There is a recent trend in UK Universities to close programs offering science degrees for various forms of so-called alternative medicine (CAM), such as homeopathy, crystal healing, and traditional Chinese medicine. This occurs amid growing scientific criticism of these programs.

This is a very good thing, and something I would like to see replicated in the US. The scientific community is appropriately concerned about such programs for a number of reasons. We have also been highly critical of them here at SBM – for example take a look as Wallace Sampson’s excellent analysis of academic medicine here and here, and David Gorski’s summary of Medical Academic Woo here.

Academic institutions have an implied contract with society – they are given resources (donations, scholarships), power (the ability to grant recognized degrees), and respect (the institutions and their members are often given the assumption of credibility and knowledge), and in exchange they agree to follow a code of professional ethics.  This contract is similar to many professions, like physicians or lawyers.

The professional ethics of academic institutions should include mechanisms for quality control. This is largely self-enforced – academia generally regulates itself – and also partly government regulated through accreditation, but even then this is left to the academics to decide on standards and how to assess them. What this means is that in general the public expects that our universities and schools are not teaching our children utter nonsense, indoctrinating them into a belief system, or pursuing a personal agenda in the guise of knowledge.

At the same time academia feels an ethical imperative (and this is where it gets tricky) to respect academic freedom. The most tangible manifestation of this notion is that of tenure – once professors achieve a certain status they are granted an enduring appointment so that they will feel free to express their academic freedom without fear of being fired. But also it is expressed in the overall attitude of deans and chancellors toward their professors, which is largely one of benign neglect. Unless powerful forces are brought to bear, the community of academics are largely left to regulate themselves, and individual quirkiness and dissention is tolerated by default.

As with many things, there is a balance to be struck between academic freedom and quality control. This issue is coming up in many contexts recently. Intelligent design proponents are using the academic freedom argument to try to push what is essentially a religious belief into schools and universities. That violates the quality-control ethic of not teaching a personal belief system as if it were science, and their efforts have been largely unsuccessful.

CAM proponents, on the other hand, have been very successful in recent years. They are essentially trying to do the same thing, promoting a personal and sometimes overtly spiritual belief system as if it were science-based. They have simply been more successful at packaging their claims and exploiting the various weaknesses of modern academia than ID proponents. Health care is also much more personal and it has been easier to characterize scientific opposition to unscientific medicine as resulting from conflicts of interest, rather than genuine quality control.

The harm done by granting science degrees in something like homeopathy is multifactorial. First, it breaks the public trust. Universities should only grant science degrees in disciplines that quality as genuine science, and homeopathy does not fit the bill – it is a pseudoscience. This lends false legitimacy to quackery, confuses the public about the nature of science, and decreases public confidence in academia. This causes a ripple effect of harm to society.

While it has been easy to get scientists to complain about the teaching of creationisms as science, it has been extremely difficult to get them to complain about CAM, even when they personally believe it to be mostly nonsense. This has been both puzzling and frustrating for those of us defending science-based medicine. Val Jones has characterized those reluctant to defend SBM as “shruggies,” an apt term.  But there is more than apathy at work – misguided political correctness and confusion about the actual claims and beliefs of CAM proponents also being significant factors.

It is therefore heartening to hear that scientists are finally taking notice and recognizing the threat posed by CAM to science, medicine, and academic in general. Granting a science degree in pseudoscience diminishes science, the university, everyone who has ever received a science degree (especially from that university), and the public trust.

According to this TimesOnline report:

The University of Salford said it planned to wind down the undergraduate programme in traditional Chinese medicine “for financial and strategic reasons”.

He acknowledged that the course had been criticised by the scientific establishment, but said that the university would continue “to encourage and promote research into complementary and alternative medicine”.

He added: “It is not our role to comment on the views of others.”

You can see the conflict in these few statements – the university is bowing to pressure from scientists, but does not want to bad-mouth CAM because that would be politically incorrect, and then justifies their hands-off default approach.

I would argue that it is the role of academic institutions to have an opinion about what constitutes legitimate academia. Universities decide what science degrees to grant – you cannot do this without deciding what constitutes legitimate science.  Therefore that last comment is a bizarre non-sequitur.

Let us hope this trend continues. There seems to be a growing recognition of the importance of science and science education to society, and to national competitiveness in a global economy. Also, it seems (although this may be wishful thinking on my part) that the skeptical and science-based community has been successful to some degree in making defense of science and criticism of pseudoscience more politically acceptable, in addition to demonstrating the importance of defending science in the public square.


Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.