Junkfood Science: Gobbledygook

March 22, 2007


This past weekend, as I completed an accredited continuing education course, as required for my professional licensure, on women’s preventive health, I got to a section on complementary therapies. What had been an acceptable course with a greater focus on evidence-based science than is common for many nursing CE curriculums nowadays, disintegrated into gobbledygook. That’s why today’s story in the British newspapers caught my attention.

David Colquhoun, a professor of pharmacology at the University College London, wrote in the journal Nature that a review of courses offered at British universities demonstrate there are now 61 complementary medicine courses, of which 45 are marketed as science degrees. They run the gamut: homeopathy, nutritional therapies that claims diet can cure diseases, aromatherapy, acupuncture, herbal medicine, reflexology, naturopathy and traditional Chinese medicine. His article has been widely reported in the news.

Ian Sample, science correspondent for the Guardian, wrote an especially informative piece:

Homeopathy science degrees 'gobbledygook'

British universities are damaging their reputations by offering science degrees in homeopathy, reflexology and other alternative medicines, scientists warn today. The recent surge in bachelor of science degrees in complementary therapies is described as a "disaster for reason and education" that is being driven by universities desperately trying to attract students to their campuses.

..."Most complementary and alternative medicine is not science because the vast majority of it is not based on empirical evidence. Homeopathy, for example, has barely changed since the beginning of the 19th century. It is much more like religion than science," he writes.

Prof Colquhoun particularly criticises the universities of Central Lancashire, Salford and Westminster, the latter of which offers 14 BSc courses in complementary and alternative medicine. "This is the equivalent of teaching witchdoctory. If you have a bachelor of science degree, it ought to be in something that can vaguely described as science," Prof Colquhoun said. ..."I'd like to see vice-chancellors get honest. They've lost their way and are happy to teach anything to get bums on seats. They think anything that makes money is OK. We know that these courses are showing bigger rises than any other subject, while maths and other subjects are going down. It's a disaster for reason and education," he said.

Mr. Sample went a step further to report on the trend of complementary courses at universities and its impact on the credibility of science degrees:

Edzard Ernst, a scientist and professor of complementary medicine at Exeter and Plymouth universities has recently obtained details on complementary medicine courses on offer at universities and believes there has been a doubling in courses in the past few years. "From the course material we were able to inspect, these courses look on the flimsy side to put it very mildly. Universities are currently run like BMW factories. They're out to make money and the content of courses is sometimes amazing and in complementary medicine, very amazing," he said. “...These courses are hands-on and the students come out with a bachelor of science in a subject which essentially is not science.

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, said: "Alternative medicine is a big business and uses the cover of legitimacy given to it by some universities awarding BSc degrees and the occasional use by the NHS as a substitute for providing proper research-based evidence of effectiveness."

The BBC added:

Alternative therapy degree attack

UK universities are teaching "gobbledygook" following the explosion in science degrees in complementary medicine, a leading expert says.....He said the teaching of complementary medicine under a science banner was worse than "Mickey Mouse" degrees in golf management and baking that have sprung up in recent years...

"That is quite different from awarding BSc degrees in subjects that are not science at all, but are positively anti-science. Yet this sort of gobbledygook is being taught in some UK universities as though it were science." He suggested it would be better if courses in aromatherapy, acupuncture, herbal medicine, reflexology, naturopathy and traditional Chinese medicine were taught as part of a cultural history or sociological course.

A spokeswoman for the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said there were no serious concerns about degrees being offered. The Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health, a group set up by Prince Charles to promote complementary therapy, said there was increasing evidence alternative therapies worked and where there was no proof it did not necessarily mean that there would never be.

And the Herald elaborated on how big complementary modalities have gotten in the UK and the controversies surrounding the scientific evidence:

Less than complementary?

UNIVERSITIES who offer science degrees in complementary medicine are heavily criticised today, in a prestigious science journal. Offering students a "BSc" in homeopathy, reflexology and herbal medicine is potentially harmful, as patients will "falsely" believe they are being treated by a scientifically trained practitioner.

Universities should scrap the BSc title, according to Professor David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London, who describes homeopathy as "science without science".

In a commentary, Professor Colquhoun argues that the title BSc is unjustified and misleading. "These subjects are by no stretch of the imagination science, yet they form an integral part of BSc degrees," he says....He also cites problems with the science taught in other BSc degrees, such as nutritional therapy, whose proponents "have been known to claim that changes in diet can cure anything from cancer to AIDS".

Despite these doubts, the market in the UK for homeopathic remedies has exploded - growing from £25m in 1999 to £32m in 2004 in over-the-counter sales. The complementary medicine market as a whole was valued at £147m in 2004, showing an overall increase of 45% since 1999, according to a report by market research company Mintel. In Scotland, 60% of doctors' surgeries prescribe homeopathic or herbal remedies, according to a survey of 323 practices in 2003-04....

Dr. R. W. Donnell, a hospitalist in Northwest Arkansas, has posted an extensive series on the inundation of alternative modalities in American medical schools, at DoctorRW. This is just as prolific in nursing curriculums. After all, it was a Ph.D in nursing who first created and promoted “therapeutic touch” as a nursing modality in the 1970s and worked to have it integrated into bachelor of nursing degree programs. Articles on the prolific pseudoscience that has gripped the nursing profession and its impact on the nursing shortage and quality of nursing care, and letters to nursing boards, have gone unpublished for years. The reasons for the disinterest are much the same as why alternatives have been popularized within the medical profession. So, for CE credits, I waded through a thesis on why nurses should promote the healing wisdoms of ancient cultures and “correctly” answer the test questions on the benefits of homeopathy, Chinese herbs and teas, foods with special healing properties, aromatherapy, curing cancer through prayer and positive visualization, and therapeutic touch.

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