Download Lectures on Biostatistics (1971).
Corrected and searchable version of Google books edition

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

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Last year, Nature published a pretty forthright condemnation of the award of Bachelor of Science degrees in subjects that are not science: in fact positively anti-science. This topic has come up again in Times Higher Education (24 April 2008).

A league table shows that the largest number of anti-science courses is run by the University of Westminster [download paper version].

Vice chancellors have consistently refused to answer letters, from me, from the Times Higher Education or from the BBC, asking them to defend their practices.

The vice chancellors union, Universities UK, has simply refused to consider this very basic threat to academic standards.

It is particularly amazing that vice-chancellors continue to support courses in homeopathy when they have been condemned by no less a person than the head honcho of homeopathy in the UK, Dr Peter Fisher. He is clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and Homeopathic Physician to the Queen. Peter Fisher and I were interviewed on BBC London News after publication of the Nature article. At the end, Fisher was asked by the presenter, Riz Lateef, about whether homeopathy was a suitable subject for a science degree.[Watch the movie]

Riz Lateef (presenter): “Dr Fisher, could you ever see it
[homeopathy] as a science degree in the future?

Dr Peter Fisher:
“I would hope so. I wouldn’t deny that a lot of scientific research needs to be done, and I would hope that in the future it would have a scientific basis. I have to say that at the moment that basis isn’t comprehensive. To that extent I would agree with Professor Colquhoun.”

The one exception was a response, of sorts, that I got from Westminster University.

I can interpret this lack of response only as a sign of guilt on the part of the vice chancellors of the 16 or so universities who teach this stuff. That interpretation is reinforced by the refusal of two of them to release their teaching materials, despite requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Both the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Westminster have turned down appeals, and refused to hand over anything. The former case has been with the Information Commissioner for some time now, and if the ruling goes as a hope, the taxpayer may soon be able to see how their money is being spent.

But the wonderful thing about the electronic age is that it has become really quite difficult to keep secrets. Last year I managed to find an exam paper set by the University of Westminster in Homeopathic Materia Medica, and a question from that paper has already appeared in Nature.

I recently acquired copies of a course handbook. and of the powerpoint slides used for the lecture on ‘Vibrational Medicine’ by the University of Westminster. This appears to be from a course in Complementary Therapies, part of “Health Sciences: Complementary Therapies BSc Honours”, according to Westminster’s web site. A lot of people have access to this first year course material, so Westminster needn’t bother trying to guess how I got hold of this interesting material

In the public interest, here are a few quotations. Taxpayers should know how their money is being spent.

According to the handbook

“Complementary Therapies is a core module for the Therapeutic Bodywork, Herbal Medicine, Homœopathy, Nutritional Therapy and Complementary Therapies courses. Therefore all students of these degree courses are required to take this module.”

The University of Central Lancashire also has “Vitalistic Medicine” as part of its BSc Homeopathy (but, like Westminster, has some excellent people too).

There is a rather good Wikipedia entry on Vitalism, a topic that is now largely the preserve of cranks.

The handbook is wonderful. The word ‘evidence’. in the context of ‘does it work?’, does not occur a single time. There is plenty of the usual edu-bollocks jargon that is so beloved by bureaucrats, but not the slightest hint of critical thinking about assessment of the ‘therapies’.

The course seems to be a romp through almost every form of battiness known to humankind. Not just homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine and nutritional therapy, but also dowsing, crystal healing and other forms of advanced delusional thinking. Before somebody grumbles, let me emphasise that ‘nutrition’ is to be distinguished from ‘nutritional therapy’: the latter involves imaginative claims that buying expensive supplements can prevent or cure almost anything. There’s a lot more about that here, and here.

Here are just 5 days from the timetable.

9am-1.00pm : Homœopathy (group work and video)
9am-1.00pm : Traditional Chinese Medicine
11.15-1.00pm : Nutritional Therapy
9am-1.00pm : Vibrational Medicine/Energy Concepts (L&P)

All this can be yours -at a cost.
Full-time UK/EU fee – £3,145
Full-time Overseas fee – £9,450

The slides for the last of these lectures show some of the most glorious examples of the abuse of sciencey-sounding words that I’ve seen in a while.

Sigh. All this is sheer imagination. It is ancient vitalism dressed up pretentiously in sciencey words.Then a bit later we come to the general theory -“energy concepts”.

More plausible-sounding, but utterly meaningless words about vibrations. And then on to old superstitions about dowsing with rods and pendulums.


Not a single word of scepticism appears about any of this mumbo jumbo. Can it get worse? Yes it can. CRYSTAL HEALING comes next.

Are you having difficulty in understanding what all these words mean? I certainly hope so, because they have no meaning to understand. Don’t worry too much though, There are some helpful diagrams.

Aura photographs? They are just fairground conjuring tricks. Well, that is what you thought. But here we see them presented, apparently in all seriousness, as part of a vocational bachelor of science degree in a UK
university.Never mind, it is all assessed properly, with all the right box-ticking jargon. The course handbook says

Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of this module you will be able to:

• describe the theoretical basis and classification of a range of
complementary therapies

What theoretical basis? There isn’t any theoretical basis, just a meaningless jumble of words.

You just couldn’t make it up.

Westminster University is not all like this

This post is not intended as an attack on the University of Westminster as a whole. Last year I had an invitation from their biomedical people to give a talk there. They asked for a talk on “What is is the evidence for Alternative Medicine?”. But then I got an email from them saying

“I was surprised to be sat on heavily on return from said trip by the VC, Provosts and Deans (including Peter Davies the leader of the Alt Med School !) once news of your talk leaked out. Could you give a talk on your research instead- yep I know its pusillanimous of me and yep I know unis stand for freedom of speech and yep I know that fellow members of staff suggested you come and others were keen to listen to your views on quackery.”

So on November 2nd 2007 I gave a seminar about single ion channel work (our new ideas about partial agonists). Of course all the excellent staff whom I met agreed with me about the embarrassment that having degrees in homeopathy etc. The fault lies not with their academic staff, but with their administration. Freedom of speech does not seem to be high on their agenda.

Postscript I recently learned that when Times Higher Education asked Westminster about my seminar, they were given the following statement.

“Prof David Colquhoun was invited to take part in a research seminar series organised by the University’s School of Biosciences last year. As part of this series, on Friday 2 November 2007, he gave a talk on the agreed topic of “Single ion Channel studies suggest a new mechanism for partial agonism” – his area of research.”

Perhaps I am naive, but it truly shocks me that a university can issue such a dishonest account of what happened.

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86 Responses to Westminster University BSc: “amethysts emit high yin energy”

  • SciencePunk says:

    I’m speechless. Who’s paying for courses in this horseshit?

  • You and I are paying for it, I guess.

  • nash says:

    Ethics is an optional module on the Homeopathy course at Central Lancs.

  • oldtrout says:

    I had no idea that things had got this bad. Who is responsiblefor this utter, utter bollocks being passed off as science?

  • nash says:

    Looking at the slides on Energy and Distorted Energy, this is the sort of thing you find in bad science fiction/fantasy.

  • nash says:

    On BBC3 last year there was a series called the Bullshit Detective. They went to 3 Crystal Therapists who explained about the unique vibrations and energy given off by each stone and all three stated that they could recognise each crystal by the enrgy they emitted. The presenter then placed crystals in a cloth bag and asked them to put their hands inside and tell him what crystal was in there. The highest score was 2 out of 10.

  • […] Westminster University BSc: “amethysts emit high yin energy” >> […]

  • Dr Aust says:

    Goodness me. What a load of tripe.

    Crystals are pretty to look at, but how even the woo-est woo nitwit can believe they have “healing energy”…. bizarre. And the idea of the “theoretical basis” of CAM being taught as science… you couldn’t make it up.

    Although… I have no doubt you can pay to take a course in the “theoretical basis” of Scientology… or indeed of many religions. Perhaps they could re-title it a “B.theol.”. Or more minimally, a “B.Alt.” But badging it as science is truly Orwellian.

  • David Harper says:

    If these degrees were offered in the U.S., they would be called B.S. degrees. In more ways than one.

  • stephensenn says:

    What nonsense. I am inspired to offer the following joke.
    Two ducks in Regent’s Park. One says ‘quack quack’. The other says, ‘we must be near the University of Westminster’.

  • […] medicine has long debased the ideals and principles of science in private and in public.  Now, as David Colquhoun shows, it is beginning to corrupt science in universities with the awarding of B.Sc degrees in various […]

  • gimpyblog says:

    Wow. Damning stuff indeed. I’m also still amazed by the woo desire to put ‘special’ words in various woo colours.

  • jdehls says:

    As a geologist and research scientist, I was dismayed a couple of years ago to find several books about Crystal Healing for sale at the British Geological Survey’s bookshop in Keysworth. I couldn’t believe my colleagues at the BGS hadn’t campaigned to have them removed.

  • jdc325 says:

    “I’m speechless. Who’s paying for courses in this horseshit?”
    I reckon ultimately the punters pay. I think this could be one of the things that keeps woo going – people having to pay their own fees in order to train. This often means that they feel they have to make money out of whichever brand of woo they chose to study in order to pay for the ‘training’ they received. So even if someone comes to realise that their particular brand of woo is bovine excrement, there is a fair chance they will continue to practise in spite of their new-found awareness that they are actually talking bollocks. How do they recoup their training expenses? By flogging £3,145-worth of pseudoscientific guff to members of the public – that’s how.

  • Moochie says:

    David, how can this be happening in this, the 21st century? I am absolutely gobsmacked, and I am not even an academic. Needless to say, I would absolutely *not* send any kin of mine to these cretinous individuals to be educated, because I believe they are in dire need of some “reality therapy” themselves. (A foot thrust vigorously at their posteriors comes to mind!)

    I can only imagine that some idiotic “marketing types” are behind this lunacy, in an endeavor to attract lucrative full-fee paying marks, er, “students” from overseas.

    All said, it’s high time these people were held to account, in every way imaginable.

    Keep up the great work!

  • There is some discussion getting started at the Times Higher article.

    Positively good coverage by the Daily Mail (again!). “The worst five universities offering ‘bogus’ degrees in alternative medicine have been exposed by experts”, by Laura Clark.

    And favourable coverage in the Daily Telegraph too. “Alternative medical degrees ‘harm’ universities”, by Tom Peterkin

  • gimpyblog says:

    I noticed the Ralf Jeutter has commented on the Times Higher article. I have left this comment which I have replicated here incase it doesn’t get through there.

    Ralf, you featured on my website some months ago because you were selling and endorsing homeopathic vaccines on your website. If you had a shred of scientific understanding you would not be doing so. May I ask what you teach your students about homeoprophylaxis bearing in mind that Peter Fisher, homeopath to the Queen no less, has condemned such practices in the strongest terms


  • Dr Aust says:

    Ralf Jeutter, like many homeopaths, doesn’t believe in real vaccines. Talking of which, I notice he has left a message of support for Andrew Wakefield over at the demented Cry Shame website – how sadly and utterly predictable.

    One of the more bizarre things about Jeutter is that he has a real PhD in German (or German literature, or history) and used to be a lecturer in German at a University not far from me. Makes you wonder a bit about arts academics and what they regard as facts.

    Dr Jeutter would no doubt object strongly to David strictures since he (Ralf Jeutter)

    “…has a passion for excellence in homeopathic education. He feels strongly that we need a standardised homeopathic educational system based on the core writings of homeopathy (Hahnemann, Boenninghausen, Kent).”

    (From Ralf Jeutter’s bio on the SoH website).

    James Tyler Kent, for those not familiar with him, was the maddest of the late 19th century homeopaths. He was still denying the germ theory of infectious disease a half century after Koch’s postulates:

    “The microbe is not the cause of disease. We should not be carried away by these idle Allopathic dreams and vain imaginations but should correct the Vital Force’ (Kent, 1926)

    – love the hint of Darth Vader-ism.

    Kent fervently believed the cause of all illness was spiritual:

    “You cannot divorce medicine and theology” (Kent, 1926).

    Kent is a key influence on the “ultradilute” school of homeopathy dominant in the UK to this day… Need I say more.

  • Gimpy and Dr Aust -thanks for those very revealing comments. I wonder if Ralf Jeutter is regretting putting his head above the parapet at the Times Higher?

  • Slartibartfast says:

    I suppose too many academics are more worried about security of tenure than they are about what degrees their universities offer. Nowhere near enough scientists are ready to stand up for science. One of my professional bodies has awarded fellowships to chiropractors. You would not believe how difficult it has been to get other fellows to object. Even one of my sponsors for my own fellowship refused to sign a letter!

    “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing” Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797)

  • Ah good. Much of this conversation has now appeared on the Times Higher site.

    Tim Gough seems to think that we are as secretive about our teaching materials as they are. Not so, Just as a sample you can download here my powerpoint slides that explain in simple terms the use of convolution and matrices in single ion channel analysis. Please tell me if you find any mistakes in it.

  • christonabike says:

    Obviously these courses are utter lunacy. My question is what we can do to get them stopped. Maybe if academics at universities with more established research profiles were to boycott collaborations with the main wooniversities that might focus the minds of the university administration? On the other hand, that might only harm right-thinking staff and prevent good research so might be counter-productive.

    If I had research links with Westminster or any of the other offenders I think that at a minimum I’d probably write to the VC to say that I’d have to review the collaboration in view of Westminster’s support for pseudoscience, but not sure whether it would be worth going further.

    I should say that I am a researcher at a university medical school.

    (and when we’ve finished the pseudoscience courses can we start on theology please…?)

  • gimpyblog says:

    I have just posted the following in response to Ralf Jeutter’s responses on the THE site.

    Ralf your argument that
    “Genuine researchers into CAM and those with a vested interest or bias can be distinguished by the way they present evidence on CAM (and in particular homeopathy). The former will come at least with an open verdict, if not an admission that the research trend is in favour of homeopathy, the latter will want to close the book on homeopathy (by hook or by crook).”
    is disingenuous to the point of offensiveness.

    It is well established that as the better the quality of a homeopathic trial then the greater the tendency of any effect to be indistinguishable from placebo.

    It is sad that some in the homeopathic community prefer to cloud their critical faculties with wholly unsubstantiated smears about vested interest and bias than deal with scientific and medical realities. I also find it laughable that Ralf wants to see his profession safely regulated while advertising homeopathic remedies against malaria on his website. I will remind Ralf of Dr Peter Fisher’s words on this very subject on Newsnight.
    “I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.”


    Homeopaths like Ralf are more than just a danger to academic standards, they are a danger to public health.

  • robbo says:


    There is a practical way we can get our point across; we could refuse to act as
    PhD examiners, external (BSc) examiners, scientific publication reviewers,
    etc for those universities that allow these courses to be called a BSc…or would that be unfair on the “good” people at those institutions?

  • Drowned says:

    re: who pays for this crap

    well, the punters pay their fees (and for this group I have no sympathy about student debt). But of course the fees don’t cover the cost of the actual education, so the taxpayer foots some of the bill. I take some small crumb of comfort from the fact that real science courses will require a greater subsidy than these courses in woo, what with the need to do like, you know, experiments and stuff, which are expensive. So at least real science gets more per student than pseudo-science. I’m sure DC has a pretty good idea of how much it costs to run a real lab.

    My question is – given that no body with such a science degree could ever get a job in actual science related fields, why would they bother paying for the course instead of hanging out a sign and pretending to have credentials like in the good ol’ days?

  • timgough says:

    Hi David

    Unfortunately either the THE site is no longer taking comments, or my ability to post a comment has been somehow blocked.

    I was unable to thank Drowned for his offer of seeing his course materials – yet remain confused why he will disclose course materials yet hide who he is and which institution he represents.

    And I must apologise for my earlier comment about FoI – I note that you have said that UCL are prepared to release course material.

    I reiterate I am not a teacher of acupuncture and therefore I do not have the ability to reciprocate and post any presentations on acupuncture, as I have never given any presentations on acupuncture.

    And as for Christonabike’s comments – regarding banning courses – what kind of society do you think we live in? You don’t agree so ban it? Shall we end freedom of speech whilst we’re at it?

  • Thanks Tim
    I agree, I’m not keen on anonymity either, but I understand it. At my stage I don’t give a damn what the boss thinks, but a lot of people have to be more careful. This is especially true when people comment on their own employer.

    I don’t like the idea of banning things either. I have never proposed banning even crystal healers (though I do think that they should be subject to the laws of advertising and fair trade that apply to everyone else). But I don’t think that is what Christonabike meant.

    Universities have to choose what courses they offer, at the taxpayers’ expense, and it seems reasonable for them to choose scientific subjects for BSc degrees. Let me remind you again that even the Queen’s homeopathic physician agreed that homeopathy has not (“yet”) got a sufficient scientific basis for a BSc. It seems to be only VCs who believe that.

  • LeeT says:

    It is not just at university level. We are paying for it locally as well!

    Oxfordshire County Council adult learning services are offering courses in aromatherapy, Indian Head Massage, Reflexology, Tui Na Chinese Massage, Acupressure, Chinese Medicine, Herbs & Crystals for Health, Holistic Facials and our old favourite Kinesiology.

  • Drowned says:

    @ Tim Gough

    I am happy to demonstrate what is that I try to convince others is a good thing, but at the moment I’ve chosen to remain anonymous for two main reasons and I’m happy to share them. First, my wife works in the NHS and I have no deisre to create problems for her on the off chance anyone takes notice of what I say. Second, I am still trying to build a professional reputation and not everyone in my department looks kindly on blogs as a form of public discourse. Prof Colquhoun can use his name without fear of retribution but sadly at my stage of career development I’m not sure I could. Especially if my unversity decides it wants to offer courses in anti-science nonsense. Finally (and the weakest reason) my blog is very new and I still fell like I’m finding my feet. If I’m going to attach something to my name I want it to be ready, and as it stands the sort of writing necessary to keep a blog up to date is very different than what I am used to for academic writing.

    When I feel I can write under my own name I will, but for the moment this is the approach I am most comfortable with. I hope that clarifies why I wish to be as open as I can but without giving my name explicitly at this stage. My offer still stands.

  • I sympathise 100% with Drowned. Nobody is surprised if a big business tells its employees what they are allowed to say, but Universities are meant to be the one place where people have freedom of speech. It is a recurring theme here that university employees are mostly too terrified of the consequences to use that freedom. That is a result of the cult of managerialism encouraged by many VCs, by HEFCE and ultimately by the government. I can’t think that in the long run it pays an institution to terrify its employees into silence, but that is how it is.

    I’m not entirely confident about the “without fear of retribution” bit, but so far, so good. I suppose the provost could fire me from my research assistant job but that hardly matters to me now (what was that about being on the outside, pissing in?).

  • coracle says:

    Does anyone else see this as a consequence of the market driven approach to higher education? At a time when real science is highly expensive (lab space, overheads, consumables) it must be far cheaper to provide degrees in pseudoscience where a few crystals (hello geology department) and a couple of magic wands will suffice.
    And beyond the simple practicalities too; if the customer is always right, then the customer gets to choose their reality, no matter if there is no evidence for it.

  • coracle says:

    Oh, and whilst I’m at it. Is anyone shocked by the low bar for entry for the BSc Honours Health Sciences: Complementary Therapies at the University of Westminster?

    Minimum of two A2 levels, including biology, at grade C or a minimum of CC in Vocational A level in science, with mathematics, English and chemistry studied to GCSE or equivalent. Equivalent qualifications will also be considered.

  • Coracle. I have thought a lot about that, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the motive is money and damn the honesty.

    I suspect that most of the people who teach this stuff actually believe it, hard though that is to understand. But surely their bosses can’t? The previous VC at Westminster was a physicist, Geoffrey M Copland, MA, DPhil, CPhys, FInstP, FRSA, CBE. And the present VC, Geoffrey Petts has has research interests “at the interface of hydrology, geomorphology and ecology “.

    As far as I know, neither of them has disavowed Avogadro’s number.

    How they justify their attitude is a deep mystery, since neither of them seems willing to say anything.

  • […] left wondering about the role of universities in this. What will happen to universities such as Westminster or Teesside who – while the general public are increasingly asking ‘alternative’ […]

  • HolfordWatch makes some interesting comments on Damian Thompson’s excellent article, “The last rites for alternative medicine?”

    “Would you feel happy studying Physics at a university that teaches students on another course that “amethysts emit high yin energy” or Nutrition at a university that is sufficiently impressed by Holford’s nutritional science to make him a visiting professor?”

    This, I feel, is a bit unfair on the physicists at Westminster. They are, no doubt, as embarrassed by “amethysts emit high yin energy” as any other educated person.

    I believe that the slides I have shown are from a lecture by a “Living Harmony practitioner. She is free to believe whatever she wants. I dare say she is quite sincere in her apparent belief in aura photography and crystals. It is not her fault that Westminster offers these lectures. The only person who can rescue Westminster’s reputation is its Vice-Chancellor, Geoffrey Petts.

    One of the few treasonable offences in a university is “bringing your institution into disrepute”. I haven’t yet heard of a vice chancellor being fired for that offence, but you never know.

  • […] Westminster University BSc: “amethysts emit high yin energy” One UK university is teaching “aura photography” at degree level. Whatever you do, don’t send your kids there. (tags: quackery alternativemedicine aura science) Elsewhere… […]

  • Wooniversally Challenged says:

    Where does all this negative coverage leave students? They are at even more disadvantage in the ‘fear of retribution’ game than Drowned. The argument is over ideas, yes, but people’s sensitivities and fears get in the way. No one wants to poke fun at someone else’s beliefs or intentionally hurt their feelings. To challenge pseudoscience, which this clearly is, with ‘But where’s the evidence?’ could be a discomforting experience. Mind you, sitting through it, I imagine, could be more so. Students should not be cowed into silence by fear – even though their leaders are.
    I wonder what advice Sir Peter Medawar would give to a young scientist in this situation? What advice would you give? (Not just the obvious ’take your money somewhere else’)

  • Marc C says:

    @Tim Gough – How about posting materials for what ever it is you do teach? BTW is not just about posting course materials. You can have mine for all I care: the notes from my logic courses might help us all.

    The fact is science subjects are identified as science BECAUSE they are evidenced based etc. duh. You cannot change that.

    Institutions that insist on giving BS degrees for non-science will eventually lose respect, no matter what the remaining faculty thinks or does. Schools that do this should lose accreditation period. Do you find find CAM in science departments in the Universities of India? I haven’t found any.

    This degrades the respect of UK schools globally. I am currently teaching in the Middle East and my colleagues are laughling their asses off. And they are certainly second thinking going to the UK for a degree from these schools. And, now when we hire a BS grad from the UK, we will have to check the degree to make sure the major is actually science.

    @ Drowned : I sympathize but cow-towing to repressive policies in higher education only makes their power stronger! You can try and take your chances and trust your colleagues to support you as they did with DC and his problems UCL.

  • SubMoron says:

    Now this really is homeopathy. Degrees with no active ingredients!

  • Dr Aust says:

    Nice idea, SubM. I’m not sure they’ve diluted it enough for it to be truly homeopathic, though, as in no trace whatsoever of the active ingredient.

    From the AltSci “degrees” I have looked at in the shamed Univs, there is typically about one module in every four or five that the students do which could be argued to be science – in the sense of it being a module in a recognisable science subject, and being taught by the actual science people in the Univ as opposed to the Crystal Quacks.

    Of course, the overall effect is likely to be less than one would except from (say) “25% genuine science content”, since in the other 75% the students are being taught anti-science, that crystals beam out healing rays, or similar.

    I love David’s idea of the University of Westminster VC having to impeach himself for “bringing the Univ into disrepute”. I wonder what the “impeachment” procedure is for removing a VC?

  • christonabike says:

    Timgough: if you read my comment you will see that I did not mention “banning” courses. The word I used was stopped. I am interested in making the people responsible for these courses realise that their promotion of pseudoscience is deeply damaging both to society in general and theor institiutions, not to mention an obscene waste of public money.

    Nothing to do with freedom of speech at all.

  • timgough says:

    Coracle: Yes, the entry requirements are not particularly high – but you could probably find quite a lot of courses in clearing which would accept students to train as teachers in science on similar grades!
    Marc C – I don’t actually teach anything – I am a part-time student of acupuncture and when not studying I work in finance.
    Whilst I am biased as a student of acupuncture, I don’t understand the benefit to a University of classifying these degrees as science – certainly I don’t care one bit what letters go after my name when I graduate, and would be more than happy for the course I do to have a BA classification. This seems to be the crux of the issue (and that some therapists make ridiculous claims about what they can do). As many of you here are within academia, could you explain to me why universities don’t just change the classification of such courses to BA? What is the driver for classifying them as BSc?

  • CGR says:

    from the web-site:

    “The Department [of Complementary Therapies] now provides the most comprehensive range of courses in complementary medicine in the U.K. The Quality Assurance Agency assessment score of 23 out of 24 confirmed the quality of the provision by an external agency.”

    It might be BS, but it is (apparently) high quality BS.

  • Dr Aust says:

    …Only if the QAA really assesses quality, CGR.

    The QAA is widely characterized in academia as the:

    Quango for Assessing Administration”

    The only thing it really assesses is how many QAA-type programme reviews, committees, sets of committee and subcommittee minutes, mission statements, voluminous reports and unreadable and unread documents on educational philosophy, disability policy, outreach philosophy etc etc an institution has generated.

    As I remember, when the QAA came to assess us a few years back, preparing for their arrival required the setting up of a special “base room” with eight new 4-drawer filing cabinets full of paperwork.

    Did having all this paperwork splendildly and time-consumingly collated and filed away (and carefully constructed if it didn’t already exist to be filed away) make the slightest difference to the quality of the actual “teaching and learning”, going on in our Faculty?

    Hmmm. I can certainly tell you the near-universal opinion among the academic staff, which was “you must be bloody joking”

    QAA assessments are the University ultimate in box-tickers’ box-ticking exercises. This obviously adapts rather well to “validating” courses which have trappings of high seriousness but no actual content.

    Talking of which: in honour of that great human bullshit detector Richard Feynman, a tireless opponent of modish nonsense , including in education, can I suggest we henceforth refer to these “B.Sc.s” as “cargo cult B.Sc.s”? Or even “cargo cult University education”.

  • I’ve talked to the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) about this (see Enkarkenment).

    They judge courses according how well they think it fulfils its aims. BUT the snag is that those aims are set by the course organisers. If they say that the aim is to teach that the less you give, ther bigger the effect, and you are successful in persuading the students that it’s true, the QAA gives you full marks,

    In other words, the QAA ia yet another HR-type box-ticking exercise, and utterly useless as a way of ensuring quality.
    (And while I was typing this, Dr Aust beat me to it!)

  • Ocelot says:

    Whatever a “Living Harmony practitioner” might be, she couldn’t be bothered to check the spelling (it’s “ayurveda” not “ayuverda”, but non-science either way) or grammar (“What matters is whether works for you . . .”—quoi?) on her lecture slides.

  • Marc C says:

    @ Tim Gough

    The first advantage of B.Sc. (and M.Sc and PhDs I imagine) is selling power: the more science sounding degrees and words etc. that can be associated with a product or service, the higher regard people will have. This is perhaps why candy sellers like Patrick Holfold call themselves “Dr.” (even when they apparently lack the actual degree). [Economists and business program have been quite guilty of this as well peddling their wares as Business Sciences etc. just because they applied some mathematics – again to prop up, needlessly in my view, programs. Just because you have a little stats in there does not make it science – even mathematics is not the practice of science per se, apart from the fact that maths is the langauge of science and this is why it is often considered B.Sc. Mine was actually B.A. because I took a two degrees at the same time, and the other was in philosophy and my Uni refused to award a B.Sc. with both mathematics and philosophy on it]

    I think DC and Ben G have both said it quite clearly (and either one please correct me if you feel I have put the wrong word in your mouth) – the major requirement should simply be that any claims about services and products that relate to science should be backed directly by science and the scientific community. I think that is not too much to ask. From the consumer point of view, I am sick and tired of stupid and unsupported claims everywhere in adverts. I cannot help but wonder how this rubs the sellers’ consciences?

    The second advantage of B.Sc.s. is the attempt to have non-science enter into the scientific community directly (at the same level) in order to subjugate the process of science to their own ends. They (and I am talking about the dishonest snail oil types here, and I understand there are many honest practicioners out there, I think the majority who want little or nothing to do with the scienctific community) are redefining what it means to have a B.Sc.

    All laughing aside, this is the real danger of FORMERLY prominent schools such as Westminster accrediting these degrees as B.Sc. Will the universities now redefine what it means to do quality double blind trials? Will channelling my avatar be sufficient to ensure that a drug is good to go for the marketplace?

    “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces… I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

    Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World

  • Mungus says:

    I’m very late to this and haven’t read all of the comments but have a few points I’d like to make.

    I studied Osteopathy at Oxford Brookes Uni. The fees then were around £3k pa, last time I checked, they were £5k pa. Fair to say that I embarked on the course because I was interested in it, wanted a career change and it ticked a lot of boxes for me. I didn’t question the validity of the concept or think very hard about the end-point i.e. working as an osteopath.

    I had previously got a Physiology degree so liked to flatter myself that I was a sciency sort of person. I worked hard (and it was hard, osteopathy isn’t about auras and vibration, osteopaths aspire to be primary health practitioners so there’s a huge medical component to the curriculum).

    Long story short, I graduated with a 1st, started work and never made enough money to pay tax on. I gave the whole thing up at the end of last year. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about osteopathy, alternative medicine and why I couldn’t make a go of it.

    First thing to say, Brookes were in it to make money and I think that since I left they’ve expanded their portfolio of alt med courses. Universities are businesses, not moral guardians. Second, I think my personality type was all wrong. I’m a questioning person and spent a long time looking for the ‘how does it work’ with no real tangiable answers. I think those who are less questioning and more convinced come across as more confident and therefore engage the placebo effect more fully. I was doing enough of the right things to get a 1st, but not enough of the ‘people skills’ stuff to be convincing.

    I think there will be a lot of disillusioned practitioners out there soon, especially in the current economic climate. I’m glad I got out and have been very lucky to be able to pick up my previous career.

  • Thanks Mungo for that very interesting and frank history.

    You certainly not the only person who has had second thoughts when they see the full barminess of some of the things they are taught.

    Keep it flowing in -material like this deserves a bit of publicity.

  • DMcILROY says:

    Well for once I’ve got a good word for higher education here in France. Since we are just branches of the education ministry, all degree courses have to get the OK from the ministry before they can be offered by universities. In a sense, it’s a bit like peer-review for university courses – you have to submit what you plan to teach to expert review before actually putting it into practice. Most of the time I moan about this kind of bureaucratic centralisation, but it could in fact be an important safeguard that prevents blatant nonsense being taught in universities.

  • I’m not sure that would work with our Department of Health, which seems to regard the Prince of Wales as an appropriate person to give them medical advice.

    We have elaborate and time-consuming accreditation processes for courses, but they are worthless because courses in magic are accredited by other believers in magic, and because senior administrators think money is more important than honesty.

  • Dr Aust says:

    Name ‘n’ shame, and public ridicule and embarrassment, seems to be the only option as far as I can see… if prospective “name” Professorial appointees start going elsewhere and citing the Alt nonense as a reason, the Univs might feel the need to have a re-think.

    What one really hopes is that Deans of Science and Bioscience Faculties will be on the phone to the VC telling him they can’t appoint Professors, can’t fill courses etc etc because of the VC’s enthusiasm for the dingbats running the School of Alt Health. But the danger is that the top scientist will simply be one of the VC’s cabal, or chosen for “pliability”.

  • Lindy says:

    Unfortunately it is not only the Dept of Health that admires the Prince of Wales and his Foundation for Integrated Health. The Royal Society of Medicine, which I have always understood to be a scientific institution, has in the near future a lecture in assocation with, amongst others, HRH’s FIH. I have not yet had a reply to my e-mail to the RSM asking how this is allowed.

    Furthermore, with the covert privatisation of the NHS (polyclinics etc), quacks will be able to work in the same premises as real medics, because these therapies (for which people will probably have to pay) will increase profits for companies like United Healthcare and Virgin. The latter replied to my e-mail that ‘…the services available from our centres will be linked to both the needs of the local Health Economies and the availability of supply in the areas we ultimately choose to open in’.

    With science (and presumably other) university courses being seen simply in terms of the money the bring first to the university and later to the economy, I fear that there is little chance of closing down the schools of magic. I hope I am wrong.

  • CGR says:

    Mungo said “Universities are businesses, not moral guardians.” I think it would be wrong for Universities to get anywhere near moral guardianship, but allow me to twist the words a bit:

    “Universities are businesses, not guardians of intellectual integrity.”

    This has become true to a disturbing extent and it is a cause for alarm. There was a time when regimes like the Soviet Union were (rightly) lambasted for oppressing independent thought for political reasons. The fear then was that regimes could manipulate the population because there were no voices of reason, no places where ideas could be tested against each other on their merits. Lysenkoism was one spectacular early own goal that resulted. Until the 80s the intellectual independence of Universities was one of the safeguards (along with the right to publish) of western freedom and progress. The concept of the tenured academic, able to criticise anything and everything and subject only to humiliation by peers if they get it wrong, is truly valuable and in the long run is essential to economic progress.

    I don’t think that the exercise of political force to silence criticism was the primary reason* for the HE commercial revolution started by Thatcher and Keith Joseph in the 80s and which accelerated in the 90s – although I expect it was seen by politicians as a convenient side effect. However, the ‘checks and balances’ role of independent academics is being neutered just as effectively by the necessity to chase money. A possible destination is not so much 1984 as Discworld, and BSc courses in magic are the road signs. Along with faith schools and creationism. And box-ticking quality assurance.

    *Getting large numbers of 18 year-olds off the unemployment register may have been.

  • CGR. You have put it just beautifully.

  • Mojo says:

    @ timgough:

    “Shall we end freedom of speech whilst we’re at it?”

    Did you pay attention to what DC wrote in the original article?

    “Last year I had an invitation from their biomedical people to give a talk there. They asked for a talk on “What is is the evidence for Alternative Medicine?”. But then I got an email from them saying

    “I was surprised to be sat on heavily on return from said trip by the VC, Provosts and Deans (including Peter Davies the leader of the Alt Med School !) once news of your talk leaked out.””

    It appears that the threat to free speech here comes not from those who draw attention to universities offering BScs in pseudoscience, but from university administrations who seem unwilling to allow free speech if it might result in criticism of some of the courses they run. And this, to me at least, is far more disturbing than running worthless courses.

  • Ysabel says:

    On successful completion of this module you will be able to:

    • describe the theoretical basis and classification of a range of
    complementary therapies

    Little thought-experiment. Let’s pretend there is a theoretical basis. After that, we can ask ourselves whether showing one has understood what one has read (not regurgitating the exact words, because that does not indicate comprehension) doesn’t sound rather like (you may be old enough to know what I’m talking about) O Level. At A Level one was supposed to form an opinion on the set books and be able to argue it using textual evidence: Do you think Les Mains sales is pro- or anti-war? That sort of thing. Of course the VCs have refused to consider a threat to academic standards; they’re terrified of acknowledging such things exist.

    Bit of a fish out of water here, clearly not a member of the scientific community. I personally think howls of derision are the appropriate response to much of what now passes for university education.

  • Mojo says:

    They’re now putting up adverts in tube carriages, with a picture of some bees and the text:


    There’s a real buzz about Westminster. With courses from complementary therapies to business we’ll give you the skills to sweeten your career.”

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