No place for 'dodgy' alternative medicine on third-level courses


UCD and IT Tallaght are among Irish institutions offering courses that turn academia into quackademia and which should not be included in any serious curriculum, writes PAUL O'DONOGHUE

DURING THE last couple of weeks my wife was looking through CAO information with a young neighbour of ours and they were considering courses in science.

She drew my attention to two courses that astonished me: A Bachelor Degree of Science – Sports Science and Health qualification being offered by the Department of Applied Science at the Institute of Technology Tallaght (ITT) and a Graduate Certificate in Healthcare (Acupuncture) on offer from the UCD Life Sciences Graduate School.

The reason for my astonishment at the former may not be immediately obvious. The latter should raise some eyebrows straight away. Concern is often expressed at the lack of interest, ignorance and general apathy towards science which is evident in too many of our young people. The content of the above courses will certainly not help matters.

At best they will lend to confusion. At worst they will turn an ill- informed and potentially dangerous cohort of graduates loose on a gullible public.

The Tallaght course appears to have many sensible scientific topics spread across eight semesters. However, content in semester four and semester six raises serious cause for concern. During semester four, participants will study a module entitled Complementary, Alternative Medicine (Cam).

Within this module, the student will be provided with “a significant grounding on the theory and application of complementary and alternative medicine in the sports science and health settings”.

Component topics here include bioenergetic Cam therapies, homeopathy and reflexology. Knowledge gained via the Cam module “will be developed further” within module six when the student is immersed in the study of Qigong, Chiropractic, Kinesiology, Bioenergy, Reiki and other pseudoscientific nonsense.

The content outlined above could be very reasonably interpreted as nothing less than an assault on science and that it found its way onto a science curriculum beggars belief.

For those unfamiliar with the fantasy world of Cam, I will outline some of the areas:

Homeopathyessentially involves the prescription of water in minute doses for a wide range of conditions from the common cold to infertility problems and a myriad of childhood illnesses. Among its more dangerous practices is the prescription of homeopathic vaccines that contain no active ingredient and that consequently provide no protection to patients.

Reikipractitioners and bioenergytherapists claim that the body is surrounded by esoteric energy fields, which can be manipulated by movements of the therapist’s hands in such a way as to influence the health of the body and mind of the patient. In reality, these energy fields exist only in the minds of the therapists. “Second degree” Reiki practitioners even claim to be able to heal at a distance with the use of magical symbols.

Reflexologistsclaim that the organs of the body are represented in the soles of the feet and that diagnosis and healing can be carried out by the application of pressure at appropriate points. There is no evidence whatever to support such claims.

The Graduate Certificate in Healthcare (Acupuncture) at UCD is aimed at those with a primary degree in health care, eg medicine or physiotherapy. This is a part-time course delivered over one year. The programme “provides education in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that will equip the healthcare professional with the necessary skills to assess and treat a broad range of acute and chronic musculoskeletal conditions”.

It is not possible to ascertain the specific contents of this course from the information on the website, but TCM is TCM and I believe it is fair to assume that the fundamental premises will differ little from those being taught on the BSc Honours degree in TCM at Middlesex University. The content of this course and others has been detailed and devastatingly critiqued by David Colquhoun Prof of Biochemistry at University College London. (See

Acupuncture practitioners presume that the body is traversed by esoteric mystical energy lines known as meridians. These are said to facilitate the passage of qi(the mystical energy) and it is thought that these passage ways can become blocked resulting in imbalances that may cause a range of physical symptoms. The insertion of acupuncture needles is thought to alter the flow of qiand to effectively treat a vast range of conditions.

Evidence for the efficacy of acupuncture, other than as a placebo, is extremely weak with two contested exceptions, ie lower back pain and nausea.

As in the case of the bioenergy referred to above, there is no scientific evidence for the existence of qi.

I emailed the contacts named on the websites of the above courses on January 18th outlining my concerns and enquiring why they are teaching this pseudo- science, and again yesterday. To date I have received no reply.

David Colquhoun has mounted an impressive campaign in the UK against the inclusion on science courses of topics such as those outlined above.

The situation in the UK has been very worrying with universities advertising 61 courses in Cam in 2006, of which 45 were BSc honours degrees. Thanks in large part to Colquhoun’s efforts, many have since closed down, but some, such as those at Middlesex University, persist.

So far as I can ascertain, with the exception of the two courses above, Irish third-level science courses are relatively free of such modules. There are of course, many institutions run by Cam organisations that teach hundreds of alternative systems. Leave them to it.

It is critical however, that schools of science retain their integrity and credibility and avoid the inclusion of such nonsense within their curricula. It is imperative that a clear line be maintained between academia and quackademia.

Paul O’Donoghue is a clinical psychologist and founder member of the Irish Skeptics Society.