Feb 09 2018

Ontario College Plans Program in Homeopathy

Here we go again.

If you are in a decision-making position at an institution of higher learning than you have a responsibility to understand and protect the academic reputation of that institution. Further, such institutions (many of which, as in this case, are publicly funded) have a responsibility to society, to promote academic standards and legitimacy. At the very least such institutions should not be promoting pseudoscience, or dressing up any nonsense as if it were real.

Georgian College in Ontario has approved funds and plans to open a program that will teach homeopathy as if it is real medicine. Teaching any pseudoscience is an outrage, but when it is medical pseudoscience there is also arguably another layer of malfeasance because the connection to real harm is more direct.

I know this is old territory here, but for review: Homeopathy is a prescientific philosophy-based system based on magical thinking. Its core ideas were never valid, and have never been supported by science. Essentially, homeopathy uses fanciful treatments that are based on silly ideas, such as the personality of the patient, but also “sympathetic magic.” The belief is that homeopathic remedies contain the magical essence of symptoms and can be used to cure those same symptoms.

Then, doubling down on the idea of magical essence, all actual substances are diluted out of existence, so that only the essence remains. Therefore, in reality, only water remains. Homeopathy is literally treating people with magic water created with rituals resembling witchcraft, and without the tiniest bit of scientific legitimacy.

Despite this, a great deal of resources have been wasted studying whether such magic potions work or not. Unsurprisingly, the totality of this research shows that homeopathy does not work.

Homeopathy proponents, however, will not acknowledge this reality. They cherry pick, distort, lie, ignore, and engage in an impressive array of motivated reasoning to maintain their belief in magical potions. I have no idea where any individual homeopathy seller is on the spectrum from con-artist to true-believer, but it doesn’t really matter. They represent some combination of not caring about scientific evidence, or not being able to understand the evidence.

There is no real controversy here. This is the clear scientific consensus, and is unambiguously supported by the science.

So, how could an academic institution consider teaching a degree program in pure nonsense? That’s a good question. Let’s here from Fay Lim-Lambie, dean of health, wellness and science at Georgian College.

“As an educational institution we welcome critical discussion and debate,” she said. “It helps ensure the best possible curriculum and learning outcomes for our students.”

She added that, “In an era of patient choice, it is important for the college to provide students with the most diverse education possible, including options for care and different methods.”

I’m sorry, the dean of what? Was that health and science? I hear there is returning interest in astrology. Perhaps the astronomy department (if they have one) should consider teaching astrology in order to cater to this interest, to give their students a diverse education. Let’s have a critical discussion and debate about that. Seriously – if you think a program in homeopathy is appropriate at your institution, then you have absolutely no basis on which to deny programs in cryptozoology, creationism, crystal healing, UFOlogy, or free energy. You have abandoned all pretense to academic standards.

This is a transparent populist appeal which is anti-intellectual and pseudoscientific. This is, and should be, an embarrassment to Georgian College, Ontario, and to academia in general. The only appropriate response is outrage and condemnation.

There is nothing to debate, Lim-Lambie. Homeopathy is utter nonsense from beginning to end. If you don’t understand that thoroughly, you have no business being a dean of either health, wellness, or science. And why wasn’t this desired debate happening before the funds were approved for this dubious program? Does she only want to have a “debate” now that there is public awareness of what is happening with the resultant appropriate criticism and pushback?

Yes, I am being hyperbolic in this article, deliberately. The point is that legitimizing pseudoscience in the health department of a university is extremely harmful. It promotes pseudoscience, it legitimizes nonsense, and it undermines any attempt at academic quality control.

It furthers the watering down of reality in our society by promoting a false equivalency among all claims. Everyone gets to have their own reality, their own narrative, their own facts and evidence. If there is no difference between academic legitimacy and the worst kind of medical magic thinking, then we truly do live in a post-fact world.

I know that most of us have already spent our budget of outrage, but we cannot become inured to this loss of standards, to the infiltration of witchcraft into medicine. I am not a fan of public shaming, but sometimes that is the only way to maintain norms and standards. Georgian College and Lim-Lambie should be ashamed. They have failed their primary duty as academics.

But I also believe in nurturing and redemption. Let’s use this opportunity to have a public and transparent discussion of exactly what homeopathy is, and what the evidence says. Homeopathy proponents like flying under the radar, and the public largely does not understand what homeopathy actually is. So let’s put it out there. If Lim-Lambie wants to defend homeopathy “science” then she should do it – publicly. Please, proceed.


Update: In response to intense criticism, Georgian College has removed their homeopathy program.


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