Pseudoscience in Our Universities
The group Friends of Science in Medicine has recently formed in Australia, and they now have over 400 professional members. They felt the need to come together over a disturbing trend—the infiltration of rank pseudoscience into once respected universities.
It is a sign of our times that we have to defend having standards of good science in the practice of medicine and the teaching of a science-based curriculum in universities. High standards of science in medicine are necessary in order to ensure, as best as we can, that treatments and interventions are safe, effective, and ethical. It is extremely complicated and tricky to determine safety and efficacy. Humans suffer from numerous mechanisms of self-deception, cognitive flaws and biases, poor grasp of statistics, and perceptual failings that are likely to lead us astray. In fact our biases tend to systematically lead us to false conclusions that we wish to be true, rather than to the truth.
These flaws, biases, and cognitive errors make it difficult to come to reliable conclusions in any area of exploration, but perhaps particularly so in the applied science of medicine. This field is further plagued by placebo effects, which represent the above effects in addition to a complex emotional and physical response to the nonspecific aspects of getting attention from an attentive practitioner.
Science is the only system that we have developed that systematically controls for all of these biases and flaws to see through to reliable information. Science endeavors to be transparent, thorough, and rigorous. The application of scientific principles has demonstrably transformed medicine (and human knowledge in general) for the better. As a society we should not lightly abandon the principles of science or try to change them to meet the needs of the current fads.
Universities in particular are supposed to be the exemplars of scholarship and intellectual legitimacy. People believe universities are intellectual leaders, not followers, and they are correct (or at least, they should be). Teaching a topic in a university is absolutely an endorsement of the legitimacy of that topic. We can distinguish between teaching about something and teaching the thing itself. It is okay to teach about so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) as a sociological phenomenon or even as an example of pseudoscience. Practitioners also need to learn about any method their patients may be using or about which they are curious. Credulously teaching CAM, however, is an endorsement, the granting of the imprimatur of the university.
It is tempting to cater to prevailing fads, to acquiesce to the vocal advocates and give them what they want, especially when there isn’t much protest. That is exactly what intellectual integrity is about, however—doing the right thing because it is right, not because it is popular or expedient.