Higher EducationScience

Selling and Promoting Alternative Medicine Around Campus

There is a lot that is wrong in the world today, and this is far from the worst problem. But it has been bugging me for several months now: my old university sells homeopathic medicine in its drugstore.

Most readers of the Skepchick Network will know what homeopathy is, but I didn’t until a few years ago. Basically, it is a type of “alternative medicine” based on the principle of “like cures like” and involves the intake of ingredients that are so diluted that they are no longer harmful—or useful. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that homeopathy works, but it continues to be a big business, including on my old school’s campus. And I know it is not alone. Another school I have visited recently, a technical college, advertises “auricular acupuncture to reduce cravings associated with addictions and withdrawal from drugs, alcohol, smoking, or food. Other benefits include reduced anxiety, better sleep, immediate calming, and improvements in physical, mental, and emotional outlook.” I have more respect for acupuncture than I do for homeopathy, but the scientific evidence nevertheless says that it does not work, and that all of these advertised claims are bunk.

So why do I care so much? People buy quack medicine all the time; why should a university community be any different? Well, they aren’t, in the grand scheme of things. But universities and colleges are supposed to be places where people can learn about science, places that produce science, and even places where people live a scientific life. I’d start spouting off phrases such as “life of the mind” and “community of thinkers,” if I didn’t think that everyone would cringe. Surely, selling homeopathic medicine and other alternative medicines communicates, however subtly, that these medicines are not only effective, but in fact endorsed by academia? And that their sale is morally unquestioned? That is my real issue with the sale and promotion of alt-med on campus: the implied endorsement from the institution. Notably, the aforementioned acupuncture sessions are promoted by the college itself, and the posters advertising the sessions carry the branding of no fewer than five of the college’s administrative departments. If groups of students want to set up Reiki practice sessions or homeopathy-sampling clubs, they have every right to do so, as far as I am concerned. But official academic institutions, at least ones teaching evidence-based medicine and not its so-called alternatives, should hold themselves to a higher standard.

Even if we acknowledge that campus drugstores selling alternative medicine is a problem, is there anything that we can do about it? The answer to that depends on who runs the drugstore. Some are run by the school itself, but some are operated by private companies that merely rent space from the school or from the student union. Some are a combination of all the above. Now, like it or not, private companies have a right to sell homeopathic junk. Putting pressure on a school, or even a student union, to act on one of its tenants opens up a can of worms. There is a legal document (the lease) involved, and critics might say that it fits the pattern of ~~POLITICAL CORRECTNESS~~ on campus. (Wares are not speech, but I don’t trust critics to catch that nuance). However, it’s a different matter for businesses or programs that are run directly by the school or student union. There, faculty members and/or students have a voice, and can push administrators to change. It is harder for business matters than for academic matters (which are difficult enough to budge), but it can happen.

Now, as I said above, I have no problem with individual community members practicing alternative medicine on campus. And I fully realize that there are bigger problems in the world. Indeed, for all I know, I am overstating this problem. While some of the campuses I have visited over the past year (hardly a scientific survey) have featured alt-med prominently, others have not. Some campus drugstores I checked out had dubious herbal medicines, but nothing as bad as homeopathy. So, I am curious: does your campus sell or otherwise promote alternative medicine? And do you think it is a problem that should (ethically and strategically) be addressed? Please let me know in the comments!

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I have a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Medieval Literature. I teach critical thinking and literature here and there. I drink too much tea.

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