About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Teaching “alternative science” in universities

Christine Barry recently questioned “the supposed objectivity of scientific, biomedical forms of evidence” in a paper on 'The role of evidence [apparently none] in alternative medicine.' Barry could be expected to be a local columnist for a third rate paper, or perhaps a regular guest on Fox News. Instead, she is a medical anthropologist at Brunel University in the United Kingdom. As David Colquhoun has written in a recent article in Nature (22 March 2007), UK universities now advertise 61 courses in “complementary” medicine, 45 of which actually lead to a BSc degree (meaning that they are presented as science), five being offered in the completely nonsensical “discipline” of homeopathy.

What is going on here? This isn't an example of newfound openness of academia to new ideas. For one thing, ideas such as homeopathy, acupuncture and the like are anything but new. Second, there is no such thing as “alternative” medicine: there is only stuff that works (as assessed by empirical evidence) and stuff that doesn't. Homeopathy demonstrably doesn't work (beyond the usual placebo effect). As for acupuncture, there is scant evidence that it may have some effects, but most certainly not over the wide range of ailments its practitioners claim it can cure, and – perhaps more importantly in terms of university education – it surely doesn't work because the theory is right (there is no such thing as Qi energy). So, homeopathy is complete junk, while acupuncture may deserve some additional empirical study and at any rate is in need of a complete theoretical overhaul.

What is going on isn't even that for the first time academia is opening the doors to nonsense. The early universities in Europe, which started around the 12th century, were teaching all sorts of crap, simply because people – even smart and educated ones – didn't know better. Today we still have plenty of humanities departments teaching such obviously self-contradictory postmodernist ideas as the “fact” that authors of books don't matter, only the text is important (where did the text come from, then?) or that all opinions are simply different cultural perspectives worthy of equal consideration (so why is it that post-modernism alone can claim the mantle of truth?).

What is happening, rather, as hinted at by Colquhoun in the Nature piece, is that universities are increasingly being run as commercial operations on the model of private corporations in a capitalist market. They cater to “clients” (not students, or the parents who pay the hefty fees), and increasingly compete not for the best education money can buy, but for the hippest, most trendy or most politically correct curriculum, regardless of its intellectual content or lack thereof. The people want homeopathy? Let us give them homeopathy, say the various Deans, Provosts, Presidents and other administrators bent on raising money from alumni rather than on improving the quality of the places they are supposed to be running.

This will not work for the same reason that a “market based” anything (except, perhaps, economy) doesn't work. “The markets” maximize one thing and one thing only: economic efficiency. But human life in general, and education in particular, are not just a matter of economics. Sure, we all have to balance our budgets, including universities. But my main goal in life is to care for the people I love and to contribute to society in the ways I am best able to. It isn't to run an efficient banking operation. The money I earn, save and invest is one of the means to my goals, not the goal itself. Similarly, universities certainly do need to raise money through tuitions, state grants, and private donations, and need good administrators to allocate that money wisely. But such administrators ought to keep in mind that the financial resources they manage are the means to the real ends of their institutions: to provide students with the best knowledge available to humanity and, more importantly, with sharp critical thinking skills enabling them to tell the real McCoy. Then again, perhaps too much critical thinking isn't in the interest of those in power, from politicians to administrators to captains of industry. Or am I just being too paranoid here?


  1. I envisage a new university department: the Electives Dept.

    But two questions arise.

    a) Should students be alloewd to major in Electives?

    b) How do the profs gain tenure in Electives? Publish or perish?

  2. No, Max, you're not being paranoid. Just a few years ago, a British journalist had the temerity to ask much the same question of the then-British education secretary, Charles Clarke (i.e., "Shouldn't universities be about the learning?"), to which Clarke roared back that the only purpose of schools and colleges was to meet the needs of industry.

  3. Kimpatsu, the Clark idea that "the only purpose of schools and colleges is to meet the needs of industry", is certainly a paradox here in Oregon in the old US of A. Industry (or big business if you will) has spent the last thirty years finagaling their way out of helping to pay for education. The tax burden on them has been reduced to nearly nothing while that of the idividual has become obscene.

    All the while our entire education system, from k through 12 and on up through higher education, is going down the tube in rapid fashion. Yet business continues to ask for more tax breaks while lamenting the fact that the work force here is educationally. substandard.

  4. My wife who suffers from multiple myeloma, in desparation went to a couple of homeopaths early in her diagnosis. The result being that she came home having been fed incredible lines of BS, loaded down with bags of worthless pills and a wallet much lighter and thinner, and recommendations to give herself coffee enemas. (That just creeped me out (I'll take my one cup per day at the other end of my digestive tract, thank you very much).

    Fourteen months of chemotherapy gave her 20 months of stable disease before she relapsed. More chemo didn't work. But her oncologist convinced her that thalidomide therapy might very well be the ticket. That was over three years ago and whilethereare still signs of myeloma cells, the concentration is very low. She leds and almost normal life, albeit with less stamina than she might sometimes wish for.

    We'll stick with conventional medicine and sensible living habits and diet, and leave the freak medicine to some other sucker.q

  5. Dennis, this just goes to prove the old adage that business wants something for nothing. Let the poor stupid taxpayer fund the education, so long as the system turns out a compliant workforce, rather than dangerous freethinkers or people whose speciality can't be used to turn a quick profit.

  6. It seems to me that homeopathy had something to do with administering small amounts of a particular allergen till the body tolerates it better?? If this is the case, related concepts have and are being put into practice in professional med. for quite some time. Isn't that the general basis for vaccine use?

    I noted that this weeks "Parade" mag had an article about dealing with the cases of ever increasing peanut allergies in the population. The newer approach to treatment is to introduce the patient to minuscule amounts of a peanut powder that has been altered slightly. Eventually the patient goes from taking the equivalent of a 6th of a peanut to being able to ingest several peanuts. This makes it so that a small exposure to peanuts for a child will not necessarily have to become deadly.

    It was a super interesting article. I have wondered about what has caused the increase in certain allergies for a long time. My kids are some of the few that don't appear to have allergies or asthma. But almost everyone else we know has one or more in the family that do have one of those conditions.


  7. No, Cal, homeopathy is about administering water, and nothing else. Homeopathic dosages are too small (1 part per millions) for there to be any active ingredient ingested.

  8. These decisions are economic not human, and as a consequence have no foresight and no memory.

    The introduction of Faith Schools over here is another example of market driven idiocy, especially when you consider the effort put into solving Northern Ireland's deep religious divide.

  9. Aureola Nominee, FCDMay 01, 2007 12:40 PM

    If anything, homeopathy would "predict" the opposite: their "theory" maintains that the greater the dilution (and therefore the smaller the dose) the greater the effect, so that administering tiny fractions of a substance should trigger the most violent response from the body.

    It's the 19th-century reincarnation of sympathetic magic, nothing more.

  10. kimpat and fcd,

    Ah ha. I see.

    What is the actual technique or concept called then when very small doses of the flu, (strain specific) for instance, are administered to keep a person from actually getting the flu? I am not just talking about vaccination itself. I mean, what is the underlying principle?

    To me, it does not appear to be evolutionary, because if it were, most every mom would pass along those immunities from vaccination (because vaccination still is an environmental pressure, albeit an artificial one) to their children very much like when children are breast fed.
    But that does not happen.


  11. ThumpalumpacusMay 01, 2007 3:14 PM

    Cal --

    Inoculation is a form of "training" the immune system. By introducing dead or weakened microbes, the immune system is able to build the appropriate antibodies under a safe exposure.

    It is indeed evolutionary in couple of ways.

    First, those individuals who manufacture antibodies more efficiently would tend to be favored in a population, as they would be more likely to survive epi- or pandemic.

    Second, the immune system itself harnesses the power of natural selection in the process. When a white blood cell encounters a foreign substance, it releases chemical messengers which causes the appropriate antibody to be manufactured more quickly. This quicker manufacture is analogous to a population explosion caused by a glut of food.

    The fact that these antibodies aren't hereditary is actually a strength, for the immune system evolves antibodies at a microbial pace, ie VERY fast; whereas the genome evolves very slowly. Indeed, nature has invented a better way to transmit these antibodies: mother's milk. [One more reason to breastfeed].

  12. Aureola Nominee, FCDMay 01, 2007 3:20 PM


    the mechanism of vaccination is based on triggering the immune system with an attenuated form of a threat, thus "training" our body to recognize that specific threat and avoid it altogether or react much faster and more efficiently to it.

    What do you mean by "evolutionary"? The vaccination-enhanced response clearly cannot be passed genetically to offspring, as the change does not occur in the DNA of our reproductive cells; however, quite frequently maternal antibodies get passed in uterus via the shared bloodstream.

    You seem to have a Lamarckian conception of evolution. I'm afraid Mr. Lamarck was proved wrong on this... by Mr. Darwin, no less.

  13. I had a series of bee sting desensitivation (right word?, beats me, but you get the idea) about 35 years ago, but the dosages were much higher than what homeopathy suggests. And the strength of the shots were increased each time, the entire procedure taking many months. It was done under the supervision of a real doctor (MD in my case) and they were very successful, as I have been stung several times since and didn't swell up like a sausage or get sick as a dog.

  14. Aureola Nominee, FCDMay 01, 2007 9:26 PM

    *damn* my rusty Latin... I just noticed it should have been in utero, not in uterus!

  15. Hey, Dennis

    The "real doctors" are the PhDs, not the MDs! :O)

    Just pulling your leg. But think about it a bit more, physicians have very little clue about science or, specially, the scientific method. With very few exceptions. MDs are very much like car mechanics, more than mechanical engineers. So they don't care much about how things really work deep down, as long as they fix it... Which they won't with these "alternative" scams.


  16. Excuse me "J", Physicians the much better word. I would much rather have good "mechanic" working on me than a faith healer and that's pretty close to what homeopathy is is my mind. Not that faith in your physicians abilities is a bad thing, but faith only goes so far. The Doc's skill at diagnostics, his ability to choose the proper treatment(one designed by competent medical researchers), and one's own determination to survive are key. Mumbo-jumbo and casting spells is a poor excuse for the healing arts, now that so much better is available.

  17. Massimo, you should post something about Andrea Rivera and the Osservatore Romano. It's unbelievable that just saying a simple truth about the church in public can qualify a man as a "terrorist". We should all express our solidarity to Andrea.


  18. Andrea, can you provide us with a link?

  19. Aureola Nominee, FCDMay 02, 2007 2:30 PM


    I'm afraid the link's in Italian, but you should have no problem reading it.


  20. College aministrators are pigs feeding at a trough. For instance, the UC Berkeley administrators, who take as many perks as they can get, while simultaneously increasing student fees beyond belief, are under investigation for their behavior of holding closed-door meetings on critical issues like pay raises.

  21. Hmm, the link to l'Osservatore Romano definitely features some harsh, and very likely uncalled for, language, but at the moment I don't have time to actually investigate the episode that started it.

  22. Andrea Rivera just related a true fact, that the catholic church denied religious funerals to Giorgio Welby (the paralyzed man who asked to be detached from a ventilator) but not to Franco and Pinochet, this is the audio excerpt:


    This triggered an incredible explosion of hate towards Andrea Rivera on the part of the media, politicians, chiefs of trade unions, and the church, all making very offensive comments, that ranged from "stupid" to "terroristic".

    I think there is something wrong going on, if the simplest truth cannot be said without stirring this kind of hysteria.


  23. The responsibility for the zenith of homeopathy's era and all of sorts pseudoscience is in part due to a people's desperate anxiety to solve some terminal medical problem, a capitalist agenda and from my point of view due to a pusillanimous effort of some colleagues (scientists, included me) to try to explain people patiently the meaning of science.

    You are not paranoid Massimo, and I think that we (scientists in general)should despoil the education from scientific despotism if we want a rational outcome.

    Just a small part of scientific comunity seems to be pronounced each time that scientific education is attacked an for me this is a very deleterious behaviour. Thanks a lot Massimo by defend scientific education!!

  24. I agree with you Dennis; that's why I don't take my teenage car to a church whenever it (frequently) gives me trouble... ;-)

    Now, if "It is terrorism to attack the Church", then Richard Dawkins is a true Bin Laden! Oh, well, criticizing the USA Emperor is also considered almost terrorism, so it seems like nothing new there...


  25. Hi,

    Some interesting alternative medicine reviews can be found here

    Consumer opinions on Alternative Medicine

    Check out my blog discussing some interesting aspects of Alternative medicine
    Alternative Medicine Commentary


  26. If it is terrorism to attack a church... then we better fight to end torture in this country. It doesn't work anyway.

    Emmanuel Goldstein


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