Only half of Americans and few scientists believe in alternative medicine, but we're all paying to study it.
From a relatively small $2 million per year operation in 1992, called the Office of Alternative Medicine, a behemoth has grown now known as NCCAM, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Its funding has grown even more rapidly than the popularity of alternative medicine has and is now soaring over $100 million a year.
With encouragement from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), NCCAM has dedicated itself to studying a wide range of unproven medical techniques. Its website points to the following especially popular treatments: "herbal medicine, massage, megavitamins, self-help groups, folk remedies, energy healing, and homeopathy." Energy healing typically involves nothing more than practitioners waving their hands over patients, claiming to alter unseen and undetectable force fields in the human body, and then asking the patients (who are no doubt amused and sometimes religiously enraptured) whether their mood has changed for the better. Homeopathy is founded on the baseless claim that virtually non-existent trace amounts of chemicals, chosen for mystical reasons, have a profound influence on the strength of the immune system. Again, reports of success are based primarily on the patient's subtle mood changes or claims to feel "more energy."
The proliferation of alternative medicine techniques is endless and will no doubt lead to endless studies and endless funding for NCCAM but in its decade of existence, OAM/NCCAM has yet to show that any alternative medicine techniques work, sometimes because the techniques are useless and sometimes because the studies themselves were useless, conducted under insufficiently rigorous conditions to ensure meaningful results.
Supporters of alt-med point to NCCAM's existence as vindication of their beliefs, dismiss its findings when they fail to support alt-med beliefs, claim to want more testing, and, whenever tests fail to confirm their claims, deny that alt-med lends itself to testing. Some go so far as to question the very idea of clinical trials, saying that each individual has an immune system so unique that the failure of an alt-med technique to have a measurable effect on a million patients does not prove that the technique will be ineffective for the million-and-first patient. That's true, though it's not clear that taxpayer money should be spent studying techniques with no proven (or even provable) benefits aside from subjective mood changes that could as easily have been caused by puppetry, a phone call from an old friend, or participation in a magic act.
Since alt-med believers are often believers in a medical industry/government conspiracy to conceal the benefits of alt-med (and to promote pharmaceutical dependence), it is highly unlikely that any number of negative studies done by NCCAM will ever dissuade the believers from using these techniques. Most likely, they will simply claim that NCCAM, too, has become a pawn of the pharmaceutical industry/AMA/hospital conspiracy.
If NCCAM's work continues for yet another decade, it is likely it will have produced no useful medical treatments, changed the beliefs of almost no members of the public, and spent well over a billion dollars at its current annual budget alone (let alone a hypothetical budget extrapolated from its rapid expansion). The more unlikely the pay-off, one might argue, the more important it is that believers spend their own money on a project instead of other people's. Private supporters of alt-med are free to fund studies, publish them in mainstream, peer-reviewed journals, and let other scientists take a crack at reproducing the results or showing where the initial study went wrong. The rest of us needn't foot the bill.
See Todd Seavey's e-monograph, Alternative Medicine: The Healers, the Hopeful, and the Dingbats.