The Triumph of New-Age Medicine
“It’s cleverly marketed, dangerous quackery,” says Steven Salzberg, a prominent biology researcher at the University of Maryland at College Park, an easy commuter-rail ride from the medical center. “These clinics throw together a little homeopathy, a little meditation, a little voodoo, and then they add in a little accepted medicine and call it integrative medicine, so there’s less criticism. There’s only one type of medicine, and that’s medicine whose treatments have been proven to work. When something works, it’s not all that hard to prove it. These people have been trying to prove their alternative treatments work for years, and they can’t do it. But they won’t admit it and move on. Of course they won’t. They’re making too much money on it.”
On his well-read blog and elsewhere, Salzberg has established himself as an expert on research studies related to alternative medicine—and as one of the angriest voices attacking the field. In particular, he calls for an end to government funding of clinics like Berman’s. He says the funding is in no way based on any genuine belief among scientists that alternative medicine merits further study. Rather, it is propelled by a handful of members of Congress—most notably Tom Harkin of Iowa, the chair of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NIH funding—who are determined to see their own misplaced faith in alternative medicine validated. (Harkin’s office declined to make him available for an interview.)
Medical centers are lining up to establish research clinics so that they can take NIH funding for alternative-medicine studies, Salzberg adds. Aggressive marketing of these clinics can also generate substantial patient demand (even a small integrative clinic can take in several million dollars a year). The anecdotal testimony these patients offer merely reflects their gullibility and self-selection into alternative care; subjective symptoms like pain and discomfort, he notes, are susceptible to the power of suggestion. These same symptoms also tend to be cyclical, meaning that people who see a practitioner when their symptoms flare up are likely to see the symptoms moderate, no matter what the practitioner does or doesn’t do. Patients simply misattribute the improvement to the treatment.