The Golden State of Pseudo-Science

The state of California (CA) which is home to the most advanced education and research in biomedical sciences, computational biology, genomics and proteomics, etc, is also home to 19 institutions that have state-approved training programs in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a pseudo-medicine that is based on ideas and practices sourced by ancient cosmology, mythology, astrology, and a range of other pre-scientific beliefs that have been partially “sanitized” during the Maoist era.

Emerging out of the recent hype about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), the educational curricula of these institutions include the study of acupuncture’s point-and-meridian system, the health and safety beliefs of ancient and medieval China, humoral pathology, herbalism, Asian massage, and a limited amount of modern biomedical sciences at a level below what is required from vocational nurses. These curricula are supposed to provide the necessary knowledge and skills for the graduates to pass a comprehensive state licensing exam and provide “primary” healthcare in CA. However, pursuant to CA Code of Regulations, Title 16, Section 1399.451(b) it is improper for these “primary” healthcare providers, “to disseminate any advertising which represents in any manner that they can cure any type of disease, condition or symptom!” Nonetheless, both the internet and the local press abound with ads by CA licensed practitioners who claim that acupuncture can cure or mitigate many diseases, ranging from allergies and infertility to stroke and paralysis.

Under the banner of CAM, a handful of these practitioners also advertise that they can communicate with spirits and heal with crystals, colors or sounds; they practice healing touch (reiki) and distance healing (via PayPal!); provide spiritual counseling and ministerial services, and make implausible medical claims such as healing a chronic condition with just one needle!

All 19 programs are approved by the CA Department Affairs’ (DCA) Board of Acupuncture, since CA law requires that the content of an acupuncture training program be assessed and approved by the State.

Baffled by the absurdity of some of the content of these programs and the outrageous claims of some of the graduates, I addressed the DCA’s Board of Acupuncture on June 20, 2008, to request the repeal of state-approved healthcare programs that endorse the teaching of vitalism, metaphysics and snake-oil-science. To clarify the matter, I reminded the Board that vitalism is a doctrine that stipulates that the functions of a living organism are due to a transcendental vital faculty distinct from physicochemical forces, which distinguishes living organisms from non-living matter. Vitalism was the fundamental dogma of natural sciences and medicine in the West until the 19th Century where disease was believed to derive from interruptions to the flow of a vital principle, called pneuma, and imbalances in four humors. Eastern traditions have similar notions such as qi in China, ki in Japan and doshas in India. I also reminded the Board that vitalism was disproved in the 19th Century by Friedrich Wohler who showed that it is possible to synthesize an organic substance in the laboratory. Louis Pasteur disproved a related concept called “spontaneous generation.” More recently, Stanley Miller, during a landmark experiment in 1953, demonstrated that organic substances could be created by very simple physical processes from inorganic substances.

The counterargument presented by the former Chair of DCA’s Acupuncture Board, Dr. Adam Burke, is instrumental in understanding the thought process behind the official legitimization of voodoo science and New Age nonsense in the Golden State. Dr. Burke, who is also a Senior Research Advisor to the American Association of Oriental Medicine and the Co-Director of the Institute for Holistic Healing Studies at San Francisco State University (SFSU), stated that:

If you biomedicalize it all… if we strip the history and the philosophy and the understanding of that, we have shut out millennia of understanding of human illness that could enrich our understanding of healing people. That would be such a historic loss… I don’t think we’ll completely understand these things. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, also Mary Ann Liebert, hardcore, very big science journal editor – Distant Healing. They don’t know how but some of the people at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which was founded by an astronaut, up in Marin, they are doing research on distant healing. They principle investigator is a physicist. They are getting their research published in the best physics journals in the United States. They’re trying to show the physical nature of these phenomena. We don’t understand them but it’s not metaphysics. I mean I wish there had been more metaphysics when I was in school and I don’t imagine schools have gone backwards. I imagine they are going more towards integrative medicine.

Now, does not this sound like the ultimate in anti-rationalism and anti-science coming from the Chair (former) of a State Board with the mandate of protecting the public health, safety and welfare? The entire text is available at the following link:

A few weeks later, I got an official letter from the DCA, stating that after careful review, the Board had not found anything objectionable in the curricula of state-approved TCM schools.

I gather that the dreadful mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations at the New Age of Unreason is doomed to remain the basis for many public health policies in the Golden State. And as long as Chinese metaphysics and vitalism are perceived as anything but pre-scientific and disproved worldviews, pseudo-doctors and purveyors of TCM woo-woo will continue to provide the community of believers with medical astrology, alchemy, humoral pathology and even dialogue with the dead, heal with incantations, crystals, colors or sounds, remotely or via touch, and make implausible medical claims–all with the full blessing and endorsement of the CA Department of Consumer Affairs.

Posted in: Acupuncture, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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