Quackery on Campus: Academic Pseudoscience

On Tuesday, I highlighted an important case of autism pseudoscience, with AutismOne is setting up on the University of Toronto campus to deliver a conference touting bogus “biomedical” treatments for autism. While they’re leveraging the implied prestige of the location (the Medical Sciences building), thankfully, there’s no academic relationship with the university itself.

Today we’ll examine something far more problematic on Canadian campuses: Academic institution that are openly embracing and teaching pseudoscientific, implausible, and unscientific material. Like the popular Academic Woo Aggregator over at Respectful Insolence, we’re going to start our own Canadian list. Jesse Brydle effectively made the first nomination with his review of Langara College’s Integrative Energy Healing Program. Here are a few others to get the ball rolling.

University of Toronto: The Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto is sponsoring a Natural Health Products Symposium continuing education program for pharmacists in November. Pseudoscience is peppered through the agenda: herbal products for H1N1 symptoms, and natural health products for menopause (hint: they’re placebo effects). But it’s the last presentation, “Pain management: marrying traditional and alternative therapies”, where things really take a turn for the woo. The description says that adrenal fatigue “will be addressed”. Adrenal fatigue is not an accepted medical diagnosis, yet it’s popular with naturopaths and other non-science-based practitioners. And the ultimate quackery of them all, homeopathy, is listed as a “treatment option” for chronic pain. Why would a discussion of pain treatments include the elaborate placebo system of homeopathy? Surprise, surprise! Boiron, a homeopathic manufacturer is sponsoring the conference. What a shot of credibility for a company that sells diluted, fermented duck organs as an influenza treatment: The halo of legitimacy from a renowned academic institution. With “Big Homeo” as a sponsor of this conference, the odds that the content will be science-based, is, well, probably homeopathic.

University of Toronto’s Human Biology Program: Professor Larry Moran at the excellent Sandwalk Blog identified HMB 434H: Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a fine example of pseudoscience on campus. Check out the syllabus. Some highlights:

  • The course descriptions: “Complementary/alternative medicine (“CAM”) is used in health care systems not only in North America, but also in countries such as China, India, and Vietnam. It involves the use of non-biomedical, “holistic” and/or culturally-specific health services and practices in the treatment of illness and disease (such as Chinese acupuncture), and an expanded concept of health, illness, and wellness. This course provides an introduction to the concepts, theoretical basis, evidence-based analysis, and pressing challenges and issues in CAM today.” No mention of a critical appraisal of the validity of these treatments.
  • The text is Fundamentals of Complementary and Integrative Medicine (3rd ed.) – with chapters on Qi Gong, energy healing, and more.
  • Lectures include “Mind-Body Medicine”, chiropractic care, homeopathy (the guest speaker is a naturopath and homeopath), traditional Chinese medicine, and Ayurveda.

In HMB 434H, it appears students are being taught bogus treatments that lie firmly outside what is established medicine.

The University of Toronto should be embarrassed by both of these programs. As an alumnus, I know I am. Both propagate a false dichotomy: The fallacious idea that there are different, but equally legitimate approaches to health care: conventional, evidence-based (“Western”) medicine and then alternative/complementary/natural (but equally legitimate) health approaches. But when alternative medicine is proven to be effective, it ceases to be alternative — and simply becomes medicine. Positioning therapies as “natural”, “alter” or “complementary” is just a special pleading by proponents for products do not meet science-based standards of safety and efficacy.

Langara College (Vancouver)
: Langara’s Integrative Energy Healing Program first came to my attention when I saw this photo in a credulous article in Common Ground magazine and laughed out loud:

Jesse Brydle’s blog post on Langara was superb, and I don’t have much to add to his excellent critique. Dr. Chris MacDonald, an ethicist, looked at Langara from an ethical perspective in his fantastic Business Ethics Blog in a sharply critical post “Ethical to Teach a Bogus Therapy?” Here’s the money quote, and it applies to all three coursed I’ve profiled, not just Langara:

So, what is there to say about a university teaching this stuff? Well, to the extent that students believe they’re learning real health science, they’re being ripped off. And since the practices being taught are part of the enormous alternative medicine industry, students are being taught a set of practices intended to be sold to customers: they’re being taught to sell a bogus product. Oh, and in the process, Langara is cheapening the entire notion of higher education.

Now I’m pretty sure there’s more woo academic pseudoscience in colleges and universities across Canada, so I’m asking you to do your part. Please post any nominations in the comments.

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  1. [...] issue having reared its ugly head in many Canadian undergraduate programs and have even read about entire courses described in some curriculums, most often as a class about Complementary and Alternative Medicine [...]

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  • Scott Gavura

    Scott is passionate about improving the way drugs are used. A pharmacist by background, Scott has a professional interest in improving the cost-effective use of drugs at the population level, while helping consumers make more informed decisions about their health. He blogs about pharmacy practice and questionable science at Science-Based Pharmacy and Science-Based Medicine. All views expressed by Scott are his personal views alone, and do not represent the opinions of any current or former employers, or any organizations or associations that he may be affiliated with. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.