Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Bitter Pill

Too Open to Ideas?

By Matthew Browne

Why do intelligent people believe incredible things? Psychological studies suggest that the answer may lie in personality type rather than any measure of intelligence.

It’s easy to become fascinated as to why people come to have the beliefs and attitudes they do. For example, what leads an apparently sensible and rational person to become a Scientologist? Or to declare with conviction that beneficial energy waves are emanating from a particular form of crystal? That aliens are visiting Earth regularly to abduct and probe us? Or my personal favourite: that a vast and complex conspiracy centred on shape-shifting lizard people is controlling and manipulating our societies. There seem almost no limits to what some people are prepared to believe.

Dr Matthew Browne is a Lecturer in Psychology at CQUniversity and a biostatistician at the Institute for Health and Social Science Research.

Is Complementary Medicine a Valid Alternative?

By Marcello Costa

How can we compare the evidence base behind conventional and complementary medicine?

The health industry increasingly emphasises “personalised care” and the need for individuals to take control of their own health. Health administrators face the same choices as to how they allocate resources for health care, so can we distinguish between good health sciences and wacky ones?

Marcello Costa is Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor and Professor of Neurophysiology at Flinders University.

When “Healing Hands” Start Grasping

By John Dwyer

Esoteric breast massage claims “to heal many issues such as painful periods, polycystic ovaries, endometriosis, bloating/water retention, and pre-menstrual and menopausal symptoms”.

Much adverse publicity has descended recently on a “New Age” healing service based in Lismore, NSW, called Universal Medicine. Serge Benhayon, a one-time tennis coach with no health care qualifications, leads the organisation.

John Dwyer is an Emeritus Professor of Medicine at UNSW and Foundation President of Friends of Science in Medicine (

What’s the Evidence?

By Sue Ieraci

The terms “evidence-based” and “peer-reviewed” have become touchstones for reliability, but why should the views of peers count so much and what does “evidence-based” medicine really mean?

To paraphrase Socrates: “A wise person knows what he doesn’t know”. How many people bandying around the term “evidence-based practice” or “peer-reviewed research” know what these terms mean? How many of us can honestly claim to be able to critically evaluate clinical research?

Sue Ieraci is an emergency physician who has worked in NSW public hospitals for 30 years. While maintaining a continuous clinical career, she has held roles in management and medical regulation, and been involved in health systems research.

Science Advocacy and Social Media

By Campbell Phillips

The ever-changing media landscape is continuing to affect the role of science communication. How can scientists and medical practitioners be expected to respond to social media?

In the world of Web 2.0, where information is shared, diluted, convoluted and conflated just as easily as it is published, how can the layperson expect to divine fact from fantasy?

The past year has seen radical changes in the media landscape, and particularly in science communication, where credibility and accuracy of reportage have been called into question in several instances. These events threaten the exposure of scientific knowledge in the wider community, as people turn to the internet in ever greater numbers for information.

Cap, Gown and Wand

By Michael Vagg

Are there any good arguments for teaching complementary medicines in tertiary institutions?

Arguments that complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) should be taught in tertiary institutions collectively assert the following:

  1. Universities should be centres of diverse knowledge, with academic freedom to pursue unconventional ideas. Refusing to teach CAM is a type of censorship – impairing our ability to understand human health and disease.
  2. CAM university students are exposed to “the biomedical sciences, epidemiology and population health, differential diagnosis, safe practice and critical appraisal”.

Dr Michael Vagg is a Consultant Physician in Pain and Rehabilitation Medicine and a Clinical Senior Lecturer at Deakin University. His Twitter handle is @mickvagg.

When ARTG and CAM Spell SFA

By Rachael Dunlop

Recent moves to improve the regulation of alternative medicines looked promising until the Therapeutic Goods Administration caved under pressure from the industry.

Readers might recall recent moves by the Australian government to remove $30 million in private health insurance subsidies for complementary and alternative medicine (CAMs). On the chopping block were homeopathy, aromatherapy, ear candling, crystal therapy, flower essences, iridology, kinesiology and naturopathy.

Rachael Dunlop is a medical researcher focusing on the causes of motor neurone disease. She is a Vice President of Australian Skeptics Inc, blogs at The Skeptics Book of Pooh Pooh, and tweets @DrRachie.

Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog

By John Dwyer

Modern pharmacology is among the most rigorous of sciences. After all, the health of millions depends on pharmacologists getting it right, but what has happened to those who dispense those products – the men and woman of modern pharmacy?

In my neighbourhood pharmacy, a large window display explains the amazing benefits of a “DETOX” preparation that will cleanse all the impurities from your body and give you a fresh start “for a healthier you”. Previous marketing there assured arthritis sufferers (pictured in a wheelchair) that glucosamine, combined with chondroitin, would soon have them back on the golf course despite abundant evidence that such preparations have no more than placebo value.

John Dwyer, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of NSW, is an Immunologist and medical educator with a long history of involvement in efforts to protect the public from health care fraud. He is a co-founder of Friends of Science in Medicine.

A Dose of Science

By Rob Morrison

Alternative health practices pirate the terminology and titles of real science to gain credibility, but it is what their practitioners do, not what they say, that gives the game away.

The federal budget contained an overdue recommendation for the Chief Medical Officer to assess several complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) to determine those that are not evidence-based and should no longer receive taxpayer-funded rebates for treatments. Listed were homeopathy, reiki, aromatherapy, ear candling, crystal therapy, flower essences, kinesiology and rolfing. It follows the British government’s decision to cease funding the teaching of these CAMs in British universities.

Rob Morrison is a Professorial Fellow at Flinders University. A scientist by training, he is one of the founders, and current Vice-President, of Friends of Science in Medicine.