Hot foul air

November 1st, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, homeopathy, mondo academico, nutritionists, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications | 78 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
Saturday 1st November 2008

Guy Ritchie has cancelled Madonna’s order for tens of thousands of pounds worth of special Kabbalah water to fill their swimming pool. It’s always uncomfortable when we have to humour someone close to us in the name of avoiding conflict. Right now in Thames Valley University, for example, entire science departments must be feeling slightly embarrassed about their degrees in quackery. Because despite the refusal of all universities to openly disclose what they teach on these – uniquely their ideas must be shielded from critical appraisal – the leaks keep coming, and Professor David Colquhoun of UCL continues to archive the comedy on his website.

This latest batch of course notes from TVU sound more like religious evangelism than science. “Students and practitioners alike are frequently subject to negative expressions and even frank hostility from relatives… it is therefore best to be forewarned that your adherence to ‘alternative’ principles will be tested in these ways.” They talk about magical fields that cannot be detected by instruments, as if this were a personality flaw on the part of physicists, and so on.

This is not an isolated incident. The Centre for Nutrition Education and Lifestyle Management is headed by someone from Patrick Holford‘s Institute for Optimum Nutrition. You might be surprised to discover that there is a university BSc degree available from an institution where the front cover of the prospectus reads: “Caring for and Nurturing our future Evolution through the successful support of our genetic code”, but there it is, validated by Middlesex University.  What they offer is in fact a mixture of nutritionism and a self help method called “Neurolinguistic Programming”, which developed in the 1970s out of the New Age movement.

The University of Westminster have consistently failed to offer me or Colquhoun meaningful information about their degree courses. The University of Central Lancashire has turned down (several times) a request from David Colquhoun under the Freedom of Information Act to see the teaching materials used on their homeopathy BSc. But we do have – via David – an authentic leaked exam paper from the University of Westminster Homeopathy BSc degree course finals, asking questions about miasma.

Miasmatic theory originated in the Middle Ages and lasted until the middle of the 19th century, when diseases like cholera and plague were believed to be spread by foul air, known as miasmas. John Snow showed in 1854 that cholera was spread through contaminated water – nothing to do with “miasmas” – and Robert Koch discovered the micro organism that causes the disease in 1883. If you know someone with cholera then do try and get hold of a sample of their watery diarrhoea, you should be able to see Vibrio cholerae under a £14.99 microscope from Argos, if you borrow some stain from a friendly microbiologist. Make sure you wash your hands afterwards, and don’t bite your fingernails during the experiment.

In fact, the story that science can tell about cholera is well characterised and fiendishly fascinating. If you swallow some cholera bacteria, they shut down to pass through your murderously acidic stomach, and then, when they detect (from the changed chemical environment) that they are in your small intestine, they start producing curly whip-like tails. These rotate to propel the bacteria through the pasty mucus that lines your small intestine, and up against the intestinal wall, where they can thrive.

Once here, they again respond to their changed chemical surroundings, and stop producing the tails, and instead, start producing cholera toxin. This toxin pulls chloride ions across the bowel wall, and so water is drawn across with them, by osmosis, from your blood supply and into the passageway of your small intestine.

This happens on a massive scale: your small intestine is suddenly full of water, which flies out of your arse at a phenomenal rate, carrying the multiplying and thriving new generations of Vibrio cholerae bacteria out into the drinking water and so on to the next host, chillingly, perhaps your brother, perhaps your girlfriend – unless proper sanitation measures are in place.

Meanwhile, as this water flies out of you, dehydration rapidly begins to set in, and the only thing you can do to save your life is make sure you consume – almost continuously – the right mixture of dilute salt water and sugar, to replace the blood’s water and salts lost in the diarrhoea.

And fascinatingly, the single most successful evidence-based medical treatment in the history of humankind is something you’ve probably never heard of: the WHO rehydration recipe, used to treat people with diarrhoea, which has saved 3 million lives a year for the past two decades. In fact, diarrhoea kills more young children around the world than malaria, AIDS and TB combined.

You can fix yourself a pair of pints in your own kitchen following this deliberately memorable recipe: simply stir one level teaspoon of salt, and eight level teaspoons of sugar, into one litre (5 cupfuls) of drinkable water. Then sit back on your balcony, toast the fact that you don’t really have cholera, and savour the flavour of a drink that saves one child’s life every 11 seconds. Imagine being a part of inventing that. If I was going to teach anything on a science degree, it wouldn’t be miasma, and it wouldn’t be a secret.

Important Note:

In the article above, I failed to distinguish satisfactorily between the fantastical miasmatic theory of disease in the middle ages and the fantastical miasmatic theory of disease as meant by some homeopaths, two equally fantastical theories (note) about the causes of disease. This will make the homeopaths fizz like a bag of wasps.

Now this distinction may, to you, feel a bit like those mediaeval philosophers’ heated debates about the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin, but we must respect the belief systems of others, and more than that, accuracy is important. I’ve already let the Readers’ Editor know about this important error and will keep you updated on the progress of my complaint about my own work.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

78 Responses

  1. rambaut said,

    November 1, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Perhaps this may have some indication of what is in it:

    To quote (an this is citing the thesis):
    “Only astrology was significant at the 10% level (P = .056)” – so that would be non-significant then.

    Just reading this brief description shows this to be a highly dubious study: “In a group of 27 women (N = 114 treatments)” – there is no way these can be considered independent.

    The citation for the thesis does say it is available through the British Library.

  2. le canard noir said,

    November 1, 2008 at 10:00 am

    Imagine if poor old Guy Richie was now forced to live with Madge and all her Kabalah friends. We hear from the Times Higher that the School of ‘Integrated Health’ is to merge with the School of Biosciences at Westminster University. Apparently, there has been a ‘near-riot among Biosciences School staff’. Who can blame them?

  3. Nick Gibbins said,

    November 1, 2008 at 10:28 am


    When you say that access to this thesis is restricted, what exactly do you mean? According to the library catalogue, the hardcopy of the thesis is available in the university library (as well as from the BL, as others have indicated).

    Southampton doesn’t yet have an institution-wide repository for storing theses electronically; the requirement to store theses electronically has only been mandated for theses submitted from this academic year (2008-2009) onwards. Currently, online availability of theses varies from school to school within the University; it doesn’t look as though the School of Social Sciences has been putting any of its theses online.

    Quite simply, I think that you’re seeing a conspiracy where none exists.

    (note: I’m a lecturer in computer science at UoS. My partner is an academic librarian, also at UoS, and is heavily involved in Southampton’s e-Theses programme)

  4. Gareth Rees said,

    November 1, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Shame the editor cut the recipe from the published article. I guess the paper is paranoid that someone will try self-treatment and then sue them when something goes wrong.

  5. Pro-reason said,

    November 1, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    It’s pretty scary that you can get a degree in magic these days.

    On another note, I see that the mini-blog is being polluted by multiple stories about People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It’s not appropriate to mix up your personal anti-animal-rights stance with the anti-woo stuff. But, OK, it’s your website so you’ll keep on doing it.

  6. Ken Zetie said,

    November 1, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    Ben’s recipe is also a cheap and cheerful rehydration sports drink. You could, of course, pay about £5 for a few tablespoons of something magical to add to your drinks bottle (and get yourself some free plastic packaging to throw into landfill as a bonus) and feel good about drinking a professionally made product. But funnily enough salt and sugar solution at the same electrolytic balance as plasma seems to do the trick just as well.

  7. Sili said,

    November 1, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Thank you for the public naming and shaming. Someone should organise a happening, putting up big signs in front of these shameful institutions.

    ‘Pro-reason’, at least you recognise that this is Goldacre’s sie, and he can post whatever he damn well pleases. We’re all free to stop reading at out leisure. The idea that animals have ‘rights’ is indeed ever so much woo to most of us.

  8. Toenex said,

    November 1, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    If we reintroduce a belief in witchcraft then at least we could burn some of these people.

  9. Nebbish said,

    November 1, 2008 at 3:52 pm

    @Nick Gibbins

    Since you’re at Southampton you should be able to obtain a copy very easily. But you won’t be able to get this one, just try. Let us all know how you get on.

    It hasn’t been indefinitely restricted, just as long as their rules will allow them to.

  10. peterd102 said,

    November 1, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    @Pro-Reason, So 2 links on 1 topic is pollution of the miniblog? Ben doesnt make any statements on animal rights, just that PETA are acting rather bizzarly by trying to rebrand fish as ‘sea kittens’. PETA have actually provoked a Penn and Teller B.S episode on them.

    You are right though, it is scary to have degrees in magic. I am personally a little scared of those who practice these things as I don’t get a sense that they live in the real world.

    Just one thing about the recipe, the water is usually boiled to make sure you aren’t ingesting more of the virus, which allows you immune system to act. (Learn’t this from the Horrible Science books lol)

  11. Daibhid C said,

    November 1, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    I’ve actually got a degree in magic from Unseen University. (£7 from the Discworld merchandise people.) It’s probably worth at least as much as a BSc in Homeopathy.

    On the other subject, I’m a vegetarian with a strong belief in animal rights, and I have long been of the opinion that PETA exists purely to discredit the animal rights lobby by making increasingly ridiculous announcements.

  12. indigochild said,

    November 1, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    I’ve got to call bullshit on the assertion about Neurolinguistic Programming coming from the New Age movement. As far as I understand it, it’s a series of observations culled from Noam Chomskys linguistics work coupled with some reverse engineering of therapy sessions with some notable practising psychologists of the seventies. I’ve always been impressed with it, so I’ll note my bias, but that it’s been used for bad science is kind of unfortunate. It’s really a rather elegant formalisation.

  13. brainduck said,

    November 1, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    Pro-reason – I’m a stroppy vegan, & I think PETA are being idiots by basing their entire argument on ‘cuteness’, and am angry that they thereby mess up sensible animal welfare / rights arguments.
    It’s very much the same situation as people like DORE messing up proper Ed Psych research – the whole field is made a laughing stock ’till it’s difficult to take any of it seriously.

  14. elder_pegasus said,

    November 1, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    Agree that the links on PETA doesn’t count as anti-animal-rights; firstly since it’s easy to argue that PETA activities aren’t furthering animal rights, and secondly trying to “rebrand” creatures for political reasons surely consitutes bad science! I mean “sea kittens”? Kitten = infant cat, so sea kitten = infant sea cat. Small passenger ferry maybe?

  15. thom said,

    November 1, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    Indigochild: NLP is a mish-mash of all sorts of wierd stuff (only some of it New Age). The link to Chomsky’s work is pure bullshit – Chomsky’s seminal work was a formal analysis of grammar. NLP nicked lots of technical sounding terms from linguistics, psychology and neuroscience but it really a talking therapy for little or no evidence base. Having said that, there is lots of evidence that some talking therapies work and thus NLP might work also … The last time I looked (a few years back) there were few if any proper studies of NLP. In particular, there was no evidence for the more outrageous claims of some NLP practitioners (e.g., near 100% rates of curing drug addiction).

    Ben: The edited Guardian version of this was probably one of your best pieces to date: very tightly written. (I find it hard to judge the online version as I read it second).

    Although I’m a veggie, I too think PETA are being daft. Anyway – not all the miniblog links are BadScience related and I quite enjoy the randomness of some of them.

  16. Dr* T said,

    November 1, 2008 at 11:12 pm

    Thom – I think the sentemce about Madge and her holy water being cut from the dead tree version makes the new first sentence a bit disconnected.
    But a good piece nonetheless.

  17. Mehitabel-III said,

    November 1, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    Generally, medical doctor must know that main medicine against cholera is antibiotics of tetracycline group. And dehydration therapy is merely symptomatic therapy.
    And it is necessary to distinguish cholera diarrhea and non-specific diarrhea.

    Or is it new thing for you? Did you study pharmacology and pharmacotherapy?
    It is base knowledge for persons with medical diploma.

    By the way, buddy… I notice that you do such things not in the first time, unfortunately…. Next time when you will want to write anything medical, please, read medical textbook ar first. Sorry, I don’t intend to offend you at all! However, the mistakes (or even over-simplifications like above!) in post of main quackbaster is impermissible and inexcusable thing.
    Don’t be angry. OK?
    You are brave chap.
    Thank you.

  18. indigochild said,

    November 1, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    Thom, I know that the NLP concept of deep and surface linguistic structure was from Chomsky’s original work, and much of the analytical side of the metamodel is concerned with it.
    The New-Agey stuff is a result of having belief as a core component for anything to succeed: which can, obviously, take on a hemp fabric interpretation.
    As for the argy-bargy with people promising things they can’t deliver… C’est la vie.

  19. rjmunro said,

    November 2, 2008 at 2:39 am

    Surely “Caring for and Nurturing our future Evolution through the successful support of our genetic code” is just a nice way to say “eugenics”, or maybe just “have lots of children”.

    @Mehitabel-III (comment 21)

    Are you saying that if you have cholera diarrhoea you shouldn’t take the WHO rehydration recipe?

  20. Mehitabel-III said,

    November 2, 2008 at 3:35 am

    To rjmunro

    “@Mehitabel-III (comment 21)

    Are you saying that if you have cholera diarrhoea you shouldn’t take the WHO rehydration recipe?”

    Why have you decided so, my dear? 😉 Not at all!
    Symptomatic therapy is obligative component of whole cure! However, main (leading) component of cholera cure is an etiotropic therapy, i.e. antibacterial treatment.
    The cure/treatment is a whole complicated system. Medical schools/depts/faculties specially teach this subject to their students.

  21. peterd102 said,

    November 2, 2008 at 4:00 am

    Right, just to clear things up here for people reading. There are 3 main topics being discussed. PETA, NLP and Dehydration/Cholera.

    To speak on the latter, im pretty sure that in most cases the immune system is capable of handling the virus, it is only because the virus weakens the immune system by reducing the amount of vital salts in the body that the virus survives. The virus isnt completly immune to stomach acid, which is why it spreads through the water supply, as that dilutes the acid. There have been cases of people who have ingested the virus and not become seriously sick for this reason.

  22. Pro-reason said,

    November 2, 2008 at 5:36 am

    Brainduck, judging PETA’s campaigns to be worthy but not clever enough is one thing, but that’s not the vibe I’m getting from Ben’s little snippets.

    I’m never actually seen a PETA stunt, advert or press release. I only see people’s clueless reactions to them. I basically know them as “that organisation towards which all those Americans on line periodically express their deep hatred”. For example, PETA joked about how Hamburg could change its name to protest against the slaughter industry. I never saw their communiqué. I only saw fools who spewed vitriol about how stupid and evil they thought PETA was for trying to change city names and not understanding etymology.

    It is those people who are so silly that what they say looks like a parody of themselves. PETA, on the other hand, is simply an ethical organisation whose tactics apparently work. I imagine that many people only know PETA through others’ reactions, and that many of them have now donated.

    Rebranding a creature is nothing to do with science, and therefore not “bad science”. The attempt to shoe-horn it into that category is indicative of a desire to dismiss the issue.

    Pointing out that people value cats more than fish because of aesthetics is the very opposite of basing their argument on cuteness. They are saying that we should avoid cruelty to all creatures regardless of appearance. They show that the difference is all in the mind. They make people think.

  23. Pro-reason said,

    November 2, 2008 at 5:48 am

    Back to the holy water and the degrees in magic. Ben’s right about how awkward it is.

    I do some private tutoring, and I realised a while ago that one of my students has some sort of college qualification in naturopathy. He admits that it included homœopathy.

    He told me about how he cured his cat’s shyness with a vial of magic water that he’d imported from Germany.

    It’s embarrassing to sit and listen to this sort of nonsense. You want to be frank, but you don’t want to be rude either.

    P.S. Maybe I could get some Kabbalah water, get it blessed in a Catholic font, then add some snake oil, dilute it ×1000 (not forgetting to succuss), and perhaps wave some crystals over it too. Could I sell it as extra-double super-duper magic water? It’d be worth its weight in platinum! Handy against zombies, too.

  24. barbelith said,

    November 2, 2008 at 10:15 am

    Ben: thanks for the deserved paean to the WHO formula. I first found out about it in Michael Foxton’s article on hangovers at in 2003 — that one said a pint of water rather than a litre, though Wikipedia says that the WHO have recently revised the recipe to be weaker, so maybe that’s why. Either way, works a treat as a hangover cure or prophylactic! I also found out recently that it’s far cleverer than I had realized, in that those particular concentrations allow it to be absorbed by a mechanism which the bacteria don’t interfere with… well yes, the biochemistry is a bit beyond me.

    I was also pleased to be reminded of Snow’s lovely bit of epidemiology — I think I came across his outbreak map in Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” (recommended reading for all badscience fans, and far far more exciting than the title!) and it is a thing of beauty.

    @Mehitabel-III — Ben wrote that “the only thing you can do to save your life is make sure you consume – almost continuously – the right mixture…” which presumably you’re not actually disputing. If you don’t get antibiotics, you will probably live; if you don’t get rehydration therapy, you will definitely die. If it pleases you to call the former the “main (leading) component”, fine, but I know which I’d pick if I could only have one. You should also perhaps bestow some of your wisdom upon the WHO, whose guide at foolishly claim that “Start oral rehydration with ORS” is the very first thing you should do, and antibiotics should be given for “cases with severe dehydration only”.

  25. Andrew_F said,

    November 2, 2008 at 10:20 am

    The sea kitten thing was amusing (and I believe was intended to be so). However, PETA are obnoxious for other reasons, mostly (in my view) revolving around the fact that they appear more focussed on posters of naked women than their message. (Try googling PETA feminism or words to that effect)

  26. barbelith said,

    November 2, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Ahem. On re-reading my post I note a certain ambiguity. Please read “hangover cure and prophylactic” as “hangover cure and [hangover] prophylactic” (that is, drink it before going to bed). Please do not read it as “hangover cure, and furthermore, prophylactic”: I will not be held responsible for the consequences. Generally, badscience reader must know that main medicine against pregnancy is condoms of latex rubber group!

  27. drunkenoaf said,

    November 2, 2008 at 11:22 am

    Hmm. Tharr be trolls here today.

    1. The miniblog. Loved the Adam Buxton stuff. That’s not anti-woo, neither is the ridiculous (and I say this as a lifelong vegetarian) PETA kitten sh**e. The truely badscience and offensive PETA autism “data” was truly deserving of derison though. I think my point is that it’s just Ben’s bookmrks of things that amuse him or interest him. To scrutinize it beyond that is madness.

    2. Antibiotics treat cholera. Well done, Sherlock. I’m certain Doctor Goldacre knows this, and I think mehitabel-III is trolling by misrepresenting what’s been written.

    Damn. Fed the trolls.

  28. thom said,

    November 2, 2008 at 11:49 am

    indigochild: “I know that the NLP concept of deep and surface linguistic structure was from Chomsky’s original work, and much of the analytical side of the metamodel is concerned with it.”

    My point is they borrowed the words not the ideas. Deep structure and surface structure terms relating to formal analysis of grammar. For eaxmple:

    ‘It is tempting to regard deep structures as representing meanings and surface structures as representing sentences expressing those meanings, but this is not the concept of deep structure favoured by Chomsky’

    I belabour the point a bit because it is quintessential bad science to nick terms like “deep structure” or “energy” and misapply or distort them to make pseudoscience sound like science. The NLP is maybe a marginal case – because much of psycholinguistics in the 60s did a similar thing (albeit often acknowledging that they were taking a different stance to Chomsky).

    Dr* T: That occurred to me in retrospect – but it didn’t feel odd at the time. In the Guardian I think it (inadvertently?) engaged me and I finally resolved it in para 2 with the quote about relatives.

  29. thom said,

    November 2, 2008 at 11:59 am

    peterd102: “Right, just to clear things up here for people reading. There are 3 main topics being discussed. PETA, NLP and Dehydration/Cholera.”

    I vote for a 4th thread on astrology and statistics. The p = .056 statistic was for a logistic regression with 55 cases and 40 participants. Even if we ignore the likely biases in timing and reporting, Rambaut’s point about indepedence of observations is important. Logistic regression can’t readily deal with such correlated cases and will effectively inflate N (hence artificially decreasing p). We don’t have full details of the analysis but the analysis reported is very dodgy.


  30. Mehitabel-III said,

    November 2, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Hmm… Interstingly! 😉
    One comment (about huge authority of WHO) has disappeared from here just now :) And I wanted to answer, reminding one interesting story (about homeopathy and WHO) where WHO showed itself as non-very-competent-organization … 😉

    However other comment has appeared – about authority of Ben.
    Well! No problem! I don’t doubt in Ben’s authority and I am sure that he KNOWS… :)

  31. JQH said,

    November 2, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    If you are referring to barbelith’s comment that WHO reccomend starting with oral rehydration – it is still there.

    Can’t find a comment about the “authority of Ben” though.

    You’re just trolling.

  32. The Biologista said,

    November 2, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Shocking to think that miasma theory is still being taught as fact in a modern university. I’m very much confused as to how this can be allowed to continue? How is it possible, in accredited universities, that degree courses can be set up and run with no requirement for transparency or veracity?

  33. warhelmet said,

    November 2, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    I thought that TVU were in trouble and looking to sell the Slough campus for a housing development, but I might just be reading the news stories wrong…

    One of my favourite bon mots is “Eugenics begins at home”. Hopefully that should raise a laugh.

    As for the various “universities” not supplying yourself or Prof. Colquoun with info – maybe time to talk to They should supply you with a refusal notive explaining the reason why. Can’t see it being a public interest issue, so it must be a vexatious request. I assume that the organisations in question do constitute public authorities?

    I’ve read elsewhere of some public authorities not playing ball with the Freedom of Information Act and hoping that the requester will go away.

    The idea of BSc being offered in quackery is offensive. They should be BAs.

  34. warhelmet said,

    November 2, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    I’ve had a lot of run-ins with people who expound the virtues of the NLP training they have had. I tend to make a crucifix with my fingers as if warding off a vampire. Of course, it’s flakey new age stuff that embraces a model of mind that there is no evidence for.

    But my main gripe was the ammount of money it costs. My understanding is that if you ignore the baggage there are some techniques in there that people might find useful. They can be bought elsewhere for less and without the baggage.


  35. warhelmet said,

    November 2, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    I used to have Sea Monkeys.

    Artemia salina x nyos

  36. Mehitabel-III said,

    November 2, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    And are you a moderator here? The admin exists here. And he will decide himself who is troll and who isn’t.
    Moreover, I don’t insist on mutual understanding with British public. I know well that low level of British education (including university education) doesn’t allow British public to talk with me adequately 😉

    Do you want some evidences? No problem!
    Ben said rightly that “Professor David Colquhoun of UCL continues to archive the comedy on his website.” Look at one personage of this comedy:
    Do you see the comment of some “notawitchdoctor”? Oh, what a pathos! This personage really think that he/she is specialist But – try to read attentively his/her speech. Do you see? No? OK! I’ll rub your nose into the fact. Here is a quote from his/her comment:
    “I would also request that anyone who is willing to give me £60,000 to complete my PhD in Pharmacology, focusing on plant-based materials that kill the Tuberculosis virus, contact me here.”

    Tuberculosis VIRUS!!!! 😯

    Well… I am not native speaker, so I’ve consulted a dictionary – maybe the word “virus” has more broad meaning in English… Yes, it has.
    BUT!!! In context above – author had not a right to use broad meaning. Moreover, I am sure, he/she didn’t use this broad meaning. Simply he/she doesn’t know.
    Person with university diploma! However this creature knows how to mump £60,000 !

    It is a level of education of British public. Not simply “British public”.
    It is level of “educated public” with special medical skills!

  37. Nero said,

    November 2, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    I have no comment to make re Mehitabel-III posts here but you may be interested to read his previous posts on this blog.


  38. Jamie Horder said,

    November 3, 2008 at 12:51 am

    I’d respond to Mehitabel but I’m actually so ill educated that I can’t read. So I don’t know what he’s saying. Tragic really.

  39. Mehitabel-III said,

    November 3, 2008 at 1:03 am

    Oh!! Not only “read”!
    “Write” too! 😉
    So I’ll never read a nonsense which you could write! :)

  40. notzed said,

    November 3, 2008 at 2:37 am

    Were you being sarcastic? Or is it a newspaper thing? Why exactly should we respect another’s belief, when it is so clearly bunkum?

    People have the right to be respected – but their hair-brained silly idea’s have no rights, nor do they deserve any. If they choose to be offended by that, then it is their own problem.

  41. Budicius said,

    November 3, 2008 at 2:47 am

    Does it matter how we arrive at the aetiology of disease, whether it be miasma, bacterial, immaterial, demonic possession, or chemical imbalance? What matters is effective treatment. Why can’t something that worked for a headache a thousand years ago work for a headache today, regardless of what they thought the headache was caused by back then to what we think it’s caused by today?
    Most of you would agree with the meta-analysis we’re all familiar with that Homoeopathy works no better than placebo. Atleast it’s agreed that Homoeopathy works.

  42. JQH said,

    November 3, 2008 at 12:24 pm


    The individual concerned appears to be studying possible herbal remedies for tubercolosis. Finding a CAMmer who doesn’t know the differencebetween a virus and a bacterium is no great surprise!

    What was your point exactly? A herbalist is ignorant as to the cause of a disease, therefore homeopathy works? Does not follow.

    @ Budicius. It matters how we arrive at the aetiology of a disease because by getting it right pharmacologists can devise more effective treatments. Homeopathy works as well as placebo but evidence based medicine works considerably better.

  43. le canard noir said,

    November 3, 2008 at 1:06 pm

    Budicius makes the basic error about placebos when saying “Most of you would agree with the meta-analysis we’re all familiar with that Homoeopathy works no better than placebo. Atleast it’s agreed that Homoeopathy works.”

    No – homeopathy works no better than a placebo. If a placebo cannot help a particular condition then nor can homeopathy.

  44. cvb said,

    November 3, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    I think most of us would agree that the only way homeopathy can possibly work is as a placebo.

  45. indigochild said,

    November 3, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    I made, and I don’t think there is any assertion in NLP that surface structure is sentences and deep structure is meanings, unless you read the business press renderings like “NLP: Stuff your pockets with cash!” and other such memorable titles. Ok, so deep structure is no longer a current part of transformational linguistics, presumably because there are now more accurate models, and that’s exactly the point. What NLP shares with Homoeopathy is a willingness to believe anything, which is why it is so vulnerable to misrepresentation, because it rejects the notion of objectivity whilst reflecting (recursion) on mind. The difference, and this is key, is that there is reason to believe anything whilst you’re trying to find out why people think and do as they do. That it is being used like this is the shortest University Degree in the world, it’s one word: placebo. Send in money and receive your degree certificate.

  46. The Biologista said,

    November 3, 2008 at 5:36 pm


    Are you seriously suggesting that knowing the root cause of a disease is not relevant? That we should treat the disease as some black box and just throw treatments into it until it goes away? Know the disease, inside and out, and you’ll see ways to treat it that would have been unimaginable otherwise.

    As to homoeopathy- it works as well as placebo, sure. But sugar pills are cheaper, and they’re not packaged in notions and language that devalues actual science. This is not a tough call, homoeopathy is total crap and should not be taught by anyone, anywhere for any reason.

  47. mikewhit said,

    November 3, 2008 at 7:20 pm

    Sounds as if Harry Enfield’s “I saw you coming” has missed a trick with Ms. Ciccone …

  48. warhelmet said,

    November 4, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    @John No-Name

    Woo. Simon Singh had something to say

    It’s suggestion and misdirection. Both existed before NLP.

    Remarkably effective sales and negotiating tool? I don’t think that it is. If it were, organisations that invest in it would have stellar performance and the reality is that they don’t. The claims that some NLP practitioners make for cold reading are overblown.

    Which is by-the-by. The big issue is whether NLP should be taught as a theraputic technique in so-called universities.

    It has been suggested that NLP may have some theraputic value because it is a talking therapy rather than anything unique about NLP.

    Let me put it this way – I’m suffering from a mental illness at the moment (cough) and I would not let an NLP therapist anywhere near me.

  49. thom said,

    November 4, 2008 at 11:54 pm

    John: I don’t think there is any evidence that Derren Brown is using NLP.

    e.g., see warhelmet’s post or

    What is pretty certain is that NLP borrows from hypnosis and may involve suggestion. I remember reading an analysis of NLP by Dr Michael Heap (available on his web site, I think) that discusses the similarities (in the 80s).

    My objection to NLP is largely the lack of evidence base and the overblown claims by some practitioners. Most talking therapies seem to be better than control/waiting list (but can have dangerous consequences analagous to side-effects if the therapist is incompetent or misbehaves). There are a few therapies with good evidence base for specific psychological problem (notably various forms of CBT). I have little sympathies for therapies like NLP because they’ve been around for a long time – long enough for a fair number of decent evaluations to be conducted. It isn’t that difficult to to decent evaluations if therapists are keen to.

    As an aside – Derren Brown is very interesting. I have no idea how he does a lot of the stuff he does, but a 5 minute conversation with an illusionist down the pub a few years back convinced me that some of the psychological tricks fall into the ‘blindingly obvious once pointed out category’. Nevertheless, Derren Brown is clearly pretty outstanding as a ‘cold reader’ and presumably a damn fine illusionist. He is also pretty current with the psychological literature (e.g., I’ve seen him do a perfect demonstration of phenomena like inattentional blindness on street – as opposed to inside a lab).

    He has clearly studied the academic literature on this (as the procedures are very close to the lab phenomena).

  50. indigochild said,

    November 5, 2008 at 1:13 am

    Warhelmet, you’re probably right to run a mile from a lot of practioners, because nobody has got it together to enforce anything, so any woo with a felt tip pen can make himself an NLP certificate.

    But, that being said, NLP has a number of compelling principles at it’s base which are consistent, well-reasoned, but often awfully difficult to get across lucidly.

    I’ll do one now, and I apologise if I’m being too off topic or verbose.

    “The map is not the territory” does not originate in NLP, but I believe Bandler had some contact with Gregory Bateson, who coined the phrase. The notion is that reality is too complex for your brain to process wholesale, so all your concepts, ideas, and day to day thinking differ from reality in so far as this is true.

    So, in that light, language is an expression of an unique internal world which has a definite structure, and that structure can be elicited and changed.

    NLP was a model of how to notice and categorise salient aspects of it, a set of practical tools derived from observations of outstanding psychological practitioners and the ways by which they made change in their clients, briefly, The study of the structure of subjective experience.

    I’m not an active proponent or practitioner of NLP, but I don’t like to see the good ideas I see in it being dismissed by guilt through association and misrepresentation.

  51. John said,

    November 5, 2008 at 5:46 pm


    I much admire Singh but I think he is being a little bit too po-faced in that article. Whatever Brown says he is doing he is obviously misdirecting the audience/participant and that is very much part of his act. I do recognise that stage magicians do not bend the laws of physics when they do things which are seemingly impossible.

    Organisations which use NLP as part of sales training have found improvements in the performance of their sales force. As a sales director for an IT company I can quantify this. However I would agree that in this respect NLP is probably not much different to a well-recognised sales methodology like the Huthwaite Groups SPIN. Most sales forces seem to improve performance post any sort of sales training – which is probably just the result of them refocusing their attention.

    I never for a second realised that NLP might be taught as a therapeutic technique nor that there was such a thing as a NLP therapist. Other than directing a discussion I do not see the applicability of this – other than (I suppose) it is good to talk.


    Maybe Brown isn’t using NLP. I just made that assumption based on the comments by the psychologist in one of his shows.

    Ditto my comments above about NLP having some therapeutic value.

    And I agree that much (all ?) magic, illusion etc is a SOTBO once you know how it is done. The joy of prestidigitation is that most of us civilians cannot work out how it is done – ever. I asked a military surgeon once if brain surgery was easy and he replied “it is if you know how to do it”. Either that or Paul Daniels can actually bend time and space.

    So it probably has some uses when stripped of its woo-ness. I will repeat my previous assumption that it is merely “smart aleck clever dick bastard verbal gameplay” and has little use beyond that.

  52. warhelmet said,

    November 5, 2008 at 7:15 pm


    “NLP has a number of compelling principles at it’s base which are consistent, well-reasoned, but often awfully difficult to get across lucidly.”


    I suggest that you go along to Take a look at the entry on NLP. It’ll explain some of the above comments on NLP better than I can. I’ve actually tested it on NLP adherents and they say it’s surprisingly balanced.

  53. indigochild said,

    November 5, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    I don’t want to be rude in any way, but that article is a shallow, limited response, full of misunderstandings, fuzzy thinking, and bordering on being openly hostile, without addressing a single substantive point presented in the early literature, opting instead to critique sales information.

    This is of course, because the author has likely not read any of it and/or is not interested.

    Which is fine, but you can’t seriously post it as a refutation, because it puts into sharp relief a complete lack of willingness to tackle the subject matter.

  54. jonathanhearsey said,

    November 6, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Hang on a minute…..

    Do you not need to put aquagarde and oxyshock in Kabbalah water?

    If this is the case then I’m gonna get me some for the hot tub. UK water goes green and stinks without the chems!


  55. RobDur said,

    November 6, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    I’ve got to agree partially with indigochild; what annoys me most about ‘theories’ such as NLP is that at their heart there are often good ideas: I’m working with a lot of Greg Bateson’s work right now and though he went a bit cuckoo towards the end of his life, a lot of his ideas are pretty decent (btw, though Bateson used ‘the map is not the territory’ a lot, the phrase actually originates with Alfred Korzybski). Similarly whilst an insistence that we can ‘read body language’ is nonesense, the idea that a lot of communication is pre-consciously spread through the body in a non-structured way is a pretty good one.

    It’s like the dodgy poststructuralist cultural theory ideas which simplified ‘understandings’ of quantum physics to start to argue for interperative contingency in politics and literature… the problem is the misuse of decent ideas and the combining of contradictory theorists or theories – such as Freud and Bateson mentioned at – not necessairliy the ideas themselves.

  56. RobDur said,

    November 6, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    The point of the above being that if you attack ideas and theories that are used in a dodgy way ad hominem, you risk losing what is decent out of these ideas in the first place.

  57. warhelmet said,

    November 6, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    No, it’s not posted as a refutation, it’s posted as a better articulation of some of my concerns than I can manage at the moment. And it is reflective of the skeptic community attitudes towards NLP. Also, I wanted people to read it because I do think that it adds something to the debate.

    Bear with me.

    I’m not actually as daft to base my opinions purely on an article that I read on Skepdic. But as a consumer of therepeutic services, it is important to me that the type of therapy I am purchasing can be shown to have some efficacy – beyond the anecdotal. It is important to me that it is grounded in a rational framework that I can understand. It is important that that framework is in tune with how my rational framework is constructed. I want the therapy to work with my mindset to achieve the goals I want rather than attempt to change my mindset.

    This is not to underplay the role of the therapist.

    But for me, when looking at the evidence I can lay my hands on, NLP does not fufill my criteria as a therapy that I should purchase.

    Whilst NLP does share some concepts with CBT, CBT has been proven to be effective. Humanistic approaches, especially the Rogerian CCT have a strong attraction to me because some of the reasoning mirrors the way that I think. My past experience of the client centred approach was very positive.

    Which is all very nice.

    But we are talking therapy. Although I do not think that NLPt is the therapy of choice for me, I do appreciate that others might find it useful. And the fact that UKCP recognise it as an experimental form of psychotherapy suggests that there is at least some acceptance of NLPt. But, you are not going to find a psychotherapist who has not been trained in other therapeutical approaches as well. Same for properly qualified counsellors.

    I’m a computer sciencist. In CS there is something called “duck typing” – the rationale of which is that if it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck.

    I’ve come across the term “Human Potential Movement” in the past. I’ve seen it used to describe a number of different New Age philosophies that revolve around unlocking the extra-ordinary potential that exists in all human beings, but from a more secular than spiritual development. I had a friend who was into this sort of thing. Most of them pedal vaguely plausible psychobabble but deliver nothing. If they did, there would be loads of people out there achieving superhuman things with their unlocked potential. Some of them smell like cults. It’s woo.

    It is the point at which Grinder and Bandler started making claims for NLP beyond the realms of therapy and raking in lots of dollars from seminars and pop books, that NLP starts doing the duck thing. It starts to look like Human Potential stuff. It is woo.

    If you want to distingush between NLPt and NLPother, that’s fine by me.

    But the “Caring for and Nurturing our future Evolution through the successful support of our genetic code” BSc, what is it teaching? I doubt very much that is is NLPt. I bet it does woo. Hence the concern over the BSc status of the degree – ignoring the nutrionism.

    There is even more, but too far off topic.

  58. indigochild said,

    November 6, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    I was going to point out in my earlier post, and neglected it, was that the assertion made in the skepdic article about the reading of body language was somewhat disingenuous, because there is a notion of calibration in NLP that requires you to check whether or not your intuitions about the connection between body language and internal states are true, which is about as much as you can reasonably do, I think.

    Many mud has been thrown. I figured if I was going to argue in favour of NLP not being bad science, I might as well do it thoroughly. ta.

  59. thom said,

    November 6, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Robdur, Indigochild: I agree that NLP has some interesting ideas – some with an impressive intellectual pedigree (some not). The link to Chomsky is, I think, mostly woo. NLP involves no formal analysis of grammar and at best is using his terms in a ‘inspired by Stephen King short story’ kind of way.

    The links to Freud, Erickson and hypnosis are more substantial. However, just because they borrowed some nice ideas doesn’t make it a good therapy and there is sadly no evidence that NLP is better than, say, Psychodynamic counselling.

    I’s also add that NLP clearly isn’t science – it is a therapy. CBT is not a science. It too is a therapy. What differs between CBT and NLP is the extent of the evidence base in terms of the scientific rationale for the theory and the scientific evaluation of the therapy.

    My own personal view is that clever ideas are interesting and important, but sometimes over-rated in science. It is is pretty easy to come up with clever ideas. What is hard is expressing them in a form that is useful, testable and then following through by actually publishing them and testing them. I should add that my evidence for this is almost entirely anecdotal. I have loads of what I think are good ideas – most turn out to be rubbish (but a few have ended up as published work or led to publishable experiments).

    Having said that I think there can be dangers in contagion from slagging off one thing on its intellectual antecedents. However, I think Chomsky and Freud are safe from this line of attack.

  60. indigochild said,

    November 6, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    I assure you, if you find a copy of The Structure of Magic I, you can see laid out formal analyses of language structures, including transcripts of actual therapeutic encounters columned with notes specifying which part of the model is being used, and why, and to what effect.

    To what extent this derives from Chomsky’s work, I cannot say, not having studied it in anything like the requisite depth.

    At the core, in terms of scientific validation, there is a problem, namely this. Scientific validation requires that tests be repeatable, and conditions be controlled.

    If you take it to be understood that your consciousness is incapable of tracking every process of your body, and every sensory input simultaneously, not to mention how they are interrelated, both the conditions of repeatability and control become, in the context of interpersonal communication, literally impossible.

    So in what way can a general scientific study be formulated? Is the scientific microscope even suitable for a subject that can look back through it and see a huge eye peering at it, and think to itself, “What the fuck are you looking at?”?

    Take for example, the Id, the Ego, and the Super Ego. Nowhere, in any description, anywhere, is there an indication of how an Id smells, or where it does it’s shopping. It’s a model, an idea about ideas. It’s not true. You’ll never meet an Id in a supermarket, or see one on a swing, but that a councillor can carry one around in his or her head, and compare people to it doesn’t seem to phase anybody! Doesn’t this strike you as odd? It’s a label on something that has no internal or external reality, until you start to categorise things accordingly.

    Final word from me, (because I’m becoming aware of the impoliteness of carrying on a long conversation in the threads of Ben’s blog), the ideas of Chomsky or Freud are not immune from criticism, but only if you can point out something that would be more true, or at least more useful. Chomsky said recently that if he believed now what he believed ten years ago, he would assume the field were dead, which it probably would be, had he studied homoeopathy at the University of Westminster.

    The word “adherence” gives me the chills.

  61. warhelmet said,

    November 7, 2008 at 11:11 am

    Measureable outcomes.

  62. Dudley said,

    November 8, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Anyone calling on Derren Brown as a witness in favour of NLP would be well advised to look at his book, esp pages 172-186. He talks about the training he received, demolishes the theories behind NLP, and mentions that he was given a license to practise as an NLP therapist after just four days of seminars.

  63. indigochild said,

    November 8, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    “Tricks of the Mind”, and as Derren Brown writes on page 186:
    “As I have suggested, if we remove from the NLP equation the grinning, flaccid course-junkies, delusional flower-fairies and ridiculous tactile businessmen, and some of the taken-as-read wild claims made by NLPers at all levels, there are some sensible enough tools and techniques from that world which are worth knowing about, as long as you don’t become a True Believer.”

  64. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 9, 2008 at 1:25 am

    Did anyone notice when “cholera virus” slipped into the thread? And that one was explained in the article. Or is that why you don’t need antibiotic for it…

  65. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 9, 2008 at 1:27 am

    …presumably there is a substantial difference between the theories of homeopathic miasma and mediaeval miasma? Although that firstly requires that the theory of homeopathic miasma is in fact substantial. Don’t know about that…

  66. warhelmet said,

    November 9, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    I would guess that homeopathic miasma becomes more miasmic the more it gets diluted.

  67. metascrawl said,

    November 20, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    As an undergraduate at Westminster on a proper degree (well, English Literature) this is the most depressing article I’ve read in ages.

  68. jms1917 said,

    November 27, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    For all those vegetarians, vegequarians, piscatorians and other inhabitants of the planet Vega. Animals have no rights.

    Rights have consequent responsibilities. A cat has no rights beacause, however well you may treat it, it will never respond by treating a mouse – or any other creature on the planet – any better.

    We may have a duty to treat animals well, but we cannot have any contract with them.

  69. jms1917 said,

    November 27, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    To: Mehitabel-III

    I have a friend from California who writes in the same way you do. I can never work out what she’s saying either.

    As you suggest, it may be a difference between the British and American education systems, but, though stream of consciousness may work for William Faulkner, it doesn’t work for you.

    Would you try to be a bit clearer, please? Sentences would be handy.

  70. jms1917 said,

    November 27, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    The “placebo effect” is itself bad science. It is in fact no effect at all, it’s a control.
    Improvements in any patient that are normally attributed to the “placebo effect” are more likely due to:
    Spontaneous improvement, fluctuation of symptoms, regression to the mean, additional treatment, conditional switching of placebo treatment, scaling bias, irrelevant response variables, answers of politeness, experimental subordination, conditioned answers, neurotic or psychotic miss-judgment, psychosomatic phenomena, misquotation, etc.

    It’s counting thing again. Come on people, stick with the arithmetic.

  71. HypnoSynthesis said,

    January 9, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    NLP? Just to be clear, I’m a hypnotherapist, and so I’ve had a lot of exposure to an awful lot of different NLP practitioners and trainers, etc., over the past 15 years. But I’m also something of a “skeptical” hypnotist, if you can imagine that -I basically believe that suggestion, and related factors, explain many of the effects of talking therapy. However, NLP is largely pseudoscience and the people who promote it are predominantly the kind of people you wouldn’t buy a used car from, to be blunt. It’s not New Age? The last time I saw Richard Bandler he was doing some hybrid of NLP and Tantric Chakra therapy, and his trainers were teaching an NLP model of Remote Viewing (clairvoyance). One of the other main US trainers does Hawaiin Huna chanting NLP to summon spirits. NLP is based on Chomsky? It’s a classic example of taking big words from the world of theory and trying to blind people with academic jargon to cover the fact that the actual claims are totally unfounded, and patently absurd. Research on NLP? As far as I understand it no peer-reviewed research has been published on NLP in about 20 years, because a series of different systematic reviews published in the 1980s undermined its key claims and killed off interest in studying it further. NLP is modelled on expert therapists? That’s a myth created to market the workshops by the people who made it all up in the first place. Even if you consider Fritz Perls (!) to be some kind of expert, NLP bears only the most tenuous relationship to his work. As for Milton Erickson, read what Erickson’s colleage and friend Andre Weitzenhoffer, professor of psychology at Stanford, says about NLP, it’s claims to be based on Erickson’s work are “fanciful and absurd.”

  72. mirelle said,

    February 9, 2009 at 4:26 am

    To control the pain we must first go to the doctor because we can give him what is appropriate and what we need, such as oxycodone that I take is a medicine used to counter the pain of my back pain for years, but This was the prescribing doctor, I take it in moderation because I read in is a pill that causes anxiety, and if you can not control it can affect your nervous system, we must always know what the physician and thus avoid setbacks …

  73. neukoln said,

    March 20, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    I find this thoroughly depressing. I have an interest in Nutritional Medicine which was awoken by the popular book by medical practitioners Davies and Stewart (

    It is a shame that it appears that what are promoted as ‘academic’ programmes in Nutritional Medicine espouse gobbledigook about vital energy etc. There are thousands of research papers on the effects of vitamins, minerals, amino acids (positive, negative, neutral). Why can academic programmes not focus on these – and arm nutritional practitioners/therapists with facts rather than the sort of stuff than puts them in the same class as crystal healers? It’s very depressing.

  74. psychgradmum said,

    August 28, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    This appears with the banner “improve your chances of migrating to Australia – study natural medicine” have a look at the course outlines and guides – it’s quite enlightening!

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  77. Diodorus said,

    April 13, 2011 at 2:06 am

    I’m afraid Snow’s 1854/1855 studies didn’t actually demonstrate (at any rate to the satisfaction of his contemporaries) that cholera was spread through tainted (‘poisoned’) water, because not all other factors (esp. sewers, a local plague pit) then considered possible causes had yet been eliminated in the Broad Street outbreak. Snow didn’t bother to criticise these theories, but they had to be tested and disproved separately by others. He was also unsure he’d included all and only all the right cases, since at the time ‘Asiatic cholera’ was counted as just one of a whole family of cholera-type illneses, diagnosed through symptoms only, that might be put down on a death certificate (cholera bilosa, English cholera, cholera malgna, etc.). In general, the same data might support the miasma theory and the ‘poison/animalcule’ theory, e.g. where victims lived and died in houses prone to flooding (e.g. as in Oxford, where low-lying houses did in fact have a higher rate of mortality from cholera). Good, solid data might point to the weather as subsidiary cause, by increasing incidence and duration of miasmatic airs (cf. Farr’s work on London). Finally, Snow didn’t deny the miasma theory generally, only claimed that it was wrong for cholera; but he didn’t have much of an alternative (‘Lots of tiny invisible animals? In water? What have YOU been drinking?’). Of course, he was right, broadly (sorry) speaking); but being right ain’t the same as being seen to be right, and being right about the vector isn’t being right about the cause.

  78. Nutritionist Birmingham said,

    April 14, 2012 at 11:07 am

    I think they must have a hidden agenda for comments like this. I’m interested in Nutritional Therapy and wish people would give it a chance.