Your Tax Dollars Teaching Medical Students Pseudoscience

128820287522526659I read an AP article titled Medical schools add alternative remedies to curriculum the other day. The article was pretty balanced, explaining both sides of the situation.

Apparently a growing number of medical schools are teaching acupuncture, herbology and other CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) to their students, often with the help of Uncle Sam. That's right, your tax dollars are being spent to teach your future doctors all about pseudoscience.
The government has spent more than $22 million to help medical and nursing schools start teaching about alternative medicine — lesson plans that some critics say are biased toward unproven remedies.

Additional tax money has been spent to recruit and train young doctors to do research in this field, launching some into careers as alternative medicine providers.

Doctors need to know about popular remedies so they can discuss them nonjudgmentally and give competent advice, the government says, and many universities and medical groups agree.

"Patients are using these things" whether doctors think they should or should not, and safety is a big concern, said Dr. Victor Sierpina, an acupuncturist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston who heads a group of academics who favor such training.

But to critics, it's like teaching Harry Potter medicine. Students are being asked to close their eyes to science principles that guide the rest of their training in order to keep an open mind about pseudoscience, they say.

"I'm concerned about the teaching of illogical thinking to medical students" and lending credence to biologically implausible theories like distance healing and energy fields, said Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired physician who runs Quackwatch, a Web site on medical scams.

Personally, if I were using some herbal remedy or other treatment that had no scientific evidence behind it, I would want my doctor to let me know it's not tested and not proven effective. I want science-based medicine. I want my doctor to be informed about pseudoscience but he shouldn't be using my tax dollars to study it in school as if it were real medicine. That's a waste of money and incredibly misleading to students who might then add acupuncture or other nonsense into their future practice.

I just listened to James Randi on The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe talking about the same thing, only in a more insidious way. If you listen to the episode, James Randi's interview starts at 34:21 on episode 222 from October 21, 2009. Mr. Randi had colon cancer and has found during his treatment that the NIH tacitly promotes acupuncture. This is partly paid by taxpayers. The NIH has 520 acupuncture studies listed on its website. James has a man looking at those studies. He has looked at about 220 or so and EIGHT (8) of them are positive.

So if you went there, you might think all 550 studies listed were positive, but almost all are negative. The 8 that are positive were not double blind studies, so they are invalid.

I tried to find the same list that Randi talked about but didn't have much luck. What I did find was the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) which is part of the National Institute of Health (NIH).  This site is very pro-CAM. Unfortunately while it legitimizes CAM and mainstreams it, I am not sure how the actual research has been done. The spotlights of the studies are vague and lack detail of actual study methods and results.

Are they trying to justify their $22 million dollar investment? Have many of the people in charge of NCCAM been given their jobs because they already believe in CAM? I'm pretty sure a lot of them are CAM proponents and were before they started the research project with the government. Needless to say, I don't have all the answers. If you have any hard evidence about NCCAM or the studies in question, please comment or email me.

Also, if CAM is mainstreamed, doesn't it just then become Medicine? No, not if there's still no science behind it. But if you take an herb and find out that there is something in it that has medicinal value, research and study it for efficacy and safety and all that good stuff, then you can standardize it and make it safe and consistent to take. Plain old herbal supplements from the health food store don't offer any of that.

Give me science based medicine any day over pseudoscience, thank you very much.


  1. Good stuff. Love that last line.

    Along a similar theme, I saw this story pop up this morning. Ugly stuff.

  2. Tim Minchin said it best, I think:

    "Alternative medicine, by definition, has either not been proven to work, or been proven not to work. Do you know what they call alternative medicine that's been proven to work?


    If people want to learn this kind of mysticism, let them do it on their own dime. As you said, I want proven medical treatments for whatever ailments I may have. I certainly don't want to pay to have people taught things in med school that really have nothing to do with real medicine. Relegate ancient remedies to their proper place, the past. I like the sciencey ones.

  3. Thanks Lemmy!

    Thanks for the link, I'll have to share that. :(

  4. Yes, Tim Minchon is the MAN. I was thinking of the very thing that you quoted him, but couldn't remember who said it so I never put it in the article. Thanks for reminding me!

    Yes, I agree, if you feel that rubbing a cactus on the soles of your feet will cure all of your diseases and help you live to be 200, by all means, rub away. That's your business and your money.

    But for what we teach people in medical school, it must be based on science! Yes! ancient remedies go in the history books. Give me science based medicine when I go to the doctor or hospital, please!

  5. Actually, for situations where medical science only helps 10-20% of the time, I think wishful thinking is more beneficial. Health is at least 70% in your head. Look it up (don't hurt me)!

  6. I understand what you're saying, but I wonder where you got your numbers. The mind is incredibly powerful, as can be seen with the placebo effect time and time again. But I think if you did a double blind of someone getting cancer treatment and someone getting nothing except the same symptoms, one would show that the cancer gets under control and the other would show a person about to die of cancer even with the side effects from their placebo.