As I have often said, you don’t need to be a scientist to see that most alternative medicine is bunk, though it is bunk that is supported and propagated by an enormously wealthy industry..
“Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council”
Polly Toynbee’s column, “Quackery and superstition – available soon on the NHS“, was prompted by the announcement in The Times that the government was to set up a “Natural Healthcare Council”. It was soon renamed the “Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council” (CNHC) It was instantly dubbed ‘OfQuack’ in an admirable analysis by quackometer.a>
The very name is tendentious and offensive to any thinking person. What is “natural” about sticking needles in yourself, or taking homeopathic polonium?
“Put not your trust in princes, especially not princes who talk to plants. But that’s what the government has decided to do. The Department of Health has funded the Prince of Wales Foundation for Integrated Healthcare to set up the Natural Healthcare Council to regulate 12 alternative therapies, such as aromatherapy, reflexology and homeopathy. Modelled on the General Medical Council, it has the power to strike therapists off for malpractice.”
There was only one thing wrong in this article. Toynbee says
“The alternative lobby replies that conventional medicine can also do more harm than good. They chortle with glee at an article in the Lancet suggesting there is no scientific evidence for the efficacy of 46% of conventional NHS treatments. But that’s no reason to encourage more of it.”
“It is true they chortle, but they have got their facts wrong. The 46% of treatments which are not proven to be effective is 46% of all treatments for 240 common conditions – and very few are used in the NHS. The great majority are treatments used by alternative practitioners. “
The unconstitutional interference by the Prince of Wales in public affairs has been noted often before, and it seems that it’s happening again.
For example, there is the TV programme, “Charles, the Meddling Prince”, or, for a US view, see “Homeopathy: Holmes, Hogwarts, and the Prince of Wales“. And then there’s Michael Baum’s superb “An open letter to the Prince of Wales: with respect, your highness, you’ve got it wrong“.
It isn’t that regulation isn’t needed, but that the sort of regulation being proposed won’t do the trick. The framework for the “Natural Healthcare Council” has been set up by Professor Dame Joan Higgins, and it seems to be very much along the lines proposed by the Prince of Wales. Here’s what’s wrong.
|Professor Dame Joan Higgins (Jan 10th) says “Complementary therapists have been in practice for many years” and “If complementary therapy is not to be banned, is it not, therefore, wise to regulate it and offer the public some measure of protection”.
That’s fine, but I think the sort of regulation that she, and the Prince of Wales, are proposing won’t do the trick. We don’t need new laws, or new quangos, just the even-handed application of existing laws. Homeopathic arnica 30C contains no arnica, and one would expect that the Office of Fair Trading would have banned it. It is no different from selling strawberry jam that contains no strawberries. But absurd legal loopholes make homeopaths immune to prosecution for this obvious mislabeling, whereas jam fraudsters would be in deep trouble.
The Advertising Standards Authority, likewise, is prevented from doing its job by legal loopholes, and by the fact that it has no jurisdiction over web advertising, which is now the main source of untrue claims. If alternative medicine advocates had to obey the same laws as the rest of us, the public would be better protected from fraud and delusion.
What won’t work is to insist that homeopaths are “properly trained”. If one takes the view that medicines that contain no medicine can’t work, then years of being trained to say that they do work, and years spent memorizing the early 19th century mumbo-jumbo of homeopathy, does not protect the public, it imperils them.
Skills for Health
This appears to be a vast bureaucratic enterprise devoted to HR-style box-ticking. Just in case you don’t know about this latest bit of HR jargon, there is a flash movie that explains all.
“Competences are descriptors of the performance criteria, knowledge and understanding that are required to undertake work activities. They describe what individuals need to do, and to know, to carry out the activity -regardless of who performs it.”
That sounds OK until you realise that no attention whatsoever is paid to the little problem of whether the “knowledge and understanding” are pure gobbledygook or not. It’s rather like the HR form that ensures UCLH that you are a fully-qualified spiritual healer “Laying on of hands: just tick the box“.
It is an invidious insult to human intelligence to suppose that exercises like this are an appropriate way to select people for jobs. They have precisely the opposite effect to that intended.
“This workforce competence is applicable to:
- healing in the presence of the client
- distant healing in contact with the client
- distant healing not in contact with the client
Both healing in the presence of the client and distant healing use exactly the same mental and spiritual processes. Clearly, however, distant healing does not involve many of the physical aspects of healing in the presence of the client. The performance criteria have been written so as to be able to be interpreted for use in any healing situation.
The workforce competence links to CHH6 which is about evaluating the effectiveness of the healing.”
It also includes homeopathy, for example “HM_2: Plan, prescribe and review homeopathic treatment“.
I sent an email to Skills for Health to ask who wrote this stuff. A reply from their Technical Development Director failed to elicit any names.
|We develop competences to fit sector needs and demands. When that need is moved into a competence project we establish a number of groups from the specific area to work with us to develop the competences. One of these groups is a “reference” group which is made up of experts from the field. In effect these experts give us the content of the competences, we write them in our format.
So I guess the answer as to who is the author is Skills For Health, but with more complexity behind statement.Please do not hesitate to get in touch with me for further clarity.
A conversation with Skills for Health
I did want more clarity, so I phoned Skills for Health. Here are some extracts from what I was told.
“It’s not quite as simple as that”
“the competencies on our data base are written by “experts in the field”
DC. Yes and it is their names that I was asking for
“I’m not sure I can give you the names . . . We’re starting to review them in the New Year. Those competencies are around six years old. ”
“We are working with the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health [FIH] via Ian Cambray-Smith to review these competencies, all the complementary therapy competences on our web site”
“They are written as a consensus decision across a wide number of stakeholders across that area of …”
DC. Written by whom though?
“written by a member of Skills for Health staff or a contractor that we employ simply to write them, and the writing is a collation of information rather than their original thoughts, if you like”
DC yes, I still think the sources can and should be given.
“FIH didn’t spend any money with us on this project. This project was funded by the Education act regulatory bodies, QCA, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority . . . ”
“They [FIH] may well have put in and supported members of their professions or groups to do part of this . . they were there as experts on that particular area of complementary therapy ”
DC it’s their names that I was after
“There may well have been members [of FIH] on the reference groups that I’ve referreed to who are members of the FiH . . .they were there as experts from that area of complementary therapies.”
DC Oh, and are the names of [the people on] these reference groups published?
“No they are not published”
DC ah, why not?
“We do not consider it necessary”
DC Well, I consider it very necessary myself
“Tell me why”
DC It’s a question of public accountability
“I guess the accountability lies with us as the owners of those competencies”
DC Uh I’m afraid your bureaucratic jargon is a bit much for me there. “The owners of those competencies”? I’m not sure what that means
“Why do you want the information?”
DC haha, well if you want me to be entirely blunt, it’s because I’m appalled that this black magic is appearing on a government web site
“. . . can I say that as an organisation funded by a number of sources, one being Department of Health England, none of our work condones the practice you’ve just suggested. Our work supports best practice in areas that are evidence- and research-based”
DC Ah would you mind pointing me to the evidence for homeopathy and distant healing?
“Uh [pause] there is [pause]”
DC Yes, go on
“Well homeopathy is a contentious issue, because every newspaper article I read seems to suggest that homeopathy, in itself, is not an appropriate, uh, not an, uhm, appropriate, uh, therapy.”
DC Yes so why are you laying down standards in it?. You know I’m curious. I’m genuinely curious about this
“The areas involved in them have asked us to, including the Prince’s Trust hence the reason we are doing . . .”
DC But the Prince’s Trust is not part of government. Ha, it behaves as though it was , I agree, sometimes but it is surely for the Department of Health to ask you to do these things, not the Prince of Wales.
“We cover the whole health sector.. We don’t purely work for, or are an organisation of, the Department of Health.”
DC. I’m very baffled by the fact that you say, you very accurately the research on homeopathy, namely that it doesn’t work, but you are still setting standards for it. It’s quite baffling to me.
“Working with the Foundation for Integrated Health, as we are doing, homeopathy is one of the 10 areas that is listed for regulation by FIH ”
DC. Well yes the Prince of Wales would like that. His views on medicine are well known, and they are nothing if not bizarre. Haha are you going to have competencies in talking to trees perhaps?
“You’d have to talk to LANTRA, the land-based organisation for that.”
DC. I’m sorry, I have to talk to whom?
“LANTRA which is the sector council for the land-based industries uh, sector, not with us sorry . . . areas such as horticulture etc.”
DC. We are talking about medicine aren’t we? Not horticulture.
“You just gave me an example of talking to trees, that’s outside our remit ”
After explaining that talking to trees was a joke, the conversation continued
DC So can I clarify then? Who is it that said you must include these fairly bizarre things like distance healing and homeopathy? Who decides whether it goes in?
“We are going to do a major review. We are doing that review in partnership with the FiH and the awarding bodies that award the qualifications that are developed from these competencies”
“When that need is moved into a competence project we establish a number of groups from the specific area to work with us to develop the competences. One of these groups is a “reference” group which is made up of experts from the field. In effect these experts give us the content of the competences, we write them in our format.”
Conclusions from this dialogue
We still don’t know the names of the people who wrote the stuff, but a Freedom of Information Act request has been submitted to find out
The Skills for Health spokesperson seems to a a bit short of a sense of humour when it comes to talking to trees.
The statement that “Our work supports best practice in areas that are evidence- and research-based” is not true, and when pressed the spokesperson more or less admitted as much.
Most importantly, though, we do now know that the revision of this gobbledygook will be carried out entirely by the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health and the people who set exams in the relevant form of gobbledygook. No critical voice will have an input, so don’t expect much improvement. “We are working with the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health [FIH] via Ian Cambray-Smith to review these competencies”. And in case you don’t know about the medical expertise of Ian Cambray-Smith, it is described on the FIH web site. He is the FIH’s Health Professionals Manager.
|Ian Cambray-Smith acts as the focus for FIH’s involvement with healthcare professionals. He works collaboratively to develop a range of work programmes, policies and initiatives to support healthcare professionals and help them to deliver a truly integrated approach to health. Ian’s background is in plastics research, project management and business development; he has an MSc in polymer technology. He joined the Foundation in 2006.|
We hear a lot about leadership these days. It has become one of the favourite buzzwords of those who do neither research not teaching. The word occurred six times in a recent HR-speak document that was sent to explain the criteria for promotion to a chair. Quite what it means is never clear. Could it just be a talent for telling other people to do things that the leader can’t do himself? (People who describe themselves as leaders are, needless to say, mostly male.) Only too often those who call themselves ‘leaders’ turn out to be suffering from the Siegfried delusion -in the words of Ernest Newman, overgrown boy scouts.
One thing that leadership certainly should include is setting a good example in ethical behaviour. So what’s going wrong?
We’ve seen the case of Howard Newby. We’ve seen vice-chancellors (12 of them) refuse point blank to respond to enquiries about how they justify running degrees in alternative quackery, despite the fact that even the Queen’s Homeopathic physician thinks it is unjustified to run BSc degrees in homeopathy (watch him say so).
We’ve seen the malign influence of corporate money (most strikingly in the UK in the notorious case of the University of Sheffield). We have seen ghost-writing and spin tolerated, and even encouraged, not to mention sham consultations and attempts to impose the Wal-Mart values of PricewaterhouseCooper on research.
Here are two more interesting examples of ‘leadership’.
Professor Sir Roy Anderson
|Next year, the rector of Imperial, Richard Sykes, will be replaced by Roy Anderson, epidemiologist and Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Ministry of Defence,. Sykes is the chap who (with a little help from my first attempt at a web campaign) failed in his messianic attempt to take over UCL in 2002.|
Imperial rector with a past
In June this year, Imperial College London announced that Roy Anderson, a distinguished epidemiologist and former chief scientific adviser to the MoD, would succeed Richard Sykes to become rector next year. An internationally renowned academic and researcher, Anderson is amply qualified for this ambassadorial role in the British scientific establishment. Yet some, including the former director of the Wellcome Trust, Bridget Ogilvie, have remarked to Prospect that parts of the scientific community were “very surprised” at Anderson’s selection in view of the controversies seven years ago that surrounded his professorship at Oxford.
The first scandal arose when Anderson accused a female colleague of having won support for her post via a relationship with her head of department—a claim he was eventually forced to retract as untrue, and which was a major factor in his subsequent resignation from Oxford. At around the same time, Anderson’s resignation from the board of the Wellcome Trust was announced, prompted in part by his failure fully to disclose his relationship with a private biomedical consultancy during his time at Oxford, in breach of the trust’s financial guidelines.
It should, of course, be emphasised that Anderson did nothing illegal; he has always been admired as a dynamic leader, and some feel that the “Oxford scandals” can now be set aside as isolated incidents in an otherwise unblemished career. It will be interesting to see what he makes of his new position.
But perhaps most damaging was the downfall of Roy Anderson, a leading epidemiologist, and one of the governors who run the trust. Anderson, who also directed the Wellcome Trust Centre for the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at Oxford University, was forced to resign from the university, the centre and as a trust governor, following the publication of two damning reports into his management of the Oxford centre. Initially triggered by allegations that Anderson had made sexual slurs against a female colleague chosen for a senior position at Oxford, the investigations went on to examine his failure fully to disclose business interests that had become entangled with the Wellcome centre’s research activities.
A lot of people seem to be quite puzzled by Imperial’s choice of leader.
Sir John Chisholm
|Mild surprise greeted the news that the chairman of the Medical Research Council (MRC), John Chisholm, is also Executive Chairman and former Chief Executive of QinetiQ (the privatised version of the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency). Was this sort of some job creation scheme? The arms merchants providing customers for the health service?|
The Parliamentary science and technology committee, certainly had reservations (“New medical research chair unfit for job, say MPs“).
An editorial in the British Medical Journal (March 2007) commented on this unholy mix, thus.
“In a recent editorial in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Richard Smith drew attention once again to the paradoxical and disturbing association between Reed Elsevier, a huge global publishing company, and the international arms trade.1 While promoting world health through its publications, including the Lancet, Reed Elsevier also organises international trade fairs for the arms industry. By facilitating the sale of armaments, Reed Elsevier is directly implicated in causing untold damage to health.”
In March 2007. Nature commented
“The MRC faces other challenges, too. Last October saw its appointment of a chair, John Chisholm, who has a strong track record in privatizing defence research laboratories. He has recently sent signals that have left MRC researchers dumbfounded. To judge by recent statements, he views biomedical research as being applied research by definition, and sees fundamental research to be all but irrelevant.”
According to a report from the National Audit Office, the Treasury sold off its arms research to the US private equiry group far too cheaply. A handful of directors made staggering personal fortunes from the deal. This interchange occurred in the minutes of evidence to the Committee of Public Accounts (Monday 3 November 2007). The chairman was Edward Leigh (Conservative MP for Gainsborough).
Q18 Chairman: Yes, because you told the Defence Committee on 28 February 2001: “In regard to people who were already in the organisation, certainly when they have proved themselves successful they can expect to earn a reward but they cannot expect to earn it just because we have been privatised”.
What the public think is that it is frankly appalling. It goes totally against any concept of ethical capitalism, Sir John, that you can put £100,000 into a business and emerge with £25 million of taxpayer’s money. Nobody from outside can understand it. Do you have any sense of shame here before us?
Sir John Chisholm: I have a considerable sense of having led a team to create £1 billion worth of value for the taxpayer. I think that is a great achievement by the team.
Q19 Chairman: Why should your poor staff get £9 for every pound they put in but you get £200 for every pound that you put in? Do you think that is fair?
Sir John Chisholm: I believe in any deal like this there was a contractual agreement put by the investor to the management team that had considerable risk for the management team at the time and they signed up to it.
. . . .
Q30 Mr Touhig (Lab,Islwyn): You see our concern, because one of the first things that Carlyle did when it became the preferred bidder was to change the planned management incentive scheme following representations from the QinetiQ Board. The outcome of this, as the Chairman has pointed out, was that top management got almost a 20000% increase on the return on their investment. Sir John, that is not so much the unacceptable face of capitalism as the unacceptable face of greed, is it not?
Sir John Chisholm: I do not accept that, no.
So not much concern for “ethical capitalism” there.
Is this what we are meant to learn on the ‘leadership’ courses that are springing up everywhere?
Is this the sort of example to set to young scientists about how to succeed?
Is this how to get good science?
I think not.
From Private Eye 26 January 2008.
£100m. Profits gained by senior executives through QinetiQ privatisation
£75m. QinetiQ pension deficit, now being addressed by additional staff contributions.
A merry christmas to one and all (or, depending on your mood, possibly bah humbug).
After the last post (and the next one), here’s something a bit lighter.
Last week I was in Brighton at the British Pharmacological Society Winter meeting in the Hilton Metropole (the less said about that hotel the better). The science was fun, but on Wednesday, I had a break to walk the length of Brighton Pier.
Here are few pictures.
Tarot consultant to GSK and Astra Zeneca
Just look at the notice in the stairs.
The helter-skelter on Brighton pier
|For me that means only one thing:
one of the best films ever made, Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War (1969).
“The ever popular war game with songs battles & a few jokes”.
All the lyrics can be found here.
It isn’t easy to get, but Amazon now has a DVD.The film is based on Joan Littlewood’s 1963 musical of the same name. The First World War is run from the end of Brighton Pier.The picture shows the helter skelter, on December 19th 2007.
Most of the words in the film were quotations of what was actually said at the time. Chilling.
|Near the start. Negotiations fail: President Poincare (Ian Holm), Sir Edward Grey (Ralph Richardson) and Count Leopold Von Berchtold (John Gielgud). Hubris prevails on the beach and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (John Mills) starts recruiting from a fairground booth.
Click the picture to play clip [wmv file, 52 Mb]
|More hubris from Haig as the score is kept on the cricket scoreboard on the end of Brighton pier.
First day: losses 60,000 men, ground gained, nil.
Haig says “I feel that every step I take is guided by the divine will” (so no change then, just like Bush and Blair). Click the picture to play clip [wmv file, 26 Mb]
|The final scene. Iconic, beautiful, tear-jerking, sweeping shot of the South Downs.
Click the picture to play clip [wmv file, 28 Mb]. And be very angry.
A Brighton shop window
A striking display, not least after recent events in Sudan.
The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) last week had a headline “Staff loyalty key to Hefce report”.
Staff loyalty is something I’m interested in, so I read on eagerly.
The article was about report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). It came from their Leadership, Governance and Management Strategic Advisory Committee (dated 2-3 July 2007). [Download the report: Word format]
Well there is the first cringe already. Whenever you see the word ‘leadership’ you can bet that it means that you are going to be lectured on how to do your job by somebody who has never done it themselves. (probably somebody suffering from Siegfried delusions -in the words of Ernest Newman. an overgrown boy scout).
|No disappointment on that score. This particular sermon is being delivered not by a successful researcher. Not even by an unsuccessful researcher who has been moved up to manage the successful ones. It is being given by Ed Smith, Global Chief Operating Officer and Strategy Leader for Assurance, PricewaterhouseCoopers.|
Their web site says of Ed Smith:
“He is a leading advocate of, and external speaker on People management in organisations, in particular diversity and work/life having led PwC’s own enlightenment in this area “
“PwC’s own enlightenment” ? Cringe!. Who writes this stuff, one wonders,
Here are the main points.
“3. There are high level activities to be undertaken of reconceptualising the university and rethinking the business model.”
Reconceptualise? Is it a condition of essential condition of working for PricewaterhouseCoopers to be unable to write plain English?
More to the point, one would be interested to know what concept of a university he has in mind? The statement as it stands has roughly zero content.
“4. To implement the outcome of this rethinking, there will need to be significant culture change. HEIs’ staff will need to be more aware of and aligned to the strategic needs of the HEI.
Academics’ goals are often related to their discipline rather than their institution and they will need to develop institutional loyalties in addition to discipline loyalties. Corporate planning processes will need to be communicated more effectively for those processes to be more successful. “
This statement fails to make the important distinction between the Institution itself, and the people who, for the time being, are running it (see Letters). The first thought that comes to mind after reading this is that it is a statement that is likely to have exactly the opposite effect from that intended by the writer. The more statements like this that come from on high, the less inclined people are to feel allegiance to the institution that issues them, or, to be more precise, the people who are running the institution for the time being.
Respect has to be earned.
“5. HE staff can find themselves uncertain about their role, typically
because it has never been fully made clear. Research has often become too prominent as an indicator of performance, because it has been measured in the RAE, and other activity has not been equally recognised and rewarded. “
Aha, now does that mean that our role is not to do research and teaching after all? Perhaps it has now been redefined somehow? Perhaps our role now is to waste time on sham consultations, read reams of world-class policy bollocks, and do what one is told by some official in HR? I don’t think so. The second sentence has some justice, but I guess Mr Smith has not had to suffer floods of contradictory instructions from the endlessly-multiplying ‘managers’.
One day a ‘manager’ says we must all publish three papers a year, and they must all be in the same handful of journals (though there has not, as far as I know, been
the sort of crude bullying about this at UCL that I have heard about in, say Imperial and a few other places). Furthermore we mustn’t collaborate with anyone in the same place because the same paper must not appear to the RAE to come from two groups.
The next day we will be told that the entire place must be turned upside down because of the absolute necessity for collaborations. Of course the measures that are proposed never have the slightest effect on collaboration, because they come from people who talk about it, not from people who do it.
And the next day we are told by a third person that all of the above is secondary and that teaching matters more than anything else.
Of course all these contradictory instructions do nothing but prevent us doing the research and teaching that we had supposed to be our job.
“7. HEIs will need to develop their business process and become more efficient, so that they can re-invest. The Committee advises that HEIs should not be afraid of the language and culture of business. “
The language of business, at least of the sort that now permeates universities, is usually both vacuous and pretentious. The culture of business is what produces BSc degrees in anti-science (not to mention accounting scandals).
The use of the word “afraid” in this context is sheer overweening arrogance. I have spent a lifetime trying to express complicated ideas in simple language. That seems to me to be as desirable in real science as it is in my attempts to improve public understanding of science. The aim of managers seems often to be to express
simple ideas in complicated language. I’m never quite sure whether the reason for this is illiteracy. or a conscious effort to disguise the emptiness of the ideas. A bit of both, I expect.
What do we conclude from this?
The interesting thing about this document is that it is written by a businessman but appears to me to ignore two basic business principles that can be put in perfectly simple language.
(1) Supply and demand. There will always be an endless supply of managers and pensioned-off researchers who are willing to accept professorial salaries for producing reams of policy bollocks. There isn’t even much shortage of people who can do a tolerable job of teaching at least at first or second year level. The really scarce people are the top flight original researchers, the ones who will make a difference to the future. It follows that these people have enormous power (though often they are too busy to use it). If the place that they works adopts the culture of managerialism, they will just leave Highly original minds have a low tolerance for policy bollocks. Of course this is a slow process. It might take a decade or more to destroy a good research outfit in this way, and by the time managers notice the consequences of their actions it would already be too late. It is much easier to destroy than to build.
(2) The value of brand names . This is where it gets personal, though I imagine many other people have had similar experiences in recent years. The Pharmacology Department at UCL has had a distinguished history for 100 years. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been at meetings and heard people say “gosh you are from Pharmacology at UCL -that’s impressive”. People in the department got a glow from comments like that. That is what generated loyalty to the department and to the College that houses it. Now we are told that we are to be part of an over sized monstrosity called the “Research department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology”. That really trips off the tongue, right? One can’t imagine something with an utterly unmemorable name like that ever getting an international reputation. In any case, I expect that another policy wonk will come along and change the name again in 5 year’s time,
How does this sort of vandalism happen? I guess one reason is that the sort of people who get to be managers just aren’t sufficiently in contact with science to be aware of the reputation that we used to have. They seem to be unaware that the reputation of an institution is no more than the sum of the reputations of the researchers and teachers who work in it (not the administrators). And if a department has a few good people in it over a long period, the department as a whole contributes too. The College reputation barely exists in isolation, just the sume of individuals. Take an example. At UCL we have an excellent department of German, a department that contributes to the reputation of UCL. But of course not one pharmacologist in a million has heard of it, just as I imagine not one German historian in a million has heard of our (late) pharmacology department.
Let’s get a few things clear.
- The job of universities is to do teaching and research.
- The teaching is enormously important but the external reputation of the establishment will inevitably depend almost entirely on its research.
- The success of the place therefore depends entirely on the people who do the research and teaching. Everybody else, from junior technician to vice chancellor is there only to support them.
- The people who do the research and teaching are the only ones who know how to make a success of those jobs The HR department, for example, know nothing about either either teaching or research. How could they? They have never done either. Their job is to make sure people get paid, not to bully and harass the people doing the real work of the university.
- The aims of business are, in some ways, precisely the opposite of those of universities. Business aims to sell things. Spin and mendacious advertising are an accepted part of the game. The tendency for them to become part of the game in universities too can do nothing but harm. Are universities mean to admire the mentality that gave rise to Enron and Worldcom?
- Remember the words of Robert May (President of the Royal Society, 2000 – 2005).
“A rather different issue that has emerged during the Blair decade is the tendency to invite people from the world of business to advise on the management of universities, or to head them. Given that UK universities still stand significantly higher on international league tables than does most of the UK business sector, this seems odd.”
On ‘leadership’ and ‘vision’.
The two most overworked words in management-speak remind me inexorably of the rhetoric used by those who advocated the merger of UCL and Imperial. And of two comments that appeared in the financial (not the academic) press after the attempt crumbled.
Lessons of a failed merger (Matthew Lynn, Bloomberg News. 20-Nov-02). “: [get the pdf].
“Unfortunately for Sykes, the professors of Imperial and University College London were smarter than the last recipients of his strategic wisdom, the shareholders in the formerly independent drug companies Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham.
The biggest universities in the world are clearly not the best. So why do some British universities think that mergers will make them world class? (John Kay, 21-Nov-02 Financial Times).
” The same empty phrases that were used in the 1990s to justify corporate mergers are today used to justify university mergers – the aspiration to be a “global player”, the need to achieve “critical mass”. But greater size is always the aspiration of those with no better strategic vision.”
These two responses appeared in THES the following week (Dec 7th), from opposite ends of the age spectrum. Notice that the younger one does not dare to give a name. I don’t blame him or her. That is the rule rather than the exception, when people feel intimidated. Exactly the same thing happened when the crazy “vision” of merging Imperial and UCL was on the cards. Anyone with half a brain could see it was nuts (with the exception of the senior management team at the time), but not everyone dared to say so.
|Loyalty, but not blind allegiance 1
Research associate, Russell Group university
Published: 07 December 2007
Loyalty cuts both ways (“Staff loyalty key to Hefce report”, November 30).
Look at contract research staff such as myself who are forced to seek employment in other institutions and environments.
I cannot say that I have had an experience in my institution that inspires anything like loyalty. People there want it to go only one way. When are we going to get loyalty from our employing institutions rather than being treated as disposable drones?
Research associate, Russell Group university.
| Loyalty, but not blind allegiance 3
Published: 07 December 2007
Many years ago, it fell to me to chair Higher Education Funding Council for England teaching-quality inspections of academic departments.
At one such event, the head of department confided to me and my team that he and his team completely disagreed with the strategic direction in which their vice-chancellor was taking them and were doing all they could to undermine it, in the interests of the discipline they taught.
We agreed, and gave the department top marks.
Geoffrey Alderman, Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history Buckingham University.
How very nice to get an endorsement from a Nobel prizewinner. Why, I wonder, was he not asked for his opinion about how to get good science. Perhaps PricewaterhouseCooper know better
Here is an interchange of letters from this week’s BMJ. George Lewith says more money should be spent by the government on research on alternative medicine. Well, only if it is spent properly, and that is not what has happened in the past. (Letters here, if you have a subscription.)
In all probability money spent in this way would be money down the drain, just as it has proved to be in the USA. As pointed out by Wallace I. Sampson, M.D., NCCAM has spent almost a billion dollars on research into alternative medicine, and
“. . it has not proved effectiveness for any “alternative” method. It has added evidence of ineffectiveness of some methods that we knew did not work before NCCAM was formed.”
It is a bottomless pit, and there are more promising ways to spend the money.
| George T Lewith,
Reader in Complementary Medicine, University of Southampton
Primary Medical Care, Aldermoor Health Centre, Southampton SO16 5ST Send response to journal:
Re: Valuing Research
| I remain unclear about John Garrow and David Colquhoun’s position with respect to “funding CAM”. Are they suggesting that there should be no funding for CAM research or are they suggesting this embargo should apply to the provision of CAM services within the NHS? If the former, how do they justify this position with respect to the many UK taxpayers who use CAM each year and for whom the government has some obligation to provide information?
Competing interests: None declared
| John S. Garrow,
The Dial House, Rickmansworth, WD3 7DQ Send response to journal:
Re: Taxpayer funding of CAM research
| Dr Lewith wants clarification of my view about public funding of CAM research. It has changed over the last 7 years. In 2000 the House of Lords Select Committee (HLSC)advised the Department of Health to fund research on acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, homeopathy and osteopathy to see if these therapies were safe, more effective than placebo and good value for money, At the time I supported this decision. However in 2003 it was disclosed that £1.3m had funded 8 research projects, at the Universities of Leeds, Southampton, Bristol, Brunel, Sheffield and York, but none of these were directly testing the safety, efficacy or value-for- money of the main CAM therapies. I noted that these Universities did not have as good a record of research into the efficacy of CAM as Exeter, which had applied but failed to get funding. It was also noticable that the panel awarding the grants tended to work at the funded Universities.
CAM research is not so impoverished as Dr Lewith implies. The onus is now upon the researchers who received £1.3m from the taxpayer, and more from the Foundation for Integrated Health, to tell us what answers they have found to HLSC’s very pertinent questions. Only in the light of these answers can we judge if they deserve further public funding. If initially the Government had an “obligation” to fund CAM research I think the £1.3m discharged it, and now there is an obligation on CAM practitioners to show that they have not misappropriated these funds.
Garrow JS et al. UK government funds CAM research. FACT 8:397-402, 2003
Competing interests: None declared
| David Colquhoun,
Prof of Pharmacology
UCL Send response to journal:
Re: Funding for alternative medicine research
|I agree entirely with John Garrow’s response. A corollary of his analysis is that, if there is to be any more funding for research in alternative medicine, it is essential that the allocation of the money should not be in the hands of alternative medicine people. The reason for that is that past experience has shown that they will give the money to projects that don’t answer the real questions.
If no applications are received that address the proper questions with rigorous experimental design then the money should be clawed back and spent on something that has a better chance of being a real advance.
I am perpetually amazed by the reluctance of advocates of alternative medicine to subject their claims to proper tests. The only interpretation that I can see of this failure is that they themselves believe, deep down, that the tests would be failed. I hope that isn’t the explanation though, because if they were convinced that the tests would fail, it would mean that we are dealing with fraud, not just delusion.
Competing interests: None declared
If you read nothing else on the topic, read Ben Goldacre’s best ever piece, A Kind of Magic? (Guardian, 16 Nov 2007). This started as response to “In defence of homeopathy” in the same newspaper on 13 November. On the same day, the Lancet carried a rather more academic piece by Goldacre “Benefits and Risks of Homeopathy” , The same issue of the Lancet carried a commentary ” Pressure grows against homoeopathy in the UK“, as well as a sadder report, “Homoeopathy booming in India“.
There is going to be plenty of commentary on these pieces. There is one bit of “A Kind of Magic” that is particularly important, and that is about how to do a proper trial. It is one of the most persistent myths of all sorts of quack that, for reasons that are never explained, their particular form of magic is not susceptible to being tested in the normal and well-established way. This is simply not true, and the fact that the myth is repeated again and again is perhaps the best reason to doubt that homeopaths are really genuine in the beliefs that they claim to have. If they were really so confident they would do the tests. But they don’t and won’t. When the government supplied money for doing tests, the money was distributed by a committee of “experts in alternative medicine” (though it beats me how you can be an ‘expert’ in something that isn’t true), all the money was given to projects that were incapable of answering the main question, namely ‘does it work better than placebo?’.
How to do the test
Here is Goldacre’s description of how to do the test. It has been said before, but it must be said again and again. Until homeopaths take this seriously, there is no option but to regard them as frauds.
“You could do a randomised, controlled trial on almost any intervention you wanted to assess: comparing two teaching methods, or two forms of psychotherapy, or two plant-growth boosters – literally anything. The first trial was in the Bible (Daniel 1: 1-16, since you asked) and compared the effect of two different diets on soldiers’ vigour. Doing a trial is not a new or complicated idea, and a pill is the easiest thing to test of all.
Here is a model trial for homeopathy. You take, say, 200 people, and divide them at random into two groups of 100. All of the patients visit their homeopath, they all get a homeopathic prescription at the end (because homeopaths love to prescribe pills even more than doctors) for whatever it is that the homeopath wants to prescribe, and all the patients take their prescription to the homeopathic pharmacy. Every patient can be prescribed something completely different, an “individualised” prescription – it doesn’t matter.
Now here is the twist: one group gets the real homeopathy pills they were prescribed (whatever they were), and the patients in the other group are given fake sugar pills. Crucially, neither the patients, nor the people who meet them in the trial, know who is getting which treatment. ”
Winterson and the Maun Project and AIDS
This particular round of discussion was started by Jeanette Winterson’s “In defence of homeopathy“.
It is an interesting article because, like the whole world of homeopathy, Winterson herself is split between homeopathy as a harmless placebo and homeopathy as a dangerous “treatment” for dangerous diseases. On one hand she claims that she is all for proper anti-retroviral treatment of AIDS, yet at the bottom of the article it says “Jeanette Winterson is donating the fee for this article to the Maun homeopathy project. ” .
“Since 2002, The Maun Homeopathy Clinic has been running free homeopathy outreach clinics in Maun, a fast growing town in the north of Botswana, where over 35% of the people are infected with HIV or AIDS, one of the highest rates in the world.”
Hilary Fairclough, much praised by Winterson for reducing her high temperature with pills that (didn’t contain) any snake venom, describes herself as “clinical director” of the Maun project. She is, of course, qualified in neither science nor medicine, but is registered with the now notorious Society of Homeopaths. The Maun project newsletters have all the usual accounts of amazing cures. They quote
“The homeopaths are so loved here, and at the clinics we see daily miracles.”
Do they really believe in miraculous cures? I’m inexorably reminded of an earlier generation of missionaries who went to Africa, to impose on the poor benighted natives a different brand of irrationality. At least the missionaries did some education too, and didn’t, on the whole, kill people.
The ladies of Devon who contribute their money to this project, rather than proper treatment, are, sadly, contributing to the gentle art of homeopathic killing.
Referring to Goldacre’s article in the Lancet, Winterson says ” where is the scientific sense is saying that because we don’t understand something, even though we can discern its effects, we have to ignore it, scorn it, or suppress it?”. Needless to say, no pharmacologist has ever said anything of the sort. Quite the opposite. Goldacre comments
“The article does not say that, and I should know, because I wrote it. It is not an act of fusty authority, and I claim none: I look about 12, and I’m only a few years out of medical school. “
Winterson’s article goes on about ” boosting the patient’s immune system so they are better able to fight off the opportunistic viruses that follow behind HIV”.
Sorry, but there is not the slightest reason to think the sugar pills do anything whatsoever to the immune system: that is no more than a ritual form of words, a mantra recited by every homeopath.
Winterson also falls for the latest fashion in homeopathic gobbledygook, to describe it as nanopharmacology. It isn’t nano, it’s zero.
She also gives support, though it is intriguingly ambivalent, to the forthcoming conference of the Society of Homepaths, You can download the flyer for this conference, It defies belief. As well as Winterson’s homeopath, Hilary Fairclough, it features Harry van der Zee and Peter Chappell.
“Harry believes that using the [Chappell’s] PC1 remedy, the AIDS epidemic can be called to a halt, and that homeopaths are the ones that can do it. “
Peter Chappell’s web site says (no, really, seriously),
“Right now AIDS in Africa could be significantly ameliorated by a simple tune played on the radio across Africa. Or there is a slower solution using pills, and drops that works very well, but is harder to deliver. ”
“The second creative idea is again is implied by those above, and relates to the ability to deliver healing aurally, instead or orally, so healing downloads and ehealing is possible and practical. Instead of taking pills containing resonance information, you listen to a very short piece of music which contains the same information. “
Just beat that, if you can.
The music is not the download
The music is simply the carrier and alerts you to listen. The download is engrafted on the music by a special process. That is the new technology.
University of Westminster: a new course?
I hope that the University of Westminster is proud of the fact that its degree in homeopathy is recognised by the Society of Homeopaths , who are sponsoring this nonsense. Perhaps the university should consider an advanced third year module in “downloading therapeutic resonance music”.
Andy Lewis’s quackometer “Will Homeopathy and iTunes Cure AIDS?
Nick Cohen “The cranks who swear by citronella oil”
Jeremy Laurance in the Independent (17 Nov) “Homeopathic treatment of Aids attacked by medics“
Thanks to a correspondent for alerting me to a medical emergency in France.
You can read the press release here, from Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des Produits de Santé (AFSSAPS, the French equivalent of the MHRA or FDA).
Withdrawal of batches of Gingko biloba and Equisetum arvense
AFSSAPS has been informed by Laboratoires Boiron of an inversion of the labelling of two homeopathic medicaments, The bottles labelled “mother tincture of Gingko biloba” contain mother tincture of Equisetum arvense and vice versa
;. . .
“AFSSAPS has said that this mix-up does not pose any particular risk . . .”
. . .
“Laboratoires Boiron has asked pharmacists who stock these homeopathic medicaments to report, as far as possible, the inversion of labelling to any doctors in their neighbourhood who may have prescribed these items between May and October 2007.”
This gem brings to mind the interchange between Lord Broers and Ms Kate Chatfield of the Society of Homeopaths, as recorded in the minutes of evidence to the Select Committee on Science and Technology .
Q538 Lord Broers: I have a simple, technical question about homeopathy and drugs. Is it possible to distinguish between homeopathic drugs after they have been diluted? Is there any means of distinguishing one from the other?
Ms Chatfield: Only by the label.
You can read a lovely analysis of the views of Kate Chatfield here. She works at the University of Central Lancashire, where she is module leader for what the university, disgracefully, calls a “Bachelor of Science Degree” in Homeopathic Medicine. That is the university that refuses to reveal to the public what it is that they are teaching in these courses. I’m still waiting for the result of my appeal to the Information Commisioner: watch this space.
In contrast, Mike Eslea’s pages on pseudoscience are also from the University of Central Lancashire. They are very well worth reading.
Tnanks to the Breath Spa blog for drawing attention to the Broers – Chatfield interchange, in an excellent posting: ” Discouraging News from the Review of Allergy and Intolerance: Homeopathy Means We Need to Rewrite Textbooks”.
You know those silly e-petitions on the 10 Downing Street site?
Not only do they give you a spurious feeling that you are being listened to, but they are now being hijacked for surreptitious free advertising.
Just for a laugh, why not go to sign this one, at http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/health-claims/#detail
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to deplore the
use of e-petitions to generate free publicity for unproven
I am concerned to see petitions calling for as yet unproven
medical treatments to be made available on the NHS, e.g.
The British Medical Journal ran an article on “doctor bloggers” last week.
Photo ©Mark Thomas
The BMJ put the article behind a paywall, but you can download a reprint here.
Oops, no you can’t. The BMJ have dictated that their piece on bloggers should not be available to bloggers. If you want a copy, email me. The question of availability is more interesting than the article itself anyway. It is by a journalist, Rebecca Coombes. Contrary to what you might think from reading it, I have never met her. She asked for opinions by email, so I spent a while writing something out, which she cut and pasted into an article (and I spent another hour with their photographer, Mark Thomas, who took a lot of pictures). But I can’t use either the article or the photos freely. I don’t even get paid. The commercial journals, as always, do pretty well out of exploiting academics.
|The picture at the top should have been Ben Goldacre, whose badscience.net is now number two in the world. That picture prompted the child of a friend to ask if I was doing an impression of a velocirapter, I guess that is one better that gimpyblog’s perception of me as being a dead ringer for some computer game thug.
So here is another one (possibly no less scary).
Photo Â©Mark Thomas
By way of compensation, here is a picture of Goldacre.
Science writer award 2005
“. . . blogs are popular because they are more honest than other media. It is hard to get away with misrepresenting stuff when the original source is but a click away. I see it as a way of making conversation public. What is good about it is you get unmediated expertise.”
“In the press it’s hard to know what is true. But with blogs people can link directly to the original source: this never happens in a newspaper.”
“I think they [blogs] have really had some success in spreading public understanding of science and even in influencing public affairs (firstly with the merger [of Imperial and UCL] and more recently with withdrawal of NHS funding for homoeopathy). My own research is on the stochastic properties of single ion channels. I love it, but it is specialist and of zero interest to the public. So it’s fun to talk about things that do interest the public. It’s also fun to be able to influence politicians and vice chancellors, though that is rather harder.”
|At a meeting of the West Kent PCT board, on 27 September 2007, it was decided
to withdraw all funding for homeopathy from the end of this financial year. This means the end for the Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital..
Congratulations to Dr James Thallon (Medical Director of the West Kent PCT) who done a good job for patients in his area by ensuring that NHS money is well spent. He appeared briefly on Channel 4 News to explain that if the cost of the Hospital were saved, a lot of patients would be able to benefit from the latest treatments.
The announcement of intention to withdraw NHS funding was followed by a public consultation. But the supporters of homeopathy could muster only 6273 votes and they were spread over four petitions (we shall never know how many people signed all four). A web site for the supporters of the homeopathic hospital has a movie of their town centre demonstration. The numbers there were less than overwhelming, though they were led by a rather fine piper.
The local MP, Greg Clark (Cons, Tunbridge Wells) made a short speech, but sounded, it must be said, less than convinced. He is an MP better known for his support for nuclear missiles.
At 08.30, the morning talk show on BBC Radio Kent that preceded the meeting had a discussion about the homeopathic hospital. If you can stand talk shows, listen here (a London homeopath, DC and Sally Penrose from British Homeopathic Association). The first speaker says “someone even called it crackpot medicine”. Ahem. Could that have been me?
Who owns the Homeopathic Hospital?
You might expect to be able to find out from NHS Choices, but that site is unhelpful (how does the Department of Health manage it?). Here is the information that I have.
The Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital building is owned by the Mental Health Trust. The building houses three services. (1) The homeopaths, who are owned by Maidstone Tunbridge Wells (MTW) Acute Trust, (2) a child and adolescent mental health service CAMHS, which is owned by the Mental Health Trust, and (3) Community Paediatrics which owned by W Kent PCT. It will be for MTW as provider to decide if they want to close the department in the light of the commissioning decision but if they did then the building itself would continue to house medical services though not the Department of Homeopathy.
Follow up in the press
BBC News 24 had a short report.
The Times said ” Patients will no longer be able to receive homoeopathy treatments at a specialist hospital because they are a waste of money and do not work, an NHS trust said. ”
The final outcome
According to a report in the local newspaper, a year later it is, at last happening. Peter Fisher of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital said
“Of course homeopathy needs more research, but so do many areas of conventional medicine – without these NHS hospitals, this research won’t get done.”
The first part might be true, but the second is fantasy. The hospital did not produce a shred of good research. The report goes on.
“The PCT originally decided to withdraw funding for homeopathy – which costs the trust £200,000-a-year for 750 patients – last September, but the decision was challenged by patients through a judicial review which proved unsuccessful and led to the final decision being made last week.
Current patients will finish their treatment over the next eight months but the PCT will not pay for further routine homeopathic consultations or treatments after the end of March next year.”
21 September 2007
Channel 4 News reported on the pressure to save money by stopping NHS funding for “unproven and disproved treatments”.
Watch the video.
The report started badly when the journalist, Victoria Macdonald, said that the bottles of homeopathic pills contained “only natural ingredients”.
They contain NO ingredients. That is just as well perhaps, when you recall that natural ingredients in homeopathic pills include things like polonium. In the Nature newsblog that followed my piece about BSc degrees in anti-science, I responded
“Well CAM is a bit like university management. Don’t try to satirise it, because the next thing you know the satire has come true.
There is even a whole book about homeopathic polonium, and you can by not only polonium, but also holmium, dysprosium, europium, gadolinium, Terbium, Thulium (this is beginning to sound like Tom Lehrer), And don’t forget Excrementum caninum (yes, you got it, dog shit). With the 3C “potency” of the latter you might even get a few molecules of it. All this at http://www.archibel.com/homeopathy/synthesis/newremedies/
And don’t forget your homeopathic bioterrorism protection kit.”
The thrust of the report was to suggest that our attempts to improve NHS treatment were some sort of Big Pharma funded conspiracy to suppress those nice homeopaths and so kill old ladies whose lives depended on taking medicines that contain no medicine.
Peter Fisher sounded a bit desperate in his attempts to associate me and my colleagues with the defence of GM foods, a topic on which, as far as I know, none of us uttered a word in public.
Sorry, Dr Fisher, but there is no conspiracy, and no involvement of Big Pharma. Just a disparate bunch of doctors and scientists who decided it was time to do something about the spending of scarce NHS money being spent on new age nonsense. It really is that simple.
I’m always a bit amused when people who make a lot of money from alternative medicine accuse me of representing some vested interest. The media ‘nutritional therapist’, Patrick Holford, said, in the British Medical Journal
“I notice that Professor David Colquhoun has so far not felt it relevant to mention his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry “
To which my reply was
” Oh dear, Patrick Holford really should check before saying things like “I notice that Professor David Colquhoun has so far not felt it relevant to mention his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry”. Unlike Holford, when I said “no competing interests”, I meant it. My research has never been funded by the drug industry, but always by the Medical Research Council or by the Wellcome Trust. Neither have I accepted hospitality or travel to conferences from them. That is because I would never want to run the risk of judgements being clouded by money. The only time I have ever taken money from industry is in the form of modest fees that I got for giving a series of lectures on the basic mathematical principles of drug-receptor interaction, a few years ago.”
I spend a lot of my spare time, and a bit of my own money, in an attempt to bring some sense into the arguments. The alternative medicine gurus make their livings (in some cases large fortunes) out of their wares.
So who has the vested interest?
Sorry Dr Fisher, but there is no conspiracy. Tim Crayford (Association of Directors of Public Health), put the matter very simply in the interview.
It is more to do with a point of principle. There are very many really effective treatments that the NHS can’t currently afford to provide. And we should we not be ensuring that the limited resources we’ve got in the NHS go to the things that really work well, and are going to save lives”
That is all there is to it.
Steven Novella, MD, an academic neurologist at Yale University, runs The Skeptics Guide to the Universe: Your Escape to Reality
He is author of Weird Science , a monthly column featured in the New Haven Advocate. He is the co-founder and President of the New England Skeptical Society, Associate Editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine , and a contributing editor of Quackwatch , a consumer advocacy website dealing with all types of health fraud.
Steve Novella quizzed me about the circumstances surrounding the request to move my web site from UCL’s server, and we discussed the incursion of endarkenment values into universities and politics. My bit is here.
A recent post, Homeopathic “cures” for malaria: a wicked scam, revealed two more cases of claims to cure malaria with homeopathic funny water.
One was the claim of Kate Birch, the vice president of the North American Society of Homeopaths, that “Homeopathy is more effective that any western medication”
for treatment of malaria.
This is so dangerous that some action was needed.
The other was a claim by a UK company that claims for Demal 200 (which contains nothing but 15% alcohol)
“Demal 200 is highly effective in treating all types of Malaria even the strains that have developed a resistance to chemical based drugs”
But on checking the web site in 28 Aug, 18 days after the original post, guess what? Demal 200 has vanished. I wonder who told them to do that? The advert was still in the Google cache, and you can download it here, as it appeared on 10th August. Don’t worry though, 20 seconds with Google shows that there are plenty of other people willing to sell this expensive hooch. For example ‘Blueturtle Remedial Sciences’. They give a lot of email addresses to which you can write for further information.
I made a lot of complaints about these wickedly dangerous claims. So far, the result is close to zero.
The Society of Homeopaths, both UK and USA, refuse point blank to give any opinion about the ability of homeopaths to cure malaria.
The Society of Homeopaths is also making its contribution to deaths in Africa by its utterly delusional attitude to AIDS.
They do nothing to stop their many members who do make such claims from killing people. As regulatory organisations, they are just a sick joke.
The Advertising Standards Authority and the Trading Standards people disclaim any responsibility, as does the Center for Disease Control (USA). The FDA and the MHRA have yet to reply, but they did very little after the revelation that homeopaths claimed to be able to prevent malaria.
Nobody seems willing to do anything at all.
But is characteristic of quasi-religious organisations that they split in to warring sects. The Faculty of Homeopaths (UK), in stark contrast to the Society of Homeopaths,
” . . . does not promote the use of homeopathy for the prevention of malaria.
It also supports steps to inform the public of the dangers of malaria and the need to follow government guidance. Last year the Faculty worked with the Health Protection Agency (HPA) on a statement for the HPA website: http://www.hpa.org.uk/infections/topics_az/malaria/homeopathic_statement_260705.htm “
All that can be said for the malaria scandal is that it has revealed that the curious world of homeopathy is in in chaos when it comes to serious diseases. And it shows very starkly how utterly meaningless self-regulation of homeopathy is, and how government agencies disclaim responsibility
There is lots more about this wickedness on the web: try The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing.
Here are some of the results of complaints.
Society of Homeopaths (SoH) (UK)
I wrote (13 Aug) to the Society of Homeopaths (SoH) to ask about the use of the initials RSHom and RSHom (NA), and to ask about their attitude to the claims made for Demal 200.”Please could you tell me the opinion of the Society of Homeopaths about someone describing herself as RSHom behaving in this way, and also about Demal 200.”
I had a very quick reply from Paula Ross, chief executive of the SoH. She said
“There is no connection between The Society of Homeopaths (whose registered members use the designation ‘RSHom’) and the North American Society of Homeopaths (whose registered members use the designation ‘RSHom NA’).”
But she ignored the second question.
|My other question was about whether SoH would like to comment on Demal 200.A company called giftofafrica says of its homeopathic malaria treatment. â€œDemal 200 is highly effective in treating all types of Malaria even the strains that have developed a resistance to chemical based drugs.â€ The company selling this is based in Wolverhampton, UK. and their claim seems to contradict directly your statement at http://www.homeopathy-soh.org/whats-new/patientinfo.aspxBest regardsDavid Colquhoun|
Paula Ross. However a correspondent sent a similar enquiry to the Society of Homeopaths, asking of Demal 200
“Would you recommend this product for use in Malaria regions or are the claims bogus?”
This was the ‘response’.
Thank you for your email.May I suggest you contact one of the Homeopathic manufacturers who will be able to advise you and give you more information regarding Demal 200.For our list of Pharmacies please visit our website www.homeopathy-soh.org
The Society of Homeopaths.
11 Brookfield, Duncan Close,
Park, Northampton NN3 6WL
|13 Aug 2007
Recently the Society of Homeopaths (UK) issued a statement that read thus
I can see no such statement on the NASH web site. In fact there are some things that seem to suggest that NASH approves of homeopathic treatment of infectious diseases (not least Kate Birch’s book), despite the fact that your Standards of Practice Guidelines says
â€œDo not claim that you can treat any disease, condition or ailment or imply that you can do so.
Please could you give me a clear statement of your policy concerning homeopathic treatment of malaria, AIDS, cholera, typhoid fever, yellow fever and tuberculosis.
|Dear Mr. Colquhoun,
Thank you for your inquiry of 8/13/07. NASH does not have a policy on the treatment of any disease category, in accordance with the tenet that homeopathy treats the whole person based on characteristic symptoms rather than a diagnosis.
The NORTH AMERICAN SOCIETY OF HOMEOPATHS
PO BOX 450039, Sunrise, FL 33345-0039, USA ~ Tel: 206-720-7000 ~ Fax:
208-248-1942 343 Carrville Road, Richmond Hill, ONT L4C 6E4, CANADA ~ Tel:
905-886-1060 ~ Fax: 905-886-1418
|X-UCL-MailScanner-From: firstname.lastname@example.org final statement to you is: The personal response that was solicited from me on my private e-mail does not represent the views of the North American Society of Homeopaths.|
|It has come to my attention that a Ms Kate Birch (vice chair of the North American Society of Homeopaths), is advocating homeopathic treatment of malaria and also yellow fever, typhoid, dengue fever and cholera. She does this through her book and also in emails to potential customers.This seems to me to be very dangerous, so I have asembled some of the relevant evidence at http://dcscience.net/?p=24Please can you tell me if it is legal in the USA to claim to cure serious diseases like these with “remedies” that contain nothing but water and alcohol?|
|Dear Mr. Colquhoun,I forwarded your email to one of our staff scientists; his response was as follows:—–Original Message—–FDA regulates medicines, vaccines, and drugs. States regulate the practice of medicine.Charlatans and quacks can be reported to these regulatory agencies.However, the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and authors can write all kinds of wacky stuff that is bad for your health.
Thank you for your inquiry.
Internet Response Team National Center for Infectious Diseases Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Demal 200 UK
This UK company makes the outrageuous claim that their 15% alcohol “”Demal 200 is highly effective in treating all types of Malaria even the strains that have developed a resistance to chemical based drugs”
A complaint about this to the Advertising Standards Authority about this mendacious
advertisement produced a quick reply which said it did not come under their remit,
They suggested trying the Trading Standards people. The Trading Standards Authority replied on 28 Aug 07 (Adrian Winter).
” . . . this is not a matter that falls under the jurisdiction of
Trading Standards. The Medicines and Heathcare
Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is the appropriate body in this instance.”
I’d already written to the MHRA (13 Aug 2007) thus,
|A company called giftofafrica says of its homeopathic malaria treatment:
This direct claim of effectiveness seems to me to be mind-bogglingly irresponsible.
The company selling this stuff is based in Wolverhampton, UK. It costs Â£31.99 (or $56.40) for 30 ml of 15% alcohol (and 200C homeopathic dilutions, .i.e., nothing)
Please can you tell me about the legal position concerning claims to be able to cure infectious diseases, and whether or not the MHRA has any responsibility in cases like this.
On 21 August 2007, the Taxpayers’ Alliance produced a report that
“compiled Britain’s first ever list of university ‘non-courses’; university degrees that lend the respectability of scholarly qualifications to non-academic subjects and calculated their annual cost to students and taxpayers.”
In this they list 400 degree course, at 91 institutions in the UK, which they describe as “non-courses”. They claim that these courses cost the taxpayer £40 million per year.
At the top of their list they place a BA (Hons) degree in Outdoor Adventure and Philosophy, at Marjon College in Plymouth. They include also in their list 60 different courses in alternative medicine.
I don’t agree entirely with the Alliance. They fail, I think, to make a vital distinction, between things that are untrue, and things that a merely not a great intellectual challenge. In “Science degrees in anti-science” I said
“What matters here is that degrees in things such as golf-course management are honest. They do what it says on the label. That is quite different from awarding BSc degrees in subjects that are not science at all, but are positively anti-science.”
Nevertheless the 400 “non-courses” include 60 in alternative medicine, and they are quite unacceptable.
So how does Universities UK (UUK) react? (They are the folks who used to have the sensibly self-explanatory title “Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals”, before they had their Consignia moment). Nothing short of a blanket defence, according to the BBC News
But Universities UK said the alliance had failed to understand developments in higher education or the labour market.
“Had they done a little more research, they would have found that these so-called ‘non-courses’ are in fact based on demand from employers and developed in association with them,”
“Graduates on these courses are in demand from employers who are looking for people with specific skills alongside the general skills acquired during a degree such as critical thinking, team-working, time management and IT skills – a point lost on the authors of this rag-bag of prehudices and outdated assumptions.”
All courses were checked rigorously to ensure they met appropriate standards. “This is academic snobbery, as predictable as it is unfounded.”
Does UUK really think that that is a sufficient justification for BSc degrees in homeopathy?
Does UUK really think that degrees in homeopathy teach “critical thinking”?
Does UUK really think that “rigorous checking” of a degree in homeopathy is possible?
If so, the endarkenment has certainly reached high places.
An email from the president of UUK, Rick Trainor says that
“. . . degree courses change over time, are independently assessed for academic rigour and quality and provide a wider education than the simple description of the course might suggest”
Professor Trainor, Principal of King’s College London, is a social historian, not a scientist. But you don’t have to be a scientist to understand that it is simply preposterous to think that the smaller the dose the bigger the effect. The defence of such ideas on the basis that they have been “independently assessed for academic rigour” (assessed, of course, by fellow believers in magic) is equally preposterous.
SO I wrote again to explain the difference between honest and dishonest vocational degrees. It reall isn’t very difficult to grasp. This time all I got was
Thank you very much for your comments, which I have read with interest.
How irrational thinking in government and universities has led to the rise of new-age nonsense in the name of science.
This article appeared on 15th August 2007, on the Guardian Science web site.
The Guardian made very few cuts to the original version, but removed a lot of the links. If you want to have references to some of the claims that are made, try the original, which I reproduce here. [Download this as pdf]
The Guardian Science site also has a piece on this topic by Alok Jha: Reigniting the enlightenment How do we win back our civilisation from the jaws of darkness?
Comments can be left there too.
A German translation of this piece has been posted at the Mental health blog.
Etymological note. The word endarkenment has been used by several people as an antonym for the enlightenment, but the first time it caught my eye was in an article in 2005 by Gerald Weissman, The facts of evolution: fighting the Endarkenment. The article opens thus.
“Those of us who practice experimental science are living in the best of times and the worst of times, and I’m not talking about A Tale of Two Cities, but a tale of two cultures.”
Science in an Age of Endarkenment
“Education: Elitist activity. Cost ineffective. Unpopular with Grey Suits. Now largely replaced by Training.” Michael O’Donnell, in A Sceptic’s Medical Dictionary (BMJ publishing, 1997).
The enlightenment was a beautiful thing. People cast aside dogma and authority. They started to think for themselves. Natural science flourished. Understanding of the real world increased. The hegemony of religion slowly declined. Real universities were created and eventually democracy took hold. The modern world was born. Until recently we were making good progress. So what went wrong?
The past 30 years or so have been an age of endarkenment. It has been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable.
This matters when people delude themselves into believing that we could be endangered at 45 minute’s notice by non-existent weapons of mass destruction.It matters when reputable accountants delude themselves into thinking that Enron-style accounting is acceptable.
It matters when people are deluded into thinking that they will be rewarded in paradise for killing themselves and others.
It matters when bishops attribute floods to a deity whose evident vengefulness and malevolence leave one reeling. And it matters when science teachers start to believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago.
These are serious examples of the endarkenment mentality, but I’ll stick with my day job and consider what this mentality is doing to science.
One minor aspect of the endarkenment has been a resurgence in magical and superstitious ideas about medicine. The existence of homeopaths on the High Street won’t usually do too much harm. Their sugar pills contain nothing. They won’t poison your body; the greater danger is that they poison your mind.
It is true that consulting a homeopath could endanger your health if it delays proper diagnosis, or if they recommend sugar pills to prevent malaria, but the real objection is cultural. Homeopaths are a manifestation of a society in which wishful thinking matters more than truth; a society where what I say three times is true and never mind the facts.
If this attitude were restricted to half-educated herbalists and crackpot crystal gazers, perhaps one could shrug it off. But it isn’t restricted to them. The endarkenment extends to the highest reaches of the media, government and universities. And it corrupts science itself.
Even respectable newspapers still run nonsensical astrology columns. Respected members of parliament seem quite unaware of what constitutes evidence. Peter Hain (Lab., Neath) set back medicine in Northern Ireland. David Tredinnick (Cons., Bosworth) advocated homeopathic treatment of foot and mouth disease. Caroline Flint condoned homeopathy, and Lord Hunt referred to ‘psychic surgery’ as a “profession” in a letter written in response to question by a clinical scientist
Under the influence of the Department of Health, normally sane pharmacologists on the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority, which is meant to “ensure the medicines work”, changed the rules to allow homeopathic and herbal products to be labelled, misleadingly, with “traditional” uses, while requiring no evidence to be produced that they work.
Tony Blair himself created religiously-divided schools at a time when that has never been more obviously foolish, and he defended in the House of Commons, schools run by ‘young-earth creationists‘, the lunatic fringe of religious zealots. The ex-Head Science teacher at Emmanuel College said
â€œNote every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm . . . is explicitly mentioned . . . we must give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same dataâ€:
That is not from the fundamentalists of the southern USA, but from Gateshead, UK.
The Blairs’ fascination with pendulum wavers, crystals and other new age nonsense is well known. When their elders set examples like that, is it any surprise that over 30% of students in the UK now say they believe in creationism and “intelligent design”? As Steve Jones has pointed out so trenchantly, this makes it hard to teach them science at all. Welcome back, Cardinal Bellarmine.
Homeopaths and herbalists may be anti-science but they are not nearly as worrying as the university vice-chancellors who try to justify the giving of bachelor of science degrees in subjects that are anti-science to their core. How, one may well ask, have universities got into the embarrassing position of having to answer questions like that?
Here are a couple of examples of how. The University of Bedfordshire (in its previous incarnation as the University of Luton) accredited a Foundation Degree course in ‘nutritional therapy’, at`the Institute of Optimum Nutrition (IoN). The give-away is the term Nutritional Therapy . They are the folks who claim, with next to no evidence, that changing your diet, and buying from them a lot of expensive ‘supplements’, will cure almost any disease (even AIDS and cancer).
The IoN is run by Patrick Holford, whose only qualification in nutrition is a diploma awarded to himself by his own Institute. His advocacy of vitamin C as better than conventional drugs to treat AIDS is truly scary. His pretensions have been analysed effectively by Ben Goldacre, and by Holfordwatch.. See the toe-curling details on badscience.net .
The documents that relate to this accreditation are mind-boggling. One of the recommended books for the course, on “Energy Medicine” (a subject that is pure fantasy) has been reviewed thus.
“This book masquerades as science, but it amounts to little more than speculation and polemic in support of a preconceived belief.”.
The report of Luton’s Teaching Quality and Enhancement Committee (May 24th 2004) looks terribly official, with at least three “quality assurance” people in attendance. But the minutes show that they discussed almost everything about the course apart from the one thing that really matters, the truth of what was being taught. The accreditation was granted. It’s true that the QAA criticised Luton for this, but only because they failed to tick a box, not because of the content of the course.
The University of Central Lancashire ‘s justification for its BSc in Homeopathic Medicine consists of 49 pages of what the late, great Ted Wragg might have called “world-class meaningless bollocks”. All the buzzwords are there “multi-disciplinary deliveryâ€, â€œformative and summative assessmentâ€, log books and schedules. But not a single word about the fact that the course is devoted to a totally discredited early 19th century view of medicine. Not a single word about truth and falsehood. Has it become politically incorrect to ask questions like that? The box-ticking mentality is just another manifestation of the endarkenment thought. If you tick a box to say that you are fully-qualifed at laying-on-of-hands, that is good enough. You have done the course, and it is irrelevant whether the course teaches rubbish.
These examples, and many like them, result, I believe from the bureaucratisation and corporatisation of science and education. Power has gradually ebbed away from the people who do the research and teaching, and become centralised in the hands of people who do neither.
The sad thing is that the intentions are good. Taxpayers have every right to expect that their money is well spent, and students have every right to expect that a university will teach them well. How, then, have we ended up with attempts to deliver these things that do more harm than good?
One reason is that the bureaucrats who impose these schemes have no interest in data. They don’t do randomised tests, or even run pilot schemes, on their educational or management theories because, like and old-fashioned clinician, they just know they are right. Enormous harm has been done to science by valuing quantity over quality, short-termism over originality and, at the extremes, fraud over honesty. Spoofs about the pretentiousness and dishonesty of some science, like that published in The New York Times last year, are too close to the truth to be very funny now.
Science, left to itself, and run by scientists, has created much of the world we live in. It has self-correcting mechanisms built in, so that mistakes, and the occasional bit of fraud, are soon eliminated. Corporatisation has meant that, increasingly, you are not responsible to your conscience, just to your line manager. The result of this, I fear, is a decrease in honesty, and in the long run inevitably a decrease in quality and originality too.
If all we had to worry about was a few potty homeopaths and astrologers, it might be better to shrug, and get on with trying to find some truths about the world. But now the endarkenment extends to parliament, universities and schools, it is far too dangerous to ignore.