Challenging misleading healthcare claims.

Pseudo science by degrees: a response

A month ago, we encouraged all those concerned with our universities giving undeserved legitimacy to pseudo science by offering science degrees in subjects such as acupuncture and naturopathy to write to the University of Westminster to express their concern. Our thanks to all who did so.

In response to the email we sent to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Petts, we received the following reply:

Thank you for your e-mail and interest in the courses the University offers in Complementary & Alternative Medicine (CAM). This, I understand, has been sent at the suggestion of the Nightingale Collaboration which I note is keen for the University to discontinue these courses.

With an estimated one in ten people in the UK consulting CAM practitioners each year, for the last 15 years the University has been at the forefront of offering courses that will enable students to practice their chosen therapy safely and effectively. To this end, the courses have at their core the study of the health sciences, research and practitioner development, with students developing their clinical skills in the University's Polyclinic. As with other practitioner based courses, they have been deemed to warrant the award title of a BSc.

Whilst I understand that critics of CAM consider Westminster (and the 21 other HE institutions that currently offer courses in CAM) as devaluing science, the approach taken at Westminster is very much a scientific one. Students, as part of their learning, are taught to engage with the relevant literature, to be aware of the limits of their therapy, to reflect critically on what they observe and learn, as well as to refer on to doctors where appropriate. In this way, they apply the scientific method to their learning and their future practice.

The University has a long tradition in providing courses that are relevant to the local community and to the population at large. Whilst areas of CAM have come under considerable criticism - in some cases justifiably - it is likely that the public will continue to want access to well qualified and professionally trained CAM practitioners for some time to come, especially given the current crisis in health funding. Universities such as Westminster are in the best position to provide such training, to undertake the research underpinning CAM practice (as we are doing), and to work closely with the relevant professional bodies. The recently announced regulation of herbal medicine should also ensure that the public is duly protected and that standards of practice are raised further.

Whilst I understand your concerns, colleagues of the School of Life Sciences where these courses are offered do not share them. They are not teaching pseudo-science, as you claim, but rather teaching students who are keen to work in this area, to discern for themselves what is found to work (or not) in practice, to be critical of current practice, and to develop the necessary skills so they can become safe and competent practitioners.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Geoffrey E Petts


University of Westminster

It looks like the same response sent to everyone who contacted Prof Petts.

There are numerous problems with this reply and it doesn't answer the questions we asked: it simply highlights the problems even more.

The most telling phrase is that they are "teaching students…to discern for themselves what is found to work (or not) in practice". This is the crux of many of the problems with alternative therapies: their proponents like to favour personal experience over robust and independent studies, completely unaware of the many biases that are likely to be present, making it extremely difficult to accurately discern what works from what doesn't. Such patient encounters fail to differentiate between any effects of the therapy itself from any benefit brought by an empathetic 'consultation' with their customer; the specific versus the non-specific effects. Indeed, a recent study on homeopathy showed that it was the consultation and not the sugar pills that had an (inconsistent) effect on participants with rheumatoid arthritis.

Regardless of whether there is any clinical evidence to support the use of, say, homeopathy or reflexology, there is still the huge problem of the lack of a plausible scientific mechanism of action for therapies such as homeopathy and reflexology, so it's difficult to see what could be being taught that would merit the award of a BSc or an MSc degree.

We will be writing again to Prof Petts and our supporters might like to do the same.

If anyone got a different response or if you do write to Prof Petts again, please let us know.

Other campaigns

The Advertising Standards Authority should have started their monitoring of the homeopathy websites they received complaints about in March to ensure they now comply with the CAP Code and dealing with any that still don't. We will need to wait till the ASA complete this mammoth task before deciding if any further project is required.

In the background, we are working on various other projects and we'll let you know about these as soon as we can.

Tools & Resources

If you haven't already, you might like to read about some of the tools and resources we provide:

Slimming spray manufacturer sues complainant

The Australian company that was suing a critic of their slimming product for defamation, appears to have gone into liquidation.

The manufacturers of SensaSlim — a 'miracle' slimming spray — took action against public health physician Dr Ken Harvey, an adjunct professor at Melbourne's La Trobe University, after he made a complaint to the regulatory body, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), over claims being made for the product. SensaSlim claimed the action was because of an article on a website that Dr Harvey says he did not write. Because of this legal action, the TGA halted their investigation.

Subsequently, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took action against SensaSlim, alleging it engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct. The ACCC obtained a restraining order from the Federal Court freezing SensaSlim's bank account.

The claims being made by SensaSlim can be found on their website and include:

A staggering 87.2 percent of subjects lost 10 percent or more of their body weight

The average weight loss of the participants was 15 kilos over the trial

Some people lost more than 45 kilos in the six-month study.

The results confirmed that SensaSlim Solution is unquestionably the most effective slimming solution available in the world today.

Their UK website mostly just links to the main website, but it also still claims:

20 years of research.

11,453 people tested.

146,040 kilos lost.

There appears to be major controversy over the status of this 'research', which doesn't seem to have been published anywhere, and the alleged endorsement of the product by Dr Matthew Capehorn, Clinical Director of the UK's National Obesity Forum and Clinical Manager of the Rotherham Institute for Obesity, in a white paper he wrote. Dr Capehorn has since distanced himself from SensaSlim.

More details of the story can be found here.

The latest details of the case were announced by Mel Vickers of the Victorian Skeptics on Twitter:

SenaSlim’s lawyers did not submit an updated statement of claim, the libel case against Dr Ken Harvey has lapsed

A liquidator now runs SensaSlim in Aus. Dr KH may get costs awarded but still will be out of pocket for legal.