Universities in Australia are defending their teaching of alternative medicine after a group of the country’s top scientists and doctors urged them to abandon this increasingly popular subject.
Friends of Science in Medicine — a recently formed group that includes more than 400 prominent scientists, doctors, academics and consumer advocates from Australia and overseas — wrote to the vice chancellors of Australian universities last month. They outlined their concerns about what they called the “diminishing of the standards applied to the teaching of science in our universities” and “the increased teaching of pseudoscience.”
The vice chancellors were asked in the letter to help reverse “the trend which sees government-funded tertiary institutions offering courses in the health care sciences that are not underpinned by convincing scientific evidence.”
“Such courses involve so-called ‘complementary or alternative medicine’ masquerading as, and sitting side-by-side with, evidence-based health-related science courses,” the letter said. It added that universities were risking their reputations by teaching courses like chiropractic, homeopathy, iridology and reflexology.
“We take the view that those universities involved in teaching pseudoscience,” the letter said, “give such ideologies undeserved credibility, damage their academic standing and put the public at risk.” The group says that 19 of Australia’s 39 universities offer degrees or courses in alternative health care. Such universities have asserted that their courses are legitimate.
Macquarie University, which is in Sydney and offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chiropractic science, said it offered rigorous, high-quality courses.
“Our chiropractic science students are well trained in the fundamental relevant sciences (physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, biophysics, radiology, etc.) together with units in chiropractic methods and clinical practice,” the university said in a statement. “Our students are taught to understand that science proceeds only on the basis of evidence. We are confident that our graduates have been taught those techniques that are known through science to be beneficial.”
Nick Klomp, dean of the science faculty at Charles Sturt University, in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, said while Friends in Science in Medicine made some valid points, the degree offered at his university, a bachelor of health science (complementary medicine), was based on science.
He said the course was designed to impart evidence-based science to people who already had a qualification, like a diploma, in alternative health care. The course includes such subjects as biology and physiology. “They’re all subjects that are already mainstream, hard health science subjects,” Mr. Klomp said.
He said that thousands of practitioners were already providing alternative medicine and that there was much demand for their services. “I could ignore them or I could train them better,” Mr. Klomp said, adding that a majority of the university’s students were already practicing. “We actually create graduates who are much better health care providers. It’s all about evidence based, science based.”
Murdoch University, in Perth, said it was committed to the promotion of research-led teaching and evidence-based practice across all disciplines, and that its School of Chiropractic and Sports Science was “established to be consistent with that approach.”
“Students are taught the science-practitioner model and our aim is to produce graduates who are critical thinkers,” the university said in a statement. “This enables them to distinguish between fad and genuine innovation in the discipline as practitioners, intelligent consumers of research and promoters of the scientific method. A clear distinction is made in all of our courses between areas for which the evidence is clear and those in which the science has not caught up with accepted practice and where sufficient evidence has yet to be accumulated.”
Universities Australia, which represents the country’s universities, said in a statement that the schools were “self-accrediting institutions with the autonomy and capacity to ensure the quality and relevance of the courses they offer.”
John Dwyer, co-founder of Friends of Science in Medicine and an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of New South Wales, said the academics had decided to form the group because of concerns about the growing number of courses in alternative medicine and their rising popularity among students.
“For many of us, we’ve been concerned for a long time that in this most scientific of all ages, pseudoscience seems to be flourishing,” he said in a telephone interview. Mr. Dwyer said more than 50 scientists from Britain, the United States and Canada involved in similar efforts had expressed their support for the Australian group.
“It’s becoming an international effort,” he said, adding that the British government withdrew government funding for alternative-medicine courses in January. David Colquhoun, a professor of pharmacology at University College London who has called for ending of alternative-medicine programs in Britain, is a member of the Australian group.
“Courses in alternative medicine are dishonest, they teach things that aren’t true, and things that are dangerous to patients in some cases,” Mr. Colquhoun said in a statement. Emphasizing that the group was not opposed to universities’ conducting research into different fields, Mr. Dwyer said the scientists were urging the vice chancellors to review the teaching of these courses and come up with a statement on the issue when they meet in March.