There are many thousands of considerate, generous people who want to develop a career in caring for people, alleviating suffering, providing some form of treatment. Many enter the medical professions studying to be doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, radiologists, and a host of other specialties.
If you look at the courses on offer, though, you will see not only the medical and scientific ones, but also some that provide qualifications in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, CAM for short. These often stress words like holistic, energy-based, non-invasive, and integrative, and claim to provide forms of medical care not addressed by conventional medicine. The institutions offering such qualifications now include many mainstream universities.
One would think, since mainstream universities are validating these courses, that there is some serious established basis for their contents, that they were determined to be factual and meet a high intellectual standard, that the skills imparted are genuine, evidence-based, and reliable. That's what you would expect if you went to university to study say, engineering, or chemistry, or architecture. Your qualification from a university would indicate that you had met certain demanding academic and professional standards, and that the courses you had studied were rigorously assessed as to the factual basis of their content. Unfortunately, we can no longer assume that is the case.
As the CAM movement sought mainstream acceptance, it generated its own institutions, produced its own teaching materials, issued its own qualifications, published its own journals, produced its own trainers and lecturers, and largely side-stepped the usual arbiters of academic and professional competence. Alongside the traditional academic institutions – the universities – there arose many different colleges offering qualifications in everything from crystal healing to Ayurvedic medicine, from homeopathy to light therapy, from reiki to magnets, and they operate with very different standards.
Some universities in the UK have, until recently, been issuing Bachelor of Science degrees in homeopathy alongside degrees in physics and biochemistry. Although there are strict scientific criteria for the inclusion of subjects into university academic curricula, the CAM courses slipped through the net. Those homeopathy B.Sc. courses have now been closed down – it's difficult to award a science degree based on a non-science for which there is absolutely no evidence. Nevertheless, there remain many pseudoscience courses mixed in with genuine science courses. Some universities are rebranding these pseudoscience courses as arts degrees, to avoid scientific scrutiny, and are issuing B.A. degrees instead.
Dr David Colquhoun has been tireless in trying to obtain the course materials used by students in these pseudoscience courses. Despite the universities' refusal to release them, even under the Freedom of Information Act, he has been able to get access to some remarkable details.
So what is going on with these institutions, acting so cavalier with academic standards, undermining the value of those who have worked for genuine science degrees, and misleading those students who are studying pseudoscience into thinking that they are getting valuable qualifications?
Well, there are obviously the commercial interests of an industry trying to establish itself as mainstream. Getting institutional acceptance is important to any new field. But this particular industry is based on belief in the therapies they promote, and not on the evidence of efficacy. Still, they are a strong commercial lobby who can exert influence on financially strapped bureaucratic administrations in academia, and they have cash that universities want.
When universities have to put bums on seats to get adequate funding, then a lucrative source of cash is available in validating qualifications from courses which are actually delivered by other institutions. And in many cases, they are the private institutions already awarding their own CAM qualifications: they can now also buy validation from a university.
If the universities are lax in enforcing evidence-based science standards, or in seriously reviewing the academic content of the courses taught in the sub-contracted institutions, then they will be validating degrees that have questionable content.
That is what motivated Dr Colquhoun to try to obtain the materials, and it is clearly embarrassment as to the contents that holds the universities back from providing them, even though they are funded by public money and are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
We should also consider those students who, with a genuine desire to provide real treatment to people in need, subscribe to these pseudoscience courses and are educated into the most bizarre notions. They are trained to believe that they can pass energy from their hands and detect non-existent auras, and to believe in fatuous theories about crystals and magnets instead of receiving genuine, evidence-based training.
They leave college with a piece of paper, convinced that they have received training, a university education. They believe what they have been told because it was validated by a university. They have been provided with a qualification which they value, but which is based on pseudoscience and magic. As Dr Colquhoun has shown, these courses do not even address the evidentiary basis of their claims.
Very many universities now validate external qualifications. The University of Wales for example acts as validator for thirty-four non-university institutions in the UK. Often the universities are unaware of the content of the courses they are validating, and the examinations and assessments are conducted within the non-university institutions themselves. In this way, true validation of academic standards is avoided. The students are basically buying an award not from the university, though they stamp it, but from the institution sub-contracted to provide it.
We end up with a situation in which practitioners of pseudoscience are convinced that they are qualified, that their skills are real, and that they are genuinely offering effective treatment, because they have a piece of paper stamped by an academic institution which has compromised its standards for commercial reasons.
There is now a backlash in the UK against the awarding of these fake degrees. Already the University of Central Lancashire, the University of Salford, and the University of Westminster have closed entry to their CAM courses, and it is likely that more universities will follow. The administrators of these universities are setting up enquiries into the academic standards and content – they clearly cannot afford to be embarrassed by revelations of pseudoscience, even if the subcontracting business is lucrative for the universities. Despite the proposals of the Pitillo report, which calls for acupuncturists and herbalists to be degree-regulated professionals, the lack of evidentiary basis makes this impossible.
In the meantime, Dr Colquhoun continues to request course materials under the Freedom of Information Act from a number of other universities offering pseudoscience degrees, though he expects a routine refusal to supply them.
This should serve as a clear warning to those caring and generous people who are thinking of getting qualifications in CAM, to check out the evidential basis of these therapies before investing several years, and a lot of money, in obtaining a qualification that may not have any real value.