Respectful Insolence

I’ve lamented time and time again how woo has been infiltrating American medical schools, even going so far as to find its way into being totally integrated into mandatory curriculum from the very first term of the first year of medical school at Georgetown. I realize I’m a bit late on this one, but sadly it’s not just the U.S. where pseudoscience, anti-science, and woo are infiltrating universities. In the U.K., it’s starting too:

Over the past decade, several British universities have started offering bachelor of science (BSc) degrees in alternative medicine, including six that offer BSc degrees in homeopathy, a therapy in which the active ingredient is diluted so much that the dose given to the patient often does not contain even a single molecule of it. Some scientists are increasingly concerned that such courses give homeopathy and homeopaths undeserved scientific credibility, and they are campaigning to get the label removed (see Commentary, ‘Science degrees without the science’).

Many scientists and advocates of evidence-based medicine feel that giving homeopathy scientific status is unjustified. Aside from the fact that there is no known mechanism by which this treatment could work, they argue that the evidence against it is conclusive. Of the many rigorous systematic reviews conducted in the past decade, only a handful have produced evidence, marginal at best, in favour of homeopathy, with the authors in each case stating that the data were weak. Several reviewers found no effect, and a prominent study suggesting that homeopathy does work (L. Linde et al. Lancet 350, 834-843; 1997), and which is frequently cited by homeopaths, has had its methodology extensively criticized since publication.

But homeopaths involved in the university courses — those that were willing to speak to Nature, at least — argue that they teach students scientific principles, including the critical analysis of evidence.

Homeopaths, teaching “scientific principles”? Homeopaths, teaching “critical analysis of the evidence”? When I read that, I laughed so hard that I almost hurt myself.

Then I thought about it. It’s as much of a laughing matter if you take the time to think a little more about it. For one thing, as Ben Goldacre found out, it’s not at all easy to find out exactly what these courses are teaching, without, I guess, taking one of them yourself:

Finding out exactly what is taught in the courses is not straightforward. Ben Goldacre, a London-based medical doctor, journalist and frequent critic of homeopathy, says that several universities have refused to let him see their course materials. “I can’t imagine what they’re teaching,” he says. “I can only imagine that they teach that it’s OK to cherry-pick evidence. That’s totally unacceptable.”

I can only imagine they teach it’s OK to cherry-pick evidence. That’s totally unacceptable.

Pharmacologist David Colquhoun of University College London has had the same problem, and is now using freedom-of-information legislation to get access to course materials after having numerous requests refused. The University of Central Lancashire and the University of Salford both declined requests to talk to Nature or share details of their homeopathy degrees.

I can only ask, as a commenter over at Bad Science asked: If you’re studying for a homeopathy degree do you get a better and better grade the less work you do?

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if these were being taught as history or culture, but they’re being taught as science. David Colquhoun gets it right in his Nature editorial when he says:

Other CAM courses are in aromatherapy, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, herbal medicine, reflexology, osteopathy, therapeutic bodywork, naturopathy, Ayurveda, shiatsu and qigong. None of these is, by any stretch of the imagination, science, yet they form part of BSc degrees. They are not being taught as part of cultural history, or as odd sociological phenomena, but as science. The University of Westminster also offers a ‘BSc’ in nutritional therapy. Proponents of ‘nutritional therapy’ have been known to claim that changes in diet can cure anything from cancer to AIDS. For example, the British nutritionist Patrick Holford infamously recommends vitamin C as a remedy for HIV and AIDS.

He also gets it right when he points out that what is in essence happening is that U.K. universities are giving degrees in science for subjects that are anti-science. Naturally, homeopaths and purveyors of woo are very unhappy about such commentary, and they’re trotting out the same old excuses:

When a patient visits a homeopath, the practitioner asks questions that go beyond the symptoms and probe other aspects of the patient’s life, such as whether they are feeling stressed or unhappy. The result is an individualized treatment that takes longer than the ten or so minutes that the patient would get with a government-funded family doctor. This personal interaction is critical to homeopathy, both in tailoring the medicine and in gaining the patient’s confidence. Homeopaths say that if there is a chance that the patient might receive a placebo at the end of it, the necessary trust can break down.

“Trying to do what I do in that context didn’t work very well,” says Clare Relton, a practising homeopath who is conducting research into homeopathy at the University of Sheffield and has taken part in a clinical trial designed to assess homeopathic treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome. “I found it difficult to build a therapeutic relationship,” she says. Relton argues that homeopathy is scientific, but that the problem of trust means that double-blind trials aren’t the best way to measure its effectiveness. Instead, she and other homeopaths prefer to rely on more qualitative methods, such as case studies and non-blinded comparisons of treatment options. These, they say, provide ample evidence that homeopathy works.

Wrong. I’ve deconstructed this tired old excuse in excruciating detail before, not just for homeopaths, but when it’s trotted out to make similar claims for many other alternative medicine modalities. It’s nothing more than a lame excuse not to have to do the science, an admission that homeopathy is nothing more than a placebo effect from an attentive homeopath. But, then, I guess I’m one of those “microfascists” who insists on actual, oh, scientific evidence and evidence from well-designed clinical trials before accepting a treatment.

I’m funny that way.

Perhaps our American medical schools should team up with these British universities. They could make beautiful woo together.


  1. #1 Warren
    March 27, 2007

    I can only ask, as a commenter over at Bad Science asked: If you’re studying for a homeopathy degree do you get a better and better grade the less work you do?

    Yes. I’ve got 37 different doctorates in homeopathy and I’ve never practiced, used or studied it at all.

  2. #2 robster
    March 27, 2007

    On the other hand, this makes me rethink getting that MD from Miskatonic University… I think Herbert West is still running the program…

  3. #3 Skeptico
    March 27, 2007

    They should be awarding a BPSc – Bachelor of Pseudoscience.

  4. #4 Koray
    March 27, 2007

    How could these universities refuse to disclose the course contents? Isn’t that needed for some kind of accreditation?

  5. #5 Chris Hyland
    March 27, 2007

    Tony Blair has said he want’s 50% of people in the UK to go to university. This has resulted in a rise in daft degrees that are mainly for people who don’t have the grades to do a ‘proper degree’. This is turn has contributed to the reduction of people doing actual science degrees as people realise they can take the easy option and still have a degree, and since they aren’t going for a career in the sciences it doesn’t make any difference.

  6. #6 NJ
    March 27, 2007

    This is turn has contributed to the reduction of people doing actual science degrees as people realise they can take the easy option and still have a degree

    Is it just me or does this sound like the plot of a C.M Kornbluth story…

  7. #7 JS
    March 27, 2007

    Somebody should compare and contrast the ‘research’ methods used in the field of didactics with this woo. I find that many of the kookier ‘teaching techniques’ peddled by certain pedagogues are defended with rethoric that could be copy-pasted out of the woo-meister’s handbook.

    - JS

  8. #8 Joe
    March 27, 2007

    Orac wrote: “Homeopaths, teaching “scientific principles”? Homeopaths, teaching “critical analysis of the evidence”? When I read that, I laughed so hard that I almost hurt myself.”

    When perusing quack sites, I recommend a truss.

  9. #9 Justin Moretti
    March 27, 2007

    It’s nauseating, and it ought to be banned.

  10. #10 sailor
    March 27, 2007

    One does wonder what form of accreditation these colleges have, and how that works, and how on earth it ever got accepted by anyone other than the woos running the course.
    (Maybe science curriculums are overseen by literature professors who specialize in the post modernernism)

  11. #11 Ex-drone
    March 27, 2007

    If the fundies were thinking strategically, they would argue that, if homeopathy can be taught at a medical school, then creationism should be teachable in a science class.

  12. #12 familydoc
    March 27, 2007

    Miserable colonials , how dare you criticise Prince Charles’ penetrating intellect – he is a patron of the Royal College of Homeopathy and even belives in veterinary homeopathy (presumeably to treat Camilla)
    Just now you’ll be wanting to throw the tea out into the harbour……………………..

  13. #13 Andrew Dodds
    March 28, 2007

    This is the problem – we shipped all of our fundamentalists off to the new world colonies, shipped all the criminals (well, the poor ones, anyway) off to Austrailia and got all of the humourless upstanding types slaughtered in asssorted wars.

    But we forgot to get rid of the alties. Personally, I think they can be used for colonising the moon; they should be OK on homeopathic oxygen.

    More seriously, this is a problem where universities get funding by the number of undergraduates, which by the magic of market forces means they will offer courses that appeal. Courses are rated and audited by the government – but the rating is focussed on things like ‘Is the material well taught’ and ‘Do the students actually have to do something to get a degree’, not ‘Is the course material based in reality’.

  14. #14 anon
    March 28, 2007

    and even belives in veterinary homeopathy (presumeably to treat Camilla)


    Gasp Splutter Snort- please don’t write that ever again without a huge choking warning. The funniest thing I have read all day- will have to remember this when Dr. Crippen at NHS Blog doc writes about this…… Freaking hilarious!!!

  15. #15 Paul Browne
    March 28, 2007

    For those interested there’s a small debate on the Nature newsblog about this, as usual good old personal testimony is very evident.

  16. #16 Alex
    March 28, 2007

    An honourable mention should go to Edzard Ernst down in Plymouth, the first professor of complementary medicine, who is also a proper doctor and who is regularly targeted by woo-merchants for doing things like randomised controlled trials of their potions, whose usually negative results he frequently publishes, and collecting samples of “traditional Chinese medicines” from shops around the kingdom for chemical analysis, which frequently discovers surprising ingredients.

    For example: massive doses of unauthorised steroids…

  17. #17 Ginger Yellow
    March 28, 2007

    Tony Blair has said he want’s 50% of people in the UK to go to university. This has resulted in a rise in daft degrees that are mainly for people who don’t have the grades to do a ‘proper degree’.

    It’s worse than that. New Scientist interviewed him about a year ago and asked about this sort of thing.

    NS: In certain areas, we seem to be moving away from rational thought, whether it’s the rise of fundamentalist religious beliefs or the use of unproven therapies. Do you see this shift?
    TB: I don’t. I think most people today have a rational view about science. My advice for the scientific community would be, fight the battles you need to fight. I wouldn’t bother fighting a great battle over, say, homeopathy. It’s not going to determine the future of the world. What is going to determine the future of the world is the scientific community explaining the science of genetics and how it develops, or the issues to do with climate change. There is a dimension that concerns and frightens scientists, let alone other people, because as the science progresses there are so many possibilities. Genetics, for example, is immensely exciting, but there will be massive questions around it. This is why the scientific community has got to come out and engage in a very strong and deep dialogue with wider society.

    Cheers, Tony. It’s shit like this that makes me ashamed to be British American.

  18. #18 Andrew Dodds
    March 29, 2007

    Ginger Yellow..

    This is the problem of electing lawyers to office; these are people who are trained to ignore reality in favour of what their client wants. After all, on average a lawyer is going to be arguing for thr wrong side 50% of the time. So he simply isn’t used to relying of facts.

    Try to bear in mind that in the 2005 election, both main parties had basically the same views on things like Iraq, ID cards, the economy and so on. We haven’t had a real election contest since about 1992.. In 1997 and 2001 the tories were going entirely for the over-65 xenophobe vote, and in 2005 they had the idea of copying labour’s election manifesto word-for-word. Can’t imagine why the turnouts keep dropping.

  19. #19 David Colquhoun
    April 9, 2007

    I’d like to know more about Georgetown. All emails gratefully received at