Science-Based Medicine » Funding CAM Research

* Note: Do you know what they call alternative medicine that has been proven to work? MEDICINE.
Paul Offit has published a thoughtful essay in the most recent Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in which he argues against funding research into complementary and alternative therapies (CAM). Offit is a leading critic of the anti-vaccine movement and has written popular books discrediting many of their claims, such as disproved claim for a connection between some vaccines or ingredients and risk of developing autism. In his article he mirrors points we have made here at SBM many times in the past.

Offit makes several salient points – the first being that the track record of research into CAM, mostly funded by the NCCAM, is pretty dismal.

“NCCAM officials have spent $375,000 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.”

The reason for the poor track record is fairly simple to identify – by definition CAM includes treatments that are scientifically implausible, which means there is a low prior probability that they will work. If the treatments were scientifically plausible then they wouldn’t be alternative.

CAM proponents argue that the treatments they advocate, like acupuncture, certain herbal remedies, and homeopathy, are not implausible, they are just neglected by mainstream medicine because they don’t fit into the narrow (and profitable) paradigm of “Western” medicine. This argument, however, is demonstrably wrong. Homeopathy is rejected by the mainstream because our current understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology tell us that it is impossible for homeopathic potions with extreme dilutions to have any physiological effect.

I admit that one benefit of all the research that the NCCAM has funded is to test these two versions of reality. Are CAM modalities scientifically implausible or are they just not being given a fair shake by modern medicine? If the former then research into CAM modalities should be largely negative, if the latter than we should regularly be finding CAM diamonds in the rough. Well, after 1.6 billion dollars of research any score of studies the NCCAM has left behind it a trail of negative studies, such as those listed above. This strongly supports the SBM view that “alternatives” to science-based treatments are not science-based.

CAM research, therefore, is like playing the lottery – the chance of winning is so small it is not significantly different from zero, but if you get really lucky perhaps you may hit upon something. As a society we have to decide if this is a worthy investment of our limited research dollars. To continue this analogy, financial advisers often recommend a range of investments from conservative to risky, but I don’t think they would consider buying lottery tickets part of a sound financial plan.

FULL ARTICLE: Science-Based Medicine » Funding CAM Research.

About Kurly Tlapoyawa (1010 Articles)

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