Challenging misleading healthcare claims.

Pseudo science by degrees

Current ASA complaints

Our thanks to everyone who sent us their examples of craniosacral websites making questionable claims. We have selected a few of these as 'specimen' complaints and have submitted them to the Advertising Standards Authority. We included details of trade bodies and a comprehensive list of craniosacral websites to make the ASA's job a bit easier, providing them with a Google Custom Search of these websites. This will allow them see for themselves the extent of the problem of questionable claims being made on craniosacral websites and realise that misleading advertising is not restriced to the few websites we have highlighted, but is endemic in the industry.

While we wait for the Advertising Standards Authority to deal with the large number of complaints our supporters have submitted about homeopathy websites and our craniosacral complaints (and, no doubt, numerous complaints submitted by others), we are deliberately avoiding giving the ASA even more work until we see the outstanding complaints being resolved. We are also requesting our supporters do the same to give the ASA time to catch up. It is not in our interests to overwhelm them with complaints.

Meanwhile, we want to focus on the problem of what some therapists are being taught in our institutions of higher learning.

The problem of training

When Simon Perry complained to the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) in 2009 about claims being made by some of its members, they thanked him for bringing the matter to their attention, upheld his complaints, asked the members in question to stop making unjustifiable claims and informed Simon of their intention to contact all registered members to issue advice to all registered practitioners.

How successful they have been in the intervening 18 months will be the subject of a future article.

However, the CNHC realised that they needed to be seen to get to the root of the problem: what are their members being told during their training? Are they being told they can help/cure/alleviate all sorts of medical conditions?

In an attempt to curb future misleading claims, the CNHC resolved, for all the 'disciplines' they register, to:

…contact complementary health course providers and authors to instruct them not to make claims without justification.

Higher learning

For the therapies the CNHC regulates, much of the training is carried out by private companies. However, there are several UK Universities offering courses in reflexology, acupuncture and naturopathy. Not only that, but they are providing Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in these subjects.

A full list of these courses and the institutions running them can be found on the UCAS website by searching for 'complementary', 'reflexology', etc.

David Colquhoun, Professor of Pharmacology at UCL, has been fighting a battle against pseudo scientific courses like these at our Universities for several years and has made tremendous progress. Using the Freedom of Information Act, he has obtained course materials from several universities. These were not given up easily, but Prof Colquhoun was able to persuade the Information Commissioner that his requests for course materials were in the public interest and the Universities were instructed to hand over them over, enabling Prof Colquhoun to highlight the nonsense taught on them.

One such course was the BSc Hons Homeopathy course at the University of Central Lancashire — which was closed in 2008 — in which students were taught about the intricacies of diluting and shaking water to turn them into hightly potentised 'medicines'. Students at the University of Westminster's BSc in Complementary Therapies were taught that 'amethysts emit high yin energy'.

For further details of this battle, see Prof Colquhoun's blog posts:

{pullquote}amethysts emit high yin energy

–University of Westminster{/pullquote}

Universities still providing these 'science' courses include Edinburgh Napier University and the University of Central Lancashire, but search the UCAS list of subjects to find many more.

University of Westminster

However, the University of Westminster provides more of these courses than any other University in the UK. Their courses include herbalism, acupuncture and naturopathy at BSc, MSc and MSci:

BSc Honours Herbal Medicine

it maintains a holistic approach to treatment, focusing on illness in the person rather than symptoms of disease.

MSc Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture

The Chinese Medical (CM) model has developed from a world view which focuses on qi and cyclical change, expressed in the concepts of yin yang and wuxing (five phases). CM applies these concepts to the person, and describes health and disease in terms of harmonious or disrupted patterns of qi. The concept of ’pattern’ (bianzheng) offers profound insights into the processes of illness and good health, which are becoming increasingly relevant to Western society.

BSc Honours Complementary Medicine: Naturopathy

The core naturopathic techniques include dietary and lifestyle advice, hydrotherapy, the use of compresses and packs, therapeutic massage and soft tissue manipulation. In addition students are introduced to the philosophy, principles and practice of other complementary medicines, particularly homoeopathy and herbal medicine, which provide a wider contextual awareness of complementary healthcare.

Note that homeopathy slips in under the guise of 'naturopathy'.

Such courses devalue the proper science courses taught. At the University of Westminster, these legitimate science courses include biochemistrymicrobiology and molecular biology and genetics. If you think these are incompatible with an institution providing courses in pseudo science, you're not alone.

Prof Colquhoun told the Nightingale Collaboration:

Over the last few years, many universities have closed degrees in several sorts of anti-scientific medicine. Usually the teachers on these courses seem to really believe the dangerous nonsense they teach. Vice-Chancellors of the universities that run these courses presumably do not believe that "amethysts emit high Yin energy", so why do they allow it to be taught?

Is the University of Westminster listening?

In his last blog post (More dangerous nonsense from the University of Westminster: when will Professor Geoffrey Petts do something about it?), Prof Colquhoun asks the University of Westminster's Vice Chancellor, Prof Geoffrey Petts: "Are you listening? I believe it is you, not I, who is bringing your university into disrepute."

Prof Colquhoun also reveals the text of a leaked internal email:

The following courses have been closed/identified for closure due to poor recruitment :

  • BSc degrees in Homeopathy and Remedial Massage & Neuromuscular Therapy, students completing by September 2011
  • MA degrees in International Community development, Community development and Faith-based Community development, students completing by September 2011
  • BSc degree Complementary MedicineGraduate diploma BMS

The following courses have been identified as ‘at risk’ (School definition) and will be discussed at the APRG and University Review Group2, due to poor recruitment and high cost of delivery:

  • Integrated Health Scheme: BSc Complementary Medicine, Naturopathy; BSc Chinese Medicine; BSc Nutritional Therapy; BSc Herbal Medicine

We want to help Prof Petts make up his mind to drop these pseudo scientific and anti-scientific courses.

So, we'd like our supporters to let the University of Westminster know what they think of these courses that give unearned credibility to pseudo science and devalue the real science courses his university offers.

We are focussing on the University of Westminster because they are the biggest provider, but please feel free to choose any other university, particularly if it is your alma mater.

You can email Prof Petts at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or by post to:

Prof Petts
University of Westminster
309 Regent Street

There are many ways of expressing your concerns, but here are some suggested words. Feel free to use them as they are or adapt them to your own style, but it will create a bigger impact if you could write entirely in your own words.

Dear Professor Petts

I am disappointed to see that the University of Westminster is offering courses in naturopathy, herbal medicine, acupuncture and complementary medicine, leading to the award of BSc, MSc and MSci degrees.

I am sure you will be familiar with the powerful arguments against offering these courses, but I would be grateful if you could answer the following:

1. Are you fully aware of the content of these courses?

2. Do you believe that what is being taught in these courses is legitimate and of the required standard of a science degree?

3. Do you agree that offering unscientific courses undermines the legitimate science courses?

4. Do you agree that offering these courses gives false credibility to pseudo scientific nonsense?

5. Do you think that offering these courses is in keeping with the integrity of your institution?

I look forward to receiving your reply.


Another example is:

Dear Professor Petts

I am dismayed to learn that the University of Westminster offers science degree courses in questionable therapies such as naturopathy, herbalism, complementary medicine and acupuncture. Judging by the content of these courses, some of which has been exposed on the internet as pseudo scientific nonsense, it is clearly wrong to describe these subjects as 'sciences' and doing so gives them a credibility they don't merit and I believe this is misleading to applicants and therefore unethical.

That you should offer these courses at all reflects poorly on the University of Westminster as an academic institution. Please stop running them.


Finally, please let us know what reply you receive.