This afternoon I went to the Coliseum to see a revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1986 production of the Mikado. It was beautifully staged. The well-known patter song of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of Japan, begged for a version that deals with anti-science (original here). The serious post will come later. Meanwhile here’s some late night rhyming.
As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
There’s the pestilential bureaucrats who want to send you on a course —
The HR folks who treat you not as human but as mere resource
Skills specialists who think that education just means training
And all ex-scientists who used to work, but now are only feigning
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!
He’s got ’em on the list — he’s got ’em on the list;
And they’ll none of ’em be missed — they’ll none of ’em be missed.
And that deluded nuisance, whom no one understands
The homeopathist – I’ve got her on the list!
All Reiki folks, pill hucksters and layers on of hands
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed.
And herbalists and Princes who like to talk to trees
Those phony nutritionists who’ll treat you for large fees
And that singular anomaly, the acupuncturist —
I don’t think they’d be missed — I’m sure they’d not be missed!
You may put ’em on the list — you may put ’em on the list;
And they’ll none of ’em be missed — they’ll none of ’em be missed!
There’s the vision statement writer, and others of that sort
And the crystal therapist — I’ve got him on the list!
And the people who think long words are a substitute for thought
They never would be missed — they never would be missed!
Then those whose knight starvation makes them crave the honours list
So all below must suffer in case their chance is missed
And those who think that science can be judged by its citations
And so kill creativity by funding only applications
But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list,
For they’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!
You may put ’em on the list — you may put ’em on the list;
And they’ll none of ’em be missed — they’ll none of ’em be missed!
I replaced two lines after my pedantic sister pointed out their imperfect rhyme and scansion. Personally I’m with Charles Babbage.
Here is letter that Babbage is said to have written to Tennyson after reading “The vision of sin”.
In your otherwise beautiful poem there is a verse that reads:
“Every moment dies a man
Every moment one is born”
It must be manifest that, were this true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest that in the next edition of your poem you have it read:
“Every moment dies a man
Every moment 1 1/16 is born”
Strictly speaking this is not correct. The actual figure is a decimal so long that I cannot get it in the line, but I believe that 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.
I am etc,
(The Mathematical Gazette, 1927, p270)
One aspect of the endarkenment, the Wal-Mart model of a university, is very much the same in the US as in the UK. At one US university, an excellent scientist offered the theory that an alien spacecraft had scattered spores across the land which developed into HR staff who appeared at first sight to be human, and who colonised academia.
The penetration of quackademics into US universities is a bit different from in the UK.
In the UK, the plague is restricted to sixteen or so ex-polytechnic universities which, to their great shame, actually offer Bachelor of Science degress in subjects like homeopathy. There are bits of quackery in good teaching hospitals (such as laying-on-of-hands at UCLH), but not very much.
In the USA and Canada, this sort of “vocational” training does not occur much in universities, but in separate colleges. The situation is worse there though, insofar as these colleges have been allowed to award titles like ‘doctor of naturopathic medicine (ND)’, for work that in no respect compares with what the rest of the world has to do to earn a doctorate. This prostitution of academic titles has not happened to anything like the same extent in the UK. How our own quacks would love it if they were allowed to call themselves ‘doctor’ and sport the initials ND (so easily mistaken for MD at first sight).
It is on the clinical side where the situation is far worse than in the UK. Almost every university hospital, including Harvard, Yale and Stanford, has departments devoted to fairy-tale medicine.
Quacks use a number of euphemisms to make themselves sound more respectable. First they became ‘alternative medicine’, then ‘complementary medicine’. Now the most-used euphemism is ‘integrative medicine’, which is favoured by most US universities (as well as by the Prince of Wales). Raymond Tallis pointed out that this seems to mean integration of treatments that don’t work with treatments that do work.
An official roll of shame for North American universities can be seen here (35 in USA and 4 in Canada).
A bigger collection of 44 universities has been posted by the incomparable Orac at the The Academic Woo Aggregator. He’s had good support in the USA from DrRW (R.W. Donnell), see particularly his articles on How did pseudoscience get admitted to medical school? and What is happening to our medical schools? Abraham Flexner is turning over in his grave.
All these outfits have two things in common. They all claim to be scientific and evidence-based, and none has produced any real evidence that any of their treatments work.
Here are a few examples of what’s going on.
Yale University School of Medicine
The usual theme is expressed thus.
“Through open-minded exploration and rigorous scientific inquiry, we aim to improve awareness and access to the best in evidence-based, comprehensive medical care available worldwide, with the goal of optimizing health and healing for patients”
The driving force behind the woo seems to be a fourth year medical student, Rachel Friedman, so I wrote to her to ask what useful alternative treatments had been established by research at Yale. But she could not identify any. All I got was this.
“My best advice would be to do some medline searching of metaanalyses” there’s been enough research into some of these modalities to provide for a metaanalysis.”
So she was unable to produce nothing (and anyway. metanalyses, useful though they may be, are not research).. A glance at the Yale publications page shows why.
The Scripps Institute
“In use at Scripps since 1993, Healing Touch is an energy-based, non-invasive treatment that restores and balances energy to help decrease pain and relieve associated anxiety.
Healing Touch is performed by registered nurses who recognize, manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body, thereby promoting healing and the well-being of body, mind and spirit.”
“manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body”?
This is just meaningless baloney. And it come from the Scripps Institute.
The Oregon Health & Science University
OHSU is an excellent and well-respected research university where I have many friends. It was a pleasure to meet them recently.
But it also has a big department of “Complementary and alternative medicine” and an “Integrated medicine service”. There are some good bits of advice mixed up with a whole range of crazy stuff. Take their page on homeopathy.
“This therapy treats ailments with very small amounts of the same substance that causes the patient’s symptoms.”
WRONG. In most cases it is zero amount. To brush this fact under the carpet is simply dishonest (and perhaps a sign of guilt). Then comes this (my emphasis)..
Explanations for why homeopathy works range from the idea that homeopathic medicine stimulates the body’s own natural defenses to the idea that homeopathic medicine retains a “memory” of the original substance.
However, there is no factual explanation for why homeopathy works and more research is needed.”
WRONG. This statement carries (twice) the expicit message that homeopathy does work, quite contrary to a mountain of good evidence that it is merely a placebo. The statement is deceptive and dishonest. And it comes with the OHSU logo.
The University of Arizona
” Heal medicine”, “Transform the world?” Modest uh?
The University of Arizona Program in Integrative Medicine is certainly not modest in its claims, but its publications page shows that it doesn’t even attempt to find out if its “therapies” actually work.
Here is an example. They are advertising their Nutrition and Health conference
There’s nothing wrong with good nutrition of course, but the ‘alternative’ approach is instantly revealed by the heavy reliance on the great antioxidant myth.
And look at the sponsors. The logo at the top is for Pistachio Health, a company that promotes pistachio nuts: “Delicious and good-for-you, pistachios are nature’s super heart-healthy snack. Nutrient dense, full of fiber and antioxidants, pistachios give you more bang per calories than any other nut.”.
The other advertisement is ‘POM Wonderful’, a company that sells and promotes pomegranate juice, “POM is the only pomegranate juice you can trust for real pomegranate health benefits”
No doubt pistachio nuts and pomegranate juice are perfectly good foods. But the health claims made for them are just marketing and have very little basis in fact.
Now let’s look at the speakers. Take, for example, Dr David Heber, MD., PhD. He is director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, a professor of Medicine and Public Health, and the founding Chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition in the Department of Medicine. He is the author of several books including “What Color is Your Diet” and the “L.A. Shape Diet.” With the possible exception of the books, you can’t sound like a more respectable and impartial source of advice than that.
But hang on. Dr Heber is to be seen in a video on the Pistachio Health web site doing what amounts to a commercial for pistachio nuts.
OK let’s take a look at one of Dr Heber’s papers. Here’s one about, guess what, pomegranate juice. “Pomegranate Juice Ellagitannin Metabolites Are Present in Human Plasma and Some Persist in Urine for Up to 48 Hours”. The work was “Supported by the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Revocable Trust and from the NIH/NCI grant P50AT00151”. So no problems there. Well not until you check POM Wonderful in Wikipedia, where you find out that Stewart and Lynda Resnick just happen to be founders of POM.
Of course none of these interesting facts proves that there is anything wrong with the work. But they certainly do show that the alternative nutrition business is at least as much hand-in-glove with big business as any other form of medicine. And we know the problems that that has caused.
So, if you want impartial advice on nutrition, sign up for the 6th Annual Nutrition and Health meeting. For “MD, DO, ND & other doctors”, it will cost you only $845 to register .
The meeting is being run by The University of Arizona College of Medicine and Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.
The University of Arizona is, incidentally, also the home of the famous (or perhaps infamous) Gary Schwartz (see also, here). He “photographs” non-existent “energy fields” and claims to be able to communicate with the dead, and he is director of its Human Energy Systems Laboratory at the University of Arizona. He is also head of the inappropriately-named Veritas Research Program and “Centre for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science”. All of these activities make homeopathy look sane, but he is nevertheless part of an otherwise respectable university. In fact he is He is Gary E. Schwartz, Ph.D. is professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry and surgery at the University of Arizona. Even more incredibly, this gets NIH funding.
Columbia University, along with Cornell, also has its own “Complementary, alternative, and integrative medicine“, defined as “the use of treatments, such as homeopathic medicine, ayurveda, botanical dietary supplements”. And their “Integrative Therapies Program for Children” is intimately tied up with a company called Origins, which is more a cosmetics company, Origins” (with all the mendacity that implies). They say
“Origins understands the importance of addressing wellness through an integrative approach,” says Daria Myers, President of Origins Natural Resources. “With our recent Dr. Andrew Weil collaboration, Origins demonstrated its support for the integrative wellness concept. Now, with the introduction of the new Nourishing oil for body and massage, we hope to bring not only a moment of comfort but also a healthy future to children enduring the fight of their life.”
Andrew Weil is, of course, the promoter of the Arizona meeting.
The corruption of Universities by this sort of activity is truly amazing.
This is the first of a several posts that have arisen from a visit to North America. One thing that the trip led to was an interest in how HR departments influence science -if you have a story about that, please email me.
Following the media publicity that surrounded the lecture in Toronto, I was sent this poem by Anne Spencer, of Canada.
It is based on the style of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), and she had earlier went a more political version, below, which was a runner up in the international Swift satire poetry competition, 2004. Anne Spencer has been kind enough to let me reproduce both her poems here.
What men wish, they like to believe.
Verses on folly, faith and fantasy
Great Caesar saw what we still find
In much of modern humankind,
That wishful thinking will suppress
The reason we should all possess.
Take health. That is a main concern.
We look for cures at every turn
For sicknesses that cause unease
And nasty things that bring disease.
But from the science of the age
Too many now will disengage,
Forget the studies, evidence
Of remedies that will dispense
A tested way of healing those
Conditions doctors diagnose.
They say they’ve lost their confidence
In science, and have a preference
For substances that they perceive
Fit in with what they all believe
In nature’s realm of field and flowers,
Along with supernatural powers
Or energies that ebb and flow
And are released by those who know
The proper touch or breath or spell
For proper paying clientele.
And other forms of therapy
Like healing touch they all agree
Despite their failure to explain
Result in easing of their pain.
For grave conditions that could kill
It’s nature’s bounty fills the bill,
From goats a serum crushes AIDS
And grape juice makes Altzheimers fade,
Red clover makes the blood come clean
And sugar pills become routine
As remedies for things they feel
They cannot count on science to heal.
And substances that they produce
To cure complaints or pain reduce
They say they must dilute and then
Dilute, dilute, dilute again
Because the less you have, not more
Will guarantee a better cure.
(Conclusions such as this imply
There’s no attempt to reason why.)
And quite impervious they stay
To anything their critics say
About placebos and effects
That challenge rational intellects.
Their gurus sanction their belief
That things they give them bring relief
From anything they want to try,
(Because the more they wish, they buy)
If people give them hope and say
That black is white, then that’s OK.
But there’s the rub – for harm can come
By seeing this as rule of thumb
For if you disregard the facts
That science tells, then this detracts
From treatments that show evidence
Of beneficial consequence.
More harm than good can come to those
Rejecting treatments that propose
Results that doctors can compile
Which don’t depend upon a smile
Or harmony with sundry forces
Brought to bear by doubtful sources.
So those who wish upon a star
Or herb or potion in a jar
To grant relief from ache or pain
Could well decide to think again
And weigh the chances that desire
Not reason is what we require
To make us well when we succumb
To ailments that are troublesome.
For wishful thoughts beguile the mind
But leave reality behind.
And here is the political version of Anne Spence’s poem
Great Caesar, famed in Gallic wars,
A champion of the Roman cause,
Who came, and saw and conquered when
The sword was mightier than the pen,
Was yet a statesman, author, who
Knew much of human nature too.
For Caesar saw what we still find
In much of modern humankind,
That wishful thinking reason dims
And validates our selfish whims.
But more we see in public spheres
How much this maxim oft appears,
To show how leaders are consumed
By things believed their wish presumed.
And lately this seems quite okay
With rulers of the USA.
(But we, like Swift, will make our claim
By ‘lashing vice’ but sparing name).
With politics that are complex
Illusions tend to blur the specs
When men believe whate’er they wish
Some policies get devilish.
And when you add religion too
We have a complicated brew,
And here a leader we can see
Who joins the ruling company
Of men who demonstrate the state
Of those who wish with truth equate.
He left a weak addicted past
To seek his destiny at last.
Became a Christian, born again
Aspiring to a higher plane.
(Genetically he was ahead
Since daddy had the nation led.)
But, once elected by a fluke,
(That all just men would sure rebuke)
He saw his mission godly sent
To show the world enlightenment.
And he believed that evil dwelt
Within an oil producing belt,
Its ruler evil incarnate
A tyrant quite degenerate.
And so when terrorists attacked
The World Trade towers, this proved the fact,
Or so he said, for who could not
Connect events with dot to dot?
He’d purge the world of evil’s stain
In person of Saddam Hussein.
He would not shrink from duty’s call
To seek Saddam’s decline and fall,
For he believed his destiny
Proclaimed by God – Divine decree.
He’d find the hidden weapons and
He’d bring new freedom to the land
Where western values were deplored
By villains who lived by the sword
(Or torture, rape, or nasty gases
With which they murdered ethnic masses).
And so he would avenge the dead,
Depose the tyrant, and instead
Lead on his troops –at least he’d send
Them forth to bring about this end.
God chose him evil to despoil
(And as reward he’d get the oil).
Despite the cautions he received
He was inspired, he still believed
His mission was to crush this foe
Both God and Tony told him so.
So off to conquer all that’s bad
The forces left to bomb Baghdad.
Their leader stayed at home to see
How his crusade looked on tv.
The mighty tanks, the skies aflame
Were better than a video game.
The statues fell, the prisoners freed
The regime’s downfall guaranteed
The patriot missiles, patriot men
Would soon, he thought, be home again.
Though some had breathed their final breath
The ‘victory’ justified their death
And they’d be heroes ever more
While blest upon another shore.
They played their part, they fought the fight,
Their president bid them goodnight.
They left behind a populace
Who now could western life embrace.
Well, most of it – religiously
They kept their views on sanctity.
Their heaven, they said, was nicer, and
They could have virgins on demand.
(It seems this wish- belief thing will
For any culture fill the bill).
But though the war, it seemed, was won
The problems only had begun.
The leader’s view that freedom would
Make people act the way they should
Once out from under evil’s thrall,
It turned out didn’t work at all.
Because he’d only wished , not thought
Things through with wisdom as he ought,
The leader found his plans rejected
Much more than he had once expected.
His mandate from his holy source
Was not so easy to enforce.
His ignorance of tribal clans,
Of loyalties and partisans,
Reliance on intelligence
Which didn’t make a lot of sense,
Attending to his favourites
And lots of other deficits,
Caused wild confusion in the land
So hard for him to understand.
The law and order that he craved,
Now he’d removed the ones depraved
Was not forthcoming, but instead
A lot more people ended dead.
But still he had to carry on,
With pressure from the Pentagon,
Because he thought and wished it so
That God would help him beat the foe,
Despite continual loss of life
Of those confronting all the strife.
But strange! His enemies were sure
That Allah would their cause secure.
So God to God and wish to wish
The conflict grew more feverish.
And back at home the leader found
Himself on much more shaky ground,
And world opinion, never sure
He really had the grounds for war
Began to further criticize
His too aggressive enterprise.
(As still ongoing was the strife
With still ongoing loss of life).
And God and Allah seem, to date,
Not sure which side to vindicate.
And so men’s own reality
Ignores that it’s their vanity
That is at root the primal cause.
This makes us think and gives us pause.
For men in highest places show
How vain beliefs can bring us low.
And those our leaders who are prone
To wish for things we can’t condone,
Believing they are in the right,
Might look up at the sky at night.
To wish upon a star is nice
Less likely to elicit vice,
Corrupt belief and common sense
Or make ambition too intense.
(And Judy Garland did endorse
The great celestial resource)
But when as president they act
They’d better base beliefs on fact.
The truth will out, and leaders who
Ignore it, they should exit too.
As I have often said, you don’t need to be a scientist to see that most alternative medicine is bunk, though it is bunk that is supported and propagated by an enormously wealthy industry..
“Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council”
Polly Toynbee’s column, “Quackery and superstition – available soon on the NHS“, was prompted by the announcement in The Times that the government was to set up a “Natural Healthcare Council”. It was soon renamed the “Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council” (CNHC) It was instantly dubbed ‘OfQuack’ in an admirable analysis by quackometer.a>
The very name is tendentious and offensive to any thinking person. What is “natural” about sticking needles in yourself, or taking homeopathic polonium?
“Put not your trust in princes, especially not princes who talk to plants. But that’s what the government has decided to do. The Department of Health has funded the Prince of Wales Foundation for Integrated Healthcare to set up the Natural Healthcare Council to regulate 12 alternative therapies, such as aromatherapy, reflexology and homeopathy. Modelled on the General Medical Council, it has the power to strike therapists off for malpractice.”
There was only one thing wrong in this article. Toynbee says
“The alternative lobby replies that conventional medicine can also do more harm than good. They chortle with glee at an article in the Lancet suggesting there is no scientific evidence for the efficacy of 46% of conventional NHS treatments. But that’s no reason to encourage more of it.”
“It is true they chortle, but they have got their facts wrong. The 46% of treatments which are not proven to be effective is 46% of all treatments for 240 common conditions – and very few are used in the NHS. The great majority are treatments used by alternative practitioners. “
The unconstitutional interference by the Prince of Wales in public affairs has been noted often before, and it seems that it’s happening again.
For example, there is the TV programme, “Charles, the Meddling Prince”, or, for a US view, see “Homeopathy: Holmes, Hogwarts, and the Prince of Wales“. And then there’s Michael Baum’s superb “An open letter to the Prince of Wales: with respect, your highness, you’ve got it wrong“.
It isn’t that regulation isn’t needed, but that the sort of regulation being proposed won’t do the trick. The framework for the “Natural Healthcare Council” has been set up by Professor Dame Joan Higgins, and it seems to be very much along the lines proposed by the Prince of Wales. Here’s what’s wrong.
|Professor Dame Joan Higgins (Jan 10th) says “Complementary therapists have been in practice for many years” and “If complementary therapy is not to be banned, is it not, therefore, wise to regulate it and offer the public some measure of protection”.
That’s fine, but I think the sort of regulation that she, and the Prince of Wales, are proposing won’t do the trick. We don’t need new laws, or new quangos, just the even-handed application of existing laws. Homeopathic arnica 30C contains no arnica, and one would expect that the Office of Fair Trading would have banned it. It is no different from selling strawberry jam that contains no strawberries. But absurd legal loopholes make homeopaths immune to prosecution for this obvious mislabeling, whereas jam fraudsters would be in deep trouble.
The Advertising Standards Authority, likewise, is prevented from doing its job by legal loopholes, and by the fact that it has no jurisdiction over web advertising, which is now the main source of untrue claims. If alternative medicine advocates had to obey the same laws as the rest of us, the public would be better protected from fraud and delusion.
What won’t work is to insist that homeopaths are “properly trained”. If one takes the view that medicines that contain no medicine can’t work, then years of being trained to say that they do work, and years spent memorizing the early 19th century mumbo-jumbo of homeopathy, does not protect the public, it imperils them.
Skills for Health
This appears to be a vast bureaucratic enterprise devoted to HR-style box-ticking. Just in case you don’t know about this latest bit of HR jargon, there is a flash movie that explains all.
“Competences are descriptors of the performance criteria, knowledge and understanding that are required to undertake work activities. They describe what individuals need to do, and to know, to carry out the activity -regardless of who performs it.”
That sounds OK until you realise that no attention whatsoever is paid to the little problem of whether the “knowledge and understanding” are pure gobbledygook or not. It’s rather like the HR form that ensures UCLH that you are a fully-qualified spiritual healer “Laying on of hands: just tick the box“.
It is an invidious insult to human intelligence to suppose that exercises like this are an appropriate way to select people for jobs. They have precisely the opposite effect to that intended.
“This workforce competence is applicable to:
- healing in the presence of the client
- distant healing in contact with the client
- distant healing not in contact with the client
Both healing in the presence of the client and distant healing use exactly the same mental and spiritual processes. Clearly, however, distant healing does not involve many of the physical aspects of healing in the presence of the client. The performance criteria have been written so as to be able to be interpreted for use in any healing situation.
The workforce competence links to CHH6 which is about evaluating the effectiveness of the healing.”
It also includes homeopathy, for example “HM_2: Plan, prescribe and review homeopathic treatment“.
I sent an email to Skills for Health to ask who wrote this stuff. A reply from their Technical Development Director failed to elicit any names.
|We develop competences to fit sector needs and demands. When that need is moved into a competence project we establish a number of groups from the specific area to work with us to develop the competences. One of these groups is a “reference” group which is made up of experts from the field. In effect these experts give us the content of the competences, we write them in our format.
So I guess the answer as to who is the author is Skills For Health, but with more complexity behind statement.Please do not hesitate to get in touch with me for further clarity.
A conversation with Skills for Health
I did want more clarity, so I phoned Skills for Health. Here are some extracts from what I was told.
“It’s not quite as simple as that”
“the competencies on our data base are written by “experts in the field”
DC. Yes and it is their names that I was asking for
“I’m not sure I can give you the names . . . We’re starting to review them in the New Year. Those competencies are around six years old. ”
“We are working with the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health [FIH] via Ian Cambray-Smith to review these competencies, all the complementary therapy competences on our web site”
“They are written as a consensus decision across a wide number of stakeholders across that area of …”
DC. Written by whom though?
“written by a member of Skills for Health staff or a contractor that we employ simply to write them, and the writing is a collation of information rather than their original thoughts, if you like”
DC yes, I still think the sources can and should be given.
“FIH didn’t spend any money with us on this project. This project was funded by the Education act regulatory bodies, QCA, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority . . . ”
“They [FIH] may well have put in and supported members of their professions or groups to do part of this . . they were there as experts on that particular area of complementary therapy ”
DC it’s their names that I was after
“There may well have been members [of FIH] on the reference groups that I’ve referreed to who are members of the FiH . . .they were there as experts from that area of complementary therapies.”
DC Oh, and are the names of [the people on] these reference groups published?
“No they are not published”
DC ah, why not?
“We do not consider it necessary”
DC Well, I consider it very necessary myself
“Tell me why”
DC It’s a question of public accountability
“I guess the accountability lies with us as the owners of those competencies”
DC Uh I’m afraid your bureaucratic jargon is a bit much for me there. “The owners of those competencies”? I’m not sure what that means
“Why do you want the information?”
DC haha, well if you want me to be entirely blunt, it’s because I’m appalled that this black magic is appearing on a government web site
“. . . can I say that as an organisation funded by a number of sources, one being Department of Health England, none of our work condones the practice you’ve just suggested. Our work supports best practice in areas that are evidence- and research-based”
DC Ah would you mind pointing me to the evidence for homeopathy and distant healing?
“Uh [pause] there is [pause]”
DC Yes, go on
“Well homeopathy is a contentious issue, because every newspaper article I read seems to suggest that homeopathy, in itself, is not an appropriate, uh, not an, uhm, appropriate, uh, therapy.”
DC Yes so why are you laying down standards in it?. You know I’m curious. I’m genuinely curious about this
“The areas involved in them have asked us to, including the Prince’s Trust hence the reason we are doing . . .”
DC But the Prince’s Trust is not part of government. Ha, it behaves as though it was , I agree, sometimes but it is surely for the Department of Health to ask you to do these things, not the Prince of Wales.
“We cover the whole health sector.. We don’t purely work for, or are an organisation of, the Department of Health.”
DC. I’m very baffled by the fact that you say, you very accurately the research on homeopathy, namely that it doesn’t work, but you are still setting standards for it. It’s quite baffling to me.
“Working with the Foundation for Integrated Health, as we are doing, homeopathy is one of the 10 areas that is listed for regulation by FIH ”
DC. Well yes the Prince of Wales would like that. His views on medicine are well known, and they are nothing if not bizarre. Haha are you going to have competencies in talking to trees perhaps?
“You’d have to talk to LANTRA, the land-based organisation for that.”
DC. I’m sorry, I have to talk to whom?
“LANTRA which is the sector council for the land-based industries uh, sector, not with us sorry . . . areas such as horticulture etc.”
DC. We are talking about medicine aren’t we? Not horticulture.
“You just gave me an example of talking to trees, that’s outside our remit ”
After explaining that talking to trees was a joke, the conversation continued
DC So can I clarify then? Who is it that said you must include these fairly bizarre things like distance healing and homeopathy? Who decides whether it goes in?
“We are going to do a major review. We are doing that review in partnership with the FiH and the awarding bodies that award the qualifications that are developed from these competencies”
“When that need is moved into a competence project we establish a number of groups from the specific area to work with us to develop the competences. One of these groups is a “reference” group which is made up of experts from the field. In effect these experts give us the content of the competences, we write them in our format.”
Conclusions from this dialogue
We still don’t know the names of the people who wrote the stuff, but a Freedom of Information Act request has been submitted to find out
The Skills for Health spokesperson seems to a a bit short of a sense of humour when it comes to talking to trees.
The statement that “Our work supports best practice in areas that are evidence- and research-based” is not true, and when pressed the spokesperson more or less admitted as much.
Most importantly, though, we do now know that the revision of this gobbledygook will be carried out entirely by the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health and the people who set exams in the relevant form of gobbledygook. No critical voice will have an input, so don’t expect much improvement. “We are working with the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health [FIH] via Ian Cambray-Smith to review these competencies”. And in case you don’t know about the medical expertise of Ian Cambray-Smith, it is described on the FIH web site. He is the FIH’s Health Professionals Manager.
|Ian Cambray-Smith acts as the focus for FIH’s involvement with healthcare professionals. He works collaboratively to develop a range of work programmes, policies and initiatives to support healthcare professionals and help them to deliver a truly integrated approach to health. Ian’s background is in plastics research, project management and business development; he has an MSc in polymer technology. He joined the Foundation in 2006.|
Today is World AIDS Day, and the Society of Homeopaths is holding a meeting to “discuss the evidence” concerning the idea that you can treat AIDS with sugar pills. Needless to say, there is no evidence to discuss, but that doesn’t put them off for a moment.
Not content with killing people with malaria, some homeopaths are now into killing people with AIDS, by treating them with their funny water. That is a serious allegation, but how else can one interpret the treatment of people with serious diseases with sugar pills?
It isn’t only pharmacologists who believe that. Even the better-educated homeopaths would take a position not much different from mine. Of course they word it a bit more diplomatically than me, in a vain attempt to disguise the obvious fact that there is
now all out internecine warfare between medically-qualified homeopaths (in the Faculty of Homeopathy), and the far greater number of non-medical homeopaths (in the Society of Homeopaths, among other splinter groups).
“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.”
The two warring branches of homeopathy have fallen out over immunisation too.
The medical side, the Faculty of Homeopathy, recently issued a statement about AIDS.
|Statement from the Faculty of Homeopathy on HIV/AIDS
27-11-2007, 9:57 am
In the light of current knowledge, homeopathic treatment of patients with HIV/AIDS should not replace, but may usefully sit alongside, conventional
anti-retroviral treatment. However, the Faculty regrets that for many people in developing countries like Africa, antiretroviral drugs may not be available.
. . .
The Faculty of Homeopathy does not support the approach of and claims made by Peter Chappell for the use of “PC” remedies.
Incidentally, one can’t help wondering if it is a coincidence that the Amma Resonance Healing Foundation (ARHF) has almost the same initials as AHRF, the totally respectable African HIV Research Forum. It was presumably in an attempt to gain respectability that the press release from the Society of Homeopaths, signed by Jayne Thomas, had a single link at the bottom to the National AIDS Trust (NAT). Or at least it did until the ever alert quackometer blogger told NAT about it, whereupon they were told by NAT to remove it. NAT is a serious organisation that has no truck with sugar pills.
Today Programme. The Society of Homeopaths’ conference was featured on the Today programme this morning, Hear the interview here [mp3 file, 1.6 Mb]Jayne Thomas spoke for the Society of Homeopaths. She is Vice Chair of the Society of Homeopaths, Chair of the Professional Standards Committee and Professional Conduct Director. When challenged about how they fail ever to find fault with a member, however grossly that member breaches the society’s own code of ethics, she denied everything (see links in the follow up for more on that)Jayne Thomas also said, of today’s conference
“today will afford a critical examination of those opportunities we may have to provide relief to patients”
The interviewer, Edward Stourton, said
“The ambition of the meeting sounds relatively modest. They’re just going to discuss the evidence and presumably if it doesn’t stack up to much we’ll hear that.”
I just hope that Today will have a follow-up to see what the “critical examination” will yield. Perhaps a statement from the Society of Homeopaths that there is no evidence and that it “doesn’t stack up to much”?
Somehow I doubt it. But watch this space.
Letting off steam posted the results of a complaint against a member of the Society of Homeopaths, Sue Young. Young persistently makes claims to cure specific, serious diseases, in clear contravention of the SoH’s (utterly ineffective) code of ethics. Needless to say, the complaint got nowhere. Just read the account here if you were inclined to give a moment’s credence to Jayne Thomas’s remarks about self-regulation on the Today programme yesterday.
Quackometer has some relevant comments. In particular he points out the disgraceful and inconsistent attempts of the Society of Homeopaths to pretend that their members had nothing to do with the malaria scam.
Gimpy blog makes related points
Badscience this week is on the ball, as always, with “AIDS Quackery International Tour”
|A paper published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, October 2007, has been reported widely. In the same issue there was a commentary by Edzard Ernst. They show the astonishingly poor evidence than herbal treatments work, despite the fact that they have been around for thousands of years. They looked at 1330 published trials on herbal medicines and found 3 (yes three) that stood up to scrutiny, Of those three, two were negative and one indecisive||
Red clover, Derwentwater.
A systematic review of randomised clinical trials of individualised herbal medicine in any indication, R. Guo, P. H. Canter, and E. Ernst, Postgrad Med J 83: 633-637 [Get the reprint]
Herbal medicine: buy one get two free, E. Ernst, Postgrad Med J 83: 615-617 [get the reprint]
Grab the reprints before I am told to remove them.
The paper says
“Systematic searches of electronic databases and contacting
experts and professional bodies in the field resulted in the
location of only three randomised clinical trials of individualised
herbal medicine. It should be stressed that professional
bodies representing the interests of different practitioner
factions from around the world were unable to contribute any
more studies than this. In view of the long history and
widespread use of medical herbalism, Chinese herbal medicine
and Ayurvedic herbal medicine in many and diverse indications,
this should be a cause for concern. It indicates that
individualised herbal medicine has an extremely sparse
evidence base and that there is no convincing evidence
supporting its use in any indication.”
“More and more people are turning to herbal medicine as a kinder alternative to mainstream medicine, with its over reliance on pharmaceutical products.”
Wrong. Herbal medicines are pharmaceutical products. They are just unstandardised, and often impure and contaminated, pharmaceutical products.
“Ann Walker, director of the British Herbal Medicines Association, insisted that most herbalists were well-trained and knew when to refer patients. She said herbalists took a three or four-year degree course before accreditation.
She acknowledged the lack of proof of efficacy for individualised herbal medicine. “The evidence is scanty because the studies have only recently been started,” she said. This did not mean there was no efficacy.”
Just a thought: shouldn’t you have some evidence that they work before you start selling them? These things have been around for thousands of years but the “studies have only recently been started”. You couldn’t make it up. You can’t have a high level of training if there is no evidence. The paucity of trials makes it very hard to know how you can fill up a three or four year course with anything but idle speculations. Universities should not being giving degrees in idle speculation.
Quote of the day. . Of all the pathetic defences offered by herbalists, this one, quoted in the Daily Mail, is my favourite.
“Jane Gray, of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, said: “We would challenge the conclusions reached by this study based on such little data.”
“We want more research, but we’re all in private practice and cannot afford to stop earning to run a trial over several months.”
The fact that there is “so little data” is the conclusion. And perish the thought that a herbalist should “stop earning” just in order to find out whether what they are selling does any good.
The regulation scam
Alison Denham, speaking for the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, is quoted as saying
“But there are certainly issues around the expertise of practitioners which need to be addressed, and we look forward to government regulation which imposes a high standard of training on anyone who wants to register.”
Like all forms of alternative medicine, herbalists are desperate for government “regulation” because they know it gives the appearance of official approval without requiring them to show that they can do the slightest good.
Reports on this paper
The BBC web site: “Tailored herbal medicine ‘futile'”.
The Guardian report, by Sarah Boseley, is pretty good. “Herbalists’ cocktails may do more harm than good, say researchers.”
- Call for individualised remedies to be banned
- Little evidence to support claims of efficacy
The Times has another excellent report by Nigel Hawkes. “High street herbalists can offer no evidence that their remedies work”
The Independent. “Natural medicine on trial: The trouble with herbs. Traditional herbal remedies have never been more fashionable: sales have almost doubled in eight years. There’s just one problem: science suggests that they don’t work.”. This time Jeremy Laurance got the headline right (unlike the acupuncture piece). But where did that list of “Herbal remedies that work” at the end come from? Had he checked the Cochrane Reviews? I think not.
The Daily Mail. “Herb cures that ‘do you more harm than good’ “. Pretty good report. specially for the Daily Mail.
The Scotsman. “A natural cure?” Lyndsay Moss. Sadly, and unusually, this is the only really poor report. Just look at the end of it.
On Saturday morning (6 October) I did an interview on the Dublin radio station, Newstalk. The host, Brendan O’Brien spoke also to Mary Plunkett, from the Professional Register of Traditional Chinese Medicine. She assured us that that, although there may be no evidence that it works published in the West, there were lots written in Chinese. What a pity that I had not yet read Ben Goldacre’s column, on this week’s bad news for herbalists. He cited a reference that was new to me.
You can read the abstract here. [download pdf]. The paper, by Vickers, Niraj, Goyal, Harland and Rees (1998, Controlled Clinical Trials, 19, 159-166) has the title “Do Certain Countries Produce Only Positive Results? A Systematic Review of Controlled Trials”. The conclusion is riveting.
“In the study of acupuncture trials, 252 of 1085 abstracts met the inclusion criteria. Research conducted in certain countries was uniformly favorable to acupuncture; all trials originating in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were positive, as were 10 out of 11 of those published in Russia/USSR. In studies that examined interventions other than acupuncture, 405 of 1100 abstracts met the inclusion criteria. Of trials published in England, 75% gave the test treatment as superior to control. The results for China, Japan, Russia/USSR, and Taiwan were 99%, 89%, 97%, and 95%, respectively. No trial published in China or Russia/USSR found a test treatment to be ineffective.”
One of the effects of this affair has been the posting of some critical examinations of some of the writings of Dr Ann Walker. I make no comment. The links are here.
This item appeared originally on the old IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page
The reversal of UCL’s request to remove this page from UCL’s server was, in large part, the result of the power of the blogosphere. Here are some of the things that did the trick.
He gives links to the close examination of the work of Dr Ann Walker that that is now appearing.
“UCL have just issued a smashing statement on Prof Colquhoun’s de-excommunication.” Comment from badscience.
This episode seems to have sparked a close inspection of some of the claims made by Ann Walker. Here are some examples.
“In one piece, Walker promotes the idea that neanderthals were not a distinct kind of human, but degenerate and malnourished versions of ordinary humans: buy pills or regress to a sub-human state, seems to be Walker’s message. Yikes.”
“Ann Walker festival: “There is no convincing evidence that Ginkgo biloba is efficacious for dementia and cognitive impairment” ” Holfordwatch takes a cool look at more claims by Ann Walker.
“Red Clover comments leave a bitter aftertaste” Click here
“The War Against Gobbledygook” Comment from Astrophysicists.
“UCL Makes good” Comment from the University of Minnesota
University Diaries. A US Professor of English reproduced Ben Goldacre’s first
“Science bloggers unite” Comment from a Yale neurologist.
“The Guardian: a quackbuster . . . “ Comment from MIT (and it’s on the MIT server).
“UCL change tack: Colquhoun is back” The Sceptical Preacher speaks
Freedom of speech and litigious herbalists
Announcement 13 June 2007. UCL restores
DC’s IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page.
After taking legal advice, the provost and I have agreed a joint statememt.
Read it on the UCL web site.
“ . . . the Provost and Professor Colquhoun have taken advice from
a senior defamation Queen’s Counsel, and we are pleased to announce that Professor Colquhoun’s website – with some modifications effected by him on counsel’s advice – will shortly be restored to UCL’s servers.”
I am grateful to UCL for its legal support, and I’m very grateful too for the enormous support I’ve had from many people, especially since Ben Goldacre mentioned the site move. Now all I need is a bit of help to get it into a more convenient format. The page will stay at its present address until there is time to sort things out. For some of the fallout from these events, click here. The name of the page has been changed from quack.html to improbable.html on the advice of lawyers, but the old addresses still work.
Announcement 30 May 2007.
My item about claims made for alleged benefits of the red clover and other herbs has resulted in complaints being made to the provost of UCL (Malcolm Grant), and to Chair of Council (Lord Woolf). The complaints have come from Alan Lakin, husband of Ann Walker. I have received no complaints from them myself.
In the six or years that I have been running this attempt to improve public understanding of science, I am aware of only two serious complaints being made, and as far as I know, this is the first to reach the level of the provost. This one resulted in a request to remove of this page from the UCL server, but that is now reversed.
The two chiropodists who run the Marigold Homeopathic Podiatry clinic (no, honestly, it’s real) at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital seem to be spending much of their budget with a company that they themselves own. The UCLH Trust did not receive any notification of this until I told them about it.
This has been re-posted from the story on the old IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page.
It’s about time I dealt with the health fraud on my own doorstep. University College London Hospitals (UCLH) is not part of UCL, but is a National Health Service Foundation Trust. The trust is responsible for eight hospitals: University College Hospital, The Middlesex Hospital, Hospital for Tropical Diseases, National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson & Obstetric Hospital, Eastman Dental Hospital, The Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital and The Heart Hospital.These are all (but one) absolutely first class teaching hospitals, with responsibility for clinical teaching for UCL medical students. The one blot on the landscape is the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. This hospital was acquired by UCLH in April 2002. Why on earth is a respectable NHS trust promoting quackery? The UCLH web site says
“The merger enables closer collaboration between complementary therapies and conventional medicine to provide better care for NHS patients. The merger co-incides with the government’s commitment to integrate complementary and conventional care within the NHS, where there is evidence of the effectiveness of complementary therapies.” Notice that the crucial proviso in this statement.
“. . . where there is evidence of the effectiveness of complementary therapies.”
That would be fine If there were evidence of effectiveness, but there is next to no such evidence. Why does UCLH brush this inconvenient fact under the carpet?
The Trust actually has an absolutely first class way of assessing the effectiveness of treatments that are used within UCLH. It is called the Use of Medicines Committee. All NHS Trusts are required to have such a committee, and UCLH’s committee was singled out for praise after a visit by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Health, in their 4th report. These committees are required to obtain good evidence that a proposed treatment works, and their evaluations may be more stringent than those of NICE.
“ During the inquiry, we visited University College London hospital to hear about its Use of Medicines Committee. We were incredibly impressed with its drug formulary, which is used not only by the hospital trust but by the nearby primary care trusts. Because members of those trusts are on the committee, it is also well accepted by the GPs in the area.”
So does the UCLH formulary contain homeopathic and herbal products? If so they will have bypassed entirely the high standards of evidence that are required by the Use of Medicines Committee for any other sort of medicine. If these standards were applied to homeopathic and herbal treatments, the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital would have to close down, because few of these alternatives to medicine would pass an evidence-based assessment. Presumably UCLH Management has foreseen this, and would rather adopt a double-standard than deal with the political fall-out that would result from applying rules of evidence to alternative medicine.
A fine example of the abuse of language: Homeopathic podiatry
The UCLH web site says (somewhat ungrammatically): “The Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital is celebrating the first decade of its Marigold Clinic which provides complementary treatment of homeopathic podiatry. ”
“ Dr Peter Fisher, RLHH Clinical Director, said: “It is an honour for the hospital to host the Marigold Clinic which has been tremendously successful. The Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital has a history of acting as a test bed for NHS innovation. The complementary cancer service and acupuncture are just two examples of therapies the RLHH has been the first to introduce on the NHS. I foresee the same thing happening with homoeopathic podiatry. It’s time has come, current reforms and patient choice are working in our favour.” ”
|It is embarrassing to a real university like UCL to see a conference, sponsored by RLHH, on ‘Improving the success of homeopathy’ branded with a logo that looks very like UCL’s own (old version) logo. The title carries the assumption that there is something to be ‘improved’. The conference dealt not only with marigold for bunions, but also HIV/AIDS|
What does the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital cost you, the taxpayer?
Guess what? Nobody knows. But with the help of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, I have been able to make some good guesses.
For a start, at least £18 million has been spent on refurbishing the RLHH. The recurrent costs are not so easy to discover. By use of the Freedom of Information Act 200, this is what I discovered.
The direct cost of running the RLHH is £3.379 million per year of which £3.175 million per year are paid by the NHS. Approximately 75% of the direct costs are for salaries.These are the salary cost of staff working at the RLHH. The staff are medical, nursing, pharmacy, administrative and managerial, and ancillary. The balance of cost is for purchase of drugs, laboratory tests, use of patient beds in other Trust hospitals, building and office running costs.
As well as this, the NHS pays also for indirect services, but nobody seems to know the cost of these (and still less, their value). Indirect services are those not charged directly to the RLHH and will include the following. Payroll, payment and income services, accountancy, recruitment , training, personnel, governance and clinical audit, R and D management and governance, medical and nursing education, training and professional support, communications, I.M. and T., estates maintenance management and planning, catering, cleaning, security, insurance, depreciation, payment of public dividend. These sevices are supplied by the Finance Directorate, Workforce Directorate, Chief Nurse Directorate, Capital Investment Directorate, IM and T Directorate, R and D Directorate, Governance Directorate, Directorate of Corporate Sevices, Communications Directorate.
For the UCLH Trust as a whole, indirect costs amount to 39.2 percent of direct costs. If that proportion applies to RLHH, then the total annual cost of RLHH would be £4.7 million.
That sounds to me like a lot of money for a placebo effect.
The RLHH is 97.7 percent homeopathic
Their web site lists eight consultants, all described as “homeopathic consultants” and a ninth has been added recently, Dr H. Roniger. Thus it seems that Lord Winston made an error of fact when he defended the RLHH in the House of Lords by saying “My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to break with tradition and come to the assistance of my noble friend. Is it not the case that the national homeopathic hospital conducts perfectly normative medicine and is it not justified in doing that, irrespective of the efficacy or otherwise of homeopathy, which I believe is only a small part of its practice?”
This is the breakdown of prescribing at the RLHH (audit taken August 2004, provided under the Freedom of Information Act). It refers to the number of items dispensed, not their value (which I am still trying to discover).
|Herbal tinctures and potencies <6x||5.7|
|Supplements/homeopathic (New Era Products)||7.8|
NB: Creams are herbal or homeopathic.
And the cost of CAM in Glasgow
A freedom if Information Act request elicited the following costs. Much of
the information I asked for is not even recorded.
The cost of the Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital.
The running costs for the Homoeopathic Hospital were:
The cost of all CAM services at Baillieston Health Centre
There is no record of any specific costs associated with CAM incurred at Baillieston Health Centre.There was many years ago a Baillieston Childrens’ Homoeopathic Clinic but this service was subsumed into the new Glasgow Homoepathic Hospital. That hospital opened in 1999 at a total capital and building cost of £2,780,189.The total cost came from the New Homoeopathic Hospital Endowment Fund.
3) The cost of CAM provided by GPs or any other part of the Trust.
There is no record of specific costs associated with GPs or others employed by the NHS Board providing complementary and alternative medicine. If homoeopathy, hypnosis, acupuncture or any other form of complementary medicine is provided it is not as a costed, discrete service.
A conflict of interest at RLHH
The table shown above shows the precribing habits at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, The 4.2 percent of precriptions labelled ‘Marigold products’ in the Table were for the products of a company called Marifold Footcare Ltd.
The UCLH Trust web site says
“Dr M Taufiq Khan founded the Marigold Clinic in 1981 at St Pancras Hospital, London, and then established it in 1992 at the RLHH. Dr Khan is the Director of Homeopathic Podiatory Sevices at the RLHH and specialises in the treatment. His son Dr Tariq Khan, is the Deputy Director.”
|The list above shows that 4.2% of all precriptions at RLHH were for “Marigold Products”. This company is Marigold Footcare Ltd., 134 Montrose Avenue, Edgeware, Middlesex, HA8 0DR.||
From left to right: Dr Taufiq Khan, Dr Peter Fisher, Lord Paul of Marylebone and Dr Taufiq Khan open the Sick Feet – Healing Flowers exhibition.
- Dr Mohammed Taufiq Khan, PhD of 134 Montrose Avenue, Edgeware, Middlesex
- Mr Mohammed Taufiq Khan of Bedford House, 17 New North Street, London
- Mrs Shamim Fatima Khan of 134 Montrose Avenue, Edgeware, Middlesex
It appears that the director and deputy director of the Marigold Clinic are paying substantial amounts of NHS money to their own company.
Research-based? Which research?
The web site of the Marigold Clinic makes the following claim.
Marigold therapy is an integral part of homoeopathic podiatry. It comprises specially formulated medication applied topically in conjunction with podiatry. It is research based medicine which has been clinically evaluated in double blind placebo controlled trials at British Universities and NHS Trusts.
And Marigold Footcare Ltd claims
“The safety and efficacy of Marigold Therapy have been demonstrated through extensive clinical use in podiatry clinics and numerous studies and in randomised, double blind, placebo controlled trials: (1) at the University of Brighton (Faculty of Health); (2) University of East London (Institute of Health and Rehabilitation, Faculty of Health and Science); (3) University of London (Faculty of Medicine, School of Pharmacy and the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital).”
This sounds impressive, but what exactly is this research? All I can find in Pubmed about marigold treatment in podiatry is two papers. One is in the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology (1996, 48, 768-770) and one is in Phytotherapy Research (1996, 0, 211-214).
And who is the first author on both of these papers? You guessed: M.T. Khan.
The first paper (Khan, 1996) is from the School of Pharmacy, the second (Khan, Potter and Birch, 1996) is from School of Pharmacy and the podiatry department, Leaf Hospital, Brighton. I can find no trace of publications from the University of East London or from RLHH. Repeated requests for references elicited no reply at all for a long time.
Eventually, I had a reply from M. Tariq Khan in response to my request for references to back the claim on their company’s web site. He sent a list of 54 assorted conference communications and student projects, and 28 “papers” published in Journals. Every one of these 82 items bore the names of one or both M. T. Khans. There were no more ‘serious’ papers than Pubmed had revealed. There appears to be no independent verification whatsoever of their claims.
Reaction of the UCLH Trust
The UCLH Trust, when notified about what was going on, referred the matter to Dr Peter Fisher, the homeopath and clinical director at rhe RLHH. Tonia Ramsden, Director of Corporate Services for UCLH told me on July 27 2006
“I can confirm that I have received and registered the declaration of Interest.”
Quite true, It was only later that I was told that the declaration of interest was received by the Trust only after I had told them about what was going on!
Peter Fisher, assured me that he was aware of the Khan’s behaviour. Rather surprisingly, he seemed to think that no conflict of interest was involved. He said
“Thank you for drawing to my attention the potential conflict of interest in relation to podiatry. The management of the RLHH has always been aware of the situation”
That was it. No comment at all was made on the propriety of the Khans’ behaviour. Dr Fisher also assured me that the evidence for the efficacy of marigold products was good, without actually citing what this evidence was. I replied thus.
“I find it quite disturbing that you say below that “the RLHH is committed to evidence-based practice”, but that you seem to regard as evidence two small papers, both from the same people with a financial interest in the outcome, and not replicated elsewhere. Incidentally neither of these papers declared the authors’ financial interest. It is equally disturbing that your letter to me does not seem to give a realistic idea of the strength of the evidence. I had to find that for myself. ”
Declarations of interest shoud be public, but are not,
A declaration of conflict of interest is, I suppose, better than nothing. But these pieces of paper sit in a drawer in the Trust. They are kept secret from both the public and the patients. The patient should know when the prescriber has a financial interest in what he prescribes, but they are kept in the dark. When I wrote to the UCLH clinical governance committee to suggest a bit more openness would be desirable, they did not even bother to reply. That is when I decided to make this information public.
This is a follow-up of the poat on BBC2 and the Open University on Alternative Medicine.
Following the article by Simon Singh in the Guardian (25 March 2006), two letters appeared on April 1, 2006. The first, from Prof. Edzard Ernst, confirmed that he felt the BBC had ignored and misrepresented his advice.
In its response to our criticism of the Alternative Medicine series, the BBC says “it is extremely unusual that Professor Ernst should make these comments so long after the series was aired” (Report, March 25). I made my criticism in writing two months before the programme was broadcast. The reason why I reiterated them when I did was simply because Simon Singh interviewed me in my capacity as adviser to the BBC. Extremely unusual? Long after? I don’t think so.
Prof Edzard Ernst
Peninsula Medical School, Exeter
The second letter defended the BBC. It was unequivocal in its support of the entire series of programmes, and its appearence surprised me. In the light of all that has been written, one might have hoped that the BBC would listen and learn from its mistakes. The letter has ten signatories.
We are all scientists involved as consultants or contributors to the BBC2 series, Alternative Medicine. We do not in any way recognise the experience of working on the series as described in your article (Was this proof of acupuncture’s power … or a sensationalised TV stunt?, Science, March 25), nor do we share the views of those scientists you have quoted in it. In all its dealings with us, the BBC asked for advice and input where needed, took on board our feedback and incorporated our comments into the final edit of the programme as transmitted, where appropriate. Far from feeling dissatisfied with the final outcome, we feel the series seemed well balanced and informative, doing full justice to the subject matter it addressed.
Dr Jack Tinker
Prof Brian Berman
Prof Liz Williamson
Dr Andrew Vickers
Dr James Warner
Dr Mike Cummings
Prof Gary Green
Dr Carl Albrecht
Dr Jen Cleland
Professor Irving Kirsch
But all is not what it seems. Contrary to appearances, this letter was actually written by the BBC who also compiled the signatories (it seems to have been the responsibility of Kim Creed, of BBC Factual Publicity).
- One of the signatories. Dr James Warner, had never seen the letter until after it was published, and tells me that “[I] substantially do not agree with the sentiments expressed therein. Indeed, we had to resist attempts by the programme makers to sensationalise our work”.
The Guardian has published a correction.
- Six other signatories tell me that their approval was limited to the way their own contribution was treated, and was not intended as approval of the whole series. One commented ” I’ve obviously been naïve, and I am very fed up with this whole thing”. Another says ” I suppose I (foolishly by the sounds of things) extrapolated from my own programme and experience, without considering the wider implications of the concluding sentence”.
- Only one of the eight signatories whom I’ve asked has actually seen all three programmes, as they were transmitted. This makes it rather odd that they should appear to endorse so unequivocally the whole series.
- One of the signatories, Carl Albrecht, gives his address as “University of Johannesburg”, but oddly the BBC forgot to mention that Dr Albrecht is co-owner (at least until very recently) of the South African Company, Phyto Nova, that makes, promotes and sells the untested herb, Sutherlandia, for treatment of AIDS (see, for example, here).
He is, therefore, highly biassed. He is also exceedingly controversial. One of his strongest critics has been Stuart Thomson, Director of the Gaia Research Institute,
hardly an organisation that is biassed against “natural medicines”. Albrecht is indeed a very curious choice of advisor for a programme about science.
- Three of the signatories (Berman, Cummings and Albrecht) are heavily committed to CAM, and so unlikely to be critical of anything that favours it, even apart from financial interests in the outcome. Brian Berman even has is own an entry in Quackwatch. So several of the signatories are pretty much committed in advance. Asking them if they endorse the programmes is about as informative as asking a group of priests if the endorse god.
- It gets worse. This morning, 6th April, I heard from Andrew Vickers, of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York. This is what he says.
“I didn’t sign this letter ”
“I was shown the text of the letter but didn’t fully agree with it and told them so. I said something along the lines that the series didn’t do ‘full justice to the subject matter’ (how could it possibly?) but that what they did was fair and reasonable within the constraints set by the medium. You are also right to point out that my comments only go so far as the acupuncture episodes (which I saw) rather than the other two shows (which I did not). No doubt had I been shown a final version for signature I would have also pointed this out.”
The BBC brought us superb programmes like Life on Earth and Planet Earth. They bring us superb news (I’m listening to the incomparable John Humphrys on the Today Programme right now). They have suffered unjustly at the hands of spin-meisters like Alastair Campbell and the execrable Hutton Report (If the Hutton Report had been an undergraduate essay, it would have scored alpha-plus for collection of evidence and gamma-minus for ability to connect evidence to conclusions).
How ironic it is, then, to see the BBC behaving in this case like spin artists. Deny everything, and, if necessary, falsify the evidence.
This is a slightly modified version of some thoughts from the old improbable science page, where they formed part of the review of a BBC2 series on alternative medicine. It has been moved to the new blog because of the comments posted here.
Evolution of plants
Plants didn’t evolve for our benefit. Natural selection ensures that plants, like every other living thing, evolve in a way that maximises their own chance of survival. To ensure that, plants should be as toxic as possible to anything that might eat them. The more harm a plant does to humans, the better its chance of survival. It is sheer luck that some of the toxic principles evolved by plants occasionally turn out to be useful.
|Memo to: The members of the Kansas Board of Education
Re: Your decision to eliminate the teaching of evolution as science
Thank you for your support. Much obliged. Now, go forth and multiply. Beget many children. And yea, your children shall beget children. And their children shall beget children, and their children’s children after them. And in time the genes that made you such pinheads will be eliminated through natural selection. Because that is how it works.’ . . . ;
By Gene Weingarten, Washington Post Staff Writer.
Saturday, August 14, 1999; Page C01
Here are some products of nature. That doesn’t mean they are good for you.
Lead, uranium, radon, arsenic, thallium, strychnine, cyanide (in Sorghum and Prunus species), Stinging nettles, poison ivy, yew, deadly nightshade, castor beans (ricin), tobacco, curare, foxglove, fly agaric, (muscarine), death cap (amanita phalloides), . . ..
Foxgloves, heart failure and biological standardisation
Here is a bit of relevant pharmacological history.
The 24th edition of Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia (1958) describes Digitalis Leaf (B.P., I.P.), also known as Digit. Fol.; Digitalis; Foxglove Leaf; Feuille de Digitale; Fingerhutblatt; Hoja de digital.
|It was defined as “the dried leaves of Digitalis purpurea (Scrophulariaceae).”At that time it was sometimes prescribed as Prepared Digitalis (BP),
which is “Digitalis leaf reduced to powder, no part being rejected, and biologically assayed the strength being stated in units per g. For therapeutic purposes it must be adjusted to contain 10 units in 1 g.”Sometimes foxglove leaf was prescribed as Tincture of Digitalis (B.P., I.P.).
“It may be made from unstandardised leaf, the tincture being subsequently biologically assayed, or it may be made from prepared digitalis, using a quantity containing 1000 units per litre, by percolation or maceration, with alcohol (70 %). It contains 1 unit per ml. I.P. allows also 1 unit per g. Dose: 0.3 to 1 ml. (5 to 15 minims). ”
Although these preparations are now totally defunct, they were still better than the sort of thing that is now advocated by herbalists. Why? They were better because they were standardised.
Foxglove leaves contain several chemical compunds that are useful in certain forms of hear failure. But the margin of safety is quite low. Take a bit too much and it kills you not cures you. One batch of foxglove leaves will contain different amounts of active compounds from the last batch, and that endangered patients.
From the 1930s onwards, pharmacologists developed methods of biological assay that overcame this problem. An international
standard digitalis leaf sample was established. Every new batch had to be assayed against this standard, and diluted to a fixed level of biological activity. This ensured that each batch of digitalis powder had the same biological potency as the last batch. It was a great pharmacological advance in its time. But of course it did involve the use of animals for the biological assay.
All this was solved when the active principles were purified from the foxglove leaves. There was no longer any need to uses animals for biological assays. The right amount of pure digoxin or digitoxin could be weighed out.
Fortunately herbalists are not allowed to prescribe anything as potentially dangerous as digitalis. But in general herbalists are happy to use pre-1930, unstandardised plant extracts.
I can think of no case in which there is the slightest reason to think that the mixture of chemicals in the plant is any better than the purified active principles. Of course there could be such cases of synergy. But that is just idle speculation.
No surprise there then, because idle speculation is the stuff of alternative medicine. It’s a great deal easier than making the effort to find out what works, and probably more lucrative too.