Tuesday, 15 June 2010

An email to the university of Glamorgan

Recently, I found out about this. As a Scientist, Skeptics-in-the-pub organiser (fingers crossed), and former pupil of an underfunded state-school for which Glamorgan University was the main port of call post A-levels, I did not like this. But I am a fair man, and a true scientist must be open to evidence. So after searching around the website for a bit and coming up with nothing useful, I sent the following email.

(I'm aware it's ridiculously flippant and borderline insulting, but that it addressed at the end)

Dear Sir/Madam

My name is Doctor Dean Burnett, and I am writing to you as I have some concerns regarding the teaching of the Chiropractic courses that take place at the faculty for Health, Sport and Science. As a scientist and enthusiastic science-communicator, I have several concerns with this subject and would appreciate any information you could provide me with.

However, before I go further, I apologise in advance if this is not the appropriate email address to use regarding this topic, but it was the only one I could find on the University website which appeared relevant (which itself is somewhat suspicious). If you are the wrong department/person, could you please forward it to the relevant party(s), or possibly reply send me the correct email address? In the unlikely event of there being no valid email address, I will consider other means of communication, up to and including carrier pigeon.

I have recently obtained my PhD in Neuroscience from Cardiff University Psychology School, so I am a very highly-qualified scientist. I am also keenly involved in Science communication and various methods/projects designed to promote scientific understanding to the general public. Several time, I have worked with the ‘Hands on Science’ project, part of the ‘First Campus’ partnership. These are connected with/part of Glamorgan University, so I know from experience that Glamorgan University has a definite commitment to promoting scientific understanding and enthusiasm.

This is why I found it particularly disappointing to discover the University of Glamorgan teaches several chiropractic courses. I must point out that is email is from me alone, with no group associations. As you can no-doubt tell I am neither a user nor believer in the medicinal properties of chiropractic; like I previously said, I’m a scientist. As such, I find the claims and information available (or not, in some cases) on the official University website potentially alarming, and I would appreciate some clarification as to their accuracy/intent. In no particular order, here are my concerns.

- Regarding course content, the website provides a list of the modules taken on the Foundation Certificate in Chiropractic course. This appears to be a list of subjects one would expect a student to be familiar with before beginning an undergraduate course in a subject concerning biology/health science. However, the content description for the MChiro Chiropractic course is far less detailed and worryingly ambiguous. Admittedly, many of the course content descriptions available via the website for ‘similar’ courses (e.g. Medical sciences) are of similar length, but clearly provide more detailed information of areas of study covered. The Chirpractic course, in contrast, states skills a student will expect to have gained upon completion of the course without saying how exactly this will occur. Any other information is presented in the manner of addressing someone who is already familiar with the specifics and theory of chiropractic. Is this really suitable for a website which is intended to encourage individuals to choose the subject as a profession?

- The chiropractic course description contains the following phrase. “… training means you will understand the scientific principles relevant to chiropractic”. Is it possible to clarify what these principles are? I myself and, more importantly, the global scientific community are yet to identify any scientific principle on which the ‘efficacy’ of chiropractic may be based, with the exception of a placebo effect or possibly ‘it’s nice to have some attention and a massage’ resulting in improved sensation of well-being. My own anecdotal experience also leads me to doubt any possible link between chiropractic and science, as during my time as an anatomy technician then postgraduate neuroscientist at Cardiff University, I have been exposed to dozens of thoroughly dissected nervous systems and spinal columns (human and otherwise) and have yet to encounter anything that could be said to represent a subluxation (a miss-alignment of the joint/organ which chiropractors believe to be the cause of ill health). Granted, the cadavers I examined did often have their joints, organs and vertebrae out of alignment (usually on different tables), but such a condition can only really be tolerated by the deceased.

- If the Faculty has discovered a scientific cause for the supposed efficacy of chiropractic, would this not warrant more publicity than a casual mention on a course description? This would represent a major scientific breakthrough for the university and surely should be touted as such?

- If chiropractic course does include modules that give students a grounding in health sciences and the practicalities involved, in what way do these differ from other, more general courses taught at the Faculty for Health, Sport and Science? I would be greatly interested in seeing a module description for the course in order to ascertain the necessity for the inclusion of the chiropractic element. Would this be possible? I can’t help but feel the Chiropractic component is analogous to the ‘contains no meat products’ stickers on bottled mineral water, but I am willing to be dissuaded of this admittedly cynical assumption.

I realise that this may be an ambitious request on my part. I ask only because I am currently part of a group setting up a Skeptical movement in Wales, and such things as Chiropractic will no-doubt be discussed at our planned events. I have received interest from the University of Wales outreach groups and feel it only fair to inform the University of Glamorgan as to my attitudes before it reaches you via word-of-mouth or other means. Or carrier pigeon, which I mentioned earlier I would use if necessary.

In the spirit of the freedom of information act, I would very much like more details regarding the content of the chiropractic course. I would hope to avoid having unfair criticisms of the University made by myself or my colleagues at our public events.

In the same spirit of freedom of information, I will be posting this email, unedited, on my popular blog (sciencedigestive.blogspot.com). This is a combined science and comedy blog, so if you were surprised by the rather flippant and seemingly sarcastic tone of this email, this is because people read my blog expecting humorous ramblings and I feel it my duty to provide (similar logic is, ironically, often used by those who promote chiropractic). Also, polite and formal enquiries I’ve sent in the past have always been politely and formally ignored, so I thought I’d try something different.

All the very best, and apologies for the overly-long email.

Dean Burnett (PhD)

email: Humourology (at) Live.co.uk

Twitter: @garwboy



Zeno said...

Excellent, Dean. Can't wait to read the reply!

Alice said...

Second what Zeno said! Hehehe!

Que said...

Hmm.. PHd may allow a doctor title, but your qualifications regarding healthcare are dubious.

Also, being a scientist is only a belief in science. Who validates that belief is any more valid than a belief in atheism, or a belief in the church?

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...

No, that isn't the case at all. Science has nothing to do with 'belief' and everything to do with evidence, which is validated by the structure of the reality we live in. I don't have a belief in science any more than I have a belief in gravity, it's just a way of describing what is demonstrably true because it can be observed and analysed, not because it was written down thousands of years ago by some blokes with active imaginations.

Zeno said...

No reply yet?

shiroboshi said...

I detect a pang of panic setting in at Glamorgan: the original page has gone! :)

Anonymous said...

I would have thought 'scientific principles relevant to chiropractic' would be those such as: don't adjust a C1 on a Rheumatoid patient because of transverse ligament laxity, or, the difference between peripheral nerve lesion and a central one, or the difference between a lumbar radiculopathy and a cauda equina, or the difference between a palmar flexor and extensor Babinski's reaction within the context of a spinal space occupying lesion.....

I guess it refers to these kind of scientific principles.

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...

Yeah, that's exactly what I thought too. Strange that they don't just say so.

Anonymous said...

did you get a descriptive of the course modules? iv heard they are actually quite in depth in regards to anatomy, neurology and diagnosis? maybe im wrong

David Colquhoun said...

You'll be lucky to get any reply at all. I've written many such letters to VCs and they don't even get an acknowledgment, never mind a sensible reply.

The only exception, rather oddly, was Terence Kealey of the University of Buckingham as recounted here.

The University of Wales, sadly, has a rather bad track record in thie area. See also this week's Private Eye/

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