Tertiary institutes around the country are beginning to offer courses, and even entire degrees, in subjects that are pure pseudoscience.
The Aoraki Polytechnic has applied to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority seeking approval for its proposed Bachelor’s Degree in Naturopathy. If approved it will be the first degree programme of its kind in this country.
With generous assistance from all of us, the Northland Polytechnic is offering a course in Astrology. (Only $25.40 on study-right, but the full $50.70 non-study-right). Evidently the tutor was a scientist until his teacher “who was recognised as an incarnate lama or tunku by the Tibetans” instructed him in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. After several months’ psychotherapy in Morocco he went to India where he was empowered by the Sakyapa Lama. Evidently this powered him to Kerikeri where he now lives in a bus.
In the meantime, the Auckland Institute of Technology Press has been pouring out a stream of pseudoscientific books dealing with subjects ranging from faces on Mars to conspiracies to repress benevolent inventions and most recently The Poisoning of New Zealand.
This last book promotes the homeopathic line that increased dilution increases potency. (Sadly it doesn’t work with alcohol.) This leads to the remarkable conclusion that while concentrations of pesticides in our food and water may be well below those found toxic in laboratory experiments, extreme dilutions, of say one part per billion, are much more dangerous than concentrations of one part per hundred thousand.
In sum we have tertiary educational institutions subsidised by taxpayers offering courses and publishing books which are based on pseudoscience and superstition.
Does this matter?
It depends on your point of view. The Minister of Education has suggested that if there is a demand for these subjects then maybe the institutions have a duty to offer them –although he sounded as though he did not want to be seen as putting himself in the way of an employment opportunity. And we have to admit that naturopathy signboards (untreated timber only) are springing up like daffodils around our suburbs.
Science and Democracy
I happen to believe, along with Karl Popper and his many disciples, that there is a connection between the proper functioning of democracy and the rational or scientific approach to solving problems and learning about the world.
Since the days of the Enlightenment we have tended to the view that rational thought is the best basis for political action. Democratic government knows that there is no Utopian model of the static perfect society, just as science knows that no theory is ever finally proven to be true. The scientific method progresses towards truth without ever reaching it, while the democratic process “muddles through” to a better world by a process of continual experiment, debate and reform.
It is no coincidence that those who attack democracy look to pseudoscience to support their cases. The Socialists looked to the pseudoscience of Marxism, the laissez-faire anarchists of the nineteenth century looked to social (pseudo) Darwinism, while the Nazis blended social Darwinism and eugenics (pseudo-genetics) to boost their nationalistic dreams of a master race.
These days the centralists find support in the pseudoscience of the apocalyptic environmentalists, whose message is that democracy is unable to meet the challenge of the forces which “threaten the planet”. They make these claims even though the centrally planned states of the Eastern block appear to have committed ecocide. The miracle is that they could pollute so much while producing so little.
Yet contemporary Western society now seems hell-bent on destroying its faith in reason. The deconstructionists and post-structuralists in our universities now argue that there is no knowable truth, that science is no different to any other body of knowledge or superstition, and that students should not be taught a body of knowledge but should be encouraged to construct their personal models of the world. American universities, cringing under a wave of political correctness and an extreme form of “multi-culturalism”, are abandoning programmes which present the history of Western Civilisation as anything other than the history of the rape and plunder of minorities and other victims by a conspiracy of middle-class white males.
Given this widespread attack on science and rationality, it comes as no surprise to find that our tertiary institutions appear to be ready and willing to mount degree courses in naturopathy, including homeopathy and iridology.
The test of a scientific theory is that it can be refuted by an experiment or trial. Homeopathy has been subject to numerous trials and has yet to demonstrate any benefit other than those attributable to the placebo effect. This is not surprising, given that homeopathic medicine is water in which a potent substance has been diluted to levels where there is virtually no chance that an original molecule of the potent substance survives.
These are truly “dilutions of grandeur”. Frequently this “diluted water” is absorbed into a sugar crystal for packaging and will have typically evaporated by the time the patient gets round to taking it. The argument that homeopathic medicine can do no harm is almost certainly sound –what harm can be done by a dose of evaporated diluted water?
Against all this evidence the belief in homeopathy survives.
This raises the question of how a tertiary institution can possibly teach such subjects within a genuine environment of learning and research. Universities and polytechnics are supposed to encourage free and informed debate. If students of homeopathy come to an examination armed with all the published refutations of the practice, would they be able to pass the course? Probably not. Homeopathy is a belief system like astrology or witchcraft. You either believe it or you don’t, and any refutational evidence is dismissed as somewhat irrelevant. The standard argument is that sceptical observers cause bad vibrations which interfere with the efficacy of the treatment.
Can we really tolerate a course within a tertiary institution which argues that healthy scepticism interferes with proper analysis?
Wheat Amongst the Chaff
The proper place to present the field of natural medicine, or its more legitimate cousin, the whole body approach to medicine, is within the school of medicine itself. At least it will be subject to debate, and the wheat can be sorted from the chaff. And there is real wheat in there. Modern medicine has gone too far in the pursuit of the science of medicine as opposed to the art of healing. The placebo effect is powerful and we need to learn how to harness its potential to achieve maximum benefit. But we will make no progress while such investigations are accompanied by nonsense such as iridology or EVA, and where belief cannot be subject to critical experiment and refutation.
Where does the AIT Press fit into this? There are a host of publishers making money out of publishing the latest hocus pocus on the works of Nostradamus or whatever else is providing the latest means of extracting dollars from the gullible. Many readers are trying consciously to make sense of the widely differing views of the world presented by the Uri Gellers on one hand and the Stephen Hawkings on the other. If they wander into a library or bookshop and find a book on repressed inventions, or the international conspiracy to poison us all with pesticides, such readers are likely to assume that books published by the Auckland Institute of Technology (which could be expected to share the aspirations of MIT — otherwise why did the ATI change their name to AIT?) will have been subject to a higher standard of editorial criticism and intellectual rigour than the latest piece of flim flam from the “Centre for Zodiacal Peace Freedom and Inner Radiance”.
Well, I am sorry, they would be wrong. It looks as though the AIT has decided if there is a buck in it, they publish. And no doubt their response to this criticism will be to blame the government for not giving them enough money to start with. Is this an excuse to abandon principles?
Surely this is simply bad business practice on the part of the AIT. The AIT teaches courses in business, which presumably advise students that the most important asset of a modern organisation is its intellectual property. I would have thought that a critical part of the intellectual property of any tertiary institution would be its reputation for intellectual rigour and honesty. This reputation must surely be debased by a publishing house which is fast becoming a bad joke among the critical and informed readers of this country. I certainly would not recommend attendance at AIT to anyone I know if these publications represent the polytechnic’s attitude to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.
So the Qualifications Authority should stand firm and give accreditation only to those courses in medicine, science and technology which admit to critical analysis and are prepared to expose themselves to the normal standards of the scientific process — which means that if a belief is disproved then it must be abandoned.
Do Believers Really Believe?
One of the problems with naturopathy and similar belief systems is that even people who don’t believe in them believe in them. This may sound like nonsense. But if you are one of the many readers who are upset by these arguments and have some belief in naturopathy in any of its manifestations, ask yourself this question:
You have just had a terrible car accident. You are lying in the road and feel your life ebbing away and you suspect that other members of your family are in a similar state. A crowd has gathered around, but no-one is equipped to deal with the carnage. Then you hear dimly that wonderful sound, “Step back, make way! Step back, make way!” At last, you think, help is at hand. And then the final chant is “Step back, make way, here I am — and I’m a qualified naturopath”.
What do you believe in now?
We have to recognize the inability of modern medicine to meet the unrealistic expectations it created in the fifties and sixties. These have created a market driven by those who believe that their chronic ailments must be able to be cured by some magic medicine and will keep on searching until they find it. During the process the body often cures itself — and so success is frequently found and the last treatment is declared effective.
This process has opened the door for the irrational to enter our institutions of higher learning and to further close the door on freedom of speech and expression. You may not think this is a bad thing — especially if it provides a few more people with work and earns some money for the education system.
But how would the Minister of Education respond to a proposal to set up the Divine School of Engineering, or the Natural Light School of Veterinary Science, or the Tantric School of Economics? How will you feel when the building inspector uses an EAV meter to decide whether your building is earthquake proof or an acupuncturist is called in to test your herd for bovine TB or a Tantric Guru is appointed Governor of the Reserve Bank?
How come we would be prepared to let these people play games with our health, but not with our buildings, our cattle or our economy?