Sunday, March 01, 2015

The University of Toronto explains why it hosted an alternative medicine conference

I received a response from Bruce Kidd, the Principal of the University of Toronto at Scarborough on why his campus was hosting a conference on alternative medicine (see Is the University of Toronto promoting quackery and pseudoscience?). I had asked whether the university was officially involved in sponsoring the event.

Here is his complete response. He knows that I will post it on my blog.
Dear Professor Moran:

Thank you for your inquiry. The University encourages the fullest, critical investigation of scientific and social issues, including the bases of health and well-being and the various ways personal, community and environmental health can be maintained and strengthened. That is an essential part of our institutional mission. As you know, we have been debating whose knowledge counts, the methodological bases for such knowledge and the professional practices that have been developed as a result of such knowledge in the field of health for many years. That's how knowledge advances. The hosting of the Population Health and Policy Conference at UTSC yesterday was just one expression of that commitment to critical inquiry.

That being said, such hosting cannot be equated with endorsement of the various positions and points of view expressed at the conference. I have attended hundreds of conferences at U of T and other universities over the years and have never felt that the presentation of particular views meant that the hosting institution endorsed those particular views.

I hope that's helpful.

With best wishes,

Bruce Kidd, O.C., Ph.D., LL.D.
Vice-President and Principal
University of Toronto Scarborough
Professor, Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education
I'm all in favor of critical investigation of scientific issues and critical inquiry. I think it's a good idea for the University of Toronto to sponsored a conference where diverse points of view are presented and debated. That's how we learn to distinguish science from pseudoscience and "whose knowledge counts."

There is no possibility that this conference meets those minimal academic requirements.

Here's the welcome message from the Chair of Anthropology and the Associate Chair of Health Studies [see Population Health and Policy Conference].
Welcome to the second Population Health and Policy Conference at UTSC! This event demonstrates not only the energy and initiative of our student organizers, but also the enthusiasm of the students in the Health Studies programs at UTSC. The faculty in Health Studies are very proud of the commitment of our students.

The Health Studies programs promote an understanding of health across a spectrum of academic perspectives: from the clinical and biological health sciences, to social science and humanistic ways of knowing. What binds together these disciplinary approaches is a consciousness of the need for rigorous biological knowledge to be understood in tandem with the social milieu of human health and embodiment.

The programs are built around the bio-medical paradigm, to which the faculty in the program are unreservedly committed. This model has been spectacularly successful in increasing the life span and wellbeing of the majority of people around the world. At the same time Health Studies students learn how to view this paradigm critically through a variety of lenses, notably with respect to such issues as inequality of access, social factors that influence the prevalence of disease and the likelihood of cure, the impacts of government policy on health, and the perspectives of diverse practitioners and clients within the broad health care system. The theme of this year’s conference is Alternative Medicine and the ideas and practices it offers to complement standard health care and the biomedical model, including its emphasis on nutrition and lifestyle. As students and faculty we hold Alternative Health to the same standards of rigorous inquiry and critical appraisal that we apply to other aspects of our society.

The program covers much ground and promises to be stimulating and exciting. We look forward to seeing you there.

Prof. Michael Lambek, Chair, Department of Anthropology

Prof. John Scherk, Associate Chair, Health Studies
Apparently there are at least two ways of knowing the truth; science and the "humanistic way of knowing." I'm disturbed to see that students and faculty are holding alternative health to "the same standards of rigorous inquiry and critical appraisal that we apply to other aspects of our society." It suggests that we're in a lot more trouble than just alternative medicine.


  1. I have gone once of twice to those alternative health expos. I have never seen anything so funny. Some of the lectures where so ridicules I had to leave. The only thing I found interesting personally was a lecture of a researcher and a nutritionist who have provided some actual statistical numbers how the exposure to North american diet and lifestyle kills people all over the world by making the obese first and then causing the increase of the diseases of civilization.

  2. Not directly related, but Canada seems to have more than one demented politician. Are Canada and Australia leading or following a trend?

    1. They both have a long way to go to catch up with the USA in number of demented politicians.

  3. That's not very true. The university officially endorsed these positions when they allowed Beth Landau-Halpern to teach a homeopathy course at UTSC!

    1. That's not true. The university does not endorse every position taken by every teacher in every course. The purpose of a university education is to expose students to various points of view, especially those that will challenge them to think.

      There's nothing wrong with letting someone promote alternative medicine as long as the other side is also presented and students are encouraged to have a serious discussion about the value, or not, or evidence-based medicine.

      The university has an obligation to make sure that both sides of a controversy are covered but that's very different from what you said. It is contrary to the spirit of a university education to silence one side of the debate. What that means is that universities do not ENDORSE either side. It remains officially neutral on most issues.

      If a professor is not giving a balanced view then they should be rightly criticized for that but not for holding one opinion over another.

      The conference, on the other hand, was one-sided on a very controversial issue where there's overwhelming evidence that the views expressed at the conference are likely to cause harm. Universities should not be supporting such conferences.

    2. I think the course in question (HLTD04) does not fit the criteria of giving a balanced view, particularly when it promotes an anti-vaccine agenda and claims that quantum physics provides the scientific support for homeopathy.

      You can check the syllabus here: