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Dangerous advice

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We know all about the sixteen or so universities that run “BSc” degrees in hokum. They are all “post-1992” universities, which used to be polytechnics. That is one reason why it saddens me to see them destroying their own attempts to achieve parity with older universities by running courses that I would regard as plain dishonest.

Older universities do not run degree courses in such nonsense. Academics (insofar as they still have any influence) certainly would not put up with it if they tried. But nevertheless you can find quackery in some of the most respected universities, and it gets there not via academics but (guess what) via Human Resources.  It creeps in through two routes.  One is the “training courses” that research staff now have to do (the “Roberts agenda”).  The other route is through occupational health services.

Quackery in training courses

It isn’t easy to find out what happens elsewhere, but I was certainly surprised to find out that UCL’s own HR department was offering a course that promised to teach you the “core principles” of Brain Gym and  Neurolinguistic Programming, both totally discredited bits of psycho-babble, more appropriate to the lifestyle section of a downmarket.women’s magazine than a university.  I gather that HR’s reaction after I brought this to light was not to ask what was wrong with it, but just to get angry.

In a spirit of collegiality I offered to run a transferable skills course myself.  I even offered to do it for nothing (rather than the rumoured £700 per day charged by the life style consultants).  I proposed a course in ‘How to read critically’ (subtitle ‘How to detect bullshit’).  This seems to me to be the ultimate transferable skill. Bullshit occurs in every walk of life. My proposal was moderately worded and perfectly serious.

Guess what?  Despite several reminders, I have never had any response to my suggestion.  Well, I suppose that HR people now regard themselves as senior to mere professors and there is really no need to reply to their

Quackery in occupational health. Leicester sets a good example

If you work at a university, why not search the university’s web site for “complementary medicice” or complementary therapies”. If it is a real university, you won’t find any degrees in homeopathy, or in amethysts
that emit high yin energy
.  But some quite surprising places are found to be recommending magic medicine through their Occupational Health service, which usually seems to be part of HR.  In fact at one time even UCL was doing it, but no soon had somebody sent me the link than it disappeared. As a matter of historical record, you can see it here (it had all the usual junk, as well as harmless stuff like yoga and pilates).

While looking for something else I stumbled recently some other cases.  One was at the University of Leicester, a very good university (and alma mater to the great David Attenborough who must have done more to point out the beauty of science than just about anyone).  But we find on their staff wellbeing site, alongside some perfectly sensible stuff, a link to complementary therapies.

The list of ‘therapies’ includes not only the usual placebos, acupuncture, reiki, reflexology, but, even more exotically, a fraudulent Russian device called SCENAR therapy. They have a nice leaflet that explains all these things in words that run the whole gamut from meaningless gobbledygook to plain wrong.  Here are some examples from the leaflet.


“In the feet, there are reflex areas corresponding to all the parts of the body and these areas are arranged in such a way as to form a map of the body in the feet”

Reflexology has been shown to be effective for:

  • Back Pain
  • Migraine
  • Infertility
  • Arthritis

Well no, there are no such areas in your feet. That is sheer imagination.  And reflexology has not “been shown to be effective” for any of those conditions.  These claims for therapeutic efficacy are not only lies.  They are also illegal.


Each hand position is held for a few minutes, and during this time healing energy will flow into you, balancing your energy system, releasing stress, soothing pain, and promoting your body’s natural ability to heal itself.”

This is sheer idiotic mumbo-jumbo. The “flow of healing energy” is totally imaginary. Such talk is offensive to anyone with half a brain. Insofar as they claim to heal anything, it is also illegal.  The comes SCENAR.

What is SCENAR?

SCENAR is an acronym for Self Controlled Energo- Neuro Adaptive Regulator. It is a reflex biofeedback device which when used by a qualified practitioner, can help to alleviate acute and chronic pain. It is licensed in the UK for pain relief but experience has shown that it is helpful in a wide variety of conditions.”

This is even more seriously nuts than the others.  The term “licensed” means merely that it is electrically safe. It certainly does not mean that it works.  Pubmed shows only three publications about the SCENAR device, all in Russian,

One sales site (apparently Russian) makes the following modest claim.

“A prime goal of the Russian Space Program was to provide space travelers with a portable  medical device that would become their “universal medical assistant” in space. So from the beginning, the SCENAR was designed to replace an entire medical hospital, with all its staff, diagnostic and treatment facilities, even the pharmacy. A universal, non-invasive, portable regulator of body functions (among other things) was envisaged.”

The SCENAR device (right) looks like a TV remote control (perhaps it IS a TV remote control -we aren’t anywhere told in comprehensible terms what’s in the box.  The Russian site sells also the rather baffling accessory on the right. The mind boggles.

SCENAR device

Remote rectal-vaginal electrode for SCENAR

How does this rubbish get onto the web site of a good university?

I presume that it is just another sign of what happens when universities come to be run by non-academics.  No doubt the occupational health people are well meaning and kind, but just scientifically illiterate. What about the HR person in charge of them?  They are not known for scientific literacy either (which would not matter if they stuck to their job).  But perhaps they just didn’t notice.  There is only one way to find out. Ask.  So I sent this letter.on 10th September.


I am a pharmacologist and I have a side interest in public understanding of science, alternative medicine.and medical fraud

I was quite surprised when Google led me unexpectedly to your complementary therapies page at http://www.le.ac.uk/staffwellbeing/complementary_therapy.html

There is, sad to say, a great deal of information on these pages that is simply not true. For example it has NOT been shown that reflexology has been shown to be effective in any of the conditions which you list, as far as I know
(please send me references if you think I’m wrong) “Reflexology has been shown to be effective for: Back Pain Migraine Infertility Arthritis Sleep disorders Hormonal imbalances Sports injuries Digestive disorders Stress-related condition ”

To take only one more example from this page, the SCENAR device is an even more extreme example. It is well known to be fraudulent. and has been investigated by the Washington State Attorney General.

This sort of thing is not what one would expect from a very respectable university, and it must be a great embarrassment to your excellent medical scientists.

Apart from the many scientific inaccuracies (which greatly impede the efforts of those of us who try to improve public understanding of science), you are, I hope, aware that there is a legal aspect.

Since May this year, new regulations have made it illegal to make claims for health benefits if evidence cannot be produced to show that the claims are justified.  I would like to put it to you that many of the claims made on this page are not only immoral, but also illegal.

I wondered whether you , or your HR department, would like to make any comments

Best regards

David Colquhoun

I got an immediate and very sympathetic response from the Director of HR and a week later, on17th September, he wrote

“Hi David,

I have discussed the matter with my manager of Staff Counselling and Welfare and have agreed that it is probably safest that we remove the references to ‘complimentary’[sic] therapies from the site entirely.

Thank you for your helpful input and the recommendations for reading matter.”

So there is a lesson here.  If you find this sort or stuff on your own institution’s web site, all that may be needed is a simple letter that points out what nonsense it is.  Admittedly the HR man seemed rather more worried about whether the claims were illegal than whether they were true, but either way, it worked.

Only one little snag.  As of 6 October the pages still have not been removed.

On the assumption that they eventually will be removed, I have kept copies of the Wellbeing page, of the Complementary Therapies page, and of the ‘explanatory leaflet’. They stand as part of a historical record that
shows, once again, what can happen when scientific matters get into the hands of HR. Fortunately Leicester University has an HR director who is willing to listen to advice.


Something seems to have gone seriously wrong. Despite the rapid response, virtually all the nonsense is still there on 13th October. It seems not to be so simple after all.

And despite several reminders, the advertisement for SCENAR ‘therapy’ is still on  the University web site on December 14th.  I know that no decision by HR can be made with fewer than 25 meetings and an awayday in Majorca, but this is getting ridiculous.

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Alfred Joseph Clark FRS held the established chair of Pharmacology at UCL from 1919 to 1926, when he left for Edinburgh.  In the 1920s and 30s, Clark was a great pioneer in the application of quantitative physical ideas to pharmacology.   As well as his classic scientific works, like The Mode of Action of Drugs on Cells (1933) he wrote, and felt strongly, about the fraud perpetrated on the public by patent medicine salesmen.  In 1938 (while in Edinburgh) he published a slim volume called Patent Medicines.  The parallels with today are astonishing.

Alfred Joseph Clark FRS (1885 – 1941)

I was lucky to be given a copy of this book by David Clark, A.J. Clark’s eldest son, who is now 88. I visited him in Cambridge on 17 September 2008, because he thought that, as holder of the A.J. Clark chair at UCL from 1985 to 2004, I’d be a good person to look after this and several other books from his father’s library. They would have gone to the Department of Pharmacology if we still had one, but that has been swept away by mindless administrators with little understanding of how to get good science.

Quotations from the book are in italic, and are interspersed with comments from me.

The book starts with a quotation from the House of Commons Select Committee report on Patent Medicines. The report was submitted to the House on 4 August 1914, so there is no need to explain why it had little effect. The report differs from recent ones in that it is not stifled by the sort of political correctness that makes politicians refer to fraudsters as “professions”.

The problem

“2.2 The situation, therefore, as regards the sale and advertisement of proprietary medicines and articles may be summarised as follows:

For all practical purposes British law is powerless to prevent any person from procuring any drug, or making any mixture, whether patent or without any therapeutical activity whatever (as long as it does not contain a scheduled poison), advertising it in any decent terms as a cure for any disease or ailment, recommending it by bogus testimonials and the invented opinions and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians, and selling it under any name he chooses, on payment of a small stamp duty. For any price he can persuade a credulous public to pay.”

Select Committee on Patent Medicines. 1914

“The writer has endeavoured in the present article to analyse the reasons for the amazing immunity of patent medicines form all attempts to curb their activity, to estimate the results and to suggest the obvious measures of reform that are needed.”

Clark, writing in 1938, was surprised that so little had changed since 1914.  What would he have thought if he had known that now, almost 100 years after the 1914 report, the fraudsters are still getting away with it?

Chapter 2 starts thus.


The Select Committee appointed by the House of Commons in 1914 ‘to consider and inquire into the question of the sale of Patent and Proprietary Medicines’ stated its opinion in 28 pages of terse and uncompromising invective. Its general conclusions were as follows:

That the trade in secret remedies constituted a grave and widespread public evil.

That the existing law was chaotic and had proved inoperative and that consequently the traffic in secret remedies was practically uncontrolled.

In particular it concluded ‘”that this is an intolerable state of things and that new legislation to deal with it, rather than merely the amendment of existing laws, is urgently needed in the public interest.”

The “widespread public evil”continues almost unabated, and rather than introduce sensible legislation to cope with it, the government has instead given a stamp of approval for quackery by introducing utterly ineffective voluntary “self-regulation”.

Another Bill to deal with patent medicines was introduced in 1931, without success, and finally in 1936, a Medical and Surgical Appliances (Advertisement) Bill was introduced. This Bill had a very limited scope. Its purpose was to alleviate some of the worst abuses of the quack medicine trade by prohibiting the advertisement of cures for certain diseases such as blindness, Bright’s disease [nephritis] , cancer, consumption [tuberculosis], epilepsy, fits, locomotor ataxy, fits, lupus or paralysis.

The agreement of many interests was secured for this measure. The president of the Advertising Association stated that the proposed Bill would not affect adversely any legitimate trade interest. Opposition to the Bill was, however, whipped up amongst psychic healers, anti-vivisectionists and other opponents of medicine and at the second reading in March 1936, the Bill was opposed and the House was counted out during the ensuing debate. The immediate reason for this fate was that the Bill came up for second reading on the day of the Grand National! This is only one example of the remarkable luck that has attended the patent medicine vendors.
(Page 14).

The “remarkable luck” of patent medicine vendors continues to this day, Although, in principle, advertisement of cures for venereal diseases was banned in 1917, and for cancer in 1939, it takes only a few minutes with Google to find that these laws are regularly flouted by quacks,  In practice quacks get away with selling vitamin pills for AIDS, sugar pills for malaria and homeopathic pills for rabies, polio anthrax and just about anything else you can think of.  Most of these advertisements are contrary to the published codes of ethics of the organisations to which the quack in question belongs but nothing ever happens.
Self-regulation simply does not work, and there is still no effective enforcement even of existing laws..

“It has already been stated that British law allows the advertiser of a secret remedy to tell any lie or make any claim that he fancies will sell his goods and the completeness of this licence is best illustrated by the consideration of a few specific points.

Advertisements for secret remedies very frequently contain a list of testimonials from medical men, which usually are in an anonymous form, stating that ………….. M.D., F.R.C.S., has found the remedy infallible. Occasionally, however, the name and address of a doctor is given and anyone unaware of the vagaries of English law would imagine that such use of a doctor’s name and professional reputation could not be made with impunity without his consent. In 1899, however, the Sallyco Mineral Water Company advertised that ‘Dr. Morgan Dochrill, physician to St. John’s Hospital, London and many of the leading physicians are presenting ‘Sallyco’ as an habitual drink. Dr. Dochrill says nothing has done his gout so much good.
Dr. Dochrill, whose name and title were correctly stated above, sued the company but failed in his case. ”

“The statement that the law does not prevent the recommending of a secret remedy by the use of bogus testimonials and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians is obviously an understatement since it is doubtful how far it interferes with the use of bogus testimonials from real physicians.”

Dodgy testimonials are still a mainstay of dodgy salesman.  One is reminded of the unauthorised citation of testimonials from Dr John Marks and Professor Jonathan Waxman by Patrick Holford to aid his sales of unnecessary vitamin supplements. There is more on this at Holfordwatch.

The man in the street knows that the merits of any article are usually exaggerated in advertisements and is in the habit of discounting a large proportion of such claims, but, outside the realm of secret remedies, the law is fairly strict as regards definite misstatements concerning goods offered for sale and hence the everyday experience of the man in the street does not prepare him for dealing with advertisements which are not merely exaggerations but plain straightforward lies from beginning to end.

Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums. One imagines that no one today would be willing to spend money on pills guaranteed to prevent earthquakes but yet the claims of many of the remedies offered appear equally absurd to anyone with an elementary
knowledge of physiology or even of chemistry. A study of the successes and failures suggests that success depends chiefly on not over-rating the public intelligence. (Page 34)

This may have changed a bit since A.J. Clark was writing in 1938. Now the main clients of quacks seem to be the well-off “worried-well”. But it remains as true as ever that “Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums.” In 2008, it is perhaps more a problem of Ben Goldacre’s dictum ““My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour.”

Clark refers (page 36) to a successful conviction for fraud in the USA in 1917.  The subject was a widely advertised ‘get fat quick’ pill that contained lecithin, proteins and sugar.  The BMA analysis (in 1912)
suggested that the cost of the ingredients in a box of 30 tablets sold for 4/6 was 1 1/4 d. [4/6 meant 4 shillings and six pence, or 22.5 pence since 1971, and 1 1/4 old pence, a penny farthing, is 0.52 new pence]. He comments thus.

The trial revealed many interesting facts. The formula was devised after a short consultation with the expert of one of the largest drug manufacturers in the U.S.A. This firm manufactured the tablets and sold them to the proprietary medicine company at about 3/- per 1000, whilst they were retailed to the public at the rate of £7 10s. per 1000. The firm is estimated to have made a profit of about $3,000,000.

These trials in the U.S.A. revealed the fact that in a considerable proportion of cases the ‘private formula’ department of the large and well known drug firm already mentioned had first provided the formula for the nostrum and subsequently had prepared it wholesale.

Nothing much has changed here either. The alternative medicine industry (and it is a very big industry) is fond of denouncing the evils of the pharmaceutical industry, and sadly, occasionally they are right.  One of the less honest practices of the pharmaceutical industry (though one never mentioned by quacks) is buying heavily into alternative medicine. Goldacre points out

“there is little difference between the vitamin and pharmaceutical industries. Key players in both include multinationals such as Roche and Aventis; BioCare, the vitamin pill producer that media nutritionist Patrick Holford works for, is part-owned by Elder Pharmaceuticals.”

And then. of course, there is the deeply dishonest promotion by Boots the Chemists of homeopathic miseducation, of vitamins and of CoQ10 supplements.

The manner in which secret remedies can survive repeated exposure is shown by the following summary of the life history of a vendor of a consumption [tuberculosis] cure.

1904, 1906: Convicted of violating the law in South Africa.

1908:            Exposed in British Medical Association report and also attacked by Truth.

1910:            Sued by a widow. The judge stated: ‘I think this is an intentional and well-considered fraud. It is a scandalous thing that poor people should be imposed upon and led to part with their money, and to hope that those dear to them would be cured by those  processes which were nothing but quack remedies and had not the slightest value of any kind.’

1914:             A libel action against the British Medical Association was lost.

1915              The cure was introduced into the United States.

1919               The cure was sold in Canada.

1924                Articles by men with medical qualifications appeared in the Swiss medical journal boosting
the cure.

Secret remedies have a vitality that resembles that of the more noxious weeds and the examples mentioned suggest that nothing can do them any serious harm.

Most of the time, quacks get away with claims every bit as outrageous today.   But Clark does give one example of a successful prosecution.  It resulted from an exposé in the newspapers -wait for it -in the Daily Mail.

There is, however, one example which proves that a proprietary remedy can be squashed by exposure if this is accompanied by adequate publicity.

The preparation Yadil was introduced as an antiseptic and was at first advertised to the medical profession. The proprietor claimed that the remedy was not secret and that the active principle was ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’. The drug acquired popularity in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the proprietor became more and more ambitious in his therapeutic claims. The special virtue claimed for Yadil was that it would kill any harmful organism that had invaded the body. A more specific claim was that consumption in the first stage was cured with two or three pints whilst advanced cases might require a little more.  Other advertisements suggested that it was a cure for most known diseases from cancer downwards.

These claims were supported by an extraordinarily intense advertising campaign.  Most papers, and even magazines circulating amongst the wealthier classes,  carried full page and even double page advertisements. The Daily Mail refused these advertisements and in 1924 published a three column article by Sir William Pope, professor of Chemistry in the University of Cambridge. He stated that
the name ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’ was meaningless gibberish and was not the chemical definition of any known substance. He concluded that Yadil consisted of :

‘About one per cent of the chemical compound formaldehyde.

About four per cent of glycerine.

About ninety-five per cent of water and, lastly, a smell.

He calculated that the materials contained in a gallon cost about 1/6, whilst the mixture was sold at £4 10s. per gallon.

This exposure was completely successful and the matter is of historic interest in that it is the only example of the career of a proprietary medicine being arrested by the action of the Press.

Clark goes on to talk of the law of libel.

“On the other hand the quack medicine vendor can pursue his advertising campaigns in the happy assurance that, whatever lies he tells, he need fear nothing from the interference of British law. The law does much to protect the quack medicine vendor because the laws of slander and libel are so severe.”

The law of libel to this day remains a serious risk to freedom of speech of both individuals and the media. Its use by rogues to suppress fair comment is routine.  My first encounter was when a couple of herbalists
threatened to sue UCL
because I said that the term ‘blood cleanser’ is gobbledygook.  The fact that the statement was obviously true didn’t deter them for a moment.  The herbalists were bluffing no doubt, but they caused enough nuisance that I was asked to take my pages off UCL’s server.  A week later I was invited back but by then I’d set up a much better blog and the publicity resulted in an enormous increase in readership, so the outcome was good for me (but bad for herbalists).

It was also good in the end for Andy Lewis when his immortal page “The gentle art of homoeopathic killing” (about the great malaria scandal) was suppressed.   The Society of Homeopaths’ lawyers didn’t go for him personally but for his ISP who gave in shamefully and removed the page.  As a result the missing page reappeared in dozens of web sites round the world and shot to the top in a Google search.

Chiropractors are perhaps the group most likely to try to suppress contrary opinions by law not argument.  The only lawyers’ letter that has been sent to me personally, alleged defamation in an editorial that I wrote for the New Zealand Medical Journal.  That was a little scary, but the journal stuck up for its right to speak and the threat went away after  chiropractors were allowed right of reply (but we got the last word).

Simon Singh, one of the best science communicators we have, has not been so lucky. He is going to have to defend in court an action brought by the British Chiropractic Association because of innocent opinions expressed in the Guardian.

Chapter 6 is about “The harm done by patent medicines”. It starts thus.

“The trade in secret remedies obviously represents a ridiculous waste of money but some may argue that, since we are a free country and it pleases people to waste their money in this particular way, there is no call for any legislative interference. The trade in quack medicines cannot, however, be regarded as a harmless one. The Poisons Acts fortunately prevent the sale of a large number of dangerous drugs, but there are numerous other ways in which injury can be produced by these remedies.”

The most serious harm, he thought, resulted from self-medication, and he doesn’t mince his words.

“The most serious objection to quack medicines is however that their advertisements encourage self-medication as a substitute for adequate treatment and they probably do more harm in this than in any other manner.

The nature of the problem can best be illustrated by considering a simple example such as diabetes. In this case no actual cure is known to medicine but, on the other hand, if a patient is treated adequately by insulin combined with appropriate diet, he can be maintained in practically normal health, in spite of his disability, for an indefinite period. The expectation of life of the majority of intelligent diabetics, who make no mistakes in their regime, is not much less than that of normal persons. The regime is both irksome and unpleasant, but anyone who persuades diabetics to abandon it, is committing manslaughter as certainly as if he fired a machine gun into a crowded street.

As regards serious chronic disease the influence of secret remedies may be said to range from murderous to merely harmful.

‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous, since they are likely to cause the death of anyone who is unfortunate enough to believe in their efficacy and thus delay adequate treatment until too late.

The phrase “‘Cures for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous” made Clark himself the victim of suppression of freedom of speech by lawyers. His son, David Clark, wrote of his father in “Alfred Joseph Clark, A Memoir” (C. & J. Clark Ltd 1985 ISBN 0-9510401-0-3)

“Although tolerant of many human foibles, A. J. had always disapproved fiercely of quacks, particularly the charlatans who sold fraudulent medicines.  During his visits to London he met Raymond Postgate, then a crusading left wing journalist, who persuaded A.J. to write a pamphlet which was published in an ephemeral series called ‘Fact‘ in March 1938. It was a lively polemical piece. . To A.J.’s surprise and dismay he was sued for libel by a notorious
rogue who peddled a quack cure for for tuberculosis. This man said that A.J.’s remarks (such as “‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous”) were libellous and would damage his business.  A.J. was determined to fight, and he and Trixie decided to put their savings at stake if necessary. The B.M.A. and the Medical Defence Union agreed to support him and they all went to lawyers. He was shocked when they advised him that he would be bound to lose for he had damaged the man’s livelihood!   Finally, after much heart searching, he made an apology, saying that he had not meant that particular man’s nostrum”

Talk about déjà vu!

On page 68 there is another very familiar story. It could have been written today.

“The fact that the public is acquiring more knowledge of health matters and is becoming more suspicious of the cruder forms of lies is also helping to weed out the worst types of patent medicine advertisements. For example, in 1751 a bottle of oil was advertised as a cure for scurvy, leprosy and consumption but today such claims would not be effective in promoting the sale of a remedy. The modern advertiser would probably claim that the oil was rich in all the vitamins and the elements essential for life and would confine his claims to a statement that it would alleviate all minor forms of physical or mental ill-health.

The average patent medicine advertised today makes plausible rather than absurd claims and in general the advertisements have changed to conform with a change in the level of the public’s knowledge.

It is somewhat misleading, however, to speak of this as an improvement, since the law has not altered and hence the change only means that the public is being swindled in a somewhat more skilful manner.

The ideal method of obtaining an adequate vitamin supply is to select a diet containing an abundant supply of fresh foods, but unfortunately the populace is accustomed to live very largely on preserved or partially purified food stuffs and such processes usually remove most of the vitamins.”

The first part of the passage above is reminiscent of something that A.J Clark wrote in  the BMJ in 1927.  Nowadays it is almost unquotable and I was told by a journal editor that it was unacceptable even with asterisks.  That seems to me a bit silly. Words had different connotations in 1927.

“The less intelligent revert to the oldest form of belief and seek someone who will make strong magic for them and defeat the evil spirits by some potent charm. This is the feeling to which the quack appeals; he claims to be above the laws of science and to possess some charm for defeating disease of any variety.

The nature of the charm changes with the growth of education. A naked n****r howling to the beat of a tom-tom does not impress a European, and most modern Europeans would be either amused or disgusted by the Black mass that was popular in the seventeenth century. Today some travesty of physical science appears to be the most popular form of incantation.”

A.J. Clark (1927) The historical aspect of quackery, BMJ October 1st 1927

Apart from some of the vocabulary, what better description could one have of the tendency of homeopaths to harp on meaninglessly about quantum theory or the “scienciness” and “referenciness” of
modern books on nutritional therapy?

So has anything changed?

Thus far, the outcome might be thought gloomy. Judging by Clark’s account, remarkably little has changed since 1938, or even since 1914. The libel law in the UK is as bad now as it was then. Recently the United Nations Human Rights Committee said UK laws block matters of public interest and encourage libel tourism (report here, see also here).   It is unfit for a free society and it should be changed.

But there are positive sides too. Firstly the advent of scientific bloggers has begun to have some real influence. People are no longer reliant on journalists to interpret (or, often, misinterpret) results for them. They can now get real experts and links to original sources.  Just one of these, Ben Goldacre’s badscience.net, and his weekly column in the Guardian has worked wonders in educating the public and improving journalism.  Young people can, and do, contribute to the debate because they can blog anonymously if they are frightened that their employer might object.

Perhaps still more important, the law changed this year. Now, at last, it may be possible to prosecute successfully those who make fraudulent health claims. Sad to say, this was not an initiative of the UK government, which remains as devoted as ever to supporting quacks.  Remember that, quite  shamefully, the only reason given by the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) gave for allowing false labelling of homeopathic pills was to support the “homeopathic industry”. They suggested (falsely) that the EU required them to take this irresponsible step, which was condemned by just about every scientific organisation. But the new unfair trading regulations did come from the EU. After almost 100 years since the 1914 report, we have at last some decent legislation. Let’s hope it’s enforced.


The back cover of the series of ‘Fact‘ books in which A.J. Clark’s article appeared is reproduced below, simply because of the historical portrait of the 1930s that it gives.


This post got a lot of hits from Ben Goldacre’s miniblog which read

Jump to follow-up

The publication of Gilbey’s paper and my editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ) led to a threat of legal action by the NZ Chiropractors’ Association Inc for alleged defamation.  After publishing a defiant editorial, the editor of the NZMJ offered chiropractors the chance to put their case.

In the last issue of NZMJ (22 Aug 2008) three letters appeared. One was from Brian Kelly, (President, New Zealand College of Chiropractic) [download letter]. One was from Karl Bale (CEO/Registrar, Chiropractic Board New Zealand) [download letter], and one was from Simon Roughan (Registered Chiropractor and Acting President of the New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association) [download letter].

In the current issue (5 September 2008) Gilbey, Ernst and I responded.{download Gilbey response] [download Ernst response].

Here’s mine. The printed version differs in minor ways [download pdf]

I’m grateful for the opportunity to reply to the defences of chiropractic from Kelly1, Roughan2 and Bale3 in your last issue.

I’d like first to deal with the minor matter of titles, before getting on to the more important question of  vidence. I notice that Brian Kelly signs his letter “Dr Brian Kelly B App Sci (Chiro)” in his letter to NZMJ. He seems to be a bit less careful in his use of titles on his own school’s web site where his president’s welcome4 is signed simply “Dr Brian Kelly”, a title he adopts in at least three other places. Karl Bale3 (CEO/Registrar, Chiropractic Board New Zealand) points out that “Failure to qualify the use of the title ‘Doctor’ may contravene the provisions of the Medical Practitioners Act 1995”. One wonders whether Bale has done anything to stop Kelly’s apparent breaches of this rule?

This example makes on wonder whether the Chiropractic Board take its responsibilities seriously? It seems often to be the case that ‘voluntary self-regulation’ doesn’t work, because there are too many vested interests. Karl Bale points out that some ruthless sales methods characteristic of chiropractic are also contrary to the Chiropractic Board’s code of ethics. One would hope their well-known antipathy to vaccination and to medicine as a whole were also considered unethical. These practices seem to continue so the the code of ethics
seems not to be enforced. Much the same is true in other forms of alternative medicine too5.

It seems to me quite remarkable that none of the letters mentions the ‘subluxation’ that lies at the heart of their subject6. Could that be because they are reluctant to admit openly that it is a mere metaphysical concept, that no one can see or define? It is sad that so many patients are subjected to X-rays in search of this  phantom idea. It is this metaphysical nature of chiropractic that separates it quite clearly from science.

Brian Kelly says “How can any reader take seriously, anything suggested by a writer who opines that a 19th Century journalist possessed superior “intellectual standards” to “the UK’s Department of Health” and “several university vice chancellors”. The views of the Davenport Leader on chiropractic were mild compared with those of the great H.L. Mencken (1924)7 who wrote “This preposterous quackery flourishes lushly in the back reaches of the Republic, and begins to conquer the less civilized folk of the big cities….” The problem is that the Department of Health is full of arts graduates who may be very good at classics but can’t understand the nature of evidence. And the UK has one vice-chancellor, a geomorphologist, who defends a course in his university that teaches that “amethysts emit high yin energy”8 I’ll admit, though, that perhaps ‘intellect’ is not what’s deficient in this case, but rather honesty.

Your correspondents seem to confuse the duration of a course with its intellectual content. You can study homeopathy for years too, but after all that they are still treating sick people with medicines that contain no medicine. Anyone who works in a university knows that you can easily get accreditation for anything whatsoever if you choose the right people to sit on the committee. I have seen only too many of these worthless pieces of paper. “Amethysts emit high yin energy”8 was part of an accredited course (at the University of Westminster) too. Need I say more?

Now to the real heart of the problem, namely the question of evidence. Brian Kelly says that the book by Singh and Ernst9 shows “extreme bias”, but what that book actually shows is an extremely scrupulous regard for evidence, Ernst is in a better position to do this than just about anyone else. He has qualified and practised both regular and alternative medicine, and he was appointed to his present position, as professor of complementary and alternative medicine to assess the evidence. Perhaps most importantly of all, his position allows him to do that assessment with complete lack of bias because, unlike Kelly, his livelihood does not depend on any particular outcome of the assessment. I’m afraid that what Kelly describes as “extreme bias” is simply a display of pique because it has turned out that when all the evidence is examined dispassionately, the outcome is not what chiropractors hoped.

The fact of the matter is that when you look at all of the evidence, as Singh & Ernst do, it is perfectly clear that chiropractic is at best no better than conventional treatments even for back pain. For all other conditions its benefits fail to outweigh its risks – contrary to the many claims by chiropractors. Both the New Zealand and the UK governments have got themselves into an impossible position by giving official recognition to chiropractic before the evidence was in. Since the conventional manipulative treatments are cheaper, and may be well be safer, and because they involve no quasi-religious ideas like “subluxation” or “innate intelligence”, the only reasonable conclusion is that there is no need for chiropractic to exist at all. They do nothing they do that could not be done as well by medical practitioners and physiotherapists. What will governments do about that, I wonder?

David Colquhoun

1. Kelly, B. New Zealand College of Chiropractic response to
“Dr Who?” editorial.
NZMJ 22 August 2008, Vol 121 No 1280

2. Roughan, S. Setting the record straight: New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association response letter. NZMJ 22
August 2008, Vol 121 No 1280

3. Bale,
K. Chiropractic Board New Zealand response to “Dr Who?” editorial.
August 2008, Vol 121 No 1280.

4. http://www.nzchiro.co.nz/about_president.php

5. http://dcscience.net/?p=24

6. http://www.chirobase.org/01General/chirosub.html

7. http://www.geocities.com/healthbase/mencken_chiro.html

8. http://dcscience.net/?p=227

9. Singh S, Ernst E. Trick or Treatment. Bantam Press; 2008

The wars within chiropractic

Although the chiropractors seem to be rather upset by the criticisms that have been levelled against them, the most interesting war is not between chiropractors and people who think that medicine should not be based on metaphysics.  It’s the war within chiropractic itself.

The internecine wars within chiropractic have been going almost from the day it was invented.  The (ex-)insider’s view gives us a rare insight into what chiropractic schools actually do.   Now support has come from a rather unexpected quarter.  An article by five chiropractors has just appeared by Murphy et al. (Chiropractic & Osteopathy, 2008, 16:10).

Although the authors declare that they have “a financial interest in the success” of chiropractic, the changes that they propose are so drastic that, if implemented, tthey would leave little left to distinguish chiropractic from, say, physiotherapy. The authors ask the very pertinent question, ‘why is it that podiatry (chiropody in the UK) is well accepted and chiropractic remains on the controversial fringe of medicine?..   Here are some quotations.

“It is also vital that those chiropractors who dogmatically oppose common public health practices, such as immunization [15] and public water fluoridation, cease such unfounded activity.”

“We are concerned that the common perception (which is well supported, in our experience) that chiropractors are only interested in “selling” a lifetime of chiropractic visits may be one of the primary factors behind our low standing in the minds of members of the public [2].”

“One of the problems that we encounter frequently in our interaction with chiropractic  educational institutions is the perpetuation of dogma and unfounded claims. Examples include the concept of spinal subluxation as the cause of a variety of internal diseases and the metaphysical, pseudo-religious idea of “innate intelligence” flowing through spinal nerves, with spinal subluxations impeding this flow. These concepts are lacking in a scientific foundation [27] [28] [29] and should not be permitted to be taught at our chiropractic institutions as part of the standard curriculum. Much of what is passed off as “chiropractic philosophy” is simply dogma [30], or untested (and, in some cases, untestable) theories [27] which have no place in an institution of higher learning, except perhaps in an historical context.”

“The Council on Chiropractic Education requirement of 250 adjustments forces interns to use manipulation on patients whether they need it or not, and the radiographic requirement forces interns to take radiographs on patients whether they need them or not.”

“They [podiatrists] did not invent a “lesion” and a “philosophy” and try to force it on the public. They certainly did not claim that all disease arose from the foot, without any evidence to support this notion. The podiatric medical profession simply did what credible and authoritative professions do [32] – they provided society with services that people actually wanted and needed.”

“In the beginning, DD Palmer invented a lesion, and a theory behind this lesion, and developed a profession of individuals who would become champions of that lesion. This is not what credible professions do.”

“In the interim it [chiropractic] has seen its market share dwindle from 10% of the population [4] to 7.5% [3] [42]. Even amongst patients with back pain, the proportion of patients seeing chiropractors dropped significantly between 1987 and 1997, a period of time in which the proportion seeing both medical doctors and physical therapists increased [43].”

“When an individual consults a member of any of the medical professions, it is reasonably expected that the advice and treatment that he or she receives is based in science, not metaphysics or pseudoscience.”

“The chiropractic profession has an obligation to actively divorce itself from metaphysical explanations of health and disease as well as to actively regulate itself in refusing to tolerate fraud, abuse and quackery, which are more rampant in our profession than in other healthcare professions [46].”

“Podiatric medicine is a science-based profession dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of foot disorders. Foot reflexology is a metaphysically-based group consisting of non-physicians who believe that many physical disorders arise from the foot. Podiatrists have rejected foot reflexology as an unproven and unscientific practice, and do not consider it part of mainstream podiatric practice.”

“We must finally come to the painful realization that the chiropractic concept of spinal subluxation as the cause of “dis-ease” within the human body is an untested hypothesis [27]. It is an albatross around our collective necks that impedes progress.”

All this, remember, comes from five chiropractors. That looks like all out war between their view of chiropractic and that taught in New Zealand College of Chiropractic, and, in the UK by the three chiropractic colleges in the UK.


A report in the New Zealand Herald (18 September 2008) is rather relevant to all this.

Chiropractor to apologise after patient has stroke

A chiropractor has been recommended to apologise to a woman patient who suffered a stroke after he treated her.

The case report is here.

The Advertising Standards Authority has had a bit to say about chiropractors too.

Jump to follow-up

After the announcement that the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan) was suspending its homeopathy “BSc” course, it seems that their vice chancellor has listened to the pressure, both internal and external, to stop bringing his university into disrepute.

An internal review of all their courses in alternative medicine was announced shortly after the course  closure.   Congratulations to Malcolm McVicar for grasping the nettle at last.  Let’s hope other universities follow his example soon.

I have acquired, indirectly, a copy of the announcement of the welcome news.

Homeopathy, Herbalism and cupuncture

Concern has been expressed by some colleagues as to whether the University should offer courses in homeopathy, Herbalism and Acupuncture. Therefore, to facilitate proper discussion on this matter I have set up a working party to review the issues.

I have asked Eileen Martin, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Health, to lead this working party and report to me as soon as possible. Whilst the review is taking place, we need to recognise that there are students and staff studying and teaching on these courses which have satisfied the University’s quality assurance procedures and been duly validated. I would therefore ask that colleagues would refrain from comment or speculation which would cause concern to these students and staff. Staff who wish to express their views on this issue should direct these to Eileen Martin, by the end of September.


Malcolm McVicar


Times Higher Education today reports

“The University of Central Lancashire is to review all its courses in homoeopathy, herbalism and acupuncture after some staff said it should not be offering degrees in “quackery”, Times Higher Education has learnt.

A university spokesman said: “As a university we value and practise transparency and tolerance and welcome all academic viewpoints.”

(Later, an almost identical version of the story ran on the Times Online.)

So far, so good.   But of course the outcome of a committee depends entirely on who is appointed to it.  Quite often such committees do no more than provide an internal whitewash.

It does seem a bit odd to appoint as chair the dean of the faculty where all these course are run, and presumably generate income.  Eileen Martin has often appeared to be proud of them in the past. Furthermore, the whole investigation will (or should) turn on the assessment of evidence.  It needs some knowledge of the design of clinical trials and their statistical analysis, As far as I can see, Ms Martin has essentially no research publications whatsoever.

I also worry about a bit about “satisfied the University’s quality assurance procedures and been duly validated”.  One point of the investigation should be recognise frankly that the validation process is entirely circular, and consequently worth next to nothing.  It must be hard for a vice-chancellor to admit that, but it will be an essential step in restoring confidence in Uclan.

Let’s not prejudge though. If there are enough good scientists on the committee, the result will be good.

I hope that transparency extends to letting us know who will be doing the judging.  Everything depends on that.


Well well, there’s a coincidence, Once again, the week after a there is an announcement about degrees in witchcraft, what should pop up again in the column of the inimitable Laurie Taylor in THE. The University of Poppleton’s own Department of Palmistry.

Letter to the editor

Dear Sir

I was shocked to see yet another scurrilous attack upon the work of my department in The Poppletonian. Although Palmistry is in its early days as an academic discipline it cannot hope to progress while there are people like your correspondent who insist on referring to it as “a load of superstitious nonsense which doesn’t deserve a place on the end of the pier let alone in a university”.

A large number of people claim to have derived considerable benefit from learning about life lines, head lines and heart lines and the role of the six major mounts in predicting their future. All of us in the Palmistry Department believe it vitally important that these claims are rigorously examined. How else can science advance?

Yours sincerely,

Janet Petulengro (Doctor)

Jump to follow-up

The first major victory in the battle for the integrity of universities seems to have been won. This email was sent by Kate Chatfield who is module leader for the “BSc” in homeopathic medicine at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN).

from Kate Chatfield…

Dear All,

It’s a sad day for us here at UCLan because we have taken the decision not to run a first year this year due to low recruitment. The course will be put ‘on hold’ for this year and next until we see what happens with the general climate. Fortunately our masters course is thriving and we have been asked to focus upon this area and homeopathy research for the time being.

Of late UCLan has been the subject of many attacks by the anti-homeopathy league. Colquhoun et al have kept the university lawyers and us quite fruitlessly busy by making claims for very detailed course information under the Freedom of Information Act. The latest demand is for 32 identified lesson plans with teaching notes, power points, handouts etc. The relentless attacks have taken their toll and it appears that they have won this small victory.

The university has been very clear that this decision has been taken solely on the grounds of poor educational experience and is nothing to do with the current furore. They continue to be supportive of us and our efforts.

Best wishes

Kate and Jean

There is some background here. In July 2006 I made a request to UCLAN under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, in which I asked to see some of their teaching materials. I appealed to UCLAN but Professor Patrick McGhee, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), also turned down two appeals. A letter sent directly to Professor Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor and president of UCLAN, failed to elicit the courtesy of a reply (standard practice I’m afraid, when a vice chancellor is faced with a difficult question). (Ironically, McVicar lists one of his interests as “health policy”.) So then I appealed to the Office of the Information Commissioner, in November 2006. Recently the case got to the top of the pile, and a judgment is expected any moment now.

Kate Chatfield’s letter to her colleagues is interesting. She describes a request ro see some of her teaching materials as an “attack”. If someone asks to see my teaching materials, I am rather flattered, and I send them. Is she not proud of what she teaches? Why all the secrecy? After all, you, the taxpayer, are paying for this stuff to be taught, so why should you not be able see it? Or is the problem that she feels that the “alternative reality” in which homeopaths live is just too complicated for mortals to grasp? Perhaps this attitude should be interpreted as flattering to the general public, because somewhere deep down she knows that the public will be able to spot gobbledygook when they see it. The revelation that the University of Westminster teaches first year undergraduates the “amethysts emit high yin energy” didn’t help their academic reputation much either.

Much credit for this decision must go also to the pressure from the many good academics at UCLAN. When it was revealed recently that UCLAN intended to open yet more courses in forms of medicine that are disproved or unproven, they naturally felt that their university was being brought into disrepute. Opposition to plans to introduce new “degrees” in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine were exposed in Times Higher Education recently. It particular, great credit must go to Dr Michael Eslea from UCLAN’s Psychology department. His open letter to his vice-chancellor is an example of scientific integrity in action.

The abandonment of this degree in medicines that contain no medicine is a small victory for common sense, for science and for the integrity of universities. Sadly, there is still a long way to go.

It is my understanding that ‘bringing the university into disrepute’ is a serious offence. Please note, vice-chancellor.

A few more judgments like that to suspend your homeopathy degree could work wonders for your reputation.

The follow-up

Watch this space.

The Guardian was quick off the mark -this story appeared on their education web site within 3 hours of my posting it “Homeopathy degrees suspended after criticism” by Anthea Lipsett. My comment there disappeared for a while because the Guardian legal people misunderstood the meaning of the last sentence. It’s back now, with blame allocated unambiguously to the vice-chancellors of the 16 or so universities who run this sort of course.

UCLAN’s web site seems to need some updating. The “BSc” in homeopathic medicine is still advertised there. as of 28 August.

UCLAN’s best ally. Dr Michael Eslea, has had some publicity for his attempts to rescue his university’s reputation. The story appeared in the “High Principals” column of Private Eye (Issue 1217, Aug 22, 2008). It also appeared in his local paper, the Lancashire Evening Post.

The Lancashire Evening Post catches up with homeopathy suspension story, two days after you read it here. But the UCLAN web site still advertises it.

Jump to follow-up

My original piece on Integrative Baloney@Yale was posted on May 16th, after I got back from a visit there. The talk I gave there included a short video. My movie, Integrative baloney@Yale, was made entirely from clips taken from Yale’s own YouTube movies which showed something approaching three hours of its “1st Annual Scientific [sic] symposium”, entitled “Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Evidence for Integration”. I had merely interspersed a few titles to show the worst scientific absurdities of that rather pathetic event. YouTube removed the movie last week.

You can download the movie here [15.8 Mb, wmv file].

It should soon reappear on YouTube (actually it took over a month and several reminders, but eventually  they kept their word in the end).

Yale’s lawyers had written to YouTube, to have my movie removed. I guess if you have no evidence, all you can do is resort to law to suppress the views of those who have the temerity to point out that the emperor is naked. Last week it was New Zealand Chiropractors’ Association Inc. This week the rather more substantial Yale University. We live in interesting times.

This is what I got on 15th August.

Dear Member

This is to notify you that we have removed or disabled access to the following material as a result of a third-party notification by Yale University, Yale School of Medicine (CME) claiming that this material is infringing:

Integrative baloney@Yale: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=HEl2fhfGBdI

Please Note: Repeated incidents of copyright infringement will result in the deletion of your account and all videos uploaded to that account. In order to prevent this from happening

If you clicked on the link you saw

“This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Yale University, Yale School of Medicine (CME)”

It seems that Yale’s Continuing Medical Education (CME) department was responsible.

Of course Yale is correct. I expect they own the copyright of their original movies, but they are not what I posted. I would argue that selecting 6 minutes from a 3 hour original amounts to “fair quotation”, no different from when one cites a short passage from somebody else’s book or paper. Perhaps Yale was just a bit jealous that my movie was getting viewed a lot more times than theirs. Or perhaps they were a bit peeved that a Google search for “Yale Integrative Medicine” produced my movie as #2 (add the word movie and I was #1).

My movie seems to me to be fair comment from someone who is a pharmacologist by trade. Apparently it didn’t seem that way to the apparatchiks of Yale Medical School, who seem to think that academic arguments should be settled by paying lawyers to suppress views they don’t like, rather than by rational discussion.

It’s interesting that the three hours of Yale’s own movie have also vanished from YouTube. Could that be because they realise that the remarks made at the meeting are so embarrassing intellectually that it would be better not to make them public? Actually, no.

What does Yale CME say?

Rather than publishing this straight away, I thought it better to delve a bit further into what had happened. I lodged an appeal with YouTube and I wrote to Ronald J. Vender, MD (Associate Dean, YSM Clinical Affairs, CMO, Yale Medical Group, Medical Director, Yale CME ). The outcome was rather interesting.

First, it turned out that the original posting of the three hours of the symposium proceedings on YouTube was itself unauthorised, which is why it suffered the same fate as my movie.

Dr Vender told me that he is new to the job, and didn’t know about the incident. What’s more surprising, he said he “did not know an Integrative Program even existed at Yale”. That does seem a bit odd indeed for an Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs.

However, Dr Vender turned out to be a very reasonable man,.After some amiable correspondence over the weekend, it took him only a day and a half to sort the matter out. After talking to Yale’s attorney, he wrote on 19th August, thus

“The University attorney believes that there is in fact a difference between the initial unauthorized filming of an entire conference as opposed to quoting from that conference. Therefore, she has agreed to withdraw the injunction that has been imposed on your use of the material. YouTube will be contacted.”

That’s good for me, but it isn’t the main thing. The movie would doubtless have been seen by more people if Yale had tried to maintain the ban. Much more impressively, Dr Vender also said

“As for this particular program, I will be speaking with Dr Belitsky and the program directors to encourage them to adopt a more critical view of the scientific basis for claims made by proponents of CAM. They will also be encouraged to develop a future program that includes faculty who have opposing points of view.”

It remains to be seen what actually happens, but so far, so good.

What next?

The removal of the original videos of the meeting is understandable because they were pretty embarrassing to Yale. But can that be the real reason? I was told that it is simply because their posting was “unauthorised”. But Yale Continuing Medical Education still boasts about the meeting on their own web site. They describe the meeting as “successful”, but if they are so proud of it, why remove the video from YouTube whether it was authorised or not? We are told

“The symposium, accredited for 7.5 AMA PRA Category 1 Credits, began what is hoped to be a long tradition at the Yale School of Medicine.”

They give credits for such miseducation?

Dr Katz’s phrase “we need a more fluid concept of evidence” now gets about 148 hits in Google, since I first helped him to publicise it.

Two of the six “learning objectives” that Yale CME lists for this symposium are particularly revealing.

  • Describe therapeutic benefits and recent scientific evidence supporting a wide range of safe and practical complementary treatments, including acupuncture, massage, yoga, meditation, nutrition and exercise
  • Identify and discuss barriers to CAM use, practice and research, as well as propose ways of overcoming these barriers

‘Describe the evidence supporting complementary treatments’? But don’t on any account describe the much more substantial evidence that does not support them? A question (or “learning objective”) put in this loaded way is the very antithesis of education.

Equally the second ‘learning objective’ carries with it the assumption that CAM works, otherwise why would anyone want to overcome the barriers to it?

This is indoctrination, not education. It betrays everything that a university should stand for.

Let’s hope the new head of CME, the admirable Dr Vender, succeeds in doing something about it


Success!. Well I think it is success. On 26 November 2008, the admirable Dr Vender wrote to me as follows.

“I do not know if another CAM/Integrative Medicine program is planned at Yale. However, based on the new ACCME standards, this program does not fulfil the standards for receiving CME accreditation (by my interpretation of the standards). At least one of last year’s program directors has been notified already.”

This, I fear, is pure plagiarism, Robert Shrimsley’s piece in today’s Financial Times was so funny that it just begged to be quoted. Here it is.

Surely this is a call to action. The news that Radovan Karadzic has been hiding out as some kind of homeopath has confirmed all prejudices about alternative medicine. I have had my doubts about this vicious breed ever since we were gulled into giving the kids valerian and hops to calm them down on an overnight flight and they went absolutely wild. Talk about a crime against humanity.

Incidentally old Rad is not exactly an advert for homeopathy if this week’s photographs are anything to go by. Before he got into all this complementary healing, he was a sprightly, globally-feared warlord and international criminal. Now, after a decade of mixing his own marjoram, he is a strangely bearded hippy, blathering on about the need to nurture your inner self.

Of course with hindsight health shops of the world were an obvious hiding place for genocidal maniacs. Remember all that talk of cleansing impurities? Well, I think we now know what that was all about.

Some of you may be thinking that Karadzic was an aberration in an otherwise harmless community. But I ask you, how likely is it that the butcher of Belgrade could have kept up the pretence for so long without ever giving himself away. Were no suspicions aroused by the publication of his first book Radovan’s Remedies . Did no one notice that his patented treatment for stress prescribed ground echinacea root, essence of basil and the blood of a thousand Bosnians.

Anyway, now that these collected homeopaths, herbologists and healers have finally been exposed as nothing more than a front organisation for the world’s most wanted, we will doubtless see swift action.

How long can it be until the National Security Agency, operating undercover in Greenwich Village, finally pinpoints the precise location of Osama bin Laden’s reiki parlour?

Crack teams of CIA operatives will surely be rounding up reflexologists in their search for Ratko Mladic. We can be confident that even now special rendition flights, crammed full of ayurvedic surgeons are en route to Guantánamo, where skilled interrogators will rearrange their chakras at no extra charge. Homeopaths will be forced to take two Disprins every four hours until they crack. US authorities have, however, pledged not to use the cruel practice of water-boarding – except perhaps on hydrotherapists.

Of course we may snare a few, genuinely innocent aromatherapists on the way but as they say in the trade, you can’t make a poultice without grinding some ginger.

Jump to follow-up

During the last year, there has been a very welcome flurry of good and informative books about alternative medicine. They are all written in a style that requires little scientific background, even the one that is intended for medical students.

CAM, Cumming | Trick or Treatment | Snake Oil Science |
Testing treatments | Suckers | Healing, Hype or Harm

I’ll start with the bad one, which has not been mentioned on this blog before.

Complementary and Alternative medicine. An illustrated text.

by Allan D. Cumming, Karen R. Simpson and David Brown (and 12 others). 94 pages, Churchill Livingstone; 1 edition (8 Dec 2006).

The authors of this book sound impressive

Allan Cumming, BSc(Hons), MBChB, MD, FRCP(E), Professor of Medical Education and Director of Undergraduate Learning and Teaching, and Honorary Consultant Physician, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK;

Karen Simpson, BA(Hons), RN, RNT, Fellow in Medical Education, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine

David Brown, MBChB, DRCOG, General Practitioner, The Murrayfield Medical Centre, and Honorary Clinical Tutor, University of Edinburgh

Sadly, this is a book so utterly stifled by political correctness that it ends up saying nothing useful at all. The slim volume is, I have to say, quite remarkably devoid of useful information. Partly that is a result of out-of-date and selective references (specially in the chapters written by alternative practitioners),

But the lack of information goes beyond the usual distortions and wishful thinking. I get the strong impression is that it results not so much for a strong commitment to alternative medicine (at least by Cumming) as from the fact that the first two authors are involved with medical education. It seems that they belong to that singularly barmy fringe of educationalists who hold that the teacher must not give information to s student for fear of imparting bias. Rather the student must be told how to find out the information themselves. There is just one little problem with this view. It would take about 200 years to graduate in medicine.

There is something that worries me about medical education specialists. Just look at the welcome given by Yale’s Dean of Medical Education, Richard Belitsky, to Yale’s own division of “fluid concepts of evidence”, as described at Integrative baloney @ Yale, and as featured on YouTube. There are a lot of cryptic allusions to alternative forms of evidence in Cumming’s book too, but nothing in enough detail to be useful to the reader.

What should a book about Alternative medicine tell you? My list would look something like this.

  • Why people are so keen to deceive themselves about the efficacy of a treatment
  • Why it is that are so often deceived into thinking that something works when it doesn’t
  • How to tell whether a medicine works better than placebo or not,
  • Summaries of the evidence concerning the efficacy and safety of the main types of alternative treatments.

The Cumming book contains chapters with titles like these. It asks most of the right questions, but fails to answer any of them. There is, time and time again, the usual pious talk about the importance of evidence, but then very little attempt to tell you what the evidence says. When an attempt is made to mention evidence, it is usually partial and out of date. Nowhere are you told clearly about the hazards that will be encountered when trying to find out whether a treatment works.

The usual silly reflexology diagram is reproduced in Cumming’s introductory chapter, but with no comment at all, The fact that it is obviously total baloney is carefully hidden from the reader.. What is the poor medical student meant to think when they perceive that it is totally incompatible with all the physiology they have learned? No guidance is offered.
You will look in vain for a decent account of how to do a good randomised controlled trial, though you do get a rather puerile cartoon, The chapter about evidence is written by a librarian. Since the question of evidence is crucial, this is a fatal omission.

Despite the lack of presentation of evidence that any of it works, there seems to be an assumption throughout the book that is is desirable to integrate alternative medicine into clinical practice. In Cumming’s chapter (page 6) we see

Since it would not be in the interests of patients to integrate treatments that don’t work with treatments that do work, I see only two ways to explain this attitude. Either the authors have assumed than most alternative methods work (in which case they haven’t read the evidence), or they think integration is a good idea even if the treatment doesn’t work. Neither case strikes me as good medical education.

The early chapters are merely vague and uninformative. Some of the later chapters are simply a disgrace.

Most obviously the chapter on homeopathy is highly selective and inaccurate, That is hardly surprising because it is was written by Thomas Whitmarsh, a consultant physician at Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital (one that has still survived). It has all the usual religious zeal of the homeopath. I honestly don’t know whether people like Whitmarsh are incapable of understanding what constitutes evidence, or are simply too blinded by faith to even try. Since the only other possibility is that they are dishonest, I suppose it must be one of the former.

The chapter on “Nutritional therapy” is also written by a convert and is equally misleading piece of special pleading.

The same is true of the chapter on Prayer and Faith Healing. This chapter reproduces the header of the Cochrane Review on “Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of Ill Health”, but then proceeds to ignore entirely its conclusion “Most of the studies show no real differences”).

If you want to know about alternative medicine, don’t buy this book. Although this book was written for medical students, you will learn a great deal more from any of the following books, all of which were written for the general public.

Trick or Treatment

by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, Bantam Press, 2008

Simon Singh is the author of many well-known science books, like Fermat’s Last Theorem. Edzard Ernst is the UK’s first professor of complementary and alternative medicine.

Ernst, unlike Cumming et. al is a real expert in alternative medicine. He practised it at an early stage in his career and has now devoted all his efforts to careful, fair and honest assessment of the evidence. That is what this book is about. It is a very good account of the subject and it should be read by everyone, and certainly by every medical student.

Singh and Ernst follow the sensible pattern laid out above, The first chapter goes in detail into how you distinguish truth from fiction (a little detail often forgotten in this area).

The authors argue, very convincingly, that the development of medicine during the 19th and 20th century depended very clearly on the acceptance of evidence not anecdote. There is a fascinating history of clinical trials, from James Lind (lemons and scurvy), John Snow and the Broad Street pump, Florence Nightingale’s contribution not just to hygiene, but also to the statistical analysis that was needed to demonstrate the strength of her conclusions (she became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society, and had studied under Cayley and Sylvester, pioneers of matrix algebra).

There are detailed assessments of the evidence for acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic and herbalism, and shorter synopses for dozens of others. The assessments are fair, even generous in marginal cases.

Acupunture. Like the other good books (but not Cumming’s), it is pointed out that acupuncture in the West is not so much the product of ancient wisdom (which is usually wrong anyway), but rather a product of Chinese nationalist propaganda engineered by Mao Tse-tung after 1949. It spread to the West after Nixon’s visit Their fabricated demonstrations of open heart surgery under acupuncture have been known since the 70s but quite recently they managed again to deceive the BBC It was Singh who revealed the deception. The conclusion is ” . . . this chapter demonstrates that acupuncture is very likely to be acting as nothing more than a placebo . . . ”

Homeopathy. “hundreds of trials have failed to deliver significant or convincing evidence to support the use of homeopathy for the treatment of any particular ailment. On the contrary, it would be to say that there is a mountain of evidence to suggest that homeopathic remedies simply do not work”.

Chiropractic. Like the other good books (but not Cumming’s) there is a good account of the origins of chiropractic (see, especially, Suckers). D.D. Palmer, grocer, spiritual healer, magnetic therapist and fairground quack, finally found a way to get rich by removing entirely imaginary ‘subluxations’. They point out the dangers of chiropractic (the subject of court action), and they point out that physiotherapy is just as effective and safer.

Herbalism. There is a useful table that summarises the evidence. They conclude that a few work and most don’t Unlike homeopathy, there is nothing absurd about herbalism, but the evidence that most of them do any good is very thin indeed.

“We argue that it is now the time for the tricks to stop, and for the real treatments to take priority. In the name of honesty, progress and good healthcare, we call for scientific standards, evaluation and regulation to be applied to all types of medicine, so that patients can be confident that they are receiving treatments that demonstrably generate more harm than good.”

Snake Oil Science, The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

R. Barker Bausell, Oxford University Press, 2007

Another wonderful book from someone who has been involved himself in acupuncture research, Bausell is a statistician and experimental designer who was Research Director of a Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialised Research Center at the University of Maryland.

This book gives a superb account of how you find out the truth about medicines, and of how easy it is to be deceived about their efficacy.

I can’t do better than quote the review by Robert Park of the American Physical Society (his own book, Voodoo Science, is also excellent)

“Hang up your lantern, Diogenes, an honest man has been found. Barker Bausell, a biostatistician, has stepped out of the shadows to give us an insider’s look at how clinical evidence is manipulated to package and market the placebo effect. Labeled as ‘Complementary and Alternative Medicine’, the placebo effect is being sold, not just to a gullible public, but to an increasing number of health professionals as well. Bausell knows every trick and explains each one in clear language”

Bausell’s conclusion is stronger than that of Singh and Ernst.

“There is no compelling, credible scientific evidence to suggest that any CAM therapy benefits any medical condition or reduces any medical symptom (pain or otherwise) better than a placebo”.

Here are two quotations from Bausell that I love.

[Page 22] ” seriously doubt, however, that there is a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner anywhere who ever stopped performing acupuncture on an afflicted body in the presence of similarly definitive negative evidence. CAM therapists simply do not value (and most cases, in my experience, do not understand) the scientific process”

And even better,

[Page39] “But why should nonscientists care one iota about something as esoteric as causal inference? I believe that the answer to this question is because the making of causal inferences is part of our job description as Homo Sapiens.”

Testing Treatments: Better Research for Better Healthcare

by Imogen Evans, Hazel Thornton, Iain Chalmers, British Library, 15 May 2006

You don’t even need to pay for this excellent book (but buy it anyway, eg from Amazon). If you can’t afford, £15 then download it from the James Lind Library.

This book is a unlike all the others, because it is barely mentions alternative medicine. What it does, and does very well, is to describe he harm that can be done to patients when they are treated on the basis of guesswork or ideology, rather than on the basis of proper tests. This, of course, is true whether or not the treatment is labelled ‘alternative’.

It is worth noting that one of the authors of this book is someone who has devoted much of his life to the honest assessement of evidence, Sir Iain Chalmers, one of the founders of the Cochrane Collaboration , and Editor of the James Lind Library .

A central theme is that randomised double blind trial are essentially the only way to be sure you have the right answer. One of the examples that the authors use to illustrate this is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). For over 20 years, women were told that HRT would reduce their risk of heart attacks and strokes. But when, eventually, proper randomised trials were done, it was found that precisely the opposite was true. The lives of many women were cut short because the RCT had not been done,

The reason why the observational studies gave the wrong answer is pretty obvious. HRT was used predominantly by the wealthier and better-educated women. Income is just about the best predictor of longevity. The samples were biassed, and when a proper RCT was done it was revealed that the people who used HRT voluntarily lived longer despite the HRT, not because of it. It is worth remembering that there are very few RCTs that test the effects of diet. And diet differs a lot between rich and poor people. That, no doubt, is why there are so many conflicting recommendations about diet. And that is why “nutritional therapy” is little more than quackery. Sadly, the media just love crap epidemiology. One of the best discussions of this topics was in Radio 4 Programme. “The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists“, by Ben Goldacre.

One of the big problems in all assessment is the influence of money, in other words corruption, The alternative industry is entirely corrupt of course, but the pharmaceutical industry has been increasingly bad. Testing Treatments reproduces this trenchant comment.

Suckers. How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All

Rose Shapiro, Random House, London 2008

I love this book. It is well-researched, feisty and a thoroughly good read.

It was put well in the review by George Monbiot.

“A fascinating and excoriating book; witty, shocking and utterly convincing”

The chapters on osteopathy and chiropractic are particularly fascinating.

This passage describes the founder of the chiropractic religion.

“By the 1890s Palmer had established a magnetic healing practice in Davenport, Iowa, and was styling himself ‘doctor’. Not everyone was convinced as a piece about him in an 1894 edition of the local paper, the Davenport Leader, shows.”

A crank on magnetism has a crazy notion hat he can cure the sick and crippled with his magnetic hands. His victims are the eak-minded, ignorant and superstitious, those foolish people who have been sick for years and have become tired of the regular physician and want health by the short-cut method . . . he has certainly profited by the ignorance of his victims . . . His increase in business shows what can be done in Davenport, even by a quack”

Over 100 years later, it seems that the “weak-minded, ignorant and superstitious” include the UK’s Department of Health, who have given these quacks a similar status to the General Medical Council.

The intellectual standards of a 19th Century mid-western provincial newspaper leader writer are rather better than the intellectual standards of the Department of Health, and of several university vice-chancellors in 2007.

Healing Hype or Harm

Edited by Imprint Academic (1 Jun 2008)
Download the contents page

My own chapter in this compilation of essays, “Alternative medicine in UK Universities” is an extended version of what was published in Nature last year (I don’t use the term CAM because I don’t believe anything can be labelled ‘complementary’ until it has been shown to work). Download a copy if the corrected proof of this chapter (pdf).

Perhaps the best two chapters, though, are “CAM and Politics” by Rose and Ernst, and “CAM in Court” by John Garrow.

CAM and politics gives us some horrifiying examples of the total ignorance of almost all politicians and civil servants about the scientific method (and their refusal to listen to anyone who does understand it).

CAM in Court has some fascinating examples of prosecutions for defrauding the public. Recent changes in the law mean we may be seeing a lot more of these soon. Rational argument doesn’t work well very well with irrational people. But a few homeopaths in jail for killing people with malaria would probably be rather effective.


Healing, Hype or Harm has had some nice reviews,  That isn’t so surprising from the excellent Harriet Hall at Science-Based Medicine. The introduction to my chapter was a fable about the replacemment of the Department of Physics and Astronomy by the new Department of Alternative Physics and Astrology. It was an unashamedly based on Laurie Taylor’e University of Poppleton column. Hall refers to it as “Crislip-style”, a new term to me. I guess the incomparable Laurie Taylor is not well-known in the USA, Luckily Hall gives a link to Mark Crislip’s lovely article, Alternative Flight,

“Americans want choice. Americans are increasingly using alternative aviation. A recent government study suggests that 75% of Americans have attempted some form of alternative flight, which includes everything from ultralights to falling, tripping and use of bungee cords.”

“Current airplane design is based upon a white male Western European model of what powered flight should look like. Long metal tubes with wings are a phallic design that insults the sensibilities of women, who have an alternative, more natural, emotional, way of understanding airplane design. In the one size fits all design of allopathic airlines, alternative designs are ignored and airplane design utilizing the ideas and esthetics of indigenous peoples and ancient flying traditions are derided as primitive and unscientific, despite centuries of successful use.”

Metapsychology Online Reviews doesn’t sound like a promising title for a good review of Healing, Hype or Harm, but in fact their review by Kevin Purday is very sympathetic. I like the ending.

“One may not agree with everything that is written in this book but it is wonderful that academic honesty is still alive and well.”

Jump to follow up

A report has appeared on Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine. The report is written by people all of whom have vested interests in spreading quackery. It shows an execrable ability to assess evidence, and it advocates degrees in antiscience It would fail any examination. Sorry, Prof Pittilo, but it’s gamma minus.[Download the report]

Alice Miles put it well in The Times, today.

“This week came the publication of the “Report to Ministers from the Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Other Traditional Medicine Systems Practised in the UK”. Otherwise known as twaddle.” . . .

“Regulate the practitioners – for safety, note, not for efficacy, as that is impossible to prove – and you give them official recognition. From recognition it is but a short hop to demand and then prescription: packet of Prozac, bit of yoga and a bag of dodgy herbs for you, sir.” . . .

“The Government responded on Monday – with a three-month consultation. So join in. Write to the Health Minister Ben Bradshaw at Richmond House, 79 Whitehall, SW1A 2NS. Write, on behalf of the NHS: “What I want for my 60th birthday is… the chance to provide medical, dental, and nursing care to all. And absolutely nothing else.”

Judging by Ben Bradshaw’s speech to the Prince’s Foundation, there may be a problem in conveying to him the evidence, but one can and must try.

Why is it that a health joutnalist can do so much better than a university head? Yes, the chair of the steering group is Professor R. Michael Pittilo BSc PhD CBiol FIBiol FIBMS FRSH FLS FRSA, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. Despite all those impressive-lookin initials after his name, I believe that this is a very bad report.

Here is something about Prof Pittilo from his university’s web site (the emphasis is mine).

Professor Michael Pittilo joined The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, as Principal and Vice-Chancellor on 5th September, 2005.

After postdoctoral research on arterial disease at the University of London, he was appointed to Kingston University where he became Head of Life Sciences. In 1995 he became Foundation Dean of the Faculty of Health and Social Care Sciences at Kingston University and St George’s Medical School (University of London). He was appointed Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Hertfordshire in 2001.

Professor Pittilo has held a number of additional roles, including chairing Department of Health working groups, and as a trustee for the Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Health.

Notice that Prof Pittilo is a Trustee of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, source of some of the least reliable information about alternative medicine to be found anywhere.

This steering group is, as so often, a nest of vested interests. It does not seem to have on it any regular medical or clinical scientist whatsoever. Why not? They just might produce some embarrassing facts perhaps? Like most government committees its members seem to have been chosen to produce the desired outcome.

For a start, the university run by Prof Pittilo, Robert Gordon’s University, is itself involved in a few antiscientific courses. Since his report recommends that degrees in quackery should become mandatory, I expect he’d welcome the chance to run more. Amazingly, Robert Gordon’s University runs an Introduction to Homeopathy, just about the daftest of all the common sorts of magic medicine.

Most of the the members of the steering group represent vested interests, though strangely this is not made clear in the list of members. An earlier report, in 2006, from the steering group was more open about this. Twelve of the members of the group represent Herbal Medicine, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture (four from each). Most of the rest are lay members or bureaucrats. With membership like that it is, I suppose, not surprising that the assessment of evidence is, to put it kindly, grossly distorted and woefully inadequate.

The report starts badly by failing to mention that the House of Lords report (2000), and the government’s response to it, set the following priorities. Both state clearly

“… we recommend that three important questions should be addressed in the following order . .

  • (1) does the treatment offer therapeutic benefits greater than placebo?
  • (2) is the treatment safe?
  • (3) how does it compare, in medical outcome and cost-effectiveness, with other forms of treatment?

The word ‘placebo’ does not occur a single time in the main report (and only twice in the text of the seven appendices). But they do say (page 11):

“We recommend that public funding from the NHS should be used to fund CAM therapies where there is evidence of efficacy, safety and quality assurance.”

The evidence

The problem is that the assessment of the evidence for efficacy in the report is pathetically poor. The report, sad to say, consists essentially of 161 pages of special pleading by the alternative medicine industry, served up with the usual large dose of HR gobbledygook.

There is really no excuse for this utterly incompetent assessment. There have been plenty of books this year alone that make excellent summaries of the evidence, mostly written for the lay public. They should, therefore, be understandable by any university vice-chancellor (president). The one benefit of the upsurge in public interest in magic medicine is that there are now quite a lot of good clinical trials, and when the trials are done properly, they mostly confirm what we thought before: in most cases the effects are no more than placebo.

Here is one example. Annexe1 concerns “Developing Research and Providing an Evidence Base for Acupuncture and Herbal/Traditional Medicine Treatment”. The wording of the title itself suggests, rightly, that this evidence base does not exist, in which case why on earth are we talking about them as “professions”? The discussion of the evidence in Annexe 1 is nothing if not partial. But what do you expect if you ask herbalists to assess herbal medicine? An honest assessment would put them out of business. The eternal mantra of the alternative industry appears as usual, “Absence of evidence is, of course, not evidence of absence”. True of course, but utterly irrelevant. Annexe 1 says

“Acupuncture is a complex intervention and lack of a suitable placebo control has hindered efforts to evaluate efficacy”

This is simply untrue, In recent years enormous efforts have been put into devising controls for assessment of acupuncture, but they are entirely ignored here. One thing that has been established quite clearly is that it makes no difference where you put the needles, so all the talk of Qi and meridians is obvious mumbo-jumbo.

Have the authors of Annexe 1, and Professor Pittilo, not read the relevant studies? Two books this year have dealt with the question of evidence with great care. They are both by people who have been involved personally with acupuncture research, Prof Edzard Ernst and Dr Barker Bausell. Edzard Ernst is the UK’s first Professor of Complementary Medicine. Barker Bausell was research director of an NIH-funded Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialized Research Center at the University of Maryland.

Singh and Ernst discuss thoroughly the question of controls and assess all the evidence carefully. Their conclusions include the following.

  • The traditional principles of acupuncture are deeply flawed, as there is no evidence at all to demonstrate the existence of Ch’i [Qi] or meridians.
  • By focussing on the increasing number of high-quality research papers, reliable conclusions from systematic reviews make it clear that acupuncture does not work for a whole range of conditions, except as a placebo.
  • In short, the evidence is neither consistent nor convincing. It is borderline.

Barker Bausell was himself involved in designing and analysing trialsof acupuncture. His conclusions are even less positive.

“There is no compelling, credible scientific evidence to suggest that any CAM therapy benefits any medical condition or reduces any medical symptom (pain or otherwise) better than a placebo”.

These are serious authors with direct experience in CAM research, which is more than can be said of anyone on the steering group. Why are their conclusions ignored entirely? That is sheer incompetence.

Degrees in anti-science

One conclusion of the report is that

“The threshold entry route to the register will normally be through a Bachelor degree with Honours”

This is utter nonsense. It is quite obvious surely that you can’t award honours degrees until after you have the evidence. You can read on page 55 of the report

3a: Registrant acupuncturists must:

understand the following aspects and concepts for traditional East-Asian acupuncture:

– yin/yang, /5 elements/phases, eight principles, cyclical rhythms, qi ,blood and body fluids, different levels of qi, pathogenic factors, 12 zang fu and 6 extraordinary fu, jing luo/ meridians, the major acupuncture points, East-Asian medicine disease categorisation, the three burners, the 4 stages/levels and 6 divisions

– causes of disharmony/disease causation

– the four traditional diagnostic methods: questioning, palpation, listening and observing”

This is utter baloney. Anyone who advocates giving honours degrees in such nonsense deserves to be fired for bringing his university into disrepute (and, in the process, bringing all universities and science itself into disrepute).

That includes also degrees that teach that “amethysts emit high yin energy“.

So what should be done?

If making peole do degrees in mumbo-jumbo is not the answer, what is? Clearly it would be far too draconian to try to ban quackery (and it would only increase its popularity anyway).

The answer seems to me to be quite simple. All that needs to done is to enforce existing laws. It is already illegal to sell contaminated and poisonous goods to the public. It is already illegal to make fraudulent advertisemants and to sell goods that are not as described on the label.

The only problem is that the agencies that enforce these rules are toothless and that there are a lot of loopholes and exceptions that work in favour of quackery. I have tried myself to complain about mislabelling of homeopathic pills to the Office of Fair Trading on the grounds that are labelled Arnica 30C but contain no Arnica. They solemnly bought a bottle and sent it to an analyst and of course they found no arnica, But nothing happened, because an exception to the usual law applies to homeopathic pills.

The Advertising Standards Authority is good as far as it goes. They quickly told Boots Pharmacies to withdraw advertisements that claimed CoQ10 “increased vitality”. But they can exact no penalties and they can’t deal with lies that are told to you orally, or with anything at all on the web.

The Health Professions Council (HPC) says that one of the criteria for registering new professions is aspirant groups must “Practise based on evidence of efficacy”. If that were actually applied, none of this process would occur anyway. No doubt the HPC will fail to apply its own criteria. On past form, it can be expected to adopt a “fluid concept of evidence“.,

One more thing, New European legislation was described recently in the BMJ

“Consumers in the United Kingdom are to receive stronger legal safeguards against products that claim, without any identifiable scientific evidence, to provide physical and mental health benefits such as tackling obesity or depression.”

“The scope of the legislation is deliberately wide and is the biggest shake up in consumer law for decades. It targets any unfair selling to consumers by any business.”

Politicians seem to be immune to rational argument when it comes to quackery. But a few legal actions under these laws could bring the house of cards tumbling so fast that this gamma-minus report would become rapidly irrelevant. There will be no shortage of people to bring the actions. I can’t wait.

Follow up

Dominic Lawson, 24 June 2008. An excellent column appeared today in the Independent. Dominic Lawson writes about the Pittilo report: “So now we will have degrees in quackery. What, really, is the difference between acupuncture and psychic surgery?“. The reference to that well known conjuring trick, “psychic surgery” as a “profession”, revealed here, causes Lawson to say

“It makes it clear that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. For a start, how could Philip Hunt, previously director of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, possibly have thought that “psychic healing” constituted a “profession” – let alone one which would “develop its own system of voluntary self-regulation?”

“One can see how this might fit in with the Government’s “never mind the quality, feel the width” approach to university education. One can also see how established practitioners of such therapies might see this as a future source of income – how pleasant it might be to become Visiting Professor of Vibrational Medicine at the University of Westminster.

Thus garlanded with the laurels of academic pseudo-science, the newly professionalised practitioners of “alternative medicine” can look down on such riff-raff as the “psychic surgeons”

Once again I have to ask, how is it that we have to rely on journalists to prevent vice-chancellors eroding academic standards; indeed eroding simple common sense? I guess it is just another sign of the delusional thinking engendered by the culture of managerialism that grips universities.

Jump to follow up

We have often had cause to criticise Boots Alliance, the biggest retail pharmacist in the UK, because of its deeply unethical approach to junk medicine. Click here to read the shameful litany. The problem of Boots was raised recently also by Edzard Ernst at the Hay Literary Festival. He said

“The population at large trusts Boots more than any other pharmacy, but when you look behind the smokescreen, when it comes to alternative medicines, that trust is not justified.”

Ernst accused Boots of breaching ethical guidelines drawn up by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, by failing to tell customers that its homeopathic medicines contain no active ingredients and are ineffective in clinical trials.

Another chain, Lloyds Pharmacy, are just as bad. Many smaller pharmacies are no more honest when it comes to selling medicines that are known to be ineffective.

Pharmacists are fond of referring to themselves as “professionals” who are regulated by a professional body, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB). It’s natural to ask where their regulatory body stands on the question of junk medicine. So I asked them, and this is what I found.

17 April, 2008

I am writing an article about the role of pharmacists in giving advice about (a) alternative medicines and (b) nutritional supplements.

I can find no clear statements about these topics on the RPSGB web site.

Please can you give me a statement on the position of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society on these two topics.

In particular, have you offered guidance to pharmacists about how to deal with the conflict of interest that arises when they can make money by selling something that they know to have no good evidence for efficacy? This question has had some publicity recently in connection with Boots’ promotion of CCoQ10 to give you “energy”, and only yesterday when the bad effects of some nutritional supplements were in the news.

Here are some extracts from the first reply that I got from the RPSGB’s Legal and Ethical Advisory Service (emphasis is mine).

28 April 2008

Pharmacists must comply with the Code of Ethics and its supporting documents. Principle 5 of the Code of Ethics requires pharmacists to develop their professional knowledge and competence whilst Principle 6 requires pharmacists to be honest and trustworthy.

The Code states:


At all stages of your professional working life you must ensure that your knowledge, skills and performance are of a high quality, up to date and relevant to your field of practice. You must:

5.1 Maintain and improve the quality of your work by keeping your knowledge and skills up to date, evidence-based and relevant to your role and responsibilities.

5.2 Apply your knowledge and skills appropriately to your professional responsibilities.

5.3 Recognise the limits of your professional competence; practise only in those areas in which you are competent to do so and refer to others where necessary.

5.4 Undertake and maintain up-to-date evidence of continuing professional development relevant to your field of practice.


Patients, colleagues and the public at large place their trust in you as a pharmacy professional. You must behave in a way that justifies this trust and maintains the reputation of your profession. You must:
6.1 Uphold public trust and confidence in your profession by acting with honesty and integrity.

6.2 Ensure you do not abuse your professional position or exploit the vulnerability or lack of knowledge of others.

6.3 Avoid conflicts of interest and declare any personal or professional interests to those who may be affected. Do not ask for or accept gifts, inducements, hospitality or referrals that may affect, or be perceived to affect, your professional judgement.

6.4 Be accurate and impartial when teaching others and when providing or publishing information to ensure that you do not mislead others or make claims that cannot be justified.

And, on over-the counter prescribing

In addition the “Professional Standards and Guidance for the Sale and Supply of Medicines” document which supports the Code of Ethics states:



When purchasing medicines from pharmacies patients expect to be provided with high quality, relevant information in a manner they can easily understand. You must ensure that:

2.1 procedures for sales of OTC medicines enable intervention and professional advice to be given whenever this can assist the safe and effective use of medicines. Pharmacy medicines must not be accessible to the public by self-selection.

Evidence-based? Accurate and impartial? High quality information? Effective use?

These words don’t seem to accord with Boots’ mendacious advertisements for CoQ10 (which were condemned by the ASA).

Neither does it accord with the appalling advice that I got from a Boots pharmacist about Vitamin B for vitality.

Or their bad advice on childhood diarrhoea.

Or the unspeakable nonsense of the Boots (mis)-education web site.

Then we get to the nub. This is what I was told by the RPSGB about alternative medicine (the emphasis is mine).



You must ensure that you are competent in any area in which you offer advice on treatment or medicines. If you sell or supply homoeopathic or herbal medicines, or other complementary therapies, you must:

8.1 assist patients in making informed decisions by providing them with necessary and relevant information.

8.2 ensure any stock is obtained from a reputable source.

8.3 recommend a remedy only where you can be satisfied of its safety and quality, taking into account the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency registration schemes for homoeopathic and herbal remedies.”

Therefore pharmacists are required to keep their knowledge and skills up to date and provide accurate and impartial information to ensure that you do not mislead others or make claims that cannot be justified.

It does seem very odd that “accurate and impartial information” about homeopathic pills does not include mentioning that they contain no trace of the ingredient on the label. and have been shown in clinical trials to be ineffective. These rather important bits of information are missing from both advertisements and from (in my experience) the advice given by pharmacists in the shop.

If you look carefully, though, the wording is a bit sneaky. Referring to over-the-counter medicines, the code refers to “safe and effective use of medicines”, but when it comes to alternative medicines, all mention of ‘effectiveness’ has mysteriously vanished.

So I wrote again to get clarification.

29 April, 2008

Thanks for that information. I’d appreciate clarification of two matters in what you sent.

(1) Apropros of complementary and alternative medicine, the code says

8.3 recommend a remedy only where you can be satisfied of its safety and quality

I notice that this paragraph mentions safety and quality but does not mention efficacy. Does this mean that it is considered ethical to recommend a medicine when there is no evidence of its efficacy? Apparently it does. This gets to the heart of my question and I’d appreciate a clear answer.

This enquiry was followed by a long silence. Despite several reminders by email and by telephone nothing happened until eventually got a phone call over a month later (May 3) from David Pruce, Director of Practice & Quality Improvement, Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. The question may be simple, but the RPSGB evidently it hard, or more likely embarrassing, to answer.

When I asked Pruce why para 8.3 does not mention effectiveness, his reply, after some circumlocution, was as follows.

Pruce: “You must assist patients in making informed decisions by providing necessary and relevant information . . . we would apply this to any medicine, the pharmacist needs to help the patient assess the risks and benefits.”

DC: “and would that include saying it doesn’t work better than placebo?”

Pruce “if there is good evidence to show that it ???????? ????? ????????may, but it depends on what the evidence is, what the level of evidence is, and the pharmacist’s assessment of the evidence”

DC “What’s your assessment of the evidence?”

Pruce, “I don’t think my personal assessment is relevant. I wouldn’t want to be drawn on my personal assessment”. “If a pharmacist is selling homeopathic medicines they have to assist the patient in making informed decisions”

“I don’t think we specifically talk about the efficacy of any other medicine” [DC: not true, see para 2.1, above]

We would expect pharmacists to be making sure that what they are providing to a patient is safe and efficacious

DC “So why doesn’t it mention efficacious in para 8.3”

Pruce “What we are trying to do with the Code of Ethics is not go down to the nth degree of detail ” . . . “there are large areas of medicine where there is an absence of data”

DC “Yes, actually homeopathy isn’t one of them. It used to be.”

Pruce. “uh, that’s again a debatable point”

DC I don’t think it’s debatable at all, if you’ve read the literature

Pruce. “well many people would debate that point” “This [homeopathy] is a controversial area where opinions are divided on it”

DC “Not informed opinions”

Pruce “Well . . . there are also a large number of people that do believe in it. We haven’t come out with a categorical statement either way.”

I came away from this deeply unsatisfactory conversation with a strong impression that the RPSGB’s Director of Practice & Quality Improvement was either not familiar with the evidence, or had been told not to say anything about it, in the absence of any official statement about alternative medicine.

I do hope that the RPSGB does not really believe that “there are also a large number of people that do believe in it” constitutes any sort of evidence.

It is high time that the RPSGB followed its own code of ethics and required, as it does for over-the-counter sales, that accurate advice should be given about “the safe and effective use of medicines”.

“The scientist on the High Street”

The RPS publishes a series of factsheets for their “Scientist in the High Street” campaign. One of these “factsheets” concerns homeopathy, [download pdf from the RPSGB]. Perhaps we can get an answer there?

Well not much. For the most part the “factsheet” just mouths the vacuous gobbledygook of homeopaths. It does recover a bit towards the end, when it says

“The methodologically “best” trials showed no effect greater than that of placebo”.

But there is no hint that this means pharmacists should not be selling homeopathic pills to sick people..

That is perhaps not surprising, because the Science Committee of the RPSGB copped out of their responsibility by getting the factsheet written by a Glasgow veterinary homeopath, Steven Kayne. You can judge his critical attitude by a paper (Isbell & Kayne, 1997) which asks whether the idea that shaking a solution increases its potency. The paper is a masterpiece of prevarication, it quotes only homeopaths and fails to come to the obvious conclusion. And it is the same Steven Kayne who wrote in Health and Homeopathy (2001)

“Homeopathy is not very good for treating bacterial infections directly, apart from cystitis that often responds to a number of medicines, including Berberis or Cantharis”.

So there is a bacterial infection that can be cured by pills that contain no medicine? Is this dangerous nonsense what the RPSGB really believes?

More unreliable advice

While waiting for the train to Cardiff on April 16th (to give a seminar at the Welsh School of Pharmacy), I amused myself by dropping into the Boots store on Paddington station.

DC I’ve seen your advertisements for CoQ10. Can you tell me more? Will they really make me more energetic?

Boots: Yes they will, but you may have to take them for several weeks.

DC. Several weeks? Boots: yes the effect develops only slowly

Peers at the label and reads it out to me

DC I see. Can you tell me whether there have been any trials that show it works?

Boots. I don’t know. I’d have to ask. But there must be or they wouldn’t be allowed to sell it.

DC. Actually there are no trials, you know

Boots. Really? I didn’t think that was allowed. But people have told me that they feel better after taking it.

DC You are a pharmacist?

Boots. Yes

Sadly, this abysmal performance is only too typical in my experience, Try it yourself.

The malaria question

After it was revealed that pharmacists were recommending, or tolerating recommendations, of homeopathic treatment of malaria, the RPSGB did, at last. speak out. It was this episode that caused Quackometer to write his now famous piece on ‘The gentle art of homeopathic killing‘ (it shot to fame when the Society of Homeopaths tried to take legal action to ban it) Recommending pills that contain no medicine for the treatment or prevention or treatment of malaria is dangerous. If it is not criminal it ought to be [watch the Neals Yard video]. .

The RPSGB says it is investigating the role of pharmacists in the Newsnight sting (see the follow-up here). That was in July 2006, but they are stlll unwilling to say if any action will be taken. Anyone want to bet that it will be swept under the carpet?

The statement issued by the RPSGB, 5 months after the malaria sting is just about the only example that I can find of them speaking out against dangerous and fraudulent homeopathic practices. Even in this case, it is pretty mild and restricted narrowly to malaria prevention.

The RPSGB and the Quacktioner Royal

The RPSGB submitted a response to the ‘consultation’ held by the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, about their Complementary Healthcare; a guide for patients.

Response by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain
Dr John Clements, Science Secretary

“We believe that more emphasis should be given to the need for members of the public who are purchasing products (as opposed to services) to ask for advice about the product. Pharmacists are trained as experts on medicines and the public, when making purchases in pharmacies, would expect to seek advice from pharmacists”

So plenty of puffery for the role of pharmacists. But there is not a word of criticism about the many barmy treatments that are included in the “Guide for Patients”. Not just homeopathy and herbalism, but also Craniosacral therapy, Laying on of Hands, chiropractic, Reiki, Shiatsu –every form of barminess under the sun drew no comment from the RPS.

I can’t see how a response like this is consistent with the RPS’s own code of ethics.

A recent president of the RPSGB was a homeopath

Christine Glover provides perhaps the most dramatic reason of all for thinking thst, despite all the fine words, the RPSGB cares little for evidence and truth The NHS Blogdoctor published “Letter from an angry pharmacist”.

Mrs Glover was president of the RPSGB from 1999 to 2001, vice-president in 1997-98, and a member of the RPSGB Council until May 2005. She is not just a member, but a Fellow. (Oddly, her own web site says President from 1998 – 2001.)

So it is relevant to ask how the RPSGB’s own ex-president obeys their code of ethics. Here are some examples on how Ms Glover helps to assist the safe and effective use of medicines. . Much of her own web site seems to have vanished (I wonder why) so I’ll have to quote the “Letter from an angry pharmacist”., as revealed by NHS Blogdoctor,

“What has Christine got to offer?

  • “We offer a wide range of Homeopathic remedies (over 3000 different remedies and potencies) as well as Bach flower remedies, Vitamins, Supplements, some herbal products and Essential Oils.”
  • Jetlag Tablets highly recommended in ‘Wanderlust’ travel magazine. Suitable for all ages.
  • Wind Remedy useful for wind particularly in babies. In can be supplied in powder form for very small babies. Granules or as liquid potency.
  • Udder Care 100ml £80.00 One capful in sprayer filled with water. Two jets to be squirted on inner vulva twice daily for up to 4 days until clots reduced. Discard remainder. Same dose for high cell-counting cows detected.

Udder Care? Oh! I forgot to say, “Glover’s Integrated Healthcare” does cows as well as people. Dr Crippen would not suggest to a woman with sore breasts that she sprayed something on her inner vulva. But women are women and cows are cows and Dr Crippen is not an expert on bovine anatomy and physiology. But, were he a farmer, he would need some persuasion to spend £80.00 on 100 mls of a liquid to squirt on a cow’s vulva. Sorry, inner vulva.”

Nothing shows more clearly that the RPSGB will tolerate almost any quackery than the fact that they think Glover is an appropriate person to be president. Every item on the quotation above seems to me to be in flagrant breach of the RPSGB’s Code of Ethics. Just like the Society of Homeopaths, the code seems to be there merely for show, at least in the case of advice about junk medicine..

A greater role for pharmacists?

This problem has become more important now that the government proposes to give pharmacists a greater role in prescribing. Needless to say the RPSGB is gloating about their proposed new role. Other people are much less sure it is anything but a money–saving gimmick and crypto-privatisation.

I have known pharmacists who have a detailed knowledge of the actions of drugs, and I have met many more who haven’t. The main objection, though, is that pharmacists have a direct financial interest in their prescribing. Conflicts of interest are already rife in medicine, and we can’t afford them.


The Royal Pharmaceutical Society is desperately evasive about a matter that is central to their very existence, giving good advice to patients about which medicines work and which don’t. Pharmacists should be in the front line in education of the public, about medicines, the ‘scientist on the High Street’. Some of them are, but their professional organisation is letting them down badly.

Until such time as the RPSGB decides to take notice of evidence, and clears up some of the things described here, it is hard to see how they can earn the respect of pharmacists, or of anyone else.


Stavros Isaiadis’ blog, Burning Mind, has done a good piece on “More on Quack Medicine in High Street Shops“.

The Chemist and Druggist reports that the RPSGB is worried about the marketing of placebo pills (‘obecalp’ -geddit?). It does seem very odd that the RPSGB should condemn honest placebos, but be so very tolerant about dishonest placebos. You couldn’t make it up.

A complaint to the RPSGB is rejected

Just to see what happened, I made a complaint to thr RPSGB about branches of their own Code of Ethics at Boots in Hexham and in Evesham. Both of them supported Homeopathy Awareness Week These events had been publicised in those particularly unpleasent local ‘newspapers’ that carry paid advertising disguised as editorial material. In this case it was the Evesham Journal and the Hexham Courant.

Guess what? The RPSGB replied thus

“Your complaint has been reviewed bt Mrs Jill Williams and Mr David Slater who are both Regional Lead Inspectors. Having carried out a review they have concluded that support of homeopathic awareness week does not constitute a breach of the Society’s Code of Ethics or Professional Standards.”

In case you have forgotten, the Professional Standards say

2.1 procedures for sales of OTC medicines enable intervention and professional advice to be given whenever this can assist the safe and effective use of medicines.

The RPSGB has some very quaint ideas on how to interpret their own code of ethics

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.

This blog, along with many others, has had plenty to say about the Prince of Wales’ unconstitutional meddling in public affairs. The lovely description, Quacktitioner Royal, was coined by NHS Blog doctor.

The Times published a letter from Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh on April 16th. In their forthcoming book, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, they go carefully through all the evidence for all sorts of ‘alternative’ treatments. They find some evidence that a handful of them work. For most the answer is ‘not enough evidence’, and for a number there is good evidence that many of them don’t work to any useful extent.

“Sir, For over two decades the Prince of Wales has been actively promoting alternative medicine and his Foundation for Integrated Health continues to encourage the use of treatments such as homoeopathy or reflexology.””In light of this “rigorous scientific evidence”, we strongly advise that the Prince of Wales and the Foundation for Integrated Health withdraw the publications Complementary Health Care: A Guide for Patients and the Smallwood report. They both contain numerous misleading and inaccurate claims concerning the supposed benefits of alternative medicine. The nation cannot be served by promoting ineffective and sometimes dangerous alternative treatments.”

Thank heavens that someone has the courage to say it as it is.

If only the ineffectual and ill-educated people in the Department of Health wouold do the same. But no, instead they gave £37 000 to the Prince of Wales Foundation to write their make-believe guides. And £900 000 to write nonsense for the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (also known as Ofquack), and Skills for Health,

The next day The Times ran an article by their science editor, Mark Henderson, Prince of Wales’s guide to alternative medicine ‘inaccurate’. Natasha Finlayson, of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, is quoted as saying “The foundation does not promote complementary therapies.”. That takes some beating for sheer bare-faced dishonesty.

Edzard Ernst appeared on the Today Program on 18th April. He was interveiwed by the formidable John Humphrys, along with Kim Lavely, Chief Executive, The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health (FIH). Ernst points out that the FIH guide suggests that chiropractic is effective in asthma, and that acupuncture is good for addiction, whereas the evidence says the opposite. Lavely retorts, rather lamely (OK I’m biassed).

Lavely: ” . . . we didn’t attempt to give detailed evidence on every therapy”. “We think they [the public] have the right to know and what doesn’t”

Humphrys: “Well isn’t that the whole point? the professor is saying here is that these things do not work, at least in terms of the claims that are made for them, such as homeopathy and chiropractic . . . ”

Lavely: “There are no claims made in this guide for what works and what doesn’t. What we have said is that some therapies are used for some things but we aren’t saying they are effective for those things . . . “

So, one might ask, what on earth is the use of a guide is it that offers no indication of effectiveness? Lavely’s second quotation contradicts directly her first. A pretty pathetic performance.
Listen to the interview [mp3 file]

The Sunday Times, on April 20th, pblished a pretty good review of Trick of Treatment?. “Their case against the folly, vanity and damage of HRH et al. is hard to argue with.”

Of course, the letters column drew the expected response from the quacks, most verging on the hilarious.

Another blow for the alternative industry came in the same week, The authoratitve Cochrane review confirmed earlier reports that vitamin supplements not only do not help you but some actually increase mortality. The antioxidant myth nevertheless rumbles on, and on, and on. There is too much money in it for it to die easily.

Predictably enough, the conclusions were denied by the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA). They wheeled out several pop singers to say how wonderful their products are. Read about that pathetic defence on Holfordwatch.

Who is behind HFMA? Incidentally, HFMA are strangely reticent about the identity of their 120 members. They will not reveal who they are. Does anybody out there know the answer? I’ll buy a good dinner for anyone who can root this out.  If it is anything like the ‘Health Supplements Information Service‘ it is likely to be backedby the very big pharmaceutical companies that the alternative industry loves to hate.

Take the test

Prince of Wales Guide

“Reflexologists work with a wide range of conditions including certain types of pain, particularly back and neck pain, migraine and headaches, chronic fatigue, sinusitis, arthritis, insomnia, digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation, stress-related disorders and menopausal symptoms.”

Singh & Ernst

“The notion that reflexology can be used to diagnose health problems has been disproved and there is no convincing evidence that it is effective for any condition.”

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)

This is the third post based on a recent trip to North America (here are the first and second)

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

Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine says

“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.”

“Balances energy”?

“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.

Thursday 24 Jan.

One of the original reasons for going to North America was an invitation from the Toronto Secular Alliance and Center for Inquiry. The talk for them was given a lot of publicity, for example here and here and from the totally admirable Orac.

Toronto seems to be no worse than anywhere else when it comes to delusional thinking about medicine. It is, of course, the home of Ryerson University, the place that produced one of the most outrageous pieces of postmodernist nonsense on record. But when this sort of thing gets into really good universities, it is more worrying.

As a result of the publicity there was some media coverage (and a record 7109 hits on this site on Sunday).

Friday 25th January, Reception and talk: Center for Inquiry. Science in an Age of Endarkenment: Some Examples from Scientific Fraud, Quackery, Religion and University Politics

An interview to the National Post (a newish right-of-centre national Canadian paper that was founded by the now-notorious Conrad Black). It was interesting that the reporter had views not unlike my own about the rise of the MBA mentality. That, he said, was what gave us Enron. The article appeared on page 3 of the National Post on Saturday 26 January under the heading “Anti-Nutty Professor” (or download newspaper version as pdf file).

Friday morning was spent at CBC recording with Michael Enright, for the Sunday Edition.

The interview was broadcast on Sunday morning (28 Jan) and elicited a lot of correspondence. CBC made it available as a podcast which can be downloaded from CBC here. The endarkenment interview was the last 22 minutes (out of 64 minutes) [play the interview here (mp3, 20 Mb)].

Sunday Edition: the follow-upThe week following this CBC show, the backlash started. The Sunday Edition wrote

“A stirred-up hornet’s nest is a mild disturbance compared to the firestorm we unleashed last week over my conversation with Dr. David Colquhoun. Dr. Colquhuon [sic] is a gangly, pipe-puffing British pharmacologist who thinks all alternative medicine, all of it, is a fraud perpetrated by quacks. But he went further, somehow suggesting that those who believe in it probably supported Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the Ayatollah Khomeini. He pooh-poohed acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, even vitamins.

Well, his remarks opened the floodgates of listener mail, screaming for Dr. Colquhoun’s head on a pike. In a few moments, alternative or complimentary [sic] medicine strikes back. With the help of two experts, we will try to give the other side of contentious Colquhounism.”

The programme for 3 Feb 2008 started with a few emails from listeners, mainly of the “homeopathy cured my granny” type. Nothing of much significance there. But then Enright interviewed Dugald Seely of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine and Dr. Kien Trinh of the DeGroote School of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton. You can download the podcast here.

The flat earth problem.

Michael Enright was a good interviewer, but Sunday Edition suffers, like the BBC, from a problem. It is admirable that CBC, like the BBC, should strive to be ‘fair and balanced’, but it is not always easy to see what that means in practice. Is it fair and balanced to give equal time to people who think that the earth is flat and those who think it is spherical (OK, an oblate ellipsoid)? Perhaps, but it also
quite misleading because it can easily convey a very distorted idea of the balance of informed opinion. In this case the flat-earthers are the homeopaths and other alternative medicine advocates. That would not matter so much if the interviewers had enough knowledge of the subject to pin down the falt-earth advocates with the sort of penetrating questions that people like John Humphrys (of the BBC’s Today programme) are so very good at. When it comes to science, though, the flat-earthers tend to get away with murder, and the public can easily be left with a very distorted view. Which “expert” should they believe? If I had been given the option, I would have loved to debate the problems of alternative medicine directly with Trinh and Seely I could have asked then a few questions that Enright missed.

Let’s take a look at what happened at the follow-up.

Quackery at McMaster University

McMaster is one of many universities in North America that has chosen to betray the intellectual tradition of the enlightenment by buying into superstition (see the roll of shame here). The ‘contemporary medical acupuncture program appears to run under the aegis of the anaesthesia
department, though the fact that is doen’t appear on the department’s front page suggests there may be some embarrassment about it. The medical acupuncture program itself, has separate web pages which don’t seem to be on the McMaster server at all (they are on a private server, ThePlanet.com Internet Services, Inc.

As so often, these pages pay lip service to an ‘evidence based’ or ‘scientific’ approach, while doing nothing of the sort. In his CBC interview Kien Trinh agreed (twice) with my contention that trials had shown that it doesn’t matter where you put the needles. But then he failed totally to draw the obvious conclusion that ‘meridians’ are mumbo jumbo. He went right on taking the conventional mystical view of meridians and “energy” flow. Like most proponents of alternative medicine, Trinh seems to live in some sort of parallel universe in which the normal rules of logic don’t apply.

On wouldn’t expect regular anaesthetists to accept this sort of mystical nonsense, but it seems one would be wrong. When I wrote to the Chair of the Department of Anesthesia, at McMaster to ask about their relationship with acupuncturists there was no hint of embarrassement. Dr Norman Buckley, BA (Psych), MD, FRCPC, wrote

“It operates under the principles of evidence based medicine, and relates the concepts raised by the Acupuncture/traditional Chinese medicine to physiology anatomy et as it is more usually taught in Western schools.”

That would be all very well if it were true, but it simply isn’t true. The evidence just isn’t there, and the departments involved make no serious attempts to get evidence. In a later letter, Dr Buckley seems to acknowledge that it may be all placebo, but seems reluctant to offend anyone by saying so. That, I suspect, is how quackery has gained such a foothold.

It is good to keep an open mind, but if it is too open your brains fall out. Or, in another variant, if it is too open, someone will fill it with trash.

One looks in vain on Trinh’s web site for any good evidence. They quote approvingly the conclusion of a 1997 NIH Consensus statement that says “There is sufficient evidence of acupuncture’s value to expand its use into conventional medicine and to encourage further studies of its physiology and clinical value.”, but forget to mention that this document is headed “This statement is more than five years old and is provided solely for historical purposes.”. The department doesn’t seem to do much original research, just to write endless reviews of other peoples’ work. The reviews aren’t too bad, and mostly they come to the right conclusion, that there is not enough evidence to come to firm conclusions. The difference from science is that this doesn’t dent their confidence for a moment. A typical sort of conclusion seems to be

Elbow pain. A review by Green et al. concluded “needle acupuncture [is] of short-term benefit with respect to pain, but this finding [is] based on the results of two small trials, the results of which [are] not able to be combined in metaanalysis.”

The results of thousands of years experience with acupuncture seem to be pretty pathetic so far..

Quackery at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM)

Unlike McMaster, CCNM isn’t a proper university, though nonetheless is hands out ‘doctorates’. Dugald Seely’s contribution was interesting insofar as he admitted that there was a lot of fraud and unjustified claims in the alternative medicine industry (never forget there are megabucks involved). What he didn’t explain was how he himself could be distinguished from the frauds. The problem, as always is the second-rate research that goes on in this area.
Take one of Seely’s papers, Adaptogenic Potential of a Polyherbal Natural Health Product: Report
on a Longitudinal Clinical Trial
. Is only too typical: a small non-randomised, open-label (not blind) “trial” of a complex herbal mixture on 17 patients. The conclusion was, as it almost always is,

“Further research using a randomized controlled design is necessary to confirm the findings from this pilot study.”

In other words, no conclusion at all. Why is it that the proper trial never seems to appear? Could it be that naturopaths, and the wealthy industry behind them, are afraid to do proper trials? That is certainly the impression they give.

One way in which the alternative medicine industry operates is to invent new words with ill-defined meanings (and Big Pharma does it too). In case you were wondering about the word “adaptogen” it is defined as “Essentially the adaptogen supports the body’s ability to ‘adapt’ ideally to its environment. Essentially the adaptogen supports the body’s ability to ‘adapt’ ideally to its environment. ”

Whatever that means.

The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine offers the following “therapies”.

  • acupuncture/Asian medicine
  • botanical medicine
  • physical medicine (massage, hydrotherapy, etc.)
  • clinical nutrition
  • homeopathic medicine
  • lifestyle counseling

Well, nothing wrong with nutrition and lifestyle counseling as long as the claims aren’t exaggerated. But, as always, the claims that are made are vastly exaggerated. For example they claim

Homeopathic remedies are particularly effective for:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • allergies
  • infections
  • gynecological concerns
  • skin conditions
  • digestive problems
  • chronic and acute conditions including colds and flu

These claims are simply not true, in my view. If you don’t believe me, check NELCAM (the NHS Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialist Library). This is written by advocates of alternative medicine, yet it finds no convincing evidence for effectiveness of homeopathy in any of the conditions listed above.

Or, even more remarkably, from a report in Newsweek.

“Dr. Jack Killen, acting deputy director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, says homeopathy “goes beyond current understanding of chemistry and physics.” He adds: “There is, to my knowledge, no condition for which homeopathy has been proven to be an effective treatment.”

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has, incidentally, spent almost one billion US$ billion of US taxpayers’ money and has come up with next-to-nothing useful.

So the claims made by the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine are not backed up even by people who are directly involved in alternative medicine You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that the medicine contains no medicine.