Sweeping absolutist generalisations

So it’s possible to get a BSc in a pseudoscience. Interesting.

[A] topic that many researchers see as a pseudoscience is claiming scientific status within the British education system. Over the past decade, several British universities have started offering bachelor of science (BSc) degrees in alternative medicine, including six that offer BSc degrees in homeopathy…Some scientists are increasingly concerned that such courses give homeopathy and homeopaths undeserved scientific credibility…Finding out exactly what is taught in the courses is not straightforward. Ben Goldacre, a London-based medical doctor, journalist and frequent critic of homeopathy, says that several universities have refused to let him see their course materials. “I can’t imagine what they’re teaching,” he says. “I can only imagine that they teach that it’s OK to cherry-pick evidence. That’s totally unacceptable.”

Why would they do that? Is that standard procedure? Are universities generally secretive about course materials, as if they were state secrets or trade secrets? I don’t think so; I think the norm is rather the opposite. There are a lot of syllabi on the internet, and MIT makes its entire curriculum available on the internet for free. Education, it is widely agreed, ought to be as open and free as possible. Secrecy and hiding are pretty much anti-education, or pseudoeducation. Refusing to let Ben Goldacre have a look is suspicious in itself. This isn’t like personal diaries; course materials can’t be private in that way. It’s similar to the provision of goods and services. If you go public, you go public – you then give up the right to say ‘No I won’t tell you’ or ‘No I don’t serve black people or queers.’ That goes double or triple for education – and health care; so it goes quadruple for health care education.

[I]n Britain, the number of BSc degrees in alternative medicine has grown over the past decade. They are generally run by ‘new’ universities — institutions that emphasize vocational rather than academic training…Alternative medicine is not the only surprising subject to be classified as science, but Colquhoun and Goldacre argue that degrees in complementary medicine are particularly harmful because they lead patients to believe that they are being treated by a scientifically trained practitioner.

That’s the quadruple thing.

The critics seem to have little chance of getting the BSc label removed from these courses any time soon. The few organizations that could pressure universities to reclassify the courses have little interest in the debate…The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the body charged with safeguarding academic standards, also says that it does not get involved in questions about what constitutes science, and that universities are entitled to set their own courses.

So then in what sense does it safeguard academic standards? If universities are entitled to set their own courses and give science degrees in them – how exactly are academic standards being safeguarded? That’s a bit of a puzzle.

The usual guff was rolled out in reply.

The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, a group set up by Prince Charles to promote complementary therapy, said there was increasing evidence alternative therapies worked and where there was no proof it did not necessarily mean that there would never be. Foundation chief executive Kim Lavely added: “The enormous demand from the public for complementary treatments means that we need more research into why and how patients are benefiting. Scientists should want to explore this rather than make sweeping, absolutist generalisations arising from deeply held prejudice as David Colquhoun does in this article.”

The enormous demand for joke treatments means we need more research into why and how patients are benefiting. Does it really. No; it may mean we need more reasearch into whether patients are benefiting, but hardly why and how they are when there is as yet no evidence that they are. Of course that’s just my deeply held prejudice, that for instance people who are chief executives of foundations that meddle with health care ought to know how to think clearly and ought to do so rather than resorting to stupid rhetoric about thweeping abtholutitht generalisations and deeply held prejudice.

8 Responses to “Sweeping absolutist generalisations”