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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science in an Age of Endarkenment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is reposted from the original IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page

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

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

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

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

Fisher and Queen
Fisher and Queen,
Observer 8 April 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The backlash

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“The Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital needs your support

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

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

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

There’s no remedy for the Prince of Quacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This item was transferred from the old IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page.

Trust Boots

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

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

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

Dear David

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

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

Dear David

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

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

Corporate Social Responsibility

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


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

Trust Boots to provide straight answers.

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

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

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

Dangerous advice from Boots: a small sting.

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

Miseducation by Boots the chemists

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

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

Then follows a totally misleading slide about enzymes.

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

boots enzyme

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

vital spirits!

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

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

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


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

Boots Alternatives also sells a “snoring remedy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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