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

 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!).

7 thoughts on “should universities offer courses in ‘alternative & complementary therapies’?”

  • The reasoning behind teaching such topics seems suspiciously like the “teach the controversy” mantra of creationists wanting the ‘alternative’ to evolution to be taught as science. It’s nice to see a push in the right direction, so often it’s a move in the other. It always seemed odd to me when the claims made by homeopathy for example can be taught as science, while contradicting what’s being taught in the Chemistry and Physics departments.
    As a current biology student, I did find it interesting to get an email from my university with an attached letter from the national chiropractic school. It appeared to be looking to recruit those students who’d completed a first year of a BSc. I’d like to think that most of my fellow students wouldn’t abandon their BSc to go down that path.

  • A few years ago I had no idea what “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” was. I thought that the best way to find out was by taking a local university paper on the subject, about the place of CAM in primary health care.
    Because of my upbringing, I used logic and the scientific method in my approach to the paper. Well structured research, peer reviewed articles, etc, etc. Anecdotes were just that; they may be interesting but they are discarded in favour of data.
    I found that much of the initially positive literature was in german or french. Even that was not greatly positive and was also mainly about preliminary findings. Following up on the initial mildly positive research has shown that, with greater numbers and more accurate analysis, even positive results have regressed to placebo effect. The english literature has done the same.
    The conclusion I reached from the paper is that there may be something in 1-2% of CAM, and that that 1-2% bears watching, but there is no science or medicine behind the remainder of CAM.
    I reached the obvious conclusion that the “M” in CAM really stands for “Magical” or “Muddle-headed” thinking.
    Does CAM have a role in primary health care? No. It has even less role in secondary health care. Imagine attending an ED with a chainsaw injury and being offered Reiki, chiropractic, iridology or colour therapy rather than cleaning, debridement and wound closure!
    Getting back to subject:
    I believe that there is a place for CAM in universities. It is limited. A 15 point paper can be used to both demonstrate that CAM has no validity and can also be used to re-acquaint a person with research and the scientific method.
    It would reflect well on a university that the entire of CAM can be dispensed with in 15 points and also use much of the time involved to teach other subjects. Perhaps the paper could be entitled something like “Scientific approach to complementary and alternative medicine”?
    I agree that there is absolutely no place in universities for degree courses in any of the CAM modalities.
    Well, maybe one university: isn’t Hogwarts supposed to be the home of magical thinking?

  • Alison Campbell says:

    I believe that there is a place for CAM in universities. It is limited. A 15 point paper…
    Yes, I had wondered about that. I’m working on developing a new paper at the moment – open to all, no pre-reqs etc – on ‘big ideas in science’ & I am seriously thinking about using an examination of CAM pseudoscience to tie it all together. Evolution, concepts of energy, atoms etc – much of it is in there 🙂

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Hi David – I hope it wasn’t my institution that forwarded that letter… From time to time I talk with folks interested in taking our first year prior to going on to chiropractic, & I do rather hope that doing our papers will open their eyes to sticking with science instead 🙂

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Thanks, Grant, I didn’t know about this. Must look into it further as I could probably learn quite a bit from him 🙂

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