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It is almost six months now since I posted Quackery creeps into good universities too -but through Human Resources. One example given there was the University of Leicester. This is an excellent university.  It does first class research and it was the alma mater of the incomparable David Attenborough who has done more than anyone to show us the true beauty and wonder of the natural world.

Nevertheless, their well-meaning occupational health department had a section about “complementary therapies” that contained a lot of statements that were demonstrably untrue. They even recommended the utterly outrageous SCENAR device. So I pointed this out to them, and I had a quick and sympathetic response from their HR director.

But three months later, nothing had changed. Every now and then, I’d send a polite reminder, but it seemed the occupational health staff were very wedded to their quackery.   The last reminder went on 6th February, but this time I copied it to Leicester’s vice-chancellor.  This time it worked. There is still a link to Complementary Therapies on the Wellbeing site, but if you click on it, this is what you see.

Complementary therapies

Some employees may have an interest in complementary therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, Indian head massage, Reiki, sports & remedial massage, reflexology and hypnotherapy. If you have an interest in any of these, Staff Counselling can happily provide details of practitioners in the local area. Some of these practitioners offer discounts from their normal rates for University of Leicester staff.

However, the University of Leicester cannot vouch for, or recommend any of these therapies to staff as being effective. We would urge members of staff who believe that such therapies might be effective to contact their GP prior to undertaking any of them. Further, the University of Leicester shall not be liable for any damage of any kind arising out of or related to the services of any complementary therapists or treatments listed here.

If you would like further information, please contact Chris Wilson at: staffcounsel&welfare@le.ac.uk or telephone 1702.

That’s not bad. Pity it doesn’t say alternative, rather than complementary though.   Euphemisms aren’t really helpful.

In fact I have a bit of a problem with “wellbeing” too. It is a harmless word that has been highjacked so that its use now makes one think of mud baths provided by expensive hotels for their rich and gullible customers.

Leicester’s HR director wrote

“Unfortunately an instruction I had given previously had not been fully complied with.  I spoke to the manager of the Staff Counselling team on Friday and gave clear instructions as to the content of this site.  I had been assured that the offending information had been removed, but found that it had not.

I have now checked the site for myself and can say, with confidence, that all claims for the efficacy of complimentary [sic] therapies have been removed including SCENAR.”

The similarity between quack treatments and religion is intriguing.  It seems that the devotion of the occupational health people to their baloney was so great that they wouldn’t take it down even when told to do so.  The more irrational the belief, the greater the fervour with which it is defended,

What’s the lesson from this minor saga?  It seems that most VCs and many HR people are too sensible to believe in alternative baloney, but that they are a bit too ready to tolerate it, perhaps on grounds of political correctness.  Tolerance is a virtue, but lies about health are not in the least virtuous. If you point out that people are saying things for which there isn’t the slightest evidence, they will often respond.  Just be prepared to send a few reminders.

It may also be useful to point out that some of the claims made are almost certainly illegal.  Even people who care little about evidence of efficacy are impressed by the idea that they might be prosecuted by Trading Standards officers.

Who needs mystical medicine when you have real wonders like these.

(Click the google video logo for a bigger version)

Or try the pitcher plant video, or the Bird of paradise, or the Bower Bird, or the giant Amazon lilies.


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18 Responses to Wellbeing at Leicester gets honest (eventually)

  • Alan Henness says:

    A good result.

    I checked the website of my local Uni (Westminster!). In their students’ health pages, they mention homeopathy for hay fever. I’ve just sent the following email to their student health department:


    I note on your website on the Current Events page (http://www.wmin.ac.uk/page-1729), that you recommend homeopathy for hay fever (allergic rhinitis).

    You say:

    Homeopathy – can be used with good effect. Can be obtained from Boots or Holland & Barrett; or Ainsworth’s Homeopathic Pharmacy, 36 New Cavendish Street, W1

    Remember to avoid caffeine & mint for at least 1hr prior to taking treatment:

    * Ainsworth’s Mixed Pollens: as a preventive @ 3 weeks prior to the season
    * Alium cepa: for an acute attack with running eyes & nose, sneezing, sore lips, & which is worse indoors & toward evening; irritation can spread to ears & throat
    * Arsenicum Alb: burning or itching eyes, nose, throat; thirst, anxiety
    * Euphrasia: for itching, running nose, red watery eyes & frequent sneezing

    I note that of the three websites you link to on that page for further information, two do not mention homeopathy as a possible treatment (www.patient.co.uk/showdoc/23068751/ and http://www.hayfevertreatment.co.uk/) and the third (http://www.theallergysite.co.uk/hayfever.html) says:

    However, there is no good evidence that alternative medicine improves the symptoms of allergic rhinitis.

    Since there is no scientific or medical evidence that homeopathy is efficacious for either treating or preventing hay fever (or any other medical condition), will you please consider removing this erroneous and misleading advice from your website?



    It will certainly be interesting to see how they respond! If they agree the advice is wrong, where does that leave their BSc courses in homeopathy?

    I’ll let you know what reply I get.


  • Sili says:

    Isn’t there a law? “Never attribute malice where incompetence may suffice.”

    It may just be that the HR underlings just couldn’t be arsed to do as instructed.

    I speak as a lazy git, not as a wooster.

  • I expect you right. Usually it’s cock-up, not conspiracy.

  • Alan Henness says:

    Interesting article in today’s Sunday Times:

    “New universities to revert to old polytechnic role

    THE former polytechnics are to take back much of their previous role of providing adult education and vocational degrees rather than trying to ape leading academic institutions under reforms being drawn up by John Denham, the universities secretary.”


  • aceofdaves says:

    Thoughts on this?


    ‘Thai massage’ gets 8 hits on pubmed, none of which mention headache. The first hit is a meta-analysis in which the authors conclude that “…Thai massage is similar to classic (Swedish) massage” with respect to its efficacy in relieving chronic lower back pain.

    Nothing so extreme as claims regarding specific diseases but all the references to ‘SEN lines’ still bother me. I feel like I’m scraping the barrel slightly with regards to getting annoyed here but what do you reckon?

  • Sigh
    Now the University of Glasgow. Anyone fancy having a go? I’m going to be doing real science for a while.
    The chiropractic and some of the things offered by Woodland Herbs look dodgier than the Thai Yoga massage.

  • neoconnell says:

    I think it’s pretty much the norm for the sports centres of Uni’s to offer an array of nonsense therapies. The free market rules! Ours offers Aromatherapy Massage, Reiki, Reflexology, Indian Head Massage, Hopi Ear Candles, all accompanied by the usual bollocks descriptions. A flyer was posted in our department, so in silent protest I popped up Quackwatch’s definition of quackery just below it. Soon both items mysteriously disappeared.

    I think it is all-pervasive but at least they are not offering BSc’s in it. Maybe thats the best we can hope for.

  • Lindy says:

    Neoconnell: Well, sort-of. The problems start when the therapies pose potential dangers. That ear-candling bollocks can be dodgy, as Ben Goldacre pointed out in 2004 (http://www.badscience.net/index.php?s=ear+candling). And of course it has nothing to do with the traditions of the Hopi people.

    In addition if people go and have Reiki treatment for apres sport, they may think it can help them if they are ill. Goodness knows how it is supposed to do that. In order to help me pass an exam, someone in Australia once offered to do Reiki for me. I was in England at the time.

  • neoconnell says:

    Lindy: Agreed on all counts. Uni’s shouldn’t be touching it, but money talks. I can’t see any possibility of stopping this stuff being peddled, but at least there has been some success as clearly distinguishing it from science teaching.

  • John Hooper says:

    DC – in a spirit of genuine enquiry (?) I wondered quite how “outrageous” the Scenar device could be so I looked it up online.

    Features include:

    “”””interactive and intelligent energy-neuro-stimulation

    – an interactive dialogue with the body, finding, measuring and treating problem areas (asymmetries)

    – modality with many applications.

    – mimic the electrical discharges of the nervous system

    -pain disease dynamics

    – a bipolar pulse, consisting of a negative square-wave followed by a positive saw-tooth

    – to give a concentrated (deep) or diffuse (shallow) penetration, depending on local body density or depth of pain location.

    – “modulations” can either be applied individually or together.

    – waveform damping factor (Dmpf =VAR)

    – cyclical modes

    – a comprehensive arsenal with which to stimulate both acute and chronic conditions
    endophins, etc. to releave pain

    – create an enhanced environment for the organism to bring into play its own healing pharmacy to move towards homeostasis.

    – A further level of chaos is introduced by a random variation of the pulse amplitude

    – A feedback mechanism is provided by the constant monitoring of skin impedance, which will change with time and “dosage” delivered.

    – Integration of these values permits calculation and display of rate of change (of current flow) and coefficient of waveform in relation to the starting point.

    – Ths is furthered by emphasis on increase of information rather than energy content, thus minimising the triggering of body retaliation and adaptation mechanisms.

    Optional attachments: face, skull and point”””

    I thought endorphin had an R in it – not to mention the other errors and mistakes.

    I agree. It IS outrageous nonsense (and all yours for £450).

    I did think it was a nice touch to offer an optional face or skull with it.

    Made me laugh nearly as much as tachyon water. Many thanks for brightening up my Friday afternoon with my favourite bit of condensed woo so far in 2009.

  • Dr Aust says:

    There is a vast range of “Bio-electro-Woo” quack devices out there, of which Scenar is one of the more recent – you can read some of the history here.

    Scenar seems to me to be a kind of po-faced Russian equivalent of the “Quantum QXCI Interface“ quack device peddled by the legendarily demented “Professor” Bill Nelson – see e.g. this Ben Goldacre’s column from last Summer. If you really want a laugh, you can catch “Professor” Bill ( aka Desiree Dubounet – I kid you not) in the flesh on Canadian TV here – highly recommended and really has to be seen to be believed.

  • flup says:

    I was a little disturbed to find that prospects.ac.uk, “the UK’s official graduate careers website”, lists “Homeopath” as a possible career one might pursue. It has an uncritical splat of descriptive text, proclaiming amongst other things that “homeopathy can treat acute conditions”.

    Perhaps it’s aimed at those who gained a BSc in Unethical Placebo Studies.


  • Too true. I wrote to the Director of Prospects a while ago to point out that, in this area, their website makes many statements that are know to be untrue.

    I got the usual bureaucratic brushoff, but I was told eventually that the matter would be reconsidered in 18 months time. That was in November 2007.

    Perhaps it is time to write again to

  • bob_calder says:

    HR is often a problem for several reasons, poor education and overwork being two that come to mind.

    My favorite HR woo is the personality profile test. I hear the professional association meetings contain symposia on the use and administration of such tests. I tell my students not to worry when encountering one. It is nature’s way of warning you not to apply for a job with that particular firm.

  • That’s good, A bit like my recommendation that any university that asks you about impact factors is clearly not serious about science.
    This week a Glasgow GP, Desmond Spence, wrote a beautiful piece in the BMJ. Here’s a quotation.

    “So when I am sent a circular for courses with names like “Reach for the Stars­Leadership in the NHS” my face flushes. In the past I was conscripted into attending. The courses were all flip charts, team building exercises, and propagandist slogans: “Communicate, motivate and innovate” and “Win hearts and minds.” Normally I try to hit the sleep trance zone, eyes open and nodding occasionally but brain switched off, but this is impossible with the repeated intrusion of participation. Then there are presentations on “change theory” and “leadership styles” seeking to define the indefinable. Management consultants with soft bony hands creep across the carpet, stating the bleeding obvious for £1500 a day. You want to ask why they aren’t running their own international business from a yacht in Monaco rather than boring health professionals at a Travelodge in Swindon. The truth is that those who need to go on a leadership course will never lead.”

  • andrew says:

    Personality Profiling. When I was at UCL we were told the army tried personality profiling on potential officer recruits. Being thorough people they recorded every physical characterstic and applied many different personality tests and then followed officer performance in the field for years. No test or combination of tests gave good predictions, but the best was the state of the candidate’s teeth.
    On that basis I would never make it, but note that large Japanese car manufacturers abandoned such tests about five years ago.

  • […] Although that particular course (which cost UCL £700 per day) has gone, much psychobabble remains.  In fact it is through HR that pseudoscience gets into the most respectable universities,like, for example, at Leicester. […]

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