Guarding against pseudoscience at Western University

As a member of the faculty at Western University, I was absolutely thrilled that last weekend’s Homecoming featured a panel discussion on the topic of pseudoscience. The panel consisted of: Dr. Jen Gunter, an obstetrician-gynecologist, Western alumnus, and prominent online voice for science-based medicine; Dr. Marina Salvadori, a local pediatric infectious disease specialist and passionate vaccine advocate; Mark Speechley, PhD and Dr. Saverio Stranges from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

The talk was engaging, dealing with issues ranging from our society’s move away from appreciating the value of expertise, to vaccine denialism, to celebrity promotion of pseudoscientific products. My only quibble was with the short duration, as one hour was only a fraction of the time needed to tackle such a pressing topic, but hey, it’s Homecoming weekend, every minute is valuable.

So after a terrific talk, I waiting in line to greet Dr. Gunter (my Twitter buddy!) and Dr. Salvadori (who saved my cousin’s life in 2008, long story…) when, to my left, a fairly irritated man was needling Dr. Speechley with the demand that he “define pseudoscience for him”. Dr. Speechley politely explained that a definition could include beliefs and practices that appear scientific, but are not. The man was not satisfied, and repeatedly demanded a more specific definition. I couldn’t help but interject myself into the discussion, so I elaborated a bit further as to what a definition could entail. Again, he was not satisfied with our explanations. I sensed that he was clearly not interested in an actual discussion, but was rather trying to troll us into some ideological debate he wanted, so I asked him what he did for a living, to try and get a sense of where the heck he was coming from. He refused to answer. Giant red flag.

Before I had even a second to think of what to say next, he had moved on rapidly to explaining to us how he personally used homeopathy, and used it for all of his family, and who were we to tell him what works and doesn’t work.

There it was. The sacred cow. His love of homeopathy. Of course.

The rest of our conversation was a failed attempt at explaining to him that he and his family are free to pursue whatever treatments they desire, but he crosses a line when he attempts to convey to others that pseudoscientific treatments are based on any sound science. Oh, and I finally managed to get him to tell me what he did for a living. He’s an ENT surgeon. Frightening.

So where does that leave us? After an hour of kumbaya about science and fighting pseudoscience, this discussion brought me right back down to earth with the realization that pseudoscience is right in our midst on a daily basis, even promoted by those who we assume should know better.

There wasn’t any time for any questions to be taken from the audience, but here is the comment I wanted to deliver:

There was a lot of discussion during the talk about the role of health care professionals and the government in terms of education and policy around science, but we need to realize the important role that academic institutions like Western can play in terms of leadership in battling pseudoscience. Sadly, we have seen a proliferation of institutions in North America providing legitimization for pseudoscientific practices: UC Irvine accepting a $200 million gift to launch an “integrative health” institution, the fact that most American hospitals have a department dedicated to “integrative medicine”, and even the University of Toronto has its own “Centre for Integrative Medicine”. There is absolutely nothing from stopping Western from being the next university to fall prey to this trend. There has long been a course in the 4th year medicine curriculum about Complementary and Alternative Medicine, taught by “alternative practitioners”, with the students not provided with an ounce of scientific skepticism about these practices (as faculty, I provided an open lecture this year to any interested medical students, entitled “Scientific Skepticism in Medicine”). Western’s Departments of Health Sciences and Kinesiology have offered a course in “Integrative Health“, which….well just look at the syllabus. It’s horrifying.

To administrators who simply shrug and question what the magnitude of harm there could possibly be in allowing unscientific concepts to proliferate an institution, let me remind you of the institutional embarrassment that these individuals and concepts can bring to an institution. Do you think Yale was pleased at being referenced along Dr. Oz during his testimony before congress? Do you think the Cleveland Clinic had a few regrets about the fact the medical director of their Wellness Institute created an online firestorm after his blog that regurgitated anti-vaccine talking points? Do you think UBC is happy that two anti-vaccine researchers have made national headlines for having a paper retracted for the second time over accusations of fraudulent data?

There are consequences to allowing pseudoscience to flourish, because when there is the inevitable embarrassment, health professionals like myself will lay the blame at the feet of those in power who did not stand up for science.

Let’s be international leaders at Western, bucking the ongoing trend towards quackery, and setting a new standard for creating a health community dedicated to science-based medicine.

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1 thought on “Guarding against pseudoscience at Western University

  1. David Wyatt

    I find this to be a tougher call than I think you do. I was raised in a scientific (and medical) family setting. I work in IT, and consider myself to be fairly rational and logical. However, when I look at the list of topics for the Integrative Health course, I think some of them seem appropriate – at least for a Kinesiology course. The course outline states that the course will take “an evidence-based perspective”. This is key, but if the course is taught using this lens, I don’t see it as quite the calamity that you do. If nothing else, it could help students discuss these practices with future clients/patients.

    Many people derive benefit from chiropractic, even though some in the practice continue to oversell the impact that it can have. Ancient Greek healers found that tea made from willow bark helped reduce fever; today we have aspirin. Studying other ancient societies, there is a recurring theme of “energy” in the human body. I don’t think Western medicine recognizes this concept yet; does that mean that it cannot exist? Are all of the practitioners of Tai Chi mistaken in what they are feeling? Are the self-controlling practices of Indian yogi to be dismissed while we recognize the reality of bio-feedback devices and techniques? We now recognize some valid medicinal uses of marijuana; would this have been dismissed as “Western Herbalism”? (one of the topics in the Integrative Health course!)

    By all means, let’s call out practices that are either inherently dangerous (like the latest craze of coffee enemas) or dangerous because they are used as replacements for valid treatments (like laetrile and homeopathy). But let’s not dismiss out of hand everything we cannot easily validate or understand. We should try to keep an open mind when we evaluate practices that have been around for a long time and have large groups of followers.

    I like the fact that doctors know more about nutrition now than they did a generation or two ago.
    There are some interesting changes in how we now manage pain and nausea in cancer patients, compared to what was standard 20 yrs ago. We are seeing some remarkable effects when music is played to dementia patients. Is there a place for humour in pain management?

    I guess my fear is that if we over-react in dismissing ALL alternative medicine, we may miss out on some valuable potential treatments or lose a chance to better understand some of the intricate workings of the human body.

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