Universities have vital role in CAM research 1

November 6, 2008

So where are all the "critically thinking", "research-minded" graduates from 40 complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) degrees offered by UK universities ("Unwelcome complements", 30 October)? For 15 years I have been looking for them, mostly in vain.

What I do see, however, are CAM practitioners, students and graduates who have little interest in science and even less understanding of it. Many even seem to be systematically led to develop a deep-rooted anti-scientific attitude.

Forget it. Critical thinking is usually a totally foreign concept to them. The trouble is I cannot even blame them - after all, their university tutors are often utterly devoid of this quality themselves.

To teach any subject at an academic level, one needs first a consistent body of knowledge and secondly tutors who are capable of critically evaluating it. In CAM, we often have neither.

One of the most obvious signs of a lamentable lack of critical thinking must be the terminology employed by proponents. When I came to the University of Exeter 15 years ago, I (thankfully only briefly) became the director of the Centre for Complementary Health Studies. When I asked what "complementary health" was and how it differed from any other form of health, I saw only blank faces.

A little later, the Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health was created. Whenever I inquire whether "integrated health" supposes that health can also be unintegrated or non-integrated, people give me a pitiful smile. It is surprising how often one can recognise pseudo-science and pseudo-education merely by their pseudo-language.

David Peters and Brian Isbell may be right when they state that "something is certainly going on, and we think universities are the place to find out". In plain language, that means conducting research, and only then, I suggest, can we teach CAM to students.

Edzard Ernst, Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth.

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