Integrative Medicine is the Butt of a Sokal-Type Hoax

In 1996, Alan Sokal got a bogus paper published in the journal Social Text. It was a parody full of meaningless statements in the jargon of postmodern philosophy and cultural studies. The editors couldn’t tell the difference between Sokal’s nonsense and the usual articles they publish.

Now a British professor of medical education, Dr. John McLachlan, has perpetrated a similar hoax on supporters of so-called “integrative” medicine. He reports his prank in an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).  

After receiving an invitation to submit papers to an International Conference on Integrative Medicine, he invented a ridiculous story about a new form of reflexology and acupuncture with points represented by a homunculus map on the buttocks. He claimed to have done studies showing that

responses are stronger and of more therapeutic value than those of auricular or conventional reflexology. In some cases, the map can be used for diagnostic purposes.

The organizers asked him to submit an abstract. He did. In the abstract he said he would present only case histories, testimonies, and positive outcomes, since his methods did not lend themselves to randomized controlled trials; and he suggested that his “novel paradigm” might lead to automatic rejection by closed minds.

He received this answer:

We are happy to inform you that the Scientific Committee has reached it’s [sic] decision and that your paper has been accepted and you will be able to present your lecture.

 He comments that

this particular hoax parodied the absurdity and credulity of so called integrative medicine. I do not believe that rational medicine could have been fooled with something so intrinsically ridiculous as in this case. Minimum standards of common sense should, I think, have led to a polite but firm rejection — or at least further inquiry. Alternative medicine is not noted for rigorous inquiry, for research designed to prove the null hypothesis, but rather accepts notions on face value.

We have frequently made the same points here on SBM, but never in such a vivid and amusing fashion. Kudos to Dr. McLachlan! The beginning words of his article say it all, better than I could:

So called integrative medicine should not be used as a way of smuggling alternative practices into rational medicine by way of lowered standards of critical thinking. Failure to detect an obvious hoax is not an encouraging sign.

Posted in: Humor

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25 thoughts on “Integrative Medicine is the Butt of a Sokal-Type Hoax

  1. Cute, but since the invitation he received appears to be spam, it doesn’t prove anything.

    (On the other hand, what would count as a “real” SCAM conference?)

  2. Draal says:

    “Cute, but since the invitation he received appears to be spam, it doesn’t prove anything.”
    I get unsolicited invitations all the time. Even before I had completed my degree, I received emails that started “Dear Dr. so-and-so”. It was either an invitation to submit an article to a new journal or attend a conference (usually in China). It was often admitted in the invitation that they just did a keyword search on my abstracts and it happened that there were a couple matching words.

  3. Draal says:

    And if you check the #3 citation in the BMJ article, you’ll find a link to a very familiar blog, authored by a very familiar kool dude.

  4. If I want to make a statement criticizing the world of modern art and it’s willingness to except anything outlandish or with a high gross out factor, I have to submit my portfolio to the galleries and museums that are the movers and shakers in the modern art world, be accepted and get pieces sold into some substantial collections.

    Getting my piece accepted into a vanity gallery in response to a spam email does nothing to make my point. It only shows that some businesses will accept anything to make a buck.

    Was this conference a big conference in the integrative medicine world? Was is it a conference that the big name integrative medicine people attend, or is it basically a vanity conference that caters to professors who want to say that they are presenting at a conference and go to an exotic location as icing?

  5. Anarres says:

    “Obviously, the involvement of a sensitive area of the body poses special challenges. Ethical practice is of significant concern. Informed consent must be obtained from all patients in writing, before either therapeutic or diagnostic procedures are commenced. Although exposure of the gluteal region is recommended, procedures can be carried out using draping if this is required in order to gain patient cooperation. Chaperones or same sex practitioners are recommended in the case of female patients.”


  6. Jann Bellamy says:

    @ Cummins:

    “Cute, but since the invitation he received appears to be spam, it doesn’t prove anything.” Why not?

    You can check out the conference for yourself here:

    To the extent any “integrative medicine” conference can be called “legitimate,” this one seems to fullfill that requirement. The speakers and scientific committee include number of M.D.s (at least one from a U.S. medical school — Univ. of Illinois) and the usual contingent of “alternative” practitioners, plus a few from what seems to be Israel’s version of NCCAM.

  7. Yup, I think this is a real “integrative medicine” conference. It has a few of the usual suspects that we see here in the U-S of A (check out the links):

    Aviad Haramati

    Moshe Frenkel

    Keith Block

  8. I almost forgot—my favorite speaker, based on his quickie credentials, has just got to be:

    Dr. Nader Butto M.D – Cardiologist Rabin Medical Center(Hasharon). FIHS,FESC. Inventor of Unified Universal Theory.

    Wow! This must be the One Single True Cause of All Disease.

  9. @Kimball Atwood – All right then, a quick search of Moshe Frenkel also reveals previously existing articles and criticisms on his homeopathy cancer study.

    Sounds like movers and shakers to me.

    Thanks for taking the time to provide the links needed for verification.

  10. daedalus2u says:

    Michelle, I think the difference is that art experts can tell the difference between a vanity art exhibition and a serious art exhibition.

    No medical expert can tell the difference between a vanity integrative medicine conference and a serious integrative medicine conference because the differences are purely subjective and have nothing to do with medical or scientific expertise.

    In any case, this is an anecdote, an n=1 case. It doesn’t prove that integrative medicine is BS, that is not something that can be proven, and is beside the point. What integrative medicine needs to do is show that it is not BS.

    How you treat it depends on what your default position is. My default is “I don’t know”, when confronted with something I don’t understand. The scientific review committee of this conference couldn’t have understood the abstract because the abstract was pure BS. Their reasoning could only have been “I don’t understand this, that means this is good enough to be a conference paper”.

  11. Daedalus2u – you didn’t just tell me that the modern art world isn’t purely subjective, did you? ;)

    Regardless, my criteria was not the validity of the science, my criteria was the intent of the conference organizers. Was their intention to bring together “recognized and reputable professionals”* in the field of CAM to present a conference or were they basically just running a tour company that sells hotel tickets, tours, with the added benefit for the participants of putting a conference presentation on their resume, etc in the guise of a conference. Would they take any and every paper sent in?

    I realize this is putting a rather fine point on it. :)

    But Kimball Atwood’s comment satisfied my that my criteria for the first intention were met. To me the International Conference on Integrative Medicine appears to have been genuinely punked.

    *Oh my lord, I must have psychic powers, because I swear I could feel the collective cringe at that description, but try to read it with the intentions written.

  12. But, I have to point out that I’m pretty sure that Harriet Hall just wanted to put a butt on the home page of SBM. :)

  13. daedalus2u says:

    Michelle, I am not sufficiently expert in any kind of art to tell if it is only subjective or not. I suspect it was not, at least not until post modernism became fashionable.

    I think that “subjective art”, what is called post modernism, is what I would call cargo-cult art. It is made by “artistes” who are simply going through the motions but are unaware that they are simply going through the motions. Sort of like how CAM is cargo-cult medicine, people just going through the motions but lacking the intellectual integrity to be honest with themselves.

  14. Joe says:

    I cannot tell from the diagram- if my butt hurts- where do I get cupping/acupuncture?

  15. daedalus2u – I believe that all art is subject in the way that music and language are. The structural similarities of our common experience, biology and culture often enable us to interpret art in a similar way, but the fact that each view brings a different perspective, background and expectations to a piece of art causes a wide range of responses. Objectively a painting is only canvas+paint+wood.

    The difference between art and scam (only IMO) is that art is supposed to be that way. The value of art is it’s subjectivity. It’s ability to be open to interpretation and communicate with the viewer on their terms. Scam pretends to be objective while playing on and taking advantage of people’s subject experience.

  16. wertys says:

    What makes this one a great hoax is the detail Prof McLachlan slipped into his spiel..

    “As with reflexology, the “map” responds to needling, as in acupuncture, and to gentle suction, such as cupping.”

    Gentle suction….on the butt….geddit??

    As James Joyce would say..KMRIA

  17. Sastra says:

    Kimball Atwood wrote:

    I almost forgot—my favorite speaker, based on his quickie credentials, has just got to be: Dr. Nader Butto M.D – Cardiologist Rabin Medical Center(Hasharon). FIHS,FESC. Inventor of Unified Universal Theory.

    Wait a minute — I thought I was the inventor of Unified Universal Theory. If I recall correctly, I was 12 at the time, and it had a lot to do with everything being connected to everything else and a little to do with vibrations.

    It is a shame that McLachlan didn’t have this guy’s name — and name the new form of reflexology after himself.

  18. sastra “I thought I was the inventor of Unified Universal Theory. If I recall correctly, I was 12 at the time, and it had a lot to do with everything being connected to everything else and a little to do with vibrations. ”

    hehe – yeah, me too, only I was nineteen and it involved cannabis and lots of sex. Rather sad having to give up that hypothesis.

  19. Draal says:

    Since SBM has be cited by a journal, does that mean SBM has an Impact Factor?
    Let’s see: (1 citation in 2010) / (398 posts in 2009 + 295 posts in 2008) =
    SBM’s 2010 Impact Factor = 0.001443

  20. SomePapa says:

    I see the promoters of Science Based Art have finally put together their grand opening manifesto. Yes, all art movements must have an opening manifesto, even one that purports to be science based.

    Yes, it’s true. In the past, almost no one cared too much how Picasso, Buonarotti, Rembrandt or Rodin created their masterpieces. The end result spoke for itself, in a visual manner of speaking, of course. This is fine for those who enjoy staring at paintings until they pass out, but it leaves the art lover with far too many questions and few too many answers.

    I could go on and on, but suffice it to say the plausibility of every paint stroke, every tap of hammer on chisel, every cut of the carving knife must be established before creation begins. No longer will woo be allowed to permeate the world of art, where homeopathic paintings are claimed yet remain unseen, where acupuncture needles permeate the most useless and redundant projects of the past 20 years, where, well, I could go on, but I’ll let the masters of Science Based Art speak for themselves. I am but a humble observer.

  21. SomePapa – Oh dear lord, did I say that? rereading my comment (and cringing at the typos) perhaps it could be interpreted that way.

    Oh well, I will let the viewer’s interpretation stand. It’s not much worse than having someone hang your painting upside down (sometimes you even like them better that way.)

  22. DaleRas says:

    While we’re moving “Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” let’s not forget why there is a science war between purists and relativists. Us purists must be ready to address society’s or a patient’s occasional need for a Shaman, or they’ll side with the relativists.

  23. weing says:

    Sorry to say this, but conventional medicine is not immune. This type of hoax has occurred and is occurring in conventional medicine. It is called CAM. It has slipped into our journals, hospitals, and medical school curricula.

  24. Joe says:

    At the BMJ site there is a poll asking if hoaxes such as this one are ever appropriate. It is running 2:1 against the hoax. One is left to wonder whether quacks predominate, or do they consider this bogus conference is on an equal standing with legitimate conferences.

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