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Western herbal medicine need not be mystical nonsense, but it usually it is, 

Plants often contain chemicals that have pharmacological actions, with all the possibilities for good and for harm that implies (see Plants
as medicines
).  It would be quite possible to teach about the plant constituents and their actions in an entirely scientific way, but it seems that this is not what courses in herbal medicine choose to do.  That is why they shouldn’t be called Bachelor of Science degrees.

We have recently revealed the ancient nonsense taught at Middlesex University in its "BSc (Hons)" degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine in Dangerous Chinese medicine taught at Middlesex University as well as similar dangerous gobbledygook from the University of Westminster: see Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients.

Western Herbal medicine does not talk about "knotted spleen Qi", but has an equally barmy mystical vocabulary of its own. They have in common a tendency to divide herbs into hot and cold, a crude and baseless classification that dates from a time when nothing was known about physiology or the causes of disease.

A recent post described the problems of finding out what exactly is taught on these courses: Not much Freedom of Information at University of Wales, University of Kingston, Robert Gordon University or Napier University

I lodged a Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act with Napier University Edinburgh on 10th August 2009. As almost always, it was refused, as was the internal review of my request.  The response to the internal review came from Gerry Webber BA (Hons) 0 PHil MBA MCMI AUA (Fellow). Despite all those impressive sounding letters, he argued with a perfectly straight face that it was perfectly all right for the university to teach this sort of stuff. He ended

“On public interest grounds, I have therefore concluded that, in respect of the commercially sensitive information requested, the public interest is better served in withholding the information you have requested than in disclosing it.”

Despite all those impressive sounding letters after Dr Webber’s name, here was a solemn letter, on the university letterhead, defending the teaching of pseudoscientific nonsense   The experience is surreal, but far from unique.

Although we won a judgement that compelled disclosure from the Information Commissioner for England and Wales, the Scottish law is slightly different so I had to appeal to the Scottish Information commissioner. [Download appeal]

A similar appeal was lodged for Robert Gordon’s University Aberdeen. They have already sent some homeopathy materials, and closed down the homeopathy course, as described at: Robert Gordon University stops its homeopathy course. Quackademia is crumbling.  Napier University followed the same pattern, but a bit more slowly.  They sent some of what I asked for without waiting for a formal judgement, after they had been contacted by the Scottish Information Commissioner. 

Napier also shut down the degree from which the slides, below, were used.  It is fascinating that so many places have done this shortly before what is taught is made public.  Before that time the courses are defended and advertised. no doubt by people who have never given a moment’s thought to what is taught.  In 2007, after my Nature article on the topic, the Glasgow Herald said

A spokeswoman for Napier University said it stood by the integrity of its BSc degrees.

“The BSc Herbal Medicine course uses an approach to teaching and training that we believe best prepares students for practice within a modern integrated healthcare system,” she said.

The university’s brochure for the course (still, carelessly, on the web at the time of writing), waxed lyrical about the herbal medicine course. Yet as soon as it becomes known what’s actually taught, the courses close.

What was taught on Napier’s Herbal Medicine “BSc”.

Materia medica starts with hot and cold herbs

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Yes, but one of the problems is that very little is known about the therapeutic actions of herbs from "controlled enquiry". The material just isn’t there to fulfil this aim. To paraphrase their quotation,,you can call anything medicine, but plenty of people will argue with you if you can’t produce the evidence.

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This slide strikes me as pure pre-scientific gobbledygook. All herbs and all diseases seem to fall into the ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ class. The ‘argument’ is entirely circular. Pure pseudoscience (is that what the lecturer told them in response to the last question?).

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What do all these conditions have in common? They are all "cold". How can anyone take this sort of baloney seriously?

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This quotation appears to have no comprehensible meaning at all. It carries overtones of the great "detox" fraud, and so perhaps is useful justification for slimming the wallets of the gullible.

Now we come to a real herb.

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There is some real chenistry in this slide. Unfortunately it simply isn’t known whether these chemicals have any useful function. Usually it isn’t known either what dose of them you are giving in tincture of valerian. When I worked in a pharmacy in the 1950s, you could still find tincture of valerian on the shelves of a normal pharmacy, but iit soon vanished as paople realised it wasn’t much use. Disappeared from normal medicine, that is. it is still alive and well among herbalists.

Notice too, the mention of "synergy". The perpetual excuse of herbalists for giving impure mixtures of chemicals is that they might act synergistically. They are undeterred by the fact that no such synergy has ever been demonstrated properly. I asked that question ot Liz Williamson. editor of Potter’s herbal Cyclopedia, but answer came there none.

I’d be interested to know what answer was given to the last question, which isn’t as simple as it sounds. I wouldn’t mind betting it didn’t include a critical description of isobol analysis.

So what does Valerian do?

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It seems, even from the lecture, that there is no unanimity that it does anything useful at all.

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There is no worthwhile evidence to think it is useful for "generalises anxiety disorder" Let’s take another opinion.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is the branch of the US National Institutes of Health which has spent around a billion dollars of US taxpayers’ money on research into alternative medicine, For all that effort they have failed to come up with a single useful treatment. Clearly they should be shut down. Nevertheless, as an organisation that is enthusiastic about alternative medicine, it’s interesting to see what they have to say about valerian.

What the Science Says

  • Research suggests that valerian may be helpful for insomnia, but there is not enough evidence from well-designed studies to confirm this.
  • There is not enough scientific evidence to determine whether valerian works for anxiety or for other conditions, such as depression and headaches.

Even NCCAM don’t pretend that there is any good reason to think it’s good for anything. So, you might ask, why are students being taught to treat people with it?

Simon Mills on "hot and cold herbs"

Many of the slides refer to a book by herbalist Simon Mills. You can see a video of a talk he gave in which he ‘explains’ "hot and cold herbs". It strikes me as pure gobbledygook. Make up your own mind.

 

Now take the test

This is a question from a Napier University exam paper

exam1
exam2

Which constituents are responsible for the actions of saw palmetto?  Which actions would they be?  This is what The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) says
about saw palmetto.

What the Science Says

  • Several small studies suggest that saw palmetto may be effective for treating BPH symptoms.
  • In 2006, a large study of 225 men with moderate-to-severe BPH found no improvement with 320 mg saw palmetto daily for 1 year versus placebo. NCCAM cofunded the study with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  • There is not enough scientific evidence to support the use of saw palmetto for reducing the size of an enlarged prostate or for any other conditions.
  • Saw palmetto does not appear to affect readings of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels. PSA is protein produced by cells in the prostate. The PSA test is used to screen for prostate cancer and to monitor patients who have had prostate cancer.

Magic Medicine

In the materials that I was sent, I see nothing to make me believe that herbalism is being taught as science. On the contrary, it all seems to confirm the definition given in the Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine.

herbal magic

Herbal medicine BSc degrees still  exist.

They are still running at the following universities.

The vice-chancellors are named because they are the people who must take responsibility for this sort of nonsense being taught in their universities.

University of East London (vice-chancellor from Feb 2010 is Patrick McGhee, who, in his previous job at University of Central Lancashire, did so much to prevent me from getting hold of their teaching materials, but then closed the courses anyway)

University of Lincoln (Vice chancellor, Professor Mary Stuart)

London Metropolitan University (vice-chancellor, (interim vice chancellor, Alfred Morris)

Middlesex University (vice-chancellor, Professor Michael Driscoll)

And, of course, the home of woo, the University of Westminster (vice-chancellor, Professor Geoffrey Petts). Their students are taught that Amethysts emit high Yin energy and that dowsing and pendulums can be used for diagnosis and treatment.

By the same token, we may congratulate Professor Dame Joan Stringer, vice-chancellor of Napier University Edinburgh for closing down the course from which these slides came. Perhaps now she should consider closing their ‘degrees’ in aromatherapy and ‘reflexology’

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