Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

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

6 Responses

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  1. Inflating their numbers to get more support or funding, something scientists would be scorned for. Yet the public accept these sly tactics as acceptable in the CAM arena. And the best part, if you try to expose said tactics, you are part of the conspiracy, or you’re just a close-minded skeptic.

    mike D

    December 12, 2008 at 11:57 am

  2. Don’t forget that I’m also on Big Pharma’s payroll.


    December 12, 2008 at 12:12 pm

  3. Are there secret Big Farma conspiracy meetings too? Because I’d love to attend and get on the payroll—I’ve got bills to pay, after all. Plus, anything to dupe the public into thinking that science actually works.

    (But seriously, “Science. It works, bitches.”)


    December 12, 2008 at 2:09 pm

  4. Clay, is that Nietzsche in your pic? I can’t tell for sure.

    mike D

    December 12, 2008 at 2:53 pm

  5. The particular Washington Post article served as a jumping-off point for me to discuss alt meds with my aunt. I think the fact that a doctor was quoted as calling out ‘fraud’ got her attention because, you know, journalists don’t lie and doctors are God, except for when They Don’t Know Everything. She’s not going to have access to, much less read and absorb, the information Clay et al point out regarding inflation of numbers. She, at least, was willing to listen to me, and change her viewpoint, after seeing this mainstream press article.

    My strictly personal, anecdotal evidence is that people who swear by herbs and ‘all natural’ treatments for their ills have been among my most sickly and pale friends.

    Geek Goddess

    December 13, 2008 at 6:20 am

  6. Don’t get me wrong, I am also glad to see Wally Sampson or Steve Barrett quoted in a mainstream article.


    December 13, 2008 at 7:42 am

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