Anti-ScienceSkepticism

Bachelorette of Science

In the latest issue of Nature, there’s an exciting article about the attempt to stop British Universities from offering a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Alternative Medicine or Homeopathy:

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. …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.”

Hurray! Several different scientists have asked to see course materials, and been refused, and two universities refused to comment on the article, or to share details of the degree. In a commentary article by David Colquhoun, a pharmacist, he makes a stirring call for accreditation bodies to stop the awarding of BSc degrees. Because the commentary is probably only open to subscribers, I’ll reapeat some of the highpoints:

“In December 2006 the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service advertised 61 courses for complementary medicine, of which 45 are BSc honours degrees. Most complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is not science because the vast majority of it is not based on empirical evidence….What matters here is that degrees in things such as golf-course management are honest. They do what it says on the label. That is quite different from awarding BSc degrees in subjects that are not science at all, but are positively anti-science. In my view, they are plain dishonest.

Unfortunately, the Nature article concludes that the regulatory bodies have little interest in forcing a change:

“The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the body charged with safeguarding academic standards, also says that it does not get involved in questions about what constitutes science, and that universities are entitled to set their own courses.

As a scientist, my mental reaction to that statement is just….WTF? Are you serious? Just calling it something makes it so?
I may be missing for a few weeks, because clearly I need to move to England and start a magikyl therapy school for hands-on-healing of young nubile men and women. Get your BSc in just 6 weeks!
Or, perhaps this guy will start a school on the science of blood drinking and kabobing your enemies.

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Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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15 Comments

  1. If the regulatory agencies aren't willing to do their job, then it's up to the scientists and skeptics.

    Some of the homeopaths involved in teaching these university courses say they teach students empirical science? Great! Let's see lesson plans, reference materials, let those scientists audit some classes, interview graduates who hold that degree, survey people they've treated…

    If these folks want the approval of mainstream medicine, let alone mainstream science, then let them step into the same spotlight.

  2. I'm a little confused as the point of a standards body that refuses to get involved in setting and maintaining standards. "Hi, we're superfluous, please ignore everything we say from now on."

    Science is science. It's really not that complicated. Is the coursework based on a substantial history observation, experimentation, peer reviewed research, the evidence derived thereof, and rigorous application of logic? Then it is science. If it is based on purely anecdotal (and apocryphal at best) 'data' and poor experimentation protocols, then it's not science.

    I would be perfectly happy to see dowsing, homeopathic cure, ancient chinese herbal remedies, etc accepted into the canon of scientific knowledge. But they have to pay the same entry fee as everyone else: solid evidence.

  3. "But homeopaths involved in the university courses argue that they teach students scientific principles, including the critical analysis of evidence.”

    Your honour, I'd like to prove the defendents are lying about this. The proof: they are homeopaths.

    'Nuff said.

  4. “But homeopaths involved in the university courses argue that they teach students scientific principles, including the critical analysis of evidence.”

    So they finish their degrees knowing homeopathy is just bunk? Cool.

  5. Several different scientists have asked to see course materials, and been refused, and two universities refused to comment on the article, or to share details of the degree.

    Fair's fair, guys — if a university can put a fraternity on double secret probation, surely it's okay to have double secret degree requirements, shared only on a need to know basis.

  6. Long before my time, back in the '80s I think, my fraternity (Tau Epsilon Phi, Xi chapter) was placed on double-secret probation. I believe this had some connection with the party they threw which got MIT written up in Playboy. . . Three guys were called into the Dean's office (Dean of Student Affairs, Student Life or something like that), and the Dean told them that their chapter was on probation, but that they couldn't tell anyone about it.

    "Super-secret probation?" they asked.

    "Yes," said the Dean. "In fact, due to the delicate nature of this affair, it might be better to call your current situation doubly secret."

    "Double super-secret probation?" they asked. The Dean couldn't understand why they were so happy. . . .

  7. What about these morons?

    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.

    Foundation chief executive Kim Lavely added: "The enormous demand from the public for complementary treatments means that we need more research into why and how patients are benefiting.

  8. I totally agree that homeopathy is a load of crap that in no way resembles science. But I guess I don't really understand what the big deal is about the label of a degree. My brother has a Bachelor of Science in marketing. Hell, my ex-boyfriend has a Bachelor of Science in ACTING. And somehow I ended up with a Bachelor of Arts in chemistry just because I went to a private liberal arts school (even though my coursework was harder than many state schools, and I did research as an undergrad).

    So I guess, from anecdotal evidence, my conclusion is that the type of degree is essentially meaningless, as they seem to be randomly assigned anyway. And frankly, I find it somewhat fitting that homeopathy students are granted a BS degree ;)

  9. I guess the worry is that it lends legitimacy to it – noones going to think acting is a science after all, while the linkage is more easily confused with an area thats aspiring to call itself a serious discipline.

    But the BS bit is kind of appealing :)

  10. "Unfortunately, the Nature article concludes that the regulatory bodies have little interest in forcing a change:

    As a scientist, my mental reaction to that statement is just….WTF? Are you serious? Just calling it something makes it so?"

    I think you've missed the point. The question is: who should decide what is science? the government (here through its agent the QAAHE), or the Universities. I would be very uncomfortable with the government deciding what is good science and what is not. The Universities involved might be making a mistake offering a BSc in homeopathy, but its not for the government to step in and correct that mistake, that would create a very very disturbing precedent – would you like the government to step in and force universities to call intelligent design a science? Me neither.

  11. Damn. It's usually so easy to sit around being smug about america when you're english. I wanted rid of the royals for a while but now we have them championing bollocks (possibly literally as a cure for itchy feet) and now universities are involved?! I may never be able to sit around being smug again!

  12. Well I'm not recommending smugness, but actually the government spends far more on quackery in the USA than in the UK. The National Institutes of Health quackery section (NCCAM) has spent almost a billion dollars of your taxpayers' money and produced next to nothing.

    There is good (US) comment on this at http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics
    and on my quackery page
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Pharmacology/dc-bits/quack.h

    Then of course there is creationism too.
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Pharmacology/dc-bits/jurassi… .

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