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 is standard for supporters of woo, or even just idiots in general.

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.

Save money, stop wasting funds on alternative malarkey

If alternative medicine had any evidence about it, we’d all just call it medicine. Unfortunately, most of the people within the alt-scam are good at lying. They’re good at making people think they have something to actually offer, when in reality they’re a bunch of anti-science quacks. That’s why it’s unlikely the alt-med scene is where we can start saving funds for real scientific research. But it’s also why we should be saving funds there.

This past week, President Obama called on all federal agencies to voluntarily propose budget cuts of 5%. Well, Mr. President, you might be surprised to learn that there’s a way for you to cut the National Institutes of Health budget without hurting biomedical research. In fact, it will help.

Here’s my proposal: save over $240 million per year in the NIH budget by cutting all funding for the two centers that fund alternative medicine research–the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM). Both of them exist primarily to promote pseudoscience. For the current year, NCCAM’s budget is $128.8 million, an amount that has rapidly grown from $2 million in 1992, despite the fact that not a single “alternative” therapy supported by NCCAM has proven beneficial to health. OCCAM’s budget was $121 million in 2008 (the latest I could find) and presumably higher in 2010. That’s over $240M, not counting money these programs got from the stimulus package (and yes, they did get some stimulus funding).

Whereas anti-science, Republican/teabagging mooks like Sarah Palin can’t see the value in fruit fly research, pseudoscientific organizations like the OCCAM and NCCAM are managing to bleed funds from worthwhile scientific research (like that done on fruit flies). And they’re doing it on some of the silliest programs imaginable.

These two organizations use our tax dollars – and take money away from real biomedical research – to support some of the most laughable pseudoscience that you can find. To take just one example, NCCAM has spent $3.1 million supporting studies of Reiki, an “energy healing” method. Energy healing is based on the unsupported claim that the human body is surrounded by an energy field, and that Reiki practitioners can manipulate this field to improve someone’s health. Not surprisingly, the $3.1 million has so far failed to produce any evidence that Reiki works. But because there was never any evidence in the first place, we should never have spent precious research dollars looking into it.

It’s all a big, ugly scam.

Infuriatingly silly

Jerry Coyne has a post about why Francis Collins pollutes science with religion. It’s a succinct piece that basically nails Collins for all his silly, childish, superstitious, frankly stupid beliefs.

The most inane and disingenuous part of Collins’s argument is his claim that without religion, the concepts of good and evil are meaningless. (Collins’s slide 5 in Harris’s piece: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”) That’s palpable nonsense. Good and evil are defined with respect to their effects and the intents of their perpetrators, not by adherence to some religious code. It is beyond my ken how a smart guy like Collins can make a claim like this, even going so far as to argue that “strong atheists” like Richard Dawkins have to accept and live their lives within a world in which good and evil are meaningless ideas

It’s inconvenient for Collins or any other religiously-driven person to admit that morality is a purely human affair. And really, it’s getting to be a tiresome argument. Explanations abound for how morality could have naturally evolved. That should be good enough to force any reasonable person to admit that, no, morality need not have a god, it need not adhere to the whims of one individual entity, and it definitely is not universal. Our ideas of morality change with the times, with cultures, with known facts, with context. The only real constant is that every human society has developed a moral system. The details within each system may vary wildly – in bin Laden’s, the death of most of America is just – but they are always put within some sort of construct. That does not mean that bin Laden’s version of morality is equal to any other version which may exist. One key component in any moral system is basing premises on facts. That’s the main reason that god-based moral systems tend to fail or be wacky (see inane hatred of homosexuality among, well, almost all the religions). It’s one of the reasons bin Laden’s system doesn’t work and is not equal to mine or yours or most Americans’ or other Westerners’ (or even most Muslims’).

Collins, like most Christians who think they somehow own the moral high horse, despite all the contrary evidence, does not understand that morality is not universal. It is only moral systems. His is broken and can only work because he’s made it malleable to the progression of secular values and understanding. Indeed, if religions weren’t so agreeable to such change, Christianity would be as much a relic as slavery. Of course, that isn’t to suggest that religion so easily moves along with reason. It doesn’t. It usually comes kicking and screaming, forced by the hand of rationality.

There are, of course, also statements made without evidence, including this one: “God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul” And this (slide 4): “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God.” How does he know? What’s the evidence? Isn’t the distinction between the science slides and the faith slides being blurred here?

One thing I’ve been forcing myself to ask myself a lot lately is “Where’s my evidence?” I recently went on a big hike through the 100-Mile Wilderness, the most remote and difficult section of the Appalachian Trail. I recall passing a tree root that had made a sort of rainbow shape. Each end was in the ground, but the middle was up in the air (as opposed to laying against the ground). It was unusual, but I quickly thought “It must have been buried at some point before being exposed, thus causing it to pop up”. I had to stop myself right there. How did I know that? I didn’t. It was a plausible guess, but other explanations were also plausible. It could have grown that way. Another tree could have been there before being removed, long ago, by the Maine Appalachian Trail Committee (MATC). It could just be a brief, weird angle I had making me think it was a root when in reality it was just a fallen branch that appeared buried in the ground. All I had was a hypothesis, and one I wasn’t about to test. I had to settle with “I don’t know” as an answer. Sometimes that isn’t just a temporary answer. Every single claim/question about the after-life that Collins makes deserves a permanent “I don’t know”. He doesn’t have the evidence. As a scientist, he should value that above all else in his work.

But then again, he is a Christian. Religions do not value evidence.

Obama continues to fix the errors of Bush

Scientists will be allowed to make the guidelines surrounding use of embryonic stem cells.

The government issued final rules Monday expanding taxpayer-funded research using embryonic stem cells, easing scientists’ fears that some of the oldest batches might not qualify and promising a master list of all that do.

President Barack Obama lifted previous restrictions on the field in March, but left it to the National Institutes of Health to decide just what stem cell research was ethically appropriate: Only science that uses cells culled from leftover fertility clinic embryos — ones that otherwise would be thrown away — the agency made clear in draft guidelines.

This is precisely how it should be. It is those well versed in science who should be making the relevant decisions within science. Politicians rarely ever know much of anything about how science needs to work. This is doubly true for Republicans. So it comes as no surprise that it has taken the election of Democrats to at least get a few things right.