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University of Central Lancashire – DC's Improbable Science

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University of Central Lancashire

Western herbal medicine need not be mystical nonsense, but it usually it is, 

Plants often contain chemicals that have pharmacological actions, with all the possibilities for good and for harm that implies (see Plants
as medicines
).  It would be quite possible to teach about the plant constituents and their actions in an entirely scientific way, but it seems that this is not what courses in herbal medicine choose to do.  That is why they shouldn’t be called Bachelor of Science degrees.

We have recently revealed the ancient nonsense taught at Middlesex University in its "BSc (Hons)" degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine in Dangerous Chinese medicine taught at Middlesex University as well as similar dangerous gobbledygook from the University of Westminster: see Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients.

Western Herbal medicine does not talk about "knotted spleen Qi", but has an equally barmy mystical vocabulary of its own. They have in common a tendency to divide herbs into hot and cold, a crude and baseless classification that dates from a time when nothing was known about physiology or the causes of disease.

A recent post described the problems of finding out what exactly is taught on these courses: Not much Freedom of Information at University of Wales, University of Kingston, Robert Gordon University or Napier University

I lodged a Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act with Napier University Edinburgh on 10th August 2009. As almost always, it was refused, as was the internal review of my request.  The response to the internal review came from Gerry Webber BA (Hons) 0 PHil MBA MCMI AUA (Fellow). Despite all those impressive sounding letters, he argued with a perfectly straight face that it was perfectly all right for the university to teach this sort of stuff. He ended

“On public interest grounds, I have therefore concluded that, in respect of the commercially sensitive information requested, the public interest is better served in withholding the information you have requested than in disclosing it.”

Despite all those impressive sounding letters after Dr Webber’s name, here was a solemn letter, on the university letterhead, defending the teaching of pseudoscientific nonsense   The experience is surreal, but far from unique.

Although we won a judgement that compelled disclosure from the Information Commissioner for England and Wales, the Scottish law is slightly different so I had to appeal to the Scottish Information commissioner. [Download appeal]

A similar appeal was lodged for Robert Gordon’s University Aberdeen. They have already sent some homeopathy materials, and closed down the homeopathy course, as described at: Robert Gordon University stops its homeopathy course. Quackademia is crumbling.  Napier University followed the same pattern, but a bit more slowly.  They sent some of what I asked for without waiting for a formal judgement, after they had been contacted by the Scottish Information Commissioner. 

Napier also shut down the degree from which the slides, below, were used.  It is fascinating that so many places have done this shortly before what is taught is made public.  Before that time the courses are defended and advertised. no doubt by people who have never given a moment’s thought to what is taught.  In 2007, after my Nature article on the topic, the Glasgow Herald said

A spokeswoman for Napier University said it stood by the integrity of its BSc degrees.

“The BSc Herbal Medicine course uses an approach to teaching and training that we believe best prepares students for practice within a modern integrated healthcare system,” she said.

The university’s brochure for the course (still, carelessly, on the web at the time of writing), waxed lyrical about the herbal medicine course. Yet as soon as it becomes known what’s actually taught, the courses close.

What was taught on Napier’s Herbal Medicine “BSc”.

Materia medica starts with hot and cold herbs

napier 1

napier 2

Yes, but one of the problems is that very little is known about the therapeutic actions of herbs from "controlled enquiry". The material just isn’t there to fulfil this aim. To paraphrase their quotation,,you can call anything medicine, but plenty of people will argue with you if you can’t produce the evidence.

napier 3

This slide strikes me as pure pre-scientific gobbledygook. All herbs and all diseases seem to fall into the ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ class. The ‘argument’ is entirely circular. Pure pseudoscience (is that what the lecturer told them in response to the last question?).

napier 4

napier 5

What do all these conditions have in common? They are all "cold". How can anyone take this sort of baloney seriously?

napier 6

napier 7

This quotation appears to have no comprehensible meaning at all. It carries overtones of the great "detox" fraud, and so perhaps is useful justification for slimming the wallets of the gullible.

Now we come to a real herb.

napier 8

napier 9

There is some real chenistry in this slide. Unfortunately it simply isn’t known whether these chemicals have any useful function. Usually it isn’t known either what dose of them you are giving in tincture of valerian. When I worked in a pharmacy in the 1950s, you could still find tincture of valerian on the shelves of a normal pharmacy, but iit soon vanished as paople realised it wasn’t much use. Disappeared from normal medicine, that is. it is still alive and well among herbalists.

Notice too, the mention of "synergy". The perpetual excuse of herbalists for giving impure mixtures of chemicals is that they might act synergistically. They are undeterred by the fact that no such synergy has ever been demonstrated properly. I asked that question ot Liz Williamson. editor of Potter’s herbal Cyclopedia, but answer came there none.

I’d be interested to know what answer was given to the last question, which isn’t as simple as it sounds. I wouldn’t mind betting it didn’t include a critical description of isobol analysis.

So what does Valerian do?

napier 10

It seems, even from the lecture, that there is no unanimity that it does anything useful at all.

napier 11

napier 12

There is no worthwhile evidence to think it is useful for "generalises anxiety disorder" Let’s take another opinion.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is the branch of the US National Institutes of Health which has spent around a billion dollars of US taxpayers’ money on research into alternative medicine, For all that effort they have failed to come up with a single useful treatment. Clearly they should be shut down. Nevertheless, as an organisation that is enthusiastic about alternative medicine, it’s interesting to see what they have to say about valerian.

What the Science Says

  • Research suggests that valerian may be helpful for insomnia, but there is not enough evidence from well-designed studies to confirm this.
  • There is not enough scientific evidence to determine whether valerian works for anxiety or for other conditions, such as depression and headaches.

Even NCCAM don’t pretend that there is any good reason to think it’s good for anything. So, you might ask, why are students being taught to treat people with it?

Simon Mills on "hot and cold herbs"

Many of the slides refer to a book by herbalist Simon Mills. You can see a video of a talk he gave in which he ‘explains’ "hot and cold herbs". It strikes me as pure gobbledygook. Make up your own mind.

 

Now take the test

This is a question from a Napier University exam paper

exam1
exam2

Which constituents are responsible for the actions of saw palmetto?  Which actions would they be?  This is what The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) says
about saw palmetto.

What the Science Says

  • Several small studies suggest that saw palmetto may be effective for treating BPH symptoms.
  • In 2006, a large study of 225 men with moderate-to-severe BPH found no improvement with 320 mg saw palmetto daily for 1 year versus placebo. NCCAM cofunded the study with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  • There is not enough scientific evidence to support the use of saw palmetto for reducing the size of an enlarged prostate or for any other conditions.
  • Saw palmetto does not appear to affect readings of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels. PSA is protein produced by cells in the prostate. The PSA test is used to screen for prostate cancer and to monitor patients who have had prostate cancer.

Magic Medicine

In the materials that I was sent, I see nothing to make me believe that herbalism is being taught as science. On the contrary, it all seems to confirm the definition given in the Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine.

herbal magic

Herbal medicine BSc degrees still  exist.

They are still running at the following universities.

The vice-chancellors are named because they are the people who must take responsibility for this sort of nonsense being taught in their universities.

University of East London (vice-chancellor from Feb 2010 is Patrick McGhee, who, in his previous job at University of Central Lancashire, did so much to prevent me from getting hold of their teaching materials, but then closed the courses anyway)

University of Lincoln (Vice chancellor, Professor Mary Stuart)

London Metropolitan University (vice-chancellor, (interim vice chancellor, Alfred Morris)

Middlesex University (vice-chancellor, Professor Michael Driscoll)

And, of course, the home of woo, the University of Westminster (vice-chancellor, Professor Geoffrey Petts). Their students are taught that Amethysts emit high Yin energy and that dowsing and pendulums can be used for diagnosis and treatment.

By the same token, we may congratulate Professor Dame Joan Stringer, vice-chancellor of Napier University Edinburgh for closing down the course from which these slides came. Perhaps now she should consider closing their ‘degrees’ in aromatherapy and ‘reflexology’

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

Every single request for information about course materials in quack medicine that I have ever sent has been turned down by universities,

It is hardly as important as as refusal of FoI requests to see climate change documents, but it does indicate that some vice-chancellors are not very interested in openness. This secretiveness is exactly the sort of thing that leads to lack of trust in universities and in science as a whole.

The one case that I have won took over three years and an Information Tribunal decision against the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) before I got anything.

UCLAN spent £80,307.95.(inc VAT at 17.5%) in legal expenses alone (plus heaven knows how much in staff time) to prevent us from seeing what was taught on their now defunct “BSc (Hons) homeopathy”. This does not seem to me to be good use of taxpayers’ money. A small sample of what was taught has already been posted (more to come). It is very obvious why the university wanted to keep it secret, and equally obvious that it is in the public interest that it should be seen.

UCLAN had dropped not only its homeopathy "degree" before the information was revealed, They also set up an internal inquiry into all the rest of their courses in magic medicine which ended with the dumping of all of them.

Well, not quite all, There was one left. An “MSc” in homeopathy by e-learning. Why this was allowed to continue after the findings of UCLAN’s internal review, heaven only knows. It is run by the same Kate Chatfield who ran the now defunct BSc. Having started to defend the reputation against the harm done to it by offering this sort of rubbish, I thought I should finish. So I asked for the contents of this course too. It is, after all, much the same title as the course that UCLAN had just been ordered to release. But no, this request too was met with a refusal

Worse still, the refusal was claimed under section 43(2) if the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That is the public interest defence, The very defence that was dismissed in scathing terms by the Information Tribunal less than two months ago,

To add insult to injury, UCLAN said that it would make available the contents of the 86 modules in the course under its publication scheme, at a cost of £20 per module, That comes to £1,720 for the course, Some freedom of information.

Because this was a new request, it now has to go through the process of an internal reviw of the decision before it can ne referred to the Information Commissioner. That will be requested, and since internal reviews have, so far, never changed the initial judgment. the appeal to the Information Commissioner should be submitted within the month. I have been promised that the Information Commissioner will deal with it much faster this time than the two years it took last time.

And a bit more unfreedom

Middlesex University

I first asked Middlesex for materials from their homeopathy course on 1 Oct 2008.  These courses are validated by Middlesex university (MU) but actually run by the Centre for Homeopathic Education. Thw MU site barely mentions homeopathy and all I got was the usual excuse that the uninsersity did not possess the teaching materials. As usual, the validation had been done without without looking at what was actually being taught. The did send me the validation document though [download it]   As usual, the validation document shows no sign at all of the fact that the usbject of the "BSc" is utter nonsense. One wonderful passage says

“. . . the Panel were assured that the Team are clearly producing practitioners but wanted to explore what makes these students graduates? The Team stated that the training reflects the professional standards that govern the programme and the graduateness is achieved through developing knowledge by being able to access sources and critically analyse these sources . . . “

Given that the most prominent characteristic of homeopaths (and other advocates of magic medicine) is total lack of critical ability, this is hilarious. If they had critical ability they wouldn’t be homeopaths. Hilarious is not quite the right word,  It is tragic that nonsense like this can be found in an official university document.

Middlesex, though it doesn’t advertise homeopathy, does advertise degrees in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Herbal Medicine and Ayurveda. On 2nd February 2010 I asked for teaching materials from these courses. Guess what? The request was refused. In this case the exemptions under FOIA were not even invoked but I was told that "All these materials are presently available only in one format at the University – via a student-only accessed virtual learning environment. ".  Seems that they can’t print out the bits that I asked for,  The internal review has been requested, then we shall see what the Information Commissioner has to say.

Two other cases are at present being considered by the Information Commissioner (Scotland), after requests under the Scottish FoIA were refused.  They are interesting cases because they bear on the decision, currently being considered by the government, about whether they should implement the recommendations of the execrable Pittilo report.

Napier University Edinburgh.  The first was for teaching material form the herbal medicine course at Napier University Edinburgh.  I notice that this course no longer appears in UCAS or on Napier’s own web site, so maybe the idea that its contents might be disclosed has been sufficient  to make the university do the sensible thing.

Robert Gordon University Aberdeen   The second request was for teaching material from the “Introduction to Homeopathy” course at the Robert Gordon University Aberdeen. The particular interest that attaches to this is that the vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon university is Michael Pittilo. The fact that he is willing to tolerate such a course in his own university seems to me to disqualify him from expressing any view on medical subjects.

Michael Pittilo, Crohn’s disease and Andrew Wakefield

Michael Pittilo has not been active in science for some time now, but Medline does show scientiifc publications for Pittilo RM, between 1979 anf 1998. Between 1989 and 1995 there are five papers published jointly with one Andrew Wakefield. These papers alleged a relationship between measles virus and Crohn’s disease. The papers were published before tha infamous 1998 paper by Wakefield in the Lancet (now retracted) that brought disgrace on Wakefield and probably caused unnecessary deaths.. The link between measles and Crohn’s disease is now equally disproved. 

The subject has been reviewed by Korzenik (2005) in Past and Current Theories of Etiology of IBD. Toothpaste, Worms, and Refrigerators

“Wakefield et al proposed that Crohn’s results from a chronic infection of submucosal endothelium of the intestines with the measles virus [Crohn’s disease: pathogenesis and persistent measles virus infection. Wakefield AJ, Ekbom A, Dhillon AP, Pittilo RM, Pounder RE., Gastroenterology, 1995, 108(3):911-6]”

"This led to considerable media interest and< public concern over use of live measles vaccine as well as other vaccines. A number of researchers countered these claims, with other studies finding that titers to measles were not increased in Crohn’s patients, granulomas were not associated with endothelium 49 , measles were not in granulomas50 and the measles vaccine is not associated with an increased risk of Crohn’s disease51–55 "

This bit of history is not strictly relevant to the Pittilo report, but I do find quite puzzling how the government chooses people from whom it wishes to get advice about medical problems.

Follow-up

I notice that the Robert Gordon university bulletin has announced that

“Professor Mike Pittilo, Principal of the University, has been made an MBE in the New Year Honours list for services to healthcare”.

That is a reward for writing a very bad report that has not yet been implemented, and one hopes, for the sake of patients, will never be implemented. I do sometimes wonder about the bizarre honours system in the UK.

Postcript.

On 16th February, the death of Michael Pittilo was announced. He had been suffeing from cancer and was only 55 years old. I wouldn’t wish that fate on my worst enemy.

Jump to follow-up

The purpose of this post is to reveal a few samples of things that are taught on a homeopathy ‘degree’ course. The course in question was the "BSc Hons homeopathy course at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN). Entry to this course was closed in 2008 and, after an internal review, UCLAN closed almost all of the rest of its courses in alternative medicine too. The university is to be commended for this .

The purpose of making public some of what used to be taught is not to embarrass UCLAN, which has already done the sensible thing, but to make it clear that the sort of thing taught on such courses is both absurd and dangerous, in the hope of discouraging other courses

.Three years after I first asked for teaching materials, the Information Commisioner ruled that all the reasons given for refusal were invalid, and they must be handed over. However UCLAN then appealed against the decision, so the appeal went to an Information Tribunal.  That appeal was lost decisively and UCLAN was.obliged to provide the whole of the course material.

On Christmas Eve I got five large box files, 13.7 kg of documents, or 30 pounds, in old money.

UCLAN parcels

Because these documents are copyright, I rely on the twin defences of fair quotation (only a tiny proportion is being quoted) and public interest. The Information Tribunal decided very firmly that it was in the public interest that it should be known what is taught on such courses, and that can be achieved if some of it is made public.   Here are a few extracts.

Code of ethics

The students are given a copy of the code of ethics of the Society of Homeopaths.   This is 25 pages long, but paragraph 48 is especially interesting.

48 Advertisements, stationery and name plates maintain a high standard of propriety and
integrity to enhance the reputation of homeopathy.

  • Advertising shall not contain claims of superiority.
  • No advertising may be used which expressly or implicitly claims to cure named diseases.
  • Advertising shall not be false, fraudulent, misleading, deceptive, extravagant or sensational.

No mention though, of the fact that this code of ethics has been repeatedly breached by the Society of Homeopaths itself, on its own website.  See, for example, here in 2007 and again in 2009. as well as Ernst’s article on this topic.

Anyone who has followed dialogues among homeopaths knows that "claims to cure named diseases" is the norm not the exception. The code of ethics is just a bad joke.  And the (late) course at UCLAN was no exception. Take, for example, course HP3002, Therapeutic Homeopathy, module leader Jean Duckworth.

Homeopathic treatment of cancer

There was a lecture on HP3002 called "A Homeopathic Approach to Cancer (Ramakrishnan methodology [sic])".. Here are 10 slides from that lecture.  It is illegal to claim to be able to cure cancer under the Cancer Act 1939.  If a homeopath were to make claims like these in public they’d be open to prosecution, not to mention in breach of the SoH’s code of ethics.  If cancer is not a "named disease", what is?

slide 3

slide 3

slide 5

Aha so it is better if the water is diluted in some more water.

slide 7

Specific treatments for a named disease are recommended.

slide 8

slide 9

What happened to treating the whole person?  Now specific organs are being treated.  The term "affinity", as used here, is of course sheer hocus pocus.

slide 10

slide 13

It is easy to forget when reading this that none of the “medicines” contain any medicine whatsoeever.

slide 14

 

Notice that the term "remedy" is used throughout.  Any reasonable person would interpret "remedy" to imply "cure", though no doubt a homeopath, if challenged, would claim that "remedy" carried no such implication. The last slide is typical of junk medicine: the personal testimonial, supplied with no detail whatsoever. Just an anecdote which is useless as evidence.

This lecture alone strikes me as a cruel (and possibly illegal) hoax perpetrated on desperate patients.  Of course a true believer might get some solace from taking the sugar pills, but that is not sufficient justification.

The same course dealt with quite a lot of other "named diseases", autism, ADHD and coping with a heart attack. And, you are asked, did you think arnica is just a first aid remedy?

arnica 1

arnica2

If that isn’t a list of "named diseases", what is?   The code of ethics appears to be a total sham.

And of course never forget that the “arnica” doesn’t contain any arnica anyway. And if you don’t believe that you can read the words of Kate Chatfield, module leader on thie very course, 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 by physicist A.P. Gaylard here.

 

Follow-up

The Daily Telegraph. January 8th 2009 Ian Douglas reported on this post: The workings of a BSc in homeopathy

The Lancashire Evening Post carried a big spread on January 15th, Professor seeks out the truth about ‘quackery’.

River’s Edge. News and thoughts from Preston, Lancashire reviewed the Lancashire Evening Post article on Saturday January 16th: Homeopathy at UCLAN, a degree in quackery.

The cost of trying to stop this material being revealed. UCLAN told me on 5 February 2010 that the legal costs alone were £80,307.94 (inc. VAT). That doesn’t include staff time and photocopying.   I’m not convinced that this was a good way to spend taxpayers’ money.

Can’t resist another bit of straight plagiarism. In this week’s Times Higher Education, the inimitable Laurie Taylor wrote this.

Rock around the clock

Professor Georgina Kunzite, the Head of our Department of Crystal Healing, has reacted strongly to the recent High Court ruling that the University of Central Lancashire must hand over teaching materials from its defunct homeopathy course to a campaigning sceptic.

Speaking to our reporter, Keith Ponting (30), she said she had no intention of acceding to any similar request for materials from her own oversubscribed course in crystal therapy. Such a move, she argued, risked undermining the power of the crystals, which were notoriously wary of attempts to question their curative validity.

She had initially been disconcerted by the court’s decision. “But since then I’ve taken to sleeping with a large lump of pink rhodochrosite crystal under my pillow. This does mildly disturb my partner, but it has certainly helped to rebalance my chakra.”

Well well, where could he have got that idea?

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

Decision

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

Back story for this case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Information Tribunal

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

Info tribunal

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

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

The outcome

The decision in full can be read here.

Decision

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

So we won.

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

Commercial interests

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

Public Interest

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

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

Hence, the decision notice says

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs

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

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

(i) qualified person

(ii) reasonable opinion

(iii) reasonably arrived at.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

63 Our decision is unanimous.

Signed David Farrar Q.C.

 

Watch this space to see what can now be revealed.

Follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The University of Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This response can be described only as truly pathetic.

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

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

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

The University of Kingston

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

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

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

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

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

(b) Mental Disease + Epilepsy Pulse feedback 21

(c) 18 Auricular Acupuncture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Napier University Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Gordon University Aberdeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are vice-chancellors thinking about?

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

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

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

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

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

Should teaching materials be open to the public?

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

I was told by the Univerity of Kingston that

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

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

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

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

What is actually taught

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow-up

This post has been translated into Belorussian..

Chinese medicine and herbal medicine are in the news at the moment.  There is a real risk that the government could endorse them by accepting the Pittilo report.

In my view traditional Chinese medicine endangers people.   The proposed ‘regulation’ would do nothing to protect the public.  Quite on the contrary, it would add to the dangers, by giving an official stamp of approval while doing nothing for safety.

The government’s idea of improving safety is to make sure that practitioners are ‘properly trained’.  But it is the qualifications that cause the danger in the first place.  The courses teach ideas that are plain wrong and often really dangerous. 

Why have government (and some universities) not noticed this?  That’s easy to see. Governments, quangos and university validation committees simply don’t look.  They tick boxes but never ask what actually goes on.  Here’s some examples of what goes on for them to think about. They show clearly the sort of dangerous rubbish that is taught on some of these ‘degrees’.

These particular slides are from the University of Westminster, but similar courses exist in only too many other places.  Watch this space for more details on courses at Edinburgh Napier University, Middlesex University and the University of East London

slide 1

Just a lot of old myths. Sheer gobbledygook,

slide 2

SO much for a couple of centuries of physiology,

slide 7

It gets worse.

slide 8

Plain wrong.

slide 21

Curious indeed.  The fantasy gobbledygook gets worse.

slide 16

Now it is getting utterly silly. Teaching students that the brain is made of marrow is not just absurd, but desperately dangerous for anyone unlucky (or stupid) enough to go to such a person when they are ill.

Here’s another herbal lecture., and this time the topic is serious. Cancer.

Herbal approaches for patients with cancer.

I’ve removed the name of the teacher to spare her the acute embarrassment of having these dangerous fantasies revealed.  The fact that she probably believes them is not a sufficient excuse for endangering the public. There is certainly no excuse for the university allowing this stuff to be taught as part of a BSc (Hons).

slide 1

First get them scared with some bad statistics.

slide 2

No fuss there about distinguishing incidence, age-standardisation and death rates. And no reference. Perhaps a reference to the simple explanation of statistics at Cancer Research UK might help? Perhaps this slide would have been better (from CDC). Seems there is some mistake in slide 2.

cance death rates

Straight on to a truly disgraceful statement in slide 3

slide 3

The is outrageous and very possibly illegal under the Cancer Act (1939).  It certainly poses a huge danger to patients.  It is a direct incentive to make illegal, and untrue claims by using weasel words in an attempt to stay just on the right side of the law. But that, of course, is standard practice in alternative medicine,

slide 11

Slide 11 is mostly meaningless. “Strengthen vitality” sounds good but means nothing. And “enhancing the immune system” is what alternative medicine folks always say when they can think of nothing else. Its meaning is ill-defined and there is no reason to think that any herbs do it.

The idea of a ‘tonic’ was actually quite common in real medicine in the 1950s. The term slowly vanished as it was realised that it was a figment of the imagination. In the fantasy world of alternative medicine, it lives on.

Detoxification, a marketing term not a medical one, has been extensively debunked quite recently.  The use of the word by The Prince of Wales’ company, Duchy Originals recently fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority, and his herbal ‘remedies’ were zapped by the MHRA (Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority).

And of course the antioxidant myth is a long-disproved hypothesis that has become a mere marketing term. 

 

slide 16

“Inhibits the recurrence of cancer”!   That sounds terrific. But if it is so good why is it not even mentioned in the two main resources for information about herbs?

In the UK we have the National Library for Health Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialist Library (NeLCAM), now a part of NHS Evidence.  It was launched in 2006.  The clinical lead was none other than Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, and the Queen’s homeopathic physician. The library was developed with the School of Integrated Health at the University of Westminster (where this particular slide was shown to undergraduates). Nobody could accuse these people of being hostile to magic medicine,

It seems odd, then, that NeLCAM does not seem to thnk to think that Centella asiatica, is even worth mentioning.

In the USA we have the National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), an organisation that is so friendly to alternative medicine that it has spent a billion dollars on research in the area, though it has produced not a single good treatment for that vast expenditure. But NCCAM too does not even mention Centella asiatica in its herb list. It does get a mention in Cochrane reviews but only as a cosmetic cream and as an unproven treatment for poor venous circulation in the legs.

slide 21

What on earth is a “lymph remedy”. Just another marketing term?

especially valuable in the treatment of breast, throat and uterus cancer.

That is a very dramatic claim. It as as though the hapless students were being tutored in doublespeak. What is meant by “especially valuable in the treatment of”? Clearly a desperate patient would interpret those words as meaning that there was at least a chance of a cure. That would be a wicked deception because there isn’t the slightest reason to think it works. Once again there this wondrous cure is not even mentioned in either NELCAM or NCCAM.  Phytolacca is mentioned, as Pokeweed, in Wikipedia but no claims are mentioned even there. And it isn’t mentioned in Cochrane reviews either. The dramatic claims are utterly unfounded.

slide 23

Ah the mistletoe story, again.

NHS Evidence (NeLCAM) lists three completed assessments. One concludes that more research is needed. Another concludes that “Rigorous trials of mistletoe extracts fail to demonstrate efficacy of this therapy”, and the third says “The evidence from RCTs to support the view that the application of mistletoe extracts has impact on survival or leads to an improved ability to fight cancer or to withstand anticancer treatments is weak”.

NCCAM says of mistletoe

  • More than 30 human studies using mistletoe to treat cancer have been done since the early 1960s, but major weaknesses in many of these have raised doubts about their findings (see Question 6).
  • Very few bad side effects have been reported from the use of mistletoe extract, though mistletoe plants and berries are poisonous to humans (see Question 7).
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved mistletoe as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition (see Question 8).
  • The FDA does not allow injectable mistletoe to be imported, sold, or used except for clinical research (see Question 8).

Cochrane reviews lists several reviews of mistletoe with similar conclusions. For example “The evidence from RCTs to support the view that the application of mistletoe extracts has impact on survival or leads to an improved ability to fight cancer or to withstand anticancer treatments is weak”.

Anthroposophy is one of the highest grades of fantasy you can find.  A post on that topic is in the works.

slide 25

Indicated for cancers  . . . colon/rectal, uterine, breast, lung“. A cure for lung cancer? That, of course, depends on how you interpret the weasel words “indicated for”. Even Wikipedia makes no mention of any claims that Thuja benefits cancer. NHS Evidence (NeLCAM) doesn’t mention Thuja for any indication. Neither does NCCAM. Nor Cochrane reviews. That is not the impression the hapless students of this BSc lecture were given.  In my view suggestions that you can cure lung cancer with this tree are just plain wicked.

slide 27

Pure snake oil, and not even spelled correctly, Harry Hoxsey’s treatment centres in the USA were closed by court order in the 1950s.

slide 28

At least this time it is stated that there is no hard evidence to support this brand of snake oil.

slide 30

More unfounded claims when it says “treated successfully many cancer patients”. No references and no data to support the claim.  It is utterly unfounded and claims to the contrary endanger the public.

slide 31

Gerson therapy is one of the most notorious and unpleasant of the quack cancer treatments. The Gerson Institute is on San Diego, but their clinics are in Mexico and Hungary. It is illegal in the USA. According to the American Cancer Society you get “a strict low-salt, low-fat, vegetarian diet and drinking juice from about twenty pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables each day. One glass of juice is consumed each hour, thirteen times a day. In addition, patients are given several coffee enemas each day. Various supplements, such as potassium, vitamin B12, pancreatic enzymes, thyroid hormone, and liver extracts, are used to stimulate organ function, particularly of the liver and thyroid.”. At one time you also got several glasses of raw calf liver every day but after infections killed several people] carrot juice was given instead.

Cancer Research UK says “there is no evidence to show that Gerson therapy works as a cure for cancer”, and “The Gerson diet can cause some very serious side effects.” Nobody (except perhaps the Price of Wales) has any belief in this unpleasant, toxic and expensive folk-lore.

Again patients are endangered by teaching this sort of stuff.

slide 36

And finally, the usual swipe at vaccines. It’s nothing to do with herbalism. but just about every alternative medicine advocate seems to subscribe to the anti-vaccination lobby.. It is almost as though they have an active preference for things that are known to be wrong. They seem to believe that medicine and science are part of an enormous conspiracy to kill everyone.

Perhaps this dangerous propaganda might have been ameliorated if the students had been shown this slide (from a talk by Melinda Wharton).

Wharton slide 2
Click to enlarge

Left to people like this, we would still have smallpox, diphtheria. tetanus and rabies,  Take a look at Vaccine-preventable diseases.

This is the sort of ‘education’ which the Pittilo report wants to make compulsory.

Baltimore smallpox, 1939
Smallpox in Baltimore, USA, 1939. This man was not vaccinated.

Conclusion

This selection of slides shows that much of the stuff taught in degrees in herbal medicine poses a real danger to public safety and to public health.

Pittilo’s idea that imposing this sort of miseducation will help safety is obviously and dangerously wrong. The Department of Health must reject the Pittilo recommendations on those grounds.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

The much-delayed public consultation on the Pittilo report has just opened.

It is very important that as many people as possible respond to it.  It’s easy to say that the consultation is sham. It will be if it is left only to acupuncturists and Chinese medicine people to respond to it. Please write to them before the closing date, November 2nd 2009. The way to send your evidence is here.

There is a questionnaire that you can complete, with the usual leading questions.  Best do it anyway, but I’d suggest also sending written evidence as attachment too. I just got from DoH the email address where you can send it. They said

if you have material you wish to send which you can’t easily “shoehorn” into the questionnaire, please send it to the following mailbox:

HRDListening@dh.gsi.gov.uk


Here are three documents that I propose to submit in response to the consultation.I ‘d welcome criticisms that might make it more convincing. Use any parts of them you want in your own response.

  • Submission to the Department of Health, for the consultation on the Pittilo report [download pdf].
  • What is taught in degrees in herbal and traditional Chinese medicine? [download pdf]
  • $2.5B Spent, No Alternative Med Cures [download pdf]
I’ve written quite a lot about the Pittilo report already, in particular A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor, and in The Times (see also the blog version).

Intriguingly, these posts are at number 2 in a Google search for “Michael Pittilo”.

Pittilo

Briefly, the back story is this.

It is now over a year since the Report to Ministers from “The Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Other Traditional Medicine Systems Practised in the UK” [download the report].

The chair of the steering group was Professor R. Michael Pittilo, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. The reason thet the report is so disastrously bad in its assessment of evidence is that it was written entirely by people with vested interests.

The committee consisted of five acupuncturists, five herbalists and five representatives of traditional Chinese medicine (plus eleven observers). There was not a single scientist or statistician to help in the assessment of evidence. And it shows: The assessment of the evidence in the report was execrable. Every one of the committee members would have found themselves out of work if they had come to any conclusion other than that their treatment works, Disgracefully, these interests were not declared in the report, though they are not hard to find. The university of which the chair is vice-chancellor runs a course in homeopathy, the most discredited of the popular forms of alternative medicine. That tells you all you need to know about the critical faculties of Michael Pittilo.

The two main recommendations of this Pittilo report are that

  • Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine should be subject to statutory regulation by the Health Professions Council
  • Entry to the register normally be through a Bachelor degree with Honours

Let’s consider the virtue of these two recommendations.

Regulation by the Health Professions Council (HPC) breaks their own rules

For a start, this should be ruled out by the HPC’s own rules, which require “Practise based on evidence of efficacy” as a condition for registration. Since there is practically no “evidence of efficacy”, it follows that the HPC can’t regulate acupuncture, herbal and Chinese medicine as Pittilo recommends. Or so you’d think. But the official mind seems to have an infinite capacity for doublespeak. The HPC published a report on 11 September 2008, Regulation of Medical Herbalists, Acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners.

The report says

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

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

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

In other words, the HPC simply decided to ignore its own rules, Its excuse for doing so is that regulation would protect “public safety” . But it simply would not do that. It is ell known that some Chinese herbs are adulterated with dangerous substances, but laws against that already exist. Trading Standards are much more likely to take appropriate action than the HPC. The Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) already deals with the licensing of herbal medicines. and, despite the fact that it recently betrayed its trust by allowing them to be labelled in a misleading way, they are the people to do it, not the HPC.

The Pittilo report (page 11) says

In future, it is hoped that more Government funding can be allocated to research into traditional/herbal medicines and acupuncture and that grants will become available to encourage practitioners to undertake postgraduate research work.

So they are asking for more government money.

In March 2007, the Chinese Government pledged to spend over $130 million over the next five years on research into the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine. It is to be hoped that this money will be targeted effectively to evaluate TCM.

It seems to have escaped the notice of Pittilo that roughly 100 percent of trials of Chinese medicine done in China come out positive. Elsewhere, very few come out positive,(see Vickers et al., 1998, Controlled Clinical Trials, 19, 159-166: download reprint) The Department of Health would be unwise to rely on Chinese research. Remember that modern acupuncture was not so much a product of ancient wisdom, but rather it stems from nationalist propaganda by Mao Tse-Tung, who needed a cheap way to keep the peasants quiet, though he was too sensible to use it himself.

The HPC report (page 5) cites these with the words

” . . . a lack of evidence of efficacy should not prevent regulation but that the professions should be encouraged and funded to strengthen the evidence base.”

This sentence seems to assume that the outcomes of research will be to strengthen the evidence base. Thus far, precisely the opposite has been the case. The Pittilo group has apparently not noticed that the US National Institutes of Health has already spent a billion dollars on research in alternative medicine and failed to come up with a single effective treatment. There are better ways to spend money on health. See, for example $2.5B Spent, No Alternative Med Cures found. .An enornous amount of research has already been done and the outcomes have produced no good treatments,

The proposed regulation would endanger the public, not protect it.

The excuse given by the HPC for breaking its own rules is that it should do so to protect the public.

Likewise Ann Keen, Health Minister, said:

“Patient safety is paramount, whether people are accessing orthodox health service treatments or using alternative treatments”

So first we need to identify what dangers are posed by acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine.

  • Acupuncture is fairly safe. Its biggest danger lies in the unjustified claims that are routinely made for what can be achieved by being impaled by needles. This poses a danger that people may use acupuncture in place of treatments that work
  • Herbal medicines are unstandardised, so even the very few that may work are dangerous to patients because the dose of active principle is unknown and varies from one batch to another. Taking a herbal medicine is a bit like swallowing a random number of tablets, False health claims pose a danger to patients too, when they cause patients to avoid treatments that work.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine is probably the most dangerous. Like the other two, the medicines are unstandardised so the dose is never known. False health claims abound. And in addition to these dangers, many cases have been found of Chinese medicines being adulterated with poisonous substances or with conventional drugs.

The form of regulation proposed by Pittilo would do little or nothing to protect the public from any of these dangers.

The proposals accept the herbal and Chinese medicine as traditionally practised. Nothing would be done about one of the major dangers, the lack of standardisation. That is a problem that was solved by pharmacologists in the 1930s, when international standards were set for the biological activity of things like tincture of digitalis, and assays were devised so that different batches could be adjusted to the same potency. Now, 80 years later, it is being proposed by Pittilo that we should return to the standards of safety that existed at the beginning of the last century. That is a threat to public safety., but the proposed regulation would do nothing whatsoever to protect the public from this dangerous practice. On the contrary, it would give official government sanction to it.

The other major danger is that patients are deceived by false health claims. This is dangerous (as well as dishonest) because it can cause patients to avoid treatments that work better, The internet abounds with claims that herbs can cure anything from diabetes to cancer. Many are doubtless illegal, but regulators like the HPC have traditionally ignored such claims: they are left to Trading Standards, Advertising Standards and the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) to deal with. The MHRA already also has responsibility for monitoring side effects. The HPC would not do this.

The analogy with chiropractic and the GCC

The foolishness of allowing statutory regulation for unproven treatments has recently been illustrated quite dramatically by the case of chiropractic. Chiropractors have had statutory regulation by the General Chiropractic Council, which was established by the Chiropractors Act of 1994. The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) recently decided to sue the science writer, Simon Singh, for defamation when he cast doubt on some of the claims made by chiropractors, in particular their claims to be able to cure colic and asthma in children. That led to close examination of the claims. In fact there is no reason to think that spinal manipulation works for asthma, or that it works for colic. In fact there is quite good evidence that the claims are false. The result was that about 600 well-justified complaints have been lodged with the GCC (enough to bankrupt the GCC if the complaints are dealt with properly).

The point of this story is that the statutory regulator had nothing whatsoever to prevent these false health claims being made. Two of the complaints concern practices run by the chair of the GCC. Worse, the GCC actually endorsed such claims. The statutory regulator saw its duty to defend chiropractic (apart from a handful of cases of sexual misdemeanours), not to protect the patient from false health claims. The respectability conferred by statutory regulation made false health claims easier and endangered the public. It would be a disaster if the same mistake were made again.

On 11th December 2008 I got a letter form the HPC which said

in our opinion a lack of evidence of efficacy would not impede our ability to set standards or deal with complaints we receive. The vast majority of cases we consider are related to conduct.

But perhaps that is because they haven’t tried “regulating” quacks before. Now that the public is far more conscious about health fraud than it used to be, one can predict confidently that the HPC would be similarly overwhelmed by a deluge of complaints about the unjustified health claims made by acupuncturists, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. There is no shortage of them to complain about.

The education problem

The Pittilo report recommends that the entry level for registration should be a bachelors degree with honours. At first sight it seems reasonable to ask that practitioners should be ‘properly qualified’, but when one looks at what is actually taught on these degrees it becomes clear that they endanger, rather than protect, the public,

There are two very big problems with this recommendation.

Firstly, you can’t have a bachelors degree with honours until after you have decided whether or not there is anything useful to teach. If and when any of the subjects under consideration and shown to work to a useful extent, then it would be quite reasonable to establish degrees in them. Even the report does not pretend seriously that that stage has been reached. The proposal to set up degrees in subjects, at least some of which are quite likely to have no more than placebo value, is self-evidently nonsense,

The time for degrees, and the time for government endorsement by statutory regulation, is after the therapies have been shown to work, not before.

The absurdity of thinking that the public will be protected because a practitioner has a degree in, say, acupuncture, is shown with startling clarity by a recently revealed examination paper in acupuncture’

You can download the entire exam paper. Here are a few highlights from it.

Q1

So students, in 2009, are being taught the crudest form of vitalism.

Q5

Teaching of traditional Chinese medicine is just as bad. Here are two slides from a course run by the University of Westminster.

The first ‘explains’ the mysterious and entirly mythical “Qi”.

TCM slide 2

So “Qi” means breath, air, vapour, gas, energy, vitalism. This is meaningless nonsense.

The second slide shows the real dangers posed by the way Chinese medicine is taught, The symptoms listed at the top could easily be a clue to serious illness, yat students are taught to treat them with ginger. Degrees like this endanger the public.

TCM slide 1

There are more mind-boggling slides from lectures on Chinese medicine and cancer: they show that what students are being taught is terrifyingly dangerous to patients.

It is entirely unacceptable that students are being taught these ancient myths as though they were true, and being encouraged to treat sick people on their basis.  The effect of the Pittilo recommendations would be to force new generations of students to have this sort of thing forced on them.  In fact the course for which this exam was set has already closed its doors.  That is the right thing to do.

Here’s another example. The course leader for “BSc (Hons) Herbal Medicine” at the Univsrsity of Central Lancashire is Graeme Tobyn BA. But Tobyn is not only a herbalist but also an astrologer. In an interview he said

“At the end I asked her if I could cast her horoscope. She threw up her hands and said, ‘I knew this would happen if I came to an alternative practitioner.”

“I think the ruler of the ascendant was applying to Uranus in the ninth house, which was very pertinent.”

This would be preposterous even in the life style section of a downmarket women’s magazine,  The Pittilo report wants to make degrees run my people like this compulsory. Luckily the Univerity of Central Lancashire is much more sensible and the course is being closed.

The matter is, in any case, being taken out of the hands of the government by the fact that universities are closing degrees in complementary medicine, including courses in some of those under discussion here, The University of Salford and the University of Central Lancashire have recently announced the closure of all the degree programmes in complementary and alternative medicine. The largest provider of such degrees, the University of Westminster has already shut down two of them, and the rest are being assessed at the moment. It is likely that the rest will be closed in the future.

The revelation that Westminster had been teaching its first year students that “amethysts emit high yin energy” and that students had been taught to diagnose disease and choose treatments by means of a dowsing pendulum, showed very clearly the sort of utter nonsense that undergraduates were being forced to learn to get a ‘bachelors degree with honours’. It stretches credulity to its limits to imagine that the public is protected by degrees like this. Precisely the opposite is true. The universities have recognised this, and shut the degrees. One exception is Professor Pittilo’s own university which continues to run a course in homeopathy, the most discredited of all the popular types alternative medicine.

A simpler, more effective and cheaper way to protect the public

I must certainly agree with the minister that protection of the public is an important matter. Having established that the Pittllo recommendations are more likely to endanger the public than protect them, it is essential to suggest alternative proposals that would work better.

Luckily, that is easy, because mechanisms already exist for dealing with the dangers that were listed above. The matter of adulteration, which is serious in traditional Chinese medicine, is a matter that is already the responsibility of the Office of Trading Standards. The major problem of false claims being made for treatment is also the responsibility of the Office of Trading Standards, which has a statutory duty to enforce the Unfair Trading Consumer Protection Regulations of May 2008. These laws state, for example, 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”

The monitoring of false claims, and of side effects of treatments, is also the responsibility of the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA).

Rather than setting up complicated, expensive and ineffective ‘regulation’ by the HPC, all that need to be done is to ensure that the MHRA and/or Trading Standards have the funds to enforce existing laws. At the moment, they are not being implemented effectively, so I’d recommend that responsibility for enforcing the law against false health claims be transferred entirely to the MHRA, which has much more expertise in such matters than Trading Standards This would be both cheaper and more effective than the present system in which the responsibility is divided between the two organisations in an unclear way.

This proposal would protect the public against unsafe and adulterated treatments, and it would protect the public against false and fraudulent claims. That is what matters. It would do so more effectively,
more cheaply and more honestly than the Pittilo recommendations. There would be no reduction in patient choice either, There is no proposal to ban acupuncture, herbal medicine or traditional Chinese medicine. All that is necessary is to ensure that they don’t endanger the public.

Since the root of the problem lies in the fact that the evidence for the effectiveness is very weak. the question of efficacy, and cost-benefit ratio, should be referred to NICE. This was recommended by the House of Lords Report (2000). It is recommended again by the Smallwood report (sponsored by the Prince of Wales Foundation). It is baffling that this has not been done already. It does not seem wise to spend large amounts of money on new research at the moment, in the light of the fact that the US National Institutes of Health has already spent over $1 billion on such research without finding a single useful treatment.

The results of all this research has been to show that hardly any alternative treatment are effective. That cannot be ignored.

Conclusion

Recent events show that the halcyon days for alternative medicine are over. When the Pittilo report first appeared, it was greeted with derision in the media. For example, in The Times Alice Miles wrote

“This week came the publication of the Report to Ministers from the Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Other Traditional Medicine Systems Practised in the UK. Otherwise known as twaddle.”

In the Independent, Dominic Lawson wrote

So now we will have degrees in quackery.

What, really, is the difference between acupuncture and psychic surgery?

People will no doubt continue to use it and that is their right and their responsibility. But if the government were to accept the recommendations of the Pittilo report it would be seen, quite rightly, as being anti-scientific and of posing a danger to the public.

Fortunately there is a better, and cheaper, way to protect the public.

Follow-up

Margaret McCartney’s blog in the Financial Times puts rhw view of a GP with her usual sense, humour and incisiveness.

“This report would, if implemented, create lots more nonsense exam papers funded by a lot more public money – and would produce practitioners without the absolutely crucial skill of how to assess evidence and reject or use it appropriately”

The Times has covered the story (with some interesting comments) Consultation on how to regulate complementary and alternative therapies

Times Higher Education UK-wide consultation on CAM regulation is launched Excellent response from Andy Lewis.

The Sun has by far the best coverage up to now, Jane Symons writes “Regulating quacks helps them prey on gullible patients

Acupuncture has been in the news since, in a moment of madness, NICE gave it some credence,

Some people still seem to think that acupuncture is somehow more respectable than, say, homeopathy and crystal healing. If you think that, read Barker Bausell’s book ot Trick or Treatment. It is now absolutely clear that ‘real’ acupuncture is indistinguishable from sham, whether the sham control uses retractable needles, or real needles in the ‘wrong’ places. There has been no clear demonstration of long-lived benefits in any condition, and it is likely that it is no more than a theatrical placebo.

In particular, the indistinguishability of ‘real’ and sham acupuncture shows, beyond reasonable doubt that all the stuff about “energy flow in meridians” is so much hokum.

There is a small group of ‘medical acupuncturists‘ that believes that it is hokum. but who nonetheless maintain that acupuncture works, despite the evidence to the contrary. But most acupuncturists go for the wholesale gobbledygook.

If you don’t believe that, take a look at the exam paper that has come into my possession. It is this year’s exam from the University of Salford. Salford has, very sensibly, now decided to stop all its degrees in alternative medicine, so don’t hold this against the university too much.

You can download the entire exam paper. Here are a few highlights.

Q1

So students, in 2009, are being taught the crudest form of vitalism.

Q5

Oh really. Perhaps protons neutrons and electrons?

Q22

OK I’d fail that one because the words have no obvious meaning at all.

Q23

Perhaps an elementary textbook of embryology would help?

Q24

How one would love to see a set of model answers for these questions.

All this is ancient hokum being taugh to hapless students in the 21st century as though it were fact. The University of Salford has understood that and closed the course. All we need now is for NICE and the Department of Health to understand what it is that they are promoting.

NICE neglected the cultural cost of their guidance

When National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) included an acupuncture option on their low back pain guidance, they quite forget that one effect of their decision would be to ensure that new generations of students would have their minds poisoned with intellectual junk like this. That is why NICE really must think again. . See also
NICE falls for bait and switch by acupuncturists and chiropractors
NICE fiasco part 2 Rawlins should withdraw guidance and start again
NICE fiasco Part 3. Too many vested interests, not enough honesty

Pittilo and statutory regulation

Public consultation is due to open shortly on the appalling report of the Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Other Traditional Medicine Systems Practised in the UK (see also, The Times)

One of the recommendations is that acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine should have statutory regulation by the Health Professions Council (HPC), despite the fact that that would involve the HPC breaking its own rules. Another recommendation of Pittilo is that entry to the “profession” (his word, not mine) should be by means of honours degree only. So he wants to impose on students exams like this one in order to “protect the public”? The absurdity of that proposal should be obvious now. This exam paper will form part of my evidence to the consultation.

And there is one other small problem. Universities are busy shutting down their degrees in alternative medicine, now that the ridiculousness of what is taught has been exposed. They have shut down entirely at the University of Salford and at the University of Central Lancashire, And even the University of Westminster is working on closing them.

All we need now is for the common sense and integrity that has been shown by these universities to spread to the Department of Health (and NICE).

Follow-up

On 23rd May 2009, the Financial Times magazine published a six-page cover story about pseudo-scientific degrees by Richard Tomkins. The online version has the text but doesn’t do justice to the prominence that it was given. The print version had a much better title too, The Retreat from Reason. This article, which was some time in gestation, appeared shortly afte the last degree in homeopathy in the UK closed its doors. So perhaps it should have been called The Return of Reason. What’s interesting is that it has become commonplace for the mainstream newspapers to print articles like this and to dump some of their whackier lifestyle articles.

FT Magazine cover

The print version had a much better title too, The Retreat from Reason, with a two-page spread..

First 2 pages

They published the entire ‘Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine‘ as a sidebar on page 4.

sidebar, page 4

To these has now been added, inspired by Jack of Kent,

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

One part of the article that I particularly enjoyed is this.

George Lewith, professor of health research at the University of Southampton’s medical school, is also director of the Centre for Complementary and Integrated Medicine, a private practice with ­clinics in Southampton and London’s West End, so it is no surprise that he is ready to speak out in support of complementary therapies. In fact, Southampton University – a member of the elite Russell Group – does not offer degree courses in complementary medicine, but Lewith defends the idea of offering them in principle, on the basis that, done properly, they produce better-trained practitioners. “Without the new universities’ involvement we might be faced with the quackery we saw in the 1940s and 1950s, when these people were outside medicine and were practising in an alternative fringe culture,” he says.

Sorry George, you are still an “alternative fringe culture”. And universities are realising that, and shutting down courses all over the place.

A response in the Finacial Times

The FT published one response in its letter column, A bilious attack on complementary medicine.

“Sir, Like many journalists, Richard Tomkins has been over-impressed by the scientific credentials of Professors David Colquhoun and Edzard Ernst as they carry on their absurdly over-stated, arrogant and irresponsible campaign against complementary medicine (“The retreat of reason”, May 23)”

and then the trump card

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

That’s the line used by quacks again and again and again (see, for example, integrative baloney @ Yale). I guess they have never heard of type 1 and type 2 errors. But that is a bit technical for homeopaths, so put it more simply. There is a quite remarkable absence of evidence for tooth fairies. So they must exist. Get it?

The letter is from Allen Parrott of Yeovil. Could that be the Allen Parrott of the British Acupuncture Accreditation Board? If so he is “is an adult educationist who was Dean of Adult and Community Education at Yeovil College and a lecturer in the School of Education at Exeter University. As well as his work for the Board, he is currently working as an educational adviser for the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Deanery in the NHS.”. So no reason to worry about the standards of education in Yeovil, then.

On 24 July 2006, I sent a request to the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), under the Freedom of Information Act  (2000)   I asked to see the teaching materials that were used on their BSc Homeopathy course.  The request was refused, citing the exemption under section 43(2) of the Act (Commercial Interests). 

Two internal reviews were then held. These reviews upheld and the original refusal on the grounds of commercial interests, Section 43(3), and additionally claimed exemption under Section 21 “that is reasonably accessible to applicants by other means (upon the payment of a fee)….i.e. by enrolling on the course….”

In 21 October 2006 I appealed to the Office of the Information commisioner. (The”public authority” means UCLAN, and “the complainant” is me.)

“The complainant specifically asked the Commissioner to consider the application of section 43(2) to the course materials he had requested. The main thrust of his argument in this regard was that the public authority could not be considered a ‘commercial organisation’ for the purposes of the Act, and that the public authority had confused ‘commercial interests’ with ‘financial interests’. He however added that if the Commissioner decided section 43(2) was correctly engaged, then it was in the public interest to order disclosure.” 


In May 2008, my appeal got to the top of the pile, and on 30th March 2009 a judgement was delivered. In all respects but one trivial one, the appeal was upheld. In future universities will not be able to refuse requests for teaching materials.

The Decision Notice is on the web site of the Office of the Information Commissioner, [or download pdf file].

This whole thing has taken so long that the course at which it was aimed has already closed its doors last August (and blamed that, in part, on the problems caused by the Freedom of Information Act). UCLAN also announced a review of all its alternative medicine activities (and asked me to give evidence to it). That review is due to report its findings any time now.

Tha particular course that prompted the request is no longer the point.  What matters is that all the usual exemptions claimed by universities have been ruled invalid.  Here are a few details

What the decision notice says (the short version)

The full text of the Act is here.

The following three exemptions were judged NOT to apply the requests for university teaching materials.  I’ll quote some bits from the Decision Notice.

Section 21 provides that –

“Information which is reasonably accessible to the applicant otherwise than under section 1 is exempt information.”

34. The public authority’s argument suggests that the requested information is reasonably accessible to the complainant if he enrols as a student on the course, and is therefore not accessible to him by any other means outside the Act unless he decides to make a total payment of £9,345 as a combined payment of three years tuition fees.

40.   The Commissioner therefore finds that the public authority incorrectly applied the exemption contained at section 21 of the Act.


Section 42(2) provides that –

“Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).”

71.  The Commissioner therefore finds that the section 43(2) was incorrectly engaged by virtue of the fact that the public authority’s ability to recruit students is not a commercial interest within the contemplation of section 43(2).

76.   In addition to his finding on commercial interests the Commissioner finds that section 43(2) would in any case not be engaged as the likelihood of prejudice to the public authority’s ability to recruit students as a result of disclosure under the Act is no more than the likelihood of prejudice resulting from the availability of the course materials to students already enrolled on the course. 


Section 36(2)C provides that –

“Information to which this section applies is exempt information if, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act-

(c) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs

98. For the reasons set out above, the Commissioner finds that section 36(2)(c) is not engaged as he does not accept the opinion of the qualified person is an objectively reasonable one. He does not find that disclosure would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.


Section 41(1) provides that –

“Information is exempt information if-

(a) it was obtained by the public authority from any other person (including another public authority), and

(b) the disclosure of the information to the public (otherwise than under this Act) by the public authority holding it would constitute a breach of confidence actionable by that or any other person.”

56. The Commissioner therefore finds the public authority correctly applied the exemption contained at section 41 to the case studies listed in Annex A. In the Commissioner’s view, even though the patients would not be identifiable if the case studies were disclosed, this disclosure would still be actionable by the patients.


The Decision

99. The Commissioner finds that section 41 is engaged

100. He however finds that the exemptions at sections 21, 43(2), and 36(2)(c) are not engaged.

101. The Commissioner therefore finds the public authority in breach of;

• Sections 1(1)(b) and 10(1), because it failed to disclose the remainder of the course materials (i.e. excluding the case studies) to the complainant within 20 working days.

• Section 17(1), because it did not specify in its refusal notice that it was also relying on sections 41 and 36(2)(c).


Steps required

103. The Commissioner requires the public authority to take the following steps to ensure compliance with the Act:

• Disclose all the course materials for the BSc (Hons) in Homeopathy apart from the case studies listed in Annex A of this Notice.

104. The public authority must take the steps required by this notice within 35 calendar days of the date of this notice.


Follow-up