Download Lectures on Biostatistics (1971).
Corrected and searchable version of Google books edition

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

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On 24 July 2006, I sent a request to the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), under the Freedom of Information Act  (2000)   I asked to see the teaching materials that were used on their BSc Homeopathy course.  The request was refused, citing the exemption under section 43(2) of the Act (Commercial Interests). 

Two internal reviews were then held. These reviews upheld and the original refusal on the grounds of commercial interests, Section 43(3), and additionally claimed exemption under Section 21 “that is reasonably accessible to applicants by other means (upon the payment of a fee)….i.e. by enrolling on the course….”

In 21 October 2006 I appealed to the Office of the Information commisioner. (The”public authority” means UCLAN, and “the complainant” is me.)

“The complainant specifically asked the Commissioner to consider the application of section 43(2) to the course materials he had requested. The main thrust of his argument in this regard was that the public authority could not be considered a ‘commercial organisation’ for the purposes of the Act, and that the public authority had confused ‘commercial interests’ with ‘financial interests’. He however added that if the Commissioner decided section 43(2) was correctly engaged, then it was in the public interest to order disclosure.” 

In May 2008, my appeal got to the top of the pile, and on 30th March 2009 a judgement was delivered. In all respects but one trivial one, the appeal was upheld. In future universities will not be able to refuse requests for teaching materials.

The Decision Notice is on the web site of the Office of the Information Commissioner, [or download pdf file].

This whole thing has taken so long that the course at which it was aimed has already closed its doors last August (and blamed that, in part, on the problems caused by the Freedom of Information Act). UCLAN also announced a review of all its alternative medicine activities (and asked me to give evidence to it). That review is due to report its findings any time now.

Tha particular course that prompted the request is no longer the point.  What matters is that all the usual exemptions claimed by universities have been ruled invalid.  Here are a few details

What the decision notice says (the short version)

The full text of the Act is here.

The following three exemptions were judged NOT to apply the requests for university teaching materials.  I’ll quote some bits from the Decision Notice.

Section 21 provides that –

“Information which is reasonably accessible to the applicant otherwise than under section 1 is exempt information.”

34. The public authority’s argument suggests that the requested information is reasonably accessible to the complainant if he enrols as a student on the course, and is therefore not accessible to him by any other means outside the Act unless he decides to make a total payment of £9,345 as a combined payment of three years tuition fees.

40.   The Commissioner therefore finds that the public authority incorrectly applied the exemption contained at section 21 of the Act.

Section 42(2) provides that –

“Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).”

71.  The Commissioner therefore finds that the section 43(2) was incorrectly engaged by virtue of the fact that the public authority’s ability to recruit students is not a commercial interest within the contemplation of section 43(2).

76.   In addition to his finding on commercial interests the Commissioner finds that section 43(2) would in any case not be engaged as the likelihood of prejudice to the public authority’s ability to recruit students as a result of disclosure under the Act is no more than the likelihood of prejudice resulting from the availability of the course materials to students already enrolled on the course. 

Section 36(2)C provides that –

“Information to which this section applies is exempt information if, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act-

(c) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs

98. For the reasons set out above, the Commissioner finds that section 36(2)(c) is not engaged as he does not accept the opinion of the qualified person is an objectively reasonable one. He does not find that disclosure would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.

Section 41(1) provides that –

“Information is exempt information if-

(a) it was obtained by the public authority from any other person (including another public authority), and

(b) the disclosure of the information to the public (otherwise than under this Act) by the public authority holding it would constitute a breach of confidence actionable by that or any other person.”

56. The Commissioner therefore finds the public authority correctly applied the exemption contained at section 41 to the case studies listed in Annex A. In the Commissioner’s view, even though the patients would not be identifiable if the case studies were disclosed, this disclosure would still be actionable by the patients.

The Decision

99. The Commissioner finds that section 41 is engaged

100. He however finds that the exemptions at sections 21, 43(2), and 36(2)(c) are not engaged.

101. The Commissioner therefore finds the public authority in breach of;

• Sections 1(1)(b) and 10(1), because it failed to disclose the remainder of the course materials (i.e. excluding the case studies) to the complainant within 20 working days.

• Section 17(1), because it did not specify in its refusal notice that it was also relying on sections 41 and 36(2)(c).

Steps required

103. The Commissioner requires the public authority to take the following steps to ensure compliance with the Act:

• Disclose all the course materials for the BSc (Hons) in Homeopathy apart from the case studies listed in Annex A of this Notice.

104. The public authority must take the steps required by this notice within 35 calendar days of the date of this notice.


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.

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

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

Dr Peter Davies, dean of Westminster’s school of integrated health, says

“he welcomes the debate but it isn’t as open as he would like.”

Well you can say that again. The University of Westminster has refused to send me anything much, and has used flimsy excuses to avoid complying with the Freedom of Information Act. Nevertheless a great deal has leaked out. Not just amethysts emit hig Yin energy, but a whole lot more (watch this space). Given what is already in the public, arena, how can they possibly say things like this?

“Those teaching the courses insist they are academically rigorous and scientific.”

There’s another remark from an unlikely source that I can agree with too.  George Lewith,  of Southampton University and Upper Harley Street, is quoted as saying

“The quality of degrees is an open joke . . . ”

Whatever next? [Note: Lewith told me later that he was quoted out of context by the Guardian, so it seems that after all he is happy with the courses. So sadly I have to withdraw the credit that I was giving him].

The article emphasises nicely the view that universities that run BSc degrees in things that are fundamentally the opposite of science are deceiving young people and corrupting science itself.

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

 “He [DC] believes the climate is starting to change after the Bush/Blair era where people believed in things because they wished they were true. “This has been going on for a generation and it’s about time for a swing in the other direction,” he suggests.”

Well, one can always hope.


From time to time, Private Eye Magazine takes a look at university vice-chancellors (aka presidents/rectors/principals) in its High Principals column.

The current issue (No, 1239, 20, Feb – 5 Mar, 2009) features Professor Geoffrey Petts, vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster,

Well well. Who’d have thought such things were possible?


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.


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.


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


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

Today brings a small setback for those  of us interested in spreading sensible ideas about science.  According to a press release

“The BMJ Group is to begin publishing a medical journal on acupuncture from next year, it was announced today (Tuesday 11 November 2008).

This will be the first complementary medicine title that the BMJ Group has published.”

And they are proud of that? What one earth is going on?   The BMJ group is a publishing company which says, of itself,

“Our brand stands for medical credibility.   We are one of the world’s best known and most respected medical publishers.”

Well perhaps it used to be.

They have certainly picked a very bad moment for this venture.  In the last year there have been at least five good books that assess the evidence carefully and honestly.  Of these, the ones that are perhaps the best on the subject of acupuncture are Singh & Ernst’s Trick or Treatment and Barker Bausell’s Snake Oil Science.  Both Ernst and Bausell have first hand experience of acupuncture research.  And crucially, none of these authors has any financial interest in whether the judgement goes for acupuncture or against it.

Here are quotations from Singh & Ernst’s conclusions

“Reliable conclusions from systematic reviews make it clear that acupuncture does not work for a whole range of conditions, except as a placebo.”

“There are some high quality trials that support the use of acupuncture for some types of pain and nausea, but there are also high quality trials that contradict this conclusion.  In short, the evidence is neither consistent nor convincing – it is borderline.”

The House of Lords’ report in 2000 tended to give acupuncture the benefit of the (very considerable) doubt that existed at the time the report was written.  Since that time there have been a lot of very well-designed trials of acupuncture.

Now it is quite clear that,  for most (and quite possibly all) conditions, acupuncture is no more than a particularly theatrical placebo.  Perhaps that is not surprising insofar as the modern western practice of acupuncture owes more to Chinese nationalistic propaganda that started in the time of Mao-Tse Tung than it owes to ancient wisdom (which often turns out to be bunk anyway).

The BMJ Group has decided to endorse acupuncture at a time when it is emerging that the evidence for any specific effect is very thin indeed.  Well done.

The journal in question is this.

Acupuncture in Medicine is a quarterly title, which aims to build the evidence base for acupuncture. It is currently self-published by the British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS).

One good thing can be said about the Society and the Journal. That is that they don’t espouse all the mumbo-jumbo about ‘meridians’ and ‘Qi’. This, of course, puts them at odds with the vast majority of acupuncture teaching.  This sort of internecine warfare between competing sects is characteristic of all sorts of alternative medicine.  But that is just ideology.  What matters is whether or not sticking needles in you is actually anything more than a placebo.

British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS)

The British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS). is “a registered charity established to encourage the use and scientific understanding of acupuncture within medicine for the public benefit.”.   The phrase “encourage the use” suggests that they do not even envisage the possibility that it might not work.  Their web site includes these claims.

Acupuncture can help in a variety of conditions:

  • Pain relief for a wide range of painful conditions
  • Nausea, especially postoperative nausea and vomiting
  • Overactive bladder, also known as bladder detrusor instability
  • Menstrual and menopausal problems, eg period pains and hot flushes
  • Allergies such as hay fever and some types of allergic rashes
  • Some other skin problems such as ulcers, itching and localised rashes
  • Sinus problems and more

Presumably the word “help” is chosen carefully to fall just short of “cure”.  The claims are vaguely worded, but let’s see what we can find about them from systematic reviews.  It appears that the BMAS is being rather optimistic about the evidence.

BMJ Clinical Evidence is considered reliable and is particular interesting because it is owned by the BMJ Publishing Group.

Low Back Pain (chronic) Acupuncture is listed as being of “unknown effectiveness”.

Dysmenorrhoea Acupuncture is listed as being of “unknown effectiveness”.

Osteoarthritis of the knee.  Acupuncture is listed as being of “unknown effectiveness”.

Psoriasis (chronic plaque) Acupuncture is listed as being of “unknown effectiveness”.

Neck pain “Acupuncture may be more effective than some types of sham treatment (not further defined) or inactive treatment (not further defined) at improving pain relief at the end of treatment or in the short term (less than 3 months), but not in the intermediate term (not defined) or in the long term (not defined)”

Headache (chronic tension-type) Acupuncture is listed as being of “unknown effectiveness”.

What about the greatest authority, the Cochrane Reviews?

Cochrane Reviews

Low back pain The data do not allow firm conclusions about the effectiveness of acupuncture for acute low-back pain. For chronic low-back pain, acupuncture is more effective for pain relief and functional improvement than no treatment or sham treatment immediately after treatment and in the short-term only. Acupuncture is not more effective than other conventional and “alternative” treatments. The data suggest that acupuncture and dry-needling may be useful adjuncts to other therapies for chronic low-back pain. Because most of the studies were of lower methodological quality, there certainly is a further need for higher quality trials in this area.

Chronic asthma.  There is not enough evidence to make recommendations about the value of acupuncture in asthma treatment. Further research needs to consider the complexities and different types of acupuncture.

But most of the vaguely-worded claims made by BMAS have not been the subject of Cochrane reviews.  The obvious interpretation of that is that there is not enough evidence to make it worth writing a review.  In which case, why does BMAS claim that acupuncture can “help”?

Bandolier is another excellent source of high quality information, This was their view in September 2006

“Large, high-quality randomised trials of acupuncture have been published since the reviews. In fibromyalgia, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, breech presentation, tension headache, and migraine, all were negative compared with sham acupuncture. One in osteoarthritis of the knee, had statistical improvement over sham acupuncture at three months, but not later. Both large trials and this review of reviews come to the same general conclusion; that over a whole range of conditions and outcomes acupuncture cannot yet be shown to be effective.”

After thousands of years of acupuncture (or at least almost 40 years in the West) there seems to be very little to show for it.

The journal: Acupuncture in Medicine

What about the journal in question?  Like all journals devoted to alternative medicine, it claims to be evidence-based.  And like all journals devoted to alternative medicine it suffers from a fatal conflict of interest.  If this journal were ever to conclude that acupuncture is a placebo, it would destroy the journal and the livelihoods of many of the people who write for it.

Scanning the first three issues of 2008 shows that it is very much like other alternative medicine journals.  Most of the papers don’t address the critical question, is it a placebo.  And most papers end up rather limply, with a statement along the lines “acupuncture may be useful for ***.  More research is needed.”

The editor in chief of the journal is Dr Adrian White, and its editor  is Michael Cummings.  White is quoted by Ernst in the Guardian in 2004.

“We need to provide hard evidence to support what we all see in our clinics every day: that the modern approach to acupuncture works, and is highly relevant to the new,  patient-centred NHS.” .

That means the answer is assumed in advance. That just isn’t science.. ‘We know the answer, all we have to do now is get some evidence’.

Why should the BMJ Group want to do a thing like this?

The press release says

Commenting on the move, BMJ and BMJ Journals Publishing Director, Peter Ashman, said “The journal is a good complement for our existing portfolio of journals and we’re certain that the Society’s members and other subscribers will appreciate the benefits of the decision the BMAS has made on their behalf.”

He continued: “The BMAS is ambitious for its journal to grow and flourish and we’re looking forward to working with the Society to develop an editorial and commercial strategy which will achieve the aims of BMAS and those of its members, while reaching out to the wider global community interested in this fascinating area of medicine.”

Yes, you got it.  Money.  The same motive that causes some vice-chancellors to bring their university into disrepute by awarding BSc degrees in subjects that are not only not science, but which are oftenly openly anti-science.

Conscience doesn’t seem to bother these people, so let’s put the problem in purely cash terms.

Both the BMJ Group and the vice-chancellors will have to decide whether the cash they gain is sufficient to counterbalance the corrosive effects of their actions on their own reputations.


Only a couple of days later, two new trials show acupuncture is no different from sham controls for helping IVF pregnancy rates. James Randerson in the Guardian writes thus.

“Acupuncture aimed at improving IVF success rates is widely offered by fertility clinics in the UK. In the first of the studies, researchers in Hong Kong split 370 women receiving IVF into two groups. One group received real acupuncture before and after having an IVF embryo implanted into their uterus. The other had the same procedure, except the treatment used retractable needles that did not penetrate the skin.”

“Of the 185 who received the sham treatment, 91 achieved a clinical pregnancy (foetal heartbeat identified using ultrasound) and 71 had a successful delivery. This compared with 72 clinical pregnancies in the true acupuncture group and 55 live births. The differences between the groups were not statistically significant.”

“In a second study, researchers in Chicago used a similar design in which 124 women received true or sham acupuncture. The control group had their skin punctured by real acupuncture needles, but not at genuine “Qi-lines” on the body.   In the true acupuncture group, 43.9% achieved a clinical pregnancy, compared with 55.2% of the women given the sham treatment. “

The original paper for the first study can be seen here.

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.

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.

Jump to Open University course K221

Jump to follow-up

BBC2 TV showed a much-advertised series on alternative medicine, in February 2006. The programmes seem to be linked with a dubious Open University course.

The programmes are presented by Kathy Sykes, who is professor of the public understanding of science at Bristol University. She has done some excellent work in that area, for example, in the Rough Science TV series.

The first programme: acupuncture

The first programme, on acupuncture, was shown on 24th January, 2006. The programme did not start
in a very promising way. Just lots of testimonials from happy patients, the staple diet of all snake oil salesmen.
They are watchable, of course, but don’t do anything at all to promote public understanding of what constitutes evidence.

There is, of course, little doubt that sticking needles into your body can produce physiological responses. Two things remain uncertain.

  • Just how useful are these responses in helping particular conditions?
  • Is there anything at all in the mumbo jumbo of meridians and chi?.

With a big flourish we were shown “a 21-year-old Shanghai factory worker undergoing open-heart surgery with only the needles to control her pain”. It turns out that this was a sham. The patient was doped on opiates and local anaesthetics. The needles were merely cosmetic. Why were we not told?

The apparently contradictory trials suggested that, at least the alleged principles of acupuncture are nonsense. The programme concentrated on a trial by Berman (Ann Intern Med. 2004,
141, 901-10 ) which used ‘sham acupuncture’, with ‘stage dagger needles’, on osteoarthritis of the knees. In this sort of trial there is no actual penetration, and the sham needles are placed on the places dictated by the mumbo jumbo. This procedure was justly criticised by a subsequent letters in the same journal (Ann
Intern Med
2005, 142, 871

Another large study was ignored by the TV programme altogether. This was by Linde et al. (Journal of the American Medical Association. 2005 293(17):2118-25). This study concluded

“Acupuncture was no more effective than sham acupuncture in reducing migraine headaches although both interventions were more effective than a waiting list control.”

As pointed out above, this study is, in many ways, much more interesting than Berman’s, because the control group did not have ‘sham acupuncture’. Needles were really inserted, but they were inserted in points that have nothing to do with the mumbo jumbo of meridians. The fact that the controls were much the same as the treated group suggests that, whatever effect the needles produce, it doesn’t matter much where they are inserted. The only obvious interpretation of this is that the ‘principles’ on which acupuncture is based are so much nonsense (and, therefore, it is not a subject that can possibly be taught in a university).

This crucial point was ignored by the TV programme. A big fuss was made of a functional magnetic resonance experiment, staged for TV, that showed that the effects on brain ‘activation’ are different for superficial needling and for real needling. There is nothing in the least surprising in the observation that have a needle pushed into you affects the brain, but it really does not help at all in answering the important questions. Incidentally that experiment had already been done anyway.

In summary, the first programme, failed to give a fair assessment of current knowledge about acupuncture, and failed to consider the important questions of what sort of controls are appropriate, and whether talk of meridians means anything whatsoever. Sadly, I can’t agree with the boast that “It’s the deepest investigation into the efficacy of alternative medicine ever attempted on TV”.  Let’s hope the second programme is a bit more critical.

The second programme: healing

The second programme (31st January, 2006). I liked this programme much better than the first, even if it left the crucial questions unresolved.

The programme started with a healing meeting by the notorious Benny Hinn.  The meeting had all the mass hysteria of a Nuremburg rally, though no mention was made of the fact that this (very rich) man’s financial malpractice had been revealed by a CBC TV programme.

On the right is his receipt for £3347 for two nights at the Lanesborough hotel in London (that did not include $1700 he gave in tips).

The lovely Ghanaian lady who cleans my office and lab every morning gives gives money to this mega-rich man because “he needs it to preach the gospel”.

The National Institutes of Health provided $1.8 m of US taxpayers’ money for this project which seems not to do real research at all. After seeing a demonstration of the “Gas Discharge Visualization”, GDV, or Kirlian camera, given by a very gullible Dr Melinda Connor, Sykes comments that this ‘research’ “is not so much trying to find the evidence for ‘healing energy’,  but is rather working on the basis that there is one”

Kathy Sykes did, though show a pretty healthy degree of scepticism about the people who pretend to photograph “auras” and other imaginary “force fields”. She visited the “Center for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science” at the University of Arizona.

In other words, the ‘research’ is a con. Once again (see above) we see money given by well-intentioned governments diverted form the purpose for which it was given.  For more first class boloney on ‘imaging’, see for example, Biofield Sciences in Exeter (UK)  and ‘electro-crystal therapy’.  The list is endless.

Kathy Sykes went on to show several interesting experiments on placebo effects. For example sham healers (played by actors) do at least as well as ‘real’ healers.  And sham knee surgery may be as effective as real surgery, though the programme failed to mention the obvious possibility that this could mean nothing more than that real knee surgery is itself pretty ineffective.  As so often in this series, the producers failed to talk to the right people.

She concludes “healing does not work beyond placebo”.

So I’m right with her, though it would have been better if there had been a more critical mention of the fact that not all placebo effects are real.  Many probably depend on the natural fluctuations in the intensity of the patient’s condition.  Anything can ‘cure a cold’, because you recover from a cold in a few days anyway,

Sykes concludes, speaking of the placebo effect, “I want to see that power properly harnessed -we’d be mad not to”.  But that, disappointingly, was the end of the programme.  That point is where the problems begin.  How do you harness the placebo effect?  How do you justify lying to the patient in order to maximize the effect?  How do you train the ‘healers’? Are they themselves to believe the same lies, or are they to be trained in the art of deception?  As pointed out in a recent review of the neurobiology of placebos (Colloca and Benedetti, 2005)

“For example, the assertion that placebos, fake therapies, fresh water and sugar pills could  positively affect the brain biochemistry in the appropriate psychosocial context might lead to a dangerous justification for deception, lying and quackery”.

These are the central dilemmas of sCAM, as listed at the top of this page. The programme did nothing to solve them, or even to draw attention to them.

The link with Open University Course K221

The blurb on this programme on the Open University/BBC site concludes

“So, could the power of the mind explain the benefits people experience from healers? And have healers tapped into this power somehow? The conclusion throws new light on all healing processes, and has a surprising and inspirational message for every practitioner and patient.”

But what is to be done about this “inspiration”? Nothing is said about that.  The TV programme was immediately followed by voice-over that advertised an Open University pamphlet, which is publicity for their course K221. That course, judging from what is posted on the web, is run by true believers who are a lot less sceptical than Sykes. She says that she did the voice-over but has not yet been shown the contents of the course.

The third programme: herbalism

Oooh dear. The third programme was, in my view, by far the worst.  Hardly a single critical voice was heard. Despite the odd word of reservation,  the programme left the impression of being an advertisement for the herbal medicine industry. Did the BBC not think of asking a pharmacologist?  In my view, this programme was a disservice to human knowledge.  Let’s look at some of the details.

The programme once again starts with dramatic testimonials from satisfied customers. No hint is given to the viewer of the total unreliability of such testimonials. References, in awed voice, are mad to “a vast body of ancient knowledge that herbalists draw on”.  No mention of the superb track record that ‘ancient knowledge’ has for turning out to being dead wrong.  It was 11 minutes into the programme before the question of evidence was even mentioned and then we had a herbalist wandering through a field. At 13 minutes, the herbalist, Simon Mills, was interviewed -he rattled on about dampness. marshy conditions. “There
are herbs for heating and drying”. Sheer gobbledygook. And still no discussion of evidence.

Sutherlandia At 18 minutes “To get another view I’m going to a country where herbs are claimed to have dramatic effects”. Off to Africa to spend a good 10 minutes on Sutherlandia, a totally unverified treatment for AIDS.  Why spend all this time (and licence-payers money) to end up with the conclusion that clinical trials have
not been done yet, and we have no real idea whether it works or not?  A search of Pubmed for Sutherlandia and AIDS produces a mere five papers.  Mills et al. Nutrition Journal 2005, 4:19 write as follows.

“Despite the popularity of their use and the support of Ministries of Health and NGOs in some  African countries, no clinical trials of efficacy exist, and low-level evidence of harm identifies the potential for drug interactions with antiretroviral drugs.”

(and one of the authors on that paper is from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine: hardly likely to have a bias against herbs). The comments made in the programme about AIDS were irresponsible and potentially dangerous:  they could kill people..

It took until almost half way through the programme, before we got round to the question of whether any of these claims are true. Very impressive to learn that the Nazis pushed herbal medicine, but totally uninformative (or does it mean that herbalism appeals to nutters?). We are shown the German herbal bible, but again it is pointed out that it contains no evidence about their efficacy. So no further forward yet.  Then we are introduced to chromatography: very pretty, but still no evidence about whether herbs help people.

At 9.34 pm we are last get round to some evidence. Or do we? Not yet, just another personal testimonial about the the wonders of St John’s Wort. St John’s Wort (Hypericum) is an interesting case, because there is at least some evidence that it works, though certainly not enough for it to be described as a “superherb”, as Sykes did.  Of course depression (like knee surgery -above) makes a pretty good case for herbalists, because conventional antidepressants are so very unsatisfactory themselves.  It doesn’t take much to do better than Seroxat (Paxil, paroxetine).  At 9.38 pm we get the first actual numbers. And very selective numbers they are
too. The view presented in the programme was desperately over-optimistic about the wondrous effects of St John’s wort.  Consider the recent review by Linde et al. (2005 Brit J. Psychiatry, 186, 99-107) (read
it yourself –download pdf file).  The conclusion was as follows.

“Current evidence regarding Hypericum extracts inconsistent and confusing. In patients who meet criteria for major depression, several recent placebo-controlled trials suggest that Hypericum has minimal beneficial effects while other trials suggest that Hypericum and standard antidepressants have similar beneficial effects. ”

And another trial, again not mentioned in the programme, was published in Journal of the American Medical Association, 2002, 287, 1807 – 1814) [download the pdf file]. This paper was interesting because it compared placebo, St John’s Wort and sertraline (Zoloft), a drug of the same class as Seroxat).  All three were indistinguishable (on the two primary outcome measures).  So St John’s Wort was as good as Zoloft, but only because Zoloft was no better than placebo either.  The paper concluded thus.

“This study fails to support the efficacy the efficacy of H. perforatum [St John’s Wort] in moderately severe major depression. The result may be due to low assay sensitivity of the trial, but the  complete absence of trends suggestive of efficacy for H. perforatum is noteworthy.”

Why were we not told about trials like these?

At 9.43 pm, almost three quarters of the way through the programme, we are eventually told that ginseng, echinacea and evening primrose oil do not work. What took so long?

9.46 pm. Off to South Africa to look at research in Johannesburg on Sutherlandia by Carl Albrecht (more of him below).  Some impressive stuff about flavonoids but no results.   Flavonoids can’t be absorbed, but, aha, it contains saponins too. Perhaps they allow the flavonoids into cells. Well perhaps.
But this is not information, it is idle speculation.

At 9.51, we get back to brain imaging, this time at Imperial College. Professor Sykes seems to be excessively impressed by brain imaging. We are then treated to more idle speculation about how ginko might help in Alzheimer’s disease. Dr Warner is running a clinical trial to find out whether ginko really helps. But there were no results yet. In that case why not wait until there is a result, before telling us all about it?

We are told that herbs now “have to go through rigorous quality standards”.  It was NOT made clear that the standards don’t include anything about the herb actually doing anything useful.  The standards may give some protection against your being poisoned.  They do nothing at all to guarantee you’ll be helped.

The conclusions

“What’s really impressed me is the way that different ingredients from particular herb can combine together and have really powerful effects on us humans. So I believe that herbs are going to play a key role in medicines of the future”

“What started as an ancient wisdom may just might provide new medicines that will help us all live longer, fuller lives”

These statements are quite outrageous!   The first statement has no basis whatsoever.  It is sheer idle speculation.  It could be true, but there is no reason to believe it is.

The second statement is content-free.  Yes, it “may just” do that. On the other hand it may not.

The web site for the third programme. (7th February, 2006, 2100-2200) concludes thus.

“So, what’s their secret? Working with fellow scientists, Kathy discovers that plants contain much  more than a single – or even two or three – active ingredients. They are enormously complex

Chemical cocktails that have medicinal properties modern pharmaceuticals simply can’t reproduce.”

Just one snag (apart from the misleading implication the Sykes was doing pharmacological experiments), There is not the slightest reason, thus far, to think there is any advantage in using an “enormously complex chemical cocktail”.

Stop press: on Saw palmetto (one of the “superherbs” of the TV series)

The New England Journal of Medicine, for February 9th 2006 (354, 557 – 566), reports a clinical trial of “Saw Palmetto for Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia”. This is what they say.

“Saw palmetto is used by over 2 million men in the United States for the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia and is commonly recommended as an alternative to drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration.”

“In this double-blind trial, we randomly assigned 225 men over the age of 49 years who had moderate-to-severe symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia to one year of treatment with saw palmetto extract (160 mg twice a day) or placebo.”

“Conclusions. In this study, saw palmetto did not improve symptoms or objective measures of benign prostatic hyperplasia.”

I hope that the BBC, the Open University and Prof Sykes now appreciate the folly of judging treatments before the results are in.

Postscript. Some reviews of the TV programmes

  • There has been some lively discussion of the BBC2 series on a forum of the James Randi Educational Foundation, on the BBC2/Open University site, on Ben Goldacres’s Badscience site, and at ebm-first.com.

  • The Times TV critic was unenthusiastic.

    “So having started out as a sceptic, Sykes ended the programme chirruping, like a born-again Christian, about how herbs contain complex combinations of chemicals that scientists cannot yet reproduce&”;

  • Simon Singh writes in the Daily Telegraph (14 Feb., 2006): "Did we really witness the ‘amazing power’ of acupuncture?

    “A BBC series on unorthodox therapies was devoid of scepticism and rigour, says Simon Singh.”

    “Although the second programme was indeed a rational look at the placebo effect, the other two episodes were little more than rose-tinted adverts for the alternative medicine industry.”

    “For example, the scene showing a patient punctured with needles and undergoing open heart surgery left viewers with the strong impression that acupuncture was providing immense pain relief. In fact, in addition to acupuncture, the patient had a combination of three very powerful sedatives (midazolam, droperidol, fentanyl) and large volumes of local anaesthetic injected into the tissues on the front of the chest.
    With such a cocktail of chemicals, the acupuncture needles were apparently cosmetic. In short, this memorable bit of telly was emotionally powerful, but scientifically meaningless in building a case for acupuncture. ”

    “This TV series pretended to be scientific and had the chance to set the record straight, but instead it chickened out of confronting the widespread failure of alternative medicine. ”

  • Advertisers cash in. Sadly, but predictably, the programme on herbalism has
    already been exploited by vendors of unproven treatments. While it is true that the programme did not actually assert that this herb cured AIDS, it certainly left the impression that it was good stuff.  Here is an example: “As seen on BBC2”

    “In South Africa, BBC 2 TV presenter, Professor Kathy Sykes learnt of the herb Sutherlandia, which is being touted as a new weapon in the fight against HIV and ”

    “It is with thanks to programmes such as Alternative Medicine shown on BBC 2 on Tuesday 7th February, and the work carried out by Professor Kathy Sykes that medicinal herbs can receive the acknowledgement they truly deserve, and this knowledge be passed on to the general public.”

    “Bioharmony Sutherlandia is available from Revital Ltd in 60 x 300mg tablets for £19.99rrp. ”

  • A groundbreaking experiment … or a sensationalised TV stunt?

    Simon Singh, in The Guardian (25 March 2006) followed through with some more details on the BBC2 series. It’s not only pharmacologists who were unhappy about it. So were several of the people who advised the BBC and/or appeared on the programme.

    “But this week scientists involved in the series have complained that elements of the programmes were misleading, the production team was uninformed, and scientists were used as “marionettes” ”

    At the end of the first programme a “hugely ambitious” imaging experiment was shown with an enormous flourish. The outcome was, roughly speaking, that pushing needles into yourself produces a signal in the brain. Good heavens! Who’d have thought it? Even George Lewith, normally an apologist for CAM, was critical.

    “The interpretation of the science in this particular programme was not good and was inappropriately sensationalised by the production team. I think all of us on the experiment felt like that.”

    “The experiment was not groundbreaking, its results were sensationalised and there was insufficient time to analyse the data properly and so draw any sound conclusions. It was oversold and over-interpreted. We were encouraged to over-interpret, and proper scientific qualifications that might suggest alternative interpretations of the data appear to have been edited out of the programme.”

    Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, and the main consultant for the series says:

    “The BBC decided to do disturbingly simple storylines with disturbingly happy endings. But none of these stories is as simple as they presented, nor do they have such happy endings. Even when the evidence was outright negative, they somehow bent over backwards to create another happy ending.
    “I feel that they abused me in a way. It was as if they had instructions from higher up that this had to be a happy story about complementary medicine without any complexity, and they used me to give a veneer of respectability.”

    The BBC, thus far, remain unapologetic

    “We take these allegations very seriously and we strongly refute them.We used two scientific consultants for the series, Prof Ernst and Dr Jack Tinker, dean emeritus of the Royal Society of Medicine, both of whom signed off the programme scripts.”

    This is the same Jack Tinker who, as Chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Dr Foster organisation, also approved their “COMPLEMENTARY therapists Guide 2004”, and the utterly uncritical complementary practioner directory. The ‘Dr Foster’ organisation is a commercial business that supplies "management information", "market research services", "marketing services" and "information for the public". Let’s hope their services in conventional health care are a bit more critical than their evaluation of CAM. Their “Guide to [CAM] therapies” repeats all the usual pseudo-scientific gobbledygook in a totally uncritical way.

    Singh’s article ended with some quotations from this site, concerning Sutherlandia and AIDS, with the remark made above, highlighted: "Comments about Aids were irresponsible and potentially dangerous".

  • Science accuses BBC of medical quackery

    Lois Rogers, in the Sunday Times for 26th March, reports on the same topic.

    “Ernst yesterday released the contents of a letter that he has written to Martin Wilson, the series producer, criticising him for promoting “US-style anti-science”.

    He said he felt “abused” by the programme makers: “It was as if they had instructions from higher up that this had to be a happy story about complementary medicine without any complexity, and they used me to give a veneer of respectability.”  “

    “This is no longer a fringe game played by new age people,” said Colquhoun. “It is beginning to erode intellectual standards at real universities.”

Later a letter appeared in defence of the programmes. Investigation showed that this letter had actually been written by the BBC and not all of the ‘signatories’ had seen it.This is dealt with in a separate post, Alternative Medicine series: dirty tricks at the BBC?

This item appeared originally on my old Religion and Education page. It has been moved here because of the discussion that followed my review in the BMJ of Unscientific America and the discussion that followed, on this blog and on P.Z. Myers Pharyngula blog.


Until recently, the idea that the earth was created 6000 years ago was largely restricted to right wing religious fundamentalists in the USA. Now we have a government in the UK which seems to be happy that such “fruit-cake” nonsense should be taught at the taxpayers’ expense.

The following article, Good God Almighty, was commissioned by Punch magazine, which folded before it could be published.
It refers to the fuss that followed the discovery that a state-funded school was being run by extreme ‘young earth’ creationists. If you want to see just how extreme, look at the speech made by Steven Layfield, the head of science at Emmanuel School. The views expressed are so extreme that the speech was actually deleted from the web site of the Christian Institute as soon as the fuss blew up. Luckily, thanks to the Google cache, this did not work and you can still read it at here.

Good God Almighty!

or Jurassic Theology

[This article was commissioned by Punch, but the magazine went out of business before it was published]

OK class, settle down. Here is your quiz. Compare and contrast the following.

(1) ” . . if the Bible really is the Word of God – and the internal evidence is overwhelming – true Science will always agree with it.”

(2)Science teachers should

“Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm (millions or billions of years) is explicitly mentioned or implied by a text-book, examination question or visitor and courteously point out the fallibility of the statement and, wherever possible, give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data”.
[Steven Layfield, Head of Science at Emmanuel School Gateshead, 2000]

(3) “There are those that argue that Science and Christianity can be harmoniously reconciled . . . We cannot subscribe to this view”
[John Burn & Nigel McQuoid; ex-head, and head, of Emmanuel School Gateshead, 2002]

(4) “Then there is science. Science is a God-given activity. Scientists are 5using their God-given minds and God-given creativity to explore and utilise God-given nature. Sadly, biblical literalism brings not only the bible but Christianity itself into disrepute.”
[The Bishop of Oxford. The Rt. Revd. Richard Harries, 2002]

(5) “God created the world and everything in it.” “It is about 6000 years old”
[Kate and Simon, pupils of Emmanuel School, Gateshead, interviewed by Mike Thomson, BBC]

(5) [Jenny Tonge, MP:]   “Is the Prime Minister happy to allow the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in state schools?”

[Tony Blair]. First I am very happy.”  
“Secondly, I know that the honourable lady is referring to a school in the north-east, and I think that certain reports about what it has been teaching have been somewhat exaggerated”.

The prime minister is right. Something has been exaggerated:

The idea that teachers realise that the scientific method involves not declaring the outcome in advance.

Clearly, the head of science at Emmanuel doesn’t. To proclaim, before looking, that one view (the literal interpretation of the bible) is “always better” might be expected of an itinerant preacher in the deepest bible belt, but that is the view of the man in charge of educating children at a state-funded English school.

It is a view that offends the Bishop of Oxford, and it is contrary to the views expressed by Pope John Paul II. But don’t worry, our leader is “very happy” with it. To give equal time to a simple assertion (that the earth was created 6000 years ago), and to the wealth of hard-won reasons for thinking it to be untrue, is deeply offensive to every scientist who is trying to fumble towards the best approximation to the truth that can be found. Rarely can a couple of teachers and one prime minister have managed to offend so many people, everyone from bishops to professors, at a single sweep.

Of course neither the prime minister nor anybody else knows exactly what Emmanuel School has been teaching (though the reports from the children themselves give us a good idea). The glowing report from OFSTED was actually the result of a “short inspection” which does not look at such details. The school has not been given a full inspection since 1994, before the serious zealots took control. Views such as those in the first two quotations are so obviously relevant to the quality of science teaching that you may well ask how OFSTED managed not to notice that the views of the head of science were at the very extreme edge of fundamentalism.

Consider also the following amazing coincidence. The team of inspectors who found no fault with the unusual science (biblical is always best) teaching at Emmanuel was almost the same as the team that inspected the Huntington School, York. At that school they said that there was not enough teaching of religion (in the narrow sense, as opposed to spiritual values in general). The Huntington head teacher Chris Bridge lodged a complaint against that report, and it was partially upheld by OFSTED.

Does all this mean that extreme fundamentalism has infiltrated OFSTED, or does it simply mean that the inspectors did not do their homework?

The latter is the more charitable interpretation, but the inspectors are not going to get the chance to ‘try harder next time’. Instead Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, wrote a letter to the chairman of the governors, asking for “clarification”. Unlike most schools, the Emmanuel School does not publish the names of its governors in the school prospectus, and neither OFSTED, nor the Department of Education, knows who they are. OFSTED does give the name of the chairman as “Dr `Peter Vardy” (as does the school if you phone). It turns out that the learned Dr Vardy is one and the same person as Sir Peter Vardy, the man who gave the government two million pounds to pay for the school. Don’t worry about the “Dr” bit though –it is perfectly genuine. The University of Sunderland was generous enough to give him an honorary doctorate in business administration (after he generously gave the University £1 million). The Chief Inspector (by then changed) recieved a suitably emollient letter from Sir Peter, but did no investigation whatsoever. Ofsted gives the firm impression of having born yesterday.

It is hard to appreciate the manic fervour of Mr Layfield’s notorious speech from only two quotations. It used to be on the web site of the Christian Institute (www.Christian.org.uk), and that site is still worth a visit. Mr McQuoid is a major contributor (see quotation no 2), but other bits are well worth reading too, like the vigorous defence of beating children (don’t get me wrong –I know there are lots of sites that deal with that sort of thing, but this is different; it is holy beating).

Mr Layfield’s speech suddenly vanished from this web site shortly after Tania Brannigan (of the Guardian) told us what was going on. Luckily, though, some kind folks thought it was such an outstanding piece of work that should still be available to everyone (just go to http://www.darwinwars.com/lunatic/liars/layfield.html).

Time’s up folks. Put down your pens and now go out and vote.