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February 28, 2009

Sen. Harkin: National Center for Alternative Medicine disproves too much alternative medicine

Careful what you wish for...

Sen. Tom Harkin, the proud father of the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, told a Senate hearing on Thursday that NCCAM had disappointed him by 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.

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."

Skeptics have complained all along that Harkin and his allies founded this office to promote alternative therapies at public expense, not to test them scientifically. Harkin's statement at the hearing explicitly confirms that hypothesis.

Harkin used his clout on the Appropriations Committee in 1992 to create the National Office of Alternative Medicine. In 1998 he co-sponsored legislation with Republican Bill Frist to upgrade the national office to a national center.

Over a decade later, Harkin's disappointed that the NCCAM's research is failing to confirm his biases.

Harkin doesn't seem to realize that by publicly pressuring an ostensibly independent research center to produce positive results, he's undermining the credibility of the center he worked so hard to create. If even if NCCAM does come up with positive results, Harkin's giving the scientific community an excuse to discount that research as tainted.

That's a shame, because if we're going to spend public money testing alternative medicines, researchers should be allowed to follow the evidence. Besides, ruling out therapies that don't work can be just as valuable as vindicating therapies that do.

A lot of modern medicine has roots in folk traditions. No doubt there are more therapies currently labeled as "alternative" that will eventually earn their rightful places in scientific medicine and the allied health professions when they are proven effective.

Video of Thursday's hearing on "integrative medicine" is available on the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee website, here. Harkin starts talking about NCCAM's annoying habit of disproving cherished tenets of alternative medicine about 17 minutes into the hearing.



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Comments

Is there a lobbying group pushing alternative medicine?

Yes. There are quite a few of them, actually. One of the biggest categories within the alternative medicine lobby is the dietary supplement lobby. Some of it is harder to track because alternative medicine is a money-maker for so many different kinds of businesses from specialty clinics to Wal-Mart. That spending will show up as one of many Wal-Mart lobbying contracts or under the name of the clinic lobbying for an earmark. Registered lobbying is only a fraction of political spending for most interest group. If you want to calculate the total political impact of the industry, you have to look at the budgets of non-profits, trade associations, professional associations, and PAC donations and hard money donations from corporate executives in the industry, etc.

I've heard that Orrin Hatch gets a lot of money from the alternative medicine lobby.

From some cursory googling ('cause I'm leaving the real reporting to Lindsay), it looks like the Nutritional Health Association is a big player -- and they hired Podesta Associates, which employed Hatch's son, and whose name should be familiar. (Founded by John and his brother Tony, still run by Tony.) Here's a link with some details of their funding of Hatch, but clearly this is bipartisan.

Orac at Respectful Insolence discusses NCCAM. NCCAM has had some responsible people in charge, but that won't necessarily last forever. As Orac points out, the agency's basic mission is a bit sketchy and, in the wrong hands, could easily veer off into a full-blown Office of Official Medical Woo. Nothing to worry about if you're sure you'll never have any medical problems though.

You'd think that the folks that control the levers – e.g. Harkin – would understand that medicine has more flaky, crackpot shipworms gnawing at its hull than any other branch of science and would elect not to join the infestation. Alas, politician's scientific acumen usually rates even below their expertise in economics or history.

I should have said "most politicians". A few, such as the recent governor of Oregon John Kitzhaber who was a physician and does understand medicine are notable exceptions. Unfortunately, Kitzhaber seems not interested in relocating to D.C.

Nice post.I should have said "most politicians". A few, such as the recent governor of Oregon John Kitzhaber who was a physician and does understand medicine are notable exceptions. Unfortunately, Kitzhaber seems not interested in relocating to D.C.

Is there a lobbying group pushing alternative medicine?
I'd think that the folks that control the levers – e.g. Harkin – would understand that medicine has more flaky,

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