The pseudoscientific merry-go-round takes another turn

Dr Rob Morrison writes:

The endless debates about climate change in the media could lead you to think that it is the only important issue on which science is trying to make some headway with a skeptical (if not antagonistic) public.

Not so. Try health or, more specifically, the various health “treatments” that are offered to a public that seems, at best, confused about what treatments work, which don’t work, what has scientific validity and what can legitimately claim to be evidence-based.

This all promises to offer a new, rich field for controversy, as the federal budget, cutting left and right, has at last decided to make some cuts that are long overdue; requiring the Chief Medical Officer to determine what “natural” health treatments are evidence-based. There is a year in which to conduct this review, after which the Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek, says that “The Private Health Insurance Rebate will be paid for insurance products that cover natural therapy services only where the Chief Medical Officer finds there is clear evidence they are clinically effective.”

The kinds of “treatments” cited include homeopathy, Reiki, aromatherapy, iridology, ear candling, crystal therapy, flower essences, kinesiology and Rolfing. I could add a few others, but these would at least be a good start. Many people don’t know what is involved in most of these. Have a look at Wikipedia, or the websites of the people that offer such stuff, and you are in for a sobering read.

I have more than a passing interest in all of this. At the end of 2011, five of us, disturbed by the number of Australian Universities that were offering courses in pseudoscience and calling them science, formed Friends of Science in Medicine  Very quickly we have gathered more than 700 supporters, mostly distinguished academics, scientists, medicos and consumer advocates; many of them international and including some influential organisations. They  support FSM’s aims which are, broadly

  • maintaining tertiary educational institutions free of health-related courses not based on science;
  • engaging regulatory authorities (and other responsible health care bodies) to reduce the real and potential harm from ‘complementary and alternative medicines’ (CAMs) not based on science;
  • publicly challenging non-scientific principles of many practitioners of CAMs, revealing their covert attempts to deceive the public;
  • engaging the broader public to help clarify the exciting potential of more science for better medical care and
  • educating the public to help them understand how to receive evidence-based health care and how to avoid misleading and sometimes dangerous alternative CAM practices.

Our first attempt has been to clarify which universities are offering pseudoscientific courses of this kind. It is harder to do this than you’d think, and certainly harder than it should be when taxpayers’ dollars are used to fund such courses. Some universities are quick to deny that they offer these courses, some do not reply, others do so in terms so ambiguous that it is impossible to know what they offer, and their websites (in most cases) don’t give much away, but it looks as though about one third of Australian universities are teaching pseudoscience as heath science. Others claim to be doing research into what alternative treatments and medicines actually work – laudable if true, but sometimes a cover for teaching the stuff as if it is true.

At a time when scientific research funds are being cut, and demands on valid medical services are greater than ever before, it is extraordinary that taxpayers should still have millions of dollars of their taxes wasted annually through the funding of spurious university health courses and rebates for pseudoscience health “treatments.”

You can never know what your influence has been, but it is heartening to see, in the four months that FSM has been highlighting the absurdity of treating and funding these pseudosciences as if they were legitimate and evidence-based procedures, the NHMRC, Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and now the federal government have all taken steps to move against them.

Not before time, but the vested interests are already making waves, and you can bet that a new science/non-science controversy will erupt around the scientific validity or otherwise of these alternative practices. FSM has already received many such criticisms from the alternative brigade. We are accused of not having open minds, ignoring the fact that some of these treatments have been used for hundreds of years, that they must work because millions of people use them, that they helped a family member, etc, etc.

None of these, of course, carry any weight as scientific arguments, and they will all be familiar to those who have ever tried to deal with the creationists who argue against the science of evolution, but they do suggest that, as with those who deny evolution, members of the anti-vaccination lobby and people who call themselves climate-change skeptics but are, in fact, climate-change deniers, we are in for another round of public misunderstanding about, and challenges to, the ways in which science does its business.