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UUK – DC's Improbable Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An article in Times Higher Education pointed out

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

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

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

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

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

That is hardly a response that suggests high academic integrity.

The students’ petition is on Change.org.

Follow-up

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

10 June 2014

Progress on the cull, according to an anonymous correspondent

“The omnishambles that is KCL management

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

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

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

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

18 June 2014

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

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

14 July 2014

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

Download the report from Standard and Poor’s Rating Service

A few things stand out.

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

One can infer from this that

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

What on earth is going on?

16 July 2014

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

10 April 2015

King’s draft performance management plan for 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of the sillier bits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later we read

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

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

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

Then

"Carrying out high quality scientific work requires research teams"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feel ashamed.

Jump to follow-up

Since writing about anti-scientific degrees in Nature (March 2007), much has been revealed about the nonsense that is taught on these degrees. New Year’s day seems like a good time to assess how far we’ve got, five years on.

At the beginning of 2007 UCAS (the universities central admission service) offered 45 different BSc degrees in quackery, at 16 universities.

Now there are only 24 such degrees.

If you exclude chiropractic and osteopathy, which all run at private colleges, with some sort of "validation" from a university, there are now only 18 BSc/MSc courses being offered in eight universities.

Degrees in homeopathy, naturopathy and "nutritional therapy", reflexology and aromatherapy have vanished altogether from UCAS.

In the race to provide BScs in anti-science, Middlesex University has now overhauled the long-standing leader, Westminster, by a short head.

driscoll
Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex

Petts
Geoffrey Petts, vice-chancellor of Westminster

Let’s see what’s gone.

The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) was the first to see sense. In August 2008 they announced closure of their “BSc” degree in homeopathy. On September 2008 they announced an internal review of their courses in homeopathy. herbalism and acupuncture. The report of this review closed down all of them in July 2009. I first asked for their teaching materials in July 2006. I finally got them in December 2010, after winning an appeal to the Information Commissioner, and then winning an appeal against that decision at an Information tribunal . By the time I got them, the course had been closed for over two years. That is just as well, because it turned out that UCLAN’s students were being taught dangerous nonsense. No wonder they tried so hard to conceal it.

Salford University was the next to go. They shut down their courses in complementary medicine, homeopathy and acupuncture. In January 2009 they announced " they are no longer considered “a sound academic fit” ". Shortly afterwards. a letter appeared in The Times from three heavyweights (plus me) congratulating the vice-chancellor on his decision.

University of Westminster

For many years, Westminster was the biggest supplier of BSc degrees in quackery. At the beginning of 2007 they offered 14 different BSc degrees in homeopathy, naturopathy, nutritional therapy, "complementary therapies", (western) herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine with acupuncture. Some of their courses were so bizarre that some of the students and even staff sent me slides which taught things like "amethysts emit high Yin energy". Like UCLAN, Westminster also held an internal review. Unlike UCLAN it came to the absurd conclusion that all would be well if they injected more science into the courses. The incompetence of the review meant that those who wrote it hadn’t noticed that if you try to put science into homeopathy or naturopathy, the whole subject vanishes in a puff of smoke. Nevertheless Westminster closed down entry to BSc homeopathy in March 2009 (though the subject remained as part of other courses).

Three years after the Nature article, all five BSc homeopathy degrees had shut their doors.

During 2011, Westminster shut down Naturopathy, Nutritional therapy, Therapeutic bodywork and Complementary Medicine. See, for example,
More dangerous nonsense from the University of Westminster: when will Professor Geoffrey Petts do something about it?

Professor Geoffrey Petts of the University of Westminster says they “are not teaching pseudo-science”. The facts show this is not true

University of Westminster shuts down naturopathy, nutritional therapy, but keeps Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine

Now Westminster has only four courses in two subjects. They still teach some dangerous and untrue things, but I suspect the writing is on the wall for these too.

I have seen a document, dated 11 April 2011, which states

“The following courses have been identified as ‘at risk’ (School definition) and will be discussed at the APRG and University Review Group2, due to poor recruitment and high cost of delivery:
 Integrated Health Scheme: BSc Complementary Medicine, Naturopathy; BSc Chinese Medicine; BSc Nutritional Therapy; BSc Herbal Medicine”

All but Chinese medicine and Herbal medicine have already gone. Almost there.

University of Wales

Since my first post in 2008 about the validation scam operated by the University of Wales, and some good investigations by BBC Wales TV, the outcome was the most spectacular so far. The entire institution collapsed. They no longer "validate" external degrees at dodgy business colleges, loony religious colleges or magic medicine colleges.

Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy (October 2008) This is a ‘degree’ in nutrtional therapy. It is even more hilarious than usual, but it passed the validation anyway.

Scandal of the University of Wales and the Quality Assurance Agency (November 2010). This post followed the BBC Wales TV programme. At last the QAA began to notice, yet further confirmation of its utter ineptitude.

The University of Wales disgraced (but its vice chancellor is promoted) (October, 2011) The eventual collapse of the university was well-deserved. But it is very weird that the people who were responsible for it have still got their jobs. In fact the vice-chancellor, Marc Clement, was promoted despite his mendacious claim to be unaware of what was going on.

It remains to be seen how many of the many quack courses that were validated by the University of Wales will be taken on by other universities. The McTimoney College of Chiropractic is owned by BPP University (so much for their quality control, as explained in Private Eye). but still claims to be validated by Wales until 2017.

Some of the more minor players

Edinburgh Napier University. After an FOI request (rejected), Napier closed their herbal medicine degree in 2010.

Hot and cold herbal nonsense from Napier University Edinburgh: another course shuts. (June 2010)

As expected, the Scottish Information Commissioner agreed with that for England and Wales and ordered material to be sent. Edinburgh Napier University teaches reflexology, aromatherapy and therapeutic touch. Scottish Information Commissioner says you should know. Some of the horrors so discovered appeared in Yet more dangerous nonsense inflicted on students by Edinburgh Napier University. The embarrassment seems to have worked. Their remaining degrees in aromatherapy and reflexology have now vanished from UCAS too. All that remains is a couple of part time “Certificates of Credit” for aromatherapy and reflexology

Anglia Ruskin Univerity Not only have BSc degrees gone in aromatherapy and reflexology, but their midwifery degree now states "We are unable to accept qualifications in aromatherapy, massage and reflexology."

University of Derby Reflexology and aromatherapy have gone, though doubtless Spa management therapies have much nonsense left

University of Greenwich. BSc in Complementary Therapies (Nutritional Health) and BSc in Complementary Therapies (Nutritional Health) have been shut. The BSc Acupuncture is listed on their web site but it is under review, and is not listed in UCAS for 2012. (Acupuncture is run at International College of Oriental medicine, validated by Greenwich.). Only osteopathy (MOst) is still running, and that is a validation of an external course run at The European School of Osteopathy, in Maidstone

Thames Valley University was renamed the University of West London in 2010. The nonsense that was run there (e.g. Nutritional Fairy Tales from Thames Valley University) seems to have vanished. Their previous alt med guru, Nicola Robinson, appears now to be at London South Bank University (ranked 116 out of the 116 UK universities)

What’s left?

Chiropractic Surprisingly, given the total discreditation of chiropractic in the wake of the Simon Singh affair, and the internecine warfare that followed it, none of the chiropractic courses have shut yet. Some are clearly in trouble, so watch this space.

Osteopathy has also had no course closures since 2007. Like chiropractic it also suffers from internecine warfare. The General Osteopathic Council refuses to disown the utter nonsense of "craniosacral" osteopathy. But the more sensible practitioners do so and are roughly as effective as physiotherapists (though there are real doubts about how effective that is).

Excluding chiropractic and osteopathy, this is all that’s left. It now consists almost entirely of Chinese medicine and a bit of herbal.

Glyndwr university (Known as North East Wales Institute until 2008)   Ranked 104 out of 116 UK universities

BSc Acupuncture (B341) BSc
BSc Complementary Therapies for Healthcare (B343)

Cardiff Metropolitan University (UWIC) (Known as University of Wales Institute Cardiff (UWIC) until Nov 2011.)   The vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan, Antony Chapman, is in the QAA’s board of directors, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that the QAA has done nothing.

BSc Complementary Therapies (3 years) (B390)
BSc Complementary Therapies (4 yrs inc Foundation) (B300)

University of Lincoln

Acupuncture (B343) 3FT Hon BSc
Herbal Medicine (B342) 3FT Hon BSc

University of East London   Ranked 113 out of 116 UK universities

Acupuncture (B343) 3FT Hon BSc

London South Bank University   Ranked 116 out of 116 UK universities

Acupuncture (B343) 4FT Deg MCM

The Manchester Metropolitan University   Ranked 93 out of 116 UK universities

Acupuncture (B343) 3FT Hon BSc

Middlesex University

Acupuncture (B348) 3FT Hon BSc
Ayurvedic Medicine (A900) 4FT Oth MCM
Herbal Medicine (B347) 3FT Hon BSc
Traditional Chinese Medicine (BT31) 4FT Hon BSc

University of Westminster

Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture (B343) 3FT Hon BSc
Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture with Foundation (B341) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci
Herbal Medicine (B342) 3FT Hon BSc
Herbal Medicine with Foundation Year (B340) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci

It seems that acupuncture hangs on in universities that are right at the bottom of the rankings.

Manchester Metropolitan gets the booby prize for actually starting a new course, just as all around are closing theirs. Dr Peter Banister, who was on the committee that approved the course (but now retired), has told me ” I am sceptical in the current economic climate whether it will prove to be successful”. Let’s hope he’s right.

But well done Westminster. Your position as the leader in antiscientific degrees has now been claimed by Middlesex University. Their "degrees" in Ayurveda mark out Middlesex University as the new King of Woo.

Over to you, Professor Driscoll. As vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, the buck stops with you.

Both still teach Chinese and herbal medicine, which are potentially dangerous. There is not a single product from either that has marketing authorisation from the MHRA, though the MHRA has betrayed its trust by allowing misleading labelling of herbal medicines without requiring any evidence whatsoever that they work, see, for example

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients
More quackedemia. Dangerous Chinese medicine taught at Middlesex University
Why does the MHRA refuse to label herbal products honestly? Kent Woods and Richard Woodfield tell me

Sub-degree courses

In contrast to the large reduction in the number of BSc and MSc degrees, there has actually been an increase in two year foundation degrees and HND courses in complementary medicine, at places right near the bottom of the academic heap. The subject is sinking to the bottom. With luck it will vanish entirely from universities before too long.

Research-intensive Universities

Although all of the degrees in magic medicine are from post-1992 universities, the subject has crept into more prestigious universities. Of these, the University of Southampton is perhaps the worst, because of the presence of George Lewith, and his defender, Stephen Holgate. Others have staunch defenders of quackery, including the University of Warwick, University of Edinburgh and St Batholomew’s.

Why have all these courses closed?

One reason is certainly the embarrassment caused by exposure of what’s taught on the courses. Professors Petts (Westminster) and Driscoll (Middlesex) must be aware that googling their names produces references to this and other skeptical blogs on the front page. Thanks to some plain brown emails, and, after a three year battle, the Freedom of Information Act, it has been possible to show here the nonsense that has been foisted on students by some universities. Not only is this a burden on the taxpayer, but, more importantly, some of it is a danger to patients.

When a course closes, it is often said that it is because of falling student numbers (though UCLAN and Salford did not use that excuse). Insofar as that is true, the credit must go to the whole of the skeptical movement that has grown so remarkably in the last few years. Ben Goldacre’s "ragged band of bloggers" have produced a real change in universities and in society as a whole.

The people who should have done the job have either been passive or an active hindrance. The list is long. Vice-chancellors and Universities UK (UUK), the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the Hiigher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE), Skills for Health, the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority ( MHRA) , the Health Professions Council (HPC), the Department of Health, the Prince of Wales and his reincarnated propaganda organisation, the "College of Medicine", the King’s Fund, the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), OfQual, Edexcel, National Occupational Standards and Qualifications and the Curriculum Authority (QCA).

Whatever happened to that "bonfire of the quangos"?

Follow-up

2 January 2012 The McTimoney College of Chiropractic (owned by BPP University) claims that its “validation” by the University of Wales will continue until 2017. This contradicts the statement from UoW. Watch this space.

3 January 2012. Thanks to Neil O’Connell for drawing my attention to a paper in Pain. The paper is particularly interesting because it comes from the Southampton group which has previously been sympathetic to acupuncture. Its authors include George Lewith. It shows, yet again that there is no detectable difference between real and sham acupuncture treatment. It also shows that the empathy of the practitioner has little effect: in fact the stern authoritarian practitioner may have been more effective.

Patients receiving acupuncture demonstrated clinically important improvements from baseline (i.e., a 29.5% reduction in pain), but despite this, acupuncture has no specific efficacy over placebo for this group of patients. The clinical effect of acupuncture treatment and associated controls is not related to the use of an acupuncture needle, nor mediated by empathy, but is practitioner related and may be linked to the perceived authority of the practitioner.”

Sadly. the trial didn’t include a no-treatment group, so it is impossible to say how much of the improvement is regression to the mean and how much is a placebo effect. The authors admit that it could be mostly the former.

Surely now the misplaced confidence in acupuncture shown by some medical and university people must be in tatters.

In yet another sign that even acupuncture advovates are beginning to notice that it doesn’t work, a recent article Paradoxes in Acupuncture Research: Strategies for Moving Forward, shows some fascinating squirming.

3 January 2012.  The Daily Telegraph has carried a piece about closure of university courses, written by Michael Hanlon. On 31 January they carried a much longer piece.

3 January 2012.  It is a great pity that some physiotherapists seem to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the myths of acupuncture. Physiotherapists are, by and large, the respectable face of manipulative therapy. Their evidence base is certainly not all one would wish, but at least they are free of the outrageous mumbo humbo of chiropractors. Well, most of them are, but not the Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists (AACP), or, still worse, The Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Energy Medicine, a group that is truly away with the fairies. These organisations are bringing a very respectable job into disrepute. And the Health Professions Council, which is meant to be their regulator, has, like most regulators, done nothing whatsoever to stop it.

5 January 2012. Times Higher Education gives a history of the demise of the University of Wales, Boom or Bust. It’s a useful timeline, but like so many journalists, it’s unwilling to admit that bloggers were on to the problem long before the BBC, never mind the QAA.

There was also a leader on the same topic, Perils of the export business. It again fails to take the QAA to task for its failures.

Interviews for Deutsche Welle and Middle East Broadcasting Center TV.

17 January 2012 Another question answered. I just learned that the ludicrous course in Nutritional Therapy, previously validated by the University of Wales (and a contributor to its downfall), is now being validated by, yes, you guessed, Middlesex University. Professor Driscoll seems determined to lead his univerity to the bottom of the academic heap. His new partnership with the Northern college of Acupuncture is just one of a long list of validations that almost rivals that of the late University of Wales. The course has, of course, an enthusiastic testimonial, from a student. It starts

I work full time as a team leader for a pension company but I am also a kinesiologist and work in my spare time doing kinesiology, reiki and Indian head massage.

Evidently she’s a believer in the barmiest and totally disproved forms of magic medicine. And Middlesex University will give her a Master of Science degree. I have to say I find it worrying that she’s a team leader for a pension company. Does she also believe in the value of worthless derivatives. I wonder?

18 January 2012. the story has gone international, with an interview that I did for Deutsche Welle, UK universities drop alternative medicine degree programs. I’m quoted as saying “They’re dishonest, they teach things that aren’t true, and things that are dangerous to patients in some cases”. That seems fair enough.

There is also an interesting item from July 2010 about pressure to drop payment for homeopathy by German health insurance

31 January 2012

The Daily Telegraph carried a prominent 1200 word account (the title wasn’t mine). The published version was edited slightly.

telegraph 31 Jan

Times Higher Education published today a version of an earlier post on this blog, Why should a postman pay for your university education?.

Although the submtted version was within length, it got shortened and, worse, a bit garbled in places. I got no chance to check the final version. The penultimate paragraph was not written by me. So here, for the record, is what I sent them.

.We hear a lot about lifelong education, and a good thing too. But we have a government that seems to think socially-useful learning does end at 18. This age is a watershed in official attitudes to education particularly in two areas, religious discrimination and education as a public good.

In 1871 the Universities Tests Act made it illegal for a university to discriminate among applicants on the basis of religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and forced Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham to follow in the footsteps of UCL.  For the last 140 years it has been unimaginable that any university would allow religious discrimination.  In stark contrast, in 2010, religious discrimination (and the accompanying social discrimination) in entry to primary and secondary schools is not only legal, but is actively encouraged by the government. It was a trend that got worse while the ‘reverend’ Tony Blair was prime minister. The minister of education under the new conservative regime promised even more religious schools.  Why the rules should be diametrically opposite when you are under 18 from when you are over 18 is baffling.

It is equally baffling (and perhaps a partial explanation) that universities are not regarded as part of education at all by this government and its immediate predecessors. Universities are governed by the Department of Business, not the Department of Education. Education is not regarded as a continuum, or as a life-long project: it’s something you do at school.

The government has managed the remarkable feat of devising a system for universities in which everybody loses.  It saves the taxpayer little or no money (according to HEPI). It leaves universities worse off.  And it does both of these while tripling the debt incurred by students.  It’s hard to believe that such monumental ineptitude has motives that are other than ideological.  The virtual privatisation of post-18 teaching, particularly of humanities, was a step too far even for Margaret Thatcher.

The only too brief debate on these changes focussed almost entirely on how to repay an enormous debt.  That was the wrong starting point.  The first thing that should have been decided was what sort of university system we want. It is arguable that the honours degree system is quite unsuited to an age when half the population get higher education. A general first degree, at a teaching-only institution, would be much cheaper, and it would be a social leveller.  If that were followed, for those who wanted and merited it, by a properly taught graduate school (as opposed to the present powerpoint-teaching charades), and this was taught by active researchers at research intensive places, the standard of education would be increased.  There might be some problems with such a system, but they were not even discussed before rushing the changes through.

The organisation that should have been at the forefront of fresh thinking, UUK, was paralysed as the elite VCs, all in favour of maximum fees, wrangled with the post-1992 VCs who saw themselves at greater risk. The result was total inaction. They may have been on leadership courses, but they failed to lead.  The elite VCs are now finding that even £9000 will leave them worse off than before.  They really should have thought a bit more about how to adapt to tertiary education for half the population rather than trying to fund things as they are at the moment.

Whatever the system, the question will always arise: why should a postman pay for your university education?  My answer is that they should pay, but not very much. They should pay because, although they may not get any direct benefit themselves, their children certainly may. The fairest, most progressive, tax is income tax. If you are a postman, or indeed a graduate, on a low income, you shouldn’t pay much tax, so you won’t pay much for other people’s university education.

I can see no reason for the sudden change in attitude to, and funding of, education that happens when you reach 18.

I see every reason why kids should be angry. I doubt that we have seen the last of the riots.

I hope not anyway.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

The validation process

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


Panel of Assessors:

Professor Nigel Palastanga (Chair), Cardiff University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nutrition course

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nutrition Tutors:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

or the deeply bizarre like this

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

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

and later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow-up

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

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

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


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

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

Pharmacology. A Handbook for Complementary Healthcare Professionals

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

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

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

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

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




Tell a Friend

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Today is a good day for anyone who deplores dangerous confidence tricksters. In particular it is a good day for Ben Goldacre, and for the Guardian which defended him at potentially enormous expense.

Matthias Rath, the Dutch (or is it German) vitamin salesman has dropped his libel action against the  Guardian. He is the man who is, without doubt, responsible for many deaths form AIDS in Africa, as a result of peddling vitamin pills as cures.  The action was taken after Goldacre said, in the Guardian, that Rath  aggressively sells his message to Aids victims in South Africa that Rath vitamin pills are better than medication”.

Here is some of what has appeared already today

Fall of the doctor who said his vitamins would cure Aids – from The Guardian, with a video of the villain.

Goldacre’s Badscience blog article on his victory .

Leader from The Guardian .

Profile of Zackie Achmat – from The Guardian, Mr Achmat is the founder of the Treatment Action Campaign , instrumental in exposing Rath.

Extract from witness statements from the defence in the trial .

And a lot of publicity from Gimpyblog (“Ben Goldacre and The Guardian triumph over murderous Matthias Rath”), Holfordwatch , Quackometer and jdc325 blogs.

Then more in the Guardian the next day, Chris McGreal investigates the Rath Foundation

Nutritional therapist?

Let’s be clear about what the words mean.  Nutritional therapists are not like dietitians, and they are not like nutritionists.  Nutritional therapists are solidly in the camp of alternative medicine practitioners,  Don’t
take my word for it. They say so themselves.

“For nutritional therapists (who practise Complementary and Alternative Medicine) optimum nutrition encompasses individual prescriptions for diet and lifestyle in order to alleviate or prevent ailments and to promote optimal gene expression through all life stages. Recommendations may include guidance on natural detoxification, procedures to promote colon health, methods to support digestion and absorption, the avoidance of toxins or allergens and the appropriate use of supplementary nutrients, including phytonutrients.”

They love to use imaginary words like “detoxification”, and, much more dangerously, they love to pretend that they can cure diseases by changes in diet. As long as you buy from them a stack of expensive “supplement” pills, of course. That means they are selling medicines, but by pretending they are selling food supplements they manage to evade the law that requires medicines to be safe and effective.  That will not be so easy under new legislation though, and we can look forward to a few prosecutions soon.

Guess who runs an “Honours BSc degree” in Nutritional Therapy. No prizes for realising it is the UK’s leading university purveyor of woo.

The University of Westminster

On their web site we learn that the Course Leader is Heather Rosa, and the Deputy Course Leader is Val Harvey.  Harvey qualified in the subject at the Institute  of Optimum Nutrition, the private college run by none other than the famous pill-peddler, Patrick Holford, about whom so very much has been written (try Holfordwatch, or the masterly chapter in Goldacre’s Bad Science)

We don’t know much about what is taught on the Nutritional Therapy course because the University of Westminster has refused repeated requests to say (but watch this space).. One can only assume that,  whatever it is, they are not very proud of it.  It seems a little unlikely that they will go as far as Matthias Rath and claim to cure AIDS -we’ll just have to wait and see.  Meanwhile we can get an inkling by looking elsewhere.

Course leader, Heather Rosa, pops up for example, on the expert panel of a web site called Supplements Compared.com. “Supplements Compared is designed to help you find the best dietary supplement product for your health needs.”   And what sort of advice do you find there?  Try the page that compares 10 brands of CoQ10 (that is the stuff I wrote about recently, in “Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 promotion” – their advertising was deemed improper by the ASA ).  It isn’t a recommended treatment for anything at all, but you certainly wouldn’t guess that from what is written by the ‘expert panel’.  The winners are, according to the ‘expert panel’, Boots’ CoQ10 and Holland and Barrett’s CoQ10.   Winners?   Perhaps the explanation for that comes elsewhere, under “How are we funded?”.   “Manufacturers who are awarded “best product” and “worth a look” are given the opportunity to promote this fact throughout the site for an additional fee.”. Well well.

Deputy Course leader, Val Harvey has her own web site and business (I do hope thar Westminster does not pay these people a full time salary too). What can we glean from there? It has the usual scare tactics “Why
you are at risk?
“. Never fear; buy enough vitamin pills and you’ll be saved.

Her home page makes some pretty drastic claims.

“Potential health benefits of your nutritional programme

An appropriate Nutritional Programme can benefit many conditions including:

Allergies

Arthritis

Asthma

Bloating, indigestion

Chronic degenerative diseases

Chronic fatigue, ME

Constipation, diarrhoea

Cystitis

Depression, mood swings

Digestive or bowel problems

Eczema, psoriasis, other skin problems

Food sensitivities

Frequent infections

Hormone imbalance
Hypertension or elevated cholesterol

Irritable bowel syndrome

Low energy

Menopausal symptoms

Migraines, headaches

Parasitic and fungal infections

Pre-conceptual issues

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)

Sinus congestion

Stress

Thrush

Weight problems

and many others ….



These are just some of the wide range of health problems that may be helped by nutritional therapy. Even those who consider themselves well and healthy may be able to enhance their physical and mental health, as well as their performance, including athletic performance, by improving their nutrition.”

There is, in my view, not the slightest bit of good evidence that swallowing vitamin pills can benefit most of these conditions.

But at least the list doesn’t contain AIDS, so is all this really relevant to the case of Matthias Rath?

Yes, I believe it is. The University of Westminster may well not support the views of Matthias Rath (they won’t say), but we have heard no choruses of protests about him from any nutritional therapists, as far as I’m aware. There is no mention of him at all on the web site of the British Association of Nutritional Therapists (BANT), the UK club for these people.  BANT, by the way, has a rather curious code of ethics. It allows its members to take undisclosed financial kickbacks for the pills they prescribe to patients. If doctors were caught doing that they’d be struck off the register.

It is the existence of degrees in subjects like “nutritional therapy” that gives the subject a spurious air of respectability which allows seriously dangerous people like Rath to flourish with very little criticism.  In an indirect way, the vice-chancellors who allow it to flourish (and Universities UK who do nothing about it) must bear some small part of the responsibility for the deaths of thousands of people from AIDS.

It is about time they did something about it.

Follow-up

ANH. The first reaction from the supplement-peddling industry comes from the Alliance for Natural Health on 16th September. It contains not one word of condemnation for Rath’s murderous activities. It’s hard to believe how low they will sink.

The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health remains totally silent about Rath. HRH’s concern for health seems to dry up if things don’t suit his views.

The British Association of Nutritional Therapists shows it’s total irresponsibility after a letter was sent to them to ask about their reaction. Their answer , on jdc325’s weblog was “The association has no opinion to offer on Dr Raths vitamin trials.”.


Jump to follow-up

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

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

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

Complementary and Alternative medicine. An illustrated text.

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

The authors of this book sound impressive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Trick or Treatment

by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, Bantam Press, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R. Barker Bausell, Oxford University Press, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are two quotations from Bausell that I love.

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

And even better,

[Page39] “But why should nonscientists care one iota about something as esoteric as causal inference? I believe that the answer to this question is because the making of causal inferences is part of our job description as Homo Sapiens.”


Testing Treatments: Better Research for Better Healthcare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Suckers. How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All

Rose Shapiro, Random House, London 2008

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

It was put well in the review by George Monbiot.

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

The chapters on osteopathy and chiropractic are particularly fascinating.

This passage describes the founder of the chiropractic religion.

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

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

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

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


Healing Hype or Harm

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

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

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

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

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

Follow-up

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

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

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

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

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


Jump to follow up

A report has appeared on Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine. The report is written by people all of whom have vested interests in spreading quackery. It shows an execrable ability to assess evidence, and it advocates degrees in antiscience It would fail any examination. Sorry, Prof Pittilo, but it’s gamma minus.[Download the report]

Alice Miles put it well in The Times, today.

“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.” . . .

“Regulate the practitioners – for safety, note, not for efficacy, as that is impossible to prove – and you give them official recognition. From recognition it is but a short hop to demand and then prescription: packet of Prozac, bit of yoga and a bag of dodgy herbs for you, sir.” . . .

“The Government responded on Monday – with a three-month consultation. So join in. Write to the Health Minister Ben Bradshaw at Richmond House, 79 Whitehall, SW1A 2NS. Write, on behalf of the NHS: “What I want for my 60th birthday is… the chance to provide medical, dental, and nursing care to all. And absolutely nothing else.”

Judging by Ben Bradshaw’s speech to the Prince’s Foundation, there may be a problem in conveying to him the evidence, but one can and must try.

Why is it that a health joutnalist can do so much better than a university head? Yes, the chair of the steering group is Professor R. Michael Pittilo BSc PhD CBiol FIBiol FIBMS FRSH FLS FRSA, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. Despite all those impressive-lookin initials after his name, I believe that this is a very bad report.

Here is something about Prof Pittilo from his university’s web site (the emphasis is mine).

Professor Michael Pittilo joined The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, as Principal and Vice-Chancellor on 5th September, 2005.

After postdoctoral research on arterial disease at the University of London, he was appointed to Kingston University where he became Head of Life Sciences. In 1995 he became Foundation Dean of the Faculty of Health and Social Care Sciences at Kingston University and St George’s Medical School (University of London). He was appointed Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Hertfordshire in 2001.

Professor Pittilo has held a number of additional roles, including chairing Department of Health working groups, and as a trustee for the Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Health.

Notice that Prof Pittilo is a Trustee of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, source of some of the least reliable information about alternative medicine to be found anywhere.

This steering group is, as so often, a nest of vested interests. It does not seem to have on it any regular medical or clinical scientist whatsoever. Why not? They just might produce some embarrassing facts perhaps? Like most government committees its members seem to have been chosen to produce the desired outcome.

For a start, the university run by Prof Pittilo, Robert Gordon’s University, is itself involved in a few antiscientific courses. Since his report recommends that degrees in quackery should become mandatory, I expect he’d welcome the chance to run more. Amazingly, Robert Gordon’s University runs an Introduction to Homeopathy, just about the daftest of all the common sorts of magic medicine.

Most of the the members of the steering group represent vested interests, though strangely this is not made clear in the list of members. An earlier report, in 2006, from the steering group was more open about this. Twelve of the members of the group represent Herbal Medicine, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture (four from each). Most of the rest are lay members or bureaucrats. With membership like that it is, I suppose, not surprising that the assessment of evidence is, to put it kindly, grossly distorted and woefully inadequate.

The report starts badly by failing to mention that the House of Lords report (2000), and the government’s response to it, set the following priorities. Both state clearly

“… we recommend that three important questions should be addressed in the following order . .

  • (1) does the treatment offer therapeutic benefits greater than placebo?
  • (2) is the treatment safe?
  • (3) how does it compare, in medical outcome and cost-effectiveness, with other forms of treatment?

The word ‘placebo’ does not occur a single time in the main report (and only twice in the text of the seven appendices). But they do say (page 11):

“We recommend that public funding from the NHS should be used to fund CAM therapies where there is evidence of efficacy, safety and quality assurance.”

The evidence

The problem is that the assessment of the evidence for efficacy in the report is pathetically poor. The report, sad to say, consists essentially of 161 pages of special pleading by the alternative medicine industry, served up with the usual large dose of HR gobbledygook.

There is really no excuse for this utterly incompetent assessment. There have been plenty of books this year alone that make excellent summaries of the evidence, mostly written for the lay public. They should, therefore, be understandable by any university vice-chancellor (president). The one benefit of the upsurge in public interest in magic medicine is that there are now quite a lot of good clinical trials, and when the trials are done properly, they mostly confirm what we thought before: in most cases the effects are no more than placebo.

Here is one example. Annexe1 concerns “Developing Research and Providing an Evidence Base for Acupuncture and Herbal/Traditional Medicine Treatment”. The wording of the title itself suggests, rightly, that this evidence base does not exist, in which case why on earth are we talking about them as “professions”? The discussion of the evidence in Annexe 1 is nothing if not partial. But what do you expect if you ask herbalists to assess herbal medicine? An honest assessment would put them out of business. The eternal mantra of the alternative industry appears as usual, “Absence of evidence is, of course, not evidence of absence”. True of course, but utterly irrelevant. Annexe 1 says

“Acupuncture is a complex intervention and lack of a suitable placebo control has hindered efforts to evaluate efficacy”

This is simply untrue, In recent years enormous efforts have been put into devising controls for assessment of acupuncture, but they are entirely ignored here. One thing that has been established quite clearly is that it makes no difference where you put the needles, so all the talk of Qi and meridians is obvious mumbo-jumbo.

Have the authors of Annexe 1, and Professor Pittilo, not read the relevant studies? Two books this year have dealt with the question of evidence with great care. They are both by people who have been involved personally with acupuncture research, Prof Edzard Ernst and Dr Barker Bausell. Edzard Ernst is the UK’s first Professor of Complementary Medicine. Barker Bausell was research director of an NIH-funded Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialized Research Center at the University of Maryland.

Singh and Ernst discuss thoroughly the question of controls and assess all the evidence carefully. Their conclusions include the following.

  • The traditional principles of acupuncture are deeply flawed, as there is no evidence at all to demonstrate the existence of Ch’i [Qi] or meridians.
  • By focussing on the increasing number of high-quality research papers, reliable conclusions from systematic reviews make it clear that acupuncture does not work for a whole range of conditions, except as a placebo.
  • In short, the evidence is neither consistent nor convincing. It is borderline.

Barker Bausell was himself involved in designing and analysing trialsof acupuncture. His conclusions are even less positive.

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

These are serious authors with direct experience in CAM research, which is more than can be said of anyone on the steering group. Why are their conclusions ignored entirely? That is sheer incompetence.

Degrees in anti-science

One conclusion of the report is that

“The threshold entry route to the register will normally be through a Bachelor degree with Honours”

This is utter nonsense. It is quite obvious surely that you can’t award honours degrees until after you have the evidence. You can read on page 55 of the report

3a: Registrant acupuncturists must:

understand the following aspects and concepts for traditional East-Asian acupuncture:

– yin/yang, /5 elements/phases, eight principles, cyclical rhythms, qi ,blood and body fluids, different levels of qi, pathogenic factors, 12 zang fu and 6 extraordinary fu, jing luo/ meridians, the major acupuncture points, East-Asian medicine disease categorisation, the three burners, the 4 stages/levels and 6 divisions

– causes of disharmony/disease causation

– the four traditional diagnostic methods: questioning, palpation, listening and observing”

This is utter baloney. Anyone who advocates giving honours degrees in such nonsense deserves to be fired for bringing his university into disrepute (and, in the process, bringing all universities and science itself into disrepute).

That includes also degrees that teach that “amethysts emit high yin energy“.

So what should be done?

If making peole do degrees in mumbo-jumbo is not the answer, what is? Clearly it would be far too draconian to try to ban quackery (and it would only increase its popularity anyway).

The answer seems to me to be quite simple. All that needs to done is to enforce existing laws. It is already illegal to sell contaminated and poisonous goods to the public. It is already illegal to make fraudulent advertisemants and to sell goods that are not as described on the label.

The only problem is that the agencies that enforce these rules are toothless and that there are a lot of loopholes and exceptions that work in favour of quackery. I have tried myself to complain about mislabelling of homeopathic pills to the Office of Fair Trading on the grounds that are labelled Arnica 30C but contain no Arnica. They solemnly bought a bottle and sent it to an analyst and of course they found no arnica, But nothing happened, because an exception to the usual law applies to homeopathic pills.

The Advertising Standards Authority is good as far as it goes. They quickly told Boots Pharmacies to withdraw advertisements that claimed CoQ10 “increased vitality”. But they can exact no penalties and they can’t deal with lies that are told to you orally, or with anything at all on the web.

The Health Professions Council (HPC) says that one of the criteria for registering new professions is aspirant groups must “Practise based on evidence of efficacy”. If that were actually applied, none of this process would occur anyway. No doubt the HPC will fail to apply its own criteria. On past form, it can be expected to adopt a “fluid concept of evidence“.,

One more thing, New European legislation was described recently in the BMJ

“Consumers in the United Kingdom are to receive stronger legal safeguards against products that claim, without any identifiable scientific evidence, to provide physical and mental health benefits such as tackling obesity or depression.”

“The scope of the legislation is deliberately wide and is the biggest shake up in consumer law for decades. It targets any unfair selling to consumers by any business.”

Politicians seem to be immune to rational argument when it comes to quackery. But a few legal actions under these laws could bring the house of cards tumbling so fast that this gamma-minus report would become rapidly irrelevant. There will be no shortage of people to bring the actions. I can’t wait.

Follow up

Dominic Lawson, 24 June 2008. An excellent column appeared today in the Independent. Dominic Lawson writes about the Pittilo report: “So now we will have degrees in quackery. What, really, is the difference between acupuncture and psychic surgery?“. The reference to that well known conjuring trick, “psychic surgery” as a “profession”, revealed here, causes Lawson to say

“It makes it clear that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. For a start, how could Philip Hunt, previously director of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, possibly have thought that “psychic healing” constituted a “profession” – let alone one which would “develop its own system of voluntary self-regulation?”

“One can see how this might fit in with the Government’s “never mind the quality, feel the width” approach to university education. One can also see how established practitioners of such therapies might see this as a future source of income – how pleasant it might be to become Visiting Professor of Vibrational Medicine at the University of Westminster.

Thus garlanded with the laurels of academic pseudo-science, the newly professionalised practitioners of “alternative medicine” can look down on such riff-raff as the “psychic surgeons”

Once again I have to ask, how is it that we have to rely on journalists to prevent vice-chancellors eroding academic standards; indeed eroding simple common sense? I guess it is just another sign of the delusional thinking engendered by the culture of managerialism that grips universities.

Last year, Nature published a pretty forthright condemnation of the award of Bachelor of Science degrees in subjects that are not science: in fact positively anti-science. This topic has come up again in Times Higher Education (24 April 2008).

A league table shows that the largest number of anti-science courses is run by the University of Westminster [download paper version].



Vice chancellors have consistently refused to answer letters, from me, from the Times Higher Education or from the BBC, asking them to defend their practices.

The vice chancellors union, Universities UK, has simply refused to consider this very basic threat to academic standards.

It is particularly amazing that vice-chancellors continue to support courses in homeopathy when they have been condemned by no less a person than the head honcho of homeopathy in the UK, Dr Peter Fisher. He is clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and Homeopathic Physician to the Queen. Peter Fisher and I were interviewed on BBC London News after publication of the Nature article. At the end, Fisher was asked by the presenter, Riz Lateef, about whether homeopathy was a suitable subject for a science degree.[Watch the movie]

Riz Lateef (presenter): “Dr Fisher, could you ever see it
[homeopathy] as a science degree in the future?


Dr Peter Fisher:
“I would hope so. I wouldn’t deny that a lot of scientific research needs to be done, and I would hope that in the future it would have a scientific basis. I have to say that at the moment that basis isn’t comprehensive. To that extent I would agree with Professor Colquhoun.”


The one exception was a response, of sorts, that I got from Westminster University.

I can interpret this lack of response only as a sign of guilt on the part of the vice chancellors of the 16 or so universities who teach this stuff. That interpretation is reinforced by the refusal of two of them to release their teaching materials, despite requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Both the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Westminster have turned down appeals, and refused to hand over anything. The former case has been with the Information Commissioner for some time now, and if the ruling goes as a hope, the taxpayer may soon be able to see how their money is being spent.

But the wonderful thing about the electronic age is that it has become really quite difficult to keep secrets. Last year I managed to find an exam paper set by the University of Westminster in Homeopathic Materia Medica, and a question from that paper has already appeared in Nature.

I recently acquired copies of a course handbook. and of the powerpoint slides used for the lecture on ‘Vibrational Medicine’ by the University of Westminster. This appears to be from a course in Complementary Therapies, part of “Health Sciences: Complementary Therapies BSc Honours”, according to Westminster’s web site. A lot of people have access to this first year course material, so Westminster needn’t bother trying to guess how I got hold of this interesting material

In the public interest, here are a few quotations. Taxpayers should know how their money is being spent.

According to the handbook

“Complementary Therapies is a core module for the Therapeutic Bodywork, Herbal Medicine, Homœopathy, Nutritional Therapy and Complementary Therapies courses. Therefore all students of these degree courses are required to take this module.”

The University of Central Lancashire also has “Vitalistic Medicine” as part of its BSc Homeopathy (but, like Westminster, has some excellent people too).

There is a rather good Wikipedia entry on Vitalism, a topic that is now largely the preserve of cranks.

The handbook is wonderful. The word ‘evidence’. in the context of ‘does it work?’, does not occur a single time. There is plenty of the usual edu-bollocks jargon that is so beloved by bureaucrats, but not the slightest hint of critical thinking about assessment of the ‘therapies’.

The course seems to be a romp through almost every form of battiness known to humankind. Not just homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine and nutritional therapy, but also dowsing, crystal healing and other forms of advanced delusional thinking. Before somebody grumbles, let me emphasise that ‘nutrition’ is to be distinguished from ‘nutritional therapy’: the latter involves imaginative claims that buying expensive supplements can prevent or cure almost anything. There’s a lot more about that here, and here.

Here are just 5 days from the timetable.

9am-1.00pm : Homœopathy (group work and video)
9am-1.00pm : Traditional Chinese Medicine
9am-10.45pm : BODYWORK THERAPIES
11.15-1.00pm : Nutritional Therapy
9am-1.00pm : Vibrational Medicine/Energy Concepts (L&P)



All this can be yours -at a cost.
Full-time UK/EU fee – £3,145
Full-time Overseas fee – £9,450

The slides for the last of these lectures show some of the most glorious examples of the abuse of sciencey-sounding words that I’ve seen in a while.


Sigh. All this is sheer imagination. It is ancient vitalism dressed up pretentiously in sciencey words.Then a bit later we come to the general theory -“energy concepts”.


More plausible-sounding, but utterly meaningless words about vibrations. And then on to old superstitions about dowsing with rods and pendulums.

.

Not a single word of scepticism appears about any of this mumbo jumbo. Can it get worse? Yes it can. CRYSTAL HEALING comes next.


Are you having difficulty in understanding what all these words mean? I certainly hope so, because they have no meaning to understand. Don’t worry too much though, There are some helpful diagrams.


Aura photographs? They are just fairground conjuring tricks. Well, that is what you thought. But here we see them presented, apparently in all seriousness, as part of a vocational bachelor of science degree in a UK
university.Never mind, it is all assessed properly, with all the right box-ticking jargon. The course handbook says

Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of this module you will be able to:

• describe the theoretical basis and classification of a range of
complementary therapies



What theoretical basis? There isn’t any theoretical basis, just a meaningless jumble of words.


You just couldn’t make it up.


Westminster University is not all like this

This post is not intended as an attack on the University of Westminster as a whole. Last year I had an invitation from their biomedical people to give a talk there. They asked for a talk on “What is is the evidence for Alternative Medicine?”. But then I got an email from them saying

“I was surprised to be sat on heavily on return from said trip by the VC, Provosts and Deans (including Peter Davies the leader of the Alt Med School !) once news of your talk leaked out. Could you give a talk on your research instead- yep I know its pusillanimous of me and yep I know unis stand for freedom of speech and yep I know that fellow members of staff suggested you come and others were keen to listen to your views on quackery.”

So on November 2nd 2007 I gave a seminar about single ion channel work (our new ideas about partial agonists). Of course all the excellent staff whom I met agreed with me about the embarrassment that having degrees in homeopathy etc. The fault lies not with their academic staff, but with their administration. Freedom of speech does not seem to be high on their agenda.

Postscript I recently learned that when Times Higher Education asked Westminster about my seminar, they were given the following statement.

“Prof David Colquhoun was invited to take part in a research seminar series organised by the University’s School of Biosciences last year. As part of this series, on Friday 2 November 2007, he gave a talk on the agreed topic of “Single ion Channel studies suggest a new mechanism for partial agonism” – his area of research.”

Perhaps I am naive, but it truly shocks me that a university can issue such a dishonest account of what happened.