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Quackademics in USA and Canada

February 17th, 2008 · 14 Comments

This is the third post based on a recent trip to North America (here are the first and second)

One aspect of the endarkenment, the Wal-Mart model of a university, is very much the same in the US as in the UK. At one US university, an excellent scientist offered the theory that an alien spacecraft had scattered spores across the land which developed into HR staff who appeared at first sight to be human, and who colonised academia.

The penetration of quackademics into US universities is a bit different from in the UK.

In the UK, the plague is restricted to sixteen or so ex-polytechnic universities which, to their great shame, actually offer Bachelor of Science degress in subjects like homeopathy. There are bits of quackery in good teaching hospitals (such as laying-on-of-hands at UCLH), but not very much.

In the USA and Canada, this sort of “vocational” training does not occur much in universities, but in separate colleges. The situation is worse there though, insofar as these colleges have been allowed to award titles like ‘doctor of naturopathic medicine (ND)’, for work that in no respect compares with what the rest of the world has to do to earn a doctorate. This prostitution of academic titles has not happened to anything like the same extent in the UK. How our own quacks would love it if they were allowed to call themselves ‘doctor’ and sport the initials ND (so easily mistaken for MD at first sight).

It is on the clinical side where the situation is far worse than in the UK. Almost every university hospital, including Harvard, Yale and Stanford, has departments devoted to fairy-tale medicine.

Quacks use a number of euphemisms to make themselves sound more respectable. First they became ‘alternative medicine’, then ‘complementary medicine’. Now the most-used euphemism is ‘integrative medicine’, which is favoured by most US universities (as well as by the Prince of Wales). Raymond Tallis pointed out that this seems to mean integration of treatments that don’t work with treatments that do work.

An official roll of shame for North American universities can be seen here (35 in USA and 4 in Canada).

A bigger collection of 44 universities has been posted by the incomparable Orac at the The Academic Woo Aggregator. He’s had good support in the USA from DrRW (R.W. Donnell), see particularly his articles on How did pseudoscience get admitted to medical school? and What is happening to our medical schools? Abraham Flexner is turning over in his grave.

All these outfits have two things in common. They all claim to be scientific and evidence-based, and none has produced any real evidence that any of their treatments work.

Here are a few examples of what’s going on.

Yale University School of Medicine

The usual theme is expressed thus.

“Through open-minded exploration and rigorous scientific inquiry, we aim to improve awareness and access to the best in evidence-based, comprehensive medical care available worldwide, with the goal of optimizing health and healing for patients”

The driving force behind the woo seems to be a fourth year medical student, Rachel Friedman, so I wrote to her to ask what useful alternative treatments had been established by research at Yale. But she could not identify any. All I got was this.

“My best advice would be to do some medline searching of metaanalyses” there’s been enough research into some of these modalities to provide for a metaanalysis.”

So she was unable to produce nothing (and anyway. metanalyses, useful though they may be, are not research).. A glance at the Yale publications page shows why.

The Scripps Institute

Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine says

“In use at Scripps since 1993, Healing Touch is an energy-based, non-invasive treatment that restores and balances energy to help decrease pain and relieve associated anxiety.

Healing Touch is performed by registered nurses who recognize, manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body, thereby promoting healing and the well-being of body, mind and spirit.”

“Balances energy”?

“manipulate and balance the electromagnetic fields surrounding the human body”?

This is just meaningless boloney. And it come from the Scripps Institute.

The Oregon Health & Science University

OHSU is an excellent and well-respected research university where I have many friends. It was a pleasure to meet them recently.

But it also has a big department of “Complementary and alternative medicine” and an “Integrated medicine service”. There are some good bits of advice mixed up with a whole range of crazy stuff. Take their page on homeopathy.

“This therapy treats ailments with very small amounts of the same substance that causes the patient’s symptoms.”

WRONG. In most cases it is zero amount. To brush this fact under the carpet is simply dishonest (and perhaps a sign of guilt). Then comes this (my emphasis)..

Explanations for why homeopathy works range from the idea that homeopathic medicine stimulates the body’s own natural defenses to the idea that homeopathic medicine retains a “memory” of the original substance.

However, there is no factual explanation for why homeopathy works and more research is needed.”

WRONG. This statement carries (twice) the expicit message that homeopathy does work, quite contrary to a mountain of good evidence that it is merely a placebo. The statement is deceptive and dishonest. And it comes with the OHSU logo.

The University of Arizona

” Heal medicine”, “Transform the world?” Modest uh?

The University of Arizona Program in Integrative Medicine is certainly not modest in its claims, but its publications page shows that it doesn’t even attempt to find out if its “therapies” actually work.

Here is an example. They are advertising their Nutrition and Health conference
heavily.

There’s nothing wrong with good nutrition of course, but the ‘alternative’ approach is instantly revealed by the heavy reliance on the great antioxidant myth.

And look at the sponsors. The logo at the top is for Pistachio Health, a company that promotes pistachio nuts: “Delicious and good-for-you, pistachios are nature’s super heart-healthy snack. Nutrient dense, full of fiber and antioxidants, pistachios give you more bang per calories than any other nut.”.

The other advertisement is ‘POM Wonderful’, a company that sells and promotes pomegranate juice, “POM is the only pomegranate juice you can trust for real pomegranate health benefits”

No doubt pistachio nuts and pomegranate juice are perfectly good foods. But the health claims made for them are just marketing and have very little basis in fact.

Now let’s look at the speakers. Take, for example, Dr David Heber, MD., PhD. He is director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, a professor of Medicine and Public Health, and the founding Chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition in the Department of Medicine. He is the author of several books including “What Color is Your Diet” and the “L.A. Shape Diet.” With the possible exception of the books, you can’t sound like a more respectable and impartial source of advice than that.

But hang on. Dr Heber is to be seen in a video on the Pistachio Health web site doing what amounts to a commercial for pistachio nuts.

OK let’s take a look at one of Dr Heber’s papers. Here’s one about, guess what, pomegranate juice. “Pomegranate Juice Ellagitannin Metabolites Are Present in Human Plasma and Some Persist in Urine for Up to 48 Hours”. The work was “Supported by the Stewart and Lynda Resnick Revocable Trust and from the NIH/NCI grant P50AT00151″. So no problems there. Well not until you check POM Wonderful in Wikipedia, where you find out that Stewart and Lynda Resnick just happen to be founders of POM.

Of course none of these interesting facts proves that there is anything wrong with the work. But they certainly do show that the alternative nutrition business is at least as much hand-in-glove with big business as any other form of medicine. And we know the problems that that has caused.

So, if you want impartial advice on nutrition, sign up for the 6th Annual Nutrition and Health meeting. For “MD, DO, ND & other doctors”, it will cost you only $845 to register .

The meeting is being run by The University of Arizona College of Medicine and Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The University of Arizona is, incidentally, also the home of the famous (or perhaps infamous) Gary Schwartz (see also, here). He “photographs” non-existent “energy fields” and claims to be able to communicate with the dead, and he is director of its Human Energy Systems Laboratory at the University of Arizona. He is also head of the inappropriately-named Veritas Research Program and “Centre for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science”. All of these activities make homeopathy look sane, but he is nevertheless part of an otherwise respectable university. In fact he is He is Gary E. Schwartz, Ph.D. is professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry and surgery at the University of Arizona. Even more incredibly, this gets NIH funding.

Columbia University, along with Cornell, also has its own “Complementary, alternative, and integrative medicine“, defined as “the use of treatments, such as homeopathic medicine, ayurveda, botanical dietary supplements”. And their “Integrative Therapies Program for Children” is intimately tied up with a company called Origins, which is more a cosmetics company, Origins” (with all the mendacity that implies). They say

“Origins understands the importance of addressing wellness through an integrative approach,” says Daria Myers, President of Origins Natural Resources. “With our recent Dr. Andrew Weil collaboration, Origins demonstrated its support for the integrative wellness concept. Now, with the introduction of the new Nourishing oil for body and massage, we hope to bring not only a moment of comfort but also a healthy future to children enduring the fight of their life.”

Andrew Weil is, of course, the promoter of the Arizona meeting.

The corruption of Universities by this sort of activity is truly amazing.

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Tags: Academia · acupuncture · advertisements · anti-oxidant · Anti-science · antioxidant · antoxidant · badscience · business · CAM · conflict of interest · corporate · corruption · Dangerous advice · evidence · herbalism · homeopathy · HR bollocks · management bollocks · nutribollocks · nutrition · PR · Universities

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 » Quackademics in USA and Canada // Feb 17, 2008 at 23:18

    [...] Alexis Madrigal wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt [...]

  • 2 lecanardnoir // Feb 18, 2008 at 00:35

    We should be careful this side of the Atlantic too. I have just been perusing the Natural History Museum Homeopathic Plants and Fungi Database which is there to provide a,

    standard reference system for homeopathic practitioners, and other users of plant remedies. It reconciles the old homeopathic codes with the current botanical code. The information is based on long established remedies in the Homeopathic Materiae Medicae that are now revised and updated and the online access means it can be maintained and updated easily in line with current concepts of botanical nomenclature.

    http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/projects/homeopathy/index.html

    When such venerable academic institutions as the NHM pander to the vanities of pseudoscientists, we know we are in trouble here too.

    If Richard Owen were alive today, he would be turning in his grave.

  • 3 msw // Feb 18, 2008 at 12:37

    The person who runs that NHM project (and seems to have written most of the papers it references) is a practising homeopath, by the way: http://www.zoominfo.com/people/Bharatan_Vilma_860853841.aspx

    I wish they wouldn’t call them “remedies”.

  • 4 Quackademic medicine in the U.S.: The view from the U.K. [Respectful Insolence] | NewAge.org // Feb 19, 2008 at 00:00

    [...] Lecture at the Oregon Health and Science University. Now that he’s back, he’s made some observations about the infiltration of quackademic medicine into U.S. medical schools, the same infiltration of woo that I’ve lamented in my Academic Woo [...]

  • 5 jdc325 // Feb 19, 2008 at 15:17

    Have just been reading through some of the PIM publications (no original research, of course – just a few essays) and this struck me as being particularly offensive: “For most allopathic physicians, a genuine understanding of the underlying concepts and practices of CAM, such as acupuncture and homeopathy, is almost beyond achievement.”

  • 6 Dr Aust // Feb 20, 2008 at 21:55

    Nice spot, jdc. Standard of Anti- Medicine Philosopho-Woo.

    I think what they left out is the next phrase:

    “…since their training is to view as unfounded things which are scientifically impossible or nonsensical, like the said philosophies”.

    As we have said ad nauseam around here, feel free to teach Acupuncture or Homeopathy at University in a Social Science degree, preferably in a course on “philosophical underpinnings of culturally-based traditional medical systems”. But the stuff has no place purporting to be science, because it has no basis in what we know about the physical world.

  • 7 DMcILROY // Feb 22, 2008 at 22:14

    jdc – How on earth do you find the time and energy to read this stuff?
    Anyhow, I am not so surprised at places like Arizona and Oregon coming out with such cobblers, but I’m a bit more concerned with places like Yale and the Scripps peddling patently quack medicine. Why don’t the serious scientists in these places kick some arse (or should that be ass?) and get rid of all this nonsense? Doctor – heal thyself!

  • 8 RationalEyes // Mar 22, 2008 at 16:51

    Thanks for this excellent post. I’ve been think about this issue and getting angrier and angrier about it all the time. Here in the US, the ironic “mainstreaming” of CAM into institutions of higher education is deplorable and depressing. At the institution in which I trained (and received an outstanding education), I recently found this telling memorandum:

    http://www.mssm.edu/forfaculty/publications/cam/

    exploring the potential of establishing a CAM program at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. It’s a fascinating look into the behind-the-scenes discussion of the formation of such a program. Click on the link at the bottom of the page entitled “Market Assessment: Market Competition” for a tabular comparison of the market profitability of various CAM programs in the New York City area.

  • 9 David Colquhoun // Mar 22, 2008 at 17:35

    Thanks for that link. As usual, there isn’t a word there about whether or not it works, The only point at which reality creeps in is when a deceptive name is recommended.

    “In order to avoid the stigma associated with Alternative Medicine it is recommended that the name “alternative” be dropped from this program. Suggestion: Complementary Medicine Program.”

    They are quite right to think there is a stigma associated with their proposals, but the response was not to drop the proposals, but to change the name.

    But guess what’s behind it? NCCAM money again. In October 2007 we see

    “The new Center has been awarded an estimated $8 million grant over the next five years to continue its research and study of “age defying diets.”

    There will be an emphasis on grape-derived compounds that may be able to delay or possibly prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.”

    Oddly enough, we read here “Funding for in vitro Concord grape juice research was provided in part by Welch’s [the grape juice company].” ‘ And here “Additional Concord grape juice funding was provided in part by New York Wine & Grape Foundation.”.

    Isn’t $8m of US taxpayers’ money enough to spend on the antioxidant myth, without taking funding from vested interests too?

  • 10 Dr Aust // Mar 22, 2008 at 21:54

    Yeees… my attention was drawn to the section that says:

    “With the increasing acceptance of CAM by the population and medical community, more and more opportunities are arising in the form of funding. In addition to growing CAM clinical opportunities, there are a growing number of NIH grants available to CAM programs. In 1992 the NIH Office of Alternative and Complementary Medicine provided $19.5 million of funding to CAM programs. By 1998 that same office, now known as the NIH National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), provided over $68.7 million in funding.”

    Basically, it’s all about the money.

    To adapt a movie phrase:

    “If you fund it, they will CAM”

  • 11 Dr Aust // Mar 22, 2008 at 22:08

    BTW, for those who don’t recognise him, (Alt Health guru) Dr Andrew Weil – more about whom here – is the beaming bearded gent top left on the poster reproduced in DC’s post.

  • 12 Integrative baloney @ Yale // May 16, 2008 at 11:03

    [...] extent to which irrationality has become established in US Medicine is truly alarming I wrote about Quakademics in the USA and Canada on my last trip to the USA, and on my May trip I visited Yale, where I decided to try a full [...]

  • 13 University of Buckingham does the right thing. The Faculty of Integrated Medicine has been fired. // Apr 2, 2010 at 20:14

    [...] in the alternative camp (or quackery, as i’d prefer to call it). For example, people like Andrew Weil and George [...]

  • 14 Half-baked nonsense in The Atlantic // Jun 23, 2011 at 15:26

    [...] surprising to me that a magazine like Atlantic should think it worth printing an advertorial for Andrew Weil’s [...]

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