Saturday, October 17, 2009

Alternative Medicine at the University of Toronto

Several readers and bloggers have noted that there's an AutismOne conference being held on the University of Toronto campus in a few weeks. The conference is loaded with anti-science speakers and quacks so this is an embarrassment. It's being held in the auditorium of the Medical Sciences Building where I work.

The original publicity for this conference implied that it was being sponsored by the Faculty of Pharmacy but that turns out to be untrue as explained on the blog Science-Based Pharmacy: When universities sell their name and let the pseudoscience in.
Well it seems our feedback to the University of Toronto about the upcoming Autism One conference has had an effect. As I noted earlier, Autism One is hosting a conference on autism in Toronto in October. The original brochure listed boldly that the conference was being presented with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Understandably concerned, I, along with many of you, contacted the university to register our concerns. Why would a school of public health support a program that touts dubious biomedical treatments for autism, and the ultimate quackery, homeopathy?

Well it turns out the school has acted – quickly and decisively. I’ve heard directly from the school, and have been assured that they were never an official supporter of the program. The brochure and website suggested that the school was actually co-hosting. The school has asked for its name to be removed – and the organizers have complied, as Orac noted earlier this week. The online version of the brochure no longer lists the school’s name.

But what about the SickKids Foundation? Well, this event has brought to light that the SickKids Foundation “takes a neutral stance on complementary and alternative health care” and seems satisfied to remain a sponsor of antivaccination pseudoscience. Their name is still on the brochure.

Which brings me to the topic of the post. Universities never have the funding that they think they need, and do whatever they can to bring in other types of revenue. So the Univeristy of Toronto has rented its space to AutismOne for the conference, and the brochure correctly notes that the address is the Medical Sciences Building on campus. Has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Despite the agenda clearly lacking both valid medicine or science, the conference has bought an air of legitimacy by locating itself on campus. It’s clearly a problem that needs to be addressed, as there’s stuff happening elsewhere on campus…
I don't excuse the SickKids Foundation for their stupid attitude and support for this kind of quackery but the situation with respect to the University of Toronto is a bit different.

I'm all for freedom of expression on the university campus [see Censorship at McGill] so if the event were sponsored by a university group that would be fine with me. I would love to see pickets and signs outside of the auditorium explaining to the press, and everyone else, that this ain't science.

I have a problem with renting out space to non-university groups since it's so difficult to make the public understand that not all events on a university campus are sponsored by the university. This is the sort of thing that got some American museums in trouble when the Intelligent Design Creationists rented their facilities.

Okay, that's one issue, and it's more complicated than people first realized.

Now, along comes a more serious issue. There's a Natural Health Products Symposium being held at the University of Toronto and this one really is being sponsored by the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. Some of the other sponsors include for-profit companies that supply medical products to the alternative medicine community. (Keep in mind that "alternative" medicine is, by definition, medicine that is not evidence based.)

Science-Based Pharmacy is on top of the story [What’s Happening to Pharmacy Continuing Education at the University of Toronto?].
If a homeopathy manufacturer is providing sponsorship dollars for this symposium, the likelihood of the content being science-based is, well, probably homeopathic.

It pains me to point this out, as U of T is my pharmacy alma mater, and the school is filled with superb faculty, students, and researchers. So why is the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy willing to tarnish its good name by offering a continuing education program containing pseudoscience, sponsored by a company that makes homeopathy? Do they really need the money? Or have they run out of science-based topics to teach?

If this is the state of pharmacy continuing education, we should all be dismayed. Because when academic institutions that should know better are facilitating pseuodoscience like homeopathy, and accepting sponsorship from homeopathic manufacturers, what chance does pharmacy really have to be a science-based profession? And what does it mean for patient care, when pharmacists are learning how to use elaborate placebo systems to treat chronic pain?
There's no excuse for this. The Faculty of Pharmacy should be ashamed. All members of the University of Toronto community should be embarrassed. I know I am.

This isn't the worst of it. We actually teach a course on alternative medicine in our undergraduate life science programs [HMB434H]. The lecturers promote alternative medicine, including homeopathy, as real science.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine [20L, 4S]

Integrative health care is a phenomenon that is developing in health care systems in North America, China, India, and Vietnam, among others. It involves the coordination of multi-disciplinary and culturally-specific health services in the treatment of illness and disease, and an expanded concept of health, illness, and wellness.
I've spoken to the person who runs the Human Biology Program (Valorie Watt). She helped organize this course and she hired the lecturers. She doesn't see a problem.

Do you see a problem? Maybe you'd like to let the Human Biology Program know about your concerns? Their email address is easy to find on the website.

[Photo Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty: A kind of magic?]


  1. Aside from the HMB434H1 course title, the course description is fairly inoffensive. I went looking for the actual course syllabus, and boy, it doesn't disappoint:
    "Complementary/alternative medicine (“CAM”) is used in health care systems not only in North America, but also in countries such as China, India, and Vietnam (WHO, 2002). It involves the use of non-biomedical, “holistic” and/or culturally-specific health services and practices in the treatment of illness and disease (such as Chinese acupuncture), and an expanded concept of health, illness, and wellness. This course provides an introduction to the concepts, theoretical basis, evidence-based analysis, and pressing challenges and issues in CAM today. Specific topics include introductions to: complementary/ alternative medicine in industrialized countries and commonly used modalities such as homeopathy and naturopathic medicine; traditional medicine (TM) and primary health care (PHC); traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and China; Ayurvedic medicine in India; Canada’s First Nations; and integrative health systems and models. Course format includes lectures, guest-presentations, films/documentaries, and interactive class discussions/exercises. Students will also have the opportunity to analyze CAM systems and modalities."

    The course topics include, but probably not limited to, chiropractic, naturopathic and herbal medicine, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, Tibetan medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, and First Nations' medicine. I'd be less concerned if the course were strictly an anthropological review of traditional cultural practices in medicine, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Heck, they even have a lecture on "evidence"-based medicine.

    This is crazy stuff. Plus, the course lecturers are one medical doctor in internal medicine ( and one postdoc ( I'm very tempted to go to one of the classes and see for myself. In fact, if anyone can go and report back, the classes are Tuesday 10-12 PM at WI 524 (Wilson Hall).

  2. Larry, this is definitely an affront to common sense. I am seriously thinking about putting together some sort of information picket, with handouts about homeopathy and other quackery. If we can get something together in time do you know what the rules are regarding such things on university property? Would we be allowed?

    Dave Bailey, Chairperson, Association for Science and Reason (formerly Skeptics Canada)

  3. HMB434H1 is surely an embarrasment to UT. Then again, the its Human Biology Program offers a lot of non-science courses that are credited as science. E.g.:

    Human Biology and Human Destiny: Science, Popular Science, and Science Fiction [24S]

    Seminars explore the interactions of biological sciences, social issues, and literature. Through reading of classic “SF” novels and popular writings by prominent twentieth century biologists in their historical, scientific, and thematic contexts, we examine how biological concepts and their development affected life, society, and the future of humanity.


    Epistemological Ethics in Medicine [20L, 4S]

    Decisions in medicine are affected by the practice of science. For example, experimental design, knowledge acquisition and claims, standards of proof, and regulatory processes can raise ethical issues in clinical practice. This is clearly evident in cases where the negative impact of a disease on health is high. This course focuses on these non-bioethical problems in biomedical science.

    Umm, WTF is epistemological ethics? Can anyone understand what this course is about and how it is science?

    Global Health and Human Rights

    And on and on. Seems like about 1/4 of the classes there have nothing to do with science and very little with human biology.

  4. For HMB434, it's a tough call, even with the syllabus. They could just be investigating which parts of cultural medicine contain scientific validity and how it works (i.e. Plant X, commonly used in culture A, contains chemical Y which undergoes pharmacological action Z to alleviate symptoms of disease B) and combining it with anthropological studies.

  5. Dave Baily asks,

    Larry, this is definitely an affront to common sense. I am seriously thinking about putting together some sort of information picket, with handouts about homeopathy and other quackery. If we can get something together in time do you know what the rules are regarding such things on university property? Would we be allowed?

    What could anyone do about it if we handed out pamphlets? The best thing that could happen would be if the protesters were arrested or thrown off campus, right?

    The university police would never do that 'cause they know better.

  6. Dunbar says,

    This is crazy stuff. Plus, the course lecturers are one medical doctor in internal medicine ( and one postdoc ( I'm very tempted to go to one of the classes and see for myself. In fact, if anyone can go and report back, the classes are Tuesday 10-12 PM at WI 524 (Wilson Hall).

    I've spoken to one of the instructors. He was very annoyed when I suggested that homeopathy was quackery. He told me that I just wasn't very familiar with the scientific literature.

    Apparently, there are physicists who have proven that water can retain memory and that's what the instructor teaches in class.

    Apparently, studies in The New England Journal of Medicine have proven that homeopathy works. Students are encouraged to read about this scientific evidence for homeopathy.

    This is what we teach science students at the University of Toronto.

  7. Apparently, studies in The New England Journal of Medicine have proven that homeopathy works. Students are encouraged to read about this scientific evidence for homeopathy.

    I would have asked him to provide the articles in question, because I'm certain that his statement is equid excrement.

  8. I am not about to take out a subscription to the NEJM, but reading the extracts of the 14 hits related to 'homeopathy' on their web site gives no indication, at least to me, that any article has ever been published in that august journal that in any way verifies the efficacy of it. The person to whom you spoke was, to put it mildly, a liar.

  9. I appreciate the approach of integrative medicine as I've had a lot of success personally with chinese herbs and accupuncture treatments. I think there is a lot to learn from other cultures and their approaches to health. The western model of science does not have the only answers. Contempt prior to investigation does not help anyone.

  10. The Human Biology Program email address is easy to find on the website; however, "E-mails and phone messages may not be answered during peak times of the year." No doubt this is one of the "peak times of the year" and messages of protest will, most likely, not be acknowledged or read.

  11. Contempt prior to investigation does not help anyone.

    There has been lots of investigation. It has shown that 'alternative medicine' has very little, if any, efficacy.

  12. Well Anonymous, as The Rat says, there has been significant scientific investigation of homeopathy and acupuncture. Your assertion of "Contempt prior to investigation" is particularly galling. The bottom line in all properly conducted studies is that there is NO scientific evidence to indicate that these alternatives have any basis in reality. In case you didn't know science is the only method there is to investigate, understand and predict what will happen in the real world. Your anecdotal "evidence" is meaningless in scientific terms. Anyone with any amount of scientific training or education can easily see that homeopathy is total BS. It is based on two major and completely erroneous notions. Water does NOT have a "memory" contrary to homeo claims; this has been investigated and no scientific evidence exists for the claim. The inverse dilution homeo claim is also bogus, as again there is no scientific evidence for such a bizarre idea. So the scientific community has investigated, found no scientific evidence and rejected the validity of homeopathy and acupuncture. If you do not understand scientific method, you need to educate yourself before making ridiculous assertions. Any claims in support of homeopathy based on scientific illiteracy or misrepresentation, faith, anecdotal "evidence" will always be rejected by the scientific community. Such claims are the problem and will never be part of the solution.

    Here are some references so you can learn why homeopathy does not work:

    Abgrall, Jean-Marie (2000): Healing Or Stealing?: Medical Charlatans in the New Age. Algora Publishing, 248p.

    Holmes, Oliver Wendell (1842). Homœopathy, and its Kindred Delusions; two lectures delivered before the Boston society for the diffusion of useful knowledge.. Boston: William D. Ticknor. OCLC 166600876. Retrieved on 2007-07-25.

    Shelton, J. W. (2004): Homeopathy: How it Really Works. Prometheus Press, 318 p.


  13. Here's an indicator of how homeopathy does not work. Growing in many of the marshes in southern Ontario is the Water Hemlock, Cicuta maculata, a plant which is so toxic that some have described it as 'deadly to taste', meaning that you don't even need to swallow it. Just put a sprig in your mouth, swill it around a bit, and a 911 call becomes a waste of time. (No, I will not divulge locations no matter how wretched one's mother-in-law is) Now picture a bit of this dropping off into the water and floating away. According to homeopathy this makes it even stronger. Now it goes with the flow and enters the Great Lakes system, becoming even more dilute and powerful. It gets picked up by a tube out in the lake, enters one of our supply lines, and comes gurgling out of our taps. We all drink it, and... NOTHING HAPPENS! HALLEfreakin'LUJAH! IT'S A MIRACLE!

    Or it's all bovid feces.

  14. More excellent exposing of homeopathic BS from an archive post by Orac:

    Yessirree Bob, those homeopaths go that extra mile! Make up some pseudoscientific words, pretend there are "vital life forces" etc. that mere science cannot possibly deal with, warp real scientific theories for their own irrational ends, throw in some bogus math and statistics, get snarky (for no good reason) about how real science "mistreats" homepathy, and of course for the coup de grace, trot out the Galileo Gambit and whine about persecution. Pseudoscience at its irrational best, for all the world to see.


  15. probably too rational for this blogMonday, October 19, 2009 11:08:00 AM

    Well, since there actually is something called "complementary and alternative medicine" and since it is an area of active research and scholarship, I should hope a university like the U of Toronto would offer a class in this area of study. We need more evidence and research exploring all of the various CAM modalities' effectiveness/efficacy AND comparing their effectiveness/efficacy with other "traditional" (i.e., so-called Western medicine) modalities. Without introducing students to this subject, that evidence will be slow to come.

  16. ...I should hope a university like the U of Toronto would offer a class in this area of study.

    How can they waste resources to teach a class in something that has thus far shown no indication of any scientific merit? You may as well teach a class on UFOs that assumes an extraterrestrial origin, or on talking to the dead. Let someone come up with some concrete evidence first.

  17. This is actually rather old news:

    In any case, what really disturbed me was the weaselly response to complaints that SickKids Foudnation issued:

  18. Depending upon where you work this may or may not be safe, but here is a funny take on alt-med with some very good points along the way:

  19. Th efnny thing is that most phamraceuticla drugs don't work most of the time in most patients but everyone talks about how this other stuff doesn't work.

  20. ...most phamraceutical drugs don't work most of the time in most patients but everyone talks about how this other stuff doesn't work.

    I'm not sure the word 'most' applies, but the point is taken. But one thing that lot of these alternatives have going for them is that most do not cause any direct harm. I mean, how can you have a nasty side effect from a few drops of water, or a foot massage? Yes, depriving the patient of proper treatment is harmful, but things like homeopathy or reflexology aren't dangerous in themselves. And the quacks play that card regularly.

  21. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  22. Hello all,

    I am a student at the University of Toronto pursuing a specialist in human biology, and I'm currently enrolled in HMB434. You should also know that I have been working at the University Health Network in research for two years, have published, and have presented my findings at a national conference. I'm a big fan of the scientific method. I am not particularly a believer in complementary or alternative medicine.

    Now that you know where I'm coming from, I feel that I can speak honestly. HMB434 has been a great class. We were encouraged to think critically about the health and wellness practices that many people around the world use. There was a very strong emphasis on the power of randomized, double blind control trials and investigations into the underlying biochemical and physiological mechanisms that may explain the 'useless anecdotal evidence'. Truth is, I believe that much of it is bogus, but 'complementary and alternative medicine' is such a broad field that I would be a fool to say that it's all illegitimate. At the end of the day, many complementary therapies have been proven through RCT methods and accepted by the scientific community. But that's when we drop the 'alternative' and just start calling it medicine.

  23. Rebecca,

    When I talked to one of the instructors a few years ago he claimed that there was solid scientific evidence of the effectiveness of homeopathy.

    Is that still being taught?

    There must be a number of different alternative and "complimentary" treatments discussed in the course. Which ones were NOT debunked by critical thinking and scientific evidence?

    If the answer is none, then what's the purpose of having a course on quackery? If the answer is anything else then you should be able to list those alternative treatments that stand up to critical thinking.

    Waiting ...