Did you think homeopathy was not publicly funded in Australia? It is.

There has been lots of talk recently in the Australian media about CAM in universities. A new lobby group known as Friend of Science in Medicine was recently established to get the discussion going about whether this is a good thing. (Full disclosure, I recently added my name to the 400-long list of doctors, scientists and concerned citizens who are worried about pseudoscience creeping into universities).

The discussion has ruffled some feathers and I think this is a good thing. As I said in a comment on The Conversation, what is wrong with us looking at these courses and determining if what they are teaching is evidence-based? If we find there is nothing wrong, then we can carry on our merry way.

Yet, some CAM peeps don’t seem to see it this way. Some have been behaving as if they are being persecuted. Some are claiming that taking CAM out of unis puts the public at risk as practitioners are more likely exposed to shonky teaching (I haven’t seen any evidence for this, but as usual I’m willing to look at it if it’s true).

But this misses the point that it doesn’t matter where you teach it, if it’s nonsense outside of a university it remains nonsense when taught in one. Teaching homoeopathy or tactile therapy in a university environment won’t make it work. To see how homeopathy works, go here.

The argument got rather heated on Twitter recently with Prof Kerryn Phelps jumping in the mix. I had quite a long conversation with her, which remained mostly civil (if not a little strained) until I suggested we weed out the stuff we know doesn’t work or exist, such as subluxations in chiropractic and homeopathy.

The response I got was odd to say the least and I’m still unsure exactly what she was getting at. See the screen shot below (read from bottom up).

Some people suggested this was an example of the No True Scotsman fallacy, which I kinda agree with. More simply, it appears to say “don’t mention homoeopathy, even we’re embarrassed by that”. If you have another idea, please leave a comment.

Someone else called “SkepNurse” also posed the question to Prof Phelps regarding which CAM she would unequivocally say was not worth pursuing any more, either because it can never work or has been proven not to. She posted these tweets on Jan 26th and is still awaiting a direct answer.

Anyway, I’d been poking around for information on whether homeopathy was taught in universities as a stand alone course, and I hadn’t found any evidence. CAM practitioners had confirmed this as well, pointing out that it was a requirement to enter Bachelor of Health Science (Complementary Medicine) at Charles Sturt University but was not taught as a separate subject.

Well, they were wrong.

Homeopathy is taught as a stand alone course subject at a publicly funded university in NSW as part of Southern Cross University’s Bachelor of Clinical Sciences. They offer introductory homeopathy and clinical homeopathy. It is also offered as a service in the health clinic


There is even a prize offered at SCU.

The Warren Brauer Memorial Prize – Homoeopath Dispensary to the value of $500

Awarded to the Naturopathy award graduate who has exhibited a high level of proficiency in the understanding and application of homeopathy.
Donated by Brauer Natural Medicine Pty Ltd

SCU is a publicly funded university who received $32 million of federal funding in 2011. Thus, public funding is going towards the teaching of nonsense in Australian Universities.

When I’ve previously written about public funding for homeopathy in Australia the most I could do was speculate about how much it might cost the tax payer. It’s complicated because our public health system does not directly fund homeopathy as health care, but it does supplement private health funds (which do cover homoeopathy) and also some doctors/gps will prescribe recommend it.

This is the first evidence I have found that tax payers funds directly fund this nonsense. And what a waste of money it is.

I’ve written to SCU to ask for their course outlines for both classes. Let’s hope I get them so I can get a better idea of exactly what they teach.

With continued pressure from FSM, this conversation will likely continue for some time. I would like to see the first casualty be these courses at SCU.

This comment on The Conversation has really summed up this debate for me so far. It’s from Didier Nave, an ex-herbalist of 25 years and the following excerpt speaks volumes;

Time to face the facts. The data is coming in and its not looking good. It’s clearly showing that what we do is not much better than placebo. So the question is do we have the humility to accept the evidence and dump these theories. I doubt it….Have i seen the industry contest or reject its own stupidities like live blood analysis or “detoxing” when it can’t name one toxin that its methods supposedly detox? No, it embraces them instead.”


To see how The Dean of the School of Health, Professor Iain Graham, defends woo in his uni, see Mick Vagg’s post here.

There’s more info on woo in public and non-public facilities here.

Thanks to Loretta Marron for assisting with research.

More interesting reading on the current debate (and for healthy discussion in comments) see two recent articles from The Conversation;

Alternative Medicine Can Be Sientific Say Besieged Academics

Pointing The Bone At Chiropractic Quackery Lessons From the UK

To see the investigation of woo in universities from The Skeptic magazine (and written by Tim Mendham with research from Jo Benhamu) go here (pdf).

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  • DrRachie

    Homeopathy is scientifically impossible. You should be careful not to classify all natural medicines under the same umbrella – some work, some don’t. Homeopathy is definitely in the “can’t possibly and never will work” corner. This will not change despite how many times you want to mention the word pooh.

  • got a stick to poke it

    Ahhh the Skeptic club of closed mind pooh always such a know-it-all as they seem to think they are the epitome and the end of evolution. They have the history of life completely covered as long as it can be dissected and analysed. And don’t present any other types of knowledge to them cos if they don’t know about it – it couldn’t possibly exist! Yet they consider themselves soooo wise, scientifically open minded and intelligent.

    Frankly there is so much science out there about the benefits of natural medicine and why it works that one would have to be seriously covered in pooh to not get the connections. Of course some woo woo pooh stuff has gotten entangled amidst the good works of natural health – but nothing compared to some of the seriously dangerous – actually more life threatening – practices in allopathic medicine. If the pooh club was smart they wouldn’t throw their pooh at everything cos they will find it won’t stick and will blow back on their pooh pooh faces. But as we all know as much as they rant on about how smart they are – they won’t be able to control themselves and we can expect to see a lot of pooh covered faces over the coming decades.

    The good thing is that pooh clubbers are right about one thing – they are a at the end/going out of evolution; indeed a dying breed. This is their last gasp as they choke on their own pooh pooh. Evolution will keep on keeping on despite the best efforts of the pooh pooh dinosaurs.

  • There’s many independent schools that offer CAM courses that are Austudy approved and/or VET-FEE HELP approved, such as AIAS, AIHM (as mentioned), AST, Endeavour and Paramount. The last two also offer bachelor degrees in health science, with majors in homeopathy, reflexology, naturopathy, acupuncture etc. NCTM offers courses that are government subsidised, so instead of paying full fees you pay $370 per year and the government funds the rest. You can study a Cert IV in Ayurveda at Sunshine Coast TAFE, which is government subsidised AND Austudy approved.

    Admittedly, I have been thinking of enrolling in a Western herbalism course, which is how I know all of this. I have been thinking of this for six months, which is mainly due to my being a skeptic and former neuroscience undergrad and trying to make absolutely sure i’m not enrolling in something where i’ll be given dubious source material and taught fairy subjects. I’m still not convinced there’s any real academia to any of the courses, to be quite honest. I’d be interested to hear the opinions of others on this, as herbalism seems to be one CAM area that’s generally accepted as having some basis in evidence.

  • Neil R

    Public funding is also provided by way of Austudy or Abstudy assistance for Homeopathy courses at the Australian Institute of Holistic Medicine (AIHM) based in Perth, WA (see http://www.aihm.wa.edu.au/).

    AIHM offers an “Advanced Diploma of Homoeopathy” which according to their website states:

    “As all the Advanced Diploma and Diploma courses are accredited, students enrolled in any of these courses are eligible to apply for Austudy or Abstudy assistance. These courses have also been approved for us to be able to offer VET FEE-HELP for those students who are eligible.”

    Once you have your advanced diploma then according to AIHM:

    “Students who have completed any of the Advanced Diploma courses with the AIHM are able to undertake studies with the Charles Sturt University.”

    and you will get:

    “… Total credit on admission 96 points …” towards a Bachelor of Health Science (Complementary Medicine).

    Another case of public money funding homeopathy studies. Presumably AIHM’s students are not the only ones eligible for govt assistance.

  • Neil R

    Tim S,

    Whilst you are right it seems CSU is feeling the pressure – they make the statement:

    “There has been some discussion recently about Complementary Medicine courses being offered by universities in Australia and overseas. Some groups are arguing that universities should not offer these courses, because they are not scientific or evidence-based. Charles Sturt University is keen to recognise these concerns and highlight the difference between our course and many courses offered by other universities.

    CSU does not teach homeopathy, iridology, reflexology or any other subjects that are not based on experimental evidence …” (see ).

    Mythbusters showed that you could polish a turd but at the end of the process you still have something that is ~99% turd with a thin layer of vanish over the top.

    Methinks CSU maybe doing a lot of polishing and not much else.

  • DrD

    The course coordinator being in the UK doesn’t matter. He knows what you’re thinking before you even put finger to keyboard – so no problems with assignment submissions going astray. On a slightly more serious note, (almost) no students are silly enough to enrol in it, so it is strange that RMIT keep it on the books, especially as many people, including the BMJ have commented on it making the University look stupid.

  • DavidP

    SansScience has found “Energy Medicine” being taught at RMIT, which is a shock to me. http://sansscience.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/energy-medicine-at-rmit-university-is-all-wibbly-wobbly-plus-this-weeks-fsm-update/
    It’s apparently part of a “Master of Wellness”. It has “sound understanding of the fundamental scientific principles and arguments used to support and/or refute energy medicine practices” in the learning outcomes, but I don’t think they checked that the arguments in support are real-world science. The course coordinator seems to be in the U.K.!

  • Tim S

    As a point of clarification, the emphasis on CAM in the admission requirements for the BHSc (Comp Med) at Charles Sturt University is because the course is specifically designed to take natural/alternative practitioners and hopefully turn them into Science/Evidence based health practitioners, a quick look at the course structure (http://www.csu.edu.au/courses/undergraduate/complementary_medicine/course-structure) shows that there is little to be worried about.

    To quote the Dean, Prof. Nick Klomp “They’re all subjects that are already mainstream, hard health science subjects”, and “I could ignore them or I could train them better”

    There are a variety of health science and nursing courses available at CSU for those who want to start in that area in the right direction. (yes I work for CSU, no I don’t represent CSU, just a Sceptic who, after initial worries, is actually happy with the direction that course took)

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  • G’day Maggie,

    She is now using the argument that clinical experience and the wishes of the patient also need to be considered not just evidence.

    You’re experiencing their multi-pronged strategy for CAM infiltration. Here’s how I think it is supposed to work. They want doctors to practice holistic healing – combining current standard-of-care medicine with alternative modalities in a way that’s unique to every patient. If doctors won’t go for that, they want doctors to consider the “best” alternative modalities instead of standard medicine (on the basis that doctors are obliged to provide the best treatment, and in some cases the alternative is better). Failing that, their fallback position is that doctors should be informed about alternative modalities because patients will ask for/about them.
    Prof. Phelps’ further sniping at you could be for the reason I described at the beginning of my first comment (job depends on them not understanding it) or it’s also possible she is poorly informed about skepticism and skeptics. That’s what got my gander up when she had a go at Rachie, confusing skepticism with denialism.
    I think AIMA’s position is difficult to defend logically, so she quickly resorted to attacking critics.

    Despite me telling her I am not anti-CAM (I work in ethnomedicine so it hardly makes sense for me to be so) but look at each therapy/modality at face value, she still seems to hold the opinion that we want to hold a flame thrower to all of CAM.

    What’s the difference between being fair to CAM and asking the hard questions of it? I don’t think there is any. Certainly, we have to consider each modality separately, and there’s a process to follow. But we’re not the ones conflating different modalities under the one umbrella of CAM; it’s the AIMA who does that.
    AIMA uses the NCCAM definition for CAM (they call it CM but I’ll just call it CAM for consistency) which encompasses everything from Ayurveda to Energy medicine. They wrote in their position paper:

    there is also a large body of scientific evidence emerging for CM world-wide

    It is the AIMA who needs to be more specific about which modalities are supported by new evidence, and which are not. Skeptics are right to call them out on this lack of clarity, but …

    All I wanted was them to admit that there is some CAM that is a waste of time, but they refuse to do this.

    … when you did so, you were rebuffed.
    They also have difficulty distinguishing between evaluation and conclusion. Our skeptical process is to examine the scientific evidence for and against specific treatments and medicines, use reason and logic to evaluate the evidence, and then draw a conclusion. Regarding homeopathy, we’ve completed the process and arrived at our conclusion. If I say homeopathy is nonsense, it doesn’t mean I’m biased against homeopathy. That’s my conclusion based on the evidence.
    It’s completely illogical that AIMA should continue to promote homeopathy as a legitimate treatment contrary to a rational conclusion regarding its efficacy. Prof. Phelps knows that trying to justify it will make her look like an idiot, so instead she accused Rachie of striking a low blow by mentioning it. “Last refuge of the skeptic”, indeed!

    I find this to be extremely hypocritical. They tell us that CAM is evidence based but when we present them evidence that say subluxations are made up they refuse to discard them, but cling tighter.

    Not while people are making money from it. I mean it might not be greed; it might be ideology. But do you know the difference between religion and mythology? In mythology, all the followers are dead. I see a parallel here. While people continue to make money from Ayurveda, there will be others who cling relentlessly to the idea that it is legitimate.
    I found only one area in which AIMA conclusively rejects a specific CAM modality, and that is homeopathic vaccinations. It’s not too hard to see why; promoting that idea is like wearing a big “HERP DERP” sign on their heads.
    I want to know what’s their position on Energy medicine. Which ancient theories of health actually work, despite being mutually exclusive? Is it really true that diseases are caused by your unbalanced chakras and not viruses, and acupuncture works despite the QI lines being not in the same place as the chakras?
    Also, on evidence: AIMA accepts the NCCAM definition of CAM which is very broad. As I said above, everything from Ayurveda to Energy medicine. It’s not believable that they all work. A reasonable first question from the doctors and organisations they are trying to convince would be “but how do you know which ones work?” and the AIMA can reply “based on the evidence”.
    This is convenient for them, as it’s easy to find evidence for efficacy if one looks at only bad studies and ignores the good studies and ignores the need for a plausible mechanism of action. Even homeopathy can be tarted up by those standards, as their position paper shows. I believe the AIMA’s strategy is to meet the lowest possible standard which will get them a foot in the door to talk to doctors and related organisations – which is to say, promote the concept of evidence-based CAM, promote the concept of holistic healing and be quite unclear about which specific CAM is efficacious and which is not.

  • Hi Nick, yes I agree with all you say and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I had another chat with Prof Phelps on Twitter yesterday. She is now using the argument that clinical experience and the wishes of the patient also need to be considered not just evidence. In fact when she found out my “Dr” title comes from a PhD she flippantly responded that “with all due respect we clinicians have real problems to solve”. So now apparently my opinion is not valid as I’m not a clinician.

    Despite me telling her I am not anti-CAM (I work in ethnomedicine so it hardly makes sense for me to be so) but look at each therapy/modality at face value, she still seems to hold the opinion that we want to hold a flame thrower to all of CAM.


    All I wanted was them to admit that there is some CAM that is a waste of time, but they refuse to do this. Now I see why.

    I find this to be extremely hypocritical. They tell us that CAM is evidence based but when we present them evidence that say subluxations are made up they refuse to discard them, but cling tighter. For this reason alone I will keep this conversation going and the blog posts coming in the hope that I can at least embarrass them a little bit.

    On a side note, there seems to be free use of the title “Dr” by some of the CAM peeps quoted in the current debate, when they are either not entitled to it or are not using it with the required designation (eg., chiro or osteopath).

  • TL;DR version: AIMA promotes all kinds of quackery and they leave it up to you to figure out which of it is useful, if anything.

  • This sounds like an example of “you can’t make somebody understand something if their job depends on them not understanding it”. As President of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, it is Prof. Phelps’ job to promote CAM and inject it into mainstream medicine and government policy wherever possible.

    Eliminating non-efficacious modalities is not one of their aims. If there’s no evidence, it means we need more studies. If the studies don’t support an affirmative conclusion it means they were bad studies because this technique has been in use for thousands of years and millions of people have benefited. Mainstream “science” is not Holistic, so of course you don’t see the evident benefit. I doubt they will ever conclusively rule out a modality.

    As for Homeopathy, Prof. Phelps “you would talk about that, wouldn’t you?” type reaction above reminds me of these seminal moments in skepticism:

    – The IQ2 debate “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world” with Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry on the side of reason against Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop John Onaiyekan who defended authoritarian superstition. Upon mention of one of the Catholic Church’s many horrible acts, possibly the prohibition on condom use in AIDS-stricken Africa, Anne Widdecombe rolled her eyes as if to say “you would bring that up, wouldn’t you?”

    – Dara O’Briain’s live show, in which he points out that Homeopathy is just water, and goes on to recommend “anyone who in answer to the difficult questions in life […] gives you an easy bullshit answer and you go ‘Well, do you have any evidence for that?’ and they go ‘There’s more to life than evidence’ … get in the fuckin sack.”

    The AIMA’s Position paper on Homeopathy (2010) spends the first page and a half in an almost breathless exposition of the basic claims of homeopathy. After labeling it a “specific system of medicine”, the paper goes on to claim by reference that it originates from “extensive clinical observations”. This theme of observational validity is repeated several times and the holistic notion is introduced, that treatments are individualized and this tactic is used to undermine the validity of clinical studies which may find a lack of efficacy.

    The paper goes on to list some Cochrane reviews. I won’t try to meta-analyse their choice of studies to summarize; suffice it to say the paper goes on to claim “Further studies are required” and “more funding is required for research”.

    So there you have it. The AIMA can’t condemn even this water and wishful thinking, not while there are people making money from it.

    AIMA’s position paper on Needs Analysis for education in Integrative and Complementary Medicine for GPs in Australia puts the case that CAM should be blended with conventional medicine so GPs can provide holistic care. On the scientific evidence, the paper states “To date research in CM has been limited due to a number of factors such as; lack of adequate funding, the type of CM used, difficulty extrapolating results to similar therapies, […] the variable quality of the studies” and so on. Aren’t they just hinting that more funding is required? And using the poor quality of existing studies as a reason why the people who dismiss these modalities as nonsense and “no evidence for efficacy” might be wrong?

    The paper goes on to say “there is also a large body of scientific evidence emerging for CM world-wide”. That is contradictory. If there was reliable evidence, it should appear in the studies. I think it’s there to counteract the apparent negativity of the prior statements: existing studies are poor, but never fear, there are increasing amounts of evidence for CM all the time!

    Note that this statement doesn’t distinguish which complementary modalities have emerging evidence. It’s a blanket statement and it potentially covers all modalities considered by the AIMA to be CM. This paper doesn’t actually specify which modalities AIMA considers to be CM, but it does list what NCCAM, the TGA and the NPS do, so I must conclude that AIMA accepts all of them. CM is therefore a grab bag including homeopathy, naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, patient support groups, meditation, prayer, spiritual healing, … vitamins, minerals, dietary supplements, chiropractic, osteopathic, massage, energy medicine, magnetism, Australian Indigenous medicines, and finally the NPS definition which defines CM essentially as any traditional medicine.

    Ah, I’ve found AIMA’s definition of CM on their website which says they support the NCCAM definition. Their web pages mostly specify that the language used is Czech. Given their mission, I think AIMA should actually write their website in Czech, or maybe Klingon.

    AIMA appears to do no research of its own. I haven’t been able to find any instance where AIMA draws a conclusion on any specific modality; they appear therefore to function as a generic cheerleader for all CAM, despite the vague bleating in their position papers that treatments should be evidence-based.