Bogus therapies being taught in universities

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Following all the nonsense on religion in primary schools, this next issue just adds to my current disillusionment with the state of education here, and elsewhere.

Back in the day, our unis were seen to be of a very high standard compared to those overseas. Certainly the qualifications were well-regarded, and we scoffed at the 3-yr engineering degrees available in the US – after all, 4 years was barely enough to scratch the surface.

And don’t get me started on the fact that our education was essentially free for all comers – in my opinion the mark of a truly civilised society.

But now, we see a descent into crass commercialisation – basically, let’s teach them whatever they will pay for.

A symptom of that mind-set is the infiltration into universities of nonsense – the trendy, populist, pop-culture topics which are more at home in glossy magazines and Oprah. I’m talking mainly of that group of subjects know as CAM – Complementary and Alternative Medicines. This is a collective term for a bunch of unscientific and unproven remedies and treatments which do not qualify for the term ‘medicine’. Actually, a better description is the CAM is medicine that doesn’t work, since CAM can include many substances and modalities, which if successful, could rightly be called medicine. Yet another term for CAM is ‘woo’, which you need to say like a ghost in a haunted house, and which accurately describes the means by which these treatments operate.

Our friend Orac over at Respectful Insolence has been writing about this for years. In his latest piece on the subject, he reminds us that:

Once again, whenever you see someone use the term “Western medicine” as a synonym for science-based medicine, you should know you’re dealing with someone who has at the very minimum taken a sip of the Kool Aid of CAM quackery and at the very maximum drunk deeply to the point of wanting to be a homeopath. As far as I’m concerned, it can’t be emphasized enough. There is no such thing as “Western” medicine. There is no such thing as “Eastern” medicine. There is only medicine that is science based versus medicine that is not. The East/West dichotomy beloved of CAMsters is a false one. In fact, not only is it a false dichotomy, but it contains within it a bit of racism as well.

Orac further laments:

Four years ago, I wrote a post that I called Gotta have more woo in my medical school! In it, I discussed how UCSF had put out a woo-ful, non-science-based booklet about “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), full of references to qi, acupuncture, and all manner of woo. Since then I’ve been sounding the alarm bells about the creeping infiltration of pseudoscience into medical school, even so much that it’s becoming part of the mandatory medical school curriculum. Now, four years later, I see that the creeping infiltration has ceased to creep. Rather, it’s turned into a torrent of woo pouring into medical school curricula. that’s now being recognized by the U.S. News and World Report in a disturbingly entitled article Medical Schools Embrace Alternative Medicine. Its contents are even more disturbing, and, unfortunately, it’s written chock full of alt-med tropes that concede the language war to the side of pseudoscience.

Closer to home, the venerable Science Show featured an excellent piece by Tim Mendham of the Australian Skeptics, on similar issues in our universities. If you’d like to hear it first hand, here is the link. Tim and co were interested in assessing the state of CAM in our universities, but the depressing outcome is summarised in the following:

Australian Skeptics approached 11 universities and one institute of technology and asked about their specific diploma, degree and postgraduate courses that they were offering. We mentioned some of the more outlandish claims that have been made for these ‘sciences’, like chiropractic can cure learning difficulties and asthma, that acupuncture can treat AIDS and palsy, that naturopathy is rooted in mysticism and spirituality, that component courses in kinesiology and aromatherapy were offered and especially that homoeopathy, which featured in many courses, has no basis in science at all beyond a placebo effect. We said we were especially concerned that these subjects were being offered under the imprimatur of the university, a place of higher learning, and that there was no resiling from the fact that anyone looking at such a situation would naturally presume these subjects had been proven to be true, when the truth is far from that.

Naturally we expected all the universities to rise to the challenge and come back to us with either passionate defences of the subjects or (wishful thinking) a mea culpa and we’ll remove it from our course list forthwith. No such luck.

We heard back from four institutions; RMIT, Murdoch, UTS and Charles Sturt. Sydney Uni and Edith Cowen University both promised to get back to us, but neither did. Macquarie Uni got back to us only recently, two months after we approached them. Only the dean of the faculty of science at Charles Sturt responded at length and engaged in further correspondence. We thank him for that. The rest of the responses were largely perfunctory, basically saying ‘we know what we’re doing’ and that the courses meet the current standards.

For instance, Murdoch University’s chiropractic program meets the ‘demanding standards’ of the Council on Chiropractic Education. Murdoch Uni cited the Chiropractic Board of Australia as a new national body overseeing professional regulation. The University of Newcastle, which didn’t bother to get back to us, has published a statement on its website: ‘These therapies have been selected because of burgeoning community interest and usage of these complementary therapies.’ I think that means market forces.

Yes, the truth is out there. The ‘truth’ being that we are not only absorbing bogus health information from glossy magazines and US talk shows, but we are now teaching it in university courses. The worst aspect is that the stuff is not only being taught in its own right (for example, a Diploma of Naturopathy), but is also embedded in the curriculum of medical schools.

One wonders how medical schools achieve this. How can they on one hand teach all the real evidence-based science and decision making, and on the other hand teach stuff for which there does not exist any evidence or experimental support? Leeches anyone?

A few posts ago I was cranky at how my daughter was treated as a result of religious education in primary school. That’s nothing compared to how I would feel if they were teaching her say, the value of ESP as a therapeutic tool, as part of her recently completed neuroscience degree. But that’s exactly what’s happening in medical schools, as they churn out ‘homeopathy-ready’ doctors.

Aren’t universities supposed to be the place in which society focuses generations of knowledge, both pure and applied? Isn’t knowledge presented there, to be learned by others and then passed down? Isn’t it also enhanced there, as new research adds to our collective knowledge and understanding?

Unfortunately, this rosy picture breaks down completely if we are not teaching the truth. If we are teaching lies, and more importantly, teaching our young to accept uncritically whatever is put to them, then we are going in the wrong direction.

I think I need to lie down now.

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4 thoughts on “Bogus therapies being taught in universities

    Blamer .. said:
    April 14, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    Oh dear. We can call this RB’s Law. Profit is inversely proportional to truth.

    Oh boy – Christmas has come early! « rationalbrain said:
    December 8, 2011 at 8:00 am

    […] stood up and and pointed the finger at these purveyors of quackery and pseudoscience. I’ve written before about this, and a particular irritation is the fact that our universities are teaching this stuff, […]

    […] previously had a crack at chiropractic manipulation (here and here for example), and recent research published in the British Medical Journal does nothing to change […]

    […] job of exposing the nonsense that is chiropractic. I’ve said it all before: for example here and here, but it’s always nice to have one’s beliefs re-affirmed by people who know what […]

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