Science fares poorly

The definition of “science” seems to have been recast over the last few days if the inclusion of pseudo-medicine in two different science fairs is anything to go by.

The Ultimo Science Festival in Sydney and the Gold Coast Science Fair in Queensland are both run in association with National Science Week, and both with the imprimatur of attending universities (even as joint organiser, in the case of the Ultimo event).

The Ultimo event, running from August 16-29 and presented by the University of Technology, Sydney, along with the Powerhouse Museum, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and TAFE NSW, features a tour of an acupuncture clinic.

The promotional material for the tour, to be held on August 28, says that “There’s more to acupuncture than meets the eye – the scope of practice and treatments are far greater than the term ‘acupuncture’ implies. Join the tour and find out about these treatment modalities, and observe how traditional Chinese medicine is being practised today in a contemporary outpatient clinic.” Tickets are available from the UTS Faculty of Science booth.

Australian Skeptics’ president Eran Segev complained to the organisers about the inclusion of acupuncture: “I find this to be very disturbing, as the premises of acupuncture (such as the existence of Qi) are unscientific and acupuncture consistently fails to show positive results in good quality randomised controlled trials. Therefore, to include acupuncture in a science festival is offensive to those of us who value science as a mode of inquiry. What’s the point of seeking the truth if failure to find what you wish for is ignored? It’s the opposite of what science is all about.”

He received a response from Nicole Eng, marketing and communications manager of UTS’ Faculty of Science.

She said: “We acknowledge your concern over the inclusion of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine clinical tours. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine has been part of the University of Technology, Sydney since 1994. The University has been undertaking high quality research into the mechanisms of acupuncture as well as its therapeutic outcomes. If you were to undertake a full review of the medical literature, you would find that in recent years, a number of high quality international studies with positive outcomes have been published. I attach a recent article in a highly prestigious journal relating to mechanisms of acupuncture. There are many clinical trial based papers as well. Simply because we do not understand the mechanisms of acupuncture does not mean that we should abandon the scientific investigation of this medical intervention.

“I am sure however, that we can both agree that the purpose of the Ultimo Science Festival is to promote science as a whole. We do not believe that the inclusion of this clinical tour will undermine the fabric of science or the intent of the Festival. Quite the opposite. As a point of interest and public awareness to the general public, it may also bring a better understanding of what traditional Chinese medicine is.”

Eng sent a copy of a recent Nature Neuroscience publication on acupuncture.

Segev replied that “This paper, like all other papers I have been able to put my hands on, is showing exactly what I said it would show: that acupuncture doesn’t work. At the very least, it shows that you can close down your acupuncture studies at UTS, because no expertise of any kind is required to provide relief using what this paper mistakenly calls acupuncture.”

No further reply has been received.

On the Gold Coast, a short two-day science fair held over the weekend of August 21-22 featured presentations and stands from Griffith University, Bond University and CSIRO. Though these organisations presumably had no control over the Fair’s overall content, their position close to a stand promoting chiropractic gave unwarranted support to another pseudo-medicine.

At this stage we only have initial reports on the stand, but the Gold Coast Skeptics were intending to investigate.

However, we can say that one less-than-impressed attendee suggested it was extremely ironic that the chiropractic stand was only a few metres from a scientific presentation on the placebo effect.

No doubt we can look forward to homeopathy, faith healing and rune-casting at future science events.

Or perhaps the organisers and those involved in such fairs might like to take a closer look at which subjects are inappropriately benefitting from association with their “science” events.