Thanks, Dr. Oppel, we need to see a lot more of this

If there’s been a theme running through this blog, it’s been the importance of science and critical thinking. The main focus of this emphasis on skepticism, of course, has been medicine, which makes sense, given that I’m a doctor and a cancer researcher, but I don’t limit myself to just medicine. However, as part of my emphasis on science-based medicine (SBM) as being the best methodology to provide the best patient care that we can, besides the random quackery deconstructions,

I’ve tended to harp on two topics over the years. First, there’s the subject of what Dr. R. W. has called “quackademic medicine“; i.e., the infiltration of pseudoscience in the form of divisions or departments of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM), where what used to be correctly considered quackery and pseudoscience is being “integrated” with scientific medicine. Indeed, I once even went to the trouble of compiling what I like to call my Academic Woo Aggregator, namely a list of medical schools that teach, research, and support quackademic medicine. It was last updated over a year ago and desperately needs a new update. Unfortunately, the thought of delving into the research necessary to identify more medical schools to add to that list fills me with a deep sense of depression; so I’ve been procrastinating. The second area that I’ve emphasized is how the federal government supports pseudoscience in the form of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the studies of pseudoscience that it funds through our tax dollars, and how powerful interests protect it.

Medical science is being corrupted by the creeping infiltration of pseudoscience into the very foundations of the most respected fortresses of scientific medicine. Harvard. Yale. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. None of them are immune. What really bothers me, though, is that it’s happening with almost no pushback. Rare is the complaint. The AMA is weak and hampered by its history of being more interested in protecting its turf than protecting patients. State medical boards are useless. In some cases, they even license quackery like naturopathy and homeopathy. Criticizing the infiltration of woo into medicine generally garners the same reaction as farting loudly in a room, only not as polite.

And that’s exactly why I applaud Dr. Lloyd Oppel and the British Columbia Medical Association. They’ve done what far more medical associations ought to be doing:

The British Columbia Medical Association is criticizing Vancouver’s Langara College for training the public in therapies that are “medically useless” and potentially harmful.

Dr. Lloyd Oppel, who monitors alternative health practices for the BCMA, says that he has watched for a decade as Langara’s roster of holistic health courses has progressed from recreational classes to career training. The publicly accredited college offers more than 50 classes in things like iridology (divining health from iris reading) and bone breathing, as well as a three-year certificate program qualifying practitioners of integrative energy healing to work on the public.

Speak it, brother!

Now, I know what iridology is. I know what “energy healing” is. But what the hell is bone breathing? Apparently, it’s this:


enturies ago, the Chinese knew that to have a healthy body one had to have a healthy marrow. By visualising the breath going through the centre of hollow bones they aimed to encourage the body’s natural healing powers. For the Christian ‘bone-breathing’ is a simple, effective way of bringing in the body as one’s best ally in prayer.

This exercise, based on practice of Tai Chi, the ancient eastern contemplative dance, is gradually becoming familiar in this country through evening classes and residential courses.

The purpose of the dance is to harmonise movement and breathing, to bring the whole being into a state of balanced tension between the vital energies of Yin and Yang, respectively the ‘in-breath’ of earth and the ‘out-breath’ of heaven. Various preliminary breathing exercises are used to prepare for the dance itself. The sequences described below are based on awareness of the bone structure of the body.

Ah, yes, the appeal to ancient woo, complete with appeals to “vital energies.” There’s nothing better. But I digress.

What Dr. Oppel has done is something that is done all too infrequently. He has directly attacked how a college has embraced woo. Worse, as the article describes, it looks as though Langara College has embraced woo for the most cynical of reasons:

Doug Soo, dean of Langara’s Continuing Studies, says he is used to hearing his holistic-health offerings criticized by the science and medical communities. He began developing the non-credit courses in 1997 because alternative health practitioners came to him requesting it. Most complementary therapies are taught through privately owned colleges, and Mr. Soo saw a way to give Langara a unique market niche.

He says that all courses are approved by Langara’s board of governors and its education council, a committee comprised of faculty, staff and students who review the curriculum. Continuing education courses are run for-profit, unlike academic and career courses in the regular program, which are publicly subsidized.

Now if major medical societies in the U.S. and the rest of the world would get on the ball and behave similarly. They don’t, at least not for the most part. At least they don’t do it nearly often enough or vociferously enough. Even the WHO’s recent condemnation of the One Quackery to Rule Them All, Homeopathy, in retrospect to me came across as lukewarm. It required the goading of The Voice of Young Science and Sense About Science, and even then it took a couple of months and the WHO only condemned the use of homeopathy for “life-threatening conditions.”

Maybe we need a new medical organization that is devoted to science-based medicine. Certainly the ones we have don’t fit the bill.