The Nightingale Collaboration Focus of the Month: pseudoscience by degrees

I have decided, despite this, this, and this (informally resolved), not to bother blogging the ASA adjudications this week but to concentrate on the Nightingale Collaboration’s Focus of the Month: Pseudo science by degrees.

Like me, they have decided to give the ASA a break and ‘focus on the problem of what some therapists are being taught in our institutions of higher learning’. They point out that the University of Westminster (among others) are offering BSc, MSc and MSci courses in subjects such as naturopathy, herbal medicine, acupuncture and complementary medicine. They urge us to write to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Westminster, Professor Geoffrey Petts (and/or any other university offering such courses), to voice our concerns.

I decided to send an email:

Dear Professor Petts,

I write as a member of the public who is becoming increasingly concerned about misleading healthcare claims being made by practitioners of alternative medicine. My worry is that vulnerable members of the public are putting their trust in treatments that are not evidence based. In some cases, they are also trusting practitioners who do not have a medical background and are critical of conventional medicine. This can lead to people neglecting the advice of their doctors and denying themselves essential treatment. I have therefore recently made several complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, Trading Standards and to newspapers.

I personally have a background in science. In order to acquire my degree (BSc Hons in Biology), it was necessary to have a thorough understanding of (to give just a few examples): the scientific method, experimental design, and analysis and interpretation of data (including using statistics to demonstrate whether or not results are ‘significant’). I feel proud to be able to call myself a ‘scientist’.

I believe it is an insult to science to award BSc, MSc and MSci degrees in subjects such as naturopathy, herbal medicine, acupuncture and complementary medicine. I believe the only British university which tackles these therapies with a proper scientific approach is at Exeter, under Professor Edzard Ernst. He has found that in most (but not all) cases, claims of efficacy for alternative therapies do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. I think this is interesting and important work, but do not believe this is the approach taken at Westminster.

I feel that what is being taught at Westminster is not of the required standard of a science degree. I believe it undermines legitimate science courses (such as my own) to award BSc, MSc and MSci degrees for what I would term ‘pseudoscience’, and gives false credibility to therapies that have been shown by science not to be effective.

I believe that continuing to offer such courses is damaging to the reputation of the University of Westminster.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.

My next task is to seek out other universities offering such courses and send them similar emails. I will report back with any interesting responses.


3 responses to “The Nightingale Collaboration Focus of the Month: pseudoscience by degrees

  1. In real BSc and MSc degrees, real research is undertaken in the form of honours projects, which require a critique of the current literature, a basic understanding of statistics for data analysis and to draw reasonable conclusions from the data obtained. Most of the so called “literature” of CAM research violates all of these basics. I wonder if UoW uses these literature in their teaching.
    It is a slap in the face that graduates of woo join the same club that we are proud to be of – the BSc/ MSc club.

  2. Pingback: University of Westminster, I still believe you are teaching pseudoscience degrees and am surprised your Life Sciences people think otherwise | Josephine Jones

  3. Edzard’s Ernst’s Pulse article on this topic has attracted some interesting comments from alternative health practitioners.

    For example after accusing Ernst, Randi and Goldacre of being ‘pseudoscientists’, one homepath goes on to assert that there are verifiable biochemical tests for high dilutes, that water does indeed store and transmit information thorugh its hydrogen bonded network and that smallpox was wiped out by homeopathy. Incredible.

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