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Anti-science – Page 2 – DC's Improbable Science

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The King’s Fund recently published Assessing complementary practice Building consensus on appropriate research methods [or download pdf].

Report title

It is described as being the “Report of an independent advisory group”. I guess everyone knows by now that an “expert report” can be produced to back any view whatsoever simply by choosing the right “experts”, so the first things one does is to see who wrote it.  Here they are.

  • Chair: Professor Dame Carol Black
  • Harry Cayton, Chief Executive, Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence
  • Professor Adrian Eddleston, then Vice-Chairman, The King’s Fund
  • Professor George Lewith, Professor of Health Research, Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit, University of Southampton
  • Professor Stephen Holgate, MRC Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology, University of Southampton
  • Professor Richard Lilford, Head of School of Health and Population Sciences, University of Birmingham

We see at once two of the best known apologists for alternative medicine, George Lewith (who has appeared here more than once) and Stephen Holgate

Harry Cayton is CEO of Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) which must be one of the most useless box-ticking quangos in existence. It was the CHRE that praised the General Chiropractic Council (GCC) for the quality of its work.  That is the same GCC that is at present trying to cope with 600 or so complaints about the people it is supposed to regulate (not to mention a vast number of complaints to Trading Standards Offices).  The GCC must be the prime example of the folly of giving government endorsement to things that don’t work. But the CHRE were not smart enough to spot that little problem.  No doubt Mr Cayton did good work for the Alzheimer’s Society.  His advocacy of patient’s choice may have helped me personally.  But it isn’t obvious to me that he is the least qualified to express an opinion on research methods in anything whatsoever. According to the Guardian he is “BA in English and linguistics from the University of Ulster; diploma in anthropology from the University of Durham; B Phil in philosophy of education from the University of Newcastle.”

Adrian Eddlestone is a retired Professor of Medicine. He has been in academic administration since 1983. His sympathy for alternative medicine is demonstrated by the fact that he is also Chair of the General Osteopathic Council, yet another “regulator” that has done nothing to protect the public
from false health claims (and which may, soon, find itself in the same sort of trouble as the GCC).

Richard Lilford is the only member of the group who has no bias towards alternative medicine and also the only member with expertise in clinical research methods  His credentials look impressive, and his publications show how he is the ideal person for this job. I rather liked also his article Stop meddling and let us get on.. He has written about the harm done by postmodernism and relativism, the fellow-travellers of alternative medicine.

Most damning of all, Lewith, Eddlestone and Holgate (along with Cyril Chantler, chair of the King’s Fund, and homeopaths, spiritual healers and Karol Sikora) are Foundation Fellows of the Prince of Wales Foundation for Magic Medicine, an organisation that is at the forefront of spreading medical misinformation.

I shall refer here to ‘alternative medicine’ rather than ‘complementary medicine’ which is used in the report. It is not right to refer to a treatment as ‘complementary’ until such time as it has been shown to work. The term ‘complementary’ is a euphemism that, like ‘integrative’, is standard among alternative medicine advocates whose greatest wish is to gain respectability.

The Report

Kings Fund logo

The recommendations

On page 10 we find a summary of the conclusions.

The report identifies five areas of consensus, which together set a framework for moving forward. These are:

  • the primary importance of controlled trials to assess clinical and cost effectiveness.
  • the importance of understanding how an intervention works
  • the value of placebo or non-specific effects
  • the need for investment and collaboration in creating a sound evidence base
  • the potential for whole-system evaluation to guide decision-making and subsequent research.

The first recommendation is just great. The rest sound to me like the usual excuses for incorporating ineffective treatments into medical practice. Notice the implicit assumption in the fourth point
that spending money on research will establish “a sound evidence base". There is a precedent, but it is ignored. A huge omission from the report is that it fails to mention anywhere that a lot of research has already been done.

Much research has already been done (and failed)

The report fails to mention at all the single most important fact in this area. The US National Institutes of Health has spent over a billion dollars on research on alternative medicines, over a period
of more than 10 years. It has failed to come up with any effective treatments whatsoever. See, for example Why the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Should Be Defunded;   Should there be more alternative research?;   Integrative baloney @ Yale, and most recently, $2.5B Spent, No Alternative Med Cures found. .

Why did the committee think this irrelevant? I can’t imagine. You guess.

The report says

“This report outlines areas of potential consensus to guide research funders, researchers, commissioners and complementary practitioners in developing and applying a robust evidence base for complementary practice.”

As happens so often, there is implicit in this sentence the assumption that if you spend enough money evidence will emerge. That is precisely contrary to the experence in the USA where spending a billion dollars produced nothing beyond showing that a lot of things we already thought didn’t work were indeed ineffective.

And inevitably, and tragically, NICE’s biggest mistake is invoked.

“It is noteworthy that the evidence is now sufficiently robust for NICE to include acupuncture as a treatment for low back pain.” [p ]

Did the advisory group not read the evidence used (and misinterpeted) by NICE? It seems not. Did the advisory group not read the outcome of NIH-funded studies on acupuncture as summarised by Barker Bausell in his book, Snake Oil Science? Apparently not. It’s hard to know because the report has no references.

George Lewith is quoted [p. 15] as saying “to starve the system of more knowledge means we will continue to make bad decisions”. No doubt he’d like more money for research, but if a billion dollars
in the USA gets no useful result, is Lewith really likely to do better?

The usual weasel words of the alternative medicine industry are there in abundance

“First, complementary practice often encompasses an intervention (physical treatment or manipulation) as well as the context for that intervention. Context in this setting means both the physical setting for the delivery of care and the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient.” [p. 12]

Yes, but ALL medicine involves the context of the treatment. This is no different whether the medicine is alternative or real. The context (or placebo) effect comes as an extra bonus with any sort of treatment.

“We need to acknowledge that much of complementary practice seeks to integrate the positive aspects of placebo and that it needs to be viewed as an integral part of the treatment rather than an aspect that should be isolated and discounted.” [p. 13]

This is interesting. It comes very close (here and elsewhere) to admitting that all you get is a placebo effect, and that this doesn’t matter. This contradicts directly the first recommendation of the House of Lords report (2000).. Both the House of Lords report on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and the Government’s response to it, state clearly

“. . . we recommend that three important questions should be addressed in the following order”. (1) does the treatment offer therapeutic benefits greater than placebo? (2)  is the treatment safe? (3) how does it compare, in medical outcome and cost-effectiveness, with other forms of treatment?.

The crunch comes when the report gets to what we should pay for.

“Should we be prepared to pay for the so-called placebo effect?

The view of the advisory group is that it is appropriate to pay for true placebo (rather than regression to the mean or temporal effects).” [p 24]

Perhaps so, but there is very little discussion of the emormous ethical questions:that this opinion raises: 

  • How much is one allowed to lie to patients in order to elicit a placebo effect?
  • Is is OK if the practitioner believes it is a placebo but gives it anyway?
  • Is it OK if the pratitioner believes that it is not a placebo when actually it is?
  • Is it OK for practitioners to go degrees taught by people who believe that it is not a placebo when actually it is?

The report fails to face frankly these dilemmas.  The present rather absurd position in which it is considered unethical for a medical practitioner to give a patient a bottle of pink water, but
perfectly acceptable to refer them to a homeopath. There is no sign either of taking into account the cultural poison that is spread by telling people about yin, yang and meridians and such like preposterous made-up mumbo jumbo.  That is part of the cost of endorsing placebos. And just when one thought that believing things because you wished they were true was going out of fashion

Once again we hear a lot about the alleged difficulties posed by research on alternative medicine. These alleged difficulties are, in my view, mostly no more than excuses. There isn’t the slightest
difficulty in testing things like herbal medicine or homeopathy, in a way that preserves all the ‘context’ and the ways of working of homeopaths and herbalists. Anyone who reads the Guardian knows
how to do that.

In the case of acupuncture, great ingenuity has gone into divising controls. The sham and the ‘real’ acupuncture always come out the same. In a non-blind comparison between acupuncture and no acupuncture the latter usually does a bit worse, but the effects are small and transient and entirely compatible with the view that it is a theatrical placebo.

Despite these shortcomings, some of the conclusions [p. 22] are reasonable.

“The public needs more robust evidence to make informed decisions about the use of complementary practice.

Commissioners of public health care need more robust evidence on which to base decisions about expenditure of public money on complementary practice.”

What the report fails to do is to follow this with the obvious conclusion that such evidence is largely missing and that until such time as it is forthcoming there should be no question of the NHS paying for alternative treatments.

Neither should there be any question of giving them official government recognition in the form of ‘statutory regulation’. The folly of doing that is illustrated graphically by the case of chiropractic which is now in deep crisis after inspection of its claims in the wake of the Simon Singh defamation case. Osteopathy will, I expect, suffer the same fate soon.

In the summary on p.12 we see a classical case of the tension

Controlled trials of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness are of primary importance

We recognise that it is the assessment of effectiveness that is of primary importance in reaching a judgement of different practices. Producing robust evidence that something works in practice – that it is effective – should not be held up by the inevitably partial findings and challenged interpretations arising from inquiries into how the intervention works.

The headline sounds impeccable, but directly below it we see a clear statement that we should use treatments before we know whether they work.  “Effectiveness”, in the jargon of the alternative medicine business, simply means that uncontrolled trials are good enough. The bit about “how it works” is another very common red herring raised by alternative medicine people. Anyone who knows anything about pharmacology that knowledge about how any drug works is incomplete and often turns out to be wrong. That doesn’t matter a damn if it performs well in good double-blind randomised controlled trials.

One gets the impression that the whole thing would have been a lot worse without the dose of reality injected by Richard Lilford. He is quoted as a saying

“All the problems that you find in complementary medicine you will encounter in some other kind of treatment … when we stop and think about it… how different is it to any branch of health care – the answer to emerge from our debates is that it may only be a matter of degree.” [p. 17]

I take that to mean that alternative medicine poses problems that are no different from other sorts of treatment. They should be subjected to exactly the same criteria. If they fail (as is usually the case) they should be rejected.  That is exactly right.  The report was intended to produce consensus, but throughout the report, there is a scarcely hidden tension between believers on one side, and Richard Lilford’s impeccable logic on the other.

Who are the King’s Fund?

The King’s Fund is an organisation that states its aims thus.

“The King’s Fund creates and develops ideas that help shape policy, transform services and bring about behaviour change which improve health care.”

It bills this report on its home page as “New research methods needed to build evidence for the effectiveness of popular complementary therapies”. But in fact the report doesn’t really recommend ‘new research methods’ at all, just that the treatments pass the same tests as any other treatment. And note the term ‘build evidence’.  It carries the suggestion that the evidence will be positive.   Experience in the USA (and to a smaller extent in the UK) suggests that every time some good research is done, the effect is not to ‘build evidence’ but for the evidence to crumble further

If the advice is followed, and the results are largely negative, as has already happened in the USA, the Department of Health would look pretty silly if it had insisted on degrees and on statutory regulation.

The King’s Fund chairman is Sir Cyril Chantler and its Chief Executive is Niall Dickson.  It produces reports, some of which are better than this one. I know it’s hard to take seriously an organisation that wants to “share its vision” withyou, but they are trying.

“The King’s Fund was formed in 1897 as an initiative of the then Prince of Wales to allow for the collection and distribution of funds in support of the hospitals of London. Its initial purpose was to raise money for London’s voluntary hospitals,”

It seems to me that the King’s Fund is far too much too influenced by the present Prince of Wales. He is, no doubt, well-meaning but he has become a major source of medical misinformation and his influence in the Department of Health is deeply unconstitutional.  I was really surprised to see thet Cyril Chantler spoke at the 2009 conference of the Prince of Wales Foundation for Integrated Health, despite having a preview of the sort of make-believe being propagated by other speakers. His talk there struck me as evading all the essential points. Warm, woolly but in the end, a danger to patients. Not only did he uncritically fall for the spin on the word “integrated”, but he also fell for the idea that “statutory regulation” will safeguard patients.

Revelation of what is actually taught on degrees in these subjects shows very clearly that they endanger the public.

But the official mind doesn’t seem ever to look that far. It is happy ticking boxes and writing vacuous managerialese. It lacks curiosity.

Follow-up

The British Medical Journal published today an editorial which also recommends rebranding of ‘pragmatic’ trials.  No surprise there, because the editorial is written by Hugh MacPherson, senior research fellow, David Peters, professor of integrated healthcare and Catherine Zollman, general practitioner. I find it a liitle odd that the BMJ says “Competing Interests: none. David Peters interest is obvious from his job description. It is less obvious that Hugh MacPherson is an acupuncture enthusiast who publishes mostly in alternative medicine journals. He has written a book with the extraordinary title “Acupuncture Research, Strategies for Establishing an Evidence Base”. The title seems to assume that the evidence base will materialise eventually despite a great deal of work that suggests it won’t. Catherine Zollman is a GP who is into homeopathy as well as acupuncture. All three authors were speakers at the Prince of Wales conference, described at Prince of Wales Foundation for magic medicine: spin on the meaning of ‘integrated’.

The comments that follow the editorial start with an excellent contribution from James Matthew May. His distinction between ‘caring’ and ‘curing’ clarifies beautifully the muddled thinking of the editorial.

Then a comment from DC, If your treatments can’t pass the test, the test must be wrong. It concludes

“At some point a stop has to be put to this continual special pleading. The financial crisis (caused by a quite different group of people who were equally prone to wishful thinking) seems quite a good time to start.”

Jump to follow-up

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

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

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

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

HRDListening@dh.gsi.gov.uk


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

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

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

Pittilo

Briefly, the back story is this.

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

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

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

The two main recommendations of this Pittilo report are that

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

Let’s consider the virtue of these two recommendations.

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

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

The report says

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

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

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

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

The Pittilo report (page 11) says

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

So they are asking for more government money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Likewise Ann Keen, Health Minister, said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The analogy with chiropractic and the GCC

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

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

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

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

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

The education problem

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

There are two very big problems with this recommendation.

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

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

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

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

Q1

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

Q5

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

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

TCM slide 2

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

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

TCM slide 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One of the 31 commercial practices which are in all circumstances considered unfair is “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction or malformations”

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

In the Independent, Dominic Lawson wrote

So now we will have degrees in quackery.

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

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

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

Follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q1

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

Q5

Oh really. Perhaps protons neutrons and electrons?

Q22

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

Q23

Perhaps an elementary textbook of embryology would help?

Q24

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

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

NICE neglected the cultural cost of their guidance

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

Pittilo and statutory regulation

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

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

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

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

Follow-up

Here is a short break from the astonishing festival of chiropractic that has followed the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) v Simon Singh defamation case, and the absurd NICE guidance on low back pain.

Singh’s statement already has over 10000 signatories, many very distinguished, Sign it now if you haven’t already. And getting on for 600 separate complaints about exaggerated and false claims by chiropractors have been lodged with the General Chiropractic Council and with Trading Standards offices.

free debate
Click to sign

The BCA has exposed the baselessness of most of chiropractic’s claims more effectively than any sceptic could have done.

The University of Westminster is seeing the light?

It is only recently that the University of Westminster suspended entry to degrees in homeopathy and remedial massage and neuromuscular therapy.  Luckily for science, they have a new Dean who knows bullshit when she sees it.  I suspect than she has been instrumental in starting to restore Westminster’s reputation.  The job isn’t finished yet though.  According to the UCAS site Westminster still offers

  • Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture with Foundation (B341) 4FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Complementary Ther with Foundn (B300) 4FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Complementary Therapies (B255) 3FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Herbal Medicine (B342) 3FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Herbal Medicine with Foundation (B340) 4FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Naturopathy (B391) 3FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Naturopathy with Foundation (B392) 4FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Nutritional Therapy (B400) 3FT Hon BSc
  • Health Sciences: Nutritional Therapy with Foundn (B402) 4FT Hon BSc

With the possible exception of herbal medicine, which could be taught scientifically. all the rest is as delusional as homeopathy.

Rumour has it that Naturopathy may be next for the chop, so it seems appropriate to help the dean by showing a bit more of what the hapless students get taught.  Remember that, according to Westminster, this is a bachelor of science degree!

Psychotherapeutic Approaches in Naturopathy 3CMW606

“This module is a core subject for BSc (Hons) Health Sciences: Naturopathy and option for BSc (Hons) Health Sciences: Complementary Therapies; BSc (Hons) Health Sciences: Therapeutic Bodywork; Graduate Diploma in Therapeutic Bodywork.”

Lectures 3 – 5 of this course are about the Theory and Application of EmoTrance.

EMOTRANCE?  No I had never heard of it either. But it takes only two minutes with Google to discover that it yet another product of the enormous navel-gazing self-help industry. A new variant is born almost every day, and no doubt they make buckets of money for their inventors.  You can download a primer from http://emotrance.com/. The web site announces.

“EmoTrance REAL energy healing for the 21st Century”

Here are three quotations from the primer.

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

It doesn’t matter how “bad”; something is or how old, it is ONLY AN ENERGY and energy can be moved with consciousness in quantum time, easily, and just for the asking.

Is EmoTrance a Science?
Yes! But only if you can accept that all living creatures have an energetic/emotional system. Once you make that leap then EmoTrance is completely logical and just makes sense. Like all great discoveries, EmoTrance is simple, natural and you might find you have always been aware of these processes subconsciously.

Now back to Westminster

Here are a few slides about EmoTrance

day 2 slide 2 day 2 slide 3
day 2 slide 13 day 3 slide 9

So it is pure vitalistic psycho-babble. The usual undefined use of impressive sounding words like “energy” and “quantum” with no defined meaning. Just preposterous made-up gobbledygook. 

Before getting to EmoTrance, the course Psychotherapeutic Approaches in Naturopathy (3CMW606) had a lecture on Flower Essences. The evidence says, not surprisingly, that the effects of flower essences is not distinguishable from placebo “The hypothesis that flower remedies are associated with effects beyond a placebo response is not supported by data from rigorous clinical trials.” (See Ernst Wien. Klin. Wochenschr. 2002 114(23-24):963-6).  Here are two of the slides.

slide 19

 

slide 4

This last slide departs from the simply silly  to the totally mad.  Dowsing?  Kinesiology? 

Pendulums I’m told from more than one source that the use of pendulums is not uncommon. both in teaching and by students in the Westminster University polyclinic  Apparently they provide an excellent way to choose a ‘remedy’ or make a diagnosis (well, I expect they are as good as the alternatives). If in doubt, guess.

Of course pendulums were popular with Cherie Blair who is reported to have taken her son Leo to a pendulum waver, Jack Temple, rather than have him vaccinated with MMR.  At least her delusions affected fewer people than those of her husband (the latest Iraq body count is about 100,000).

Kinesiology was originally a word that applied to the perfectly sensible science of human movement.  But Applied Kinesiology more often refers now to a fraudulent and totally ineffective diagnostic method invented by (you guessed) a chiropractor.   It has been widely used by alternative medicine to misdiagnose food allergies. It does not work (Garrow, 1988: download reprint).

General Chiropractic Council  It is a mind-boggling sign of the incompetence of the General Chiropractic Council that they manage to include kinesiology within their definition of “evidence based care”. Their definition is clearly sufficiently flexible to include anything whatsoever.  The incompetence of the GCC is documented in superb detail on jdc325’s blog (James Cole).

Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) is yet another example of the network of ineffective and incompetent quangos that plague us.. It is meant to ensure that regulation is effective but utterly fails to do so. The CHRE is quoted as saying “[The GCC] takes its role seriously and aspires to, and often maintains, excellence.”. Like endorsing kinesiology and ‘craniosacral therapy’ perhaps? Quangos like the CHRE not only fail to ensure regulatory excellence, they actually endorse rubbish. They do more harm than good.

The reading list for the course includes the following books.  I guess the vibrational medicine (whatever that means) was covered already in the now infamous ‘amethysts emit high yin energy‘ lectures.

Reading List
Essential:
Hartman S (2003) Oceans of Energy: The Patterns and Techniques of EmoTrance: Vol 1.DragonRising. ISBN: 1873483732.
Lynch V and Lynch P (2001) Emotional Healing in Minutes. Thorsons: London. ISBN: 0007112580

Recommended:
Gerber R (2001) Vibrational Medicine for the 21st Century. Piatkus Publishers: London.
Gurudas (1989) Flower Essences and Vibrational Medicine. Cassandra Press: California, USA
Hartman S (2000) Adventures in EFT: The Essential Field Guide to Emotional Freedom Techniques. DragonRising. ISBN: 1873483635.
Hartman S (2004) Living Energy: The Patterns and Techniques of EmoTrance: Vol 2. DragonRising.ISBN: 1873483740.
Hartman S (2006) Energy Magic: The Patterns and Techniques of EmoTrance: Vol 3. Dragon Rising.ISBN: 1873483767.

Real magic.

Sylvia Hartman’s books seem to feature heavily in the reading list. I just got news of her latest effort

Welcome to a special update to the June 2009 newsletter to announce Silvia Hartmann’s latest book “Magic, Spells & Potions” is now available to pre-order from our site. The eBook edition will be released this Sunday, the most magical day of the year.

http://DragonRising.com/store/magic_spells_and_potions/?r=DR0609MSAP

If you do pre-order this exciting new book, not only will you be amongst the first to receive your copy, but you will also be entered into an exciting competition for Silvia Hartmann’s handmade copal amber magic pendant. Each paperback book pre-ordered will also be signed by the author and contain a unique blessing for the reader.

Because this is a serious book on real magic, potions and fortune telling if you are a beginner Silvia has provided ample sample spells and potions for you to practice working with before you start covering the advanced material.

What? No honestly, I didn’t invent that.

The idea that stuff of this sort is appropriate for a bachelor of science degree is simply ludicrous.  I have no doubt that Westminster’s new dean can see that as well as anyone else. She has the delicate diplomatic job of extirpating the nonsense,  I wish her well.

Follow-up

First the MHRA lets down the public by allowing deceptive labelling of sugar pills (see here, and this this blog). Now it is the turn of NICE to betray its own principles.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) describes its job thus

“NICE is an independent organisation responsible for providing national guidance on promoting good health and preventing and treating ill health.”

Its Guidance document on Low Back Pain will be published on Wednesday 27 May 2009, but the newspapers have already started to comment, presumably on the assumption that it will have changed little from the Draft Guidance of September 2008. These comments may have to be changed as soon as the final version becomes available.

The draft guidance, though mostly sensible, has two recommendations that I believe to be wrong and dangerous. The recommendations include (page 7) these three.

  • Consider offering a course of manual therapy including spinal manipulation of up to 9 sessions over up to 12 weeks.
  • Consider offering a course of acupuncture needling comprising up to 10 sessions over a period of up to 12 weeks.
  • Consider offering a structured exercise programme tailored to the individual.

All three of this options are accompanied by a footnote that reads thus.

“A choice of any of these therapies may be offered, taking into account patient preference.”

On the face if it, this might seem quite reasonable. All three choices seem to be about as effective (or ineffective) as each other, so why not let patients choose between them?

Actually there are very good reasons, but NICE does not seem to have thought about them. In the past I have had a high opinion of NICE but it seems that even they are now getting bogged down in the morass of political correctness and officialdom that is the curse of the Department of Health. It is yet another example of DC’s rule number one.

Never trust anyone who uses the word ‘stakeholder’.

They do use it, often.

So what is so wrong?

For a start, I take it that the reference to “spinal manipulation” in the first recommendation is a rather cowardly allusion to chiropractic. Why not say so, if that’s whar you mean? Chiropractic is mentioned in the rest of the report but the word doesn’t seem to occur in the recommendations. Is NICE perhaps nervous that it would reduce the credibility of the report if the word chiropractic were said out loud?

Well, they have a point, I suppose. It would.

That aside, here’s what’s wrong.

The Evidence

I take as my premise that the evidence says that no manipulative therapy has any great advantage over the others.  They are all more or less equally effective.  Perhaps I should say, more or less equally ineffective, because anyone who claims to have the answer to low back pain is clearly deluded (and I should know: nobody has fixed mine yet).  So for effectiveness there are no good grounds to choose between exercise, physiotherapy, acupuncture or chiropractic.  There is, though, an enormous cultural difference.  Acupuncture and chiropractic are firmly in the realm of alternative medicine.  They both invoke all sorts of new-age nonsense for which there isn’t the slightest good evidence. That may not poison your body, but it certainly poisons your mind.

Acupuncturists talk about about “Qi”, “meridians”, “energy flows”. The fact that “sham” and “real” acupuncture consistently come out indistinguishable is surely all the evidence one needs to dismiss such nonsense. Indeed there is a small group of medical acupuncturists who do dismiss it. Most don’t. As always in irrational subjects, acupuncture is riven by internecine strife between groups who differ in the extent of their mystical tendencies,

Chiropractors talk of “subluxations”, an entirely imaginary phenomenon (but a cause of much unnecessary exposure to X-rays). Many talk of quasi-religious things like “innate energy”. And Chiropractic is even more riven by competing factions than acupuncture. See, for example, Chiropractic wars Part 3: internecine conflict.

The bait and switch trick

This is the basic trick used by ‘alternative therapists’ to gain respectability.

There is a superb essay on it by the excellent Yale neurologist Steven Novella: The Bait and Switch of Unscientific Medicine. The trick is to offer some limited and reasonable treatment (like back manipulation for low back pain).  This, it seems, is sufficient to satisfy NICE.  But then, once you are in the showroom, you can be exposed to all sorts of other nonsense about “subluxations” or “Qi”.  Still worse, you will also be exposed to the claims of many chiropractors and acupuncturists to be able to cure all manner of conditions other than back pain.  But don’t even dare to suggest that manipulation of the spine is not a cure for colic or asthma or you may find yourself sued for defamation.  The shameful legal action of the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh (follow it here) led to an addition to DC’s Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine.
(In the face of such tragic behaviour, one has to be able to laugh).

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

NICE seems to have fallen for the bait and switch trick, hook line and sinker.

The neglected consequences

Once again, we see the consequences of paying insufficient attention to the Dilemmas of Alternative Medicine.

The lying dilemma

If acupuncture is recommended we will have acupuncturists telling patients about utterly imaginary things like “Qi” and “meridians”. And we will have chiropractors telling them about subluxations and innate energy.  It is my opinion that these things are simply make-believe (and that is also the view of a minority of acupuncturist and chiropractors).   That means that you have to decide whether the supposed benefits of the manipulation are sufficient to counterbalance the deception of patients.

Some people might think that it was worth it (though not me).  What is unforgivable is not to consider even the question.  The NICE guidance says not a word about this dilemma.  Why not?

The training dilemma

The training dilemma is even more serious.  Once some form of alternative medicine has successfully worked the Bait and Switch trick and gained a toehold in the NHS, there will be an army of box-ticking HR zombies employed to ensure that they have been properly trained in “subluxations” or “Qi”.   There will be quangos set up to issue National Occupational Standards in “subluxations” or “Qi”. Skills for Health will issue “competences” in “subluxations” or “Qi” (actually they already do). There will be courses set up to teach about “subluxations” or “Qi”, some even in ‘universities’ (there already are).

The respectability problem

But worst of all, it will become possible for aupuncturists and chiropractors to claim that they now have official government endorsement from a prestigious evidence-based organisation like NICE for “subluxations” or “Qi”.  Of course this isn’t true.  In fact the words “subluxations” or “Qi” are not even mentioned in the draft report.  That is the root of the problem. They should have been.  But omitting stuff like that is how the Bait and Switch trick works. 

Alternative medicine advocates crave, above all, respectability and acceptance.  It is sad that NICE seems to have given them more credibility and acceptance without having considered properly the secondary consequences of doing so,

 

How did this failure of NICE happen?

It seems to have been a combination of political correctness, failure to consider secondary consequences, and excessive influence of the people who stand to make money from the acceptance of alternative medicine.

Take, for example, the opinion of the British Pain Society. This organisation encompasses not just doctors. It
includes
“doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, scientists, psychologists, occupational therapists and other healthcare professionals actively engaged in the diagnosis and treatment of pain and in pain research for the benefit of patients”. Nevertheless, their response to the draft guidelines pointed out that the manipulative therapies as a whole were over-represented.

Manipulation

The guidelines assess 9 large groups of interventions of which manual therapies are only one part. The full GDG members panel of 13 individuals included two proponents of spinal manipulation/mobilisation (P Dixon and S Vogel). In addition, the chair of the panel (M Underwood) is the lead author of the UKBEAM trial on which the positive recommendation for
manipulation/mobilisation seems to predominately rest. Proponents of spinal manipulation/mobilisation were therefore over-represented in the generation of these guidelines, which, in turn could have generated the over-optimistic conclusion regarding this intervention.

It seems that the Pain Society were quite right.

LBC 97.3 Breakfast Show (25 May 2009) had a quick discussion on acupuncture (play mp3 file). After I had my say, the other side was put by Rosey Grandage. She has (among other jobs) a private acupuncture practice so she is not quite as unbiassed as me).  As usual, she  misrepresents the evidence by failing to distinguish between blind and non-blind studies. She also misrepresented what I said by implying that I was advocating drugs. That was not my point and I did not mention drugs (they, like all treatments, have pretty limited effectiveness, and they have side effects too). She said “there is very good evidence to show they (‘Qi’ and ‘meridians’] exist”.  That is simply untrue.

There can’t be a better demonstration of the consequences of falling for bait and switch than the defence mounted by Rosey Grandage. NICE may not mention “Qi” and “meridians”; but the people they want to allow into the NHS have no such compunctions.

I first came across Rosey Grandage when I discovered her contribution to the Open University/BBC course K221. That has been dealt with elsewhere.  A lot more information about acupuncture has appeared since then.  She doesn’t seem to have noticed it.  Has she not seen the Nordic Cochrane Centre report? Nor read Barker Bausell, or Singh & Ernst?  Has she any interest in evidence that might reduce her income?  Probably not.

Where to find out more

An excellent review of chiropractic can be found at the Layscience site. It was written by the indefatigable ‘Blue Wode’ who has provided enormous amounts of information at the admirable ebm-first site (I am authorised to reveal that ‘Blue Wode’ is the author of that site). There you will also find much fascinating information about both acupuncture and about chiropractic.
I’m grateful to ‘Blue Wode’ for some of the references used here.

Follow-up

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

Today I checked again and NOW THERE ARE NONE.

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

They say that they have done so because of “poor recruitment”.   It was a purely financial decision.  Nothing to do with embarrasment.  Gratifying though it is that recruits for the course are vanishing, that statement is actually pretty appalling   It says that the University of Westminster doesn’t care whether it’s nonsense, but only about whether it makes money.

Nevertheless the first part of this post is not entirely outdated before it even appeared, because homeopathy will still be taught as part of Complementary Therapies. And Naturopathy and “Nutritional Therapy” are still there..

According to their ‘School of Integrated Health‘, “The University of Westminster has a vision of health care for the 21st Century”. Yes, but it is what most people would call a vision of health care in the 18th century.

The revelation that the University of Westminster teaches that Amethysts emit high Yin energy caused something of a scandal.

Since then I have acquired from several sources quite a lot more of their teaching material, despite the fact that the university has refused to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

In view of the rather silly internal review conducted by Westminster’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Geoffrey Petts, this seems like a good moment to make a bit more of it public,

I think that revelation of the material is justified because it is in the
public interest to know how the University if Westminster is spending taxpayers’ money.  Another motive is to defend the reputation of the post-1992 universities.   I have every sympathy with the ex-polytechnics in their efforts to convert themselves into universities.  In many ways they have succeeded.  That effort
is impeded by teaching mystical versions of medicine. 

If the University of Westminster is being brought into disrepute, blame its vice-chancellor, not me.

Homeopathic spiders

Here are a few slides from a lecture on how good spider venom is for you.  It is from Course 3CTH502 Homeopathic Materia Medica II.  No need to worry though, because they are talking about homeopathic spider venom, so there is nothing but sugar in the pills. The involvement of spiders is pure imagination. No more than mystical gobbledygook.

You are in hurry, or play with your fingers?  You need spider venom pills (that contain no spider venom).

You break furniture? Time goes too fast for you?  Try the tarantula-free tarantula pills.

You are preoccupied with sex? You play with ropes?  What you need is Mygale (which contains no Mygale)

Much more seriously, the same sugar pills are recommended for serious conditions, chorea, ‘dim sight’, gonorrhoea, syphilis and burning hot urine.

This isn’t just preposterous made-up stuff.  It is dangerous.

There is a whole lot more fantasy stuff in the handouts for Homeopathy Materia Medica II (3CTH502). Here are a couple of examples.

Aurum metallicum (metallic gold) [Download the whole handout]

Affinities  MIND, VASCULAR SYSTEM, Nerves, Heart, Bones, Glands, Liver, Kidneys, RIGHT SIDE, Left side.

Causations Emotions. Ailments from disappointed love and grief, offence or unusual responsibility, abuse of mercury or allopathic drugs.

Aurum belongs to the syphilitic miasm but has elements of sycosis (Aur-Mur).

Potassium salts are the subject of some fine fantasy, in “The Kali’s” [sic]. (there is much more serious stuff to worry about here than a few misplaced apostrophes.). [Download the whole handout]

“The radioactive element of potassium emits negative electrons from the atom nucleus and is thought to be significant in the sphere of cell processes especially in relation to functions relating to automatism and rhythmicity.”

“Kali people are very conscientious with strong principles. They have their rules and they stick to them, ‘a man of his word’.”

“Potassium acts in a parasympathetic way, tending towards depression”

“They [“Kali people=] are not melancholic like the Natrum’s but rather optimistic.”

Radioactive potassium is involved in automaticity?  Total nonsense.

Where is the science?

Yes, it is true that the students get a bit of real science.  There isn’t the slightest trace that I can find of any attempt to resolve the obvious fact that what they are taught in the science bits contradict directly what they are told in the other bits.  Sounds like a recipe for stress to me.

They even get a bit of incredibly elementary statistics.  But they can’t even get that right.  This slide is from PPP – Res Quant data analysis.

“Involves parameters and/or distributions”. This has no useful meaning whatsoever, that I can detect.

“Tests hypotheses when population distributions are skewed”. Well yes, though nothing there about forms of non-Gaussian properties other than skew, nothing about normalising transformations, and nothing about the Central Limit theorem. 

“Ranks data rather than the actual data itself”. This is plain wrong. Randomisation tests on the original data are generally the best (uniformly most powerful) sort of non-parametric test. It seems to have escaped the attention of the tutor that ranking is a short-cut approximation that allowed tables to be constructed, before we had computers. 

The students are told about randomised controlled trials.  But amazingly in the lecture PPP-RCTs, the little matter of blinding is barely mantioned.  And the teacher’s ideas about randomisation are a bit odd too.

Sorry, but if you fiddle the randomisation, no amount of “careful scrutiny” will rescue you from bias.

An Introduction to Naturopathic Philosophy

Naturopathy is just about as barmy as homeopathy. You can see something about it at the University of Wales.  How about this slide from Westminster’s An Introduction to Naturopathic Philosophy.

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

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

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Ever wondered what the mysterious “Qi” is?   Worry no more. All is explained on this slide.

It means breath, air, vapour, gas, energy, vitalism.  Or perhaps prana?  Is that quite clear now?

What can we make of this one?  Anyone can see that the description is barely written in English and that vital information is missing (such as the age of the woman). And it’s nonsense to suggest that “invasion of cold” (during keyhole surgery!) would cause prolonged constriction of blood vessels (never mind that it would “consume yang qi”). Not being a clinician, I showed it to an oncologist friend.  He said that it was impossible to tell from the description whether the problem was serious or not, but that any abdominal pain should be investigated properly. There isn’t anything here about referral for proper investigation.  Just a lot of stuff about ginger and cinnamon. Anyone who was taught in this way could be a real danger to the public. It isn’t harmless nonsense  It’s potentially harmful nonsense.

And finally, it’s DETOX

Surely everyone knows by now that ‘detox’ is no more than a marketing word?  Well not at the University of Westminster.  They have a long handout  that tells you all the usual myths and a few new ones.

It is written by Jennifer Harper-Deacon, who describes herself modestly, thus.

Jennifer Harper-Deacon is a qualified and registered Naturopath and acupuncturist who holds a PhD in Natural Health and MSc in Complementary Therapies. She is a gifted healer and Reiki Master who runs her own clinic in Surrey where she believes in treating the ‘whole’ person by using a combination of Chinese medicine and naturopathic techniques that she has qualified in, including nutritional medicine, Chinese and Western herbalism, homoeopathy, applied kinesiology, reflexology, therapeutic massage, aromatherapy and flower remedies.

It seems that there is no limit on the number of (mutually incompatible) forms of nuttiness that she believes.  Here are a few quotations from her handout for Westminster students.

“Detoxification is the single most powerful tool used by natural health professionals to prevent and reverse disease”

What? To “prevent and reverse” malaria? tuberculosis? Parkinson’s disease? AIDS?  cancer?

“When you go on to a raw food only diet, especially fruit, the stored toxins are brought up from the deep organs such as the liver and kidneys, to the superficial systems of elimination.”;

Very odd. I always though that kidneys were a system of elimination.

“The over-use and mis-use of antibiotics has weakened the body’s ability to attack and destroy new strains of resistant bacteria, virulent viruses, which have led to our immune system becoming compromised.”

Certainly over-use and mis-use are problems. But I always thought it was the bacteria that became resistant.

“The beauty about detoxification therapy is that it addresses the very causative issues of health problems”

That is another dangerous and silly myth. Tuberculosis is not caused by mythical and un-named “toxins”. It is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

“Naturopathy follows the logic of cause and effect therefore believes that we simply need pure food and water, sunshine, air, adequate rest and sleep coupled with the right amount of exercise for health.”

Try telling that to someone with AIDS.

“Colon cleansing is one of the most important parts of any detoxification programme.”

The strange obsession with enemas in the alternative world is always baffling.

“Frankincense: holds the capacity to physically strengthen our defence system and can rebuild energy levels when our immune system is weak. Revered as a herb of protection, frankincense can also strengthen our spiritual defences when our Wei qi is low, making us more susceptible to negative energies. This calming oil has the ability to deepen the breath, helping us to let go of stale air and emotions, making it ideal oil to use inhale prior to meditating.”

This is so much hot air. There is a bit of evidence that frankincense might have some anti-inflammatory action and that’s it.

But this has to be my favourite.

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

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

OK there’s a whole lot more, but that will do for now.

It’s good that Westminster is shutting down its Homeopathy BSc, but it seems they have a bit further to go.

Notice

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 ( m.carroll@qmul.ac.uk ).



I am writing this email to put you in contact with **** ******, who is a Naturopathy student at Westminster University and who has set up a Society for Integrated Health, which is closely affiliated with the Society of Complementary Medicine at University College London Hospital.  **** is keen to create a network of connections between student complementary practitioners and medical students and, given Barts’ teaching commitment to integrated approaches, I wondered if you could have put **** in contact with any individual student or group of students that might be interested in joining her developing network of practitioners “crossing the divide”.  Given that Barts is “ahead of the game” I have suggested to **** that she should affiliate Barts among a number of other hospitals to her fast developing group.

Dr Mark Carroll

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.

 

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

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.

Sir

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)
Cancer & Immunogenetics Laboratory
Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, Oxford

Professor David Colquhoun, FRS
Research Professor of Pharmacology University College London

Dame Bridget Ogilvie , AC, DBE, FRS, FAA,
Visiting Professor at UCL, Past director of the Wellcome Trust

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, FRS, FMedSci, FRCP (hon)
MRC Research Professor, University of Manchester


(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.

Follow-up

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.

Jump to follow-up

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.

The laws

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)

Misleading actions

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.

Article 6

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

Follow-up

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”.

The regulations state

(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

Jump to follow-up

Sense about Science have just produced a rather good pamphlet that exposes, yet again. the meaningless marketing slogan “detox”.  You can download the pamphlet from their web site.

The pamphlet goes through the claims of eleven products.  Needless to say, the claims are either meaningless, or simply untrue.

  • Garnier Clean Detox Anti-Dullness Foaming Gel
    “Detoxifies by cleansing the skin’s surface”
  • MG Detox Shampoo Trevor Sorbie
    “Deep cleansing and clarifying shampoo”
  • Boots Detox Body Brush
    “Ritualistic body brushing helps expel toxins through the skin”
  • Innocent Natural Detox Smoothie
    “Helps neutralise nasty free radicals which can cause damage to your body’s cells”
  • Vitabiotics Detoxil 15 day support
    “Helps the body cleanse itself of toxins and pollutants caused by the excesses of a busy life”
  • V-Water Detox
    “Cleanse your system and whisk away the polluting nasties”
  • 4321 Shape Up and Detox
    “To drain off water and toxins” and “purify the body”
  • Boots Detox 5 Day Plan
    Works “in harmony with your body to flush away toxins”
  • Farmacia Spa Therapy Detox range
    To “rid your body of these damaging toxins”
  • Crystal Spring Detox patches
    “I’m the easy way to detox, just put me on one foot at night and take me off in the morning”
  • Fushi Holistic and Health Solutions Total Detox Patch
    “it acts as a toxin sink and absorbs impurities through your feet”

One nice thing about the pamphlet is that each item is written by a young scientist (including my close neighbour, Daniella Muallem). They are all people at an early stage in their career, but they care enough to spend time dissecting the rubbish spread by companies in order to part you from your money.

Garnier, it’s true, is a cosmetics company, so one expects nothing but lies   You won’t be disappointed on that score.

That least ethical of pharmaceutical companies, Boots, appears twice  The Boots Detox Body Brush is reviewed by a young chemist, Tom Wells.  It turns out (there’s a surprise) to be nothing more than an ordinary stiff brush.  It seems that Boots’ definition of “detox”, for this purpose, is “removing dead skin cells” A totally shameless con, in other words.

The Boots Detox 5 day plan consists if 5 phials of apple or strawberry flavoured goo containing two vitamins and one mineral, mixed with glycerol. In this case the young investigator, Evelyn Harvey, elicited a quite remarkable response from Boots.

Well, have you tested the effects of that diet, with or without the detox product? Does the ‘goo’ stuff [the drink which forms part of the plan] add anything extra?

Well, it’s meant to kick start it.

But has is been tested like that?

No.

Ok, I’m thinking I’ll just try a healthy diet for a week, a bit more exercise, and not bother with buying the detox.

Yes, that sounds like a better idea, to be honest I’d never do this myself.

The media coverage

The Radio 4 Today programme interviewed Ben Goldacre and the managing director of yet another product “Detox in a box” (following their usual policy of equal time for the Flat Earth Society). Listen to the mp3.   When Ben Goldacre asked the MD for evidence for the claim made on the web site of Detox in a box, that their diet could remove cadmium from the body, it was denied explicitly that any such claim had been made.

Not so.

But by 10.02 the site had already changed

So no apology for the mistake. Just a sneaky removal of a few words.

That seems to be the only change though.  All the rest of the nutribollocks is still there.  For example

There isn’t the slightest reason to believe that it will “improve our immune function”.

There isn’t the slightest reason to think that scavenging free radicals would do you any good, even if it happened.

There isn’t the slightest reason to think it will strengthen body’s fight against cancer cells (that looks like a breach of the Cancer Act to me).

“Cleansing mucous” doesn’t mean much, but whatever it is there isn’t any reason to think its true.

“Purify our blood”. Total meaningless bollocks. The words mean nothing at all.  I’ve been here before.

Ben Goldacre’s own account is here “The barefaced cheek of these characters will never cease to amaze and delight me.”

The BBC web site does a good job too.

The Guardian gives an excellent account (James Randerson).

The Daily Mail writes “Detox diets to kick-start the New Year are a ‘total waste of money’ “.

Medical News Today write “Debunking The Detox Myth“.

The Daily Telegraph disgraces itself by not only failing to carry a decent account of the item, but it does run an article on “Detox holidays: New year, new you“. Mega-expensive holidays for the mega-stupid (not to mention the capital letter after the colon).

The Daily Mash provides a bit of cognate fun with “BRITAIN SIGNS UP FOR VORDERMAN’S 28-DAY PISS-DRINK DETOX“. That alludes to “Carol Vorderman’s 28-Day Detox Diet”. A woman who got an enormous salary for playing a parlour game on TV, and has done some good for maths education, is reduced to promoting nonsense for yet more money.

As Clive James pointed out, it’s a but like watching George Clooney advertising coffee for, of all unethical companies, Nestlé. They really look very silly.

Follow-up

Evening Standard 6th January. Nick Cohen writes “Give up detox – it’s bad for your health

“Giving up on detox should not be painful, however. On the contrary, it should e a life-enhancing pleasure.”

The Times. rather later (January 18th) had a lovely one, “Detox
Debunked
“, by the inimitable Ben Goldacre, His account of /detox; as a quasi-religious ‘cleansing ritual’, is spot on.

Jump to follow-up



The Times today has given s good showing for my comment piece. It gives the case against following the advice of the Pittilo report. It simply makes no sense to have government regulation of acupuncture, herbal medicine, traditional Chinese medicine until such time as there is evidence that they work. It makes even less sense to have BSc degrees in them. The Department of Health should have more sense that to use the Prince of Wales as its scientific advisor.

Let’s hope that the recent example set by the University of Central Lancashire is the start of trend for vice-chancellors to appreciate that running such degrees brings their universities into disrepute.

I can only apologise for the dreadful title that The Times’ sub-editors put on the piece, My original title was

A bad report for the vice chancellor

The Pittilo report to the Department of Health will endanger the public and corrupt universities. There is a better way.

I like that much better than “Regulate quack nedicine? I feel sick”.

But, oh dear, the picture that I sent them is on the left, but what appeared is on the right. Spot the difference.


Well now, at least, I can feel I have something in common with Isambard Kingdom Brunel.


Follow-up

It so happens that Professor Pittilo wrote a letter to Times Higher Education this week. I fear that it provided a yet more evidence that he hasn’t really quite got the hang of evidence.

The Lancashire Evening Post catches up with the UCLan story, two days after you read it here.

A reply from Professor Pittilo

This response to the op-ed of 29th August appeared as a letter
in the Times
on Sept 2.

Public health needs protection

Regulation of acupuncture and herbal medicine has been subject to much scrutiny

Sir, Professor Colquhoun’s campaign to discredit our report (“Regulate quack medicine? I feel sick,” Aug 29) is in danger of placing public health at risk. He is entitled to challenge existing evidence for the effectiveness of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) but fails to acknowledge the key recommendation from the steering group on the essential need to demonstrate efficacy, safety and quality assurance as a prerequisite for NHS funding.

Professor Colquhoun dismisses CAM because of the absence of a rigorous scientific foundation and he asserts that to teach and practise it is unethical. Survey data consistently demonstrates very high demand for CAM with one report estimating that 22 million visits involving 10.6 per cent of the population in England alone occurred in 2008. This demand is one reason why his alternative model of trade law enforcement will not work. He may argue that these people are uncritical recipients of nonsense, but data from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency confirm that they are at significant risk from poor practice. It is essential that we protect the public by implementing statutory regulation alongside demanding evidence of efficacy. Professor Colquhoun’s resistance to the teaching of science to CAM practitioners will do little to help them to critically evaluate effectiveness.

Professor Michael Pittilo

Chair of the Department of Health Steering Group

And Pittilo wrote in similar vein to Times Higher Education.

Science vital to health study

28 August 2008

Your feature on some members of staff at the University of Central Lancashire attacking science degrees in complementary and alternative medicine (“Staff attack science degrees in alternative health”, 7 August) raises a number of concerns.

It is up to any university, taking account of the expert views of staff and external peer review, to determine the appropriate title and award for any degree. It is encouraging to note from the feature that new courses
in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine “contain significant elements of science”.

The recent report to Ministers from the Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and other Traditional Medicine
Systems Practised in the UK recognises the significant challenges in developing a strong research and evidence base for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). It also states that the need to demonstrate
benefit is essential if National Health Service resources are to be made available to fund these therapies.

There is no doubt that courses that provide a solid scientific foundation will greatly assist CAM practitioners in establishing evidence-based practice. It would be most unfortunate if the reported resistance to degree titles led to those wishing to practise acupuncture or herbal medicine receiving less hard science than they might have.

To say that acupuncture and herbal medicine degrees have no academic justification appears arrogant in the extreme. Although it is certainly true that some content may not be scientific, this does not invalidate the legitimacy of these courses at degree level, a fact borne out by their successful validation in a number of universities.

R. Michael Pittilo, Principal and vice-chancellor, The Robert Gordon University.


This one got excellent responses from Kevin Smith (University of Abertay, Dundee), and from Peter J. Brophy (Professor of veterinary anatomy and cell biology University of Edinburgh). This was  my comment to THE

There are a few very obvious responses to Professor Pittilo’s letter

(1) “It is encouraging to note from the feature that new courses in acupuncture and Chinese Herbal medicine “contain significant elements of science”.

For many alternative therapies the “philosophy” is simply incompatible with science. One obvious example is homeopathy. On Mondays and Wednesdays (science days) the students will be required to learn that response increases with dose. On Tuesdays and Thursdays will be taught the opposite. But for the exam they must reproduce only the latter (nonsensical) idea because their aim is to get a job as a homeopath. That makes nonsense of the idea of a university.

(2) His report “recognises the significant challenges in developing a strong research and evidence base for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)”.

This seems to constitute a recognition that the evidence is still very inadequate. The time to start degrees, and the time to give official government recognition, is after the evidence is in, not before. What happens if you start degrees and then find that the subject is so much nonsense? Well, that has already happened in several areas of course. But the people who accredit the course and who act as external examiners just happen to be fervent believers in that nonsense, so all appears to be well (to bean counters anyway).

(3) “It would be most unfortunate if the reported resistance to degree titles led to those wishing to practise acupuncture or herbal medicine receiving less hard science than they might have.”

There is, as it happens, a great deal of evidence now about acupuncture, but the authors of the report do not seem to be aware of it. I recommend Barker Bausell’s book on the topic. If students are educated science, like what constitutes evidence, and our current understanding of words like “energy”, they would have to disavow the subject that there are supposed to training to practise

(4) “To say that acupuncture and herbal medicine degrees have no academic justification appears arrogant in the extreme.”

No, it is not a matter of arrogance, just a matter of careful attention to the evidence. Attention to evidence was notably absent in Prof Pittilo’s report, perhaps because his committee consisted entirely of people who earn their living from the subjects they were supposed to be assessing.

(5) “ . . a fact borne out by their successful validation in a number of universities”.

I have had the misfortune to have waded through a mound of such validation documents. The one thing they never consider is whether the treatment works. Sad to say, these validations are not worth the paper they are written on.


Jump to follow-up

The first major victory in the battle for the integrity of universities seems to have been won. This email was sent by Kate Chatfield who is module leader for the “BSc” in homeopathic medicine at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN).

from Kate Chatfield…

Dear All,

It’s a sad day for us here at UCLan because we have taken the decision not to run a first year this year due to low recruitment. The course will be put ‘on hold’ for this year and next until we see what happens with the general climate. Fortunately our masters course is thriving and we have been asked to focus upon this area and homeopathy research for the time being.

Of late UCLan has been the subject of many attacks by the anti-homeopathy league. Colquhoun et al have kept the university lawyers and us quite fruitlessly busy by making claims for very detailed course information under the Freedom of Information Act. The latest demand is for 32 identified lesson plans with teaching notes, power points, handouts etc. The relentless attacks have taken their toll and it appears that they have won this small victory.

The university has been very clear that this decision has been taken solely on the grounds of poor educational experience and is nothing to do with the current furore. They continue to be supportive of us and our efforts.

Best wishes

Kate and Jean

There is some background here. In July 2006 I made a request to UCLAN under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, in which I asked to see some of their teaching materials. I appealed to UCLAN but Professor Patrick McGhee, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), also turned down two appeals. A letter sent directly to Professor Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor and president of UCLAN, failed to elicit the courtesy of a reply (standard practice I’m afraid, when a vice chancellor is faced with a difficult question). (Ironically, McVicar lists one of his interests as “health policy”.) So then I appealed to the Office of the Information Commissioner, in November 2006. Recently the case got to the top of the pile, and a judgment is expected any moment now.

Kate Chatfield’s letter to her colleagues is interesting. She describes a request ro see some of her teaching materials as an “attack”. If someone asks to see my teaching materials, I am rather flattered, and I send them. Is she not proud of what she teaches? Why all the secrecy? After all, you, the taxpayer, are paying for this stuff to be taught, so why should you not be able see it? Or is the problem that she feels that the “alternative reality” in which homeopaths live is just too complicated for mortals to grasp? Perhaps this attitude should be interpreted as flattering to the general public, because somewhere deep down she knows that the public will be able to spot gobbledygook when they see it. The revelation that the University of Westminster teaches first year undergraduates the “amethysts emit high yin energy” didn’t help their academic reputation much either.

Much credit for this decision must go also to the pressure from the many good academics at UCLAN. When it was revealed recently that UCLAN intended to open yet more courses in forms of medicine that are disproved or unproven, they naturally felt that their university was being brought into disrepute. Opposition to plans to introduce new “degrees” in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine were exposed in Times Higher Education recently. It particular, great credit must go to Dr Michael Eslea from UCLAN’s Psychology department. His open letter to his vice-chancellor is an example of scientific integrity in action.

The abandonment of this degree in medicines that contain no medicine is a small victory for common sense, for science and for the integrity of universities. Sadly, there is still a long way to go.

It is my understanding that ‘bringing the university into disrepute’ is a serious offence. Please note, vice-chancellor.

A few more judgments like that to suspend your homeopathy degree could work wonders for your reputation.

The follow-up

Watch this space.

The Guardian was quick off the mark -this story appeared on their education web site within 3 hours of my posting it “Homeopathy degrees suspended after criticism” by Anthea Lipsett. My comment there disappeared for a while because the Guardian legal people misunderstood the meaning of the last sentence. It’s back now, with blame allocated unambiguously to the vice-chancellors of the 16 or so universities who run this sort of course.

UCLAN’s web site seems to need some updating. The “BSc” in homeopathic medicine is still advertised there. as of 28 August.

UCLAN’s best ally. Dr Michael Eslea, has had some publicity for his attempts to rescue his university’s reputation. The story appeared in the “High Principals” column of Private Eye (Issue 1217, Aug 22, 2008). It also appeared in his local paper, the Lancashire Evening Post.

The Lancashire Evening Post catches up with homeopathy suspension story, two days after you read it here. But the UCLAN web site still advertises it.

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

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



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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

According to the handbook

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

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

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

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

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

Here are just 5 days from the timetable.

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



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

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


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


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

.

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


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


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

Learning Outcomes

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

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



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


You just couldn’t make it up.


Westminster University is not all like this

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardian science web site image
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.

Trust Boots

Boots the Chemists (now Alliance Boots) is a very big business in the UK. There have 1,450 pharmacies in the UK and employ over 100,000 people.

I posted the item below a while ago, on the old Improbable Science page. I thought it deserved a bit more publicity, for the following reason.  The quackometer has posted about Boots too,

I mentioned it during the debate with Felicity Lee at the British Pharmaceutical Conference (2007) (Ben Goldacre’s interview with Felicity Lee is a gem). After the talk I was approached by two heavies. Well, two men in dark suits anyway. It turned out that one was from Boots and the other from Alliance Pharmacies, now merged to form Boots Alliance. They seemed rather bothered by the fact that I’d criticised Boots, but were not entirely unreasonable. They claimed to be on the scientific side and said they’d investigate the matter. I wrote to the Boots man on 10 September, but got no reply, After a reminder on 29 October, I got this.

Dear David


Thank you for your email and reminder. We have investigated the points you raised in your blog. I was informed that it was an old leaflet and has not been reprinted (to my knowledge). However on a point of principle, I have raised the wider issue of clinical validity in my department. This will take its course through to the commercial/buying team.

I wrote back to point out that is wasn’t an old leaflet, but was still on their web site, labelled as ‘education’.

Dear David


Thank you for pointing this out. I’ve had a quick look and it is an educational website looking at all aspects of medicine and therapy, including alternative medicine. It is not a direct sales message to the public. I hope this helps

So not much sign of concern for honesty there. Nothing has happened. Do they really care?

Corporate Social Responsibility

Boots web site makes a big point about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

“TRUST BOOTS

As you may have noticed, that’s the tagline which in 2005 we adopted as the sign-off to all our advertising. But it’s much more than just a slogan. It’s a concise statement of our entire corporate strategy. Our aim is to make Boots the world’s best health and beauty retailer, and we’re 100% clear that the unique trust in which we are held provides the key to achieving this. Which means, of course, that those two words are also the rationale for all our CSR activities. Everything we do that builds trust is good for our business; anything which could compromise it, a risk we can’t afford to take.”

Trust Boots to provide straight answers.

At one time. Boots were sufficiently ethical not to deal in homeopathy. But no longer.

When asked for evidence that the things they sell actually work, the Boots help desk is astonishingly coy, as related here (thanks to ebm-first.com for giving publicity to this report).

When Boots were asked about their ‘Alternatives Hayfever Relief Tablets’, the answer came, after some delay, “This is a homeopathic product, further information on homeopathic products is available from the Nelson company who make this
particular product for Boots. ” This company has been making homeopathic products for many years and
may well be able to help you further. You may also find general
information about homeopathic medicines in reference books in the public
library”. The email address that they gave me for Nelson’s did not work, and writing to another Nelson’s address produced no reply at all. Clearly any letter that contains the word “evidence” arouses suspicion and is simply deflected.

Dangerous advice from Boots: a small sting.

I have been into several Boots stores, sought out the most senior pharmacist that I can find, and asked them the following question. “I have a 5 year old son who has had diarrhoea for three days now. Please can you recommend a natural remedy”. The response was interesting. In every case but one, the pharmacist reached for a copy of the Boots pamphlet on homeopathy, and thumbed through it, while desperately, but unsuccessfuly, trying to retain an air of professional authority. Then one or another homeopathic treatment from the booklet was recommended. In only one case out of six did the pharmacist even mention the right answer (GP and rehydration). One pharmacist, who turned out to have qualified in Germany, was very insistent that homeopathic treatment was inappropriate and that I should should start rehydration and take the child to the GP. The other five, including one who had an impressive-looking badge saying “consultant pharmacist”, did not even mention rehydration.
Conclusion The education of the pharmacists was clearly insufficient for them to give reliable advice. On the contrary, their advice was downright dangerous.

Miseducation by Boots the chemists

Boots also run an “educational” web site for children, the ‘Boots learning store’. Click on the section for ‘pupils’, and then ’16+’ and you find their education about alternative medicine (do their pharmacists do this course, I wonder?). The slide show that follows is an insult to human intelligence,

“‘POTENCY‘ is the term used to describe the dilution of a remedy. The weaker the solution the more potent the medication.”

Then follows a totally misleading slide about enzymes.

There is nothing wrong with the enzyme bit, but the analogy with homeopathy is baseless and misleading. Enzymes don’t work when there are no molecules present.

boots enzyme

But in the next slide, enzymes and catalysts are forgotten anyway, This is how it works.

vital spirits!

This meaningless mediaeval gobbledygook about ‘vital forces’ is being peddled as ‘education’ by the biggest retail pharmacy chain in the UK. What hope is there for kids?

But there is more. Now for the exam. If you click on the ‘teacher’ section you can download the students’ notes and the test. The ‘Student Notes’ include the following direct claim that homeopathy can cure diseases.

Now take the test, Here is question 1, and the answer.

test1
test2

I suppose that if the educators at Boots classify Hahnemann’s provings as a ‘clinical trial’ it goes a long way to explain the quality of their learning store, and the quality of the advice given by their pharmacists.

Boots Alternatives also sells a “snoring remedy”

The evidence for effectiveness of this herbal product is very dodgy, as described here earlier. This was an interesting saga that involved bad statistics, inappropriate controls and concealed financial interests. It eventually appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme, You and Yours.

Postcript: “Nurses and pharmacists are to be given greater powers to prescribe drugs”

The foregoing history does not give one much confidence in the government’s latest money-saving wheeze. [BBC]

“The latest measures mean nurses and pharmacists will be able to prescribe treatments for more serious conditions such as heart disease and diabetes – traditionally the domain of GPs.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said: “Nurse and pharmacist independent prescribing is a huge step forward in improving patient accessibility to medicines from highly skilled and well trained staff.”

And Chief Pharmaceutical Officer Dr Keith Ridge added: “For pharmacists, this is the dawn of a new era. It will help transform the public’s perception of pharmacy and the services they deliver to patients.”

This item was first posted on the original IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page.