Wasting resources on alternative medicine

Posted on Updated on

This article from the Journal of the American Medical Association provides us with a timely recap on the achievements (or not) of the ‘alternative medicine’ industry over the last couple of decades. Not only is it timely, but it is also damning. I’ve put alt med in apostrophes, because, as we rabid skeptics say ad nauseam, there is no such thing. Rather, there is medicine that works, and medicine that doesn’t work. That’s it.

The author isn’t just analysing the industry at large, but rather examines the operation of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which was set up in 1992 specifically to investigate alternative therapies, thanks largely to a couple of ‘true believer’ congressmen in the US Senate.

So, given that $1.6 billion has been spent in the intervening 20 years by NCCAM, we should now have a text-book brimming with great alternative cures, right? The pharmaceutical industry should be lobbying to shut them down, right? Science, biology, physics and all that overly complicated stuff should have been turned on their heads, right?

Well, yes, all those things SHOULD have happened – if only alternative medicines and therapies weren’t bogus.

The author provides a fair treatment by pointing out that, yes, many of today’s most effective medicines started out as folk remedies – for example, aspirin from the willow plant, and quinine from cinchona bark. However, there is a crucial difference between these natural beginnings, and much of the alternative therapy industry.

Firstly, the medicine that works (like aspirin for example), can be demonstrated to work in trials.

And secondly, by studying the remedy, it is possible to identify the biological underpinnings of it, and in most cases, show how it works.

However, all that we require to classify something as medicine that works, is that it can be demonstrated to do so in proper trials. Knowing how it actually does this is a bonus.

Unfortunately for NCCAM, they have spent a shitload of money on many alternative therapies, and can’t tick the box on either of these requirements. For example:

  • $374 000 to find that inhaling lemon and lavender scents does not promote wound healing
  • $750 000 to find that prayer does not cure AIDS or hasten recovery from breast-reconstruction surgery
  • $390 000 to find that ancient Indian remedies do not control type 2 diabetes
  • $700 000 to find that magnets do not treat arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or migraine headaches, and,
  • $406 000 to find that coffee enemas do not cure pancreatic cancer.
  • Garlic does not lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol
  • St John’s wort does not treat depression
  • Ginkgo does not improve memory
  • Chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine do not treat arthritis
  • Saw palmetto does not treat prostatic hypertrophy
  • Milk thistle does not treat hepatitis, and,
  • Echinacea and megavitamins do not treat colds.

Depressingly, the author concludes that unfortunately, such negative results don’t seem to translate into decreased uptake of such therapies. Coupled with the limited (or no) biological plausibility of most of the therapies studied, this should be a strong case for directing this significant funding to other more deserving areas. He sums it up well as follows:

For complementary and alternative medicine, it seems that some people believe what they want to believe, arguing that it does not matter what the data show; they know what works for them. Because negative studies do not appear to change behavior and because studies performed without a sound biological basis have little to no chance of success, it would make sense for NCCAM to either refrain from funding studies of therapies that border on mysticism such as distance healing, purgings, and prayer; redefine its mission to include a better understanding of the physiology of the placebo response; or shift its resources to other NIH institutes.


18 thoughts on “Wasting resources on alternative medicine

    @blamer said:
    May 16, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    >>Because negative studies do not appear to change behavior…

    Not the behaviour of the consumer, nor the vendor, nor the trial participant, nor the angel investor, and so why would these negative studies change the behavior of the NCCAM employees?

    @blamer said:
    May 16, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    >>Some complementary and alternative practitioners argue reasonably that although their therapies might not work better than placebos, placebos may still work for some conditions.

    This nub is why alt-med is an ethical issue. Advocates and Skeptics are both ethically motivated.

    If we agree my pill is effectively a placebo, is it ethically permissible for me to sell it as something else?

    Advocates say yes it’s good for health, Skeptics say no it’s bad for health just good for business.

    Peterf66 said:
    May 19, 2012 at 11:20 am

    Modern medicine vs. Alternative medicine.

    I’m very skeptical of the so called “independent scientific evidence” when billions of dollars are at stake (ever heard of corruption).

    My personal experience is that older people I meet that are die hard believers in drug therapies are overweight, have high sugar level and high blood pressure.

    On the other hand people that follow alternative medicine (as unproven as it may be) are slimmer, fitter, healthier and happier than the ones that have all this indisputable proof of how great modern medicine is.

    Just an observation no scientific evidence.

      rationalbrain said:
      May 19, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      It’s ok to be skeptical. I encourage it.
      But be careful not to fall into stereotyping based on your experience.
      But if we are using personal experience, I consider myself slim, fit and healthy, and believe the best way to stay that way is to follow the advice of those who have done the hard yards in medical research, and can demonstrate the efficacy or common sense of their recommendations. I certainly don’t believe that I’ll stay this way by using homeopathy or any of the bogus therapies to treat that next infection or virus or whatever.
      But of course, the choice is yours to make. If that choice of therapies is on behalf of someone else (your children for example), you’d better be damn sure of your ground before taking the advice of a homeopath over that of medical science.
      It’s also sad that you conflate medical science with dollars and corruption. Firstly, it is possible to disentangle the two quite easily, by being smart about your sources, and secondly, do you not think that dollars and corruption are rife in the ‘alternative therapies’ world?. I contend that the whole alternative therapy think is purely dollar driven – there’s certainly no demonstrable benefit for society. In fact, ‘big pharma’ is complicit in churning out billions of dollars of homeopathic preparations, even though they know it’s crap.
      Now tell me about corruption.

    Peterf66 said:
    May 20, 2012 at 10:38 am

    You call yourself rationalbrain but your comments are completely irrational. You sound like a cult member that’s been conditioned to believe everything you are told by someone in authority, and ignore anyone that disagrees with them. You are perfectly willing to believe that alternative therapies are a scam (and most of them are) but you are completely blind to the fact the modern medicine is predominantly the same. Every decision everyone makes is believed to be rational and logical by the decision maker, at the time it is made. Hindsight may give you a different prospective.

    Let’s get into specifics. If you fall off your skateboard or are involved in a car accident, then modern medicine is great, because they are really good at patching up physical trauma patients. But if you are an older patient suffering from chronic degenerative disease such as arthritis, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, blood pressure, urinary problems and other symptoms generally associated with aging. Then you’re in trouble because modern medicine uses these conditions mostly for profiteering. They claim there is no cure and that justifies their over priced (mostly payed for by the government in my country) health deteriorating, symptom suppressing treatments. Most of these treatments suppress one symptom and create another. And do nothing to alleviate the cause of the problem.

    Diabetes is just one I’ve had experience with. One of my relatives at age 69 was diagnosed with diabetes; they were sent home with an insulin kit and told they would need to inject themselves for the rest of their life, because there is no cure. With some diet improvements, recommended by our naturopath and a gradual reduction of insulin calculated by myself, (against the protest of the Doctor that was placed in charge of maintaining this profitable condition). The relative was able to cure this condition. It’s been two years now and my relative does not require insulin to maintain a healthy sugar level, no thanks to modern medicine. There are a number of doctors now claiming that type 2 diabetes is 100% curable. But try telling that to your local GP that’s pushing you into a life long dependency.

    If you want to talk about money being wasted on research. Cancer is a good place to start. Billions of donation dollars has been given to cancer research for more than sixty years. And what have they found? Nothing, because cancer research is a scam. Why do they need donations? Why don’t the drug companies pay for the research? Because it’s not profitable that’s why. Cancer researchers have been making a very comfortable living for a long time and have produced absolutely nothing. The same old medieval treatments are still being used today, like chemotherapy even though there is no Proof of any benefit. In recent years a number of celebrities died from cancer (a great loss) Patrick Swayze, Farah Fawcett, and now Donna Summer. If modern medicine can’t help the rich and famous, what makes you think it’s going to help you?

    I’m not at all suggesting that alternative medicine has all the answers, what I’m saying is don’t get sucked into believing that one is good and the other is bad. The fact is they are both self serving and profiteering. Your best bet is to look after your own well-being as much as possible and don’t rely on Doctors to solve you health problems.

      rationalbrain said:
      May 20, 2012 at 12:47 pm

      Re your comment regarding diseases such as arthritis, diabetes etc, you are so wrong I don’t know where to begin – for example, tell me modern medicine can’t control blood pressure. I suggest you do a bit more reading.
      As for your anecdotes featuring well known celebrities, I see them, and raise an equal number who’ve relied on coffee enemas to treat cancer. That worked out well, didn’t it?

      Unlike you, I don’t see what’s in it for me, or for my hip pocket. I don’t believe that science favours the ‘rich and famous’ as you say.

      And as for believing everything I’m told by someone in authority, I disagree. Tell me – how do you get all your information? Have you done research into everything? No, I thought not. You should understand that we can’t all be experts, and the trick is to evaluate what we hear using some simple rules. Do I believe an oncologist regarding my cancer treatment, or, do believe the homeopath on the corner? Which would you rely on for you, or for your children. I thought so – and this means you have relied on someone with a good claim to be an authority, based on evaluating their respective credentials. It’s very easy to glibly say ‘look after your own well being and don’t rely on doctors’ but the reality is you will need to make decisions at some point on what that actually means. And if you’ve ready any of my earlier posts, you’ll know I advocate evaluating what you are being told using a number of techniques – try reading “https://rationalbrain.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/sorting-fact-from-fiction/”.

        Roger said:
        July 5, 2017 at 3:06 pm

        They can control blood pressure with drugs but the long term survival outcomes are worse on the drugs.

        rationalbrain responded:
        July 5, 2017 at 3:18 pm

        This is patent nonsense – the data says the opposite.
        Unless you actually back up any assertions with evidence, I won’t be responding to you again – it’s just a waste of time since your ideology is obvious.

    Peterf66 said:
    May 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Do you actually know anyone over the age of 25 besides you parents? I’m so wrong you don’t know where to begin. What are you talking about? I didn’t suggest there are no drug treatments for these diseases. They just don’t work very well and side affects, well I just don’t know where to start. Look up blood thinners side affects these drugs do far more harm than good in fact I’ll go out on a limb here and say most drugs do more harm that good. Have you ever seen someone that has been on blood pressure pills for 20 years of more, believe me that is not what I call healthy.

    My point that was obviously lost on you about celebrities. It that people with money will get the best medical treatment money can buy. As appose to the little granny on a pension that goes down to her local clinic. And gets treated by someone fresh out of medical school. “Unlike you, I don’t see what’s in it for me” everything every one does is for there own gratification (ask any psychologist) that gratification may simply be a sense of satisfaction but unfortunately in our society this satisfaction usually has a dollar sign on it. If you haven’t worked that you yet you are going to have a very tough life.

    As to sorting fact from fiction, I thing there you’re on the right track and if you keep practicing it, one day you might actually be good at it and you want have to believe doctors simply because they sound impressive. You wouldn’t be in medical school by any chance would you or related to a Doctor because that would explain a lot.

    And just for the record I don’t worship any supernatural being especially the great god or medicine.

      rationalbrain said:
      May 20, 2012 at 7:34 pm

      No, I’m a humble engineer, sorry to ruin your conspiracy theory. I suspect you’re suffering from acute paranoia about medicine.

      So what’s the alternative to blood pressure pills if you have blood pressure? Evening primrose oil? What’s the alternative to chemo to prolong life if you have cancer? Coffee enemas? If you have clots, will you refuse blood thinners because of side effects? Would you advocate that no child be vaccinated because a small number may have side effects?

      Sure, people do stuff for money. Scientists are on the payrolls of mining companies, spinning the party line that man didn’t induce global warming.
      But that’s exactly why you need to evaluate your sources of information to see what the motives are, amongst other attributes.

      And please, try to keep it civil.

    Peterf66 said:
    May 20, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    Wow you finally came through for me. You actually acknowledged that I was making some logical arguments against science. Thank you. I did have a plan of how to really shoot you down but now it seams unjustified. Please don’t take this as being rood. But you’re most recent comments and other things I’ve read suggest that you really don’t know anything about health or how to get it. High blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer are the three biggest killers.

    There is no cure and I can assure you without any doubt there never will be. The only thing you can do is prevent them in the first place. And that is completely in your control. You have to make lifestyle changes and no doctor of any side of the fence can do that for you regardless of the promises they may make.

    When I was 16 I broke my leg ice-skating, I’ll try to keep this short. The doctor told me, the cast will come off in 8 weeks. At the time I believed I was healthy my leg should heal quicker than most people. After 8 weeks the doctor said better leave it for another 2 weeks. These few word changed my life forever. It made me realise that maybe I’m not as healthy as I thought. I took control of my life and responsibility for my health. I read books I talked to people I experimented on myself. This was back in the 70’s and I’ve been learning about health for nearly 35 years.

    You are totally right most of it is rubbish but that doesn’t mean it’s all too hard and you can leave it to somebody else to worry about. They may want to help you but they will always put there own interests first, you are the only one that is ever going to putt yourself and you family first. If you are too attached to your lifestyle and not willing to make changes then there is no doctor in the world that’s going to save you. That’s what I’ve learned, wether you benefit form my knowledge or not is up to you.

    As to my occupation I’ve worked as a:
    Disc jockey
    Worked at an icerink
    Aerobics instructor
    Industrial sculptor
    Various factory jobs
    Podium dancer
    Factory manger
    IT support
    Activator technician
    Not necessarily in that order and I may have missed a few, I hope to be retired in 5-6 years.

    Thanks for your time, it game me motivation to practice my typing.

      rationalbrain said:
      May 21, 2012 at 7:25 am

      You have shot nothing down, just revealed that you have a massive chip on your shoulder.
      That you believe it is ‘in your control’ to prevent cancer, tells me all I need to know.
      Nice to hear your folksy anecdotes, I’m sure they trump all other evidence to the contrary.
      And good luck treating your illnesses with healing crystals!
      Over and out.

    Dan Rea said:
    June 1, 2012 at 4:48 am


    Old man stories bore and frustrate me. If a medical product or therapy is beneficial it can be tested and quantified in a myriad of ways. Once it’s proven to have some benefit it becomes part of evil nasty ‘western modern medicine’. You’re a sucker, and an old arrogant sucker at that. Being older doesn’t make you smarter you condescending waffler.

    To emphasise and validate my point I will tell you an anecdote from when I was a wee lad. One day I hurt myself, so I rubbed some random crap on the injury and it felt better. As my perception and opinion counts as universal proof you can see now that you’re entirely wrong. I win, you silly little whipper-snapper.

    Having a string of mediocre jobs doesn’t make you some sort of genius. For the record it’s looking pretty good for HIV and diabetes being curable; human trials of the cures for rats has begun for both. Many interesting developments are happening with cancer too. I don’t know what garbage you’ve read as you’ve “taken control of your life” but it sounds closer to Tony Robbins literature than anything related to human anatomy or nutrition.

    Most drugs do more harm than good? What a lovely opportunity you have to say such crap. You’re probably an anti-vaccination advocate too. Only now that we’re in a world where a countless number of diseases that have plagued our species throughout the ages have been cured; in a world where treatments exist that will see you reliably survive a small laceration; where the average lifespan has breached 80 (as opposed to 25) can leagues of new-age idiots stand up and say nature is wonderful and medicine is nasty. Maybe it’s just because it’s 4:45am and I’m still working, but I wish I could reach through this screen, grab you by the neck and sucker-punch your dentures out of your face; if only to muffle to inane drivel you insist on barraging opposing opinions into submission with.

    Sheesh, what am I saying? I love natural remedies and new-age alternative therapies.
    Our species desperately needs the natural selection…

    Don’t reply you giant tit. I’m not coming back to read it.
    Not that this will get past moderation anyway… 😦

    Dan Rea said:
    June 1, 2012 at 5:00 am

    Diabeties incurable…. Wasting resources on Cancer… wasting… a waste apparently.
    YOU *@@#(*@ you S*)# (*&@#*ing know-it-all FU@*#( @*@(*#head!
    Way to go! Take a crap on armies of PhDs who’ve dedicated their life’s work to improving the quality of life and longevity of mankind. I think the books you got when you were 20 are a little out of date old man:

    Diabeties cure:

    Reading the full-text of this research (ever done that?) around a drug named CD-47 it would seem human breast, ovary, colon, bladder, brain, liver, and prostate cancer will be cured within a decade. Marvels of the modern world:

    I could post a crapload of scholarly articles here that contradict about a hundred things you’ve said but I really don’t see the point. You’re stubborn as an ass and half as smart. Prove me wrong and read the second link, eat some humble pie, then come back here and eat your words; not for my sake, but for the medical science and scientists who’ve ensured you’ll live to a ripe old age. Bloody fantastic.

      rationalbrain said:
      June 1, 2012 at 9:22 am

      Wow. Excellent spray.
      Is this the Dan who encouraged us to keep it nice? 😉

    Roger said:
    July 5, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    Lets hear it for EBM (Evidently Baseless Medicine) which is the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer (more than 300k deaths each year in the USA alone), and wastes a large part of the15% of the USA’s GDP that is spent on it, besides being a major cause of bankruptcies. That is more than a hundred 911-sized tragedies each year. I dont hear the “skeptics” railing about that irrational waste. Handing out placebos would be more effective, safer and waste a lot less. The Hippocratic oath commands first do no harm. But they are always touting another “miracle cure” just around the corner, and everyone is eager to buy that Brooklyn Bridge.

      rationalbrain responded:
      July 5, 2017 at 3:16 pm

      OK, I get it, big Pharma is evil yada yada yada.
      And such a clever re-purposing of ‘EBM’! I’m impressed.
      Trouble is, you don’t have the slightest shred of evidence to support your wild claims, other than something you probably read on a website somewhere. Here’s a tip – a website is not a primary source.
      If/when you get some nasty disease, I’m happy for you to go spend your money on worthless treatments such as homeopathy, acupuncture and scenar. Darwinism will do its thing and improve the gene pool for the rest of us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s