The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Scientists Fight the sCAM Quacks

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 6, 2009

It seems that the current economic & political climate might be giving actual scientists the opportunity to take on a pseudoscience called CAM (Complementary & Alternative “Medicine”) – what I like to call sCAM – which has wormed its way into various U.S. medical institutions over the years.

As the Washington Post reports in a recent article…

The impending national discussion about broadening access to health care, improving medical practice and saving money is giving a group of scientists an opening to make a once-unthinkable proposal: Shut down the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

The notion that the world’s best-known medical research agency sponsors studies of homeopathy, acupuncture, therapeutic touch and herbal medicine has always rankled many scientists. That the idea for its creation 17 years ago came from a U.S. senator newly converted to alternative medicine’s promise didn’t help.

This is great! Apparently, there is some belt-tightening going on at the National Institutes of Health, and the real scientists – you know, the ones who practice actual medicine – see a good opportunity to cut funding for the NCCAM woo.

Why is this important? Well, the article goes on to explain why…

Critics of alternative medicine say the vast majority of studies of homeopathy, acupuncture, therapeutic touch and other treatments based on unconventional understandings of physiology and disease have shown little or no effect. Further, they argue that the field’s more-plausible interventions — such as diet, relaxation, yoga and botanical remedies — can be studied just as well in other parts of NIH, where they would need to compete head-to-head with conventional research projects.

The critics say that alternative medicine (also known as “complementary” and “integrative” medicine, and disparagingly labeled “woo” by opponents) doesn’t need or deserve its own home at NIH.

“What has happened is that the very fact NIH is supporting a study is used to market alternative medicine,” said Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale School of Medicine and editor of the Web site Science-Based Medicine (, where much of the anti-NCCAM discussion is taking place. “It is used to lend an appearance of legitimacy to treatments that are not legitimate.”

I would strongly reiterate Dr. Novella’s point here: there is no “alternative medicine” – that is a misnomer because the only real medicine is science-based medicine, which sCAM is not. To call sCAM “medicine” is to lend credibility where none exists; it would be like calling intelligent design creationism a credible “alternative” to evolutionary science! The fact that sCAMmers have gotten so many people to buy into the language of “alternative medicine” shows that, at least thus far, they have won the language & PR battle.

So, how can the pro-science & skeptical community fight back? First, I suggest that we adopt the advice of Dr. Stephen Barrett, author of the Quackwatch website, when he states that we shouldn’t call sCAM by the woo-preferred name of “alternative medicine” – rather, we should call it what it is: quackery.

Second, critics of sCAM quackery should consider contacting our representatives in Congress about this issue. And this is the prime time to do it, while the issue is hot on everyone’s mind, especially because the Senator that got NCCAM started, Tom Harkin, is now expressing considerably skepticism of the organization that he once championed. From the Washington Post article…

At a Senate committee hearing on integrative medicine held Feb. 26, Harkin said: “I want to lay down a . . . marker: If we fail to seize this unique opportunity to adopt a pragmatic, integrative approach to health care, then that, too, would constitute a serious failure.”

At the hearing, Harkin introduced Berkley W. Bedell, a six-term Democratic congressman from Iowa who retired in 1987 after contracting Lyme disease. Bedell credits alternative therapies for his recovery from that infection and later from prostate cancer. He helped convince the Iowa senator of alternative medicine’s promise.

Nevertheless, Harkin said he was somewhat disappointed in NCCAM’s work.

“One of the purposes when we drafted that legislation in 1992 . . . was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say it’s fallen short,” he told the committee.

See that last line? That’s code for “it doesn’t work,” and now even the man who got the NCCAM its start is beginning to see the truth.

Let’s stop throwing good money after bad, and let’s close down the NCCAM woo-factory. If we are going to have any real chance to meet the medical & health challenges of the 21st century, it isn’t going to be through New Age woo-woo masquerading as real medical science. We need to subject these quack claims to the same level of scientific rigor & scrutiny that all other medicines have to meet, and if they don’t work toss them out. After all, in some cases, it really is a matter of life & death – just take a look at What’s the Harm’s entries on sCAM quackery if you don’t believe me.

3 Responses to “Scientists Fight the sCAM Quacks”

  1. Ex Back said

    This is quite a up-to-date info. I think I’ll share it on Delicious.

  2. hi said

    Wow! You really are a skeptic. Too sad. A skeptic teacher. Right.

  3. […] because the Senator that got NCCAM started, Tom Harkin, is now expressing c… source: Scientists Fight the sCAM Quacks, The Skeptical […]

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