In 1996, Alan Sokal got a bogus paper published in the journal Social Text. It was a parody full of meaningless statements in the jargon of postmodern philosophy and cultural studies. The editors couldn’t tell the difference between Sokal’s nonsense and the usual articles they publish.

Now a British professor of medical education, Dr. John McLachlan, has perpetrated a similar hoax on supporters of so-called “integrative” medicine. He reports his prank in an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).  

After receiving an invitation to submit papers to an International Conference on Integrative Medicine, he invented a ridiculous story about a new form of reflexology and acupuncture with points represented by a homunculus map on the buttocks. He claimed to have done studies showing that

responses are stronger and of more therapeutic value than those of auricular or conventional reflexology. In some cases, the map can be used for diagnostic purposes.

The organizers asked him to submit an abstract. He did. In the abstract he said he would present only case histories, testimonies, and positive outcomes, since his methods did not lend themselves to randomized controlled trials; and he suggested that his “novel paradigm” might lead to automatic rejection by closed minds.

He received this answer:

We are happy to inform you that the Scientific Committee has reached it’s [sic] decision and that your paper has been accepted and you will be able to present your lecture.

 He comments that

this particular hoax parodied the absurdity and credulity of so called integrative medicine. I do not believe that rational medicine could have been fooled with something so intrinsically ridiculous as in this case. Minimum standards of common sense should, I think, have led to a polite but firm rejection — or at least further inquiry. Alternative medicine is not noted for rigorous inquiry, for research designed to prove the null hypothesis, but rather accepts notions on face value.

We have frequently made the same points here on SBM, but never in such a vivid and amusing fashion. Kudos to Dr. McLachlan! The beginning words of his article say it all, better than I could:

So called integrative medicine should not be used as a way of smuggling alternative practices into rational medicine by way of lowered standards of critical thinking. Failure to detect an obvious hoax is not an encouraging sign.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.