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Politics and Science at the HHS

When politics and science collide, shenanigans are likely to ensue. Politics is often antithetical to science because the former is about persuasion and value judgments while the latter is about objectivity and transparency. Science cannot function properly under the yoke of political ideology.

The infiltration of unscientific and anti-scientific practices and ideas into mainstream medicine is primarily an act of politics and ideology trumping science. The latest example of this comes from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who put out a press release on June 16th declaring that: “HHS Secretary and Chinese Minister of Health Sign Memorandum of Understanding on Traditional Chinese Medicine Research.” The press release states:

“Many Americans incorporate alternative medical practices into their personal health care and are interested in the potential of a variety of traditional Chinese medicine approaches,” Secretary Leavitt said. “This project will advance our understanding of when and how to appropriately integrate traditional Chinese medicine with Western medical approaches to improve the health of the American and Chinese people.”

This statement is so common among the political apologists for unscientific medicine that is has become almost a cliche. The first claim in Secretary Leavitt’s statement is that “Many Americans incorporate alternative medical practices into their personal health care…” This is misleading and irrelevant. The primary problem is with the use of the term “alternative medicine” without providing any kind of definition. This is a false category because the modalities that are generally included in so-called CAM do not necessarily have anything in common except for the fact that they lack adequate scientific justification to be considered part of mainstream medicine. That is, except for those treatments that CAM proponents sneak into this category to misleadingly inflate its apparent size and impact – like exercise, nutrition, physical therapy, etc. These modalities can be scientific (depending upon how they are applied) and have no place under the CAM umbrella.


The false category of CAM allows proponents of dubious treatments to claim that their treatments are popular because many people exercise or take vitamins. It would have been more appropriate and intellectually honest for Secretary Leavitt to inform us as to the popularity of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) modalities. He emphasizes his point by informing us that:

Thirty-six percent of Americans use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), according to the 2002 National Health Interview Survey.

As I discussed in a previous entry, this number is highly inflated and therefore deliberately misleading. How about the core TCM modality – acupuncture? The same data shows that use of acupuncture remains low, about 1%. TCM does not even rank among the top 10 so-called CAM modalities, according to the NCCAM.

In addition to being factually misleading, the implied argument is a logical fallacy – the argument ad populi: CAM is popular therefore it should be supported. Well, the majority of Americans (2/3) believe that creationism should be taught in public schools. That does not mean that the Department of Education should support the teaching of ideology and religious belief as science in public schools. Neither does the (exaggerated) popularity of CAM mean that the HHS and medical research institutions should spend public money and publicly support unscientific modalities as if they were legitimate.

Secretary Leavitt also stated that: “This project will advance our understanding of when and how to appropriately integrate traditional Chinese medicine with Western medical approaches to improve the health of the American and Chinese people.” This is a good example of ideological spin – manipulating perceptions through language. He states that we need to understand “when” and “how” to integrate TCM – but he neglects the most important question (arguably the only important question) – if we should integrate TCM. We should only integrate methods that are safe and effective. How about an SBM analysis to find out if any TCM modality is safe and effective and for what.

Of course, if any TCM method was backed by sufficient evidence to conclude that it was safe and effective – it would already be part of mainstream scientific medicine. The only modalities that require political pressure to force them into our health care system are those that are not backed by good science. This gets back to the notion that politics tends to contaminate science – to rig the game of science and change the rules so that a politically popular modality gets a free pass. The public health is not served by this type of political meddling into the science of medicine.

Secretary Leavitt also promotes the false dichotomy of “Western” medicine vs TCM. This creates the false impression that this HHS memorandum is simply a cultural exchange, as if medicine were only about culture. That is what the promoters of CAM would have the public believe – that different modalities are only about culture and not about science.

It is also worth noting that this initiative was coordinated in part by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) – a political animal created by pro-CAM politicians and forced down the throats of scientists at the NIH, and another excellent example of politics intruding on science. This memorandum is evidence for the ongoing mischief that is caused by using politics to trump science.

The health of Americans is best served by allowing the best scientific evidence available to inform health policy. What the HHS has done is bow before the faddish political correctness of the day and thereby subvert the course of science to ideology. The public deserves better.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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9 thoughts on “Politics and Science at the HHS

  1. weing says:

    This is so unbelievably stupid. I think we should get proposal complementary and alternative weaponry and force the Pentagon to give us millions for coming up with hexes, voodoo dolls, etc to be used in warfare. I don’t see why these same brilliant politicians wouldn’t want to expand our freedom to chose other weapons to fight our enemies rather than limit us to only the conventional and nuclear weaponry.

  2. DavidCT says:

    I can’t help but wonder about what part of Chinese health care this vice-Minister represents. I have been told that none of the 40 something medical journals in China spend much space on acupuncture or other TCM modalities. Do the Chinese have their own department of quackademic medicine? Maybe the Chinese too smart to waste their own funds on this stupidity.

    Of course TCM could have have an effect on the incidence of cancer. Back in the good old days when TCM produced a life expectancy of 35 years, I am sure there was much less death by cancer. I am sure that spending 20 million is unlikely to find some unknown herb.

  3. Fifi says:

    weing – Read “The Men Who Stare At Goats”. Not so coincidentally, Major Stubblebine – who is featured in the book – now balances out his time running Natural Solutions Foundation (which claims to support “health freedom” and seems to be a rather loud voice against supplement regulation and the codex alimentarus) with his wife, psychiatrist Rima Labow (who’s thing seems to be “alien abductees”, anti-vaccination and, you got it, promoting supplements as treatment for mental illness). From what I can gather, Stubblebine is also involved in developing weapons and “security devices” for some private Homeland Security initiatives! The couple are on the board of Canadian Submarine Technologies (amongst other strange business and political connections and involvements).

    Or one can look at the military’s interest (and investment) in the new age and other forms of exotic woo, and you’ll soon discover that taxpayers’ money has (and is) already spent on all kinds of woo and silliness. Granted they don’t advocate giving up conventional tools such as guns and bombs that have proven efficacy in warfare but the US military is very, very interested in woo – not only as weaponry to be used against “the enemy” but also for propaganda purposes.

  4. weing says:

    Fifi,
    No way. I was sure anybody in their right mind would see the stupidity of woo in warfare. I’ve learned my lesson and will never underestimate man’s stupidity.

  5. Fifi says:

    weing – Totally way! That’s the thing about woo, it seeps into the crackpots in any structure and soon everyone’s feeling just a little woozy, a bit fuzzy around the edges….and then the purple haze clears and one of the most powerful nations on the planet is blasting Barney the Dinosaur over and over and over again at max volume at Iraqi prisoners locked in cargo containers. I highly recommend Jon Ronson’s book – both hilarious and chilling in just how clearly new age and military interests intersect. (For instance, while this is no indictment of Buddhism from my perspective, the CIA was quite involved in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to America since it served their political/propaganda purposes vis a vis the China. It should also be noted that the Washington Times is owned and run by Rev. Moon – yes, the head of the Moonies – who seems to hold quite a bit of political influence with some right wing politicians.)

    Never, ever underestimate the stupidity/gullibility/desire for magic of people or that people will rise to their level of incompetence (which seems to be the upper echelons of US “Intelligence”).

  6. Zetetic says:

    More military woo… The CIA and National Security Council have funded “remote viewing” research for potential use in defense related spying going back decades!

  7. Richard says:

    Well, what would you expect from Utah’s own expert purveyor of bullshit, the tap-dancing governor, Mike Leavitt.

  8. eldereft says:

    That according to the NCCAM link uses data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the CDC. Here is a link to a summary of the study with a link to the full PDF. That particular figure does not appear in the actual report, but those are the exact numbers. Some of the study authors are affiliated with NCCAM and it makes perfect sense for them also to host the information (which is public domain, anyway), but the full report is also fairly interesting.

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