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Dec 27 2011

$1.4 billion pissed away

Most of you probably already knew that our government is supporting the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a colossal boondoggle that purports to look for unexpected medical benefits, but actually ends up lining the pockets of con artists. Here’s a nice short summary of their accomplishments, but I can give you an even shorter one: for $1.4 billion, the American public has received somewhere between doodly and squat in new medical benefits.

You can blame a political liberal for this waste of money, unfortunately. Here’s his admission that NCCAM is not about doing science.

NCCAM is a political oasis for research that could not compete in mainstream science. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), one of the fathers of NCCAM, gave the game away when he lamented during a 2009 senate hearing that the center was disproving too many alternative therapies. "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. If Harkin were interested in applying science to CAM, as opposed to confirming his bias towards complementary remedies, he would be happy that useless treatments were found to be useless.

Harkin doesn’t understand how science works, at all. But somehow, he got his fumbly little stupid fingers all over the pursestrings.

37 comments

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  1. 1
    marcus

    Maybe if Harkin changed the protocol so that only demonstrably gullible and/or hypochondriac test subjects would be used in the tests he could get the results required by his confirmation bias. Now that’s some science!

  2. 2
    d cwilson

    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.

    Well, at least we know that people feel better after a massage. That was worth 1.25 million bucks. /saracasm.

  3. 3
    grumpyoldfart

    I like Americans – When I stand next to one, I look quite smart.

  4. 4
    NovaC

    Complementary and Alternative medicine (imagine steam coming out of my ears, if you will).
    The following is my own anecdotal evidence and useless as such.

    1)Essential oils/scents give me pounding headaches.
    2)Peruvian pan flute music played to me via MP3 player irritated me and made me want to toss the thing across the room.( Note of nerdiness: The recitation of the Bene Gesserit litany against fear kept me in a calm and relaxed state)
    3) Prayer is a way for a person to do absolutely nothing and feel good about it.
    4)I’d rather drink my coffee. After going through a colonoscopy (for yet another funky finding on a CT image)I can tell you that my opinion of squirting fluids into a person’s intestines being a good thing is mainly for the relief of severe constipation. Otherwise, there’s the deep denial of science based medicine coupled with a masochistic tendency.

    I’m pissed that money that could have funded further research into science based,proven medicine got blown on a bunch of shamanistic bullshit. Imagine what advances could have been made with that amount!!!

    Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrggggggghhhhhhhh!

  5. 5
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Shockingly, the comments to the Chicago Tribune exposé linked by Lindsay Beyerstein are full of woo peddlers and their marks screaming about “bias” and a conspiracy by Big Pharma to keep people sick; assertions of altie-med “effectiveness” without citations (except to a journal of “complementary” “medicine”); shilling for the odious Burzynski; an accusation (from someone who globally all-caps the word “DRUG” as if to imply all drugs are bad, mm’kay?) that the reporter is on the take from the drug companies; and this, which I copy and paste without comment:

    I wonder how the public would feel if it understood that the dominant philosophy of medical science throughout the National Institutes of Health is flawed. It used to be that medical science was done by people trained in science, but as the money in clinical practice dried up, physicians with no real training in science came into the NIH and pushed out those who knew what they were doing. The result was two-fold. First, genetics and proteomics came to dominate, based on the wrong-headed idea that something can be understood by chopping it into its component parts. Second, epidemiological studies became more popular, but the investigators frequently ascribed causal relations to statistical associations. The result is that real studies of cause and effect that are so badly needed are almost non-existent. In my view, the NIH ought to take the beam out of their own eye before they try to remove the speck from that of alternative medicine.

  6. 6
    Zugswang

    If it’s any consolation, we can still blame Orrin Hatch for the “Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act”.

  7. 7
    Glen Davidson

    Showing the uselessness of CAM isn’t a complete waste, even though the money could have been put to better use.

    Glen Davidson

  8. 8
    Sharon C

    On the plus side, NCCAM is no longer passing out predoctoral fellowships through NIH, as I discovered when I was submitting my proposal for NIDCR (dental and craniofacial research).

    Well, sort of. They’re not doing individual fellowships, but can still fund institutional grants and project grants… sigh.

    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-AT-11-004.html

  9. 9
    Randomfactor

    When you think about it, the whole economic stimulus package that finally made it through Congress was diluted to a homeopathic treatment…

  10. 10
    jayarrrr

    But… That Andy Weil is such a TRUSTY-looking fellow! I mean, who wouldn’t want to share a coffee enema with him?

    Woo. From Woo-Woos.

    Only a Woo-Woo like Harkin would be displeased that his funded research revealed that Woo Is Woo.

  11. 11
    Strategically Shaved Monkey

    I’ve no probs with research into weird shit.
    Unless he read the research papers, PZ sounds like the Rebublican’s criticism of the “Exploding pig shit” research.
    Now, if they carried on funding latte enemas after the negative research results, then a pigshit getser enema is too good for them.

  12. 12
    Strategically Shaved Monkey

    Apologies to PZ, it was the linked article I should have criticised.

  13. 13
    robertpolk

    I don’t see a problem with researching alternative medicine, but in many cases it’s been done to death. We really don’t need any more studies showing accupuncture is no more effective than a placebo.

    The problem is the senator’s motivations. He doesn’t want unbiased research. He wants to ‘validate’ alternative medecine.

  14. 14
    NovaC

    My insurance coverage just loves to push alternative/placebo treatments. So much so,
    that I immediately fax the SCIENCE based info on their ineffectiveness and tell them I’d rather stick to what has been proven to have actual results.
    I have a feeling they don’t like me much…That could also be due to the fact that I do take an aggressive and active role in my healthcare.

  15. 15
    Jadehawk

    I like Americans – When I stand next to one, I look quite smart.

    and which magical, New-Age-woo-free country do you hail from, smartass

  16. 16
    truthspeaker

    Harkin complaining about NCCAM disproving too many treatments reminds me of Rumsfeld complaining that the CIA wasn’t finding evidence of Saddam’s WMDs.

  17. 17
    Eamon Knight

    “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,”

    On behalf of the universe (of which I am a miniscule — but still supra-homeopathic — part) I apologize to the good Senator that physical reality has fallen short of his expectations.

  18. 18
    Moggie

    marcus:

    Maybe if Harkin changed the protocol so that only demonstrably gullible and/or hypochondriac test subjects would be used in the tests he could get the results required by his confirmation bias. Now that’s some science!

    I believe that’s called a double-stupid trial.

  19. 19
    Simon Hayward

    In fairness, the hardworking scientists at NCCAM did not take their mandate to be that they needed to prove that woo works, but rather that they were tasked with testing the efficacy of alternative approaches. In most cases they found that woo doesn’t work – and they published these data. This can be seen as a useful public service, per Glen Davidson #7. Of course this has upset the powers that be, who wanted crazy ideas validated. That being said, I would maintain that testing “alternative medicines” to see whether they do in fact work is still a useful thing to do. If they work they can stop being alternative and become simply “medicine”.

    Whether this is the best thing to do with the money is an open question, just like whether my cancer research project is better than yours is also to some extent subjective (given the NCI pay line, which reflects their shortage of cash, neither is likely to get funded anyway).

  20. 20
    Sastra

    Simon Haywood #19 wrote:

    That being said, I would maintain that testing “alternative medicines” to see whether they do in fact work is still a useful thing to do. If they work they can stop being alternative and become simply “medicine”.

    I’d agree with you, except that everything in So-Called Alternative Medicine that has any realistic chance of working (in that it does not violate our basic, well-established scientific understanding of how the universe operates) shouldn’t be considered alt med in the first place. We’ve already got areas in mainstream medicine which study the efficiency of herbs (pharmacognosy), vitamins, massage, etc.

    The bottom line is that if it works, it probably never should have been considered “alternative” in the first place. NCCAM is worthless.

    Not that the category is empty. Oh, no. What DOES belong in the “alternative” category are medical interventions which postulate new forms of vitalistic energy or mystical realities which give prime place to human thoughts and desires. In other words, spiritual cures. Should we prove those, then they will simply become medicine only because we’re now dealing with an alternative reality.

    “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.

    Harkin and his altie supporters really need to learn the distinction between facts and preferences. It’s like he’s complaining about not enough indigenous folk music on public radio. Nobody should feel slighted. Let’s validate everyone.

  21. 21
    Crissa

    I certainly think we ought to have someone paying to test these things. Their research should be public, tho.

    Sometimes things don’t work the way your brain thinks it should, like the whole tailgate up or down airflow argument with pickups. Some things are obvious even if their method isn’t: We flavor or scent our medicines not because they have a direct result on the ailment. Some things are not obvious, but work none the less. And some things seem like they work but have no statistical effect, and some things merely make some people feel good – and sometimes that’s what’s needed.

    Always worried, myself, that we’re paying for this stuff via insurance or government without telling people the actual results.

  22. 22
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    If he’d said he was disappointed that more of the alternative therapies hadn’t proved out, that would be one thing–but to find fault with the scientists for not providing the result he wanted is quite another!

  23. 23
    anchor

    @#7 Glen Davidson, “Showing the uselessness of CAM isn’t a complete waste, even though the money could have been put to better use.”

    It is almost identical to being a complete waste. What proportion of CAM advocates or the general public do you suppose will be persuaded by the science which shows its all rubbish?

    I think it is very close to zero.

    Hear that gigantic flushing sound? That’s $1.4B going down into the sewer for nothing. (Besides the extra pork$ the labs get).

    And, as an added bonus to the American taxpayer for their ‘purchase’, the conservatives get to ridicule the liberals with ever-so-much-louder shrieking…

    Its shit like this from morons like Harkin and those imbeciles over at HuffPo cultivating the bullshit that shoves me ever deeper into despair.

  24. 24
    freemage

    One of the things that drives me up the wall about the CAM supporters is that I actually agree with them about the “evils of Big Pharma”, in the sense that I regard any large industry in modern society with a cynical outlook. I’ve seen enough stories about patent law manipulation and obscene profit margins to know that there’s a lot that needs fixing. The problem is that the CAM folks see a guy selling life-boat tickets on the Titanic, and immediately decide that lifeboats aren’t necessary to survive in icy water, and that they can get just as much survivability from thinking warm and happy thoughts.

    Yes, the guy with the ticket-booth is an utterly vile piece of shit, but even Kate Winslet learned that (t)woo wuv won’t stop Leo DiCaprio from dying of hypothermia…

  25. 25
    kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith

    The problem is that the CAM folks see a guy selling life-boat tickets on the Titanic, and immediately decide that lifeboats aren’t necessary to survive in icy water, and that they can get just as much survivability from thinking warm and happy thoughts.

    Another problem is that they don’t see how cynical and downright evil CAM providers can themselves be. Burzynski’s piss injection into the dying children of desperate parents, provided a steady supply of tasty donation cash, comes to mind. Or Big Supplement, with its shady uncontrolled manufacturing processes.

    If pharmas are selling life-boats tickets, CAM providers are selling magic blue butterflies that are supposed to keep you warm and afloat without a shred of evidence that it works, and claiming to be the actual reason someone on a lifeboat survived.

  26. 26
    eddyline

    I think it was Mark Crislip who quipped, “D’you know what they call CAM treatment which has been subjected to peer-reviewed studies and been proven effective? They call it *medicine*.”

  27. 27
    Pierce R. Butler

    In support of #s 7 from Glen Davidson & 19 from Simon Hayward – the fact that sympathetic NCCAM researchers have failed to find support for the efficacy of however-many “alternative” treatments provides evidence much more convincing (than any similar efforts from Novartis, FDA, or even the mighty Orac) that such approaches don’t work.

    Unless the scoffers can come up with documented examples of NCCAM conducting dishonest research or distorting their findings, I think we have a strong case that, despite Sen. Harkins’s unhappiness, the $1.4B spent on NCCAM has provided sharp stakes to be driven through the hearts of quackery everywhere – even if the “skeptics” (such as here) prefer to attack the messenger.

    Does anyone have a case that NCCAM has violated the rules of good science?

  28. 28
    No One

    Fuck. How much health care coverage for the uninsured would $1.4 billion buy? I want my money back.

  29. 29
    unclefrogy

    Yes I have to agree to some extant it is a waste that time and money was spent on the redundant research on “dubious medical treatments” but it was it seems to me to have been an unavoidable political decision that the results were honest we should be thankful. It is better that to have looked again though any one with half a brain knew what the results would likely be.

    uncle frogy

  30. 30
    freemage

    kemist@25: Excellent point. Charging for lifeboats = corrupt; charging for magical fairies that will save you from needing a lifeboat = unredeemably evil.

    What I’d like to know is, do the findings of the NCCAM provide any legal basis? That is, once a particular practice has been demonstrated to be ineffective (or even harmful), can prosecutors use that as the basis of fraud charges against woo-peddlers who continue to push that particular school of snake oil?

    Because that could make it not only worthwhile, but downright profitable. And at the very least, it would force the woosters to be that much more blatant in constantly having to change their claims, which would move on towards causing them to look sillier to people who haven’t fully invested psychologically in their claptrap.

  31. 31
    davesmith

    Whatever the political motivations for establishing NCCAM, it is a real National Institute of Health, and (as I understand the process) the funded science goes through the same competitive granting process as other NIH grants.

    Some of it is really good science and some of it is damned useful, especially when compared with the vast amounts of money spent on alternative medicines in this country. By some estimates, alternative medicine gets about the same amount as conventional medicine.

    Compared with those vast sums, spending 1.4B to do real science to put alternative practices to the test is a bargain.

    Regrettably, the results might not change people’s behavior. Many of the people who use alternative medicine are immune to science, which is one of the reasons why their using alternative medicine in the first place.

  32. 32
    otrame

    I like the way Tim Minchin puts it: “You know what we call alternative medicine that has been proven to work? Medicine.”

  33. 33
    Amphiox

    A point that has already been stated previously is that many Americans do believe in alternative therapies and do use them, and shell out a LOT of money on them, in aggregate.

    And that means that for a democratic government to spend money on testing them scientifically is a justifiable use of taxpayer money, so long as the research is done properly.

  34. 34
    Simon Hayward

    davesmith #31
    Technically it’s not one of the institutes – but a Center – which is one step down the ladder, although I’m not entirely sure how the government works these status issues out. This difference presumably reflects politics at the time it was set up.

    The essence of your point however is completely correct. As, I’m afraid is your conclusion regarding behavior.

    I should note that most of the research that I’m aware of from NCCAM has related to the efficacy, or lack thereof, of traditional herbal remedies and whether their putative active ingredients actually do anything. I’m not aware of anyone spending money trying to show something obviously stupid – such as the idea that water has a memory. As such I don’t think it was money down the drain – although I still reserve judgement on whether it could have been better allocated.

  35. 35
    tomh

    @ 34
    most of the research that I’m aware of from NCCAM has related to the efficacy, or lack thereof, of traditional herbal remedies

    I can give you one recent instance that is definitely valuable. Saw Palmetto is a popular herbal remedy for symptons of enlarged prostate and, in fact, is a $700 million dollar a year business worldwide. According to this recent study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and funded in part by NCCAM, saw palmetto is no more effective than a placebo in relieving symptoms. This is valuable information. According to this story, doctors often recommend it to relieve symptoms, so while the study might not convince the average user, it might discourage doctors from recommending it.

    I can tell you from experience that with severe symptoms (unable to urinate) one is ready to try anything. Thank goodness there are great medications now that really work.

  36. 36
    Eamon Knight

    @35: I can tell you from experience that with severe symptoms (unable to urinate) one is ready to try anything.

    So, you’re saying that the money spent on the Saw Palmetto study, at least, was not “pissed away”?
    [ba-dump]

  37. 37
    tussock

    Not seeing the problem. They’re researching the alt meds that real people are spending $34000 million per annum on, research which can be used to punish people for false advertising, refusing to provide the necessities of life, being a fake doctor, and so on.

    It’s cost them $117 million per annum for 12 years, or 0.3% of the total national spend on alternative medicine. The total NIH budget for research is $31200 million per annum, so the “alt med” research is 0.4% of that.

    Someone asked how much health insurance it would buy? Maybe a couple thousand people for a decade, but the US has over a hundred million people uninsured. 0.005% of that problem.

    So some folk, including a senator, are upset that very little of it works in any way. Yeh, I think it would’ve been nice if it worked too, but I’m happy that someone made sure it didn’t.

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