Thursday, April 10, 2014

Guest Post: On the CBC, Homeopaths are Now Medical Experts?

Received an email yesterday morning from my friend, lawyer, author, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, and evidence-based science champion Professor Timothy Caulfield who was quite upset about the inclusion of a homeopathic doctor on an expert health panel convened by the CBC for their flagship news program The National. While Tim (side note - his mother greatly preferred Timothy so if you don't know him and already always call him Tim (like me and virtually everyone else), and you happen to meet him, stick with Timothy) isn't anti-complementary medicine, he is very pro-evidence, and when it comes to homeopathy the evidence is in and it's not complementary. As I often do with my blog when a friend has something to say, I invited Tim to write a guest post explaining his concerns, and he kindly obliged:

An Open Letter to CBC's Peter Mansbridge from Prof. Timothy Caulfield

Dear Peter Mansbridge:

I couldn’t sleep last night. And it is your fault.

The last thing I watched before I went to bed was The National’s new health panel. And it left me we a deep feeling of despair. I couldn’t shake the sensation that we are slipping into some kind of bizarre all-knowledge-is-relative Dark Age.

The panel has three “experts”, including the terrific and science-based Danielle Martin and Ali Zentner. The third is Bryce Wylde, a self-described homeopathic doctor (he has a diploma from the Ontario College of Homeopathic Medicine) and advocate for, among a host of other scientifically unproven therapies, “natural health” and supplementation.

Now, I don’t know Wylde. He seems like a nice, engaging individual – particularly when he is on Dr. Oz talking about how he “travels the globe in search of Mother Nature’s fountain of youth”. He does this with a mixture of scientific-sounding babble (“vasodilate blood to the brain”?) and everything-natural-is-good boyish enthusiasm. He is, no doubt about it, entertaining.

But including an advocate of homeopathic medicine – one of the most derided and scientifically preposterous of alternative therapies – on a national and highly respected TV news program as a “medical expert” and legitimate source of evidence-based health information is simply wrong. He wasn’t presented as an outsider. His views were not cast as extreme and scientifically questionable. And this was not Dr. Oz, Oprah or an infomercial.

The inclusion of Wylde on this panel is a wonderful (and depressing) example of the phenomenon of false balance. Naturally, it is always good to keep an open mind and to get different perspectives on important issues. I suspect that was the goal the CBC had in mind when they decided to include Wylde. But using a homeopath to comment on biomedical issues is like using an astrologer to balance the views of Stephen Hawking.

I won’t dissect the scientifically questionable comments he made on The National – such as his advocacy of supplements (which he markets on his website – a practice that creates an obvious conflict of interest) and his statements about the health value of organic food. I am more concerned about the impact of putting this perspective on a respected show like The National. It legitimizes pseudoscientific ideas – which may have serious adverse health consequences – and makes it more difficult for the public to differentiate between real and junk science.

The CBC decision is particularly frustrating given that there are so many wonderful, science-based health scholars in Canada, including many who explore the issues associated with and evidence surrounding alternative therapies (such as Drs. Heather Boon at the University of Toronto and Sunita Vohra at the University of Alberta).

So, Mr. Mansbridge, I sincerely hope you look for a different, science-based, commentator for your health panel. I need the sleep.

Timothy Caulfield
Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy
Trudeau Fellow
Author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. He has been the Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta since 1993. Over the past several years he has been involved in a variety of interdisciplinary research endeavours that have allowed him to publish over 250 articles and book chapters. He is a Fellow of the Trudeau Foundation, a Health Senior Scholar with the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research and the Principal Investigator for a number of large interdisciplinary projects that explore the ethical, legal and health policy issues associated with a range of topics, including stem cell research, genetics, patient safety, the prevention of chronic disease, obesity policy, the commercialization of research, complementary and alternative medicine and access to health care. Professor Caulfield is and has been involved with a number of national and international policy and research ethics committees, including: Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee; Genome Canada’s Science Advisory Committee; the Ethics and Public Policy Committee for International Society for Stem Cell Research; and the Federal Panel on Research Ethics. He has won numerous academic awards and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. He writes frequently for the popular press on a range of health and science policy issues and is the author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness (Penguin 2012).