Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Archive for December 11th, 2008

Another Side to Latest Survey on CAM Use…..

with 6 comments

Geek Goddess beat me to posting about the Washington Post article on the widespread use of so-called alternative medicine published today along with versions by several other news sources, and while I agree that the reporter handled the subject better than in the average fluff piece, it was by no means appropriate coverage.  The numbers, which have actually been out for over two months, actually paint a picture very different than that of the quoted CAM proponents, in particular Richard L. Nahin of the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  As broken down in typical expert fashion by Steve Novella at Neurologica, the numbers reflect not an increase in usage of CAM, but no real change in the perecentage of Americans seeking out alternative medicine over the past twenty years. 

The most glaring lack of journalistic effort comes in the form of the apparent acceptance of a complete misrepresentation of what alternative medicine actually is. Novella nails it as usual in his post, revealing that,

“Also, the numbers reveal the hollowness of the CAM label – what does CAM really mean? The numbers are inflated by including items that are not necessarily out of the mainstream.”

Many of the modalities included in the survey do not necessarily deserve the title of alternative medicine. Entities like yoga, massage, and other techniques geared towards relaxation or treatment of some musculoskeletal complaints do not alternative medicine make. Potentially a very large percentage of the survey is made up of people using legitimate therapies. Novella reveals,

“If you factor out these modalities (and also legitimate use of nutrition), the numbers remaining are all quite low – in the single digits, and not significantly increasing. Only 1.8% of the population used homeopathy, 1.4 acupuncture, 0.3 naturopathy, and 0.5 energy healing. For these hard-core CAM modalities usage is still marginal and not really changing.”

One aspect of this issue that Dr. Novella did not address in his post, and not because he isn’t aware of it, is that of herbal therapies being included in the blanket category of alternative medicine, although not isolated specifically in this survey (ayurvedic and naturopathic medicine make generous use of herbs and supplements). Herbs and supplements are not alternative medicine, they are drugs. They are drugs which have either not been studied for safety and efficacy or have been studied and did not stand up to the scrutiny of proper scientific investigation. Many medications with true efficacy have been derived from plants but this is not evidence that alternative medicine in general is effective, despite what proponents may claim. The fact that digitalis came from foxglove in no way supports homeopathy, acupuncture, healing touch, or any other bogus therapy. Unfortunately, the current state of affairs is such that even the hallowed halls of many major academic medical centers are being infiltrated by such quackery in good part because of just that kind of flawed logic. The media interpretation of this survey, largely just regurgitation of NCCAM press releases, is another example of propaganda that will serve to elevate CAM to an undeserved legitimacy in the public eye.


Written by skepticpedi

December 11, 2008 at 10:13 pm

Reports Show Increasing Numbers of Americans Use Alternative “Therapies”

with 3 comments

I ran across this news article this morning:

38% of Adults Use Alternative Medicines: Study Prompts Critics to Warn of Therapies’ Risks”

One of the things I found interesting in the article was that it included chiropractic treatments in the list. Even though most skeptical people immediately agree homeopathy and weird food supplements are bogus, many often take a step back when it comes to chiropractics, siting personal experiences with pain relief. Even educated skeptics are susceptible to anecdotal evidence. I recently spent an hour trying to explain to my mother and aunt the history of chiropractic care, anecdotes, regression to the mean, and placebo effects. My aunt seemed interested, but my mom dismissed me out of hand, because her ‘doctor’ had helped her, many times. (I might add, this discussion took place while we were waiting for her pre-op examination for a cornea transplant. She’s not against real medicine.)

This story was refreshing because the writer didn’t pull any punches when quoting doctors and scientists’ strong language referring to alternative medicines as fraud, and calling the American public ‘gullible’. Usually, this is only found in scientific or skeptical journals, not in the mainstream media. It also discusses the current fad of antioxidants and how studies have shown no benefit. (Whatever happened to oat bran?)

Enjoy, and pass it along to those who are willing to listen.

Written by Geek Goddess

December 11, 2008 at 9:51 am