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

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Kent Woods

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The bulletin of the British Pharmacological Society, Pharmacology Matters, declined to publish the following article. Sadly the Society seems to be more interested in "reputation management" than in truth. Luckily, it is not easy to suppress criticism these days. A version of the article has appeared in Research Fortnight where it will be seen by far more people than it would have been in Pharmacology Matters. This is the original version that I submitted to them. They would not allow me to quote Lewis’s comment (apropos of the sale of homeopathic meningitis vaccine)

“Children will be harmed by this inaction. Children will die. And the fault must lie with Professor Sir Kent Woods, chairman of the regulator [MHRA].”

If a child were to die of whooping cough or meningitis as a result of buying the fraudulent "vaccines", that would be true. It’s a sad reflection on the state of defamation law that journals are not willing to say so. Blogs are fast becoming the best source of reliable information.

BPS logo

Stop press. The BPS has now signed up to Alltrials (too late for the printed version)

Pharmacology society does little to defend its subject

David Colquhoun

Over the past few years a courageous group of writers, researchers and activists has worked to expose the truth about the medicines we are sold, be they conventional or alternative.

Thanks, above all, to Ben Goldacre (1), more people than ever know that the big pharma companies have been concealing evidence of the harm that their products do, or the good they fail to do. Thanks to a small army of bloggers the preposterous claims made by peddlers of homeopathic remedies and other quackery are less likely to go unchallenged.

And yet, the organization charged with safeguarding the good name of pharmacology in this country, the British Pharmacological Society (BPS), has remained silent throughout.

The pharmaceutical industry

The BPS, rather than helping, became actively complicit when, along with much of the medical establishment, it signed an agreement with the ABPI (2). This document, developed under the aegis of the Ethical Standards in Health & Life Sciences Group (ESHLSG), contained two objectionable clauses:

“Industry plays a valid and important role in the provision of medical education”


“Medical representatives can be a useful resource for healthcare professionals”

Given that clinical “education” has long been part of Pharma’s marketing strategy, this seems disgraceful.  And most of the doctors I know and respect refuse to see reps altogether.  It is hopelessly optimistic to think that can an industry person can teach clinical pharmacology without bias in favour of his own company’s products. The BPS has many members who teach pharmacology.  Can they really cope so badly that we need to have industry to educate clinicians?   

It’s fine, and sometimes desirable, for academics and industry to work together on drug development.  But only as long as the industry partner has no say in how, or whether, the results are published.  Without that proviso we can expect more corruption of the sort that’s been seen at the University of Sheffield (3).

This is very sad, because I have great reason to like the drug industry.  I’ve benefitted from several of their products myself.  But the industry is in trouble.  Many of its products provide only marginal benefits.  Furthermore, some of the things that seemed to be useful, like SSRI antidepressants, have turned out to be next to useless once hidden trials were revealed (4).  The MHRA’s learning module on SSRIs doesn’t seem to have caught up with this yet.

Sadly, the reaction of industry has been to resort to dishonesty, to hide unfavourable data and to increase yet more what it spends on marketing.  Between 2009 and 2012, fines of at least 10 billion dollars (5) have been imposed on some of the most eminent companies.  They include Lilly, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Merck, Abbott and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). The biggest fine of all ($3 bn, in July 2012) went to a British company, GSK.  This succession of large fines seems to be regarded by the companies as mere marketing expenses. 

All these fines were levied in the USA.  Where, one might ask, are the regulators in the UK?  Why have there been no fines here? Why, indeed, are some of the senior managers of these companies not in jail?  Why has the BPS remained silent about the prostitution of its subject?  And why have the MHRA done so little to stop it?

I suggest that you support the petition for release of the results of all trials (6). It’s been supported by many individuals and a lot of organisations, including the BMJ and the Royal Statistical Society.  But, disgracefully, not by the BPS.


At least in the case of the pharmaceutical industry some of its products work.  But pharmacologists should also be concerned about the quackery industry, worth about 60 billion dollars per year (as opposed to $600 bn for the pharmaceutical industry).  Virtually none of their products work (7). Why has the BPS said so little about it?  It has, along with most of the medical and university establishment, shrugged its shoulders about the fact that students at Westminster University have been shown dowsing with a pendulum as a method for selection of herbal “remedies”, as part of a Bachelor or “Science” degree.  It is an area in which every regulatory agency has failed to ensure even minimal levels of honesty (8).  And the BPS has just shrugged.

The MHRA has been worse than useless in this area: it has been actively unhelpful (9).  The senior staff of the MHRA are members of the BPS which has, as usual, said next to nothing.  The MHRA’s herbal medicine committee has allowed misleading labels that give indications to be put on herbal potions, and these labels fail to make it clear that no evidence whatsoever of efficacy is required to get the MHRA kitemark.  The wording was suggested (not required) by European law, but that law does not prevent the MHRA from saying, as it should, “there is no reason to think that this product is effective for any of the indications on the label” (10).  Arguably, the MHRA is in breach of Consumer Protection law (11, 12).

At the time, the BPS did make some objection to the labelling (13), but only under great pressure from me (indeed I wrote it) .  That has not been followed up, and I can no longer find it on the BPS web site.  Indeed Philip Routledge, one of the people who is responsible for the misinformation in his capacity as chair of the MHRA Herbal Medicines Advisory Committee, is, at present the president of the BPS.

The MHRA has also been responsible for misleading labelling of the products of the most obviously fraudulent products of the lot: homeopathic pills, the medicines that contain no medicine.  Most of the pills (anything beyond 12x dilution) contain not a single molecule of the substance on the label.  Yet they have been given a get-out clause that enables them to evade prosecution by Trading Standards (an organisation that consistently fails to apply consumer protection laws.  Rose et al (2011) (12) concluded

"EU directive 200s5/29/EC is largely ineffective in preventing misleading health claims for consumer products in the UK".  

It is simply bizarre that the people at the MHRA, many of who are BPS members, have sat round a table and approved the following label. This example is for Arnica 30C pills, which, of course, contain no trace of arnica (14, 8). The outcome of their deliberations is simply surreal (see the actual labels here).

"Used within the homeopathic tradition for the symptomatic relief of sprains, muscular ache; and bruising or swelling after contusions."

This will deceive the naïve into thinking that it will have some effect on sprains etc. It won’t. And the MHRA have declined to test how the label is perceived by the public, though it took some effort to get them to admit it.

"If you are allergic to any of the ingredients in this medicine, consult your doctor before taking this medicine."

The ingredients aren’t stated apart from “contains lactose and sucrose”. That’s all they contain. No arnica.

"If pregnant or breastfeeding consult your doctor before use."

Why should a few mg of lactose and sucrose have the slightest effect on a pregnant or breast-feeding mother. This is pure make-believe

"If you forget to take this product, continue to take your usual dose at the usual time, it does not matter if you have missed a dose. Do not take a double dose to make up for a missed dose."

This statement is even more bizarre. There is nothing in the pills.

"If you take too much of this product (overdose) speak to a doctor or pharmacist and take this label with you."

And this is the ultimate in nonsense. The 1023 campaign regularly swallows whole bottles, and of course nothing happens. You can’t overdose on nothing. The fact that the MHRA can insist on this label, with a straight face, is the ultimate betrayal of science and reason.

"When asked to comment, as part of the consultation on these rules, this was the response from the BPS."

no comment

This is extracted from page 16 of the “selected response” provided by the MHRA under a Freedom of Information Act request [download all]

Things have changed little since A.J. Clark wrote his book on Patent Medicines in 1938 (15).  And the BPS has done next to nothing to help. Neither has the MHRA. In fact both have colluded in the failures of both honesty and reason. 

A BBC South West program recently revealed that a pharmacist was selling “homeopathic vaccines” for whooping cough and meningitis (16).  The MHRA have know about his homicidal practice for years, but have done nothing.  The General Pharmaceutical Council let him off with a rap on the knuckles.  It has been left to bloggers and TV reporters to focus attention on these scoundrels. The well-respected blogger, Andy Lewis, wrote (17)

“Children will be harmed by this inaction. Children will die. And the fault must lie with Professor Sir Kent Woods, chairman of the regulator [MHRA].”

And the full clinical data for Tamiflu are still being concealed by Roche (18).

I think that is rather shameful.

I have been a member of the BPS for all my working life. I was happy when they made me an honorary fellow. But I now find myself asking if I can remain a member of an organisation that has done so little to defend honest scientific behaviour.


(1) Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma. Buy it now. Then do something. http://www.dcscience.net/?p=5538

(2)  ABPI 2012 Guidance on collaboration between healthcare professionals and the pharmaceutical industry.   http://www.abpi.org.uk/our-work/library/guidelines/Pages/collaboration-guidance.aspx

(3) Colquhoun, D. (2007)  The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education: part 2 http://www.dcscience.net/?p=193

(4) Kirsch,I., B.J.Deacon, T.B.Huedo-Medina, A.Scoboria, T.J.Moore, and B.T.Johnson. 2008. Initial severity and antidepressant benefits: a meta-analysis of data submitted to the Food and Drug Administration. PLoS. Med. 5:e45.  http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050045

(5) Groeger, L. (2012) Big Pharma’s Big Fines http://www.propublica.org/special/big-pharmas-big-fines

(6) All trials registered. All results reported, http://www.alltrials.net/supporters/

(7) Singh,S. and E.Ernst. 2009. Trick or Treatment. Corgi. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trick_or_Treatment

(8) Colquhoun, D. (2012) Regulation of alternative medicine: why it doesn’t work, and never can. http://www.dcscience.net/?p=5562

(9)  Colquhoun, D, (2006) The MHRA breaks its founding principle: it is an intellectual disgrace.  http://www.dcscience.net/?p=32

(10)  Colquhoun, D. (2011). Why does the MHRA refuse to label herbal products honestly? Kent Woods and Richard Woodfield tell me. http://www.dcscience.net/?p=4269

(11) Colquhoun, D. (2009) Most alternative medicine is illegal. http://www.dcscience.net/?p=30

(12) Rose,L.B., P.Posadzki, and E.Ernst. 2012. Spurious claims for health-care products: an experimental approach to evaluating current UK legislation and its implementation. Med. Leg. J. 80:13-18. http://www.dcscience.net/Rose-medico-legal-2012.pdf

(13) Colquhoun, D. (2006) Learned Societies speak out against CAM, and the MHRA. http://www.dcscience.net/?p=30

(14) MHRA Arnicare Arnica 30c pillules NR 01175/0181 http://www.mhra.gov.uk/home/groups/par/documents/websiteresources/con049307.pdf

(15)  Colquhoun, D. (2008) Patent medicines in 1938 and now: A.J.Clark’s book. http://www.dcscience.net/?p=257

(16) BBC South West on the evils of homeopathic "vaccines"  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZf9mUzI4RI

(17) Why Does the MHRA Not Close Down these Homeopaths? The regulators have known of serious problems for years, Nothing is done. http://www.quackometer.net/blog/2013/01/why-does-the-mhra-not-close-down-these-homeopaths.html

(18)  Payne, D. (2012). Tamiflu: the battle for secret drug data http://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e7303


25 February 2013 This post has some follow-up even before it appeared on Research Research. I noticed on the BPS web site a press release “BPS announces intention to sign All Trials Petition“. It was dated 20th February, but I didn’t notice it until after the printed edition went to press. It was expressed as a future intention to sign, though in fact they signed almost straight away (though over 100 organisations had already done so). That’s good. I suspect that when my old friend, Humphrey Rang, who is president elect of the BPS, takes charge, the Society may start to take its responsibilities to the public more seriously than it has in the past.

The MHRA, on the other hand, is still evading its self-declared job of ensuring the public that drugs work.


13 March 2013. A reply to this piece appeared in red on Research Research, The British Pharmacological Society champions its science. It was written by Humphrey Rang who, as president elect of the BPS naturally felt obliged to defend its record. He defends the BPS membership of ESHLSG, but fails to mention that first the Lancet and then the BMA withdrew their support. Nor does he mention that medical students and doctors launched a campaign, BadGuidelines.org, against the agreement. The Medical Schools Council, which also signed the agreement, said "the scrutiny of the guidance has ‘identified deficiencies in the current statement". Didn’t they read it before signing? Rang says that the BPS is also working to improve the joint statement with the ABPI. That’s good, but one must wonder why the BPS signed up to the original form.

On the points about quackery, Rang sites the BPS statement on homeopathy (now vanished) but fails to mention that that statement was written by me in an attempt to wake the BPS from it’s slumbers on the matter of medicines that don’t work. But he doesn’t mention at all the matter of mislabelling of both homeopathic and herbal preparations.

Of course, the BPS does many good things. But like most organisations, it is too reluctant to speak out when it sees wrongdoing, and too reluctant to say "sorry we made a cock-up that time".

Jump to follow-up

The absurdness of allowing statutory regulation of herbal medicines, both Western and Chinese has already been pointed out here, in Government lends credibility to quacks and charlatans, and by Andrew Lewis in  “How to Spot Bad Regulation of Alternative Medicine

The harm done by the government’s endorsement of herbal products could be ameliorated if they were labelled honestly. The labelling is a matter for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA), and for a while I have been writing to the head of the MRH, Kent Woods, and to Richard Woodfield (head of MHRA herbal medicine policy), in an attempt to work out their reasons for not telling the consumer the simple truth.

A similar (but even worse) problem arises in the labels that have been allowed by the MHRA for homeopathic pills. That has been discussed in Pseudo-regulation: another chance to save the MHRA from looking idiotic . The matter is not yet decided, but on past performance, I’m pessimistic about whether the MHRA will listen to scientists.

The Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) scheme allows herbal medicines that are registered on this scheme to be sold if they are safe, and have been in use for 30 years. There is need to supply any information whatsoever about whether they work or not. That itself is very odd, given that the MHRA’s strap line says

"We enhance and safeguard the health of the public by ensuring that medicines and medical devices work and are acceptably safe."

In the case of herbals, the bit about ensuring that medicines work has been brushed under the carpet.

A typical dishonest label

Take "Echina Cold Relief". The Traditional Herbal Regulation document specifies the label.

Note, first of all, the therapeutic claim in the brand name itself. This is blatant practice for most herbals and appears to be unregulated. The label says

echina label

It is my contention that most people would interpret this label as a claim that the tablets would have a beneficial effect on the symptoms of "common cold and influenza type infections". The impression is reinforced by the government stamp of approval on the package.

The MHRA tell me that no tests have been done to discover how shoppers interpret these words. They should have been done.


kite mark

Why is there nothing on the label that tells the plain, unvarnished truth? Perhaps something like this

 "There is no evidence that this product works for the indications mentioned". 


"Clinical trials have shown this product to be ineffective for xxx "

or, at a minimum

"The MHRA kite mark does not imply that this product is effective"

Some Evidence

Echinacea is a generous choice of example because, unlike most herbs, there is a bit of evidence about its effectiveness. A Cochrane review says

Sixteen trials including a total of 22 comparisons of Echinacea preparations and a control group (19 placebo, 2 no treatment, 1 another herbal preparation) met the inclusion criteria. All trials except one were double-blinded. The majority had reasonable to good methodological quality. Three comparisons investigated prevention; 19 comparisons investigated treatment of colds. A variety of different Echinacea preparations were used. None of the prevention trials showed an effect over placebo. Comparing an Echinacea preparation with placebo as treatment, a significant effect was reported in nine comparisons, a trend in one, and no difference in six. Evidence from more than one trial was available only for preparations based on the aerial parts of Echinacea purpurea (E. purpurea). 

“It seems that some preparations based on the herb of Echinacea purpurea might be effective for this purpose in adults, while there is no clear evidence that other preparations are effective or that children benefit. Side effects were infrequent but rashes were reported in one trial in children.”

The US agency NCCAM has spent over a billion dollars on testing various sorts of alternative treatment, and has failed to find a single useful treatment, They say

"Two NCCAM-funded studies did not find a benefit from echinacea, either as Echinacea purpurea fresh-pressed juice for treating colds in children, or as an unrefined mixture of Echinacea angustifolia root and Echinacea purpurea root and herb in adults."

So the evidence is a mess. There is no evidence that Echinacea can prevent colds, and, at the very best, it might shorten slightly the time for which cold symptoms last. The most likely interpretation of the mixture of contradictory results, many negative trials with a handful of small positive effects, is that for practical purposes, echinacea is useless. There is NO treatment known that affects the duration of a cold to any useful extent.

I wrote to Kent Woods in February 2011


Sorry to bother you again, but recent events have caused me to think about a rather fundamental question, and I have never seen it discussed in any official documents.  I suspect it needs to be answered at the highest level.

Question,  Do you make any distinction between (a) herbs that have unknown efficacy (most of them). and (b) herbs that have been shown in good trials to have no useful effect (like echinacea)?

It is one thing to say “traditionally used for …” when you don’t know whether it is true or not.

It is quite another thing to say “traditionally used for. . . ” when you know it is untrue

No such distinction seems to be made at the moment.

Is that because the distinction has never been considered by the MHRA?

Or is it because it has been considered, but dismissed as unimportant?

Or is it considered important but you are prevented from doing anything about it (and, if this is the case, what prevents you?)

Best wishes


His reply was, essentially, that herbs come in so many different forms that they can’t all be tested so it is never possible to say that a herb “does not work to any useful extent”

. . .

Based on our experience of regulating herbal medicines, we think it unlikely for the foreseeable future that there would be available for particular herbs a comprehensive body of published studies that meet medicines regulatory standards and cover systematically the numerous possible permutations as to type of extract, plant species and part of plant. Consequently, it is unlikely that evidence would be available for MHRA to know that a traditional herbal product did not have efficacy.

In summary, you suggest an interesting scenario the handling of which would be worthy of further consideration in the event of major advances in the range and quality of clinical trials of herbal medicines – but for the foreseeable future we would see the dilemma as largely a theoretical one.


Kent Woods

This strikes me as a cop-out. It amounts to saying that it’s impossible ever to say that a treatment us useless. If NICE took the same view, no medicine would ever be ruled out as having no useful effect.

Then I asked about a press release from the MHRA, dated 18 March 2011.

I really must object to the wording of today’s press release

It says (my emphasis)

"The growth of the THR scheme means that consumers will have access to a wide choice of over-the-counter herbal medicines made to assured standards.

"The current signs are that the market will be lively and competitive. The key difference for consumers is that in future they will be in the driving seat and able to make an informed choice when they wish to use these medicines.

Since the main sort of information that people want about a medicine is whether it works, and you have explicitly ruled out any information about that, the description "informed choice" seems to me to be exaggerated to the point of dishonesty.

This raises another question.  Many people think that the wording that you approve is deceptive.  can you tell me whether you have yet done tests to discover whether or not the average consumer interprets your wording as suggesting effectiveness?  This was raised (apropos oh homeopathics) with Kent Woods at the SciTech enquiry and they were assured such tests had been done.  Still nobody has seen the result of such tests.  Please will you let me know if they have been done, and, if they have, what the results were?  if they have not been done, why not?

Best regards
David Colquhoun

The legal requirement

In response to my letter, Richard Woodfield said

"Specifically on the question of wording affecting efficacy, we have to comply with the requirements of the herbals Directive which specifies the required product information about the traditional basis of the registration. We have not user tested the required statement in the Directive.

The European Herbals directive 2004/24/EC [download it] does make it mandatory to include the words used by the MHRA

“In addition to the requirements of Articles 86 to 99, any advertisement for a medicinal product registered under this chapter shall contain the following statement: Traditional herbal medicinal product for use in specified indication( s) exclusively based upon long-standing use.”  

Telling the truth on the label

I asked the MHRA whether there was any legal reason why they could not add the following notice to the wording required by the European Directive. I had to ask the question several times before I got a straight answer, but the answer eventually turned out to be that there is no legal reason that bars honest labels. Eventually Richard Woodfield told me there was no legal reason.

Dear Prof Colquhoun

There is no specific bar in the European Directive that would definitely preclude requiring additional statements that were consistent with the Directive. Obviously one would have to look at the specifics of what was proposed.

The main bar is that of Government policy.  Under the previous Administration when the scheme was set up there was a strong policy of avoiding gold plating of European legislation – and this would clearly be a case of gold plating.  Under the new Government that policy of avoiding gold plating has been strengthened further.  And added to that there is now a presumption that wherever possible Directives should be transposed by “copy out” of the text rather than elaborating upon the requirements of the Directive.

The onus would be on those seeking gold plating to demonstrate that it was necessary.  In the present absence of evidence of significant detriment under the THR scheme to consumers who for example choose to take a THR to help with a condition such as mild indigestion we have no present plans to propose the introduction of a form of retrospective gold plating of this legislation.

As recognised in your last email, I think that is about as far as we can usefully comment on the issue for the time being.


Richard Woodfield

So, at last we have the answer. And pretty pathetic it is. “Gold-plating” is a term that is used by the anti-European lobby to describe the process of not simply implementing European law but making it more strict that is essential. In this case, I would claim that making the label honest was the opposite of gold-plating, The European law is obviously designed to encourage the herbal industry by disguising the lack of evidence for the herbs. The MHRA should correct that deficiency but has declined to do so.


The herbal medicine business, especially the Chinese Traditional medicine, is riddled with impure, contaminated and sometimes lethally toxic rubbish. Of course it is right that the public should be protected from this. Probably it is a job that should be done by Trading Standards officers, but sadly they have shown themselves time and time again to be incompetent and unwilling to enforce the law when it comes to false health claims. The MHRA make a reasonably good job on this front, but that is no reason for them to endorse misleading labels. Statutory regulation by the HPC will do nothing to help: on the contrary it will endorse courses that teach dangerous nonsense.

The Herbal Medicines Advisory Committee

The MHRA’s Herbal Medicines Advisory Committee should have resisted this misleading labelling, but they do not seem to have not done so (it’s hard to tell because the published minutes are totally free of any useful information). The chairman of that committee is Professor Philip A Routledge OBE MB BS MD FRCP FRCPE. If I had been in his position, I would have resigned. I believe that he has let down honest science, and potentially endangered patients by not insisting on honest labels. I do hope that this was not a result of pressure from the Prince of Wales. We know he has lobbied Kent Woods and Philip Routledge. Incidentally, Routledge is president elect of the British Pharmacological Society. Quackery has crept in even there.

What can be done

There us no reason why, even now, the MHRA could not change the labels to something honest. I expect the government is pressing them to support the herbal industry, and big business usually wins over regulators (as with banks).

Freedom of choice by consumers was mentioned several times by the MHRA. That’s fine. Nobody wants to ban echinacea. The whole point of labels is to ensure that it is informed choice. Labels that mislead do not help anyone. They hurt the consumer and they are disastrous for the reputation for integrity of the MHRA.

We should keep up the pressure on the MHRA. Here are a couple of my recent efforts, on BBC Breakfast TV.

The second interview was joint with Dick Middleton. It should have been made clear that Middleton is a pharmacist who is technical director of Schwabe Pharma, a company that sells expensive herbal pills, so has a vested financial interest in disguising the lack of evidence for efficacy,


1 May 2011. The new herbal regulations have come into effect. Radio 5 put me up against the herbal industry representative, Michael McIntyre (chair of the European Herbal & Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association). I was pleased to get the chance to debate directly with him, because he has been misrpresenting the evidence for years. See, for example, Some truly appalling reporting of science by the BBC. and Government lends credibility to quacks and charlatans. I was able, at last, to ask him directly, which herb had the best evidence for its efficacy. He repeatedly refused to answer: “I’m not going to get into detail”. Eventually he resorted to the argument that herbalists treat people not diseases. I pointed out that the MHRA-approved labels list all sorts of diseases. No response. He then misquotes Sackett, who did NOT say that experience was as good as RCTs.

McIntyre goes on to misrepresent the BMJ Clinical Evidence paper which, he says, shows that 46% of all treatments are not proven to be effective. It is hard to be believe that McIntyre is really unaware that a large proportion of those that were not shown to be effective are CAM treatments, herbal medicine and the like. Professor John Garrow has pointed this out (see, also Healthwatch). Either he doesn’t read the literature or he deliberately misrepresents it.

Then a caller came in to swear that Chinese Medicine had cured his prostate problem and his wife’s hair. Of course he hadn’t any idea of how is prostate would have progressed if he hadn’t taken the Chinese medicine. Luckily for him, he didn’t have prostate cancer (the people who take Chinese medicine for cancer are probably dead so they can’t appear on the radio). These people are difficult to deal with without appearing rude, by saying they are gullible and deceived. I tried. Interestingly McIntyre did not leap to the defence of Chinese herbs.

Listen to Radio 5 Live

Jump to follow-up

The Yuletide edition of the BMJ carries a lovely article by Jeffrey Aronson, Patent medicines and secret remedies. (BMJ 2009;339:b5415).

I was delighted to be asked to write an editorial about it, In fact it proved quite hard work, because the BMJ thought it improper to be too rude about the royal family, or about the possibility of Knight Starvation among senior medics. The compromise version that appeared in the BMJ is on line (full text link).

The changes were sufficient that it seems worth posting the original version (with links embedded for convenience).

The cuts are a bit ironic, since the whole point of the article is to point out the stifling political correctness that has gripped the BMA, the royal colleges, and the Department of Health when it comes to dealing with evidence-free medicine. It has become commonplace for people to worry about the future of the print media, The fact of the matter is you can often find a quicker. smarter amd blunter response to the news on blogs than you can find in the dead tree media. I doubt that the BMJ is in any danger of course. It has a good reputation for its attitude to improper drug company influence (a perpetual problem for clinical journals) as well as for clinical and science articles.  It’s great to see its editor, Fiona Godlee, supporting the national campaign for reform of the libel laws (please sign it yourself). 

The fact remains that when it comes to the particular problem of magic medicine, the action has not come from the BMA, the royal colleges, and certainly not from the Department of Health, It has come from what Goldacre called the “intrepid, ragged band of bloggers”. They are the ones who’ve done the investigative journalism, sent complaints and called baloney wherever they saw it. This article was meant to celebrate their collective efforts and to celebrate the fact that those efforts are beginning to percolate upwards to influence the powers that be.

It seems invidious to pick on one example, but if you want an example of beautiful and trenchant writing on one of the topics dealt with here, you’d be better off reading Andrew Lewis’s piece "Meddling Princes, Medical Regulation and Licenses to Kill” than anything in a print journal.

I was a bit disappointed by removal of the comment about the Prince of Wales.  In fact I’m not particularly republican compared with many of my friends.  The royal family is clearly good for the tourist industry and that’s important.  Since Mrs Thatcher (and her successors) destroyed large swathes of manufacturing and put trust in the vapourware produced by dishonest and/or incompetent bankers, it isn’t obvious how the UK can stay afloat.  If tourists will pay to see people driving in golden coaches, that’s fine.  We need the money.  What is absolutely NOT acceptable is for royals to interfere in the democratic political process.  That is what the Prince of Wales does incessantly.  No doubt he is well-meaning, but that is not sufficient.  If I wanted to know the winner of the 2.30 at Newmarket, it might make sense to ask a royal.  In medicine it makes no sense at all.  But the quality of the advice is irrelevant anyway.  The royal web site itself says “As a constitutional monarch, the Sovereign must remain politically neutral.”. Why does she not apply that rule to her son? Time to put him over your knee Ma’am?

Two of the major bits that were cut out are shown in bold, The many other changes are small.

BMJ editorial December 2009

Secret remedies: 100 years on

Time to look again at the efficacy of remedies

Jeffrey Aronson in his article [1] gives a fascinating insight into how the BMA, BMJ and politicians tried, a century ago, to put an end to the marketing of secret remedies.  They didn’t have much success. 

The problems had not improved 40 years later when A.J. Clark published his book on patent medicines [2]. It is astounding to see how little has changed since then.  He wrote, for example, “On the other hand the quack medicine vendor can pursue his advertising campaigns in the happy assurance that, whatever lies he tells, he need fear nothing from the interference of British law. The law does much to protect the quack medicine vendor because the laws of slander and libel are so severe.”>  Clark himself was sued for libel after he’d written in a pamphlet “ ‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous”. Although he initially tried to fight the case, impending destitution eventually forced him to apologise [3].  If that happened today, the accusation would have been repeated on hundreds of web sites round the world within 24 hours, and the quack would, with luck, lose [4].

As early as 1927, Clark had written “Today some travesty of physical science appears to be the most popular form of incantation” [5].  That is even more true today.  Homeopaths regularly talk utter nonsense about quantum theory [6] and ‘nutritional therapists’ claim to cure AIDS with vitamin pills or even with downloaded music files.  Some of their writing is plain delusional, but much of it is a parody of scientific writing. The style, which Goldacre [7] calls ‘sciencey’, often looks quite plausible until you start to check the references.

A 100 years on from the BMA’s efforts, we need once again to look at the efficacy of remedies.  Indeed the effort is already well under way, but this time it takes a rather different form.  The initiative has come largely from an “intrepid, ragged band of bloggers” and some good journalists, helped by many scientific societies, but substantially hindered by the BMA, the Royal Colleges, the Department of Health and a few vice-chancellors.  Even NICE and the MHRA have not helped much.  The response of the royal colleges to the resurgence in magic medicine that started in the 1970s seems to have been a sort of embarrassment.  They pushed the questions under the carpet by setting up committees (often populated with known sympathizers) so as to avoid having to say ‘baloney’.  The Department of Health, equally embarrassed, tends to refer the questions to that well-known medical authority, the Prince of Wales (it is his Foundation for Integrated Health that was charged with drafting National Occupational Standards in make-believe subjects like naturopathy [8].

Two recent examples suffice to illustrate the problems.

The first example is the argument about the desirability of statutory regulation of acupuncture, herbal and traditional Chinese medicine (the Pittilo recommendations) [9].

Let’s start with a definition, taken from ‘A patients’ guide to magic medicine’ [10]. “Herbal medicine: giving patients an unknown dose of an ill-defined drug, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety”.

It seems to me to be self-evident that you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether what you are trying to regulate is nonsense, though this idea does not seem to have penetrated the thinking of the Department of Health or the authors of the Pittilo report.  The consultation on statutory regulation has had many submissions [11] that point out the danger to patients of appearing to give official endorsement of treatments that don’t work.  The good news is that there seems to have been a major change of heart at the Royal College of Physicians.  Their submission points out with admirable clarity that the statutory regulation of things that don’t work is a danger to patients (though they still have a blank spot about the evidence for acupuncture, partly as a result of the recent uncharacteristically bad assessment of the evidence by NICE [12]).  Things are looking up.  Nevertheless, after the public consultation on the report ended on November 16th, the Prince of Wales abused his position to make a well-publicised intervention on behalf of herbalists [13]Sometimes I think his mother should give him a firm lesson in the meaning of the term ‘constitutional monarchy’, before he destroys it.

The other example concerns the recent ‘evidence check: homeopathy’ conducted by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee (SCITECH). First the definition [10]: “Homeopathy: giving patients medicines that contain no medicine whatsoever”.  When homeopathy was dreamt up, at the end of the 18th century, regular physicians were lethal blood-letters, and it’s quite likely that giving nothing saved people from them.  By the mid-19th century, discoveries about the real causes of disease had started, but homeopaths remain to this day stuck in their 18th century time warp. 

In 1842 Oliver Wendell Holmes said all that needed to be said about medicine-free medicine [14].  It is nothing short of surreal that the UK parliament is still discussing it in 2009.  Nevertheless it is worth watching the SCITECH proceedings [15].  The first two sessions are fun, if only for the statement by the Professional Standards Director of Boots that they sell homeopathic pills while being quite aware that they don’t work.  I thought that was rather admirable honesty.  Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital, went through his familiar cherry-picking of evidence, but at least repeated his condemnation of the sale of sugar pills for the prevention of malaria. 

But for pure comedy gold, there is nothing to beat the final session.  The health minister, Michael O’Brien, was eventually cajoled into admitting that there was no good evidence that homeopathy worked but defended the idea that the taxpayer should pay for it anyway.  It was much harder to understand the position of the chief scientific advisor in the Department of Health, David Harper.  He was evasive and ill-informed.  Eventually the chairman, Phil Willis, said “No, that is not what I am asking you. You are the Department’s Chief Scientist. Can you give me one specific reference which supports the use of homeopathy in terms of Government policy on health?”.  But answer came there none (well, there were words, but they made no sense). 

Then at the end of the session Harper said “homeopathic practitioners would argue that the way randomised clinical trials are set up they do not lend themselves necessarily to the evaluation and demonstration of efficacy of homeopathic remedies, so to go down the track of having more randomised clinical trials, for the time being at least, does not seem to be a sensible way forward.”  Earlier, Kent Woods (CEO of the MHRA) had said “the underlying theory does not really give rise to many testable hypotheses”.  These two eminent people seemed to have been fooled by the limp excuses offered by homeopaths.  The hypotheses are testable and homeopathy, because it involves pills, is particularly well suited to being tested by proper RCTs (they have been, and when done properly, they fail).  If you want to know how to do it, all you have to do is read Goldacre in the Guardian [16].

It really isn’t vert complicated.   “Imagine going to an NHS hospital for treatment and being sent away with nothing but a bottle of water and some vague promises.”  “And no, it’s not a fruitcake fantasy. This is homeopathy and the NHS currently spends around £10million on it.”

That was written by health journalist Jane Symons, in The Sun [17].  A Murdoch tabloid has produced a better account of homeopathy than anything that could be managed by the chief scientific advisor to the Department of Health.  And it isn’t often that one can say that.

These examples serve to show that the medical establishment is slowly being dragged, from the bottom up, into realising that matters of truth and falsehood are more important than their knighthoods.  It is all very heartening, both for medicine and for democracy itself.

David Colquhoun.

Declaration of interests. I was A.J. Clark chair of pharmacology at UCL, 1985 – 2004.

1.  Aronson, JK BMJ 2009;339:b5415

2.  Clark, A,J, (1938) Patent Medicines FACT series 14, London.  See also Patent medicines in 1938 and now  http://www.dcscience.net/?p=257
(A.J. Clark FRS was professor of Pharmacology at UCL from 1919 to 1926, and subsequently in Edinburgh).

3.  David Clark “Alfred Joseph Clark, A Memoir” (C. & J. Clark Ltd 1985 ISBN 0-9510401-0-3)

4.  Lewis, A. (2007) The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing

5.  A.J. Clark (1927) The historical aspect of quackery, BMJ October 1st 1927

6.  Chrastina, D  (2007) Quantum theory isn’t that weak,  (response to Lionel Milgrom).

7  Goldacre, B. (2008) Bad Science. HarperCollins

8. Skills for Health web site
   The ‘competences’ have been revised since the account at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=215#sfh, but are still preposterous make believe.

9. A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor

10. A Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine,  and also in the Financial Times.

11.  An excellent submission to the consultation on statutory regulation of alternative medicine (Pittilo report)

12.  NICE fiasco, part 2. Rawlins should withdraw guidance and start again

13. BBC news 1 December 2009 Prince Charles: ‘Herbal medicine must be regulated’.

14.  Oliver Wendell Holmes (1842) Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions.

15.  House of Commons Science and technology committee. Evidence check: homeopathy. Videos and transcripts available at  http://www.viewista.com/s/fywlp2/ez/1

16.  Goldacre, B.  A Kind of Magic  Guardian  16 November 2007.

17.   Homeopathy is resources drain says
Jane Symons.  The Sun 2 December 2009. 


There is a good account of the third SCITECH session by clinical science consultant, Majikthyse, at The Three Amigos.

16 December 2009.. Recorded an interview for BBC Radio 5 Live. It was supposed to go out early on 17th.

17 December 2009.  The editorial is mentioned in Editor’s Choice, by deputy editor Tony Delamothe. I love his way of putting the problem "too many at the top of British medicine seem frozen in the headlights of the complementary medicine bandwagon".  He sounds remarkably kind given that I was awarded (by the editor, Fiona Godlee, no less) a sort of booby prize at the BMJ party for having generated a record number of emails during the editing of a single editorial (was it really 24?). Hey ho.

17 December 2009.  More information on very direct political meddling by the Prince of Wales in today’s Guardian, and in Press Association report.

17 December 2009Daily Telegraph reports on the editorial, under the heading “ ‘Nonsense’ alternative medicines should not be regulated“. Not a bad account for a non-health journalist.

17 December 2009. Good coverage in the excellent US blog, Neurologica, by the superb Steven Novella.’ “Intrepid, Ragged Band of Bloggers” take on CAM‘ provides a chance to compare and contrast the problems in the UK and the USA.’

18 December 2009.  Article in The Times by former special advisor, Paul Richards. “The influence of Prince Charles the lobbyist is out of hand. Our deference stops us asking questions.”

“A good starting point might be publication of all correspondence over the past 30 years. Then we will know the extent, and influence, of Prince Charles the lobbyist.”

Comments in the BMJ Quite a lot of comments had appeared by January 8th, though sadly they were mostly from the usual suspects who appear every time one suggests evidence matters. A reply was called for, so I sent this (the version below has links).

After a long delay, this response eventually appeared in the BMJ on January 15 2010.

It’s good to see so many responses, though somewhat alarming to see that several of them seem to expect an editorial to provide a complete review of the literature.  I ‘ll be happy to provide references for any assertion that I made.

I also find it a bit odd that some people think that an editorial is not the place to express an opinion robustly.  That view seems to me to be a manifestation of the very sort of political correctness that I was deploring.  It’s a bit like the case when the then health minister, Lord Hunt, referred to psychic surgery as a “profession” when he should have called it a fraudulent conjuring trick.  Anything I write is very mild compared with what Thomas Wakley wrote in the Lancet, a journal which he founded around the time UCL came into existence. For example (I quote)

“[We deplore the] “state of society which allows various sets of mercenary, goose-brained monopolists and charlatans to usurp the highest privileges…. This is the canker-worm which eats into the heart of the medical body.” Wakley, T. The Lancet 1838-9, 1 

I don’t think it is worth replying to people who cite Jacques Benveniste or Andrew Wakefield as authorities.  Neither is it worth replying to people who raise the straw man argument about wicked pharmaceutical companies (about which I am on record as being as angry as anyone).  But I would like to reply directly to some of the more coherent comments.

Sam Lewis and Robert Watson. [comment] Thank you for putting so succinctly what I was trying to say.

Peter Fisher [comment].  I have a lot of sympathy for Peter Fisher.  He has attempted to do some good trials of homeopathy (they mostly had negative outcomes).  He said he was "very angry" when the non-medical homeopaths  were caught out recommending their sugar pills for malaria prevention (not that this as stopped such dangerous claims which are still commonplace).  He agreed with me that there was not sufficient scientific basis for BSc degrees in homeopathy.  I suppose that it isn’t really surprising that he continues to cherry pick the evidence.  As clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and Homeopathic physician to the Queen,  just imagine the cognitive dissonance that would result if he were to admit publicly that is all placebo after all.  He has come close though. His (negative) trial for homeopathic treatment of rheumatoid arthritis included the words "It seems more important to define if homeopathists can genuinely control patients’ symptoms and less relevant to have concerns about whether this is due to a ‘genuine’ effect or to influencing the placebo response” [2]. [download
the paper
].  When it comes to malaria, it matters a lot.

Adrian White [comment] seems to be cross because I cited my own blog.   I did that simply because if he follows the links there he will find the evidence.  In the case of acupuncture it has been shown time after time that "real" acupuncture does not differ perceptibly from sham.  That is true whether the sham consists of retractable needles or real needles in the "wrong" places.  A non-blind comparison between acupuncture and no acupuncture usually shows some advantage for the former but it is, on average, too small to be of much clinical significance [3]. I agree that there is no way to be sure that this advantage is purely placebo effect but since it is small and transient it really doesn’t matter much.  Nobody has put it more clearly than Barker Bausell in his book, Snake Oil Science [4]

White also seems to have great faith in peer review.  I agree that in real science it is probably the best system we have.  But in alternative medicine journals the "peers" are usually other true believers in whatever hocus pocus is being promoted and peer reveiw breaks down altogether.

R. M. Pittilo [comment] I’m glad that Professor Pittilo has replied in person because I did single out his report for particular criticism.  I agree that his report said that NHS funding should be available to CAM only where there is evidence of efficacy.  That was not my criticism.  My point was that in his report, the evidence for efficacy was assessed by representatives of Herbal Medicine, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture (four from each).  Every one of them would have been out of work if they had found their subjects were nonsense and that, no doubt, explains why the assessment was so bad.  To be fair, they did admit that the evidence was not all that it might be and recommended (as always) more research   I’d like to ask Professor Pittilo how much money should be spent on more research in the light of the fact that over a billion dollars has been spent in the USA on CAM research without producing a single useful treatment.  Pittilo says "My own view is that both statutory regulation and the quest for evidence should proceed together" but he seems to neglect the possibility that the quest for evidence might fail. Experience in the USA suggests that is exactly what has, to a large extent, already happened.

I also find it quite absurd that the Pittilo report should recommend, despite a half-hearted admission that the evidence is poor, that entry to these subjects should be via BSc Honours degrees.  In any case he is already thwarted in that ambition because universities are closing down degrees in these subjects  having realised that the time to run a degree is after, not before, you have some evidence that the subject is not nonsense.  I hope that in due course Professor Pittilo may take the same action about the courses in things like homeopathy that are run by the university of which he is vice-chancellor.  That could only enhance the academic reputation of Robert Gordon’s University.

George Lewith [comment]  You must be aware that the proposed regulatory body, the Health Professions Council, has already broken its own rules about "evidence-based practice" by agreeing to take on, if asked, practitioners of Herbal Medicine, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture.  They have (shamefully) excluded the idea that claims of efficacy would be regulated.  In other word they propose to provide exactly the sort of pseudo-regulation which would endanger patients   They are accustomed to the idea that regulation is to do only with censoring practitioners who are caught in bed with patients.  However meritorious that may be, it is not the main problem with pseudo-medicine, an area in which they have no experience.  I’m equally surprised that Lewith should recommend that Chinese evaluation of Traditional Chinese medicine should be included in meta-analyses, in view of the well-known fact that 99% of evaluations from China are positive: “No trial published in China or Russia/USSR found a test treatment to be ineffective” [5]. He must surely realise that medicine in China is a branch of politics.  In fact the whole resurgence in Chinese medicine and acupuncture in post-war times has less to do with ancient traditions than with Chinese nationalism, in particular the wish of Mao Tse-Tung to provide the appearance of health care for the masses (though it is reported that he himself preferred Western Medicine).

1. Lord Hunt thinks “psychic surgery” is a “profession”. http://www.dcscience.net/?p=258

2. Fisher, P. Scott, DL. 2001 Rheumatology 40, 1052 – 1055.   [pdf file]

3. Madsen et al, BMJ 2009;338:a3115  [pdf file]

4. R, Barker Bausell, Snake Oil Science, Oxford University Press, 2007

5. Vickers, Niraj, Goyal, Harland and Rees (1998, Controlled Clinical Trials, 19, 159-166) “Do Certain Countries Produce Only Positive Results? A Systematic Review of Controlled Trials”. [pdf file]

15 January 2010. During the SciTech hearings, Kent Woods (CEO of the MHRA) made a very feeble attempt to defend the MHRA’s decision to allow misleading labelling of homeopathic products. Now they have published their justification for this claim. It is truly pathetic, as explained by Martin at LayScience: New Evidence Reveals the MHRA’s Farcical Approach to Homeopathy. This mis-labelling cause a great outcry in 2006, as documented in The MHRA breaks its founding principle: it is an intellectual disgrace, and Learned Societies speak out against CAM, and the MHRA.

22 January 2010 Very glad to see that the minister himself has chosen to respond in the BMJ to the editorial

Rt Hon. Mike O’Brien QC MP, Minister of State for Health Services

I am glad that David Colquhoun was entertained by my appearance before the Health Select Committee on Homeopathy. But he is mistaken when he says, “you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether or not the thing you are trying to regulate is nonsense.”

Regulation is about patient safety. Acupuncture, herbal and traditional Chinese medicine involve piercing the skin and/or the ingestion of potentially harmful substances and present a possible risk to patients.

The Pittilo Report recommends statutory regulation and we have recently held a public consultation on whether this is a sensible way forward.

Further research into the efficacy of therapies such as Homeopathy is unlikely to settle the debate, such is the controversy surrounding the subject. That is why the Department of Health’s policy towards complementary and alternative medicines is neutral.

Whether I personally think Homeopathy is nonsense or not is besides the point. As a Minister, I do not decide the correct treatment for patients. Doctors do that. I do not propose on this occasion to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship.

Here is my response to the minister

I am very glad that the minister himself has replied. I think he is wrong in two ways, one relatively trivial but one very important.

First, he is wrong to refer to homeopathy as controversial. It is not. It is quite the daftest for the common forms of magic medicine and essentially no informed person believes a word of it. Of course, as minister, he is free to ignore scientific advice, just as the Home Secretary did recently. But he should admit that that is what he is doing, and not hide behind the (imagined) controversy.

Second, and far more importantly, he is wrong, dangerously wrong, to say it I was mistaken to claim that “you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether or not the thing you are trying to regulate is nonsense". According to that view it would make sense to grant statutory regulation to voodoo and astrology. The Pittilo proposals would involve giving honours degrees in nonsense if one took the minister’s view that it doesn’t matter whether the subjects are nonsense or not. Surely he isn’t advocating that?

The minister is also wrong to suppose that regulation, in the form proposed by Pittilo, would do anything to help patient safety. Indeed there is a good case to be made that it would endanger patients (not to mention endangering tigers and bears). The reason for that is that the main danger to patients arises from patients being given “remedies” that don’t work. The proposed regulatory body, the Health Professions Council, has already declared that it is not interested in whether the treatments work or not. That in itself endangers patients. In the case of Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is also a danger to patients from contaminated medicines. The HPC is not competent to deal with that either. It is the job of the MHRA and/or Trading Standards. There are much better methods of ensuring patient safety that those proposed by Pittilo.

In order to see the harm that can result from statutory regulation, it is necessary only to look at the General Chiropractic Council. Attention was focussed on chiropractic when the British Chiropractic Association decided, foolishly, to sue Simon Singh for defamation. That led to close inspection of the strength of the evidence for their claims to benefit conditions like infant colic and asthma. The evidence turned out to be pathetic, and the result was that something like 600 complaints were made to the GCC about the making of false health claims (including two against practices run by the chair of the GCC himself). The processing of these complaints is still in progress, but what is absolutely clear is that the statutory regulatory body, the GCC, had done nothing to discourage these false claims. On the contrary it had perpetrated them itself. No doubt the HPC would be similarly engulfed in complaints if the Pittilo proposals went ahead.

It is one thing to say that the government chooses to pay for things like homeopathy, despite it being known that they are only placebos, because some patients like them. It is quite another thing to endanger patient safety by advocating government endorsement in the form of statutory regulation, of treatments that don’t work.

I would be very happy to meet the minister to discuss the problems involved in ensuring patient safety. He has seen herbalists and other with vested interests. He has been lobbied by the Prince of Wales. Perhaps it is time he listened to the views of scientists too.

Both the minister’s response, and my reply, were reformatted to appear as letters in the print edition of the BMJ, as well as comments on the web..