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Science Museum – DC's Improbable Science

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The Science Museum is a wonderful place. As a child it seemed magical. So all the more disappointing to find that it houses an exhibition that promotes quackery.

The exhibition is uncritical and sometimes downright dangerous.  It does not teach you anything about science, it teaches anti-science and uncritical thinking.

It was not originally like this. Most of the objects in the exhibition were originally part of Henry Wellcome’s Wellcome Museum of Medical History, based at 183 Euston Road. It was moved on permanent loan to the Science Museum in 1977 where it was known as The Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine.

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Recently the Wellcome-Trust sponsored exhibition was the subject of a blog post at Purely a figment of your imagination, written by Alex Davenport. That reminded me that last June I was sent a lot of pictures of the exhibition but never got round to finishing writing them up. Here, somewhat tardily, is some of what I got.

It seems that the Wellcome Trust is not to blame, The free advertising for quacks was something added to the Wellcome collection by the Science Museum itself.

At the time, I wrote to the Science Museum to find out what was going on. The response was very disappointing, merely bland PR stuff. I was told that the person responsible for the display was Lisa O’Sullivan, Senior Curator of Medicine, but she was on sabbatical, so no response from her.

The clue to what went wrong came in a letter from Dr. Tim Boon, the Science Museum’s Chief Curator. The letter was relayed via the Museum’s Press Officer. A subsequent letter to Boon himself was not answered.

"Therefore, in addition to the overwhelming majority of the Upper Wellcome gallery that tells the story of the history of Western medicine since the rise of Civilisation up to the modern era, we devote a small section to these more anthropological concerns in our display called ‘Living Medical Traditions’.

 

Our message in this display is that these traditions are not ‘alternative’ systems in some parts of the world. Instead they are often the only choice of medical care to those communities. We do not make any claims for the validity of these traditions. For example, we include the use of acupuncture but do not say that acupuncture ‘works’. "

Unfortunately this is really not true: the tone is very much that it does work. The reason is clear in the next paragraph.

"As with all Science Museum galleries independent experts were consulted when developing this gallery. In this instance advice was sought from leading academics in the history of non-western medical traditions as well as practitioners and users of these traditions. We maintained editorial control throughout.”

Aha they asked "experts", but of course it is always possible to find some ‘expert’ to advocate any view, however barmy. The only experts that were consulted, we are told, is historians and practitioners of anti-scientific medicine. No scientists. Clearly the Museum allowed the quacks to write their own script, with no supervision from anyone who understands the science, It is meant to be a Science Museum, not a museum of anthropology.

The nonsense of quack medicine provides an excellent opportunity to explain simply how science tries to separate truth from falsehood. The Museum has not only missed that opportunity but it has actively promoted anti-science.

The Museum declined to name these mystery experts, but one of them is revealed in the 2006 newsletter of the British Medical Acupuncture Society [download the newsletter]. An article by Jonathan Freedman shows the delight of acupuncturists.

"The BMAS were approached by the Museum last Summer and asked if any members would be able to contribute a case study about acupuncture to feature in the ‘personal stories’ section of the exhibition."

"I think the final product has worked extremely well and shows Western Medical Acupuncture in a positive light. A selection of needles is displayed along with the BMAS leaflet and my own practice acupuncture leaflet."

In fact the Science Museum’s good name is used by Freedman to advertise his private practice.

Here is the free advertising in the Science Museum.

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Traditional Chinese Medicine

There is plenty of this and it is totally uncritical. All it does is repeat the gobbledygook used by practitioners. In fact it was largely written by them.

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There are recorded commercials too. Listen to this one.

asthma

Advertising for cupping at the Asanté Clinic.

In the recording, Dr Ke diagnoses an asthma patient as having mucus in the lungs -by looking at his tongue (no kidding) -and recommends cupping. He says

“We need to clear this mucus, or the phlegm, in the chest by using cupping, It’s improving, sort of, the flow of the water, and flow out, in other words, suck out the badness from the body”

This, needless to say, is total rubbish.

The recording took place at the Asanté Clinic, on the Archway campus of the University of Middlesex. Ah yes, Middlesex. Take a look at ‘More quackedemia. Dangerous Chinese medicine taught at Middlesex University‘.

Unani medicine, Another advertisement for a private clinic.

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iridology

Listen to a diagnosis being made by looking at the iris.

Iridology is, of course, total bunk Just one of the many phoney methods of diagnosis used by alternative practitioners, as an aid to selling you an expensive treatment.

Ayervedic medicine

Listen to another advertisement, for private Ayurveda clinic

The display that accompanies the recording is totally uninformative. The practitioners have been allowed to advertise their wares with no trace of critical thought. No trace of science.

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The power of blogs

I guess this incident is yet another example of the power of blogs. My own letters to the science museum produced precisely nothing, as is usually the case if you go through the “proper channels”. Alex Davenport’s blog,on the other hand, stung the Science Museum into a public response. It’s true that the response is much the same as the patronising PR junk that was sent to me last year, though it was labelled as being by Susannah Shute, Web Content Coordinator. The response even linked to a picture of the homeopathy exhibit.

It seems a bit more pressure is needed to persuade the museum to change this particular exhibition into science, rather than its present anti-science.

Follow-up

13 April 2011. Simon Singh arranged a meeting with the new director of the Science Museum, Ian Blatchford, and deputy director Heather Mayfield Our deputation consisted of Simon Singh, Alex Davenport, Marianne Baker and me. It was Alex’s blog on the science museum exhibit, and my post on the museum which followed it shortly, that caused the meeting. Alex had a follow-up blog too. I hadn’t realised that Simon had resigned as a trustee of the museum five years ago, in protest about the (dreadful) alternative medicine exhibit. I had various stonewalling responses to my attempts to pursue the matter out of the limelight, so eventually went public. After the blogs appeared, the Science Museum published a response which was, sadly, entirely vacuous. We had an excellent discussion, during which Ian Blatchford said he regretted the official response and changes to the exhibit are promised. there is an account of the meeting here.

We were sent a revised version, which was improved, but not, we said improved enough.

10 May 2011. Got an email from the person who originally brought the problem to my attention.

“Visited Science museum yesterday , wonderful news – all offensive material gone, and different ok stuff there”.

Well done, Science Museum.