CAM research in universities: Throwing good money down the well

Social media has been abuzz over the past few weeks with stories of academics at Canadian universities with lectures and research with a significant pseudoscientific slant. The question of academic independence has been raised, with the debate over whether our institutes of higher learning should be free to explore whatever ideas or theories they wish, regardless of the scientific consensus or merit.

In May 2014, Timothy Caulfield wrote this piece entitled Integrating Nonsense where he clearly outlines many of the potential dangers in allowing Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) to play a major role in our academic institutions and hospitals.

In response, Sunita Vohra and Heather Boon (now Dean of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto) wrote this piece in September 2014 defending CAM research in universities. The essence of their argument is that CAM is widely used among the population, that we need to know as much as we can about CAM, and that universities are the best place for this research to take place.

They portray their views in this way:

“Advocates do not need evidence because they already believe, and detractors do not need evidence because they are already convinced all CAM is quackery. Neither position is evidence-based and neither invites thoughtful discourse and dialogue. We prefer a position in the middle: open-minded, yet skeptical; willing to listen and to investigate further.”

In reality though, those that are “opposed to CAM” are simply asserting their interpretation of the lack of evidence for the therapies that are widely described as CAM. As Paul Offit has famously said, “There’s only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t”. Creating a false dichotomy between proponents and opponents allows opportunists to lump homeopathy and Reiki in with exercise, self-taught mindfulness and meditation. Describing CAM as an overarching concept to be defended is the equivalent of a physician blindly defending the merit in studying all proposed pharmaceuticals. Each pharmaceutical needs to stand on its own academic merit, with a grounding in basic science and scientific plausibility. Many in the CAM community seem to be lacking appropriate skepticism when it comes to scientific plausibility of CAM “therapies”.

Dr. Boon has done some great research in the past in studying natural and herbal products and patient behaviour, and has been widely applauded for her work. But crossing the line into actually doing an RCT on homeopathy in ADHD is a different ballgame altogether.

Most of all, my concern with research into CAM comes down to a finite amount of research funding to go around. In an era where austerity is hitting both private and public sector research, every research dollar should be considered precious. The public deserves for academic leaders like Dr. Boon to use those dollars wisely, towards pursuits that will have the greatest impact on public health. The U.S. has already done Canada an enormous favour by willingly throwing over $20 billion over 20 years towards The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which has been criticized broadly by many in the scientific community, and quite eloquently by both Science and the Skeptical Inquirer. Even the UK has spent millions of dollars doing a review on lack of value in homeopathy. We don’t need to re-invent the CAM research wheel here in Canada simply out of morbid curiosity.

Let’s learn from their mistakes and only fund and support university research with an ounce or two of scientific plausibility.


One thought on “CAM research in universities: Throwing good money down the well

  1. Pingback: CAM research: who are we trying to convince? | Cobalt-60

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