Saturday, January 26, 2008

Quackery in Academia

 
Last night was lots of fun. A bunch of us went to the Centre for Inquiry for a pre-talk reception with David Colquhoun (pronounced "Ca-hoon"). There were light refreshments and lots of talk about atheism, blogs, science, and of course pseudoscience. About 30 friends of the centre showed up.

David Colquhoun is cool. He even agreed to pose with me for a picture. We look like two old curmudgeons but of course we're really not.

After the reception we all walked up to the campus were we heard Prof. Colquhoun talk about alternative medicine. In case, anyone is confused about alternative medicine, the definition is very simple. We all know about evidence-based medicine. That's the kind that's been shown to work. Everything else is "alternative" medicine—medicine that has not been shown to work.

In some cases we know that the "medicine" is not effective. This is the case with homeopathy, a scam that charges patients $2000/litre for water. In other cases, we don't know whether the treatment is helpful or harmful (e.g., some herbal remedies). What we do know is that the claims are wrong. (Because the claimants don't know whether they work either.)

You can find reviews of the talk at Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant, The Frame Problem, and The Unexamined Life. The only thing I want to add is that Prof. Colquhoun made a strong case for academic quackery. He showed us a long list of universities that now have Departments of Alternative Medicine. The list included some Canadian schools like McMaster University in nearby Hamilton. Colquhoun pointed out that there are many legitimate academics who have fallen for the anti-science crap that is alternative medicine and he calls upon us to take notice and do something about it.

Fellow blogger Ron Brown (right)(The Frame Problem) and old friend Rob Day (left) were at the reception. Rob is a veteran of talk.origins and the creation/evolution controversy from way back—even before my time. It was fun to meet them and Mike (Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant) again. I'm sorry I didn't get to meet the student behind The Unexamined Life. I guess he/she wanted to remain anonymous.


8 comments :

  1. Sorry, probably should have introduced myself. Next time for sure. (It's "he" by the way).

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  2. Good to see you again there last night, Larry. I think the talk was quite a success!

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  3. Larry,

    Do you have any more information regarding the department of "alternative" medicine at McMaster? A cursory search of the Mac website doesn't yield anything.

    There was a article about homeopathy in the last Silhouette (the student newspaper), which I responded to and corrected a lot of terribly bad science.

    If its true about McMaster, MASH will certainly want to raise the profile of such a department so that the real scientists will take notice.

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  4. Prof. Colquhoun brought up the topic of MBA'd administrators misunderstanding how to properly assess scientists/scientific research. I wonder if there's any of that type of nonsense going on at U of T...? I hope not!

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  5. Kieran asks,

    Prof. Colquhoun brought up the topic of MBA'd administrators misunderstanding how to properly assess scientists/scientific research. I wonder if there's any of that type of nonsense going on at U of T...? I hope not!

    Of course there is! We also have examples of scientists who are assessing scientific productivity as if they had MBA's.

    Even worse, there are non-academic administrators making major decisions about teaching.

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  6. gabriel asks.

    Do you have any more information regarding the department of "alternative" medicine at McMaster? A cursory search of the Mac website doesn't yield anything.

    He may have been referring to courses. such as this one.

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  7. This family practice centre is affiliated with McMaster Med School and is a CAM teaching centre. Every type of woo is available.

    http://www.fpcihh.com/

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  8. It was great to meet all of you in Toronto (and your efforts just pushed my hit rate to a new record). It's obvious that the problems of woo, and the problems of the Wal-mart model of how to run science are pretty much the same everywhere. My host here in Prtland OR said tonight said he thought perhaps there must have been an alien invasion which spread across earth the spores of HR zombies with a mission to manage good science out of existence.

    I had mails today from Orac and Wallace Sampson urging that we make blogs a bit less parochial, and I agree totally with that.

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