What does science say about "alternative medicine"?

Thursday, June 11, 2009 at 11:07 AM Bookmark and Share
According to this AP article, it says that it largely doesn't work. Well, at least not any better than placebo. So if you think that herbal tea helps cure your colds, or that acupuncture can fix your intestinal problems, read no further!!!

While there have been some marginal successes, "it doesn't really work" is largely the take home message of the past decade of research findings coming out of the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), an NIH program established in 1991 to investigate the claims of scientifically unproven methods for treating health problems - usually referred to as the more pleasant sounding "alternative medicine" - such as homeopathy, acupuncture, herbal remedies and other common alternatives to science-based medical treatment.

Some may argue that a lot of these efforts were (and continue to be) a waste of time and money. After all, I'm personally not all that thrilled to know that
...the government also is funding studies of purported energy fields, distance healing and other approaches that have little if any biological plausibility or scientific evidence.
Fortunately, not all of these studies dealt with claims that demanded such a stretch of the imagination. Other studies looked into more plausible claims,
Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer.
and did so using methods that puts these "alternatives" on the same level of comparison with standard science-based medical treatments. Unfortunately (though not surprisingly), almost all of these "treatments" worked no better than placebos.

Whether or not these findings are worth the more than $2billion spent on the projects, I for one am glad to see some of these claims taken seriously, studied, and the findings shared with the public. To elaborate on comments made by NCCAM director Josephine Briggs at the end of the AP article, there's nothing wrong with building sound, science-based knowledge about these mostly ineffective alternatives, and sharing that information with the public so they can make well informed decisions about their health and the health of their families.

It does beg one question though... Can we "have our cake and eat it too" when it comes to reaping the benefits of the placebo effect while at the same time denouncing these treatments as ineffective? Seems like a slippery slope to promote some of these alternatives on this basis, but still an interesting question.

2 comments:

Posted by: slybird | 6/11/2009 5:53 PM

Shorter version:

If there were any scientific evidence for alternative medicine, it would be called just 'medicine'.

Posted by: Paul | 5/13/2010 9:33 PM

More from PZ Myers and commentary from his readers.

Original Date: 6/12/2009 10:37 AM

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