should universities offer courses in ‘alternative & complementary therapies’?

By Alison Campbell 26/01/2012


An article in the Sydney Morning Herald tells its readers: Scientists urge unis to axe alternative medicine courses. According to the article,

[a]lmost one in three Australian universities now offer courses in some form of alternative therapy or complementary medicine, including traditional Chinese herbal medicine, chiropractics, homeopathy, naturopathy, reflexology and aromatherapy.

We were talking about it & my friend Aimee said, “I think the key question to ask here is whether universities are scientific bastions, educational institutes, or organisations geared towards making money.” And I agree with her. While alternative therapies/complementary medicines are certainly popular, & there’s wide public interest in them (as evidenced by stories in the NZ Heraldhere, & here) – universities surely teach critical thinking (within & beyond their science programs), & there’s little evidence of either in many CAM modalities. Nor should the hoary old argumentum ad populum carry weight in scientific circles: just because an idea is popular, doesn’t mean it’s correct.

In other words, universities are educational institutions offering research-based, evidence-based programs in science & other disciplines, & subjects that lack that strong basis should have no place in their curricula. As the newly formed Australian lobby group, Friends of Science in Medicine, said in its letter to Australian vice-chancellors,

by giving “undeserved credibility to what in many cases would be better described as quackery” and by “failing to champion evidence-based science and medicine”, the universities are trashing their reputation as bastions of scientific rigour.

Hear, hear! After all, it’s not enough to put on a course because of actual or perceived student demand. The program also needs to be academically rigorous. And applying that rigour to an examination of the content should enough to see offerings such as homeopathy out the door. After all, claims that the homeopathic treatment for burns is more heat, or that homeopathic plutonium is a valid treatment for anything, are easy to test (& to find wanting). And explanations for its mode of action fly in the face of all we know od how the world works. The same is true for many other CAMs (& don’t get me started on leeches!).


0 Responses to “should universities offer courses in ‘alternative & complementary therapies’?”

  • Nice to see scientists/academics starting to pay attention to, and resist complementary and alternative medicines.
    The teaching of such unsubstantiated pseudoscience is a terrible was of time and money (particularly the students).
    Of course not teaching such pseudoscience does not prevent scientists from carrying out research to see whether some of the more plausible CAM’s might have some use. This is the correct way of doing things – show that it works and then teach it.
    Homeopaths, for example, have things backwards when they suggest that “science is still catching up” What bollocks! You can’t teach something in the (very very unlikely) hope that scientists may one day show that it works, particularly when numerous studies have already shown that it doesnt.
    I might as well set up nutrition classes that teach that cupcakes and chocolate syrup are the core of a good nutritional plan.

  • I might as well set up nutrition classes that teach that cupcakes and chocolate syrup are the core of a good nutritional plan.
    mmmmm chocolate!

    On the research into CAM aspect: we need to remember that NICAM in the US has (AFAIK) a $US1.5 billion budget for doing just that, but has yet to demonstrate much in the way of evidence supporting those ‘therapies’. At what point should we draw the line & say that there’s no need for further research (especially at a time when research funding is already squeezed)?

  • FYI: Ben Goldacre’s response on twitter:

    “Bullshit belongs in a clearly labelled bullshit shop, not a university. RT “@yabunonaka1: bit.ly/xnMVHP”

  • Good point re NICAM, their whole set up seems flawed. From memoery I think some of what they research is influenced by senators with an interest in “proving” their pet projects. Perhaps such research funding would be better devolved to funding someone with the appropriate scientific experience and ability rather than setting up an institute to do it.

  • Just got a reply on the Facebook page. Pretty terse and unhelpful.
    Essential message was, don’t use that page as means of communication with them.

    OK, I’m obviously uninformed about what Facebook is for.

  • One can only say that these persons have no idea how social media work! Pity as it’s certainly a worthy cause :-(

  • Yeah, I actually have several problems with their reply to me. (which can be seen at the link above, please check it out to make sure I’m not being unfair)

    First is the communication issue already mentioned.
    Second is that my attempt to contact them revolved around the altmed crowd trumpeting that the AMA President had removed his support for the FSM movement. I was attampting to find out more about this. The reply I was given was that the movement is about science not people.

    Fair enough but, they made it about people when they based themselves on a list of signatory professors and professionals. This turned their organisation into a giant argument from authority. As such their impact is only as good as the authority the wield. Further then the withdrawal of support by such an influential person has the potential to hurt their cause. Putting the rumour in the correct perspective, or countering it outright if untrue just seems like good PR.

    In this vein, if they want to be a movement rather than simply a collection of signatures then a better grasp of social media is certainly a must, as you say.

  • I’ve been keeping an eye on the FSM facebook page and those guys really don’t seem to be doing themselves any favours. There was a link posted by someone (ie not FSM) to a truly terrible article defending altmed against FSM (full of appeals to antiquity, popularity and tu quoque), offered without any comment. It has now been removed. No evidence of an effort to clarify why it was posted. Fair enough to stamp out bad behaviour and abuse but…
    Oh well.

  • Sigh. As I said, some people simply don’t understand social media. (Something that was reinforced for me during a committee meeting yesterday.)

  • mmm, there is a post on their Linked in group about setting up a webpage. I suspect this is what they really want, more of a one-way direction of communication.
    Nothing wrong with that.
    As my membership is still pending, I can’t make any comments there to give suggestions. I wonder if both pages are managed by the same person.

  • If the institution is taxpayer funded, then alternative therapy courses shouldn’t be taught. However if the institution is privately funded (with no grant given to them by any form), then it is their business to do what they like. Although I may not like what they’re teaching, it is entirely their business. The government should not make any move whatsoever to ban those private institutions from teaching bullsh*t courses in alternative therapies if they choose to do so. Let the free-market decides even to our dislike of private institutions teaching such nonsense courses.

  • Then in the interest of the free market of ideas we are also entitled to put public pressure on those institutions not to teach BS courses.

    Accreditation institutions are also free to not give accreditation to universities that do not uphold a high standard of intellectual rigor. In some cases this accreditation is given by the government.
    So we are back to square one.

  • The only moral justification & the legitimate role for the existence of the government in the first place in order to protect the rights of its citizens are :
    – National Defense
    – Law & Order
    – Judiciary

    Anything or any other role that is outside those 3 mentioned above is immoral.

    Darcy said…
    Then in the interest of the free market of ideas we are also entitled to put public pressure on those institutions not to teach BS courses.

    That’s not my argument here. Of course we’re entitle to voice our opinions and let free men (in a free society) exert the pressures themselves (they are in fact the elements/members of the free markets I’m talking about). When the Govt steps in to regulate a private institution, it is then becomes immoral. If a privately self-funded institution chooses to teach homeopathy (supply), and there is someone (or people) want/s to pay to enroll (demand) then it is no ones’ business, because for them (institutions) to choose to do so in teaching those BS courses, they’re not violating anyone’s rights. Free people (in their own volition) will choose to do (ie, enroll) whatever they want as long as they don’t violate (or tread on) other’s rights. Govt is there to protect rights of citizens (its 3 core roles I stated above) and not violating them by dictating/banning citizens (such as private institutions) from what they want to do.

    There is a regulation that bans any institution (either Govt or private) from calling itself a University (Unitec had took the Govt to court a few years back for exactly that reason). Unitec is a Govt institution so, I have no problem with the Govt banning them for calling itself a University. However, if it is a privately funded institution, then the Govt has no business in banning them if they choose to call them self a University (eg, Wananga University, Whakapapa University, etc,…). Banning a privately funded institution from calling itself a University (or dictating the them of what courses that they should or not teach) is outside the 3 legitimate roles of the Govt because there is no rights violations occurred.

    Accreditation that’s only approved or given by the government is immoral. It is not their role to do so. Let consenting adults and free people run their own life’s, ie, leave it to the markets to decide. It is the invisible hands that Adam Smith taught us more than 200 years ago.

    Protest is fine. Voicing concerns about dodgy courses being taught at public institutions is fine. Lobbying the government to ban privately funded institutions from teaching courses that you & I don’t like (eg homeopathy), is a different matter. It is state coercion.

  • Falafulu, I’m not sure anything written contradicts you’re point of view, with the possible exception of my sentence “In some cases this accreditation is given by the government.”

    I didn’t see anything about government involvement in the story being commented on. If you have more recent news that covers this angle I’m sure we’d be interested to see it. Thanks

  • Falafulu,

    Following your line of reasoning then you would have no objection to someone setting up their own university and issuing students with degrees in medicine, dentistry and law?

  • Michael, that’s correct. I would have no objection at all. People can decide for themselves. The market itself will separate the wheat from the chaff (soon or later).

    I can setup a University tomorrow if it is allowed by law and start issuing my students with Dentistry degrees. Do you really believe that the market will take my students’s seriously simply because they have certificates? I don’t think so.

  • Do you really believe that the market will take my students’s seriously simply because they have certificates?
    Well, alas! I think that there are people out there who would ‘take [your] students seriously’, precisely because they have certificates. Why do you think so-called ‘diploma mills’ have a ready market? Because people can buy certificates & set up in business selling themselves/their product to others too gullible or without the skills to check. Especially if the product/service is offered at a price that undercuts the market.

  • Alison said…
    I think that there are people out there who would ‘take [your] students seriously’, precisely because they have certificates.

    Yes, there’s no doubt that would happen, which is no different to people who take homeopathy (with its false claims) seriously. What I mean is that the markets will soon find out and when it does, I’ll be quickly forced to close business since the invisible hands of the market itself has exposed me & my students. The words would soon spread out.

    Now, it seems that some have mistaken my position in thinking that I have no problem with fraud. Well, I do have problems with fraud. Presenting false degrees is fraud and when an economic transaction between 2 consenting agents involves fraud, that in itself is a rights violations. This is the legitimate role for the Govt to step in. Remember the proper of the Govt is to protect rights of its citizens. Fraud is rights violations.

    I should have been clear in my answer to Michael’s question. I have no problem with someone’s setting up a University not for the purpose of committing fraud. Fake degrees is a misrepresentation and pure fraud, which is rights violations. If the purpose of setting up a University simple to commit fraud, then law should step in because that is the proper function of the Govt.

    What I’m opposing Govt dictating to private institutions of what they can teach or what names they prefer can call themselves with. I mean for those institutions that are genuine about their teaching or qualifications they offer, irrelevant whether it is highly regarded by the markets or not. The Govt has no moral rights to do that.

    I’ll give an example. First, how many here who have heard about ATENISI UNIVERSITY (a private institution) in Tonga? Well, I don’t think that any reader here has heard of it. There is no law in Tonga that dictates to what (courses/subjects) a private institution can teach or what name/s they choose to label their institutions with and this is how it should be, because has no (moral rights) business in doing so. By the way, Atenisi is genuine in its teaching and it doesn’t offer any courses in homeopathy or alternative medicine but that’s unimportant in the discussion.

    Second, how many potential employers here in NZ who would have taken a graduate from Atenisi as first preference over the someone who graduated from say, Waikato University? Note here, that Atenisi is a genuine institution, it doesn’t exist simply to rubber stamp degree qualifications to its students in a fraudulent manner. It’s qualifications is very poor in comparison to say Waikato University. This is the reason that a graduate from Waikato will always be preferred to a graduate from Atenisi in the same degree by employers here in NZ. See, the markets has already conveyed this information to the employers. Any employer who hasn’t been conveyed this information, must be suffering amnesia.

    Now, Darcy asked that she didn’t see anything about government involvement in the story and she’s right. I raised this concern on this thread about such possible Govt involvement in the future, because this is exactly how Govt interference started. It started with do-gooders, wowsers, puritans, busy-body socialists, etc,… lobbying/campaigning to change the public opinions on some issues (that have no rights violations being involved). I have no problems at all with this because we live in a free society (well the free here is a misnomer) and we’re free to do that as long as we don’t tread on others rights. The lobbyists then followed by lobbying of politicians to change the law. This is what I see as the problem. The (free) society becomes servitude in the long run.

    I have argued on Sciblogs blogger Amanda Johnson on her Food-Stuff blog about this same issue. She advocated in one of her blog posts that somehow the Govt must ban certain advertisements to children (like fast food, etc…) because a study that was published last year has found that TV advertisements can indeed affect the decision of what children may like to buy because of the manipulative nature of TV advertisements. I believe that there has been a task-force that made recommendation to the Govt recently to do exactly that. I’m not sure where I read it, but this is exactly what I mean. It started with some lobbying of public opinions, then the next logical step for lobbyists is to try and convince politicians into changing the law. I’m not implying here that Amanda Johnson has been part of this lobbyists/wowsers, but the Govt has no moral rights to tell a private company (TV3 or Sky for example) of what they can or can’t screen. There is no rights violations involved. If consumers don’t like what they see, just simply switch channel or turn the bloody TV off, then problem solved.

    The Govt has no business in telling a private institution of what it can or can’t teach (be it homeopathy or alternative medicine), because it has no moral right to do so in the first place.

  • So what exactly is the relevance to the current topic then? You are arguing against something that hasn’t happened on the grounds that it may happen with people who aren’t trying to make it happen.

    My wife will also be surprised to learn I’m a woman.

    Plus your homoeopathy example is a bad one, been around 200 years and doesn’t look to be going away any time soon.

  • Darcy, I applogize for stating in my post that you’re a woman, I honestly believed that the name is a woman’s name. In fact the first time I’ve encountered the name Darcy (the only place) is on Sciblogs, but that’s no excuse for my ignorant.

    I agree that the issue that I have raised here has not happened yet and may never happen in the future, but since this blog is Govt funded, they (lawmakers) pay attention to what is being discussed here and that’s the main reason I’m raising the issue here.

    Anyway, I’m a male too, because my psuedonym can’t say much if I’m a male or a female.

  • “but since this blog is Govt funded,”
    wrong again.

    from the sciblogs about page:
    “Background & funding

    Sciblogs is an initiative of the Science Media Centre, an independent source of expert comment and information for journalists covering science and technology in New Zealand.

    Sciblogs is funded by advertising revenue and an AMP Scholarship grant.”

    don’t worry about the gender thing, happens all the time. If you google Darcy I come up at the bottom of the first page so fair enough, not a common name.

  • I might have mistaken from what I read on Poneke’s blog (3 years ago), because he had a few blog posts on the taxpayer-funded Sciblogs website attacking a minister of the Crown – Rodney Hide in relation to climate change. The specific blog that Poneke mentioned here is the Hot Topic. So, if Poneke was wrong then I have got it wrong too.

  • “If you google Darcy I come up at the bottom of the first page”
    scratch that, I was suspicious at this result so tried it on another computer and my anomalous fame went away.

    as for funding, perhaps we could say “out of date”.

  • Going back to something Falafulu said a couple of days ago: If the institution is taxpayer funded, then alternative therapy courses shouldn’t be taught. However if the institution is privately funded (with no grant given to them by any form), then it is their business to do what they like. Although I may not like what they’re teaching, it is entirely their business. The government should not make any move whatsoever to ban those private institutions from teaching bullsh*t courses in alternative therapies if they choose to do so. Let the free-market decides even to our dislike of private institutions teaching such nonsense courses.
    So, what’s your take on students using taxpayers’ money, through student loans & Studylink, to study alternative ‘therapies’ at these private institutions? These funding options aren’t just for students at mainstream universities, after all. The institutions may be privately funded, but taxpayers’ money is still being wasted on the sort of program we’re discussing here.

  • Just to add to Alison’s point, the government is now restricting funding of an individual’s tertiary study to 7 years. To allow students to study these courses not only wastes a students time and public money, but reduces their ability to retrain in something relevant to the “real world”.

  • Alison asked…
    So, what’s your take on students using taxpayers’ money, through student loans & Studylink, to study alternative ‘therapies’ at these private institutions?

    My take on education is it should be privatized (because it is not the role of the government), but I’m not going to argue that here. See, if it is privatized, then the problem solved. Would be students are then encouraged to seek funding or loans from some willing banks or other financial institutions (or may be help from family members or privately funded scholarships, etc…). Taxpayers don’t have to support those types of loans for courses that don’t really give any benefits to them (taxpayers). If someone wants to enroll in those useless courses at a private institution with private findings ( help from family or some banks that are willing to loan money to that person), then that’s his business. If he spent his money on a worthless degree, then it doesn’t affect the taxpayer one single iota. The problem with state welfarism is that the benefits (or profits) is privatized, but then the loses is socialized, ie, every one pays.

    So, if the institution is privately funded, running unworthy courses, then the same thing should apply. Student’s who are willing to enroll in those unworthy courses at those private institutions should not be entitled for Studylink loans.

  • because it is not the role of the government
    Why not? There are substantial ‘public good’ benefits in having a well-educated population.

  • Alison said…
    Why not? There are substantial ‘public good’ benefits in having a well-educated population.

    You are stating the obvious. There is benefits as we all know. My argument is based on morality. The public good can still be achieved in a complete free markets environment. Or are you suggesting that private free enterprises can’t achieve the same thing without the involvement of the Govt?

    I’m sure that small time entrepreneurs like myself want the Govt to fund my startups, because according to your way of thinking, there will be substantial ‘public good’ benefits if the Govt can do that, because I will be able to hire more programmers to join our small team and therefore they (my employees) will be able to pay more tax or have more money in their pockets to spend thus contributing to stimulating the growth of the economy. But for the Govt to give dosh to private businesses in the hope that I will succeed is immoral because the Govt tax the population to fund my startups for my own benefit alone.

    If I get grants from the Govt and my startups is unsuccessful and go under, then the loser is the taxpayer. If I’m successful for instance (as the business is sold), then the benefits is mine alone even if I had received grants from the Govt to help me out. I’m not required to pay anything back even I received a Govt grant. So the idea of substantial ‘public good’ means that the Govt has to force others (taxpayers) who may not like their tax $ being gambled on high risk ventures like mine (including thousands of others from around the country) is simply immoral. Taxpayers $ should only go to the 3 services/departments that I already mentioned above. Taxpayers should keep the rest in their pockets to pay their own way in life. In that way it is fair, it is just and it is moral.

    I don’t have to pay (via tax) to fund some institutions teaching homeopathy because to me it is nonsense. I don’t have to pay for the welfare of anyone who is obese. The obese person has to pay for him/herself, because most of what has been taken as taxed from their earning today, can be returned to him/her. He/she can buy a health insurance, pay for his/her kids’ education, pay for a TV subscription if it is Sky for example ,and pay for whatever he/she wants to pay for. This is what a moral and a free society is. A taxation rate of 10% or even less is probably what’s required to run the 3 core Govt services: National Defense, Law & Order, Judiciary. Taxpayers will mostly retain all of what they earn in their pockets just to pay for everything they want in life if they’re being taxed at 10% or less. Well, I know that you’ll think that my low-taxed proposal is insane, but it is not. There have been a number of economic studies that have been done exactly on that and Govt can run efficiently. Everyone pays for their own. Their earnings is mostly returned to them because of very low taxation.

    PS:I haven’t applied for any Govt grant at all, simply because of my ideology. I simply practice of what I preach, even with the prospect of shutting shop at certain times.

  • Falafulu Fisi

    You said of Alison “Or are you suggesting that private free enterprises can’t achieve the same thing without the involvement of the Govt?”

    While private free enterprise might achieve results without the involvement of govt, I would ask at what expense? Without regulation industries would be free to pollute the environment and exploit workers wouldn’t they? The sick, physically and mentally disadvantaged and others less able to fend for themselves would likely be discarded and mistreated.
    I’d be interested in knowing how you think the less fortunate in life would survive under free market conditions? Or do they “deserve” to receive less in life?

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