On 24 July 2006, I sent a request to the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), under the Freedom of Information Act (2000) I asked to see the teaching materials that were used on their BSc Homeopathy course. The request was refused, citing the exemption under section 43(2) of the Act (Commercial Interests).
Two internal reviews were then held. These reviews upheld and the original refusal on the grounds of commercial interests, Section 43(3), and additionally claimed exemption under Section 21 “that is reasonably accessible to applicants by other means (upon the payment of a fee)….i.e. by enrolling on the course….”
In 21 October 2006 I appealed to the Office of the Information commisioner. (The”public authority” means UCLAN, and “the complainant” is me.)
“The complainant specifically asked the Commissioner to consider the application of section 43(2) to the course materials he had requested. The main thrust of his argument in this regard was that the public authority could not be considered a ‘commercial organisation’ for the purposes of the Act, and that the public authority had confused ‘commercial interests’ with ‘financial interests’. He however added that if the Commissioner decided section 43(2) was correctly engaged, then it was in the public interest to order disclosure.”
In May 2008, my appeal got to the top of the pile, and on 30th March 2009 a judgement was delivered. In all respects but one trivial one, the appeal was upheld. In future universities will not be able to refuse requests for teaching materials.
The Decision Notice is on the web site of the Office of the Information Commissioner, [or download pdf file].
This whole thing has taken so long that the course at which it was aimed has already closed its doors last August (and blamed that, in part, on the problems caused by the Freedom of Information Act). UCLAN also announced a review of all its alternative medicine activities (and asked me to give evidence to it). That review is due to report its findings any time now.
Tha particular course that prompted the request is no longer the point. What matters is that all the usual exemptions claimed by universities have been ruled invalid. Here are a few details
What the decision notice says (the short version)
The full text of the Act is here.
The following three exemptions were judged NOT to apply the requests for university teaching materials. I’ll quote some bits from the Decision Notice.
Section 21 provides that –
“Information which is reasonably accessible to the applicant otherwise than under section 1 is exempt information.”
34. The public authority’s argument suggests that the requested information is reasonably accessible to the complainant if he enrols as a student on the course, and is therefore not accessible to him by any other means outside the Act unless he decides to make a total payment of £9,345 as a combined payment of three years tuition fees.
40. The Commissioner therefore finds that the public authority incorrectly applied the exemption contained at section 21 of the Act.
Section 42(2) provides that –
“Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).”
71. The Commissioner therefore finds that the section 43(2) was incorrectly engaged by virtue of the fact that the public authority’s ability to recruit students is not a commercial interest within the contemplation of section 43(2).
76. In addition to his finding on commercial interests the Commissioner finds that section 43(2) would in any case not be engaged as the likelihood of prejudice to the public authority’s ability to recruit students as a result of disclosure under the Act is no more than the likelihood of prejudice resulting from the availability of the course materials to students already enrolled on the course.
Section 36(2)C provides that –
“Information to which this section applies is exempt information if, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act-
(c) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs
|98. For the reasons set out above, the Commissioner finds that section 36(2)(c) is not engaged as he does not accept the opinion of the qualified person is an objectively reasonable one. He does not find that disclosure would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.|
Section 41(1) provides that –
“Information is exempt information if-
(a) it was obtained by the public authority from any other person (including another public authority), and
(b) the disclosure of the information to the public (otherwise than under this Act) by the public authority holding it would constitute a breach of confidence actionable by that or any other person.”
|56. The Commissioner therefore finds the public authority correctly applied the exemption contained at section 41 to the case studies listed in Annex A. In the Commissioner’s view, even though the patients would not be identifiable if the case studies were disclosed, this disclosure would still be actionable by the patients.|
99. The Commissioner finds that section 41 is engaged
100. He however finds that the exemptions at sections 21, 43(2), and 36(2)(c) are not engaged.
101. The Commissioner therefore finds the public authority in breach of;
• Sections 1(1)(b) and 10(1), because it failed to disclose the remainder of the course materials (i.e. excluding the case studies) to the complainant within 20 working days.
• Section 17(1), because it did not specify in its refusal notice that it was also relying on sections 41 and 36(2)(c).
103. The Commissioner requires the public authority to take the following steps to ensure compliance with the Act:
• Disclose all the course materials for the BSc (Hons) in Homeopathy apart from the case studies listed in Annex A of this Notice.
104. The public authority must take the steps required by this notice within 35 calendar days of the date of this notice.
BSc courses in homeopathy are closing. Is it a victory for campaigners, or just the end of the Blair/Bush era?
The Guardian carries a nice article by Anthea Lipsett, The Opposite of Science (or download pdf of print version).
Dr Peter Davies, dean of Westminster’s school of integrated health, says
“he welcomes the debate but it isn’t as open as he would like.”
Well you can say that again. The University of Westminster has refused to send me anything much, and has used flimsy excuses to avoid complying with the Freedom of Information Act. Nevertheless a great deal has leaked out. Not just amethysts emit hig Yin energy, but a whole lot more (watch this space). Given what is already in the public, arena, how can they possibly say things like this?
“Those teaching the courses insist they are academically rigorous and scientific.”
There’s another remark from an unlikely source that I can agree with too. George Lewith, of Southampton University and Upper Harley Street, is quoted as saying
“The quality of degrees is an open joke . . . ”
Whatever next? [Note: Lewith told me later that he was quoted out of context by the Guardian, so it seems that after all he is happy with the courses. So sadly I have to withdraw the credit that I was giving him].
The article emphasises nicely the view that universities that run BSc degrees in things that are fundamentally the opposite of science are deceiving young people and corrupting science itself.
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,
“He [DC] believes the climate is starting to change after the Bush/Blair era where people believed in things because they wished they were true. “This has been going on for a generation and it’s about time for a swing in the other direction,” he suggests.”
Well, one can always hope.
It is almost six months now since I posted Quackery creeps into good universities too -but through Human Resources. One example given there was the University of Leicester. This is an excellent university. It does first class research and it was the alma mater of the incomparable David Attenborough who has done more than anyone to show us the true beauty and wonder of the natural world.
Nevertheless, their well-meaning occupational health department had a section about “complementary therapies” that contained a lot of statements that were demonstrably untrue. They even recommended the utterly outrageous SCENAR device. So I pointed this out to them, and I had a quick and sympathetic response from their HR director.
But three months later, nothing had changed. Every now and then, I’d send a polite reminder, but it seemed the occupational health staff were very wedded to their quackery. The last reminder went on 6th February, but this time I copied it to Leicester’s vice-chancellor. This time it worked. There is still a link to Complementary Therapies on the Wellbeing site, but if you click on it, this is what you see.
Some employees may have an interest in complementary therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, Indian head massage, Reiki, sports & remedial massage, reflexology and hypnotherapy. If you have an interest in any of these, Staff Counselling can happily provide details of practitioners in the local area. Some of these practitioners offer discounts from their normal rates for University of Leicester staff.
However, the University of Leicester cannot vouch for, or recommend any of these therapies to staff as being effective. We would urge members of staff who believe that such therapies might be effective to contact their GP prior to undertaking any of them. Further, the University of Leicester shall not be liable for any damage of any kind arising out of or related to the services of any complementary therapists or treatments listed here.
If you would like further information, please contact Chris Wilson at: email@example.com or telephone 1702.
That’s not bad. Pity it doesn’t say alternative, rather than complementary though. Euphemisms aren’t really helpful.
In fact I have a bit of a problem with “wellbeing” too. It is a harmless word that has been highjacked so that its use now makes one think of mud baths provided by expensive hotels for their rich and gullible customers.
Leicester’s HR director wrote
“Unfortunately an instruction I had given previously had not been fully complied with. I spoke to the manager of the Staff Counselling team on Friday and gave clear instructions as to the content of this site. I had been assured that the offending information had been removed, but found that it had not.
I have now checked the site for myself and can say, with confidence, that all claims for the efficacy of complimentary [sic] therapies have been removed including SCENAR.”
The similarity between quack treatments and religion is intriguing. It seems that the devotion of the occupational health people to their baloney was so great that they wouldn’t take it down even when told to do so. The more irrational the belief, the greater the fervour with which it is defended,
What’s the lesson from this minor saga? It seems that most VCs and many HR people are too sensible to believe in alternative baloney, but that they are a bit too ready to tolerate it, perhaps on grounds of political correctness. Tolerance is a virtue, but lies about health are not in the least virtuous. If you point out that people are saying things for which there isn’t the slightest evidence, they will often respond. Just be prepared to send a few reminders.
It may also be useful to point out that some of the claims made are almost certainly illegal. Even people who care little about evidence of efficacy are impressed by the idea that they might be prosecuted by Trading Standards officers.
Who needs mystical medicine when you have real wonders like these.
(Click the google video logo for a bigger version)
Or try the pitcher plant video, or the Bird of paradise, or the Bower Bird, or the giant Amazon lilies.
From time to time, Private Eye Magazine takes a look at university vice-chancellors (aka presidents/rectors/principals) in its High Principals column.
The current issue (No, 1239, 20, Feb – 5 Mar, 2009) features Professor Geoffrey Petts, vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster,
Well well. Who’d have thought such things were possible?
I heard, in January 2011, that Barts has a new Dean of Education, and no longer teaches about alternative medicine in the way that has caused so much criticism in the last two years. That’s good news.
What on earth has gone wrong at the Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD)?
It is not so long ago that I discovered that the very sensible medical students at Barts were protesting vigourously about being forced to mix with various quacks. A bit of investigation soon showed that the students were dead right: see St Bartholomew’s teaches antiscience, but students revolt.
Now it seems that these excellent students have not yet succeeded in educating their own Dr Mark Carroll who, ironically, has the title Associate Dean (Education Quality) in the Centre for Medical Education (SMD), specialising in all aspects of quality assurance in the SMD,
Recently this letter was sent to all medical students. They are so indignant at the way they are being treated, it didn’t take long for a copy of the letter to reach me via a plain brown email.
| Does any medical student have a particular interest in Complementary Medicine? If so, a group at Westminster University would like to contact you (see email message below) with a view to some collaborative work. Further details from Dr Mark Carroll ( firstname.lastname@example.org ).
A student of naturopathy? Does Mark Carroll have the slightest idea what naturopathy is (or pretends to be)? If so, why is he promoting it? If not, he clearly hasn’t done his homework.
You can get a taste of naturopathy in Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy, or in Nutritional Fairy Tales from Thames Valley University.
It is a branch of quackery that is so barmy that it’s actually banned in some US states. A pharmacist was fined $1 miilion for practising it. But Barts encourages it.
Or read here about the College of Natural Nutrition: bizarre teaching revealed. They claim to cure thyroid cancer with castor oil compresses, and a holder of their diploma was fined £800 000 for causing brain damage to a patient.
I removed the name of the hapless naturopathy student, I have no wish for her to get abusive mail. It isn’t her fault that she has been misled by people who should know better. If you feel angry about this sort of thing then that should be directed to the people who mislead them. The poor student has been misled in to taking courses that teach amethysts emit high yin energy by the University of Westminster’s Vice-chancellor, Professor Geoffrey Petts, But note that Professor Petts has recently set up a review of the teaching of what he must know to be nonsense (though it hasn’t got far yet). In contrast, Dr Carroll appears to be quite unrepentant. He is the person you to whom you should write if you feel indignant.
He claims Barts is "ahead of the game". Which game? Apparently the game of leading medicine back to the dark ages and the High Street quack shop. But, Dr Carroll, it isn’t a game. Sick people are involved.
Dr Carroll is the Associate Dean (Education Quality) in the Centre for Medical Education (SMD), specialising in all aspects of quality assurance in the SMD. This has to be the ultimate irony. It’s true that the Prince of Wales approach to medicine has penetrated slightly into other, otherwise good, medical schools (for example, Edinburgh) but I’m not aware of any other that has gone so far down the road of irrationality as at Barts.
Dr Carroll, I suggest you listen to your students a bit more closely.
You might also listen to President Obama. He has just allocated $1.1 billion “to compare drugs, medical devices, surgery and other ways of treating specific conditions“. This has infuriated the drug industry and far-right talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Doubtless it will infuriate quacks too, if any of it is spent on testing their treatments properly.
This classic was published in issue 1692 of New Scientist magazine, 25 November 1989. Frank Watt was head of the Scanning Proton Microprobe Unit in the Department of Physics at Oxford University. He wrote for the New Scientist an article on Microscopes with proton power.
In the light of yesterday’s fuss about research funding, Modest revolt to save research from red tape , this seemed like a good time to revive Watt’s article. It was written near to the end of the reign of Margaret Thatcher, about a year before she was deposed by her own party. It shows how little has changed.
It is now the fashion for grant awarding agencies to ask what percentage of your time will be spent on the project. I recently reviewed a grant in which the applicants had specified this to four significant figures, They’d
pretended they knew, a year before starting the work that they could say how much time they’d spend with an accuracy better than three hours. Stupid questions evoke stupid answers.
The article gave rise to some political follow-up in New Scientist, here and here.
Playing the game – The art of getting money for research
WELL, that’s it,’ thought the Captain. ‘We have the best ship in the world, the most experienced crew, and navigators par excellence. All we need now is a couple of tons of ship’s biscuits and it’s off to the ends of the world.’
NRC (Nautical Research Council) grant application no MOD2154, September 1761. Applicant: J. Cook.
Aim: To explore the world.
Requirements: Supplies for a three-year voyage.
Total cost: Pounds sterling 21 7s 6d.
January 1762: Application MOD2154,rejected by the Tall Ships subcommittee
Reasons for rejection:
‘Damn,’ thought the Captain, ‘that’s nailed our vitals to the plank good and
NRC grant application no MOD2279, April 1762. Applicant J. Cook.
Aim: To explore the world beyond Africa in a clockwise direction and discover a large continent positioned between New Guinea and the South Pole.
Requirements: Supplies for a three-year voyage.
Total cost: Pounds sterling 21 7s 7d (adjusted for inflation).
September 1762: Application MOD2279 rejected by the Castle and Moats subcommittee
Reasons for rejection.
(a) Why discover a large continent when there are hundreds of castles in Britain.
(b) It is highly unlikely that Cook’s ship will fit into the average moat.
‘Damn,’ thought the Captain, ‘shiver me timbers, the application has gone to the wrong committee.’ ‘Come back in six months,’ he told his sturdy crew.
Dear NRC, Why did our application MOD2279 go to the Castle and Moats subcommittee instead of the Tall Ships committee? Yours sincerely, James Cook.
Dear Mr Cock, The Tall Ships subcommittee has been rationalised, and has been replaced by the Castle and Moats subcommittee and the Law and Order subcommittee.
Yours sincerely, NRC.
‘Damn,’ thought the Captain, ‘rummage me topsail, we’ll never get off the ground like this. I had better read up on this new chaos theory.’ In fact the Captain did not do this, but instead took advice from an old sea dog who had just been awarded a grant of Pounds sterling 2 million from the emergency drawbridge fund to research the theory of gravity.
NRC Application no MOD2391, January 1763 (to be considered by the Law and Order subcommittee). Applicant J. Cook.
Aim: Feasibility study for the transportation of rascals, rogues and vagabonds to a remote continent on the other side of the world. Initial pilot studies involve a three-year return journey to a yet undiscovered land mass called Australia .
Requirements: Supplies for a three-year voyage.
Total cost: Pounds sterling 21 7s 8d (again adjusted for inflation).
Dear Mr Coko, We are pleased to inform you that your application MOD2391 has been successful. Unfortunately, due to the financial crisis at the moment, the subcommittee has recommended that funding for your three-year round trip to Australia be cut to 18 months.
Yours sincerely, NRC.
A letter to Mr Darwin A correspondent draws my attention to another lovely piece from the EMBO Reports Journal )Vol 10, 2009), by Frank Gannon. [Download the pdf.]
Dear Dr Darwin
” . . . . In a further comment, referee three decries your descriptive approach, which leaves the task of explaining the ‘how’ to others. His/her view is that any publications resulting from your work will inevitably be acceptable only to lowimpact specialist journals; even worse, they might be publishable only as a monograph. As our agency is judged by the quality of the work that we support—measured by the average impact factor of the papers that result from our funding—this is a strongly negative comment”
Rather sadly, this excellent editorial had to accompanied by a pusillanimous disclaimer
This Editorial represents the personal views of Frank Gannon and not those of Science Foundation Ireland or the European Molecular Biology Organization.
This letter appeared in the Times on Friday 30 January, 2009. It was prompted by the news from the University of Salford, but its main purpose was to try to point out to the Department of Health that you can’t hope to regulate alternative treatments in any sensible way while continuing to push under the carpet the crucial question of which ones work and which don’t.
We would like to congratulate the vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, Professor Michael Harloe for his principled decision to drop “all the University’s programmes associated with complementary medicine within the School of Community, Health Sciences & Social Care”. This includes their “Homeopathy in Practice” degree.
It is also encouraging that the University of Central Lancashire recently closed its BSc in Homeopathy to new students, and announced a review of all its activities in alternative medicine.
Although universities are now taking sensible actions, government policy in the area of regulation of alternative medicine is in urgent need of revision. In May 2008 the Steering Group chaired by Professor Pittilo recommended to the Department of Health that entry into acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine should “normally be through a bachelor degree with honours”. But, in the same month, new regulations on Unfair Trading came into effect. One of the 31 commercial practices which are in all circumstances considered unfair is “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction or malformations”. One part of government seeks to endorse unproven and disproved treatments, at the same time as another part makes them illegal.
The reason for this chaotic situation is simple. The Department of Health, and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), have consistently failed to grasp the nettle of deciding which treatments work and which don’t. That is the first thing you want to know about any treatment. Vice-chancellors seem now to be asking the question, and the government should do so too. The ideal mechanism already exists. The question should be referred to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). That was recommended by a House of Lords report in 2000, and it was recommended again by the Smallwood report (commissioned by the Prince of Wales) in 2005. Now it should be done.
Sir Walter Bodmer FRCPath, FRS, FMedSci, FRCP (hon) FRCS(hon)
Professor David Colquhoun, FRS
Dame Bridget Ogilvie , AC, DBE, FRS, FAA,
Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, FRS, FMedSci, FRCP (hon)
(Actually, the Times removed the qualifications of the signatories, but left the titles!)
An earlier, longer, version of the letter tried to preempt the obvious criticism by including, as the second paragraph, this passage.
“It makes no sense to offer Bachelor of Science degrees in subjects that have no scientific basis. Not only is homeopathy scientifically absurd, but also the best quality clinical trials show that it is not distinguishable from placebo. From the point of view of the patient, there is nothing wrong with placebo effects. Conventional drugs benefit from them too. There is everything wrong with surrounding the placebo effect with mystical mumbo-jumbo and awarding degrees in it.”
Universities drop degree courses in alternative medicine
In the same issue, there was a related article by the Times’ education editor, Alexandra Frean: Universities drop degree courses in alternative medicine..
“Universities are increasingly turning their backs on homoeopathy and complementary medicine amid opposition from the scientific community to “pseudo-science” degrees.
The University of Salford has stopped offering undergraduate degrees in the subjects, and the University of Westminster announced yesterday that it plans to strengthen the “science base” content of its courses after an internal review which examined their scientific credibility.
Both universities are following the lead of the University of Central Lancashire, which last year stopped recruiting new students to its undergraduate degree in homoeopathic medicine.
The decisions by Salford and Westminster open a new chapter in the fierce debate about the place of awarding of Bachelor of Science degrees in subjects that are not science.”
The article ends thus.
“Other universities are more robust in their defence of their courses
Ian Appleyard, principal lecturer in acupuncture at London South Bank University, said that acupuncture should be studied for the very reason that it was not well understood from the standpoint of Western scientific medicine. Acupuncture had been used by a significant proportion of the world’s population for thousands of years.
“Recent large-scale clinical trials such Haake and meta-analysis from reputable institutions such as The Cochrane Collaboration, have shown that there is evidence to support the therapeutic benefits of acupuncture treatment for back pain and migraine,” he said.”
Uhuh, it seems that Ian Appleyard has been reading the misleading BBC report on the recent trials. In fact they show precisely the opposite of what he claims. The fact that advocates of alternative medicine can misinterpret the evidence so badly is, I guess, at the heart of the problem.
What’s happening at the University of Westminster?
Westminster has regularly been labelled as the University that has more quackery courses than any other.
It is also the only university for which we have much idea about what is taught. The university, like all others, has tried to keep secret what they teach. That itself shows that they aren’t very proud of it. But a surprising amount has leaked out from Westminster, nonetheless. The set of “vibrational medicine” slides, including “Amethysts emit high Yin energy”, have caused much hilarity. The Westminster “miasmatic” examination question gets some laughs too, after it was published in Nature. The set of homeopathic materia medica notes that have come into my possession are pretty good too (coming on line soon).
Recently it emerged that the University of Westminster had followed the example of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), and set up a review of its activities in alternative medicine. But unlike UCLAN it was kept secret, and as far as one can tell, it asked for no input from critics.
Well the outcome of this review turned up in my mail recently. Click the picture to read the whole letter from the Vice-Chancellor.
There is no doubt that the outcome, so far, is rather disappointing. Here are some quotations from this letter, with my comments interleaved.
“The Audit was Chaired by Professor Alan Jago and carried out its review using a comprehensive evidence base”
Alan Jago is a pro- vice chancellor, and formerly from Westminster’s School of Architecture and the Built Environment, so no specialist knowledge there.
“The panel made a number of recommendations to me as a result of their Audit. Many of these recommendations concern the University’s processes for review and validation of courses and these will be passed to the Pro Vice Chancellor responsible for Quality to consider.”
Uhuh, sounds like box-ticking again When will universities learn that validation procedures are, on the whole, not worth the paper they are written on.
“The overarching aim of these actions then is to strengthen and make more explicit the ‘scientific’ nature of the Integrated Health undergraduate degrees.
In order to do this we will:
Strengthen learning outcomes particularly in discipline and clinical modules to reflect the science outcomes embedded in the courses.
Revise course specific regulations to explicitly identify that the core health sciences modules have to be passed to complete a degree of the BSc Scheme.
Strengthen the final year project offer to provide more scientific projects through working with Biosciences staff.
Strengthen the scientific/academic qualifications of staff through development
of existing staff and appointments where they become available.”
This seems to me to be whistling in the wind. Remember, we are talking about “bachelor of science” degrees in things like homeopathy and naturotherapy. These are things that are not science at all. In fact they are antiscience to their core.
If you were successful in raising the increasing the scientific level of the staff, many of the subjects they are meant to be teaching would vanish in a puff of smoke.
Certainly the responses of the Westminster staff to earlier enquiries (here, and here) showed little sign of scientific thinking.
And I wonder what Westminster’s admirable biomedical scientists think about taking on homeopathy students for projects?
“I am certain that this work will place Complementary therapies courses in an extremely strong position to meet the external challenges of the future.
I’m sorry to say, Professor Petts, that the scientific community is not likely to share your certainty.
Remember, Peter Fisher is on record as saying that there is not enough science in homeopathy to justifiy offering a BSc degree in it (watch the movie). He is the Queen’s Homeopathic Physician, and Clinical Director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital But Westminster still seems to know better.
It seems, so far, that Westminster has missed a chance to change for the better.
Times Higher Education published a pretty pathetic report on the Westminster audit. They did ask me for comments but then failed to publish most of them. I suppose a magazine like that is so dependent on advertising that they can’t afford to upset the authorities. Nevertheless, do they really have to be quite so bland?
I hear that the internal audit has made everyone at the University of Woominster Westminster more nervous and that staff and students have been advised not to share teaching material with people outside the university. Having seen some of them, I’m not surprised they are ashamed of them.
Acupuncture in the BMJ
A new review appeared in the BMJ today. It is by Madsen et al., from the Nordic Cochrane Centre, Copenhagen. Here are the conclusions.
- The analgesic effect of acupuncture is small and cannot be distinguished from bias resulting from incomplete blinding.
- The analgesic effect of placebo acupuncture is moderate but very variable as some large trials report substantial effects.
- The effect of acupuncture seems to be unrelated to the type of placebo acupuncture used as control.
The results confirm, yet again, that there is essentially no difference between “real” acupuncture and sham acupuncture. All that talk about meridians and Qi really is so much mumbo jumbo.
The average effect (the diamond at the bottom) is essentially zero.
It has often been supposed that acupuncture is a theatrical placebo, but because of the placebo effect it produces more pain relief than (non-blind) controls. This study confirms that there is likely to be such an effect, but it also finds that the size of the placebo effect is too small to be useful to patients. Here is the comparison between sham acupuncture and no acupuncture at all.
The results of different trials are very variable, but the average effect (diamond at the bottom) favours sham acupuncture over no acupuncture at all.
But how big is the effect? The numbers along the bottom of the graph are ‘standardised mean differences’. The average value of -0.42 (95% confidence limits -0.6 to -0.23) between ‘no acupuncture’ and ‘sham acupuncture’ corresponds to a difference of about 10 points on a 100 point scale. This difference is big enough to be real, in the sense that it isn’t just chance. But is it big enough to be useful to the patient? Probably not. Madsen et al conclude
“a consensus report characterised a 10mm reduction on a 100 mm visual analogue scale as representing a “minimal” change or “little change”. Thus, the apparent analgesic effect of acupuncture seems to be below a clinically relevant pain improvement.”
This makes nonsense of the Pittilo report. Notice that these results, yet again, make nonsense of the proposals in the gamma-minus Pittilo report, to pseudo-regulate acupuncture, and to have degrees in the subject.
Cochrane reviews of Acupuncture : and a bad report from BBC
Two new Cochrane reviews appeared last week, Acupuncture for tension-type headache, and Acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis.
You can’t blame subeditors for the appalling title of the BBC’s report on Acupuncture ‘works for headaches’. The content is pretty misleading too. (The link is to a version saved at 19.35 on 21 January 2009.). Furthermore, like far too many of the BBC reports, it is anonymous. One has no idea to blame This is important, if only because the BBC news site is so influential. Twelve hours after posting the misleading title has been copied all round the world.
In the Guardian, Ian Sample had a much better report, Even’fake’ acupuncture reduces the severity of headaches and migraines. Sadly the print edition had the title “Acupuncture aids migraines, researchers
find”, but that can be blamed on subeditors who have a problem with reading (in fact Sample had seen neither title).
The BBC report seemed to call for a complaint. This is what I sent.
|I wish to complain about the report on acupuncture at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7838231.stm
The title itself was highly misleading “Acupuncture works for headaches” is precisely the opposite of what was shown, namely that it is no better than sham acupuncture controls.
The article goes on to say
It is not said that there isn’t the slightest reason to think this is true (or even means anything) , and that the work which is being reported is strong evidence that it’s not true
That is wrong. University of Salford , for example has just closed its acupuncture course after a number of us have pointed out that it is teaching things that aren’t true
It is exactly the opposite of an endorsement. It is one more nail in the coffin of acupuncture as generally understood.
This article, I contend, is partial and misleading. Unfortunately it is anonymous.
Today’s BBC report on the BMJ paper is almost as partisan as the one that I just complained about. “Confusion on acupuncture benefit ” exaggerates greatly the amount of confusion. Worse still, it quotes only two well-known advocates of acupuncture, people who make their living from it. No independent scientific voice is to be heard.
One of those cited is Adrian White. He is described as “a researcher into acupuncture at the Peninsula Medical School”. There is no mention of the fact that he is also Editor in Chief of the journal Acupuncture in Medicine. The other person who is quoted is Mike O’Farrell, the chief executive of the British Acupuncture Council. What do you expect him to say?
I’ve just sent another complaint, about today’s BBC report. The more the merrier.
The BMJ itself published an editorial on the Madsen paper. It seems very odd that they should have chosen the editors of the BMJ-group journal, Acupuncture in Medicine, to comment on a paper that sounds the death knell for the subject from which they make their living. Needless to say, the editorial attempted to wriggle out of the obvious conclusions. Worse still, the Health editor of the BBC web site referred to the editorial in his defence, in response to my complaint.
Channel 4 News does a lot better than the BBC, or the BMJ editorial, with its report Acupuncture ‘fails to relieve pain’
“Claims that acupuncture can relieve pain have been undermined by the results of a new study.”
“senior researcher Asbjorn Hrobjartsson said: “Our findings question both the traditional foundation of acupuncture…and the prevailing theory that acupuncture has an important effect on pain in general”. “
The Daily Telegraph also, like almost everyone else, did better than the BBC, with “Acupuncture ‘has almost no effect in relieving pain’”
“The pain relieving effects of acupuncture are so small that they may be clinically irrelevant, according to a review of research into the treatment.”
Even Metro, the free London Newspaper, is more accurate then the BBC. They carry a short report “Acupuncture ‘has no medical point’.”
“The pain-relieving effects of acupuncture compared with a placebo are so small they may be clinically irrelevant.”
New review puts in doubt traditional foundation of acupuncture. Believe it or not, that is the title of the report on Madsen et al from the Prince’s Foundation for Integretad Health! Don’t get too excited though. They haven’t even bothered to look at the original paper, but merely cite the dreadful BBC report. Much prominence is given to the acupuncturists, White and O’Farrell, and the important finding isn’t mentioned at all. Another gamma minus.
Congratulations to the vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, Michael Harloe.
Times Higher Education announced on 15th January 2009 Salford to shut complementary medicine BSc.
“The University of Salford is to stop offering undergraduate degrees in acupuncture and complementary medicine because they are no longer considered “a sound academic fit”.”
This is the first time that a University has decided to stop teaching quackery altogether. The university’s press officer told me (22 January 2009)
|“all the University’s programmes associated with complementary medicine within the School of Community, Health Sciences & Social Care will be run out. This includes the Homeopathy in Practice programme. “|
|Salford, before it became a university, was home to the great L.S. Lowry
Salford’s Peel building, where L.S.Lowry worked
“Managers concluded last year that the BSc traditional Chinese medicine and other degrees with a complementary medicine element “cannot really be held to be a good fit with the strategic direction of the school, and resource and energy would be better directed elsewhere”.
There are more than 70 students registered on the Chinese medicine degree course.
The university will continue to offer these subjects at postgraduate level, as short courses and as part of continuing professional development programmes. Traditional Chinese medicine work will also be linked to the university’s allied
health professions courses.”
Another report appeared in the Manchester Evening News: “Needle over acupuncture course”. “A UNIVERSITY has scrapped a course in acupuncture and aromatherapy branded `anti-science’ by critics.
Salford University said the three-year degree in traditional Chinese medicine didn’t fit with the `strategic direction’ bosses want to adopt.
The move is part of wider cuts which will see 150 teaching and support staff jobs axed.”
One of their students raised the question that the university must dread.
“First-year student Gary Leese, who is organising a petition, said: “Why did the university launch the course if they didn’t think it was good enough?”
The comments left by the readers of the Manchester Evening News were mostly very sensible. The first to come in, from someone with the beautifully Lancastrian name, Gladys Rowbotham, said “Some common sense at last!”.
A brief report appeared also in the Manchester Confidential
This is rather an interesting development. On 19th April 2007, I sent a Freedom of Information request to Salford to ask for course validation documents for their courses in Homeopathy and in Traditional Chinese Medicine. I also asked for course materials for specified courses. This request was even less successful than usual. Not only were the course materials refused (as they always are), but, unusually, the validation documents were refused too. The excuse for this was more pathetic than usual too. They claimed it would cost more than £450 to email a few documents and powerpoints, and claimed exemption under Section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act, “Information Reasonably Accessible to the Applicant by Other Means”, rather than the more usual excuse (Section 43, “Commercial interests”).
It was never explained what “other means” were meant to be available. Perhaps they thought I should pay £3000 in fees and enrol for the course?
On 6th April 2007, Times Higher Education (THE) ran an opinion piece “Credible endeavour or pseudoscience?“. In this, I wrote, as follows.
“Clearly the buck stops with university vice-chancellors who award the degrees. Two weeks ago, after the publication of my opinion article and a special report on university homoeopathy courses in the journal Nature , the BBC tried to get one of the vice-chancellors to defend themselves. They did not succeed. Letters to vice-chancellors on this go unanswered. Requests to see course materials have repeatedly been refused. The QAA is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Teaching materials and the names of examiners are kept secret. This I find incomprehensible and indefensible.”
After this appeared, I was sent by the University of Salford a copy of Michael Harloe’s defence of their position at that time, as sent to THE. It relied heavily on validation by the Quality Assurance Agency. But the QAA is merely a box-ticking organisation that would give top marks to a course in astrology, given a sufficient mound of paperwork, as I pointed out in Nature, “Their own rules prevent them from doing anything useful”.
The statement also said that the courses teach critical thinking about alternative medicine. But it has been pointed out over and over again that what alternative medicine advocates lack, above anything else, is any faculty of critical self-appraisal.
One has to have some sympathy with a vice chancellor who is put on the spot and forced to defend courses in which he probably does not really believe himself. Perhaps it is not surprising that letters so often go unanswered. What can they say? There really is no answer that doesn’t leave the hapless VC with egg on his face.
If there is one lesson from this, it is not to be discouraged if you get no answer from a vice-chancellor. It has probably been read and may well get acted on eventually. Shutting down a course is no easy matter. It takes time.
I said the buck stops with the vice chancellor. Professor Harloe has grasped the nettle and done the right thing. Let’s hope a few more now follow his excellent lead..
What does this mean for the Pittilo report?
The gamma-minus Pittilo report (see also. The Times) recommended more degrees in alternative medicine, but there seems to be something of a trend developing in exactly the opposite direction.
The University of Central Lancashire has closed the first year entry to its “BSc” in Homeopathy, and announced a review of all its activities in the area of alternative medicine. Now we have Salford. There are stirrings among the good scientists even at the University of Westminster which has a new Dean and VC.
This rather absurd situation has arisen because of the adamant refusal of the government, and of a dozen or more quangos, to grasp the nettle of whether or not the alternative treatments work. Time and time again, the one important question that you want to know about any sort of treatment, namely, is it effective, has been pushed under the carpet.
The sort of absurd political correctness that leads to the fraudulent conjurers known as ‘psychic surgeons’ being referred to as a “profession” by the Department of Health has obscured reality. Even the MHRA was persuaded to allow misleading labelling of homeopathic and herbal “remedies”. thus betraying its job. In its own words “The MHRA is the government agency that is responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices work, . . .”.
There is a lesson here. You can’t go on avoiding reality for ever. One consolation is that, in the end, it is the universities who are leading the way, albeit slowly.
All we need now is for the Department of Health, the MHRA and the endless box-ticking quangos to wake up too.
I’m perfectly happy to think of alternative medicine as being a voluntary, self-imposed tax on the gullible (to paraphrase Goldacre again). But only as long as its practitioners do no harm and only as long as they obey the law of the land. Only too often, though, they do neither.
When I talk about law, I don’t mean lawsuits for defamation. Defamation suits are what homeopaths and chiropractors like to use to silence critics. heaven knows, I’ve becomes accustomed to being defamed by people who are, in my view. fraudsters, but lawsuits are not the way to deal with it.
I’m talking about the Trading Standards laws Everyone has to obey them, and in May 2008 the law changed in a way that puts the whole health fraud industry in jeopardy.
The gist of the matter is that it is now illegal to claim that a product will benefit your health if you can’t produce evidence to justify the claim.
I’m not a lawyer, but with the help of two lawyers and a trading standards officer I’ve attempted a summary. The machinery for enforcing the law does not yet work well, but when it does, there should be some very interesting cases.
The obvious targets are homeopaths who claim to cure malaria and AIDS, and traditional Chinese Medicine people who claim to cure cancer.
But there are some less obvious targets for prosecution too. Here is a selection of possibilities to savour..
- Universities such as Westminster, Central Lancashire and the rest, which promote the spreading of false health claims
- Hospitals, like the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, that treat patients with mistletoe and marigold paste. Can they produce any real evidence that they work?
- Edexcel, which sets examinations in alternative medicine (and charges for them)
- Ofsted and the QCA which validate these exams
- Skills for Health and a whole maze of other unelected and unaccountable quangos which offer “national occupational standards” in everything from distant healing to hot stone therapy, thereby giving official sanction to all manner of treatments for which no plausible evidence can be offered.
- The Prince of Wales Foundation for Integrated Health, which notoriously offers health advice for which it cannot produce good evidence
- Perhaps even the Department of Health itself, which notoriously referred to “psychic surgery” as a profession, and which has consistently refused to refer dubious therapies to NICE for assessment.
The law, insofar as I’ve understood it, is probably such that only the first three or four of these have sufficient commercial elements for there to be any chance of a successful prosecution. That is something that will eventually have to be argued in court.
But lecanardnoir points out in his comment below that The Prince of Wales is intending to sell herbal concoctions, so perhaps he could end up in court too.
We are talking about The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. The regulations came into force on 26 May 2008. The full regulations can be seen here, or download pdf file. They can be seen also on the UK Statute Law Database.
The Office of Fair Trading, and Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform (BERR) published Guidance on the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (pdf file),
Statement of consumer protection enforcement principles (pdf file), and
The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations: a basic guide for business (pdf file).
Has The UK Quietly Outlawed “Alternative” Medicine?
On 26 September 2008, Mondaq Business Briefing published this article by a Glasgow lawyer, Douglas McLachlan. (Oddly enough, this article was reproduced on the National Center for Homeopathy web site.)
“Proponents of the myriad of forms of alternative medicine argue that it is in some way “outside science” or that “science doesn’t understand why it works”. Critical thinking scientists disagree. The best available scientific data shows that alternative medicine simply doesn’t work, they say: studies repeatedly show that the effect of some of these alternative medical therapies is indistinguishable from the well documented, but very strange “placebo effect” ”
“Enter The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008(the “Regulations”). The Regulations came into force on 26 May 2008 to surprisingly little fanfare, despite the fact they represent the most extensive modernisation and simplification of the consumer protection framework for 20 years.”
The Regulations prohibit unfair commercial practices between traders and consumers through five prohibitions:-
- General Prohibition on Unfair Commercial
Practices (Regulation 3)
- Prohibition on Misleading Actions (Regulations 5)
- Prohibition on Misleading Omissions (Regulation 6)
- Prohibition on Aggressive Commercial Practices (Regulation 7)
- Prohibition on 31 Specific Commercial Practices that are in all Circumstances Unfair (Schedule 1). One of the 31 commercial practices which are in all circumstances considered unfair is “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction or malformations”. The definition of “product” in the Regulations includes services, so it does appear that all forms medical products and treatments will be covered.
Just look at that!
|One of the 31 commercial practices which are in all circumstances considered unfair is “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction or malformations”|
Section 5 is equally powerful, and also does not contain the contentious word “cure” (see note below)
5.—(1) A commercial practice is a misleading action if it satisfies the conditions in either paragraph (2) or paragraph (3).
(2) A commercial practice satisfies the conditions of this paragraph—
(a) if it contains false information and is therefore untruthful in relation to any of the matters in paragraph (4) or if it or its overall presentation in any way deceives or is likely to deceive the average consumer in relation to any of the matters in that paragraph, even if the information is factually correct; and
(b) it causes or is likely to cause the average consumer to take a transactional decision he would not have taken otherwise.
These laws are very powerful in principle, But there are two complications in practice.
One complication concerns the extent to which the onus has been moved on to the seller to prove the claims are true, rather than the accuser having to prove they are false. That is a lot more favourable to the accuser than before, but it’s complicated.
The other complication concerns enforcement of the new laws, and at the moment that is bad.
Who has to prove what?
That is still not entirely clear. McLachlan says
“If we accept that mainstream evidence based medicine is in some way accepted by mainstream science, and alternative medicine bears the “alternative” qualifier simply because it is not supported by mainstream science, then where does that leave a trader who seeks to refute any allegation that his claim is false?
Of course it is always open to the trader to show that his the alternative therapy actually works, but the weight of scientific evidence is likely to be against him.”
On the other hand, I’m advised by a Trading Standards Officer that “He doesn’t have to refute anything! The prosecution have to prove the claims are false”. This has been confirmed by another Trading Standards Officer who said
“It is not clear (though it seems to be) what difference is implied between “cure” and “treat”, or what evidence is required to demonstrate that such a cure is false “beyond reasonable doubt” in court. The regulations do not provide that the maker of claims must show that the claims are true, or set a standard indicating how such a proof may be shown.”
The main defence against prosecution seems to be the “Due diligence defence”, in paragraph 17.
Due diligence defence
17. —(1) In any proceedings against a person for an offence under regulation 9, 10, 11 or 12 it is a defence for that person to prove—
(a) that the commission of the offence was due to—
(i) a mistake;
(ii) reliance on information supplied to him by another person;
(iii) the act or default of another person;
(iv) an accident; or
(v) another cause beyond his control; and
(b) that he took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of such an offence by himself or any person under his control.
If “taking all reasonable precautions” includes being aware of the lack of any good evidence that what you are selling is effective, then this defence should not be much use for most quacks.
Douglas McLachlan has clarified, below, this difficult question
False claims for health benefits of foods
A separate bit of legislation, European regulation on nutrition and health claims made on food, ref 1924/2006, in Article 6, seems clearer in specifying that the seller has to prove any claims they make.
Scientific substantiation for claims
1. Nutrition and health claims shall be based on and substantiated by generally accepted scientific evidence.
2. A food business operator making a nutrition or health claim shall justify the use of the claim.
3. The competent authorities of the Member States may request a food business operator or a person placing a product on the market to produce all relevant elements and data establishing compliance with this Regulation.
That clearly places the onus on the seller to provide evidence for claims that are made, rather than the complainant having to ‘prove’ that the claims are false.
On the problem of “health foods” the two bits of legislation seem to overlap. Both have been discussed in “Trading regulations and health foods“, an editorial in the BMJ by M. E. J. Lean (Professor of Human Nutrition in Glasgow).
“It is already illegal under food labelling regulations (1996) to claim that food products can treat or prevent disease. However, huge numbers of such claims are still made, particularly for obesity ”
“The new regulations provide good legislation to protect vulnerable consumers from misleading “health food” claims. They now need to be enforced proactively to help direct doctors and consumers towards safe, cost effective, and evidence based management of diseases.”
In fact the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) seems to be doing a rather good job at imposing the rules. This, predictably, provoked howls of anguish from the food industry There is a synopsis here.
“Of eight assessed claims, EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) rejected seven for failing to demonstrate causality between consumption of specific nutrients or foods and intended health benefits. EFSA has subsequently issued opinions on about 30 claims with seven drawing positive opinions.”
“. . . EFSA in disgust threw out 120 dossiers supposedly in support of nutrients seeking addition to the FSD’s positive list.
If EFSA was bewildered by the lack of data in the dossiers, it needn’t hav been as industry freely admitted it had in many cases submitted such hollow documents to temporarily keep nutrients on-market.”
Or, on another industry site, “EFSA’s harsh health claim regime”
“By setting an unworkably high standard for claims substantiation, EFSA is threatening R&D not to mention health claims that have long been officially approved in many jurisdictions.”
Here, of course,”unworkably high standard” just means real genuine evidence. How dare they ask for that!
Enforcement of the law
Article 19 of the Unfair Trading regulations says
19. —(1) It shall be the duty of every enforcement authority to enforce these Regulations.
(2) Where the enforcement authority is a local weights and measures authority the duty referred to in paragraph (1) shall apply to the enforcement of these Regulations within the authority’s area.
Nevertheless, enforcement is undoubtedly a weak point at the moment. The UK is obliged to enforce these laws, but at the moment it is not doing so effectively.
A letter in the BMJ from Rose & Garrow describes two complaints under the legislation in which it appears that a Trading Standards office failed to enforce the law. They comment
” . . . member states are obliged not only to enact it as national legislation but to enforce it. The evidence that the government has provided adequate resources for enforcement, in the form of staff and their proper training, is not convincing. The media, and especially the internet, are replete with false claims about health care, and sick people need protection. All EU citizens have the right to complain to the EU Commission if their government fails to provide that protection.”
This is not a good start. A lawyer has pointed out to me
“that it can sometimes be very difficult to get Trading Standards or the OFT to take an interest in something that they don’t fully understand. I think that if it doesn’t immediately leap out at them as being false (e.g “these pills cure all forms of cancer”) then it’s going to be extremely difficult. To be fair, neither Trading Standards nor the OFT were ever intended to be medical regulators and they have limited resources available to them. The new Regulations are a useful new weapon in the fight against quackery, but they are no substitute for proper regulation.”
Trading Standards originated in Weights and Measures. It was their job to check that your pint of beer was really a pint. Now they are being expected to judge medical controversies. Either they will need more people and more training, or responsibility for enforcement of the law should be transferred to some more appropriate agency (though one hesitates to suggest the MHRA after their recent pathetic performance in this area).
Who can be prosecuted?
Any “trader”, a person or a company. There is no need to have actually bought anything, and no need to have suffered actual harm. In fact there is no need for there to be a complainant at all. Trading standards officers can act on their own. But there must be a commercial element. It’s unlikely that simply preaching nonsense would be sufficient to get you prosecuted, so the Prince of Wales is, sadly, probably safe.
Universities who teach that “Amethysts emit high Yin energy” make an interesting case. They charge fees and in return they are “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses”.
In my view they are behaving illegally, but we shan’t know until a university is taken to court. Watch this space.
The fact remains that the UK is obliged to enforce the law and presumably it will do so eventually. When it does, alternative medicine will have to change very radically. If it were prevented from making false claims, there would be very little of it left apart from tea and sympathy
New Zealand must have similar laws.
Just as I was about to post this I found that in New Zealand a
“couple who sold homeopathic remedies claiming to cure bird flu, herpes and Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) have been convicted of breaching the Fair Trading Act.”
They were ordered to pay fines and court costs totalling $23,400.
A clarification form Douglas McLachlan
On the difficult question of who must prove what, Douglas McLachlan, who wrote Has The UK Quietly Outlawed “Alternative” Medicine?, has kindly sent the following clarification.
“I would agree that it is still for the prosecution to prove that the trader committed the offence beyond a reasonable doubt, and that burden of proof is always on the prosecution at the outset, but I think if a trader makes a claim regarding his product and best scientific evidence available indicates that that claim is false, then it will be on the trader to substantiate the claim in order to defend himself. How will the trader do so? Perhaps the trader might call witness after witness in court to provide anecdotal evidence of their experiences, or “experts” that support their claim – in which case it will be for the prosecution to explain the scientific method to the Judge and to convince the Judge that its Study evidence is to be preferred.
Unfortunately, once human personalities get involved things could get clouded – I could imagine a small time seller of snake oil having serious difficulty, but a well funded homeopathy company engaging smart lawyers to quote flawed studies and lead anecdotal evidence to muddy the waters just enough for a Judge to give the trader the benefit of the doubt. That seems to be what happens in the wider public debate, so it’s easy to envisage it happening a courtroom.”
The “average consumer”.
(3) A commercial practice is unfair if—
(a) it contravenes the requirements of professional diligence; and
(b) it materially distorts or is likely to materially distort the economic behaviour of the average consumer with regard to the product.
It seems,therefore, that what matters is whether the “average consumer” would infer from what is said that a claim was being made to cure a disease. The legal view cited by Mojo (comment #2, below) is that expressions such as “can be used to treat” or “can help with” would be considered by the average consumer as implying successful treatment or cure.
The drugstore detox delusion. A nice analysis “detox” at .Science-based Pharmacy
It was a great delight to visit Amsterdam on 25 October to speak at a meeting off the Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij (Society against quackery). Unfortunately their excellent web site is in Dutch, so the best you can do at the moment is to use the Google translation, with its frequently hilarious renderings. Better translations coming soon, I hope.
Niet-reguliere geneeswijzen in de 21ste eeuw in internationaal perspectief
Non-mainstream medicine in the 21st century in an international perspective
The Dutch society has 1800 members and is the oldest and biggest such society in the world. I very much hope that their web site will soon have an English version. That is only appropriate since the origin of the word quack is from the Dutch Kwakzalver. (Kwak=Chatterer, salesman, zalf = salve, ointment). (In contrast the noise made by a duck is simply described by the OED as being “imitative”, though the great Michael Quinion thinks the two usages may be connected.
De Kwakzalver, Jan Steen (1626-1679) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Click to enlarge
The Quack doctor, Jan Steen (1626-1679). Click to enlarge
Translations of some key parts will be posted here soon. My talk was about Support for alternative medicine in government and universities in the U.K
The meeting started with the announcement of the winner of the Meester Kackadorisprijs.
The Master Kackodoris prize
The Meester Kackadorisprijs is awarded to individuals or institutions who promote quackery and who should know better (the quacks themselves are never nominated). The short list for the 2008 prize included the vice chancellor of the Free University of Amsterdam
|Prof. dr. Lex Bouter, rector magnificus Vrije Universiteit
The vice-chancellor was on the short-list for the prize because of his part in a recent paper, “Effects of acupuncture on rates of pregnancy and live birth among women undergoing in vitro fertilisation: systematic review and meta-analysis.” (Manheimer E, Zhang G, Udoff L, Haramati A, Langenberg P, Berman BM, Bouter LM, Brit Med J 336, 545-9) [Available free]
This paper has been cited all over the world, but it seems not to have been very good. See for example the magnificent analysis of it in “Yawn, still one more overhyped acupuncture study: Does acupuncture help infertile women conceive?” . See also the Cochrane review (it could all be placebo). The fact that the vice-chancellor appears to have been only a ‘guest author’ anyway does not count as an excuse. The large number of citations received by this paper should, incidentally, be seen as another nail in the coffin of attempts to measure quality by citation rates.
In the event, vice-chancellor Bouter did not win the Kackodoris prize this year. In a speech at the start of the symposium, it emerged that he had been narrowly beaten by the Dutch Christian Radio Association for its assiduous promotion of quackery.
The chair of the Dutch society, Cees Rencken, is doing a great job. I hope that it will soon be better known outside the Netherlands.
And it’s time we had a UK equivalent of the Kackadoris prize. There will be no shortage of worthy candidates.
Frits Van Dam (Secretary) and Cees Renckens (Chair) of VtdK
(photo: Sofie van de Calseijde)
Some pictures of Amsterdam
(meetings photos: Sofie van de Calseijde)
It seems that validation committees often don’t look beyond the official documents. As a result, the validations may not be worth the paper they are written on. Try this one.
One of the best bits of news recently was the downfall of Matthias Rath. He’s the man who peddled vitamin pills for AIDS in Africa, and encouraged the AIDS denialists in the South African government. Thabo Mbeki and his Health Minister, Mrs Beetroot, have gone now, thank heavens.
Rath was one of the best illustrations of the murderous effect of selling ineffective treatments. The fact that nobody in the “nutritional therapy” industry has uttered a word of condemnation for this man illustrates better than anything one can imagine the corrupt state of “nutritional therapy”. The people who kept silent include the British Association of Nutritional Therapists (BANT).
It might be surprising, then, to find the Northern College of Acupuncture proudly adding a course in alternative nutrition to its courses in acupuncture (now known to be a theatrical placebo) and Chinese herbal medicine (largely untested and sometimes toxic). It might be even more surprising to find the boast that the course is validated by the University of Wales. It seemed a good idea to find out a bit more about how this came about. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, some interesting things can be discovered.
Polly Toynbee’s superb article, Quackery and superstition – available soon on the NHS, written in January 2008, mentioned diplomas and degrees in complementary therapies offered by, among others, the University of Wales. This elicited a letter of protest to Toynbee from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales, Professor Marc Clement BSc, PhD, MInstP, CEng,CPhys,FIET. He invited her to visit the university to see their “validation and monitoring procedures (including the University’s very specific guidelines on health studies disciplines”.
So let’s take a look at these validation procedures and guidelines.
The validation process
The Northern College of Acupuncture submitted a 148 page proposal for the course in October 2007. The document has all the usual edu-bollocks jargon, but of course doesn’t say much about clinical trials, though it does boast about an unblinded trial of acupuncture published in 2006 which, because of lack of appropriate controls, served only to muddy the waters. : This submission was considered by the University’s validation committee last December.
The whole validation document is only four pages long [download it]. The most interesting thing about it is that the words ‘evidence’ or ‘critical’ do not occur in it a single time. It has all the usual bureaucratic jargon of such documents but misses entirely the central point.
Does that mean that the University of Wales doesn’t care about evidence or critical thinking? Well, not on paper. Two years previously a short document called Health Studies Guidelines had been written by Dr Brian Spriggs (Health Studies Validation Consultant, since retired) for the Health Studies Committee, and it was approved on 21 April 2005. It starts well.
“Degrees in the Health Studies field are expected to promote an understanding of the importance of the scientific method and an evidence-base to underpin therapeutic interventions and of research to expand that base.”
It even goes on to say that a BSc degree in homeopathy is “unacceptable”. Don’t get too excited though, because it also says that acupuncture and Chinese herbal stuff is quite OK. How anyone can imagine they live up to the opening sentence beats me. And it gets worse. It says that all sorts of rather advanced forms of battiness are OK if they form only part of another degree. They include Homeopathy, Crystal therapy. Dowsing, Iridology; Kinesiology, Radionics, Reflexology, Shiatsu, Healing, and Maharishi Ayurvedic Medicine.
Dowsing? Crystal therapy? Just let me remind you. We are living in 2008. It is easy to forget that when ploughing through all this new age junk.
The Validation Handbook of Quality Assurance: Health Studies (2007) runs to an astonishing 256 pages [download the whole thing]. On page 12 we find the extent of the problem.
“The University of Wales validates a number of schemes in the Health Studies field. At the current time we have undergraduate and/or postgraduate degree schemes in Acupuncture, Animal Manipulation, Chiropractic, Herbal Medicine, Integrative Psychotherapy, Osteopathy, Osteopathic Studies, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Regulatory Affairs, both in the UK and overseas.”
That sounds pretty shocking. Further down on page 12, though, we find this.
“Degrees in the Health Studies field are expected to promote an understanding of the importance of the scientific method and an evidence-base to underpin therapeutic interventions and of research to expand that base. The mission is to promote and require the critical evaluation of the practices, doctrines, beliefs, theories and hypotheses that underlie the taught therapeutic measures of the discipline.”
They are indeed fine words. The problem is that I can detect no sign in the submission, nor in its consideration by the validation committee, that any attempt whatsoever was made to ensure that the course complied with these requirements.
The only sign of concern I could detect of any concern about the quality of what was being taught came in a minute to a meeting of the Health Studies Committee meeting on 24th April 2008.
“Members received a copy of an article entitled Quackery and superstition available soon on the NHS which appeared in The Guardian newspaper in January 2008, and a copy of the Vice- Chancellors response. Members agreed that this article was now historical but felt that if/when the issue were to arise again; the key matter of scientific rigour should be stressed. The Committee agreed that this was the most critical element of all degree schemes in the University of Wales portfolio of health studies schemes. It was felt it would be timely to re-examine the schemes within the portfolio as well as the guidelines for consideration of Health Studies schemes at the next meeting. The Committee might also decide that Institutions would be required to include literature reviews (as part of their validation submission) to provide evidence for their particular profession/philosophy. It was agreed that the guidelines would be a vital document in the consideration of new schemes and during preliminary visits to prospective Institutions. “
The Press Office had passed Polly Toynbee’s article to them. Curiously the Health Studies Committee dismissed it as “historical”, simply because it was written three months earlier. That is presumably “historical” in the sense that the public will have forgotten about it, rather than in the sense that the facts of the matter have changed since January. So, at least for the nutrition degree, Toynbee’s comments were simply brushed under the carpet.
After a few cosmetic changes of wording the validation was completed on 16th January 2008. For example the word “diagnosis” was removed in 43 places and “rewritten in terms of evaluation and assessment”. There was, needless to say, no indication that the change in wording would change anything in what was taught to students.
You may think that I am being a bit too harsh. Perhaps the course is just fine after all? The problem is that the submission and the reaction of the validation committee tell you next to nothing about what actually matters, and that is what is taught. There is only a vague outline of that in the submission (and part of it was redacted on the grounds that if it were made public somebody might copy ;it. Heaven forbid).
That is why I have to say, yet again, that this sort of validation exercise is not worth the paper it’s written on.
How can we find out a bit more? Very easily as it happens. Just Google. What matters is not so much formal course outlines but who teaches them.
The nutrition course
The title of the course is just “Nutrition”, not ‘Nutritional Therapy’ or ‘Alternative Nutrition’. That sounds quite respectable but a glance at the prospectus shows immediately that it is full-blown alternative medicine.
Already in July 2007, the glowing press releases for the course had attracted attention from the wonderfully investigative web site HolfordWatch. I see no sign that the validation committee was aware of this. But if not, why not? I would describe is as dereliction of academic duty.
“This pioneering course is unique in that it is firmly rooted in both Western nutritional science and naturopathic medicine and also covers concepts of nutrition within traditional Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicine.
This means that graduates will gain comprehensive understanding of both modern scientific knowledge and ancient wisdom concerning nutrition and dietetics.”
Ancient wisdom, of course, means something that your are supposed to believe though there is no good reason to think it’s true. In the end, though, almost the only thing that really matters about any course is who is running it. The brochure shows that all of the people are heavily into every form of alternative nuttiness.
Course Director and Tutor: Jacqueline Young nutritionist, naturopath, clinical psychologist and Oriental medical practitioner
Elaine Aldred (qualified as a chiropractor with the Anglo European Chiropractic College, as an acupuncturist with the British College of Acupuncture and as a Western Medical Herbalist with the College of Phytotherapy. She recently also qualified in Chinese herbal medicine with the Northern College of Acupuncture.)
Sue Russell (3 year diploma in nutritional therapy at the Institute of Optimum Nutrition. She currently practises as a nutritional therapist and also works part-time as a manager at the Northern College of Homeopathic Medicine.)
Anuradha Sharma (graduated as a dietician from Leeds Metropolitan University in 2002 and subsequently completed a Naturopathy certificate and a post-graduate diploma in acupuncture).
Guest Lecturers include : Dr John Briffa, Professor Jane Plant, M.B.E. (a geochemist turned quack), and, most revealingly, none other than the UK’s most notorious media celebrity and pill peddler, Patrick Holford.
So much has been written about Holford’s appalling abuse of science, one would have thought that not even a validation committee could have missed it.
“The course has been created by Jacqueline Young“, so let’s look a bit further at her track record.
Jacqueline Young has written a book, ‘Complementary Medicine for Dummies’ [Ed: ahem shouldn’t that be Dummies for Complementary Medicine?]. You can see parts of it on Google Books. Did the validation committee bother to look at it? As far as I can tell, the words ‘randomised’ or ‘clinical trial’ occur nowhere in the book.
The chapter on Tibetan medicine is not very helpful when it comes to evidence but for research we are referred to the Tibetan Medical and Astrology Institute. Guess what? That site gives no evidence either. So far not a single university has endorsed Astrology (there is a profitable niche there for some vice-chancellor).
Here are few samples from the book. The advice seems to vary from the undocumented optimism of this
Well researched? No. Safe? Nobody knows. Or this
Mandarin peel prevents colds and flu? Old wive’s tale. Then there are things that verge on the weird, like this one
or the deeply bizarre like this
The problem of Jacqueline Young’s fantasy approach to facts was pointed out at least as far back as 2004, by Ray Girvan., who wrote about it again in May 2005. The problems were brought to wider attention when Ben Goldacre wrote two articles in his Badscience column, Imploding Researchers (September 2005), and the following week, Tangled Webs.
“we were pondering the ethics and wisdom of Jacqueline Young dishing out preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense as if it was authoritative BBC fact, with phrases such as: “Implosion researchers have found that if water is put through a spiral its electrical field changes and it then appears to have a potent, restorative effect on cells.” “
“Take this from her article on cranial osteopathy, riddled with half truths: “Sutherland found that the cranial bones (the skull bones encasing the brain) weren’t fused in adulthood, as was widely believed, but actually had a cycle of slight involuntary movement.” In fact the cranial bones do fuse in adulthood.
She goes on: “This movement was influenced by the rhythmic flow of cerebrospinal fluid (the nourishing and protective fluid that circulates through the spinal canal and brain) and could become blocked.” There have now been five studies on whether “cranial osteopaths” can indeed feel these movements, as they claim, and it’s an easy experiment to do: ask a couple of cranial osteopaths to write down the frequency of the rhythmic pulses on the same person’s skull, and see if they give the same answer. They don’t. A rather crucial well-replicated finding to leave out of your story.
That was in 2005 and since then all of Young’s “preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense” (along with most of the other stuff about junk medicine) has vanished from the BBC’s web site, after some people with a bit of common sense pointed out what nonsense it was. But now we see them resurfacing in a course validated by a serious university. The BBC had some excuse (after all, it is run largely by arts graduates). I can see no excuses for the University of Wales.
Incidentally, thanks to web archive you can still read Young’s nonsense, long after the BBC removed it. Here is a quotation.
“Implosion researchers have found that if water is put through a spiral its ,field changes and it then appears to have a potent, restorative effect on cells. In one study, seedlings watered with spiralised water grew significantly faster, higher and stronger than those given ordinary water.”
The vice-chancellor of the University of Wales, Marc Clement, is a physicist (Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering), so can he perhaps explain the meaning of this?
Selection committees for jobs (especially senior jobs) and validation committees for courses, might make fewer mistakes if they didn’t rely so much on formal documents and did a little more investigation themselves. That sort of thing is why the managerial culture not only takes a lot more time, but also gives a worse result.
It would have taken 10 minutes with Google to find out about Young’s track record, but they didn’t bother. As a result they have spent a long time producing a validation that isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. That makes the University of Wales a bit of a laughing stock. Worse still, it brings science itself into disrepute.
What does the University of Wales say? So far, nothing. Last week I sent brief and polite emails to Professor Palastanga and to Professor Clement to try to discover whether it is true that the validation process had indeed missed the fact that the course organiser’s writings had been described as “preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense” in the Guardian.
So far I have had no reply from the vice-chancellor, but on .26 October I did get an answer from Prof Palastaga.
|As regards the two people you asked questions about – J.Young – I personally am not familiar with her book and nobody on the validation panel raised any concerns about it. As for P.Holford similarly there were no concerns expressed about him or his work. In both cases we would have considered their CV’s as presented in the documentation as part of the teaching team. In my experience of conducting degree validations at over 16 UK Universities this is the normal practice of a validation panel.|
I have to say this reply confirms my worst fears. Validation committees such as this one simply don’t do their duty. They don’t show the curiosity that is needed to discover the facts about the things that they are meant to be judging. How could they not have looked at the book by the very person that they are validating? After all that has been written about Patrick Holford, it is simply mind-boggling that the committee seems to have been quite unaware of any of it.
It is yet another example of the harm done to science by an unthinking, box-ticking approach.
Pharmacology. A Handbook for Complementary Healthcare Professionals
Elsevier were kind enough to send me an inspection copy of this book, which is written by one of the nutrition course tutors, Elaine Aldred. She admits that pharmacology is “considered by most students to be nothing more that a ‘hoop-jumping’ exercise in the process of becoming qualified”. She also says. disarmingly. that “I was certainly not the most adept scientist at school and found my university course a trial”.
The book has all the feel of a cut and paste job. It is mostly very simple (if not simplistic). though for no obvious reason it starts with a long (and very amateur) discussion of chemical bonding Then molecules are admitted to be indivisible (but, guess what, the subject of homeopathy is avoided). There is a very short section on ion channels, though, bizarrely, it appears under the heading “How do drugs get into cells?”. Since the author is clearly not able to make the distinction between volts and coulombs, the discussion is more likely to confuse the reader than to help.
Then a long section on plants. It starts of by asserting that “approximately a quarter of prescription drugs contain at least one chemical that was originally isolated and extracted from a plant”.. This cannot be even remotely correct. There are vast tables showing complicated chemical structures, but the usual inadequate
list of their alleged actions This is followed by a quick gallop through some classes of conventional drugs, illustrated again mainly by chemical structures not data. Hormone replacement therapy is mentioned, but the chance to point out that it is one of the best illustrations of the need for RCTs is missed.
The one thing that one would really like to see in such a book is a good account of how you tell whether or not a drug works in man. This is relegated to five pages at the end of the book, and it is, frankly, pathetic. It
is utterly uncritical in the one area that matters more than any other for people who purport to treat patients. All you get is a list of unexplained bullet points.
If this book is the source of the “scientific content” of the nutrition course, things are as bad as we feared.
We know all about the sixteen or so universities that run “BSc” degrees in hokum. They are all “post-1992” universities, which used to be polytechnics. That is one reason why it saddens me to see them destroying their own attempts to achieve parity with older universities by running courses that I would regard as plain dishonest.
Older universities do not run degree courses in such nonsense. Academics (insofar as they still have any influence) certainly would not put up with it if they tried. But nevertheless you can find quackery in some of the most respected universities, and it gets there not via academics but (guess what) via Human Resources. It creeps in through two routes. One is the “training courses” that research staff now have to do (the “Roberts agenda”). The other route is through occupational health services.
Quackery in training courses
It isn’t easy to find out what happens elsewhere, but I was certainly surprised to find out that UCL’s own HR department was offering a course that promised to teach you the “core principles” of Brain Gym and Neurolinguistic Programming, both totally discredited bits of psycho-babble, more appropriate to the lifestyle section of a downmarket.women’s magazine than a university. I gather that HR’s reaction after I brought this to light was not to ask what was wrong with it, but just to get angry.
In a spirit of collegiality I offered to run a transferable skills course myself. I even offered to do it for nothing (rather than the rumoured £700 per day charged by the life style consultants). I proposed a course in ‘How to read critically’ (subtitle ‘How to detect bullshit’). This seems to me to be the ultimate transferable skill. Bullshit occurs in every walk of life. My proposal was moderately worded and perfectly serious.
Guess what? Despite several reminders, I have never had any response to my suggestion. Well, I suppose that HR people now regard themselves as senior to mere professors and there is really no need to reply to their
Quackery in occupational health. Leicester sets a good example
If you work at a university, why not search the university’s web site for “complementary medicice” or complementary therapies”. If it is a real university, you won’t find any degrees in homeopathy, or in amethysts
that emit high yin energy. But some quite surprising places are found to be recommending magic medicine through their Occupational Health service, which usually seems to be part of HR. In fact at one time even UCL was doing it, but no soon had somebody sent me the link than it disappeared. As a matter of historical record, you can see it here (it had all the usual junk, as well as harmless stuff like yoga and pilates).
While looking for something else I stumbled recently some other cases. One was at the University of Leicester, a very good university (and alma mater to the great David Attenborough who must have done more to point out the beauty of science than just about anyone). But we find on their staff wellbeing site, alongside some perfectly sensible stuff, a link to complementary therapies.
The list of ‘therapies’ includes not only the usual placebos, acupuncture, reiki, reflexology, but, even more exotically, a fraudulent Russian device called SCENAR therapy. They have a nice leaflet that explains all these things in words that run the whole gamut from meaningless gobbledygook to plain wrong. Here are some examples from the leaflet.
“In the feet, there are reflex areas corresponding to all the parts of the body and these areas are arranged in such a way as to form a map of the body in the feet”
Reflexology has been shown to be effective for:
- Back Pain
Well no, there are no such areas in your feet. That is sheer imagination. And reflexology has not “been shown to be effective” for any of those conditions. These claims for therapeutic efficacy are not only lies. They are also illegal.
Each hand position is held for a few minutes, and during this time healing energy will flow into you, balancing your energy system, releasing stress, soothing pain, and promoting your body’s natural ability to heal itself.”
This is sheer idiotic mumbo-jumbo. The “flow of healing energy” is totally imaginary. Such talk is offensive to anyone with half a brain. Insofar as they claim to heal anything, it is also illegal. The comes SCENAR.
“What is SCENAR?
SCENAR is an acronym for Self Controlled Energo- Neuro Adaptive Regulator. It is a reflex biofeedback device which when used by a qualified practitioner, can help to alleviate acute and chronic pain. It is licensed in the UK for pain relief but experience has shown that it is helpful in a wide variety of conditions.”
This is even more seriously nuts than the others. The term “licensed” means merely that it is electrically safe. It certainly does not mean that it works. Pubmed shows only three publications about the SCENAR device, all in Russian,
One sales site (apparently Russian) makes the following modest claim.
“A prime goal of the Russian Space Program was to provide space travelers with a portable medical device that would become their “universal medical assistant” in space. So from the beginning, the SCENAR was designed to replace an entire medical hospital, with all its staff, diagnostic and treatment facilities, even the pharmacy. A universal, non-invasive, portable regulator of body functions (among other things) was envisaged.”
The SCENAR device (right) looks like a TV remote control (perhaps it IS a TV remote control -we aren’t anywhere told in comprehensible terms what’s in the box. The Russian site sells also the rather baffling accessory on the right. The mind boggles.
Remote rectal-vaginal electrode for SCENAR
How does this rubbish get onto the web site of a good university?
I presume that it is just another sign of what happens when universities come to be run by non-academics. No doubt the occupational health people are well meaning and kind, but just scientifically illiterate. What about the HR person in charge of them? They are not known for scientific literacy either (which would not matter if they stuck to their job). But perhaps they just didn’t notice. There is only one way to find out. Ask. So I sent this letter.on 10th September.
I am a pharmacologist and I have a side interest in public understanding of science, alternative medicine.and medical fraud
I was quite surprised when Google led me unexpectedly to your complementary therapies page at http://www.le.ac.uk/staffwellbeing/complementary_therapy.html
There is, sad to say, a great deal of information on these pages that is simply not true. For example it has NOT been shown that reflexology has been shown to be effective in any of the conditions which you list, as far as I know
To take only one more example from this page, the SCENAR device is an even more extreme example. It is well known to be fraudulent. and has been investigated by the Washington State Attorney General.
This sort of thing is not what one would expect from a very respectable university, and it must be a great embarrassment to your excellent medical scientists.
Apart from the many scientific inaccuracies (which greatly impede the efforts of those of us who try to improve public understanding of science), you are, I hope, aware that there is a legal aspect.
Since May this year, new regulations have made it illegal to make claims for health benefits if evidence cannot be produced to show that the claims are justified. I would like to put it to you that many of the claims made on this page are not only immoral, but also illegal.
I wondered whether you , or your HR department, would like to make any comments
I got an immediate and very sympathetic response from the Director of HR and a week later, on17th September, he wrote
I have discussed the matter with my manager of Staff Counselling and Welfare and have agreed that it is probably safest that we remove the references to ‘complimentary’[sic] therapies from the site entirely.
Thank you for your helpful input and the recommendations for reading matter.”
So there is a lesson here. If you find this sort or stuff on your own institution’s web site, all that may be needed is a simple letter that points out what nonsense it is. Admittedly the HR man seemed rather more worried about whether the claims were illegal than whether they were true, but either way, it worked.
Only one little snag. As of 6 October the pages still have not been removed.
On the assumption that they eventually will be removed, I have kept copies of the Wellbeing page, of the Complementary Therapies page, and of the ‘explanatory leaflet’. They stand as part of a historical record that
shows, once again, what can happen when scientific matters get into the hands of HR. Fortunately Leicester University has an HR director who is willing to listen to advice.
Something seems to have gone seriously wrong. Despite the rapid response, virtually all the nonsense is still there on 13th October. It seems not to be so simple after all.
And despite several reminders, the advertisement for SCENAR ‘therapy’ is still on the University web site on December 14th. I know that no decision by HR can be made with fewer than 25 meetings and an awayday in Majorca, but this is getting ridiculous.
Alfred Joseph Clark FRS held the established chair of Pharmacology at UCL from 1919 to 1926, when he left for Edinburgh. In the 1920s and 30s, Clark was a great pioneer in the application of quantitative physical ideas to pharmacology. As well as his classic scientific works, like The Mode of Action of Drugs on Cells (1933) he wrote, and felt strongly, about the fraud perpetrated on the public by patent medicine salesmen. In 1938 (while in Edinburgh) he published a slim volume called Patent Medicines. The parallels with today are astonishing.
Alfred Joseph Clark FRS (1885 – 1941)
I was lucky to be given a copy of this book by David Clark, A.J. Clark’s eldest son, who is now 88. I visited him in Cambridge on 17 September 2008, because he thought that, as holder of the A.J. Clark chair at UCL from 1985 to 2004, I’d be a good person to look after this and several other books from his father’s library. They would have gone to the Department of Pharmacology if we still had one, but that has been swept away by mindless administrators with little understanding of how to get good science.
Quotations from the book are in italic, and are interspersed with comments from me.
The book starts with a quotation from the House of Commons Select Committee report on Patent Medicines. The report was submitted to the House on 4 August 1914, so there is no need to explain why it had little effect. The report differs from recent ones in that it is not stifled by the sort of political correctness that makes politicians refer to fraudsters as “professions”.
“2.2 The situation, therefore, as regards the sale and advertisement of proprietary medicines and articles may be summarised as follows:
For all practical purposes British law is powerless to prevent any person from procuring any drug, or making any mixture, whether patent or without any therapeutical activity whatever (as long as it does not contain a scheduled poison), advertising it in any decent terms as a cure for any disease or ailment, recommending it by bogus testimonials and the invented opinions and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians, and selling it under any name he chooses, on payment of a small stamp duty. For any price he can persuade a credulous public to pay.”
Select Committee on Patent Medicines. 1914
“The writer has endeavoured in the present article to analyse the reasons for the amazing immunity of patent medicines form all attempts to curb their activity, to estimate the results and to suggest the obvious measures of reform that are needed.”
|Clark, writing in 1938, was surprised that so little had changed since 1914. What would he have thought if he had known that now, almost 100 years after the 1914 report, the fraudsters are still getting away with it?
Chapter 2 starts thus.
The Select Committee appointed by the House of Commons in 1914 ‘to consider and inquire into the question of the sale of Patent and Proprietary Medicines’ stated its opinion in 28 pages of terse and uncompromising invective. Its general conclusions were as follows:
That the trade in secret remedies constituted a grave and widespread public evil.
That the existing law was chaotic and had proved inoperative and that consequently the traffic in secret remedies was practically uncontrolled.
In particular it concluded ‘”that this is an intolerable state of things and that new legislation to deal with it, rather than merely the amendment of existing laws, is urgently needed in the public interest.”
The “widespread public evil”continues almost unabated, and rather than introduce sensible legislation to cope with it, the government has instead given a stamp of approval for quackery by introducing utterly ineffective voluntary “self-regulation”.
Another Bill to deal with patent medicines was introduced in 1931, without success, and finally in 1936, a Medical and Surgical Appliances (Advertisement) Bill was introduced. This Bill had a very limited scope. Its purpose was to alleviate some of the worst abuses of the quack medicine trade by prohibiting the advertisement of cures for certain diseases such as blindness, Bright’s disease [nephritis] , cancer, consumption [tuberculosis], epilepsy, fits, locomotor ataxy, fits, lupus or paralysis.
The agreement of many interests was secured for this measure. The president of the Advertising Association stated that the proposed Bill would not affect adversely any legitimate trade interest. Opposition to the Bill was, however, whipped up amongst psychic healers, anti-vivisectionists and other opponents of medicine and at the second reading in March 1936, the Bill was opposed and the House was counted out during the ensuing debate. The immediate reason for this fate was that the Bill came up for second reading on the day of the Grand National! This is only one example of the remarkable luck that has attended the patent medicine vendors.
The “remarkable luck” of patent medicine vendors continues to this day, Although, in principle, advertisement of cures for venereal diseases was banned in 1917, and for cancer in 1939, it takes only a few minutes with Google to find that these laws are regularly flouted by quacks, In practice quacks get away with selling vitamin pills for AIDS, sugar pills for malaria and homeopathic pills for rabies, polio anthrax and just about anything else you can think of. Most of these advertisements are contrary to the published codes of ethics of the organisations to which the quack in question belongs but nothing ever happens.
Self-regulation simply does not work, and there is still no effective enforcement even of existing laws..
“It has already been stated that British law allows the advertiser of a secret remedy to tell any lie or make any claim that he fancies will sell his goods and the completeness of this licence is best illustrated by the consideration of a few specific points.
Advertisements for secret remedies very frequently contain a list of testimonials from medical men, which usually are in an anonymous form, stating that ………….. M.D., F.R.C.S., has found the remedy infallible. Occasionally, however, the name and address of a doctor is given and anyone unaware of the vagaries of English law would imagine that such use of a doctor’s name and professional reputation could not be made with impunity without his consent. In 1899, however, the Sallyco Mineral Water Company advertised that ‘Dr. Morgan Dochrill, physician to St. John’s Hospital, London and many of the leading physicians are presenting ‘Sallyco’ as an habitual drink. Dr. Dochrill says nothing has done his gout so much good.
Dr. Dochrill, whose name and title were correctly stated above, sued the company but failed in his case. ”
“The statement that the law does not prevent the recommending of a secret remedy by the use of bogus testimonials and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians is obviously an understatement since it is doubtful how far it interferes with the use of bogus testimonials from real physicians.”
Dodgy testimonials are still a mainstay of dodgy salesman. One is reminded of the unauthorised citation of testimonials from Dr John Marks and Professor Jonathan Waxman by Patrick Holford to aid his sales of unnecessary vitamin supplements. There is more on this at Holfordwatch.
The man in the street knows that the merits of any article are usually exaggerated in advertisements and is in the habit of discounting a large proportion of such claims, but, outside the realm of secret remedies, the law is fairly strict as regards definite misstatements concerning goods offered for sale and hence the everyday experience of the man in the street does not prepare him for dealing with advertisements which are not merely exaggerations but plain straightforward lies from beginning to end.
Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums. One imagines that no one today would be willing to spend money on pills guaranteed to prevent earthquakes but yet the claims of many of the remedies offered appear equally absurd to anyone with an elementary
knowledge of physiology or even of chemistry. A study of the successes and failures suggests that success depends chiefly on not over-rating the public intelligence. (Page 34)
This may have changed a bit since A.J. Clark was writing in 1938. Now the main clients of quacks seem to be the well-off “worried-well”. But it remains as true as ever that “Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums.” In 2008, it is perhaps more a problem of Ben Goldacre’s dictum ““My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour.”
Clark refers (page 36) to a successful conviction for fraud in the USA in 1917. The subject was a widely advertised ‘get fat quick’ pill that contained lecithin, proteins and sugar. The BMA analysis (in 1912)
suggested that the cost of the ingredients in a box of 30 tablets sold for 4/6 was 1 1/4 d. [4/6 meant 4 shillings and six pence, or 22.5 pence since 1971, and 1 1/4 old pence, a penny farthing, is 0.52 new pence]. He comments thus.
The trial revealed many interesting facts. The formula was devised after a short consultation with the expert of one of the largest drug manufacturers in the U.S.A. This firm manufactured the tablets and sold them to the proprietary medicine company at about 3/- per 1000, whilst they were retailed to the public at the rate of £7 10s. per 1000. The firm is estimated to have made a profit of about $3,000,000.
These trials in the U.S.A. revealed the fact that in a considerable proportion of cases the ‘private formula’ department of the large and well known drug firm already mentioned had first provided the formula for the nostrum and subsequently had prepared it wholesale.
Nothing much has changed here either. The alternative medicine industry (and it is a very big industry) is fond of denouncing the evils of the pharmaceutical industry, and sadly, occasionally they are right. One of the less honest practices of the pharmaceutical industry (though one never mentioned by quacks) is buying heavily into alternative medicine. Goldacre points out
“there is little difference between the vitamin and pharmaceutical industries. Key players in both include multinationals such as Roche and Aventis; BioCare, the vitamin pill producer that media nutritionist Patrick Holford works for, is part-owned by Elder Pharmaceuticals.”
And then. of course, there is the deeply dishonest promotion by Boots the Chemists of homeopathic miseducation, of vitamins and of CoQ10 supplements.
The manner in which secret remedies can survive repeated exposure is shown by the following summary of the life history of a vendor of a consumption [tuberculosis] cure.
1904, 1906: Convicted of violating the law in South Africa.
1908: Exposed in British Medical Association report and also attacked by Truth.
1910: Sued by a widow. The judge stated: ‘I think this is an intentional and well-considered fraud. It is a scandalous thing that poor people should be imposed upon and led to part with their money, and to hope that those dear to them would be cured by those processes which were nothing but quack remedies and had not the slightest value of any kind.’
1914: A libel action against the British Medical Association was lost.
1915 The cure was introduced into the United States.
1919 The cure was sold in Canada.
1924 Articles by men with medical qualifications appeared in the Swiss medical journal boosting
Secret remedies have a vitality that resembles that of the more noxious weeds and the examples mentioned suggest that nothing can do them any serious harm.
Most of the time, quacks get away with claims every bit as outrageous today. But Clark does give one example of a successful prosecution. It resulted from an exposé in the newspapers -wait for it -in the Daily Mail.
There is, however, one example which proves that a proprietary remedy can be squashed by exposure if this is accompanied by adequate publicity.
The preparation Yadil was introduced as an antiseptic and was at first advertised to the medical profession. The proprietor claimed that the remedy was not secret and that the active principle was ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’. The drug acquired popularity in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the proprietor became more and more ambitious in his therapeutic claims. The special virtue claimed for Yadil was that it would kill any harmful organism that had invaded the body. A more specific claim was that consumption in the first stage was cured with two or three pints whilst advanced cases might require a little more. Other advertisements suggested that it was a cure for most known diseases from cancer downwards.
These claims were supported by an extraordinarily intense advertising campaign. Most papers, and even magazines circulating amongst the wealthier classes, carried full page and even double page advertisements. The Daily Mail refused these advertisements and in 1924 published a three column article by Sir William Pope, professor of Chemistry in the University of Cambridge. He stated that
the name ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’ was meaningless gibberish and was not the chemical definition of any known substance. He concluded that Yadil consisted of :
‘About one per cent of the chemical compound formaldehyde.
About four per cent of glycerine.
About ninety-five per cent of water and, lastly, a smell.
He calculated that the materials contained in a gallon cost about 1/6, whilst the mixture was sold at £4 10s. per gallon.
This exposure was completely successful and the matter is of historic interest in that it is the only example of the career of a proprietary medicine being arrested by the action of the Press.
Clark goes on to talk of the law of libel.
“On the other hand the quack medicine vendor can pursue his advertising campaigns in the happy assurance that, whatever lies he tells, he need fear nothing from the interference of British law. The law does much to protect the quack medicine vendor because the laws of slander and libel are so severe.”
The law of libel to this day remains a serious risk to freedom of speech of both individuals and the media. Its use by rogues to suppress fair comment is routine. My first encounter was when a couple of herbalists
threatened to sue UCL because I said that the term ‘blood cleanser’ is gobbledygook. The fact that the statement was obviously true didn’t deter them for a moment. The herbalists were bluffing no doubt, but they caused enough nuisance that I was asked to take my pages off UCL’s server. A week later I was invited back but by then I’d set up a much better blog and the publicity resulted in an enormous increase in readership, so the outcome was good for me (but bad for herbalists).
It was also good in the end for Andy Lewis when his immortal page “The gentle art of homoeopathic killing” (about the great malaria scandal) was suppressed. The Society of Homeopaths’ lawyers didn’t go for him personally but for his ISP who gave in shamefully and removed the page. As a result the missing page reappeared in dozens of web sites round the world and shot to the top in a Google search.
Chiropractors are perhaps the group most likely to try to suppress contrary opinions by law not argument. The only lawyers’ letter that has been sent to me personally, alleged defamation in an editorial that I wrote for the New Zealand Medical Journal. That was a little scary, but the journal stuck up for its right to speak and the threat went away after chiropractors were allowed right of reply (but we got the last word).
Simon Singh, one of the best science communicators we have, has not been so lucky. He is going to have to defend in court an action brought by the British Chiropractic Association because of innocent opinions expressed in the Guardian.
Chapter 6 is about “The harm done by patent medicines”. It starts thus.
“The trade in secret remedies obviously represents a ridiculous waste of money but some may argue that, since we are a free country and it pleases people to waste their money in this particular way, there is no call for any legislative interference. The trade in quack medicines cannot, however, be regarded as a harmless one. The Poisons Acts fortunately prevent the sale of a large number of dangerous drugs, but there are numerous other ways in which injury can be produced by these remedies.”
The most serious harm, he thought, resulted from self-medication, and he doesn’t mince his words.
“The most serious objection to quack medicines is however that their advertisements encourage self-medication as a substitute for adequate treatment and they probably do more harm in this than in any other manner.
The nature of the problem can best be illustrated by considering a simple example such as diabetes. In this case no actual cure is known to medicine but, on the other hand, if a patient is treated adequately by insulin combined with appropriate diet, he can be maintained in practically normal health, in spite of his disability, for an indefinite period. The expectation of life of the majority of intelligent diabetics, who make no mistakes in their regime, is not much less than that of normal persons. The regime is both irksome and unpleasant, but anyone who persuades diabetics to abandon it, is committing manslaughter as certainly as if he fired a machine gun into a crowded street.
As regards serious chronic disease the influence of secret remedies may be said to range from murderous to merely harmful.
‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous, since they are likely to cause the death of anyone who is unfortunate enough to believe in their efficacy and thus delay adequate treatment until too late.
The phrase “‘Cures for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous” made Clark himself the victim of suppression of freedom of speech by lawyers. His son, David Clark, wrote of his father in “Alfred Joseph Clark, A Memoir” (C. & J. Clark Ltd 1985 ISBN 0-9510401-0-3)
“Although tolerant of many human foibles, A. J. had always disapproved fiercely of quacks, particularly the charlatans who sold fraudulent medicines. During his visits to London he met Raymond Postgate, then a crusading left wing journalist, who persuaded A.J. to write a pamphlet which was published in an ephemeral series called ‘Fact‘ in March 1938. It was a lively polemical piece. . To A.J.’s surprise and dismay he was sued for libel by a notorious
rogue who peddled a quack cure for for tuberculosis. This man said that A.J.’s remarks (such as “‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous”) were libellous and would damage his business. A.J. was determined to fight, and he and Trixie decided to put their savings at stake if necessary. The B.M.A. and the Medical Defence Union agreed to support him and they all went to lawyers. He was shocked when they advised him that he would be bound to lose for he had damaged the man’s livelihood! Finally, after much heart searching, he made an apology, saying that he had not meant that particular man’s nostrum”
Talk about déjà vu!
On page 68 there is another very familiar story. It could have been written today.
“The fact that the public is acquiring more knowledge of health matters and is becoming more suspicious of the cruder forms of lies is also helping to weed out the worst types of patent medicine advertisements. For example, in 1751 a bottle of oil was advertised as a cure for scurvy, leprosy and consumption but today such claims would not be effective in promoting the sale of a remedy. The modern advertiser would probably claim that the oil was rich in all the vitamins and the elements essential for life and would confine his claims to a statement that it would alleviate all minor forms of physical or mental ill-health.
The average patent medicine advertised today makes plausible rather than absurd claims and in general the advertisements have changed to conform with a change in the level of the public’s knowledge.
It is somewhat misleading, however, to speak of this as an improvement, since the law has not altered and hence the change only means that the public is being swindled in a somewhat more skilful manner.
The ideal method of obtaining an adequate vitamin supply is to select a diet containing an abundant supply of fresh foods, but unfortunately the populace is accustomed to live very largely on preserved or partially purified food stuffs and such processes usually remove most of the vitamins.”
The first part of the passage above is reminiscent of something that A.J Clark wrote in the BMJ in 1927. Nowadays it is almost unquotable and I was told by a journal editor that it was unacceptable even with asterisks. That seems to me a bit silly. Words had different connotations in 1927.
“The less intelligent revert to the oldest form of belief and seek someone who will make strong magic for them and defeat the evil spirits by some potent charm. This is the feeling to which the quack appeals; he claims to be above the laws of science and to possess some charm for defeating disease of any variety.
The nature of the charm changes with the growth of education. A naked n****r howling to the beat of a tom-tom does not impress a European, and most modern Europeans would be either amused or disgusted by the Black mass that was popular in the seventeenth century. Today some travesty of physical science appears to be the most popular form of incantation.”
A.J. Clark (1927) The historical aspect of quackery, BMJ October 1st 1927
Apart from some of the vocabulary, what better description could one have of the tendency of homeopaths to harp on meaninglessly about quantum theory or the “scienciness” and “referenciness” of
modern books on nutritional therapy?
So has anything changed?
Thus far, the outcome might be thought gloomy. Judging by Clark’s account, remarkably little has changed since 1938, or even since 1914. The libel law in the UK is as bad now as it was then. Recently the United Nations Human Rights Committee said UK laws block matters of public interest and encourage libel tourism (report here, see also here). It is unfit for a free society and it should be changed.
But there are positive sides too. Firstly the advent of scientific bloggers has begun to have some real influence. People are no longer reliant on journalists to interpret (or, often, misinterpret) results for them. They can now get real experts and links to original sources. Just one of these, Ben Goldacre’s badscience.net, and his weekly column in the Guardian has worked wonders in educating the public and improving journalism. Young people can, and do, contribute to the debate because they can blog anonymously if they are frightened that their employer might object.
Perhaps still more important, the law changed this year. Now, at last, it may be possible to prosecute successfully those who make fraudulent health claims. Sad to say, this was not an initiative of the UK government, which remains as devoted as ever to supporting quacks. Remember that, quite shamefully, the only reason given by the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) gave for allowing false labelling of homeopathic pills was to support the “homeopathic industry”. They suggested (falsely) that the EU required them to take this irresponsible step, which was condemned by just about every scientific organisation. But the new unfair trading regulations did come from the EU. After almost 100 years since the 1914 report, we have at last some decent legislation. Let’s hope it’s enforced.
The back cover of the series of ‘Fact‘ books in which A.J. Clark’s article appeared is reproduced below, simply because of the historical portrait of the 1930s that it gives.
This post got a lot of hits from Ben Goldacre’s miniblog which read
- Prof David Colquhoun gets into a time machine and meets himself
A truly classic DC post.
After the announcement that the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan) was suspending its homeopathy “BSc” course, it seems that their vice chancellor has listened to the pressure, both internal and external, to stop bringing his university into disrepute.
An internal review of all their courses in alternative medicine was announced shortly after the course closure. Congratulations to Malcolm McVicar for grasping the nettle at last. Let’s hope other universities follow his example soon.
I have acquired, indirectly, a copy of the announcement of the welcome news.
| Homeopathy, Herbalism and cupuncture
Concern has been expressed by some colleagues as to whether the University should offer courses in homeopathy, Herbalism and Acupuncture. Therefore, to facilitate proper discussion on this matter I have set up a working party to review the issues.
I have asked Eileen Martin, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Health, to lead this working party and report to me as soon as possible. Whilst the review is taking place, we need to recognise that there are students and staff studying and teaching on these courses which have satisfied the University’s quality assurance procedures and been duly validated. I would therefore ask that colleagues would refrain from comment or speculation which would cause concern to these students and staff. Staff who wish to express their views on this issue should direct these to Eileen Martin, by the end of September.
Times Higher Education today reports
“The University of Central Lancashire is to review all its courses in homoeopathy, herbalism and acupuncture after some staff said it should not be offering degrees in “quackery”, Times Higher Education has learnt.
A university spokesman said: “As a university we value and practise transparency and tolerance and welcome all academic viewpoints.”
(Later, an almost identical version of the story ran on the Times Online.)
So far, so good. But of course the outcome of a committee depends entirely on who is appointed to it. Quite often such committees do no more than provide an internal whitewash.
It does seem a bit odd to appoint as chair the dean of the faculty where all these course are run, and presumably generate income. Eileen Martin has often appeared to be proud of them in the past. Furthermore, the whole investigation will (or should) turn on the assessment of evidence. It needs some knowledge of the design of clinical trials and their statistical analysis, As far as I can see, Ms Martin has essentially no research publications whatsoever.
I also worry about a bit about “satisfied the University’s quality assurance procedures and been duly validated”. One point of the investigation should be recognise frankly that the validation process is entirely circular, and consequently worth next to nothing. It must be hard for a vice-chancellor to admit that, but it will be an essential step in restoring confidence in Uclan.
Let’s not prejudge though. If there are enough good scientists on the committee, the result will be good.
I hope that transparency extends to letting us know who will be doing the judging. Everything depends on that.
Well well, there’s a coincidence, Once again, the week after a there is an announcement about degrees in witchcraft, what should pop up again in the column of the inimitable Laurie Taylor in THE. The University of Poppleton’s own Department of Palmistry.
|Letter to the editor
I was shocked to see yet another scurrilous attack upon the work of my department in The Poppletonian. Although Palmistry is in its early days as an academic discipline it cannot hope to progress while there are people like your correspondent who insist on referring to it as “a load of superstitious nonsense which doesn’t deserve a place on the end of the pier let alone in a university”.
A large number of people claim to have derived considerable benefit from learning about life lines, head lines and heart lines and the role of the six major mounts in predicting their future. All of us in the Palmistry Department believe it vitally important that these claims are rigorously examined. How else can science advance?