Pharyngula

Shame on UCL UCL makes good!

An important change: UCL is reinstating Colquhoun’s blog on its servers and has announced that it “continues strongly to support and uphold Professor Colquhoun’s expression of uncompromising opinions as to the claims made for the effectiveness of treatments by the health supplements industry or other similar bodies”.


University College London caved in to complaints from alternative medicine quacks and asked Professor David Colquhoun to remove his skeptical blog from their university servers. Ben Goldacre summarizes the complaints:

They objected, for example, to his use of the word “gobbledygook” to describe Red Clover as a “blood cleanser” or a “cleanser of the lymphatic system”. Somebody from the “European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association” complained that he’d slightly misrepresented one aspect of herbalists’ practice. One even complained about Colquhoun infringing copyright, simply for quoting the part of their website that he was examining. They felt, above all, that this was an inappropriate use of UCL facilities.

It’s chilling: a couple of anti-science kooks send in some email to the provost, and the provost goes running to one of his professors and tells him to take it all down. Rather than booting Colquhoun’s pages from their server, perhaps the timid provost ought to have been fired; the job of a provost is to lead, not to scuttle.

But then again…

There’s a dirty little secret in universities that also run hospitals: many of them also have departments dedicated to quacks. I know that’s the case with my own University of Minnesota, which has a totally kooky “Center for Spirituality and Healing” that has never met a fringe therapy it didn’t adore. I had a suspicion that it wouldn’t be hard to find something similar at the UCL hospitals, and sure enough, there it is: the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital. So, if you’ve got cancer, and think the best treatment for you is some distilled water that was waved near a something poisonous once, you can get your homeopathy there; the need for random needle pokes can be satisfied with acupuncture; and if you think smelling something nice will help you, there’s an aromatherapy clinic. There’s more, of course, since these services are not bound by any assessment of whether they actually work, so you can also get your reflexology and reiki done there. They’ve also got something called “iscador”, which involves mistletoe and sounds very druidic, and seems appropriate to the British Isles. Still bunkum, though.

So I suspect that this provost knew there would be plenty of unconscionable frauds in his university and affiliated institutions who would back him up.

The end result is that there has been a change of address for Dr Colquhoun’s web site, but it will continue. I recommend that all you good skeptics and scientists add http://www.dcscience.net/quack.html to your daily reading and reward the UCL by giving Colquhoun’s skepticism and rationalism greater attention.

By the way, some of you may know that John A. Davison has been bragging about sending complaints to my provost, Tom Sullivan, demanding that I be fired. Strangely, though, I haven’t been called to the carpet yet, and I suspect that Dr Davison’s demands have been given their due attention and appropriate treatment.

Comments

  1. #1 gracchus
    June 13, 2007

    Went hiking once in a group that include the kind of woman who’s a devotee of alternative and non-Western medicine, and I suspect of many things New Age. Embarrasingly, she was a fellow Canadian. SHE was good good for my health, however, because I hiked faster so as to stay out of earshot ahead of her. I couldn’t stand to listen to her prattle about traditional Indian medicine. It was just axiomatic for her that it was MUCH better than Western medicine, which of course didn’t work.

    That said, I’m completely in favor of double-blind scientific studies of all this stuff, which will show that the results are no better than a placebo. That said, the quacks try to immunize themselves by saying skepticism causes their therapies not to work.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 13, 2007

    Joint statement by Professor Colquhoun and UCL:

    UCL has a long and outstanding liberal tradition and is committed to encouraging free and frank academic debate. The evidence (or lack thereof) for the claims made for health supplements is a matter of great public interest, and UCL supports all contributions to that debate. The only restriction it places on the use of its facilities is that its staff should use their academic freedom responsibly within the law.

    To this end, the Provost and Professor Colquhoun have taken advice from a senior defamation Queen’s Counsel, and we are pleased to announce that Professor Colquhoun’s website – with some modifications effected by him on counsel’s advice – will shortly be restored to UCL’s servers. UCL will not allow staff to use its website for the making of personal attacks on individuals, but continues strongly to support and uphold Professor Colquhoun’s expression of uncompromising opinions as to the claims made for the effectiveness of treatments by the health supplements industry or other similar bodies

  3. #3 Carlo
    June 13, 2007

    You may want to update this story to reflect that the Provost did not initially scuttle but acted on legal advice after initially defending Colquhoun. Having received further legal advice the site is back on UCL’s servers.

    Whilst it may be convenient to portray everyone as being enslaved to evil herbalists, it might be a good idea to read the stories written by Dr. Goldacre and the piece written by Prof. Colquhoun before engaging in a rant.

  4. #4 mndarwinist
    June 13, 2007

    PZ, didn’t you know that their Prince Charles is a fan of coffee enemas for cancer treatment? Here is a link.
    http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,1248282,00.html

  5. #5 CalGeorge
    June 13, 2007

    Can the provost. This isn’t rocket science.

  6. #6 tony
    June 13, 2007

    Re Blake & Carlo: Unfortunately, PZ’s ‘from the hip’ response is to be expected…. since the provost’s initially reported behavior is all too readily apparent in most institutions with significant ‘woo’ support (especially royal woo support, in the UK).

    I’m sad that the initial legal response was to axe the site (but that’s a typical avoidance strategy — UK institutions are generally less willing to engage in litigation than their US brethren).

    I’m very glad the site is back after appeal.

    I’m just generally sorry that woo garners so much unfounded respect, and so much damn money.

    Doesn’t anyone realize what a bunch of carpetbaggers theyse folks are (outside the real science communicaty, that is!)

  7. #7 Graculus
    June 13, 2007

    That said, I’m completely in favor of double-blind scientific studies of all this stuff, which will show that the results are no better than a placebo.

    The fact is that a very large number of the standard drugs in use in that evil, evil, “mechanized” Western medicine originated as herbal treatments. These drugs have undergone testing for safety and efficacy. Some herbal treatments have undergone proper testing and have been demonstrated to be effective for some claimed uses (which makes them “drugs” in my book). In many cases it is cheaper to buy the herbal version than the synthesized version, plants are pretty good at making complex chemicals.

    There’s a lot of woo, but there is real potential to find kernels of wheat in the “herbal” chaff. The real issue is that anything that claims to have a pharmacological effect should be treated, and tested, like every other drug. No free pass for being “traditional”.

  8. #8 Oh, fishy, fishy, fishy, fish!
    June 13, 2007

    Does anyone else think that this “alternative medicine” and astrology, and homeopathy, and other New Age nonreligious quackery is in some respects worse than religion? I mean, people who believe in that crap seem to think that they are above that primitive religion thingie, and that it’s perfectly intellectually defensible, without actually being able to intellectually defend it satisfactorily.

    You can only imagine how many of people I know (close to the 100% actually) think that “traditional” religion has gone astray, or it’s plainly for old, unsophisticated people. And then immediately go out spewing the most unbelievable crap about the “universe” and “forces” and “energy” and such. I am just waiting for the word “quantum” to enter the Spanish Quackery vernacular.

  9. #9 valhar2000
    June 13, 2007

    PZ, didn’t you know that their Prince Charles is a fan of coffee enemas for cancer treatment? Here is a link.

    Prince Charles is as stupid as he is ugly.

    And you can tell him I said so.

  10. #10 Alex
    June 13, 2007

    As I’m sure you’re aware, the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital is actually a huge office tower full of other organisations and their stuff, with a tiny hospital in a desk drawer on the 58th floor..

  11. #11 Sean Peters
    June 13, 2007

    Quoting Gracchus:

    That said, I’m completely in favor of double-blind scientific studies of all this stuff, which will show that the results are no better than a placebo.

    Right, but the thing is that placebos WORK. Stuff like chiropractic and acupuncture have been shown to work for some conditions (the link, from the NIH, indicates positive results have been obtained for relief from chemotherapy-related nausea and post-op dental paint by using acupuncture). And it’s likely that these results are obtained more cheaply and with fewer side effects than Western medicine.

    Sure, the THEORY behind this stuff is hokum (mysterious energy flows? Spinal misalignment? Whatever…) – it’s almost certainly the placebo effect. But who cares – the object of the game is to help the patient, not conform to any particular medical ideology.

  12. #12 RedMolly
    June 13, 2007

    Stuff like chiropractic and acupuncture have been shown to work for some conditions (the link, from the NIH, indicates positive results have been obtained for relief from chemotherapy-related nausea and post-op dental paint by using acupuncture).

    But do they work as well as medical marijuana? Now that’s the standard against which all “alternative” treatments should be measured. I’d even volunteer for that study.

  13. #13 Will E.
    June 13, 2007

    Does anyone else think that this “alternative medicine” and astrology, and homeopathy, and other New Age nonreligious quackery is in some respects worse than religion? I mean, people who believe in that crap seem to think that they are above that primitive religion thingie, and that it’s perfectly intellectually defensible, without actually being able to intellectually defend it satisfactorily.

    Studies have shown–and Michael Shermer discusses it in his book “Why People Believe Weird Things”–that college-educated folks are very much more likely to believe in altie meds & such, while being against “organized religion.” Indeed I know many such educated people who desperately want to “keep an open mind” about shit like this. It’s a case of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

  14. #14 Martin R
    June 13, 2007

    Iscador is an Anthroposophy thing. It is prescribed against cancer because Rudolf Steiner once saw in a vision that cancer is like an epiphyte on a tree.

  15. #15 LeeLeeOne
    June 13, 2007

    PZ

    You can add the University of North Dakota Medical School to the list of universities that actually devote money, space/place, staff, and time to studies of CAM, which if I am correct has an emphasis on Native American alternative “therapies”.

  16. #16 BarnOwl
    June 13, 2007

    Re: an earlier post on the alternative medicine topic, a friend once gave me a copy of the Tellington TTouch for horse-owners book. I decided to try TTeam methods on one of my Thoroughbreds, as an “experiment”. After enduring about 53 seconds of physiognomic whorl-examining and TTouch prodding, he quite deliberately stepped on my foot, slammed me against a fence post, and galloped off, whinnying derisively. He then proceeded to graze far afield from his human TTeammate, undoubtedly selecting Red Clover and Echinacea with that characteristic Wisdom of the Wild.

    Whooooaaaa, so much for woo.

  17. #17 VancouverBrit
    June 13, 2007

    Don’t worry, nothing that Prince Charles says or does is going to influence more than a couple of hundred people, on a good day.

  18. #18 Zeno
    June 13, 2007

    My sister-in-law was recently “cured” of an intestinal blockage by coffee enemas prescribed by her naturopath, a quack who specializes in iridiagnosis. (The pseudo-doc told her that her colon was clogged by undigested residues. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?!) Now sis-in-law is drinking deep of the latest health fraud: miracle fruit juice from Brazil, brimming with Amazonian goodness.

    No doubt extensive clinical trials are being conducted right now at some faux-laboratory. I’m sure the results will be positive — for their balance sheets, anyway.

  19. #19 Frumious B
    June 13, 2007

    Right, but the thing is that placebos WORK.

    No, they don’t. Some conditions resolve after administration of a placebo. That is not the same as a placebo being responsible for the resolution of the condition.

    Here’s an article on Spontaneous Remission and the Placebo Effect
    http://www.quackwatch.com/04ConsumerEducation/placebo.html

    Here’s one on Why Bogus Therapies Seem to Work. The reasons apply to placebos as well.
    http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/altbelief.html

  20. #20 RamblinDude
    June 13, 2007

    Graculus says: There’s a lot of woo, but there is real potential to find kernels of wheat in the “herbal” chaff.

    I agree.

    Here’s the problem: mixed up amongst all the dumb crap in alternative medicine is stuff that actually works. When I was about 25, I tried an ‘Edgar Cayce’ ointment as a remedy for a couple of dark brown moles on my forehead. It was a mixture of castor oil and baking soda applied twice a day. After about 1 month, the moles started to disintegrate and after 2 months they were gone. I saw it happen with my own two eyes! (And no, it wasn’t coincidence. I have another mole exactly like on my lower abdomen to this day, but the paste won’t stay on due to clothing friction. And now you know more than you ever wanted to know about me.) anyways…

    So then, for many years I was open, or at least neutral, to homeopathy and other alternative-non mainstream therapies and treatments. It wasn’t until reading James Randi’s website that I found out how stupid homeopathy actually is. I mean, if you are at all mechanically minded, or even have a little bit of common sense, it’s pretty obvious how ridiculous the underlying premise is. So now when I hear people tell of the efficacy of belladonna, or whatever, diluted about a billion times, it tells me a lot about the momentum of beliefs and the panacea effect. You might as well drink Peter Popoff’s ‘Miracle Spring Water’.

    Now that I’m older and wiser, I still think that there is some validity to some of the claims of alternative medicine. But I’m not so naďve that I believe that Cayce’s knowledge was spirited from the astral plane or whatever. And I fully agree with Graculus when he continues with: The real issue is that anything that claims to have a pharmacological effect should be treated, and tested, like every other drug. No free pass for being “traditional”.

    We desperately need the James Randi’s, and P.Z. Myers, and other invesigative people in the world to help us get our heads on straight. But being labeled ‘alternative’ shouldn’t justify getting an perfunctory free pass to the quack bin. We need to be tolerant when dispensing logic and learned opinions, there’s a wee bit mixed in with the chaff that actually works–just enough to keep people in a quandary.

  21. #21 Mike Foulk
    June 13, 2007

    Wow, lots of vehement disregard for natural medicines around these parts. I think this is short sighted and in contravention of the history of pharmacology. Let me first state that I’m a scientist. Just recieved my Ph.D. in Molecular Biology. I also have an interest in the history of medicine and can state unequivically that the modern pharmacopea we use today is firmly rooted in botany. We either use plant compounds directly or derivitives of those compounds or use them as the template for making drugs synthetically. For example, the natives of this continent chewed on the branches of willow trees of the genus Salix to relieve pain. Chemical analysis performed in the last century identified the compound salicilic acid as the active ingredient. Adding an acetyl group in the right place produces acetly-salicilic acid which reduces some of the harsh qualities of the original acid. Acytl-salicilic acid made the Bayer company a fortune under the brand name Asprin. Furthermore, once the chemical structure of Asprin was determined it was used as the starting point to design other drugs that acted similarly. Thus was born acetominophen and ibuprophen (tylenol and advil, respecively). It is fair to say that asprin was made possible by the observation of a traditional practice.

    This is a very scientifically literate audience who like knows all this but my point is that plants can work as medicines. This should not really be that surprising. Plants have evolved chemical defenses against many predators over time and since we are all related biochemically, it is likely that many of these eveolved defenses will have an effect on human physiology. Unsurprisingly they do. I could list many more examples similar to the asprin (all the opiates and their derivatives spring to mind).

    That said, there are a bunch of freaks out there who take advantage of this fundamental fact and use it to fool the less aware. So I agree with Graculus. Taditional medicines should be tested before they are disregarded. In fact, many have been and have been shown to produce physiological effects above that of placebo. But what I’m seeing here is a blanket condemnation of traditional medicine that is disturbing. PZ should know better than to say that all of this stuff is “bunkum”. The fact is it could be bunk or not. But PZ doesn’t know one way or the other becuase it has not been tested. Keep an open scientific mind.

    P.S. None of this applies to homeophathy, of course. That shit’s just whack!

  22. #22 Will E.
    June 13, 2007

    Mike Foulk, thanks. I read Tales of Shaman’s Apprentice and the scientific/medicinal progress from plants to Western medicine was covered nicely. I was thinking of this while reading some of the above posts, but since it’s been more than 10 years since I read the book I couldn’t remember anything specific. Thanks for the refresher.

  23. #23 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 13, 2007

    Should we study the traditional medicines and look for the active ingredients in the plants of the witches’ gardens? Absolutely. Should medical institutions have entire departments devoted to dispensing not just the untested, plausible items — herbal remedies, perhaps — but also the completely delusional “cures” like homeopathy? That’s a different question.

  24. #24 greensmile
    June 13, 2007

    PZ, if Tom Sullivan should ask what the fallout has been among your readers, you can let him know I will personally bad mouth University College to my two dozen British in-laws with college aged children. One would have to look upon a degree from that institution in somewhat the way one must now examine a graduate in developmental biology from a Kansas school.
    [no offense to the truly scientific of Kansas but you gotta reputation from your neighborhood that I did not give you]

    Desperate magical thinking always seems to have a private shortcut that dogged data gathering and hypothesis testing lack. Knowledge aquisition must precede any claim of understanding let alone wisdom and it is a hill climb. The shortest way up is the hardest way up, end of story.

    Countering the defense of desperate magical thinking is such a waste of time for rational people…but what would you blog about if idiots did not react to the plodding progress of science as if it were an attack?

  25. #25 TheBrummell
    June 13, 2007

    There seems to be a misreading of many of the above comments and of PZ’s post – I don’t see anybody unequivocally stating that herbal medicine is terrible, never look at plants again, rah rah rah. Rather, what I see is what Orac at Respectful Insolence has been saying for years, which is, essentially: test it! If it works, use it, if not, don’t throw any more money at it.

    re: the placebo effect. I have seen people say that “the placebo effect” is an oxymoron; I have no opinion there, just putting that out there. But please keep in mind that a placebo is essentially a lie – if the patient recovers because of the power of positive thinking or what have you, after you gave them a pill that you said would cure them, then you lied to them. Telling them something that is either completely unknown or demonstrably false, such as saying that sticking needles in someone HERE but not THERE will help, is equally a lie.

    So doctors of medicine who adhere to the scientific method, and describe clearly to their patients what treatment they recommend, what’s involved, and why they think this is the best available treatment, are being quite honest, and punished accordingly when those patients turn around and happily absorb the lies of the homeopath, or of the acupuncturist (“mysterious energy flows? Spinal misalignment?“) or whoever.

    In other words: big, bad pharma is based on discovering what works and then telling people honestly about it, restrictions and tentativeness included. Those brave, underdog, independent woos, on the other hand, are all based on lies.

  26. #26 tony
    June 13, 2007

    PZ: Thanks for being unfailingly honest – and correcting your post so quickly — but also leaving the original to show the history. (History need not be revisionist)

    TheBrummel@25 — I couldn’t agree more. My brother is (probably at least) as smart as me — but he’s latched onto woo as if it were real… and ingests metric tons of herbal remedies to ‘improve his thinking’, ‘balance his chakras’ or whatever. He gets pissed with me for ‘selling out’ to corporate interests (i’m a consultant) and expects me to listen to his woo enhanced arguments for better living, and why I should only work for ‘sustainable’ industries… Unfortunately he won;t listen to me about macro- or micro-economics, about research, development, or globalization…. He only ‘sees’ through the woo….

    Now if only he could ‘see through’ the woo!

  27. #27 VancouverBrit
    June 13, 2007

    Did anyone ever watch a British comedy show called Smack the Pony? They had a brilliant sketch about the placebo effect. A woman walks into her doctor’s office with a bit of a cold. The doctor listens to her symptoms and then says “what I’m going to do is give you a placebo, it’ll make you feel better”.

    “But doctor, doesn’t a placebo only work if the patient thinks it’s a real drug? If you tell me it’s a placebo it won’t work, will it?”

    “Oh OK. (long pause). I’m probably going to give you a real drug now”.

    I couldn’t find it on YouTube but here’s one with the same doctor character: http://youtube.com/watch?v=2qEzasXeXHg

  28. #28 Oh, fishy, fishy, fishy, fish!
    June 13, 2007

    Yep, I agree. Of course scientists should test stuff that isn’t “conventional”, but if it does pass the tests, it will be part of scientifically researched “traditional” medicine. The appeal of “alternative” medicine is not that it’s untested, it’s that it’s “alternative”, no matter what idiotic crap the quacks spew about it. That’s the kind of “alternative medicine” I (and I think others) were talking about.

  29. #29 Joe
    June 13, 2007

    @ Graculus, #7- “Some herbal treatments have undergone proper testing and have been demonstrated to be effective for some claimed uses (which makes them “drugs” in my book).”

    That list is very short (fewer than 5 products out of thousands of claims)and the tests have to be done under conditions that rule out fraud. If you look at “FDA Consumer” they often disclose that herbal (homeopathic and supplement) products contain clinically effective amounts of drugs.

  30. #30 Graculus
    June 13, 2007

    That list is very short (fewer than 5 products out of thousands of claims)

    ASA, every opiate, every single drug ending with -acaine, parthenolide, the atropine used by your opthamologist, OTCs such as menthol, camphor, and clove oil… etc, etc, etc

    It is estimated that 25% of all “Big Pharma” drugs are from plants, perhaps as much as 85% if laboratory developed derivatives are included. That’s not a “short list”.

    I think what is going on here is that we are working with somewhat different definitions of “herbal”-ism. To me if the basic/underlying claim is not inextricably linked to the herb then it is not herbalism. “Chakra cleansing” has the underlying claim that you have chakras that need cleansing, various -pathies rely on underlying claims about the nature of how the world works that are at odds with what we know. In my book herbalism proper does not do that, it claims that a particular herb has a pharmacological type effect on the human body. In other words, the underlying assumption is not woo.

  31. #31 Caledonian
    June 13, 2007

    Quite correct, Graculus. But some traditional herbalistic claims make no sense in terms of what we know, or are suspiciously vague (“cleansing toxins” is a particularly suspect phrase). That doesn’t mean that the implied pharmacological effect isn’t real, but the explanation for any benefit is probably wrong.

  32. #32 davidp
    June 14, 2007

    There’s a dirty little secret in universities that also run hospitals… I had a suspicion that it wouldn’t be hard to find something similar at the UCL hospitals, and sure enough, there it is: the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital

    Professor Colquhoun repeatedly says on his website , University College London Hospitals is a trust which shares most of its name with the university, but it is independent of the “University College London” university.
    He needs to say this because people claim things have been tested by University College London when they’ve only been tested in UCLH – by Hopeopathic Hospital quacks, not by academics.

    The real UCL does not run hospitals.

  33. #33 G. Tingey
    June 14, 2007

    “Herbal” medicines often work.

    Digitalin – comes from foxglove.
    Atropine – comes from Belladonna
    Thymol – comes from Thyme
    Aspirin – comes from Meadowsweet (Flipendula ulmaria)
    etc, etc.

    The problem is that some herbs donb’t work, and the DOSAGE/strength/concentration varies enormously, according to the conditions under which the originating plants were grown, soil conditions, etc …..

  34. #34 RickD
    June 14, 2007

    Oooh – UCL is in the news!

    (Disclaimer: I’m typing this from Darwing Building in the UCL Biology Department.)

    Glad to see the provost has done the right thing. Things to keep in mind here:

    1) libel/slander law in the UK is much friendlier to people complaining that they have been defamed than US law is. The UK is not protected by anything resembling the First Amendment and there have been a number of famous lawsuits where plaintiffs have sucessfully sued for defamation of character with what would be considered flimsy cases in the US, and have won.

    2) As has been pointed out, UCL does not run hospitals.

    3) In any case, the quality of education at UCL is largely independent of whatever the provost feels UCL needs to do to avoid liability. In particular, the Biology department at UCL is first-rate. (Greensmile: the comparisons with Kansas are unwarranted.)

  35. #35 Kaleberg
    June 14, 2007

    I agree that this quackery is bad stuff in that it can keep people from getting medical help. The only thing I can say in its favor is that there are dangers in medicalizing problems which are not medical in the sense that we can treat them with drugs and other therapies.

    For example, we have medicalized not feeling great happiness and not sitting still in a classroom. The former is often treated with the likes of Pr0zac and the latter with the likes of Ritalin. I know enough people with serious problems to realize that these drugs, and drugs like them, can make the difference between light and darkness. I also know enough people with less serious problems to know that they would be better off with a picogram of pony dust and some new age woo than the strong medicines they are chancing.

    As much s the natural medicine people scare me, the people who really scare me are the medical ethics people:

    “There’s enough evil and caprice to always assure there will be disabilities,” says Laurie Zoloth, director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University. “But could there be fewer? When people worry about curing too many things, I’m always glad that bioethics wasn’t around when people were thinking about infectious diseases or polio or yellow fever.”

    [As quoted from the 3/12/06 New York Times]

  36. #36 Keith Douglas
    June 16, 2007

    Oh, fishy, fishy, fishy, fish!: The more authoritarian ones are as bad (for example the ones that mix their pseudo stuff with their already authoritarian religions), but a lot of newage sewage is espoused by people who genuinely aren’t authoritarian.

    Sean Peters: But a placebo does not knit bones or shrink tumours. Sure, treat patients nicely, encourage a sensible attitude towards illness – but giving people sugar pills or vials of water at outrageous prices? No.

    Mike Foulk: Of course some plants have bioactive properties. But one of the reasons to investigate the claims of cures and the like is to also determine which are safe, never mind effective. And some, no doubt, do something useful but are also extremely dangerous as to dose, which of course is another problem with plants – order of magnitude variation between parts of a plant, conspecifics etc.

    G. Tingey: But notice that very few (any?) of these are used by actually using a crushed herb-in-oil/water like the herbalists sell. Instead we have careful extraction, standardized concentrations, and in many cases, additional chemistry done. At least. In many cases the compounds are then synthesized completely from scratch; a compound my father worked on proceded in that fashion.

  37. #37 Dr Aust
    June 19, 2007

    I think the original event-sequence PZ posted was right. UCL didn’t “temporarily take down” Colquhoun’s blog: the provost told Colquhoun to remove it, with no suggestion it wasn’t permanent. He apparently also asked Colquhoun NOT to say he had moved the blog “under orders”.

    The reason given was not so much legal liability, but the amount of time the University administration was spending fielding “nuisance” complaints. This is what the Provost was telling people who wrote to him, like me.

    After a storm of protest from academics and science bloggers, the Provost seemingly realised that the loss of reputation UCL was facing was far more of a downside than the time spent handling complaints from blustering Woo-sers who had been rumbled / rubbished by Prof Colquhoun.

    On the broader issue of Universities having units and even whole Departments “researching” Woo, there are two different kinds of people doing this sort of research who need to be distinguished.

    One lot are mainstream medical research people trying to do what Orac at Respectful Insolence, and several people here, have argued for – test things like herbal therapies and acupuncture to see if they work, and then either “promote” them to recognised medical therapies (if they work) or dump them (if they don’t). This group of people run proper random controlled trials and publish in serious medical journals with peer review. An example in the UK is Professor Edzard Ernst at the University of Exeter.

    http://www.pms.ac.uk/compmed/

    The other lot, sadly more numerous, are people who are on a gravy train, as we Brits say, and basically interested in obfuscation on an academic salary. They run badly designed “experiments” on ever-more ludicrous “therapies” and never reach any conclusion other than “more work is needed”. Some of them turn out to have sideline financial interests in companies promoting the same “therapies” they are supposedly objectively researching.

    There is a bit more of this second kind of CAM research in the US than in Britain, though not because US citizens are particularly credulous – it is mostly because Congress forced the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to set up an “Institute” – NCCAM, the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine – to fund investigations (but not really definitive ones that give answers) into Woo.

    The Woo-sers chase the money, and Universities, which are always short of cash, cheer them on. Or even open Departments to give them a base of operations.

    So far NCCAM has spent close to a billion of your tax dollars over the last 10 yrs – current annual budget appropriation is US $ 121 Million – without getting any closer to whether any of the stuff works or not.

    http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/nccam.html

    If you want to see the wilder fringe of what NCCAM is funding, check out:

    http://www.biofield.arizona.edu/default.htm

    The Woo industry always complains loudly that “you can’t get funding for research into alternative therapies”. A billion dollars over 10 yrs says this is a crock of *!*!, to my mind.

  38. #38 AA
    November 21, 2007

    Apologies for the homeopaths being let into the UCL Hospitals network – it’s a move by the government and has little or nothing to do with UCL.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.