Several years ago I stumbled upon disturbing information regarding my alma mater, the Harvard Medical School (HMS).† Its professed commitment to investigate implausible medical claims had somehow metamorphosed into the advocacy of such claims. I’ve previously mentioned some of this on SBM (here and here). A couple of pertinent essays appeared in the public domain in 2002 and 2003, but the full story was much more involved than those pieces revealed. In the wake of recent posts on SBM about medical schools exposing students to uncritical portrayals of pseudomedicine, it seems appropriate to tell more of it. I’ve also decided to name names, which is something that I would have been reticent to do a few years ago. The basis for that decision will become clear over the next few posts, I trust. This topic will require at least three posts.
My discovery that HMS had begun promoting pseudoscientific medical claims was occasioned by my experience on the Massachusetts Special Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medical Practitioners, which met from the fall of 2001 to the winter of 2003. Another member of that commission was David Eisenberg, the Director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Alternative Medicine Research and Education (CAMRE) and of the new Osher Center for Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies. Dr. Eisenberg is best known for his 1993 article reporting the use of ‘unconventional therapies’ by Americans. He had been appointed to the commission by the MA Commissioner of Public Health at the time, Dr. Howard Koh–whom President Obama has recently nominated to be Assistant Secretary of HHS. I assumed then, and still do, that Dr. Koh presumed Dr. Eisenberg to be an objective expert on “CAM,” since that was the persona presented by HMS and by Dr. Eisenberg himself. I had my doubts, but before then I’d not bothered to look into the matter.
It was during commission meetings, when I had the opportunity to hear what Dr. Eisenberg and his surrogate had to say or not to say and when I examined some of their writings and funding sources, that I began to realize how far his project was deviating from what I imagined to be the agenda of HMS. Some of what I saw amounted to frank dishonesty: failure to disclose obvious conflicts of interest to the Commission, for example. I also discovered public promotions of dubious “CAM” practices and practitioners by the CAMRE, in spite of its formal purpose being that of investigating “CAM” practices in an attempt to find out if any might be useful. I was concerned enough to look at other “CAM” information offered in the name of Harvard, and I found more worrisome examples.
I also attended the Feb., 2001 Harvard Complementary and Integrative Medicine Course, directed by Dr. Eisenberg (here is a link to the similar 2002 course brochure). A few of the talks were reasonable, if banal. I did my best to give them the benefit of the doubt, because I still could not accept that HMS would seriously consider homeopathy, ‘life-force,’ and ‘subluxations’ as being worthy of study, much less advocacy. After attending a semi-rigorous talk on raw herbs as medicines (the presenter discussed some studies but not the looming question of why whole herbs might be preferable to purified molecules), I ran into Eisenberg and did my best to be polite and encouraging. I shouldn’t have, because most of the content of the course was misleading and pseudoscientific. Overall, its tone was more like a political rally or a religious revival than a scientific conference.
At that course I ran into Russell Phillips, who had been in my group of interns at the Beth Israel Hospital (Boston) in 1979. I’d seen him around from time to time over the years, and I’d known that he’d stayed on at the BI after his residency. I was surprised, however, to learn that he was now the Director of the Harvard CAMRE Fellowship program. I was even more surprised to learn, during a short conversation with him, that he was innocent of the chiropractic ‘subluxation theory’ and that he’d never heard of Quackwatch. It seemed to me that there was either a surprising naivete among this crowd or an attempt by some to shun unpleasant information.