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Geoffrey Copland

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

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



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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

According to the handbook

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

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

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

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

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

Here are just 5 days from the timetable.

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



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

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


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


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

.

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


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


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

Learning Outcomes

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

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



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


You just couldn’t make it up.


Westminster University is not all like this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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