'Holistic' Research or 'Quackery'?

April 26, 2012

The University of Aberdeen is considering establishing a chair in a form of alternative medicine described by one expert as "pure quackery."

Aberdeen’s governance and nominations committee is considering whether to establish a chair in "integrative health care and management," to be funded primarily by an anthroposophical clinic.

According to Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, anthroposophy was founded in the early 20th century by Austrian spiritualist Rudolf Steiner. Ernst said that anthroposophical drug treatments were based on the movement’s beliefs about the interplay between physiological and spiritual processes in illness and healing. One example is the use of mistletoe to treat cancer, which is based on the observation that, like cancer, mistletoe is a parasitic growth that eventually kills its host.

Describing anthroposophical medicine as "pure quackery," Ernst said there was no robust evidence for its effectiveness, with some reports suggesting that mistletoe treatment offered "considerable potential for harm."

Freedom of Information requests submitted to Aberdeen by the freelance writer James Gray reveal that the £1.5 million ($2.4 million) cost of funding the chair for five years would be borne by the Raphael Medical Centre, a private anthroposophical clinic in Kent. The Software AG Foundation, the charitable arm of a German software firm known for funding anthroposophical projects, has also pledged €1.5 million ($1.9 million). In a submission to the governance and nominations committee obtained by Gray, Mike Greaves, head of Aberdeen’s College of Life Sciences and Medicine, suggests that the chair might eventually grow into a research center. The website of the umbrella group the Anthroposophic Health, Education & Social Care Movement says such a center has been agreed "in principal" [sic] with Aberdeen and would be "key to furthering the anthroposophic healthcare approach worldwide."

The chair would be the first of its kind outside central Europe. The university also offers an undergraduate degree in "social pedagogy," which also has its roots in anthroposophy and is taught in collaboration with a local Steiner school.

Aberdeen’s governance and nominations committee is due to decide next month whether to establish the chair. A paper submitted to it in January by Neva Haites, vice principal for development, acknowledges that the donation’s source could lead to "negative publicity" and doubts about the university’s scientific credibility and integrity.

She also censures the anthroposophy movement’s “premature and potentially damaging” statements about the center, particularly the claim that it will offer postgraduate degrees in anthroposophical medicine. This "raises the possibility of a future conflict arising about the activities of the center, which could prove damaging," she says.

Greaves’ paper says any appointee to the chair would need a medical qualification and a track record in medical research, as well as an “in-depth” knowledge of anthroposophical medicine.

But Ernst said that even if Aberdeen appointed a "decent scientist," the new professor would have "no chance" of being academically independent.

The Raphael Medical Center did not respond to a request for comment.

 

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