The harm of NCCAM

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or NCCAM, has been causing harm in one form or another for a dozen years now. We have Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to thank for that because he was the one who inserted a few paragraphs in a budget bill back in the 90’s which created this monstrosity. His basis? Not science:

In a 1998 speech, Harkin described watching acupuncture and acupressure ease the pain and violent hiccups of a brother dying of thyroid cancer.

“These are things I have seen with my own eyes,” said Harkin, who also lost three other siblings to cancer. “When I see things like this I ask, ‘Why? Why aren’t these things being researched?'”

In other words, he used anecdotal evidence to come to his conclusion. This appears to be standard practice of woo supporters.

So what have we learned from NCCAM, a relatively small but well-funded branch of the NIH? Let’s take a look:

Thanks to a $374,000 taxpayer-funded grant, we now know that inhaling lemon and lavender scents doesn’t do a lot for our ability to heal a wound. With $666,000 in federal research money, scientists examined whether distant prayer could heal AIDS. It could not.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine also helped pay scientists to study whether squirting brewed coffee into someone’s intestines can help treat pancreatic cancer (a $406,000 grant) and whether massage makes people with advanced cancer feel better ($1.25 million). The coffee enemas did not help. The massage did.

Over more than a decade what we have learned is that it is not at all difficult to waste a total of $1.4 billion on quackery. That’s it.

What we have here is an organization which is well-funded but which carries out irresponsible studies. We don’t need research about coffee enemas and distant prayer when there is zero scientific evidence to support even the most vague of hypotheses.

What I really don’t find at all surprising in any of this is the reaction the history of failure at NCCAM gets from its supporters:

Researchers published their dramatic [coffee enema] results in 2010 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Patients receiving standard chemotherapy had lived an average of 14 months. The [Dr. Nicholas] Gonzalez patients [who received coffee enemas] lived an average of four months, and were in significantly more pain.

But some experts questioned the study’s findings, saying it lacked a clear question and had a flawed design. For example, the volunteers were allowed to pick whether they received chemotherapy or the other regimen. Originally, they were to be randomly assigned to a group, but few patients were willing to volunteer under those conditions.

That final line would normally be a significant compounding factor in any study, but these results are far from normal. People following a normal course of treatment lived nearly 4 times longer than those using the woo. Anyone who looks at these results and decides to carry out a completely random, double-blind study on coffee enemas ought to be tried for negligent homicide once their experimental group patients begin dropping dead.

But in all this I think the best/worst reaction from a supporter has to go to the father of this alternative death, Harkin:

“One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short,” Harkin said.

The senator went on to lament that, since its inception in 1998, the focus of NCCAM has been “disproving things rather than seeking out and approving things.”

Methinks someone knows not a thing about science.

The point of any scientific endeavor is to always prove what does not work and what is not true. Do that enough and what does work and what is true becomes apparent. While it is certainly disappointing that coffee enemas don’t cure cancer, Harkin ought to be happy to know that that is the case (minus the wasted time, money, and human lives, of course). Anyone actually interested in science would view these results as such. Of course, I am assuming that people interested in science would actually let things get this out of hand. They wouldn’t. But fortunately for the supporters of woo – and unfortunately for the supporters of useful expenditures – that is a void NCCAM is more than willing to fill.

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