Kumbayah Medicine: Why is the government paying for research into wacky alternative treatments?

Forbes, October 8, 2002

By Sally Satel

Having trouble remembering where you put your car keys? You can forget about Ginkgo biloba, a popular natural health product ballyhooed as a memory aid. Recently, a rigorous, partially government-funded study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the supplement is ineffective. Alas, this isn’t the last you will hear of this particular quack remedy. Nor the last time that your tax money will go into what is euphemistically called “alternative medicine.”

Consider, for example, Therapeutic Touch. The fanciful idea behind TT is that conditions ranging from tension headaches to stress are alleviated by smoothing the blockage of the “human energy field” that supposedly surrounds us. Without touching the patient the therapist strokes the field. One problem: No such field exists. Therapeutic Touch is literally nothing but hand waving. It’s nonsense. And yet we have federal tax money studying TT, through the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine. The agency is a monument to Congress-inspired, government-funded pseudoscience.

The TT-subsidizing agency has its roots in the Office of Alternative Medicine, created in 1992 largely at the urging of Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Convinced that his allergies were cured after taking enormous doses of bee pollen, the senator became an avid supporter of alternative medicine. He was not content to let unconventional therapies be studied expertly and objectively by scientists in the existing National Institutes of Health. Harkin was chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that allocates funding to the NIH. Naturally, funding for the OAM was approved.

The office started out with a budget of a few million dollars. After five years in existence, it had no new treatments that I saw to show for the money it handed out. Despite its anemic track record, Harkin argued, with classic political reasoning, that the office should be expanded in role and elevated in status. So in 1998 it was reincarnated as the aforementioned National Center. Its latest budget: $113 million.

The money is going into investigating some pretty bizarre therapies. Some, like TT are–conveniently for the proponents–of such a nature that they cannot be put to a scientific test. It is easy enough to evaluate a ginkgo pill in a blind test that stacks it up against a placebo. But according to its proponents, TT won’t work if the practitioner is not “centered” or if the patient is “out of balance.” Thus the theory behind TT is, as the scientists say, impossible to falsify.

Other treatments that the alternative medicine center is studying either are biologically implausible or have already been found to be useless in previous studies. In these categories are homeopathy, the use of shark cartilage to cure cancer and magnet therapy for pain. Then there are the kumbayah remedies like art and dance therapies, guided imagery and massage. These are no more medical than shopping or sex–both of which will make you feel better.

Or consider “distant healing.” The center is funding a study on the effects of prayer on brain cancer. Patients with brain tumors (who are also getting conventional cancer treatment) agree to be prayed for by “experienced healers” several hundred miles away. Other patients with brain tumors are not prayed for. I wonder how that test will come out.

Does Harkin’s agency do anything at all worthwhile? Yes. For example, it has sponsored studies on St.-John’s-wort, a supplement that now appears ineffective for serious depression. It plans to study high-estrogen botanicals like black cohosh, flax seed and dietary soy–a good idea in fight of the recent controversy over the safety of some hormone replacement therapies. But the agency seemingly has no appropriate filter to sort out useful and promising lines of inquiry from bogus ones receiving aid only because of the lobbying of true believers.

It has been wisely said that alternative medicines are only alternative until they are proven to work–and then they are medicine. So let’s study them, but leave the decisions up to the good scientists at existing institutes within the NIH.

Sally Satel is a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. and Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.