genuine effect. Big datasets just confer spurious precision status to noise."
"According to the latest burden of disease study, 26% of deaths and 14% of disability adjusted life years in the United States are attributed to dietary risk factors, even without counting the impact of obesity. No other risk factor comes anywhere close to diet in these calculations (not even tobacco and physical inactivity). I suspect this is yet another implausible result. It builds on risk estimates from the same data of largely implausible nutritional studies discussed above. Moreover, socioeconomic factors are not considered at all, although they may be at the root of health problems. Poor diet may partly be a correlate or one of several paths through which social factors operate on health."
Another field that is notorious for producing false positives, wirh false attribution of causality, is the detection of biomarkers. A critical discussion can be found in the paper by Broadhurst & Kell (2006), "False discoveries in metabolomics and related experiments".
"Since the early days of transcriptome analysis (Golub et al., 1999), many workers have looked to detect different gene expression in cancerous versus normal tissues. Partly because of the expense of transcriptomics (and the inherent noise in such data (Schena, 2000; Tu et al., 2002; Cui and Churchill, 2003; Liang and Kelemen, 2006)), the numbers of samples and their replicates is often small while the number of candidate genes is typically in the thousands. Given the above, there is clearly a great danger that most of these will not in practice withstand scrutiny on deeper analysis (despite the ease with which one can create beautiful heat maps and any number of ‘just-so’ stories to explain the biological relevance of anything that is found in preliminary studies!). This turns out to be the case, and we review a recent analysis (Ein-Dor et al., 2006) of a variety of such studies."
The fields of metabolomics, proteomics and transcriptomics are plagued by statistical problems (as well as being saddled with ghastly pretentious names).
What’s to be done?
Barker Bausell, in his demolition of research on acupuncture, said:
[Page39] “But why should nonscientists care one iota about something as esoteric as causal inference? I believe that the answer to this question is because the making of causal inferences is part of our job description as Homo Sapiens.”
The problem, of course, is that humans are very good at attributing causality when it does not exist. That has led to confusion between correlation and cause on an industrial scale, not least in attempts to work out the effects of diet on health.
More than in any other field it is hard to do the RCTs that could, in principle, sort out the problem. It’s hard to allocate people at random to different diets, and even harder to make people stick to those diets for the many years that are needed.
We can probably say by now that no individual food carries a large risk, or affords very much protection. The fact that we are looking for quite small effects means that even when RCTs are possible huge samples will be needed to get clear answers. Most RCTs are too short, and too small (under-powered) and that leads to overestimation of the size of effects.
That’s a problem that plagues experimental pyschology too, and has led to a much-discussed crisis in reproducibility.
"Supplements" of one sort and another are ubiquitous in sports. Nobody knows whether they work, and the margin between winning and losing is so tiny that it’s very doubtful whether we ever will know. We can expect irresponsible claims to continue unabated.
The best thing that can be done in the short term is to stop doing large observational studies altogether. It’s now clear that inferences made from them are likely to be wrong. And, sad to say, we need to view with great skepticism anything that is funded by the food industry. And make a start on large RCTs whenever that is possible. Perhaps the hardest goal of all is to end the "publish or perish" culture which does so much to prevent the sort of long term experiments which would give the information we want.
Ioannidis’ article ends with the statement
"I am co-investigator in a randomized trial of a low carbohydrate versus low fat diet that is funded by the US National Institutes of Health and the non-profit Nutrition Science Initiative."
It seems he is putting his money where his mouth is.
Until we have the results, we shall continue to be bombarded with conflicting claims made by people who are doing their best with flawed methods, as well as by those trying to sell fad diets. Don’t believe them. The famous "5-a-day" advice that we are constantly bombarded with does no harm, but it has no sound basis.
As far as I can guess, the only sound advice about healthy eating for most people is
- don’t eat too much
- don’t eat all the same thing
You can’t make much money out of that advice.
No doubt that is why you don’t hear it very often.
Two relevant papers that show the unreliability of observational studies,
"Nearly 80,000 observational studies were published in the decade 1990–2000 (Naik 2012). In the following decade, the number of studies grew to more than 260,000". Madigan et al. (2014)
“. . . the majority of observational studies would declare statistical significance when no effect is present” Schuemie et al., (2012)
20 March 2014
On 20 March 2014, I gave a talk on this topic at the Cambridge Science Festival (more here). After the event my host, Yvonne Noblis, sent me some (doubtless cherry-picked) feedback she’d had about the talk.
There is no topic more widely discussed than what one should eat in order to stay healthy. And there are few topics where there evidence is so lacking in quality. This post isn’t about quackery, but about something much more important. it is about the real science (if it merits that description) behind dietary advice. I’m not an expert in nutrition, but I do know a bit about the nature of evidence. I’m continually astonished by the weakness of the evidence for some things that have become received truths, and nowhere is that more true than in nutrition.
The BMJ used my review of Gary Taube’s book, The Diet Delusion, to start off their new Round Table feature [full text link to BMJ].
The published version had some big cuts so I publish the original version here. Taubes was kind enough to send me a copy of the book after I’d mentioned his wonderful New York Times piece in my previous excursion into the murky world of diet and health, Diet and health. What can you believe: or does bacon kill you?
The biggest omission in the BMJ version was Taubes’ own ten point summary of his conclusions (on page 454).
"“As I emerge from this research, though, certain conclusions seem inescapable to me, based on existing knowledge
- Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization
- The problem is the carbohydrates in the diet, their effect on insulin secretion, and thus the hormonal regulation of homeostasis – the entire harmonic ensemble of the human body. The more easily digestible and refined the carbohydrates, the greater the effect on our health, weight, and well-being.
- Sugars – sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup specifically – are particularly harmful, probably because the combination of fructose and glucose simultaneously elevates insulin levels while overloading the liver with carbohydrates.
- Through their direct effect on insulin and blood sugar, refined carbohydrates, starches, and sugars are the dietary cause of coronary heart disease and diabetes. They are the most likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and the other chronic diseases of civilization.
- Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating, and not sedentary behaviour.
- Consuming excess calories does not cause us to grow fatter, any more than it causes a child to grow taller. Expending more energy than we consume does not lead to long-term weight loss; it leads to hunger.
- Fattening and obesity are caused by an imbalance – a disequilibrium – in the hormonal regulation of adipose tissue and fat metabolism. Fat synthesis and storage exceed the mobilization of fat from the adipose tissue and its subsequent oxidation. We become leaner when the hormonal regulation of the fat tissue reverses this balance.
- Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels are elevated – either chronically or after a meal – we accumulate fat in our fat tissue. When insulin levels fall, we release fat from our fat tissue and use it for fuel.
- By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat and ultimately cause obesity. The fewer carbohydrates we consume, the leaner we will be.
- By driving fat accumulation, carbohydrates also increase hunger and decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity.”
It is on these bases that Taubes suggests that the increase in obesity is, in part, a consequence of the recommendation of a low fat, and hence high sugar diet.
The Diet Delusion [ pp 601]
(published in the USA as Good Calories, Bad Calories)
Gary Taubes 2008
There is no topic more widely discussed than what one should eat in order to stay healthy. And there are few topics where the evidence is so lacking in quality. It is also a topic that is besieged by gurus, cranks and supplement hucksters.
You need to beware of misleading titles. Dietitians are good. Nutritionists are sometimes good. But titles like ‘nutritional therapist’ and ‘nutritional medicine’ are usually warning signs of alternative therapists and/or pill salespeople.
Gary Taubes is a journalist, but he is quite an exceptional journalist. His account of the importance of randomisation for the establishment of causality is one of the best ever and it was published not in an academic journal, but in the New York Times . His book, The Diet Delusion, is in the same mould. It is more complete and more scholarly than most professional scientists could manage. Not only does it cover the literature right back to Samuel Johnson, but it is also particularly good at unravelling what one might call the politics of science. And by politics I don’t mean the vast lobbying industry that has built up with the aim of selling you unnecessary supplements, but the politics of academia.
Obesity sounds simple. If you are fat it is because you eat too much or exercise too little, right? Well no, it’s not as simple as that. For a start, it has been shown time and time again that low fat diets, and exercise, have small and temporary effects on weight. The problem with diet and health revolves round causality. The law of conservation of energy is an inevitable truth, but says nothing about causality. It could imply that you get fat because you eat too much, or equally the causal arrow could point the other way and “we eat more, move less and have less energy to expend because we are metabolically or hormonally driven to get fat”. The assumption that positive caloric balance is the cause of weight gain has predominated since the 1970s and “this simple misconception has led to a century of misguided obesity research”.
At the heart of the problem is the paucity of randomised trials, which are the only way to establish causality. Those that there are have usually shown that diet does not matter as much as we are told. Taubes concludes
I think it can certainly be argued that the problem of causality has been greatly underestimated. We are warned constantly of the dangers of processed meat, on the basis of very unconvincing evidence .
This is one reason why we still know so little about the causes of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. For Taubes, a major villain was the US nutritionist Ancel Keys (1904 – 2004). His
It is quite possible that there was rather more to be said for the Atkins diet than was apparent at the time. The fact that Atkins was not a university scientist, that his views were extreme and that he was so obviously out to make a lot of money from it, gave him all the appearance of being yet another profiteering diet guru. He was dismissed by the medical establishment as a quack. Taubes points out that conflict of interest cuts both ways. Atkins’ sternest critics at Harvard were funded by General Foods, Coca-Cola and the sugar industry. It adds up to a sorry story of a conflict of vested interests and scientific vanity.
Taubes’ final judgement is harsh. He quotes Robert Merton’s description  of what science is, or should be.
He then comments
It took Taubes five years to write this book, and he has nothing to sell apart from his ideas. No wonder it is so much better than a scientist can produce. Such is the corruption of science by the cult of managerialism that no university would allow you to spend five years on a book . I find all ten points in his summary convincing. But his most important conclusion is that you cannot have any certainty without randomised trials.
The business of nutrition is greatly at fault for not having put more effort into organising randomised trials. Until they are done, we’ll never really know, and we shouldn’t pretend that we do.
1. Taubes G. Do we really know what makes us healthy? New York Times 2007 Sep 16.[full text link] [pdf file]
2. Colquhoun, D. (3 May 2009) Diet and health. What can you believe: or does bacon kill you?.
3. Greenberg, S.A.. 2009 How citation distortions create unfounded authority: analysis of a citation network. BMJ ;339:b2680 [pdf file].
4. Merton, R. K. Behavior Patterns of Scientists . Leonardo, Vol.3 1970; 3(2):213-220. From Jstor [or pdf file]
5. Lawrence PA. The mismeasurement of science. Curr Biol 2007; 17(15):R583-R585.PM:17686424 [pdf file] [commentary]
If length had allowed, there should certainly have been a reference here to Robert Lustig of UCSF. He is an academic nutritionist who supports the main thesis of Taubes’ book. See, for example, his 2005 review, Childhood obesity: behavioral aberration or biochemical drive? Reinterpreting the First Law of Thermodynamics [full
text link]. Lustig’s slide show, The Trouble with Fructose is available in the NIH web site.
There are a couple of other articles by Taubes that are well worth reading. The Scientist and the Stairmaster Why most of us believe that exercise makes us thinner—and why we’re wrong. Gary Taubes, in New York Magazine, and We can’t work it out, in the Guardian.
You can see Taubes in action on YouTube, for example in “on Cholesterol and Science Practices“, and “on Carbohydrates and Degenerative Diseases“. There is also a video of Taubes on medical grand rounds at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in June 2009. You can see Robert Lustig on YouTube too: “Sugar: The Bitter Truth“.
22 December.2009, Unlike the serious questions dealt with in the Diet Delusion, this concerns merely another bit of the ubiquitous nutribollocks that crops up in the media, While writing this I was listening to the excellent early evening news programme, PM, run by Eddie Mair, when a diet-related topic came up, it was nonsense about how a cocktail made with vodka, cointreau, acai juice and pomegranate juice would not give you a hangover. I suppose it was meant as christmas fun but whenever I hear the words ‘antioxidant‘ or ‘superfood; I feel an email coming on. It seems that Eddie Mair liked the fact that the email contained the words ‘quack’ and ‘codswallop’ because the next thing I knew I was asked to give an interview on next day’s programme. The mp3 is here.
We have listed many reasons hear why you should never trust Boots. Here are the previous ones.
Can you trust Boots?
Don’t Trust Boots
Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 promotion
This post is about a "functional food". That is about something a bit more serious than homeopathy, though I’ll return to that standing joke in the follow-up, because of Boots’ latest shocking admission..
Alternative medicine advocates love to blame Big Pharma for every criticism of magic medicine. In contrast, people like me, Ben Goldacre and a host of others have often pointed out that the differences seem to get ever smaller between the huge Alternative industry (about $60 billion per year), and the even huger regular pharmaceutical industry (around $600 billion per year),
Boots are as good an example as any. While representing themselves as ethical pharmacists, they seem to have no compunction at all in highly deceptive advertising of medicines and supplements which are utterly useless rip-offs.
The easiest way to make money is to sell something that is alleged to cure a common, but ill-defined problem, that has a lot of spontaneous variability.. Like stress, for example.
The Times carried a piece Is Boots’s new Lactium pill the solution to stress?. Needless to say the question wasn’t answered. It was more like an infomercial than serious journalism. Here is what Boots say.
What does it do?
This product contains Lactium, a unique ingredient which is proven to help with the stresses of every day life, helping you through a stressful day. Also contains B vitamins, magnesium and vitamin C, which help to support a healthy immune system and energy levels.
Why is it different?
This one a day supplement contains the patented ingredient Lactium. All Boots vitamins and suppliers are checked to ensure they meet our high quality and safety standards.
So what is this "unique ingredient", Lactium? It is a produced by digestion of cow’s milk with trypsin. It was patented in 1995 by the French company, Ingredia, It is now distributed in the USA and Canada by Pharmachem. which describes itself as “a leader in the nutraceutical industry.” Drink a glass of milk and your digestive system will make it for you. Free. Boots charge you £4.99 for only seven capsules.
What’s the evidence?
The search doesn’t start well. A search of the medical literature with Pubmed for "lactium" produces no results at all. Search for "casein hydrolysate" gives quite a lot, but "casein hydrolysate AND stress" gives only seven, of which only one looks at effects in man, Messaoudi M, Lefranc-Millot C, Desor D, Demagny B, Bourdon L. Eur J Nutr. 2005.
There is a list of nineteen "studies" on the Pharmachem web site That is where Boots sent me when I asked about evidence, so let’s take a look.
Of the nineteen studies, most are just advertising slide shows or unpublished stuff. Two appear to be duplicated. There are only two proper published papers worth looking at, and one of these is in
rats not man. The human paper first.
Paper 1 Effects of a Bovine Alpha S1-Casein Tryptic Hydrolysate (CTH) on Sleep Disorder in Japanese General Population, Zara de Saint-Hilaire, Michaël Messaoudi, Didier Desor and Toshinori Kobayashi [reprint here] The authors come from France, Switzerland and Japan.
This paper was published in The Open Sleep Journal, 2009, 2, 26-32, one of 200 or so open access journals published by Bentham Science Publishers.
It has to be one of the worst clinical trials that I’ve encountered. It was conducted on 32 subjects, healthy Japanese men and women aged 25-40 and had reported sleeping disorders. It was double blind and placebo controlled, so apart from the fact that only 12 of the 32 subjects were in the control group, what went wrong?
The results were assessed as subjective sleep quality using the Japanese Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index (PSQI-J). This gave a total .score and seven component scores: sleep quality, sleep latency, sleep duration, habitual sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances, use of sleeping medication, and daytime dysfunction.
In the results section we read, for total PSQI score
"As shown in Table 2, the Mann-Whitney U-test did not show significant differences between CTH [casein tryptic hydrolysate] and Placebo groups in PSQI-J total scores at D0 (U=85; NS), D14 (U=86.5; NS), D28 (U=98.5; NS) and D35 (U=99.5; NS)."
Then we read exactly similar statements for the seven component scores. For example,. for Sleep Quality
As shown in Table 3, the Mann-Whitney U-test did not show significant differences between the sleep quality scores of CTH and Placebo groups at D0 (U=110.5; NS), D14 (U=108.5; NS), D28 (U=110; NS) and D35 (U=108.5; NS).
The discussion states
"The comparisons between the two groups with the test of Mann-Whitney did not show significant differences, probably because of the control product’s placebo effect. Despite everything, the paired comparisons with the test of Wilcoxon show interesting effects of CTH on sleep disorders of the treated subjects. "
Aha, so those pesky controls are to blame! But despite this negative result the abstract of the paper says
"CTH significantly improves the PSQI total score of the treated subjects. It particularly improves the sleep quality after two weeks of treatment, decreases the sleep latency and the daytime dysfunction after four weeks of treatment.
Given the antistress properties of CTH, it seems possible to relate the detected improvement of sleep aspects to a reduction of stress following its’ chronic administration."
So there seems to be a direct contradiction between the actual results and the announced outcome of the trial. How could this happen? The way that the results are presented make it hard to
tell. As far as I can tell, the answer is that, having failed to find evidence of real differences between CTH and placebo, the authors gave up on the placebo control and looked simply at the change
from the day 0 basleine values within the CTH group and, separately, within the placebo group. Some of these differences did pass statistical significance but if you analyse it
that way. there is no point in having a control group at all.
How on earth did such a poor paper get published in a peer-reviewed journal? One answer is that there are now so many peer-reviewed journals, that just about any paper, however poor, can get published
in some journal that describes itself as ‘peer-reviewed’. At the lower end of the status hierarchy, the system is simply broken.
Bentham Science Publishers are the publishers of the The Open Sleep Journal. (pity they saw fit to hijack the name of UCL’s spiritual founder, Jeremy Bentham). They publish 92 online and print journals, 200 plus open access journals, and related print/online book series. This publsher has a less than perfect reputation. There can be no scientist of any age or reputation who hasn’t had dozens of emails begging them to become editors of one or other of their journals or to write something for them. They have been described as a "pyramid scheme” for open access. It seems that every Tom, Dick and Harry has been asked. They have been described under the heading Black sheep among Open Access Journals and Publishers. More background can be found at Open Access News..
Most telling of all, a spoof paper was sent to a Bentham journal, The Open Information Science Journal. . There is a good account of the episode the New Scientist, under the title “CRAP paper accepted by journal”. It was the initiative if a graduate student at Cornell University. After getting emails from Bentham, he said “”It really painted a picture of vanity publishing”. The spoof paper was computer-generated rubbish, but it was accepted anyway, without comment. Not only did it appear that is was never reviewed but the editors even failed to notice that the authors said the paper came from the "Center for Research in Applied Phrenology", or CRAP. .The publication fee was $800, to be sent to a PO Box in the United Arab Emirates. Having made the point, the authors withdrew the paper.
Paper 5 in the list of nineteen stidies is also worth a look. It’s about rats not humans but it is in a respectable journal The FASEB Journal Express Article doi:10.1096/fj.00-0685fje (Published online June 8, 2001) [reprint here].
Characterization of α-casozepine, a tryptic peptide from bovine αs1-casein with benzodiazepine-like activity. Laurent Miclo et al.
This paper provides the basis for the claim that digested milk has an action like the benzodiazepine class of drugs, which includes diazepam (Valium). The milk hydrolysate, lactium was tested in rats and found to have some activity in tests that are alleged to measure effects on anxiety (I haven’t looked closely at the data, since the claims relate to humans).. The milk protein, bovine αS1 casein contains 214 amino acids. One of the many products of its digestion is a 10-amino-acid fragment (residues 91 -100) known as α-casozepine and this is the only product that was found to have an affinity for the γ-amino-butyric acid (GABA) type A receptors, which is where benzodiazepines are thought to act. There are a few snags with this idea.
- The affinity of α-casozepine peptide had 10,000-fold lower affinity for the benzodiazepine site of the GABAA than did diazepam, whereas allegedly the peptide was 10-fold more potent than diazepam in one of the rat tests.
- The is no statement anywhere of how much of the α-casozepine peptide is present in the stuff sold my Boots, or whether it can be absorbed
- And if digested milk did act like diazepam, it should clearly be callled a drug not a food.
What’s the conclusion about lactium?
Here is what I make of it.
Does it relieve stress? The evidence that it works any better than drinking a glass of milk is negligible. Tha advertising is grossly misleading and the price is extortionate.
Corruption of science. There is a more interesting aspect than that though. The case of lactium isn’t quite like the regular sort of alternative medicine scam. It isn’t inherently absurd, like homeopathy. The science isn’t the sort of ridiculous pseudo-scientific ramblings of magic medicine advocates who pretend it is all quantum theory The papers cited here are real papers, using real instruments and published in real journals,
What is interesting about that is that they show very clearly the corruption of real science that occurs at its fringes, This is science in the service of the dairy industry and in the service of the vast supplements industry. These are people who want to sell you a supplement for everything.
Medical claims are made for supplements, yet loopholes in the law are exploited to maintain that they are foods not drugs. The law and the companies that exploit it are deeply dishonest. That’s bad enough. but the real tragedy is when science itself is corrupted in the service of sales.
Big Pharma and the alternative industry. Nowhere is the slose alliance between Big Pharma and the alternative medicine industry more obvious than in the supplement and nutriceutical markets. Often the same companies run both. Their aim is to sell you thinks that you don’t need, for conditions that you may well not have, and to lighten your wallet in the process. Don’t believe for a moment that the dark-suited executives give a bugger about your health. You are a market to be exploited.
If you doubt that, look from time to time at one of the nutraceutical industry web sites, like nutraingredients.com. They even have a bit to say about lactium. They are particularly amusing at the moment because the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has had the temerity to demand that when health claims are made for foods, there is actually some small element of truth in the claims. The level of righteous indignation caused in the young food industry executives at the thought that they might have to tell the truth is everywhere to see. For example, try Life in a European health claims wasteland. Or, more relevant to Lactium, Opportunity remains in dairy bioactives despite departures. Here’s
a quotation from that one.
“Tage Affertsholt, managing partner at 3A Business Consulting, told NutraIngredients.com that the feedback from industry is that the very restrictive approach to health claims adopted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will hamper growth potential.”
“Affertsholt said: “Some companies are giving up and leaving the game to concentrate on more traditional dairy ingredients.”
Science and government policy
It may not have escaped your notice that the sort of low grade, corrupted, fringe science described here, is precisely the sort that is being encouraged by government policies. You are expected to get lots of publications, so never mind the details, just churn ’em out; The hundreds of new journals that have been created will allow you to get as meny peer-reviwed publications as you want without too much fuss, and you can very easily put an editorship of one of them on your CV when you fill in that bit about indicators of esteem. The box tickers in HR will never know that it’s a mickey mouse journal.
Boots own up to selling crap
Although this post was nothing to do with joke subjects like homeopathy, it isn’t possible to write about Boots without mentioning the performance of their professional standards director, Paul Bennett, when he appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee for Science and Technology.. This committee was holding an “evidence check” session on homeopathy (it’s nothing short of surreal that this should be happening in 2009, uh?). The video can be seen here, and an uncorrected transcript. It is quite fun in places. You can also read the written evidence that was submitted.
Even the Daily Mail didn’t misss this one. Fioana Macrae wrote Boots boss admits they sell homeopathic remedies ‘because they’re popular, not because they work’
“It could go down as a Boot in Mouth moment.
Yesterday, the company that boasts shelf upon shelf of arnica, St John’s wort, flower remedies and calendula cream admitted that homeopathy doesn’t necessarily work.
But it does sell. Which according to Paul Bennett, the man from Boots, is why the pharmacy chain stocks such products in the first place.
Mr Bennett, professional standards director for Boots, told a committee of MPs that there was no medical evidence that homeopathic pills and potions work.
‘There is certainly a consumer demand for these products,’ he said. ‘I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious.
‘It is about consumer choice for us and a large number of our customers believe they are efficacious.’
His declaration recalls Gerald Ratner’s infamous admission in 1991 that one of the gifts sold by his chain of jewellers was ‘total crap’.”
The Times noticed too, with Boots ‘labels homeopathy as effective despite lack of evidence‘.
Now you know that you can’t trust Boots. You heard it from the mouth of their professional standards director.
A commentary on the meeting by a clinical scientist summed up Bennett’s contribution thus
"Paul Bennett from Boots had to admit that there was no evidence, but regaled the committee with the mealy-mouthed flannel about customer choice that we have come to expect from his amoral employer."
The third session of the Scitech evidence check can be seen here, and the uncorrected transcript is here. It is, in a grim way, pure comedy gold, More of that later.
This post has been translated into Belorussian..
Chinese medicine and herbal medicine are in the news at the moment. There is a real risk that the government could endorse them by accepting the Pittilo report.
In my view traditional Chinese medicine endangers people. The proposed ‘regulation’ would do nothing to protect the public. Quite on the contrary, it would add to the dangers, by giving an official stamp of approval while doing nothing for safety.
The government’s idea of improving safety is to make sure that practitioners are ‘properly trained’. But it is the qualifications that cause the danger in the first place. The courses teach ideas that are plain wrong and often really dangerous.
Why have government (and some universities) not noticed this? That’s easy to see. Governments, quangos and university validation committees simply don’t look. They tick boxes but never ask what actually goes on. Here’s some examples of what goes on for them to think about. They show clearly the sort of dangerous rubbish that is taught on some of these ‘degrees’.
These particular slides are from the University of Westminster, but similar courses exist in only too many other places. Watch this space for more details on courses at Edinburgh Napier University, Middlesex University and the University of East London
Just a lot of old myths. Sheer gobbledygook,
SO much for a couple of centuries of physiology,
It gets worse.
Curious indeed. The fantasy gobbledygook gets worse.
Now it is getting utterly silly. Teaching students that the brain is made of marrow is not just absurd, but desperately dangerous for anyone unlucky (or stupid) enough to go to such a person when they are ill.
Here’s another herbal lecture., and this time the topic is serious. Cancer.
Herbal approaches for patients with cancer.
I’ve removed the name of the teacher to spare her the acute embarrassment of having these dangerous fantasies revealed. The fact that she probably believes them is not a sufficient excuse for endangering the public. There is certainly no excuse for the university allowing this stuff to be taught as part of a BSc (Hons).
First get them scared with some bad statistics.
No fuss there about distinguishing incidence, age-standardisation and death rates. And no reference. Perhaps a reference to the simple explanation of statistics at Cancer Research UK might help? Perhaps this slide would have been better (from CDC). Seems there is some mistake in slide 2.
Straight on to a truly disgraceful statement in slide 3
The is outrageous and very possibly illegal under the Cancer Act (1939). It certainly poses a huge danger to patients. It is a direct incentive to make illegal, and untrue claims by using weasel words in an attempt to stay just on the right side of the law. But that, of course, is standard practice in alternative medicine,
Slide 11 is mostly meaningless. “Strengthen vitality” sounds good but means nothing. And “enhancing the immune system” is what alternative medicine folks always say when they can think of nothing else. Its meaning is ill-defined and there is no reason to think that any herbs do it.
The idea of a ‘tonic’ was actually quite common in real medicine in the 1950s. The term slowly vanished as it was realised that it was a figment of the imagination. In the fantasy world of alternative medicine, it lives on.
Detoxification, a marketing term not a medical one, has been extensively debunked quite recently. The use of the word by The Prince of Wales’ company, Duchy Originals recently fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority, and his herbal ‘remedies’ were zapped by the MHRA (Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority).
And of course the antioxidant myth is a long-disproved hypothesis that has become a mere marketing term.
“Inhibits the recurrence of cancer”! That sounds terrific. But if it is so good why is it not even mentioned in the two main resources for information about herbs?
In the UK we have the National Library for Health Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialist Library (NeLCAM), now a part of NHS Evidence. It was launched in 2006. The clinical lead was none other than Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, and the Queen’s homeopathic physician. The library was developed with the School of Integrated Health at the University of Westminster (where this particular slide was shown to undergraduates). Nobody could accuse these people of being hostile to magic medicine,
It seems odd, then, that NeLCAM does not seem to thnk to think that Centella asiatica, is even worth mentioning.
In the USA we have the National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), an organisation that is so friendly to alternative medicine that it has spent a billion dollars on research in the area, though it has produced not a single good treatment for that vast expenditure. But NCCAM too does not even mention Centella asiatica in its herb list. It does get a mention in Cochrane reviews but only as a cosmetic cream and as an unproven treatment for poor venous circulation in the legs.
What on earth is a “lymph remedy”. Just another marketing term?
“especially valuable in the treatment of breast, throat and uterus cancer.“
That is a very dramatic claim. It as as though the hapless students were being tutored in doublespeak. What is meant by “especially valuable in the treatment of”? Clearly a desperate patient would interpret those words as meaning that there was at least a chance of a cure. That would be a wicked deception because there isn’t the slightest reason to think it works. Once again there this wondrous cure is not even mentioned in either NELCAM or NCCAM. Phytolacca is mentioned, as Pokeweed, in Wikipedia but no claims are mentioned even there. And it isn’t mentioned in Cochrane reviews either. The dramatic claims are utterly unfounded.
Ah the mistletoe story, again.
NHS Evidence (NeLCAM) lists three completed assessments. One concludes that more research is needed. Another concludes that “Rigorous trials of mistletoe extracts fail to demonstrate efficacy of this therapy”, and the third says “The evidence from RCTs to support the view that the application of mistletoe extracts has impact on survival or leads to an improved ability to fight cancer or to withstand anticancer treatments is weak”.
NCCAM says of mistletoe
- More than 30 human studies using mistletoe to treat cancer have been done since the early 1960s, but major weaknesses in many of these have raised doubts about their findings (see Question 6).
- Very few bad side effects have been reported from the use of mistletoe extract, though mistletoe plants and berries are poisonous to humans (see Question 7).
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved mistletoe as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition (see Question 8).
- The FDA does not allow injectable mistletoe to be imported, sold, or used except for clinical research (see Question 8).
Cochrane reviews lists several reviews of mistletoe with similar conclusions. For example “The evidence from RCTs to support the view that the application of mistletoe extracts has impact on survival or leads to an improved ability to fight cancer or to withstand anticancer treatments is weak”.
Anthroposophy is one of the highest grades of fantasy you can find. A post on that topic is in the works.
“Indicated for cancers . . . colon/rectal, uterine, breast, lung“. A cure for lung cancer? That, of course, depends on how you interpret the weasel words “indicated for”. Even Wikipedia makes no mention of any claims that Thuja benefits cancer. NHS Evidence (NeLCAM) doesn’t mention Thuja for any indication. Neither does NCCAM. Nor Cochrane reviews. That is not the impression the hapless students of this BSc lecture were given. In my view suggestions that you can cure lung cancer with this tree are just plain wicked.
Pure snake oil, and not even spelled correctly, Harry Hoxsey’s treatment centres in the USA were closed by court order in the 1950s.
At least this time it is stated that there is no hard evidence to support this brand of snake oil.
More unfounded claims when it says “treated successfully many cancer patients”. No references and no data to support the claim. It is utterly unfounded and claims to the contrary endanger the public.
Gerson therapy is one of the most notorious and unpleasant of the quack cancer treatments. The Gerson Institute is on San Diego, but their clinics are in Mexico and Hungary. It is illegal in the USA. According to the American Cancer Society you get “a strict low-salt, low-fat, vegetarian diet and drinking juice from about twenty pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables each day. One glass of juice is consumed each hour, thirteen times a day. In addition, patients are given several coffee enemas each day. Various supplements, such as potassium, vitamin B12, pancreatic enzymes, thyroid hormone, and liver extracts, are used to stimulate organ function, particularly of the liver and thyroid.”. At one time you also got several glasses of raw calf liver every day but after infections killed several people] carrot juice was given instead.
Cancer Research UK says “there is no evidence to show that Gerson therapy works as a cure for cancer”, and “The Gerson diet can cause some very serious side effects.” Nobody (except perhaps the Price of Wales) has any belief in this unpleasant, toxic and expensive folk-lore.
Again patients are endangered by teaching this sort of stuff.
And finally, the usual swipe at vaccines. It’s nothing to do with herbalism. but just about every alternative medicine advocate seems to subscribe to the anti-vaccination lobby.. It is almost as though they have an active preference for things that are known to be wrong. They seem to believe that medicine and science are part of an enormous conspiracy to kill everyone.
Perhaps this dangerous propaganda might have been ameliorated if the students had been shown this slide (from a talk by Melinda Wharton).
Left to people like this, we would still have smallpox, diphtheria. tetanus and rabies, Take a look at Vaccine-preventable diseases.
This is the sort of ‘education’ which the Pittilo report wants to make compulsory.
Smallpox in Baltimore, USA, 1939. This man was not vaccinated.
This selection of slides shows that much of the stuff taught in degrees in herbal medicine poses a real danger to public safety and to public health.
Pittilo’s idea that imposing this sort of miseducation will help safety is obviously and dangerously wrong. The Department of Health must reject the Pittilo recommendations on those grounds.
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.
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?
Now back to Westminster
Here are a few slides about EmoTrance
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
This article has been reposted on The Winnower, and now has a digital object identifier DOI: 10.15200/winn.142934.47856
This post is not about quackery, nor university politics. It is about inference, How do we know what we should eat? The question interests everyone, but what do we actually know? Not as much as you might think from the number of column-inches devoted to the topic. The discussion below is a synopsis of parts of an article called “In praise of randomisation”, written as a contribution to a forthcoming book, Evidence, Inference and Enquiry.
About a year ago just about every newspaper carried a story much like this one in the Daily Telegraph,
Sausage a day can increase bowel cancer risk
By Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor Last Updated: 1:55AM BST 31/03/2008
What, I wondered, was the evidence behind these dire warnings. They did not come from a lifestyle guru, a diet faddist or a supplement salesman. This is nothing to do with quackery. The numbers come from the 2007 report of the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research, with the title ‘Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective‘. This is a 537 page report with over 4,400 references. Its panel was chaired by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, UCL’s professor of Epidemiology and Public Health. He is a distinguished epidemiologist, renowned for his work on the relation between poverty and health.
Nevertheless there has never been a randomised trial to test the carcinogenicity of bacon, so it seems reasonable to ask how strong is the evidence that you shouldn’t eat it? It turns out to be surprisingly flimsy.
In praise of randomisation
Everyone knows about the problem of causality in principle. Post hoc ergo propter hoc; confusion of sequence and consequence; confusion of correlation and cause. This is not a trivial problem. It is probably the main reason why ineffective treatments often appear to work. It is traded on by the vast and unscrupulous alternative medicine industry. It is, very probably, the reason why we are bombarded every day with conflicting advice on what to eat. This is a bad thing, for two reasons. First, we end up confused about what we should eat. But worse still, the conflicting nature of the advice gives science as a whole a bad reputation. Every time a white-coated scientist appears in the media to tell us that a glass of wine per day is good/bad for us (delete according to the phase of the moon) the general public just laugh.
In the case of sausages and bacon, suppose that there is a correlation between eating them and developing colorectal cancer. How do we know that it was eating the bacon that caused the cancer – that the relationship is causal? The answer is that there is no way to be sure if we have simply observed the association. It could always be that the sort of people who eat bacon are also the sort of people who get colorectal cancer. But the question of causality is absolutely crucial, because if it is not causal, then stopping eating bacon won’t reduce your risk of cancer. The recommendation to avoid all processed meat in the WCRF report (2007) is sensible only if the relationship is causal. Barker Bausell said:
[Page39] “But why should nonscientists care one iota about something as esoteric as causal inference? I believe that the answer to this question is because the making of causal inferences is part of our job description as Homo Sapiens.”
That should be the mantra of every health journalist, and every newspaper reader.
The essential basis for causal inference was established over 70 years ago by that giant of statistics Ronald Fisher, and that basis is randomisation. Its first popular exposition was in Fisher’s famous book, The Design of Experiments (1935). The Lady Tasting Tea has become the classical example of how to design an experiment. .
Briefly, a lady claims to be able to tell whether the milk was put in the cup before or after the tea was poured. Fisher points out that to test this you need to present the lady with an equal number of cups that are ‘milk first’ or ‘tea first’ (but otherwise indistinguishable) in random order, and count how many she gets right. There is a beautiful analysis of it in Stephen Senn’s book, Dicing with Death: Chance, Risk and Health. As it happens, Google books has the whole of the relevant section Fisher’s tea test (geddit?), but buy the book anyway. Such is the fame of this example that it was used as the title of a book, The Lady Tasting Tea was published by David Salsburg (my review of it is here)
Most studies of diet and health fall into one of three types, case-control studies, cohort (or prospective) studies, or randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Case-control studies are the least satisfactory: they look at people who already have the disease and look back to see how they differ from similar people who don’t have the disease. They are retrospective. Cohort studies are better because they are prospective: a large group of people is followed for a long period and their health and diet is recorded and later their disease and death is recorded. But in both sorts of studies,each person decides for him/herself what to eat or what drugs to take. Such studies can never demonstrate causality, though if the effect is really big (like cigarette-smoking and lung cancer) they can give a very good indication. The difference in an RCT is that each person does not choose what to eat, but their diet is allocated randomly to them by someone else. This means that, on average, all other factors that might influence the response are balanced equally between the two groups. Only RCTs can demonstrate causality.
Randomisation is a rather beautiful idea. It allows one to remove, in a statistical sense, bias that might result from all the sources that you hadn’t realised were there. If you are aware of a source of bias, then measure it. The danger arises from the things you don’t know about, or can’t measure (Senn, 2004; Senn, 2003). Although it guarantees freedom from bias only in a long run statistical sense, that is the best that can be done. Everything else is worse.
Ben Goldacre has referred memorably to the newspapers’ ongoing “Sisyphean task of dividing all the inanimate objects in the world into the ones that either cause or cure cancer” (Goldacre, 2008). This has even given rise to a blog. “The Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project“. The problem arises in assessing causality.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the problem were restricted to the media. It is much more worrying that the problem of establishing causality often seems to be underestimated by the authors of papers themselves. It is a matter of speculation why this happens. Part of the reason is, no doubt, a genuine wish to discover something that will benefit mankind. But it is hard not to think that hubris and self-promotion may also play a role. Anything whatsoever that purports to relate diet to health is guaranteed to get uncritical newspaper headlines.
At the heart of the problem lies the great difficulty in doing randomised studies of the effect of diet and health. There can be no better illustration of the vital importance of randomisation than in this field. And, notwithstanding the generally uncritical reporting of stories about diet and health, one of the best accounts of the need for randomisation was written by a journalist, Gary Taubes, and it appeared in the New York Times (Taubes, 2007).
The case of hormone replacement therapy
In the 1990s hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was recommended not only to relieve the unpleasant symptoms of the menopause, but also because cohort studies suggested that HRT would reduce heart disease and osteoporosis in older women. For these reasons, by 2001, 15 million US women (perhaps 5 million older women) were taking HRT (Taubes, 2007). These recommendations were based largely on the Harvard Nurses’ Study. This was a prospective cohort study in which 122,000 nurses were followed over time, starting in 1976 (these are the ones who responded out of the 170,000 requests sent out). In 1994, it was said (Manson, 1994) that nearly all of the more than 30 observational studies suggested a reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) among women receiving oestrogen therapy. A meta-analysis gave an estimated 44% reduction of CHD. Although warnings were given about the lack of randomised studies, the results were nevertheless acted upon as though they were true. But they were wrong. When proper randomised studies were done, not only did it turn out that CHD was not reduced: it was actually increased.
The Women’s Health Initiative Study (Rossouw et al., 2002) was a randomized double blind trial on 16,608 postmenopausal women aged 50-79 years and its results contradicted the conclusions from all the earlier cohort studies. HRT increased risks of heart disease, stroke, blood clots, breast cancer (though possibly helped with osteoporosis and perhaps colorectal cancer). After an average 5.2 years of follow-up, the trial was stopped because of the apparent increase in breast cancer in the HRT group. The relative risk (HRT relative to placebo) of CHD was 1.29 (95% confidence interval 1.02 to 1.63) (286 cases altogether) and for breast cancer 1.26 (1.00 -1.59) (290 cases). Rather than there being a 44% reduction of risk, it seems that there was actually a 30% increase in risk. Notice that these are actually quite small risks, and on the margin of statistical significance. For the purposes of communicating the nature of the risk to an individual person it is usually better to specify the absolute risk rather than relative risk. The absolute number of CHD cases per 10,000 person-years is about 29 on placebo and 36 on HRT, so the increased risk of any individual is quite small. Multiplied over the whole population though, the number is no longer small.
Several plausible reasons for these contradictory results are discussed by Taubes,(2007): it seems that women who choose to take HRT are healthier than those who don’t. In fact the story has become a bit more complicated since then: the effect of HRT depends on when it is started and on how long it is taken (Vandenbroucke, 2009).
This is perhaps one of the most dramatic illustrations of the value of randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Reliance on observations of correlations suggested a 44% reduction in CHD, the randomised trial gave a 30% increase in CHD. Insistence on randomisation is not just pedantry. It is essential if you want to get the right answer.
Having dealt with the cautionary tale of HRT, we can now get back to the ‘Sisyphean task of dividing all the inanimate objects in the world into the ones that either cause or cure cancer’.
The case of processed meat
The WCRF report (2007) makes some pretty firm recommendations.
- Don’t get overweight
- Be moderately physically active, equivalent to brisk walking for at least 30 minutes every day
- Consume energy-dense foods sparingly. Avoid sugary drinks. Consume ‘fast foods’ sparingly, if at all
- Eat at least five portions/servings (at least 400 g or 14 oz) of a variety of non-starchy vegetables and of fruits every day. Eat relatively unprocessed cereals (grains) and/or pulses (legumes) with every meal. Limit refined starchy foods
- People who eat red meat to consume less than 500 g (18 oz) a week, very little if any to be processed.
- If alcoholic drinks are consumed, limit consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
- Avoid salt-preserved, salted, or salty foods; preserve foods without using salt. Limit consumption of processed foods with added salt to ensure an intake of less than 6 g (2.4 g sodium) a day.
- Dietary supplements are not recommended for cancer prevention.
These all sound pretty sensible but they are very prescriptive. And of course the recommendations make sense only insofar as the various dietary factors cause cancer. If the association is not causal, changing your diet won’t help. Note that dietary supplements are NOT recommended. I’ll concentrate on the evidence that lies behind “People who . . . very little if any to be processed.”
The problem of establishing causality is dicussed in the report in detail. In section 3.4 the report says
” . . . causal relationships between food and nutrition, and physical activity can be confidently inferred when epidemiological evidence, and experimental and other biological findings, are consistent, unbiased, strong, graded, coherent, repeated, and plausible.”
The case of processed meat is dealt with in chapter 4.3 (p. 148) of the report.
“Processed meats” include sausages and frankfurters, and ‘hot dogs’, to which nitrates/nitrites or other preservatives are added, are also processed meats. Minced meats sometimes, but not always, fall inside this definition if they are preserved chemically. The same point applies to ‘hamburgers’.
The evidence for harmfulness of processed meat was described as “convincing”, and this is the highest level of confidence in the report, though this conclusion has been challenged (Truswell, 2009) .
How well does the evidence obey the criteria for the relationship being causal?
Twelve prospective cohort studies showed increased risk for the highest intake group when compared to the lowest, though this was statistically significant in only three of them. One study reported non-significant decreased risk and one study reported that there was no effect on risk. These results are summarised in this forest plot (see also Lewis & Clark, 2001)
Each line represents a separate study. The size of the square represents the precision (weight) for each. The horizontal bars show the 95% confidence intervals. If it were possible to repeat the observations many times on the same population, the 95% CL would be different on each repeat experiment, but 19 out of 20 (95%) of the intervals would contain the true value (and 1 in 20 would not contain the true value). If the bar does not overlap the vertical line at relative risk = 1 (i.e. no effect) this is equivalent to saying that there is a statistically significant difference from 1 with P < 0.05. That means, very roughly, that there is a 1 in 20 chance of making a fool of yourself if you claim that the association is real, rather than being a result of chance (more detail here),
There is certainly a tendency for the relative risks to be above one, though not by much, Pooling the results sounds like a good idea. The method for doing this is called meta-analysis .
Meta-analysis was possible on five studies, shown below. The outcome is shown by the red diamond at the bottom, labelled “summary effect”, and the width of the diamond indicates the 95% confidence interval. In this case the final result for association between processed meat intake and colorectal cancer was a relative risk of 1.21 (95% CI 1.04–1.42) per 50 g/day. This is presumably where the headline value of a 20% increase in risk came from.
Support came from a meta-analysis of 14 cohort studies, which reported a relative risk for processed meat of 1.09 (95% CI 1.05 – 1.13) per 30 g/day (Larsson & Wolk, 2006). Since then another study has come up with similar numbers (Sinha etal. , 2009). This consistency suggests a real association, but it cannot be taken as evidence for causality. Observational studies on HRT were just as consistent, but they were wrong.
The accompanying editorial (Popkin, 2009) points out that there are rather more important reasons to limit meat consumption, like the environmental footprint of most meat production, water supply, deforestation and so on.
So the outcome from vast numbers of observations is an association that only just reaches the P = 0.05 level of statistical significance. But even if the association is real, not a result of chance sampling error, that doesn’t help in the least in establishing causality.
There are two more criteria that might help, a good relationship between dose and response, and a plausible mechanism.
Dose – response relationship
It is quite possible to observe a very convincing relationship between dose and response in epidemiological studies, The relationship between number of cigarettes smoked per day and the incidence of lung cancer is one example. Indeed it is almost the only example.
Doll & Peto, 1978
There have been six studies that relate consumption of processed meat to incidence of colorectal cancer. All six dose-response relationships are shown in the WCRG report. Here they are.
This Figure was later revised to
This is the point where my credulity begins to get strained. Dose – response curves are part of the stock in trade of pharmacologists. The technical description of these six curves is, roughly, ‘bloody horizontal’. The report says “A dose-response relationship was also apparent from cohort studies that measured consumption in times/day”. I simply cannot agree that any relationship whatsoever is “apparent”.
They are certainly the least convincing dose-response relationships I have ever seen. Nevertheless a meta-analysis came up with a slope for response curve that just reached the 5% level of statistical significance.
The conclusion of the report for processed meat and colorectal cancer was as follows.
“There is a substantial amount of evidence, with a dose-response relationship apparent from cohort studies. There is strong evidence for plausible mechanisms operating in humans. Processed meat is a convincing cause of colorectal cancer.”
But the dose-response curves look appalling, and it is reasonable to ask whether public policy should be based on a 1 in 20 chance of being quite wrong (1 in 20 at best –see Senn, 2008). I certainly wouldn’t want to risk my reputation on odds like that, never mind use it as a basis for public policy.
So we are left with plausibility as the remaining bit of evidence for causality. Anyone who has done much experimental work knows that it is possible to dream up a plausible explanation of any result whatsoever. Most are wrong and so plausibility is a pretty weak argument. Much play is made of the fact that cured meats contain nitrates and nitrites, but there is no real evidence that the amount they contain is harmful.
The main source of nitrates in the diet is not from meat but from vegetables (especially green leafy vegetables like lettuce and spinach) which contribute 70 – 90% of total intake. The maximum legal content in processed meat is 10 – 25 mg/100g, but lettuce contains around 100 – 400 mg/100g with a legal limit of 200 – 400 mg/100g. Dietary nitrate intake was not associated with risk for colorectal cancer in two cohort studies.(Food Standards Agency, 2004; International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2006).
To add further to the confusion, another cohort study on over 60,000 people compared vegetarians and meat-eaters. Mortality from circulatory diseases and mortality from all causes were not detectably different between vegetarians and meat eaters (Key et al., 2009a). Still more confusingly, although the incidence of all cancers combined was lower among vegetarians than among meat eaters, the exception was colorectal cancer which had a higher incidence in vegetarians than in meat eaters (Key et al., 2009b).
Mente et al. (2009) compared cohort studies and RCTs for effects of diet on risk of coronary heart disease. “Strong evidence” for protective effects was found for intake of vegetables, nuts, and “Mediterranean diet”, and harmful effects of intake of trans–fatty acids and foods with a high glycaemic index. There was also a bit less strong evidence for effects of mono-unsaturated fatty acids and for intake of fish, marine ω-3 fatty acids, folate, whole grains, dietary vitamins E and C, beta carotene, alcohol, fruit, and fibre. But RCTs showed evidence only for “Mediterranean diet”, and for none of the others.
As a final nail in the coffin of case control studies, consider pizza. According to La Vecchia & Bosetti (2006), data from a series of case control studies in northern Italy lead to: “An inverse association was found between regular pizza consumption (at least one portion of pizza per week) and the risk of cancers of the digestive tract, with relative risks of 0.66 for oral and pharyngeal cancers, 0.41 for oesophageal, 0.82 for laryngeal, 0.74 for colon and 0.93 for rectal cancers.”
What on earth is one meant to make of this? Pizza should be prescribable on the National Health Service to produce a 60% reduction in oesophageal cancer? As the authors say “pizza may simply represent a general and aspecific indicator of a favourable Mediterranean diet.” It is observations like this that seem to make a mockery of making causal inferences from non-randomised studies. They are simply uninterpretable.
Is the observed association even real?
The most noticeable thing about the effects of red meat and processed meat is not only that they are small but also that they only just reach the 5 percent level of statistical significance. It has been explained clearly why, in these circumstances, real associations are likely to be exaggerated in size (Ioannidis, 2008a; Ioannidis, 2008b; Senn, 2008). Worse still, there as some good reasons to think that many (perhaps even most) of the effects that are claimed in this sort of study are not real anyway (Ioannidis, 2005). The inflation of the strength of associations is expected to be bigger in small studies, so it is noteworthy that the large meta-analysis by Larsson & Wolk, 2006 comments “In the present meta-analysis, the magnitude of the relationship of processed meat consumption with colorectal cancer risk was weaker than in the earlier meta-analyses”.
This is all consistent with the well known tendency of randomized clinical trials to show initially a good effect of treatment but subsequent trials tend to show smaller effects. The reasons, and the cures, for this worrying problem are discussed by Chalmers (Chalmers, 2006; Chalmers & Matthews, 2006; Garattini & Chalmers, 2009)
What do randomized studies tell us?
The only form of reliable evidence for causality comes from randomised controlled trials. The difficulties in allocating people to diets over long periods of time are obvious and that is no doubt one reason why there are far fewer RCTs than there are observational studies. But when they have been done the results often contradict those from cohort studies. The RCTs of hormone replacement therapy mentioned above contradicted the cohort studies and reversed the advice given to women about HRT.
Three more illustrations of how plausible suggestions about diet can be refuted by RCTs concern nutritional supplements and weight-loss diets
Many RCTs have shown that various forms of nutritional supplement do no good and may even do harm (see Cochrane reviews). At least we now know that anti-oxidants per se do you no good. The idea that anti-oxidants might be good for you was never more than a plausible hypothesis, and like so many plausible hypotheses it has turned out to be a myth. The word anti-oxidant is now no more than a marketing term, though it remains very profitable for unscrupulous salesmen.
The randomised Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial (Prentice et al., 2007; Prentice, 2007) showed minimal effects of dietary fat on cancer, though the conclusion has been challenged on the basis of the possible inaccuracy of reported diet (Yngve et al., 2006).
Contrary to much dogma about weight loss (Sacks et al., 2009) found no differences in weight loss over two years between four very different diets. They assigned randomly 811 overweight adults to one of four diets. The percentages of energy derived from fat, protein, and carbohydrates in the four diets were 20, 15, and 65%; 20, 25, and 55%; 40, 15, and 45%; and 40, 25, and 35%. No difference could be detected between the different diets: all that mattered for weight loss was the total number of calories. It should be added, though, that there were some reasons to think that the participants may not have stuck to their diets very well (Katan, 2009).
The impression one gets from RCTs is that the details of diet are not anything like as important as has been inferred from non-randomised observational studies.
So does processed meat give you cancer?
After all this, we can return to the original question. Do sausages or bacon give you colorectal cancer? The answer, sadly, is that nobody really knows. I do know that, on the basis of the evidence, it seems to me to be an exaggeration to assert that “The evidence is convincing that processed meat is a cause of bowel cancer”.
In the UK there were around 5 cases of colorectal cancer per 10,000 population in 2005, so a 20% increase, even if it were real, and genuinely causative. would result in 6 rather than 5 cases per 10,000 people, annually. That makes the risk sound trivial for any individual. On the other hand there were 36,766 cases of colorectal cancer in the UK in 2005. A 20% increase would mean, if the association were causal, about 7000 extra cases as a result of eating processed meat, but no extra cases if the association were not causal.
For the purposes of public health policy about diet, the question of causality is crucial. One has sympathy for the difficult decisions that they have to make, because they are forced to decide on the basis of inadequate evidence.
If it were not already obvious, the examples discussed above make it very clear that the only sound guide to causality is a properly randomised trial. The only exceptions to that are when effects are really big. The relative risk of lung cancer for a heavy cigarette smoker is 20 times that of a non-smoker and there is a very clear relationship between dose (cigarettes per day) and response (lung cancer incidence), as shown above. That is a 2000% increase in risk, very different from the 20% found for processed meat (and many other dietary effects). Nobody could doubt seriously the causality in that case.
The decision about whether to eat bacon and sausages has to be a personal one. It depends on your attitude to the precautionary principle. The observations do not, in my view, constitute strong evidence for causality, but they are certainly compatible with causality. It could be true so if you want to be on the safe side then avoid bacon. Of course life would not be much fun if your actions were based on things that just could be true.
My own inclination would be to ignore any relative risk based on observational data if it was less than about 2. The National Cancer Institute (Nelson, 2002) advises that relative risks less than 2 should be “viewed with caution”, but fails to explain what “viewing with caution” means in practice, so the advice isn’t very useful.
In fact hardly any of the relative risks reported in the WCRF report (2007) reach this level. Almost all relative risks are less than 1.3 (or greater than 0.7 for alleged protective effects). Perhaps it is best to stop worrying and get on with your life. At some point it becomes counterproductive to try to micromanage `people’s diet on the basis of dubious data. There is a price to pay for being too precautionary. It runs the risk of making people ignore information that has got a sound basis. It runs the risk of excessive medicalisation of everyday life. And it brings science itself into disrepute when people laugh at the contradictory findings of observational epidemiology.
The question of how diet and other ‘lifestyle interventions’ affect health is fascinating to everyone. There is compelling reason to think that it matters. For example one study demonstrated that breast cancer incidence increased almost threefold in first-generation Japanese women who migrated to Hawaii, and up to fivefold in the second generation (Kolonel, 1980). Since then enormous effort has been put into finding out why. The first great success was cigarette smoking but that is almost the only major success. Very few similar magic bullets have come to light after decades of searching (asbestos and mesothelioma, or UV radiation and skin cancer count as successes).
The WCRF report (2007) has 537 pages and over 4400 references and we still don’t know.
Sometimes I think we should say “I don’t know” rather more often.
Listen to Ben Goldacre’s Radio 4 programmes. The Rise of the Lifetsyle Nutritionists. Part 1 and Part 2 (mp3 files), and at badscience.net.
Risk The Science and Politics of Fear, Dan Gardner. Virgin
Some bookmarks about diet and supplements
Dan Gardner, the author of Risk, seems to like the last line at least, according to his blog.
Report of the update, 2010
The 2010 report has been updated in WCRF/AICR Systematic Literature Review Continuous Update Project Report [big pdf file]. This includes studies up to May/June 2010.
The result of addition of the new data was to reduce slightly the apparent risk from eating processed meat from 1.21 (95% CI = 1.04-1.42) in the original study to 1.18 (95% CI = 1.10-1.28) in the update. The change is too small to mean much, though it is in direction expected for false correlations. More importantly, the new data confirm that the dose-response curves are pathetic. The evidence for causality is weakened somewhat by addition of the new data.
Dose-response graph of processed meat and colorectal cancer
The Nutrition Society is the interim professional body for nutrition. It seems that, unlike so many ‘regulatory bodies’, it may actually take its responsibilities seriously. The following announcement has appeared on their web site.
The UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists acts to protect the public and the reputation the nutrition profession
On March 4th 2009, a Fitness to Practice Panel was convened to consider an allegation against a registrant, Dr Ann Walker, that her fitness to practise was impaired. The panel considered whether the registrant, in advocating the use of a web based personal nutritional profiling service had complied with the Code of Ethics’ clause 3: This expects all registered nutritionists to “maintain the highest standards of professionalism and scientific integrity”. In particular, the panel considered whether the registrant showed “knowledge, skills and performance of high quality, up-to-date, and relevant to their field of practice”, in keeping with the Statement of Professional Conduct (para 9). The Panel accepted the allegation of impaired fitness to practice. Mindful of its duty to protect the public, it recommended that Dr Walker be removed from the register. Dr Walker has a right of appeal.
Well. well, this must be none other than the Dr Ann Walker who caused UCL,and me, such trouble a few years ago. And just because I described her use of the word “blood cleanser” as gobbledygook. She has appeared a few times on this blog.
- Nutribollocks: antioxidants useless, some are dangerous
- Red clover, herbal spin and vested interests
- The fallout from DC’s de-excommunication
- So what is a “blood cleanser”? Quinion speaks.
- Herbal medicines fail test
- Nutriprofile: useful aid or sales scam?
- She even gets a brief mention at Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 promotion
Presumably the “web-based personal nutritional profiling service” that is referred to is Nutriprofile, on which, with the help of a dietition, we had a bit of fun a while ago. However ideal your diet it still recommended at the end of the questionnaire that you should buy some expensive supplements. Read about it at Nutriprofile: useful aid or sales scam?
I have no idea who lodged the complaint (but it wasn’t me).
It is interesting to compare the high standards of the Nutrition Society with the quite different standards of BANT (the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy). They bill themselves as the “Professional Body for Nutritional Therapists”. Nutritional therapists are those fantasists who believe you can cure any ill by buying some supplement pills. Their standards can be judged by, for example, BANT ethics code: BANT nutritional therapists are allowed to earn commission from selling pills and tests.
It seems Dr Ann Walker may have joined the wrong society.
In March 2007 I wrote a piece in Nature on Science degrees without the science. At that time there were five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy. A couple of weeks ago I checked the UCAS site for start in 2009, and found there was only one full “BSc (hons)” left and that was at Westminster University.
Today I checked again and NOW THERE ARE NONE.
A phone call to the University of Westminster tonight confirmed that they have suspended entry to their BSc (Hons) homeopathy degree.
They say that they have done so because of “poor recruitment”. It was a purely financial decision. Nothing to do with embarrasment. Gratifying though it is that recruits for the course are vanishing, that statement is actually pretty appalling It says that the University of Westminster doesn’t care whether it’s nonsense, but only about whether it makes money.
Nevertheless the first part of this post is not entirely outdated before it even appeared, because homeopathy will still be taught as part of Complementary Therapies. And Naturopathy and “Nutritional Therapy” are still there..
According to their ‘School of Integrated Health‘, “The University of Westminster has a vision of health care for the 21st Century”. Yes, but it is what most people would call a vision of health care in the 18th century.
The revelation that the University of Westminster teaches that Amethysts emit high Yin energy caused something of a scandal.
Since then I have acquired from several sources quite a lot more of their teaching material, despite the fact that the university has refused to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
In view of the rather silly internal review conducted by Westminster’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Geoffrey Petts, this seems like a good moment to make a bit more of it public,
I think that revelation of the material is justified because it is in the
public interest to know how the University if Westminster is spending taxpayers’ money. Another motive is to defend the reputation of the post-1992 universities. I have every sympathy with the ex-polytechnics in their efforts to convert themselves into universities. In many ways they have succeeded. That effort
is impeded by teaching mystical versions of medicine.
If the University of Westminster is being brought into disrepute, blame its vice-chancellor, not me.
Here are a few slides from a lecture on how good spider venom is for you. It is from Course 3CTH502 Homeopathic Materia Medica II. No need to worry though, because they are talking about homeopathic spider venom, so there is nothing but sugar in the pills. The involvement of spiders is pure imagination. No more than mystical gobbledygook.
You are in hurry, or play with your fingers? You need spider venom pills (that contain no spider venom).
You break furniture? Time goes too fast for you? Try the tarantula-free tarantula pills.
You are preoccupied with sex? You play with ropes? What you need is Mygale (which contains no Mygale)
Much more seriously, the same sugar pills are recommended for serious conditions, chorea, ‘dim sight’, gonorrhoea, syphilis and burning hot urine.
This isn’t just preposterous made-up stuff. It is dangerous.
There is a whole lot more fantasy stuff in the handouts for Homeopathy Materia Medica II (3CTH502). Here are a couple of examples.
Aurum metallicum (metallic gold) [Download the whole handout]
Affinities MIND, VASCULAR SYSTEM, Nerves, Heart, Bones, Glands, Liver, Kidneys, RIGHT SIDE, Left side.
Causations Emotions. Ailments from disappointed love and grief, offence or unusual responsibility, abuse of mercury or allopathic drugs.
Aurum belongs to the syphilitic miasm but has elements of sycosis (Aur-Mur).
Potassium salts are the subject of some fine fantasy, in “The Kali’s” [sic]. (there is much more serious stuff to worry about here than a few misplaced apostrophes.). [Download the whole handout]
“The radioactive element of potassium emits negative electrons from the atom nucleus and is thought to be significant in the sphere of cell processes especially in relation to functions relating to automatism and rhythmicity.”
“Kali people are very conscientious with strong principles. They have their rules and they stick to them, ‘a man of his word’.”
“Potassium acts in a parasympathetic way, tending towards depression”
“They [“Kali people=] are not melancholic like the Natrum’s but rather optimistic.”
Radioactive potassium is involved in automaticity? Total nonsense.
Where is the science?
Yes, it is true that the students get a bit of real science. There isn’t the slightest trace that I can find of any attempt to resolve the obvious fact that what they are taught in the science bits contradict directly what they are told in the other bits. Sounds like a recipe for stress to me.
They even get a bit of incredibly elementary statistics. But they can’t even get that right. This slide is from PPP – Res Quant data analysis.
“Involves parameters and/or distributions”. This has no useful meaning whatsoever, that I can detect.
“Tests hypotheses when population distributions are skewed”. Well yes, though nothing there about forms of non-Gaussian properties other than skew, nothing about normalising transformations, and nothing about the Central Limit theorem.
“Ranks data rather than the actual data itself”. This is plain wrong. Randomisation tests on the original data are generally the best (uniformly most powerful) sort of non-parametric test. It seems to have escaped the attention of the tutor that ranking is a short-cut approximation that allowed tables to be constructed, before we had computers.
The students are told about randomised controlled trials. But amazingly in the lecture PPP-RCTs, the little matter of blinding is barely mantioned. And the teacher’s ideas about randomisation are a bit odd too.
Sorry, but if you fiddle the randomisation, no amount of “careful scrutiny” will rescue you from bias.
An Introduction to Naturopathic Philosophy
Naturopathy is just about as barmy as homeopathy. You can see something about it at the University of Wales. How about this slide from Westminster’s An Introduction to Naturopathic Philosophy.
So if you get tuberculosis, it isn’t caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis? And the symptoms are “constructive”? So you don;t need to do anything. It’s all for the best really.
This isn’t just nonsense. It’s dangerous nonsense.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Ever wondered what the mysterious “Qi” is? Worry no more. All is explained on this slide.
It means breath, air, vapour, gas, energy, vitalism. Or perhaps prana? Is that quite clear now?
What can we make of this one? Anyone can see that the description is barely written in English and that vital information is missing (such as the age of the woman). And it’s nonsense to suggest that “invasion of cold” (during keyhole surgery!) would cause prolonged constriction of blood vessels (never mind that it would “consume yang qi”). Not being a clinician, I showed it to an oncologist friend. He said that it was impossible to tell from the description whether the problem was serious or not, but that any abdominal pain should be investigated properly. There isn’t anything here about referral for proper investigation. Just a lot of stuff about ginger and cinnamon. Anyone who was taught in this way could be a real danger to the public. It isn’t harmless nonsense It’s potentially harmful nonsense.
And finally, it’s DETOX
Surely everyone knows by now that ‘detox’ is no more than a marketing word? Well not at the University of Westminster. They have a long handout that tells you all the usual myths and a few new ones.
It is written by Jennifer Harper-Deacon, who describes herself modestly, thus.
Jennifer Harper-Deacon is a qualified and registered Naturopath and acupuncturist who holds a PhD in Natural Health and MSc in Complementary Therapies. She is a gifted healer and Reiki Master who runs her own clinic in Surrey where she believes in treating the ‘whole’ person by using a combination of Chinese medicine and naturopathic techniques that she has qualified in, including nutritional medicine, Chinese and Western herbalism, homoeopathy, applied kinesiology, reflexology, therapeutic massage, aromatherapy and flower remedies.
It seems that there is no limit on the number of (mutually incompatible) forms of nuttiness that she believes. Here are a few quotations from her handout for Westminster students.
“Detoxification is the single most powerful tool used by natural health professionals to prevent and reverse disease”
What? To “prevent and reverse” malaria? tuberculosis? Parkinson’s disease? AIDS? cancer?
“When you go on to a raw food only diet, especially fruit, the stored toxins are brought up from the deep organs such as the liver and kidneys, to the superficial systems of elimination.”;
Very odd. I always though that kidneys were a system of elimination.
“The over-use and mis-use of antibiotics has weakened the body’s ability to attack and destroy new strains of resistant bacteria, virulent viruses, which have led to our immune system becoming compromised.”
Certainly over-use and mis-use are problems. But I always thought it was the bacteria that became resistant.
“The beauty about detoxification therapy is that it addresses the very causative issues of health problems”
That is another dangerous and silly myth. Tuberculosis is not caused by mythical and un-named “toxins”. It is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
“Naturopathy follows the logic of cause and effect therefore believes that we simply need pure food and water, sunshine, air, adequate rest and sleep coupled with the right amount of exercise for health.”
Try telling that to someone with AIDS.
“Colon cleansing is one of the most important parts of any detoxification programme.”
The strange obsession with enemas in the alternative world is always baffling.
“Frankincense: holds the capacity to physically strengthen our defence system and can rebuild energy levels when our immune system is weak. Revered as a herb of protection, frankincense can also strengthen our spiritual defences when our Wei qi is low, making us more susceptible to negative energies. This calming oil has the ability to deepen the breath, helping us to let go of stale air and emotions, making it ideal oil to use inhale prior to meditating.”
This is so much hot air. There is a bit of evidence that frankincense might have some anti-inflammatory action and that’s it.
But this has to be my favourite.
“Remember when shopping to favour fruits and vegetables which are in season and locally grown (and ideally organic) as they are more vibrationally compatible with the body.”
Locally grown vegetables are “more vibrationally compatible with the body”? Pure mystical gobbledygook. Words fail me.
OK there’s a whole lot more, but that will do for now.
It’s good that Westminster is shutting down its Homeopathy BSc, but it seems they have a bit further to go.
I heard, in January 2011, that Barts has a new Dean of Education, and no longer teaches about alternative medicine in the way that has caused so much criticism in the last two years. That’s good news.
What on earth has gone wrong at the Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD)?
It is not so long ago that I discovered that the very sensible medical students at Barts were protesting vigourously about being forced to mix with various quacks. A bit of investigation soon showed that the students were dead right: see St Bartholomew’s teaches antiscience, but students revolt.
Now it seems that these excellent students have not yet succeeded in educating their own Dr Mark Carroll who, ironically, has the title Associate Dean (Education Quality) in the Centre for Medical Education (SMD), specialising in all aspects of quality assurance in the SMD,
Recently this letter was sent to all medical students. They are so indignant at the way they are being treated, it didn’t take long for a copy of the letter to reach me via a plain brown email.
| Does any medical student have a particular interest in Complementary Medicine? If so, a group at Westminster University would like to contact you (see email message below) with a view to some collaborative work. Further details from Dr Mark Carroll ( firstname.lastname@example.org ).
A student of naturopathy? Does Mark Carroll have the slightest idea what naturopathy is (or pretends to be)? If so, why is he promoting it? If not, he clearly hasn’t done his homework.
You can get a taste of naturopathy in Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy, or in Nutritional Fairy Tales from Thames Valley University.
It is a branch of quackery that is so barmy that it’s actually banned in some US states. A pharmacist was fined $1 miilion for practising it. But Barts encourages it.
Or read here about the College of Natural Nutrition: bizarre teaching revealed. They claim to cure thyroid cancer with castor oil compresses, and a holder of their diploma was fined £800 000 for causing brain damage to a patient.
I removed the name of the hapless naturopathy student, I have no wish for her to get abusive mail. It isn’t her fault that she has been misled by people who should know better. If you feel angry about this sort of thing then that should be directed to the people who mislead them. The poor student has been misled in to taking courses that teach amethysts emit high yin energy by the University of Westminster’s Vice-chancellor, Professor Geoffrey Petts, But note that Professor Petts has recently set up a review of the teaching of what he must know to be nonsense (though it hasn’t got far yet). In contrast, Dr Carroll appears to be quite unrepentant. He is the person you to whom you should write if you feel indignant.
He claims Barts is "ahead of the game". Which game? Apparently the game of leading medicine back to the dark ages and the High Street quack shop. But, Dr Carroll, it isn’t a game. Sick people are involved.
Dr Carroll is the Associate Dean (Education Quality) in the Centre for Medical Education (SMD), specialising in all aspects of quality assurance in the SMD. This has to be the ultimate irony. It’s true that the Prince of Wales approach to medicine has penetrated slightly into other, otherwise good, medical schools (for example, Edinburgh) but I’m not aware of any other that has gone so far down the road of irrationality as at Barts.
Dr Carroll, I suggest you listen to your students a bit more closely.
You might also listen to President Obama. He has just allocated $1.1 billion “to compare drugs, medical devices, surgery and other ways of treating specific conditions“. This has infuriated the drug industry and far-right talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Doubtless it will infuriate quacks too, if any of it is spent on testing their treatments properly.
This letter appeared in the Times on Friday 30 January, 2009. It was prompted by the news from the University of Salford, but its main purpose was to try to point out to the Department of Health that you can’t hope to regulate alternative treatments in any sensible way while continuing to push under the carpet the crucial question of which ones work and which don’t.
We would like to congratulate the vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, Professor Michael Harloe for his principled decision to drop “all the University’s programmes associated with complementary medicine within the School of Community, Health Sciences & Social Care”. This includes their “Homeopathy in Practice” degree.
It is also encouraging that the University of Central Lancashire recently closed its BSc in Homeopathy to new students, and announced a review of all its activities in alternative medicine.
Although universities are now taking sensible actions, government policy in the area of regulation of alternative medicine is in urgent need of revision. In May 2008 the Steering Group chaired by Professor Pittilo recommended to the Department of Health that entry into acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine should “normally be through a bachelor degree with honours”. But, in the same month, new regulations on Unfair Trading came into effect. One of the 31 commercial practices which are in all circumstances considered unfair is “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction or malformations”. One part of government seeks to endorse unproven and disproved treatments, at the same time as another part makes them illegal.
The reason for this chaotic situation is simple. The Department of Health, and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), have consistently failed to grasp the nettle of deciding which treatments work and which don’t. That is the first thing you want to know about any treatment. Vice-chancellors seem now to be asking the question, and the government should do so too. The ideal mechanism already exists. The question should be referred to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). That was recommended by a House of Lords report in 2000, and it was recommended again by the Smallwood report (commissioned by the Prince of Wales) in 2005. Now it should be done.
Sir Walter Bodmer FRCPath, FRS, FMedSci, FRCP (hon) FRCS(hon)
Professor David Colquhoun, FRS
Dame Bridget Ogilvie , AC, DBE, FRS, FAA,
Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, FRS, FMedSci, FRCP (hon)
(Actually, the Times removed the qualifications of the signatories, but left the titles!)
An earlier, longer, version of the letter tried to preempt the obvious criticism by including, as the second paragraph, this passage.
“It makes no sense to offer Bachelor of Science degrees in subjects that have no scientific basis. Not only is homeopathy scientifically absurd, but also the best quality clinical trials show that it is not distinguishable from placebo. From the point of view of the patient, there is nothing wrong with placebo effects. Conventional drugs benefit from them too. There is everything wrong with surrounding the placebo effect with mystical mumbo-jumbo and awarding degrees in it.”
Universities drop degree courses in alternative medicine
In the same issue, there was a related article by the Times’ education editor, Alexandra Frean: Universities drop degree courses in alternative medicine..
“Universities are increasingly turning their backs on homoeopathy and complementary medicine amid opposition from the scientific community to “pseudo-science” degrees.
The University of Salford has stopped offering undergraduate degrees in the subjects, and the University of Westminster announced yesterday that it plans to strengthen the “science base” content of its courses after an internal review which examined their scientific credibility.
Both universities are following the lead of the University of Central Lancashire, which last year stopped recruiting new students to its undergraduate degree in homoeopathic medicine.
The decisions by Salford and Westminster open a new chapter in the fierce debate about the place of awarding of Bachelor of Science degrees in subjects that are not science.”
The article ends thus.
“Other universities are more robust in their defence of their courses
Ian Appleyard, principal lecturer in acupuncture at London South Bank University, said that acupuncture should be studied for the very reason that it was not well understood from the standpoint of Western scientific medicine. Acupuncture had been used by a significant proportion of the world’s population for thousands of years.
“Recent large-scale clinical trials such Haake and meta-analysis from reputable institutions such as The Cochrane Collaboration, have shown that there is evidence to support the therapeutic benefits of acupuncture treatment for back pain and migraine,” he said.”
Uhuh, it seems that Ian Appleyard has been reading the misleading BBC report on the recent trials. In fact they show precisely the opposite of what he claims. The fact that advocates of alternative medicine can misinterpret the evidence so badly is, I guess, at the heart of the problem.
What’s happening at the University of Westminster?
Westminster has regularly been labelled as the University that has more quackery courses than any other.
It is also the only university for which we have much idea about what is taught. The university, like all others, has tried to keep secret what they teach. That itself shows that they aren’t very proud of it. But a surprising amount has leaked out from Westminster, nonetheless. The set of “vibrational medicine” slides, including “Amethysts emit high Yin energy”, have caused much hilarity. The Westminster “miasmatic” examination question gets some laughs too, after it was published in Nature. The set of homeopathic materia medica notes that have come into my possession are pretty good too (coming on line soon).
Recently it emerged that the University of Westminster had followed the example of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), and set up a review of its activities in alternative medicine. But unlike UCLAN it was kept secret, and as far as one can tell, it asked for no input from critics.
Well the outcome of this review turned up in my mail recently. Click the picture to read the whole letter from the Vice-Chancellor.
There is no doubt that the outcome, so far, is rather disappointing. Here are some quotations from this letter, with my comments interleaved.
“The Audit was Chaired by Professor Alan Jago and carried out its review using a comprehensive evidence base”
Alan Jago is a pro- vice chancellor, and formerly from Westminster’s School of Architecture and the Built Environment, so no specialist knowledge there.
“The panel made a number of recommendations to me as a result of their Audit. Many of these recommendations concern the University’s processes for review and validation of courses and these will be passed to the Pro Vice Chancellor responsible for Quality to consider.”
Uhuh, sounds like box-ticking again When will universities learn that validation procedures are, on the whole, not worth the paper they are written on.
“The overarching aim of these actions then is to strengthen and make more explicit the ‘scientific’ nature of the Integrated Health undergraduate degrees.
In order to do this we will:
Strengthen learning outcomes particularly in discipline and clinical modules to reflect the science outcomes embedded in the courses.
Revise course specific regulations to explicitly identify that the core health sciences modules have to be passed to complete a degree of the BSc Scheme.
Strengthen the final year project offer to provide more scientific projects through working with Biosciences staff.
Strengthen the scientific/academic qualifications of staff through development
of existing staff and appointments where they become available.”
This seems to me to be whistling in the wind. Remember, we are talking about “bachelor of science” degrees in things like homeopathy and naturotherapy. These are things that are not science at all. In fact they are antiscience to their core.
If you were successful in raising the increasing the scientific level of the staff, many of the subjects they are meant to be teaching would vanish in a puff of smoke.
Certainly the responses of the Westminster staff to earlier enquiries (here, and here) showed little sign of scientific thinking.
And I wonder what Westminster’s admirable biomedical scientists think about taking on homeopathy students for projects?
“I am certain that this work will place Complementary therapies courses in an extremely strong position to meet the external challenges of the future.
I’m sorry to say, Professor Petts, that the scientific community is not likely to share your certainty.
Remember, Peter Fisher is on record as saying that there is not enough science in homeopathy to justifiy offering a BSc degree in it (watch the movie). He is the Queen’s Homeopathic Physician, and Clinical Director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital But Westminster still seems to know better.
It seems, so far, that Westminster has missed a chance to change for the better.
Times Higher Education published a pretty pathetic report on the Westminster audit. They did ask me for comments but then failed to publish most of them. I suppose a magazine like that is so dependent on advertising that they can’t afford to upset the authorities. Nevertheless, do they really have to be quite so bland?
I hear that the internal audit has made everyone at the University of Woominster Westminster more nervous and that staff and students have been advised not to share teaching material with people outside the university. Having seen some of them, I’m not surprised they are ashamed of them.
I’m perfectly happy to think of alternative medicine as being a voluntary, self-imposed tax on the gullible (to paraphrase Goldacre again). But only as long as its practitioners do no harm and only as long as they obey the law of the land. Only too often, though, they do neither.
When I talk about law, I don’t mean lawsuits for defamation. Defamation suits are what homeopaths and chiropractors like to use to silence critics. heaven knows, I’ve becomes accustomed to being defamed by people who are, in my view. fraudsters, but lawsuits are not the way to deal with it.
I’m talking about the Trading Standards laws Everyone has to obey them, and in May 2008 the law changed in a way that puts the whole health fraud industry in jeopardy.
The gist of the matter is that it is now illegal to claim that a product will benefit your health if you can’t produce evidence to justify the claim.
I’m not a lawyer, but with the help of two lawyers and a trading standards officer I’ve attempted a summary. The machinery for enforcing the law does not yet work well, but when it does, there should be some very interesting cases.
The obvious targets are homeopaths who claim to cure malaria and AIDS, and traditional Chinese Medicine people who claim to cure cancer.
But there are some less obvious targets for prosecution too. Here is a selection of possibilities to savour..
- Universities such as Westminster, Central Lancashire and the rest, which promote the spreading of false health claims
- Hospitals, like the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, that treat patients with mistletoe and marigold paste. Can they produce any real evidence that they work?
- Edexcel, which sets examinations in alternative medicine (and charges for them)
- Ofsted and the QCA which validate these exams
- Skills for Health and a whole maze of other unelected and unaccountable quangos which offer “national occupational standards” in everything from distant healing to hot stone therapy, thereby giving official sanction to all manner of treatments for which no plausible evidence can be offered.
- The Prince of Wales Foundation for Integrated Health, which notoriously offers health advice for which it cannot produce good evidence
- Perhaps even the Department of Health itself, which notoriously referred to “psychic surgery” as a profession, and which has consistently refused to refer dubious therapies to NICE for assessment.
The law, insofar as I’ve understood it, is probably such that only the first three or four of these have sufficient commercial elements for there to be any chance of a successful prosecution. That is something that will eventually have to be argued in court.
But lecanardnoir points out in his comment below that The Prince of Wales is intending to sell herbal concoctions, so perhaps he could end up in court too.
We are talking about The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. The regulations came into force on 26 May 2008. The full regulations can be seen here, or download pdf file. They can be seen also on the UK Statute Law Database.
The Office of Fair Trading, and Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR) published Guidance on the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (pdf file),
Statement of consumer protection enforcement principles (pdf file), and
The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations: a basic guide for business (pdf file).
Has The UK Quietly Outlawed “Alternative” Medicine?
On 26 September 2008, Mondaq Business Briefing published this article by a Glasgow lawyer, Douglas McLachlan. (Oddly enough, this article was reproduced on the National Center for Homeopathy web site.)
“Proponents of the myriad of forms of alternative medicine argue that it is in some way “outside science” or that “science doesn’t understand why it works”. Critical thinking scientists disagree. The best available scientific data shows that alternative medicine simply doesn’t work, they say: studies repeatedly show that the effect of some of these alternative medical therapies is indistinguishable from the well documented, but very strange “placebo effect” ”
“Enter The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008(the “Regulations”). The Regulations came into force on 26 May 2008 to surprisingly little fanfare, despite the fact they represent the most extensive modernisation and simplification of the consumer protection framework for 20 years.”
The Regulations prohibit unfair commercial practices between traders and consumers through five prohibitions:-
- General Prohibition on Unfair Commercial
Practices (Regulation 3)
- Prohibition on Misleading Actions (Regulations 5)
- Prohibition on Misleading Omissions (Regulation 6)
- Prohibition on Aggressive Commercial Practices (Regulation 7)
- Prohibition on 31 Specific Commercial Practices that are in all Circumstances Unfair (Schedule 1). One of the 31 commercial practices which are in all circumstances considered unfair is “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction or malformations”. The definition of “product” in the Regulations includes services, so it does appear that all forms medical products and treatments will be covered.
Just look at that!
|One of the 31 commercial practices which are in all circumstances considered unfair is “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction or malformations”|
Section 5 is equally powerful, and also does not contain the contentious word “cure” (see note below)
5.—(1) A commercial practice is a misleading action if it satisfies the conditions in either paragraph (2) or paragraph (3).
(2) A commercial practice satisfies the conditions of this paragraph—
(a) if it contains false information and is therefore untruthful in relation to any of the matters in paragraph (4) or if it or its overall presentation in any way deceives or is likely to deceive the average consumer in relation to any of the matters in that paragraph, even if the information is factually correct; and
(b) it causes or is likely to cause the average consumer to take a transactional decision he would not have taken otherwise.
These laws are very powerful in principle, But there are two complications in practice.
One complication concerns the extent to which the onus has been moved on to the seller to prove the claims are true, rather than the accuser having to prove they are false. That is a lot more favourable to the accuser than before, but it’s complicated.
The other complication concerns enforcement of the new laws, and at the moment that is bad.
Who has to prove what?
That is still not entirely clear. McLachlan says
“If we accept that mainstream evidence based medicine is in some way accepted by mainstream science, and alternative medicine bears the “alternative” qualifier simply because it is not supported by mainstream science, then where does that leave a trader who seeks to refute any allegation that his claim is false?
Of course it is always open to the trader to show that his the alternative therapy actually works, but the weight of scientific evidence is likely to be against him.”
On the other hand, I’m advised by a Trading Standards Officer that “He doesn’t have to refute anything! The prosecution have to prove the claims are false”. This has been confirmed by another Trading Standards Officer who said
“It is not clear (though it seems to be) what difference is implied between “cure” and “treat”, or what evidence is required to demonstrate that such a cure is false “beyond reasonable doubt” in court. The regulations do not provide that the maker of claims must show that the claims are true, or set a standard indicating how such a proof may be shown.”
The main defence against prosecution seems to be the “Due diligence defence”, in paragraph 17.
Due diligence defence
17. —(1) In any proceedings against a person for an offence under regulation 9, 10, 11 or 12 it is a defence for that person to prove—
(a) that the commission of the offence was due to—
(i) a mistake;
(ii) reliance on information supplied to him by another person;
(iii) the act or default of another person;
(iv) an accident; or
(v) another cause beyond his control; and
(b) that he took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of such an offence by himself or any person under his control.
If “taking all reasonable precautions” includes being aware of the lack of any good evidence that what you are selling is effective, then this defence should not be much use for most quacks.
Douglas McLachlan has clarified, below, this difficult question
False claims for health benefits of foods
A separate bit of legislation, European regulation on nutrition and health claims made on food, ref 1924/2006, in Article 6, seems clearer in specifying that the seller has to prove any claims they make.
Scientific substantiation for claims
1. Nutrition and health claims shall be based on and substantiated by generally accepted scientific evidence.
2. A food business operator making a nutrition or health claim shall justify the use of the claim.
3. The competent authorities of the Member States may request a food business operator or a person placing a product on the market to produce all relevant elements and data establishing compliance with this Regulation.
That clearly places the onus on the seller to provide evidence for claims that are made, rather than the complainant having to ‘prove’ that the claims are false.
On the problem of “health foods” the two bits of legislation seem to overlap. Both have been discussed in “Trading regulations and health foods“, an editorial in the BMJ by M. E. J. Lean (Professor of Human Nutrition in Glasgow).
“It is already illegal under food labelling regulations (1996) to claim that food products can treat or prevent disease. However, huge numbers of such claims are still made, particularly for obesity ”
“The new regulations provide good legislation to protect vulnerable consumers from misleading “health food” claims. They now need to be enforced proactively to help direct doctors and consumers towards safe, cost effective, and evidence based management of diseases.”
In fact the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) seems to be doing a rather good job at imposing the rules. This, predictably, provoked howls of anguish from the food industry There is a synopsis here.
“Of eight assessed claims, EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) rejected seven for failing to demonstrate causality between consumption of specific nutrients or foods and intended health benefits. EFSA has subsequently issued opinions on about 30 claims with seven drawing positive opinions.”
“. . . EFSA in disgust threw out 120 dossiers supposedly in support of nutrients seeking addition to the FSD’s positive list.
If EFSA was bewildered by the lack of data in the dossiers, it needn’t hav been as industry freely admitted it had in many cases submitted such hollow documents to temporarily keep nutrients on-market.”
Or, on another industry site, “EFSA’s harsh health claim regime”
“By setting an unworkably high standard for claims substantiation, EFSA is threatening R&D not to mention health claims that have long been officially approved in many jurisdictions.”
Here, of course,”unworkably high standard” just means real genuine evidence. How dare they ask for that!
Enforcement of the law
Article 19 of the Unfair Trading regulations says
19. —(1) It shall be the duty of every enforcement authority to enforce these Regulations.
(2) Where the enforcement authority is a local weights and measures authority the duty referred to in paragraph (1) shall apply to the enforcement of these Regulations within the authority’s area.
Nevertheless, enforcement is undoubtedly a weak point at the moment. The UK is obliged to enforce these laws, but at the moment it is not doing so effectively.
A letter in the BMJ from Rose & Garrow describes two complaints under the legislation in which it appears that a Trading Standards office failed to enforce the law. They comment
” . . . member states are obliged not only to enact it as national legislation but to enforce it. The evidence that the government has provided adequate resources for enforcement, in the form of staff and their proper training, is not convincing. The media, and especially the internet, are replete with false claims about health care, and sick people need protection. All EU citizens have the right to complain to the EU Commission if their government fails to provide that protection.”
This is not a good start. A lawyer has pointed out to me
“that it can sometimes be very difficult to get Trading Standards or the OFT to take an interest in something that they don’t fully understand. I think that if it doesn’t immediately leap out at them as being false (e.g “these pills cure all forms of cancer”) then it’s going to be extremely difficult. To be fair, neither Trading Standards nor the OFT were ever intended to be medical regulators and they have limited resources available to them. The new Regulations are a useful new weapon in the fight against quackery, but they are no substitute for proper regulation.”
Trading Standards originated in Weights and Measures. It was their job to check that your pint of beer was really a pint. Now they are being expected to judge medical controversies. Either they will need more people and more training, or responsibility for enforcement of the law should be transferred to some more appropriate agency (though one hesitates to suggest the MHRA after their recent pathetic performance in this area).
Who can be prosecuted?
Any “trader”, a person or a company. There is no need to have actually bought anything, and no need to have suffered actual harm. In fact there is no need for there to be a complainant at all. Trading standards officers can act on their own. But there must be a commercial element. It’s unlikely that simply preaching nonsense would be sufficient to get you prosecuted, so the Prince of Wales is, sadly, probably safe.
Universities who teach that “Amethysts emit high Yin energy” make an interesting case. They charge fees and in return they are “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses”.
In my view they are behaving illegally, but we shan’t know until a university is taken to court. Watch this space.
The fact remains that the UK is obliged to enforce the law and presumably it will do so eventually. When it does, alternative medicine will have to change very radically. If it were prevented from making false claims, there would be very little of it left apart from tea and sympathy
New Zealand must have similar laws.
Just as I was about to post this I found that in New Zealand a
“couple who sold homeopathic remedies claiming to cure bird flu, herpes and Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) have been convicted of breaching the Fair Trading Act.”
They were ordered to pay fines and court costs totalling $23,400.
A clarification form Douglas McLachlan
On the difficult question of who must prove what, Douglas McLachlan, who wrote Has The UK Quietly Outlawed “Alternative” Medicine?, has kindly sent the following clarification.
“I would agree that it is still for the prosecution to prove that the trader committed the offence beyond a reasonable doubt, and that burden of proof is always on the prosecution at the outset, but I think if a trader makes a claim regarding his product and best scientific evidence available indicates that that claim is false, then it will be on the trader to substantiate the claim in order to defend himself. How will the trader do so? Perhaps the trader might call witness after witness in court to provide anecdotal evidence of their experiences, or “experts” that support their claim – in which case it will be for the prosecution to explain the scientific method to the Judge and to convince the Judge that its Study evidence is to be preferred.
Unfortunately, once human personalities get involved things could get clouded – I could imagine a small time seller of snake oil having serious difficulty, but a well funded homeopathy company engaging smart lawyers to quote flawed studies and lead anecdotal evidence to muddy the waters just enough for a Judge to give the trader the benefit of the doubt. That seems to be what happens in the wider public debate, so it’s easy to envisage it happening a courtroom.”
The “average consumer”.
(3) A commercial practice is unfair if—
(a) it contravenes the requirements of professional diligence; and
(b) it materially distorts or is likely to materially distort the economic behaviour of the average consumer with regard to the product.
It seems,therefore, that what matters is whether the “average consumer” would infer from what is said that a claim was being made to cure a disease. The legal view cited by Mojo (comment #2, below) is that expressions such as “can be used to treat” or “can help with” would be considered by the average consumer as implying successful treatment or cure.
The drugstore detox delusion. A nice analysis “detox” at .Science-based Pharmacy
Sense about Science have just produced a rather good pamphlet that exposes, yet again. the meaningless marketing slogan “detox”. You can download the pamphlet from their web site.
The pamphlet goes through the claims of eleven products. Needless to say, the claims are either meaningless, or simply untrue.
- Garnier Clean Detox Anti-Dullness Foaming Gel
“Detoxifies by cleansing the skin’s surface”
- MG Detox Shampoo Trevor Sorbie
“Deep cleansing and clarifying shampoo”
- Boots Detox Body Brush
“Ritualistic body brushing helps expel toxins through the skin”
- Innocent Natural Detox Smoothie
“Helps neutralise nasty free radicals which can cause damage to your body’s cells”
- Vitabiotics Detoxil 15 day support
“Helps the body cleanse itself of toxins and pollutants caused by the excesses of a busy life”
- V-Water Detox
“Cleanse your system and whisk away the polluting nasties”
- 4321 Shape Up and Detox
“To drain off water and toxins” and “purify the body”
- Boots Detox 5 Day Plan
Works “in harmony with your body to flush away toxins”
- Farmacia Spa Therapy Detox range
To “rid your body of these damaging toxins”
- Crystal Spring Detox patches
“I’m the easy way to detox, just put me on one foot at night and take me off in the morning”
- Fushi Holistic and Health Solutions Total Detox Patch
“it acts as a toxin sink and absorbs impurities through your feet”
One nice thing about the pamphlet is that each item is written by a young scientist (including my close neighbour, Daniella Muallem). They are all people at an early stage in their career, but they care enough to spend time dissecting the rubbish spread by companies in order to part you from your money.
Garnier, it’s true, is a cosmetics company, so one expects nothing but lies You won’t be disappointed on that score.
That least ethical of pharmaceutical companies, Boots, appears twice The Boots Detox Body Brush is reviewed by a young chemist, Tom Wells. It turns out (there’s a surprise) to be nothing more than an ordinary stiff brush. It seems that Boots’ definition of “detox”, for this purpose, is “removing dead skin cells” A totally shameless con, in other words.
The Boots Detox 5 day plan consists if 5 phials of apple or strawberry flavoured goo containing two vitamins and one mineral, mixed with glycerol. In this case the young investigator, Evelyn Harvey, elicited a quite remarkable response from Boots.
Well, have you tested the effects of that diet, with or without the detox product? Does the ‘goo’ stuff [the drink which forms part of the plan] add anything extra?
Well, it’s meant to kick start it.
But has is been tested like that?
Ok, I’m thinking I’ll just try a healthy diet for a week, a bit more exercise, and not bother with buying the detox.
Yes, that sounds like a better idea, to be honest I’d never do this myself.
The media coverage
The Radio 4 Today programme interviewed Ben Goldacre and the managing director of yet another product “Detox in a box” (following their usual policy of equal time for the Flat Earth Society). Listen to the mp3. When Ben Goldacre asked the MD for evidence for the claim made on the web site of Detox in a box, that their diet could remove cadmium from the body, it was denied explicitly that any such claim had been made.
But by 10.02 the site had already changed
So no apology for the mistake. Just a sneaky removal of a few words.
That seems to be the only change though. All the rest of the nutribollocks is still there. For example
There isn’t the slightest reason to believe that it will “improve our immune function”.
There isn’t the slightest reason to think that scavenging free radicals would do you any good, even if it happened.
There isn’t the slightest reason to think it will strengthen body’s fight against cancer cells (that looks like a breach of the Cancer Act to me).
“Cleansing mucous” doesn’t mean much, but whatever it is there isn’t any reason to think its true.
“Purify our blood”. Total meaningless bollocks. The words mean nothing at all. I’ve been here before.
Ben Goldacre’s own account is here “The barefaced cheek of these characters will never cease to amaze and delight me.”
The BBC web site does a good job too.
The Guardian gives an excellent account (James Randerson).
The Daily Mail writes “Detox diets to kick-start the New Year are a ‘total waste of money’ “.
Medical News Today write “Debunking The Detox Myth“.
The Daily Telegraph disgraces itself by not only failing to carry a decent account of the item, but it does run an article on “Detox holidays: New year, new you“. Mega-expensive holidays for the mega-stupid (not to mention the capital letter after the colon).
The Daily Mash provides a bit of cognate fun with “BRITAIN SIGNS UP FOR VORDERMAN’S 28-DAY PISS-DRINK DETOX“. That alludes to “Carol Vorderman’s 28-Day Detox Diet”. A woman who got an enormous salary for playing a parlour game on TV, and has done some good for maths education, is reduced to promoting nonsense for yet more money.
As Clive James pointed out, it’s a but like watching George Clooney advertising coffee for, of all unethical companies, Nestlé. They really look very silly.
Evening Standard 6th January. Nick Cohen writes “Give up detox – it’s bad for your health”
“Giving up on detox should not be painful, however. On the contrary, it should e a life-enhancing pleasure.”
The Times. rather later (January 18th) had a lovely one, “Detox
Debunked“, by the inimitable Ben Goldacre, His account of /detox; as a quasi-religious ‘cleansing ritual’, is spot on.
It may be only post-1992 universities that run degrees in nonsense, but you can find plenty even in the highest places. Like St Bartholomew’s (founded in 1123). That well known source of misleading medical advice, The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health (FiH), published last March, “Teaching integrated health at Barts and the London“. This consists of an interview with two members of staff from what is now known as the Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD)..
|Dr Mark Carroll BSc (Hons), PhD, FHEA is Associate Dean (Education Quality) in the Centre for Medical Education (SMD), specialising in all aspects of quality assurance in the SMD|
|Prof Chris Fowler BSc MA MS FRCP FRCS(Urol) FEBU is Dean of Education|
They say they are dubious about alternative medicine, but rather keen on integrated medicine. Seems odd, since the latter is really just a euphemism for the former.
After seeing the FiH posting, I wrote to Carroll and Fowler to get more information.
From Carroll 20 March
We are at an early stage in the planning process for the “Integrated Health & Wellbeing” strand in our new MBBS curriculum. I can send you our ideas (attached). Much will depend on whether we can make a new appointment of someone who can lead on the planning
From Fowler 25 March 2008
Our discussions with the PFIH [Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health] have only progressed to the stage of indicating an indicative curriculum for integrated health. We don’t have the sort of detail that you are asking for at present. We are hoping that they will work with us to get someone to champion the development.
. . .
Your views would be welcome
So I sent them some views on 26 March (read them here). I also said “I find it quite astonishing that a respectable medical school should feel it appropriate to have parts of its curriculum in the hands of the Prince of Wales.”. It seems, though, that only one sort of view was wanted. On 27 March. Fowler wrote
“I find your insinuation unnecessary and insulting. We have been working on a serious response to the GMC’s requirement that we teach medical students about the range of options available to patients. It is fatuous to suggest that the Prince of Wales is personally involved in any practical sense. The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health is an important stakeholder and I think that it entirely reasonable both to talk to them and to seek funding to help us to develop an area that is deficient in our current provision.”
Uhuh, not a very nice response to a rather moderate letter. Lesson 1: never trust anyone who uses the word “stakeholder”.
It does seem very odd that a medical school like Barts should turn to the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for advice on medicine. After all, the bad advice given by the “Patients Guide” is rather well documented (see also here). If messrs Fowler and Carroll were really unaware of that, I’d argue that they aren’t doing their job properly.
It seems that Barts, like Edinburgh, has over-reacted to pressure from the General Medical Council (GMC). Actually all that the GMC require is that
“They must be aware that many patients are interested in and choose to use a range of alternative and complementary therapies. Graduates must be aware of the existence and range of such therapies, why some patients use them, and how these might affect other types of treatment that patients are receiving.” (from Tomorrow’s Doctors, GMC)
There is nothing there about saying that they work. Certainly medical students need to be familiar with alternative medicine, given the number of theit patients that use it. That is a job I have done myself, both at UCL and at Kings College London. I’d argue that I am marginally better qualified to assess the evidence than the Prince of Wales.
Oddly enough, the bad education in Edinburgh came also from a Professor of Medical Education and Director of Undergraduate Learning and Teaching,
The result is manifested in two ways. Barts has a “Science in Medicine” course that has resulted in medical students being placed with homeopaths. And it has a Special Studies Module in Ayurvedic Medicine. Let’s take a look at them.
An Introduction to Ayurvedic Medicine
|The aims of this Special Study Module are “To introduce the concepts and principles which underpin Ayurvedic medicine. To introduce Year 1 and 2 medical students to the Ayurvedic approach to patient assessment, diagnosis and treatment”, and to “Critically evaluate the evidence base for Ayurvedic treatments and yoga therapy”. Just one small snag there. There is next to no evidence base to be assessed.||
Click to enlarge
The module is given by Professor Shrikala Warrier, who is Dean of MAYUR: The Ayurvedic University of Europe. That sounds quite grand. But the web site of The Ayurvedic University of Europe is rather unusual for a university. It lists two courses but has no list of staff. Could it be that Professor Shrikala Warrier is the staff? Neither is it clear where Professor Warrier’s professorial title comes from. Her own private university perhaps?
The two courses it offers are B.Sc.(Hons) Ayurveda and B.Sc.(Hons) Yoga. It says that the course the “BA(Hons)Ayurvedic Studies is a three year programme of study developed in collaboration with Thames Valley University in London”. That’s odd too, because there is no mention of it on the Thames Valley University web site (and TVU is not in London, it’s in Slough). Elsewhere it is stated that the “programme has been validated by MAHE, which is also the degree awarding body”. MAHE is not explained but it appears to refer to the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, in Goa, India. That looks like a pretty good place. It does not offer degrees in Ayurveda, though there is a small Department of Ayurvedic medicine within the otherwise entirely conventional Kasturba Medical College-Manipal. Their first year physiology exam would tax our students.
Elsewhere we see the same address, 81 Wimpole Street, listed as The Manipal Ayurvedic University of Europe (a joint venture between The Manipal University and the Ayurvedic Company of Great Britain) Prof. S. Warrier, B.A.(Hons), M.A., Ph.D., MILT, Dean of Academic Planning.
If one checks Mayur Ltd at Companies House, one finds that it has two directors, Lady Sarah Morritt and Professor Shrikala Warrier. The company report shows that no accounts have been filed up to now and their 2008 accounts are overdue.
The business history of ayurveda is nothing if not tortuous. The London Gazette (May 2008) notifies us that
AYURVEDA HOLDINGS LIMITED (chairman Lady Sarah Morritt) was passed a Special Resolution: “That the company be wound up voluntarily.”
If you email the Ayurvedic University of Europe, the reply comes not from a University address but from unififiedherbal.com. That seems to be some sort of marketing company, at the same address, 81 Wimpole Street. But efforts to find out more about it from Companies House show that UnifiedHerbal.com was dissolved on 3 October 2006.
Several of the links are broken on the web site of Ayurvedic University of Europe, but one that does work is ‘products’. That takes you to the sales pages of http://www.drwarrier.co.uk/. That doesn’t look much like a university, but no prizes for guessing the address. Yes, it’s 81 Wimpole Street again. They will sell you all sorts of cosmetics, though Companies House lists Dr Warrier Limited, and tells us
Last Accounts Made Up To : 31/08/2007 (DORMANT) and
Next Return Due : 26/09/2008 OVERDUE. Their registered office is
at Harold House, Waltham Cross EN8 7AF.
From drwarrier.co.uk you can buy, for example,
The most commonly prescribed Ayurvedic formula. Triphala is an effective blood purifier that detoxifies the liver, helps digestion and assimilation, and reduces serum cholesterol and lipid levels.
Blood purifier? Detox? Where have we seen this sort of utter gobbledygook before? Or perhaps she can sell you some
Traditionally used for obesity and overweight, and reducing and preventing accumulation of cholesterol (LDL). Its anti-inflammatory and detoxifying actions help reduce arthritic pain and swelling.
There isn’t the slightest evidence for these effects in man. Hence, no doubt, the usual weasel words. “traditionally used for . . . ”
The sales department alone casts rather a large doubt on Prof Warrier’s ability to teach medical students how to “critically evaluate the evidence base for Ayurvedic treatments”.
It does seem a bit surprising that a top flight medical school should think that this is an appropriate place to educate its students.
Medicine in Society
The syllabus at Barts includes something called Medicine and Society. Page 5 of the second year Tutor Guide mentions “complementary therapies” as part of the course. There is little hint about what that means in practice.
It turns out that the alt med placements are at the Greenwich Natural Health Centre. Nothing is too barmy for them Acupuncture. Cranial Osteopathy, Craniosacral Therapy, Herbal Therapy, Homeopathy, Hot Stone Therapy and Nutritional therapy to name but a few of the preposterous make-believe stuff that is on offer.
Medical students are having to spend their time listing to stuff like this, on ‘hot stone therapy’.
“Hot stone therapy / massage is a kind of massage that uses treated volcanic rocks such as basalt and basinite that are believed to promote relaxation as well as eliminating negative energy within the client’s body, mind and soul.”
“These stones are carefully gathered and handcrafted for various sizes, shapes and weights according to what part of the body it will be use on.”
Or this, on ‘nutritional therapy’.
“Many of us lack the basic raw materials (from food and drink) to function at our best. Intensive farming, pollution, stress, stimulants and an over-reliance on processed foods are just some of the reasons for us being deficient in vital nutrients. As a result, we may develop serious degenerative diseases like cancer or arthritis.”
“Some clients may experience reactions like headaches, skin eruptions or bad breath during the first stage of treatment. These are quite normal and are due to detoxification, which is usually followed by a sense of well-being and increased energy.”
That must be about as close as you can get to claiming you can prevent cancer by taking vitamin pills. It is wrong and it is dangerous,
Sigh. What century are we living in?
According to Barts’ second year Tutor Guide, “Placement tutors are responsible for student assessment”.
What sort of grade will the student get if they tell their tutor in homeopathy or ‘Nutritional therapy’ that they are talking nonsense?
What do the students think?
Could the Ayurvedic course be the very same course that is referred to by a second year medical student on the Unprotected Text blog?
“When I found out my friend had been attached to a “doctor” in Ayurvedic “medicine” for the year I was horrified, as was she, and the school would not allow her to change claiming that the point is not to learn the medicine but its role in the multidisciplinary healthcare team.
I don’t believe that there is such a role.
The very fact that a student is forced to put up with this as a part of their education is appalling.”
A comment left on Unprotected Text by someone writing as ‘Barts Medic’ said
“I was HORRIFIED to hear that some of my friends have their medsoc placements
at such RUBBISH places too!
last week, they were forced into a room one by room to be touched up (‘massaged’)
by the ‘doctor-person’ to HEAL them. she rubbed them all over, and CHANTED! WTF.
if i was given a CRAPPY placement like that, i wouldnt turn up either”.
And there is an excellent statement about “holistic medicine” on Unprotected Text. Better, perhaps, than you’d get from the GMC.
“Holistic medicine is in fact a world away from homeopathy, although the two are often confused predominantly by homeopaths trying to validate their branch of “medicine”. Much of what is taught in medical school is in fact, holistic, and so it should be. The importance of mentality, or spirituality in medicine should not be used to excuse homeopathy.”
“That doesn’t seem to add up” is another blog that relates the experiences of another student who has been exposed to “Enforced quackery Day 1, “, “Enforced quackery Day 2“, “Enforced quackery Days 3 and 4“. He says
“. . .by the end of day 3 the students *still* hadn’t seen any patients and that, when confronted with this fact the person in charge is reported to have said that this was because she was scared of what the students might say to the patients… Apart from this being a massive insult to the professionalism of the students, it is at least an encouraging sign that they have not been very effectively indoctrinated.”
It seems that we shall soon have some more documentary evidence. It is truly impressive to find that Barts’ medical students are so bright and that they have the courage to speak up about it.
So there is one good thing. We have some very perspicacious medical students in London.
Pity that one can’t say the same thing of their teachers.
I have it on good authority that the unhappy students who were placed at the Greenwich Natural Health Centre were presented with one of the more absurd documents ever to be produced by homeopaths, “An Overview of positive homeopathy research and surveys“.
There is no need to argue about whether homeopaths cherry-pick the evidence. The selective use of evidence is announced proudly, right there in the title.
What excuse can Bart’s have for exposing medical students to such profoundly anti-educational stuff as this?
Later there appeared on the That doesn’t seem to add up blog, Enforced
Quackery – the literature. The unfortunate students who were pushed into a homeopathic placement were give a print out of a page from Sue Young’s homeopathic web site. It is merely a bit of phony history that attempts to link Pasteur with homeopathy.
Sue Young, incidentally, is a homeopath who has consistently breached the Code of Ethicsof the Society of Homeopaths by claiming to treat serious diseases, though needless to say the Society did nothing about it. She is also the person who wrote a wholly inaccurate account of the reasons why my blog left the UCL server (see alse here and here). She didn’t, needless to say, ask me, but luckily she was soon corrected on quackometer and in the Guardian.
Incidentally, the Unprotected Text blog continues to provide a fascinating student view on medical education. Students show more sense than their teachers not only about alternative nonsense but also about other gimmicks like ‘problem based learning’.