Wednesday, June 10, 2009

$2.5 billion spent, no alternative cures found

"Big, government-funded studies show most work no better than placebos," so say the headlines of an MSNBC article, where the $2.5 billion refers to funding over a 10 year period by the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

No alternative cures says the headline, but the body of the report mentions success with ginger capsules, acupuncture, yoga, massage, meditation, other relaxation methods ...

So what doesn't work? A few herbal preparations. The same could be said for dozens of pharmaceuticals. What else?

"... the government also is funding studies of purported energy fields, distance healing and other approaches that have little if any biological plausibility or scientific evidence."

I've said this before, but I guess it deserves repeating: Should existing scientific models and theories, all of which are tentative, determine whether basic research should be conducted on phenomena reported throughout the ages, and for which there is indeed valid scientific evidence, if you bother to look for it?

The answer has to be yes, because otherwise science comes to a screeching halt. By implicitly accepting a quasi-religious faith that we already understand everything worth knowing, science dies a slow death.

I am repeatedly astonished at how arrogant and dangerously conservative some scientists are (and how too many science journalists are so willing to parrot this nonsense. Whatever happened to the vaunted skepticism that journalists are supposed to cultivate?).

Why is this dangerously conservative? Because the same article doesn't mention that over the same 10 year period perhaps a trillion dollars have been spent on developing conventional treatments for cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc., and mostly what the average person sees as the result of this enormous investment of our tax dollars is skyrocketing health costs.

This is not to deny that medical progress is being made. Of course it is. Excellent progress. But the point is it takes trillions of dollars to accomplish that.

In the meantime, are there alternative methods that might also be useful, and that often have little to no side effects, and that are usually quite inexpensive? Yes, and fortunately the NIH is providing piddling grants to study them (compared to conventional medicine CAM studies are receiving chump change). But this article seems to want us to drop all such studies:

"Taxpayers are bankrolling studies of whether pressing various spots on your head can help with weight loss, whether brain waves emitted from a special "master" can help break cocaine addiction, and whether wearing magnets can help the painful wrist problem, carpal tunnel syndrome."

Are such things actually impossible? What if they actually do work? Isn't that worth finding out? The alternative is that we don't find out and useless treatments continue to be provided, or that expensive drug and surgical methods continue to be provided, many of which don't work either!

Personally I'd much rather spend my tax dollars looking for simple, effective, cheap methods that work, regardless of what existing theories are comfortable with. Go back just 20 years and large swatches of what used to be taken for granted in science and medicine have radically changed. So how can anyone today possibly believe that now we finally understand everything?

Forgive my rant, but this MSNBC article is exactly what is wrong with "big science," medicine, and how research in these fields are often reported. For shame MSNBC!


sonic said...

Rant on.
Who claims that the results of the 'quantum eraser' experiments are plausable?
The demand for pre-selection of 'what can be studied' is an obvious attempt to supress science and discovery.
And the people who make the demand do so in the name of 'protecting' science.

David Bailey said...

To me, one of the most telling aspects of this is that there should be enormous research to maximise the well known placebo effect. A patient simply wants to recover. If this could be done by somehow focusing the mind - well why not?

I mean, you probably can't just routinely give people placebo pills, but there are probably other ways to access the placebo effect with the patient's active cooperation.

Tor said...

I will rant along with you Dean.

I've not been especially impressed with science journalists in general (having seen them write about my own field), and especially not when they try to tackle fields outside the mainstream comfort zone.

A few months ago we had a controversy in Norway spawned by a book published about a Norwegian healer. He is quite famous for his feats, and have for many years had people queuing up outside his house to get help with their problems. He helped people for free, and some politicians and doctors vouched for the man. So it's not surprising that the amazing Randi gave the not so amazing comment that he thought we were making a retreat to the middle ages in Scandinavia.

Before the dust settled, our popular science program started to test psychic claims on TV, hiring a skeptik for the job. I've seldom seen a poorer investigating of psychic claims. If they had any guts they could have delved into the already existing literature, or actually try to do a proper experiment. But I guess that is to expect too much from the media nowadays.


anonymous said...

Here's something else that's wrong with "big science":">

"More than two-thirds of researchers said they knew of colleagues who had committed "questionable" practices and one in seven said that included inventing findings."

Skeptics need to take a closer look at mainstream science. Evidently there is a huge need for debunkers there.

antiskeptic said...

First time poster here. So tell me, Dean, where did all this anger come from all of a sudden? And more importantly, where the hell has it been all this time? I mean, skeptics and skeptic-style scientists routinely make false statements about psi because they are either liars or because of their carelessness and yet you usually do not come across as being very angry about it - or at least not nearly as angry as somebody like Stephen Braude. It's nice to see a more pissed off Dean Radin, and I hope to see more of it in the future.

Zannek said...

antiskeptic, I think I prefer it when people like Dr Radin are cool, calm and collected. It tends to show that they're not lunatics and actually know what they're talking about, as opposed to the ad-hominem attacks and denouncement-by-mere-statements approach that has become atypical of the skeptic movement.

FB said...

The mainstream media is in a sorry state.

I fear that the American media companies are setting an excessively low standard for their performance, and that they tend to drag down the rest of the English-speaking media.

However, I note that many media companies outside the Anglosphere are innovating, and I am confident that alternative medicine stands a better chance of fair reporting from non-English-speaking media.

I write this from Taiwan, where acupuncture is a science.

antiskeptic said...

Geez, Zannek, don't put words in my mouth. I never said I approved of ad hominem or mean-spiritedness. I just think that getting pissed off when skeptics are dishonorable and retaliating in a moral manner are appropriate and perhaps necessary. I was just saying that I think that sometimes Dean doesn't seem angry enough about the fact that skeptics are immoral and doing a lot of damage to his and other people's work.

Patrick said...

Let's be clear here: the "few herbal preparations" that didn't work were all that were tested except ginger capsules for chemo nausea, essentially six that didn't work to one that did (could have been more than six, but the article only mentioned that many; they were clear that only one herbal remedy showed any efficacy).

Do I believe that we should be spending tax dollars to investigate different alternative treatments? Yes, since that's probably the only way we'll be able to find out which ones work and which ones don't.

Do I believe that some of the money spent to date could have been handled better, perhaps by running smaller studies first to determine what remedies to pursue with larger ones? Yes, but what do you expect from any government-run operation?

Do I think that grants for studies should not go to board members? Of course! (But what do you expect from any government-run operation?)

The MSNBC article brings up several key points, in addition to the ones I mentioned above. For example:

"Echinacea is an example. After a large study by a top virologist found it didn't help colds, its fans said the wrong one of the plant's nine species had been tested. Federal officials agreed that more research was needed, even though they had approved the type used in the study."

In any study, the proponents and the testers should agree on the parameters of the test, and if it fails, the proponents shouldn't come back and complain about the parameters. Suck it up and move on.

As David Bailey posted, I also think there should be more research into the placebo effect. (Maybe someday there will be medical specialists called "placeboists" who study "placebo-ology" and "placeboize" their patients. Oh, I forgot, they're already called Homeopaths!)

I also feel there should be more research into the role of stress and disease (actually, there is quite a bit going on now) and the effect of stress reduction on wellness. It has the potential of a lot of benefits for relatively low costs. It also gets people involved in thinking about and managing their own well being, which is too often not the case.

Marco said...

Common now Dean. Common...

Now you're getting pissy over what media said and what perhaps the conservative government has done.

Let's remind ourselves that the media provides mediocre opinions based on words, not numbers other than when it comes to money.

In other words I agree with your position but words potentially lie statistics don't. I've given up on watching the news especially american news (respectively).

It makes people passive and besides encourages people to act offended eventhough they weren't offended personally.

LOL. I still think the blog is a good posting.