University of Westminster, I still believe you are teaching pseudoscience degrees and am surprised your Life Sciences people think otherwise

In June, I emailed Professor Geoffrey Petts, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Westminster, in support of the Nightingale Collaboration’s Focus of the Month ‘Pseudo science by degrees‘.

He did not reply to me personally but sent this response to the Nightingale Collaboration. Since I was unimpressed by this and have now given up hope of receiving a personal reply from Professor Petts, I have emailed him the following:

Dear Professor Petts,

I would still be interested to hear your thoughts on my email (below) of 8th June.

I note that the Nightingale Collaboration expressed similar concerns and received a reply from you in July, in which you stated that the approach at Westminster is very much a scientific one and that Universities such as Westminster are in the best position to undertake the research underpinning CAM practice. Having read a little more about some of the courses on offer at Westminster, I do not believe that this can be the case.

For example, I have just been reading about the BSc (Hons) course offered in Chinese Medicine Acupuncture. Clearly, a BSc course ought to be based on science. This means any study of alternative medicine as part of a BSc course should be based on scientific principles and evidence. Concepts such as qi do not make sense in terms of modern understanding of human biology and despite several studies on acupuncture, no evidence has been found that phenomena such as qi actually exist. Furthermore, when acupuncture has been subjected to scientific scrutiny (in the form of high quality placebo controlled trials), there has been little evidence of efficacy found for nausea and some types of pain and no evidence of efficacy for other conditions.

As stated below, I think subjecting alternative therapies to scientific scrutiny in this way is interesting and important work. It is clear however, that this scientific approach is not the one taken at Westminster. You stated in your reply to the Nightingale Collaboration that students are taught to ‘discern for themselves what is found to work (or not) in practice’. This is not how science works. I therefore feel this is not an appropriate way to teach BSc and MSc courses.

I find it surprising that colleagues from your school of Life Sciences do not share the legitimate concerns of the Nightingale Collaboration.

I await your reply.

UPDATE (11/08/11)

David Colquhoun has just published an interesting post regarding this topic on his Improbable Science blog, entitled ‘Professor Geoffrey Petts of the University of Westminster says they “are not teaching pseudo-science”. The facts show this is not true

UPDATE (08/09/11)

Edzard’s Ernst’s Pulse article on this topic has attracted some interesting comments from alternative health practitioners.

For example after accusing Ernst, Randi and Goldacre of being ‘pseudoscientists’, one homeopath goes on to assert that there are verifiable biochemical tests for high dilutes, that water does indeed store and transmit information thorugh its hydrogen bonded network and that smallpox was wiped out by homeopathy. Incredible.

One response to “University of Westminster, I still believe you are teaching pseudoscience degrees and am surprised your Life Sciences people think otherwise

  1. I think that this is very interesting, especially as students are now being charged up to £9k per year. If the unis don’t fully teach a ‘science degree’ could they end up being sued for misrepresentation, or even more?


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