Download Lectures on Biostatistics (1971).
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Download review of Lectures on Biostatistics (THES, 1973).

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There’s been no official announcement, but four more of Westminster’s courses in junk medicine have quietly closed.

For entry in 2011 they offer

University of Westminster (W50) qualification
Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture (B343) 3FT Hon BSc
Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture with Foundation (B341) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci
Complementary Medicine (B255) 3FT Hon BSc
Complementary Medicine (B301) 4FT Hon MHSci
Complementary Medicine: Naturopathy (B391) 3FT Hon BSc
Herbal Medicine (B342) 3FT Hon BSc
Herbal Medicine with Foundation Year (B340) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci
Nutritional Therapy (B400) 3FT Hon BSc

But for entry in 2012

University of Westminster (W50) qualification
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/MSc


At the end of 2006, Westminster was offering 14 different BSc degrees in seven flavours of junk medicine. In October 2008, it was eleven. This year it’s eight, and next year only four degrees in two subjects. Since "Integrated Health" was ‘merged’ with Biological Sciences in May 2010, two of the original courses have been dropped each year. This September there will be a final intake for Nutrition Therapy and Naturopathy. That leaves only two, Chinese Medicine (acupuncture and (Western) Herbal Medicine.

The official reason given for the closures is always that the number of applications has fallen. I’m told that the number of applications has halved over the last five or six years. If that’s right, it counts as a big success for the attempts of skeptics to show the public the nonsense that’s taught on these degrees. Perhaps it is a sign that we are emerging from the endarkenment.

Rumour has it that the remaining degrees will eventually close too. Let’s hope so. Meanwhile, here is another helping hand.

There is already quite a bit here about the dangers of Chinese medicine, e.g. here and, especially, here. A submission to the Department of Health gives more detail. There has been a lot on acupuncture here too. There is now little doubt that it’s no more than a theatrical, and not very effective, placebo. So this time I’ll concentrate on Western herbal medicine.

Western Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is just a branch of pharmacology and it could be taught as such. But it isn’t. It comes overlaid with much superstitious nonsense. Some of it can be seen in slides from Edinburgh Napier University (the difference being that Napier closed that course, and Westminster hasn’t)

Even if it were taught properly, it wouldn’t be appropriate for a BSc for several reasons.

First, there isn’t a single herbal that has full marketing authorisation from the MHRA. In other words, there isn’t a single herb for which there is good evidence that it works to a useful extent.

Second, the fact that the active principals in plants are virtually always given in an unknown dose makes them potentially dangerous. This isn’t 1950s pharmacology. It’s 1920s pharmacology, dating from a time before methods were worked out for standardising the potency of natural products (see Plants as Medicines).

Third, if you are going to treat illness with chemicals, why restrict yourself to chemicals that occur in plants?

It was the herbal medicine course that gave rise to the most virulent internal complaints at the University of Westminster. These complaints revealed the use of pendulum dowsing by some teachers on the course and the near-illegal, and certainly dangerous, teaching about herbs in cancer.

Here are a few slides from Principles of Herbal Medicine(3CT0 502). The vocabulary seems to be stuck in a time warp. When I first started in the late 1950s, words like tonic, carminative, demulcent and expectorant were common Over the last 40 years all these words have died out in pharmacology, for the simple reason that it became apparent that there were no such actions. But these imaginary categories are still alive and well in the herbal world.

There was a lecture on a categories of drugs so old-fashioned that I’ve never even heard the words: "nervines". and "adaptogens".



The "tonics" listed here seem quite bizarre. In the 1950s, “tonics” containing nux vomica (a small dose of strychnine) and gentian (tastes nasty) were common, but they vanished years ago, because they don’t work. None of those named here even get a mention in NCCAM’s Herbs-at-a-glance. Oats? Come on!

The only ‘relaxant’ here for which there is the slightest evidence is Valerian. I recall tincture of Valerian in a late 1950s pharmacy. It smells terrible,

According to NCCAM

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

Not much, for something that’s been around for centuries.

And for chamomile

  • Chamomile has not been well studied in people so there is little evidence to support its use for any condition.

None of this near-total lack of evidence is mentioned on the slides.


What about the ‘stimulants‘? Rosemary? No evidence at all. Tea and coffee aren’t medicine (and not very good stimulants for me either).

Ginseng, on the other hand, is big business. That doesn’t mean it works of course. NCCAM says of Asian ginseng (Panax Ginseng).

  • Some studies have shown that Asian ginseng may lower blood glucose. Other studies indicate possible beneficial effects on immune function.
  • Although Asian ginseng has been widely studied for a variety of uses, research results to date do not conclusively support health claims associated with the herb. Only a few large, high-quality clinical trials have been conducted. Most evidence is preliminary—i.e., based on laboratory research or small clinical trials.



Thymoleptics – antidepressants are defined as "herbs that engender a feeling of wellbeing. They uplift the spirit, improve the mood and counteract depression".

Oats, Lemon balm, Damiana, Vervain. Lavender and Rosemary are just old bits of folklore

NCCAM says

Some “sleep formula” products combine valerian with other herbs such as hops, lavender, lemon balm, and skullcap. Although many of these other herbs have sedative properties, there is no reliable evidence that they improve insomnia.



The only serious contender here is St John’s Wort. At one time this was the prize exhibit for herbalists. It has been shown to be as good as the conventional SSRIs for treatment of mild to moderate depression. Sadly it has turned out that the SSRIs are themselves barely better than placebos. NCCAM says

  • There is scientific evidence that St. John’s wort may be useful for short-term treatment of mild to moderate depression. Although some studies have reported benefits for more severe depression, others have not; for example, a large study sponsored by NCCAM found that the herb was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression of moderate severity.

"Adaptogens" are another figment of the herbalists’ imaginations. They are defined in the lecture thus.

  • Herbs that have a normalising or balancing effect.
  • Mind and body are restored to optimum normal peak,
  • Increase threshold to physical and mental trauma and damage
  • Mental and physical activity and performance improved.

Well, it would be quite nice if such drugs existed. Sadly they don’t.

NCCAM says

  • The evidence for using astragalus for any health condition is limited. High-quality clinical trials (studies in people) are generally lacking.

Another lecture dealt with "stimulating herbs". No shortage of them, it seems.


Well at least one of these has quite well-understood effects in pharmacology, ephedrine, a sympathomimetic amine. It isn’t used much because it can be quite dangerous, even with the controlled dose that’s used in real medicine. In the uncontrolled dose in herbal medicines it is downright dangerous.



This is what NCCAM says about Ephedra

  • An NCCAM-funded study that analyzed phone calls to poison control centers found a higher rate of side effects from ephedra, compared with other herbal products.
  • Other studies and systematic reviews have found an increased risk of heart, psychiatric, and gastrointestinal problems, as well as high blood pressure and stroke, with ephedra use.
  • According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is little evidence of ephedra’s effectiveness, except for short-term weight loss. However, the increased risk of heart problems and stroke outweighs any benefits.

It seems that what is taught in the BSc Herbal Medicine degree consists largely of folk-lore and old wives’ tales. Some of it could be quite dangerous for patients.

A problem for pharmacognosists

While talking about herbal medicine, it’s appropriate to mention a related problem, though it has nothing to do with the University of Westminster.

My guess is that not many people have even heard of pharmacognosy. If it were not for my humble origins as an apprentice pharmacist in Grange Road, Birkenhead (you can’t get much more humble than that) I might not know either.

Pharmacognosy is a branch of botany, the study of plant drugs. I recall inspecting powered digitalis leaves under a microscope. In Edinburgh, in the time of the great pharmacologist John Henry Gaddum, medical students might be presented in the oral exam with a jar of calabar beans and required to talk about their anticholinesterase effects of the physostigmine that they contain.

The need for pharmacognosy has now all but vanished, but it hangs on in the curriculum for pharmacy students. This has engendered a certain unease about the role of pharmacognists. They often try to justify their existence by rebranding themselves as "phytotherapists". There are even journals of phytotherapy. It sounds a lot more respectable that herbalism. At its best, it is more respectable, but the fact remains that there no herbs whatsoever that have well-documented medical uses.

The London School of Pharmacy is a case in point. Simon Gibbons (Professor of Phytochemistry, Department of Pharmaceutical and Biological Chemistry). The School of Pharmacy) has chosen, for reasons that baffle me, to throw in his lot with the reincarnated Prince of Wales Foundation known as the “College of Medicine“. That organisation exists largely (not entirely) to promote various forms of quackery under the euphemism “integrated medicine”. On their web site he says "Western science is now recognising the extremely high value of herbal medicinal products . . .", despite the fact that there isn’t a single herbal preparation with efficacy sufficient for it to get marketing authorisation in the UK. This is grasping at straws, not science.

The true nature of the "College of Medicine" is illustrated, yet again, by their "innovations network". Their idea of "innovation" includes the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital and the Royal London Hospital for Integrated medicine, both devoted to promoting the utterly discredited late-18th century practice of giving people pills that contain no medicine. Some "innovation".

It baffles me that Simon Gibbons is willing to appear on the same programme as Simon Mills and David Peters, and George Lewith. Mills’ ideas can be judged by watching a video of a talk he gave in which he ‘explains’ “hot and cold herbs”. It strikes me as pure gobbledygook. Make up your own mind. He too has rebranded himself as "phytotherapist" though in fact he’s an old-fashioned herbalist with no concern for good evidence. David Peters is the chap who, as Clinical Director of the University of Westminster’s ever-shrinking School of Quackery, tolerates dowsing as a way to select ‘remedies’.

The present chair of Pharmacognosy at the School of Pharmacy is Michael Heinrich. He, with Simon Gibbons, has written a book Fundamentals of pharmacognosy and phytotherapy. As well as much good chemistry, it contains this extraordinary statement

“TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] still contains very many remedies which were selected by their symbolic significance rather than their proven effects; however this does not mean that they are all ‘quack’remedies! There may even be some value in medicines such as tiger bone, bear gall, turtle shell, dried centipedes, bat dung and so on. The herbs, however, are well researched and are becoming increasingly popular as people become disillusioned with Western Medicine.”

It is irresponsible to give any solace at all to the wicked industries that kill tigers and torture bears to extract their bile. And it is simple untrue that “herbs are well-researched”. Try the test,

A simple test for herbalists. Next time you encounter a herbalist, ask them to name the herb for which there is the best evidence of benefit when given for any condition. Mostly they refuse to answer, as was the case with Michael McIntyre (but he is really an industry spokesman with few scientific pretensions). I asked Michael Heinrich, Professor of Pharmacognosy at the School of Pharmacy. Again I couldn’t get a straight answer. Usually, when pressed, the two things that come up are St John’s Wort and Echinacea. Let’s see what The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has to say about them. NCCAM is the branch of the US National Institutes of Health which has spent around a billion dollars of US taxpayers’ money on research into alternative medicine, For all that effort they have failed to come up with a single useful treatment. Clearly they should be shut down. Nevertheless, as an organisation that is enthusiastic about alternative medicine, their view can only be overoptimistic.

For St John’s Wort . NCCAM says

  • There is scientific evidence that St. John’s wort may be useful for short-term treatment of mild to moderate depression. Although some studies have reported benefits for more severe depression, others have not; for example, a large study sponsored by NCCAM found that the herb was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression of moderate severity.

For Echinacea NCCAM says

  • Study results are mixed on whether echinacea can prevent or effectively treat upper respiratory tract infections such as the common cold. For example, two NCCAM-funded studies did not find a benefit from echinacea, either as Echinacea purpurea fresh-pressed juice for treating colds in children, or as an unrefined mixture of Echinacea angustifolia root and Echinacea purpurea root and herb in adults. However, other studies have shown that echinacea may be beneficial in treating upper respiratory infections.

If these are the best ones, heaven help the rest.


Jump to follow-up

On 23rd May 2008 a letter was sent to the vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster, Professor Geoffrey Petts

Dear Professor Petts
You may be aware an article by Zoe Corbyn, published in Times Higher Education 24 April 2008, with the title Experts criticise ‘pseudo-scientific’ complementary medicine degrees.   The subtitle of the article was Vice-chancellors should re-examine courses, say campaigners.  In the light of that, we wondered whether you had anything to add to the comments made by David Peters in todays THE.  We are preparing a response to that, and it seems fair to ask your view before we proceed.
(In order to save you time, copies of the two articles are attached.)
As an expert on oceans and geomorphology we would have imagined that you would view with some scepticism statements like amethysts emit high yin energy, as taught in your first year course, common to most complementary medicine students, as part if an honours BSc.  Unfortunately Peters does not deal with this in his response, so your opinion would be welcome.
Best regards

Edzard Ernst MD, PhD, FRCP, FRCP (Edin.)
Professor of Complementary  Medicine, Univerisity of Exeter

Simon Singh Ph.D,  
Science writer, Author of Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book, etc

David Colquhoun FRS Professor of Pharmacology UCL


Despite reminders, we were never afforded the courtesy of a reply to this, or any other letter.

Professor Petts has, however, replied to a letters sent to him recently by the Nightingale Collaboration. He said

“Whilst I understand your concerns, colleagues of the School of Life Sciences where these courses are offered do not share them. They are not teaching pseudo-science, as you claim,…”.

Neither of thse claims is true.I know at least two members of the Life Sciences Faculty who are very worried. One has now left and one has retired. The rest are presumably too scared to speak out.

It is most certainly not true to say they "are not teaching pseudo-science". Both the vice-chancellor and the Dean of Life Sciences, Jane Lewis, have been made aware of what;s happening repeatedly over several years, I can think of no other way to put it but to say Professor Petts is lying. Tha is not a good thing for vice-chancellors to do.

Much of what is taught at Westminster has now been revealed. This seems like a good moment to summarise what we know. Searching this blog for "University of Westminster" yields 39 hits. Of these, 11 show what’s taught at Westminster, so I’ll summarise them here for easy reference.

Westminster’s response

March 26th, 2007

The day after “Science degrees without the Science“ appeared in Nature, the University of Westminster issued a statement (now vanished, but see debate in THE). In my view, their statement provides the strongest grounds so far to believe that the BSc is inappropriate.

Let’s take a look at it.

“The BSc (Hons) Health Sciences: Homeopathy is a fully validated degree that satisfies internal and external quality assurance standards.”

Since that time, the university has closed down the BSc in Homeopathy. I have now seen many such validation documents and they are mostly box ticking exercises, not worth the paper they are written on. The worst offender is the University or Wales.

Westminster University BSc: “amethysts emit high yin energy”

April 23rd, 2008


This shows the first set of slides that I got from Westminster (leaked by an angry insider). It has slides on crystal healing and dowsing, things that are at the lunatic fringe even by the standards of alternative medicine. it also relates that an academic who invited me to give a talk at the University of Westminster on the evidence for alternative medal was leaned on heavily by “VC, Provosts and Deans” to prevent that talk taking place.

vib-ther 43s

Crystal balls. Professor Petts in Private Eye

February 19th, 2009

Professor Petts makes an appearance in Private Eye. It could held that this counts as bringing your university into disrepute.

The opposite of Science.

February 24th, 2009

BSc courses in homeopathy are closing. Is it a victory for campaigners, or just the end of the Blair/Bush era?

Professor Petts of Westminster seems to think that the problem can be solved by putting more science into the courses   The rest of the world realises that as soon as you apply science to homeopathy or naturopathy, the whole subject vanishes in a puff of smoke,  I fear that Professor Petts will have to do better,

The Guardian carries a nice article by Anthea Lipsett, The Opposite of Science (or download pdf of print version).

The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University.

March 30th, 2009 

In March 2007 I wrote a piece in Nature on Science degrees without the science.  At that time there were five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy. A couple of weeks ago I checked the UCAS site for start in 2009, and found there was only one full “BSc (hons)” left and that was at Westminster University.

Today I checked again and NOW THERE ARE NONE.

A phone call to the University of Westminster tonight confirmed that they have suspended entry to their BSc (Hons) homeopathy degree.

Then I revealed another set of slides, showing a misunderstanding (by the teacher) of statistics, but most chillingly,some very dangerous ideas conveyed to students by Westminster’s naturopaths, and in the teaching of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the great “detox” scam.


“if you get tuberculosis, it isn’t caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis? And the symptoms are “constructive”? So you don’t need to do anything. It’s all for the best really.

This isn’t just nonsense. It’s dangerous nonsense.”

“Remember when shopping to favour fruits and vegetables which are in season and locally grown (and ideally organic) as they are more vibrationally compatible with the body.”

Locally grown vegetables are “more vibrationally compatible with the body”? Pure mystical gobbledygook. Words fail me.

More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time it’s Naturopathy

June 25th, 2009

Some truly mind-boggling stuff that’s taught to students at Westminster, It includes "Emotrance". A primer on Emotrance says

emo s3

"And then I thought of the lady in the supermarket whose husband had died, and I spend the following time sending her my best wishes, and my best space time quantum healing efforts for her void."

Then there are slides on pendulum diagnosis and “kinesiology”, a well-known fraudulent method of diagnosis. It is all perfectly mad.

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients

August 10th, 2009

More lunatic fantasies from Westminster, this time about Chinese medicine.

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

There is a lot of stuff about cancer that is potentially homicidal.

  • Legally, you cannot claim to cure cancer
  • This is not a problem because:
    we treat people not diseases

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

Emergent Chinese Omics at the University of Westminster/p>

August 27th, 2010

Systems biology is all the rage, No surprise then, to see the University of Westminster advertising a job for a systems biologist in the The Department of Molecular and Applied Biosciences. Well, no surprise there -until you read the small print.

Much has been written here about the University of Westminster, which remains the biggest provider of junk science degrees in the UK, despite having closed two of them.

If there is one thing more offensive than the use of meaningless mystical language, it is the attempt to hijack the vocabulary of real science to promote nonsense. As soon as a quack uses the words "quantum", "energy", "vibration", or now, "systems biology", you can be sure that it’s pretentious nonsense.

Hot of the press. Within a few hours of posting this, I was told that Volker Scheid, the man behind the pretentious Chinese medidine omics nonsense has been promoted to a full chair, And the Dean, Jane Lewis has congratulated him for speaking at a Chines Medicine symposium. Even quite sensible people like Lewis are being corrupted. The buck stops with Petts.

More dangerous nonsense from the University of Westminster: when will Professor Geoffrey Petts do something about it?

May 3rd, 2011

Yet more ghastly slides that are inflicted on Westminster students. How’s this for sheer barminess, taught as part of a Bachelor of Science degree?



" Just in case you happen to have run out of Alaskan Calling All Angels Essence, you can buy it from Baldwin’s for £19.95. It’s “designed to invoke the nurturing, uplifting and joyful qualities of the angelic kingdom.”, and what’s more “can also use them any time to cleanse, energize, and protect your auric field.” Well that’s what it says.in the ad.

Freedom of information reveals some unusual testimonials for the University of Westminster: when will Professor Geoffrey Petts do something about it?

June 20th, 2011

This post gives details of two complaints, one from a student and one from a lecturer. The vice-chancellor certainly knows about them. So why, I wonder, did he say "“Whilst I understand your concerns, colleagues of the School of Life Sciences where these courses are offered do not share them.". He must know that this simply isn’t true. It is over a year now ( 10 July 2009 ) that a lecturer wrote to the vice-chancellor and Dean

“I expect that were the Department of Health to be aware of the unscientific teaching and promotion of practices like dowsing, (and crystals, iridology, astrology, and tasting to determine pharmacological qualities of plant extracts) on the Wmin HM [Westminster Herbal Medicine] Course, progress towards the Statutory Regulation of Herbal Medicine could be threatened.”

There’s only one thing wrong with this. The lecturer underestimated the stupidiity of the Department of Health which went ahead with statutory regulation despite being made aware of what was going on.

The latest example to come to light is cited by Andy Lewis on his Quackometer blog

“There are some even odder characters too, such as Roy Riggs B.Sc who describes himself as a “Holistic Geobiologist” and is “an “professional Earth Energy dowser”. He guest lectures at the London Westminster University’s School of Integrative Medicine and The Baltic Dowser’s Association of Lithuania.”

I do wonder who Professor Petts thinks he’s fooling. His denial of the obvious fact that his university is teaching pseudo-science serves only to discredit further the University of Westminster and his own integrity.


13 August 2011 I’m intrigued to notice that two days after posting this summary, googling “Geoffrey Petts” brings up this post as #3 on the first page. Actions have consequences.

Jump to follow-up

Universities, like most businesses, cite glowing testimonials from grateful students, I doubt whether universities are any more honest than anyone else in their choice of what to publish. When I asked to see any letters that had been sent to the university, I was sent only one and extracts from it appear in the last post on Westminster. More dangerous nonsense from the University of Westminster: when will Professor Geoffrey Petts do something about it? But I knew (don’t ask how) that there had been more than that, and a slightly widened FOIA request produced some interesting results (though I’m aware of other letters that were not supplied -not good).

As always, the information came with the caveat

"Copyright in our response to your request belongs to the University of Westminster. All rights are reserved. This document is for personal use only and may not be copied, or stored in any electronic form, or reproduced in any other way or used for any other purpose, either in whole or in part, without the prior written consent of the University of Westminster.".

Why else would anyone ask for information but to make it public? And since the letter was sent in electronic form, it would be hard to comply with the second part. As always, I rely on the fair quotation and public interest defences to quote parts of the letters.

The main players here are Peter Davies (Head of herbal medicine and nutritional therapy), Julie Whitehouse (Course Leader for MSci Herbal Medicine and the BSc Honours Health Sciences), David Peters (Clinical director of Westminster’s School of Integrated Health), and the dean of the School of Life Sciences. Jane Lewis. There’s no woo about Jane Lewis. I suspect she’d have got rid of all the nonsense, given a chance. Who, I wonder, is stopping her?

Julie Whitehouse is, I see, a co-author of Brock et al. (2010) American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): an ancient remedy for today’s anxiety, British Journal of Wellbeing1 (4), 25-30. I had no idea there was such a journal. UCL does not subscribe so if anyone has a reprint I’d love to see it. Judging by the abstract it’s yet more ‘preliminary work’. That’s very typical. Next to no CAM research gets past the preliminary report.

Some testimonials

Here are some quotations from “a part-time student on the herbal medicine (HM) BSc course, currently in my 3rd year of study. I have first class honours degree in ecology, am a qualified staff nurse, and am an experienced performance and business manager."

cc Professor Jane Lewis, Dean of School: Biosciences

"Dear Professor Petts,

I hope you do not mind me writing to you personally. I am a part-time student on the herbal medicine (HM) BSc course, currently in my 3rd year of study. I have first class honours degree in ecology, am a qualified staff nurse, and am an experienced performance and business manager. I regard myself as scientist."

"I would like to express to you my disappointment and frustration with my own studies at Westminster. I thought (erroneously, I have since discovered) that I was paying for a Bachelor of Science degree, and that science and scientific thinking would underpin my studies. How wrong I have been.

Based on my experience at Westminster, two things really need to be done to restore credibility in the herbal medicine degree, viz. removing the antiscience and pseudoscience, and strengthening the scientific basis of both our core and herbal medicine modules. The current degree is confusing and infuriating in that it really does not know what it is."

"Here is a quote from a handout (on ‘The Galenic Constitutional System in Practice’) given to 3rd year herbalists last semester: ‘Treating particular disease/conditions is more successful if the disease can be analysed in terms on hot, cold, wet and dry’. If I showed this to any modern (not 17th century) doctor they would be rolling around on the floor in hysterics and condemning this type of nonsense in the strongest possible language. I am ashamed to tell anybody what we are being taught. Is this clandestine teaching or is the University actually sanctioning this pre-scientific view of medicine?"

Anti-science ideas need to be, not only banished from teaching material, but also robustly challenged every time they are raised by students (or lecturers) in the polyclinic or the classroom. But, constantly challenging anti-scientific and erroneous ideas is very wearing and wearying for me as a student, as I am sure it is for scientists on your staff. (I should say here that there are some excellent scientists who have supported and encouraged me in my studies at Westminster; Dr Gillian Shine in the core modules and Christopher Robbins in HM, leap to mind).
Your ‘You Tube’ video says that you hope we enjoy our studies at Westminster. I do want to enjoy my studies. I want to think that Westminster is a respected

academic institution. I should not feel threatened by challenging what I am taught when it is plainly pseudoscience or antiscience and my University should be supporting me in my challenge, which I am sure you will.

And from the same student, this time addressed to Julie Whitehouse and copied to the dean, Jane Lewis (in 2009) [some details removed to preserve patient confidentiality].

… a patient attended who had been treated with a Reiki [typo for Reishi] mushroom tincture and another herbal tincture (about 6 herbs) by an HM clinic supervisor. The patient had also been advised to do ‘body brushing’ which I understand was for ‘detoxification’. This lady is being treated by an oncologist for [***] cancer and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. I do not believe her oncology team were informed before we initiated treatment and the bottles of tincture were not labelled with what they contained.

I have serious ethical problems with treating anyone with cancer with herbs, but someone in the middle of chemotherapy?

Not only are patients’ lives being put at risk, but students are not getting clear messages about the limitations of HM or the professional ethics involved in treating someone with cancer. I have seen patient files with ‘anti-mitotic’ or ‘anti-cancer’ herbs written in the notes. I question whether this is also bordering on the illegal. At the very least it betrays a naive belief that herbs can treat cancer. I was ignored earlier this year when I queried students being encouraged to go to a herbalist’s cancer seminars in Bristol (and she claimed to cure cancer) and this case highlights to me the dangers of Wmin condoning and teaching the ‘we treat people not diseases’ mantra.

This second letter elicited a response from the university, and the response is worth looking at.

The response

2 What was done following the complaint

021209 Clinical Director met with the tutor. Reviewed notes. No indication that the patient was seeking ‘alternatives’ to chemo, nor that she was led to believe the prescription was designed to do other than support her coping with chemo which in her experience had previously been physically demanding and distressing. Procedures regarding communication with oncologists, informed consent, labeling of medicines need reviewing and reinforcing. Action by Course leader/herbal team. Report back to PC Exec 210110

151209 The student who (though she had not been present during this session, had objected to way this case was handled met with the course leader in the presence of the Senior Clinical supervisor and another tutor. The meeting was supportive rather than confrontational. The student was asked to reflect on the consequences of her (frequent) impulsive emailing and the time and effort she demands of others – and to consider the Code of Conduct she has signed.

So the whistle-blowing student seems to have been patted on the head and told to shut up. Nevertheless the complaint had some effect, though not much.

050110 Course leader proposed to review current Polyclinic policies and procedures, and discuss current practice in cases of serious disease and how doctors are informed and patients consented

The response included "Extracts from Smith J, Rowan N & Sullivan (2000) Medicinal Mushrooms: Their therapeutic properties and current medical usage with special emphasis on cancer treatment” from Cancer Research UK."

In almost all the examples that will be discussed in this chapter the polysaccharides act mainly as immune- stimulants with little or no adverse drug reactions. Furthermore, several of these extracts have been shown to stimulate apoptosis in cancer cells (e.g. Fullerton et al., 2000). While there are examples where the mushroom polysaccharides have shown efficacy against specific types of cancer as monotherapy, the overwhelming successes have been demonstrated when they function together with proven and accepted chemotherapeutic agents.

I could not find that document at Cancer Research UK though there is a similar report, dated May 2002, "Medicinal Mushrooms: Their therapeutic properties and current medical usage with special emphasis on cancer treatments" by Smith, Rowan and Sullivan. It can be downloaded at the Cancer Research UK page, Medicinal Mushrooms and Cancer. That page, last updated 7 August 2006, lists John Smith BSc MSc PhD DSc FIBiol FRSE as Emeritus Professor of Applied Microbiology, University of Strathclyde. amd Chief Scientific Officer, MycoBiotech Ltd, Singapore, and Richard Sullivan BSc MD PhD as Head of Clinical Programmes, Cancer Research UK (a job he left in 2008). Professor John Smith is still Chief Scientific Advisor to Mycobiotech Inc, based in Singapore. This company sells various mushroom products. They are all marketed as “nutriceuticals” or “functional foods”, not as pharmaceuticals. These descriptions are a very common way of making medicinal claims for products, while describing them as foods to avoid the strict regulations about claims made for medicines.

It does not seem to me to be a good idea for Cancer Research UK to have advice on its web site from someone with a very obvious financial interest.

The quotations from the Smith report are obviously intended to defend the practice of prescribing mushrooms to people on chemotherapy. But the fact that in 2011, five years after the CRUK page, Mycobiotech still has no approved medicine approved for cancer speaks for itself. They sell Shiitake Herbal Soups. They also sell Essence of Shiitake which, they say, contains Lentinan, “which has been confirmed through research, to be an immuno-enhancer. Lentinan has been found to reduce tumour growth and to prolong the life of cancer patients”. That sounds to me like a rather strong medicinal claim for a “food”. Even Nutra-ingredients, the industry site for nutriceuticals, doesn’t claim much for it.

Now back to Westminster’s response to the student’s complaint.

I have found no evidence that herbal practitioners in the Polyclinic are making explicit claims to treat cancer.
However, the use of the term ‘anti-tumour’ in the notes implies an ambivalent rationale for prescribing. It also illustrates the potential for ambiguity in the clinical notes. However, there is substantial research – both laboratory and clinical – to support the ‘anti-tumour’ and ‘immune stimulant’ properties of certain mushroom species. p222 see appx 2

And, from David Peters.

DP**There is one item in the notes however which I think we need to comment on. While the paper-trail in all other respects shows that the herbal prescription was supportive, one herb in the prescription is categorised as ‘anti-tumour’. Although I am convinced after reviewing the notes and talking with the tutor involved, that the aim was to support the patient through her chemotherapy, this part of the prescription nonetheless signifies some ambivalence at least, about whether the aim was or was not to treat cancer

But then, from Julie Whitehouse

JW Yes there is antitumour as an action for many herbs and nutritional components – and several relevant actions including anything as general as anti- oxidant even – it doesn’t mean we are suggesting they are being used as treatment

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see the tension between Whitehouse and Peters. The former is very reluctant to give up the myths, the latter is slightly more cautious about claims to treat cancer.

Let’s be clear about one thing. The student was dead right. There is so little reliable information about mushrooms that neither Cochrane Reviews nor NCCAM has anything relevant to say about them. Antioxidants are a myth, much beloved by marketing people and "boosting the immune system" is the universal mantra of every advocate of magic medicine when they can’t think of anything else to make up. Why can’t Peters and Whitehouse admit it?

More complaints

This one is from a member of staff who teaches on the herbal medicine course. It was addressed to Julie Whitehouse and copied to the dean and vice-chancellor.(10 July 2009).

"During last week (5-9th May) I witnessed a member of the Herbal Team and a student dowsing with a pendulum to divine herbal drugs to prescribe for the student. When I approached and spoke, they defensively hid the pendulum and were clearly embarrassed. I discussed what they were doing. They freely said they were prescribing herbal medicine and cited other staff as their ‘authority’ and ‘instructors’.

Diagnosing or prescribing by pendulum has no scientific credibility. Further, it is dangerous for prescribing as it both fails to identify any appropriate drugs (except by chance) and may select dangerous drugs for a patient.

I know other staff have raised with you the teaching or use of such mediaeval and unscientific practices on the Wmin HM course."

"I feel that such practice in the HM Course teaching or in the Polyclinic should be proscribed. I would like to suggest that you address and resolve this matter urgently.

Dowsing is in conflict with the VC’s recent letter to SIH staff, specifically expecting more evidence of science within the teaching of CT Courses."

"I expect that were the Department of Health to be aware of the unscientific teaching and promotion of practices like dowsing, (and crystals, iridology, astrology, and tasting to determine pharmacological qualities of plant extracts) on the Wmin HM Course, progress towards the Statutory Regulation of Herbal Medicine could be threatened."

The writer seems to have overestimated the sense in the Department of Health. They were aware of these practices (I told them) but nevertheless went ahead with a silly form of statutory regulation.

The same lecturer wrote on 27 July 2009

"This happened with a supervisor, students and patient in the consultation room. The patient was invited to dowse her own "remedies" using a pendulum. A set of Bach Flower remedies (also proscribed in the HM Clinics) was placed in front of the patient and a pendulum was produced. On the basis of the dowsing, a prescription of ‘remedies’ was dispensed."

"Although Julie says dowsing has been proscribed, she has been unable to present and document saying as such. Bach Flower Remedies have been proscribed for HM Clinics."

Some of the replies were sent to me. Julie Whitehouse replied to the lecturer and Peter Davies on 10 August 2009

“I have written and circulated the text to be put into the handbook and have had approval from most members of the herbal team – but [the lecturer who complained] was not there at the time – hope he approves of the statement. It does not specifically say we do not dowse – but it does I think state clearly what we do – we surely do not want a list of what we don’t do – where would it end – there could be many things in a list of what we don’t do.”

So she explicitly refused to ban the use of dowsing in Westminster’s clinic. The lecturer replied, pointing out the unreasonableness of this attitude.

Dear Julie,

I am afraid that I have not received any copy (home or University) of your ‘statement’ so cannot comment. Please resend me another copy.

I don’t understand your not wanting ‘a list of what we don’t do – where would it end’. It is commonplace to have proscribed activities in both social and professional activities, and these are usually for clear reasons of safety and public good. Eg.: Herbal practice is constrained by the prohibitions in the Medicines Act 1968 and following, the maximum dosages under Schedule III of that Act, the prohibited herbal drugs under the MCA, Trading Standards regulations, etc.

It seems that, despite the vice-chancellor’s assurance that the courses would become more scientific, there are still apologists for diagnosis with a pendulum, and for treating cancer with mushrooms at Westminster University.

This saga sounds only top characteristic. Complaints through official channels usually get you nowhere with big organisations. Sadly, the only way to get change is public embarrassment.

Some action from Vice-chancellor Geoftrey Petts is long overdue.


A kind reader sent me a copy of Brock, Whitehouse, Tewfik & Towell,. (2010) American skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora): an ancient remedy for today’s anxiety, British Journal of Wellbeing1 (4), 25-30.. This is the paper that I described above, on the basis of the abstract, as "preliminary study".. Now that I’ve seen it I realise it isn’t study at all. They simply emailed 377 members of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists to ask what they thought of S. laterifloria. Only 62 replied (16%) and their anecdotes are listed in the paper. It is this sort of worthless information that gets herbal medicine a bad name.

10 August 2011. I notice that Professor Petts has replied to a letters sent to him by the Nightingale Collaboration. He said “Whilst I understand your concerns, colleagues of the School of Life Sciences where these courses are offered do not share them. They are not teaching pseudo-science, as you claim,…”. Well I know at least two member of the Life Sciences department who are very worried. One has now left and one has retired. The rest are presumably too scared to speak out. How he has the nerve to claim that they don’t teach pseudo-science all the teaching materials that have been revealed on this blog is hard to imagine. It is simply not true and he must know it. I find it deeply worrying when vice-chancellors say things which they know to be untrue.

The latest example to come to light is cited by Andy Lewis on his Quackometer blog

“There are some even odder characters too, such as Roy Riggs B.Sc who descibes himself as a “Holistic Geobiologist” and is “an “professional Earth Energy dowser”. He guest lectures at the London Westminster University’s School of Integrative Medicine and The Baltic Dowser’s Association of Lithuania.”

I do wonder who Professor Petts thinks he’s fooling.

Jump to follow-up

One of my first posts about nonsense taught in universities was about the University of Westminster (April 2008): Westminster University BSc: “amethysts emit high yin energy”. since then, there have been several more revelations.

Jump to follow-up


Professor Petts

The vice-cnancellor of Westminster, Professor Geoffrey Petts, with whom the buck stops, did have an internal review but its report was all hot air and no action resulted (see A letter to the Times, and Progress at Westminster). That earned Professor Petts an appearence in Private Eye Crystal balls. Professor Petts in Private Eye (and it earned me an invitation to a Private Eye lunch, along with Francis Wheen, Charlie Booker, Ken Livingstone . . ). It also earned Petts an appearence in the Guardian (The opposite of science).

By that time Salford University had closed down all its CAM, and the University of Central Lancashire was running an honest internal review which resulted in closure of (almost) all of their nonsense degrees. But Westminster proved more resistant to sense and, although they closed down homeopathy, they still remain the largest single provider of degrees in junk medicine. See, for example More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time it’s Naturopathy, and
The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University.

It’s interesting that Westminster always declined to comply with Freedom of Information requests, yet I had more from them than from most places. All the information about what’s taught at Westminster came from leaks from within the university. Westminster has more moles than a suburban garden. They were people with conscience who realised that the university was harming itself. They would claim that they were trying to save the university from some remarkably bad management. I claim also that I’m working in the interests of the university.

In the wake of the victory at the Information Tribunal, I sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for for samples of teaching materials from all of their courses. This time they couldn’t legally refuse. The first batch has just arrived, so here are a few selected gems of utter nonsense. Well, it is worse than nonsense because it endangers the health of sick people.

A letter to the university from a student

Before getting on to the slides, here’s a letter that was supplied under FOIA. It was sent anonymously to the university. I was told that this was the only letter of complaint but I happen to know that’s not true so I’ve asked again. This one was forwarded to the vice-chancellor in 2008, and to the review committee. Both seem to have ignored it. Judging from the wording, one would guess that it came from one of their own undergraduates. :Here are some extracts.[download whole letter]

It is a flagrant contradiction of a ‘science’ in the BSc to have these practices, but it also jeopardises our profession, which is under DoH review and being constantly attacked in the media Gustifiable I suggest).

We are taught that simply tasting plant tinctures can tell us which part of the body they work. on and what they do in the body. We are given printed charts with an outline of the body on to record our findings on. This is both nonsense, but is dangerous as it implies that the pharmacology of plant tinctures can be divined by taste alone. In class we are taught that we can divine the drug actions or use of an unknown plant simply by tasting an alcohol extract. Science? or dangerous fantasy.

There are lecturers taking clinics who allow students to dowse and partake themselves in dowsing or pendulums to diagnose and even to test suitability of plant drugs.

Dowsing is taught to us by some lecturers and frowned upon by others but we feel it brings the herbal medicine into a poor light as it is unscientific and bogus nonsense. We are concerned that we have seen the course leader brush over this practice as though she is frightened to make a stand.

The letter seems to refer to a course in herbal medicine. That is a subject that could be studied scientifically, though to do so would leave students unemployed because so few herbal treatments have been shown to work. It obviously is not being studied scientifically: but even teaching students about dowsing and pendulums does not seem to have stirred the vice-chancellor into action.

David Peters: wishful thinking?

David Peters is a nice man. He’s the Clinical Director of Westminster’s School of Integrated Health. I debated with him on the excellent Radio 4 Programme, Material World.

[listen to Material World].

His lecture on "Complementary Healthcare in the NHS" showed some fine wishful thinking.


It shows the progress of the euphemisms that quacks use to try to gain respectability, but little else. Interestingly, later slides show a bit more realism.


So he has noticed that the tide has turned and that a lot of people are no longer willing to be palmed off with new age gobbledygook. And yes, courses are shutting. Perhaps his course will be the next to shut?

According to an internal Westminster email that found its way to me,

The following courses have been closed/identified for closure due to poor recruitment :

  • BSc degrees in Homeopathy and Remedial Massage & Neuromuscular Therapy, students completing by September 2011
  • MA degrees in International Community development, Community development and Faith-based Community development, students completing by September 2011
  • BSc degree Complementary Medicine
  • Graduate diploma BMS

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

The BSc (Hons) degree in naturopathy

Naturopathy us pretty bizarre, because it consists largely of doing nothing at all, beyond eating vegetables . Being ill is good for you.

Perhaps the best source to judge claims is the US National Center for Complementary and Alternive Medicine (NCCAM), a branch of the National Institutes of Health. This is the outfit that has spent over a billion dollars of US taxpayers’ money testing alternative medicines and for all that money has not come up with a single useful treatment. They never link to any sort of critical comment, and are nothing if not biassed towards all things alternative. If they can’t come up with evidence. nobody can. Two useful links to NCCAM are Herbs at a glance, and Health Topics A – Z.

Uses of herbal teas in naturopathic dietary care

I was sent a set of over 50 slides on "Herbal Teas/Decoctions (3CMWS03, 1/02, Uses of herbal teas in naturopathic dietary care). About half of them amount to little more than ‘how to make a cup of tea’. but then we get onto uses, but then a lot of fantasy ensues.

What NNCAM says about dandelion. There is no compelling scientific evidence for using dandelion as a treatment for any medical condition.

What Westminster says

tea 2

Well I know what a diuretic is, but "blood purifier" and "liver tonic" are meaningless gobbledygook. We’ve been through this before with Red Clover (see Michael Quinion’s .look at the term "blood cleanser"). Using words like them is the very opposite of education.

What NCCAM says.about chamomile: Chamomile has not been well studied in people so there is little evidence to support its use for any condition.

What Westminster says

tea 4

So, judging by NCCAM, these claims are unjustified. It’s teaching folk-lore as though it meant something.

More dangerous advice comes when we get to the ‘repertories’.

tea 3

Infections can kill you, They are one of the modest number of things that pharmacology can usually cure, rather than treat symptomatically. If you go to a Westminster-trained naturopath with a serious infection and follow their advice to put garlic in your socks, you will not just be smelly, You could die.

Allergy and Intolerance 3CMwS03 18/02

Treating allergies, misdiagnosed by fraudulent tests, is very big business for the ‘health food industry’,

This lecture, by R. Newman Turner ND, DO, BAc, started tolerably but descended to a nadir when it mentions, apparently seriously, two of the best known fraudulent methods of allergy diagnosis, the Vega test and "Applied Kinesiology".

Kinesiology Sounds sort of sciencey, but Applied Kinesiology is actually a fraudulent and totally ineffective diagnostic method invented by (you guessed) a chiropractor.   It has been widely used by alternative medicine to misdiagnose food allergies. It does not work (Garrow, 1988: download reprint).

all 1

Could this be the same R Newman Turner who wrote a book on Naturopathic First Aid? The mind boggles.

Naturopathic Detoxification 23 CMES03 25/02 Detox Myth of Fact

This lecture was the responsibility of Irving S Boxer ND DO MRN LCH, a naturopath, homeopath and osteopath in private practice.

Don’t be fooled by the implied question in the title. It might have been taken to suggest a critical approach. Think again.

There is all the usual make-believe about unspecified and imaginary toxins that you must get rid of with enemas and vegetables.

detox 2

The skin brushing does not quite plumb the depths of Jacqueline Young’s Taking an air bath , but presumably it is something similar.

"Liver activation" by castor oil packs is pure unadulterated gobblydygook. The words mean nothing.

Their attempt to divide all foods into those that cleanse and those that clog sounds reminiscent of the Daily Mail’s ontological oncology project.


The practice of healing (3CMSS01 2/12)

Next we retreat still further into fantasy land


All pure hokum, of course’ She could have added "craniosacral therapy" (at present the subject of a complaint against the UCL Hospitals Trust (that’s the NHS, not UCL) to the Advertising Standards Authority,


Is that definition quite clear?

In fact this sort of nonsense about rays coming from your hands was disproved experimentally, in a rather famous paper, the only paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association to have been written by a 9-year old. Emily Rosa. She (with some help from her parents) devised a simple test for her 4th (US) grade science fair project. It was later repeated under more controlled conditions and written up for JAMA [download reprint] . It showed that the claims of ‘therapeutic touch" practitioners to be able to detect "auras" were totally false. No subsequent work has shown otherwise. Why, then, does the University of Westminster teach it as part of a Bachelor of Science degree?

You can see Emily Rosa herself explain why “therapeutic touch is bullshit” with Penn and Teller, in Penn and Teller Expose Therapeutic Touch.

Environmental stress

The last bit of hokum (for the moment) is one of the best. This one has every myth under the sun (including some I hadn’t heard of).


The lecturer, Val Bullen, was also responsible for the infamous "Amethysts emit high Yin energy" slide. One of her own students desribes her as "sweet but deluded". I have nothing against Ms Bullen, She can believe whatever she wants. My problem is with the vice-chancellor, Prof Geoffrey Petts, who seems to think that this sort of stuff is appropriate for a BSc.



Everything barmy is here. Mobile phones, power lines, underwater streams, ley lines, sick building syndrome, are all reasons why you don’t feel 100 percent, Actually my reason is having to read this junk. The "definitions" are, as always, just meaningless words.







But don’t despair. Help is at hand.


Just in case you happen to have run out of Alaskan Calling All Angels Essence, you can buy it from Baldwin’s for £19.95. It’s "designed to invoke the nurturing, uplifting and joyful qualities of the angelic kingdom.", and what’s more "can also use them any time to cleanse, energize, and protect your auric field." Well that’s what it says.in the ad.

Yarrow Environmental Solution looks like good stuff too. Only £7.95 for 7.5 ml. For that you get a lot. It will

" . . strengthen and protect against toxic environmental influences, geopathic stress, and other hazards of technology-dominated modern life. This includes the disruptive effects of radiation on human energy fields from X-rays, televisions, computer monitors, electromagnetic fields, airplane flights or nuclear fall-out."

OK stop giggling. This is serious stuff, taught in a UK university as part of a BSc degree, and awarded a high score by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

Professor Petts, are you listening? I believe it is you, not I, who is bringing your university into disrepute.


The slides shown here are copyright of the University of Westminster or of the author of the lecture. They are small sample of what I was sent and are reproduced under the “fair quotation” provision, in the public interest.


5 May 2011. By sheer coincidence, Emily and Linda Rosa were passing through London. They called for lunch and here’s a picture (with Ben Goldacre) in UCL’s (endangered) Housman room. Linda kindly gave me a copy of her book Attachment Therapy on Trial: The Torture and Death of Candace Newmaker. [Download reprint of Rosa’s paper..]


6 May 2011. Talking of the “vibrational medicine” fantasy, I had an email that pointed out a site that plumbs new depths in fantasy physics. It’s on the PositiveHealthOnline website: A post there, Spirals and Energy in Nature, was written by Robert McCoy. He claims to have worked on microprocessor layout design, but anyone with school physics could tell that the article is sheer nonsense. In a way it is much more objectionable that the silly slides with coloured rays used in the Westminster course. McCoy’s post seeks to blind with sciencey-sounding language, that in fact makea no sense at all. Luckily my retweet of the site attracted the attention of a real physicist, A.P. Gaylard, who made a very welcome return to blogging with Fantasy physics and energy medicine. He dismantles the physics, line-by-line, in a devastating critique. This sort of junk physics is far more dangerous than the perpetual motion pundits and the cold-fusion fantasists. At PositiveHealthOnline it is being used to push pills that do you no good and may harm you. It is a danger to public health.

This is a slightly-modified version of the article that appeared in BMJ blogs yesterday, but with more links to original sources, and a picture. There are already some comments in the BMJ.

The original article, diplomatically, did not link directly to UCL’s Grand Challenge of Human Wellbeing, a well-meaning initiative which, I suspect, will not prove to be value for money when it comes to practical action.

Neither, when referring to the bad effects of disempowerment on human wellbeing (as elucidated by, among others, UCL’s Michael Marmot), did I mention the several ways in which staff have been disempowered and rendered voiceless at UCL during the last five years. Although these actions have undoubtedly had a bad effect on the wellbeing of UCL’s staff, it seemed a litlle unfair to single out UCL since similar things are happening in most universities. Indeed the fact that it has been far worse at Imperial College (at least in medicine) has probably saved UCL from being denuded. One must be thankful for small mercies.

There is, i think, a lesson to be learned from the fact that formal initiatives in wellbeing are springing up at a time when university managers are set on taking actions that have exactly the opposite effect. A ‘change manager’ is not an adequate substitute for a vote.  Who do they imagine is being fooled?

BMJ blogs logo
Click logo to go to BMJ

The A to Z of the wellbeing industry
From angelic reiki to patient-centred care

Nobody could possibly be against wellbeing. It would be like opposing motherhood and apple pie. There is a whole spectrum of activities under the wellbeing banner, from the undoubtedly well-meaning patient-centred care at one end, to downright barmy new-age claptrap at the other end.  The only question that really matters is, how much of it works? 

Let’s start at the fruitcake end of the spectrum.

One thing is obvious. Wellbeing is big business. And if it is no more than a branch of the multi-billion-dollar positive-thinking industry, save your money and get on with your life.

In June 2010, Northamptonshire NHS Foundation Trust sponsored a “Festival of Wellbeing” that included a complementary therapy taster day. In a BBC interview one practitioner used the advertising opportunity, paid for by the NHS, to say “I’m an angelic reiki master teacher and also an angel therapist.” “Angels are just flying spirits, 100 percent just pure light from heaven. They are all around us. Everybody has a guardian angel.” Another said “I am a member of the British Society of Dowsers and use a crystal pendulum to dowse in treatment sessions. Sessions may include a combination of meditation, colour breathing, crystals, colour scarves, and use of a light box.” You couldn’t make it up.
The enormous positive-thinking industry is no better. Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, explains how dangerous the industry is, because, as much as guardian angels, it is based on myth and delusion. It simply doesn’t work (except for those who make fortunes by promoting it). She argues that it fosters the sort of delusion that gave us the financial crisis (and pessimistic bankers were fired for being right). Her interest in the industry started when she was diagnosed with cancer.  She says

”When I was diagnosed, what I found was constant exhortations to be positive, to be cheerful, to even embrace the disease as if it were a gift. If that’s a gift, take me off your Christmas list,”

 It is quite clear that positive thinking does nothing whatsoever to prolong your life (Schofield et al 2004;   Coyne et al 2007; 2,3), any more than it will cure tuberculosis or cholera. “Encouraging patients to “be positive” only may add to the burden of having cancer while providing little benefit” (Schofield et al 2004). Far from being helpful, it can be rather cruel.

Just about every government department, the NHS, BIS, HEFCE, and NICE, has produced long reports on wellbeing and stress at work. It’s well known that income is correlated strongly with health (Marmot, M., 2004). For every tube stop you go east of Westminster you lose a year of life expectancy (London Health Observatory).  It’s been proposed that what matters is inequality of income (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). The nature of the evidence doesn’t allow such a firm conclusion (Lynch et al. 2004), but that isn’t really the point. The real problem is that nobody has come up with good solutions. Sadly the recommendations at the ends of all these reports don’t amount to a hill of beans. Nobody knows what to do, partly because pilot studies are rarely randomised so causality is always dubious, and partly because the obvious steps are either managerially inconvenient, ideologically unacceptable, or too expensive.

Take two examples:

Sir Michael Marmot’s famous Whitehall study (Marmot, M., 2004)  has shown that a major correlate of illness is lack of control over one’s own fate: disempowerment. What has been done about it? 

In universities it has proved useful to managers to increase centralisation and to disempower academics, precisely the opposite of what Marmot recommends.

As long as it’s convenient to managers they are not going to change policy. Rather, they hand the job to the HR department which appoints highly paid “change managers,” who add to the stress by sending you stupid graphs that show you emerging from the slough of despond into eternal light once you realise that you really wanted to be disempowered after all. Or they send you on some silly “resilience” course.

change diagram
Pyschobabble from UCL’s HR department

A second example comes from debt. According to a BIS report (Mental Capital and Wellbeing), debt is an even stronger risk factor for mental disorder than low income. So what is the government’s response to that? To treble tuition fees to ensure that almost all graduates will stay in debt for most of their lifetime. And this was done despite the fact that the £9k fees will save nothing for the taxpayer: in fact they’ll cost more than the £3k fees. The rise has happened, presumably, because the ideological reasons overrode the government’s own ideas on how to make people happy.

Nothing illustrates better the futility of the wellbeing industry than the response that is reported to have been given to a reporter who posed as an applicant for a “health, safety, and wellbeing adviser” with a local council. When he asked what “wellbeing” advice would involve, a member of the council’s human resources team said: “We are not really sure yet as we have only just added that to the role. We’ll want someone to make sure that staff take breaks, go for walks — that kind of stuff.”

The latest wellbeing notion to re-emerge is the happiness survey. Jeremy Bentham advocated “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” but neglected to say how you measure it. A YouGov poll asks, “what about your general well-being right now, on a scale from 1 to 10.” I have not the slightest idea about how to answer such a question. As always some things are good, some are bad, and anyway wellbeing relative to whom?  Writing this is fun. Trying to solve an algebraic problem is fun. Constant battling with university management in order to be able to do these things is not fun. The whole exercise smacks of the sort of intellectual arrogance that led psychologists in the 1930s to claim that they could sum up a person’s intelligence in a single number.  That claim was wrong and it did great social harm.

HEFCE has spent a large amount of money setting up “pilot studies” of wellbeing in nine universities. Only one is randomised, so there will be no evidence for causality. The design of the pilots is contracted to a private company, Robertson Cooper, which declines to give full details but it seems likely that the results will be about as useless as the notorious Durham fish oil “trials”(Goldacre, 2008).

Lastly we get to the sensible end of the spectrum: patient-centred care. Again this has turned into an industry with endless meetings and reports and very few conclusions.  Epstein & Street (2011) say

“Helping patients to be more active in consultations changes centuries of physician-dominated dialogues to those that engage patients as active participants. Training physicians to be more mindful, informative, and empathic transforms their role from one characterized by authority to one that has the goals of partnership, solidarity, empathy, and collaboration.”

That’s fine, but the question that is constantly avoided is what happens when a patient with metastatic breast cancer expresses a strong preference for Vitamin C or Gerson therapy, as  advocated by the YesToLife charity. The fact of the matter is that the relationship can’t be equal when one party, usually (but not invariably) the doctor, knows a lot more about the problem than the other. 

What really matters above all to patients is getting better.  Anyone in their right mind would prefer a grumpy condescending doctor who correctly diagnoses their tumour, to an empathetic doctor who misses it. It’s fine for medical students to learn social skills but there is a real danger of so much time being spent on it that they can no longer make a correct diagnosis.  Put another way, there is confusion between caring and curing. It is curing that matters most to patients. It is this confusion that forms the basis of the bait and switch tactics (see also here) used by magic medicine advocates to gain the respectability that they crave but rarely deserve.

If, as is only too often the case, the patient can’t be cured, then certainly they should be cared for. That’s a moral obligation when medicine fails in its primary aim. There is a lot of talk about individualised care. It is a buzzword of quacks and also of the libertarian wing which says NICE is too prescriptive. It sounds great, but it helps only if the individualised treatment actually works.

Nobody knows how often medicine fails to be “patient-centred.”. Even less does anyone know whether patient-centred care can improve the actual health of patients. There is a strong tendency to do small pilot trials that are as likely to mislead as inform. One properly randomised trial (Kinmonth et al., 1998) concluded

“those committed to achieving the benefits of patient centred consulting should not lose the focus on disease management.”

Non-randomised studies may produce more optimistic conclusions (e.g. Hojat et al, 2011), but there is no way to tell if this is simply because doctors find it easy to be empathetic with patients who have better outcomes.

Obviously I’m in favour of doctors being nice to patients and to listening to their wishes. But there is a real danger that it will be seen as more important than curing. There is also a real danger that it will open the doors to all sorts of quacks who claim to provide individualised empathic treatment, but end up recommending Gerson therapy for metastatic breast cancer. The new College of Medicine, which in reality is simply a reincarnation of the late unlamented Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, lists as its founder Capita, the private healthcare provider that will, no doubt, be happy to back the herbalists and homeopaths in the College of Medicine, and, no doubt, to make a profit from selling their wares to the NHS.

In my own experience as a patient, there is not nearly as much of a problem with patient centred care as the industry makes out. Others have been less lucky, as shown by the mid-Staffordshire disaster (Delamothe, 2010),  That seems to have resulted from PR being given priority over patients. Perhaps all that’s needed is to save money on all the endless reports and meetings (“the best substitute for work”), ban use of PR agencies (paid lying) and to spend the money on more doctors and nurses so they can give time to people who need it.  This is a job that will be hindered considerably by the government’s proposals to sell off NHS work to private providers who will be happy to make money from junk medicine.


Wilkinson. R & Pickett, K.  2009 , The Spirit Level, ISBN 978 1 84614 039 6

A footnote on Robertson Cooper and "resilience"

I took up the offer of Robertson Cooper to do their free "resilience" assessment, the company to which HEFCE has paid an undisclosed amount of money.


The first problem arose when it asked about your job. There was no option for scientist, mathematician, university or research, so I was forced to choose "education and training". (a funny juxtaposition since training is arguably the antithesis of education). It had 195 questions. mostly as unanswerable as in the YouGov happiness survey. I particularly liked question 124 "I see little point in many of the theoretical models I come across". The theoretical models that I come across most are Markov models for the intramolecular changes in a receptor molecule when it binds a ligand (try, for example, Joint distributions of apparent open and shut times of single-ion channels and maximum likelihood fitting of mechanisms). I doubt the person who wrote the question has ever heard of a model of that sort. The answer to that question (and most of the others) would not be worth the paper they are written on.

The whole exercise struck me as the worst sort of vacuous HR psychobabble. It is worrying that HEFCE thinks it is worth spending money on it.


Jump to follow-up

An email yesterday alerted me to YesToLife. This outfit seemed to me to be so dangerous that a word of warning is in the public interest.

Their own description says “YES TO LIFE is a new charitable initiative to open up a positive future for people with cancer in the UK by supporting an integrative* approach to cancer care”. That sounds sort of cuddly but lets look below the surface.

As so often, the funding seems to have been raised as the result of the death of an unfortunate 23 year old woman. Instead of putting the money into real research, yet another small charity was formed. My correspondent pointed out that “I came across them at St Pancras Station on Friday afternoon — they had a live DJ to draw in the crowd and were raising funds through bucket collections”. No doubt many people just see the word ‘cancer’ and put money in the bucket, without realising that their money will be spent on promoting nonsensical and ineffective treatments.

The supporters list.

The list of supporters tells you all you need to know, if you are familiar with the magic medicine business, though it might look quite convincing if you don’t know about the people. Sadly the list starts with some celebrities (I didn’t know before that Maureen Lipman was an enthusiast foir quackery -how very sad). But never mind the air-head celebrities. The more interesting supporters come later.

  • Dr Rosy Daniel of Health Creation is an old friend. After I complained about her promotion of some herbal concoction called Carctol to “heal cancer”, she was reprimanded by Trading Standards for breaching the Cancer Act 1939, and forced to change the claims (in my view she should have neen prosecuted but, luckily of her, Trading Standards people are notoriously ineffective). There is, of course not the slightest reason to to think that Carctol works (download Carctol: Profits before Patients?). Read also what Cancer Research UK say about carctol.
    Dr Daniel is also well known because ran a course that was, for one year, accredited by the University of Buckingham. But once the university became aware of the nonsense that was being taught on the course, they first removed her as the course director, and then removed accreditation from the course altogether. She then tried to run the course under the aegis of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, but even they turned her down. Now it is running as a private venture, and is being advertised by YesToLife.
  • Boo Armstrong, “Chief Executive of The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health and Founder and Executive Director GetWellUK”. The web site is out of date since the Prince’s Foundation shut its doors a year ago. She runs a private company, GetWellUK, that was responsible for a very poor study of alternative medicine in Northern Ireland. So she has a vested interest in promoting it. See Peter Hain and GetwellUK: pseudoscience and privatisation in Northern Ireland
  • Professor George Lewith. This is beginning to look like the usual list of suspects. I’ve had cause to write twice about the curious activities of Dr Lewith. See Lewith’s private clinic has curious standards, in 2006, and this year George Lewith’s private practice. Another case study. The make up your own mind about whether you’d trust him.
  • Dr Michael Dixon OBE, Chairman NHS Alliance and Medical Director The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health. Again the job description is a year out of date. You can read about Dr Dixon at Prince of Wales Foundation for magic medicine: spin on the meaning of ‘integrated’. He seems to be a well meaning man for whom no new-age idea is too barmy.

    In fact both Dixon and Lewith have moved to a reincarnation of the Prince’s Foundation known as the “College of Medicine” (actually it’s a couple of offices in Buckingham Street). See Don’t be deceived. The new “College of Medicine” is a fraud and delusion.
    It seems to me incomprehensible that people such as Sir Graeme Catto, Sir Cyril Chantler and Sir Muir Grey are willing to be associated with people who behave like this.
  • Charlotte Grobien, Managing Director, Give it Away. This seems to be a fund-raising organisation that has supported YesToLife. The lesson seems to be, never give money to fundraisers unless you know exactly where your money is going.

The Help Centre

YesToLife has a help centre. But beware, There is no medical person there. Just Traditional Chinese medicine (rather dangerous), acupuncture, osteopath and naturopathy (which means, roughly, do nothing and hope for the best).

Patrick Holford,

There can be no better indication of the standard of advice to be expected from YesToLife than the fact they are advertising a lecture by Holford, with the enticing title "Say no to cancer"."Through learning about the effects of diet and nutrition, people with cancer or at risk of developing cancer can be empowered to say Yes to Life and No to Cancer". Would that it were so easy. It will cost you £15.00.

Just in case there is still nobody who has heard of Holford, he is the media nutritionist who has an entire chapter devoted to him in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science book, He has a whole website that has exposed his dubious advice, the excellent HolfordWatch. And you can find quite a lot about him on this blog. Try, for example, Patrick Holford’s CV: the strange case of Dr John Marks, and Response to a threatening letter from Mr Holford, or Holford’s untruthful and unsubstantiated advertisement

The treatments directory

Now we get to the truly scary bit of YesToLife, their treatment directory. Try searching for ‘cancer type’ and then "breast (metastatic)".. We find no mention of the advances in understanding of the genetics of breast cancer, nor ot real therapies like tamoxifen. What we find are four "alternative treatments".

  • Neuroimmunomodulation Therapy It sounds impressive until you learn that its only proponent is a an 82 year old Venezuelan doctor with a clinic in Caracas. Even YesToLife doesn’t pretend that there is any evidence that it works
  • Vitamin C Therapy The old chestnut cure-all Vitamin C Again even YesToLife don’t pretend there is any good evidence but it is still offered; treatment cost £3140.00 (what? Vitamin C is very cheap indeed)
  • Dendritic Cell Therapy Said by YesToLife to be "well-researched", though that isn’t so for breast cancer (metastatic). Although possibly not as barmy as the other things that are recommended, it is nevertheless not shown to be effective for any sort of cancer,
  • Gerson Therapy It is a sign of the extreme unreliability of advice given by YesToLife that they should still recommend anything as totally discredited as Gerson Therapy.Although YesToLife describes it as "well-researched" that is simply not true: there are no proper clinical trials. Cancer Research UK say

    "Overall, there is no evidence to show that Gerson therapy works as a cure for cancer. "
    "Available scientific evidence does not support claims that Gerson therapy can treat cancer. It is not approved for use in the United States. Gerson therapy can be very harmful to your health. Coffee enemas have been linked to serious infections, dehydration, constipation, colitis (inflammation of the colon), and electrolyte imbalances. In some people, particular aspects of the diet such as coffee enemas have been thought to be responsible for their death."

    Recommended reading: The (Not-So-)Beautiful (Un)Truth about the Gerson protocol and cancer quackery, by David Gorski (breast cancer surgeon, writing in Science-based Medicine.


The information supplied by YesToLife is more likely to kill you than to cure you.

The next time you see somebody collecting for a "cancer charity" be very careful before you give them money.


November 2012. It gets worse.

I had an email from someone who was distressed because a friend was trying to raise £15,000 to cover the cost of treatments recommended by YesToLife. The treatment is high-dose intravenous Vitamin C infusion. This is pure quackery. There isn’t the slightest reason to think it will affect the course of cancer, or the wellbeing of the patient. It is exploitation of the desperate. My heart sinks at the thought that a “charity” can be quite so wicked.

As promised in my last post about Edinburgh Napier University, I wrote to the vice-chancellor of the university, Professor Dame Joan K. Stringer DBE, BA (Hons) CertEd PhD CCMI FRSA FRSE, to invite her to respond.

7 February, 2011

Dear Professor Stringer,

I should be grateful if you could let me know about your opinion of the degrees that you offer in Aromatherapy and Reflexology

I have posted on my blog a bit of the material that was sent to me as result of recent FoI requests. See http://www.dcscience.net/?p=4049

I submit that degrees like this detract from the intellectual respectability of what is, not doubt, in other respects a good university, but since you are mentioned in the post, it’s only fair to give you the chance to defend yourself. In fact you’d be very welcome to do so publicly by commenting on the post.

Best regards

David Colquhoun

Over a month later, I have received no response at all. This seems to me to be a bit discourteous.

There is nothing new in failing to get any answer to letters to vice-chancellors. The only VC who has ever thanked me for opening his eyes is Terence Kealey, of the University of Buckingham. All the rest have stayed silent. I can interpret this silence only as guilt. They know it’s nonsense, but dare not say so. Of course it isn’t infrequent for the course to close down after public exposure of the nonsense they teach. So perhaps the letters get read, even if they don’t elicit a reply.

Meanwhile the university sent me more materials that are used to teach their students. So here is another sample, largely from what’s taught to the unfortunate “reflexology” students.

Remember, these pre-scientific myths are not being taught as history or anthropology. They are taught as though they were true, to students who are then let loose on patients, so they can make money from anyone who is gullible enough to believe what they say.


There are no "excess body energies". It’s made-up nonsense.


The diagram is pure imagination. It dates form a time before we knew anything about physiology, yet it is still being taught as though it meant something.


The admission that there is controversy is interesting. But it doesn’t seem to deter Napier’s teachers in the slightest.


How can anyone in the 21st century believe that the heart is "king of our emotional existence”?. That’s just preposterous pre-scientific myth,


You must be joking.




"Vibrational medicine" is a non-existent subject. Pure gobbledygook.


This is partly old, partly quite new. It is all preposterous made-up nonsense. There isn’t the slightest reason to think that "zones" or "meridians" exist. In fact there is good evidence from acupuncture studies to think that they don’t exist.

Now some slides from course CPT08102. The mention of the word ‘energy’ in the alternative world always rings alarm bells. Here’s why.


Well, it’s a good question. Pity about the answer.


Shouldn’t that read "as a practising reflexologist it is important than you have a MISunderstanding of the energy that surrounds us"?.


What logic? Have these people never heard of Hodgkin & Huxley (the answer, I imagine, is no)?


The mention of Kim Jobst immediately raises suspicions. He is a homeopath and endorser of the obviously fraudulent Q-link

"when you as a reflexologist palpate the foot you not only produce the physical responses in the CNS but also enter the energetic body and move energy , , ". Well, no you don’t. This is purely made-up nonsense. The words sound "sciencey" but the meaning of the words is utterly obscure.


Yes we do live in an interconnected world. And sadly, that interconnectedness is used to spread myth and misinformation, usually with the aim of making money.

I guess Edinburgh Napier University makes money by teaching ancient myths as though they were true. In so doing they destroy their academic reputation.


Here you are tested to see how much nonsense you have memorised successfully. If only they had sent ‘model answers’.

Remember, these pre-scientific myths are not being taught as history or anthropology. They are taught as though they were true, to students who are then let loose on patients, so they can make money from anyone who is gullible enough to believe what they say.

A 2009 systematic review of randomised controlled trials concludes that “The best evidence available to date does not demonstrate convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition.”. So forget it.

How about it Professor Stringer? Isn’t it time to clean up your university?


In 2009 I asked Napier University Edinburgh for details of what was taught on its herbal medicine "BSc" course. At first it was refused, but then (as often seems to happen when threatened with exposure) the course was closed, and Napier sent what I’d asked for without waiting for the judgement from the Scottish Information Commissioner,


Some samples of the dangerous nonsense that used to be taught on Napier’s herbal medicine course (now closed) have been exposed in “Hot and cold herbal nonsense from Napier University Edinburgh: another course shuts“.

That sadly doesn’t mean that Napier has stopped teaching nonsense. It offers a 3 year Honours BA degree in "reflexology" (the only other place in UCAS is the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC), which offers a “BSc(Hons)”, though nine other places offer foundation degrees or HND)

Napier also offers a BA (Hons) in Aromatherapy, according to UCAS

Clearly quackademia has not died entirely yet, though it is on its way. It has closed down entirely at the University of Salford and the University of Central Lancashire. And when I wrote about quackademia in Nature in 2007 there were five "BSc" degrees in homeopathy. Now UCAS does not list a single one. It has even vanished in the home of woo, the University of Westminster.

When I asked Napier for teaching materials used in reflexology and aromatherapy, the request was, as usual. refused. In a letter dated 20 August 2010, David Cloy, Head of Governance & Management Services, wrote that disclosure of the materials “. , would be substantially prejudicial to the Universitys [sic] commercial interests”.

Scotland has its own Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, and its own Information Commissioner, so it wasn’t possible to rely on the win that I had with the Information Commission (England and Wales). An Appeal was duly lodged on September 3rd 2010. They were a lot faster than before and their decision, dated 9 December 2010, was again almost completely in my favour [download the whole decision]. The decision ended thus.

The Commissioner finds that Edinburgh Napier University (the University) failed to comply with Part 1 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) in responding to the information request made by Professor Colquhoun. The University wrongly withheld information under section 33(1)(b) of FOISA, and thereby failed to comply with section 1(1) of FOISA. It also failed to provide Professor Colquhoun with notice that certain of the information he had requested was not held, as required by section 17(1) of FOISA. The University also failed to provide Professor Colquhoun with reasonable advice and assistance in relation to his information request, as required by section 15(1) of FOISA.

The Commissioner therefore requires the University to provide the withheld information, and the advice detailed in paragraph 16 of this decision notice, by 27 January 2011.

There is quite a lot of material, so I’ll restrict myself to a few quotations.

Therapeutic Touch

This makes an interesting example because it is so obviously fraudulent. It is particularly interesting because of a famous paper published in 1996, in the Journal of the American Medical Association (read the paper) by Emily Rosa aged 9. She devised a simple experiment that showed convincingly that healers could not do what they claimed. Nobody has ever detected the magic rays that are said to emanate from the hands of the ‘healer’/confidence trickster. It is all pure make-believe. Like so many things of its sort, there is no ancient wisdom involved. It was invented in 1977 by a nurse. Watch the video of the test on YouTube, or the less reverent version by Penn and Teller. Also worth reading is Why Therapeutic Touch Should Be Considered Quackery.

I was sent a set if slides that are used for teaching students at Edinburgh Napier University about "Therapeutic Touch" (part of course CPT08104 “Pathophysiology Insights to Practice”)..

When reading these, remember that this is not a course on cultural history, or a course about the pre-scientific beliefs of primitive tribes as in anthropology. It is taught to students to enable them to charge money to sick and desperate people.

Rogerian Perspectives on Therapeutic Touch

– seen as a knowledgeable and purposive patterning of patient-environment energy field process in which (the nurse) assumes a meditative form of awareness and uses her/his hands as a focus for the patterning of the mutual patient-environment energy field process”.

Four Principal (Conceptual ) Building Blocks.

Energy Fields.

The fundamental unit of the living and the non living” (Rogers 1986).

This field is considered to be irreducible – not comprehensible in terms of a simple list of component parts.


  • The human field is integral with the environmental field
  • Reflects a continuous and open movement/interchange between the human and environmental fields.  Considered to be a process of evolution and ongoing re-fashioning..


Pattern – the distinguishing characteristic of the energy field.

A very useful concept – it helps with understanding the uniqueness of the individual – human existence and movement of energy.

Patterns of relating – responding 

  • Patterns of thinking 
  • Patterns of behaving 
  • Wave-like activity of energy fields 
  • Patterns of expansion/contraction 
  • Patterns of responding to environmental phenomena – lunar cycles – seasonal cycles. 

Pan-dimensionality – a non-linear domain without special / temporal attributes

  • Different and relative to our everyday 3-d world.
  • Involves different means of knowing/understanding

Rogers model also has 3 cardinal principles.

Three Principles of Homeodynamics:

  • Integrality – refers to continuity and integrality of human and environmental fields. 
  • Helicy – relates to openness and pattern.  Basically asserts that movement within fields is generally in the direction of greater complexity and diversity. ( true in health and disrupted health)
  • Resonancy – related to helicy – refers to the tendency for energy/living processes to move from low frequency/long wave patterns towards high frequency/short wave patterns


Teilhardt de Chardin  (Essay on Human Spirituality)

A comparative Explanation of Rogers’ laws of Homeodynamics )

  1. Life is not a partial limited property of matter – analogous to some vibratory or molecular effect:  it is rather a sort of inverse of everything that habitually serves us as a definition of matter”.
  2. The Cosmos could not possibly be explained as a dust of unconscious elements on which life, for some incomprehensible reason burst into flower – as an accident or as a mould.  But it is fundamentally and primarily living and its complete history nothing but an immense psychic exercise”. e.g. a movement from matter to spirit e.g. from primal reproductive sexual energy to love
  3. “Not only a unique and periodic attraction for the purposes of material fertility ….. but an unbanded and continuous possibility of contact between minds rather than bodies.  The play of countless subtle antennae seeking one another in the light and darkness of the soul.

All of this is so many meaningless words. It has the vaguely sciencey sound beloved of quacks (and post-modernists), but it is a million miles from science.

Empirically it just doesn’t work.

Sadly the slides from Napier did not include any helpful illustrations, but these two, from a similar lecture given at the University of Westminster should make it all clear.




There’s some perfectly sensible stuff about the chemistry of essential oils. It’s when it comes to what they are good for that things rapidly come unstuck. Table 17 (extracted from a handout on essential oil chemistry) has all sorts of suggested uses

Essential oils can correct deficits or blockages in energy
Difficult to back up with scientific research, but nevertheless an important property in aromatherapy
Synergistic blending using the energetic approaches

So it is "important" but there is no evidence for it. The Table is prefaced by a disclaimer of sorts.

There is a body of anecdotal information concerning the potential therapeutic actions of essential oils, such as their anti-inflammatory, sedative and analgesic effects (Bowles 2003).

Despite some of the potential uses of essential oils contained in Table 17, it is not the role of the aromatherapist to treat specific conditions such as infections. However, the therapist can include appropriate oils in a holistic context, and can offer aromatherapy support preparations for home use.

At this point the handout does give quite strong hints that there is no good evidence that any of it works. In that case, why are they doing a three year degree in it?

Then of course we get on to the 19th century vitalism (being taught in the 21st century) and the usual ‘energy’ nonsense. For example

Holmes (1997) proposed that the nature of a fragrance can bring about specific psychotherapeutic effects. Using three fragrance parameters – tone (odour quality), intensity and note (evaporation rate), with tone being the most significant, and six fragrance categories – spicy, sweet, lemony, green, woody and rooty. He proposes that the nature of a fragrance will bring about specific psychotherapeutic effects. The following is a summary of his suggestions.

‘High/Top tone’ oils such as those from the citrus group, the Myrtaceae family and also ylang ylang extra and 1, lavender and mimosa abs. will have a stimulating, uplifting effect.

‘Low/Base tone’ oils including vetivert, patchouli, sandalwood and also tuberose, hay and oakmoss abs., will have a depressing, sedating effect.

Gabriel Mojay is quoted as saying

“Fragrance is the primary effective quality of essential oils. By this we mean their most immediate and generalised effect on the body and mind. This effect is first and foremost an energetic effect – as it is the vital energy of the human organism that first responds to an essential oil and its fragrance.”

These are just more empty words, woolly thoughts about long-discredited ideas of vitalism. They are presented entirely uncritically.


Reflexology is based on the utterly barmy proposition that "… reflexologists claim to be a system of zones and reflex areas that they say reflect an image of the body on the feet and hands, with the premise that such work effects a physical change to the body".

Regardless of its absurd premises, it just doesn’t work. A review by Ernst (2009) concludes

"The best evidence available to date does not demonstrate convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition."

It is simply a foot massage, There’s nothing wrong with that, if you like that kind of thing, but please don’t pretend it is anything more

One handout lists, under the treatments for Migraines and Headaches

  • Homeopathy (applying the principle of similimum)
  • Herbal
  • Massage for relaxation
  • Reflexology (addressing reflexes relating to head, neck, solar plexus, spine, pituitary & digestive systems).
  • Nutritional therapy
  • Accupressure.[sic]
  • Bach Flowers may be useful

No evidence is cited for any of them, not doubt because next-to-none exists.

A three year degree in rubbing feet is just an absurdity.

The material that was sent about reflexology was very thin. I’ve asked for more, but in a sense it doesn’t matter, because all one has to do is look at a standard reflexology diagram to see what a load of unmitigated nonsense it is. There isn’t the slightest reason to think that an area on your big toe is ‘connected’ in some unspecified sense, to you nose, It is just preposterous made-up junk.

reflexology diagram
Diagram from Scienceblogs

Who is responsible?

I’m quite happy to believe that the people who teach this new-age nonsense actually believe it.

What I would like to know is whether the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University believes it. She is Professor Dame Joan K. Stringer DBE, BA (Hons) CertEd PhD CCMI FRSA FRSE.

That’s an impressive string of initials for somebody who seems to defend 19th century vitalism as a suitable subject for an honours degree. I could ask her, but such letters rarely get a response.


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.


Jump to follow-up

One of my greatest scientific heros is A.V.Hill, and its one of my great regrets that I saw him only in the distance. He’s a hero partly because of his science, but also because of his other interests, in particular his efforts to help scientists escape from pre-war Germany. Read the Biographical Memoir of Hill, written by Bernard Katz [download pdf], and comments in my obituary for Katz.


A.V. Hill, c. 1935 (drawn by Edward Halliday in 1978, from a photograph)

Hill 1935

There are some amazing pictures from Hill’s photo album here. And you can read an account of a visit to the lab on Boxing Day 1960 written by AV’s grandson, Nicholas Humphrey (his father, John Humphrey, was external examiner of my PhD). And Tom Chivers, who writes a rather good column in the Telegraph is Alison Hill’s son, and so he’s the great grandson of AV. In yet another irrelevant coincidence, I lived for a year in a Max Planck Institute house that had previously been occupied by Otto Meyerhof who, in 1922, got the Nobel prize jointly with AV Hill.

Some of the scientific background is given by Austin Elliott, as I did in The quantitative analysis of drug–receptor interactions: a short history.

This post was prompted not so much by the science as by the curious conjunction of the New Year’s Honours List, and a discovery from Twitter. Hill won the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1922, but refused the customary knighthood or peerage that gets offered on such occasions. Dr Alison Hill, AV’s granddaughter, mentioned on Twitter that Hill loved quoting a verse by A.A. Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh) that I had never heard before. It appears to come from a book, The Sunny Side, that Milne publshed in 1921. It’s worth quoting in full.


I know a Captain of Industry,
Who made big bombs for the R.F.C.,
And collared a lot of £ s. d.–
And he–thank God!–has the O.B.E.

I know a Lady of Pedigree,
Who asked some soldiers out to tea,
And said “Dear me!” and “Yes, I see”–
And she–thank God!–has the O.B.E.

I know a fellow of twenty-three,
Who got a job with a fat M.P.–
(Not caring much for the Infantry.)
And he–thank God!–has the O.B.E.

I had a friend; a friend, and he
Just held the line for you and me,
And kept the Germans from the sea,
And died–without the O.B.E.
Thank God!
He died without the O.B.E.

This also led to the unexpected discovery that A.A. Milne, like A.V. Hill, had done a mathematics degree at Trinity College Cambridge before moving on to teddy bears.

Wikepedia gives a list of the alternative roll of honour, those who have declined an honour.

The list of honours in Higher Education contains the usual administrators and vice-chancellors. It contains next to no scientists. I can’t say i find it very inspiring. The main effect of the honours system seems to be to keep people from rocking the boat until the day they die.

One is once again reminded of the definition from A Sceptic’s Medical Dictionary (BMJ publishing, 1997). by Michael O’Donnell.

Knight starvation

“Affective disorder that afflicts senior doctors . . . A progressive condition that deteriorates with the publication of each Honours List and, in longstanding cases, can produce serious erosion of judgement and integrity.”

Here’s a 1932 picture with several scientific heros. Hill is in the centre, with A.J. Clark on his left and Verney on his right, J.H.Gaddum is on the left end of the back row (all holders of the UCL chair in Pharmacology). .

Hill 1932
Taken from K J Franklin’s History of the International Physiological Congress – it is a photo taken on the SS Minnekhda, charted by European physiologists to attend the 1932 Boston congress. [Dr Tilli Tansey, FMedSci., Hon FRCP.,Historian of Modern Medical Sciences Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, UCL


Here are two more documents that are relevant to the life of A.V. Hill.

Gerta Vrbová (born 1926, in Slovakia) wrote "Archibald V. Hill’s contribution to science and society" [download pdf]. She herself lived through the holocaust. The story of her escape to England is like an adventure novel. She became a professor at UCL where I met her many times.

" as an academic she was able to gain permission to travel between the Soviet states of Eastern Europe, and on a visit to a conference in Poland in 1958, she decided to make her escape. Travelling on foot across the mountains back to Czechoslovakia, she collected her children aged four and six, crossed the Polish Czechoslovak border with them and took a train to Warsaw. Having unofficially entered the names of children on her passport, she was able to obtain a transit visa for Copenhagen, from where, after a year, she was able finally to come to England." [from UCL news]

Gerta Vrbová in 2014, and with husband, Rudolf Vrba, in Bratislava after the war [picture from Daily Mirror]

There is another interview with Vrbová in the Physiological Society’s Oral History series.

A.V. Hill and alphabetical order of authors

In the first 50 years of its existence, the Journal of Physiology allowed authors to choose the order in which authors appeared, But for 60 years, from the 1930s to the 1990s, the journal insisted that authors’ names be listed in alphabetical order. That, for example, is why our 1985 paper is listed as Colquhoun & Sakmann. A.V.Hill was one of the people who proposed this system and a history of it has appeared recently [download pdf]. Personally, I liked this system. though having a name that begins the "C", I couldn’t be very active in advocating it. The alphabetical system worked well when authors did experiments themselves, and most papers had 1 – 3 authors. Nobody judges contributions based on author order for Hodgkin & Huxley, or for Katz & Miledi. In the 1990s, alphabetical order was abandoned. Too few other journals used that system, and it could not survive the era of guest authors that has accompanied the publish-or-perish regime imposed on academics by managers.

2 February 2017

A.V. Hill is one of my scientific heroes, because of his science, his humanity, his running (and because he turned down a knighthood after he got the Nobel Prize in 1922 -see above.

Hilda Bastian has written a timely article about him:The same folly,the same fury. It was posted shortly after Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January), the day on which Donald Trump chose to exclude from the USA all the refugees who are fleeing from the war in Syria.

AV Hill played a central role in helping German scientists escape from the Nazis -to the enormous benefit of UK science. He spoke from the same stage as Mussolini.
He said

“Freedom itself is again at stake… It is difficult to believe in progress, at least in decency and commonsense, when this can happen almost in a night in a previously civilised State… [W]e must ensure that the same folly, the same fury, does not occur elsewhere.” A.V. Hill (Nature, 1933).

The post doesn’t mention Trump, Farage or May. It doesn’t need to.

Jump to follow-up

We hear a lot about lifelong education, and a good thing too. But we have a government that seems to think life ends at 18. The contrast between official attitudes to schools and post-school education is striking. The contrast is most striking in two areas: religious discrimination and public support for costs.

Religous discriminatiion and selection

The Universities Tests Act was passed on 18 June 1871, while William Gladstone (Liberal) was Prime minister. It was "An Act to alter the law respecting Religious Tests in the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham, and in the Halls and Colleges of those Universities". Of course UCL was founded in 1826, partly as a place that was free of religious discrimination. Since 1871 it has been illegal for a university to discriminate among applicants on the basis of their religious beliefs or lack of them. For the last 140 years it has been unimaginable that anyone would try to do such a thing.

In stark contrast, in 2010, religious discrimination among entrance 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 (illiberal) 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 younger than 18 from when you are over 18 is baffling.

It is equally baffling (and perhaps a partial explanation) that universities are not regarded by this government, or by Blair’s, as part of education at all. They are governed by the Department of Business, not the Department of Education.

Why should a postman pay for your university education?

I imagine that I’m not the only person who has wrestled with this question in the last few weeks (Stephen Law’s thoughts here)

In the UK it is a legal requirement to stay in full time education until the age of 16, and that should be increased to 18 by 2015. Although most children stay in school until 18, around 25% or 30% don’t. I have never heard anybody question the idea that education from 16 to 18 should not be supported 100 percent by the state, out of general taxation. That is the case despite the fact that not everybody stays in education up to 18.

Education up to the age of 18 is regarded as a common good and nobody questions for a moment that it should be free at the point of use.

Once again, everything changes entirely when you reach 18. Education is not regarded as a continuum, or as a life-long project. Suddenly at the age of 18, it stops being a public good worthy of state support, and becomes an optional extra for those who are rich, or those who are not deterred by the idea of going though life paying a debt that will, in some cases, approach the size of the mortgage on their house.

The ConDem coalition, on December 9th 2010, has come very close to privatising the teaching of humanities in universities. You are encouraged to learn languages from 16 – 18 and then these are dropped like a hot cake.

The result has been riots by schoolchildren and total discrediting of Liberal democrats who voted for one of the most philistine measures in living memory.

The discussion of this legislation has, in my view, focussed on the wrong thing. It has been almost entirely about the mechanisms for paying off an enormous debt. That was the wrong place to start. This is what should have been done.

(1) Consider what is being funded. Should the university system adapt to present circumstances, e.g by abolishing honours degrees and creating real graduate schools, as I suggested recently in the Times?   Disgracefully, the government has rushed headlong into changes in funding without waiting to consider what it should be funding. Equally disgracefuly, Universities UK (the vice-chancellors’ trade union) has made no constructive suggestions for change, but appears to be rendered immobile by a rift between the Russell group VCs who want to grab as much as they can as soon as possible, and other VCs who fear for their existence.

(2) After deciding what form universities should have in the future, you can then go on to discuss how much public money should be used to support the system.

(3) Only after both of these have been done, does it make sense to talk about how you pay back any contribution made by the student (and that contribution should be, at most, no bigger than now).

In their haste to make people pay high fees, the government seems to have got the worst of both worlds. They have devised a scheme that, in the long run, is likely to cost the taxpayer as much as, or even more than, the present system, while at the same time trebling fees to students. It’s hard to imagine greater incompetence than that.

But the question still lurks: why should a postman pay for your university education? My answer is yes, but not 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, inter alia, 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.


See also UCL’s Beautiful Occupation. Students seem to think more clearly about what’s happening than either university management or the government.

December 10 2010, The New York Times points out that tuition fees in the UK will, under this scheme, be double those of public universities in the USA."this new policy is an utter failure."

December 11 2010. An NHS doctor writes

"I was slightly dissapointed when 7/8 of my first year medical students showed up for their last day of teaching at my practice on thursday December 9th. The eighth student was ill, so not one of them was protesting. When I asked them why not they said that in their first week as medical students they were told not to get involved in any protests because even a police caution would mean they might be thrown off the course and almost certainly they wouldn’t get a job. Images of Fascist Spain or Nazi Germany came immediately to mind (I have just read Alone in Berlin)"

December 11 2010. The Guardian reports:

Liberal Democrat grassroots hit back over tuition fees
Richard Grayson, former director of policy, says Liberal Democrats should move closer to Ed Miliband and Labour

That sounds better.

December 12 2010. The Observer reports:
“Police officers ‘tried to stop hospital staff treating injured protester’ Mother of injured student Alfie Meadows said that her son’s life could have been put at risk by the journey to another hospital”.

Jump to follow-up

The press may like to portray students as irresponsible and revolting . When I visited the occupied Jeremy Bentham room last week, i got a very different impression. That was more than confirmed yesterday (29 November). The students aren’t just sitting around grumbling. They have organised a very impressive series of events. Here is yesterday’s programme.

UCL-occ events

I volunteered to discuss with them some ideas of what could be done to further their aims. It was the same day that our letter came out in the Daily Telegraph, that pointed out the foolishness of deciding on funding before deciding what form universities should have in the future, I also suggested some possible changes along the lines of those proposed in the Times in October.

DC at UCLoccupation

I didn’t talk for long and the discussion that followed was lively and constructive. It was about education, not revolt.

I was asked if I’d like to come back a bit later for group discussions, so I did. I found the students had split into groups. It could well have been an academic conference.

group at uclocc

There was a cheerful but entirely serious discussion about what universities should be doing, about teaching methods and about research. There was also discussion about how the good atmosphere could be continued when the occupation eventually ends. Perhaps the most obvious thing is that the students were enjoying immensely being thrown together with people from other disciplines, whom they would never have met otherwise. There were two scientists in the group I joined, the rest being from a whole range of disciplines.

It is to the credit of UCL that they haven’t brought in bailiffs or cut off access to toilets. So a lot more sensible than Warwick university’s management for example. An email was shown on the screen from Rex Knight, vice provost (operations) who seems to have been put in charge of mediation. He’s the one who refused to do anything about it when HR were advertising for people trained in that curious form of psychobabble/pyramid selling scheme, neurolinguistic programming. He decined to meet the students. These days, you just can’t get the staff.

You can just walk in and out of the Jeremy Bentham room quite freely. Some students left for lectures and then returned. Others were away that afternoon on a demonstration outside TopShop on Oxford Street. If people like Top Shop owner Philip Green paid the taxes that they should do, the crisis might not be as bad as it is.

And between the earnest intellectual stuff they have fun too. This is the dance-off against the Oxford occupation.

And this is their weekend Ceilidh

Their blog is impressive. as is their organisation. They they have an events organiser with their own email address. You can follow the activities on Twitter @ucloccupation. In just a few days they have picked up more followers on Twitter than I have,

Even the BBC reporter, Sean Coughlan, sees this a something a bit different.

These are well-dressed, articulate youngsters, there’s no damage to the room, and the occupation leaflets are mixed up with sleeping bags and text books about biology and Spanish grammar.

This looks like a revolution that probably does the hoovering when it’s finished. Any stereotypes about rent-a-rioter are way off the mark.


It’s the Hogwarts kids, with their strong sense of right and wrong, who are now putting up the barricades.

And they seem as distant from the old left as they do from the new right.

This could be the best educational experience of the year for some of them, and they were making the most of it.

It is really rather beautiful.


Sad to say. UCL’s management soon managed to lose the moral high ground and went to court to evict the students. Their blog says

On Friday 3rd December two students on behalf of the UCL Occupations attended a hearing to resist the university’s application for a possession order. After almost an hour of legal debate, the judge acknowledged the occupying students’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and concluded that no possession order could be granted without a full hearing of all the legal arguments. The hearing has been adjourned till Tuesday 7th December at 10:30am.

6 December 2010.Hobbled into work, for hospital appointment. The Slade School of Art is now occupied too. The signs are quite, eh, artistic.


One problem with the Browne report is that it didn’t consider the whole picture. It looked only at how to fund universities as they are now, and concluded that arts and humanities weren’t worth funding at all. What it failed to do (and to be fair, it wasn’t asked to do) was think what universities should be like. Perhaps that is just as well, given Browne’s views, but it means that the job is only half done.

I have argued that the present system, which was essentially dictated by John Major’s conservative government, is simply not working for an age when 45 percent of kids go into higher education. It makes no sense to decide on a funding mechanism before deciding what sort of university system we want.

Michael Collins is a lecturer in 20th Century history at UCL. On November 23rd he wrote a very interesting piece on the OpenDemocracy web site, Universities need reform – but the market is not the answer. He said

“As students begin a wave of occupations in university campuses across the UK, Michael Collins argues that academics should stand united in determined opposition to government cuts, but at the same time make a positive contribution to thinking about how the existing system of teaching and research can be reformed and restructured.”

His suggestions have much in common with mine, though mine were a bit more specific. I wrote about some concrete proposals in the Times Thunderer column. This is available without pay wall on this blog. (this was  on October 11th, before the Browne report was published). .I immediately contacted Collins and we met on 25 November and the same day he published, again on OpenDemocracy, We need a Public Commission of Enquiry on the future of higher education. That was distilled into a letter and I spent most of the next day trying to get some support from scientists. A Saturday close to Christmas isn’t the best time to get responses to emails, but the result was satisfactory nonetheless.

On Monday 29th November the letter appeared in the Daily Telegraph

We need a Public Commission of Enquiry on the future of higher education

It is clear from the scale of last week’s largely peaceful demonstrations across Britain that there is an enormous amount of concern amongst young people over the future of higher education. They are not alone.

A wide range of commentators, politicians, public figures and academics have expressed closely argued reservations about the government’s attempt to rush through changes, the far-reaching consequences of which are so uncertain and potentially so damaging.

Within universities there is considerable unease about what reforms based on the Browne report will mean. How might a ‘supply and demand’ model for arts and humanities funding function in practice? Education and research institutions cannot be set up, shut down and restarted according to market demand. With so much uncertainty about future employment prospects and economic conditions, student numbers will ebb and flow. Higher education needs greater stability.

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) ­ a respected independent think tank ­ has pointed out that the government’s proposals for higher education funding “will increase public expenditure through this parliament and into the next”. The income stream from repayments ­ which is supposed to form the long term basis for funding ­ will not come back to the treasury for many years to come.

This weakens the argument that planned changes to higher education funding are necessarily concurrent with a deficit reduction strategy in this parliament. The pledges on university tuition fees made at the 2010 general election mean the mandate for change is weak. We therefore do not believe that present circumstances are propitious for far reaching reforms.

Instead, we propose the government set up a Public Commission of Enquiry, which should include wide consultations with politicians, academics, students, business leaders and others to examine the function and funding of higher education from first principles.

Such an approach would be more likely to produce the consensus required to make reform deliverable and place the future of UK higher education on a sustainable footing.

Sir Harold Kroto KCB FRS, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, University of Sussex (Nobel Prize 1996)

Sir Christopher Bayly FBA FRSL, Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial History, University of Cambridge

Hermione Lee CBE FBA FRSL, Goldsmith’s Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford (1998-2008)

John Dainton FRSA FRS, Sir James Chadwick Professor of Physics, University of Liverpool

Christopher Pelling FBA, Regius Professor of Greek, University of Oxford

Quentin Skinner FBA, Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities, University of London

Linda Colley FBA, Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History, Princeton University

Jonathan Tennyson FRS, Massey Professor of Physics, University College London

Christopher Wickham FBA, Chair of the Faculty of History, University of Oxford

Richard Carwardine FBA, Rhodes Professor of American History, University of Oxford (2002-2009)

Mary Beard FBA, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge

Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics, University College London

Stefan Collini FBA, Professor of English Literature, University of Cambridge

David Colquhoun FRS, Professor of Pharmacology, University College London

Robert Gildea FBA, Professor of Modern History, University of Oxford

J. N. Adams FBA, Emeritus Fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford

The letter in the Telegraph was accompanied by a front page story (despite competition from Wikileaks and the snow).


For a Tory newspaper, it was surprisingly sympathetic.

Meanwhile, the student occupations continue. More of that in the next post.


This is part 2 of a critique of Steiner Waldorf schools. Part 1 was The true nature of Steiner (Waldorf) education. Mystical barmpottery at taxpayers’ expense. Part 1

The part 3 is Steiner Waldorf Schools Part 3. The problem of racism.

This essay is largely devoted to the methods used by the Steiner movement in the hope of getting state funding. That involves concealing from ministers and inspectors some of the less desirable aspects of the cult. That is sadly easy to do, because ministers and inspectors usually use a tick box approach that can easily be corrupted (just have a look, for example, at what goes on at the University of Wales). It is a classical case of bait and switch, a method that was used by chiropractors and acupuncturists to pervert the normally high standards of NICE. The technique is standard in alternative medicine, as described by the excellent Yale neurologist Steven Novella, in The Bait and Switch of Unscientific Medicine..

Steiner 1905
Steiner’s bible of the cult, 1905

The involvement of a few universities with Steiner training is every bit as disgraceful as their involvement with quack medicine, In fact Anthroposophical medicine is among the barmier forms of quackery.

Here is part 2 of the essay by two of the most knowledgeable people on the topic. They are known on Twitter as @thetismercurio and @lovelyhorse_.


Steiner Waldorf Free Schools – ‘Do we have to mention Steiner, or Anthroposophy?’

At the time of writing we are aware of 16 Steiner Waldorf schools and new initiatives in the UK applying for or publicly expressing interest in Free School Funding. The established schools are:

Initiatives & kindergartens:

The umbrella organisation for Steiner Waldorf schools in the UK is the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship. The Chief Executive Director of the SWSF is Christopher Clouder but another prominent figure is Development Director Sylvie Sklan. As representatives of the SWSF they have been the plausible public face of Anthroposophy, working for many years within the establishment to create the conditions for wholesale public funding of Steiner Waldorf schools in the UK. As pragmatists they see Michael Gove’s Free Schools Initiative as the Movement’s big chance.

We will take you into the woods to show how the Steiner edifice of nonsense has been obscured by smoke and mirrors. A government report indicates the truth, but the schools themselves are reluctant to share their Special Knowledge.

Into the Woods. A government report, and a very special inspection service

There is no independent evidence to support the pedagogy of Steiner Waldorf education. But supporting the funding of the Steiner Academy Hereford, the only state funded Steiner school to date (created under New Labour), is a government report from 2005, The Woods Report ‘Steiner Schools in England’. Mike Collins of UK Anthroposophy, home to some meticulous investigative work, demonstrates how the Woods Report describes Steiner Waldorf as Anthroposophical education.

In fact the Report’s authors are unusually candid about the occult nature of Steiner schools. They also, elsewhere, make no secret of their own immersion in the ‘spiritual’ assuming a common understanding of that ambiguous word, a word which is rarely defined. But whether or not they are themselves to any degree adherents of Anthroposophy, they clearly believe that education would benefit from Steiner’s spiritual vision, stating in the Forum Journal in 2006:

"The point is that Steiner education offers a distinctive process of opening and nurturing children and educating the whole child in the twenty-first century."

There is, in the Woods Report, an elaboration of the pivotal role of karma and reincarnation [p93] a description of the use of ‘temperaments’ to classify children [p89] and of the variance in the precise nature of allegiance to Anthroposophy amongst teachers [p94] (as observed in our first post: reflecting the nature of an esoteric religion). But ‘Steiner says’ is nevertheless the dominant code:

"Steiner’s lectures are referred to and teachers constantly update themselves on the pedagogical principles outlined by Steiner, testing these in the practice of collegial discussion.” [p105]"

This should be no surprise:

“Steiner education takes a particular perspective and entails a set of practices which relate to each other in order to give Steiner schools their character. These include the role of the teacher understood as a sacred task in helping each child’s soul and spirit grow, which underpins the commitment to each pupil and is the basis of sustaining the class teacher-pupil relationship over eight years” [p120]

This may strike the reader as rather an unusual educational aim, especially if a school is not formally classed as a ‘faith’ or religious school. Would it not take sophistry to maintain that this is not an essentially religious impulse? (It does. p97/125/129) But we must remember that we are handicapped by our ignorance of Spiritual Science. The clue is given by one of the Steiner teachers quoted, who suggests what is needed is to:

“communicate to [the] wider educational community that in essence Steiner education is a spiritual approach beyond religion” [p116]

To do them justice, in other published work the Woods are cautious, although this problem strikes us as inevitable:

“None of this should be taken to mean that Steiner schools achieve their ideals or are entirely without their flaws. Many teachers, in our view, are too dependent on following the guidance and ideas of Steiner as if they were ‘sacred’ directions.” ‘In Harmony with the child’: Philip A Woods & Glenys J Woods: Forum 48/3 2006

The Woods Report ignores the consequences for children of teachers’ adherence to the anthroposophical belief in karma and reincarnation. It is obvious that the potential for harm has not been recognised, nor taken seriously by those who should have read the Report. Instead it has been accepted that because the pedagogy is ‘spiritual’ it must be good: and the Hereford Academy has been handed funds, allowed exemptions (including the freedom to teach Steiner’s ‘Goethean science’) and stands as the precedent for further expansion of Steiner Waldorf into the State sector.

What kind of barmpottery would be too extreme for the Woods? The fact that Glenys Woods maintains she is a Reiki Healer (Angelic and Atlantaen) suggests that her beliefs about what is real would seem extravagant to those working within even the most complex and nuanced concepts of modern neuroscience.

The Woods Report suggests that Anthroposophy should be better understood by educationalists and parents; the writers clearly believe that, as a spiritual entity, it is of value. But they also attempt to diffuse the presence of Anthroposophy by stating that the “curriculum is not designed to guide and encourage young people into becoming adherents of anthroposophy…” [p120] which may appear to lessen the obligation to know what it is. When we are told the disingenuous line: ‘Anthroposophy is not taught to the children”, we should not forget that it is not explained to prospective parents either, even if there may be a few (ill-attended & bewildering) study groups for parents who have already joined. It isn’t explained to the government officials who anyway appear so incurious, or to taxpayers. We have none of us earned the right to the Movement’s Special Knowledge.

But Ofsted understands this. It knows it is not qualified.

As of September 2009 Steiner schools in the UK have been inspected not by Ofsted, who used to do so but by the Schools Inspection Service. The SIS inspects only two types of schools: those run by the Exclusive Brethren and now Steiner Waldorf.

The lay Inspectors in each case are expected to understand the distinct character of the schools. In the case of Steiner Waldorf, they have all been connected in some way with Steiner schools or with the Anthroposophical Movement.

Ofsted, which we believe feels unqualified to understand the pedagogy, has effectively allowed Steiner Waldorf schools greater powers to inspect themselves.

Free school funding relies on these inspections: the results of which are rather more positive under the new regime.

The Hereford Steiner Academy – the Academy nobody wanted.

The only state funded Steiner school in the UK has already caused controversy. Francis Beckett wrote in the Guardian in 2008 that former director of education Eddie Oram had turned down initial plans submitted on his watch because “he did not think the Steiner staff had the right expertise to deal with pupils with individual needs.”

Oram’s proof of evidence: to the Public Inquiry for the original applications by the DCSF to build a new school for the Steiner Academy, is comprehensive. There is no need, no desire and no justification for such a school in Herefordshire, especially in the village of Much Dewchurch. The Project Lead for the DCSF, sponsoring the Academy, was the Rev. Mark Evans, a church of England priest on secondment to the Department. His proof of evidence glowed with praise for Dr. Steiner:

“The outcomes of this education can be seen in the quiet confidence of its pupils, their balanced approach to life and their capacity for innovative thinking.”

But the Rev. Evans produced no evidence for this assertion, nor did he mention karma, or reincarnation. This seems a significant omission; he was in all probability unaware of the nature of the pedagogy he was selling.

The Hereford Steiner Academy site does mentions Anthroposophy, although to find it involves a little searching. The assertion that “Anthroposophy is a developing body of research”, as stated here by Hereford, should rightly be disputed. Essentially Anthroposophy is dogma; gained through ‘clairvoyance’, inherited by studying Steiner’s words, comprehended by those ascending the ladder of esoteric Knowledge. But something has to be said about it, now the Movement is forced to do so.

The Steiner Academy followed one of the recommendations of the Woods Report: unusually for a Steiner school it has a Principal, Trevor Mepham. In a long exposition to ‘Herefordshire Life’ on the nature of Steiner Waldorf education, Mepham misses the chance to satisfy another of the Woods Report’s suggestions: he doesn’t explain, by name, the system’s fundamental credo.

Free School Hopefuls

The current group of Steiner Free School hopefuls vary in their willingness to discuss Anthroposophy. As an example, on the website of the Norwich Steiner School Anthroposophy is not mentioned, although in reality it is never absent. The Norwich curriculum policy describes the pedagogy without mentioning its essence but we catch stray glimpses of angelic forms. So, a moral aim is to cultivate ‘reverence’ for nature, the children stand not in a doorway but on a ‘threshold’ and ‘The narrative thread for Ancient civilisations often begins with the fall of Atlantis’.

In the March 2010 newsletter from Norwich (‘Talking Trees’) there is an observation by a class teacher which exemplifies the Steiner Waldorf attitude to less spiritual forms of education: 

“I look at the children in Oak Class and see a luminosity that cannot be measured. When we do measure children, we diminish that luminosity. The world seems to be full of children whose inner light has been subdued, if not entirely extinguished.”

There is at the time of writing no mention of Anthroposophy on the website of the Rudolf Steiner School South Devon, except towards the end of the parents’ handbook. Although this is hard for outsiders to find, the handbook’s author still neglects to describe karma and reincarnation and includes the unusual proviso that this is ‘not a cult’. South Devon has stated on its site:

“The department [DofE] appears to be impressed by our application, in particular what they call our "strong educational vision". But before they can proceed to the next step they have asked to see stronger evidence of demand for Steiner education in the area, including from those outside the school community. They would prefer this to be in the form of a petition.”

Many of those who have agreed to sign the South Devon petition have done so in ignorance of even the name of the ‘philosophy’ that is so vital to the school, imagining that their plausible description of Steiner Waldorf is sufficient.  

In a ‘circle meeting’ held at the South Devon School in 2008, found on the web, someone even asks the question: “Do we need to mention Steiner, or Anthroposophy?” It’s hard to lose the guru’s name without changing all the signs. But surely local people might be put off if they understood how the education at this school is intimately informed by the clairvoyant visions of the Mystic Barmpot. We’ve screenshot the site, in case there are any alterations.

This concern about mentioning Anthroposophy is driven by a fear that an undercurrent of critical analysis will become mainstream.


We trust we presented in our previous post a description of Steiner Waldorf Education that identifies the intrinsic role of Anthroposophy, making the system and its flaws intelligible, but we are not suggesting that our observations are original.

Not only have there been comprehensive posts about Steiner schools on the popular political blog Liberal Conspiracy (with much additional material from Unity, including the 5 Big Ideas of science that Steiner education can’t handle); there has been in the last few years an international stream of criticism from those who have experienced Waldorf pedagogy and its effects on families. Ex-parents, students and teachers of Steiner Waldorf schools have appeared on-line, seeking answers; making sense of their own distressing experiences, expressing bewilderment and anger and frequently offering support to others.

Their words appear on blogs, on internet forums and in the press in some countries, although no UK journalist has so far grasped the significance of their warnings. What should be reiterated is that it is difficult to make sense of an esoteric (hidden) philosophy in action, even if you have chosen to be involved at its aesthetically  pleasing outer edges. For many parents, Waldorf is a form of bait and switch.

mumsnet: “You don’t expect a school to lie,”

In the New Schools Network document cited in our previous post, Free School hopefuls are advised how to advertise their projects: “Post something on mumsnet, netmums, or facebook.” If the NSN had done their homework, they would know that mumsnet Steiner threads have been so controversial (and incomprehensible to those not involved) that in 2008 parents were asked by mumsnet’s co-founder Justine Roberts not to post about Steiner education at all. Indeed the forum was threatened with legal action by Sune Nordwall, (also known as Thebee, Tizian, Excalibur, Mycroft etc) a Swedish anthroposophist; since discovered to be in the employment of the Swedish Waldorf School Federation. Blogger Alicia Hamberg aka zooey quotes (in translation):

“In England, the attacks on [waldorf] pedagogy have led to parents withdrawing their children from the waldorf schools. The [Swedish Waldorf School] Federation has employed Sune on a part-time basis to monitor the debate.”

We do not suggest on this blog that the Swedish Waldorf School Federation are responsible for or complicit in Nordwall’s activities on mumsnet or elsewhere, although as Alicia Hamberg points out, they have not sought to distance themselves from his behaviour. What is notable though is that representatives of Waldorf education in Sweden were concerned to monitor a UK debate held not in the press but in the relative obscurity of the supposedly safe, supportive world of mothers‘ chatrooms. The Steiner Waldorf movement understands the importance of a positive profile on the UK’s most influential meeting place for parents; the very people who form their customer base. But their tactics are counterintuitive. In anthro-speak everywhere, critics, the majority of whom are parents who have had children in Steiner schools, become attackers.

Even the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship’s Communications Officer Jeremy Smith felt drawn to issue a call-to-arms to rebuff those who dared to question Waldorf’s ‘good intentions’:

“I would be very grateful if teachers and parents who share these concerns would be willing to join me in posting replies to anti-Waldorf threads in an attempt to give a more accurate picture to the outside world of what Steiner education is all about. We are also co-ordinating this internationally through the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education. Please contact me at smithj@rsskl.org if you are interested in becoming involved.”

We invite them to answer us here, instead.

Stockholm University: “scientifically unacceptable… simply untrue”

There are other interesting comparisons with Sweden. A recent announcement that UK Free Schools will not be required to employ qualified teachers indicates that the UK is traveling in the opposite direction to Sweden which, in an attempt to raise standards has just introduced more stringent teacher training requirements for all its schools, including Waldorf (the state funding of which pre-dates Sweden’s own Free Schools experiment). Swedish Waldorf schools will have to apply for exemptions from these guidelines (as well as from new requirements regarding early years literacy and numeracy), since there are no university accredited Waldorf teacher training courses in Sweden.

Indeed the aspirations of Swedish anthroposophists suffered a blow in 2008 when Stockholm University closed the Waldorf teacher training courses in the Institute of Education it had recently taken over. The VC of Stockholm, Kåre Bremer, agreed with his Education Faculty that the Waldorf literature did not satisfy the University’s standards of “scientific validity” and that “Some of the content is not only scientifically unacceptable, it is simply untrue.”

Alicia Hamberg described the ensuing outcry from the Waldorf community; quoting the dean of the faculty of natural sciences and professor of bio-chemistry, Stefan Nordlund, who stated in a Swedish newspaper article:

“In parts, the students’ course literature is not simply unscientific. It is in fact dangerous, and it conveys misconceptions which are worse than muddled. We are supported by the department of natural sciences as well as the department of humanities in taking this position.”

A relaxation of teaching qualifications here in the UK is essential if Steiner Free Schools are to be given the green-light, since the UK’s only Steiner BA and the Foundation Course in Steiner Early Years education at the University of Plymouth are also closing. Plymouth’s new VC, Prof Wendy Purcell, herself a scientist, can claim credit for ejecting the Mystic Barmpot from her faculty of education.  It is certainly true that the course didn’t attract sufficient numbers to be viable, even though it appears that Steiner trainee teachers were supported by the beneficence of a ‘godparents anthroposophical training fund.’

Mike Collins posted a fascinating investigative report into the Plymouth closures in November last year. At the time of writing this, a representative of the University told us that they have no plans to reintroduce Steiner teacher training. 

However: in a plot twist which links both countries, it is not Stockholm University (which had rejected their Steiner courses for being unscientific) but the University of Plymouth which is accrediting a European Masters Programme in Eurythmy, described as an anthroposophical ‘dance form’: in  collaboration with Rudolf Steiner University College Järna, 50 km South of Stockholm. Except that Rudolf Steiner College, Järna is not regarded as a university college by the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, nor can it issue formally recognized degrees. We do not imagine that anyone at Plymouth outside the dwindling Steiner BA is familiar with eurythmy, or its therapeutic arm, curative eurythmy.

One of the aims of the European Masters course is: “to place Eurythmy in the context of modern education,” but this can only apply to Waldorf.

Eurythmy is a physical expression of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical image of the relationship between the ‘spirit’ and the physical worlds. It is steeped in the supernatural. Of course what is happening in reality as participants sway and dash is not exactly what eurythmists imagine is happening, as anyone familiar with CAM will understand. But an intention clearly exists. Once again, in Steiner Waldorf schools, there is that anthroposophical concern for the ‘incarnating’ child.  As Steiner told his teachers:

“You cannot teach anthroposophy directly to children but they can do eurythmy. And they will face life in quite a different way than if they didn’t do eurythmy.”

From “Times of Expectation: New Forms of Ancient Beauty out of the World of the Spirit.” Lecture, Dornach, 7th October 1914 (final section). Steiner introduces eurythmy to the anthroposophists

Where are the teachers to come from for these new UK Steiner Free Schools? More to the point: will taxpayers have any access to the content of their courses?

Waldorf Critics: criticism and scandal

Steiner Waldorf causes scandals across the world. In Norway earlier this year, Kristín Sandberg and Trond Kristoffersen, both former Steiner Waldorf teachers, published their book:  "What They Don’t Tell Us = The Occult Foundation of the Steiner School." They have been part of a fierce debate, subject to threats from certain elements of the Steiner community, but Kristin is positive. What really matters to her, she says, are the many messages of support:

“…The young people, former pupils who twitter and blog – and send us sms´s and e-mails from all over Norway supporting the debate and reminding us that this is a really, really important thing to do.”

What they don't tell you
What They Don’t Tell Us. The Occult Foundation of the Steiner School

In Germany too, Steiner Waldorf has many critics. It’s interesting to reflect on the German Waldorf demographic, which suggests that their appeal lies in their status as ‘elite’ (although not academically elite) institutions.
In Australia, the introduction of ‘Steiner’ streams into public schools in the State of Victoria: ‘The Steiner Cult’s Grab for Schools’ has caused great controversy (see The delusional world of Rudolf Steiner). A document by the Australian Rationalist Society mirrors our initial post. After serious concerns were raised in a government report as long ago as 2000, and ignored; great division has been caused between parents in the schools involved and academic standards have proved to be low. Australian newspaper reports rehearse what will be in the news in the UK if Free School funding goes ahead for Steiner Waldorf. To quote from The Age:

“One parent, who did not wish to be named, said she moved her son out of the school after a Steiner teacher recommended he repeat prep "because his soul had not been reincarnated yet".

"I just don’t believe it is educationally sound," she said.”

Humanists are not the only Waldorf critics in Australia: some worry that Anthroposophy doesn’t sit happily with their Christian beliefs. Plus, independent Steiner schools have been accused of misappropriating Federal grants designed for new classrooms and libraries. It’s tempting to ask what use anthroposophists have for books.

In New Zealand, flaws in the accountability of independent schools compounds one family’s alarming treatment at the Titirangi Steiner School. Whether or not their experience is a direct consequence of Steiner pedagogy, the school’s reported ineptitude, delaying tactics and exclusion of children reflects behaviour familiar to many other Steiner Waldorf parents. 

But by far the most well-known site for analysis of Steiner Waldorf is the US based PLANS: People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools, an organization which opposes the presence of religious schools: Steiner Waldorf, informed by Anthroposophy, in American public education. It is difficult to imagine that any UK government intending to spend millions on funding a school system within Academy or Free Schools funding (and concerned with a responsibility to children regardless of the mantra ‘parent choice’) can have entirely overlooked the presence of such criticism, or of the existence of a Waldorf Survivors’ Group. Indeed, if they read the Woods Report, they will find PLANS featured there. (p35)

There are clues to the reasons for the generally positive Waldorf press in the US in a series of posts by artist and animation art director Carol Wyatt:

“The vast majority of parents at PWS [Pasadena Waldorf School] work in entertainment. Actors, producers, art directors, writers, and all others in TV, film and technology. Almost all tuitions are paid for by media. They could not function without our industry.”

The most comprehensive (and readable) critical guide to Anthroposophy’s relationship to Steiner Waldorf schools is at Roger Rawling’s ‘Waldorf Watch’. Rawlings was for many years a pupil at a New York Waldorf school, so he’s familiar with how it feels to be inside the system. His pages on Karma, central to Steiner’s doctrines, as well as those on the background to Waldorf’s distinct attitude to Special Educational Needs (including the use of Curative Eurythmy) are particularly instructive.

Eurythmy students 2008

Steiner Waldorf – “We must worm our way through”

Steiner Waldorf Schools all over the UK are applying for Free School funding. Millions could be diverted from local schools to support them. The decision to fund lies ultimately with the Secretary of State. We have every reason to believe that he is now personally aware of Anthroposophy, even of the critical role of karma and reincarnation within Steiner schools and the content of the course literature that forms a central part of Steiner Waldorf teacher training courses. We would like to ask him: who would be served by the funding of these schools? We do not believe it can be the children, or the families (many involved with hopeful, small initiatives) who do not understand what Steiner education really is. So, Mr Gove: cui bono?

“We must worm our way through…[I]n order to do what we want to do, at least, it is necessary to talk with the people, not because we want to, but because we have to, and inwardly make fools of them.”

Rudolf Steiner, Conferences with Teachers of the Waldorf School in Stuttgart, vol.1, 1919 to 1920 Forest Row, East Sussex, England: Steiner schools Fellowship Publications, 1986 [pp. 125]


Very sorry to see that the University of Aberdeen is running what seems to be a very dubious Steiner course.

Jump to follow-up

The proposals made here are intended to improve postgraduate education with little harm to undergraduate education and no extra cost. It is not intended to get the government off the hook when it comes to funding of either teaching or research. The recent Royal Society report, The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity, makes it very clear that research funding in the UK is already low.

There is a good summary of the financial case at Science is Vital. Even before cuts the UK invested only 1.8% of its GDP in R&D in 2007. This is short of the UK’s own target of 2.5%, and further behind the EU target of 3.8%. If you haven’t already, sign their petition.

science is vital

The article reproduced here is the original 800-word version of proposals made already on this blog.

It was published today in The Times, in a 500 word version that was skilfully shortened by Times journalist, Robbie Millen [download web version, or print version] . It made the Thunderer column (page 22) It was written before I had seen the Browne report on University finance, Comments on that will be added in the follow-up.


Honours degrees have had their day

Universities have problems. The competition for research money is already intense in the extreme, and many excellent research applications get turned down.   Vice-chancellors want students to pay huge fees.  A financial crisis looms.  It is time for a rethink the entire university system.

The traditional honours degree has had its day

The UK’s honours degree system is a relic left over from the time when a tiny fraction of the population went to university.  The aim is now for half the population to get some sort of higher education, and the old system doesn’t work.  It tries to get children from school to the level where they can start research in only three years.  Even in its heyday it often failed to do that.  Now teachers in vastly bigger third year classes try to teach quite advanced stuff to students most of whom have long since decided that they don’t want to do research.  It’s just as well they decided that, because academia doesn’t have jobs for half the population.

The research funding system is strained to breaking point

Vince Cable’s cockup over the amount of money spent on mediocre science has long since been corrected   But despite the intense competition for research funds, anyone who listens to Radio 4’s Today Programme (I do), or reads the Daily Mail (I don’t) might get the impression that some pretty trivial research gets published.    One reason for this is that science reporters always prefer the simple and trivial to basic research.  But another reason is that the system places enormous pressure to publish vast amounts. Quantity matters more than quality.  The Research Assessment Exercise determines the funds that a university gets from government, and although started with the best of intentions, it has done more to reduce the quality of research than any other single change in the last 20 years. 

Promotion in universities is dependent on publication, and so is university funding.  Since 1992, when John Major’s government converted polytechnics into universities at a stroke of the pen, their staff too have been expected to publish to be promoted.  We need a lot of teachers to cope with 50 percent of the population, but there just aren’t enough good researchers to go round.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that advanced teaching should be done by people who are themselves doing research, but the numbers don’t add up. So what can be done?

Another way to organise higher education

The first essential is to abolish the honours degree (cue howls of outrage from the deeply conservative vice-chancellors).  It is simply too specialist for an age of mass education.  Rather, there should be more general first degrees. They should still, by and large, aim to produce critical thinking rather than being vocational, but cover a wider range of subjects to a lower level,

If this were done, the necessity to have the first degrees taught by active researchers would decrease.  Many of them could be taught in ‘teaching only’ institutions.  They could do it more cheaply too, if their staff were not under pressure to publish papers constantly.  It would take fewer people and less space.  It isn’t ideal, but I see no other way to increase the numbers in higher education without spending much more than we do now.

After the first degree, that modest fraction of students who had the ability and desire to get more specialist knowledge would go to graduate school.  There they could be taught at a rather higher level than the present third year of an honours degree, and be prepared for research, if that is what they wanted to do. 

Hang on though, isn’t it the case that UK Universities already have graduate schools?  Yes, but they are largely offshoots of HR that provide courses in advanced powerpoint and life-style psychobabble.  Vast amounts of money have been wasted in the “Roberts Agenda”.  What we need is real graduate schools that teach advanced stuff. Education not training.

There is another problem. It is very hard now for anyone in research to find time to think about their subject.  Most of their time is occupied writing grant applications (with 15% chance of success), churning out trivial papers and teaching.  If much of the lower level undergraduate teaching were to be done, more cheaply, in places that did little or no research, the saving would, with luck, fund the extra year for the minority who go on the graduate school.  The research intensive universities would do less undergraduate teaching. Their staff would have more time to do research and teach the graduate school.  They would turn into something more like Institutes of Advanced Studies. 

A lot of details would have to be worked out, and it isn’t ideal, just the least bad solution I can think of.  It has not escaped my attention that this system has some resemblance to that in the USA.  The USA does rather well in science.  Perhaps we should try it.

What we should not copy is the high fees charged in the USA.  Education is a public good, and the costs should be met by people paying according to their means. I think that is called income tax.


The Browne report is a retrogressive disaster

As I understand it. the recommendations not only remove the cap on fees but also make it more expensive for most people to repay loans. It is the most retrogressive thing that has happened in education in my lifetime. According to an analysis cited in the Guardian

“Graduates earning between £35,000 and £60,000 a year are likely to have to pay back more in fees and interest than those earning more than £100,000”

That is far to the right of anything that Mrs Thatcher contemplated. If it were to be adopted, it would be a national disgrace.

The Lib Dems are our only hope to stop the recommendations being implemented. They must hold the line.

15 October 2010.

It is getting clearer now. Numbers from the Social Market Foundation (SMF) were quoted in the Financial Times as showing that the rich pay less than the poor for their degrees. At first the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) seemed to disagree. Now the IFS has rethought the analysis and there is little difference between the predictions of the liberal (SMF) and conservative predictions, There is, unsurprisingly, some difference in the spin. ISF says that you only pay less in the top two deciles of lifetime income, ie. the top 20 percent. That’s not quite the point though.

Both analyses agree that anyone above the median income pays back much the same (until it decreases for the top 20 percent). In other words, unless you earn less than around £22k. there is little or no progressive element whatsoever.

It is an ill thought-out disaster.