Science Wooseum

Please welcome Alex Davenport for the first ever guest post on my blog! Be nice to him, now.

Guest Post:

An Un-Wellcome Divergence from the Evidence

On Saturday the 29th January I decided to go to the science museum with some friends.  I am in love with the science museum.  It has always sparked my interest and I think what they do to get children engaged with science is amazing.

My favourite part has always been the history of medicine exhibits on the 4th and 5th floors, generously donated/provided by the Wellcome trust. At least, they used to be my favourite until this particular trip.  Aside from the rather depressing feeling that the 4th floor is a little dated, the 5th floor has a lot to answer for.

Age-Old Conflict

There has always been the debate within science and medicine about the use of alternative medicines and their validity.  I accept that people use these “medicines” and I accept that none of my ranting and raving at them will prevent their taking them.

However, just because somebody believes in taking a sugar pill, sticking needles in to you, waving your hands chanting rubbish or blood letting, doesn’t actually make it true or a credible medicinal treatment.

This is where I was shocked at the SM’s lack of clarification for ALL of their exhibits on alternative medicine. Depressingly, the SM seems to have pandered to the whims of quacks by allowing them to create their own exhibit, and it looks like there was no quality control.

Many of you may be thinking right now,

Why does this even matter?

It matters because the SM is supposed to promote science and understanding, not fuel an ever increasingly tiresome debate between those that painstakingly research and collect data and those that appear to pick any old idea then try to convince people it works.

Exhibits A, B and C

The acupuncture exhibit states that acupuncture is being used on the NHS (fair enough, it is) and that there have been many studies on the effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment (which there were) but that’s it.  What about the results of these studies?  Why not add in the extra line to state: whilst people believe that it works, it’s mainly bullshit (note: don’t write bullshit).

The homeopathy stand tells the case study of a girl who had allergies from the age of 3-5 (what are these allergies?) and they say that she was cured by homeopaths.  That’s right, they categorically state that homeopathy helped her.

The Chinese medicine section describes the work of a professor in Beijing (who incidentally wrote the exhibit himself) describing that he managed to treat his patients by giving them remedies to realign their qi.  Nothing about how this “qi” is non-existent.  The SM actively seems to promote the idea that alternative medicine is a credible alternative to real medicine.

Another exhibit tells people of other medical treatments in various countries and nowhere describes that these medical practices have no evidence to back up their claims.  The language used to describe each exhibit misleads the reader into thinking that the treatments work and backed by science.

Further around, out of the horrifyingly self-gratifying alternative medicine stands (written by the alternative medicine crowd), we come to the history of homeopathy.  It quite rightly recalls the history of medicine and homeopaths and how they divided.  This is ultimately historical and no-harm-done, in fact it is important to know, but the third paragraph down says:

homeopaths give substances which recreate the symptoms that the patient is suffering from

No, they don’t.

Homeopaths give substances (for want of a better word) that they believe will recreate the symptoms. They also throw in a couple of “ ” around the word medicine to describe conventional medicines.  Come now, Science Museum, a little callous don’t you think?  The controversial element isn’t evidence-based treatment, it’s woo.

Apparently it’s all OK though, because time and time again they back up the claims either with patient stories, as can be seen on their video screens around the floor, and the fact that millions of people worldwide use these alternative medicines. So that’s OK, millions of uniformed people can’t possibly be wrong.  I mean, they’ve been doing it that way for thousands of years, so best to let them carry on trepanning, sticking needles needlessly (see what I did there?) into others and killing endangered species to be ground up and used as medicines.

I do not blame the Wellcome Trust for sponsoring this exhibit and after doing a little research into their policies they even state:

27. It is crucial that evidence-based research should inform policy to help address the barriers to  progression and engagement.  There is a need for more high quality and robust educational  research, and this must be combined with improved mechanisms to translate findings into  practice

So, aside from their reputation, I know that the Wellcome Trust are evidence-based but ultimately these exhibits are unhelpful, misleading and just plain wrong. As scientists and clear-minded doctors, we try to promote the idea of evidence as a means to developing effective treatments.

The science museum should be there to show the history of such a philosophy.  It should not be misleading the general public and informing them of medical “alternatives” that are potentially harmful.

It should include the CAM element of medicine because, like it or not, it is part of medical history and it is a museum, but it should make people aware that these sources of “medicine” do not have reliable, peer-reviewed collective evidence to back up their substantial claims.

Institutions like the Science Museum unfortunately do not have the luxury of sitting on the fence with issues such as these, especially when they hold a huge responsibility of informing the public.

Remember, anecdotes are not data.

My apologies for the quality of some of the photos, but they are just about visible.

Sorry about the awful post title, that was me (M).

Edit: thanks to Mike Eslea for his comment re: individual complaints –  email or write to:

Visitor Experience Manager
The Science Museum
Exhibition Rd
South Kensington

76 thoughts on “Science Wooseum

  1. Richard W (Sx)

    “millions of uniformed people can’t possibly be wrong”

    Especially those uninformed uniformed people! 🙂

    Good post (I liked the title) and this was very high on my ‘Grrrrr’ factor. In fact, I’m gonna be grinding my teeth out over this, cos I like the SM. (I once had a chat with Diane Abbot, MP, there!)

  2. It has been a long time since i last went to the Science Museum, I rememeber being fascinated and, more importantly, educated by the history of medicine. It is a crying shame they have allowed believers in magic to sneak into what should be a hall of reason and rationality. I have no problem with a display on CAM and the like as long it is clearly labelled as bollocks. Knowing what to avoid is just as educational as what to look for.

  3. THANK YOU for writing this!

    I worked in collections documentation at the Science Museum until October 2010, and was horrified by the way they present alternative medicine alongside real treatments.

    I even asked my manager about it, who just said “Well, it’s very difficult” and it was heavily implied to me that basically they were worried about people complaining if they criticised them.

    The level of knowledge of science among the people running the exhibitions is not necessarily high – they are almost always written by committee, and the committee doesn’t contain scientists or even anyone with scientific knowledge.

    And everyone is terrified of criticism – they don’t want to present challenging scientific ideas, they want to get bums on seats. While I was there exhibitions were only talked about in terms of having more visitors through the door, not educating them. It’s depressing, but the SM doesn’t have the strong tradition of research and an actual scientific base in the same way as the Natural History Museum does, so there’s no one to stand up for science.

    Lets just say there were a lot of inverted commas in the records I did of some of these objects 😉

    I’d urge everyone to complain about it – they want to update that gallery and maybe we can stop the same things happening again when they do!

    1. Thank you, Amy. It’s a good point that the museum may not have much ‘expert’ input. Personally I’d expect more from the *science* museum so I think you’re right; a well-worded letter of encouragement for changing the tone of the exhibit (rather than outright complaints, perhaps?) might be useful.

      Having said that, as you point out – if it’s fear of offending that caused this stuff to go up in the first place, perhaps we ought to make clear that it offends us?!

      Hard to say. Perhaps the most diplomatic/mature technique wouldn’t be the most effective. A lot of people are seeing this, and I’d probably come down on the side of change being the most important thing here.

      1. Alex

        I agree, Thank you Amy for that insight!
        I plan to write to the SM asking them about this because to be honest it really isn’t on.

        Not wishing to offend people?! Really? Surely then it would be better to NOT put this in at all. Or at the very least clarify everything.
        I’m also shocked the Wellcome trust didn’t review what they were putting their name to.

        I can also say that there were at least 2 other groups of people walking around that exhibit moaning about it, so I know we are not alone!

    2. M C

      If Amy had actually approached staff who were involved in developing this exhibit she had she would have known that they did indeed have science backgrounds and rather than be afraid of any criticism, it was expected and has continued to arrive since the exhibit opened in……2006.

      This is a section within a main gallery that looks at the history of medicine and medical practice. It was simply an attempt to reflect that not everyone in the world turns to biomedicine when they are ill. That there are other long standing global and localised medical traditions that are still practised and, for a variety of reasons, many people turn to them. In recent years, elements of these traditions have also infiltrated cultures in which scientific medicine dominates.

      The decision to take a journalistic rather than didactic approach to the text was arrived after much discussion. While some people here may have preferred the museum to criticise or ridicule, the approach taken was that when it comes to dealing with their health problems, this is what many people choose to do.

      1. I don’t believe anyone has called for the museum to ridicule the ‘medicines’ described, but to say that research has been done into homeopathy then not saying that it showed homeopathy is bollocks is a failure.

        The exhibition didn’t simply say that some people chose to use these quack remedies, it errs on the side of implying that they are effective. It is not that they shouldn’t be shown, but that the SM should not have implied they actually work.

        I’m surprised to find anyone at the SM is a scientist, but regardless, they obviously either didn’t do their job in this case, or were overuled by Content.

      2. Alex L

        But judging by Alex’s photos, the museum did not take a journalistic (“he said she said”) approach. They took a didactic approach (“magic water really works!”). And the didactic approach that they took was, quite frankly, bollocks.

        Anyway, what is a Science Museum supposed to be doing if not teaching science? Many people choose to believe whatever rubbish their psychic or astrologer tells them – will the SM be doing an exhibit credulously praising Uri Geller next?

        As you can probably guess from my choice of epithets, I’m also British. I’ve just moved to London and the Science Museum was high on my to-do list (I’ve already done the NHM). Now I’ve read this, unless there’s a better reason for this exhibit than the “it’s journalistic!” nonsense above, I will not be giving them my money.

      3. Ah, now if these initials (M C) are correct I believe our SM spokesperson here is Marivanna Chessa, Digital Marketing Executive at the SM.

        Please correct me if I’m wrong.

      4. M C

        Re: Homeopathy. This original post refers to the ‘Homeopathy stand’ which states that the young girl featured in the case study there was “…cured by homeopaths. That’s right, they categorically state that homeopathy helped her.” And who would the “they” be here then? Helpfully an image is provided in which the text clearly states that in relation to the child’s parents “They believed..” in relation to the practitioners “Homeopaths believe..”, the ‘drug is “believed to help..” and in relation to the child “…she says she is doing much better”. In reporting such “belief” is the museum thereby saying it is scientific fact? Rightly or wrongly, ‘belief’ is central to the medical choices people have made historically and still make today (no more so in the case of homeopathy). Belief is a theme repeated throughout the medical gallery.

        PS Alex L – No need to give them your money. Last time I visited, the Science Museum was free.

        PPS Amy – No, ‘M C’ is not the ‘Digital Marketing Executive’ at the Science Museum

      5. “Simon singh quit? Cripes that’s a huge statement and yet the exhibit remains.”

        Yup, I was quite surprised by that myself! He also had issues with a pro-religion film, ‘Mystic India’ being shown in the SM Imax (this was in 2005-6). This was stated on his Twitter feed today:

        ” This was one reason I left the board RT @lecanardnoir: Does @sciencemuseum have a response to tweets concerned about their alt med exhibit? ”

        ” The other reason I left @sciencemuseum board was IMAX film promoting religion ”

        ” Religious IMAX film no longer @sciencemuseum – but alt med exhibit continues. Some things never change. ”

        (posting here as after a while older tweets get hard to find!)

  4. I complained a while ago about this exhibit and got absolutely nowhere. It was about as effective as writing to Boots.

    This was desperately disappointing. Something is wrong.

    I have more pictures of the exhibits so perhaps I should do a follow up post. Congratulations for bringing the matter to public attention.

  5. Mae Patel

    I visited the Science Museum a couple of weeks ago and was shocked and horrified by the alternative science exhibition, so thank you for writing this post! I agree with everything you’ve written and I am really disappointed with the museum. Maybe we should all write to them?

  6. The standard of the writing suggests that these exhibits lack attention from competent editors as well as from competent scientists. No UK subeditor would allow “got sick” in published copy. This all looks sloppy; unguided rather than misguided?

  7. See also The Science Museum’s recent energy exhibition sponsored by an oil company that heavily leaned in its material towards coal, nuclear etc. and away from those weird environmentalists and their odd ideas about wind, solar etc.

    1. Ged warren

      Yes, but then coal & nuclear power do actually produce energy, so your comment is not particularly relevant to the point Alex is making in this post.

  8. Lee Hulbert-Williams

    What about a petition? If the good professor has tried to complain and got nowhere, let’s complain to the power of a thousand.

    1. If it’s anything like complaining to Trading Standards etc., many individual letters are much more powerful than a single letter signed by lots of people.

      Anyone can put their name to a petition, it’s easy. Sitting down and setting out your complaints (even if it’s from a standard template letter) and sending it is a different thing – lots of complaints from people coming from different locations; it seems to have more of an effect.

  9. Catherina Becker

    has anyone written to the Wellcome Trust? David? I cannot really imagine that they would want to be associated with this…(I hope)

  10. jalf

    As far as acupuncture goes, there is quite a bit of “real”/scientific evidence that it has *some* effect (which shouldn’t really be too surprising. At least there’s some kind of physical input on the body. If a massage can make you feel better, why shouldn’t a careful poke with a needle at least potentially have an effect as well? You can get pretty far just by stimulating the right nerves) If you take away the mumbo-jumbo, there’s still something left to study, so that one at least, is a bit more interesting than the others. Obviously, simply saying “it works” is just silly, and it sounds like it could do with some more detailed (and critical) information. But I think it’s wrong to just discard it as “bullshit”.

    The entry on homeopathy sounds shocking though. Bullshit is an understatement.

    1. “A small analgesic effect of acupuncture was found, which seems to lack clinical relevance and cannot be clearly distinguished from bias. Whether needling at acupuncture points, or at any site, reduces pain independently of the psychological impact of the treatment ritual is unclear.”

      The things to bear in mind with acupuncture are probably that the difference in effect compared to any other placebo (as with most CAM) is minimal, if it even exists at all. Also that the ‘correct points’ as practitioners like to call them are, like chiropractic subluxations (which officially no longer exist! Check out Zeno’s blog), not based in any scientific reality but a mess of tradition that has no proven significance at all.

      Many positive studies are severely flawed with bias due to their being carried out by members of the acupuncture association and so on.

      Agreed, there are things to study, but as you say – it’s unlikely to be distinct from, say, getting a massage, so giving it medical credence in the Science Museum is still not on.

        1. Here’s DC’s roundup prompted by the aforementioned article
          And the science-based medicine archive:

          I can’t help but feel the ‘oh well it might work for something’ is simply wishful thinking because it is a more ‘tangible’ procedure than, say, taking water/sugar pills. I invite people to post their findings of evidence and summaries for/against acupuncture, but do note conflicting interests.

          The problem with studies into CAM is that they’re generally performed by people who already believe it works and are seeking to prove their claim, not objectively looking at the real effects. The trials/studies are often poorly carried out and results from previous studies tend to be cited as positive when they really weren’t.

          It’s endemic to the business (and that is indeed what it is, also important to bear in mind).

          Of course, CAM practitioners and devotees will then turn around and say the same thing about medicine, when (at least for now) that is not really the case in the UK. Sure, to an extent it is, but then we will happily rip into the Pharma companies with just as much gusto (as Bad Science shows quite plainly).

  11. Great post – what a shame to see the mighty SM pandering to the quacks. I checked their website and here are the addresses for complaints: email or write to:

    Visitor Experience Manager
    The Science Museum
    Exhibition Rd
    South Kensington
    SW7 2DD

    1. Robin Adams

      The fact that they have a “Visitor Experience Manager” tells you all you need to know about the Science Museum these days.

  12. Good post Marianne.

    You asked me for advice on the way forward…here are a few randomly ordered points!

    It would be useful to see the correspondence between David Colquhoun and the museum, as that will help identify their defence and save time.

    One must be careful not to go to sponsors/advertisers (eg Wellcome Trust) at an early stage (ie until you can see there is a breach of good practice or rigour) as we would condemn if done by others.

    It is important to identify specific things the museum has said in its voice or allowed to be said that are the most unscientific and also the most misleading (and dangerous in public health terms).

    Need to see if the museum has an editorial policy for invited or sponsored exhibitions. Need to determine if their view is taken to preserve sponsorship of these sort of exhibitions. They could make an argument that they would not be viable if they refused sponsored exhibits on editorial (as opposed to interest) grounds.

    The question may be – is there a clearly visible disclaimer, saying that the SM “does not necessarily support the accuracy of any assertions made or implied about CAM in this exhibition.”

    It is important that we have supported the editorial/free expression freedom of museums who have been accused of eg blasphemy with statues etc and some aspects of that analogy need respect.

    Happy to discuss.

      1. Simon

        I think that’s a great idea — a mass overdose outside of the museum. Then a sit-in protest until they either remove the exhibit from the museum or the word science from their title.

  13. Real is scientific homeopathy. It cures even when Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails. Evidence-based modern homeopathy is a nano-medicine bringing big results for everyone

    1. Fleegman

      “Real is scientific homeopathy.”

      Who are you, Yoda? The woo is strong in this one.

      Also, it’s not scientific, because it’s based on magical thinking, and certainly not evidence.

      “It cures even when Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails.”

      Citation please? The only time people get better when using homeopathy is when a) the problem is imaginary, b) they’re also using conventional medicine, or c) the condition goes away on its own. Like, you know, a headache, or cold. If you have evidence of what you’re talking about, please present it or don’t bother commenting.

      “Evidence-based modern homeopathy is a nano-medicine bringing big results for everyone”

      It’s not nano-medicine, it’s none-o-medicine. Nano, implies there’s something there. Using the word “nano” does not make it scientific. Performing double-blind studies is scientific, not waving hands around and spouting scientific sounding language.

      What you need to do is provide evidence that it works (hint: it doesn’t), and then we might have a reason for investigating HOW it works.

      I might just add that there are so many levels wrongness in homeopathy that it’s very far from one mechanism that needs defending. A short list:

      Like cures like
      Water memory
      That “memory” can be translated to a sugar pill
      The body can absorb that memory and do something useful with it?
      How does succussion not potentise the impurities in the water?

      You can start with those if you like. I look forward to your well though out, reasoned respone.

      All the best,

      1. Fleegman

        Heh, ok, thanks for the heads-up. First time here, so my troll-recognition system isn’t callibrated, yet.

        I guess I just felt a rant coming on, and you know what they say: better out than in.

    2. Michael

      This is Nancy’s standard reply, word for word, for any site that challenges homeopathy.

      Also I would correct the suggestion that “Homeopaths give substances” unless the substance you are talking about is water. There is nothing in them, which unfortunately the majority of the public do not understand and this display is not going to help. Perhaps they should have had the 10:23 campaign in the museum itself.

  14. Random

    I recently watched a talk by James Randy at Google, where he said he visited an government_funded acupucture clinic in China, where lots of people were going to get treated. He had a talk with the guys running the clinic, and they told him that they knew very well that it didn’t do anything at all to treat their patient, but that the governement used it to sort the real patients from those who really needed help. The first went home happily after the treatment, happy to have been taken care of, while the other were redirected to real hospital.

    For those who don’t know James Randy, he created a foundation that will offer one million dollars to anyone that could prove beyond doubt anything “supernatural”, such as talking with the deads, levitation, acupuncture, homeopathy… in a controled environment.

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  16. Susannah Shute on behalf of the Science Museum

    Apologies for the delay – this is your first genuine response from the Science Museum. We are listening and we will respond as soon as we’ve gathered some more information from relevant members of staff.

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  18. Nigel

    BBC Horizon did a great programme on homeopathy many years ago and it explained how alternative medicine not only doesn’t work but why it doesn’t. Maybe the BBC should consider showing it again so that the poor gullible ones can realise their error.

    1. Ach, I tried to explain that to someone, got to the point where we agreed there were no molecules of the ingredient in the water, that subatomic particles didn’t count, and that the atomic structure of water wasn’t any different finally: “so… what do you think would be working if it’s just water?”

      He just got flustered and went right back to the beginning again.

      1. Michael

        Hi Amy

        I’ve given a talk on homeopathy and used a picture showing the size of a water moleule relative to one of the toxin proteins that is used to make homeopathic “remedies”. The size difference is so vast, the idea that the water molecule can “remember” anything about the toxin is ridiculous

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    1. Stella

      Appreciate that some people are very annoyed by this, but having seen this exhibit, how about a little perspective. It’s hardly the case that the”5th floor” at the Science Museum “is devoted to quackery” . The apparently offending cases are in a small separate area squidged between the historic and more contemporary sections devoted to ‘Before Modern Medicine’ and ‘Modern Medicine’. The impression I had was that they were suggesting that there were other medical practices and traditions out there in the world …and here are some of them. After all, it is a History of ‘Medicine’ gallery.

      1. Mae

        When I visited the 5th floor a few weeks ago I didn’t get that impression at all, unfortunately. I enjoyed the Before Modern Medicine section a lot and found it really interesting, but then I was suddenly in the middle of a section on alternative medicine, without any introductory posters or signs stressing that these alternative remedies have not been scientifically proven to work or that the aim of the displays was simply to show traditions out there in the world. I felt like I had accidentally walked into an alternative medicine museum, because the displays were so wishy-washy and not at all scientific.

        Most of the displays presented anecdotes without any further comment or factual criticism. The displays on Egyptian medicine from thousands of years ago don’t need a sentence saying ‘this does not work, don’t try this at home’, because it’s obvious, but if the Science Museum wants to present alternative medicine currently in use then they should include material on the actual science behind it. Is it scientific? Does it work? What do the scientific studies reveal? Why is it ‘alternative’ medicine – why do we not use it in a clinical setting?

        I understand that there are people all over the world who want to or have to rely on alternative medicine, but that is not the impression I got from the displays.

      2. Stella

        The 5th floor was admittedly something of a warren, but the Living Traditions section was small and, stylistically, clearly different (I think most of the gallery is from the 1980s whereas this bit is only a few years old). On entering the gallery there was an introductory area that clearly set out three distinct areas of the gallery – of which Living Traditions was by far the smallest. As mentioned in my previous comment I was hardly surprised that a gallery on the ‘history of medicine’ would include some mention of the likes of acupuncture etc. It seemed legitimate that the displays outlined what these MEDICAL PRACTICES purported to be – and little more given the space – rather than have them there simply for some kind of dismissal on scientific grounds. The institution has sometimes styled itself as a museum of the history of ‘science, technology and industry’ – it is not a contemporary science centre. The range of galleries suggest an attempt to cover a very wide range of subjects and themes. As far as I was aware, it addresses these very widespread ‘traditional’ medical practices in just a handful of cases in one gallery.

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  29. Evidence of homeopathy is undeniably positive and consistent. It’s a human evidence of experience, gathered from a real-world observation in a real-world setting (not in an ideal artificial laboratory) giving real-world solutions.

    1. Alex L

      Evidence of the placebo effect is also undeniably positive and consistent. Our job is to find out whether the reported effects of homeopathy are “just” a form of placebo effect.

      Uncontrolled experiments, real-world or otherwise, can never tell us that.

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