The term ‘evidence-based medicine’ seemed to me, when I first heard it, utterly ludicrous. It still does. What’s the alternative? Guess-work based medicine?
Quacks are fond of using cuddly words like ‘holistic’ and ‘integrative’, partly, one suspects, in an attempt to gain respectability and to disguise some of their barmier views. See, for example, Prince of Wales Foundation for magic medicine: spin on the meaning of ‘integrated’.
Advocates of evidence-based medicine are often accused by quacks of being hard-hearted calculators who want to take the soul out of medicine. Nothing could be further from the truth in my view. But I don’t practise medicine so it seemed to me to be worth quoting two of the best definitions I know, both from people at the sharp end of medicine.
James Matthew May
James May is a general practioner in London. He is also chairman of Healthwatch, an organisation that was exposing health fraud long before the recent explosion in the ‘skeptical blogosphere’.
The following passage was written as comment (‘rapid reponse’) to an editorial in the British Medical Journal. The editorial itself was (in my view) silly and misguided (Closing the evidence gap in integrative medicine, by Hugh MacPherson, David Peters, and Catherine Zollman). It is best forgotten as soon as possible. But James May’s comment deserves to be preserved and publicised. The highlights in bold font are mine.
The use of the term ‘integrative medicine’ in your editorial seems to confuse more than clarify the problem of ‘holism’ in medicine. Complementary therapists for example often use the term ‘holistic’ to blur the boundaries between the therapies used and the practitioner’s interpersonal skills. It would be better, however, to keep these distinctions clear. Caring is different from curing. The point of RCTs is to establish how much of a treatment’s efficacy is independent of the ideas, concerns, and expectations of either the patient or the clinician. Using ‘multi-modal’ or ‘synergistic’ research methods is likely to confuse this important distinction.
‘Holism’ is not a multifaceted approach to curing, it is a mulitfaceted approach to caring. A truly holistic clinician will ‘cure sometimes, relieve often and comfort always’. Comforting may not produce a positive clinical outcome – but we should still do it. Historically speaking caring pre-existed effective medicine by millenia, but it was a principle motive for finding effective medicine. Caring therefore is not a subset of medicine, instead medicine is one of the tools used for caring. ‘Integrative medicine’ as a concept, however, blurs this boundary.
It has been wisely observed that ‘if we keep trying to measure what we value, we will end up only valuing what we can measure.’ This particular ‘evidence gap’ is therefore probably best left; filled instead by caring doctors.
Effective medicine is best measured with RCTs. Caring is not. ‘Integrative medicine’ therefore risks both damaging how we measure effective medicines (RCTs), as well as reducing caring to measurables. A better term for this might be ‘disintegrative medicine’.
Competing interests: Chairman of HealthWatch
Baum is a recently-retired cancer surgeon from UCLH. As well as being s surgeon with a strong interest in scientific medicine, he has been at the forefront of thinking about supportive or spiritual care of cancer patients. His 2009 Samuel Gee lecture is available in video, Concepts of Holism in Orthodox and Alternative Medicine. It is a masterpiece. The conclusion puts his view bluntly (again the emphasis is mine).
Holism in medicine is an open ended and exquisitely complex understanding of human biology that over time has lead to spectacular improvements in the length and quality of life of patients with cancer. This approach encourages us to consider the transcendental as much as the cell and molecular biology of the human organism. Alternative versions of “holistic medicine” that offer claims of miracle cures for cancer by impossible dietary regimens, homeopathy or metaphysical manipulation of non-existent energy fields, are cruel and fraudulent acts that deserve to be criminalized. Such “alternative” versions of holism are arid and closed belief systems, locked in a time warp, incapable of making progress yet quick to deny progress in the field of scientific medicine.
Yet another university has stopped its homeopathy course. The particular interest of this course was that it was being run at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, the vice-chancellor which was Michael Pittilo, until his recent premature death. Pittilo is the person who recommended to the government that herbalists and Chinese medicine practitioners should get honours degrees and be regulated like doctors. His report, was, in my opinions, disastrously bad.
It recently emerged that this, very bad, advice would not be accepted by the Department of Health (DH), so the campaign against the Pittilo proposals, on this blog and elsewhere was successful. The alternative DH proposals look pretty silly, but we won’t really know until after the election exactly what will happen.
Robert Gordon University (RGU): is the ‘post-1992’ university in Aberdeen, as opposed the the University of Aberdeen (where my son is at the moment). Much of RGU does an excellent job, but like so many post-1992 universities they harm themselves by running courses in barmy alternative medicine. RGU ran an Introduction To Homeopathy module (saved 9 April 2010).
In July 2009, I asked RGU to see some samples of the teaching materials on this module, partly as part of the campaign against Pittilo’s proposals. I asked to see the powerpoints and handouts for three lectures, (1) evidence for homeopathy, (2) first aid remedies, and (3) allergies.
In September 2009, this request, made under the Freedom of Information Act (Scotland), was, as always, rejected by RGU, though they did tell me that the evidence lecture had been produced by a lecturer from The Faculty of Homeopathy and the other two had been produced by a local GP.
So, as usual, I asked for the mandatory internal review of the decision. In October, the review upheld the original decision, as they almost always do. I referred the decision to the Scottish Information Commissioner (the law is slightly different in Scotland) and they have still not responded.
But on 8 April 2010 I got a letter from RGU.
“The above course requested is no longer part of the School of Nursing and Midwifery’s provision, and it was cessated [sic] in Semester One 2009/10. This followed a formal review of all Nursing and Midwifery modules and their viability. In the light of this the university has decided to release the information.”
So yet another university has done the sensible thing. The course has been shut. Just for the record, I’ll reproduce a few of the slides from the lecture on “homeopathic remedies for allergies”.
Allergies can be dangerous, and occasionally lethal. To treat them with homeopathic pills, medicines that contain no medicine, is not just delusion, but a dangerous delusion which risks the lives of patients.
The "remedies" include nettles, sulphur, petroleum and arsenic. They’d be pretty scary but in fact the pills contain, in most cases, not a jot of nettle, sulphur, petroleum or arsenic. Homeopathic pharmacies stock thousands of bottles of identical sugar pills, each with a different label.
These dangerous delusions were being taught as fact in a UK university. The shame of it..
Malaria in the news, yet again.
Today I had a not-very-friendly letter from Kate Birch
From: kate birch <email@example.com>
As I said we keep on working. while you and your kangaroo committee put on a good show. Try to take this one to the cleaners and more and more people will begin to see the fools that you really are. I hope western medicine saved you for your health crisis but that maybe when you depart you will see the how your bitterness twisted things and made you suffer so.
You may recall the expose in which homeopaths in the UK were caught, in 2006, recommending their sugar pills for prevention of malaria, Lethal advice from homeopaths about malaria prevention
You may remember the saga of the taking down of Andy Lewis’s classic post in 2007 on The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing
Despite all this, in 2008, the trendy Covent Garden company, Neal’s Yard, tried marketing a homeopathic malaria "remedy". The quackometer’s post Neal’s Yard Remedies Offers Lethal Homeopathic Malaria Advice is a corker. Under pressure they withdrew the “remedy” (see Neal’s Yard Ethical Bullshit Remedy . Eventually Neal’s Yard was censured by the MHRA ( Neal’s Yard Remedies ‘rapped by medicines regulator’ )
Then there was Kate Birch of the North American Society of Homeopaths, who advocates sugar pills for every disease under the sun (and follow-up to these claims). Memorably, she visited me in late 2007 and gave me a copy of her book. A visit from Kate Birch sitll comes top of the front page if you google ‘kate birch homeopath’.
Attached to the unfriendly letter was a web page from Abha Light. It is an advertisement for a homeopathic malaria treatment. As far as I can see, it doesn’t say anywhere what the “remedy” contains, but that doesn’t matter if, as in most homeopathic products, it contains nothing whatsoever.
This document contains a direct claim that the treatment "has been successfully been used to prevent and treat malaria . . ."
There follows more utter fantasy
Nonsense like this would be a joke if it were not for the fact that they must be killing people.
Peter Fisher, clinical director the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, said, of the original malaria scandal,
“I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice”
Like most quasi-religious subjects, homeopathy is split into sects, at war with each other.
Update 12 March. Six more dimwits signed.
An‘early day motion1 (EDM 908) has been tabled in parliament which opposes the conclusions of the science and technology committee report on the evidence for homeopathy. After two weeks it has been signed by an amazing 55 MPs. That is 8.5% of all 646 MPs. Nothing shows more clearly the scientific illiteracy that prevails in the House of Commons (and, perhaps, the results of the mass mailing of MPs by homeopaths, who are clutching at straws)..
These MPs are all people who have difficulty with the idea that pills which contain nothing can have no effect above placebo. It isn’t rocket science.
Those of us who spend quite a lot of unpaid time trying to communicate the joy of science to the public, rather resent having our efforts undermined by these members of parliament. But at least we now have a handy list of them.
In case this seems a bit harsh, it is only necessary to point out that the EDM was tabled by David Treddinick (Cons, Bosworth). Mr Treddinick is renowned as the most extreme advocate of magic medicine
in the House of Commons. The EDM twists and distorts the evidence in exactly the way the committee’s report condemned so sternly.
Nothing is too barmy for Treddinick to espouse. His education at Eton and Oxford has led him to advocate homeopathic borax for the treatment of foot and mouth disease, and he has backed homeopathic treatment of AIDS and malaria. He is a major danger to public health. By way of background, Tredinnick was suspended for a month without pay for taking a £1000 bribe in the cash for questions scandal. And he was again in trouble during the expenses scandal. It was reported that
“The MP for Bosworth struck a deal with the parliamentary standards commissioner to pay back the £755 which he claimed for a computer programme that states it can help users to predict their health via the stars.”
Yes, really, astrology! You couldn’t make it up.
One would think that, with a reputation like this, nobody with half a brain would want to sign an EDM proposed by Treddinick. Well, not so. The list of signatories is amazing, and shocking.
The state of the parties is interesting.
Unionists (Northern Ireland): no fewer than 77% (7 out of 9 MPs) signed, including the infamous Ian Paisley and the recently famous Peter Robinson. Disheartening though this is, perhaps it isn’t so surprising from a group noted for religious belief, and consequently predisposed to believing things that aren’t true.
The seriously sad thing is that second place in the stupid race is held by – wait for it – the Liberal Democrats, with 15.9% (10 of their 63 MPs). That is tragic in the light of the fact that two of the very few MPs in the House with any appreciation of evidence are also Lib Dems, Phil Willis and Evan Harris (both on the Science and Technology Committee).
After them Conservatives with 8.3% (16 out of 193), and the best is Labour 5.8% (20 out of 346 MPs)
Here is the roll of shame, updated on 12 March (the last six signed in the last 24 hours)
|Simpson, David||Democratic unionist|
|Campbell, Gregory||Democratic unionist|
|Hermon, Lady||Ulster unionist|
|Dodds, Nigel||Democratic unionist|
|Leech, John||Lib Dem|
|Robinson, Peter||Democratic unionist|
|McCrea, Dr William||Democratic unionist|
|Paisley, Ian||Democratic unionist|
|Pugh, John||Lib dem|
|Davey, Edward||Lib dem|
|Weir, Mike||Scottish Nationalist|
|Sharma, Virendra Kumar||Lab|
|Williams, Mark||Lib dem|
|Browne, Jeremy||Lib dem|
|George, Andrew||Lib Dem|
|Farron, Timothy||Lib Dem|
I haven’t contacted most of these MPs, and of those I have only two have replied. I had a rather curt reply from one of the most surprising signatories (John Hemming, who was a Scholar in Theoretical, Atomic and Nuclear Physics at Magdalen College, Oxford.
Mark Twain’s letter
Thanks to @Count_Stuff on Twitter for reminding me about
a letter written in 1905 by Mark Twain. It refers to an Elixir of Life. By curious coincidence this popped up a week after I saw Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore at ENO (and a couple of days after I bumped into its producer, Jonathan Miller, in the RADA café). I’d love to quote Kelly Rourke’s witty translation of the quack’s song, but can’t find the libretto.
Given the ludicrous libel laws in the UK. I’d like to make it clear that the following item has absolutely nothing to do with EDM 908. Please sign the petition at http://libelreform.org/
You’re an idiot of the 33rd degree
In November of 1905, an enraged Mark Twain sent this superb letter to J. H. Todd, a patent medicine salesman who had just attempted to sell bogus medicine to the author by way of a letter and leaflet delivered to his home.
Nov. 20. 1905
J. H. Todd
Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.
Adieu, adieu, adieu!
1 For those who are not familiar with the quaint customs of the UK parliament, early day motions can be tabled by any MP but are rarely debated and even more rarely lead to any action.
The Guardian had picked up on this story on the same day that it was posted, in a nice article by Ian Sample .
Every single request for information about course materials in quack medicine that I have ever sent has been turned down by universities,
It is hardly as important as as refusal of FoI requests to see climate change documents, but it does indicate that some vice-chancellors are not very interested in openness. This secretiveness is exactly the sort of thing that leads to lack of trust in universities and in science as a whole.
The one case that I have won took over three years and an Information Tribunal decision against the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) before I got anything.
UCLAN spent £80,307.95.(inc VAT at 17.5%) in legal expenses alone (plus heaven knows how much in staff time) to prevent us from seeing what was taught on their now defunct “BSc (Hons) homeopathy”. This does not seem to me to be good use of taxpayers’ money. A small sample of what was taught has already been posted (more to come). It is very obvious why the university wanted to keep it secret, and equally obvious that it is in the public interest that it should be seen.
UCLAN had dropped not only its homeopathy "degree" before the information was revealed, They also set up an internal inquiry into all the rest of their courses in magic medicine which ended with the dumping of all of them.
Well, not quite all, There was one left. An “MSc” in homeopathy by e-learning. Why this was allowed to continue after the findings of UCLAN’s internal review, heaven only knows. It is run by the same Kate Chatfield who ran the now defunct BSc. Having started to defend the reputation against the harm done to it by offering this sort of rubbish, I thought I should finish. So I asked for the contents of this course too. It is, after all, much the same title as the course that UCLAN had just been ordered to release. But no, this request too was met with a refusal
Worse still, the refusal was claimed under section 43(2) if the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That is the public interest defence, The very defence that was dismissed in scathing terms by the Information Tribunal less than two months ago,
To add insult to injury, UCLAN said that it would make available the contents of the 86 modules in the course under its publication scheme, at a cost of £20 per module, That comes to £1,720 for the course, Some freedom of information.
Because this was a new request, it now has to go through the process of an internal reviw of the decision before it can ne referred to the Information Commissioner. That will be requested, and since internal reviews have, so far, never changed the initial judgment. the appeal to the Information Commissioner should be submitted within the month. I have been promised that the Information Commissioner will deal with it much faster this time than the two years it took last time.
And a bit more unfreedom
I first asked Middlesex for materials from their homeopathy course on 1 Oct 2008. These courses are validated by Middlesex university (MU) but actually run by the Centre for Homeopathic Education. Thw MU site barely mentions homeopathy and all I got was the usual excuse that the uninsersity did not possess the teaching materials. As usual, the validation had been done without without looking at what was actually being taught. The did send me the validation document though [download it] As usual, the validation document shows no sign at all of the fact that the usbject of the "BSc" is utter nonsense. One wonderful passage says
“. . . the Panel were assured that the Team are clearly producing practitioners but wanted to explore what makes these students graduates? The Team stated that the training reflects the professional standards that govern the programme and the graduateness is achieved through developing knowledge by being able to access sources and critically analyse these sources . . . “
Given that the most prominent characteristic of homeopaths (and other advocates of magic medicine) is total lack of critical ability, this is hilarious. If they had critical ability they wouldn’t be homeopaths. Hilarious is not quite the right word, It is tragic that nonsense like this can be found in an official university document.
Middlesex, though it doesn’t advertise homeopathy, does advertise degrees in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Herbal Medicine and Ayurveda. On 2nd February 2010 I asked for teaching materials from these courses. Guess what? The request was refused. In this case the exemptions under FOIA were not even invoked but I was told that "All these materials are presently available only in one format at the University – via a student-only accessed virtual learning environment. ". Seems that they can’t print out the bits that I asked for, The internal review has been requested, then we shall see what the Information Commissioner has to say.
Two other cases are at present being considered by the Information Commissioner (Scotland), after requests under the Scottish FoIA were refused. They are interesting cases because they bear on the decision, currently being considered by the government, about whether they should implement the recommendations of the execrable Pittilo report.
Napier University Edinburgh. The first was for teaching material form the herbal medicine course at Napier University Edinburgh. I notice that this course no longer appears in UCAS or on Napier’s own web site, so maybe the idea that its contents might be disclosed has been sufficient to make the university do the sensible thing.
Robert Gordon University Aberdeen The second request was for teaching material from the “Introduction to Homeopathy” course at the Robert Gordon University Aberdeen. The particular interest that attaches to this is that the vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon university is Michael Pittilo. The fact that he is willing to tolerate such a course in his own university seems to me to disqualify him from expressing any view on medical subjects.
Michael Pittilo, Crohn’s disease and Andrew Wakefield
Michael Pittilo has not been active in science for some time now, but Medline does show scientiifc publications for Pittilo RM, between 1979 anf 1998. Between 1989 and 1995 there are five papers published jointly with one Andrew Wakefield. These papers alleged a relationship between measles virus and Crohn’s disease. The papers were published before tha infamous 1998 paper by Wakefield in the Lancet (now retracted) that brought disgrace on Wakefield and probably caused unnecessary deaths.. The link between measles and Crohn’s disease is now equally disproved.
The subject has been reviewed by Korzenik (2005) in Past and Current Theories of Etiology of IBD. Toothpaste, Worms, and Refrigerators
“Wakefield et al proposed that Crohn’s results from a chronic infection of submucosal endothelium of the intestines with the measles virus [Crohn’s disease: pathogenesis and persistent measles virus infection. Wakefield AJ, Ekbom A, Dhillon AP, Pittilo RM, Pounder RE., Gastroenterology, 1995, 108(3):911-6]”
"This led to considerable media interest and< public concern over use of live measles vaccine as well as other vaccines. A number of researchers countered these claims, with other studies finding that titers to measles were not increased in Crohn’s patients, granulomas were not associated with endothelium 49 , measles were not in granulomas50 and the measles vaccine is not associated with an increased risk of Crohn’s disease51–55 "
This bit of history is not strictly relevant to the Pittilo report, but I do find quite puzzling how the government chooses people from whom it wishes to get advice about medical problems.
I notice that the Robert Gordon university bulletin has announced that
“Professor Mike Pittilo, Principal of the University, has been made an MBE in the New Year Honours list for services to healthcare”.
That is a reward for writing a very bad report that has not yet been implemented, and one hopes, for the sake of patients, will never be implemented. I do sometimes wonder about the bizarre honours system in the UK.
On 16th February, the death of Michael Pittilo was announced. He had been suffeing from cancer and was only 55 years old. I wouldn’t wish that fate on my worst enemy.
I don’t know about you, but I’m bored stiff with homeopathy. There are a lot more important things. Nevertheless, it remains a gross insult to reason, and there has been such enormous success in combating it over the last five years so, this is not the moment to stop.
Hats off to the Merseyside Skeptics Society. I admit that when I first heard about the 10:23 campaign, it seemed to be a bit of a gimmick, but in fact it turned out to be an enormous success., not just in the UK but also in Canada, Australia and New Zealand
The campaign was focussed on Boots, the UK’s biggest pharmacy chain, In particular the fact that Boots sell homeopathic pills. and regularly gives appallingly bad advice about all forms of quackery that they stock.
I’ve been criticising Boots for years now, starting with Mis-education at Boots the Chemist in May 2006. was largely about homeopathy, but Boots’ quackery is not restricted to homeopathy, In November 2007, Don’t Trust Boots described Boots’ promotion of vitamin pills that were
advertised by Boots to increase your energy, and also the appallingly bad advice given by shop staff on this product.
In March 2008, Boots did it again, with a big promotion written up as Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 promotion. The strategy seems clear by now. Launch an enormous publicity effort, and rely on journalists to parrot the press release. Put mendacious advertisements in every newspaper. Eventually the advertisements are found to be inaccurate by the Advertising Standards Authority. Boots are told to stop using the advertisement, but suffer no penalty at all. By that time the advertising campaign is over anyway, and they can rely now on inaccurate advice from "Boots expert team"; face to face in the store, to continue the promotion in a way that evades all regulation.
Boots is deeply involved too in the great ‘detox’ scam, as recounted, for example, in “Detox”: nonsense for the gullible, along with the Prince of Wales. And, most recently, Lactium: more rubbish from Boots the Chemists. And a more serious problem.
“Trust – The essence of the way we do business. We are trusted because we deliver on our promises.”
You must be joking.
Who owns Boots?
Boots started in 1849 as a single shop in Nottingham. Within my lifetime, they were rather ethical pharmacies (my recollection is that they didn’t sell homeopathic pills). They were also an ethical pharmaceutical company. They developed ibuprofen, which was launched in 1969. But since then the company was involved in a complicated series of acquisitions. Now it is a supranational conglomerate with presence in 20 countries, and almost beyond the reach of the law. Boots’ executive chairman is Stefano Pessina, who, with private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts in a £11.1 billion deal last year, took the firm private in 2007. In 2008 they announced a 20% increase in profits, to £771 million In 2008 they moved their headquarters out of the UK, to Geneva, partly, it seems, so they can be closer to other giants of Big Pharma, and partly, no doubt, to put pressure on the UK government not to tax them too much, On the other hand, tax may not be a big consideration because, according to The Times, the ultimate owners of Boots are based in Gibralter
The disgraced head of HBOS, Andy Hornby, was appointed as chief executive of Alliance Boots in June 2009. Before playing his part in ruining the UK economy he used to work for grocery chain, Asda. I’d guess that he has limited interest in pharmacology.
The economics of such organisations are beyond most people. a bit like the two cow economics joke perhaps.
"VENTURE CAPITALISM – AN ICELANDIC CORPORATION
You have two cows.
You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows. The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island Company secretly owned by the majority shareholder who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company. The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more. You sell one cow to buy a new president of the United States, leaving you with nine cows. No balance sheet provided with the release. The public then buys your bull."
Clearly there is not the slightest chance of an organisation like this will have any sort of conscience about selling useless pills, The only way that they can be influenced is by public mockery of their outrageous behaviour. If the publicity harms their image enough they may decide to cut their losses, because it pays, not because it is right.
10:23 a great success
The campaign was a success because it got good coverage in the newspapers, radio and TV. Boots, rather like vice-chancellors, seems to be uninterested in reason or morals, but will certainly be sensitive about its public image, There is a partial list of coverage at the 10.23 site.
Laura Donnelly had a good account in the Telegraph, "Homeopathy: medicine that’s hard to swallow?". And Hadley Freeman in the Guardian showed that fashion journalists can spot nonsense too, in "Me and my homeopathic overdose. How I knocked back a bottle of homeopathic ‘medicine’ and lived to tell the tale"
The spoof published on the NewsArse site (despite the name, it is excellent) hit the nail on the head, because it uses exactly the naive sort of post ho ergo propter hoc argument that homoeopaths love.,
Homeopathy proven to work after overdosing protesters eventually fall asleep
Homeopathic practitioners are today claiming victory for the efficacy of their remedies, after a protest by the 10:23 group who overdosed on homeopathic sleeping pills, left each participant asleep within just 36 hours of taking the remedy.
Funniest of all though, was the bleating by homeopaths themselves. Try, for example, Homeopathy Heals. Like all the others it alleges a conspiracy by big Pharma: “it seems to be driven by those working for Pharma behind the scenes”. It seems to have escaped the attention of these conspiritorialists that the demonstration was aimed at Boots and Boots IS Big Pharma. The two are inextricably linked and both use the same tactics to increase sales.
My small contribution
Apart form contributing to Laura Donnelly’s piece in the Telegraph, "Homeopathy: medicine that’s hard to swallow?"., I had a few more calls.
Mary English, homeopath and astrologer
The most interesting was a talk show on Radio 5 live, where I was was pitted against a homeopath, Mary English [play the mp3 file, 4.4
Mb]. Having come across Mary English before, I was well-prepared to talk about her record not only in homeopathy, but also in astrology. The presenter didn’t give me time to raise these points but he did a pretty good job himself in asking her the relevant questions.
Mary English’s website is a delight. "Homeopathy and Astrology can heal you".
" If you eat a whole bottle of them it wouldn’t make any difference because it’s the dose that you have, not the quantity of the tablets"
"It’s the frequency of dose . . .because it’s vibrational medicine"
The host asked "what’s vibrational medicine?"
"it works with your bodies systems as opposed to against it"
No doubt Mary English is quite sincere, She just, like so many homeopaths, seems to be quite unaware that these words don’t mean anything at all. Just pure gobbeldygook.
Some of her claims are bizarre, even by the standards of homeopaths. She has researched the birth charts of Indigo Children, and written a book, "How to survive a Pisces" Her claim to homeopathic fame is that she has done "provings" of "remedies" including thunderstorm, and shipwreck and Stanton Drew Stone Circle, and Old Wardour Castle. Ahem, suddenly Arnica 30C sounds quite sane.
Less excusably, Mary English went on to claim that there is good evidence that homeopathy works. She just hasn’t read, or hasn’t understood the evidence. But since she earns her living as a homeopath
and astrologer, she hasn’t got much incentive to read the evidence. if she did, her income would dry up.
The presenter put directly to Mary English the recommendation of homeopathy for malaria prevention. "You wouldn’t condone that would you?". Quite disgracefully that question was avoided. She
changed the subject without answering the question. The quackometer’s classic post on The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing came to mind (see also here for links to full text)
Some herbal stuff
Herbal medicine rather than homeopathy was the topic of the other two weekend gigs. That arose from the Pittilo proposals for statutory regulation of herbalists and Chinese medicine.
The BBC TV interview, together with a herbalist, Rhona Edmonds, is now in YouTube. A Welsh member of the European parliament, Jill Evans (Plaid Cymru) , has been backing herbalists on the grounds that they are a “well-respected profession”. Oh yes? The Prince of Wales has also had support from another MEP. Mike Nattrass (UKIP). It seems that our fringe parties have even more trouble with science than the Labour and Conservative parties (and, tragically, that includes the Green party too).
There was also an early morning talk show interview on Sunday 31 January, against the same herbalist [play mp3 file] She claims "we treat all sorts of conditions",. Yes indeed, that’s the problem. "If we were recognised it would give the public even more confidence". And that is the problem too. They don’t deserve that confidence.
The analogy between alternative medicine and religion is often striking. Both involve blind faith, and both are characterised by tendency to split into sects that war with each other even more viciously than they war with unbelievers. All the discussions of herbalism ignore the fact that an enormous number of herbalists (2536 as of 4th February) have signed a petition opposing the idea of statutory regulation, even in the ineffective form that is being proposed.
The Prince of Wales declares war on . . . the Enlightenment
That was the headline of an article in The Times (February 4th, 2010). There can be no more high profile propagandist for every form of magic medicine than the Prince of Wales. Nothing seems to stretch his credulity. But even I was taken aback by his latest pronouncement. It seems he’s been called an enemy of the enlightenment (yes, by me among many others).
“I was accused once of being the enemy of the Enlightenment,” “I felt proud of that.”
“We cannot go on like this, just imagining that the principles of the Enlightenment still apply now. I don’t believe they do. But if you challenge people who hold the Enlightenment as the ultimate answer to everything, you do really upset them.”
So it seems he wants to return medicine not just to 1800, but to 1500, the dark ages. Can he really think that life in 1500 was some sort of utopia? Of course one suspects that his disapproval of the enlightenment is restricted to medical matters. He hasn’t been seen to reject other products of the enlightenment, like cars, aircraft, telephones, radio, TV and the internet.
I suspect that the Prince of Wales needs a history lesson.
“Last weekend, people up and down rhe country engaged in a mass anti-homeopathy protest, swallowing whole bottles of remedies outside Boots.”
“It’s very easy to sneer at homeopathy but we at Newsjack believe it’s important to listen to both sides of the debate. So to put the case for homeopathy we have invited on a ridiculous charlatan who extorts money from innocent people while providing no services of any actual value.”
“Will you please welcome His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales”
The purpose of this post is to reveal a few samples of things that are taught on a homeopathy ‘degree’ course. The course in question was the "BSc Hons homeopathy course at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN). Entry to this course was closed in 2008 and, after an internal review, UCLAN closed almost all of the rest of its courses in alternative medicine too. The university is to be commended for this .
The purpose of making public some of what used to be taught is not to embarrass UCLAN, which has already done the sensible thing, but to make it clear that the sort of thing taught on such courses is both absurd and dangerous, in the hope of discouraging other courses
.Three years after I first asked for teaching materials, the Information Commisioner ruled that all the reasons given for refusal were invalid, and they must be handed over. However UCLAN then appealed against the decision, so the appeal went to an Information Tribunal. That appeal was lost decisively and UCLAN was.obliged to provide the whole of the course material.
On Christmas Eve I got five large box files, 13.7 kg of documents, or 30 pounds, in old money.
Because these documents are copyright, I rely on the twin defences of fair quotation (only a tiny proportion is being quoted) and public interest. The Information Tribunal decided very firmly that it was in the public interest that it should be known what is taught on such courses, and that can be achieved if some of it is made public. Here are a few extracts.
Code of ethics
The students are given a copy of the code of ethics of the Society of Homeopaths. This is 25 pages long, but paragraph 48 is especially interesting.
48 Advertisements, stationery and name plates maintain a high standard of propriety and
integrity to enhance the reputation of homeopathy.
- Advertising shall not contain claims of superiority.
- No advertising may be used which expressly or implicitly claims to cure named diseases.
- Advertising shall not be false, fraudulent, misleading, deceptive, extravagant or sensational.
No mention though, of the fact that this code of ethics has been repeatedly breached by the Society of Homeopaths itself, on its own website. See, for example, here in 2007 and again in 2009. as well as Ernst’s article on this topic.
Anyone who has followed dialogues among homeopaths knows that "claims to cure named diseases" is the norm not the exception. The code of ethics is just a bad joke. And the (late) course at UCLAN was no exception. Take, for example, course HP3002, Therapeutic Homeopathy, module leader Jean Duckworth.
Homeopathic treatment of cancer
There was a lecture on HP3002 called "A Homeopathic Approach to Cancer (Ramakrishnan methodology [sic])".. Here are 10 slides from that lecture. It is illegal to claim to be able to cure cancer under the Cancer Act 1939. If a homeopath were to make claims like these in public they’d be open to prosecution, not to mention in breach of the SoH’s code of ethics. If cancer is not a "named disease", what is?
Specific treatments for a named disease are recommended.
What happened to treating the whole person? Now specific organs are being treated. The term "affinity", as used here, is of course sheer hocus pocus.
It is easy to forget when reading this that none of the “medicines” contain any medicine whatsoeever.
Notice that the term "remedy" is used throughout. Any reasonable person would interpret "remedy" to imply "cure", though no doubt a homeopath, if challenged, would claim that "remedy" carried no such implication. The last slide is typical of junk medicine: the personal testimonial, supplied with no detail whatsoever. Just an anecdote which is useless as evidence.
This lecture alone strikes me as a cruel (and possibly illegal) hoax perpetrated on desperate patients. Of course a true believer might get some solace from taking the sugar pills, but that is not sufficient justification.
The same course dealt with quite a lot of other "named diseases", autism, ADHD and coping with a heart attack. And, you are asked, did you think arnica is just a first aid remedy?
If that isn’t a list of "named diseases", what is? The code of ethics appears to be a total sham.
And of course never forget that the “arnica” doesn’t contain any arnica anyway. And if you don’t believe that you can read the words of Kate Chatfield, module leader on thie very course, as recorded in the minutes of evidence to the Select Committee on Science and Technology .
Q538 Lord Broers: I have a simple, technical question about homeopathy and drugs. Is it possible to distinguish between homeopathic drugs after they have been diluted? Is there any means of distinguishing one from the other?
Ms Chatfield: Only by the label.
You can read a lovely analysis of the views of Kate Chatfield by physicist A.P. Gaylard here.
The Daily Telegraph. January 8th 2009 Ian Douglas reported on this post: The workings of a BSc in homeopathy
The Lancashire Evening Post carried a big spread on January 15th, Professor seeks out the truth about ‘quackery’.
River’s Edge. News and thoughts from Preston, Lancashire reviewed the Lancashire Evening Post article on Saturday January 16th: Homeopathy at UCLAN, a degree in quackery.
The cost of trying to stop this material being revealed. UCLAN told me on 5 February 2010 that the legal costs alone were £80,307.94 (inc. VAT). That doesn’t include staff time and photocopying. I’m not convinced that this was a good way to spend taxpayers’ money.
Lindy contributes acute comments regularly here. She is also an accomplished musician. She has kindly allowed me to post here four of her re-written carols.
Adam lay ybounden
The Middle English dialect is not easy to follow. In fact Wikipedia reveals that it is oit even standard Middle English, but Macaronic English. The original words are reproduced in the right hand column. The original, sung by choir of King’s College Chapel, is on YouTube.
|Atoms lay y’bounden
In primordial soup;
Six billion years did pass
A’fore they could regroup.
For first had bin a big bang
The universe was shook;
Though through milennia
For god it was mistook.
Then particles of light did shine, ema-
-nating from the sun.
Out of soup arose archaea
And so life was begun.
Thanks be to the man
This mystery did solve;
Through him we celebrate how we
Did from the bugs evolve.
Adam lay ybounden,
Bounden in a bond:
Four thousand winter
Thought he not too long.
And all was for an apple,
An appil that he took,
As clerkè finden
Written in their book.
Ne had the apple taken been,
The appil taken been,
Ne had never our lady
Abeen heavenè queen.
Blessèd be the time
That appil taken was,
Therefore we moun singen,
Hark the Herald Angels sing.
This version is for Simon Singh. If you haven’t yet signed the new peition, please do it here.
Mark this very dang’rous thing,
Story is of Simon Singh.
He got chiropractors riled,
“Sod it! We have been defiled!
Ployful all ye woosters rise,
Join us to defend our lies,
With us loudly please proclaim,
Subluxations are our game”
Christ, they all with one accord
Took young Simon off to court.
“We’ll put you before a judge,
Since we always bear a grudge
‘Gainst all those who say our modus
Operandi is all bogus;
Mark the words of justice Eady,
Gave his ruling oh so speedy.
Mark the case of Simon Singh
With support the web does ring.
Ditch draconian libel laws,
Without which they’d have no cause
To sue those who would speak freely,
Truth, opinion-and reason really
Should prevail o’er all such things,
Surely he his case must win.
The Holly and the Ivy
Dedicated to the Prince of Wales, certain vice-chancellors and other champions of the endarkenment.
The folly and the lies, see
How they’ve become full-blown;
The braying of th’quackti’tioner Roy-
Al, th’enlightenment has flown.
Refrain: For deriding all the data
(Such stunning stuff we hear)!
The displaying of such cherry pick-
-Ing, beats bringing in Chi square.
The folly hears no critics
It makes you quite struck dumb,
Just put a poison substance in,
And dilute to kingdom come.
For deriding all the data etc.
The folly so does blossom,
Beguiles you with its charm,
Just make some movements with your wrist
And it will do no harm.
For deriding all the data etc.
The folly’s given credence
If you are qualified
With a BSc in pseudosci-
-Ence, th’endarkenment is nigh!
For deriding all the data etc.
The folly bears a burden
Now it has fallen down;
F.O.I requests and publicity
Have giv’n D.C. the crown.
For deriding all the data etc.
The folly is so fickle,
How did they have the gall
To tell us how their remedies
Were here to treat us all?
For deriding all the data etc.
The folly and the lies, see
How they must surely fail
We’ll drink a toast to good evidence
And let real science prevail!
Oh the rising of the Reiki,
Of acupuncture too,
All Rolfering* and Tuina-ish,
They all amount to woo.
*The names Rolf and Roger seem remarkably similar in some circumstances so I get a little confused.
Here is Lindy’s version of "god rest ye merry gentleman", composed in the wake of the admission by the Professional Standards director of Boots the Chemists that they sell homeopathic pills despite being aware of the fact that there is no reason to think they work.
I arrest you merry gentlemen,
Please kindly step this way.
For you are selling sugar pills
For which the people pay;
We’re from the Trading Standards and through courts we’ll find a way
To stop your profit-making ploy, Profiting ploy,
We’ll stop your profiteering ploy”!
The chemists calmly did defend
Themselves though they were riled;
“The people do demand these pills
Because they’re not defiled
With molecules (nor ‘owt at all), despite the claims so wild;
We’ll continue our profiteering ploy, Profiting ploy,
We’ll continue our profiteering ploy”.
So Trading Standards did respond
“We understand your aim
To make more money, though if you
Persist with bogus claim
To cure disease with sugar pills,
We’ll put you all to shame!
We are stopping your profiteering ploy, Profiting ploy,
We are stopping your profiteering ploy”.
“You breach the regulations by selling pills, you see,
Which claim to contain ‘aqua’ (dilute to 30C),
Or ‘dolphin song’ or ‘canine testes’ – even ‘ATP’!
So you’ll stop all this profiteering ploy, profiting ploy,
So you’ll stop all this profiteering ploy”.
The Dept of Health bangs on and on
About a patient’s choice,
But all good people must condemn
These lies with one great voice.
We dream of days when fibs are gone and we can all rejoice
‘Cos they’ve stopped all their profiteering ploy, Profiting ploy,
‘Cos they’ve stopped all their profiteering ploy
The Yuletide edition of the BMJ carries a lovely article by Jeffrey Aronson, Patent medicines and secret remedies. (BMJ 2009;339:b5415).
I was delighted to be asked to write an editorial about it, In fact it proved quite hard work, because the BMJ thought it improper to be too rude about the royal family, or about the possibility of Knight Starvation among senior medics. The compromise version that appeared in the BMJ is on line (full text link).
The changes were sufficient that it seems worth posting the original version (with links embedded for convenience).
The cuts are a bit ironic, since the whole point of the article is to point out the stifling political correctness that has gripped the BMA, the royal colleges, and the Department of Health when it comes to dealing with evidence-free medicine. It has become commonplace for people to worry about the future of the print media, The fact of the matter is you can often find a quicker. smarter amd blunter response to the news on blogs than you can find in the dead tree media. I doubt that the BMJ is in any danger of course. It has a good reputation for its attitude to improper drug company influence (a perpetual problem for clinical journals) as well as for clinical and science articles. It’s great to see its editor, Fiona Godlee, supporting the national campaign for reform of the libel laws (please sign it yourself).
The fact remains that when it comes to the particular problem of magic medicine, the action has not come from the BMA, the royal colleges, and certainly not from the Department of Health, It has come from what Goldacre called the “intrepid, ragged band of bloggers”. They are the ones who’ve done the investigative journalism, sent complaints and called baloney wherever they saw it. This article was meant to celebrate their collective efforts and to celebrate the fact that those efforts are beginning to percolate upwards to influence the powers that be.
It seems invidious to pick on one example, but if you want an example of beautiful and trenchant writing on one of the topics dealt with here, you’d be better off reading Andrew Lewis’s piece "Meddling Princes, Medical Regulation and Licenses to Kill” than anything in a print journal.
I was a bit disappointed by removal of the comment about the Prince of Wales. In fact I’m not particularly republican compared with many of my friends. The royal family is clearly good for the tourist industry and that’s important. Since Mrs Thatcher (and her successors) destroyed large swathes of manufacturing and put trust in the vapourware produced by dishonest and/or incompetent bankers, it isn’t obvious how the UK can stay afloat. If tourists will pay to see people driving in golden coaches, that’s fine. We need the money. What is absolutely NOT acceptable is for royals to interfere in the democratic political process. That is what the Prince of Wales does incessantly. No doubt he is well-meaning, but that is not sufficient. If I wanted to know the winner of the 2.30 at Newmarket, it might make sense to ask a royal. In medicine it makes no sense at all. But the quality of the advice is irrelevant anyway. The royal web site itself says “As a constitutional monarch, the Sovereign must remain politically neutral.”. Why does she not apply that rule to her son? Time to put him over your knee Ma’am?
Two of the major bits that were cut out are shown in bold, The many other changes are small.
BMJ editorial December 2009
Secret remedies: 100 years on
Time to look again at the efficacy of remedies
Jeffrey Aronson in his article  gives a fascinating insight into how the BMA, BMJ and politicians tried, a century ago, to put an end to the marketing of secret remedies. They didn’t have much success.
The problems had not improved 40 years later when A.J. Clark published his book on patent medicines . It is astounding to see how little has changed since then. He wrote, for example, “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.”> Clark himself was sued for libel after he’d written in a pamphlet “ ‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous”. Although he initially tried to fight the case, impending destitution eventually forced him to apologise . If that happened today, the accusation would have been repeated on hundreds of web sites round the world within 24 hours, and the quack would, with luck, lose .
As early as 1927, Clark had written “Today some travesty of physical science appears to be the most popular form of incantation” . That is even more true today. Homeopaths regularly talk utter nonsense about quantum theory  and ‘nutritional therapists’ claim to cure AIDS with vitamin pills or even with downloaded music files. Some of their writing is plain delusional, but much of it is a parody of scientific writing. The style, which Goldacre  calls ‘sciencey’, often looks quite plausible until you start to check the references.
A 100 years on from the BMA’s efforts, we need once again to look at the efficacy of remedies. Indeed the effort is already well under way, but this time it takes a rather different form. The initiative has come largely from an “intrepid, ragged band of bloggers” and some good journalists, helped by many scientific societies, but substantially hindered by the BMA, the Royal Colleges, the Department of Health and a few vice-chancellors. Even NICE and the MHRA have not helped much. The response of the royal colleges to the resurgence in magic medicine that started in the 1970s seems to have been a sort of embarrassment. They pushed the questions under the carpet by setting up committees (often populated with known sympathizers) so as to avoid having to say ‘baloney’. The Department of Health, equally embarrassed, tends to refer the questions to that well-known medical authority, the Prince of Wales (it is his Foundation for Integrated Health that was charged with drafting National Occupational Standards in make-believe subjects like naturopathy .
Two recent examples suffice to illustrate the problems.
The first example is the argument about the desirability of statutory regulation of acupuncture, herbal and traditional Chinese medicine (the Pittilo recommendations) .
Let’s start with a definition, taken from ‘A patients’ guide to magic medicine’ . “Herbal medicine: giving patients an unknown dose of an ill-defined drug, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety”.
It seems to me to be self-evident that you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether what you are trying to regulate is nonsense, though this idea does not seem to have penetrated the thinking of the Department of Health or the authors of the Pittilo report. The consultation on statutory regulation has had many submissions  that point out the danger to patients of appearing to give official endorsement of treatments that don’t work. The good news is that there seems to have been a major change of heart at the Royal College of Physicians. Their submission points out with admirable clarity that the statutory regulation of things that don’t work is a danger to patients (though they still have a blank spot about the evidence for acupuncture, partly as a result of the recent uncharacteristically bad assessment of the evidence by NICE ). Things are looking up. Nevertheless, after the public consultation on the report ended on November 16th, the Prince of Wales abused his position to make a well-publicised intervention on behalf of herbalists . Sometimes I think his mother should give him a firm lesson in the meaning of the term ‘constitutional monarchy’, before he destroys it.
The other example concerns the recent ‘evidence check: homeopathy’ conducted by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee (SCITECH). First the definition : “Homeopathy: giving patients medicines that contain no medicine whatsoever”. When homeopathy was dreamt up, at the end of the 18th century, regular physicians were lethal blood-letters, and it’s quite likely that giving nothing saved people from them. By the mid-19th century, discoveries about the real causes of disease had started, but homeopaths remain to this day stuck in their 18th century time warp.
In 1842 Oliver Wendell Holmes said all that needed to be said about medicine-free medicine . It is nothing short of surreal that the UK parliament is still discussing it in 2009. Nevertheless it is worth watching the SCITECH proceedings . The first two sessions are fun, if only for the statement by the Professional Standards Director of Boots that they sell homeopathic pills while being quite aware that they don’t work. I thought that was rather admirable honesty. Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital, went through his familiar cherry-picking of evidence, but at least repeated his condemnation of the sale of sugar pills for the prevention of malaria.
But for pure comedy gold, there is nothing to beat the final session. The health minister, Michael O’Brien, was eventually cajoled into admitting that there was no good evidence that homeopathy worked but defended the idea that the taxpayer should pay for it anyway. It was much harder to understand the position of the chief scientific advisor in the Department of Health, David Harper. He was evasive and ill-informed. Eventually the chairman, Phil Willis, said “No, that is not what I am asking you. You are the Department’s Chief Scientist. Can you give me one specific reference which supports the use of homeopathy in terms of Government policy on health?”. But answer came there none (well, there were words, but they made no sense).
Then at the end of the session Harper said “homeopathic practitioners would argue that the way randomised clinical trials are set up they do not lend themselves necessarily to the evaluation and demonstration of efficacy of homeopathic remedies, so to go down the track of having more randomised clinical trials, for the time being at least, does not seem to be a sensible way forward.” Earlier, Kent Woods (CEO of the MHRA) had said “the underlying theory does not really give rise to many testable hypotheses”. These two eminent people seemed to have been fooled by the limp excuses offered by homeopaths. The hypotheses are testable and homeopathy, because it involves pills, is particularly well suited to being tested by proper RCTs (they have been, and when done properly, they fail). If you want to know how to do it, all you have to do is read Goldacre in the Guardian .
It really isn’t vert complicated. “Imagine going to an NHS hospital for treatment and being sent away with nothing but a bottle of water and some vague promises.” “And no, it’s not a fruitcake fantasy. This is homeopathy and the NHS currently spends around £10million on it.”
That was written by health journalist Jane Symons, in The Sun . A Murdoch tabloid has produced a better account of homeopathy than anything that could be managed by the chief scientific advisor to the Department of Health. And it isn’t often that one can say that.
These examples serve to show that the medical establishment is slowly being dragged, from the bottom up, into realising that matters of truth and falsehood are more important than their knighthoods. It is all very heartening, both for medicine and for democracy itself.
Declaration of interests. I was A.J. Clark chair of pharmacology at UCL, 1985 – 2004.
1. Aronson, JK BMJ 2009;339:b5415
2. Clark, A,J, (1938) Patent Medicines FACT series 14, London. See also Patent medicines in 1938 and now https://www.dcscience.net/?p=257
3. David Clark “Alfred Joseph Clark, A Memoir” (C. & J. Clark Ltd 1985 ISBN 0-9510401-0-3)
4. Lewis, A. (2007) The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing
5. A.J. Clark (1927) The historical aspect of quackery, BMJ October 1st 1927
6. Chrastina, D (2007) Quantum theory isn’t that weak, (response to Lionel Milgrom).
7 Goldacre, B. (2008) Bad Science. HarperCollins
13. BBC news 1 December 2009 Prince Charles: ‘Herbal medicine must be regulated’.
14. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1842) Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions.
15. House of Commons Science and technology committee. Evidence check: homeopathy. Videos and transcripts available at http://www.viewista.com/s/fywlp2/ez/1
16. Goldacre, B. A Kind of Magic Guardian 16 November 2007.
17. Homeopathy is resources drain says
There is a good account of the third SCITECH session by clinical science consultant, Majikthyse, at The Three Amigos.
16 December 2009.. Recorded an interview for BBC Radio 5 Live. It was supposed to go out early on 17th.
17 December 2009. The editorial is mentioned in Editor’s Choice, by deputy editor Tony Delamothe. I love his way of putting the problem "too many at the top of British medicine seem frozen in the headlights of the complementary medicine bandwagon". He sounds remarkably kind given that I was awarded (by the editor, Fiona Godlee, no less) a sort of booby prize at the BMJ party for having generated a record number of emails during the editing of a single editorial (was it really 24?). Hey ho.
17 December 2009. Daily Telegraph reports on the editorial, under the heading “ ‘Nonsense’ alternative medicines should not be regulated“. Not a bad account for a non-health journalist.
17 December 2009. Good coverage in the excellent US blog, Neurologica, by the superb Steven Novella.’ “Intrepid, Ragged Band of Bloggers” take on CAM‘ provides a chance to compare and contrast the problems in the UK and the USA.’
18 December 2009. Article in The Times by former special advisor, Paul Richards. “The influence of Prince Charles the lobbyist is out of hand. Our deference stops us asking questions.”
“A good starting point might be publication of all correspondence over the past 30 years. Then we will know the extent, and influence, of Prince Charles the lobbyist.”
Comments in the BMJ Quite a lot of comments had appeared by January 8th, though sadly they were mostly from the usual suspects who appear every time one suggests evidence matters. A reply was called for, so I sent this (the version below has links).
After a long delay, this response eventually appeared in the BMJ on January 15 2010.
It’s good to see so many responses, though somewhat alarming to see that several of them seem to expect an editorial to provide a complete review of the literature. I ‘ll be happy to provide references for any assertion that I made.
I also find it a bit odd that some people think that an editorial is not the place to express an opinion robustly. That view seems to me to be a manifestation of the very sort of political correctness that I was deploring. It’s a bit like the case when the then health minister, Lord Hunt, referred to psychic surgery as a “profession” when he should have called it a fraudulent conjuring trick. Anything I write is very mild compared with what Thomas Wakley wrote in the Lancet, a journal which he founded around the time UCL came into existence. For example (I quote)
“[We deplore the] “state of society which allows various sets of mercenary, goose-brained monopolists and charlatans to usurp the highest privileges…. This is the canker-worm which eats into the heart of the medical body.” Wakley, T. The Lancet 1838-9, 1
I don’t think it is worth replying to people who cite Jacques Benveniste or Andrew Wakefield as authorities. Neither is it worth replying to people who raise the straw man argument about wicked pharmaceutical companies (about which I am on record as being as angry as anyone). But I would like to reply directly to some of the more coherent comments.
Sam Lewis and Robert Watson. [comment] Thank you for putting so succinctly what I was trying to say.
Peter Fisher [comment]. I have a lot of sympathy for Peter Fisher. He has attempted to do some good trials of homeopathy (they mostly had negative outcomes). He said he was "very angry" when the non-medical homeopaths were caught out recommending their sugar pills for malaria prevention (not that this as stopped such dangerous claims which are still commonplace). He agreed with me that there was not sufficient scientific basis for BSc degrees in homeopathy. I suppose that it isn’t really surprising that he continues to cherry pick the evidence. As clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and Homeopathic physician to the Queen, just imagine the cognitive dissonance that would result if he were to admit publicly that is all placebo after all. He has come close though. His (negative) trial for homeopathic treatment of rheumatoid arthritis included the words "It seems more important to define if homeopathists can genuinely control patients’ symptoms and less relevant to have concerns about whether this is due to a ‘genuine’ effect or to influencing the placebo response” . [download
the paper]. When it comes to malaria, it matters a lot.
Adrian White [comment] seems to be cross because I cited my own blog. I did that simply because if he follows the links there he will find the evidence. In the case of acupuncture it has been shown time after time that "real" acupuncture does not differ perceptibly from sham. That is true whether the sham consists of retractable needles or real needles in the "wrong" places. A non-blind comparison between acupuncture and no acupuncture usually shows some advantage for the former but it is, on average, too small to be of much clinical significance . I agree that there is no way to be sure that this advantage is purely placebo effect but since it is small and transient it really doesn’t matter much. Nobody has put it more clearly than Barker Bausell in his book, Snake Oil Science 
White also seems to have great faith in peer review. I agree that in real science it is probably the best system we have. But in alternative medicine journals the "peers" are usually other true believers in whatever hocus pocus is being promoted and peer reveiw breaks down altogether.
R. M. Pittilo [comment] I’m glad that Professor Pittilo has replied in person because I did single out his report for particular criticism. I agree that his report said that NHS funding should be available to CAM only where there is evidence of efficacy. That was not my criticism. My point was that in his report, the evidence for efficacy was assessed by representatives of Herbal Medicine, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture (four from each). Every one of them would have been out of work if they had found their subjects were nonsense and that, no doubt, explains why the assessment was so bad. To be fair, they did admit that the evidence was not all that it might be and recommended (as always) more research I’d like to ask Professor Pittilo how much money should be spent on more research in the light of the fact that over a billion dollars has been spent in the USA on CAM research without producing a single useful treatment. Pittilo says "My own view is that both statutory regulation and the quest for evidence should proceed together" but he seems to neglect the possibility that the quest for evidence might fail. Experience in the USA suggests that is exactly what has, to a large extent, already happened.
I also find it quite absurd that the Pittilo report should recommend, despite a half-hearted admission that the evidence is poor, that entry to these subjects should be via BSc Honours degrees. In any case he is already thwarted in that ambition because universities are closing down degrees in these subjects having realised that the time to run a degree is after, not before, you have some evidence that the subject is not nonsense. I hope that in due course Professor Pittilo may take the same action about the courses in things like homeopathy that are run by the university of which he is vice-chancellor. That could only enhance the academic reputation of Robert Gordon’s University.
George Lewith [comment] You must be aware that the proposed regulatory body, the Health Professions Council, has already broken its own rules about "evidence-based practice" by agreeing to take on, if asked, practitioners of Herbal Medicine, Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture. They have (shamefully) excluded the idea that claims of efficacy would be regulated. In other word they propose to provide exactly the sort of pseudo-regulation which would endanger patients They are accustomed to the idea that regulation is to do only with censoring practitioners who are caught in bed with patients. However meritorious that may be, it is not the main problem with pseudo-medicine, an area in which they have no experience. I’m equally surprised that Lewith should recommend that Chinese evaluation of Traditional Chinese medicine should be included in meta-analyses, in view of the well-known fact that 99% of evaluations from China are positive: “No trial published in China or Russia/USSR found a test treatment to be ineffective” . He must surely realise that medicine in China is a branch of politics. In fact the whole resurgence in Chinese medicine and acupuncture in post-war times has less to do with ancient traditions than with Chinese nationalism, in particular the wish of Mao Tse-Tung to provide the appearance of health care for the masses (though it is reported that he himself preferred Western Medicine).
1. Lord Hunt thinks “psychic surgery” is a “profession”. https://www.dcscience.net/?p=258
2. Fisher, P. Scott, DL. 2001 Rheumatology 40, 1052 – 1055. [pdf file]
3. Madsen et al, BMJ 2009;338:a3115 [pdf file]
4. R, Barker Bausell, Snake Oil Science, Oxford University Press, 2007
5. Vickers, Niraj, Goyal, Harland and Rees (1998, Controlled Clinical Trials, 19, 159-166) “Do Certain Countries Produce Only Positive Results? A Systematic Review of Controlled Trials”. [pdf file]
15 January 2010. During the SciTech hearings, Kent Woods (CEO of the MHRA) made a very feeble attempt to defend the MHRA’s decision to allow misleading labelling of homeopathic products. Now they have published their justification for this claim. It is truly pathetic, as explained by Martin at LayScience: New Evidence Reveals the MHRA’s Farcical Approach to Homeopathy. This mis-labelling cause a great outcry in 2006, as documented in The MHRA breaks its founding principle: it is an intellectual disgrace, and Learned Societies speak out against CAM, and the MHRA.
22 January 2010 Very glad to see that the minister himself has chosen to respond in the BMJ to the editorial
Rt Hon. Mike O’Brien QC MP, Minister of State for Health Services
I am glad that David Colquhoun was entertained by my appearance before the Health Select Committee on Homeopathy. But he is mistaken when he says, “you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether or not the thing you are trying to regulate is nonsense.”
Regulation is about patient safety. Acupuncture, herbal and traditional Chinese medicine involve piercing the skin and/or the ingestion of potentially harmful substances and present a possible risk to patients.
The Pittilo Report recommends statutory regulation and we have recently held a public consultation on whether this is a sensible way forward.
Further research into the efficacy of therapies such as Homeopathy is unlikely to settle the debate, such is the controversy surrounding the subject. That is why the Department of Health’s policy towards complementary and alternative medicines is neutral.
Whether I personally think Homeopathy is nonsense or not is besides the point. As a Minister, I do not decide the correct treatment for patients. Doctors do that. I do not propose on this occasion to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship.
Here is my response to the minister
I am very glad that the minister himself has replied. I think he is wrong in two ways, one relatively trivial but one very important.
First, he is wrong to refer to homeopathy as controversial. It is not. It is quite the daftest for the common forms of magic medicine and essentially no informed person believes a word of it. Of course, as minister, he is free to ignore scientific advice, just as the Home Secretary did recently. But he should admit that that is what he is doing, and not hide behind the (imagined) controversy.
Second, and far more importantly, he is wrong, dangerously wrong, to say it I was mistaken to claim that “you cannot start to think about a sensible form of regulation unless you first decide whether or not the thing you are trying to regulate is nonsense". According to that view it would make sense to grant statutory regulation to voodoo and astrology. The Pittilo proposals would involve giving honours degrees in nonsense if one took the minister’s view that it doesn’t matter whether the subjects are nonsense or not. Surely he isn’t advocating that?
The minister is also wrong to suppose that regulation, in the form proposed by Pittilo, would do anything to help patient safety. Indeed there is a good case to be made that it would endanger patients (not to mention endangering tigers and bears). The reason for that is that the main danger to patients arises from patients being given “remedies” that don’t work. The proposed regulatory body, the Health Professions Council, has already declared that it is not interested in whether the treatments work or not. That in itself endangers patients. In the case of Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is also a danger to patients from contaminated medicines. The HPC is not competent to deal with that either. It is the job of the MHRA and/or Trading Standards. There are much better methods of ensuring patient safety that those proposed by Pittilo.
In order to see the harm that can result from statutory regulation, it is necessary only to look at the General Chiropractic Council. Attention was focussed on chiropractic when the British Chiropractic Association decided, foolishly, to sue Simon Singh for defamation. That led to close inspection of the strength of the evidence for their claims to benefit conditions like infant colic and asthma. The evidence turned out to be pathetic, and the result was that something like 600 complaints were made to the GCC about the making of false health claims (including two against practices run by the chair of the GCC himself). The processing of these complaints is still in progress, but what is absolutely clear is that the statutory regulatory body, the GCC, had done nothing to discourage these false claims. On the contrary it had perpetrated them itself. No doubt the HPC would be similarly engulfed in complaints if the Pittilo proposals went ahead.
It is one thing to say that the government chooses to pay for things like homeopathy, despite it being known that they are only placebos, because some patients like them. It is quite another thing to endanger patient safety by advocating government endorsement in the form of statutory regulation, of treatments that don’t work.
I would be very happy to meet the minister to discuss the problems involved in ensuring patient safety. He has seen herbalists and other with vested interests. He has been lobbied by the Prince of Wales. Perhaps it is time he listened to the views of scientists too.
A momentous decision was promulgated (as lawyers say) by the Information Tribunal on December 8th 2009. It marks a step forward in Freedom of Information about how universities spend your money. It has taken 3.5 years to get to this point. Perhaps now there will be an end to the attempts of every single university that I’ve
approached to conceal what they teach.
"The Tribunal upholds the decision notice dated 30th. March, 2009, dismisses the appeal and directs that all the steps required by the Decision Notice be taken within 28 days of the date of this Decision"
Back story for this case
24th July 2006. I asked the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) for copies of teaching materials and validation documents for their "BSc" degree in homeopathy (this degree no longer exists: it was abolished in 2008). A year later, UCLAN shut the rest of its courses in alternative medicine, after an internal review.
21 August 2006. I was sent the validation documents but refused the teaching materials as UCLAN claimed they were exempt under section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)(commercial interests). Two days later I sent a request for the mandatory internal review of the refusal.
4th October 2006. The internal review confirmed the original decision (it always does), and cited, as well as section .43(2) of FOIA, section 21.
21 October 2006. I appealed to the Information Commissioner. The basis of the appeal was that the university might have financial interests in the outcome, but not commercial interests, because universities are not commercial organisations as defined in section 43(2) of the FOIA. In addition, even if the commercial argument was not allowed, the public interest in knowing what was taught was sufficient to justify release of the requested materials.
21 January 2008. The Information Commissioner finally got round to starting on the case.
29 September 2008 The vice-chancellor, Malcolm McVicar, raised an objection to complying with my request under s.36(2)(c) of FOIA. This states that “In the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act” “(c) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs..”
30 March 2009. The decision of the Information Commissioner was published. It has already been described here. Apart from one trivial matter, my appeal was upheld, and UCLAN was ordered to release the requested material within 35 days. However UCLAN did not release the material, but rather launched an appeal against the Information Commissioner. The appeal was heard by an Information Tribunal.
The full text of the Freedom of Information Act is here.
The Information Tribunal
The Tribunal heard the case of University of Central Lancashire v Information Commissioner in Manchester on November 3, 4 and 5. I was an ‘additional party’ to the proceedings and attended in person for the first two days, with the aim of helping the Information Commissioner’s case. This is what the tribunal looked like.
I was amazed to find myself sitting next to the barrister for the Information Commisioner, and still more amazed to be invited to cross-question the witnesses, after she had questioned them.
The witnesses were Malcom McVicar (vice-chancellor of UCLAN), Peter Hyett, (executive director of finance at UCLAN) and David Phoenix (Deputy vice-chancellor, UCLAN).
The decision in full can be read here.
The Tribunal upholds the decision notice dated 30th. March, 2009, dismisses the appeal and directs that all the steps required by the Decision Notice be taken within 28 days of the date of this Decision.
So we won.
The details of the decision contain some matters of great interest for universities, in particular the dismissal of the idea that the public can be reassured by either internal or external (e.g. QAA) validation procedures. I’ll try to summarise them (paragraph numbering as in the decision
The one disappointing thing about the Tribunal’s decision was that it contradicted the Information Commissioner’s decision on the meaning of commercial interests.
31 "Therefore, whether on a broad or narrow construction of the statutory words, we are satisfied that UCLAN `s interests in teaching material produced for its degree courses are properly described as “commercial”.
However, that does not affect the outcome because the Tribunal decided that there was no reason to think that the course materials actually had the commercial value that UCLAN said they did. For
36 We were not impressed by the claim that third parties with copyright in the disclosed materials would be alienated by UCLAN `s compliance with a decision that this information must be provided. None gave evidence to that effect.
37 It was not clear to us how a competitor could significantly exploit access to this material, without infringing UCLAN `s copyright or brazenly aping the content of a course, which would surely attract the scorn of the wider academic community. Moreover, it seemed to us likely that most potential students would be attracted to a particular course by the reputation of the teaching staff and a range of extra – curricular factors at least as much as by a comparative study of the powerpoint presentations and notes provided to current students.
39 Finally, in this particular case, we doubt whether this course had a significant commercial value, given the limited enrolment and the virtual absence of overseas interest.
At this point, the appeal is essentially dismissed. Nevetheless, the Tribunal went on to discuss the other defences offered by UCLAN, and some of their conclusions are more interesting than the subtle distinction between ‘financial interests’ and ‘commercial interests’.
40 In the light of this finding, it is not strictly necessary to decide the balance of public interest as to disclosure. Nevertheless, since the issue has been carefully and very fully argued, we shall shortly indicate our view, had the likelihood of prejudice been established.
The commercial interest defence is subject to the public interest argument in s.1(2((b) of the FOIA’
(b) in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exclusion of the duty to confirm or deny outweighs the public interest in disclosing whether the public authority
holds the information.
Hence, the decision notice says
41 As ever, the question is whether the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the interest in disclosure.
On the question of public interest, the Tribunal comes down strongly on the side of the Commissioner and me.
46 The public interest in disclosure seems to us appreciably stronger. Apart from the universal arguments about transparency and the improvement of public awareness, we find that there are particular interests here, arising from the nature of a university and the way it is funded.
It is particularly interesting that the Tribunal dismissed the role of internal and external validation as a substitute for transparency. As part of their case (para 18) UCLAN had argued
"Moreover, standards were ensured by the validation procedures which were required before a course was launched and which involved independent expert external monitors and by quality assurance (Q.A.A.) which demands a continuing compliance with national standards."
This cut no ice with the Tribunal. In one of his few direct interjections the Tribunal Chairman, David Farrar Q.C., questioned a witness directly about the internal validation processes, Evidently he was not impressed by the answers. During my own cross questioning of the deputy vice-chancellor, I put to him the view that since the QAA [Quality Assurance Agency] was not allowed to take any notice of the content of courses, that getting a high mark from the QAA was not a substitute for seeing what was actually taught. The deputy vice-chancellor did not seem to disagree strongly with that view.
47 First, the public has a legitimate interest in monitoring the content and the academic quality of a course, particularly a relatively new course in a new area of study, funded, to a very significant extent, by the taxpayer. It is no answer, we consider, to say that this function is performed by the process of validation or the continuing monitoring of standards with external input. Whether or not these processes are conducted with critical rigour, it must be open to those outside the academic community to question what is being taught and to what level in our universities. The apparent perception in some quarters that the intellectual demands of some or many degree courses have been relaxed, that higher classes of degree are too lightly earned, may be largely or entirely unfounded. But it is highly important that the material necessary to a fair judgement be available. That material will often, if not always, include the basic content of the course, such as is requested here.
48 Secondly, this is especially the case where, as with the BSc. (Homeopathy), there is significant public controversy as to the value of such study within a university. In this case, that factor standing alone would have persuaded us that the balance of public interest favoured disclosure.
49 We are not attracted by the somewhat patrician argument that the general public, uninstructed in the specialist subject under scrutiny, would be incapable of forming a proper judgement. That might be so, were it impossible to seek independent expertise to assist in making an assessment. Happily, it is not.
50 Finally, there is a public interest in opening up new methods of teaching and new insights as to the content of courses, so as to stimulate the spread of good practice.
So, a hands down win on the public interest argument.
Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs
I found incomprehensible the argument that disclosure would ‘prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs’. But it was raised (at the last minute) by UCLAN, and it was considered by the Tribunal. This defence refers to s.36(2)(c) of FOIA. It states that “In the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act” “(c) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs..”
As noted at paragraph 17, it is common ground, established as to (iii), by the jurisprudence of the Tribunal, that this exemption is engaged if three requirements are met. They can be shortly labelled
(i) qualified person
(ii) reasonable opinion
(iii) reasonably arrived at.
The Tribunal seemed to be distinctly unimpressed by the arguments presented by UCLAN.
56 A reasonable opinion may be one with which the Tribunal emphatically disagrees, provided it is based on sound argument and evidence. With great respect to Professor McVicar, whose sincerity is not in question, we can find no adequate evidential basis for this opinion and consider that it rests on two misconceptions as to the application of FOIA. We do not find that it passes the required test of objective reasonableness.
57 We considered separately whether the opinion was reasonably arrived at. Again, our answer is no.
58 Section 36 provides for an exceptional exemption which the public authority creates by its own action, albeit subject to scrutiny of its reasonableness, the likelihood of prejudice and the question of the public interest. That factor of itself justifies a requirement that the authority provide substantial evidence as to the advice (other than legal advice) and the arguments presented to the qualified person upon which his opinion was founded. We emphasise that no set formula is required, just a simple clear record of the process.
59 The need for such evidence is all the greater where, as here, the authority invokes s.36 for the first time after the complaint to the IC [Information Commissioner].
60 The evidence consists of a briefly argued email from Dr. Bostock suggesting that s.36(2)(c) be invoked on the very broadly argued grounds already reviewed. The tone implicitly acknowledges that the claim is rather speculative. We are not concerned with the slightly uncertain use of possibility and likely but the impression left is of a last minute idea, not really thought through or investigated
but merely discussed with solicitors to tie it in to the FOIA. It was sent to the Vice Chancellor at 3.20pm. on a Friday afternoon, 26th. September, 2008, asking for the Vice Chancellor’s agreement. That agreement was forthcoming in a single sentence without further comment in an email reply timed at 12.05pm.on the following Monday.
61 We find that the process of forming the necessary opinion was, to say the least, perfunctory, indeed far short of the careful assessment and investigation that normally supports a qualified opinion for the purposes of s.36.
62 Accordingly, we do not find that it was reasonably arrived at.
62 It is for these reasons that we uphold the Decision Notice. We record our gratitude for the helpful and succinct submissions of counsel on both sides and the incisive contribution of Professor Colquhoun. We wish to add that, whilst we have not accepted the great majority of the arguments advanced by UCLAN, we do not in any way seek to cast doubt on the veracity of the evidence of its witnesses, nor the honesty and loyalty with which they have sought to serve its interests.
63 Our decision is unanimous.
Signed David Farrar Q.C.
Watch this space to see what can now be revealed.
It seems very reasonable to suggest that taxpayers have an interest in knowing what is taught in universities. The recent Pittilo report suggested that degrees should be mandatory in Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine. So it seems natural to ask to see what is actually taught in these degrees, so one can judge whether it protects the public or endangers them.
Since universities in the UK receive a great deal of public money, it’s easy. Just request the material under the Freedom of Information Act.
Well, uh, it isn’t as simple as that.
Every single application that I have made has been refused. After three years of trying, the Information Commissioner eventually supported my appeal to see teaching materials from the Homeopathy "BSc" at the University of Central Lancashire. He ruled that every single objection (apart from one trivial one) offered by the universities was invalid. In particular, it was ruled that univerities were not "commercial" organisations for the purposes of the Act.
So problem solved? Not a bit of it. I still haven’t seen any of the materials from the original request because the University of Central Lancashire appealed against the decision and the case of University of Central Lancashire v Information Commissioner is due to be heard on November 3rd, 4th and 5th in Manchester. I’m joined (as lawyers say) as a witness. Watch this space.
UCLan is not the exception. It is the rule. I have sought under the Freedom of Information Act, teaching materials from UClan (homeopathy), University of Salford (homeopathy, reflexology and nutritional therapy), University of Westminster (homeopathy, reflexology and nutritional therapy), University of West of England, University of Plymouth and University of East London, University of Wales (chiropractic and nutritional therapy), Robert Gordon University Aberdeen (homeopathy), Napier University Edinburgh (herbalism).
In every single case, the request for teaching materials has been refused. And that includes the last three, which were submitted after the decision of the Information Commissioner. They will send things like course validation documents, but these are utterly uninformative box-ticking documents. They say nothing whatsoever about what is actually taught.
The fact that I have been able to discover quite a lot about what’s being taught owes nothing whatsoever to the Freedom of Information Act. It is due entirely to the many honest individuals who have sent me teaching materials, often anonymously. We should be grateful to them. Their principles are rather more impressive than those of their principals.
Since this started about three years ago, two of the universities, UCLan and Salford, have shut down entry to all of their CAM courses. And Westminster has shut two of them, with more rumoured to be closing soon. They are to be congratulated for that, but is far from being the end of the matter. The Department of Health, and some of the Royal Colleges, have yet to catch up with the universities, The Pittolo report, which recommends making degrees compulsory, is being considered by the Department of Health. The consultation ends on November 2nd: if you haven’t yet responded, please do so now (see how here, and here).
A common excuse: the university does not possess teaching materials (yes, really)
Several of the universities claim that they cannot send teaching materials, because they have no access to them. This happens when the university has accredited a course that is run by another, privately run, institution. The place that does the actual teaching, being private, is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
The ludicrous corollary of this excuse is that the university has accredited the course without checking on what is taught, and in some cases without even having seen a timetable.
The University of Wales
In fact the University of Wales doesn’t run courses at all. Like the (near moribund) University of London, it acts as a degree-awarding authority for a lot of Welsh Universities. It also validates a lot of courses in non-university institutions, 34 or so of them in the UK, and others scattered round the world.
Many of them are theological colleges. It does seem a bit odd that St Petersburg Christian University, Russia, and International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, should be accredited by the University of Wales.
They also validate the International Academy of Osteopathy, Ghent (Belgium), Osteopathie Schule Deutschland, the Istituto Superiore Di Osteopatia, Milan, the Instituto Superior De Medicinas Tradicionales, Barcelona, the Skandinaviska Osteopathögskolan (SKOS) Gothenburg, Sweden and the College D’Etudes Osteopathiques, Canada.
The case of the Nutritional Therapy course has been described already in Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy. It emerged that the course was run by a grade 1 new-age fantasist. It is worth recapitulating the follow up.
What does the University of Wales say? So far, nothing. Last week I sent brief and polite emails to Professor Palastanga and to
Professor Clement to try to discover whether it is true that the validation process had indeed missed the fact that the course organiser’s writings had been described as “preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense” in the Guardian.
So far I have had no reply from the vice-chancellor, but on 26 October I did get an answer from Prof Palastanga.
As regards the two people you asked questions about – J.Young – I personally am not familiar with her book and nobody on the validation panel raised any concerns about it. As for P.Holford similarly there were no concerns expressed about him or his work. In both cases we would have considered their CV’s as presented in the documentation as part of the teaching team. In my experience of conducting degree validations at over 16 UK Universities this is the normal practice of a validation panel.
I have to say this reply confirms my worst fears. Validation committees such as this one simply don’t do their duty. They don’t show the curiosity that is needed to discover the facts about the things that they are meant to be judging. How could they not have looked at the book by the very person that they are validating? After all that has been written about Patrick Holford, it is simply mind-boggling that the committee seems to have been quite unaware of any of it.
It is yet another example of the harm done to science by an unthinking, box-ticking approach.
The McTimoney College of Chiropractic was the subject of my next Freedom of Information request to the University of Wales. The reasons for that are, I guess, obvious. They sent me hundreds of pages of validation documents, Student Handbooks (approx 50 pages), BSc (Hons) Chiropractic Course Document. And so on. Reams of it. The documents mostly are in the range of 40 to 100 pages. Tons of paper, but none of it tells you anyhing whatsover of interest about what’s being taught. They are a testament to the ability of universities to produce endless vacuous prose with
very litlle content.
They did give me enough information to ask for a sample of the teaching materials on particular topics. But I gor blank refusal, on the grounds that they didn’t possess them. Only McTimoney had them. Their (unusually helpful) Freedom of Information officer replied thus.
“The University is entirely clear about the content of the course but the day to day timetabling of teaching sessions is a matter for the institution rather than the University and we do not require or possess timetable information. The Act does not oblige us to request the information but there is no reason you should not approach McTimoney directly on this.”
So the university doesn’t know the timetable. It doesn’t know what is taught in lectures, but it is " entirely clear about the content of the course".
This response can be described only as truly pathetic.
Either this is a laughably crude form of obstruction of my request, or perhaps, even more frighteningly, the university really believes that its endless box-ticking documents actually provide some useful control of quality. Perhaps the latter interpretation is more charitable. After all, the QAA, CHRE, UUK and every HR department share similar delusions about what constitutes quality.
Perhaps it is just yet another consequence of having science run largely by people who have never done it and don’t understand it.
Validation is a business. The University of Wales validates no fewer than 11,675 courses altogether. Many of these are perfectly ordinary courses in universities in Wales, but they validate 594 courses at non-Welsh accredited institutions, an activity that earned them £5,440,765 in the financial year 2007/8. There’s nothing wrong with that if they did the job properly. In the two cases I’ve looked at, they haven’t done the job properly. They have ticked boxes but they have not looked at what’s being taught or who is teaching it.
The University of Kingston
The University of Kingston offers a “BSc (Hons)” in acupuncture. In view of the fact that the Pittilo group has recommended degrees in acupuncture, there is enormous public interest in what is taught in such degrees, so I asked.
They sent the usual boring validation documents and a couple of sample exam papers . The questions were very clinical, and quite beyond the training of acupuncturists. The validation was done by a panel of three, Dr Larry Roberts (Chair, Director of Academic Development, Kingston University), Mr Roger Hill (Accreditation Officer, British Acupuncture Accreditation Board) and Ms Celia Tudor-Evans (Acupuncturist, College of Traditional Acupuncture, Leamington Spa). So nobody with any scientific expertise, and not a word of criticism.
Further to your recent request for information I am writing to advise that the University does not hold the following requested information:
(1) Lecture handouts/notes and powerpoint presentations for the following sessions, mentioned in Template 3rd year weekend and weekday course v26Aug2009_LRE1.pdf
(a) Skills 17: Representational systems + Colour & Sound ex. Tongue feedback 11
(b) Mental Disease + Epilepsy Pulse feedback 21
(c) 18 Auricular Acupuncture
(d) Intro. to Guasha + practice Cupping, moxa practice Tongue feedback 14
(2) I cannot see where the students are taught about research methods and statistics. I would like to see Lecture handouts/notes and PowerPoint presentations for teaching in this area, but the ‘timetables’ that you sent don’t make clear when or if it is taught.
The BSc Acupuncture is delivered by a partner college, the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine (CICM), with Kingston University providing validation only. As such, the University does not hold copies of the teaching materials used on this course. In order to obtain copies of the teaching materials required you may wish to contact the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine directly.
This completes the University’s response to your information request.
So again we see that Kingston has validated the course but has not seen a timetable, far less what is taught. My reply was thus
Yes I am exceedingly unhappy about it. The university attaches its name to the course so it must obviously be able to get the material simply by asking for it (I’m surprised that the university should endorse a course without knowing what is taught on it, but that’s another matter).
I request formally that you obtain this material. If necessary please read this as a formal appeal.
I await with interest. In every single case so far, the internal review has merely confirmed the initial refusal. It means a bit of a delay before the case goes to the Information Commisssioner’s Office.
Napier University Edinburgh
Napier University runs a "BSc (Hons) Herbal medicine". (brochure here). Since herbal medicine is a subject of the Pittilo recommendations, there is enormous public interest in what they teach. So I asked, under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (2002). They sent quite quickly validation and accreditation documents, some examination papers, timetables and lecture lists.
The validation was the usual vacuous box-ticking stuff though it did reveal that the course “made extensive use of techniques such as tongue and pulse diagnosis”, which are well known phoney diagnosis methods, about as much use as a pendulum (as used at Westminster University).
As at Kingston University, the exam papers they chose to send were mostly "pretend doctor" stuff. One of them was
Discuss the herbal practitioner’s role in the management of IHD [ischaemic heart disease)
How one would like to see what the students said, and, even more one would like to see the model answer. Amateurs who try to treat potentially serious conditions are a danger to the public.
So then we got to the interesting bit, the request for actual teaching materials.
I have looked at the material that you sent and I’d now like to make the following supplementary request
(A) Lecture notes/handouts and powerpoint slides for the following small smaple of lectures
HRB09102 Materia Medica 4
Materia Medica 3 HRB08103
Clinical Medicine and Diagnosis 4 (HRB09104)
HRB09100 Materia Medica & Herbal Practice
BSc Herbal Medicine : Materia Medica HRB07102
Lastly, I can see nowhere in the timetable, lectures that deal with
Research methods, clinical trial design and statistics.
No prizes for guessing the result Total refusal to send any of them. To make matters worse, the main grounds for refusal were the very "commercial interests" which, after careful legal examination, the Information Commissioner (for England and Wales) had decided were invalid. They say too that "The public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in its release".. It is hard to see how the public interest is served by concealing from the people who pay for the degrees what is taught on degrees that Pittilo wants to make compulsory. [Download the whole response]
The matter is now under internal appeal (read the appeal) and eventually we shall find out whether the Scottish Information Commissioner backs the judgement.
Robert Gordon University Aberdeen
This case has particular interest because the Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University is Professor Michael Pittilo, chair of the highly contentious steering group that recommended degress in CAM. Robert Gordon University (RGU) does not teach herbal medicine or acupuncture. But they do run An Introduction to Homeopathy. All the degrees in homeopathy have closed. It is perhaps the daftest and most discredited of all the popular forms of Magic Medicine. But Professor Pittilo thinks it is an appropriate subject to teach in his university.
So again I asked for information under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. They sent me quite quckly a list of the powerpoint presentations used on the courses [download it]. I asked for a small sample of the powerpoints. And again the university did not possess them!
I should like to see only the following three powerpoint presentations in the first instance, please.
Please can you let me know also who produced the powerpoints.
(1) Evidence for homeopathy
I note that you will have to request them but since they are being offered as part of a course offered by RGU, so RGU is responsible for their quality, I presume that this should cause no problem.
The request was refused on much the same grounds as used by Napier University. As usual, the internal review just confirmed the initial proposal (but dropped the obviously ludicrous public interest defence). The internal review said
“it is mainly the quality of our courses (including course material) and teaching which has given us the position of "the best modern university in Scotland"
I am bound to ask, if the university is so proud of its course material, why is it expending so much time and money to prevent anyone from seeing a small sample of it?
My appeal has been sent to the Scottish Information Commissioner [download the appeal].
What are vice-chancellors thinking about?
I find it very difficult to imagine what is going through the heads of vice-chancellors who run courses in mumbo-jumbo. Most of them don’t believe a word of it (though Michael Pittilo might be an exception) yet they foist it on their students. How do they sleep at night?
Recently the excellent Joe Collier wrote a nice BMJ blog which applauded the lack of respect for authority in today’s students, Joe Collier says good riddance to old-fashioned respect. I couldn’t resist leaving a comment.
I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing quite so unnerving as being addressed as “Sir”.
It is an advantage of age that you realise what second-rate people come to occupy very grand positions. Still odder since, if occasionally they are removed for incompetence, they usually move to an even grander position.
I guess that when I was an undergraduate, I found vice-chancellors somewhat imposing. That is, by and large, not a view that survives closer acquaintance.
Should teaching materials be open to the public?
There is only one university in the world that has, as a matter of policy, made all of its teaching material open to the public, that is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I can recommend strongly course 18.06, a wonderful set of lectures on Linear Algebra by Gilbert Strang. (It is also a wonderful demonstration of why blackboards may be better than Powerpoint for subjects like this). Now they are on YouTube too.
A lot of other places have made small moves in the same direction, as discussed recently in Times Higher Education, Get it Out in the Open.
Now the OU is working with other British universities to help them develop and share open course materials. In June, at the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the OU, Gordon Brown announced funding to establish the Support Centre for Open Resources in Education at the OU, as part of a £7.8 million grant designed to enhance the university’s national role.
The funding follows a separate grant of £5.7 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for universities across the sector to make thousands of hours of free learning materials available.
Much material is available on the web, when individual teachers choose to place it there, but at the same time there is a move in the other direction. In particular, the widespread adoption of Moodle has resulted in a big decrease in openness. Usually you have to be registered on a course to see the material. Even other people in the university can’t see it. I think that is a deplorable development (so, presumably, does HEFCE).
I was told by the Univerity of Kingston that
“The course is one which the University has validated and continues to be subject to the University’s quality assurance procedures, such as internal subject reviews, annual monitoring and external examining”
The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that “quality arrurance procedures” work about as well in universities as they did in the case of baby Peter. No doubt they were introduced with worthy aims. But in practice they occupy vast amounts of time for armies of bureaucrats, and because the brain does not need to be engaged they end up endorsing utter nonsenes. The system is broken.
Resistance is futile. You can see a lot of the stuff here
It is hard to keep secrets in the internet age. Thanks to many wonderful people who have sent me material. you can see plenty of what is taught, despite the desperate attempts of vice-chancellors to conceal it. Try these links.
What is actually taught
Chinese medicine -acupuncture gobbledygook revealed
Consultation opens on the Pittilo report: help top stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself
Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients
More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time its Naturopathy
The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University.
The opposite of science
Bad medicine. Barts sinks further into the endarkenment.
A letter to the Times, and progress at Westminster
Nutritional Fairy Tales from Thames Valley University
Westminster University BSc: amethysts emit high yin energy
References for Pittilo report consultation
A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor
The Times (blame subeditor for the horrid title)
Some follow up on the Times piece
The Health Professions Council breaks its own rules: the result is nonsense
One month to stop the Department of Health endorsing quackery. The Pittilo questionnaire,
An excellent submission to the consultation on statutory regulation of alternative medicine (Pittilo report)
In July 2008 I wrote an editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ), at the request of its editor.
The title was Dr Who? deception by chiropractors. It was not very flattering and it resulted in a letter from lawyers representing the New Zealand Chiropractic Association. Luckily the editor of the NZMJ, Frank Frizelle, is a man of principle, and the legal action was averted. It also resulted in some interesting discussions with disillusioned chiropractors that confirmed one’s worst fears. Not to mention revealing the internecine warfare between one chiropractor and another.
This all occurred before the British Chiropractic Association sued Simon Singh for defamation. The strength of the reaction to that foolhardy action now has chiropractors wondering if they can survive at all. The baselessness of most of their claims has been exposed as never before. No wonder they are running scared. The whole basis of their business is imploding.
Needless to say chiropractors were very cross indeed. Then in February 2009 I had a polite email from a New Zealand chiropractor, David Owen, asking for help to find one of the references in the editorial. I’d quoted Preston Long as saying
"Long (2004)7 said “the public should be informed that chiropractic manipulation is the number one reason for people suffering stroke under the age of 45.”
And I’d given the reference as
7. Long PH. Stroke and spinal manipulation. J Quality Health Care. 2004;3:8–10
I’d found the quotation, and the reference, in Ernst’s 2005 article, The value of Chiropractic, but at the time I couldn’t find the Journal of Quality Healthcare. I did find the same article on the web. At least the article had the same title, the same author and the same quotation. But after finding, and reading, the article, I neglected to change the reference from J Quality Health Care to http://skepticreport.com/sr/?p=88. I should have done so and for that I apologise.
When I asked Ernst about the Journal of Quality Healthcare, he couldn’t find his copy of the Journal either, but he and his secretary embarked on a hunt for it, and eventually it was found.
It turns out that Journal of Quality Healthcare shut down in 2004, without leaving a trace on the web, or even in the British Library. It was replaced by a different journal, Patient Safety and Quality Healthcare (PSQH) A reprint was obtained from them. It is indeed the same as the web version that I’d read, and it highlighted the quotation in question.
The reprint of the original article, which proved so hard to find, can be downloaded here.
The full quotation is this
"Sixty-two clinical neurologists from across Canada, all certified members of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, issued a warning to the Canadian public, which was reported by Brad Stewart, MD. The warning was entitled Canadian Neurologists Warn Against Neck Manipulation. The final conclusion was that endless non-scientific claims are being made as to the uses of neck manipulation(Stewart, 2003). They need to be stopped. The public should be informed that chiropractic manipulation is the number one reason for people suffering stroke under the age of 45."
I have often condemned the practice of citing papers without reading them (it is, of course, distressingly common), so I feel bad about this, though I had in fact read the paper in question in its web version. I’m writing about it because I feel one should be open about mistakes, even small ones.
I’m also writing about it because one small section of the magic medicine community seems to think they have nailed me because of it. David Owen, the New Zealand chiropractor, wrote to the editor of the NZMJ, thus.
The quote [in question] is the public should be informed that chiropractic manipulation is the number one reason for people suffering stroke under the age of 45.
Long PH. Stroke and Manipulation. J Quality Health Care. 2004:3:8-10
This quote actually comes from the following blog article http://www.skepticreport.com/medicalquackery/strokespinal.htm [DC the URL is now http://skepticreport.com/sr/?p=88]
I have attached all my personal communications with Colquhoun. They demonstrate this is not a citation error. Prof Colquhoun believes the origin of the quote doesn’t matter because Long was quoting from a Canadian Neurologists’ report (this is also incorrect). As you can see he fails to provide any evidence at all to support the existance [sic] of the “J Quality Health Care.”
Colquhoun ‘s belief that my forwarding this complaint is me “resorting to threats” is the final nail in the coffin. If he had any leg to stand on where is the threat?
This may seem pedantic but it surely reflects a serious ethical breach. Is it acceptable to make up a reference to try and slip any unsupported statement into a “scientific” argument and thereby give it some degree of credibility?
Incidentally, at the end of the article, conflicts of interest are listed as none. As Colquhoun is a Professor of Pharmacology and much of his research funding no doubt comes from the pharmaceutical industry how can he have no conflict of interest with therapies that do not advocate the use of drugs and compete directly against the billions spent on pain medications each year?
If I may quote Colquhoun himself in his defence of his article (Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 05-September-2008, Vol 121 No 1281) I’ll admit, though, that perhaps ‘intellect’ is not what’s deficient in this case, but rather honesty.
Well, here is a threat: I’m exposed as a shill of Big Pharma. ". . . much of his funding no doubt comes from the pharmaceutical industry". I can’t count how many times this accusation has been thrown at me by advocates of magic medicine. Oddly enough none of them has actually taken the trouble to find out where my research funding has come from. None of them even knows enough about the business to realise the extreme improbability that the Pharmaceutical Industry would be interested in funding basic work on the stochastic properties of single molecules. They fund only clinicians who can help to improve their profits,
“I notice that Professor David Colquhoun has so far not felt it relevant to mention his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry “
To which my reply was
” Oh dear, Patrick Holford really should check before saying things like “I notice that Professor David Colquhoun has so far not felt it relevant to mention his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry”. Unlike Holford, when I said “no competing interests”, I meant it. My research has never been funded by the drug industry, but always by the Medical Research Council or by the Wellcome Trust. Neither have I accepted hospitality or travel to conferences from them. That is because I would never want to run the risk of judgements being clouded by money. The only time I have ever taken money from industry is in the form of modest fees that I got for giving a series of lectures on the basic mathematical principles of drug-receptor interaction, a few years ago.”
I spend a lot of my spare time, and a bit of my own money, in an attempt to bring some sense into the arguments. The alternative medicine gurus make their livings (in some cases large fortunes) out of their wares.
So who has the vested interest?
Does chiropractic actually cause stroke?
As in the case of drugs and diet, it is remarkably difficult to be sure about causality. A patient suffers a vertebral artery dissection shortly after visiting a chiropractor, but did the neck manipulation cause the stroke? Or did it precipitate the stroke in somebody predisposed to one? Or is the timing just coincidence and the stroke would have happened anyway? There has been a lot of discussion about this and a forthcoming analysis will tackle the problem of causality head-on,
My assessment at the moment, for what it’s worth, is that there are some pretty good reasons to suspect that neck manipulation can be dangerous, but it seems that serious damage is rare.
In a sense, it really doesn’t matter much anyway, because it is now apparent that chiropractic is pretty well discredited without having to resort to arguments about rare (though serious) effects. There is real doubt about whether it is even any good for back pain (see Cochrane review), and good reason to think that the very common claims of chiropractors to be able to cure infant colic, asthma and so on are entirely, ahem, bogus. (See also Steven Novella, ebm-first, and innumerable other recent analyses.)
Chiropractic is entirely discredited, whether or not it may occasionally kill people.
Complaint sent to UCL
I had an enquiry about this problem also from my old friend George Lewith. I told him what had happened. Soon after this, a complaint was sent to Tim Perry and Jason Clarke, UCL’s Director and Deputy Director of Academic Services. The letter came not from Lewith or Owen, but from Lionel Milgom. Milgrom is well known in the magic medicine community for writing papers about how homeopathy can be “explained” by quantum entanglement. Unfortunately for him, his papers have been read by some real physicists and they are no more than rather pretentious metaphors. See, for example, Danny Chrastina’s analysis, and shpalman, here. Not to mention Lewis, AP Gaylard and Orac.
Dear Mr Perry and Mr Clark,
I would like to bring to your attention an editorial (below) that appeared in the most recent issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal. In it, one of your Emeritus Professors, David Colquhoun, is accused of a serious ethical breach, and I quote – “Is it acceptable to make up a reference to try and slip any unsupported statement into a “scientific” argument and thereby give it some degree of credibility?”
Professor Colquhoun is well-known for writing extensively and publicly excoriating many forms of complementary and alternative medicine, particularly with regard to the alleged unscientific nature and unethical behaviour of its practitioners. Professor Colquhoun is also a voluble champion for keeping the libel laws out of science.
While such activities are doubtlessly in accord with the venerable Benthamite liberal traditions of UCL, I am quite certain hypocrisy is not. And though Professor Colquhoun has owned up to his error, as the NZMJ’s editor implies, it leaves a question mark over his credibility. As custodians of the college’s academic quality therefore, you might care to consider the possible damage to UCL’s reputation of perceived professorial cant; emeritus or otherwise.
Dr Lionel R Milgrom
So, as we have seen, the quotation was correct, the reference was correct, and I’d read the article from which it came I made a mistake in citing the original paper rather than the web version of the same paper..
I leave it to the reader to judge whether this constitutes a "serious ethical breach", whether I’d slipped in an "unsupported statement", and whether it constitutes "hypocrisy"
It so happens that no sooner was this posted than there appeared Part 2 of the devastating refutation of Lionel Milgrom’s attempt to defend homeopathy, written by AP Gaylard. Thanks to Mojo (comment #2) for pointing this out.
The King’s Fund recently published Assessing complementary practice Building consensus on appropriate research methods [or download pdf].
It is described as being the “Report of an independent advisory group”. I guess everyone knows by now that an “expert report” can be produced to back any view whatsoever simply by choosing the right “experts”, so the first things one does is to see who wrote it. Here they are.
- Chair: Professor Dame Carol Black
- Harry Cayton, Chief Executive, Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence
- Professor Adrian Eddleston, then Vice-Chairman, The King’s Fund
- Professor George Lewith, Professor of Health Research, Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit, University of Southampton
- Professor Stephen Holgate, MRC Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology, University of Southampton
- Professor Richard Lilford, Head of School of Health and Population Sciences, University of Birmingham
We see at once two of the best known apologists for alternative medicine, George Lewith (who has appeared here more than once) and Stephen Holgate.
Harry Cayton is CEO of Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) which must be one of the most useless box-ticking quangos in existence. It was the CHRE that praised the General Chiropractic Council (GCC) for the quality of its work. That is the same GCC that is at present trying to cope with 600 or so complaints about the people it is supposed to regulate (not to mention a vast number of complaints to Trading Standards Offices). The GCC must be the prime example of the folly of giving government endorsement to things that don’t work. But the CHRE were not smart enough to spot that little problem. No doubt Mr Cayton did good work for the Alzheimer’s Society. His advocacy of patient’s choice may have helped me personally. But it isn’t obvious to me that he is the least qualified to express an opinion on research methods in anything whatsoever. According to the Guardian he is “BA in English and linguistics from the University of Ulster; diploma in anthropology from the University of Durham; B Phil in philosophy of education from the University of Newcastle.”
Adrian Eddlestone is a retired Professor of Medicine. He has been in academic administration since 1983. His sympathy for alternative medicine is demonstrated by the fact that he is also Chair of the General Osteopathic Council, yet another “regulator” that has done nothing to protect the public
from false health claims (and which may, soon, find itself in the same sort of trouble as the GCC).
Richard Lilford is the only member of the group who has no bias towards alternative medicine and also the only member with expertise in clinical research methods His credentials look impressive, and his publications show how he is the ideal person for this job. I rather liked also his article Stop meddling and let us get on.. He has written about the harm done by postmodernism and relativism, the fellow-travellers of alternative medicine.
Most damning of all, Lewith, Eddlestone and Holgate (along with Cyril Chantler, chair of the King’s Fund, and homeopaths, spiritual healers and Karol Sikora) are Foundation Fellows of the Prince of Wales Foundation for Magic Medicine, an organisation that is at the forefront of spreading medical misinformation.
I shall refer here to ‘alternative medicine’ rather than ‘complementary medicine’ which is used in the report. It is not right to refer to a treatment as ‘complementary’ until such time as it has been shown to work. The term ‘complementary’ is a euphemism that, like ‘integrative’, is standard among alternative medicine advocates whose greatest wish is to gain respectability.
On page 10 we find a summary of the conclusions.
The report identifies five areas of consensus, which together set a framework for moving forward. These are:
- the primary importance of controlled trials to assess clinical and cost effectiveness.
- the importance of understanding how an intervention works
- the value of placebo or non-specific effects
- the need for investment and collaboration in creating a sound evidence base
- the potential for whole-system evaluation to guide decision-making and subsequent research.
The first recommendation is just great. The rest sound to me like the usual excuses for incorporating ineffective treatments into medical practice. Notice the implicit assumption in the fourth point
that spending money on research will establish “a sound evidence base". There is a precedent, but it is ignored. A huge omission from the report is that it fails to mention anywhere that a lot of research has already been done.
Much research has already been done (and failed)
The report fails to mention at all the single most important fact in this area. The US National Institutes of Health has spent over a billion dollars on research on alternative medicines, over a period
of more than 10 years. It has failed to come up with any effective treatments whatsoever. See, for example Why the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Should Be Defunded; Should there be more alternative research?; Integrative baloney @ Yale, and most recently, $2.5B Spent, No Alternative Med Cures found. .
Why did the committee think this irrelevant? I can’t imagine. You guess.
The report says
“This report outlines areas of potential consensus to guide research funders, researchers, commissioners and complementary practitioners in developing and applying a robust evidence base for complementary practice.”
As happens so often, there is implicit in this sentence the assumption that if you spend enough money evidence will emerge. That is precisely contrary to the experence in the USA where spending a billion dollars produced nothing beyond showing that a lot of things we already thought didn’t work were indeed ineffective.
And inevitably, and tragically, NICE’s biggest mistake is invoked.
“It is noteworthy that the evidence is now sufficiently robust for NICE to include acupuncture as a treatment for low back pain.” [p ]
Did the advisory group not read the evidence used (and misinterpeted) by NICE? It seems not. Did the advisory group not read the outcome of NIH-funded studies on acupuncture as summarised by Barker Bausell in his book, Snake Oil Science? Apparently not. It’s hard to know because the report has no references.
George Lewith is quoted [p. 15] as saying “to starve the system of more knowledge means we will continue to make bad decisions”. No doubt he’d like more money for research, but if a billion dollars
in the USA gets no useful result, is Lewith really likely to do better?
The usual weasel words of the alternative medicine industry are there in abundance
“First, complementary practice often encompasses an intervention (physical treatment or manipulation) as well as the context for that intervention. Context in this setting means both the physical setting for the delivery of care and the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient.” [p. 12]
Yes, but ALL medicine involves the context of the treatment. This is no different whether the medicine is alternative or real. The context (or placebo) effect comes as an extra bonus with any sort of treatment.
“We need to acknowledge that much of complementary practice seeks to integrate the positive aspects of placebo and that it needs to be viewed as an integral part of the treatment rather than an aspect that should be isolated and discounted.” [p. 13]
This is interesting. It comes very close (here and elsewhere) to admitting that all you get is a placebo effect, and that this doesn’t matter. This contradicts directly the first recommendation of the House of Lords report (2000).. Both the House of Lords report on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and the Government’s response to it, 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 crunch comes when the report gets to what we should pay for.
“Should we be prepared to pay for the so-called placebo effect?
The view of the advisory group is that it is appropriate to pay for true placebo (rather than regression to the mean or temporal effects).” [p 24]
Perhaps so, but there is very little discussion of the emormous ethical questions:that this opinion raises:
- How much is one allowed to lie to patients in order to elicit a placebo effect?
- Is is OK if the practitioner believes it is a placebo but gives it anyway?
- Is it OK if the pratitioner believes that it is not a placebo when actually it is?
- Is it OK for practitioners to go degrees taught by people who believe that it is not a placebo when actually it is?
The report fails to face frankly these dilemmas. The present rather absurd position in which it is considered unethical for a medical practitioner to give a patient a bottle of pink water, but
perfectly acceptable to refer them to a homeopath. There is no sign either of taking into account the cultural poison that is spread by telling people about yin, yang and meridians and such like preposterous made-up mumbo jumbo. That is part of the cost of endorsing placebos. And just when one thought that believing things because you wished they were true was going out of fashion
Once again we hear a lot about the alleged difficulties posed by research on alternative medicine. These alleged difficulties are, in my view, mostly no more than excuses. There isn’t the slightest
difficulty in testing things like herbal medicine or homeopathy, in a way that preserves all the ‘context’ and the ways of working of homeopaths and herbalists. Anyone who reads the Guardian knows
how to do that.
In the case of acupuncture, great ingenuity has gone into divising controls. The sham and the ‘real’ acupuncture always come out the same. In a non-blind comparison between acupuncture and no acupuncture the latter usually does a bit worse, but the effects are small and transient and entirely compatible with the view that it is a theatrical placebo.
Despite these shortcomings, some of the conclusions [p. 22] are reasonable.
“The public needs more robust evidence to make informed decisions about the use of complementary practice.
Commissioners of public health care need more robust evidence on which to base decisions about expenditure of public money on complementary practice.”
What the report fails to do is to follow this with the obvious conclusion that such evidence is largely missing and that until such time as it is forthcoming there should be no question of the NHS paying for alternative treatments.
Neither should there be any question of giving them official government recognition in the form of ‘statutory regulation’. The folly of doing that is illustrated graphically by the case of chiropractic which is now in deep crisis after inspection of its claims in the wake of the Simon Singh defamation case. Osteopathy will, I expect, suffer the same fate soon.
In the summary on p.12 we see a classical case of the tension
Controlled trials of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness are of primary importance
We recognise that it is the assessment of effectiveness that is of primary importance in reaching a judgement of different practices. Producing robust evidence that something works in practice – that it is effective – should not be held up by the inevitably partial findings and challenged interpretations arising from inquiries into how the intervention works.
The headline sounds impeccable, but directly below it we see a clear statement that we should use treatments before we know whether they work. “Effectiveness”, in the jargon of the alternative medicine business, simply means that uncontrolled trials are good enough. The bit about “how it works” is another very common red herring raised by alternative medicine people. Anyone who knows anything about pharmacology that knowledge about how any drug works is incomplete and often turns out to be wrong. That doesn’t matter a damn if it performs well in good double-blind randomised controlled trials.
One gets the impression that the whole thing would have been a lot worse without the dose of reality injected by Richard Lilford. He is quoted as a saying
“All the problems that you find in complementary medicine you will encounter in some other kind of treatment … when we stop and think about it… how different is it to any branch of health care – the answer to emerge from our debates is that it may only be a matter of degree.” [p. 17]
I take that to mean that alternative medicine poses problems that are no different from other sorts of treatment. They should be subjected to exactly the same criteria. If they fail (as is usually the case) they should be rejected. That is exactly right. The report was intended to produce consensus, but throughout the report, there is a scarcely hidden tension between believers on one side, and Richard Lilford’s impeccable logic on the other.
Who are the King’s Fund?
“The King’s Fund creates and develops ideas that help shape policy, transform services and bring about behaviour change which improve health care.”
It bills this report on its home page as “New research methods needed to build evidence for the effectiveness of popular complementary therapies”. But in fact the report doesn’t really recommend ‘new research methods’ at all, just that the treatments pass the same tests as any other treatment. And note the term ‘build evidence’. It carries the suggestion that the evidence will be positive. Experience in the USA (and to a smaller extent in the UK) suggests that every time some good research is done, the effect is not to ‘build evidence’ but for the evidence to crumble further
If the advice is followed, and the results are largely negative, as has already happened in the USA, the Department of Health would look pretty silly if it had insisted on degrees and on statutory regulation.
The King’s Fund chairman is Sir Cyril Chantler and its Chief Executive is Niall Dickson. It produces reports, some of which are better than this one. I know it’s hard to take seriously an organisation that wants to “share its vision” withyou, but they are trying.
“The King’s Fund was formed in 1897 as an initiative of the then Prince of Wales to allow for the collection and distribution of funds in support of the hospitals of London. Its initial purpose was to raise money for London’s voluntary hospitals,”
It seems to me that the King’s Fund is far too much too influenced by the present Prince of Wales. He is, no doubt, well-meaning but he has become a major source of medical misinformation and his influence in the Department of Health is deeply unconstitutional. I was really surprised to see thet Cyril Chantler spoke at the 2009 conference of the Prince of Wales Foundation for Integrated Health, despite having a preview of the sort of make-believe being propagated by other speakers. His talk there struck me as evading all the essential points. Warm, woolly but in the end, a danger to patients. Not only did he uncritically fall for the spin on the word “integrated”, but he also fell for the idea that “statutory regulation” will safeguard patients.
Revelation of what is actually taught on degrees in these subjects shows very clearly that they endanger the public.
But the official mind doesn’t seem ever to look that far. It is happy ticking boxes and writing vacuous managerialese. It lacks curiosity.
The British Medical Journal published today an editorial which also recommends rebranding of ‘pragmatic’ trials. No surprise there, because the editorial is written by Hugh MacPherson, senior research fellow, David Peters, professor of integrated healthcare and Catherine Zollman, general practitioner. I find it a liitle odd that the BMJ says “Competing Interests: none. David Peters interest is obvious from his job description. It is less obvious that Hugh MacPherson is an acupuncture enthusiast who publishes mostly in alternative medicine journals. He has written a book with the extraordinary title “Acupuncture Research, Strategies for Establishing an Evidence Base”. The title seems to assume that the evidence base will materialise eventually despite a great deal of work that suggests it won’t. Catherine Zollman is a GP who is into homeopathy as well as acupuncture. All three authors were speakers at the Prince of Wales conference, described at Prince of Wales Foundation for magic medicine: spin on the meaning of ‘integrated’.
The comments that follow the editorial start with an excellent contribution from James Matthew May. His distinction between ‘caring’ and ‘curing’ clarifies beautifully the muddled thinking of the editorial.
Then a comment from DC, If your treatments can’t pass the test, the test must be wrong. It concludes
“At some point a stop has to be put to this continual special pleading. The financial crisis (caused by a quite different group of people who were equally prone to wishful thinking) seems quite a good time to start.”
Homeopathy has become boring, so I’ll keep this short.
It’s clear that the public have rumbled the fraud and that homeopathy is heading back to where it was in the 1960s, a small lunatic fringe on the High Street.
All university ‘degrees’ in homeopathy have closed their doors in the last two years.
Even Peter Fisher sounds increasingly desperate in his attempts to defend it.
If it were not for the unconstitutional interference in politics of the Prince of Wales, homeopathy would probably have sunk even further. Princes who meddle like that should be allowed to cool off in the Tower of London. I can’t understand why his mother doesn’t restrain him before he destroys the monarchy altogether.
The homeopathy industry reminds me of the cigarette industry. Now that they are discredited at home, they turn to exploitation of countries where they get less critical attention.
The most advanced fantastists of the homeopathy business met in the Netherlands on 6th and 7th June to hear about “Homeopathy for Developing Countries”. I was invited to attend by no less a person
than Kate Birch (q.v.). The programme included the following.
- Treating AIDS in Tanzania
- Treating malaria in Tanzania
- Treating malaria in Ghana
- Treating malaria in Kenya (the notorious Abha Light Foundation)
- “Homeopaths from Earth without borders” in Africa and South America. Chagas disease.
- Bhaktapur International Homeopathic Clinic, Nepal.
In my view people who exploit third world countries, to spread the myth that you can cure malaria and AIDS with sugar pills, deserve to be convicted of manslaughter, just as in the case in Australia of the homeopaths who allowed their daughter to die of Eczema (see Bogus therapy for real diseases: more homeopathic killing.
My experience of homeopaths is that most of them are desperately sincere about their delusion. It is a surreal experience to listen to them talking amongst themselves about everything from curing a pigeon’s broken wing to curing cholera with their magic pills. At least in Australia, it seems that sincere delusion is not a sufficient excuse for killing people.
It is little consolation that we are dealing here with the extreme wing of fantasists. Remember that when homeopaths in London were caught recommending sugar pills for malaria prevention, Peter Fisher said something not far short of what I say.
“I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.”
Peter Fisher. Clinical Director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital and Homeopathic Physician to the Queen
.A group of young scientists has written an admirable letter to WHO to ask them to prevent this sort of wickedness. Sadly, in the past, WHO has proved itself to be so stifled by political correctness in this sort of area, that is has given some very bad advice). Let’s hope they do better this time.
At least, one might think, a meeting like this is free from the pressures of big Pharma that have caused such corruption in the clinical world. Or are they? The sponsor list at the end looks like this.