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Posted by on Mar 24, 2013 in Skepticism | 3 comments

How much do you have to humour the quacks?

I ask the question in the title because I’ve established that, at the University of Cape Town, we are obliged to accept medical certificates motivating for extensions on assignments that are issued by naturopaths, homeopaths, and traditional healers, so long as they are registered with the proper authority. I don’t mean accept them without question – they still need to provide sufficient detail to motivate for action, and it’s probably rare to find that a homeopath, for example, could say anything that results in anything more than a chuckle.

The question arises from the fact that I was recently asked to grant a student an extension on an assignment deadline, with the “medical certificate” below offered in support:


Yes, that is from a naturopath, who also advertises skills related to iridology (your eyes, the iris in particular, being a reliable source of information about your health), herbal tinctures, and homeopathy. And in what you’d hope is a joke, but isn’t, the course in question is explicitly about evidence-based decision-making. Worse still – during the week this particular assignment was due, the lecture topic was pseudoscience, with explicit reference to homeopathy.

A correspondent encouraged me to submit a complaint to the South African authority in this case, the Registrar of the Allied Health Professions Council. I’ve subsequently done so, as per the text below:

I would like to formally bring a matter to your attention, as Registrar of the Allied Health Professions Council. The attached note, bearing the letterhead of Renata Zijp (Reg A9803; Prac 0805564) was submitted in support of a student’s application to be granted an extension on an assignment in my course at the University of Cape Town.

While I realise that it’s not within your purview to completely eliminate pseudoscientific professions such as homeopathy, I would hope that legislation and common sense both argue against practitioners in these fields issuing certificates such as the one attached.

The certificate makes no mention of the ailment that was diagnosed, nor does it offer any information as to when the student would be fit to return to her studies. In other words, as a piece of testimony as to the medical condition of the student, it is useless for two reasons: the fact that Zijp is a practitioner of professions of dubious value; and even within those professions, has offered testimony that is useless and even misleading.

It is misleading because, in using the imprimatur of science, a less attentive or more gullible member of the academic community might accept such a certificate as a legitimate reason to grant the student an extension. It is not, and presenting certificates such as these is an insult to those who suffer from genuine ailments, and to the professionals who treat them.

Finally, even though the AHPC must of course concern itself with matters directly related to the professions in question, we arguably all have a responsibility to hold other citizens to account for the contributions played in promoting reason and rationality, or the converse of those. Students (ironically, in this case students in a course teaching evidence-based decision-making) should not be given the impression that these sorts of certificates have any merit, and practitioners should be dissuaded – if not barred – from issuing them.

Incidentally, my complaint might bear some fruit, seeing as I’m reliably informed that the practitioner in question “is registered as a naturopath, but not as a homoeopath. It is a breach of the Regulations to the Act to give the impression that she is registered as a homoeopath. I expect that the Registrar will deal with it harshly – quite apart from the highly problematic wording of the actual certificate.”

Those of you in a university, as students or staff, what’s your experience of this? I realise that tradional healers might be scarce or non-existent in much of the US and Europe, but the more woo-woo forms of therapy are probably widespread enough to make up for that…