This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
So-called “alternative medicine” screams out for scientific study. Scientific, as in skeptical.
The Chicago Tribune reported earlier this month that an obscure federal agency, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, has spent $1.4 billion over the last 12 years studying such folk remedies as coffee enemas, acupuncture and ginkgo biloba.
Some critics say much of the money has been misspent looking at cures so obviously ridiculous that no research should be necessary. The coffee enemas – purported to treat pancreatic cancer – are an example.
Actually, the money may be well-spent – but only to the degree it subjects outside-the-mainstream therapies to rigorous, skeptical review. Tens of millions of Americans dump $34 billion a year into alternative medicine, according to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Not all of the money is wasted. “Alternative medicine” is an overbroad label that covers just about any treatment that doesn’t originate in a physician’s office or hospital. Some of those treatments do work: Chiropractic, for example, is demonstrably effective in relieving certain forms of back pain. Yoga can be a powerful stress-reliever.
But many of those billions of dollars wind up in the pockets of people peddling dubious nostrums. The United States may lead the rest of the world in Nobel prizes, but legions of Americans are suspicious of “Western medicine” and suckers for cures rooted in ludicrous notions – think homeopathy – or outright mysticism.
Remedies from China – herbal mixtures and manipulations of mysterious energy flows – seem especially alluring to the credulous. Alternative medicine can be harmful as well as a waste of money. Some Chinese potions, for example, have been shown to be toxic.
More often, the danger comes from diverting patients from maligned conventional treatments that might heal them or save their lives. The “alternative” notion that vaccines are dangerous, for example, exposes children to life-threatening diseases.
The Chicago Tribune report suggests that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has done a creditable job debunking a number of popular cures, such as energy healing and those coffee enemas. But the center also continues to spend money researching acupuncture – another Chinese remedy – despite multiple studies that suggest it works no better than tricking patients into thinking they’re getting acupuncture.
An important difference between science and mysticism is that a scientific hypothesis can potentially be proven false while mysticism is impervious to skepticism.
People are entitled to believe what they will, but scarce federal research money shouldn’t be spent chasing magic elixirs with properties beyond the reach of mere Western science.