A massive disagreement that has erupted between two prominent Canadian academics, Dr. Mark Loeb and Professor Tim Caulfield, has put the spotlight on the ethicality of investing research into bunk science.

The debate revolved around the validity and ethicality to perform research on a branch of complementary medicine known as nosodes, often marketed as homeopathic “vaccines”. They are based on a belief that illnesses can be treated or prevented by means of administering a person a substance that induces similar symptoms in a highly diluted form. Modern medical science has dismissed nosodes as mere quackery.

Such studies often deemed a waste of resources

However, for the sake of research, Dr. Mark Loeb, an infectious diseases researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, is recruiting individuals for a proposed study – double blinded for the highest quality evidence – that seeks to prove that nosodes do not activate an immune response, as contrasted to a vaccine, and in conclusion, would be ineffective against diseases.

The hypothesis would be that nosodes “… will be no different than placebo,” Loeb said.

The results would be concluded by testing if the immune system is stimulated by vaccines versus placebo versus nosodes.

Tim Caulfield, a professor of health law and policy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton begs to differ; his argument stems from the notion that such a study is a waste of resources as “Science already knows the answer.”

He then compared the attempt akin to initiating a physics experiment to demonstrate that flying carpets cannot fly.

Caulfield argues that one major pitfall in performing such experiments, is that even though it is performed with scientific rigour, there is the risk of legitimising these pseudo-treatments. He emphasised that despite a reputable university is studying nosodes, it would only seek to reinforce the erroneous beliefs that staunch supporters of homeopathy hold.

Conflicting with modern scientific thought

Homeopathy was first devised in the late 18th century in Germany, and its two founding basis actively conflicts with modern theory. Firstly, “like cures like” has no scientific backing, and secondly, the theory of diluting a substance to increases the potency is counterintuitive.

The practice has been disproved by the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health, a department in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) responsible for the research of such alternative medicine.

However, homeopathy is not the only alternative medical procedure that is questionable. Recently, the TCM practice of cupping is on an unstoppable rise. This has been amplified by S-League football star Jermaine Pennant advocating for the practice, who said that he has been seeking the cupping for years, even while playing for England and Spain.

In addition, the mere visual of “red spots’ on Michael Phelps’s back, along with the support of the ministries of health in both Singapore and Malaysia MOH, has not quelled the increased desirability of cupping - which has no proven efficacy. Indeed, Kin Teck Tong, a TCM clinic that offers cupping, reported a more than 95% increase for cupping over the past two years with customers mostly in their 30s.

Additional in a 2010 review, it was concluded that there was “insufficient high-quality evidence to support the use of cupping therapy on relevant diseases." It was also found in a study two years later by the same researchers that more than 84% of research that was analysed was deemed to exhibit a high risk of biasness and multiple lapses that were not taken into account.

So should research respond to pseudoscience?

“This invites an interesting debate about how we — the scientific community, the research community, the academic community — should respond to pseudoscience,” Caulfield said.

“Do we legitimise it by doing research on it? Or do we — as I think we should do — speak in one voice, one clear voice, and say: This is scientific bunk.”

Caulfield also argued that research ethics require equipoise — scientific uncertainty — if a question is to be studied. In Loeb's experiment on nosodes, Caulfield insists that there is no scientific uncertainty them.

But Loeb said he could find no previous study looking at whether nosodes triggered an immune response. And his arguments satisfied McMaster’s Institutional Review Board, which approved the study.

Loeb agrees that staunch believers will not be swayed by the results of a clinical trial, but he just hopes that the evidence will provoke regulators to be stricter on the commercialised and licensed nosodes. MIMS

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