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Politicians – DC's Improbable Science

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Every day one sees politicians on TV assuring us that nuclear deterrence works because there no nuclear weapon has been exploded in anger since 1945. They clearly have no understanding of statistics.

With a few plausible assumptions, we can easily calculate that the time until the next bomb explodes could be as little as 20 years.

Be scared, very scared.

The first assumption is that bombs go off at random intervals. Since we have had only one so far (counting Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a single event), this can’t be verified. But given the large number of small influences that control when a bomb explodes (whether in war or by accident), it is the natural assumption to make. The assumption is given some credence by the observation that the intervals between wars are random [download pdf].

If the intervals between bombs are random, that implies that the distribution of the length of the intervals is exponential in shape, The nature of this distribution has already been explained in an earlier post about the random lengths of time for which a patient stays in an intensive care unit. If you haven’t come across an exponential distribution before, please look at that post before moving on.

All that we know is that 70 years have elapsed since the last bomb. so the interval until the next one must be greater than 70 years. The probability that a random interval is longer than 70 years can be found from the cumulative form of the exponential distribution.

If we denote the true mean interval between bombs as $\mu$ then the probability that an intervals is longer than 70 years is

\[ \text{Prob}\left( \text{interval > 70}\right)=\exp{\left(\frac{-70}{\mu_\mathrm{lo}}\right)} \]

We can get a lower 95% confidence limit (call it $\mu_\mathrm{lo}$) for the mean interval between bombs by the argument used in Lecture on Biostatistics, section 7.8 (page 108). If we imagine that $\mu_\mathrm{lo}$ were the true mean, we want it to be such that there is a 2.5% chance that we observe an interval that is greater than 70 years. That is, we want to solve

\[ \exp{\left(\frac{-70}{\mu_\mathrm{lo}}\right)} = 0.025\]

That’s easily solved by taking natural logs of both sides, giving

\[ \mu_\mathrm{lo} = \frac{-70}{\ln{\left(0.025\right)}}= 19.0\text{ years}\]

A similar argument leads to an upper confidence limit, $\mu_\mathrm{hi}$, for the mean interval between bombs, by solving

\[ \exp{\left(\frac{-70}{\mu_\mathrm{hi}}\right)} = 0.975\]
so
\[ \mu_\mathrm{hi} = \frac{-70}{\ln{\left(0.975\right)}}= 2765\text{ years}\]

If the worst case were true, and the mean interval between bombs was 19 years. then the distribution of the time to the next bomb would have an exponential probability density function, $f(t)$,

\[ f(t) = \frac{1}{19} \exp{\left(\frac{-70}{19}\right)} \]

There would be a 50% chance that the waiting time until the next bomb would be less than the median of this distribution, =19 ln(0.5) = 13.2 years.

expdist19

In summary, the observation that there has been no explosion for 70 years implies that the mean time until the next explosion lies (with 95% confidence) between 19 years and 2765 years. If it were 19 years, there would be a 50% chance that the waiting time to the next bomb could be less than 13.2 years. Thus there is no reason at all to think that nuclear deterrence works well enough to protect the world from incineration.

Another approach

My statistical colleague, the ace probabilist Alan Hawkes, suggested a slightly different approach to the problem, via likelihood. The likelihood of a particular value of the interval between bombs is defined as the probability of making the observation(s), given a particular value of $\mu$. In this case, there is one observation, that the interval between bombs is more than 70 years. The likelihood, $L\left(\mu\right)$, of any specified value of $\mu$ is thus

\[L\left(\mu\right)=\text{Prob}\left( \text{interval > 70 | }\mu\right) = \exp{\left(\frac{-70}{\mu}\right)} \]

If we plot this function (graph on right) shows that it increases with $\mu$ continuously, so the maximum likelihood estimate of $\mu$ is infinity. An infinite wait until the next bomb is perfect deterrence.

bl240

But again we need confidence limits for this. Since the upper limit is infinite, the appropriate thing to calculate is a one-sided lower 95% confidence limit. This is found by solving

\[ \exp{\left(\frac{-70}{\mu_\mathrm{lo}}\right)} = 0.05\]

which gives

\[ \mu_\mathrm{lo} = \frac{-70}{\ln{\left(0.05\right)}}= 23.4\text{ years}\]

Summary

The first approach gives 95% confidence limits for the average time until we get incinerated as 19 years to 2765 years. The second approach gives the lower limit as 23.4 years. There is no important difference between the two methods of calculation. This shows that the bland assurances of politicians that “nuclear deterrence works” is not justified.

It is not the purpose of this post to predict when the next bomb will explode, but rather to point out that the available information tells us very little about that question. This seems important to me because it contradicts directly the frequent assurances that deterrence works.

The only consolation is that, since I’m now 79, it’s unlikely that I’ll live long enough to see the conflagration.

Anyone younger than me would be advised to get off their backsides and do something about it, before you are destroyed by innumerate politicians.

Postscript

While talking about politicians and war it seems relevant to reproduce Peter Kennard’s powerful image of the Iraq war.

kennard

and with that, to quote the comment made by Tony Blair’s aide, Lance Price

blair-price

It’s a bit like my feeling about priests doing the twelve stations of the cross. Politicians and priests masturbating at the expense of kids getting slaughtered (at a safe distance, of course).

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

The Scottish Universities Medical Journal asked me to write about the regulation of alternative medicine. It’s an interesting topic and not easy to follow because of the veritable maze of more than twenty overlapping regulators and quangos which fail utterly to protect the public against health fraud. In fact they mostly promote health fraud. The paper is now published, and here is a version with embedded links (and some small updates).

We are witnessing an increasing commercialisation of medicine. It’s really taken off since the passage of the Health and Social Security Bill into law. Not only does that mean having NHS hospitals run by private companies, but it means that “any qualified provider” can bid for just about any service.  The problem lies, of course, in what you consider “qualified” to mean.  Any qualified homeopath or herbalist will, no doubt, be eligible.  University College London Hospital advertised for a spiritual healer. The "person specification" specified a "quallfication", but only HR people think that a paper qualification means that spiritual healing is anything but a delusion.

uclh-spirit

The vocabulary of bait and switch

First, a bit of vocabulary.  Alternative medicine is a term that is used for medical treatments that don’t work (or at least haven’t been shown to work).  If they worked, they’d be called “medicine”.  The anti-malarial, artemesinin, came originally from a Chinese herb, but once it had been purified and properly tested, it was no longer alternative.  But the word alternative is not favoured by quacks.  They prefer their nostrums to be described as “complementary” –it sounds more respectable.  So CAM (complementary and alternative medicine became the politically-correct euphemism.  Now it has gone a stage further, and the euphemism in vogue with quacks at the moment is “integrated” or “integrative” medicine.  That means, very often, integrating things that don’t work with things that do.  But it sounds fashionable.  In reality it is designed to confuse politicians who ask for, say, integrated services for old people.

Put another way, the salespeople of quackery have become rather good at bait and switch. The wikepedia definition is as good as any.

Bait-and-switch is a form of fraud, most commonly used in retail sales but also applicable to other contexts. First, customers are “baited” by advertising for a product or service at a low price; second, the customers discover that the advertised good is not available and are “switched” to a costlier product.

As applied to the alternative medicine industry, the bait is usually in the form of some nice touchy-feely stuff which barely mentions the mystical nonsense. But when you’ve bought into it you get the whole panoply of nonsense. Steven Novella has written eloquently about the use of bait and switch in the USA to sell chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine: "The bait is that CAM offers legitimate alternatives, the switch is that it primarily promotes treatments that don’t work or are at best untested and highly implausible.".

The "College of Medicine" provides a near-perfect example of bait and switch. It is the direct successor of the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health. The Prince’s Foundation was a consistent purveyor of dangerous medical myths. When it collapsed in 2010 because of a financial scandal, a company was formed called "The College for Integrated Health". A slide show, not meant for public consumption, said "The College represents a new strategy to take forward the vision of HRH Prince Charles". But it seems that too many people have now tumbled to the idea that "integrated", in this context, means barmpottery. Within less than a month, the new institution was renamed "The College of Medicine". That might be a deceptive name, but it’s a much better bait. That’s why I described the College as a fraud and delusion.

Not only did the directors, all of them quacks, devise a respectable sounding name, but they also succeeded in recruiting some respectable-sounding people to act as figureheads for the new organisation. The president of the College is Professor Sir Graham Catto, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Aberdeen. Names like his make the bait sound even more plausible. He claims not to believe that homeopathy works, but seems quite happy to have a homeopathic pharmacist, Christine Glover, on the governing council of his college. At least half of the governing Council can safely be classified as quacks.

So the bait is clear. What about the switch? The first thing to notice is that the whole outfit is skewed towards private medicine: see The College of Medicine is in the pocket of Crapita Capita. The founder, and presumably the main provider of funds (they won’t say how much) is the huge outsourcing company, Capita. This is company known in Private Eye as Crapita. Their inefficiency is legendary. They are the folks who messed up the NHS computer system and the courts computer system. After swallowing large amounts of taxpayers’ money, they failed to deliver anything that worked. Their latest failure is the court translation service.. The president (Catto), the vice president (Harry Brunjes) and the CEO (Mark Ratnarajah) are all employees of Capita.

The second thing to notice is that their conferences and courses are a bizarre mixture of real medicine and pure quackery. Their 2012 conference had some very good speakers, but then it had a "herbal workshop" with Simon Mills (see a video) and David Peters (the man who tolerates dowsing as a way to diagnose which herb to give you). The other speaker was Dick Middleton, who represents the huge herbal company, Schwabe (I debated with him on BBC Breakfast), In fact the College’s Faculty of Self-care appears to resemble a marketing device for Schwabe.

Why regulation isn’t working, and can’t work

There are various levels of regulation. The "highest" level is the statutory regulation of osteopathy and chiropractic. The General Chiropractic Council (GCC) has exactly the same legal status as the General Medical Council (GMC). This ludicrous state of affairs arose because nobody in John Major’s government had enough scientific knowledge to realise that chiropractic, and some parts of osteopathy, are pure quackery,

The problem is that organisations like the GCC function more to promote chiropractic than to regulate them. This became very obvious when the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) decided to sue Simon Singh for defamation, after he described some of their treatments as “bogus”, “without a jot of evidence”.

In order to support Singh, several bloggers assessed the "plethora of evidence" which the BCA said could be used to justify their claims. When, 15 months later, the BCA produced its "plethora" it was shown within 24 hours that the evidence was pathetic. The demolition was summarised by lawyer, David Allen Green, in The BCA’s Worst Day.

In the wake of this, over 600 complaints were made to the GCC about unjustified claims made by chiropractors, thanks in large part to heroic work by two people, Simon Perry and Allan Henness. Simon Perry’s Fishbarrel (browser plugin) allows complaints to be made quickly and easily -try it). The majority of these complaints were rejected by the GCC, apparently on the grounds that chiropractors could not be blamed because the false claims had been endorsed by the GCC itself.

My own complaint was based on phone calls to two chiropractors, I was told such nonsense as "colic is down to, er um, faulty movement patterns in the spine". But my complaint  never reached the Conduct and Competence committee because it had been judged by a preliminary investigating committee that there was no case to answer. The impression one got from this (very costly) exercise was that the GCC was there to protect chiropractors, not to protect the public.

The outcome was a disaster for chiropractors, wno emerged totally discredited. It was also a disaster for the GCC which was forced to admit that it hadn’t properly advised chiropractors about what they could and couldn’t claim. The recantation culminated in the GCC declaring, in August 2010, that the mythical "subluxation" is a "historical concept " "It is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease.". Subluxation was a product of the fevered imagination of the founder of the chiropractic cult, D.D. Palmer. It referred to an imaginary spinal lesion that he claimed to be the cause of most diseases. .Since ‘subluxation’ is the only thing that’s distinguished chiropractic from any other sort of manipulation, the admission by the GCC that it does not exist, after a century of pretending that it does, is quite an admission.

The President of the BCA himself admitted in November 2011

“The BCA sued Simon Singh personally for libel. In doing so, the BCA began one of the darkest periods in its history; one that was ultimately to cost it financially,”

As a result of all this, the deficiencies of chiropractic, and the deficiencies of its regulator were revealed, and advertisements for chiropractic are somewhat less misleading. But this change for the better was brought about entirely by the unpaid efforts of bloggers and a few journalists, and not at all by the official regulator, the GCC. which was part of the problem. not the solution. And it was certainly not helped by the organisation that is meant to regulate the GCC, the Council for Health Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) which did nothing whatsoever to stop the farce.

At the other end of the regulatory spectrum, voluntary self-regulation, is an even worse farce than the GCC. They all have grand sounding "Codes of Practice" which, in practice, the ignore totally.

The Society of Homeopaths is just a joke. When homeopaths were caught out recommending sugar pills for prevention of malaria, they did nothing (arguably such homicidal advice deserves a jail sentence).

The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) is widely know in the blogosphere as Ofquack. I know about them from the inside, having been a member of their Conduct and Competence Committee, It was set up with the help of a £900,000 grant from the Department of Health to the Prince of Wales, to oversee voluntary self-regulation. It fails utterly to do anything useful.. The CNHC code of practice, paragraph 15 , states

“Any advertising you undertake in relation to your professional activities must be accurate. Advertisements must not be misleading, false, unfair or exaggerated”. 

When Simon Perry made a complaint to the CNHC about claims being made by a CNHC-registered reflexologist, the Investigating Committee upheld all 15 complaints.  But it then went on to say that there was no case to answer because the unjustified claims were what the person had been taught, and were made in good faith. 
This is precisely the ludicrous situation which will occur again and again if reflexologists (and many other alternative therapies) are “accredited”.  The CNHC said, correctly, that the reflexologist had been taught things that were not true, but then did nothing whatsoever about it apart from toning down the advertisements a bit. They still register reflexologists who make outrageously false claims.

Once again we see that no sensible regulation is possible for subjects that are pure make-believe.

The first two examples deal (or rather, fail to deal) with regulation of outright quackery. But there are dozens of other quangos that sound a lot more respectable.

European Food Standards Agency (EFSA). One of the common scams is to have have your favourite quack treatment classified as a food not as a medicine. The laws about what you can claim have been a lot laxer for foods. But the EFSA has done a pretty good job in stopping unjustified claims for health benefits from foods. Dozens of claims made by makers of probiotics have been banned. The food industry, needless to say, objects very strongly to be being forced to tell the truth. In my view, the ESFA has not gone far enough. They recently issued a directive about claims that could legally be made. Some of these betray the previously high standards of the EFSA. For example you are allowed to say that "Vitamin C contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue" (as long as the product contains above a specified amount of Vitamin C. I’m not aware of any trials that show vitamin C has the slightest effect on tiredness or fatigue, Although these laws do not come into effect until December 2012, they have already been invoked by the ASA has a reason not to uphold a complaint about a multivitamin pill which claimed that it “Includes 8 nutrients that can contribute to the reduction in tiredness and fatigue”

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). This is almost the only organisation that has done a good job on false health claims. Their Guidance on Health Therapies & Evidence says

"Whether you use the words ‘treatment’, ‘treat’ or ‘cure’, all are likely to be seen by members of the public as claims to alleviate effectively a condition or symptom. We would advise that they are not used"

"Before and after’ studies with little or no control, studies without human subjects, self-assessment studies and anecdotal evidence are unlikely to be considered acceptable"

"Before and after’ studies with little or no control, studies without human subjects, self-assessment studies and anecdotal evidence are unlikely to be considered acceptable"

They are spot on.

The ASA’s Guidance for Advertisers of Homeopathic Services is wonderful.

"In the simplest terms, you should avoid using efficacy claims, whether implied or direct,"

"To date, the ASA has have not seen persuasive evidence to support claims that homeopathy can treat, cure or relieve specific conditions or symptoms."

That seems to condemn the (mis)labelling allowed by the MHRA as breaking the rules.. Sadly, though, the ASA has no powers to enforce its decisions and only too often they are ignored. The Nightingale collaboration has produced an excellent letter that you can hand to any pharmacist who breaks the rules

The ASA has also judged against claims made by "Craniosacral therapists" (that’s the lunatic fringe of osteopathy). They will presumably uphold complaints about similar claims made (I’m ashamed to say) by UCLH Hospitals.

The private examination company Edexcel sets exams in antiscientific subjects, so miseducating children. The teaching of quackery to 16 year-olds has been approved by a maze of quangos, none  of which will take responsibility, or justify their actions. So far I’ve located no fewer than eight of them. The Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (OfQual), Edexcel, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), Skills for Health, Skills for Care, National Occupational Standards (NOS), private exam company VTCT and the schools inspectorate, Ofsted.. Asking any of these people why they approve of examinations in imaginary subjects meets with blank incomprehension. They fail totally to protect tha public from utter nonsense.

The Department of Education has failed to do anything about the miseducation of children in quackery. In fact it has encouraged it by, for the first time, giving taxpayers’ money to a Steiner (Waldorf) school (at Frome, in Somerset). Steiner schools are run by a secretive and cult-like body of people (read about it). They teach about reincarnation, karma, gnomes, and all manner of nonsense, sometimes with unpleasant racial overtones. The teachers are trained in Steiner’s Anthroposophy, so if your child gets ill at school they’ll probably get homeopathic sugar pills. They might well get measles or mumps too, since Steiner people don’t believe in vaccination.

Incredibly, the University of Aberdeen came perilously close to appointing a chair in anthroposophical medicine. This disaster was aborted by bloggers, and a last minute intervention from journalists. Neither the university’s regulatory mechanisms. nor any others, seemed to realise that a chair in mystical barmpottery was a bad idea.

Trading Standards offices and the Office of Fair Trading.

It is the statutory duty of Trading Standards to enforce the Consumer Protection Regulations (2008) This European legislation is pretty good. it caused a lawyer to write " Has The UK Quietly Outlawed “Alternative” Medicine?". Unfortunately Trading Standards people have consistently refused to enforce these laws. The whole organisation is a mess. Its local office arrangement fails totally to deal with the age of the internet. The situation is so bad that a group of us decided to put them to the test. The results were published in the Medico-Legal Journal, Rose et al., 2012. "Spurious Claims for Health-care Products: An Experimental Approach to Evaluating Current UK Legislation and its Implementation". They concluded "EU directive 2005/29/EC is
largely ineffective in preventing misleading health claims for consumer products in
the UK"

Skills for Health is an enormous quango which produces HR style "competences" for everything under the son. They are mostly quite useless. But those concerned with alternative medicine are not just useless. They are positively harmful. Totally barmy. There are competences and National Occupational Standards for every lunatic made-up therapy under the sun. When I phoned them to discover who’d written them, I learned that the had been drafted by the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Magic Medicine. And when I joked by asking if they had a competence for talking to trees, I was told, perfectly seriously, “You’d have to talk to LANTRA, the land-based organisation for that.”

That was in January 2008. A lot of correspondence with the head of Skills for Health got nowhere at all. She understood nothing and it hasn’t improved a jot.

This organisation costs a lot of taxpayers’ money and it should have been consigned to the "bonfire of the quangos" (but of course there was no such bonfire in reality). It is a disgrace.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is supposed to ensure the quality of university courses. In fact it endorses courses in nonsense alternative medicine and so does more harm than good. The worst recent failure of the QAA was in the case of the University of Wales: see Scandal of the University of Wales and the Quality Assurance Agency. The university was making money by validating thousands of external degrees in everything from fundamentalist theology to Chinese Medicine. These validations were revealed as utterly incompetent by bloggers, and later by BBC Wales journalist Ciaran Jenkins (now working for Channel 4).

The mainstream media eventually caught up with bloggers. In 2010, BBC1 TV (Wales) produced an excellent TV programme that exposed the enormous degree validation scam run by the University of Wales. The programme can be seen on YouTube (Part 1, and Part 2). The programme also exposed, incidentally, the uselessness of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) which did nothing until the scam was exposed by TV and blogs. Eventually the QAA sent nine people to Malaysia to investigate a dodgy college that had been revealed by the BBC. The trip cost £91,000. It could have been done for nothing if anyone at the QAA knew how to use Google.

The outcome was that the University of Wales stopped endorsing external courses, and it was soon shut down altogether (though bafflingly, its vice-chancellor, Marc Clement was promoted). The credit for this lies entirely with bloggers and the BBC. The QAA did nothing to help until the very last moment.

Throughout this saga Universities UK (UUK), has maintained its usual total passivity. They have done nothing whatsoever about their members who give BSc degrees in anti-scientific subjects. (UUK used to known as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals).

Council for Health Regulatory Excellence (CHRE), soon to become the PSAHSC,

Back now to the CHRE, the people who failed so signally to sort out the GCC. They are being reorganised. Their consultation document says

"The Health and Social Care Act 20122 confers a new function on the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (the renamed Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence). From November 2012 we will set standards for organisations that hold voluntary registers for people working in health and social care occupations and we will accredit the register if they meet those standards. It will then be known as an ‘Accredited Register’. "

They are trying to decide what the criteria should be for "accreditation" of a regulatory body. The list of those interested has some perfectly respectable organisations, like the British Psychological Society. It also contains a large number of crackpot organisations, like Crystal and Healing International, as well as joke regulators like the CNHC.

They already oversee the Health Professions Council (HPC) which is due to take over Herbal medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine, with predictably disastrous consequences.

Two of the proposed criteria for "accreditation" appear to be directly contradictory.

Para 2.5 makes the whole accreditation pointless from the point of view of patients

2.5 It will not be an endorsement of the therapeutic validity or effectiveness of any particular discipline or treatment.

Since the only thing that matters to the patient is whether the therapy works (and is safe), accrediting of organisations that ignore this will merely give the appearance of official approval of crystal healing etc etc. This appears to contradict directly

A.7 The organisation can demonstrate that there either is a sound knowledge base underpinning the profession or it is developing one and makes that explicit to the public.

A "sound knowledge base", if it is to mean anything useful at all, means knowledge that the treatment is effective. If it doesn’t mean that, what does it mean?

It seems that the official mind has still not grasped the obvious fact that there can be no sensible regulation of subjects that are untrue nonsense. If it is nonsense, the only form of regulation that makes any sense is the law.

Please fill in the consultation. My completed return can be downloaded as an example, if you wish.

Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should be a top level defender of truth. Its strapline is

"We enhance and safeguard the health of the public by ensuring that medicines and medical devices work and are acceptably safe."

The MHRA did something (they won’t tell me exactly what) about one of the most cruel scams that I’ve ever encountered, Esperanza Homeopathic Neuropeptide, peddled for multiple sclerosis, at an outrageous price ( £6,759 for 12 month’s supply). Needless to say there was not a jot of evidence that it worked (and it wasn’t actually homeopathic).

Astoundingly, Trading Standards officers refused to do anything about it.

The MHRA admit (when pushed really hard) that there is precious little evidence that any of the herbs work, and that homeopathy is nothing more than sugar pills. Their answer to that is to forget that bit about "ensuring that medicines … work"

Here’s the MHRA’s Traditional Herbal Registration Certificate for devils claw tablets.

vitabiotics

The wording "based on traditional use only" has to be included because of European legislation. Shockingly, the MHRA have allowed them to relegate that to small print, with all the emphasis on the alleged indications. The pro-CAM agency NCCAM rates devil’s claw as "possibly effective" or "insufficient evidence" for all these indications, but that doesn’t matter because the MHRA requires no evidence whatsoever that the tablets do anything. They should, of course, added a statement to this effect to the label. They have failed in their duty to protect and inform the public by allowing this labelling.

But it gets worse. Here is the MHRA’s homeopathic marketing authorisation for the homeopathic medicinal product Arnicare Arnica 30c pillules

It is nothing short of surreal.

hom1
hom2

Since the pills contain nothing at all, they don’t have the slightest effect on sprains, muscular aches or bruising. The wording on the label is exceedingly misleading.

If you "pregnant or breastfeeding" there is no need to waste you doctor’s time before swallowing a few sugar pills.

"Do not take a double dose to make up for a missed one". Since the pills contain nothing, it doesn’t matter a damn.

"If you overdose . . " it won’t have the slightest effect because there is nothing in them

And it gets worse. The MHRA-approved label specifies ACTIVE INGREDIENT. Each pillule contains 30c Arnica Montana

No, they contain no arnica whatsoever.

hom3
hom4

It truly boggles the mind that men with dark suits and lots of letters after their names have sat for hours only to produce dishonest and misleading labels like these.

When this mislabeling was first allowed, it was condemned by just about every scientific society, but the MHRA did nothing.

The Nightingale Collaboration.

This is an excellent organisation, set up by two very smart skeptics, Alan Henness and Maria MacLachlan. Visit their site regularly, sign up for their newsletter Help with their campaigns. Make a difference.

Conclusions

The regulation of alternative medicine in the UK is a farce. It is utterly ineffective in preventing deception of patients.

Such improvements as have occurred have resulted from the activity of bloggers, and sometime the mainstream media. All the official regulators have, to varying extents, made things worse.

The CHRE proposals promise to make matters still worse by offering "accreditation" to organisations that promote nonsensical quackery. None of the official regulators seem to be able to grasp the obvious fact that is impossible to have any sensible regulation of people who promote nonsensical untruths. One gets the impression that politicians are more concerned to protect the homeopathic (etc, etc) industry than they are to protect patients.

Deception by advocates of alternative medicine harms patients. There are adequate laws that make such deception illegal, but they are not being enforced. The CHRE and its successor should restrict themselves to real medicine. The money that they spend on pseudo-regulation of quacks should be transferred to the MHRA or a reformed Trading Standards organisation so they can afford to investigate and prosecute breaches of the law. That is the only form of regulation that makes sense.

 

Follow-up

The shocking case of the continuing sale of “homeopathic vaccines” for meningitis, rubella, pertussis etc was highlighted in an excellent TV programme by BBC South West. The failure of the MHRA and the GPC do take any effective action is a yet another illustration of the failure of regulators to do their job. I have to agree with Andy Lewis when he concludes

“Children will die. And the fault must lie with Professor Sir Kent Woods, chairman of the regulator.”

I voted labour in every election (apart from my very first) up to and including 1997.  This is about my feelings for the 2010 election.  Make up your own mind (but don’t let Rupert Murdoch manipulate you).

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Downloadable button from Mark Golding at http://www.coia.org.uk

Don’t Get Fooled Again “I agree with Rupert

By 2001 election, I had been forced to the conclusion that Tony Blair had views that were well to the right of Margaret Thatcher’s, in many areas that mattered to me. so I voted Lib Dem. That was before 9/11 After that event, all doubt was gone, so the 2005 election it was Lib Dem again. 

I won’t even consider the Conservative party much.  I have never understood how anyone could vote for them, ever. The only choice for me is Lib Dem versus Labour.  Let’s try to be fair.  Labour has done some good things (though most of them would probably have been done by Lib Dems too).

  • Minimum Wage Act 1998 was a great innovation 
  • The Freedom of Information Act (2000) was a major step forward for openness and democracy.
  • Nursery school places have increased
  • Heating allowances for pensioners (though not sure that I should have got it)
  • The funding for the NHS was increased considerably and it has been very good for me (see Why I love the NHS).
  • Funding for science increased considerably

Against the big increases for the NHS must be set the huge increase in the number of highly-paid managers, relative to the number of nurses and doctors, that has occurred under Labour.

Bad things that labour has done

It was obvious from an early stage that Labour were in favour of selective schools (but were not honest about).  They certainly favoured religious selective schools, and still do.

The explicit support of Tony Blair for creationist schools and his implicit support for homeopathy are distasteful, but not in themselves sufficient reason for voting against him. The decisive thing for me is the Labour government’s careless attitude to human rights and free speech.

Nothing made that clearer than the Iraq war and its aftermath.

Saddam Hussein was a wicked dictator, Sadly the world has many wicked dictators. One wishes they would all go away. But only one of the world’s wicked dictators was singled out to be invaded. It was already clear before 1997that Iraq had been picked out by American neoconservatives as a ‘special case’. They didn’t get far until the election of George Bush in 2001, and the tragedy of the twin towers, 9/11, gave them the chance they sought.

George Bush was perhaps the most extreme right wing president in US History (as well as one of the most stupid). As someone who seemed to have difficulty in distinguishing between real life and a B-movie, his behaviour may not be surprising, but it brought shame on his country. His regime’s legitimisation of torture is, to my mind, the greatest disgrace that has happened during my adult lifetime.

It was with increasing incredulity that I watched Tony Blair’s poodle-like behaviour to Bush. It seemed incredible that any normal human. let alone a Labour prime minister could behave like that. The sight of two such men, both believing that god was on their side was scary in the extreme.

Some things are in danger of being forgotten with the passing of time.  All these and much more were documented on my politics blog, up to the point when Blair left office.

  • Remember the US governments legalisation of torture. That caused no wavering in Blair’s support.
  • Remember the plagiarised dossier? Any student would have been fired for that, but Blair shrugged it off.
  • Remember how the attorney general mysteriously changed his mind about the legality of the war?
  • Remember Abu Ghraib?  If not, read Seymour Hersh.
  • Remember the ex-aide to Blair who said

    “I couldn’t help feeling TB was rather relishing his first blooding as PM, sending the boys into action. Despite all the necessary stuff about taking action ‘with a heavy heart’, I think he feels
    it is part of his coming of age as a leader.”

        and how the government tried to tone down his remarks.

  • Remember David Kelly? The death of a good man must be largely the fault of Blair’s government.
  • Remember how, eventually, generals and even neocons turned on Bush, but Blair would still not admit any mistake?
  • Remember the Hutton report, and the vicious attacks on the BBC’s independence that followed it?
  • Remember the attempts to conceal ‘rendition’ (i.e. .torture by proxy).
  • Remember the wonderful efforts of UCL lawyer, Phillipe Sands, to expose illegal activities by both US and UK governments. He is someone of whom UCL can be very proud.

The good done by the Freedom of Information Act has to be set against their sloppy attitude to human rights, as evidenced by their constant attempts to extended detention without charge or trial. In 2004 I made the following poster, based on a dramatic front page of the Independent, 18th Dec. 2004. It is still relevant.

magna carta
Click to enlarge

This followed the ruling pf the Law Lords that the government’s detention policy was illegal

“The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory.” Lord Justice Hoffmann, in the 8-1 ruling of the Law Lords that the UK government’s policy of detention without charge is illegal. [Washington Post] , [Original report]

The sight of Blair acquiescing to the wish of the most right-wing neoconservative government in the western world sickened me unspeakably, and still does, The happy days of 1997 seemed to be a long way away.

That was Blair, but Gordon Brown and most of the Labour cabinet looked on and did nothing.

David Miliband said “You’ve punished us enough about Iraq”. Well no, you haven’t been punished at all, Yet. As someone said on twitter, resuscitate the 100,000 dead and we’ll forgive you.

 

I’m still baffled about why the crowd that gathered in UCL’s quad for the start of the second great march on 20th March 2003, were able to predict the outcome of the invasion so much more accurately than the government.

 

UCL  quadrangle 20 March 2003

Click here to download high resolution

Apart from the war

Brown is guilty not only of supporting the war.

He has supported segregated religious schools and the reintroduction of "academy" schools, both being ways of surreptitiously re-introducing selection into the education system

He and Blair presided over an endless multiplication of box-ticking quangos. The intention was, no doubt to increase quality, but the effect has been exactly the opposite. Just look, for example, at Skills for Health, the QAA, the QCA and a multitude of others.

These are some of the reasons that I cannot vote "Labour" this time. They have become. in many ways, a party of the right, barely distinguishable from the Conservative party (and in some respects, further to the right). Remember that the Conservatives supported Blair in his love affair with George Bush, they support selective schools, they support religious schools. And they are even more likely that Labour to sell their soul to Rupert Murdoch. Imagine Fox "News" coming to the UK and be afraid, very afraid.

Why Liberal Democrats?

Since I find it impossible to vote Labour this time. they are the only option. But I think one can be a bit more positive than that.

Some of the reasons why are listed in a letter in today’s Guardian (the list of signatories is remarkable). The Lib Dem manifesto is here.

  • The Lib Dems are more likely than the other parties to roll back New Labour’s attack on civil liberties
  • Lib Dems tax and green policies look pretty good to me.
  • The cost of replacing Trident missiles could be around £100 billion, and if that were spent it is doubtful whether what you get is useful under present conditions. Only Lib Dems would rethink this ghastly waste of money. Brown and Cameron prefer macho posturing.
  • Brown’s judgment about banks was wrong, yet he still won’t separate the casino banks and the savings banks. Lib Dem’s would.
  • Lib Dems have been more open about how cuts would be made than other parties (if not 100%). Vince Cable for Chancellor.
  • Nick Clegg’s response to the letter sent party leaders by the Campaign for Science & Engineering CaSE) was clearly better than the others,in many respects. See also Lib Dems science policy test
  • Can you imagine a better science minister than Dr Evan Harris?. I can’t.

Follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2466


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

 

Here are a few more

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

Follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never trust anyone who uses the word ‘stakeholder’.

They do use it, often.

So what is so wrong?

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

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

That aside, here’s what’s wrong.

The Evidence

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

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

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

The bait and switch trick

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

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

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

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

The neglected consequences

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

The lying dilemma

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

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

The training dilemma

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

The respectability problem

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

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

 

How did this failure of NICE happen?

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

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

Manipulation

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

It seems that the Pain Society were quite right.

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

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

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

Where to find out more

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

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

The Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health (FiH) is a propaganda organisation that aims to persuade people, and politicians, that the Prince’s somewhat bizarre views about alternative medicine should form the basis of government health policy.

His attempts are often successful, but they are regarded by many people as being clearly unconstitutional.



The FiH’s 2009 AnnualConferen ce conference was held at The King’s Fund, London 13 – 14 May 2009. It was, as always, an almost totally one-sided affair devoted to misrepresentation of evidence and the promotion of magic medicine.  But according to the FiH, at least, it was a great success.  The opening speech by the Quacktitioner Royal can be read here. It has already been analysed by somebody who knows rather more about medicine than HRH.    He concludes

“It is a shocking perversion of the real issues driven by one man; unelected, unqualified and utterly misguided”.

We are promised some movie clips of the meeting. They might even make a nice UK equivalent of “Integrative baloney @ Yale“.

This post is intended to provide some background information about the speakers at the symposium. But let’s start with what seems to me to be the real problem. The duplicitous use of the word “integrated” to mean two quite different things.

The problem of euphemisms: spin and obfuscation

One of the problems of meetings like this is the harm done by use of euphemisms.   After looking at the programme, it becomes obvious that there is a rather ingenious bit of PR trickery going on.  It confuses (purposely?) the many different definitions of the word “integrative”  . One definition of “Integrative medicine” is this (my emphasis).

” . . . orienting the health care process to engage patients and caregivers in the full range of physical, psychological, social, preventive, and therapeutic factors known to be effective and necessary for the achievement of optimal health.”

That is a thoroughly admirable aim. And that, I imagine, is the sense in which several of the speakers (Marmot, Chantler etc) used the term.  Of course the definition is rather too vague to be very helpful in practice, but nobody would dream of objecting to it.

But another definition of the same term ‘integrative medicine’ is as a PR-friendly synonym for ‘alternative medicine’, and that is clearly the sense in which it is used by the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health (FIH), as is immediately obvious from their web site.
The guide to the main therapies supports everything from homeopathy to chiropractic to naturopathy, in a totally uncritical way. Integrated service refers explicitly to integration of ‘complementary’ medicine, and that itself is largely a euphemism for alternative medicine. For example, the FIH’s guide to homeopathy says

“What is homeopathy commonly used for?

Homeopathy is most often used to treat chronic conditions such as asthma; eczema; arthritis; fatigue disorders like ME; headache and migraine; menstrual and menopausal problems; irritable bowel syndrome; Crohn’s disease; allergies; repeated ear, nose, throat and chest infections or urine infections; depression and anxiety.”

But there is not a word about the evidence, and perhaps that isn’t surprising because the evidence that it works in any of these conditions is essentially zero.

The FIH document Complementary Health Care: A Guide for Patients appears to have vanished from the web after its inaccuracy received a very bad press, e.g. in the Times, and also here.   It is also interesting that the equally widely criticised Smallwood report (also sponsored by the Prince of Wales) seems to have vanished too).

The programme for the meeting can be seen here, for Day 1, and Day 2

Conference chair Dr Phil Hammond, GP, comedian and health service writer. Hammond asked the FIH if I could speak at the meeting to provide a bit of balance. Guess what? They didn’t want balance.

09:30 Opening session

Dr Michael Dixon OBE

09:30   Introduction: a new direction for The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health and new opportunities in integrated health and care. Dr Michael Dixon, Medical Director, FIH

Michael Dixon is devoted to just about every form of alternative medicine. As well as being medical director of the Prince’s Foundation he also runs the NHS Alliance. Despite its name, the NHS Alliance is nothing to do with the NHS and acts, among other things, as an advocate of alternative medicine on the NHS, about which it has published a lot.

Dr Dixon is also a GP at College Surgery, Cullompton, Devon, where his “integrated practice” includes dozens of alternative practitioners. They include not only disproven things like homeopathy and acupuncture, but also even more bizarre practitioners in ‘Thought Field Therapy‘ and ‘Frequencies of Brilliance‘.

To take only one of these, ‘Frequencies of Brilliance’ is bizarre beyond belief. One need only quote its founder and chief salesperson.

“Frequencies of Brilliance is a unique energy healing technique that involves the activation of energetic doorways on both the front and back of the body.”

“These doorways are opened through a series of light touches. This activation introduces high-level Frequencies into the emotional and physical bodies.  It works within all the cells and with the entire nervous system which activates new areas of the brain.”

Or here one reads

“Frequencies of Brilliance is a 4th /5th dimensional work.   The process is that of activating doorways by lightly touching the body or working just above the body.”

“Each doorway holds the highest aspect of the human being and is complete in itself. This means that there is a perfect potential to be accessed and activated throughout the doorways in the body.”

Best of all, it can all be done at a distance (that must help sales a lot). One is reminded of the Skills for Health “competence” in distant healing (inserted on a government web site at the behest (you guessed it) of the Prince’s Foundation, as related here)

“The intent of a long distance Frequencies of Brilliance (FOB) session is to enable a practitioner to facilitate a session in one geographical location while the client is in another.

A practitioner of FOB that has successfully completed a Stage 5 Frequency workshop has the ability to create and hold a stable energetic space in order to work with a person that is not physically present in the same room.

The space that is consciously created in the Frequencies of Brilliance work is known as the “Gap”. It is a space of nonlinear time. It contains ”no time and no space” or  respectively “all time and all space”. Within this “Gap” a clear transfer of the energies takes place and is transmitted to an individual at a time and location consciously intended. Since this dimensional space is in non-linear time the work can be performed and sent backward or forward in time as well as to any location.

The Frequencies of Brilliance work cuts through the limitations of our physical existence and allows us to experience ourselves in other dimensional spaces. Therefore people living in other geographic locations than a practitioner have an opportunity to receive and experience the work.

The awareness of this dimensional space is spoken about in many indigenous traditions, meditation practices, and in the world of quantum physics. It is referred to by other names such as the void, or vacuum space, etc.”

This is, of course, preposterous gobbledygook.  It, and other things in Dr Dixon’s treatment guide, seem to be very curious things to impose on patients in the 21st century.

Latest news.  The Mid-Devon Star announces yet more homeopathy in Dr Dixon’s Cullompton practice.  This time it comes in the form of a clinic run from the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital.  I guess they must be suffering from reduced commissioning like all the other homeopathic hospitals, but Dr Dixon seems to have come to their rescue. The connection seems to be with Bristol’s homeopathic consultant, Dr Elizabeth A Thompson.   On 11 December 2007 I wrote to Dr Thompson, thus

In March 2006, a press release http://www.ubht.nhs.uk/press/view.asp?257 announced a randomised trial for homeopathic treatment of asthma in children.

This was reported also on the BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/bristol/4971050.stm .

I’d be very grateful if you could let me know when results from this trial will become available.

Yours sincerely

David Colquhoun


The reply, dated 11 December 2007, was unsympathetic

I have just submitted the funders report today and we have set ourselves the deadline to publish two inter-related papers by March 1st 2007.

Can I ask why you are asking and what authority you have to gain this information. I shall expect a reply to my questions,

I answered this question politely on the same day but nevertheless my innocent enquiry drew forth a rather vitriolic complaint from Dr Thompson to the Provost of UCL (dated 14 December 2007).  In this case, the Provost came up trumps. On 14 January 2008 he replied to Thompson: “I have looked at the email that you copied to me, and I must say that it seems an entirely proper and reasonable request. It is not clear to me why Professor Colquhoun should require some special authority to make such direct enquiries”.  Dr Thompson seems to be very sensitive. We have yet to see the results of her trial in which I’m still interested.

Not surprisingly, Dr Dixon has had some severe criticism for his views, not least from the UK’s foremost expert on the evidence for efficacy,  Prof Edzard Ernst.   Accounts of this can be found in Pulse,
and on Andrew Lewis’s blog.

Dixon is now (in)famous in the USA too.  The excellent Yale neurologist,  Steven Novella, has written an analysis of his views on Science Based Medicine. He  describes Dr. Michael Dixon as  “A Pyromaniac In a Field of (Integrative) Straw Men

Peter Hain

09:40 Politics and people: can integrated health and care take centre stage in 2009/2010? Rt Hon Peter Hain MP

It seems that Peter Hain was converted to alternative medicine when his first baby, Sam, was born with eczema. After (though possibly not because of) homeopathic treatment and a change in diet, the eczema got better. This caused Hain, while Northern Ireland Secretary to spend £200,000 of taxpayers’ money to set up a totally uninformative customer satisfaction survey, which is being touted elsewhere in this meeting as though it were evidence (see below). I have written about this episode before:  see Peter Hain and Get Well UK: pseudoscience and privatisation in Northern Ireland.

I find it very sad that a hero of my youth (for his work in the anti-apartheid movement) should have sunk to promoting junk science, and even sadder that he does so at my expense.

There has been a report on Hain’s contribution in Wales Online.

09:55 Why does the Health Service need a new perspective on health and healing? Sir Cyril Chantler, Chair, King’s Fund, previous Dean, Guy’s Hospital and Great Ormond Street

Cyril Chantler is a distinguished medical administrator. He also likes to talk and we have discussed the quackery problem several times. He kindly sent me the slides that he used.   Slide 18 says that in order to do some good we “need to demonstrate that the treatment is clinically effective and cost effective for NHS use”.  That’s impeccable, but throughout the rest of the slides he talks of integrating with  complementary” therapies, the effectiveness of which is either already disproved or simply not known.

I remain utterly baffled by the reluctance of some quite sensible people to grasp the nettle of deciding what works. Chantler fails to grasp the nettle, as does the Department of Health. Until they do so, I don’t see how they can be taken seriously.

10.05 Panel discussion

The Awards

10:20 Integrated Health Awards 2009 Introduction: a review of the short-listed applications

10:45 Presentations to the Award winners by the special guest speaker

11:00 Keynote address by special guest speaker

Getting integrated

Dr David Peters

12:00 Integration, long term disease and creating a sustainable NHS. Professor David Peters, Clinical Director and Professor of Integrated Healthcare, University of Westminster

I first met David Peters after Nature ran my article, Science Degrees without the Science. .One of the many media follow-ups of that article was on Material World (BBC Radio 4). This excellent science programme, presented by Quentin Cooper, had a discussion between me and David Peters ( listen to the mp3 file).


There was helpful intervention from Michael Marmot who had talked, in the first half of the programme, about his longitudinal population studies.

Marmot stressed the need for proper testing.  In the case of
homeopathy and acupuncture, that proper testing has largely been done.  The tests were failed.

The University of Westminster has, of course, gained considerable notoriety as the university that runs more degree programmes in anti-scientific forms of medicine than any other.  Their lecture on vibrational medicine teaches students that amethysts “emit high Yin energy so transmuting lower energies and clearing and aligning energy disturbances at all levels of being”.   So far their vice-chancellor, Professor Geoffrey Petts, has declined to answer enquiries about whether he thinks such gobbledygook is appropriate for a BSc degree.

But he did set up an internal enquiry into the future of their alternative activities. Sadly that enquiry seems to have come to the nonsensical conclusion that the problem can be solved by injection of good science into the courses, as reported here and in the Guardian.
It seems obvious that if you inject good science into their BSc in homeopathy the subject will simply vanish in a puff of smoke.

In 2007, the University of Westminster did respond to earlier criticism in Times Higher Education, but their response seemed to me to serve only to dig themselves deeper into a hole.

Nevertheless, Westminster has now closed down its homeopathy degree (the last in the country to go) and there is intense internal discussion going on there. I have the impression that Dr Peters’ job is in danger.  The revelation of more slides from their courses on homeopathy, naturopathy and Chinese herbal medicine shows that these courses are not only barmy, but also sometimes dangerous.

Professor Chris Fowler

12:10 Educating tomorrow’s integrated doctors. Professor Chris Fowler, Dean for Education, Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

I first came across Dr Fowler when I noticed him being praised for his teaching of alternative medicine to students at Barts and the London Medical School on the web site of the Prince’s Foundation. I wrote him a polite letter to ask if he really thought that the Prince of Wales was the right person to consult about the education of medical students.  The response I got was, ahem, unsympathetic. But a little while later I noticed that two different Barts students had set up public blogs that criticised strongly the nonsense that was being inflicted on them.

At that point, I felt it was necessary to support the students who, it seemed to me, knew more about medical education than Professor Fowler. It didn’t take long to uncover the nonsense that was being inflicted on the students: read about it here.

There is a follow-up to this story here.  Fortunately, Barts’ Director of Research, and, I’m told, the Warden of Barts, appear to agree with my view of the harm that this sort of thing can do to the reputation of Barts, so things may change soon,

Dame Donna Kinnair

12:30 Educating tomorrow’s integrated nurses.
Dame Donna Kinnair, Director of Nursing, Southwark PCT

As far as I can see, Donna Kinnair has no interest in alternative medicine. She is director of nursing at Southwark primary care trust and was an adviser to Lord Laming throughout his inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié.  I  suspect that her interest is in integrating child care services (they need it, judging by the recent death of ‘Baby P’).  Perhaps her presence shows the danger of using euphemisms like ‘integrated medicine’ when what you really mean is the introduction of unproven or disproved forms of medicine.

Michael Dooley

12:40 Integrating the care of women: an example of the new paradigm. Michael Dooley, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynecologist

DC’s rule 2. Never trust anyone who uses the word ‘paradigm’.   It is a sure-fire sign of pseudoscience.  In this case, the ‘new paradigm’ seems to be the introduction of disproven treatment.  Dooley is a gynaecologist and Medical Director of the Poundbury Clinic.  His clinic offers a whole range of unproven and disproved treatments.  These include acupuncture  as an aid to conception in IVF. This is not recommended by the Cochrane review, and one report suggests that it hinders conception rather than helps.

12.40   Discussion

13.00 – 14.00  Lunch and Exhibition

15.30    Tea

Boo Armstrong and Get Well UK

16.00   Integrated services in action: The Northern
Ireland experience: what has it shown us and what are its implications?
Boo Armstrong of Get Well UK with a team from the NI study

I expect that much will be made of this “study”, which, of course, tells you absolutely nothing whatsoever about the effectiveness of the alternative treatments that were used in it. This does not appear to be the view of Boo Armstrong,   On the basis of the “study”, her company’s web site proclaims boldly

“Complementary Medicine Works

Get Well UK ran the first government-backed complementary therapy project in the UK, from February 2007 to February 2008″

This claim appears, prima facie, to breach the Unfair Trading Regulations of May 2008.   The legality of the claim is, at the moment, being judged by a Trading Standards Officer.  In any case, the “study” was not backed by the government as a whole, but just by Peter Hain’s office.  It is not even clear that it had ethical approval.

The study consisted merely of asking people who had seen an alternative medicine practitioner whether they felt better or worse.  There was no control group; no sort of comparison was made.  It is surely obvious to the most naive person that a study like this cannot even tell you if the treatment has a placebo effect, never mind that it has any genuine effects of its own.  To claim that it does so seems to be simply dishonest.  There is no reason at all to think that the patients would not have got better anyway.

It is not only Get Well UK who misrepresent the evidence.  The Prince’s
Foundation itself
says

“Now a new, year long trial supported by the Northern Ireland health service has . . . demonstrated that integrating complementary and conventional medicine brings measurable benefits to patients’ health.”

That is simply not true. It is either dishonest or stupid. Don’t ask me which, I have no idea.

This study is no more informative than the infamous Spence (2005) ‘study’ of the same type, which seems to be the only thing that homeopaths can produce to support their case.

There is an excellent analysis of the Northern Ireland ‘study’ by Andy Lewis, The Northern Ireland NHS Alternative Medicine ‘Trial’.  He explains patiently, yet again, what constitutes evidence and why studies like this are useless.

His analogy starts

” . . . the Apple Marketing Board approach the NHS and ask for £200,000 to do a study to show the truth behind the statement ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’. The Minister, being particularly fond of apples, agrees and the study begins.”

16.30 Social enterprise and whole systems integrated care.  Dee Kyne, Sandwell PCT and a GP.  Developing an integrated service in secondary care

Dee Kyne appears to be CEO of KeepmWell Ltd (a financial interest that is not mentioned).

Peter Mackereth, Clinical Lead, Supportive Services, Christie Hospital NHS Foundation Trust

I had some correspondence with Mackereth when the Times (7 Feb 2007) published a picture of the Prince of Wales inspecting an “anti-MRSA aromatherapy inhaler” in his department at the Christie. It turned out that the trial they were doing was not blind   No result has been announced anyway, and on enquiry, I find that the trial has not even started yet.  Surprising, then to find that the FIH is running the First Clinical Aromatherapy Conference at the Christie Hospital,  What will there be to talk about?

Much of what they do at the Christie is straightforward massage, but they also promote the nonsensical principles of “reflexology” and acupuncture.

The former is untested.  The latter is disproven.

Parallel Sessions

Developing a PCT funded musculoskeletal service Dr Roy Welford, Glastonbury Health Centre

Roy Welford is a Fellow of the Faculty of Homeopathy, and so promotes disproven therapies. The Glastonbury practice also advertises acupuncture (disproven), osteopathy and herbal medicine (largely untested so most of it consists of giving patients an unknown dose of an ill-defined drug, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety).

Making the best of herbal self-prescription in integrated practice: key remedies and principles. Simon Mills, Project Lead: Integrated Self Care in Family Practice, Culm Valley Integrated Centre for Health, Devon

Simon Mills is a herbalist who now describes himself as a “phytotherapist” (it sounds posher, but the evidence, or lack of it, is not changed by the fancy name). Mills likes to say things like “there are herbs for heating and drying”, “hot and cold” remedies, and to use meaningless terms like “blood cleanser”, but he appears to be immune to the need for good evidence that herbs work before you give them to sick people. He says, at the end of a talk, “The hot and the cold remain the trade secret of traditional medicine”.  And this is the 21st Century.

Practical ways in which complementary approaches can improve the treatment of cancer. Professor Jane Plant, Author of “Your life in your hands” and Chief Scientist, British Geological Society and Professor Karol Sikora, Medical Director, Cancer Partners UK

Jane Plant is a geologist who, through her own unfortunate encounter with breast cancer, became obsessed with the idea that a dairy-free diet cured her.  Sadly there is no good evidence for that idea, according to the World Cancer Research Fund Report, led by Professor Sir Michael Marmot.   No doubt her book on the subject sells well, but it could be held that it is irresponsible to hold out false hopes to desperate people.   She is a supporter of the very dubious CancerActive organisation (also supported by Michael Dixon OBE –see above) as well as the notorious pill salesman, Patrick Holford (see also here).

Karol Sikora, formerly an oncologist at the Hammersmith Hospital, is now Dean of Medicine at the University of Buckingham (the UK’s only private university).  He is also medical director at CancerPartners UK, a private cancer company.

He recently shot to fame when he appeared in a commercial in the USA sponsored by “Conservatives for Patients’ Rights”, to pour scorn on the NHS, and to act as an advocate for the USA’s present health system. A very curious performance.  Very curious indeed.

His attitude to quackery is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.  One was somewhat alarmed to see him sponsoring a course at what was, at first, called the British College of Integrated Medicine, and has now been renamed the Faculty of Integrated Medicine That grand title makes it sound like part of a university.  It isn’t.




The alarm was as result of the alliance with Dr Rosy Daniel (who promotes an untested herbal conconction, Carctol, for ‘healing’ cancer) and Dr Mark Atkinson (a supplement salesman who has also promoted the Qlink pendant.  The Qlink pendant is a simple and obvious fraud designed to exploit paranoia about WiFi killing you.

The first list of speakers on the proposed diploma in Integrated Medicine was an unholy alliance of outright quacks and commercial interests.  It turned out that, although Karol Sikora is sponsoring the course, he knew nothing about the speakers.  I did and when I pointed this out to Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of Buckingham, he immediately removed Rosy Daniel from directing the Diploma.  At the moment the course is being revamped entirely by Andrew Miles.  There is hope that he’ll do a better job.  It has not yet been validated by the University of Buckingham. Watch this space for developments.

Stop press It is reported in the Guardian that Professor Sikora has been describing his previous job at Imperial College with less than perfect accuracy. Oh dear. More developments in the follow-up.

The role of happy chickens in healing: farms as producers of health as well as food – the Care Farm Initiative Jonathan Dover, Project Manager, Care Farming, West Midlands.

Apparently,

“Care farming is a partnership between farmers, participants and health & social care providers. It combines the care of the land with the care of people, reconnecting people with nature and their communities.”

Sounds lovely, I wonder how well it works?

What can the Brits learn from the Yanks when it comes to integrated health? Jack Lord, Chief Executive Humana Europe

It is worth noticing that the advisory board of Humana Europe includes Micheal Dixon OBE, a well known advocate of alternative medicine (see
above
).  Humana Europe is a private company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Humana Inc., a health benefits company with 11 million members and 22,000 employees and headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky.  In 2005 it entered into a business partnership with Virgin Group. Humana was mentioned in the BBC Panorama programme “NHS for Sale”. The company later asked that it be pointed out that they provide commissioning services, not clinical services [Ed. well not yet anyway].

Humana’s document “Humana uses computer games to help people lead healthier lives” is decidedly bizarre.  Hang on, it was only a moment ago that we were being told that computer games rewired your brain.

Day 2 Integrated health in action

09.00 Health, epidemics and the search for new solutions. Sir Michael Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health, Royal Free and University College Medical School

It is a mystery to me that a distinguished epidemiologist should be willing to keep such dubious company. Sadly I don’t know what he said, but judging my his publications and his appearence on Natural World, I can’t imagine he’d have much time for homeopaths.

9.25 Improving health in the workplace. Dame Carol Black, National Director, Health and Work, Department of Health

This is not the first time that Dame Carol has been comtroversial.

9.45 Integrated health in focus: defeating obesity. Professor Chris Drinkwater, President, NHS Alliance.

The NHS Alliance was mentioned above.   Enough said.

10.00 Integrated healthcare in focus: new approaches to managing asthma, eczema and allergy. Professor Stephen Holgate, Professor of Immunopharmacology, University of Southampton

10.15 Using the natural environment to increase activity. The Natural England Project: the results from year one. Dr William Bird and Ruth Tucker, Natural England.

10.30 Panel discussion

10.45 Coffee

Self help in action

11.10    Your health, your way: supporting self care through care planning and the use of personal budgets. Angela Hawley, Self Care Lead, Department of Health

11.25    NHS Life Check: providing the signposts to
integrated health. Roy Lambley, Project Director, NHS LifeCheck Programme

This programme was developed with the University of Westminster’s “Health and Well-being Network”. This group, with one exception, is separate from Westminster’s extensive alternative medicine branch (it’s mostly psychologists).

11.45    The agony and the ecstasy of helping patients to help themselves: tips for clinicians, practices and PCTs. Professor
Ruth Chambers, FIH Foundation Fellow.

11.55    Providing self help in practice: Department of Health Integrated Self Help Information Project. Simon Mills, Project Lead: Integrated Self Care in Family Practice, Culm Valley Integrated Centre for Health, Devon and Dr Sam Everington, GP, Bromley by Bow.

The Culm  Valley Integrated Centre for health is part of the College Surgery Partnership, associated with Michael Dixon OBE (yes, again!).

Simon Mills is the herbalist who says “The hot and the cold remain the trade secret of traditional medicine” .

Sam Everington, in contrast, seems to be interested in ‘integration’ in the real sense of the word, rather than quackery.

Integrated health in action


How to make sense of the evidence on complementary approaches: what works? What might work? What doesn’t work?
Dr Hugh MacPherson, Senior Research Fellow in Health Sciences, York University and Dr Catherine Zollman, Bravewell Fellow

Hugh MacPherson‘s main interest is in acupuncture and he publishes in alternative medicine journals. Since the recent analysis in the BMJ from the Nordic Cochrane Centre (Madsen et al.,  2009) it seems that  acupuncture is finally dead. Even its placebo effect is too small to be useful. Catherine Zollman is a Bristol GP who is into homeopathy as well as acupuncture.  She is closely connected with the Prince’s Foundation via the Bravewell Fellowship. That fellowship is funded by the Bravewell Collaboration, which is run by Christie Mack, wife of John Mack (‘Mack the Knife’), head of Morgan Stanley (amazingly, they still seem to have money). This is the group which, by sheer wealth, has persuaded so many otherwise respectable US universities to embrace every sort of quackery (see, for example, Integrative baloney @ Yale)

The funding of integrated services

14.15 How to get a PCT or practice- based commissioner to fund your integrated service. A PCT Chief Executive and a Practice-Based Commissioning lead.

14.30 How I succeeded: funding an integrated service. Dr John Ribchester, Whitstable

14.45 How we created an acupuncture service in St Albans and Harpenden PBC group. Mo Girach, Chief Executive, STAHCOM

Uhuh Acupunture again. Have these people never read Bausell’s
book
?  Have they not read the BMJ?  Acupuncture is now ell-established to be based on fraudulent principles, and not even to have a worthwhile placeobo effect.  STAHCOM seem to be more interested in money than in what works.

Dragon’s Den. Four pitchers lay out their stall for the commissioning dragons

And at this stage there is no prize for guessing that all four are devoted to trying to get funds for discredited treatments

  • An acupuncture service for long-term pain. Mike Cummings Chair, Medical Acupuncture Association
  • Manipulation for the treatment of back pain Simon Fielding, Founder Chairman of the General Osteopathic Council
  • Nigel Clarke, Senior Partner, Learned Lion Partners Homeopathy for long term conditions
  • Peter Fisher, Director, Royal Homeopathic Hospital

Sadly it is not stated who the dragons are. One hopes they will be more interested in evidence than the supplicants.

Mike Cummings at least doesn’t believe the nonsense about meridians and Qi. It’s a pity he doesn’t look at the real evidence though.
You can read something about him and his journal at BMJ Group promotes acupuncture: pure greed.

Osteopathy sounds a bit more respectable than the others, but in fact it has never shaken off its cult-like origins. Still many osteopaths make absurd claims to cure all sorts of diseases. Offshoots of osteopathy like ‘cranial osteopathy’ are obvious nonsense. There is no reason to think that osteopathy is any better than any other manipulative therapy and it is clear that all manipulative therapies should be grouped into one.

Osteopathy and chiropractic provide the best ever examples of the folly of giving official government recognition to a branch of alternative medicine before the evidence is in.

Learned Lion Partners is a new one on me. It seems it is
part of Madsen Gornall Ashe Chambers (‘MGA Chambers’) “a grouping of top level, independent specialists who provide a broad range of management consultancy advice to the marketing community”.  It’s a management consultant and marketing outfit.    So don’t expect too much when it comes to truth and evidence. The company web site says nothing about alternative medicine, but only that Nigel Clarke

“. . . has very wide experience of public affairs issues and campaigns, having worked with clients in many sectors in Europe, North America and the Far East. He has particular expertise in financial, competition and healthcare issues. “

However, all is revealed when we see that he is a Trustee of the Prince’s Foundation where his entry says

“Nigel Clarke is senior partner of Learned Lion Partners. He is a director of Vidapulse Ltd, Really Easy Ltd, Newscounter Ltd and Advanced Transport Systems Ltd. He has worked on the interfaces of public policy for 25 years. He has been chair of the General Osteopathic Council since May 2001, having been a lay member since it was formed. He is now a member of the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence”

The Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence is yet another quango that ticks boxes and fails absolutely to grasp the one important point, does it work?.  I came across them at the Westminster Forum, and they seemed a pretty pathetic way to spend £2m per year.

Peter Fisher is the last supplicant to the Dragons.  He is clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (RLHH), and Queen’s homeopathic physician,  It was through him that I got an active interest in quackery. The TV programme QED asked me to check the statistics in a paper of his that claimed that homeopathy was good for fibrositis (there was an elementary mistake and no evidence for an effect).  Peter Fisher is also remarkable because he agreed with me that BSc degrees in homeopathy were not justified (on TV –see the movie).   And he condemned homeopaths who were caught out recommending their sugar pills for malaria.  To that extent Fisher represents the saner end of the homeopathic spectrum.  Nevertheless he still maintains that sugar pills work and have effects of their own, and tries to justify the ‘memory of water’ by making analogies with a memory stick or CD.  This is so obviously silly that no more comment is needed.

Given Fisher’s sensible condemnation of the malaria fiasco, I was rather surprised to see that he appeared on the programme of a conference at the University of Middlesex, talking about “A Strategy To Research The Potential Of Homeopathy In Pandemic Flu”.   The title of the conference was Developing Research Strategies in CAM.   A colleague, after seeing the programme, thought it was more like “a right tossers’ ball”.

Much of the homeopathy has now vanished from the RLHH as a result of greatly reduced commissioning by PCTs (read about it in Fisher’s own words). And the last homeopathy degree in the UK has closed down. It seems an odd moment for the FIH to be pushing it so hard.

Follow-up

Stop press It is reported in the Guardian (22 May 2009) that Professor Sikora has been describing his previous job at Imperial College with less than perfect accuracy. Oh dear, oh dear.

This fascinating fact seems to have been unearthed first by the admirable NHS Blog Doctor, in his post ‘Imperial College confirm that Karol Sikora does not work for them and does not speak on their behalf‘.

Jump to follow-up

It’s only a matter of weeks since a lot of young scientists produced a rather fine pamphlet pointing out that the “detox” industry is simply fraud.  They concluded

“There is little or no proof that these products work, except to part people from their cash.”

With impeccable timing, Duchy Originals has just launched a “detox” product.

Duchy Originals is a company that was launched in 1990 by the Prince of Wales,  Up to now, it has limited itself to selling overpriced and not particularly healthy stuff like Chocolate Butterscotch Biscuits and Sandringham Strawberry Preserve.  Pretty yummy if you can afford them.

The move of HRH into herbal concoctions was first noted in the blogosphere (as usual) in December, by Quackometer.   It was reported recently in the Daily Telegraph (23rd January).

Expect a media storm.

Aha so it is a “food supplement” not a drug. Perhaps Duchy Originals have not noticed that there are now rather strict regulations about making health claims for foods?

And guess who’s selling it? Yes our old friend, for which no deception is too gross, Boots the Chemists.

That’s £10 for 50 ml. Or £200 per litre.

And what’s in it?

Problem 1.  The word detox has no agreed meaning. It is a marketing word, designed to separate the gullible from their money

Problem 2.  There isn’t the slightest reason to think that either artichoke or dandelion will help with anything at all. Neither appears at all in the Cochrane reviews.  So let’s check two sources that are both compiled by CAM sympathisers (just so I can’t be accused of prejudice).

National Electronic Library of CAM (NELCAM) reveals nothing useful.

  • There is no good evidence that artichoke leaf extract works for lowering cholesterol.   No other indications are mentioned.
  • Dandelion doesn’t get any mention at all.

The US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has spent almost $1 billion on testing alternative treatments  So far they have produced no good new remedies (see also Integrative baloney @ Yale).They publish a database of knowledge about herbs. This is what they say.

  • Dandelion.  There is no compelling scientific evidence for using dandelion as a treatment for any medical condition.
  • Artichoke isn’t even mentioned anywhere.

If “detox” is meant to be a euphemism for hangover cure, then look at the review by Pittler et al (2005), ‘Interventions for preventing or treating alcohol hangover: systematic review of randomised controlled trials’.

Conclusion No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover. The most effective way to avoid the symptoms of alcohol induced hangover is to practise abstinence or moderation.”

Problem 3. The claim that the product is “cleansing and purifying” is either meaningless or false.  Insofar as it is meaningless, it is marketing jargon that is designed to deceive.  The claim that it supports “the body’s natural elimination and detoxification processes, and helps maintain healthy digestion” is baseless. It is a false health claim that, prima facie, is contrary to the Unfair Trading law, and/or European regulation on nutrition and health claims made on food, ref 1924/2006 , and which therefore should result in prosecution.

Two more Duchy herbals

Duchy are selling also Echinacea and Hypericum (St John’s Wort).

The evidence that Echinacea helps with colds is, to put it mildly, very marginal.

Of St John’s Wort, NCCAM says

“There is some scientific evidence that St. John’s wort is useful for treating mild to moderate depression. However, two large studies, one sponsored by NCCAM, showed that the herb was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression of moderate severity.”

As well as having dubious effectiveness it is well known that St John’s Wort can interact with many other drugs, a hazard that is not mentioned by Duchy Originals

These two are slightly different because they appear to have the blessing of the MHRA.

The behaviour of the MHRA in ignoring the little question of whether the treatment works or not has been condemned widely.  But at least the MHRA are quite explicit. This is what the MHRA says of St. John’s Wort (my emphasis).

“This registration is based exclusively upon evidence of traditional use of Hypericum perforatum L. as a herbal medicine and not upon data generated from clinical trials.. There is no requirement under the Traditional Herbal Registration scheme to prove scientifically that the product works.

But that bit about “There is no requirement under the Traditional Herbal Registration scheme to prove scientifically that the product works” does not appear in the Duchy Originals advertisement. On the contrary, this is what they say.

Yes, they claim that “the two tinctures [echinacea and hypericum] -in terms of their safety, quality and efficacy -by the UK regulatory authorities”

That is simply not true.

On the contrary, anyone without specialist knowledge would interpret bits like these as claims that there will be a health benefit.

That is claim to benefit your health. So are these.

Who makes them?

Michael McIntyre is certainly a high profile herbalist.

He was founder president of the European Herbal Practitioners Association and a trustee of the Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Medicine.  It seems that he a great believer in the myth of “detox”, judging by his appearance on the Firefly tonics web site. They will sell you

“Natural healthy energy” in a drink

That’s what we wanted…

A Wake up for that drowsy afternoon… Detox for a dodgy Friday morning…

Sharpen up for that interminable meeting.

We left the herbs to our wonderful herbalists.

Their De-tox contains lemon, lime, ginger, sarsparilla and angelica. I expect it tastes nice. All the rest is pure marketing rubbish. It does not speak very well of Michael McIntyre that he should lend his name to such promotions.

Nelsons, who actually make the stuff, is better known as a big player in the great homeopathic fraud business. They will sell you 30C pills of common salt at £4.60 for 84. Their main health-giving virtue is that they’re salt free.

If you want to know what use they are, you are referred here, where it is claimed that it is “used to treat watery colds, headaches, anaemia, constipation, and backache”.  Needless to say there isn’t a smidgeon of reason to believe it does the slightest good for them.

And remember what Nelson’s advisor at their London pharmacy told BBC TV while recommending sugar pills to prevent malaria?

“They make it so your energy doesn’t have a malaria-shaped hole in it so the malarial mosquitos won’t come along and fill that in.”

You couldn’t make it up.

The Prince of Wales has some sensible things to say in other areas, such as the world’s over-reliance on fossil fuels. Even his ideas about medicine are, no doubt, well-intentioned. It does seem a shame that he just can’t get the hang of the need for evidence. Wishful thinking just isn’t enough.

Follow-up

Some more interesting reading about the Prince of Wales.

Michael Baum’s An open letter to the Prince of Wales: with respect, your highness, you’ve got it wrong”

Gerald Weissman’s essay Homeopathy: Holmes, Hogwarts, and the Prince of Wales.

Channel 4 TV documentary HRH “meddling in politics”

11 March 2009 The MHRA have censured Duchy Originals for the claims made for these products. and in May 2009, two complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority were upheld.

One of the most extraordinary bits of journalism I’ve read for a long time appeared as an editorial in the Sri Lankan newspaper, the Sunday Leader, on Sunday January 11th 2009   It was reproduced in the Guardian on 13th January, and in The Times.  It was written by Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, and it was the last thing he wrote. Days after writing it he was assassinated.

It is a plea for freedom of speech. In particular, for the freedom of journalists to tell the truth,  It is deeply moving and it is also written in more beautiful English than many native speakers can manage. The second person to leave a comment in the Guardian said

“Extraordinary, humbling and deeply moving.

Cif Eds, please leave this at the top of the page for about a week, and then nail copies it to every available surface at Guardian HQ.”

Writing blogs like this one (and a thousand others) need some of the skills of investigative journalism.  Those skills are not so different from those you need in science, Curiosity, a willingness to look under stones, a preference for truth over myth, some skill with  Google and a good deal of tenacity.  You also need to be resilient to abuse and defamation by people who disagree with you.  But you do not risk your life. It does not take much courage.  That isn’t true in large parts of the world.

Read it all. Here are a few quotations to persuade you it’s worth the time.

“No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces – and, in Sri
Lanka
, journalism. In the course of the last few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print institutions have been burned, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories, and now  especially the last.”

“The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print
are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.”

“The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future.”

“It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended.

In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”

“In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry.

But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life but yours too depends on it.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most are now dead, imprisoned
without trial or exiled in far-off lands.”

“People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot,
whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemöller. In his youth he was an antisemite and an admirer of Hitler. As nazism took hold of Germany, however, he saw nazism for what it was. It was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemöller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, he wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, let it be this: the Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled.”

This man puts to shame the those who won’t speak out in the safety of the West, despite the fact that they have nothing to lose but their ministerial jobs or their knighthoods. Or running the risk of being sued by chiropractors.

How about some nominations for Western journalists who live up to these ideals?   I’d start with Seymour Hersh and Paul Krugman in the USA, and our own Ben Goldacre.   It’s interesting though, that two of these three are not full time journalists. Blogs do rather better than most newspapers. They have become an important force for freedom of speech. That more than counterbalances the use of the web for promoting junk. It is a lot harder to keep a secret than it used to be.

There is an obituary of Lasantha Wickrematunge in the Sunday Leader, and a report from Amnesty International.

Jump to follow-up

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.

The laws

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)

Misleading actions

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.

Article 6

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

Follow-up

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”.

The regulations state

(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

The National Health Executive (“the Independent Journal for Senior Health Service Managers) asked for an article about quackery. This is a version of that article with live links.

Download the pdf version.

There is a Russian translation here (obviously I can’t vouch for its accuracy).



On May 23 th 2006 a letter was sent to the chief executives of 467 NHS Trusts. It was reported as a front page story in the Times, and it was the lead item on the Today programme. The letter urged the government not to spend NHS funds on “unproven and disproved treatments”. Who can imagine anything more simple and self-evident than that? But in politics nothing is simple.

It turns out that quite a lot of patients are deeply attached to unproven and disproved treatments. They clamour for them and, since “patient choice” is high on the agenda at the moment, they quite often get them. Unproven and disproved treatments cost quite a lot of money that the NHS should be spending on things that work.

In January 2007, the Association of Directors of Public Health issued its own list of unproven and disproved treatments. It included, among others, tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy, carpal tunnel surgery and homeopathy. They all matter, but here I’ll concentrate on alternative treatments, of which homeopathy is one of the most widespread.

It should be simple. We have a good mechanism for deciding which treatments are cost-effective, in the form of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE). If homeopathy and herbalism are not good ways to spend NHS money, why has NICE not said so? The answer to that is simple.   NICE has not been asked.   It can consider only those questions that are referred to it by the Department of Health (DoH).

The government often says that it takes the best scientific advice, but the DoH seems to have something of a blank spot when it comes to alternative medicine. Nobody knows why. Perhaps it is the dire lack of anyone with a scientific education in government.   Or could there be something in the rumour that the DoH lives in terror of being at the receiving end of a rant from the general direction of Clarence House if it doesn’t behave?   Whatever the reason, the matter has still not been referred to NICE, despite many requests to do so.

A judgement from NICE would be useful, but it is hardly essential. It isn’t hard to understand. At its simplest the whole problem can be summed up very briefly.

  • Homeopathy: giving patients medicines that contain no medicine whatsoever.
  • Herbal medicine: giving patients an unknown dose of a medicine, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety.
  • Acupuncture: a rather theatrical placebo, with no real therapeutic benefit in most if not all cases.
  • Chiropractic: an invention of a 19 th century salesmen, based on nonsensical principles, and shown to be no more effective than other manipulative therapies, but less safe.
  • Reflexology: plain old foot massage, overlaid with utter nonsense about non-existent connections between your feet and your thyroid gland.
  • Nutritional therapy: self-styled ‘nutritionists’ making unjustified claims about diet to sell unnecessary supplements.

Of these, ‘nutritional therapy’, or ‘nutritional medicine’, is a relative newcomer. At their worst, they claim that Vitamin C can cure AIDS, and have been responsible for many deaths in Africa. There isn’t the slightest need for them since the nutrition area is already covered by registered dietitians who have far better training.

There have been several good honest summaries of the evidence that underlies these interpretations, written in a style quite understandable by humanities graduates. Try, for example, Trick or Treatment (Singh & Ernst, Bantam Press 2008): a copy should be presented to every person in the DoH and every NHS manager. In some areas the evidence is now quite good. Homeopathy, when tested properly, comes out no different from placebo. That is hardly surprising because the ‘treatment’ pill contains no medicine so it is the same as the placebo pill.

Acupuncture has also been tested well in the last 10 years. A lot of ingenuity has been put into designing sham acupuncture to use as a control. There is still a bit of doubt in a few areas, but overwhelmingly the results show that real acupuncture is not distinguishable from sham. Acupuncture, it seems, is nothing more than a particularly theatrical placebo. All the stuff about meridians and “Qi” is so much mumbo-jumbo. In contrast, herbal medicines have hardly been tested at all.

It is quite easy to get an impression that some of these fringe forms of medicine work better than they do. They form efficient lobby groups and they have friends in high places. They long for respectability and they’ve had a surprising amount of success in getting recognised by the NHS. Some (like chiropractic) have even got official government recognition.

One can argue about whether it was money well-spent, but in the USA almost a billion dollars has been spent on research on alternative medicine by their National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which was set up as a result of political pressure from the (huge) alternative medicine industry. That has produced not a single effective alternative treatment, but at least it has shown clearly that most don’t work.

The letter of 23 May 2006 proved to be remarkably effective. Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital has closed and commissioning of homeopathic services has fallen drastically. That has released money for treatments that work, and providing treatments that work is the job of the NHS.

It is sometimes asked, what is wrong with placebo effects as long as the patient feels better? First it must be said that much of the apparent benefit of placebos like homeopathy isn’t a placebo effect, but merely spontaneous recovery. Echinacea cures your cold in only seven days when otherwise it would have taken a week.  But when there is a genuine psychosomatic placebo effect, it can be a real benefit.   As always, though, one must consider the cost as well as the benefit.

And there are a lot of hidden costs in this approach. One cost is the need to lie to patients to achieve a good placebo effect. That contradicts the trend towards more openness in medicine. And there is a major cost to the taxpayer in the training of people. If the NHS employs homeopaths or spiritual healers because they are nice people who can elicit a good placebo effect, the Human Resources department will insist that they are fully-qualified in myths. ““Full National Federation of Spiritual Healer certificate. or a full Reiki Master qualification, and two years post certificate experience” (I quote). That is one reason why you can find in UK universities, undergraduates being taught at taxpayers’ expense, that “amethysts emit high Yin energy”.

There is a solution to all of this. There is room in the NHS for nice, caring people, to hold the hands of sick patients. They might be called ‘healthcare workers in supportive and palliative care’. They could do a good job, without any of the nonsense of homeopathy or spiritualism. Likewise, manipulative therapists could get together to dispense with the nonsense elements in chiropractic, and to make a real attempt to find out what works best.

All that stands in the way of this common sense approach is the rigidity of Human Resources departments which demand formal qualifications in black magic before you can cheer up sick patients. The over-formalisation of nonsense has done great harm. You have only to note that Skills for Health has listed ‘competences’ in Distant Healing (in the presence of the client or in the absence of the client).

When I asked Skills for Health if they would be defining a ‘competence’ in talking to trees, I was told, in all seriousness, ““You’d have to talk to LANTRA, the land-based organisation for that”.

I’m not joking.    I wish I were.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

It’s hard enough to communicate basic ideas about how to assess evidence to adults without having the effort hindered by schools.

The teaching of quackery to 16 year-olds has been approved by a maze of quangos, none  of which will take responsibility, or justify their actions. So far I’ve located no fewer than eight of them.

[For non-UK readers, quango = Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation].


A lot of odd qualifications are accredited by OfQual (see here).  Consider, for example, Edexcel Level 3 BTEC Nationals in Health and Social Care (these exams are described here), Download the specifications here and check page 309.

Unit 23: Complementary Therapies for Health and Social Care
NQF Level 3: BTEC National
Guided learning hours: 60

Unit abstract

“In order to be able to take a holistic view towards medicine and health care, health and social care professionals need to understand the potential range of complementary therapies available and how they may be used in the support of conventional medicine.”

Well, Goldacre has always said that homeopathy makes the perfect vehicle for teaching how easy it is to be deceived by bad science, so what’s wrong?  But wait

“Learners will consider the benefits of complementary therapies to health and wellbeing, as well as identifying any contraindications and health and safety issues in relation to their use.”

Then later

“The holistic approach to illnesses such as cancer could be used as a focus here. For example, there could be some tutor input to introduce ideas about the role of complementary therapies in the treatment and management of cancer, this being followed up by individual or small group research by learners using both the internet and the services available locally/regionally. If available, a local homeopathic hospital, for example, would be an interesting place to visit.”

It’s true that to get a distinction, you have to “evaluate the evidence relating to the use of complementary therapies in contemporary society”, but it isn’t at all clear that this refers to evidence about whether the treatment works.

The really revealing bit comes when you get to the

“Indicative reading for learners
There are many resources available to support this unit.

Websites
www.acupuncture.org.uk British Acupuncture Council
www.bant.org.uk British Association for Nutritional Therapy
www.exeter.ac.uk/sshs/compmed Exeter University’s academic department of Complementary medicine
www.gcc-uk.org General Chiropractic Council
www.nimh.org.uk National Institute of Medical Herbalists
www.nursingtimes.net The Nursing Times
www.osteopathy.org.uk General Osteopathic Council
www.the-cma.org.uk The Complementary Medical Association”

This list is truly astonishing. Almost every one of them can be relied on to produce self-serving inaccurate information about the form of “therapy” it exists to promote. The one obvious exception is the reference to Exeter University’s academic department of complementary medicine (and the link to that one is wrong). The Nursing Times should be an exception too, but their articles about CAM are just about always written by people who are committed to it.

It is no consolation that the 2005 version was even worse.  In its classification of ‘therapies’ it said “Pharmaceutically mediated: eg herbalism, homeopathy “. Grotesque! And this is the examinng body!

The Teacher

This particular educational disaster came to my attention when I had a letter from a teacher.  She had been asked to teach this unit, and wanted to know if I could provide any resources for it.  She said that Edexcel hadn’t done so. She asked ” Do you know of any universities that teach CT’s [sic] so I could contact them about useful teaching resources?.” She seemed to think that reliable information about homeopathy could be found from a ‘university’ homeopathy teacher.  Not a good sign. It soon emerged why.
She said.

“My students are studying BTEC National Health Studies and the link is Edexcel BTEC National Complimentary [sic] studies.”

“I am a psychotherapist with an MA in Education and Psychology. I am also trained in massage and shiatsu and have plenty of personal experience of alternative therapy”

Shiatsu uh? It seems the teacher is already committed to placebo medicine.  Nevertheless I spent some time looking for some better teaching material for 16 year-old children.  There is good stuff at Planet
Science
, and in some of the pamphlets from Sense about Science, not least their latest, I’ve got nothing to lose by trying it – A guide to weighing up claims about cures and treatments.  I sent all this stuff to her, and prefaced the material by saying

“First of all, I should put my cards on the table and say that I am quite appalled by the specification of Unit 23. In particular, it has almost no emphasis at all on the one thing that you want to know about any therapy, namely does it work?  The reference list for reading consists almost entirely of organisations that are trying to sell you various sorts of quackery, There is no hint of balance; furthermore it is all quite incompatible with unit 22, which IS concerned with evidence.”

At this point the teacher the teacher came clean too, As always, anyone who disagrees with the assessment (if any) of the evidence by a true believer is unmeasured and inflammatory.

“I have found your responses very unmeasured and inflammatory and I am sorry to say that this prejudicial attitude has meant that I have not found your comments useful.”

shortly followed by

“I am not coming from a scientific background, neither is the course claiming to be scientific.”

That will teach me to spend a couple of hours trying to help a teacher.

What does Edexcel say?

I wrote to Edexcel’s science subject advisors with some questions about what was being taught. The response that I got was not from the science subject advisors but from the Head of Customer support, presumably a PR person.

From: (Bola Arabome) 12/11/2008 04.31 PM

Dear Professor Colquhoun

Thank you for email communication concerning the complementary therapies unit which is available in our BTEC National in Health and BTEC National in Health and Social Care qualifications. I have replied on behalf of Stephen Nugus, our science subject advisor, because your questions do not refer to a science qualification. I would like to answer your questions as directly as possible and then provide some background information relating to the qualifications.

The units and whole qualifications for all awarding bodies are accredited by the regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. The resource reading list is also produced by us to help teachers and learners. The qualification as a whole is related to the National Occupational Standards for the vocational sectors of Health and Health and social care with consultation taken from the relevant sector skills councils . As you will be aware many of these complementary therapies are available in care centres and health centres under the NHS and in the private sector. The aim of BTEC qualifications is to prepare people for work in these particular sectors. Clearly a critical awareness is encouraged with reference to health and safety and regulation. There are other units, in some cases compulsory, within the qualification with a scientific approach.

‘  ‘  ‘  ‘  ‘

Stephen Harris

Head of Customer Support



Aha, so it seems that teaching people to treat sick patients is “not a science qualification”.  Just a business qualification perhaps?.  I haven’t yet managed to reach the people who make these decisions, so I persisted with the PR man. Here is part of the next letter (Edexcel’s reply in italic).

19 November

I find it quite fascinating that Edexcel regards the treatment of sick patients as not being part of science (“do not refer to a science qualification”).

Does that mean Edexcel regard the “Health” part of “Health and Social Care” as being nothing to do with science, and that it therefore doesn’t matter if Health Care is unscientific, or even actively anti-scientific?

I am sorry if my answer lacked clarity. My comment, that I had taken your enquiry on behalf of our Science Advisor because  this was not a science qualification, was intended to explain why I was replying. It was not intended as a comment on the relationship between Health and Social  Care and science. At Edexcel we use bureaucratic categories where we align our management of qualifications with officially recognised occupational sectors. Often we rely on sector bodies such as Sector Skills Councils to endorse or even approve the qualifications we offer. Those involved in production of our Science qualifications and our
Health and Social care qualifications are, as far as I can ascertain, neither anti-scientific nor non-scientific in their approach

(4) You say “The qualification as a whole is related to the National Occupational Standards for the vocational sectors of Health and Health and social care with consultation taken from the relevant sector skills councils”. Are you aware that the Skills for Health specifications for Alternative medicine were written essentially by the Prince of Wales Foundation?
When I asked them if they would be writing a competence in talking to trees, they took the question totally seriously!! (You can see the transcript of the conversation at http://dcscience.net/?p=215 ).

The qualification was approved by both ‘Skills for Health’ and ‘Skills for Care and Development’ prior to being accredited by QCA. It uses the NOS in Health and Social Care as the basis for many of the mandatory units. The ‘Complementary Therapies’ NOS were not used. This was not a requirement of a ‘Health and Social Care’ qualification.

“Are the NOS in Health and Social Care that you mention the ones listed here? http://www.ukstandards.org/Find_Occupational_Standards.aspx?NosFindID=1&ClassificationItemId=174 If so, I can see nothing there about ‘complementary therapies’. if I have missed it, I’d be very grateful if you could let me know where it is. If it is not there, I remain very puzzled about the provenance of Unit 23, since you say it is not based on Skills for Health.”



Now we are immediately at sea, struggling under a tidal wave of acronyms for endless overlapping quangos.  In this one short paragraph we have no fewer than four of them. ‘Skills for Health’, ‘Skills for Care and Development’ , ‘Quality and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and NOS.

It seems that the specification of unit 23 was written by Edexcel, but Harris (25 Nov) declines to name those responsible

“When I refer to our “Health and Social care team” I mean the mix of Edexcel Staff and the associates we employ on a contract basis as writers, examiners and  external verifiers.   The writers are generally recruited from those who are involved in teaching and assessment the subjects in schools and colleges. The editorial responsibility lies with the Edexcel Staff. I do not have access to the names of the writers and in any case would not be able to pass on this information. Specifications indicate the managers responsible for authorising publication”

“Edexcel takes full responsibility for its ethical position on this and other issues. However we can not accept responsibility for the opinions expressed in third party materials. There is a disclaimer to this effect at the beginning of the specification. ”
” You have the correct link to the Health NOS . These are the standards, which where appropriate, influence our qualifications. However in the case of Unit 23 I understand that there is no link with the Health NOS. I don’t know if the NOS cover the unit 23 content.”

So, contrary to what I was told at first, neither Skills for Health, nor NOS were involved  Or were they (see below)?

So who does take responsibility?  Aha that is secret.  And the approval by the QCA is also secret.

“I cannot provide you with copies of any correspondence between Skills for Health and  Edexcel. We regard this as confidential. “

What does the QCA say?

The strapline of the QCA is

“We are committed to building a world-class education and training framework. We develop and modernise the curriculum, assessments, examinations and qualifications.”

Referring school children to the Society of Homeopaths for advice seems to be world-class bollocks rather than world-class education.

When this matter was brought to light by Graeme Paton in the Daily Telegraph, he quoted Kathleen Tattersall, CEO of the QCA. She said

“The design of these diplomas has met Ofqual’s high standards. We will monitor them closely as they are delivered to make sure that learners get a fair deal and that standards are set appropriately.”

Just the usual vacuous bureaucratic defensive sound-bite there. So I wrote to Kathleen Tattersall  myself with some specific questions. The letter went on 2nd September 2008.  Up to today, 26 November, I had only letters saying

“Thank you for your email of 12 November addressed to Kathleen Tattersall, a response is being prepared which will be forwarded to you shortly.”

“Thank you for your email of 25th November addressed to Kathleen Tattersall. A more detailed response is being prepared which will be sent to you shortly.”

Here are some of the questions that I asked.

I wrote to Edexcel’s subject advisors about unit 23 and I was told “your questions do not refer to a science qualification”. This seems to mean that if it comes under the name “Health Care” then the care of sick patients is treated as though it were nothing to do with science, That seems to me to be both wrong and dangerous, and I should like to hear your view about that question.

Clearly the fundamental problem here is that the BTEC is intended as a vocational training for careers in alternative medicine, As a body concerned with education, surely you cannot ignore the view of 99% of scientists and doctors that almost all alternative medicine is fraud. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make a living from it, but it surely does create a dilemma for an educational organisation. What is your view of that dilemma?



Eventually, on 27th November, I get a reply (of sorts)  It came not from the Kathleen Tattersall of the QCA but from yet another regulatory body, OfQual, the office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator.  You’d think that they’d know the answers, but if they do they aren’t telling, [download whole letter.  It is very short.  The “more detailed response” says nothing.

Ofqual does not take a view on the detailed content of vocational qualifications as that responsibility sits with the relevant Sector Skills Council which represents employers and others involved in the sector. Ofqual accredits the specifications, submitted by sector-skilled professionals, after ensuring they meet National Occupational Standards.  Ofqual relies on the professional judgement of these sector-skilled professionals to include relevant subjects and develop and enhance the occupational standards in their profession.

The accreditation of this BTEC qualification was supported by both Skills for Health, and Skills for Care and Development, organisations which represent the emerging Sector Qualifications Strategies and comply with the relevant National Occupational Standards

Isabel Nisbet

Acting Chief Executive



So no further forward. Every time I ask a question, the buck gets passed to another quango (or two, or three). This letter, in any case, seems to contradict what Edexcel said about the involvement of Skills for Health (that’s the talking to trees outfit),

A nightmare maze of quangos

You may well be wondering what the relationship is between Ofqual and the QCA.  There is an ‘explanation’ here.

Ofqual will take over the regulatory responsibilities of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), with stronger powers in relation to safeguarding the standards of qualifications and assessment and an explicit remit as a market regulator. The QCA will evolve into the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA): supporting Ministers with advice and undertaking certain design and delivery support functions in relation to the curriculum, qualifications, learning and development in the Early Years Foundation Stage, and National Curriculum and Early Years Foundation Stage assessments.

Notice tha QCA won’t be abolished. There will be yet another quango.

The result of all this regulatory bureaucracy seems to be worse regulation, Exactly the same thing happens with accreditiation of dodgy degrees in universities.

At one time, a proposal for something like Unit 23 would have been shown to any competent science teacher, who would have said”you must be joking” and binned it.  Now a few hundred bureaucrats tick their boxes and rubbish gets approved.

There seems to be nobody in any of these quangos with the education to realise that if you want to know the truth about homeopathy, the last person you ask is the Society of Homeopaths or the Prince of Wales.

What next?

So the mystery remains. I can’t find out who is responsible for the provenance of the appallingly anti-science Unit 23, and I can’t find out how it got approved.  Neither can I get a straight answer to the obvious question about whether it is OK to encourage vocational qualifications for jobs that are bordering on being fraudulent.

.All I can get is platitudes and bland assurances.  Everything that might be informative is clouded in secrecy.

The Freedom of Information requests are in.  Watch this space. But don’t hold your breath.

Follow-up

Here are some attempts to break through the wall of silence.

Edexcel. I sent them this request.

Freedom of Information Act

Hello

I should like to see please all documents from Edexcel and OfQual or QCA (and communications between then) that concern the formulation and approval of Unit 23 (Complementary Therapies) in the level3 BTEC (page 309 in attached document). In vew of the contentious nature of the subject matter, I believe that is is in the public interest that this information be provided

David Colquhoun

The answer was quite fast, and quite unequivocal, Buzz off.

Dear Mr Colquhoun,

Thank you of your e-mail of today’s date. I note your request for information pursuant to The Freedom of Information Act. As you may know this Act only applies to public bodies and not to the private sector. Edexcel Limited is privately owned and therefore not subject to this Act. Edexcel is therefore not obliged to provide information to you and is not prepared to give you the information you seek.

Please do not hesitate to contact me again if you have any further queries.

Kate Gregory
Director of Legal Services
Pearson Assessments & Testing
One90 High Holborn, London, WC1V 7BH
T: +44 (0)20 7190 5157 / F: +44 (0)207 190 5478
Email: kate.gregory@pearson. com



This lack of public accountability just compounds their appalling inability to distinguish education from miseducation.

International Therapy Examination Council (ITEC)

Mojo’s comment, below, draws attention to the Foundation degree in Complementary Therapies offered by Cornwall College, Camborne, Cornwall (as well as to the fact that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has been wasting money on ‘research’ on homeopathy –write to them).

At least the courses are held on the Camborne campus of Cornwall College, not on the Duchy campus (do we detect the hand of the Quacktitioner Royal in all this nonsense?).

Cornwall College descends to a new level of barminess in its course Crystal Healing VTCT Level 3

“Who is this course for?

This course is designed to enhance the skills of the Holistic Therapist. Crystals may be used on their own in conjunction with other therapies such as Indian Head Massage, Aromatherapy and Reflexology. Due to the nature of the demands of the holistic programme this course is only suitable for students over the age of 18.”

“What will I be doing on the course?

Students will study the art of Crystal healing which is an energy based treatment where crystals and gemstones are used to channel and focus various energy frequencies.”

.VTCT stands for the Vocational Training Charitable Trust.

It is yet another organisation that runs vocational exams, and it is responsible for this particular horror

The crystals are here. I quote.

Objectives

  • the use of interpersonal skills with client
  • how to complement other therapies with crystals
  • the types and effects of different crystals
  • uses of crystals including cleansing, energising, configurations
  • concepts of auras and chakras

This is, of course, pure meaningless nonsense. Utter bollocks being offered as further education

Cornwall College has many courses run by ITEC.

The College says

“You will become a professional practitioner with the International Therapy Examination Council (ITEC), study a number of essential modules to give a vocational direction to your study that include: Homeopathy and its application,”

Who on earth, I hear you cry, are ITEC? That brings us to the seventh organisation in the maze of quangos and private companies involved in the miseducation of young people about science and medicine. It appears, like Edexcel, to be a private company though its web site is very coy about that.

After the foundation degree you can go on to “a brand new innovative BSc in Complementary Health Studies (from Sept 2009)”

The ITEC web site says

Oddly enough, there is no mention of accreditation by a University (not that that is worth much).  So a few more Freedom of Information requests are going off, in an attempt to find out why are kids are being miseducated about science and medicine.

Meanwhile you can judge the effect of all that education in physiology by one of the sample questions for ITEC Unit 4, reflexology.

The pancreas reflex:

A Extends across both feet
B Is on the right foot only
C Is on the left foot only
D Is between the toes on both feet

Uhuh, they seem to have forgotten the option ‘none of the above’.

Or how about a sample question from ITEC Unit 47 – Stone Therapy Massage

Which organ of the body is associated with the element fire?

A Heart
B Liver
C Spleen
D Pancreas


Or perhaps this?

Which incantation makes hot stones work best?

A Incarcerous
B Avada Kedavra,
C Dissendium
D Expelliarmus.

(OK I made the last one up, with help from Harry Potter, but it makes just about as much sense as the real ones).

And guess what? You can’t use the Freedom of Information Act to find out how this preposterous rubbish got into the educational system because ” ITEC is a private organisation therefore does not come under this legislation”. The ability to conduct business in secret is a side effect of the privatisation of public education is another reason why it’s a bad idea.

Ofsted

Ofsted has inspected Cornwall College. They say “We inspect and regulate to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages.”. I can find no mention of this nonsense in their report, so I’ve asked them.

Ofsted has admitted a spectacular failure in its inspection of child care in the London Borough of Haringey. Polly Curtis wrote in the Guardian (6 Dec 2008) “We failed over Haringey – Ofsted head”. It was the front page story. But of course Ofsted don’t take the blame, they say they were supplied with false information,

That is precisely what happens whenever a committee or quango endorses rubbish. They look only at the documents sent to them and they don’t investigate, don’t engage their brains.

In the case of these courses in utter preposterous rubbish, it seems rather likely that the ultimate source of the misinformation is the Princes’ Foundation for Integrated Health. Tha views of the Prince of Wales get passed on to the ludicrous Skills for Health and used as a criterion by all the other organisations, without a moment of critical appraisal intervening at any point.

2 December 2008 A link from James Randi has sent the hit rate for this post soaring.  Someone there left are rather nice comment.

“A quango seems to be a kind of job creation for the otherwise unemployable ‘educated ‘( degree in alternative navel contemplation) middle classes who can’t be expected to do anything useful like cleaning latines ( the only other thing they seem qualified for ). I really hate to think of my taxes paying for this codswollop.”


Jump to follow-up

It seems that validation committees often don’t look beyond the official documents. As a result, the validations may not be worth the paper they are written on. Try this one.

One of the best bits of news recently was the downfall of Matthias Rath.  He’s the man who peddled vitamin pills for AIDS in Africa, and encouraged the AIDS denialists in the South African government.  Thabo Mbeki and his Health Minister, Mrs Beetroot, have gone now, thank heavens.

Rath was one of the best illustrations of the murderous effect of selling ineffective treatments.  The fact that nobody in the “nutritional therapy” industry has uttered a word of condemnation for this man illustrates better than anything one can imagine the corrupt state of “nutritional therapy”.  The people who kept silent include the British Association of Nutritional Therapists (BANT).

It might be surprising, then, to find the Northern College of Acupuncture proudly adding a course in alternative nutrition to its courses in acupuncture (now known to be a theatrical placebo) and Chinese herbal medicine (largely untested and sometimes toxic).  It might be even more surprising to find the boast that the course is validated by the University of Wales.  It seemed a good idea to find out a bit more about how this came about.  Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, some interesting things can be discovered.

Polly Toynbee’s superb article, Quackery and superstition – available soon on the NHS,  written in January 2008, mentioned diplomas and degrees in complementary therapies offered by, among others, the University of Wales.  This elicited a letter of protest to Toynbee from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales, Professor Marc Clement BSc, PhD, MInstP, CEng,CPhys,FIET.   He invited her to visit the university to see their “validation and monitoring procedures (including the University’s very specific guidelines on health studies disciplines”.

So let’s take a look at these validation procedures and guidelines.

The validation process

The Northern College of Acupuncture submitted a 148 page proposal for the course in October 2007.   The document has all the usual edu-bollocks jargon, but of course doesn’t say much about clinical trials, though it does boast about an unblinded trial of acupuncture published in 2006 which, because of lack of appropriate controls, served only to muddy the waters.  : This submission was considered by the University’s validation committee last December.


Panel of Assessors:

Professor Nigel Palastanga (Chair), Cardiff University

Dr Celia Bell (School of Health and Social Sciences Middlesex University)

Dr John Fish (Moderator designate) (Institute of Biological Sciences University of Wales, Aberystwyth)

Ms Rhiannon Harris (Centre for Nutrition & Dietetics University of Wales Institute,
Cardiff (UWIC))

Ms Felicity Moir (School of Integrated Health University of Westminster)

The whole validation document is only four pages long [download it]. The most interesting thing about it is that the words ‘evidence’ or ‘critical’ do not occur in it a single time.  It has all the usual bureaucratic jargon of such documents but misses entirely the central point.

Does that mean that the University of Wales doesn’t care about evidence or critical thinking?  Well, not on paper. Two years previously a short document called Health Studies Guidelines had been written by Dr Brian Spriggs (Health Studies Validation Consultant, since retired) for the Health Studies Committee, and it was approved on 21 April 2005.  It starts well.

“Degrees in the Health Studies field are expected to promote an understanding of the  importance of the scientific method and an evidence-base to underpin therapeutic interventions and of research to expand that base.”

It even goes on to say that a BSc degree in homeopathy is “unacceptable”.  Don’t get too excited though, because it also says that acupuncture and Chinese herbal  stuff is quite OK.  How anyone can imagine they live up to the  opening sentence beats me.   And it gets worse. It says that all sorts of rather advanced forms of battiness are OK if they form only part of another degree.  They include Homeopathy, Crystal therapy. Dowsing, Iridology; Kinesiology, Radionics, Reflexology, Shiatsu, Healing, and Maharishi Ayurvedic Medicine.

Dowsing? Crystal therapy?  Just let me remind you. We are living in 2008. It is easy to forget that when ploughing through all this new age junk.

The Validation Handbook of Quality Assurance: Health Studies (2007) runs to an astonishing 256 pages [download the whole thing]. On page 12 we find the extent of the problem.

“The University of Wales validates a number of schemes in the Health Studies field. At the current time we have undergraduate and/or postgraduate degree schemes in Acupuncture, Animal Manipulation, Chiropractic, Herbal Medicine, Integrative Psychotherapy, Osteopathy, Osteopathic Studies, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Regulatory Affairs, both in the UK and overseas.”

That sounds pretty shocking.   Further down on page 12, though, we find this.

“Degrees in the Health Studies field are expected to promote an understanding of the importance of the scientific method and an evidence-base to underpin therapeutic interventions and of research to expand that base. The mission is to promote and require the critical evaluation of the practices, doctrines, beliefs, theories and hypotheses that underlie the taught therapeutic measures of the discipline.”

They are indeed fine words. The problem is that I can detect no sign in the submission, nor in its consideration by the validation committee, that any attempt whatsoever was made to ensure that the course complied with these requirements.

The only sign of concern I could detect of any concern about the quality of what was being taught came in a minute to a meeting of the Health Studies Committee meeting on 24th April 2008.

“Members received a copy of an article entitled Quackery and superstition available soon on the NHS which appeared in The Guardian newspaper in January 2008, and a copy of the Vice- Chancellors response. Members agreed that this article was now historical but felt that if/when the issue were to arise again; the key matter of scientific rigour should be stressed. The Committee agreed that this was the most critical element of all degree schemes in the University of Wales portfolio of health studies schemes. It was felt it would be timely to re-examine the schemes within the portfolio as well as the guidelines for consideration of Health Studies schemes at the next meeting. The Committee might also decide that Institutions would be required to include literature reviews (as part of their validation submission) to provide evidence for their particular profession/philosophy. It was agreed that the guidelines would be a vital document in the consideration of new schemes and during preliminary visits to prospective Institutions. “

The Press Office had passed Polly Toynbee’s article to them.  Curiously the Health Studies Committee dismissed it as “historical”, simply because it was written three months earlier.  That is presumably “historical” in the sense that the public will have forgotten about it, rather than in the sense that the facts of the matter have changed since January.  So, at least for the nutrition degree, Toynbee’s comments  were simply brushed under the carpet.

After a few cosmetic changes of wording the validation was completed on 16th January 2008. For example the word “diagnosis” was removed in 43 places and “rewritten in terms of evaluation and assessment”.  There was, needless to say, no indication that the change in wording would change anything in what was taught to students.

You may think that I am being a bit too harsh. Perhaps the course is just fine after all? The problem is that the submission and the reaction of the validation committee tell you next to nothing about what actually matters, and that is what is taught. There is only a vague outline of that in the submission (and part of it was redacted on the grounds that if it were made public somebody might copy ;it.  Heaven forbid).

That is why I have to say, yet again, that this sort of validation exercise is not worth the paper it’s written on.

How can we find out a bit more? Very easily as it happens. Just Google. What matters is not so much formal course outlines but who teaches them.

The nutrition course

The title of the course is just “Nutrition”, not ‘Nutritional Therapy’ or ‘Alternative Nutrition’.  That sounds quite respectable but a glance at the prospectus shows immediately that it is full-blown alternative medicine.

Already in July 2007, the glowing press releases for the course had attracted attention from the wonderfully investigative web site HolfordWatch.   I see no sign that the validation committee was aware of this. But if not, why not? I would describe is as dereliction of academic duty.

“This pioneering course is unique in that it is firmly rooted in both Western nutritional science and naturopathic medicine and also covers concepts of nutrition within traditional Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicine.

This means that graduates will gain comprehensive understanding of both modern scientific knowledge and ancient wisdom concerning nutrition and dietetics.”

Ancient wisdom, of course, means something that your are supposed to believe though there is no good reason to think it’s true.  In the end, though, almost the only thing that really matters about any course is who is running it.  The brochure shows that all of the people are heavily into every form of alternative nuttiness.

Course Director and Tutor: Jacqueline Young nutritionist, naturopath, clinical psychologist and Oriental medical practitioner

Nutrition Tutors:

Elaine Aldred  (qualified as a chiropractor with the Anglo European Chiropractic College, as an acupuncturist with the British College of Acupuncture and as a Western Medical Herbalist with the College of Phytotherapy. She recently also qualified in Chinese herbal medicine with the Northern College of Acupuncture.)

Sue Russell (3 year diploma in nutritional therapy at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition. She currently practises as a nutritional therapist and also works part-time as a manager at the Northern College of Homeopathic Medicine.)

Anuradha Sharma (graduated as a dietician from Leeds Metropolitan University in 2002 and subsequently completed a Naturopathy certificate and a post-graduate diploma in acupuncture).

Guest Lecturers include : Dr John Briffa, Professor Jane Plant, M.B.E. (a geochemist turned quack), and, most revealingly, none other than the UK’s most notorious media celebrity and pill peddler, Patrick Holford.

So much has been written about Holford’s appalling abuse of science, one would have thought that not even a validation committee could have missed it.

“The course has been created by Jacqueline Young“, so let’s look a bit further at her track record.

Jacqueline Young has written a book, ‘Complementary Medicine for Dummies’ [Ed: ahem shouldn’t that be Dummies for Complementary Medicine?].  You can see parts of it on Google Books. Did the validation committee bother to look at it?  As far as I can tell, the words ‘randomised’ or ‘clinical trial’ occur nowhere in the book.

The chapter on Tibetan medicine is not very helpful when it comes to evidence but for research we are referred to the Tibetan Medical and Astrology Institute.  Guess what? That site gives no evidence either. So far not a single university has endorsed Astrology (there is a profitable niche there for some vice-chancellor).

Here are few samples from the book. The advice seems to vary from the undocumented optimism of this

Well researched?  No. Safe? Nobody knows.  Or this

Mandarin peel prevents colds and flu?  Old wive’s tale.  Then there are things that verge on the weird, like this one

or the deeply bizarre like this

The problem of Jacqueline Young’s fantasy approach to facts was pointed out at least as far back as 2004, by Ray Girvan., who wrote about it again in May 2005. The problems were brought to wider attention when Ben Goldacre wrote two articles in his Badscience column, Imploding Researchers (September 2005), and the following week, Tangled Webs.

“we were pondering the ethics and wisdom of Jacqueline Young dishing out preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense as if it was authoritative BBC fact, with phrases such as: “Implosion researchers have found that if water is put through a spiral its electrical field changes and it then appears to have a potent, restorative effect on cells.” “

and later

“Take this from her article on cranial osteopathy, riddled with half truths: “Sutherland found that the cranial bones (the skull bones encasing the brain) weren’t fused in adulthood, as was widely believed, but actually had a cycle of slight involuntary movement.” In fact the cranial bones do fuse in adulthood.

She goes on: “This movement was influenced by the rhythmic flow of cerebrospinal fluid (the nourishing and protective fluid that circulates through the spinal canal and brain) and could become blocked.” There have now been five studies on whether “cranial osteopaths” can indeed feel these movements, as they claim, and it’s an easy experiment to do: ask a couple of cranial osteopaths to write down the frequency of the rhythmic pulses on the same person’s skull, and see if they give the same answer. They don’t. A rather crucial well-replicated finding to leave out of your story.

That was in 2005 and since then all of Young’s “preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense” (along with most of the other stuff about junk medicine) has vanished from the BBC’s web site, after some people with a bit of common sense pointed out what nonsense it was.  But now we see them resurfacing in a course validated by a serious university.  The BBC had some excuse (after all, it is run largely by arts graduates). I can see no excuses for the University of Wales.

Incidentally,  thanks to web archive you can still read Young’s nonsense,  long after the BBC removed it.  Here is a quotation.

“Implosion researchers have found that if water is put through a spiral its ,field changes and it then appears to have a potent, restorative effect on cells. In one study, seedlings watered with spiralised water grew significantly faster, higher and stronger than those given ordinary water.”

The vice-chancellor of the University of Wales, Marc Clement, is a physicist (Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering), so can he perhaps explain the meaning of this?

Selection committees for jobs (especially senior jobs) and validation committees for courses, might make fewer mistakes if they didn’t rely so much on formal documents and did a little more investigation themselves. That sort of thing is why the managerial culture not only takes a lot more time, but also gives a worse result.

It would have taken 10 minutes with Google to find out about Young’s track record, but they didn’t bother. As a result they have spent a long time producing a validation that isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. That makes the University of Wales a bit of a laughing stock. Worse still, it brings science itself into disrepute.

Follow-up

What does the University of Wales say? So far, nothing.   Last week I sent brief and polite emails to Professor Palastanga and to Professor Clement to try to discover whether it is true that the validation process had indeed missed the fact that the course organiser’s writings had been described as “preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense” in the Guardian.

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

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


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

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

Pharmacology. A Handbook for Complementary Healthcare Professionals

Elsevier were kind enough to send me an inspection copy of this book, which is written by one of the nutrition course tutors, Elaine Aldred. She admits that pharmacology is “considered by most students to be nothing more that a ‘hoop-jumping’ exercise in the process of becoming qualified”.  She also says. disarmingly. that “I was certainly not the most adept scientist at school and found my university course a trial”.

The book has all the feel of a cut and paste job. It is mostly very simple (if not simplistic). though for no obvious reason it starts with a long (and very amateur) discussion of chemical bonding  Then molecules are admitted to be indivisible (but, guess what, the subject of homeopathy is avoided).  There is a very short section on ion channels, though, bizarrely, it appears under the heading “How do drugs get into cells?”. Since the author is clearly not able to make the distinction between volts and coulombs, the discussion is more likely to confuse the reader than to help.

Then a long section on plants. It starts of by asserting that “approximately a quarter of prescription drugs contain at least one chemical that was originally isolated and extracted from a plant”.. This cannot be even remotely correct.  There are vast tables showing complicated chemical structures, but the usual inadequate
list of their alleged actions  This is followed by a quick gallop through some classes of conventional drugs, illustrated again mainly by chemical structures not data.  Hormone replacement therapy is mentioned, but the chance to point out that it is one of the best illustrations of the need for RCTs is missed.

The one thing that one would really like to see in such a book is a good account of how you tell whether or not a drug works in man. This is relegated to five pages at the end of the book, and it is, frankly, pathetic.  It
is utterly uncritical in the one area that matters more than any other for people who purport to treat patients. All you get is a list of unexplained bullet points.

If this book is the source of the “scientific content” of the nutrition course, things are as bad as we feared.




Tell a Friend

Jump to follow-up

Alfred Joseph Clark FRS held the established chair of Pharmacology at UCL from 1919 to 1926, when he left for Edinburgh.  In the 1920s and 30s, Clark was a great pioneer in the application of quantitative physical ideas to pharmacology.   As well as his classic scientific works, like The Mode of Action of Drugs on Cells (1933) he wrote, and felt strongly, about the fraud perpetrated on the public by patent medicine salesmen.  In 1938 (while in Edinburgh) he published a slim volume called Patent Medicines.  The parallels with today are astonishing.


Alfred Joseph Clark FRS (1885 – 1941)

I was lucky to be given a copy of this book by David Clark, A.J. Clark’s eldest son, who is now 88. I visited him in Cambridge on 17 September 2008, because he thought that, as holder of the A.J. Clark chair at UCL from 1985 to 2004, I’d be a good person to look after this and several other books from his father’s library. They would have gone to the Department of Pharmacology if we still had one, but that has been swept away by mindless administrators with little understanding of how to get good science.

Quotations from the book are in italic, and are interspersed with comments from me.

The book starts with a quotation from the House of Commons Select Committee report on Patent Medicines. The report was submitted to the House on 4 August 1914, so there is no need to explain why it had little effect. The report differs from recent ones in that it is not stifled by the sort of political correctness that makes politicians refer to fraudsters as “professions”.


The problem

“2.2 The situation, therefore, as regards the sale and advertisement of proprietary medicines and articles may be summarised as follows:

For all practical purposes British law is powerless to prevent any person from procuring any drug, or making any mixture, whether patent or without any therapeutical activity whatever (as long as it does not contain a scheduled poison), advertising it in any decent terms as a cure for any disease or ailment, recommending it by bogus testimonials and the invented opinions and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians, and selling it under any name he chooses, on payment of a small stamp duty. For any price he can persuade a credulous public to pay.”

Select Committee on Patent Medicines. 1914

“The writer has endeavoured in the present article to analyse the reasons for the amazing immunity of patent medicines form all attempts to curb their activity, to estimate the results and to suggest the obvious measures of reform that are needed.”

Clark, writing in 1938, was surprised that so little had changed since 1914.  What would he have thought if he had known that now, almost 100 years after the 1914 report, the fraudsters are still getting away with it?


Chapter 2 starts thus.

THE LAW

The Select Committee appointed by the House of Commons in 1914 ‘to consider and inquire into the question of the sale of Patent and Proprietary Medicines’ stated its opinion in 28 pages of terse and uncompromising invective. Its general conclusions were as follows:

That the trade in secret remedies constituted a grave and widespread public evil.

That the existing law was chaotic and had proved inoperative and that consequently the traffic in secret remedies was practically uncontrolled.

In particular it concluded ‘”that this is an intolerable state of things and that new legislation to deal with it, rather than merely the amendment of existing laws, is urgently needed in the public interest.”

The “widespread public evil”continues almost unabated, and rather than introduce sensible legislation to cope with it, the government has instead given a stamp of approval for quackery by introducing utterly ineffective voluntary “self-regulation”.

Another Bill to deal with patent medicines was introduced in 1931, without success, and finally in 1936, a Medical and Surgical Appliances (Advertisement) Bill was introduced. This Bill had a very limited scope. Its purpose was to alleviate some of the worst abuses of the quack medicine trade by prohibiting the advertisement of cures for certain diseases such as blindness, Bright’s disease [nephritis] , cancer, consumption [tuberculosis], epilepsy, fits, locomotor ataxy, fits, lupus or paralysis.

The agreement of many interests was secured for this measure. The president of the Advertising Association stated that the proposed Bill would not affect adversely any legitimate trade interest. Opposition to the Bill was, however, whipped up amongst psychic healers, anti-vivisectionists and other opponents of medicine and at the second reading in March 1936, the Bill was opposed and the House was counted out during the ensuing debate. The immediate reason for this fate was that the Bill came up for second reading on the day of the Grand National! This is only one example of the remarkable luck that has attended the patent medicine vendors.
(Page 14).

The “remarkable luck” of patent medicine vendors continues to this day, Although, in principle, advertisement of cures for venereal diseases was banned in 1917, and for cancer in 1939, it takes only a few minutes with Google to find that these laws are regularly flouted by quacks,  In practice quacks get away with selling vitamin pills for AIDS, sugar pills for malaria and homeopathic pills for rabies, polio anthrax and just about anything else you can think of.  Most of these advertisements are contrary to the published codes of ethics of the organisations to which the quack in question belongs but nothing ever happens.
Self-regulation simply does not work, and there is still no effective enforcement even of existing laws..

“It has already been stated that British law allows the advertiser of a secret remedy to tell any lie or make any claim that he fancies will sell his goods and the completeness of this licence is best illustrated by the consideration of a few specific points.

Advertisements for secret remedies very frequently contain a list of testimonials from medical men, which usually are in an anonymous form, stating that ………….. M.D., F.R.C.S., has found the remedy infallible. Occasionally, however, the name and address of a doctor is given and anyone unaware of the vagaries of English law would imagine that such use of a doctor’s name and professional reputation could not be made with impunity without his consent. In 1899, however, the Sallyco Mineral Water Company advertised that ‘Dr. Morgan Dochrill, physician to St. John’s Hospital, London and many of the leading physicians are presenting ‘Sallyco’ as an habitual drink. Dr. Dochrill says nothing has done his gout so much good.
Dr. Dochrill, whose name and title were correctly stated above, sued the company but failed in his case. ”

“The statement that the law does not prevent the recommending of a secret remedy by the use of bogus testimonials and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians is obviously an understatement since it is doubtful how far it interferes with the use of bogus testimonials from real physicians.”

Dodgy testimonials are still a mainstay of dodgy salesman.  One is reminded of the unauthorised citation of testimonials from Dr John Marks and Professor Jonathan Waxman by Patrick Holford to aid his sales of unnecessary vitamin supplements. There is more on this at Holfordwatch.

The man in the street knows that the merits of any article are usually exaggerated in advertisements and is in the habit of discounting a large proportion of such claims, but, outside the realm of secret remedies, the law is fairly strict as regards definite misstatements concerning goods offered for sale and hence the everyday experience of the man in the street does not prepare him for dealing with advertisements which are not merely exaggerations but plain straightforward lies from beginning to end.

Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums. One imagines that no one today would be willing to spend money on pills guaranteed to prevent earthquakes but yet the claims of many of the remedies offered appear equally absurd to anyone with an elementary
knowledge of physiology or even of chemistry. A study of the successes and failures suggests that success depends chiefly on not over-rating the public intelligence. (Page 34)

This may have changed a bit since A.J. Clark was writing in 1938. Now the main clients of quacks seem to be the well-off “worried-well”. But it remains as true as ever that “Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums.” In 2008, it is perhaps more a problem of Ben Goldacre’s dictum ““My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour.”

Clark refers (page 36) to a successful conviction for fraud in the USA in 1917.  The subject was a widely advertised ‘get fat quick’ pill that contained lecithin, proteins and sugar.  The BMA analysis (in 1912)
suggested that the cost of the ingredients in a box of 30 tablets sold for 4/6 was 1 1/4 d. [4/6 meant 4 shillings and six pence, or 22.5 pence since 1971, and 1 1/4 old pence, a penny farthing, is 0.52 new pence]. He comments thus.

The trial revealed many interesting facts. The formula was devised after a short consultation with the expert of one of the largest drug manufacturers in the U.S.A. This firm manufactured the tablets and sold them to the proprietary medicine company at about 3/- per 1000, whilst they were retailed to the public at the rate of £7 10s. per 1000. The firm is estimated to have made a profit of about $3,000,000.

These trials in the U.S.A. revealed the fact that in a considerable proportion of cases the ‘private formula’ department of the large and well known drug firm already mentioned had first provided the formula for the nostrum and subsequently had prepared it wholesale.

Nothing much has changed here either. The alternative medicine industry (and it is a very big industry) is fond of denouncing the evils of the pharmaceutical industry, and sadly, occasionally they are right.  One of the less honest practices of the pharmaceutical industry (though one never mentioned by quacks) is buying heavily into alternative medicine. Goldacre points out

“there is little difference between the vitamin and pharmaceutical industries. Key players in both include multinationals such as Roche and Aventis; BioCare, the vitamin pill producer that media nutritionist Patrick Holford works for, is part-owned by Elder Pharmaceuticals.”

And then. of course, there is the deeply dishonest promotion by Boots the Chemists of homeopathic miseducation, of vitamins and of CoQ10 supplements.

The manner in which secret remedies can survive repeated exposure is shown by the following summary of the life history of a vendor of a consumption [tuberculosis] cure.

1904, 1906: Convicted of violating the law in South Africa.

1908:            Exposed in British Medical Association report and also attacked by Truth.

1910:            Sued by a widow. The judge stated: ‘I think this is an intentional and well-considered fraud. It is a scandalous thing that poor people should be imposed upon and led to part with their money, and to hope that those dear to them would be cured by those  processes which were nothing but quack remedies and had not the slightest value of any kind.’

1914:             A libel action against the British Medical Association was lost.

1915              The cure was introduced into the United States.

1919               The cure was sold in Canada.

1924                Articles by men with medical qualifications appeared in the Swiss medical journal boosting
the cure.

Secret remedies have a vitality that resembles that of the more noxious weeds and the examples mentioned suggest that nothing can do them any serious harm.

Most of the time, quacks get away with claims every bit as outrageous today.   But Clark does give one example of a successful prosecution.  It resulted from an exposé in the newspapers -wait for it -in the Daily Mail.

There is, however, one example which proves that a proprietary remedy can be squashed by exposure if this is accompanied by adequate publicity.

The preparation Yadil was introduced as an antiseptic and was at first advertised to the medical profession. The proprietor claimed that the remedy was not secret and that the active principle was ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’. The drug acquired popularity in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the proprietor became more and more ambitious in his therapeutic claims. The special virtue claimed for Yadil was that it would kill any harmful organism that had invaded the body. A more specific claim was that consumption in the first stage was cured with two or three pints whilst advanced cases might require a little more.  Other advertisements suggested that it was a cure for most known diseases from cancer downwards.

These claims were supported by an extraordinarily intense advertising campaign.  Most papers, and even magazines circulating amongst the wealthier classes,  carried full page and even double page advertisements. The Daily Mail refused these advertisements and in 1924 published a three column article by Sir William Pope, professor of Chemistry in the University of Cambridge. He stated that
the name ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’ was meaningless gibberish and was not the chemical definition of any known substance. He concluded that Yadil consisted of :

‘About one per cent of the chemical compound formaldehyde.

About four per cent of glycerine.

About ninety-five per cent of water and, lastly, a smell.

He calculated that the materials contained in a gallon cost about 1/6, whilst the mixture was sold at £4 10s. per gallon.

This exposure was completely successful and the matter is of historic interest in that it is the only example of the career of a proprietary medicine being arrested by the action of the Press.

Clark goes on to talk of the law of libel.


“On the other hand the quack medicine vendor can pursue his advertising campaigns in the happy assurance that, whatever lies he tells, he need fear nothing from the interference of British law. The law does much to protect the quack medicine vendor because the laws of slander and libel are so severe.”

The law of libel to this day remains a serious risk to freedom of speech of both individuals and the media. Its use by rogues to suppress fair comment is routine.  My first encounter was when a couple of herbalists
threatened to sue UCL
because I said that the term ‘blood cleanser’ is gobbledygook.  The fact that the statement was obviously true didn’t deter them for a moment.  The herbalists were bluffing no doubt, but they caused enough nuisance that I was asked to take my pages off UCL’s server.  A week later I was invited back but by then I’d set up a much better blog and the publicity resulted in an enormous increase in readership, so the outcome was good for me (but bad for herbalists).

It was also good in the end for Andy Lewis when his immortal page “The gentle art of homoeopathic killing” (about the great malaria scandal) was suppressed.   The Society of Homeopaths’ lawyers didn’t go for him personally but for his ISP who gave in shamefully and removed the page.  As a result the missing page reappeared in dozens of web sites round the world and shot to the top in a Google search.

Chiropractors are perhaps the group most likely to try to suppress contrary opinions by law not argument.  The only lawyers’ letter that has been sent to me personally, alleged defamation in an editorial that I wrote for the New Zealand Medical Journal.  That was a little scary, but the journal stuck up for its right to speak and the threat went away after  chiropractors were allowed right of reply (but we got the last word).

Simon Singh, one of the best science communicators we have, has not been so lucky. He is going to have to defend in court an action brought by the British Chiropractic Association because of innocent opinions expressed in the Guardian.

Chapter 6 is about “The harm done by patent medicines”. It starts thus.

“The trade in secret remedies obviously represents a ridiculous waste of money but some may argue that, since we are a free country and it pleases people to waste their money in this particular way, there is no call for any legislative interference. The trade in quack medicines cannot, however, be regarded as a harmless one. The Poisons Acts fortunately prevent the sale of a large number of dangerous drugs, but there are numerous other ways in which injury can be produced by these remedies.”

The most serious harm, he thought, resulted from self-medication, and he doesn’t mince his words.

“The most serious objection to quack medicines is however that their advertisements encourage self-medication as a substitute for adequate treatment and they probably do more harm in this than in any other manner.

The nature of the problem can best be illustrated by considering a simple example such as diabetes. In this case no actual cure is known to medicine but, on the other hand, if a patient is treated adequately by insulin combined with appropriate diet, he can be maintained in practically normal health, in spite of his disability, for an indefinite period. The expectation of life of the majority of intelligent diabetics, who make no mistakes in their regime, is not much less than that of normal persons. The regime is both irksome and unpleasant, but anyone who persuades diabetics to abandon it, is committing manslaughter as certainly as if he fired a machine gun into a crowded street.

As regards serious chronic disease the influence of secret remedies may be said to range from murderous to merely harmful.

‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous, since they are likely to cause the death of anyone who is unfortunate enough to believe in their efficacy and thus delay adequate treatment until too late.

The phrase “‘Cures for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous” made Clark himself the victim of suppression of freedom of speech by lawyers. His son, David Clark, wrote of his father in “Alfred Joseph Clark, A Memoir” (C. & J. Clark Ltd 1985 ISBN 0-9510401-0-3)

“Although tolerant of many human foibles, A. J. had always disapproved fiercely of quacks, particularly the charlatans who sold fraudulent medicines.  During his visits to London he met Raymond Postgate, then a crusading left wing journalist, who persuaded A.J. to write a pamphlet which was published in an ephemeral series called ‘Fact‘ in March 1938. It was a lively polemical piece. . To A.J.’s surprise and dismay he was sued for libel by a notorious
rogue who peddled a quack cure for for tuberculosis. This man said that A.J.’s remarks (such as “‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous”) were libellous and would damage his business.  A.J. was determined to fight, and he and Trixie decided to put their savings at stake if necessary. The B.M.A. and the Medical Defence Union agreed to support him and they all went to lawyers. He was shocked when they advised him that he would be bound to lose for he had damaged the man’s livelihood!   Finally, after much heart searching, he made an apology, saying that he had not meant that particular man’s nostrum”

Talk about déjà vu!

On page 68 there is another very familiar story. It could have been written today.

“The fact that the public is acquiring more knowledge of health matters and is becoming more suspicious of the cruder forms of lies is also helping to weed out the worst types of patent medicine advertisements. For example, in 1751 a bottle of oil was advertised as a cure for scurvy, leprosy and consumption but today such claims would not be effective in promoting the sale of a remedy. The modern advertiser would probably claim that the oil was rich in all the vitamins and the elements essential for life and would confine his claims to a statement that it would alleviate all minor forms of physical or mental ill-health.

The average patent medicine advertised today makes plausible rather than absurd claims and in general the advertisements have changed to conform with a change in the level of the public’s knowledge.

It is somewhat misleading, however, to speak of this as an improvement, since the law has not altered and hence the change only means that the public is being swindled in a somewhat more skilful manner.

The ideal method of obtaining an adequate vitamin supply is to select a diet containing an abundant supply of fresh foods, but unfortunately the populace is accustomed to live very largely on preserved or partially purified food stuffs and such processes usually remove most of the vitamins.”

The first part of the passage above is reminiscent of something that A.J Clark wrote in  the BMJ in 1927.  Nowadays it is almost unquotable and I was told by a journal editor that it was unacceptable even with asterisks.  That seems to me a bit silly. Words had different connotations in 1927.

“The less intelligent revert to the oldest form of belief and seek someone who will make strong magic for them and defeat the evil spirits by some potent charm. This is the feeling to which the quack appeals; he claims to be above the laws of science and to possess some charm for defeating disease of any variety.

The nature of the charm changes with the growth of education. A naked n****r howling to the beat of a tom-tom does not impress a European, and most modern Europeans would be either amused or disgusted by the Black mass that was popular in the seventeenth century. Today some travesty of physical science appears to be the most popular form of incantation.”

A.J. Clark (1927) The historical aspect of quackery, BMJ October 1st 1927

Apart from some of the vocabulary, what better description could one have of the tendency of homeopaths to harp on meaninglessly about quantum theory or the “scienciness” and “referenciness” of
modern books on nutritional therapy?

So has anything changed?

Thus far, the outcome might be thought gloomy. Judging by Clark’s account, remarkably little has changed since 1938, or even since 1914. The libel law in the UK is as bad now as it was then. Recently the United Nations Human Rights Committee said UK laws block matters of public interest and encourage libel tourism (report here, see also here).   It is unfit for a free society and it should be changed.

But there are positive sides too. Firstly the advent of scientific bloggers has begun to have some real influence. People are no longer reliant on journalists to interpret (or, often, misinterpret) results for them. They can now get real experts and links to original sources.  Just one of these, Ben Goldacre’s badscience.net, and his weekly column in the Guardian has worked wonders in educating the public and improving journalism.  Young people can, and do, contribute to the debate because they can blog anonymously if they are frightened that their employer might object.

Perhaps still more important, the law changed this year. Now, at last, it may be possible to prosecute successfully those who make fraudulent health claims. Sad to say, this was not an initiative of the UK government, which remains as devoted as ever to supporting quacks.  Remember that, quite  shamefully, the only reason given by the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) gave for allowing false labelling of homeopathic pills was to support the “homeopathic industry”. They suggested (falsely) that the EU required them to take this irresponsible step, which was condemned by just about every scientific organisation. But the new unfair trading regulations did come from the EU. After almost 100 years since the 1914 report, we have at last some decent legislation. Let’s hope it’s enforced.

Postcript

The back cover of the series of ‘Fact‘ books in which A.J. Clark’s article appeared is reproduced below, simply because of the historical portrait of the 1930s that it gives.


Follow-up

This post got a lot of hits from Ben Goldacre’s miniblog which read

Jump to follow-up

During the last year, there has been a very welcome flurry of good and informative books about alternative medicine. They are all written in a style that requires little scientific background, even the one that is intended for medical students.

CAM, Cumming | Trick or Treatment | Snake Oil Science |
Testing treatments | Suckers | Healing, Hype or Harm

I’ll start with the bad one, which has not been mentioned on this blog before.

Complementary and Alternative medicine. An illustrated text.

by Allan D. Cumming, Karen R. Simpson and David Brown (and 12 others). 94 pages, Churchill Livingstone; 1 edition (8 Dec 2006).

The authors of this book sound impressive

Allan Cumming, BSc(Hons), MBChB, MD, FRCP(E), Professor of Medical Education and Director of Undergraduate Learning and Teaching, and Honorary Consultant Physician, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK;

Karen Simpson, BA(Hons), RN, RNT, Fellow in Medical Education, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine

David Brown, MBChB, DRCOG, General Practitioner, The Murrayfield Medical Centre, and Honorary Clinical Tutor, University of Edinburgh

Sadly, this is a book so utterly stifled by political correctness that it ends up saying nothing useful at all. The slim volume is, I have to say, quite remarkably devoid of useful information. Partly that is a result of out-of-date and selective references (specially in the chapters written by alternative practitioners),

But the lack of information goes beyond the usual distortions and wishful thinking. I get the strong impression is that it results not so much for a strong commitment to alternative medicine (at least by Cumming) as from the fact that the first two authors are involved with medical education. It seems that they belong to that singularly barmy fringe of educationalists who hold that the teacher must not give information to s student for fear of imparting bias. Rather the student must be told how to find out the information themselves. There is just one little problem with this view. It would take about 200 years to graduate in medicine.

There is something that worries me about medical education specialists. Just look at the welcome given by Yale’s Dean of Medical Education, Richard Belitsky, to Yale’s own division of “fluid concepts of evidence”, as described at Integrative baloney @ Yale, and as featured on YouTube. There are a lot of cryptic allusions to alternative forms of evidence in Cumming’s book too, but nothing in enough detail to be useful to the reader.

What should a book about Alternative medicine tell you? My list would look something like this.

  • Why people are so keen to deceive themselves about the efficacy of a treatment
  • Why it is that are so often deceived into thinking that something works when it doesn’t
  • How to tell whether a medicine works better than placebo or not,
  • Summaries of the evidence concerning the efficacy and safety of the main types of alternative treatments.

The Cumming book contains chapters with titles like these. It asks most of the right questions, but fails to answer any of them. There is, time and time again, the usual pious talk about the importance of evidence, but then very little attempt to tell you what the evidence says. When an attempt is made to mention evidence, it is usually partial and out of date. Nowhere are you told clearly about the hazards that will be encountered when trying to find out whether a treatment works.

The usual silly reflexology diagram is reproduced in Cumming’s introductory chapter, but with no comment at all, The fact that it is obviously total baloney is carefully hidden from the reader.. What is the poor medical student meant to think when they perceive that it is totally incompatible with all the physiology they have learned? No guidance is offered.
You will look in vain for a decent account of how to do a good randomised controlled trial, though you do get a rather puerile cartoon, The chapter about evidence is written by a librarian. Since the question of evidence is crucial, this is a fatal omission.

Despite the lack of presentation of evidence that any of it works, there seems to be an assumption throughout the book that is is desirable to integrate alternative medicine into clinical practice. In Cumming’s chapter (page 6) we see

Since it would not be in the interests of patients to integrate treatments that don’t work with treatments that do work, I see only two ways to explain this attitude. Either the authors have assumed than most alternative methods work (in which case they haven’t read the evidence), or they think integration is a good idea even if the treatment doesn’t work. Neither case strikes me as good medical education.

The early chapters are merely vague and uninformative. Some of the later chapters are simply a disgrace.

Most obviously the chapter on homeopathy is highly selective and inaccurate, That is hardly surprising because it is was written by Thomas Whitmarsh, a consultant physician at Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital (one that has still survived). It has all the usual religious zeal of the homeopath. I honestly don’t know whether people like Whitmarsh are incapable of understanding what constitutes evidence, or are simply too blinded by faith to even try. Since the only other possibility is that they are dishonest, I suppose it must be one of the former.

The chapter on “Nutritional therapy” is also written by a convert and is equally misleading piece of special pleading.

The same is true of the chapter on Prayer and Faith Healing. This chapter reproduces the header of the Cochrane Review on “Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of Ill Health”, but then proceeds to ignore entirely its conclusion “Most of the studies show no real differences”).

If you want to know about alternative medicine, don’t buy this book. Although this book was written for medical students, you will learn a great deal more from any of the following books, all of which were written for the general public.


Trick or Treatment

by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, Bantam Press, 2008

Simon Singh is the author of many well-known science books, like Fermat’s Last Theorem. Edzard Ernst is the UK’s first professor of complementary and alternative medicine.

Ernst, unlike Cumming et. al is a real expert in alternative medicine. He practised it at an early stage in his career and has now devoted all his efforts to careful, fair and honest assessment of the evidence. That is what this book is about. It is a very good account of the subject and it should be read by everyone, and certainly by every medical student.

Singh and Ernst follow the sensible pattern laid out above, The first chapter goes in detail into how you distinguish truth from fiction (a little detail often forgotten in this area).

The authors argue, very convincingly, that the development of medicine during the 19th and 20th century depended very clearly on the acceptance of evidence not anecdote. There is a fascinating history of clinical trials, from James Lind (lemons and scurvy), John Snow and the Broad Street pump, Florence Nightingale’s contribution not just to hygiene, but also to the statistical analysis that was needed to demonstrate the strength of her conclusions (she became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society, and had studied under Cayley and Sylvester, pioneers of matrix algebra).

There are detailed assessments of the evidence for acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and herbalism, and shorter synopses for dozens of others. The assessments are fair, even generous in marginal cases.

Acupunture. Like the other good books (but not Cumming’s), it is pointed out that acupuncture in the West is not so much the product of ancient wisdom (which is usually wrong anyway), but rather a product of Chinese nationalist propaganda engineered by Mao Tse-tung after 1949. It spread to the West after Nixon’s visit Their fabricated demonstrations of open heart surgery under acupuncture have been known since the 70s but quite recently they managed again to deceive the BBC It was Singh who revealed the deception. The conclusion is ” . . . this chapter demonstrates that acupuncture is very likely to be acting as nothing more than a placebo . . . ”

Homeopathy. “hundreds of trials have failed to deliver significant or convincing evidence to support the use of homeopathy for the treatment of any particular ailment. On the contrary, it would be to say that there is a mountain of evidence to suggest that homeopathic remedies simply do not work”.

Chiropractic. Like the other good books (but not Cumming’s) there is a good account of the origins of chiropractic (see, especially, Suckers). D.D. Palmer, grocer, spiritual healer, magnetic therapist and fairground quack, finally found a way to get rich by removing entirely imaginary ‘subluxations’. They point out the dangers of chiropractic (the subject of court action), and they point out that physiotherapy is just as effective and safer.

Herbalism. There is a useful table that summarises the evidence. They conclude that a few work and most don’t Unlike homeopathy, there is nothing absurd about herbalism, but the evidence that most of them do any good is very thin indeed.

“We argue that it is now the time for the tricks to stop, and for the real treatments to take priority. In the name of honesty, progress and good healthcare, we call for scientific standards, evaluation and regulation to be applied to all types of medicine, so that patients can be confident that they are receiving treatments that demonstrably generate more harm than good.”

Snake Oil Science, The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

R. Barker Bausell, Oxford University Press, 2007

Another wonderful book from someone who has been involved himself in acupuncture research, Bausell is a statistician and experimental designer who was Research Director of a Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialised Research Center at the University of Maryland.

This book gives a superb account of how you find out the truth about medicines, and of how easy it is to be deceived about their efficacy.

I can’t do better than quote the review by Robert Park of the American Physical Society (his own book, Voodoo Science, is also excellent)

“Hang up your lantern, Diogenes, an honest man has been found. Barker Bausell, a biostatistician, has stepped out of the shadows to give us an insider’s look at how clinical evidence is manipulated to package and market the placebo effect. Labeled as ‘Complementary and Alternative Medicine’, the placebo effect is being sold, not just to a gullible public, but to an increasing number of health professionals as well. Bausell knows every trick and explains each one in clear language”

Bausell’s conclusion is stronger than that of Singh and Ernst.

“There is no compelling, credible scientific evidence to suggest that any CAM therapy benefits any medical condition or reduces any medical symptom (pain or otherwise) better than a placebo”.

Here are two quotations from Bausell that I love.

[Page 22] ” seriously doubt, however, that there is a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner anywhere who ever stopped performing acupuncture on an afflicted body in the presence of similarly definitive negative evidence. CAM therapists simply do not value (and most cases, in my experience, do not understand) the scientific process”

And even better,

[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.”


Testing Treatments: Better Research for Better Healthcare

by Imogen Evans, Hazel Thornton, Iain Chalmers, British Library, 15 May 2006

You don’t even need to pay for this excellent book (but buy it anyway, eg from Amazon). If you can’t afford, £15 then download it from the James Lind Library.

This book is a unlike all the others, because it is barely mentions alternative medicine. What it does, and does very well, is to describe he harm that can be done to patients when they are treated on the basis of guesswork or ideology, rather than on the basis of proper tests. This, of course, is true whether or not the treatment is labelled ‘alternative’.

It is worth noting that one of the authors of this book is someone who has devoted much of his life to the honest assessement of evidence, Sir Iain Chalmers, one of the founders of the Cochrane Collaboration , and Editor of the James Lind Library .

A central theme is that randomised double blind trial are essentially the only way to be sure you have the right answer. One of the examples that the authors use to illustrate this is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). For over 20 years, women were told that HRT would reduce their risk of heart attacks and strokes. But when, eventually, proper randomised trials were done, it was found that precisely the opposite was true. The lives of many women were cut short because the RCT had not been done,

The reason why the observational studies gave the wrong answer is pretty obvious. HRT was used predominantly by the wealthier and better-educated women. Income is just about the best predictor of longevity. The samples were biassed, and when a proper RCT was done it was revealed that the people who used HRT voluntarily lived longer despite the HRT, not because of it. It is worth remembering that there are very few RCTs that test the effects of diet. And diet differs a lot between rich and poor people. That, no doubt, is why there are so many conflicting recommendations about diet. And that is why “nutritional therapy” is little more than quackery. Sadly, the media just love crap epidemiology. One of the best discussions of this topics was in Radio 4 Programme. “The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists“, by Ben Goldacre.

One of the big problems in all assessment is the influence of money, in other words corruption, The alternative industry is entirely corrupt of course, but the pharmaceutical industry has been increasingly bad. Testing Treatments reproduces this trenchant comment.


Suckers. How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All

Rose Shapiro, Random House, London 2008

I love this book. It is well-researched, feisty and a thoroughly good read.

It was put well in the review by George Monbiot.

“A fascinating and excoriating book; witty, shocking and utterly convincing”

The chapters on osteopathy and chiropractic are particularly fascinating.

This passage describes the founder of the chiropractic religion.

“By the 1890s Palmer had established a magnetic healing practice in Davenport, Iowa, and was styling himself ‘doctor’. Not everyone was convinced as a piece about him in an 1894 edition of the local paper, the Davenport Leader, shows.”

A crank on magnetism has a crazy notion hat he can cure the sick and crippled with his magnetic hands. His victims are the eak-minded, ignorant and superstitious, those foolish people who have been sick for years and have become tired of the regular physician and want health by the short-cut method . . . he has certainly profited by the ignorance of his victims . . . His increase in business shows what can be done in Davenport, even by a quack”

Over 100 years later, it seems that the “weak-minded, ignorant and superstitious” include the UK’s Department of Health, who have given these quacks a similar status to the General Medical Council.

The intellectual standards of a 19th Century mid-western provincial newspaper leader writer are rather better than the intellectual standards of the Department of Health, and of several university vice-chancellors in 2007.


Healing Hype or Harm

Edited by Imprint Academic (1 Jun 2008)
Download the contents page

My own chapter in this compilation of essays, “Alternative medicine in UK Universities” is an extended version of what was published in Nature last year (I don’t use the term CAM because I don’t believe anything can be labelled ‘complementary’ until it has been shown to work). Download a copy if the corrected proof of this chapter (pdf).

Perhaps the best two chapters, though, are “CAM and Politics” by Rose and Ernst, and “CAM in Court” by John Garrow.

CAM and politics gives us some horrifiying examples of the total ignorance of almost all politicians and civil servants about the scientific method (and their refusal to listen to anyone who does understand it).

CAM in Court has some fascinating examples of prosecutions for defrauding the public. Recent changes in the law mean we may be seeing a lot more of these soon. Rational argument doesn’t work well very well with irrational people. But a few homeopaths in jail for killing people with malaria would probably be rather effective.

Follow-up

Healing, Hype or Harm has had some nice reviews,  That isn’t so surprising from the excellent Harriet Hall at Science-Based Medicine. The introduction to my chapter was a fable about the replacemment of the Department of Physics and Astronomy by the new Department of Alternative Physics and Astrology. It was an unashamedly based on Laurie Taylor’e University of Poppleton column. Hall refers to it as “Crislip-style”, a new term to me. I guess the incomparable Laurie Taylor is not well-known in the USA, Luckily Hall gives a link to Mark Crislip’s lovely article, Alternative Flight,

“Americans want choice. Americans are increasingly using alternative aviation. A recent government study suggests that 75% of Americans have attempted some form of alternative flight, which includes everything from ultralights to falling, tripping and use of bungee cords.”

“Current airplane design is based upon a white male Western European model of what powered flight should look like. Long metal tubes with wings are a phallic design that insults the sensibilities of women, who have an alternative, more natural, emotional, way of understanding airplane design. In the one size fits all design of allopathic airlines, alternative designs are ignored and airplane design utilizing the ideas and esthetics of indigenous peoples and ancient flying traditions are derided as primitive and unscientific, despite centuries of successful use.”

Metapsychology Online Reviews doesn’t sound like a promising title for a good review of Healing, Hype or Harm, but in fact their review by Kevin Purday is very sympathetic. I like the ending.

“One may not agree with everything that is written in this book but it is wonderful that academic honesty is still alive and well.”


Jump to follow up

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

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

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

Then, in the Education Guardian, Charlie Brooker started his article about “Brain Gym” thus

“Man the lifeboats. The idiots are winning. Last week I watched, open-mouthed,
a Newsnight piece on the spread of “Brain Gym” in British schools “

Dr Aust’s cogent comments are at “Brain Gym” loses its trousers.

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


So here it is.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This workforce competence is applicable to:

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

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

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

Anyone for competences in sense of humour studies?

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

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

Now there’s a thought.

The follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So do I.

Now back to science.

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