John C. McLachlan is a professor of medical education who wrote an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ 2010; 341:c6979) called “Integrative medicine and the point of credulity.” McLachlan proposed that integrative medicine should not be used as a way of smuggling alternative practices into rational medicine by way of lowered standards of critical thinking. He worries that failure to detect an obvious hoax is not an encouraging sign.
The author, upon seeing a request for presenters at an integrative medicine conference in Jerusalem, submits a paper posing as an embryologist who discovered a new version of reflexology. He explains that he has identified a homunculus represented in the human body, over the area of the buttocks. The homunculus being inverted, such that the head is represented in the inferior position. As with reflexology, the “map” responds to needling, as in acupuncture, and to gentle suction, such as cupping.
He stops short of telling the conference organizers he has discovered a system whereby the head is up the ass and responds to needles. Funny, right? Well, after submission of an abstract with some sciency sounding references, the proposal gets accepted for presentation. The author declines to present and, instead, publishes the correspondence in the BMJ.
Now, I’m all for having a good laugh at the expense of wacko alternative medicine practices but my goal is clear — I want to help clean up the field in order to highlight the people who are actually doing some good, honest, logical research. I actually have a problem with what Dr. McLachlan has done. By poking fun from a distance and walking away without letting the conference organizers in on the joke, the author misses a huge opportunity to educate and possibly improve that which he criticizes. It would have been far better if he accepted a slot at the conference and awaited to see if people would point out the errors in his “research” or simply used the platform to show what bad science is.
The only thing that makes him not a 100 percent coward is that he published his story. Someone who asks difficult questions so that when you answer incorrectly you will learn is called a teacher. To ask difficult questions and then tell your friends how stupid someone is without letting them in on where their error was is called by a different name entirely.
Remember Smith’s article about how parachutes aren’t evidence based? That one is funny and brilliantly illustrates its point. This article, while funny with its head-up-ones-ass ha ha I get it humor, is really only about as funny as watching your kids get their math homework wrong and, instead of helping them, you call all of your friends and laugh at your kids’ ignorance. Nothing was learned. Nothing was improved and we all feel a little bit sick for participating in the joke.
Yes, it was a hoax but science relies on some degree of honesty and trust. It is impossible for one scientist to be at the apex of all fields and know all that is known from every discipline. Isn’t that why we have specialists? Could it be that the scientific committee accepted McLachlan’s proposal simply in order to learn whether or not this revolutionary discovery was plausible or bunk? Unlikely, but possible. Today, I would rather lend the benefit of the doubt to the conference organizers rather than the scientific playground bully.
Brett L. Kinsler is a chiropractor in Rochester, NY who writes the RochesterChiro blog and produces the podcast On The Other Hand.