Friday, 5 November 2010

Bad MOSI, No Biscuit.

This has proven a somewhat tricky post to write because part of my readership* will find the issue self-explanatory and get little from this, and other parts will think that I'm nitpicking, or theorising a conspiracy, or shaking a bee from my bonnet, or any number of other accusations which can be levelled at somebody who appears to be making a fuss about nothing. It's also tricky because someone a bajillion times more proactive and organised and all-round better than me has made the main points already.

I went to my favourite museum last Sunday, and found it full of herbalists.

Ok, so it wasn't full of them. It also contained a lot of mathsbuskers, who are utterly lovely people dedicated to communicating proper information to the general public, in a fun, useful, non-profit-except-to-society-as-a-whole kind of way. This made the presence of an exhibition by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) even more disheartening. What the exhibition represented was pretty much the opposite of science communication, and therefore had no place in the Museum of Science and Industry**.

It certainly looked sciencey, did this exhibition. It had a definite air of the scientific about it, of the primary-school-biology, let's-colour-in-a-leaf variety. There were units of science arranged within, decorated with a sprinkling of twigs and a half-dead basil plant. However, unlike the other areas of the museum, which chart the rocky progress of various fields from less to more knowledge or from experimental to efficient machines, this exhibition was an incoherent mess of information. This meant that while all of the individual facts presented may have been true, the main message for people to take home was, "Herbs Good; Herbalists Lovely", and, due to the presence of a table covered in leaflets by the entrance, "Go And Book An Appointment".

It's at this point that I wish my phone hadn't run out of battery, because photographs would have been the best way to accurately represent the content. In the absence of more reliable data, here's what I remember from the various information boards. In an order no less logical than how it appeared on the day:

  • Plants are awesome. For years and years and years people have used them for shelter, houses, food and medicines.
  • Lots of plants are endangered through the actions of bad people. Good people are trying to look after them. Good people respect plants.
  • Herbalists respect plants.
  • Lots of medicines used by doctors are made from plants. In the future, we might find medical uses for other plants, which is another reason why we shouldn't destroy ecosystems.
  • Eating plants is healthy.
  • People who aren't doctors have also used plants as remedies for thousands of years. In many parts of the world, this is the main kind of medicine. In this developed, modern part of the world, more and more people are realising the benefits of... which point I find it hard to summarise without slipping into the language of a sales pitch, because I can't view all of this as anything else.

So my main beef with the exhibition is that it was a jumble of paragraphs about plants, herbs, medicine, health, conservation and herbalists, which drew no clear distinctions, offered no temporal or causal coherence, and was overshadowed by the huge, very professional-looking sign explaining who the NIMH was, next to a lot of its individual members' advertising bumf.


Now for the non-science bit. In common with organisations of all types and sizes, the NIMH has to define its members and provide them with an identity. As with all processes of identity-creation, this also assigns an opposing identity upon those excluded from membership ('the others'). When an organisation is trying hard to persuade their audience of a distinct identity - whether it's Cornish separatists or a local bakery - a clear opposing identity emerges as the main 'other'. In this way, every statement of a characteristic implies a second label, which is slapped onto the 'other'. In the case of alternative medicine, of which 'medical herbalists' are a part, the other is always conventional medicine.

Therefore, when the NIMH's own leaflet say that their members "are trained to look beyond the obvious, to find the root cause of a problem", it is heavily implying (to the point where they might as well just come out and say it) that any doctor you consult will go for the most obvious answer, and not get to that 'root cause'. I'm sure many of you can see the next sentence looming large on the horizon. All together now: "we do not treat symptoms, we treat people".

Even the title of the leaflet offers a distinction: "Herbal Medicine: for a naturally healthy life". Because you wouldn't want to be unnaturally healthy now, would you? Similarly illuminating statements can be found on their website, including the utterly nauseating:

For many, that first visit to a medical herbalist can be a life changing experience, a chance to experience true healthcare as it should be practised. Your medical herbalist is a genuine, caring partner in health from the cradle to the third age.

Even more frustrating, considering that these leaflets were on offer within - and therefore implicitly endorsed by - a science museum, are the members' own explanations of what herbal medicine is. Compare and contrast the two following statements. Exhibit A is from "medical herbalist and registered osteopath" Catherine Wasik BSc (Hons) MNIMH, BSc (Hons) Ost.***. Exhibit B is from "consulting medical herbalist" Kirstin J Bamber BSc (Hons) MNIMH.

Herbal medicine, just like all forms of medicines, can cause unwanted side-effects, however in the hands of a qualified medical herbalist treatment plans are designed to be safe and effective.

Many pharmaceutical drugs are based on isolated chemical parts of plants. In contrast herbal medicines are extracts from part of the whole plant (e.g. the whole root, leaves etc.) and contain numerous plant constituents.
Herbalists believe that the therapeutic actions of a plant are due to a balanced relationship between all the plant's constituents. Using a plant in this way prevents the many side effects that are often associated with pharmaceutical drugs.

What I would prefer to see from two people with the same degree, belonging to the same quality-assuring association, advertising their £7-per-week multiple plant constituents in a gosh-darned science museum, is some kind of agreement as to whether herbal medicine has side-effects.

And, to avoid devaluing the letters after their names even further, a working knowledge of commas would be nice too. That's the part where I'm picking nits.

* The collective noun for automatic googlepixies.
** Except that they're representing an industry. That's kind of the point but doesn't fit with the flow of what I was saying, y'know?
*** Who doesn't appear to have a web address, although the little picture of a pestle and mortar on the front of her leaflet does.


  1. Andrew Taylor of Apathy Sketchpad, who also saw it, says much the same. He posted on Twitlonger that:

    "[The leaflets were worrying in] A few different ways. Some claimed herbalism treats people rather than symptoms, a completely meaningless statement and favourite canard of homeopaths. One said that the remedies were based on the "balance" between the plants' constituents, thereby avoiding the side-effects of pharmaceuticals made from the same active ingredients — false, dangerous, and contradicting the more laudable claims the main exhibit made. Several of the businesses offer other, even less evidence-based therapies such as acupuncture, and advertised these in the leaflets at MOSI. In short, if the NIMH wanted to use the scientific end of the herbalism spectrum as a means to lend their less reasonable practices credibility, then they could do worse than getting this literature into a science museum, whence it will be taken home and read long after the exhibit is forgotten."

  2. It's also worth mentioning the conference posters dotted about the room. They give a lovely air of scienciness, but they a stage of dissemination before even informal peer-review and presented outside the context of the vast body of existing research. They're just some guy eulogising his pet project, and putting them in the MOSI exhibit made me feel the NIMH is more interested in the appearance of science than its results.

    For what it's worth, when I saw the "medicinal plants are endangered" display, my first thought was "so are rhinos".

  3. I guess I should also mention that we were there together and discussed it, so our stories and opinions aren't totally independent.