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How irrational thinking in government and universities has led to the rise of new-age nonsense in the name of science.

This article appeared on 15th August 2007, on the Guardian Science web site.

The Guardian made very few cuts to the original version, but removed a lot of the links. If you want to have references to some of the claims that are made, try the original, which I reproduce here. [Download this as pdf]

The Guardian Science site also has a piece on this topic by Alok Jha: Reigniting the enlightenment How do we win back our civilisation from the jaws of darkness?
Comments can be left there too.

A German translation of this piece has been posted at the Mental health blog.

A Russian translation (draft version) has appeared here . There is also a Russian translation of How to Get Good Science which can be found here.

Etymological note. The word endarkenment has been used by several people as an antonym for the enlightenment, but the first time it caught my eye was in an article in 2005 by Gerald Weissman, The facts of evolution: fighting the Endarkenment. The article opens thus.

“Those of us who practice experimental science are living in the best of times and the worst of times, and I’m not talking about A Tale of Two Cities, but a tale of two cultures.”

Science in an Age of Endarkenment

“Education: Elitist activity. Cost ineffective. Unpopular with Grey Suits. Now largely replaced by Training.”
Michael O’Donnell, in A Sceptic’s Medical Dictionary (BMJ publishing, 1997).

The enlightenment was a beautiful thing. People cast aside dogma and authority. They started to think for themselves. Natural science flourished. Understanding of the real world increased. The hegemony of religion slowly declined. Real universities were created and eventually democracy took hold. The modern world was born. Until recently we were making good progress. So what went wrong?

The past 30 years or so have been an age of endarkenment. It has been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable.

This matters when people delude themselves into believing that we could be endangered at 45 minute’s notice by non-existent weapons of mass destruction.It matters when reputable accountants delude themselves into thinking that Enron-style accounting is acceptable.

It matters when people are deluded into thinking that they will be rewarded in paradise for killing themselves and others.

It matters when bishops attribute floods to a deity whose evident vengefulness and malevolence leave one reeling. And it matters when science teachers start to believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago.

These are serious examples of the endarkenment mentality, but I’ll stick with my day job and consider what this mentality is doing to science.

One minor aspect of the endarkenment has been a resurgence in magical and superstitious ideas about medicine. The existence of homeopaths on the High Street won’t usually do too much harm. Their sugar pills contain nothing. They won’t poison your body; the greater danger is that they poison your mind.

It is true that consulting a homeopath could endanger your health if it delays proper diagnosis, or if they recommend sugar pills to prevent malaria, but the real objection is cultural. Homeopaths are a manifestation of a society in which wishful thinking matters more than truth; a society where what I say three times is true and never mind the facts.

If this attitude were restricted to half-educated herbalists and crackpot crystal gazers, perhaps one could shrug it off. But it isn’t restricted to them. The endarkenment extends to the highest reaches of the media, government and universities. And it corrupts science itself.

Even respectable newspapers still run nonsensical astrology columns. Respected members of parliament seem quite unaware of what constitutes evidence. Peter Hain (Lab., Neath) set back medicine in Northern Ireland. David Tredinnick (Cons., Bosworth) advocated homeopathic treatment of foot and mouth disease. Caroline Flint condoned homeopathy, and Lord Hunt referred to ‘psychic surgery’ as a “profession” in a letter written in response to question by a clinical scientist

Under the influence of the Department of Health, normally sane pharmacologists on the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority, which is meant to “ensure the medicines work”, changed the rules to allow homeopathic and herbal products to be labelled, misleadingly, with “traditional” uses, while requiring no evidence to be produced that they work.

Tony Blair himself created religiously-divided schools at a time when that has never been more obviously foolish, and he defended in the House of Commons, schools run by ‘young-earth creationists‘, the lunatic fringe of religious zealots. The ex-Head Science teacher at Emmanuel College said

“Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm . . . is explicitly mentioned . . . we must give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data”:

That is not from the fundamentalists of the southern USA, but from Gateshead, UK.

The Blairs’ fascination with pendulum wavers, crystals and other new age nonsense is well known. When their elders set examples like that, is it any surprise that over 30% of students in the UK now say they believe in creationism and “intelligent design”? As Steve Jones has pointed out so trenchantly, this makes it hard to teach them science at all. Welcome back, Cardinal Bellarmine.

Homeopaths and herbalists may be anti-science but they are not nearly as worrying as the university vice-chancellors who try to justify the giving of bachelor of science degrees in subjects that are anti-science to their core. How, one may well ask, have universities got into the embarrassing position of having to answer questions like that?

Here are a couple of examples of how. The University of Bedfordshire (in its previous incarnation as the University of Luton) accredited a Foundation Degree course in ‘nutritional therapy’, at`the Institute of Optimum Nutrition (IoN). The give-away is the term Nutritional Therapy . They are the folks who claim, with next to no evidence, that changing your diet, and buying from them a lot of expensive ‘supplements’, will cure almost any disease (even AIDS and cancer).

The IoN is run by Patrick Holford, whose only qualification in nutrition is a diploma awarded to himself by his own Institute. His advocacy of vitamin C as better than conventional drugs to treat AIDS is truly scary. His pretensions have been analysed effectively by Ben Goldacre, and by Holfordwatch.. See the toe-curling details on badscience.net .

The documents that relate to this accreditation are mind-boggling. One of the recommended books for the course, on “Energy Medicine” (a subject that is pure fantasy) has been reviewed thus.

“This book masquerades as science, but it amounts to little more than speculation and polemic in support of a preconceived belief.”.

The report of Luton’s Teaching Quality and Enhancement Committee (May 24th 2004) looks terribly official, with at least three “quality assurance” people in attendance. But the minutes show that they discussed almost everything about the course apart from the one thing that really matters, the truth of what was being taught. The accreditation was granted. It’s true that the QAA criticised Luton for this, but only because they failed to tick a box, not because of the content of the course.

The University of Central Lancashire ‘s justification for its BSc in Homeopathic Medicine consists of 49 pages of what the late, great Ted Wragg might have called “world-class meaningless bollocks”. All the buzzwords are there “multi-disciplinary delivery”, “formative and summative assessment”, log books and schedules. But not a single word about the fact that the course is devoted to a totally discredited early 19th century view of medicine. Not a single word about truth and falsehood. Has it become politically incorrect to ask questions like that? The box-ticking mentality is just another manifestation of the endarkenment thought. If you tick a box to say that you are fully-qualifed at laying-on-of-hands, that is good enough. You have done the course, and it is irrelevant whether the course teaches rubbish.

These examples, and many like them, result, I believe from the bureaucratisation and corporatisation of science and education. Power has gradually ebbed away from the people who do the research and teaching, and become centralised in the hands of people who do neither.

The sad thing is that the intentions are good. Taxpayers have every right to expect that their money is well spent, and students have every right to expect that a university will teach them well. How, then, have we ended up with attempts to deliver these things that do more harm than good?

One reason is that the bureaucrats who impose these schemes have no interest in data. They don’t do randomised tests, or even run pilot schemes, on their educational or management theories because, like and old-fashioned clinician, they just know they are right. Enormous harm has been done to science by valuing quantity over quality, short-termism over originality and, at the extremes, fraud over honesty. Spoofs about the pretentiousness and dishonesty of some science, like that published in The New York Times last year, are too close to the truth to be very funny now.

Science, left to itself, and run by scientists, has created much of the world we live in. It has self-correcting mechanisms built in, so that mistakes, and the occasional bit of fraud, are soon eliminated. Corporatisation has meant that, increasingly, you are not responsible to your conscience, just to your line manager. The result of this, I fear, is a decrease in honesty, and in the long run inevitably a decrease in quality and originality too.

If all we had to worry about was a few potty homeopaths and astrologers, it might be better to shrug, and get on with trying to find some truths about the world. But now the endarkenment extends to parliament, universities and schools, it is far too dangerous to ignore.

Twenty-five hospitals from London and southern and eastern England have already either stopped sending any patients to the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital or agreed to fund only a handful A campaign has started o save it, but the arguments are far from convincing.

This is reposted from the original IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page

The news is out. It was in February this year when I first saw some “Commissioning Intentions 2007-08” documents from several London NHS Primary Care Trusts (PCT), indicating their intention to break their contracts with the RLHH on the very reasonable grounds that homeopathy doesn’t work. It seemed better to wait for the intentions to be implemented before saying much, because of the inevitable outcry from those who want sugar pills at the taxpayers’ expense.

Then, in March 2007, the Health Services Journal carried a story “PCTs consider alternative to homeopathic hospitals” (free registration, or read it here).

On 8 April 2007, The Observer carried a special report, prominently featured on page 3.

Royals’ favoured hospital at risk as homeopathy backlash gathers pace
The Queen loves it. But alternative medicine centre’s future looks uncertain as more NHS trusts axe funding”

Fisher and Queen
Fisher and Queen,
Observer 8 April 2007

Peter Fisher, clinical director of the RLHH, is quoted as saying

“Twenty-five hospitals from London and southern and eastern England have already either stopped sending any patients to the RLHH or agreed to fund only a handful.”

“Prince Charles is sympathetic, supportive and concerned. But he doesn’t feel it’s appropriate to intervene in any way because there’s been some adverse publicity before about him ‘meddling’. ”

Fisher attributes this to the letter sent to PCTs by 13 of us, last May, in which we advocated that the NHS should not be paying for “unproven or disproved treatments”. The leading signatory on this letter, Professor Michael Baum, is quoted in the Observer thus.

“If the Royal London were to close because of PCT deficits we would scarcely miss it”.

“Homeopathy is no better than witchcraft. It’s no better than a placebo effect. It’s patronising and insulting for adults.”

“Instead you could have a centre for palliative and supportive care, which would be of greater benefit and involve half the cost. Rather than losing something, we would gain something.”

The backlash

The reaction seems to have started with a letter from homeopath Carol Boyce. Her letter starts thus.

Death by stealth. The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (RLHH) – the visible presence of homeopathy within Britain’s NHS – an institution putting homeopathy in the public mind for the last 150 years – the place where homeopathy was seen to perform so well in the cholera epidemic of the 1840s – is being dealt a DEATH BLOW”

I’d guess the very first sentence must be something of an embarrassment to the RLHH’s clinical director, who is far too sensible to believe that cholera can be cured by homeopathic sugar pills.

The red herring about cholera is repeated ad nauseam on hundreds of homeopathy sites (though most are curiously silent about whether they really believe that sugar pills can cure cholera). It is based on the report that during the London Cholera epidemic of 1854, of the 61 cases of cholera treated at the London Homeopathic Hospital, 10 died (16.4%), whereas the neighbouring Middlesex Hospital reported 123 deaths out of 231 cases of cholera (53.2%). Apart from the lack of any knowledge of the state of the patients on entry to hospital, it was also the case at the time that conventional medicine was no more based on evidence than homeopathy. Indeed the initial popularity of homeopathy could well have resulted not only from wishful thinking, but also because doing nothing at all (i.e. homeopathy) was less harmful than blood letting. The fallacy of the argument was spotted very early on by Oliver Wendell Holmes (senior) in his famous essay, Homeopathy and its Kindred Delusions.

But medicine moved on and homeopathy didn’t. The history of cholera, like that of tuberculosis, contrary to what is suggested by homeopaths, is a triumph for evidence based medicine. The epidemic was halted not by homeopaths but by the careful observations of John Snow that led to his removing the handle of the Broad Street pump. If medicine had been left to homeopaths, people would still be dying of these diseases.

Carol Boyce invites you to write directly to Queen Elizabeth II, to save the RLHH. She has also started an e-petition on the UK government site. The petition includes the words


“The RLHH has been part of the Health Service for 150 years. ”

“In 2005, 67% of GPs and 85% of practices in it’s [sic] Primary Care Trust, referred patients to the hospital. The hospital provides effective and most importantly, COST-EFFECTIVE treatments.”

Ms Boyce seems not to have noticed that the Prince of Wales’ own Smallwood report decided that there was not enough evidence to come to firm conclusions about cost-effectiveness.

Peter Fisher himself has appealed for the survival of the RLHH in a letter dated 9 March 2007 [download copy of letter].

“The Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital needs your support

By Dr. Peter Fisher, Homeopath to Her Majesty, the Queen.

There is no silly talk about cholera here, but there is a useful list of Trusts who have decided to abandon "unproven and disproved treatments". Fisher recommends you to read Marcia Angell’s book to learn about the deficiencies of the drug industry. I recommend that too. I also recommend Dan Hurley’s book on the even greater deficiencies of the quackery industry.

Fisher suggests you write to your MP to prevent closure of the RLHH.
I suggest you write to your MP to support closure of the RLHH.

This is a follow-up of the poat on BBC2 and the Open University on Alternative Medicine.

Following the article by Simon Singh in the Guardian (25 March 2006), two letters appeared on April 1, 2006. The first, from Prof. Edzard Ernst, confirmed that he felt the BBC had ignored and misrepresented his advice.

 In its response to our criticism of the Alternative Medicine series, the BBC says “it is extremely unusual that Professor Ernst should make these comments so long after the series was aired” (Report, March 25). I made my criticism in writing two months before the programme was broadcast. The reason why I reiterated them when I did was simply because Simon Singh interviewed me in my capacity as adviser to the BBC. Extremely unusual? Long after? I don’t think so.
Prof Edzard Ernst
Peninsula Medical School, Exeter

The second letter defended the BBC. It was unequivocal in its support of the entire series of programmes, and its appearence surprised me.  In the light of all that has been written, one might have hoped that the BBC would listen and learn from its mistakes. The letter has ten signatories.

We are all scientists involved as consultants or contributors to the BBC2 series, Alternative Medicine. We do not in any way recognise the experience of working on the series as described in your article (Was this proof of acupuncture’s power … or a sensationalised TV stunt?, Science, March 25), nor do we share the views of those scientists you have quoted in it. In all its dealings with us, the BBC asked for advice and input where needed, took on board our feedback and incorporated our comments into the final edit of the programme as transmitted, where appropriate. Far from feeling dissatisfied with the final outcome, we feel the series seemed well balanced and informative, doing full justice to the subject matter it addressed.

Dr Jack Tinker
Royal Society of Medicine

Prof Brian Berman
University of Maryland

Prof Liz Williamson
Reading University

Dr Andrew Vickers
Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center, New York

Dr James Warner
Imperial College London

Dr Mike Cummings
British Medical Acupuncture Society

Prof Gary Green
York University

Dr Carl Albrecht
University of Johannesburg

Dr Jen Cleland
University of Aberdeen

Professor Irving Kirsch
University of Plymouth

But all is not what it seems. Contrary to appearances, this letter was actually written by the BBC who also compiled the signatories (it seems to have been the responsibility of Kim Creed, of BBC Factual Publicity).

    • One of the signatories. Dr James Warner, had never seen the letter until after it was published, and tells me that “[I] substantially do not agree with the sentiments expressed therein. Indeed, we had to resist attempts by the programme makers to sensationalise our work”.
      The Guardian has published a correction.
  • Six other signatories tell me that their approval was limited to the way their own contribution was treated, and was not intended as approval of the whole series. One commented ” I’ve obviously been naïve, and I am very fed up with this whole thing”. Another says ” I suppose I (foolishly by the sounds of things) extrapolated from my own programme and experience, without considering the wider implications of the concluding sentence”.
  • Only one of the eight signatories whom I’ve asked has actually seen all three programmes, as they were transmitted. This makes it rather odd that they should appear to endorse so unequivocally the whole series.
  • One of the signatories, Carl Albrecht, gives his address as “University of Johannesburg”, but oddly the BBC forgot to mention that Dr Albrecht is co-owner (at least until very recently) of the South African Company, Phyto Nova, that makes, promotes and sells the untested herb, Sutherlandia, for treatment of AIDS (see, for example, here).
    He is, therefore, highly biassed. He is also exceedingly controversial. One of his strongest critics has been Stuart Thomson, Director of the Gaia Research Institute,
    hardly an organisation that is biassed against “natural medicines”. Albrecht is indeed a very curious choice of advisor for a programme about science.
  • Three of the signatories (Berman, Cummings and Albrecht) are heavily committed to CAM, and so unlikely to be critical of anything that favours it, even apart from financial interests in the outcome. Brian Berman even has is own an entry in Quackwatch. So several of the signatories are pretty much committed in advance. Asking them if they endorse the programmes is about as informative as asking a group of priests if the endorse god.
  • It gets worse. This morning, 6th April, I heard from Andrew Vickers, of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York. This is what he says.

    “I didn’t sign this letter ”
    “I was shown the text of the letter but didn’t fully agree with it and told them so. I said something along the lines that the series didn’t do ‘full justice to the subject matter’ (how could it possibly?) but that what they did was fair and reasonable within the constraints set by the medium. You are also right to point out that my comments only go so far as the acupuncture episodes (which I saw) rather than the other two shows (which I did not). No doubt had I been shown a final version for signature I would have also pointed this out.”

The BBC brought us superb programmes like Life on Earth and Planet Earth.  They bring us superb news (I’m listening to the incomparable John Humphrys on the Today Programme right now). They have suffered unjustly at the hands of spin-meisters like Alastair Campbell and the execrable Hutton Report (If the Hutton Report had been an undergraduate essay, it would have scored alpha-plus for collection of evidence and gamma-minus for ability to connect evidence to conclusions).

How ironic it is, then, to see the BBC behaving in this case like spin artists.  Deny everything, and, if necessary, falsify the evidence.

There’s no remedy for the Prince of Quacks

This is the title of a piece by Francis Wheen in the London Evening Standard, 16 May 2006. Francis Wheen is the author of the Top ten delusions.

“Prince Charles travels to Geneva next week to deliver the keynote speech at the annual assembly of the World Health Organisation. Some mistake, surely?”

“The WHO describes Charles as the president of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health and “patron of a number of health charities”. It omits to add that his views on medicine are barmy – and pernicious. ”

“WHO delegates from 192 nations have plenty to discuss during their five-day meeting – HIV/Aids, sickle-cell anaemia, preparations for a flu pandemic, the eradication of polio and smallpox. Why waste precious time listening to the heir to the British throne, who has spent more than 20 years displaying his ignorance of medical science?”

“The prince has never met a snake oil vendor he didn’t like. A couple of years ago he urged doctors to prescribe coffee enemas to cancer patients, a suggestion which provoked this rebuke from Professor Michael Baum of University College London: “The power of my authority comes with a knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research. Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth.” ”

The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health publishes Complementary healthcare: a guide for patients which is full of wishful thinking. For example, it tells the unfortunate patient that

“Homeopathy is most often used to treat chronic conditions such as asthma; eczema; arthritis; fatigue disorders like ME; headache and migraine; menstrual and menopausal problems; irritable bowel syndrome; Crohn’s disease; allergies; repeated ear, nose, throat and chest infections or urine infections; depression and anxiety.”

but says nothing at all about whether or not they work. That is just irresponsible.  And to describe pills that contain no trace of the substance on the label as ”very diluted” is plain dishonest .

This item was transferred from the old IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page.