Alan Henness is one of the co-directors and co-founders of The Nightingale Collaboration, which was set up with the aim of improving the protection of the public by campaigning for misleading healthcare claims to be withdrawn and those responsible held to account. During Simon Singh’s libel case with the British Chiropractic Association, Alan personally submitted over 500 complaints to the statutory regulator regarding misleading and false claims on chiropractors’ websites. In 2011, Alan and The Nightingale Collaboration co-presented ‘Alternative’, a comedic play about alternative therapies produced by Trunkman Productions.
Homeopathy in itself doesn’t have any direct harms but it’s the mindset that it engenders.
On becoming interested in science
I remember going through university and thinking about James Clerk Maxwell and how on Earth could somebody cope with these equations, but I think I would like to do something slightly different and say that the thing that inspired me as a teenager was ‘Tomorrow’s World’. Raymond Baxter presenting stuff there about stuff that, you know, this is what might be in the future. Some of it didn’t come off, of course, but it was that idea that, forget what we’ve got now, here’s a vision of the future that science and technology might be able to present to us. I found that, when I was going through my teenage years, absolutely fascinating. Even if it didn’t come to reality, the idea that there was something in the future, that science and technology would give us a better life and give us all these fantastic new things around the world.
On the Nightingale Collaboration
The Nightingale Collaboration is a small organisation that is concerned about some of the misrepresentation of healthcare claims in advertising to the general public. I’ve always been concerned about these things. I’ve been complaining about healthcare claims for over a decade now. The first big win I had with the Advertising Standards Authority was in 2003 about claims being made in the high street’s Chinese medicine shops and I’ve done them on and off since then but when Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association over an article he wrote in The Guardian in 2008, that highlighted a lot of issues in chiropractic. I spent some time looking at chiropractic websites and finding all sorts of claims that I didn’t believe could be backed up by any evidence at all, never mind robust evidence. So I put in some complaints to the statutes regulator, the General Chiropractic Council, about the chiropractors’ websites and the claims they were making. And after that I met Simon and he said, ‘This is something that needs to be done’. There needs to be a lot more effort put into trying to curb a lot of the claims being made and together we set up The Nightingale Collaboration.
There was a huge variety of claims made on chiropractors’ websites, from things like musculo-skeletal problems, like, sort of, back pain and things which are fine, you know, there is at least some evidence, not very good evidence, but some evidence for that, to all sorts of things including the things that Simon Singh had mentioned in his article in The Guardian about colic, asthma, which there is no evidence for and, as it was discovered, they were essentially bogus claims for which there is not a jot of evidence, but there was a lot more worrying claims as well about all sorts of medical conditions which we just didn’t think there was any evidence for at all.
On the importance of a properly educated public
I think it’s essential to get these sorts of things aired so people can make proper healthcare decisions. We’re not talking here about buying washing powder or something, where there’s maybe misleading claims about what they’re saying about how well it can whiten your whites kind of thing, we’re talking about healthcare claims and I think that’s a whole different realm of things.
People make healthcare decisions, quite often, on what they read on websites and there’s obviously a huge amount of information out there. If some claims are being made by practitioners or providers of a service that are misleading, people could be making wrong decisions about their health. If it’s a misleading claim about washing powder then, yeah, people might be wasting their money but when it comes down to healthcare claims that becomes a lot more serious and people base decisions on what they do about their health on misleading claims in advertising on practitioners’ websites. That’s a whole different ball game.
The key bit is the critical thinking about things. It’s looking at claims that are made and thinking, ‘Well, is that reasonable? Does that sound right?’ How do you look at the claim, well, you have to look at it in terms of somebody making a claim on their own website that, well, maybe they’ve got a bit of bias there, maybe they’re putting a bit of spin on what it is. But maybe it’s not really that bad, maybe it’s quite close, but it’s just getting into the rigour of thinking about it and saying, well, if what they’re saying is true what does that mean? Can I go and look it up and do some research elsewhere? No doubt that critical thinking is the key to this and I think it’s got to start in schools. Now, no doubt a lot of school kids in a lot of their lessons, particularly in secondary school, are taught some critical thinking skills on how to investigate things, how to even do some research on the internet, that is part of some of the IT courses that are around, but we need to get them a lot more. There’s huge amounts of information being thrown around at kids these days and we need to get them to be able to filter it out and be able to think critically about what is being presented to them.
On why some alternative therapies appear to work
A lot of people, particularly the main thing people say is, ‘Well I’ve seen it work’. And that may well be true, they may well have seen some results that happened after some treatment or other, but we really need to get people to think, well, maybe there were other reasons for it, other more down to Earth reasons why something may have appeared to have been cured by some treatment or other. And it’s getting people to, we live our daily lives thinking what we see is the truth. OK, some magicians might confuse us, completely bamboozle us with things, but we’re kind of expecting that. But in every day life we just go through life, looking at things, and what we see we tend to believe because we’ve seen it with our own eyes. And that comes out very much when we’re looking at alternative therapies where people think, ‘Well, I took that sugar pill for my cold and just a couple of days later it all got better’, and they would attribute that to the sugar pill when there’s no good evidence that would be the case. So we need to get people to think a bit more critically, to say, ‘Well, maybe it would’ve got better anyway’. And that applies to any medical condition.
On the placebo effect
The placebo effect really is the placebo effects. There are multiple placebo effects from alternative therapies. From the consultation with the homeopath it’s, part of it is the consultation, somebody listening, even for half an hour, you know, which is a lot longer than your GP, never mind being given these very ‘potent’ little pills at the end and saying this cures, treats, helps, alleviates your symptoms or whatever. But along with that goes a lie when you start saying this will help you when there’s no good evidence that it will. There is a case, I think, for placebo pills if you like, but it gets into very dodgy ethical ground where you have to lie to your customer, or your patient, to convince them that this might actually do something and I don’t think we want to go into that area where if it was your GP doing that then your GP would effectively be telling you lies, saying yes, yes, he’s confident this pill is going to cure your condition when he knows he’s lying.
On the joy of science
Finding out and being bamboozled by stuff. I can’t possibly, and I think the same applies to most people, can’t possibly expect to understand everything that scientists find and science shows us so we look at stuff from the cosmos or we look at stuff under a microscope and it might totally bamboozle me and that I find quite thrilling, that I can say that somebody, somewhere, knows what they’re doing here, understands this, and knows why these things are happening, what we’re observing, um, I don’t, in the main, I’ve got my own areas of expertise but outside of that it’s just absolutely fantastic. I find that somebody knows that, somebody’s gone to the effort of looking down a microscope for however many hours a day and thinking about what they see and trying to come up with an understanding of what it is, I find that fascinating.
On the greatest scientific discovery
The greatest scientific discovery of the last hundred years has to be the transistor I think. It has to be that. Without that we wouldn’t have, I wouldn’t be sitting here in front of a camera, it’d be some huge thing full of valves, so I think the transistor in the late ’40s has got to be the key thing that has enabled so much technology and so much science. I don’t think we’d be anywhere near it today without that.
On the dangers of alternative therapies
There are obviously some treatments that are potentially dangerous, some herbal treatments, there are pharmacological components in them that can cause problems and can cause drug interactions. There are other ones that can cause problems like acupuncturists sticking needles in the wrong place etc. In terms of direct harm those are probably some of the ones, but for indirect harm it could be something like homeopathy which probably in itself doesn’t have any direct harms but it’s the mindset that it engenders I think that can cause the problems. It’s the idea that these sugar pills have gone through some magical ritual of shaking and diluting that can cure, help, alleviate symptoms or medical conditions, I think, is dangerous to the mind if anything else.