The Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine

I recently attended a talk by David Colquhoun (professor of pharmacoloDavid_Colquhoun_smgy at University College London) at Merseyside Skeptics in the Pub.

A fairly quiet man, with very firm views on all forms of quackery, in particular those held and promoted by HRH Prince Charles and his ‘cronies’. His website is here and you can follow him on Twitter (@david_colquhoun).


The title of his talk was ‘Science in an Age of Endarkenment’ (How quackery corrupts real science).

Here is a summary of his views on ‘integrated medicine’:

  • Homeopathy: giving patients medicines that contain no medicine whatsoever.
  • Herbal medicine: giving patients an unknown dose of an ill-defined drug, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety.
  • Acupuncture: a rather theatrical placebo, with no real therapeutic benefit in most if not all cases.
  • Chiropractic: an invention of a 19th century salesmen, based on nonsensical principles, and shown to be no more effective than other manipulative therapies, but less safe.
  • Reflexology: plain old foot massage, overlaid with utter nonsense about non-existent connections between your feet and your thyroid gland.
  • Nutritional therapy: self-styled ‘nutritionists’ making untrue claims about diet in order to sell you unnecessary supplements.
  • Spiritual healing: tea and sympathy, accompanied by arm-waving.
  • Reiki: ditto.
  • Angelic Reiki. The same but with added “Angels, Ascended Masters and Galactic Healers”.  Excellent for advanced fantasists.
  • Colonic irrigation: a rectal obsession that fails to rid you of toxins which you didn’t have in the first place.
  • Anthroposophical medicine: followers of the mystic barmpot, Rudolf Steiner, for whom nothing whatsoever  seems to strain credulity
  • Alternative diagnosis: kinesiology, iridology, vega test etc,  various forms of fraud, designed to sell you cures that don’t work  for problems you haven’t got.
  • Any alternative ‘therapist’ who claims to cure AIDS or malaria: agent of culpable homicide.
  • (and this one inspired by the legal mind of Jack of Kent) Libel: A very expensive remedy, to be used only when you have no evidence. Appeals to alternative practitioners because truth is

He had some unkind words for all sorts of specific organisations, for example NHS Choices and their slowness to act on changing their description of homeopathy on their website, MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority) and the THR kite mark for echinacea and the like. He also addressed the lack of evidence for effectiveness of expectorants and cough suppressants, and even questioned the evidence for the placebo effect!

quackAcupuncture (that ancient Chinese remedy that only came to widespread knowledge after Mao reintroduced it in the early ’70s to rural China) was also given very short shrift. Using the flow of chi (sic) through the 12 meridians (based on the 12 rivers of China or the star signs), and pins in any of the 365 acupoints (I wonder where they got that number from, and would Martin acupuncturists have 669 points to play with?) is not shown to be effective. There have been over 3000 trials done to date, and still no demonstrable evidence to prove it works.

As an aside, apparently 100% of all Chinese authored studies show that acupuncture is completely effective. Wow!

However, my favourite quote of the night came from Camden & Islington NHS Trust, when challenged about their use of the company Connect Physical Health and their physiotherapy claims. Part of their response to the lack of convincing data to support its use was “Lack of evidence doesn’t mean these therapies don’t work“. WTF!snake oil

Finally, he did push part of the blame for the continued rise of these snake oil salesmen on conventional medicine and the media. There is plenty of corruption in the USA and UK when it comes to invoicing and drugs prescriptions, and not just that done by individuals. In addition, “Alternative medicine’s boom is the fault of orthodox medicine. It (and the media) allowed us to think we could be healthy and happy. That there was a pill for every problem, and if we died too early or painfully, it was an act of some agency, other than a capricious old God. We expected miracles.


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About bensagan

Co-founder of the West Cumbrian Skeptics

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