How the web has turned the tables on pseudo-science
HealthWatch newsletters go back to long before the recent proliferation of “skeptical blogs”. As far back as 1991, Issue 8 (Oct/Dec 1991) included an article about the use of the Vega Test to diagnose allergy. Since then the Vega test has been debunked again and again—for example in the BBC’s Inside Out programme in 2003,1 and three years later as “The great allergy con” in the DailyMail.2
Shortly afterwards I wrote about the test on my blog3, when I discovered it being offered at the private practice of a practitioner who had himself written a paper saying it didn’t work. And only a few days ago it was exposed on the BBC yet again, this time on Watchdog.4 Outrageously, consumer protection laws seem not to be being implemented in this country.
Outrage about pseudoscience is not new. Alfred Joseph Clark FRS held the established chair of Pharmacology at University College London from 1919 to 1926, when he left for Edinburgh. In 1938 he quoted, in his short book “PatentMedicines”, from a House of Commons Select Committee report on Patent Medicines that had been submitted to the House 24 years earlier:5
“For all practical purposes British law is powerless to prevent any person from procuring any drug, or making any mixture, whether patent or without any therapeutical activity whatever (as long as it does not contain a scheduled poison), advertising it in any decent terms as a cure for any disease or ailment, recommending it by bogus testimonials and the invented opinions and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians, and selling it under any name he chooses, on payment of a small stamp duty. For any price he can persuade a credulous public to pay.”
His son relates what happened next, in his own memoir.6
“To AJ’s surprise and dismay he was sued for libel by a notorious rogue who peddled a quack cure for for tuberculosis. This man said that AJ’s remarks (such as “‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous”) were libellous and would damage his business. AJ was determined to fight, and he and Trixie decided to put their savings at stake if necessary. The BMA and the Medical Defence Union agreed to support him and they all went to lawyers. He was shocked when they advised him that he would be bound to lose for he had damaged the man’s livelihood! Finally, after much heart searching, he made an apology, saying that he had not meant that particular man’s nostrum.”
So are we making progress? After the irrationality of the 1960s the tide is beginning to turn. Today journalists know that if they write nonsense they’ll be dumped on fairly quickly by bloggers like Ben Goldacre (www.badscience.net), Quackometer (www.quack ometer.net) and Gimpyblog (http://gimpyblog.wordpress.com). But there’s still a long way to go, especially when our academic institutions continue to promote non-science.
The University of Westminster runs eleven alternative medicine degrees with titles including herbalism, chinese medicine, nutritional therapy, acupuncture and naturopathy. Middlesex University offers degrees in ayurveda, herbalism, traditional chinese medicine and acupuncture. Edinburgh’s Napier University offers degrees BA (Hons) in aromatherapy and reflexology (although the herbal medicine qualification disappeared after my enquiries under the Freedom of Information Act).
Wales is another example. The University of Wales Institute in Cardiff offers four degrees in complementary therapies, holistic massage, clinical aromatherapy and reflexology. Glyndŵr University offers degrees in traditional chinese medicine, reflexology and aromatherapy.And the University of Glamorgan offers two degrees in chiropractic.
Two years ago Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian,7 questioned the spending of public funds on alternative therapies and complained that the policy encouraged, “the burgeoning number of degrees and diplomas in complementary therapies offered by universities, such as the Thames Valley, Westminster or the University of Wales. Normal academic standards have been set aside for attracting new students. Legitimate fears that this gave a phoney scientific aura to humbuggery of all kinds are now proved right.” She duly received a letter from vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Wales, Professor Marc Clement, who invited her to the University to meet the validation staff so she could see for herself how their validation and monitoring procedures are applied and so to reassure herself regarding the academic standards.
In fact much information about the validation of courses at the University of Wales is readily available but I don’t know whether Ms Toynbee would be reassured by some of the information I’ve come across. On the university’s website, under the heading, “The Validation Unit”,8 we read,
“While the majority of the University’s students study in Wales, there is also an important international dimension to its work. It has in place a very successful and highly regarded international validation operation, which enables overseas institutions to offer the University of Wales degree at an equivalent standard to the degree offered in Wales itself.
“Validation is important in fostering links between Wales and other countries ... In 2008, more than 20,000 students were registered on validated courses of the University of Wales in 30 countries, covering a wide variety of academic disciplines.” In economic terms, it continues, “it is a significant export, each year generating overseas earnings of well over £2 million.”
But what is actually taught on these external courses? One course, though accredited by the University of Wales, was actually taught at the Northern College of Acupuncture in York. That is private and so not covered by the Freedom of Information Act (an increasing problem). I assumed that the accreditation committee would know what was taught, but the answers to my enquiries suggested not only that they didn’t but that they hadn’t even seen a detailed timetable. In June 2007 a press release promoted the new diploma/MSc course.
“The course uniquely combines the study of Western, naturopathic and traditional medicine approaches to nutrition—the best of East meets West—together with actual clinical practice of nutritional therapy. It covers the nutritional approach to a wide range of ailments, from acne to urinary infections and also incorporates meal planning, health foods, food preparation and nutritional research.”
Guest lecturers include Dr John Briffa, Professor Jane Plant MBE, and Patrick Holford. The course leader was clinical psychologist Jacqueline Young, author of “Complementary Medicine for Dummies”,9 who was famously quoted by The Guardian’s “Bad Science” columnist Ben Goldacre10,11 saying, “Implosion researchers have found that if water is put through a spiral its electrical field changes and it then appears to have a potent, restorative effect on cells.” Elsewhere she is said to recommend taking an “air bath”—“stand naked in a room at home or in your garden and walk around exposing your skin to different air flows and temperatures … do light exercises or skin brushing … continue walking for five to ten minutes but don’t let yourself get cold.”
The accreditation committee seemed quite unaware of this information. On 26 October 2008 my enquiries to the University of Wales resulted in a reply from its chair, Professor Nigel Palastanga, who wrote, “I personally am not familiar with her book and nobody on the validation panel raised any concerns about it … we would have considered [her CV] 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.”
The vice-chancellor, Marc Clement, failed to respond when I asked his opinion, as an engineer, of statements like, “Implosion researchers have found that if water is put through a spiral its electrical field changes and it then appears to have a potent, restorative effect on cells.”
In 2008, Palastanga was promoted to pro-vice-chancellor with responsibility for quality of teaching, and this year JacquelineYoung was awarded a teaching Fellowship at the University of Wales. The University of Wales validates no fewer than 11,675 courses altogether. Many of these are regular courses in universities in Wales, but they also validate 594 courses at non-Welsh accredited institutions, an activity that earned them £5,440,765 in the financial year 2007/8. It does seem a bit odd that St Petersburg Christian University, Russia, and the International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, should be accredited by the University ofWales. They also validate the International Academy of Osteopathy, Ghent (Belgium), the 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 34 UK institutions include the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine, the Northern College of Acupuncture and the McTimoney College of Chiropractic.
My Freedom of Information enquiry into the McTimoney course produced tons of accreditation documents but no teaching materials, on the grounds that they didn’t possess them. Only McTimoney had them. The University’s Freedom of Information officer replied, “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. TheAct 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.”
The university may be satisfied with what is taught about McTimoney Chiropractic. But the McTimoney Chiropractic Association, it seems, is not. On 8 June 2009 they sent a letter to their members urging them to take down their websites immediately because of fears that they might include unsubstantiated claims. They wrote, “If you have a website, take it down NOW.” The General Chiropractic Council itself, under pressure from over 600 complaints against its members, changed its mind in May 2010 about the very heart of the chiropractic myth, ‘subluxation’.12 The chiropractic vertebral subluxation complex is an historical concept but it remains a theoretical model. It is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease or health concerns.
This overturns much of what is taught to chiropractors. How did the University of Wales manage to miss it when accrediting the course? Why has the The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education not acted? Why has Universities UK (UUK), which represents UK university vice-chancellors, done nothing about it?
Could it be that they have been overtaken in the matter of intellectual integrity by what Ben Goldacre has called the “ragged band of bloggers”? The advent of the web has allowed anyone to be their own science journalist. Since about 2000, when Goldacre started to write his Thursday “Bad Science” column in The Guardian, there has been a rapidly increasing number of “skeptical bloggers”. Any journalist who writes rubbish can expect very rapid debunking. Now even the tabloid press have (some) good science. The web (together with the Freedom of Information Act) has made it very difficult to keep secrets. That is almost always a good thing.
Professor of Pharmacology, University College London
1. BBC Inside Out - South: Monday 17 February 2003. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/south/series2/food_sensitivity_ allergy_vega_tests.shtml
2. Dovey C, The great allergy con. The Daily Mail, 7 March 2006. See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-379166/The-great-allergy -con.html
3. David Colquhoun’s Improbable Science blog, 5 July 2006. See http://www.dcscience.net/?p=131
4. BBC Watchdog: Monday 18 October 2010. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/watchdog/2010/10/food_intolerance.html
5. Clark AJ. Patent Medicines. Published by FACT, London WC2, 1938. See http://www.dcscience.net/?p=257#more-257
6. Clark D. Alfred Joseph Clark. A memoir. C & J Clark Ltd, 1985. See http://www.dcscience.net/?p=257#more-257
7. Toynbee P. Quackery and superstition—available soon on the NHS. The Guardian, Tuesday 8 January 2008. See http://www.guardian. co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jan/08/politics.publicservices
8. The Validation Unit, on the website of the University of Wales. See http://www.wales.ac.uk/en/AboutUs/Structure/ValidationUnit.aspx
9. Young J. Complementary Medicine for Dummies. Published by John Wiley & Sons, 13 July 2007.
10.Goldacre B. What is an implosion researcher? Or an electric field of water? DrArbuthnot would like the BBC to say. The Guardian, Saturday 24 September 2005. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/ 2005/sep/24/badscience
11. Goldacre B. Oh, what a tangled web is being woven on the BBC health site. The Guardian, Saturday 1 October 2005. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2005/oct/01/badscience
12. General Chiropractic Council. Advice on the research base for the chiropractic vertebral subluxation complex. See: http://www.gccuk. org/files/page_file/C-120510-11.pdf