Professor seeks out the truth about 'quackery'

There's nothing that makes Prof David Colquhoun's blood boil more than hearing claims about wonder pills or herbal remedies which can cure anything from gout to cancer.

In his eyes, the only thing that is worse than these claims is the teaching of such theories at universities under the guise of a "science degree".

And it was his desire to find out what exactly was being taught to students on the BSc (hons) homeopathy degree at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston that started a three-year mission to unearth the truth.

Prof Colquhoun, 73, who is a pharmacologist at University College London, says: "As a pharmacologist, it is part of my job to find out what works and what doesn't.

"The problem with alternative medicine is that it is more like superstition and religion than science. I would argue that it is actually an 'anti-science'. Teaching these ideas as a science degree is mis-education.

"The purpose of universities is to teach critical thinking, but these courses teach uncritical thinking."

More than three years ago, Prof Colquhoun asked UCLan for teaching materials used on the homeopathy course using a Freedom of Information request.

However, although the university gave him the timetables of lessons for the course, they refused to give him the actual teaching materials.

Undeterred, Prof Colquhoun appealed against the decision but following an internal review, it came back with the same outcome.

Prof Colquhoun said: "I then appealed to the Information Commissioner and, after almost two years, they decided in my favour.

"But I still didn't get the material I requested as UCLan then appealed against the Information Commissioner's decision.

"I had to go to a Freedom of Information tribunal in Manchester and a three-day hearing was held in November.

"The tribunal upheld almost everything in my favour and ruled that UCLan should provide the course material.

"I am trying to find out how much UCLan spent trying to stop me getting the information. The bills so far are 36,000. But this is not the final amount."

Prof Colquhoun eventually got the materials he requested and received five large box files of documents weighing 13.7kg.

Having looked through some of the material, Prof Colquhoun says he was concerned at what he found.

He says: "The worst example I have found in the teaching material is about cancer. There was one lecture called 'A homeopathic approach to cancer'.

"The lecture struck me as a cruel hoax perpetrated on desperate patients. It is illegal to say that something can cure cancer.

"It is things like recommending sugar pills as a cure for cancer or malaria. Or saying that certain pills will cure your cold.

"Students are effectively being taught that these pills can cure cancer and they can repeat that information."

In 2008, a senior lecturer at UCLan labelled new science degrees in Chinese medicine and acupuncture as "quackery".

Read the full feature in the Lancashire Evening Post

* Prof Colquhoun's blog Improbable Science is at: www.dcscience.net

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