Put reputation over revenue from pseudoscience

Universities cannot wash their hands of responsibility for who is booked to speak on their premises, says Michael Marshall

March 1, 2017
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It is easy to see why higher education institutions hire out their facilities to external events. The revenue generated through commercial activities such as these doubtlessly represents a useful source of funding to allow organisations to continue to fulfil their remit.

In perhaps 95 per cent or more of cases, these bookings will be legitimate and appropriate, ranging from maths conferences to weddings. However, every so often there will be a rogue booking.

On 20 February, Regent’s University London took the encouraging step of cancelling an event involving a controversial Indian homeopath that was due to take place in the university’s grounds.

The seminar, costing £180 per ticket, was scheduled to include a lecture and workshop with Samir Chaukkar, an Indian homeopath who has claimed that autism is caused in part by vaccinations and that it can be cured with a regime of homeopathic treatments.

The university should be applauded for taking decisive action to separate its good name and reputation from such misleading claims.

The event’s cancellation comes only a week after the university was the setting for a screening of Vaxxed, the anti-vaccine film directed by the disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield.

In that instance, Regent’s University claimed that the nature and content of the event was withheld from them, and that they believed the event was a meeting of a long-standing client of theirs, the Centre for Homeopathic Education.

According to the events team at Regent’s University, they have subsequently ended their 18-year commercial relationship with the college over the booking of the screening, and have pledged to vet future bookings more thoroughly.

Again, well done to Regent’s. However, this is sadly not the first time that learning institutions have been hired to host events that explicitly promote disproven and potentially dangerous pseudoscience: in May 2016, University College London was set to be the venue for a two-day seminar on the use of homeopathy to treat cancer until the institution reviewed and cancelled the booking.

In March of the same year, the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester hired out their facilities to the Society of Homeopaths for their annual general meeting; next month, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, is the august setting for this year’s event. And there could well be many other events that pass unnoticed.

Regent’s University, UCL, Lady Margaret Hall and the MOSI all have reputations as institutions of learning – presumably that is exactly what makes them such appealing venues. Quackery often seeks the trappings of credibility.

One would hope that the events team at Lady Margaret Hall would be less eager to accept a booking from the Society of Homeopaths if they were aware that board members of the society include the head of a charity that treats HIV and Aids patients with homeopathy in Botswana, a practitioner of the pseudoscientific CEASE therapy for autism treatment, and a self-described autism-specialist homeopath who explains that autism “occurs in both vaccinated and non-immunised children, although many parents instinctively feel that immunisation is a big factor in their child’s decline”.

Academic institutions can choose to decline such bookings or turn a blind eye and take the money – if they accept such bookings, with the cash comes a trade-off: the name and reputation of the institution inevitably adds gloss to the pseudoscientific event, while tarnishing the reputation of the university. To argue otherwise would be naive at best.

It is up to each institution to determine which bookings they take and which events they decline – if a university wishes to rent out their space to an organisation in the full knowledge that it will promote misinformation that could be dangerous, that is their prerogative.

Some may even argue that too much control over the content of events held in university buildings would represent an erosion of free speech on the campus; however, there is a distinct line to be drawn between the open public debate of an issue at a not-for-profit in-house student or staff event, and a £180-per-head seminar promoting pseudoscientific ideas in an arena where they won’t be challenged.

Learning institutions such as universities and science museums owe it to themselves and the public to ensure that their hard-earned reputations and credibility are not extended to events and organisations that do not deserve them and can cause genuine harm to the public.

We are not calling for a complicated vetting procedure, but each institution should consider establishing a policy that prevents its premises being rented out to promote pseudoscience, and whatever other events the institutions deem inappropriate.

This doesn’t mean ideologically vetting every event to ensure that it perfectly reflects the values of the institution, but it would mean filtering out those events that promote ideas that run directly contrary to them.

Michael Marshall is project director of the Good Thinking Society, a charity set up to “encourage curious thinking and promote rational thinking”.

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