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Investigating Alternative Medicine not Worth the Bother?

If people aren’t willing to believe it, says NBC, why spend money checking quackery out?

NBC News has a new idea for science when it comes to “alternative medicine:” Don’t bother. Show that prayer doesn’t cure cancer, or that healing touch doesn’t give you energy? Not worth the effort.

Millions of federal dollars have been spent to explore the scientific merit, or lack thereof, of alternative medicines. And research has found that DHEA does not slow the effects of aging, magnets do not help with joint pain, and Echinacea is useless for warding off colds. These “negative results” do not provide the public with new drugs that help combat the assortment of ailments we experience daily, but rather show us that our prejudices, beliefs, and old wives’ tales may be profiting the alternative medicine industry at our own cost. The stuff doesn’t just doesn’t work.

But Robert Bazell, NBC’s Chief science and health correspondent, claims that none of this matters – people buy the stuff anyway, so we’re wasting good public dollars in proving it doesn’t work. His point of view is that alternative medicine, with the exception of acupuncture, has time and time again been shown not to work under scientific scrutiny.

At the same time, the industry that promotes these herbs and remedies are invested in not knowing whether they work or not – and generate loyalty through alternative medicine gurus and anecdotal stories. The anecdotes are more appealing than the science, and the industry thrives, despite the evidence provided by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Bazell’s piece might be tongue-in-cheek when he concludes “But, in the end, no matter what the hype, either something is effective or it isn’t. If no one really cares, maybe we should stop spending millions to find the answer.” But it does seem that he is confusing a sentiment against alternative medicine with a sentiment against testing of alternative medicines. The teaser for his piece is “The U.S. spends millions testing popular supplements. It's a futile effort.”

Perhaps he should have lambasted the lack of educational efforts by the NIH to disseminate the news that certain alternative medicines do not have benefits. Perhaps he should rant about doctors who neglect to educate their patients about what clinical trials can do that anecdotes cannot. Perhaps he should harp on the governmental regulatory bodies that do not legislate that claims by alternative medicine companies should be proven scientifically.

But blame the NIH for checking whether it works or not? Considering the public interest in these products, the NIH is a lone beacon of sense and science in this conversation.  And remember that true scientists don’t begin with Bazell’s forgone conclusion that these methods do not work. They want to test them to find out. A test could result in a positive finding, or a finding of damaging side effects. Millions of people are using these supplements, herbs, and “medicines.” The whole point is these companies don’t test their products. Somebody should.

In order not to fall into the same trap as those who defend alternative medicine without evidence, scientists need to be armed to attack the efficacy of alternative medicines. Without clinical trials, a skeptical inquirer has no way to know, one way or the other. While the nature of clinical trials is that you cannot prove that there is no benefit, a lack of demonstration of benefit goes a long way toward saving our pocketbooks from an industry that profits from ignorance.