Critical scholars or quacks?

May 29, 2008

In his apologia for the University of Westminster's BSc courses in "complementary therapies", David Peters not only claims that students on these courses gain and exercise a critical ability to "explore theories" underpinning complementary therapies, but goes on to make the counterintuitive assertion that courses such as the BSc in homoeopathy actually represent the means to allay concerns that such therapies are mere trickery ("Building bridges to health", 22 May). Thus, he would have us believe that courses such as the BSc in homoeopathy are designed to produce graduates who are critical scholars in the field of pseudoscience-based medicine, as opposed to advocates or - much worse - practitioners of anomalous therapies.

If his claim were true, then the growing number of scientists and other academics who have expressed grave concerns about the rise of complementary-therapy courses might have less to worry about (except of course for the misuse of the BSc designation): who would claim that any phenomenon is intrinsically unworthy of study? For example, it is surely valid to examine the psychological and sociological factors that lead otherwise intelligent people to believe in grossly implausible, deeply irrational "therapies" such as homoeopathy. However, Peters's claim that such courses are intended to produce critical scholars is torpedoed by his university's own website. From the (publicly accessible) course descriptors, it is clear that these programmes are vocational courses designed to produce practitioners, as opposed to critical scholars. For example, the "BSc honours health sciences: homoeopathy" course descriptor claims to provide "high-quality homoeopathic education and clinical experience ... structured around the on-site homoeopathic clinic and taught modules which ensures integration of theory and practice", and it goes on to state that successful graduates receive their "License to Practice". Or would Peters seriously have us believe that licensed BSc homoeopathy graduates, in clinical practice, serve their patients as objective scholars, as opposed to practitioners of quackery?

Kevin Smith, School of Contemporary Sciences, University of Abertay Dundee.

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