When universities sell their name and let the pseudoscience in

One step forward…

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 University 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…

And one step back…

In another example of bad science on campus, I was alerted to another questionable continuing education program – this one for pharmacists. It’s  right next door to the site of the AutismOne conference: the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. It’s a Natural Health Products Symposium, run by Rogers Publishing. It’s not clear if the pharmacy school is a sponsor, or just renting space. Let’s hope it’s the latter.

A glance at the content suggests this is orders of magnitude better than the AutismOne conference – but the pseudoscience is peppered throughout.  The agenda has a few red flags:  herbal medicine for H1N1, and natural health products for menopause (see my post “The Power of Placebo“). But it’s the last presentation, “Pain management: marrying traditional and alternative therapies”, where things really take a turn for the woo. Adrenal fatigue “will be addressed”. (Adrenal fatigue is not an accepted medical diagnosis – one clue is that a PubMed search of the phrase reveals zero hits.)  And homeopathy is listed as a treatment option that will be discussed. I hope that some of the researchers from the Faculty’s Division of Biomolecular Sciences catch the talk. I’m sure they’d like to hear how serial dilutions of a substance, to the point that it’s pure water, elicit a physiologic response.

Conference like this reinforce the false dichotomy that there is evidence-based medicine, and then equally effective and safe “natural” medicine that isn’t being used – but should be. Let’s be clear. When alternative medicine is proven to be effective, it ceases to alternative – and simply becomes medicine. Positioning of these therapies as “natural”,  “alternative” or “complementary” is just a special pleading by proponents for products do not meet science-based standards of safety and efficacy.

When universities allow non-science-based programs on campus, they are putting short term gain (revenue) against long-term pain (the degradation of the school’s image and reputation). And when what they support leads to bad medicine, we all lose.

Related Reading

The Natural Myth – by Steven Novella – Dr. Novella discusses the myth of “natural” medicine.