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It makes a nice change to be able to compliment an official government report.

Ever since the House of Lords report in 2000, the government has been vacillating about what should be done about herbalists. At the moment both western herbalists and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) are essentially unregulated. Many (but not all) herbalists have been pushing for statutory regulation, which they see as government endorsement. It would give them a status like the General Medical Council.

A new report has ruled out this possibility, for very good reasons [download local copy].

Back story (abridged!)

My involvement began with the publication in 2008 of a report on the Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine . That led to my post, A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor. The report was chaired by the late Professor Michael Pittilo BSc PhD CBiol FIBiol FIBMS FRSH FLS FRSA, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. The membership of the group consisted entirely of quacks and the vice -chancellor’s university ran a course in homeopathy (now closed).

The Pittilo report recommended statutory regulation and "The threshold entry route to the register will normally be through a Bachelor degree with Honours". It ignored entirely the little problem that you can’t run a BSc degree in a subject that’s almost entirely devoid of evidence. It said, for example that acupuncturists must understand " yin/yang, 5 elements/phases, eight principles, cyclical rhythms, qi ,blood and body fluids". But of course there is nothing to "understand"! They are all pre-scientific myths. This “training dilemma” was pointed out in one of my earliest posts, You’d think it was obvious, but nonetheless the then Labour government seemed to take this absurd report seriously.

In 2009 a consultation was held on the Pittilo report. I and many of my friends spent a lot of time pointing out the obvious. Eventually the problem was again kicked into the long grass.

The THR scheme

Meanwhile European regulations caused the creation of the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) scheme. It’s run by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA). This makes it legal to put totally misleading claims on labels of herbal concoctions, as long as they are registered with THR, They also get an impressive-looking certification mark. All that’s needed to get THR registration is that the ‘medicines’ are not obviously toxic and they have been in use for 30 years. There is no need to supply any information whatsoever about whether they work or not. This appears to contradict directly the MHRA’s brief:

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

After much effort, I elicited an admission from the MHRA that there was no reason to think that any herbal concoctions were effective, and that there was nothing to prevent them from adding a statement to say so on the label. They just chose not to do so. That’s totally irresponsible in my opinion. See Why does the MHRA refuse to label herbal products honestly? Kent Woods and Richard Woodfield tell me. Over 300 herbal products have been registered under the THR scheme (a small percentage of the number of products being used). So far only one product of Tibetan medicine and one traditional Chinese medicine have been registered under THR. These are the only ones that can be sold legally now, because no herbs whatsoever have achieved full marketing authorisation -that requires good evidence of efficacy and that doesn’t exist for any herb.

The current report

Eventually, in early 2014, the Tory-led government set up yet another body, "Herbal Medicines and Practitioners Working Group " (HMPWG). My heart sank when I saw its membership (Annex A.2). The vice-chair was none other that the notorious David Tredinnick MP (Con, Bosworth). It was stuffed with people who had vested interests. I wrote to the chair and to the few members with scientific credentials to put my views to them.

But my fears were unfounded, because the report of the HMPWG was not written by the group, but by its chair only. David Walker is deputy chief medical officer and he had clearly listened. Here are some quotations.

The good thing about the European laws is that

"This legislation effectively banned the importation and sale of large-scale manufactured herbal medicine products. This step severely limited the scope of some herbal practitioners to continue practising, particularly those from the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic traditions."

The biggest loophole is that

"At present under UK law it is permitted for a herbal practitioner to see individual patients, offer diagnoses and prepare herbal treatments on their own premises, as long as these preparations do not contain banned or restricted substances. This is unchanged by the Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive. "

Walker recognised frankly that there is essentially no good evidence that any herb, western or Chinese, works well enough to make an acceptable treatment. And importantly he, unlike Pittilo, realised that this precludes statutory regulation.

"There are a small number of studies indicating benefit from herbal medicine in a limited range of conditions but the majority of herbal medicine practice is not supported by good quality evidence. A great deal of international, primary research is of poor quality. "

"ts. Herbal medicine practice is therefore currently based upon traditional practice rather than science. It is difficult to differentiate good practice from poor practice on the basis of this evidence in a way that could establish standards for statutory regulation"

The second problem was the harms done by herbs. Herbalists, western and Chinese, have no satisfactory way of reporting side effects

" . .   . there is very limited understanding of the risks to patient safety from herbal medicines and herbal practice. A review of safety data was commissioned from HMAC as part of this review. This review identified many anecdotal reports and case studies but little systematically collected data. Most herbal medicine products have not been through the rigorous licensing process that is required of conventional pharmaceutical products to establish their safety and efficacy. Indeed, only a small proportion have even been subject to the less rigorous Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) process. "

"The anecdotal evidence of risk to patients from herbal products in the safety review highlighted the prominence of manufactured herbal medicines in the high profile serious incidents which have been reported in recent years. Many of these reports relate to harm thought to be caused by industrially manufactured herbal products which contained either dangerous herbs, the wrong constituents, toxic contaminants or adulterants. All such industrially manufactured products are now only available under European regulations if their safety is assured through MHRA licensing or THR
accreditation; and specific dangerous herbs have been banned under UK law. This has weakened the case for introduction of statutory regulation as a further safety measure. "

Then Walker identified correctly the training dilemma. Although it seems obvious, this is a big advance for a government document. Degrees that teach nonsense are not good training: they are miseducation.

"The third issue is the identification of educational standards for training practitioners and the benchmarking of standards for accrediting practitioners. With no good data on efficacy or safety, it is difficult for practitioners and patients to understand or quantify the potential benefits and risks of a proposed therapeutic intervention. Training programmes could accredit knowledge and skills in some areas including pharmacology and physiology, professional ethics and infection control but without a credible evidence base relating to the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicine it is hard to see how they could form the basis of accreditation in this field of practice.

There are a number of educational university programmes offering courses in herbal medicine although the number has declined in recent years. Some of these courses are accredited by practitioner organisations which is a potential governance risk as the accreditation may be based on benchmarks established by tradition and custom rather than science.

"The herbal medicine sector is in a dilemma" is Walker’s conclusion.

"Some practitioners would like to continue to practise as
they do now, with no further regulation, and accept that their practice is based on tradition and personal experience rather than empirical science. The logical consequence of adopting this form of practice is that we should take a precautionary approach in order to ensure public safety. The public should be protected through consumer legislation to prevent false claims, restricting the use of herbal products which are known to be hazardous to health"

The problem with this is, if course, is that although there is plenty of law, it’s rarely enforced : see Most alternative medicine is illegal Trading Standards very rarely enforce the Consumer Protection Regulations (2008) but Walker is too diplomatic to mention that fact.

"The herbals sector must recognise that its overall approach (including the rationale for use of products and methods of treatment, education and training, and interaction with the NHS) needs to be more science and evidence based if in order to be established as a profession on the same basis as other groups that are statutorily regulated."

So what happens next?

In the short term nothing will happen.

The main mistake has been avoided: there wil be no statutory regulation.

The other options are (a) do nothing, or (b) go for accreditation of a voluntary register (AR) by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA). Walker ends up recommending the latter, but only after a lot more work (see pages 28-29 of report). Of particular interest is recommendation 5.

"As a first step it would be helpful for the sector organisations to develop an umbrella voluntary register that could support the development of standards and begin to collaborate on the collection of safety data and the establishment of an academic infrastructure to develop training and research. This voluntary register could in due course seek accreditation from the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA)."

So it looks as though nothing will happen for a long time, and herbalists and TCM may end up with the utterly ineffectual PSA. After all, the PSA have accredited voluntary registers of homeopaths, so clearly nothing is too delusional for them. It’s very obvious that, unlike Walker, the PSA are quite happy to ignore the training dilemma.

Omissions from the report

Good though this report is, by Department of Health standards, it omits some important points.

Endangered species and animal cruelty aren’t mentioned in the report. Traditional Chinese medicine, and its variants, are responsible for the near-extinction of rhinoceros, tiger and other species because of the superstitious belief that they have medicinal value. It’s not uncommon to find animal parts in Chinese medicines sold in the UK despite it being illegal

And the unspeakably cruel practice of farming bears to collect bile is a direct consequence of TCM.

bile bear
A bile bear in a “crush cage” on Huizhou Farm, China (Wikipedia)


Statutory regulation of Chiropractors

The same arguments used in Walker’s report to deny statutory regulation of herbalism, would undoubtedly lead to denial of statutory regulation of chiropractors. The General Chiropractic Council was established in 1994, and has a status that’s the same as the General Medical Council. That was a bad mistake. The GCC has not protected the public, in fact it has acted as an advertising agency for chiropractic quackery.

Perhaps Prof. Walker should be asked to review the matter.


You can also read minutes of the HMPWG meetings (and here). But, as usual, all the interesting controversies have been sanitised.

Edzard Ernst has also commented on this topic: Once again: the regulation of nonsense will generate nonsense – the case of UK herbalists.

Jump to follow-up

This post is the original version of a post by Michael Vagg. It was posted at the Conversation but taken down within hours, on legal advice. Sadly, the Conversation has a track record for pusillanimous behaviour of this sort. It took minutes before the cached version reappeared on freezepage.com. I’m reposting it from there in the interests of free speech. La Trobe "university" should be ashamed that it’s prostituted itself for the sake of $15 m.

La Trobe’s deputy vice-chancellor, Keith Nugent, gives a make-believe response to the resignation of Ken Harvey in a video. It is, in my opinion, truly pathetic.

Update, The next day, the article was reposted at the Conversation. The changes they’d made can be seen in a compare document. The biggest change was removal of "has just decided to join the ranks of the spivs and hucksters of the vitamin industry". This seems to me to be perfectly fair comment. It should not have been censored by the Conversation.


By Michael Vagg

The recent memorandum of understanding signed between supplement company Swisse and La Trobe University to establish a Complementary Medicine Evidence Centre (CMEC) looks to me like the latest effort by a corporation to cloak their business interests in a veil of science. Unlike the UTS Sydney Australian Research Centre in Complementary and Integrative Medicine (ARCCIM), which at least has significant NHMRC funding, the La Trobe version will undertake “independent research” into complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) products that are made by the major (and so far only) donor to the Centre. Southern Cross University also has a very close relationship with the Blackmores brand of CAM products, due to the personal interest of Marcus Blackmore, the company Chairman. Blackmores claims to spend a lazy couple of million a year on their branded research centre. The Blackmores Research Centre studies Blackmores products. Presumably this situation (so similar to the proposed La Trobe model) is a coincidence since the research centre is providing completely “independent” research.

The conflict of interest in such research centres is so laughably obvious that A/Prof Ken Harvey, a leading campaigner against shonky health products, a life member of Choice andThe Conversation contributor, has resigned his appointment at La Trobe in protest. Ken clearly points out in his letter of resignation that by accepting the money from Swisse, he believes La Trobe has unacceptably compromised its integrity. His letter cites multiple instances of non-compliance with TGA regulations by Swisse, as well as their disrespect for the regulatory process that governs corporate truth-telling in their industry.This story from last year gives a bit of background to the quixotic battle Harvey has fought against the massive coffers and unscrupulous business practices of Big Supplement. He has been more effective than the TGA itself at hindering the rampant gaming of the TGA Register of Therapeutic Goods by supplement and vitamin manufacturers.

Clearly as a man of principle, he could not be expected to continue his association with a university that has a close relationship to a company with such a history of regulatory infringements. The untenability of Ken’s position is underlined by the fact that La Trobe itself republished on their website one of his TC articles about Swisse’s regulatory tapdancing only the previous year!

Ken has been sued, traduced and generally railed against by a multi-billion dollar industry for the hideous crime of insisting that they tell the truth about their products and not mislead consumers. We need another hundred like him. That his own university has decided to take the money on offer from Swisse must be a bitter blow to him. It would be interesting to know whether any other universities were approached by Swisse in a similar way and had the courage to decline the offer.

The infiltration of academia by privately funded CAM institutes is old news in the United States. The Science Based Medicine blog has christened the phenomenon “quackademic medicine” and written about it at some length. It seems the Australian CAM industry has no need to hide behind astroturfing organisations like the American group the Bravewell Collaborative to get its agenda attended to. Companies like Blackmores and Swisse can seemingly just offer to fund research institutes and cash-strapped tertiary institutions can’t resist. Friends of Science in Medicine and others have had a bit to say about the irresponsibility of educational institutions lending credibility to pseudoscience and how this practice damages universities’ standing as exemplars of scholarship and intellectual leaders within their communities.

I can say without qualification that none of the much-maligned Big Pharma companies have their own fully-funded research centres at any university. Let alone a branded one where the studies are restricted to a single company’s products. It would be utterly unacceptable for the integrity of any university for such an outrageously conflicted institution to be given any support. What would it be like if GSK or Pfizer founded a research institute at a university and forced the researchers to only study their own products?

Imagine the outrage. Imagine what a laughing stock such a research centre would be. That’s medical research in clown shoes. That’s academic credibility in a cheap suit trying to sell you steak knives.

Vitamin and supplement companies will always be profitable because their sales pitch is based on psychological flaws that everyone has. Just ask the gaming, alcohol and tobacco companies. All of them are massively profitable. Sometimes their cash can even do good, but there’s always an angle by which they profit.

Look at these guys up close, and the warts appear. All of them seek to improve their image by splashing money on hanging around with the glamorous, the successful, the smart and the credible. They hope that the magic dust of celebrity and academia will disguise the stench of the swamp they crawled out from. La Trobe Uni has just decided to join the ranks of the spivs and hucksters of the vitamin industry, and they will now have to live with having a research centre with the academic and professional credibility of the Ponds Institute. Sadly for La Trobe, they won’t have Ken Harvey to keep things reality-based.


8 February 2014. Deputy vice-chancellor, Keith Nugent, tried to defend the university’s decision to take money from the "spivs and hucksters of the vitamin industry" in The Age. I sent the following letter to The Age. Let’s hope they publish it.

Keith Nugent, deputy vice-chancellor of La Trobe University, has offered a defence of the university’s decision to take a large amount of money from vitamin and herb company, Swisse.  

He justifies this by saying that we need to know whether or not the products work.  Nugent seems to be unaware that we already know.  There have been many good double-blind randomized trials and they have just about all shown that dosing yourself with vitamins and minerals does most people no good at all. Some have shown that high doses actually harm you.  Perhaps the university should have checked what’s already known before taking the money.

Perhaps Nugent is also unaware that trials with industry sponsorship tend to come out favourable to the companies’ product.  For that reason, the results are treated with scepticism by the scientific community.

If the research is worth doing, then it will be funded from the normal sources.  There should be no need to take money from a company with a very strong financial interest in the outcome.

D. Colquhoun FRS

Professor of Pharmcology
University College London

Jump to follow-up

Despite the First Amendment in the US and a new Defamation Act in the UK, fear of legal threats continue to suppress the expression of honest scientific opinion.

I was asked by Nature Medicine (which is published in the USA) to write a review of Paul Offit’s new book. He’s something of a hero, so of course I agreed. The editor asked me to make some changes to the first draft, which I did. Then the editor concerned sent me this letter.

Thank you for the revised version of the book review.

The chief editor of the journal took a look at your piece, and he thought that it would be a good idea to run it past our legal counsel owing to the strong opinions expressed in the piece in relation to specific individuals. I regret to say that the lawyers have advised us against publishing the review.

After that I tried the UK Conversation. They had done a pretty good job with my post on the baleful influence of royals on medicine. They were more helpful then Nature Medicine, but for some reason that I can’t begin to understand, they insisted that I should not name Nature Medicine, but to refer only to "a leading journal". And they wanted me not to name Harvard in the last paragraph. I’m still baffled about why. But it seemed to me that editorial interference had gone too far, so rather than have an editor re-write my review, I withdrew it.

It is precisely this sort of timidity that allows purveyors of quackery such success with their bait and switch tactics. The fact that people seem so terrified to be frank must be part of the reason why Harvard, Yale and the rest have shrugged their shoulders and allowed nonsense medicine to penetrate so deeply into their medical schools. It’s also why blogs now are often better sources of information than established journals.

Here is the review. I see nothing defamatory in it.


Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine

Paul A. Offit
Harper, 2013
336 pp., hardcover $26.99
ISBN: 0062222961

Reviewed by David Colquhoun Research Professor of Pharmacology, UCL.


Here’s an odd thing. There is a group of people who advocate the silly idea that you can cure all ills by stuffing yourself with expensive pills, made by large and unscrupulous Pharma companies.  No, I’m not talking about pharmacologists or doctors or dietitians.  They mostly say that stuffing yourself with pills is often useless and sometimes harmful, because that’s what the evidence says . 

Rather, the pill pushers are the true believers in the alternative realities of the “supplement” industry. They seem blithely unaware that the manufacturers are mostly the same big pharma companies that they blame for trying to suppress “natural remedies”.  Far from trying to suppress them, pharma companies love the supplement industry because little research is needed and there are few restrictions on the claims that can be made.

 Paul Offit’s excellent book concentrates on alternative medicine in the USA, with little mention of the rest of the world. He describes how American pork barrel politics have given supplement hucksters an almost unrestricted right to make stuff up. 

Following the thalidomide tragedy, which led to birth defects in babies in the 1950s and 60s, many countries passed laws that required evidence that a drug was both effective and safe before it could be sold.  This was mandate by the Kefauver-Harris amendment (1961) in the USA and the Medicines Act (1968) in the UK.  Laws like that upset the quacks, and in the UK the quacks got a free pass, a ‘licence of right‘, largely still in existence. 

In order to sell a herbal concoction in the UK you need to present no evidence at all that it works, just evidence of safety, in return for which you get a reassuring certification mark and freedom to use misleading brand names and labels.

THR mark
Tradional herbal mark

In the USA the restrictions didn’t last long.  Offit describes how a lobby group for vitamin sellers, the National Health Federation, had a board made up of quacks, some of whom, according to Offit (page 73) had convictions.  They found an ally in Senator William Proxmire who introduced in 1975 an amendment that banned the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) from regulating the safety of megavitamins.  Tragically, this bill was even supported by the previously-respected scientist Linus Pauling.  Offit tells us that “to Proxmire” became a verb meaning to obstruct science for political gain.

The author then relates  how the situation got worse with the passage of the  Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994. It was passed with the help of ex-vitamin salesman Senator Orin Hatch and lots of money from the supplement industry. 

This act iniquitously defined a “supplement” as “a product intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains one or more of the following ingredients: a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanical, or an amino acid”.  At a stroke, herbs were redefined as foods.  There was no need to submit any evidence of either efficacy or even of safety, before marketing anything. All a manufacturer had to do to sell almost any herbal drug or megadose vitamin was to describe it as a “dietary supplement”.  The lobbying to get this law through was based on appealing to the Tea Party tendency –get the government’s hands off our vitamins. And it was helped by ‘celebrities’ such as Sissy Spacek and Mel Gibson (it’s impossible to tell whether they really believed in the magic of vitamins, or whether they were paid, or had Tea Party sympathies).

Offit’s discussion of vaccination is a heartbreaking story of venom and misinformation. As co-inventor of the first rotavirus vaccine he’s responsible for saving many lives around the world.  But he, perhaps more than anyone, suffered from the autism myth started by the falsified work of Andrew Wakefield.  

The scientific community took the question seriously and soon many studies showed absolutely no link between vaccination and autism.  But evidence did not seem to interest the alternative world.  Rather than Offit being lauded as a saver of children’s lives, he describes how he was subjected to death threats and resorted to having armed guards at meetings. 

Again, Offit tells us how celebrities were able to sway public opinion   For example (chapter 6), the actress Jenny McCarthy and talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey promoted, only too successfully, the vaccine-autism link despite abundant evidence that it didn’t exist, and promoted a number of theories that were not supported by any evidence, such as the idea that autism can be “cured” by mega-doses of vitamins and supplements.

Of course vaccines like the one for rotavirus can’t be developed without pharmaceutical companies because, as Offit says, only they "have the resources and expertise to make a vaccine. We can’t make it in our garage".  When the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia sold its royalty stake in the rotavirus vaccine for $182 million, Offit received an undisclosed share of the intellectual property, “in the millions ”. 

That’s exactly what universities love. We are encouraged constantly to collaborate with industry, and, in the process, make money for the university. It’s also what Wakefield, and the Royal Free Hospital where he worked, hoped to do.  But sadly, these events led to Offit being called names such as “Dr Proffit” and “Biostitute” (to rhyme with “prostitute”) by people like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.  The conspiritorialist public lapped up this abuse, but appeared not to notice that many quacks have become far richer by peddling cures that do not work.  

One lesson from this sad story is that we need to think more about the potential for money to lead to good science being disbelieved, and sometimes to corrupt science.

Everyone should buy this book, and weep for the gullibility and corruption that it describes.

I recommend it especially to the deans of US Medical schools, from Harvard downwards, who have embraced “integrative medicine” departments. In doing so they have betrayed both science and their patients.

Abraham Flexner, whose 1910 report first put US medicine on a sound scientific footing, must be turning in his grave.



30 August 2013

Quack lobby groups got a clause inserted into Obamacare that will make any attempt to evaluate whether a treatment actually works will leave insurance companies open to legal action for "discrimination".

"Discrimination? Yes! We must not allow the government to exclude health care providers just because those providers don’t cure anything."

The latest piece of well-organised corporate corruption by well-funded lobbyists is revealed by Steven Salzberg, in Forbes Magazine. The chaos in the US health system makes one even more grateful for the NHS and for the evaluation of effectiveness of treatments by NICE.

Jump to follow-up

Anesthesia & Analgesia is the official journal of the International Anesthesia Research Society. In 2012 its editor, Steven Shafer, proposed a head-to-head contest between those who believe that acupuncture works and those who don’t. I was asked to write the latter. It has now appeared in June 2013 edition of the journal [download pdf]. The pro-acupuncture article written by Wang, Harris, Lin and Gan appeared in the same issue [download pdf].

Acupuncture is an interesting case, because it seems to have achieved greater credibility than other forms of alternative medicine, despite its basis being just as bizarre as all the others. As a consequence, a lot more research has been done on acupuncture than on any other form of alternative medicine, and some of it has been of quite high quality. The outcome of all this research is that acupuncture has no effects that are big enough to be of noticeable benefit to patients, and it is, in all probablity, just a theatrical placebo.

After more than 3000 trials, there is no need for yet more. Acupuncture is dead.



Acupuncture is a theatrical placebo

David Colquhoun (UCL) and Steven Novella (Yale)

Anesthesia & Analgesia, June 2013 116:1360-1363.

Pain is a big problem. If you read about pain management centres you might think it had been solved. It hasn’t. And when no effective treatment exists for a medical problem, it leads to a tendency to clutch at straws.  Research has shown that acupuncture is little more than such a straw.

Although it is commonly claimed that acupuncture has been around for thousands of years, it hasn’t always been popular even in China.  For almost 1000 years it was in decline and in 1822 Emperor Dao Guang issued an imperial edict stating that acupuncture and moxibustion should be banned forever from the Imperial Medical Academy.

Acupuncture continued as a minor fringe activity in the 1950s.  After the Chinese Civil War, the Chinese Communist Party ridiculed traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, as superstitious.  Chairman Mao Zedong later revived traditional Chinese Medicine as part of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966 (Atwood, 2009).  The revival was a convenient response to the dearth of medically-trained people in post-war China, and a useful way to increase Chinese nationalism.  It is said that Chairman Mao himself preferred Western medicine. His personal physician quotes him as saying “Even though I believe we should promote Chinese medicine, I personally do not believe in it. I don’t take Chinese medicine” Li {Zhisui Li. Private Life Of Chairman Mao: Random House, 1996}.

The political, or perhaps commercial, bias seems to still exist. It has been reported by Vickers et al. (1998) (authors who are sympathetic to alternative medicine) that

"all trials [of acupuncture] originating in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were positive"(4).

Acupuncture was essentially defunct in the West until President Nixon visited China in 1972.  Its revival in the West was largely a result of a single anecdote promulgated by journalist James Reston in the New York Times, after he’d had acupuncture in Beijing for post-operative pain in 1971. Despite his eminence as political journalist, Reston had no scientific background and evidently didn’t appreciate the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, or the idea of regression to the mean.

After Reston’s article, acupuncture quickly became popular in the West. Stories circulated that patients in China had open heart surgery using only acupuncture (Atwood, 2009). The Medical Research Council (UK) sent a delegation, which included Alan Hodgkin, to China in 1972 to investigate these claims , about which they were skeptical.  In 2006 the claims were repeated in 2006 in a BBC TV program, but Simon Singh (author of Fermat’s Last Theorem) discovered that the patient had been given a combination of three very powerful sedatives (midazolam, droperidol, fentanyl) and large volumes of local anaesthetic injected into the chest.  The acupuncture needles were purely cosmetic.

Curiously, given that its alleged principles are as bizarre as those on any other sort of pre-scientific medicine, acupuncture seemed to gain somewhat more plausibility than other forms of alternative medicine.  The good thing about that is that more research has been done on acupuncture than on just about any other fringe practice.

The outcome of this research, we propose, is that the benefits of acupuncture, if any, are too small and too transient to be of any clinical significance.  It seems that acupuncture is little or no more than a theatrical placebo.  The evidence for this conclusion will now be discussed.

Three things that are not relevant to the argument

There is no point in discussing surrogate outcomes such as fMRI studies or endorphine release studies until such time as it has been shown that patients get a useful degree of relief. It is now clear that they don’t. 

There is also little point in invoking individual studies.  Inconsistency is a prominent characteristic of acupuncture research: the heterogeneity of results poses a problem for meta-analysis.  Consequently it is very easy to pick trials that show any outcome whatsoever.  Therefore we shall consider only meta-analyses.

The argument that acupuncture is somehow more holistic, or more patient-centred, than medicine seems us to be a red herring.  All good doctors are empathetic and patient-centred.  The idea that empathy is restricted to those who practice unscientific medicine seems both condescending to doctors, and it verges on an admission that empathy is all that alternative treatments have to offer.

There is now unanimity that the benefits, if any, of acupuncture for analgesia, are too small to be helpful to patients.

Large multicenter clinical trails conducted in Germany {Linde et al., 2005; Melchart et, 2005; Haake et al, 2007, Witt et al, 2005), and in the United States {Cherkin et al, 2009) consistently revealed that verum (or true) acupuncture and sham acupuncture treatments are no different in decreasing pain levels across multiple chronic pain disorders: migraine, tension headache, low back pain, and osteoarthritis of the knee.

If, indeed, sham acupuncture is no different from real acupuncture the apparent improvement that may be seen after acupuncture is merely a placebo effect.  Furthermore it shows meridians don’t exist, so the "theory" memorized by qualified acupuncturists is just myth. All that remains to be discussed is whether or not the placebo effect is big enough to be useful, and whether it is ethical to prescribe placebos.

Some recent meta-analyses have found that there may be a small difference between sham and real acupuncture.  Madsen Gøtzsche & Hróbjartsson {2009) looked at thirteen trials with 3025 patients, in which acupuncture was used to treat a variety of painful conditions.  There was a small difference between ‘real’ and sham acupuncture (it didn’t matter which sort of sham was used), and a somewhat bigger difference between the acupuncture group and the no-acupuncture group.  The crucial result was that even this bigger difference corresponded to only a 10 point improvement on a 100 point pain scale.  A consensus report (Dworkin, 2009) that a change of this sort should be described as a “minimal” change or “little change”.  It isn’t big enough for the patient to notice much effect.

The acupuncture and no-acupuncture groups were, of course, not blind to the patients and neither were they blind to the practitioner giving the treatment.  It isn’t possible to say whether the observed difference is a real physiological action or whether it’s a placebo effect of a rather dramatic intervention.  Interesting though it would be to know this, it matters not a jot, because the effect just isn’t big enough to produce any tangible benefit.

Publication bias is likely to be an even greater problem for alternative medicine than it is for real medicine, so it is particularly interesting that the result just described has been confirmed by authors who practise, or sympathise with, acupuncture.  Vickers et al. (2012) did a meta-analysis for 29 RCTs, with 17,922 patients.  The patients were being treated for a variety of chronic pain conditions. The results were very similar to those of Madsen et al.{2009).  Real acupuncture was better than sham, but by a tiny amount that lacked any clinical significance.  Again there was a somewhat larger difference in the non-blind comparison of acupuncture and no-acupuncture, but again it was so small that patients would barely notice it.

Comparison of these two meta-analyses shows how important it is to read the results, not just the summaries.  Although the outcomes were similar for both, the spin on the results in the abstracts (and consequently the tone of media reports) was very different. 

An even more extreme example of spin occurred in the CACTUS trial of acupuncture for " ‘frequent attenders’ with medically unexplained symptoms” (Paterson et al., 2011).  In this case, the results showed very little difference even between acupuncture and no-acupuncture groups, despite the lack of blinding and lack of proper controls.  But by ignoring the problems of multiple comparisons the authors were able to pick out a few results that were statistically significant, though trivial in size.  But despite this unusually negative outcome, the result was trumpeted as a success for acupuncture.  Not only the authors, but also their university’s PR department and even the Journal editor issued highly misleading statements.  This gave rise to a flood of letters to the British Journal of General Practice and much criticism on the internet.

From the intellectual point of view it would be interesting to know if the small difference between real and sham acupuncture found in some, but not all, recent studies is a genuine effect of acupuncture or whether it is a result of the fact that the practitioners are never blinded, or of publication bias.  But that knowledge is irrelevant for patients. All that matters for them is whether or not they get a useful degree of relief.

There is now unanimity between acupuncturists and non-acupuncturists that any benefits that may exist are too small to provide any noticeable benefit to patients.  That being the case it’s hard to see why acupuncture is still used.  Certainly such an accumulation of negative results would result in the withdrawal of any conventional treatment.

Specific conditions

Acupuncture should, ideally, be tested separately for effectiveness for each individual condition for which it has been proposed (like so many other forms of alternative medicine, that’s a very large number).  Good quality trials haven’t been done for all of them.  It’s unlikely that acupuncture works for rheumatoid arthritis, stopping smoking, irritable bowel syndrome or for losing weight.  And there is no good reason to think it works for addictions, asthma, chronic pain, depression, insomnia, neck pain, shoulder pain or frozen shoulder, osteoarthritis of the knee, sciatica, stroke or tinnitus and many other conditions (Ernst et al., 2011).

In 2009, the UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) did recommend both acupuncture and chiropractic for back pain. This exercise in clutching at straws caused something of a furore.  In the light of NICE’s judgement the Oxford Centre for Evidence-based medicine updated its analysis of acupuncture for back pain.  Their verdict was

“Clinical bottom line. Acupuncture is no better than a toothpick for treating back pain.”

The paper by Artus et al. (2010) is of particular interest for the problem of back pain.  Their Fig 2 shows that there is a modest improvement in pain scores after treatment, but much the same effect, with the same time course is found regardless of what treatment is given, and even with no treatment at all.  They say

“we found evidence that these responses seem to follow a common trend of early rapid improvement in symptoms that slows down and reaches a plateau 6 months after the start of treatment, although the size of response varied widely. We found a similar pattern of improvement in symptoms following any treatment, regardless of whether it was index, active comparator, usual care or placebo treatment”.

It seems that most of what’s being seen is regression to the mean. And that is very likely to be the main reason why acupuncture sometimes appears to work when it doesn’t.

Although the article by Wang et al (2012) was written to defend the continued use of acupuncture, the only condition for which they claim that there is any reasonably strong evidence is for post-operative nausea and vomiting (PONV).  It would certainly be odd if a treatment that had been advocated for such a wide variety of conditions turned out to work only for PONV.  Nevertheless, let’s look at the evidence.

The main papers that are cited to support the efficacy of acupuncture in alleviation of PONV are all from the same author: Lee & Done (1999), and two Cochrane reviews, Lee & Done (2004), updated in Lee & Fan (2009).  We need only deal with this latest updated meta-analysis.

Although the authors conclude “P6 acupoint stimulation prevented PONV”, closer examination shows that this conclusion is very far from certain.  Even taken at face value, a relative risk of 0.7 can’t be described as “prevention”.  The trials that were included were not all tests of acupuncture but included several other more or less bizarre treatments (“acupuncture, electro-acupuncture, transcutaneous nerve stimulation, laser stimulation, capsicum plaster, an acu-stimulation device, and acupressure”).  The number needed to treat varied from a disastrous 34 to a poor 5 for patients with control rates of PONV of 10% and 70% respectively.

The meta-analysis showed, on average, similar effectiveness for acupumcture and anti-emetic drugs.  The problem is that the effectiveness of drugs is in doubt because an update to the Cochrane review has been delayed (Carlisle, 2012) by the discovery of major fraud by a Japanese anesthetist, Yoshitaka Fujii (Sumikawa, 2012). It has been suggested that metclopramide barely works at all (Bandolier, 2012; Henzi, 1999).

Of the 40 trials (4858 participants) that were included; only four trials reported adequate allocation concealment. Ninety percent of trials were open to bias from this source. Twelve trials did not report all outcomes.  The opportunities for bias are obvious. The authors themselves describe all estimates as being of “Moderate quality” which is defined this:Further research is likely to have an important impact on our confidence in the estimate of effect and may change the estimate”.  That being the case, perhaps the conclusion should have been “more research needed”.  In fact almost all trials of alternative medicines seem to end up with the conclusion that more research is needed.


It is clear from meta-analyses that results of acupuncture trials are variable and inconsistent, even for single conditions.  After thousands of trials of acupuncture, and hundreds of systematic reviews (Ernst et al., 2011), arguments continue unabated.  In 2011, Pain carried an editorial which summed up the present situation well.

“Is there really any need for more studies? Ernst et al. (2011) point out that the positive studies conclude that acupuncture relieves pain in some conditions but not in other very similar conditions. What would you think if a new pain pill was shown to relieve musculoskeletal pain in the arms but not in the legs? The most parsimonious explanation is that the positive studies are false positives. In his seminal article on why most published research findings are false, Ioannidis (2005) points out that when a popular but ineffective treatment is studied, false positive results are common for multiple reasons, including bias and low prior probability.”

Since it has proved impossible to find consistent evidence after more than 3000 trials, it is time to give up.  It seems very unlikely that the money that it would cost to do another 3000 trials would be well-spent. 

A small excess of positive results after thousands of trials is most consistent with an inactive intervention.  The small excess is predicted by poor study design and publication bias. Further, Simmons et al (2011) demonstrated that exploitation of "undisclosed flexibility in data collection and analysis" can produce statistically positive results even from a completely nonexistent effect.  With acupuncture in particular there is documented profound bias among proponents (Vickers et al., 1998).  Existing studies are also contaminated by variables other than acupuncture – such as the frequent inclusion of "electroacupuncture" which is essentially transdermal electrical nerve stimulation masquerading as acupuncture.

The best controlled studies show a clear pattern – with acupuncture the outcome does not depend on needle location or even needle insertion. Since these variables are what define "acupuncture" the only sensible conclusion is that acupuncture does not work. Everything else is the expected noise of clinical trials, and this noise seems particularly high with acupuncture research. The most parsimonious conclusion is that with acupuncture there is no signal, only noise.

The interests of medicine would be best-served if we emulated the Chinese Emperor Dao Guang and issued an edict stating that acupuncture and moxibustion should no longer be used in clinical practice. 

No doubt acupuncture will continue to exist on the High Streets where they can be tolerated as a voluntary self-imposed tax on the gullible (as long as they don’t make unjustified claims).


1. Acupuncture Centre. . About Acupuncture. Available at: http://www.acupuncturecentre.org/aboutacupuncture.html. Accessed March 30, 2013


2. Atwood K. “Acupuncture Anesthesia”: a Proclamation from Chairman Mao (Part IV). Available at: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/acupuncture-anesthesia-a-proclamation-from-chairman-mao-part-iv/. Accessed September 2, 2012


3. Li Z Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician. 1996 New York: Random House


4. Vickers A, Goyal N, Harland R, Rees R. Do certain countries produce only positive results? A systematic review of controlled trials. Control Clin Trials. 1998;19:159–66 Available at: http://bit.ly/WqVGWN. Accessed September 2, 2012


5. Reston J. Now, About My Operation in Peking; Now, Let Me Tell You About My Appendectomy in Peking … The New York Times. 1971 Available at: http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FB0D11FA395C1A7493C4AB178CD85F458785F9. Accessed March 30, 2013


6. Atwood K. “Acupuncture anesthesia”: a proclamation from chairman Mao (part I). Available at: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/acupuncture-anesthesia-a-proclamation-of-chairman-mao-part-i/. Accessed September 2, 2012


7. Linde K, Streng A, Jürgens S, Hoppe A, Brinkhaus B, Witt C, Wagenpfeil S, Pfaffenrath V, Hammes MG, Weidenhammer W, Willich SN, Melchart D. Acupuncture for patients with migraine: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2005;293:2118–25


8. Melchart D, Streng A, Hoppe A, Brinkhaus B, Witt C, Wagenpfeil S, Pfaffenrath V, Hammes M, Hummelsberger J, Irnich D, Weidenhammer W, Willich SN, Linde K. Acupuncture in patients with tension-type headache: randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2005;331:376–82


9. Haake M, Müller HH, Schade-Brittinger C, Basler HD, Schäfer H, Maier C, Endres HG, Trampisch HJ, Molsberger A. German Acupuncture Trials (GERAC) for chronic low back pain: randomized, multicenter, blinded, parallel-group trial with 3 groups. Arch Intern Med. 2007;167:1892–8


10. Witt C, Brinkhaus B, Jena S, Linde K, Streng A, Wagenpfeil S, Hummelsberger J, Walther HU, Melchart D, Willich SN. Acupuncture in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee: a randomised trial. Lancet. 2005;366:136–43


11. Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Avins AL, Erro JH, Ichikawa L, Barlow WE, Delaney K, Hawkes R, Hamilton L, Pressman A, Khalsa PS, Deyo RA. A randomized trial comparing acupuncture, simulated acupuncture, and usual care for chronic low back pain. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169:858–66


12. Madsen MV, Gøtzsche PC, Hróbjartsson A. Acupuncture treatment for pain: systematic review of randomised clinical trials with acupuncture, placebo acupuncture, and no acupuncture groups. BMJ. 2009;338:a3115


13. Dworkin RH, Turk DC, McDermott MP, Peirce-Sandner S, Burke LB, Cowan P, Farrar JT, Hertz S, Raja SN, Rappaport BA, Rauschkolb C, Sampaio C. Interpreting the clinical importance of group differences in chronic pain clinical trials: IMMPACT recommendations. Pain. 2009;146:238–44


14. Vickers AJ, Cronin AM, Maschino AC, Lewith G, MacPherson H, Foster NE, Sherman KJ, Witt CM, Linde K. Acupuncture for chronic pain: individual patient data meta-analysis. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172:1444–53


15. Paterson C, Taylor RS, Griffiths P, Britten N, Rugg S, Bridges J, McCallum B, Kite G. Acupuncture for ‘frequent attenders’ with medically unexplained symptoms: a randomised controlled trial (CACTUS study). Br J Gen Pract. 2011;61:e295–e305


16. . Letters in response to Acupuncture for ‘frequent attenders’ with medically unexplained symptoms. Br J Gen Pract. 2011;61 Available at: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/rcgp/bjgp/2011/00000061/00000589. Accessed March 30, 2013


17. Colquhoun D. Acupuncturists show that acupuncture doesn’t work, but conclude the opposite: journal fails. 2011 Available at: http://www.dcscience.net/?p=4439. Accessed September 2, 2012


18. Ernst E, Lee MS, Choi TY. Acupuncture: does it alleviate pain and are there serious risks? A review of reviews. Pain. 2011;152:755–64


19. Colquhoun D. NICE falls for Bait and Switch by acupuncturists and chiropractors: it has let down the public and itself. 2009 Available at: http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1516. Accessed September 2, 2012


20. Colquhoun D. The NICE fiasco, part 3. Too many vested interests, not enough honesty. 2009 Available at: http://www.dcscience.net/?p=1593. Accessed September 2, 2012


21. Bandolier. . Acupuncture for back pain—2009 update. Available at: http://www.medicine.ox.ac.uk/bandolier/booth/painpag/Chronrev/Other/acuback.html. Accessed March 30, 2013


22. Artus M, van der Windt DA, Jordan KP, Hay EM. Low back pain symptoms show a similar pattern of improvement following a wide range of primary care treatments: a systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2010;49:2346–56


23. Wang S-M, Harris RE., Lin Y-C, Gan TJ. Acupuncture in 21st century anesthesia: is there a needle in the haystack? Anesth Analg. 2013;116:1356–9


24. Lee A, Done ML. The use of nonpharmacologic techniques to prevent postoperative nausea and vomiting: a meta-analysis. Anesth Analg. 1999;88:1362–9


25. Lee A, Done ML. Stimulation of the wrist acupuncture point P6 for preventing postoperative nausea and vomiting. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004:CD003281


26. Lee A, Fan LT. Stimulation of the wrist acupuncture point P6 for preventing postoperative nausea and vomiting. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009:CD003281


27. Carlisle JB. A meta-analysis of prevention of postoperative nausea and vomiting: randomised controlled trials by Fujii etal. compared with other authors. Anaesthesia. 2012;67:1076–90


28. Sumikawa K. The results of investigation into Dr.Yoshitaka Fujii’s papers. Report of the Japanese Society of Anesthesiologists Special Investigation Committee. http://www.anesth.or.jp/english/pdf/news20120629.pdf


29. Bandolier. . Metoclopramide is ineffective in preventing postoperative nausea and vomiting. Available at: http://www.medicine.ox.ac.uk/bandolier/band71/b71-8.html. Accessed March 30, 2013


30. Henzi I, Walder B, Tramèr MR. Metoclopramide in the prevention of postoperative nausea and vomiting: a quantitative systematic review of randomized, placebo-controlled studies. Br J Anaesth. 1999;83:761–71


31. Hall H. Acupuncture’s claims punctured: not proven effective for pain, not harmless. Pain. 2011;152:711–2


32. Ioannidis JP. Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Med. 2005;2:e124


33. Simmons JP, Leif DN, Simonsohn U. False-positive psychology: undisclosed flexibility in data collection and analysis allows presenting anything as significant. Psychol Sci. 2011;22:1359–66


30 May 2013 Anesthesia & Analgesia has put the whole paper on line. No paywall now!

9 June 2013. Since this page was posted on May 30, it has had over 20,000 page views. Not bad.

26 July 2013. The Observer had a large double-page spread about acupuncture. It was written by David Derbyshire, largely on the basis of this article.

26 December 2013

Over christmas the flow of stuff that misrepresents the "thousands of years" of Chinese medicine has continued unabated. Of course one expects people who are selling Chinese herbs and acupuncture to lie. All businesses do. One does not expect such misrepresentation from British Columbia, Cardiff University School of medicine, or from Yale University. I left a comment on the Yale piece. Whether it passes moderation remains to be seen. Just in case, here it is.

One statement is undoubtedly baseless ““If it’s still in use after a thousand years there must be something right,” It’s pretty obvious to the most casual observer that many beliefs that have been round for a thousand years have proved to be utterly wrong.

In any case, it’s simply not true that most “Traditional” Chinese medicine has been around for thousands of years. Acupuncture was actually banned by the Emperor Dao Guang in 1822. The sort of Chinese medicine that is sold (very profitably) to the west was essentially dead in China until it was revived by Mao as part of the great proletarian cultural revolution (largely to stir up Chinese nationalism at that time). Of course he didn’t use it himself.

This history has been documented in detail now, and it surprises me to see it misrepresented, yet again, from a Yale academic.

Of course there might turn out to be therapeutically useful chemicals in Chinese herbs (it has happened with artemesinin). But it is totally irresponsible to pretend that great things are coming in the absence of good RCTs in human patients.

Yale should be ashamed of PR like this. And so should Cardiff University. It not only makes the universities look silly. It corrupts the whole of the rest of these institutions. Who knows how much more of their PR is mere puffery.

18 January 2014. I checked the Yale posting and found that the comment, above, had indeed been deleted. There is little point in having comments if you are going to delete anything that’s mildly critical. It is simply dishonest.

Nobody could have been more surprised than I when I found myself nominated as an academic role model at UCL. I had to answer a few questions. It is not obvious to me what the object of the stunt is, but the person who asked me to do it seemed to find the answers amusing, so I’ll reproduce here what I said. I apologise for the temporary lapse into narcissism.

The final version has now been printed [download a copy]. Sadly the printed edition was “corrected” by someone who replaced “whom I asked to submit the first theoretical paper by Hawkes and me to the Royal Society” (as written below), with “paper by Hawkes and I”. Aaargh.

DC 2013

Your nomination – Why you were nominated as an Academic Role Model?

"David Colquhoun has made major contributions to our understanding of how ion channels (proteins which allow charged ions to pass across cell membranes) function to mediate electrical signalling in nerve and muscle cells. This work elegantly combines experimental and theoretical aspects, and resulted in David being made a Fellow of the Royal Society. David Colquhoun played a key role in resisting the notion that UCL should merge with Imperial College in 2002, by running a website opposed to the merger. He thus facilitated the continued existence of an independent UCL. He is also well-known for his principled opposition to therapies that are not based on scientific evidence, and for his blog which comments on this issue as well as on university bureaucracy and politics."

Role models’ questions

1.  What is your response to being nominated?


We are interested in giving people a very brief ‘snapshot’ description of their career trajectory, to help a broad range of people see how you got to where you are:

2.   What has your career path been?

My first job (in 1950s) was as an apprentice pharmacist in Timothy Whites & Taylors (Homeopathic Chemists) in Grange Road, Birkenhead.  You can’t get a more humble start than that.  But it got me interested in drugs, and thanks to my schoolmaster father, I got to the University of Leeds. 

pa 1955
My father (1907 – 2001), in 1955

One of the courses involved some statistics, and that interested me.  I think I made a semi-conscious decision that it would be sensible to be good at something that others were bad at, so I learned quite a lot of statistics and mathematics. I recall buying a Methuen’s Monograph on Determinants and Matrices in my final year, and, with the help of an Argentinian PhD student in physical chemistry (not my lecturers) I began to make sense of it. 


I purposely went into my final viva with it sticking out of my pocket. The examiner was Walter Perry, then professor of Pharmacology in Edinburgh (he later did a great job setting up the Open University).  That’s how I came to be a PhD student in Edinburgh. 

Although Perry was one of my supervisors, the only time I saw him was when he came into my lab between committee meetings for a cigarette.  But he did make me an honorary lecturer so I could join the Staff Club, where I made many friends, including a young physics lecturer called Peter Higgs. The  staff club exists no longer, having been destroyed in one of those acts of short-sighted academic vandalism that vice-chancellors seem so fond of.

The great university expansion in the 1960s made it easy to get a job.  The most famous pharmacology department in the world was at UCL so I asked someone to introduce me to its then head, Heinz Schild, and asked him if he had a job.  While interned during WW2 he had written a paper on the statistics of biological assay and wanted someone to teach it to students, so I got a job (in 1964), and have been at UCL ever since apart from 9 years.  Between 1964 and 1970 I published little, but learned a great deal by writing a textbook on statistics.

That sort of statistics is now thought too difficult for undergraduates, and the famous department that attracted me was itself destroyed in another act of academic vandalism, in 2007.

I have spent my life doing things that I enjoy.  Such success as I’ve had, I attribute to a liking for spending time with people cleverer than I am, and wasting time drinking coffee.  I found a very clever statistician, Alan Hawkes, in the Housman Room in the late 1960s, and we began to collaborate on the theory of single ion channel analysis in a series of papers that still isn’t quite finished.  He did the hard mathematics, but I knew enough about it to write it up in a more or less comprehensible form and to write computer programs to evaluate the algebra.  When I got stuck, I would often ask Hyman Kestelman (co-author of the famous mathematics textbook, Massie & Kestelman) to explain, usually in what was then the Joint Staff Common Room at lunch time (it is now the Haldane room, the common room having been confiscated by unenlightened management).  Before leaving for the USA in 1970, I, in league with the then professor of French, Brian Woledge, eventually got through a motion that allowed women into the Housman room.

I’d also talk as much as I could to Bernard Katz, whom I asked to submit the first theoretical paper by Hawkes and me to the Royal Society. His comments on the first draft led to the published version making a prediction about single ion channel behaviour before channels could be observed. 

The next step was sheer luck.  As this was going on, two young Germans, Neher & Sakmann, succeeded in observing the tiny currents that flow through single ion channel molecules, so it became possible to test the theory.  In series of visits to Göttingen, Sakmann and I did experiments late into the night.  Neher & Sakmann got a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1991, and I expect I benefitted from a bit of reflected glory

The work that I have done is nothing if not basic.  It doesn’t fit in with the current vogue for translational research (most of which will fail), although I would regard it as laying the basis for rational drug design. My only regret is that rational drug design has proved to be so difficult that it won’t be achieved in my lifetime (please don’t believe the hype).

We’d also like you to take a slightly more personal view:

3.  What have been the highs (and the lows?) of your career so far?

The highs have been the chance to work with brilliant people and write a handful of papers that have a chance of having a lasting influence.  Because I have been able to take my time on those projects there haven’t been too many lows, apart from observing the continuous loss of academic integrity caused by the intense pressure to publish or perish, and the progressive decline in collegiality in universities caused by that pressure combined with the rise in power of managerialism.  Luckily the advent of blogs has allowed me to do a little about that. 

I’m saddened by the fact that the innumeracy of biologists that I noticed as an undergraduate has not really improved at all (though I don’t believe it is worse).  Most biologists still have difficulty with even the simplest equations.  Worse still, they don’t know enough maths to communicate their problem to a mathematician, so only too often one sees collaborations with mathematicians produce useless results.

The only real failure I’ve had was when, in a fit of vanity, I applied for the chair of Pharmacology in Oxford, in 1984, and failed to get it.  But in retrospect that was really a success too.  I would have hated the flummery of Oxford, and as head of department (an increasingly unattractive job) I would have spent my time on pushing paper, not ion channels.  In retrospect, it was a lucky escape.  UCL is my sort of place (most of the time).

We would like to hear what our role models have to say about the next generation:

4.  What advice would you give to people finishing off their PhD?  

My career course would be almost impossible now.  In fact it is very likely that I would have been fired before I got going in the present climate.  There were quite long periods when I didn’t publish much.  I was learning the tools of my trade, both mathematical and experimental.  Now there is no time to do that.  You are under pressure to publish a paper a week (for the glory of your PI and your university) and probably rarely find time to leave the lab to talk to inspiring people. If you are given any courses they’ll probably be in some inane HR nonsense, not in algebra.  That is one reason we started our summer workshop, though bizarrely that has now been dropped by the graduate school in favour of Advanced Powerpoint.

The plight of recent PhDs is dire.  Too many are taken on (for the benefit of the university, not of the student) and there aren’t many academic jobs.  If you want to stay in academia, all I can suggest is that you get good at doing something that other people can’t do, and to resist the pressure to publish dozens of trivial papers. 

Try to maintain some academic integrity despite the many pressures to do the opposite that are imposed on you by your elders (but not always betters).  That may or may not be enough to get you the job that you want, but at least you’ll be able to hold your head high. 

Finally, we want to give a balanced impression of our role models because many were nominated for their ability to motivate others, and to balance life and work:

5.  How do you keep motivated?

Work-life balance is much talked about by HR, though they are one of the reasons why it is now almost impossible, In the past it wasn’t a great problem.  I’m fascinated by the problems that I’m trying to puzzle out.  I’ve had periods of a year or two when things haven’t gone well and I’ve felt as though I was a failure, but luckily they haven’t lasted too long, and they occurred in a time before some idiotic performance manager would harass you for failing to publish for a year or two.  The climate of “performance management” is doing a lot to kill innovation and creativity.

6.  What do you do when are not working in SLMS?                                                               

I’ve had various phases. For a while I carried on boxing (which had been compulsory at school). When I was first at UCL in 1964 I bought a 21 foot sloop (and as a consequence could barely afford to eat), and in 1970 (at Yale) I learned to fly. I had a lot of fun sailing right up to the early 1980s, when I found I could not afford a son as well as a boat. That was when running came into fashion and that could be done for the price of a pair of shoes.  I did marathons and half marathons for fun (the London in 1988 was great fun).  And that was supplanted by walking country trails in the early 2000s.  

There is never a clear division between work and play, especially with algebra. You can continue to struggle with a derivation on a boat, or even get a new angle on it while running.  That, of course, is why the transparency review is such total nonsense.

The main cause of stress has never been work for me. Stress comes mainly from the imposition of dim-witted managerialism and incompetent HR policies.  And that has become progressively worse.  I doubt that if I were a young academic now I’d have the time to spend the weekend sailing.

I’m not sure whether the blogging that has taken up something like half my time since my nominal retirement in 2004 counts as work or not.  It certainly depends on things that I have learned in my academic work.  And it’s fun to have effects in the real world after a life spent on problems that many would regard as esoteric. 

If you want a hobby that costs very little, and allows you to say what you want, start a blog.


Jump to follow-up

The Scottish Universities Medical Journal asked me to write about the regulation of alternative medicine. It’s an interesting topic and not easy to follow because of the veritable maze of more than twenty overlapping regulators and quangos which fail utterly to protect the public against health fraud. In fact they mostly promote health fraud. The paper is now published, and here is a version with embedded links (and some small updates).

We are witnessing an increasing commercialisation of medicine. It’s really taken off since the passage of the Health and Social Security Bill into law. Not only does that mean having NHS hospitals run by private companies, but it means that “any qualified provider” can bid for just about any service.  The problem lies, of course, in what you consider “qualified” to mean.  Any qualified homeopath or herbalist will, no doubt, be eligible.  University College London Hospital advertised for a spiritual healer. The "person specification" specified a "quallfication", but only HR people think that a paper qualification means that spiritual healing is anything but a delusion.


The vocabulary of bait and switch

First, a bit of vocabulary.  Alternative medicine is a term that is used for medical treatments that don’t work (or at least haven’t been shown to work).  If they worked, they’d be called “medicine”.  The anti-malarial, artemesinin, came originally from a Chinese herb, but once it had been purified and properly tested, it was no longer alternative.  But the word alternative is not favoured by quacks.  They prefer their nostrums to be described as “complementary” –it sounds more respectable.  So CAM (complementary and alternative medicine became the politically-correct euphemism.  Now it has gone a stage further, and the euphemism in vogue with quacks at the moment is “integrated” or “integrative” medicine.  That means, very often, integrating things that don’t work with things that do.  But it sounds fashionable.  In reality it is designed to confuse politicians who ask for, say, integrated services for old people.

Put another way, the salespeople of quackery have become rather good at bait and switch. The wikepedia definition is as good as any.

Bait-and-switch is a form of fraud, most commonly used in retail sales but also applicable to other contexts. First, customers are “baited” by advertising for a product or service at a low price; second, the customers discover that the advertised good is not available and are “switched” to a costlier product.

As applied to the alternative medicine industry, the bait is usually in the form of some nice touchy-feely stuff which barely mentions the mystical nonsense. But when you’ve bought into it you get the whole panoply of nonsense. Steven Novella has written eloquently about the use of bait and switch in the USA to sell chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine: "The bait is that CAM offers legitimate alternatives, the switch is that it primarily promotes treatments that don’t work or are at best untested and highly implausible.".

The "College of Medicine" provides a near-perfect example of bait and switch. It is the direct successor of the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health. The Prince’s Foundation was a consistent purveyor of dangerous medical myths. When it collapsed in 2010 because of a financial scandal, a company was formed called "The College for Integrated Health". A slide show, not meant for public consumption, said "The College represents a new strategy to take forward the vision of HRH Prince Charles". But it seems that too many people have now tumbled to the idea that "integrated", in this context, means barmpottery. Within less than a month, the new institution was renamed "The College of Medicine". That might be a deceptive name, but it’s a much better bait. That’s why I described the College as a fraud and delusion.

Not only did the directors, all of them quacks, devise a respectable sounding name, but they also succeeded in recruiting some respectable-sounding people to act as figureheads for the new organisation. The president of the College is Professor Sir Graham Catto, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Aberdeen. Names like his make the bait sound even more plausible. He claims not to believe that homeopathy works, but seems quite happy to have a homeopathic pharmacist, Christine Glover, on the governing council of his college. At least half of the governing Council can safely be classified as quacks.

So the bait is clear. What about the switch? The first thing to notice is that the whole outfit is skewed towards private medicine: see The College of Medicine is in the pocket of Crapita Capita. The founder, and presumably the main provider of funds (they won’t say how much) is the huge outsourcing company, Capita. This is company known in Private Eye as Crapita. Their inefficiency is legendary. They are the folks who messed up the NHS computer system and the courts computer system. After swallowing large amounts of taxpayers’ money, they failed to deliver anything that worked. Their latest failure is the court translation service.. The president (Catto), the vice president (Harry Brunjes) and the CEO (Mark Ratnarajah) are all employees of Capita.

The second thing to notice is that their conferences and courses are a bizarre mixture of real medicine and pure quackery. Their 2012 conference had some very good speakers, but then it had a "herbal workshop" with Simon Mills (see a video) and David Peters (the man who tolerates dowsing as a way to diagnose which herb to give you). The other speaker was Dick Middleton, who represents the huge herbal company, Schwabe (I debated with him on BBC Breakfast), In fact the College’s Faculty of Self-care appears to resemble a marketing device for Schwabe.

Why regulation isn’t working, and can’t work

There are various levels of regulation. The "highest" level is the statutory regulation of osteopathy and chiropractic. The General Chiropractic Council (GCC) has exactly the same legal status as the General Medical Council (GMC). This ludicrous state of affairs arose because nobody in John Major’s government had enough scientific knowledge to realise that chiropractic, and some parts of osteopathy, are pure quackery,

The problem is that organisations like the GCC function more to promote chiropractic than to regulate them. This became very obvious when the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) decided to sue Simon Singh for defamation, after he described some of their treatments as “bogus”, “without a jot of evidence”.

In order to support Singh, several bloggers assessed the "plethora of evidence" which the BCA said could be used to justify their claims. When, 15 months later, the BCA produced its "plethora" it was shown within 24 hours that the evidence was pathetic. The demolition was summarised by lawyer, David Allen Green, in The BCA’s Worst Day.

In the wake of this, over 600 complaints were made to the GCC about unjustified claims made by chiropractors, thanks in large part to heroic work by two people, Simon Perry and Allan Henness. Simon Perry’s Fishbarrel (browser plugin) allows complaints to be made quickly and easily -try it). The majority of these complaints were rejected by the GCC, apparently on the grounds that chiropractors could not be blamed because the false claims had been endorsed by the GCC itself.

My own complaint was based on phone calls to two chiropractors, I was told such nonsense as "colic is down to, er um, faulty movement patterns in the spine". But my complaint  never reached the Conduct and Competence committee because it had been judged by a preliminary investigating committee that there was no case to answer. The impression one got from this (very costly) exercise was that the GCC was there to protect chiropractors, not to protect the public.

The outcome was a disaster for chiropractors, wno emerged totally discredited. It was also a disaster for the GCC which was forced to admit that it hadn’t properly advised chiropractors about what they could and couldn’t claim. The recantation culminated in the GCC declaring, in August 2010, that the mythical "subluxation" is a "historical concept " "It is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease.". Subluxation was a product of the fevered imagination of the founder of the chiropractic cult, D.D. Palmer. It referred to an imaginary spinal lesion that he claimed to be the cause of most diseases. .Since ‘subluxation’ is the only thing that’s distinguished chiropractic from any other sort of manipulation, the admission by the GCC that it does not exist, after a century of pretending that it does, is quite an admission.

The President of the BCA himself admitted in November 2011

“The BCA sued Simon Singh personally for libel. In doing so, the BCA began one of the darkest periods in its history; one that was ultimately to cost it financially,”

As a result of all this, the deficiencies of chiropractic, and the deficiencies of its regulator were revealed, and advertisements for chiropractic are somewhat less misleading. But this change for the better was brought about entirely by the unpaid efforts of bloggers and a few journalists, and not at all by the official regulator, the GCC. which was part of the problem. not the solution. And it was certainly not helped by the organisation that is meant to regulate the GCC, the Council for Health Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) which did nothing whatsoever to stop the farce.

At the other end of the regulatory spectrum, voluntary self-regulation, is an even worse farce than the GCC. They all have grand sounding "Codes of Practice" which, in practice, the ignore totally.

The Society of Homeopaths is just a joke. When homeopaths were caught out recommending sugar pills for prevention of malaria, they did nothing (arguably such homicidal advice deserves a jail sentence).

The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) is widely know in the blogosphere as Ofquack. I know about them from the inside, having been a member of their Conduct and Competence Committee, It was set up with the help of a £900,000 grant from the Department of Health to the Prince of Wales, to oversee voluntary self-regulation. It fails utterly to do anything useful.. The CNHC code of practice, paragraph 15 , states

“Any advertising you undertake in relation to your professional activities must be accurate. Advertisements must not be misleading, false, unfair or exaggerated”. 

When Simon Perry made a complaint to the CNHC about claims being made by a CNHC-registered reflexologist, the Investigating Committee upheld all 15 complaints.  But it then went on to say that there was no case to answer because the unjustified claims were what the person had been taught, and were made in good faith. 
This is precisely the ludicrous situation which will occur again and again if reflexologists (and many other alternative therapies) are “accredited”.  The CNHC said, correctly, that the reflexologist had been taught things that were not true, but then did nothing whatsoever about it apart from toning down the advertisements a bit. They still register reflexologists who make outrageously false claims.

Once again we see that no sensible regulation is possible for subjects that are pure make-believe.

The first two examples deal (or rather, fail to deal) with regulation of outright quackery. But there are dozens of other quangos that sound a lot more respectable.

European Food Standards Agency (EFSA). One of the common scams is to have have your favourite quack treatment classified as a food not as a medicine. The laws about what you can claim have been a lot laxer for foods. But the EFSA has done a pretty good job in stopping unjustified claims for health benefits from foods. Dozens of claims made by makers of probiotics have been banned. The food industry, needless to say, objects very strongly to be being forced to tell the truth. In my view, the ESFA has not gone far enough. They recently issued a directive about claims that could legally be made. Some of these betray the previously high standards of the EFSA. For example you are allowed to say that "Vitamin C contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue" (as long as the product contains above a specified amount of Vitamin C. I’m not aware of any trials that show vitamin C has the slightest effect on tiredness or fatigue, Although these laws do not come into effect until December 2012, they have already been invoked by the ASA has a reason not to uphold a complaint about a multivitamin pill which claimed that it “Includes 8 nutrients that can contribute to the reduction in tiredness and fatigue”

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). This is almost the only organisation that has done a good job on false health claims. Their Guidance on Health Therapies & Evidence says

"Whether you use the words ‘treatment’, ‘treat’ or ‘cure’, all are likely to be seen by members of the public as claims to alleviate effectively a condition or symptom. We would advise that they are not used"

"Before and after’ studies with little or no control, studies without human subjects, self-assessment studies and anecdotal evidence are unlikely to be considered acceptable"

"Before and after’ studies with little or no control, studies without human subjects, self-assessment studies and anecdotal evidence are unlikely to be considered acceptable"

They are spot on.

The ASA’s Guidance for Advertisers of Homeopathic Services is wonderful.

"In the simplest terms, you should avoid using efficacy claims, whether implied or direct,"

"To date, the ASA has have not seen persuasive evidence to support claims that homeopathy can treat, cure or relieve specific conditions or symptoms."

That seems to condemn the (mis)labelling allowed by the MHRA as breaking the rules.. Sadly, though, the ASA has no powers to enforce its decisions and only too often they are ignored. The Nightingale collaboration has produced an excellent letter that you can hand to any pharmacist who breaks the rules

The ASA has also judged against claims made by "Craniosacral therapists" (that’s the lunatic fringe of osteopathy). They will presumably uphold complaints about similar claims made (I’m ashamed to say) by UCLH Hospitals.

The private examination company Edexcel sets exams in antiscientific subjects, so miseducating children. The teaching of quackery to 16 year-olds has been approved by a maze of quangos, none  of which will take responsibility, or justify their actions. So far I’ve located no fewer than eight of them. The Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (OfQual), Edexcel, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), Skills for Health, Skills for Care, National Occupational Standards (NOS), private exam company VTCT and the schools inspectorate, Ofsted.. Asking any of these people why they approve of examinations in imaginary subjects meets with blank incomprehension. They fail totally to protect tha public from utter nonsense.

The Department of Education has failed to do anything about the miseducation of children in quackery. In fact it has encouraged it by, for the first time, giving taxpayers’ money to a Steiner (Waldorf) school (at Frome, in Somerset). Steiner schools are run by a secretive and cult-like body of people (read about it). They teach about reincarnation, karma, gnomes, and all manner of nonsense, sometimes with unpleasant racial overtones. The teachers are trained in Steiner’s Anthroposophy, so if your child gets ill at school they’ll probably get homeopathic sugar pills. They might well get measles or mumps too, since Steiner people don’t believe in vaccination.

Incredibly, the University of Aberdeen came perilously close to appointing a chair in anthroposophical medicine. This disaster was aborted by bloggers, and a last minute intervention from journalists. Neither the university’s regulatory mechanisms. nor any others, seemed to realise that a chair in mystical barmpottery was a bad idea.

Trading Standards offices and the Office of Fair Trading.

It is the statutory duty of Trading Standards to enforce the Consumer Protection Regulations (2008) This European legislation is pretty good. it caused a lawyer to write " Has The UK Quietly Outlawed “Alternative” Medicine?". Unfortunately Trading Standards people have consistently refused to enforce these laws. The whole organisation is a mess. Its local office arrangement fails totally to deal with the age of the internet. The situation is so bad that a group of us decided to put them to the test. The results were published in the Medico-Legal Journal, Rose et al., 2012. "Spurious Claims for Health-care Products: An Experimental Approach to Evaluating Current UK Legislation and its Implementation". They concluded "EU directive 2005/29/EC is
largely ineffective in preventing misleading health claims for consumer products in
the UK"

Skills for Health is an enormous quango which produces HR style "competences" for everything under the son. They are mostly quite useless. But those concerned with alternative medicine are not just useless. They are positively harmful. Totally barmy. There are competences and National Occupational Standards for every lunatic made-up therapy under the sun. When I phoned them to discover who’d written them, I learned that the had been drafted by the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Magic Medicine. And when I joked by asking if they had a competence for talking to trees, I was told, perfectly seriously, “You’d have to talk to LANTRA, the land-based organisation for that.”

That was in January 2008. A lot of correspondence with the head of Skills for Health got nowhere at all. She understood nothing and it hasn’t improved a jot.

This organisation costs a lot of taxpayers’ money and it should have been consigned to the "bonfire of the quangos" (but of course there was no such bonfire in reality). It is a disgrace.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is supposed to ensure the quality of university courses. In fact it endorses courses in nonsense alternative medicine and so does more harm than good. The worst recent failure of the QAA was in the case of the University of Wales: see Scandal of the University of Wales and the Quality Assurance Agency. The university was making money by validating thousands of external degrees in everything from fundamentalist theology to Chinese Medicine. These validations were revealed as utterly incompetent by bloggers, and later by BBC Wales journalist Ciaran Jenkins (now working for Channel 4).

The mainstream media eventually caught up with bloggers. In 2010, BBC1 TV (Wales) produced an excellent TV programme that exposed the enormous degree validation scam run by the University of Wales. The programme can be seen on YouTube (Part 1, and Part 2). The programme also exposed, incidentally, the uselessness of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) which did nothing until the scam was exposed by TV and blogs. Eventually the QAA sent nine people to Malaysia to investigate a dodgy college that had been revealed by the BBC. The trip cost £91,000. It could have been done for nothing if anyone at the QAA knew how to use Google.

The outcome was that the University of Wales stopped endorsing external courses, and it was soon shut down altogether (though bafflingly, its vice-chancellor, Marc Clement was promoted). The credit for this lies entirely with bloggers and the BBC. The QAA did nothing to help until the very last moment.

Throughout this saga Universities UK (UUK), has maintained its usual total passivity. They have done nothing whatsoever about their members who give BSc degrees in anti-scientific subjects. (UUK used to known as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals).

Council for Health Regulatory Excellence (CHRE), soon to become the PSAHSC,

Back now to the CHRE, the people who failed so signally to sort out the GCC. They are being reorganised. Their consultation document says

"The Health and Social Care Act 20122 confers a new function on the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (the renamed Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence). From November 2012 we will set standards for organisations that hold voluntary registers for people working in health and social care occupations and we will accredit the register if they meet those standards. It will then be known as an ‘Accredited Register’. "

They are trying to decide what the criteria should be for "accreditation" of a regulatory body. The list of those interested has some perfectly respectable organisations, like the British Psychological Society. It also contains a large number of crackpot organisations, like Crystal and Healing International, as well as joke regulators like the CNHC.

They already oversee the Health Professions Council (HPC) which is due to take over Herbal medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine, with predictably disastrous consequences.

Two of the proposed criteria for "accreditation" appear to be directly contradictory.

Para 2.5 makes the whole accreditation pointless from the point of view of patients

2.5 It will not be an endorsement of the therapeutic validity or effectiveness of any particular discipline or treatment.

Since the only thing that matters to the patient is whether the therapy works (and is safe), accrediting of organisations that ignore this will merely give the appearance of official approval of crystal healing etc etc. This appears to contradict directly

A.7 The organisation can demonstrate that there either is a sound knowledge base underpinning the profession or it is developing one and makes that explicit to the public.

A "sound knowledge base", if it is to mean anything useful at all, means knowledge that the treatment is effective. If it doesn’t mean that, what does it mean?

It seems that the official mind has still not grasped the obvious fact that there can be no sensible regulation of subjects that are untrue nonsense. If it is nonsense, the only form of regulation that makes any sense is the law.

Please fill in the consultation. My completed return can be downloaded as an example, if you wish.

Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should be a top level defender of truth. Its strapline is

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

The MHRA did something (they won’t tell me exactly what) about one of the most cruel scams that I’ve ever encountered, Esperanza Homeopathic Neuropeptide, peddled for multiple sclerosis, at an outrageous price ( £6,759 for 12 month’s supply). Needless to say there was not a jot of evidence that it worked (and it wasn’t actually homeopathic).

Astoundingly, Trading Standards officers refused to do anything about it.

The MHRA admit (when pushed really hard) that there is precious little evidence that any of the herbs work, and that homeopathy is nothing more than sugar pills. Their answer to that is to forget that bit about "ensuring that medicines … work"

Here’s the MHRA’s Traditional Herbal Registration Certificate for devils claw tablets.


The wording "based on traditional use only" has to be included because of European legislation. Shockingly, the MHRA have allowed them to relegate that to small print, with all the emphasis on the alleged indications. The pro-CAM agency NCCAM rates devil’s claw as "possibly effective" or "insufficient evidence" for all these indications, but that doesn’t matter because the MHRA requires no evidence whatsoever that the tablets do anything. They should, of course, added a statement to this effect to the label. They have failed in their duty to protect and inform the public by allowing this labelling.

But it gets worse. Here is the MHRA’s homeopathic marketing authorisation for the homeopathic medicinal product Arnicare Arnica 30c pillules

It is nothing short of surreal.


Since the pills contain nothing at all, they don’t have the slightest effect on sprains, muscular aches or bruising. The wording on the label is exceedingly misleading.

If you "pregnant or breastfeeding" there is no need to waste you doctor’s time before swallowing a few sugar pills.

"Do not take a double dose to make up for a missed one". Since the pills contain nothing, it doesn’t matter a damn.

"If you overdose . . " it won’t have the slightest effect because there is nothing in them

And it gets worse. The MHRA-approved label specifies ACTIVE INGREDIENT. Each pillule contains 30c Arnica Montana

No, they contain no arnica whatsoever.


It truly boggles the mind that men with dark suits and lots of letters after their names have sat for hours only to produce dishonest and misleading labels like these.

When this mislabeling was first allowed, it was condemned by just about every scientific society, but the MHRA did nothing.

The Nightingale Collaboration.

This is an excellent organisation, set up by two very smart skeptics, Alan Henness and Maria MacLachlan. Visit their site regularly, sign up for their newsletter Help with their campaigns. Make a difference.


The regulation of alternative medicine in the UK is a farce. It is utterly ineffective in preventing deception of patients.

Such improvements as have occurred have resulted from the activity of bloggers, and sometime the mainstream media. All the official regulators have, to varying extents, made things worse.

The CHRE proposals promise to make matters still worse by offering "accreditation" to organisations that promote nonsensical quackery. None of the official regulators seem to be able to grasp the obvious fact that is impossible to have any sensible regulation of people who promote nonsensical untruths. One gets the impression that politicians are more concerned to protect the homeopathic (etc, etc) industry than they are to protect patients.

Deception by advocates of alternative medicine harms patients. There are adequate laws that make such deception illegal, but they are not being enforced. The CHRE and its successor should restrict themselves to real medicine. The money that they spend on pseudo-regulation of quacks should be transferred to the MHRA or a reformed Trading Standards organisation so they can afford to investigate and prosecute breaches of the law. That is the only form of regulation that makes sense.



The shocking case of the continuing sale of “homeopathic vaccines” for meningitis, rubella, pertussis etc was highlighted in an excellent TV programme by BBC South West. The failure of the MHRA and the GPC do take any effective action is a yet another illustration of the failure of regulators to do their job. I have to agree with Andy Lewis when he concludes

“Children will die. And the fault must lie with Professor Sir Kent Woods, chairman of the regulator.”

Jump to follow-up

Although many university courses in quackery have now closed, two subjects that hang on in a few places are western herbalism, and traditional Chinese medicine (including acupuncture). The University of Westminster still runs Chinese medicine, and Western herbal medicine (with dowsing). So do the University of Middlesex and University of East London.

Since the passing of the Health and Social Security Act, these people have been busy with their customary bait and switch tactics, trying to get taxpayers’ money. It’s worth looking again at the nonsense these people talk.

Take for example, the well known herbalist, Simon Mills. At one time he was associated with the University of Exeter, but no longer. Perhaps his views are too weird even for their Third Gap section (the folks who so misrepresented their results in a trial of acupuncture). Unsurprisingly, he was involved in the late Prince’s Foundation for Magic Medicine, and, unsurprisingly, he is involved with its successor, the "College of Medicine", where he spoke along similar lines. You can get a good idea about his views from the video of a talk that he gave at Schumacher College in 2005. It’s rather long, and exceedingly uncritical, so here’s a shorter version to which some helpful captions have been added.

That talk is weird by any standards. He says, apparently with a straight face, that "all modern medicines are cold in the third degree"..And with ginger and cinnamon "You can stop a cold, generally speaking, in its tracks" (at 21′ 30" in the video). This is simply not true, but he says it, despite the fact that the Plant Medicine with site (of which he’s a director) which he is associated gives them low ratings

Simon Mills is also a director of SustainCare. Their web site says

SustainCare Community Interest Company is a social enterprise set up to return health care to its owners: “learning to look after ourselves and our families in ways that make sense and do not cost the earth“. It is founded on the principle that one’s health is a personal story, and that illness is best managed when we make our health care our own. The enterprise brings clinical expertise, long experience of academia, education and business, and the connections and resources to deliver new approaches.

"As its own social enterprise contribution to this project Sustaincare set up and supported Café Sustain as a demonstration Intelligent Waiting Room at Culm Valley Integrated Centre for Health in Devon". (yes, that’s Michael Dixon, again]

In the talk (see video) Mills appears to want to take medicine back to how it was 1900 years ago, in the time of Galen. The oblique speaking style is fascinating. He never quite admits that he thinks all that nonsense is true, but presumably it is how he treats patients. Yet a person with these bizarre pre-scientific ideas is thought appropriate to advise the MHRA

It’s characteristic of herbalists that they have a very long list of conditions for which each herb is said to be good. The sort of things said by Mills differ little from the 1900-year old ideas of Galen, io the 17th century ideas of Culpepper.

You can see some of the latter in my oldest book, Blagrave’s supplement to Culpepper’s famous herbal, published in 1674.


See what he has to say about daffodils


It is "under the dominion of Mars, and the roots hereof are hot and dry almost in the third degree".

"The root, boyled in posset drink, and drunk, causeth vomiting, and is used with good successe in the beginning of Agues, especiallyTertians, which frequently rage in the spring-time: a plaister made of the roots with parched Barley meal, and applied to swellings and imposthumes do dissolve them; the juice mingled with hony, frankincense, wine and myrrhe, and dropped into the Eares, is good against the corrupt filth and running matter of the Eares; the roots made hollow and boyled in oyl doth help Kib’d heels [or here]: the juice of the root is good for Morphew, and discolourings of the skin."

It seems that daffodils would do a lot in 1674. Even herbalists don’t seem to use it much now. A recent herbal site describes daffodil as "poisonous".

But the descriptions are very like those used by present day herbalists, as you can hear in Simon Mills’ talk.

Chinese medicine is even less tested than western herbs. Not a single Chinese herb has been shown to be useful for treating anything (though in a very few case, they have been found to contain drugs that are useful when purified, notably the anti-malarial compound, artemesinin). They are often contaminated, some are dangerously toxic. And they contribute to the extinction of tigers and rhinoceros because of the silly myths that these make useful medicines. The cruelty of bear bile farming is legendary.

In a recent report in China Daily (my emphasis).

In a congratulation letter, Vice-Premier Li Keqiang called for integration of TCM and Western medicine.

TCM, as a time-honored treasure of Chinese civilization, has contributed to the prosperity of China and brought impacts to world civilization, Li said.

He also urged medical workers to combine the merits of TCM with contemporary medicine to better facilitate the ongoing healthcare reform in China.

The trade in Chinese medicines survives only for two reasons. One is that thay are a useful tool for promoting Chinese nationalism. The other is that they are big business. Both are evident in the vice-premier’s statement.

I presume that it’s the business bit that is the reason why London South Bank University (ranked 114 ou ot 114) that led to one of their main lecture theatres being decorated with pictures like this.“Mr Li Changchun awarding 2010 Confucius Institute of the year to LSBU Vice Chancellor” . I’ll bet Mr Li Changchun uses real medicine himself, as most Chinese who can afford it do.


Presumably, what’s taught in their Confucius Institute is the same sort of dangerous make-believe nonsense.that’s taught on other such courses.

The "College of Medicine" run a classical bait and switch operation. Their "First Thursday lectures" have several good respectable speakers, but then they have Andrew Flower, He is "a former president of the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, a medical herbalist and acupuncturist. He has recently completed a PhD exploring the role of Chinese herbal medicine in the treatment of endometriosis". He’s associated with the Avicenna Centre for Chinese Medicine, and with the University of Southampton’s quack division The only bit of research I could find by Andrew Flower was a Cochrane review, Chinese herbal medicine for endometriosis. The main results tell us

"Two Chinese RCTs involving 158 women were included in this review. Both these trials described adequate methodology. Neither trial compared CHM with placebo treatment."

But the plain language summary says

"This review suggests that Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) may be useful in relieving endometriosis-related pain with fewer side effects than experienced with conventional treatment."

It sounds to me as though people as partisan as the authors of this should not be allowed to write Cochrane reviews.

Flower’s talk is followed by one from the notorious representative of the herbal industry, Michael McIntyre, talking on Herbal medicine: A major resource for the 21st century. That’s likely to be about as objective as if they’d invited a GSK drug rep to talk about SSRIs.

The people at Kings College London Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences are most certainly not quacks. They have made a database of chemicals found in traditional Chinese medicine. It’s sold by a US company, Chem-TCM and it’s very expensive (Commercial license: $3,740.00. Academic/government license: $1,850.00). Not much open access there. It’s a good idea to look at chemicals of plant origin, but only as long as you don’t get sucked into the myths. It’s only too easy to fall for the bait and switch of quacks (like TCM salespeople). The sample page shows good chemical and botanical information, and predicted (not observed) pharmacological activity. More bizarrely, it shows also analysis of the actions claimed by TCM people.



It does seem odd to me to apply sophisticated classification methods to things that are mostly myth.

The multiple uses claimed for Chinese medicines are very like the make-believe claims made for western herbs by Galen, Culpepper and (with much less excuse) by Mills.

They are almost all untrue, but their proponents are good salesmen. Don’t let them get a foot in your door.


10 June 2012. No sooner did this post go public when I can across what must be one of the worst herbal scams ever: “Arthroplex

31 July 2012. Coffee is the subject of another entry in the 1674 edition of Blagrave.


Blagrave evidently had a lower regard for coffee than I have.

“But being pounded and baked, as do it to make the Coffee-liquor with, it then stinks most loathsomly, which is an argument of some Saturnine quality in it.”

“But there is no mention of an medicinal use thereof, by any Author either Antient of Modern”

Blagrave says also

“But this I may truly say of it [coffee]: Quod Anglorum Corpora quae huic liquori, tantopere indulgent, in Barbarorum naturam degenerasse videntur,”

This was translated expertly by Benet Salway, of UCL’s History department

“that the bodies of the English that indulge in this liquor to such an extent seem to degenerate into the nature of barbarians” 

My boss, Lucia Sivolotti got something very like that herself. Be very impressed.

Salway suggested that clearer Latin would have been “quod corpora Anglorum, qui tantopere indulgent huic liquori, degenerasse in naturam barbarorum videntur”.

I’d have passed that on to Blagrave, but I can’t find his email address.

I much prefer Alfréd Rényi’s aphorism (often misattributed to Paul Erdös)

“A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems”

There’s been no official announcement, but four more of Westminster’s courses in junk medicine have quietly closed.

For entry in 2011 they offer

University of Westminster (W50) qualification
Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture (B343) 3FT Hon BSc
Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture with Foundation (B341) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci
Complementary Medicine (B255) 3FT Hon BSc
Complementary Medicine (B301) 4FT Hon MHSci
Complementary Medicine: Naturopathy (B391) 3FT Hon BSc
Herbal Medicine (B342) 3FT Hon BSc
Herbal Medicine with Foundation Year (B340) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci
Nutritional Therapy (B400) 3FT Hon BSc

But for entry in 2012

University of Westminster (W50) qualification
Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture (B343) 3FT Hon BSc
Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture with Foundation (B341) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci
Herbal Medicine (B342) 3FT Hon BSc
Herbal Medicine with Foundation Year (B340) 4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSc


At the end of 2006, Westminster was offering 14 different BSc degrees in seven flavours of junk medicine. In October 2008, it was eleven. This year it’s eight, and next year only four degrees in two subjects. Since "Integrated Health" was ‘merged’ with Biological Sciences in May 2010, two of the original courses have been dropped each year. This September there will be a final intake for Nutrition Therapy and Naturopathy. That leaves only two, Chinese Medicine (acupuncture and (Western) Herbal Medicine.

The official reason given for the closures is always that the number of applications has fallen. I’m told that the number of applications has halved over the last five or six years. If that’s right, it counts as a big success for the attempts of skeptics to show the public the nonsense that’s taught on these degrees. Perhaps it is a sign that we are emerging from the endarkenment.

Rumour has it that the remaining degrees will eventually close too. Let’s hope so. Meanwhile, here is another helping hand.

There is already quite a bit here about the dangers of Chinese medicine, e.g. here and, especially, here. A submission to the Department of Health gives more detail. There has been a lot on acupuncture here too. There is now little doubt that it’s no more than a theatrical, and not very effective, placebo. So this time I’ll concentrate on Western herbal medicine.

Western Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is just a branch of pharmacology and it could be taught as such. But it isn’t. It comes overlaid with much superstitious nonsense. Some of it can be seen in slides from Edinburgh Napier University (the difference being that Napier closed that course, and Westminster hasn’t)

Even if it were taught properly, it wouldn’t be appropriate for a BSc for several reasons.

First, there isn’t a single herbal that has full marketing authorisation from the MHRA. In other words, there isn’t a single herb for which there is good evidence that it works to a useful extent.

Second, the fact that the active principals in plants are virtually always given in an unknown dose makes them potentially dangerous. This isn’t 1950s pharmacology. It’s 1920s pharmacology, dating from a time before methods were worked out for standardising the potency of natural products (see Plants as Medicines).

Third, if you are going to treat illness with chemicals, why restrict yourself to chemicals that occur in plants?

It was the herbal medicine course that gave rise to the most virulent internal complaints at the University of Westminster. These complaints revealed the use of pendulum dowsing by some teachers on the course and the near-illegal, and certainly dangerous, teaching about herbs in cancer.

Here are a few slides from Principles of Herbal Medicine(3CT0 502). The vocabulary seems to be stuck in a time warp. When I first started in the late 1950s, words like tonic, carminative, demulcent and expectorant were common Over the last 40 years all these words have died out in pharmacology, for the simple reason that it became apparent that there were no such actions. But these imaginary categories are still alive and well in the herbal world.

There was a lecture on a categories of drugs so old-fashioned that I’ve never even heard the words: "nervines". and "adaptogens".



The "tonics" listed here seem quite bizarre. In the 1950s, “tonics” containing nux vomica (a small dose of strychnine) and gentian (tastes nasty) were common, but they vanished years ago, because they don’t work. None of those named here even get a mention in NCCAM’s Herbs-at-a-glance. Oats? Come on!

The only ‘relaxant’ here for which there is the slightest evidence is Valerian. I recall tincture of Valerian in a late 1950s pharmacy. It smells terrible,

According to NCCAM

  • 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 other conditions, such as anxiety or depression.

Not much, for something that’s been around for centuries.

And for chamomile

  • Chamomile has not been well studied in people so there is little evidence to support its use for any condition.

None of this near-total lack of evidence is mentioned on the slides.


What about the ‘stimulants‘? Rosemary? No evidence at all. Tea and coffee aren’t medicine (and not very good stimulants for me either).

Ginseng, on the other hand, is big business. That doesn’t mean it works of course. NCCAM says of Asian ginseng (Panax Ginseng).

  • Some studies have shown that Asian ginseng may lower blood glucose. Other studies indicate possible beneficial effects on immune function.
  • Although Asian ginseng has been widely studied for a variety of uses, research results to date do not conclusively support health claims associated with the herb. Only a few large, high-quality clinical trials have been conducted. Most evidence is preliminary—i.e., based on laboratory research or small clinical trials.



Thymoleptics – antidepressants are defined as "herbs that engender a feeling of wellbeing. They uplift the spirit, improve the mood and counteract depression".

Oats, Lemon balm, Damiana, Vervain. Lavender and Rosemary are just old bits of folklore

NCCAM says

Some “sleep formula” products combine valerian with other herbs such as hops, lavender, lemon balm, and skullcap. Although many of these other herbs have sedative properties, there is no reliable evidence that they improve insomnia.



The only serious contender here is St John’s Wort. At one time this was the prize exhibit for herbalists. It has been shown to be as good as the conventional SSRIs for treatment of mild to moderate depression. Sadly it has turned out that the SSRIs are themselves barely better than placebos. NCCAM says

  • There is scientific evidence that St. John’s wort may be useful for short-term treatment of mild to moderate depression. Although some studies have reported benefits for more severe depression, others have not; for example, a large study sponsored by NCCAM found that the herb was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression of moderate severity.

"Adaptogens" are another figment of the herbalists’ imaginations. They are defined in the lecture thus.

  • Herbs that have a normalising or balancing effect.
  • Mind and body are restored to optimum normal peak,
  • Increase threshold to physical and mental trauma and damage
  • Mental and physical activity and performance improved.

Well, it would be quite nice if such drugs existed. Sadly they don’t.

NCCAM says

  • The evidence for using astragalus for any health condition is limited. High-quality clinical trials (studies in people) are generally lacking.

Another lecture dealt with "stimulating herbs". No shortage of them, it seems.


Well at least one of these has quite well-understood effects in pharmacology, ephedrine, a sympathomimetic amine. It isn’t used much because it can be quite dangerous, even with the controlled dose that’s used in real medicine. In the uncontrolled dose in herbal medicines it is downright dangerous.



This is what NCCAM says about Ephedra

  • An NCCAM-funded study that analyzed phone calls to poison control centers found a higher rate of side effects from ephedra, compared with other herbal products.
  • Other studies and systematic reviews have found an increased risk of heart, psychiatric, and gastrointestinal problems, as well as high blood pressure and stroke, with ephedra use.
  • According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is little evidence of ephedra’s effectiveness, except for short-term weight loss. However, the increased risk of heart problems and stroke outweighs any benefits.

It seems that what is taught in the BSc Herbal Medicine degree consists largely of folk-lore and old wives’ tales. Some of it could be quite dangerous for patients.

A problem for pharmacognosists

While talking about herbal medicine, it’s appropriate to mention a related problem, though it has nothing to do with the University of Westminster.

My guess is that not many people have even heard of pharmacognosy. If it were not for my humble origins as an apprentice pharmacist in Grange Road, Birkenhead (you can’t get much more humble than that) I might not know either.

Pharmacognosy is a branch of botany, the study of plant drugs. I recall inspecting powered digitalis leaves under a microscope. In Edinburgh, in the time of the great pharmacologist John Henry Gaddum, medical students might be presented in the oral exam with a jar of calabar beans and required to talk about their anticholinesterase effects of the physostigmine that they contain.

The need for pharmacognosy has now all but vanished, but it hangs on in the curriculum for pharmacy students. This has engendered a certain unease about the role of pharmacognists. They often try to justify their existence by rebranding themselves as "phytotherapists". There are even journals of phytotherapy. It sounds a lot more respectable that herbalism. At its best, it is more respectable, but the fact remains that there no herbs whatsoever that have well-documented medical uses.

The London School of Pharmacy is a case in point. Simon Gibbons (Professor of Phytochemistry, Department of Pharmaceutical and Biological Chemistry). The School of Pharmacy) has chosen, for reasons that baffle me, to throw in his lot with the reincarnated Prince of Wales Foundation known as the “College of Medicine“. That organisation exists largely (not entirely) to promote various forms of quackery under the euphemism “integrated medicine”. On their web site he says "Western science is now recognising the extremely high value of herbal medicinal products . . .", despite the fact that there isn’t a single herbal preparation with efficacy sufficient for it to get marketing authorisation in the UK. This is grasping at straws, not science.

The true nature of the "College of Medicine" is illustrated, yet again, by their "innovations network". Their idea of "innovation" includes the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital and the Royal London Hospital for Integrated medicine, both devoted to promoting the utterly discredited late-18th century practice of giving people pills that contain no medicine. Some "innovation".

It baffles me that Simon Gibbons is willing to appear on the same programme as Simon Mills and David Peters, and George Lewith. Mills’ ideas can be judged by watching 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. He too has rebranded himself as "phytotherapist" though in fact he’s an old-fashioned herbalist with no concern for good evidence. David Peters is the chap who, as Clinical Director of the University of Westminster’s ever-shrinking School of Quackery, tolerates dowsing as a way to select ‘remedies’.

The present chair of Pharmacognosy at the School of Pharmacy is Michael Heinrich. He, with Simon Gibbons, has written a book Fundamentals of pharmacognosy and phytotherapy. As well as much good chemistry, it contains this extraordinary statement

“TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] still contains very many remedies which were selected by their symbolic significance rather than their proven effects; however this does not mean that they are all ‘quack’remedies! There may even be some value in medicines such as tiger bone, bear gall, turtle shell, dried centipedes, bat dung and so on. The herbs, however, are well researched and are becoming increasingly popular as people become disillusioned with Western Medicine.”

It is irresponsible to give any solace at all to the wicked industries that kill tigers and torture bears to extract their bile. And it is simple untrue that “herbs are well-researched”. Try the test,

A simple test for herbalists. Next time you encounter a herbalist, ask them to name the herb for which there is the best evidence of benefit when given for any condition. Mostly they refuse to answer, as was the case with Michael McIntyre (but he is really an industry spokesman with few scientific pretensions). I asked Michael Heinrich, Professor of Pharmacognosy at the School of Pharmacy. Again I couldn’t get a straight answer. Usually, when pressed, the two things that come up are St John’s Wort and Echinacea. Let’s see what The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has to say about them. 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, their view can only be overoptimistic.

For St John’s Wort . NCCAM says

  • There is scientific evidence that St. John’s wort may be useful for short-term treatment of mild to moderate depression. Although some studies have reported benefits for more severe depression, others have not; for example, a large study sponsored by NCCAM found that the herb was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression of moderate severity.

For Echinacea NCCAM says

  • Study results are mixed on whether echinacea can prevent or effectively treat upper respiratory tract infections such as the common cold. For example, 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. However, other studies have shown that echinacea may be beneficial in treating upper respiratory infections.

If these are the best ones, heaven help the rest.


Jump to follow-up

On 23rd May 2008 a letter was sent to the vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster, Professor Geoffrey Petts

Dear Professor Petts
You may be aware an article by Zoe Corbyn, published in Times Higher Education 24 April 2008, with the title Experts criticise ‘pseudo-scientific’ complementary medicine degrees.   The subtitle of the article was Vice-chancellors should re-examine courses, say campaigners.  In the light of that, we wondered whether you had anything to add to the comments made by David Peters in todays THE.  We are preparing a response to that, and it seems fair to ask your view before we proceed.
(In order to save you time, copies of the two articles are attached.)
As an expert on oceans and geomorphology we would have imagined that you would view with some scepticism statements like amethysts emit high yin energy, as taught in your first year course, common to most complementary medicine students, as part if an honours BSc.  Unfortunately Peters does not deal with this in his response, so your opinion would be welcome.
Best regards

Edzard Ernst MD, PhD, FRCP, FRCP (Edin.)
Professor of Complementary  Medicine, Univerisity of Exeter

Simon Singh Ph.D,  
Science writer, Author of Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book, etc

David Colquhoun FRS Professor of Pharmacology UCL


Despite reminders, we were never afforded the courtesy of a reply to this, or any other letter.

Professor Petts has, however, replied to a letters sent to him recently by the Nightingale Collaboration. He said

“Whilst I understand your concerns, colleagues of the School of Life Sciences where these courses are offered do not share them. They are not teaching pseudo-science, as you claim,…”.

Neither of thse claims is true.I know at least two members of the Life Sciences Faculty who are very worried. One has now left and one has retired. The rest are presumably too scared to speak out.

It is most certainly not true to say they "are not teaching pseudo-science". Both the vice-chancellor and the Dean of Life Sciences, Jane Lewis, have been made aware of what;s happening repeatedly over several years, I can think of no other way to put it but to say Professor Petts is lying. Tha is not a good thing for vice-chancellors to do.

Much of what is taught at Westminster has now been revealed. This seems like a good moment to summarise what we know. Searching this blog for "University of Westminster" yields 39 hits. Of these, 11 show what’s taught at Westminster, so I’ll summarise them here for easy reference.

Westminster’s response

March 26th, 2007

The day after “Science degrees without the Science“ appeared in Nature, the University of Westminster issued a statement (now vanished, but see debate in THE). In my view, their statement provides the strongest grounds so far to believe that the BSc is inappropriate.

Let’s take a look at it.

“The BSc (Hons) Health Sciences: Homeopathy is a fully validated degree that satisfies internal and external quality assurance standards.”

Since that time, the university has closed down the BSc in Homeopathy. I have now seen many such validation documents and they are mostly box ticking exercises, not worth the paper they are written on. The worst offender is the University or Wales.

Westminster University BSc: “amethysts emit high yin energy”

April 23rd, 2008


This shows the first set of slides that I got from Westminster (leaked by an angry insider). It has slides on crystal healing and dowsing, things that are at the lunatic fringe even by the standards of alternative medicine. it also relates that an academic who invited me to give a talk at the University of Westminster on the evidence for alternative medal was leaned on heavily by “VC, Provosts and Deans” to prevent that talk taking place.

vib-ther 43s

Crystal balls. Professor Petts in Private Eye

February 19th, 2009

Professor Petts makes an appearance in Private Eye. It could held that this counts as bringing your university into disrepute.

The opposite of Science.

February 24th, 2009

BSc courses in homeopathy are closing. Is it a victory for campaigners, or just the end of the Blair/Bush era?

Professor Petts of Westminster seems to think that the problem can be solved by putting more science into the courses   The rest of the world realises that as soon as you apply science to homeopathy or naturopathy, the whole subject vanishes in a puff of smoke,  I fear that Professor Petts will have to do better,

The Guardian carries a nice article by Anthea Lipsett, The Opposite of Science (or download pdf of print version).

The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University.

March 30th, 2009 

In March 2007 I wrote a piece in Nature on Science degrees without the science.  At that time there were five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy. A couple of weeks ago I checked the UCAS site for start in 2009, and found there was only one full “BSc (hons)” left and that was at Westminster University.

Today I checked again and NOW THERE ARE NONE.

A phone call to the University of Westminster tonight confirmed that they have suspended entry to their BSc (Hons) homeopathy degree.

Then I revealed another set of slides, showing a misunderstanding (by the teacher) of statistics, but most chillingly,some very dangerous ideas conveyed to students by Westminster’s naturopaths, and in the teaching of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the great “detox” scam.


“if you get tuberculosis, it isn’t caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis? And the symptoms are “constructive”? So you don’t need to do anything. It’s all for the best really.

This isn’t just nonsense. It’s dangerous nonsense.”

“Remember when shopping to favour fruits and vegetables which are in season and locally grown (and ideally organic) as they are more vibrationally compatible with the body.”

Locally grown vegetables are “more vibrationally compatible with the body”? Pure mystical gobbledygook. Words fail me.

More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time it’s Naturopathy

June 25th, 2009

Some truly mind-boggling stuff that’s taught to students at Westminster, It includes "Emotrance". A primer on Emotrance says

emo s3

"And then I thought of the lady in the supermarket whose husband had died, and I spend the following time sending her my best wishes, and my best space time quantum healing efforts for her void."

Then there are slides on pendulum diagnosis and “kinesiology”, a well-known fraudulent method of diagnosis. It is all perfectly mad.

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients

August 10th, 2009

More lunatic fantasies from Westminster, this time about Chinese medicine.

“Teaching students that the brain is made of marrow is not just absurd, but desperately dangerous for anyone unlucky (or stupid) enough to go to such a person when they are ill.”

There is a lot of stuff about cancer that is potentially homicidal.

  • Legally, you cannot claim to cure cancer
  • This is not a problem because:
    we treat people not diseases

This is outrageous and very possibly illegal under the Cancer Act (1939). It certainly poses a huge danger to patients. It is a direct incentive to make illegal, and untrue claims by using weasel words in an attempt to stay just on the right side of the law. But that, of course, is standard practice in alternative medicine,

Emergent Chinese Omics at the University of Westminster/p>

August 27th, 2010

Systems biology is all the rage, No surprise then, to see the University of Westminster advertising a job for a systems biologist in the The Department of Molecular and Applied Biosciences. Well, no surprise there -until you read the small print.

Much has been written here about the University of Westminster, which remains the biggest provider of junk science degrees in the UK, despite having closed two of them.

If there is one thing more offensive than the use of meaningless mystical language, it is the attempt to hijack the vocabulary of real science to promote nonsense. As soon as a quack uses the words "quantum", "energy", "vibration", or now, "systems biology", you can be sure that it’s pretentious nonsense.

Hot of the press. Within a few hours of posting this, I was told that Volker Scheid, the man behind the pretentious Chinese medidine omics nonsense has been promoted to a full chair, And the Dean, Jane Lewis has congratulated him for speaking at a Chines Medicine symposium. Even quite sensible people like Lewis are being corrupted. The buck stops with Petts.

More dangerous nonsense from the University of Westminster: when will Professor Geoffrey Petts do something about it?

May 3rd, 2011

Yet more ghastly slides that are inflicted on Westminster students. How’s this for sheer barminess, taught as part of a Bachelor of Science degree?



" Just in case you happen to have run out of Alaskan Calling All Angels Essence, you can buy it from Baldwin’s for £19.95. It’s “designed to invoke the nurturing, uplifting and joyful qualities of the angelic kingdom.”, and what’s more “can also use them any time to cleanse, energize, and protect your auric field.” Well that’s what it says.in the ad.

Freedom of information reveals some unusual testimonials for the University of Westminster: when will Professor Geoffrey Petts do something about it?

June 20th, 2011

This post gives details of two complaints, one from a student and one from a lecturer. The vice-chancellor certainly knows about them. So why, I wonder, did he say "“Whilst I understand your concerns, colleagues of the School of Life Sciences where these courses are offered do not share them.". He must know that this simply isn’t true. It is over a year now ( 10 July 2009 ) that a lecturer wrote to the vice-chancellor and Dean

“I expect that were the Department of Health to be aware of the unscientific teaching and promotion of practices like dowsing, (and crystals, iridology, astrology, and tasting to determine pharmacological qualities of plant extracts) on the Wmin HM [Westminster Herbal Medicine] Course, progress towards the Statutory Regulation of Herbal Medicine could be threatened.”

There’s only one thing wrong with this. The lecturer underestimated the stupidiity of the Department of Health which went ahead with statutory regulation despite being made aware of what was going on.

The latest example to come to light is cited by Andy Lewis on his Quackometer blog

“There are some even odder characters too, such as Roy Riggs B.Sc who describes himself as a “Holistic Geobiologist” and is “an “professional Earth Energy dowser”. He guest lectures at the London Westminster University’s School of Integrative Medicine and The Baltic Dowser’s Association of Lithuania.”

I do wonder who Professor Petts thinks he’s fooling. His denial of the obvious fact that his university is teaching pseudo-science serves only to discredit further the University of Westminster and his own integrity.


13 August 2011 I’m intrigued to notice that two days after posting this summary, googling “Geoffrey Petts” brings up this post as #3 on the first page. Actions have consequences.

Jump to follow-up

Almost all the revelations about what’s taught on university courses in alternative medicine have come from post-1992 universities. (For readers not in the UK, post-1992 universities are the many new univerities created in 1992, from former polytechnics etc, and Russell group universities are the "top 20" research-intensive universities)

It is true that all the undergraduate courses are in post-1992 universities, but the advance of quackademia is by no means limited to them. The teaching at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School, one of the oldest, was pretty disgraceful for example, though after protests from their own students, and from me, it is now better, I believe.

soton logo

Quackery creeps into all universities to varying extents. The good ones (like Southampton) don’t run "BSc" degrees, but it still infiltrates through two main sources,

The first is via their HR departments, which are run by people who tend to be (I quote) "credulous and moronic" when it comes to science.

The other main source is in teaching to medical students. The General Medical Council says that medical students must know something about alterantive medicine and that’s quite right, A lot of their patients will use it. The problem is that the guidance is shockingly vague .

“They must be aware that many patients are interested in and choose to use a range of alternative and complementary therapies. Graduates must be aware of the existence and range of such therapies, why some patients use them, and how these might affect other types of treatment that patients are receiving.” (from Tomorrow’s Doctors, GMC)

In many medical schools, the information that medical students get is quite accurate. At UCL and at King’s (London) I have done some of the familiarisation myself. In other good medical schools, the students get some shocking stuff. St Bartholomew’s Hospital medical School was one example. Edinburgh University was another.
But there is one Russell group university where alternative myths are propagated more than any other that I know about. That is the University of Southampton.

In general, Southampton is a good place, I worked there for three years myself (1972 – 1975). The very first noise spectra I measured were calculated on a PDP computer in their excellent Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, before I wrote my own programs to do it.

But Southanpton also has a The Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit . Oddly the unit’s web site, http://www.cam-research-group.co.uk, is not a university address, and a search of the university’s web site for “Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit” produces no result. Nevertheless the unit is “within the School of Medicine at the University of Southampton”

Notice the usual euphemisms ‘complementary’ and ‘integrated’ in the title: the word ‘alternative’ is never used. This sort of word play is part of the bait and switch approach of alternative medicine.

The unit is quite big: ten research staff, four PhD students and two support staff It is headed by George Lewith.

Teaching about alternative medicine to Southampton medical students.

The whole medical class seems to get quite a lot compared with other places I know about. That’s 250 students (210 on the 5-year course plus another 40 from the 4-year graduate-entry route).

Year 1:  Lecture by David Owen on ‘holism’ within the Foundation Course given to all 210 medical students doing the standard (5-year) course.


Year 2: Lecture by Lewith (on complementary medicine, focusing on acupuncture for pain) given within the nervous systems course to the whole medical student year-group (210 students).


Year 3 SBOM (scientific basis of medicine) symposium: The 3-hour session (“Complementary or Alternative Medicine: You Decide”). I’m told that attendance at this symposium is often pretty low, but many do turn up and all of them are officially ‘expected’ to attend.


There is also an optional CAM special study module chosen by 20 students in year 3, but also a small number of medical students (perhaps 2 – 3 each year?) choose to do a BMedSci research project supervised by the CAM research group and involving 16-18 weeks of study from October to May in Year 4. The CAM research group also supervise postgraduate students doing PhD research.

As always, a list of lectures doesn’t tell you much. What we need to know is what’s taught to the students and something about the people who teach it. The other interesting question is how it comes about that alternative medicine has been allowed to become so prominent in a Russell group university. It must have support from on high. In this case it isn’t hard to find out where it comes from. Here are some details.

Year 1 Dr David Owen

David Owen is not part of Lewith’s group, but a member of the Division of Medical Education headed by Dr Faith Hill (of whom, more below). He’s one of the many part-time academics in this area, being also a founder of The Natural Practice .

Owen is an advocate of homeopathy (a past president of the Faculty of Homeopathy). Homeopathy is, of course, the most barmy and discredited of all the popular sorts of alternative medicine. Among those who have discredited it is the head of the alt med unit, George Lewith himself (though oddly he still prescribes it).

And he’s also a member of the British Society of Environmental Medicine (BSEM). That sounds like a very respectable title, but don’t be deceived. It is an organisation that promotes all sorts of seriously fringe ideas. All you have to do is notice that the star speaker at their 2011 conference was none other than used-to-be a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, a man who has been responsible for the death of children from measles by causing an unfounded scare about vaccination on the basis of data that turned out to have been falsified. There is still a letter of support for Wakefield on the BSEM web site.

The BSEM specialises in exaggerated claims about ‘environmental toxins’ and uses phony allergy tests like kinesiology and the Vega test that misdiagnose allergies, but provide en excuse to prescribe expensive but unproven nutritional supplements, or expensive psychobabble like "neuro-linguistic programming".

Other registered "ecological physicians" include the infamous Dr Sarah Myhill, who, in 2010, was the subject of a damning verdict by the GMC, and Southampton’s George Lewith.

If it is wrong to expose medical students to someone who believes that dose-response curves have a negative slope (the smaller the dose the bigger the effect -I know, it’s crazy), then it is downright wicked to expose students to a supporter of Andrew Wakefield.

David Owen’s appearance on Radio Oxford, with the indomitable Andy Lewis appears on his Quackometer blog.

Year 2 Dr George Lewith

Lewith is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He’s participated in some research that is quite good by the (generally pathetic) standards of the world of alternative medicine.

In 2001 he showed that the Vega test did not work as a method of allergy diagnosis. "Conclusion Electrodermal testing cannot be used to diagnose environmental allergies", published in the BMJ .[download reprint].

In 2003 he published "A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled proving trial of Belladonna 30C” [download reprint] that showed homeopathic pills with no active ingredients had no effects: The conclusion was "”Ultramolecular homeopathy has no observable clinical effects" (the word ultramolecular, in this context, means that the belladonna pills contained no belladonna).

In 2010 he again concluded that homeopathic pills were no more than placebos, as described in Despite the spin, Lewith’s paper surely signals the end of homeopathy (again). [download reprint]

What i cannot understand is that, despite his own findings, his private practice continues to prescribe the Vega machine and continues to prescribe homeopathic pills. And he continues to preach this subject to unfortunate medical students.

Lewith is also one of the practitioners recommended by BSEM. He’s a director of the "College of Medicine". And he’s also an advisor to a charity called Yes To Life. (see A thoroughly dangerous charity: YesToLife promotes nonsense cancer treatments).

3rd year Student Selected Unit

The teaching team includes:

  • David Owen – Principal Clinical Teaching Fellow SoM, Holistic Physician
  • George Lewith – Professor of Health Research and Consultant Physician
  • Caroline Eyles – Homeopathic Physician
  • Susan Woodhead – Acupuncturist
  • Elaine Cooke – Chiropractic Practitioner
  • Phine Dahle – Psychotherapist
  • Keith Carr – Reiki Master
  • Christine Rose – Homeopath and GP
  • David Nicolson – Nutritionalist
  • Shelley Baker – Aromatherapist
  • Cheryl Dunford – Hypnotherapist
  • Dedj Leibbrandt – Herbalist

More details of the teaching team here. There is not a single sceptic among them, so the students don’t get a debate, just propaganda.

In this case. there’s no need for the Freedom of Information Act. The handouts. and the powerpoints are on their web site. They seem to be proud of them

Let’s look at some examples

Chiropractic makes an interesting case, because, in the wake of the Singh-BCA libel case, the claims of chiropractors have been scrutinised as never before and most of their claims have turned out to be bogus. There is a close relationship between Lewith’s unit and the Anglo-European Chiropractic College (the 3rd year module includes a visit there). In fact the handout provided for students, Evidence for Chiropractic Care , was written by the College. It’s interesting because it provides no real evidence whatsoever for the effectiveness of chiropractic care. It’s fairly honest in stating that the view at present is that, for low back pain, it isn’t possible to detect any difference between the usefulness of manipulation by a physiotherapist, by an osteopath or by a chiropractor. Of course it does not draw the obvious conclusion that this makes chiropractic and osteopathy entirely redundant -you can get the same result without all the absurd mumbo jumbo that chiropractors and osteopaths love, or their high-pressure salesmanship and superfluous X-rays. Neither does it mention the sad, but entirely possible, outcome that none of the manipulations are effective for low back pain. There is, for example, no mention of the fascinating paper by Artus et al [download reprint]. This paper concludes

"symptoms seem to improve in a similar pattern in clinical trials following a wide
variety of active as well as inactive treatments."

This paper was brought to my attention through the blog run by the exellent physiotherapist, Neil O’Connell. He comments

“If this finding is supported by future studies it might suggest that we can’t even claim victory through the non-specific effects of our interventions such as care, attention and placebo. People enrolled in trials for back pain may improve whatever you do. This is probably explained by the fact that patients enrol in a trial when their pain is at its worst which raises the murky spectre of regression to the mean and the beautiful phenomenon of natural recovery.”

This sort of critical thinking is conspicuously absent from this (and all the other) Southampton handouts. The handout is a superb example of bait and switch: No nonsense about infant colic, innate energy or imaginary subluxations appears in it.

Acupuncture is another interesting case because there is quite a lot of research evidence, in stark contrast to the rest of traditional Chinese medicine, for which there is very little research.

There is a powerpoint show by Susan Woodhead (though it is labelled British Acupuncture Council).

The message is simple and totally uncritical. It works.


In fact there is now a broad consensus about acupuncture.

(1) Real acupuncture and sham acupuncture have been found to be indistinguishable in many trials. This is the case regardless of whether the sham is a retractable needle (or even a toothpick) in the "right" places, or whether it is real needles inserted in the "wrong" places. The latter finding shows clearly that all that stuff about meridians and flow of Qi is sheer hocus pocus. It dates from a pre-scientific age and it was wrong.

(2) A non-blind comparison of acupuncture versus no acupuncture shows an advantage for acupuncture. But the advantage is usually too small to be of any clinical significance. In all probability it is a placebo effect -it’s hard to imagine a more theatrical event than having someone in a white coat stick long needles into you, like a voodoo doll. Sadly, the placebo effect isn’t big enough to be of much use.

Needless to say, none of this is conveyed to the medical students of Southampton. Instead they are shown crude ancient ideas that date from long before anything was known about physiology as though they were actually true. These folks truly live in some alternative universe. Here are some samples from the acupuncture powerpoint show by Susan Woodhead.




Well this is certainly a "different diagnostic language", but no attempt is made to say which one is right. In the mind of the acupuncurist it seems both are true. It is a characteristic of alternative medicine advocates that they have no difficulty in believing simultaneously several mutually contradictory propositions.

As a final exmple of barminess, just look at the acupuncture points (allegedly) on the ear The fact that it is a favoured by some people in the Pentagon as battlefield acupuncture, is more reminiscent of the mad general, Jack D. Ripper, in Dr Strangelove than it is of science.


There is an equally uncritical handout on acupuncture by Val Hopwood. It’s dated March 2003, a time before some of the most valuable experiments were done.

The handout says "sham acupuncture
is generally less effective than true acupuncture", precisely the opposite of what’s known now. And there are some bits that give you a good laugh, always helpful in teaching. I like

“There is little doubt that an intact functioning nervous system is required for acupuncture to produce
analgesia or, for that matter, any physiological changes” 


Modern techniques: These include hybrid techniques such as electro-acupuncture . . . and Ryadoraku [sic] therapy and Vega testing. 

Vega testing!! That’s been disproved dozens of times (not least by George Lewith). And actually the other made-up nonsense is spelled Ryodoraku.

It’s true that there is a short paragraph at the end of the handout headed "Scientific evaluation of acupuncture" but it doesn’t cite a single reference and reads more like excuses for why acupuncture so often fails when it’s tested properly.

Homeopathy. Finally a bit about that most boring of topics, the laughable medicine that contains no medicine, homeopathy. Caroline Eyles is a member for the Society of Homeopaths, the organisation that did nothing when its members were caught out in the murderous practice of recommending homeopathy for prevention of malaria. The Society of Homeopaths also endorses Jeremy Sherr, a man so crazy that he believes he can cure AIDS and malaria with sugar pills.

The homeopathy handout given to the students has 367 references, but somehow manages to omit the references to their own boss’s work showing that the pills are placebos. The handout has all the sciencey-sounding words, abused by people who don’t understand them.

"The remedy will be particularly effective if matched to the specific/particular characteristics of the individual (the ‘totality’ of the patient) on all levels, including the emotional and mental levels, as well as just the physical symptoms. ‘Resonance’ with the remedy’s curative power will then be at it’s [sic] best." 

The handout is totally misleading about the current state of research. It says

"increasing clinical research confirms it’s [sic] clinical effectiveness in treating patients, including babies and animals (where a placebo effect would be hard to justify)."

The powerpont show by Caroline Eyles shows all the insight of a mediaeval vitalist



Anyone who has to rely on the utterly discredited Jacques Benveniste as evidence is clearly clutching at straws. What’s more interesting about this slide the admission that "reproducibility is a problem -oops, an issue" and that RCTs (done largely by homeopaths of course) have "various methodological flaws and poor external validity". You’d think that if that was the best that could be produced after 200 yours, they’d shut up shop and get another job. But, like aging vicars who long since stopped believing in god, but are damned if they’ll give up the nice country rectory, they struggle on, sounding increasingly desperate.

How have topics like this become so embedded in a medical course at a Russell group university?

The details above are a bit tedious and repetitive. It’s already established that hardly any alternative medicine works. Don’t take my word for it. Check the web site of the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) who, at a cost of over $2 billion have produced nothing useful.

A rather more interesting question is how a good university like Southampton comes to be exposing its medical students to teaching like this. There must be some powerful allies higher up in the university. In this case it’s pretty obvious who thay are.

Professor Stephen Holgate MD DSc CSc FRCP FRCPath FIBiol FBMS FMed Sci CBE has to be the primary suspect, He’s listed as one of Southampton’s Outstanding Academics. His work is nothing to do with alternative medicine but he’s been a long term supporter of the late unlamented Prince of Wales’ Foundation, and he’s now on the advisory board of it’s successor, the so called "College of Medicine" (for more information about that place see the new “College of Medicine” arising from the ashes of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, and also Don’t be deceived. The new “College of Medicine” is a fraud and delusion ). His description on that site reads thus.

"Stephen Holgate is MRC Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton School of Medicine and Honorary Consultant Physician at Southampton University Hospital Trust. He is also chair of the MRC’s Populations and Systems Medicine Board. Specialising in respiratory medicine, he is the author of over 800 peer-reviewed papers and contributions to scientific journals and editor of major textbooks on asthma and rhinitis. He is Co-Editor of Clinical and Experimental Allergy, Associate Editor of Clinical Science and on the editorial board of 25 other scientific journals."

Clearly a busy man. Personally I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to be the author of over 800 papers. He graduated in medicine in 1971, so that is an average of over 20 papers a year since then, one every two or three weeks. I’d have trouble reading that many, never mind writing them.

Holgate’s long-standing interest in alternative medicine is baffling. He’s published on the topic with George Lewith, who, incidentally, is one of the directors of the "College of Medicine"..

It may be unkind to mention that, for many years now, I’ve been hearing rumours that Holgate is suffering from an unusually bad case of Knight starvation.

The Division of Medical Education appears to be the other big source of support for. anti-scientific medicine. That is very odd, I know, but it was also the medical education people who were responsible for mis-educating medical students at. St. Bartholomew’s and at Edinburgh university. Southampton’s Division of Medical Education has a mind-boggling 60 academic and support staff. Two of them are of particular interest here.

Faith Hill is director of the division. Her profile doesn’t say anything about alternative medicine, but her interest is clear from a 2003 paper, Complementary and alternative medicine: the next generation of health promotion?. The research consisted of reporting anecdotes from interviews of 52 unnamed people (this sort of thing seems to pass for research in the social sciences). It starts badly by misrepresenting the conclusions of the House of Lords report (2000) on CAM. Although it comes to no useful conclusions, it certainly shows a high tolerance of nonsensical treatments.

Chris Stephens is  Associate Dean of Medical Education & Student Experience. His sympathy is shown by a paper he wrote In 2001, with David Owen (the homeopath, above) and George Lewith: Can doctors respond to patients’ increasing interest in complementary and alternative medicine?. Two of the conclusions of this paper were as follows.

"Doctors are training in complementary and alternative medicine and report benefits both for their patients and themselves"

Well, no actually. It wasn’t true then, and it’s probably even less true now. There’s now a lot more evidence and most of it shows alternative medicine doesn’t work.

"Doctors need to address training in and practice of complementary and alternative medicine within their own organisations"

Yes they certainly need to do that.

And the first thing that Drs Hill and Stephens should do is look a bit more closely about what’s taught in their own university, I hope that this post helps them,


4 July 2011. A correspondent has just pointed out that Chris Stephens is a member of the General Chiropractic Council. The GCC is a truly pathetic pseudo-regulator. In the wake of the Simon Singh affair it has been kept busy fending off well-justified complaints against untrue claims made by chiropractors. The GCC is a sad joke, but it’s even sadder to see a Dean of Medical Education at the University of Southampton being involved with an organisation that has treated little matters of truth with such disdain.

A rather unkind tweet from (ex)-chiropractor @RichardLanigan.

“Chris is just another light weight academic who likes being on committees. Regulatory bodies are full of them”

As promised in my last post about Edinburgh Napier University, I wrote to the vice-chancellor of the university, Professor Dame Joan K. Stringer DBE, BA (Hons) CertEd PhD CCMI FRSA FRSE, to invite her to respond.

7 February, 2011

Dear Professor Stringer,

I should be grateful if you could let me know about your opinion of the degrees that you offer in Aromatherapy and Reflexology

I have posted on my blog a bit of the material that was sent to me as result of recent FoI requests. See http://www.dcscience.net/?p=4049

I submit that degrees like this detract from the intellectual respectability of what is, not doubt, in other respects a good university, but since you are mentioned in the post, it’s only fair to give you the chance to defend yourself. In fact you’d be very welcome to do so publicly by commenting on the post.

Best regards

David Colquhoun

Over a month later, I have received no response at all. This seems to me to be a bit discourteous.

There is nothing new in failing to get any answer to letters to vice-chancellors. The only VC who has ever thanked me for opening his eyes is Terence Kealey, of the University of Buckingham. All the rest have stayed silent. I can interpret this silence only as guilt. They know it’s nonsense, but dare not say so. Of course it isn’t infrequent for the course to close down after public exposure of the nonsense they teach. So perhaps the letters get read, even if they don’t elicit a reply.

Meanwhile the university sent me more materials that are used to teach their students. So here is another sample, largely from what’s taught to the unfortunate “reflexology” students.

Remember, these pre-scientific myths are not being taught as history or anthropology. They are taught as though they were true, to students who are then let loose on patients, so they can make money from anyone who is gullible enough to believe what they say.


There are no "excess body energies". It’s made-up nonsense.


The diagram is pure imagination. It dates form a time before we knew anything about physiology, yet it is still being taught as though it meant something.


The admission that there is controversy is interesting. But it doesn’t seem to deter Napier’s teachers in the slightest.


How can anyone in the 21st century believe that the heart is "king of our emotional existence”?. That’s just preposterous pre-scientific myth,


You must be joking.




"Vibrational medicine" is a non-existent subject. Pure gobbledygook.


This is partly old, partly quite new. It is all preposterous made-up nonsense. There isn’t the slightest reason to think that "zones" or "meridians" exist. In fact there is good evidence from acupuncture studies to think that they don’t exist.

Now some slides from course CPT08102. The mention of the word ‘energy’ in the alternative world always rings alarm bells. Here’s why.


Well, it’s a good question. Pity about the answer.


Shouldn’t that read "as a practising reflexologist it is important than you have a MISunderstanding of the energy that surrounds us"?.


What logic? Have these people never heard of Hodgkin & Huxley (the answer, I imagine, is no)?


The mention of Kim Jobst immediately raises suspicions. He is a homeopath and endorser of the obviously fraudulent Q-link

"when you as a reflexologist palpate the foot you not only produce the physical responses in the CNS but also enter the energetic body and move energy , , ". Well, no you don’t. This is purely made-up nonsense. The words sound "sciencey" but the meaning of the words is utterly obscure.


Yes we do live in an interconnected world. And sadly, that interconnectedness is used to spread myth and misinformation, usually with the aim of making money.

I guess Edinburgh Napier University makes money by teaching ancient myths as though they were true. In so doing they destroy their academic reputation.


Here you are tested to see how much nonsense you have memorised successfully. If only they had sent ‘model answers’.

Remember, these pre-scientific myths are not being taught as history or anthropology. They are taught as though they were true, to students who are then let loose on patients, so they can make money from anyone who is gullible enough to believe what they say.

A 2009 systematic review of randomised controlled trials concludes that “The best evidence available to date does not demonstrate convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition.”. So forget it.

How about it Professor Stringer? Isn’t it time to clean up your university?


In 2009 I asked Napier University Edinburgh for details of what was taught on its herbal medicine "BSc" course. At first it was refused, but then (as often seems to happen when threatened with exposure) the course was closed, and Napier sent what I’d asked for without waiting for the judgement from the Scottish Information Commissioner,


Some samples of the dangerous nonsense that used to be taught on Napier’s herbal medicine course (now closed) have been exposed in “Hot and cold herbal nonsense from Napier University Edinburgh: another course shuts“.

That sadly doesn’t mean that Napier has stopped teaching nonsense. It offers a 3 year Honours BA degree in "reflexology" (the only other place in UCAS is the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC), which offers a “BSc(Hons)”, though nine other places offer foundation degrees or HND)

Napier also offers a BA (Hons) in Aromatherapy, according to UCAS

Clearly quackademia has not died entirely yet, though it is on its way. It has closed down entirely at the University of Salford and the University of Central Lancashire. And when I wrote about quackademia in Nature in 2007 there were five "BSc" degrees in homeopathy. Now UCAS does not list a single one. It has even vanished in the home of woo, the University of Westminster.

When I asked Napier for teaching materials used in reflexology and aromatherapy, the request was, as usual. refused. In a letter dated 20 August 2010, David Cloy, Head of Governance & Management Services, wrote that disclosure of the materials “. , would be substantially prejudicial to the Universitys [sic] commercial interests”.

Scotland has its own Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, and its own Information Commissioner, so it wasn’t possible to rely on the win that I had with the Information Commission (England and Wales). An Appeal was duly lodged on September 3rd 2010. They were a lot faster than before and their decision, dated 9 December 2010, was again almost completely in my favour [download the whole decision]. The decision ended thus.

The Commissioner finds that Edinburgh Napier University (the University) failed to comply with Part 1 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) in responding to the information request made by Professor Colquhoun. The University wrongly withheld information under section 33(1)(b) of FOISA, and thereby failed to comply with section 1(1) of FOISA. It also failed to provide Professor Colquhoun with notice that certain of the information he had requested was not held, as required by section 17(1) of FOISA. The University also failed to provide Professor Colquhoun with reasonable advice and assistance in relation to his information request, as required by section 15(1) of FOISA.

The Commissioner therefore requires the University to provide the withheld information, and the advice detailed in paragraph 16 of this decision notice, by 27 January 2011.

There is quite a lot of material, so I’ll restrict myself to a few quotations.

Therapeutic Touch

This makes an interesting example because it is so obviously fraudulent. It is particularly interesting because of a famous paper published in 1996, in the Journal of the American Medical Association (read the paper) by Emily Rosa aged 9. She devised a simple experiment that showed convincingly that healers could not do what they claimed. Nobody has ever detected the magic rays that are said to emanate from the hands of the ‘healer’/confidence trickster. It is all pure make-believe. Like so many things of its sort, there is no ancient wisdom involved. It was invented in 1977 by a nurse. Watch the video of the test on YouTube, or the less reverent version by Penn and Teller. Also worth reading is Why Therapeutic Touch Should Be Considered Quackery.

I was sent a set if slides that are used for teaching students at Edinburgh Napier University about "Therapeutic Touch" (part of course CPT08104 “Pathophysiology Insights to Practice”)..

When reading these, remember that this is not a course on cultural history, or a course about the pre-scientific beliefs of primitive tribes as in anthropology. It is taught to students to enable them to charge money to sick and desperate people.

Rogerian Perspectives on Therapeutic Touch

– seen as a knowledgeable and purposive patterning of patient-environment energy field process in which (the nurse) assumes a meditative form of awareness and uses her/his hands as a focus for the patterning of the mutual patient-environment energy field process”.

Four Principal (Conceptual ) Building Blocks.

Energy Fields.

The fundamental unit of the living and the non living” (Rogers 1986).

This field is considered to be irreducible – not comprehensible in terms of a simple list of component parts.


  • The human field is integral with the environmental field
  • Reflects a continuous and open movement/interchange between the human and environmental fields.  Considered to be a process of evolution and ongoing re-fashioning..


Pattern – the distinguishing characteristic of the energy field.

A very useful concept – it helps with understanding the uniqueness of the individual – human existence and movement of energy.

Patterns of relating – responding 

  • Patterns of thinking 
  • Patterns of behaving 
  • Wave-like activity of energy fields 
  • Patterns of expansion/contraction 
  • Patterns of responding to environmental phenomena – lunar cycles – seasonal cycles. 

Pan-dimensionality – a non-linear domain without special / temporal attributes

  • Different and relative to our everyday 3-d world.
  • Involves different means of knowing/understanding

Rogers model also has 3 cardinal principles.

Three Principles of Homeodynamics:

  • Integrality – refers to continuity and integrality of human and environmental fields. 
  • Helicy – relates to openness and pattern.  Basically asserts that movement within fields is generally in the direction of greater complexity and diversity. ( true in health and disrupted health)
  • Resonancy – related to helicy – refers to the tendency for energy/living processes to move from low frequency/long wave patterns towards high frequency/short wave patterns


Teilhardt de Chardin  (Essay on Human Spirituality)

A comparative Explanation of Rogers’ laws of Homeodynamics )

  1. Life is not a partial limited property of matter – analogous to some vibratory or molecular effect:  it is rather a sort of inverse of everything that habitually serves us as a definition of matter”.
  2. The Cosmos could not possibly be explained as a dust of unconscious elements on which life, for some incomprehensible reason burst into flower – as an accident or as a mould.  But it is fundamentally and primarily living and its complete history nothing but an immense psychic exercise”. e.g. a movement from matter to spirit e.g. from primal reproductive sexual energy to love
  3. “Not only a unique and periodic attraction for the purposes of material fertility ….. but an unbanded and continuous possibility of contact between minds rather than bodies.  The play of countless subtle antennae seeking one another in the light and darkness of the soul.

All of this is so many meaningless words. It has the vaguely sciencey sound beloved of quacks (and post-modernists), but it is a million miles from science.

Empirically it just doesn’t work.

Sadly the slides from Napier did not include any helpful illustrations, but these two, from a similar lecture given at the University of Westminster should make it all clear.




There’s some perfectly sensible stuff about the chemistry of essential oils. It’s when it comes to what they are good for that things rapidly come unstuck. Table 17 (extracted from a handout on essential oil chemistry) has all sorts of suggested uses

Essential oils can correct deficits or blockages in energy
Difficult to back up with scientific research, but nevertheless an important property in aromatherapy
Synergistic blending using the energetic approaches

So it is "important" but there is no evidence for it. The Table is prefaced by a disclaimer of sorts.

There is a body of anecdotal information concerning the potential therapeutic actions of essential oils, such as their anti-inflammatory, sedative and analgesic effects (Bowles 2003).

Despite some of the potential uses of essential oils contained in Table 17, it is not the role of the aromatherapist to treat specific conditions such as infections. However, the therapist can include appropriate oils in a holistic context, and can offer aromatherapy support preparations for home use.

At this point the handout does give quite strong hints that there is no good evidence that any of it works. In that case, why are they doing a three year degree in it?

Then of course we get on to the 19th century vitalism (being taught in the 21st century) and the usual ‘energy’ nonsense. For example

Holmes (1997) proposed that the nature of a fragrance can bring about specific psychotherapeutic effects. Using three fragrance parameters – tone (odour quality), intensity and note (evaporation rate), with tone being the most significant, and six fragrance categories – spicy, sweet, lemony, green, woody and rooty. He proposes that the nature of a fragrance will bring about specific psychotherapeutic effects. The following is a summary of his suggestions.

‘High/Top tone’ oils such as those from the citrus group, the Myrtaceae family and also ylang ylang extra and 1, lavender and mimosa abs. will have a stimulating, uplifting effect.

‘Low/Base tone’ oils including vetivert, patchouli, sandalwood and also tuberose, hay and oakmoss abs., will have a depressing, sedating effect.

Gabriel Mojay is quoted as saying

“Fragrance is the primary effective quality of essential oils. By this we mean their most immediate and generalised effect on the body and mind. This effect is first and foremost an energetic effect – as it is the vital energy of the human organism that first responds to an essential oil and its fragrance.”

These are just more empty words, woolly thoughts about long-discredited ideas of vitalism. They are presented entirely uncritically.


Reflexology is based on the utterly barmy proposition that "… reflexologists claim to be a system of zones and reflex areas that they say reflect an image of the body on the feet and hands, with the premise that such work effects a physical change to the body".

Regardless of its absurd premises, it just doesn’t work. A review by Ernst (2009) concludes

"The best evidence available to date does not demonstrate convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition."

It is simply a foot massage, There’s nothing wrong with that, if you like that kind of thing, but please don’t pretend it is anything more

One handout lists, under the treatments for Migraines and Headaches

  • Homeopathy (applying the principle of similimum)
  • Herbal
  • Massage for relaxation
  • Reflexology (addressing reflexes relating to head, neck, solar plexus, spine, pituitary & digestive systems).
  • Nutritional therapy
  • Accupressure.[sic]
  • Bach Flowers may be useful

No evidence is cited for any of them, not doubt because next-to-none exists.

A three year degree in rubbing feet is just an absurdity.

The material that was sent about reflexology was very thin. I’ve asked for more, but in a sense it doesn’t matter, because all one has to do is look at a standard reflexology diagram to see what a load of unmitigated nonsense it is. There isn’t the slightest reason to think that an area on your big toe is ‘connected’ in some unspecified sense, to you nose, It is just preposterous made-up junk.

reflexology diagram
Diagram from Scienceblogs

Who is responsible?

I’m quite happy to believe that the people who teach this new-age nonsense actually believe it.

What I would like to know is whether the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University believes it. She is Professor Dame Joan K. Stringer DBE, BA (Hons) CertEd PhD CCMI FRSA FRSE.

That’s an impressive string of initials for somebody who seems to defend 19th century vitalism as a suitable subject for an honours degree. I could ask her, but such letters rarely get a response.


Yet another university has stopped its homeopathy course. The particular interest of this course was that it was being run at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, the vice-chancellor which was Michael Pittilo, until his recent premature death. Pittilo is the person who recommended to the government that herbalists and Chinese medicine practitioners should get honours degrees and be regulated like doctors. His report, was, in my opinions, disastrously bad

It recently emerged that this, very bad, advice would not be accepted by the Department of Health (DH), so the campaign against the Pittilo proposals, on this blog and elsewhere was successful. The alternative DH proposals look pretty silly, but we won’t really know until after the election exactly what will happen.

Robert Gordon University (RGU): is the ‘post-1992’ university in Aberdeen, as opposed the the University of Aberdeen (where my son is at the moment). Much of RGU does an excellent job, but like so many post-1992 universities they harm themselves by running courses in barmy alternative medicine. RGU ran an Introduction To Homeopathy module (saved 9 April 2010).

In July 2009, I asked RGU to see some samples of the teaching materials on this module, partly as part of the campaign against Pittilo’s proposals. I asked to see the powerpoints and handouts for three lectures, (1) evidence for homeopathy, (2) first aid remedies, and (3) allergies.

In September 2009, this request, made under the Freedom of Information Act (Scotland), was, as always, rejected by RGU, though they did tell me that the evidence lecture had been produced by a lecturer from The Faculty of Homeopathy and the other two had been produced by a local GP.

So, as usual, I asked for the mandatory internal review of the decision. In October, the review upheld the original decision, as they almost always do. I referred the decision to the Scottish Information Commissioner (the law is slightly different in Scotland) and they have still not responded.

But on 8 April 2010 I got a letter from RGU.

“The above course requested is no longer part of the School of Nursing and Midwifery’s provision, and it was cessated [sic] in Semester One 2009/10. This followed a formal review of all Nursing and Midwifery modules and their viability. In the light of this the university has decided to release the information.”

So yet another university has done the sensible thing. The course has been shut. Just for the record, I’ll reproduce a few of the slides from the lecture on “homeopathic remedies for allergies”.

Allergies can be dangerous, and occasionally lethal. To treat them with homeopathic pills, medicines that contain no medicine, is not just delusion, but a dangerous delusion which risks the lives of patients.

The "remedies" include nettles, sulphur, petroleum and arsenic.  They’d be pretty scary but in fact the pills contain, in most cases, not a jot of nettle, sulphur, petroleum or arsenic.  Homeopathic pharmacies stock thousands of bottles of identical sugar pills, each with a different label.

slide 5

slide 7

slide 8

slide 9

These dangerous delusions were being taught as fact in a UK university.  The shame of it..

This post was one of the earliest on my old improbable science page (late 2002). It has been reproduced here because of the interest attached to Stephen Senn’s analysis of what appears to be a rather dubious trial, and because the subject purports to be regular medicine rather than alternative quackery. It is unlikely that all of the links will still be valid.

During research for a talk on quack medicines. I came across several web sites that were selling the common co-enzyme, NADH, for a whole variety of ailments. One of these sites, Wizards Gate, no longer sells NADH (“because the profit is too small”). but continues to carry the following advertisement for it.

A recent Georgetown University Medical Center clinical pilot study among CFS patients reports that participants taking ENADA® were four times more likely than those taking a placebo to experience a reduction in symptoms.

Please click on the links below for more information.

pilot study graph.jpg

What this does NOT mention is that the huge column on the left represents eight people out of 26, and the tiny one on the right represents two people (out of 26)!

The reader is then referred to ImmuneSupport.com, who describe NADH as follows (with my comments in italics).

  • Improves cellular energy [This, as it stands, is meaningless]

  • Elevates mental clarity [There is no evidence that this is true]

  • Promotes mental alertness and concentration [Again, there is no evidence that this is true]

The ImmuneSupport site goes on to say

“NADH is proven to trigger energy production through ATP generation [true].
A naturally occurring coenzyme found in all living cells, NADH helps supply cells with energy.[true].
Thus, as NADH levels rise in the body, the cells become more energized, helping the body feel stronger and more vitalized. [This sentence confuses energy in the technical sense that is used in physics, with the everyday use of the term to describe a mental and physical state, In fact there is no reason to think that NADH “helps the body feel stronger” to any greater extent than a placebo].

Other sites that promote NADH heavily are Enada.com, and the Menuco Corporation, of which more below

The clinical trial referred to in all of these advertisements is Forsyth, L. M., Preuss, H. G., MacDowell, A. L., Chiazze, L., Jr., Birkmayer, G. D., & Bellanti, J. A. (1999). Therapeutic effects of oral NADH on the symptoms of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. Ann.Allergy Asthma Immunol. 82, 185-191.

It is very clear from the letter below that this trial is flawed, but it is impossible to see exactly how flawed it is because the authors, in breach of all guidelines on such matters, have refused, for over a year, to make available the raw data that would allow a correct analysis to be done.

Annals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology ©2000;84:639-640

To the Editor:

We should like to comment on the paper by Forsyth et al. 1 This paper claims, on the basis of a randomized double-blind clinical trial, that NADH is effective in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome. It seems that there are several problems with the work described in this paper.

  • On page 187, the ‘raw symptom score’ is defined as a score from a questionnaire normalized to lie between 0 and 1 (the questionnaire had 50 questions, each scored 1, 2, 3 or 4, so raw scores are in the range 50 to 200). This was normalized to lie between 0 and 1 by first subtracting 50 and then dividing by 150. However, patients with chronic fatigue syndrome are said to have scores ranging from 10.9 to 55.8, so the normalized score has presumably been expressed as a percentage, whereas in the case of normal patients the values of 0.01 to 0.13 suggest that proportions have been used. Furthermore, even using percentages rather than proportions, we cannot reproduce the ranges given for patients. For example, a raw score of 66 yields a normalized score of 10.7 whereas the next possible value 67 translates to 11.3.  How in that case could Forsyth et al get 10.9? Similarly 133 yields a score of 55.3 but 134 yields 56.  So what raw score can have produced 55.8?
  • It is stated that, “an individual was considered improved if s/he demonstrated at least a 10% improvement,” but then it is also stated that, “the degree of improvement for the results to show a positive effect was an improvement by one point in 10 questions or by 2 points in 5 questions” (p 187). This corresponds to a decrease in the raw score of 10 points, not a “10% improvement.” Table 5 gives the scores (presumably normalized score x 100) for each of the 26 patients on each of the tests. It is stated that 8/26 improve on NADH and 2/26 improve on placebo. This appears to be a change in normalized score (x 100) by 10, not to a change in raw score of 10.
  • The method of analysis given on page 187 is a test of difference between two independent estimates of a binomial proportion. This is entirely inappropriate for the analysis of a crossover trial. 2
  • Most importantly, nothing whatsoever is said about which of the 26 patients in Table 5 received which treatment. Without knowing which treatment was given in which period it is impossible for the reader to repeat the analysis using methods more appropriate for crossover trials. The simple addition of one column here, giving the sequence to which the patient was allocated, would have permitted others to have performed the necessary calculations.

Drs Forsythe and Bellanti were asked in June 1999 to provide the raw data, in particular the crucial information on sequences that would allow re-analysis of their results. Despite several further requests we have not had any response. This is made all the more disturbing in view of fact that their paper is being used to justify vigorous marketing 3 of NADH as a treatment that “Enhances energy naturally, elevates mental clarity, improves alertness, and concentration,” which treatment is also being claimed by some to be useful for everything from improving athletic performance to Alzheimer’s disease. In view of this it seems that the least that it is owed the readers of your journal is for the authors to produce the original data so that their claims can be verified.

David Colquhoun

Stephen Senn

Professor of Pharmacology, University College London, Hon, Director Wellcome Laboratory for Molecular Pharmacology, Dept of Pharmacology, University College London, London, United Kingdom and ,

Professor of Pharmaceutical and Health Statistics, Department of Epidemiology & Public Health,
and Department of Statistics, University College London, London, United Kingdom



1. Forsythe LM, Preuss HG, MacDowell AL, et al. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol

2. Senn SJ. Cross-over trials in clinical research. Wiley, Chichester,

3. See, for example, http://www.enada.com/,http://www.wizardsgate.com/
and many others.

Professor Bellanti’s response:

We have reviewed the two “Letters to the Editor” from Professors Colquhoun and Senn and from Professor Lorden and wish to respond to both. Recognizing that there are various methods and points of view concerning statistical analyses, since this was a preliminary study and not a definitive one, we chose to analyze the data in the manner described. This was done to determine whether there was a basis for the therapeutic efficacy of NADH in chronic fatigue syndrome and, if so, then to proceed to a larger, more definitive study. We feel that we have accomplished this goal in obtaining sufficient evidence to proceed further. We are grateful for the constructive elements of the readers’ comments and we shall take these into consideration as we plan the definitive studies.

Joseph A Bellanti, MD

Professor of Pediatrics and Microbiology-Immunology

Georgetown University School of Medicine

Washington, DC

This reply from Professor Bellanti stands in contrast to his own statement in a recent report presented to Annual Meeting of American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in which he says “We have recently demonstrated the clinical effectiveness of reduced nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH) in a group of 26 patients with CFS in a double-blinded, placebo-controlled, crossover study”.

There is no mention here (or in any of the advertisements) of the study being “preliminary” or “not definitive”. (The measurement of 5-HIAA urinary concentration as a possible predictive marker of disease activity and therapeutic efficay of NADH in the chronic fatigue syndrome. Joseph A Bellanti MD; Linda M Forsyth MD; Ana Luiza MacDowell-Carneiro MD; Dawn B. Wallerstedt, MSN, FNP; Harry G Preuss MD and Georg D Birkmayer MD. PhD ).

This reply gives no reason at all for refusing to disclose the raw data, to allow others to check the conclusions. It does say that “there are various methods and points of view concerning statistical analyses”, but does not (unsurprisingly) refer to anyone who thinks that a test of difference between two independent estimates of a binomial proportion is an appropriate way to analyse a cross over trial.

Financial interests

The editor of Annals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, Dr Edward O’Connell, tells me that the journal requires authors to disclose any financial interest in the work, and that no such interests were declared in the case of Forsyth et al. This seems very odd, since the address of one of the authors, Dr G.D Birkmayer is given as Birkmayer Pharmaceuticals (Vienna), who market the ENADA brand of NADH, on which Dr Birkmayer holds patents. Birkmayer Pharmacuticals supported the work by a grant, and analysed the data

Latest news The case of the Bellanti paper was referred to the Georgetown University’s Research Integrity Committee for review, in February 2001. That committee has reported that “no violation within the purview of the Code has been committed”. In the light of the facts concerning (a) improperly analysed data, (b) non-disclosure of financial interest and (c) the refusal to allow independent analysis of the data, it seems the the University has a novel view of what constitutes research integrity!