Symposium puts alternative medicine under the microscope

Posted on Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lorne Trottier Symposium to be held Nov. 7-8

By Katherine Gombay

According to Joe Schwarz, Director of the McGill Office for Science and Society, the lack of doctors in Quebec is driving people towards alternative medicine – and he doesn’t mince his words when asked to share his thoughts on this development. “The problem with some of the alternative medicines is that since they are not regulated, a lot of claims are made that aren’t supported by scientific evidence,” said Schwarz, organizer of the seventh annual Lorne Trottier Symposium, to be held on Nov. 7-8. The Symposium will bring four leading health experts to Montreal to discuss the merits of alternative medicine.

Invited experts will discuss subjects ranging from the history and practice of acupuncture to the claims about the link between cell phones and brain tumours.

“Alternative practitioners are mostly marketers of hope, which is a good thing when you have conditions like cancer where the outcomes are generally poor,” Schwarz added. But, he says, the main problem comes when patients with serious diseases substitute alternative treatments for evidence-based medical treatments.

Alternative medicine can be described as practices that are available to the public but are not taught in conventional medical schools, where the focus lies on evidence-based methods and controlled experiments.

Lack of evidence, however, does not mean that a particular treatment doesn’t work. The problem that Schwarz and many other scientists have with them is that less conventional healing methods are not generally submitted to scientific scrutiny. They can range from acupuncture to reflexology, with practitioners who call themselves everything from energy healers to magnet therapists.

Schwarz has been following the debate about alternative medicine for the past 35 years, and notes that the discussions about it at the Faculty of Medicine where he lectures are very heated these days.

Probably one of the best-known speakers is Dr. Paul Offit, who has written about the false link that has been made between vaccination and autism. Dr. Harriet Hall, who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices, served as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Air Force and was the first woman graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida. After training as a doctor and a homeopathic practitioner, Dr. Edzard Ernst went on to become the first professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on examining the scientific basis for a range of alternative medical practices. Dr. Bob Park has made frequent appearances on the Colbert Report, Dateline NBC and NBC News discussing alternative medicine. He has also written two widely acclaimed books, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud and Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science.

For more info about the Symposium call 514-398-2852 or go to



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