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A report has appeared on Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine. The report is written by people all of whom have vested interests in spreading quackery. It shows an execrable ability to assess evidence, and it advocates degrees in antiscience It would fail any examination. Sorry, Prof Pittilo, but it’s gamma minus.[Download the report]

Alice Miles put it well in The Times, today.

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

“Regulate the practitioners – for safety, note, not for efficacy, as that is impossible to prove – and you give them official recognition. From recognition it is but a short hop to demand and then prescription: packet of Prozac, bit of yoga and a bag of dodgy herbs for you, sir.” . . .

“The Government responded on Monday – with a three-month consultation. So join in. Write to the Health Minister Ben Bradshaw at Richmond House, 79 Whitehall, SW1A 2NS. Write, on behalf of the NHS: “What I want for my 60th birthday is… the chance to provide medical, dental, and nursing care to all. And absolutely nothing else.”

Judging by Ben Bradshaw’s speech to the Prince’s Foundation, there may be a problem in conveying to him the evidence, but one can and must try.

Why is it that a health joutnalist can do so much better than a university head? Yes, the chair of the steering group is Professor R. Michael Pittilo BSc PhD CBiol FIBiol FIBMS FRSH FLS FRSA, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. Despite all those impressive-lookin initials after his name, I believe that this is a very bad report.

Here is something about Prof Pittilo from his university’s web site (the emphasis is mine).

Professor Michael Pittilo joined The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, as Principal and Vice-Chancellor on 5th September, 2005.

After postdoctoral research on arterial disease at the University of London, he was appointed to Kingston University where he became Head of Life Sciences. In 1995 he became Foundation Dean of the Faculty of Health and Social Care Sciences at Kingston University and St George’s Medical School (University of London). He was appointed Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Hertfordshire in 2001.

Professor Pittilo has held a number of additional roles, including chairing Department of Health working groups, and as a trustee for the Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Health.

Notice that Prof Pittilo is a Trustee of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, source of some of the least reliable information about alternative medicine to be found anywhere.

This steering group is, as so often, a nest of vested interests. It does not seem to have on it any regular medical or clinical scientist whatsoever. Why not? They just might produce some embarrassing facts perhaps? Like most government committees its members seem to have been chosen to produce the desired outcome.

For a start, the university run by Prof Pittilo, Robert Gordon’s University, is itself involved in a few antiscientific courses. Since his report recommends that degrees in quackery should become mandatory, I expect he’d welcome the chance to run more. Amazingly, Robert Gordon’s University runs an Introduction to Homeopathy, just about the daftest of all the common sorts of magic medicine.

Most of the the members of the steering group represent vested interests, though strangely this is not made clear in the list of members. An earlier report, in 2006, from the steering group was more open about this. Twelve of the members of the group represent Herbal Medicine, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture (four from each). Most of the rest are lay members or bureaucrats. With membership like that it is, I suppose, not surprising that the assessment of evidence is, to put it kindly, grossly distorted and woefully inadequate.

The report starts badly by failing to mention that the House of Lords report (2000), and the government’s response to it, set the following priorities. Both state clearly

“… we recommend that three important questions should be addressed in the following order . .

  • (1) does the treatment offer therapeutic benefits greater than placebo?
  • (2) is the treatment safe?
  • (3) how does it compare, in medical outcome and cost-effectiveness, with other forms of treatment?

The word ‘placebo’ does not occur a single time in the main report (and only twice in the text of the seven appendices). But they do say (page 11):

“We recommend that public funding from the NHS should be used to fund CAM therapies where there is evidence of efficacy, safety and quality assurance.”

The evidence

The problem is that the assessment of the evidence for efficacy in the report is pathetically poor. The report, sad to say, consists essentially of 161 pages of special pleading by the alternative medicine industry, served up with the usual large dose of HR gobbledygook.

There is really no excuse for this utterly incompetent assessment. There have been plenty of books this year alone that make excellent summaries of the evidence, mostly written for the lay public. They should, therefore, be understandable by any university vice-chancellor (president). The one benefit of the upsurge in public interest in magic medicine is that there are now quite a lot of good clinical trials, and when the trials are done properly, they mostly confirm what we thought before: in most cases the effects are no more than placebo.

Here is one example. Annexe1 concerns “Developing Research and Providing an Evidence Base for Acupuncture and Herbal/Traditional Medicine Treatment”. The wording of the title itself suggests, rightly, that this evidence base does not exist, in which case why on earth are we talking about them as “professions”? The discussion of the evidence in Annexe 1 is nothing if not partial. But what do you expect if you ask herbalists to assess herbal medicine? An honest assessment would put them out of business. The eternal mantra of the alternative industry appears as usual, “Absence of evidence is, of course, not evidence of absence”. True of course, but utterly irrelevant. Annexe 1 says

“Acupuncture is a complex intervention and lack of a suitable placebo control has hindered efforts to evaluate efficacy”

This is simply untrue, In recent years enormous efforts have been put into devising controls for assessment of acupuncture, but they are entirely ignored here. One thing that has been established quite clearly is that it makes no difference where you put the needles, so all the talk of Qi and meridians is obvious mumbo-jumbo.

Have the authors of Annexe 1, and Professor Pittilo, not read the relevant studies? Two books this year have dealt with the question of evidence with great care. They are both by people who have been involved personally with acupuncture research, Prof Edzard Ernst and Dr Barker Bausell. Edzard Ernst is the UK’s first Professor of Complementary Medicine. Barker Bausell was research director of an NIH-funded Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialized Research Center at the University of Maryland.

Singh and Ernst discuss thoroughly the question of controls and assess all the evidence carefully. Their conclusions include the following.

  • The traditional principles of acupuncture are deeply flawed, as there is no evidence at all to demonstrate the existence of Ch’i [Qi] or meridians.
  • By focussing on the increasing number of high-quality research papers, reliable conclusions from systematic reviews make it clear that acupuncture does not work for a whole range of conditions, except as a placebo.
  • In short, the evidence is neither consistent nor convincing. It is borderline.

Barker Bausell was himself involved in designing and analysing trialsof acupuncture. His conclusions are even less positive.

“There is no compelling, credible scientific evidence to suggest that any CAM therapy benefits any medical condition or reduces any medical symptom (pain or otherwise) better than a placebo”.

These are serious authors with direct experience in CAM research, which is more than can be said of anyone on the steering group. Why are their conclusions ignored entirely? That is sheer incompetence.

Degrees in anti-science

One conclusion of the report is that

“The threshold entry route to the register will normally be through a Bachelor degree with Honours”

This is utter nonsense. It is quite obvious surely that you can’t award honours degrees until after you have the evidence. You can read on page 55 of the report

3a: Registrant acupuncturists must:

understand the following aspects and concepts for traditional East-Asian acupuncture:

– yin/yang, /5 elements/phases, eight principles, cyclical rhythms, qi ,blood and body fluids, different levels of qi, pathogenic factors, 12 zang fu and 6 extraordinary fu, jing luo/ meridians, the major acupuncture points, East-Asian medicine disease categorisation, the three burners, the 4 stages/levels and 6 divisions

– causes of disharmony/disease causation

– the four traditional diagnostic methods: questioning, palpation, listening and observing”

This is utter baloney. Anyone who advocates giving honours degrees in such nonsense deserves to be fired for bringing his university into disrepute (and, in the process, bringing all universities and science itself into disrepute).

That includes also degrees that teach that “amethysts emit high yin energy“.

So what should be done?

If making peole do degrees in mumbo-jumbo is not the answer, what is? Clearly it would be far too draconian to try to ban quackery (and it would only increase its popularity anyway).

The answer seems to me to be quite simple. All that needs to done is to enforce existing laws. It is already illegal to sell contaminated and poisonous goods to the public. It is already illegal to make fraudulent advertisemants and to sell goods that are not as described on the label.

The only problem is that the agencies that enforce these rules are toothless and that there are a lot of loopholes and exceptions that work in favour of quackery. I have tried myself to complain about mislabelling of homeopathic pills to the Office of Fair Trading on the grounds that are labelled Arnica 30C but contain no Arnica. They solemnly bought a bottle and sent it to an analyst and of course they found no arnica, But nothing happened, because an exception to the usual law applies to homeopathic pills.

The Advertising Standards Authority is good as far as it goes. They quickly told Boots Pharmacies to withdraw advertisements that claimed CoQ10 “increased vitality”. But they can exact no penalties and they can’t deal with lies that are told to you orally, or with anything at all on the web.

The Health Professions Council (HPC) says that one of the criteria for registering new professions is aspirant groups must “Practise based on evidence of efficacy”. If that were actually applied, none of this process would occur anyway. No doubt the HPC will fail to apply its own criteria. On past form, it can be expected to adopt a “fluid concept of evidence“.,

One more thing, New European legislation was described recently in the BMJ

“Consumers in the United Kingdom are to receive stronger legal safeguards against products that claim, without any identifiable scientific evidence, to provide physical and mental health benefits such as tackling obesity or depression.”

“The scope of the legislation is deliberately wide and is the biggest shake up in consumer law for decades. It targets any unfair selling to consumers by any business.”

Politicians seem to be immune to rational argument when it comes to quackery. But a few legal actions under these laws could bring the house of cards tumbling so fast that this gamma-minus report would become rapidly irrelevant. There will be no shortage of people to bring the actions. I can’t wait.

Follow up

Dominic Lawson, 24 June 2008. An excellent column appeared today in the Independent. Dominic Lawson writes about the Pittilo report: “So now we will have degrees in quackery. What, really, is the difference between acupuncture and psychic surgery?“. The reference to that well known conjuring trick, “psychic surgery” as a “profession”, revealed here, causes Lawson to say

“It makes it clear that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. For a start, how could Philip Hunt, previously director of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, possibly have thought that “psychic healing” constituted a “profession” – let alone one which would “develop its own system of voluntary self-regulation?”

“One can see how this might fit in with the Government’s “never mind the quality, feel the width” approach to university education. One can also see how established practitioners of such therapies might see this as a future source of income – how pleasant it might be to become Visiting Professor of Vibrational Medicine at the University of Westminster.

Thus garlanded with the laurels of academic pseudo-science, the newly professionalised practitioners of “alternative medicine” can look down on such riff-raff as the “psychic surgeons”

Once again I have to ask, how is it that we have to rely on journalists to prevent vice-chancellors eroding academic standards; indeed eroding simple common sense? I guess it is just another sign of the delusional thinking engendered by the culture of managerialism that grips universities.

This was posted originally on the old IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page

UCL felled by a herbalist?

OK this isn’t really bad science, but it’s caused inconvenience to me and to readers. It still puzzles me that UCL has not got the resources to deal with a herbalist (the reason that I was given for the move). The herbalist in question, Ann Walker, got rather angry when I called her use of the term ‘blood cleanser’ as gobbledygook

On Friday 1 June, 2007, when it was announced that the IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page had been moved from the UCL server, several people sent letters to the provost. Here is one of them. I have never met Prof Shafer, but his letter, and other similar ones, lightened an otherwise bad day.

Dear Dr. Grant:I am very sorry to learn that you have requested Dr. Colquhoun to remove his “Improbable Science” web page from the computer system at University College London. It is particularly disheartening to learn that you made this request after receiving a complaint from a practitioner of nonscientific medicine.

I don’t know how many of your faculty publish in Nature (Colquhoun D. Science degrees without the science. Nature. 2007;446:373-4). However, based on my experience at Stanford, I would guess precious few. You now appear to be attempting to squelch his academic freedom, or at least disassociate UCL from his efforts to educate the public about quack science.

Perhaps you were put off by the “unprofessional appearance” of the web page. If so then you have misunderstood its purpose. The public is inundated by junk science, A large portion come from the Internet. There are almost no Internet resources where a lay reader can find a counterweight to the extensive claims of pseudoscientists. Dr. Colquhoun’s blog is a unique resource. The format may put off a scientific reader, but it is exactly the format required to get the message to the web surfer with a 10 second attention span. In my view the Improbable Science web page was among the most important public services made available by the University College London.

I don’t know the facts of your decision. Perhaps there are policies, procedures, and regulations that Dr. Colquhoun has violated in creating the Improbable Science web page. However, I do know that any request to remove the page that follows a complaint from an individual offended by the page is entirely inappropriate. Even were your request otherwise reasonable, the mere appearance of academic censorship should have been absolutely unacceptable to you. (Think of it like conflict of interest – there is a need to avoid not only true conflict of interest, but the mere appearance of
conflict of interest. Requesting removal of these pages may not represent censorship, but it certainly appears to be censorship, which is anathema to the academic credo.)

It is thus with shock, sadness, and disappointment that I have learned of this decision by the University College London. I hope that you will reconsider. The present course makes it appear that UCL has caved in to pseudoscientists and is engaged in academic censorship of possibly the most important public service offered by the UCL.


Steve Shafer

Steven L. Shafer, MD
Editor-in-Chief, Anesthesia & Analgesia
Professor, Department of Anesthesia, Stanford University
Adjunct Professor, Biopharmaceutical Sciences, UCSF
Stanford University Medical Center
Stanford, CA 94305

No doubt it is an exaggeration to say “the Improbable Science web page was among the most important public services made available by the University College London”. But thanks anyway.

After an unrepentant response, Professor Shafer replied thus.

Dear Provost Grant:I appreciate your taking the time to respond. I’m sure that as provost you live on the receiving end of a firehose of correspondence, as do I as a professor and a journal Editor-in-Chief. I’m sorry to have added to the e-mail overload. I appreciate your finding time to respond.

It would be my hope that Stanford University would shoulder the responsibility of dealing with whatever harassment would come my way by virtue of my scientific and academic pursuits. Yes, when legal action is threatened, and staff are consumed with processing paperwork, I’m sure my Dean, Provost, and President would prefer to ransfer everything to me. However, the effect would be chilling. Universities are supposed to provide a haven to insulate scientists from harassment. I’ve looked at Dr.
Colquhoun’s publications via PubMed. He is a top drawer investigator. He is also a very public advocate for critical thinking.

You note that Dr. Colquhoun “accepts that he needs to be in a position where he shoulders directly the burden of responding to Dr Lakin.” I applaud his fortitude, but note that are only 24 hours in a day. If the administrative resources of University College London are inadequate to respond to Dr. Lakin, how is Dr. Colquhoun, on his own, without the resources of UCL, expected to survive the harassment, legal hallenges, and other pressures to silence him?

As a counter example, the University of California at San Francisco stood solidly behind Stanton Glantz when the cigarette industry tried to destroy him for his efforts to expose their activities. Had he agreed to “shoulder directly the burden”, we would never have known of the extensive research conducted by the cigarette industry over two decades that identified the health risks, and guided their extensive disinformation campaign. I would hope that Stanford University would following the UCSF example, and devote the necessary resources to defend my academic freedom, rather than the UCL
example, and ask me to “shoulder the burden.”

Again, I appreciate your responding to my e-mail. I hope that my perspective is a least thought provoking on the complex mutual responsibilities between a prestigious University and an equally prominent faculty member with outspoken views.

Thank you for your consideration,


Steve Shafer

The Goldacre effect

Saturday 9 June 2007. The wires (and my hit counter) are melting after Ben Goldacre’s comments on the move of this web site from UCL’s servers. That’s understandable: his excellent badscience.net site gets 12,000 hits a day and 95,000 unique visitors per month.

Like all the other comments, his badscience column in today’s Guardian, was not solicited by me, but it’s wonderful to know that somebody cares. His badscience.net version (“The Mighty David Colquhoun” !) was even more over-the-top. I can’t say I’m feeling very “mighty” at the moment.

Goldacre’s piece starts “I’ve always said you’d get a lot more kids interested in science if you told them it involves fighting – which of course it does.” A correspondent today enlarged on the theme “you have got me thinking and yes my kids would be far more interested in science if a playstation game was created whereby Prof. Colquhoun was zapping disgruntled alternative therapists”. The mind boggles. Making money out of selling mindless violence (in the news again today) must be even worse than making money out of selling useless pills. A university should be one of the few places left where one cannot be accused of knowing the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
Contrary to what some people seem to think, I don’t enjoy rows. They keep me awake at night. But some things are just too important to duck out of them.

Read the provost’s reply.

Goldacre has posted the complete text of the provost’s reply to one of the many people who have written to him. You should read the other side of the story too (click here and search for “letter from provost”). Grant has a real problem. He shouldn’t have to spend time fending off herbalists. Yet if they aren’t fended off, more attacks will occur. Who’d be a provost? That is all sorted out now.