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Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

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Science in London: The 2016 scientific society talks in London blog post

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Not getting homeopathy events moved from universities - can't win 'em all

Summary - despite requests to move or cancel it Birkbeck (University of London) will continue to host an event promoting homeopathy for women's health conditions. Homeopathy is not a valid system of medicine.

Edit: I've not even published this post yet and have only just spotted this phrase which appears in the testimonials (not in the main marketing text, but what do you think testimonials are for) -

"I highly recommend taking the course on Female Diseases, as his presentation will provide a book filled with serious cured cases such as cancers, fibroids, infertility and much more" - emphasis added. It's possible that the addition of that comment is problematic under the Cancer Act 1939.

Universities hosting homeopathy (or any alternative medicine / quackery) events is problematic for several reasons.
  1.  It gives the event the fillip and prestige of being hosted at a respected academic institution (whether or not this is exploited or explicitly implied in other marketing material)
  2. It suggests that the event, or type of 'treatment', is a little less ridiculous than it might be if it had been hosted at Teehee McFunny's Mirthful Comedy Cabaret
  3. Not university-specific, but let's assume that an event promoting an unproven treatment is not in people's best interests and perhaps higher-education institutes might prefer not to give them house-room.
  4. As I'm not a lawyer I don't know if this is piffle (and I only read about it on Wikipedia [see bit on Education act]) but it seems that people can get away with saying things in an academic setting in the UK that they might be less able to say in another setting - possibly this affects academics only not visiting quacks. Though if it affects everyone it suggests that quacks might be able to overclaim for their quackery.
Birkbeck (part of the University of London) is hosting a homeopathy event for 'female diseases'. Presenting at the event is a visiting doctor from India and the event's application form makes it clear it's aimed at homeopaths or student homeopaths rather than the general public. However I think anyone can apply (and since 'homeopath' isn't a protected term anyone could put student homeopath (for example they might be doing a short course at a local community college)), and spend around £200 to attend. That's £200, wasted on this event.

To be fair the event organisers have not made much of the fact that it's taking place at the University of London but the text of the marketing for the event certainly seems at odds with academia.

There is a shopping list of 'female conditions' which include endometriosis, hypothyroidism, polycystic ovarian disease, amenorrhoea [stopped periods]) as well as things like miscarriage and infertility. Homeopathy is very unlikely to be of much use here.

Because this isn't an advert for a product the text doesn't fall within the remit of the Advertising Standards Authority so there would be no benefit in complaining about it to them. However I think it's interesting to consider that - if an advert - the ASA would likely rule against it, because of the mention of serious medical conditions and the implication that homeopathy might be of use to people who have them. When adjudicating on previous adverts the ASA have considered that listing medical conditions may encourage people to forgo appropriate medical advice (bad!). While the ASA don't get a say on this event's marketing it seems a good rule of thumb that if they'd not permit it as an advert it's perhaps not much good for an event at a university.

The event promo ends with "There is no claim here that homeopathy can heal, treat or cure these medical conditions. Homeopathy is used to trigger natural healing mechanisms of the whole person to work better rather than address particular symptoms. These case studies will be used to talk through techniques that were used to lift the general wellbeing of the people concerned." but simply writing this isn't really much use, given that the rest of the page rather contradicts it.

For example "Medical test results are shown before and after homeopathic treatment for most cases leaving no doubt about the changes that have occurred" and the speaker "will encourage you to feel more able to support challenging cases, perhaps even where the experts have given up" - this seems quite close to claiming that homeopathy can heal.

A couple of people on Twitter have contacted Birkbeck about this event (I don't know the outcome of that). I emailed Birkbeck (copy below) to ask them to distance themselves from the event, and while I've acknowledged my hope that it's cancelled I've not specifically asked them to do that. I just don't think it should be hosted at a university.

Recently there was some success in stopping a different event, though I heard about it only after it was all over. Curzon Cinemas had been about to host 'Vaxxed' and a Q&A with Andrew Wakefield (disgraced former medic who is no longer allowed to practice after his role in deliberately falsifying medical data relating to autism and vaccines) but after criticism from doctors and scientists this event was pulled.

There were a few tweets about it and I replied to one that "I am currently failing to get a event for women's health moved from Uni of London (Birkbeck)."

I was deliberately precise in my language of moving not removing or cancelling despite this a couple of people challenged me (nicely, I might add!) asking "what's the reasoning behind trying to get this event cancelled? I mean, aside from it being fake science?" and "[other text] ...but forcing ppl to pull events is a dangerous line to cross", which I hope I've clarified for them, as I'm not doing either - though I'd not complain one bit if the event was pulled.

Trading Standards have previously taken action to shut down events, or venues have pre-emptively cancelled events, where people would have tried to talk about cancer cures (doing so may be illegal under the Cancer Act 1939). Similarly there have been raids on events promoting MMS (a form of bleach) as a miracle cure, including for autism. I don't have a problem with unsafe medical events being stopped from going ahead. Women are not well-served by this event which promotes a form of non-treatment for potentially serious health conditions.

Birkbeck have replied that the event is still going ahead and have pointed me to their free speech policy for their events. It's a good document but unfortunately this homeopathy event is not considered to breach it, so the document doesn't really 'protect' against utter hooey being presented uncritically. This is good news for homeopaths and I'd advise them to host their future events at academic instutions ;)

At some point I'll add a much briefer version of this to the 'failures' section of the Skeptic (activism) successes in homeopathy post and Storify (embedded in the linked post).

Copy of the email I sent to Birkbeck in December

I wasn't planning on blogging about this particular homeopathy event so please forgive me sending it to the press team but this was the first email address available through the contacts page. Twitter has made me aware that someone will be running an event on using 'homeopathy for female diseases', at Birkbeck (address listed on the event page) [link redacted] in March.
Homeopathy is not a valid intervention for any health condition and it's fairly startling that this is taking place at Birkbeck, and that people are charged money to attend. From extensive previous experience of university venues being exploited in this way it's fairly clear this will be framed as a prestigious University of London venue recognising the value of homeopathy.
Please can you pass on my request to whoever deals with room booking and ask them to do whatever is possible to distance Birkbeck from this quack event taking place. In an ideal world the event would simply be cancelled, though being moved elsewhere is usually what happens.
There is a shopping list of conditions that the speaker imagines himself qualified to speak on (doubtful) including fibroids, thyroid problems and miscarriage. This event promotes mistaken and potentially harmful interventions for women.

Many thanks, and best wishes,

Postscript - incidentally the event organisers haven't exploited the prestige at all so I'm wrong on that one, but I am still concerned by the overall 'framing' of the event, implying that a homeopathy event is an appropriate one for academic institution, I really think it isn't. 

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Comment policy: I enthusiastically welcome corrections and I entertain polite disagreement ;) Because of the nature of this blog it attracts a LOT - 5 a day at the moment - of spam comments (I write about spam practices,misleading marketing and unevidenced quackery) and so I'm more likely to post a pasted version of your comment, removing any hyperlinks.

Comments written in ALL CAPS LOCK will be deleted and I won't publish any pro-homeopathy comments, that ship has sailed I'm afraid (it's nonsense).