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 by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.