Today we will examine how an unproven technique formulates in a shaman’s mind and germinates at Ivy League medical schools, despite bypassing peer review and shunning the Scientific Method.
Most cultures have had folk remedies which were passed down from prior generations. Much of it was nature-based, using whatever shrubs and bark were handy. Various deities may have been summoned through different hand movements, dances, and tools. Moving from folk remedy to quackery meant little more than charging people for it and maybe assuming a title like witch doctor or gypsy healer. Accouterments like beads and masks made the image complete.
About 40 years ago, we saw the next stage of development, with practitioners adopting the term alternative medicine. It was presented as another choice, something else to consider. For decades, doctors and medical school professors looked at alternative medicine practitioners the same way NASA physicists would look at horoscope writers, or how a chemist would size up an alchemist. The disdain was mutual, as alternative medicine clinicians thought mainstream doctors to be uncaring, uncreative, and stodgy. Perhaps they were even part of the Big Pharma cover-up. The adversarial relationship was reflected in advertisements that declared, “What doctors don’t want you to know!” or “Dermatologists hate this!”
Then Sen. Tom Harkin spearheaded the creation of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 1992. By incorporating both terms, the leap was made from alternative to complementary. Now, the mainstream and the alternative were no longer doing battle. It was presented as the best of both curative worlds. There was no harm in trying everything. To mitigate shingles you can do both: Employ a regimen based on Germ Theory, the Scientific Method, double blind studies, and peer-reviewed articles; plus have a woman named Moonwolf Rainwater rub you with amethyst crystals and sage oil.
Harkin became enthralled with alternative techniques when he was convinced that bee pollen extract had cured his hay fever. Such post hoc reasoning is the lifeblood of alternative cures, but most persons making this correlation-causation error don’t wield the power that Harkin did.
Harkin said the U.S. health care system was “based overwhelmingly on conventional medicine and in so many ways wasteful or dysfunctional.” Take your pick, this harangue could be called either tu quoque, negative evidence, or the appeal to emotion. In any case, it has no relevance on whether biorhythm therapy can cure gout.
While Harkin succeeding in getting Congress to set up and fund the center, it otherwise did not go as planned. In 2009, Harkin complained, “One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, it has fallen short. Most of its focus has been on disproving things rather than seeking out and approving.” Yes, it’s called attempting to falsify and is a key component of the Scientific Method.
Harkin did not give up, nor did he start embracing science. Rather, he hopped back on the euphemism treadmill and called the field integrative medicine. He pushed quackery into Obamacare bills, using the Trojan horse words “preventive” and “wellness.” With this, the odyssey from being folk remedy to a being welcomed at Johns Hopkins was complete.
Today, the line between medicine and quackery is terrifyingly tenuous. To the best of my knowledge, all of the unproven techniques are still limited to a hospital’s “integrative care wing,” where a patient must seek them out. As far as I know, there is no hospital in the country where a preschooler who drinks bleach will first be tended to by a naturopath. There is no ER where a severed artery is left in an aura therapist’s hands. However, these techniques are increasingly being taught at many of our foremost medical schools, so this could someday be the case. A quarter century ago, a Reiki practitioner at an elite hospital would have seemed unthinkable. Yet today, such techniques are embraced by persons with extensive medical backgrounds. Worse, they pass them onto aspiring doctors, not unlike the handing down of folk remedies.
The most extreme case I am aware of is that of Dr. David Katz, a Yale medical school graduate who is founding director or his alma mater’s Prevention Research Center. His rationale for embracing unproven techniques is that, “Integrative Medicine provides patients access to a wider array of options.” Including some which hold that illnesses do not come from viruses and bacteria, but from a chakra imbalance.
Dr. Katz also tells us, “If analgesics or anti-inflammatories fail to alleviate joint pain, such options as acupuncture could be explored.” This is a non sequitur. There is no reason to suspect ideas based on vitalism and qi would fix the inflammation.
He paints his approach as benevolent, believing doctors should always be trying to help the patient. However, these techniques only give false hope. The patient must always be tended to, but it should be with treatments that are proven safe and effective. In extreme cases, experimental drugs can be tried on willing, dying patients. But this is far different from treating lupus with applied kinesiology.
Dr. David Gorski describes the mix of authentic and artificial medicine as a parasitic relationship. In such a relationship, one organism benefits at the expense of the other. The folk remedies that masquerade as cures benefit from being promoted by hospitals and universities. This allows them to enjoy a level of respectability they could never attain on their own. Meanwhile, medical schools should be educating aspiring doctors on the scientific method and how it is used to evaluate potential treatments. Time, money, and resources wasted on implausible ideas takes away from this. It also creates the possibility of universities cranking out less efficient physicians, surgeons, and specialists.
The Harkin-inspired center has spent 55 billion tax dollars, with not one cure found or one symptom alleviated. But the colossal waste of money the center is responsible for is not near as drastic as its role in the mainstreaming of quackery.