Some of Britain’s leading scientists have accused the BBC of “quackery” by misleading viewers in an attempt to exaggerate the power of alternative medicine.
The criticisms centre on Alternative Medicine, a series broadcast on BBC2 in January, in which some of the most memorable scenes included open-heart surgery apparently carried out using acupuncture as an anaesthetic.
In another episode, brain images of patients undergoing acupuncture were claimed to show that the procedure had an effect on the parts of the brain that experience pain.
This weekend scientists turned on the programme’s producers, accusing them of distorting science in an attempt to present an unjustifiably positive image of complementary therapies. “They are peddling quack science,” said David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London.
The most serious accusation concerns the BBC’s presentation of the anaesthetic powers of acupuncture. A heart patient underwent surgery in a Chinese hospital with a number of acupuncture needles stuck into her body.
Critics say that the needles could be credited with little real effect because the patient was also receiving three powerful conventional sedatives — midazolam, droperidol and fentanyl — along with large volumes of local anaesthetic injected into her chest.
Simon Singh, a scientist who has produced BBC Tomorrow’s World and Horizon programmes, condemned the exercise as a memorable bit of television which was “emotionally powerful but scientifically meaningless”.
The series was viewed by 3.8m people and presented by Kathy Sykes, professor of public understanding of science at Bristol University. During the acupuncture episode, Sykes said: “We’ve got to be scientific and rigorous and plan it really carefully,” adding later: “The bit of the brain that helps us decide whether something is painful, we think perhaps is being affected by acupuncture.”
The key critics include two scientific advisers to the series: Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University; and George Lewith, director of the centre for the study of complementary medicine at Southampton University.
Lewith, an expert on the effects of acupuncture, said in an interview yesterday: “The experiment was not groundbreaking; its results were sensationalised. It was oversold and over-interpreted. Proper scientific qualifications that might suggest alternative interpretations of the data appear to have been edited out of the programme.”
It was made in conjunction with an Open University alternative medicine course, prompting scientists to complain that a wave of “anti-science” is affecting not only the BBC but many universities as well.
Ernst yesterday released the contents of a letter that he has written to Martin Wilson, the series producer, criticising him for promoting “US-style anti-science”.
He said he felt “abused” by the programme makers: “It was as if they had instructions from higher up that this had to be a happy story about complementary medicine without any complexity, and they used me to give a veneer of respectability.”
Ernst also said: “The BBC decided to do disturbingly simple story lines with disturbingly happy endings.”
Two other programmes in the series — discussing faith healing and herbalism — were also criticised.
“It was the programme on herbal medicines which really got me going most,” said Colquhoun. “It is as if evidence-based medicine and reason started to go out of fashion in the 1970s and 1980s and mysticism came in. We have to bring reason back.”
Colquhoun also warned that an unproven herbal treatment for Aids called sutherlandia is being promoted on the internet after it was featured in a programme discussing alternative herbal medicines.
He added that a gathering of members of the Royal Society, Britain’s most prestigious scientific body, is to be convened next month to promote the merits of conventional science.
The scientists will call on Lord Rees, the society’s president, to take a leading role. They will raise concerns that more than 50 universities now offer three-year bachelor of science degrees in alternative medicine.
“This is no longer a fringe game played by new age people,” said Colquhoun. “It is beginning to erode intellectual standards at real universities.”
Despite the criticisms, the BBC is understood to be in the process of commissioning a further series.
A spokesman said yesterday: “We take these allegations very seriously and we strongly refute them. We used two scientific consultants for the series, Professor Ernst and Jack Tinker, dean emeritus of the Royal Society of Medicine, both of whom signed off the programme scripts. It seems extremely unusual that Professor Ernst should make these comments so long after the series has aired.”
The spokesman said Tinker had indicated he remained happy with the tone and content of the films, stating: “Fellow medics at the Royal Society, including one eminent professor, said it was the best medical series they had seen on television.”