The Alliance for Natural Health lay into ‘skeptics’… including me!

In a strange piece entitled Scepticism and the natural medicine skeptics: not even distantly related, the ANH laid into critics of what they call ‘natural medicine’, even going so far as suggesting we are guilty of intellectual fraud.

When the fruits of the skeptic movement are intellectual fraud, thuggery and empty character assassination, can society be expected to take the movement’s views seriously?

It was a very odd, confusing post. I think there are two possible explanations for it:

  1. Perhaps the ANH have vested interests. It could be that the writer is well aware that the arguments don’t stand up to close scrutiny and this is just a clumsy attempt to smear critics of so-called ‘natural’ medicine.
  2. On the other hand, perhaps the writer really does have a very poor understanding of the scientific method and the history of medicine. Perhaps they genuinely don’t understand why so many scientists and medics are speaking out against ‘natural’ medicine.

Let’s assume the latter explanation is the correct one and address the article in a little more detail. It opens with a waffly bit discussing the meaning of ‘scepticism’.

This concludes:

As such, philosophical scepticism has much in common with, and indeed has greatly influenced, the ideal of the modern scientific method: to objectively question the world around us, while realising that there can be no absolute ‘truth’ – only a balance of probabilities.

Yes – science is all about objectively questioning the world around us. I’m not sure about the ‘absolute ‘truth” bit – I think it rather depends on what is under investigation.

But never mind that. Look at the next paragraph:

…the modern sceptical paradox is that a philosophy based on questioning all sides of a particular argument now finds itself harnessed to the ‘anti-natural’ cause. Such skeptics, typified by organisations such as Sense About Science, appear to find themselves firmly in a pro-GM, pro-mainstream medicine, anti-natural healthcare position. For a start, if scepticism leads us to question all sides of an argument – to reject the intrinsic ‘rightness’ of any position – how can the skeptics be so loudly pro-mainstream medicine and against all the alternatives?

Do I really have to spell this out? Is the writer really that stupid?

Firstly, I’ve never seen Sense About Science actually describe themselves as ‘skeptics’. Secondly, the answer to the question lies – of course – in the scientific method. If we ‘skeptics’ are loudly pro-mainstream medicine (and I don’t think we are, really) then it is because it works and has been proven to do so. We are against alternatives if they have not been proven to work or if they have been proven not to work, especially if they have also been shown to be harmful. That should be easy to understand.

It isn’t a failure to question all sides of an argument, nor does it amount to blindly sticking to dogma. For example, Edzard Ernst and his team at the Peninsula Medicine School at the University of Exeter carried out research into all kinds of complementary and alternative medicines and therapies. If something was shown to do more good than harm, they were not afraid to say so. The problem is that this happened so rarely.

The article continues:

What scientific data are they using to support the very dubious view that genetically modified (GM) crops will resolve world hunger?

That’s not quite what ‘they’ are actually saying. It seems the author of this piece has not actually read the Sense About Science Making Sense of GM guide. While they do address public concerns and common misconceptions about GM, they do not claim that GM will resolve world hunger.

Sense About Science say:

A lot of discussion about GM crops has been about whether or not they solve world hunger, which isn’t a useful discussion because GM is a plant breeding technique, not a social or economic system.

They then go on to explain how GM can be of importance in increasing crop yields without relying on pesticides and fertilisers – for example through plants tolerant to environmental stresses and pests and from land that couldn’t otherwise be used.

Now, if you think the ANH have been getting a bit muddled so far, that was just the beginning. The next bit is truly incredible:

Not only that, but while philosophical scepticism has had enormous influence on the modern scientific process, the modern skeptic turns his or her back on the scientific method by ignoring centuries of human experience – and the clinical experience being gathered every day by practitioners – as ‘anecdote’. Only randomised, controlled trials in human subjects will do to prove any treatment approach worthy of consideration. So, it seems that the ‘pro-science’ ‘skeptics’ are actually in some respects ‘anti-science’, and they’re certainly not sceptics. Their position is effectively a form of intellectual fraud — and that’s being kind.

Either the ANH are very confused here or they’re guilty of intellectual fraud themselves. They say ‘skeptics’ are anti-science because we understand the scientific method – that it’s objective, that it works, and that randomised controlled trials are a good example of it.

For the benefit of those who don’t understand what I mean, I’ll point out the blatantly obvious again. Apologies.

Firstly, anecdotal evidence isn’t dismissed outright – it could suggest that something is worthy of investigation using the scientific method. If someone came to me convinced that an unregulated herbal concoction had done wonders for their arthritis, I’d be sceptical. I might think that perhaps the condition had improved due to the placebo effect, regression to the mean, or a combination of the two. If a good randomised controlled trial showed the herbal concoction to be effective then I might be convinced.

The next paragraph, charmingly entitled Descent into thuggery is where the ANH link to my CANCERactive post (from ‘poisonous articles’):

Chris Woollams runs the charity cancerACTIVE, which provides information on non-mainstream cancer therapies – a red flag for many skeptics, including Prof David Colquhoun of University College London. Colquhoun wrote a piece on his blog accusing Woollams of illegally profiting from cancerACTIVE. When Woollams protested that this was entirely untrue, Colquhoun admitted as much on his blog – without removing the offending article! In the meantime, Colquhoun rallied skeptic friends via Twitter, to pen their own poisonous articles. Colquhoun only removed his defamatory post upon legal advice, presumably that he was guilty of libelling Woollams.

I have a few points to make here:

  • This doesn’t address any of the points I had made (about misleading, inaccurate and dangerously irresponsible information on the CANCERactive site).
  • If David Colquhoun ‘rallied skeptic friends’ then I personally didn’t notice.
  • The fact that David Colquhoun’s post was taken down on legal advice doesn’t necessarily mean it was libellous.
  • It’s interesting that the ANH linked to my post – which doesn’t really address CANCERactive’s charitable status or Woollams’ business affairs – rather than any of the (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) posts which do.

I would rather the Alliance for Natural Health addressed our well considered, evidence-based arguments themselves rather than lumping us all together and calling us thugs and intellectual fraudsters.

Let’s remember that an open and questioning mind is one of the greatest gifts a human being has.

Quite. I implore the ANH to take a dose of their own ‘natural’ medicine and open their questioning minds to the wonders of science.

10 responses to “The Alliance for Natural Health lay into ‘skeptics’… including me!

  1. I left the following feedback, whether they will approve it not is anyone’s guess.

    You are wrong in a number of respects, but I will point out one of the more significant errors, and that relates to CANCERactive and Professor David Colquhoun.

    The digging around the business affairs of CANCERactive and Health Issues was done by me, not Josephine Jones (though she is certainly more than resourceful enough to have done it had she chosen and she is a far nicer and better informed person than I am; maybe you’d be better off if it had been her). Make no mistake, though: if it hadn’t been me then it would have been someone else. I will come back to that later.

    So. When I heard that Chris Woollams had threatened Prof. Colquhoun (who, incidentally, I have never met and know only as a subscriber to his enjoyable blog DC’s Improbable Science) it prompted me to review data I had already checked once in respect of CANCERactive, The Rainbow Foods and Health Issues Ltd. And please note that I did not hear about this threat from Colquhoun, it was a passing comment from someone I follow on Twitter. I believe that Colquhoun was surprised (and probably somewhat relieved) to receive the support he did after the event, he certainly did not solicit any action from me.

    I was, as I say, already aware of the situation with CANCERactive and Woollams, and the strong appearance of conflict of interest and potential problems under the Charities Act and Cancer Act. I had already made a complaint to Buckinghamshire Trading Standards regarding possible breaches of the Cancer Act, and I was told by them that I was not the first and that an investigation was underway. Looking at the facts it seems very much as if investigation of these complaints is what prompted Mr. Woollams to go looking around for a source. Unfortunately I think he picked the wrong one: I do not believe Colquhoun was responsible for the complaints, I don’t think that’s his style and it’s not really his main focus either (he is mainly concerned with “quackademic” degrees).

    Here is what I found when I obtained the public records from the Charity Commissioners and Companies House, summarised (with apologies for any transcription errors) from my blog http://chapmancentral.co.uk/blahg/tag/canceractive/:

    * CANCERactive was co-founded by Chris Woollams.
    * Its website promotes Woollams as “the UK’s number 1 cancer researcher” and promotes his book The Rainbow Diet.
    * For some time the off-the-page links to “products of choice” within the text of articles often characterising those products as cancer treatments, was to chriswoollams4health.com, the website of a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.
    * At some time (and at a point after a number of people I know complained about this irregular and potentially illegal arrangement) the domain changed to therainbowfoods.com, operated by Health Issues Ltd. Health Issues Ltd was founded by Chris Woollams.
    * The domain chriswoollams4health.com redirects to therainbowfoods.com. These two and canceractive.com are all hosted on the same Rackspace server in the UK and all the domains are registered by Chris Woollams.
    * Right up until the day Woollams wrote his diatribe threatening Colquhoun, the postal address of Health Issues Ltd. and CANCERactive was identical.
    * The website of Health Issues Ltd is listed on file at Companies House as canceractive.com.
    * Health Issues Ltd. has two shareholders: CW4H Incorporated (a company registered in Tortola, British Virgin Islands.
    * Health Issues Ltd. shows no turnover and no profit on records. According to the filed returns it appears to have been insolvent for two years but it is still trading.
    * There is a line item in the accounts of CANCERactive for “products of choice”, which approximately matches the profit one would expect given the trade creditor figures for Health Issues Ltd.
    * The charity spends just over a third of its income on it designated charitable aims. This is very much lower than comparable charities.
    * The charity appears to be making a trading profit in excess of the tax-free amount allowed under the rules (this would be, I believe, about £50,000 for a charity with an annual income of around £200,000.

    In summary, then Chris Woollams is inextricably liked in a prominent leading role with the three entities: CANCERactive, Health Issues Ltd (t/a The Rainbow Foods) and the offshore company or companies Chris Woollams 4 Health / CW4H International.

    On the face of it, when questions were asked about this, Chris Woollams changed the address of the trading company and the charity, shuffled some domains and people around, and tried to shut up his critic with threats of a libel writ. I am sure this is not how it looks to him, but it’s what it looks like from the outside given the paper trail he left.

    It should also be noted that Lindsey Fealey is Chris Woollams’ cousin and Stephanie Woollams, the replacement trustee of CANCERactive, is his daughter.

    Now, I am entirely persuaded that Chris Woollams sincerely believes that what he is doing is right, and quite prepared to believe that he is out of pocket and not profiting personally from the operation of this company, but it is undeniable that the arrangement is highly irregular, as Colquhoun pointed out.

    It may also be illegal. It is, under UK law, an offence to “take any part in the publication of any advertisement — (a)containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof”

    Chris Woollams knows this. He has been outspoken against the Cancer Act. As it stands, the accounts returned to date (i.e. up to March 2011) strongly suggest that CANCERactive was advertising products for sale as treatments for cancer. It is also undeniably true that there is no significant separation between the charity and the trading company, and that the principal evidence of a connection (the address) was changed on the very day that Woollams launched his attack.

    I do not think that Chris Woollams is evil. I think he is sincere, confused, frustrated and probably rather frightened. He has set up a charity and a business with the intent of promoting, in good faith, products he believes will help people, but it appears that he has failed to take proper advice as to how this should be done in order to be (and appear to be) legal and ethical. No doubt he was indignant at the implication that he himself profits from the charity, and I am sure he does not, but he failed to realise that the source of the problem was not malice on the part of Colquhoun but puzzlement on the part of many of us at what is, you must surely concede, a most irregular arrangement, involving family members, offshore companies, interconnected internet domains and the like.

    What Chris Woollams should have done, in my opinion, was to take expert legal advice on how properly to establish the legal framework of his charity and his business (and yes, it is fair to call them his) so as to avoid the current rather strong appearance of impropriety. He should then have issued a statement detailing what had been done and explaining that there was no intent to deceive. He did not do this. People are allowed to make mistakes.

    Instead he tried to use libel laws to stifle dissent. Had he done some reading up beforehand, he would probably have realised that this was likely to blow up in his face. Ever since Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association, there has been a strong groundswell in the skeptical community against the libel laws. Libel reform was in the manifestos of all major parties at the last election, and it was Sense About Science, English Pen and others who put it there. Nobody had to issue a rallying cry, the mere fact of the threat was enough to tip the first domino.

    The result has been that the issue of CANCERactive, Health Issues Ltd. and Chris Woollams has received vastly more coverage than it would have done languishing on an inner page in David Colquhoun’s blog, and I personally know of complaints to at least four regulatory bodies about the charity and the company: it has triggered what the skeptical community quaintly calls a quacklash.

    Unfortunately for Mr. Woollams, he poked a hornets’ nest. Was it not obvious that this would happen?

  2. I also posted a comment on the ANH site, but needless to say it has not appeared. A later highly abusive and irrational comment has been approved by the moderator, so draw your own conclusions. Here is what I said:

    Hilarious! You say Skepticat’s report on the Scientific Research in Homeopathy conference is character assassination, when the report details Lionel Milgrom’s character assassination of anyone who criticises homeopathy. You really do not get the logic here. Skeptics are not claiming anything. They are not “so loudly pro-mainstream medicine…”. They are not asserting anything, they are simply asking questions. The question for you is, where is the evidence? But you bizarrely insist that millennia of anecdotes are evidence. No philosopher of science will agree with you. Sorry, but turning the logic on its head won’t wash.

    You have hijacked the word `natural’. There is almost nothing natural about the way humans live today. If we lived naturally, we would die painfully before 40. I don’t care whether you call a treatment natural, I only care if it works.

    And I am deeply miffed that you didn’t notice my blog post which asked questions about CancerACTIVE and Woollams:

    http://majikthyse.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/charity-begins-where/

  3. Stephanie banks

    Loo! let’s talk about the creditbility of the skeptics. Thos that are ‘qualified’ to have a ‘professional opinion about any type of natural medicine.

    Take Professor Ernst for example. Now let’s see if we can question his promotion of the credibility of natural medicine shall we?

    He has no qualification in any genre of complementary medicine according to his CV of 1976 with which he applied for the Laing Chair position. The same CV does not mention any period of employment in a homeopathic hospital as stated several times in several interviews and articles. It is also not mentioned in his CV dated July 2008.

    I find it rather baffling that he applies for a job to test the efficacy of something that he cannot possibly question as he clearly had no qualification in and more imprtantly he failed to mention something as pertinent as a period of employment in a homeopathic hospital on his CV!

    In 1992, the job advert for the Laing Chair read as follows:

    LAING CHAIR IN COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE

    Applications are invited from registered medical practitioners who have an established record for this new Chair endowed by Maurice Laing Foundation. As Britain’s first professorial appointment in the subject, the post is intended to provide an academic focus for the growing interest in the interface between orthodox and complementary medicine.

    The successful candidate, who will be based in the University’s well established Centre for Complementary Health Studies, will be required to develop research into the techniques and effectiveness of the various branches of complementary medicine to encourage the assimilation of appropriate complementary techniques into orthodox medicine, and to engage in teaching.

    The appointment will be for 10 years in the first instance.
    The following questions regarding the job advert highlight the surprising appointment of Mr Ernst to the position:

    1. It mentions in the first sentence that applicants are to be registered medical practitioners, who have an establshed record for this new Chair.
    If this were a discussion about semantics it could be argued that this is not specifically a request for someone who has an established record within the field of complementary medicine but as we are discussing credibility, and surely dealing with above average intelligence, it would be expected that anyone applying for such a position would at least mention in their CV that they had some work experience as a professional in such an establishment as a homeopathic hospital.

    2. The advert states: ‘intended to provide an academic focus for the growing interest in the interface between orthodox and complementary medicine.’

    From my understanding of ‘interface’, it means, a point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc., meet and interact yet the wedge you have created is so big that one can only take from that that your intention was/is to achieve the opposite of what was required according to the job advert.

    3. The advert states ‘to encourage the assimilation of appropriate techniques into orthodox medicine and to engage in teaching.

    AND THE MOST PERTINENT POINT.

    As we are discussing credibility and Mr Ernst has no qualification in any genre of complementary medicine and his purported employment for any such organisation is at best questionable,

    HOW COULD HE BE EXPECTED TO TEACH ANYTHING ABOUT COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE TO ANYONE AS HE HOLDS NO QUALIFICATION IN THE SUBJECT?

    I’m sure he had no preconceived idea or indeed, any hidden agenda as to the outcome of his ‘research’ into CAMs but it still begs the question of,

    WHO HIRED HIM YOU AND WHY?

  4. Stephanie banks

    Sorry about the typing errors!

    • The University appointments committee hired him, and they did so because he met the requirements. The intent of the Laing chair was to inject some science into CAM to replace the arm-waving that had gone before. This Ernst did. He has an impressive list of scientifically sound publications on various CAM modailities, and edits a respected journal on the subject.

      Your problem with Ernst is just that you don’t like what he finds when he turns the lens of science onto your favoured alternative to medicine. I’m sorry, science is not censored for the protection of cherished beliefs. The entire point of science is that it is objective and separate from any question of how many people believe X, Y or Z.

      The advertisement for the Laing chair does not ask for someone who will produce evidence to support and promote CAM. No scientist would apply for such a position as it would be antithetical to the scientific method. The advert says that the successful applicant will “develop research into the techniques and effectiveness of the various branches of complementary medicine to encourage the assimilation of appropriate complementary techniques into orthodox medicine, and to engage in teaching” – and Ernst has undoubtedly fulfilled this aim in spades.

      What you and other CAM proponents seem to miss is the word “appropriate”.

      It would not be appropriate to encourage the assimilation of homeopathy into orthodox medicine for the simple reason that the best evidence shows it does not work. What is appropriate is to investigate what it is that makes people think it works, and the way it triggers the placebo effect, and integrate any scientifically useful elements of this into orthodox medicine. A CAM believer will not do that, they will merely continue the effort to wedge empirically unverifiable nonsense into the mainstream. Integrative medicine is a canard: valid complementary therapies such as massage and psychology are already integrated into medicine; the goal of integrative medicine as framed is to integrate medicine with nonsense. That is, in scientific terms, fraudulent. Science does not do that.

      So, your problem is that you have failed to properly account for the fact that the Laing chair, framed as it is in terms of science, cannot deliver what you want, which is a veneer of support for unscientific and pseudoscientific claims. This has nothing to do with the identity of the appointee.

      As an aside, the way in which Ernst was hounded for failing to support “policy-based evidence” over evidence-based policy is shameful. Again, this is not how science is conducted, it was politics, not science. Ernst’s science remains sound – and that is why the world of CAM hates him and why CAM manufacturers have paid journalists to rubbish him in print.

      Your beliefs conflict with reality. It is your beliefs that are wrong, not reality.

  5. Stephanie –

    You are attacking the person rather than addressing their arguments – exactly what the ANH did in calling my CANCERactive article ‘poisonous’. You have not made a single point regarding Professor Ernst’s actual research, which because it was rigorous and of a high quality, did not usually reach conclusions which complementary and alternative therapists wanted to hear. Because of this, Ernst has been more or less hounded out of his job and has been the victim of personal attacks and smear campaigns.

    You ask “WHO HIRED HIM YOU AND WHY?” We know who hired him. It is a matter of public record and is already discussed above.

    Who hired me? Are you suggesting I’m paid to do this? I can assure you that I am not. However, it has been discovered that a consortium of pharmaceutical companies in Germany have been paying a journalist €43,000 to denigrate Ernst (http://www.quackometer.net/blog/2012/07/german-homeopathy-companies-pay-journalist-who-smears-uk-academic.html).

    Before you question my motives again, it would be interesting to learn about yours.

  6. I’m quite surprised to see the ANH approving comments by @majikthyse and have decided to put a comment there myself. Whether it will emerge from moderation remains to be seen.

    Here it is:

    “You aren’t interested in publishing malicious gossip or character assassination? Then I ask you read through the above post with an open mind. Think about what it is saying. Think about what it really means.

    It seems to me that you are basically lumping together all those who disagree with you under the ‘skeptics’ banner then accusing us all – baselessly – of intellectual fraud and thuggery. I would consider this to be malicious and an attempt at character assassination. It is also based on a truly incredible twisting of facts. Either that or a total lack of understanding of what the scientific method is and a lack of appreciation of all the medical advances that have happened because of the application of science.

    As you will no doubt be aware, Guy Chapman’s unapproved comment has been published on my own blog, where I go into more detail about my problems with this article. His comment does not constitute ‘gossip’ – it is a simple summary of plain facts already published on his own posts about CANCERactive.

    I note that you linked to my CANCERactive post using the words ‘poisonous articles’. My CANCERactive post was well considered and tactful; I didn’t mean to be vicious or ‘poisonous’. I was merely voicing legitimate concerns – which you have completely failed to address. My post was not about Chris Woollams’ business affairs or CANCERactive’s charitable status – unlike the 6 other posts which were – including posts from Les Rose and Guy Chapman.

    Another comment here states “so-called “skeptics” are nothing more than paid propagandists for the corporate system, utilizing what can only be termed as drive-by shooting tactics in their vain attempts to discredit the natural health and organic foods communities.”. You saw fit to publish this – which is not only malicious but also untrue. This could be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to smear critics. That is what you might call defamation.

    Apologies for writing my own post before even commenting here – I truly did not expect you to publish anything I might write. In light of you publishing the comment by Les Rose, perhaps I was being unfair. No matter. I plan to publish this on my own blog in any case.”

  7. Edzard Ernst himself has written a post today about the “LITTLE H-sponsored character assassin”, here: http://www.thetwentyfirstfloor.com/?p=4424

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