AUSTRALIAN advocacy group Friends of Science in Medicine has hit back at claims that it's using the clout of its members to "coerce" universities into removing courses in complementary and alternative medicine.
Professor Paul Komesaroff, director of the Centre for Ethics in Medicine and Society at Monash University, recently accused the Friends of setting up a political lobby group to pressure universities into submitting to their beliefs.
Friends of Science in Medicine was established late last year by concerned doctors, researchers and scientists who said they had seen a rise in the use of complementary and alternative medicines that lacked evidence.
The Friends wrote to vice-chancellors of universities across the nation at the start of this year, asking them to re-examine the alternative and complementary medical courses they offer.
Professor Komesaroff, who is also a consulting physician, last week labelled the Friends as a lobby group trying to "coerce" universities into removing the courses.
"What they've done is set up a pressure group to lobby institutions and government in order to achieve certain political goals," he told the Weekly.
"I probably lean a bit more towards the view that many of the people in Friends of Science in Medicine would probably take.
"But the way to solve the argument is to engage in open, respectful, uncoerced dialogue, not to form a political lobby group and then exert pressure on the universities or individuals to do their bidding. I think that's wrong; it's dangerous, it's intellectual censorship."
But Dr Cameron Martin, of the Friends of Science in Medicine, hit back at these claims. "We asked the universities to make a commitment to teach only things that are based on good scientific principles and quality research. We never asked them to stop or censor anything."
Dr Martin, a general practitioner, said complementary and alternative medicines were not harmless and lacked evidence.
"Some of them, such as homeopathy, have simply been invented by individuals - in this case, by a man called Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700s. They involved fixed belief systems about the body and disease and how it works, such as water molecules having a 'magic' memory."
Dr Martin condemned alternative therapies for threatening public health and contributing to misinformation. "It promotes the fear-mongering of disease. There are a whole lot of illnesses that have been invented that don't exist, such as leaky gut syndrome."
Dr Martin said the untested treatments could potentially cost lives. "People who become disillusioned with conventional medicine, particularly around the treatment of cancer, are not infrequently dropping all of their conventional treatment and pursuing alternative things with disastrous effects."
Professor Komesaroff last week told the Weekly that it would be in the public interest to have such courses at universities.
"It's clearly in the interest of the community as a whole and for individuals who choose to use complementary medicines for them to be properly assessed, to be carefully taught, to be the subject of legitimate scrutiny within the universities, to have access to research funds.
"Clearly it's better to have them inside the institution than to marginalise or peripheralise them."
Dr Martin said: "Once a discipline is in a university, it automatically gains enormous confidence with the public.
"We dispute the claim that putting them in universities improves them, largely because each discipline in the university is somewhat self-governing so the people who believe in the nonsense are the same ones who teach the nonsense.
''You can have a PhD in bull dust but it's still bull dust."