The skeptical movement and science-based medicine would not have to exist if academia was doing its job. Unfortunately, in some very important ways, they are collectively failing the world. The latest example of this failure is the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine UC Irvine School of Medicine.

How do you get to have a center named after you in a major medical school? You don’t necessarily need to have any medical accomplishments. All you have to do is bribe, I mean donate, $200 million. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with a philanthropist making a major donation to a hospital or medical school and being honored for that donation by having a building or center named after them. That’s pretty much how it works.

What is a problem is dictating the academic and scientific standards of that medical school through your donation. Samueli did not intend to support the teaching and practice of medicine, but to change the teaching and practice of medicine according to her own misguided ideology.

To put this into perspective, imagine if a wealthy donor wanted to give millions of dollars to a major university department of astronomy so that they would open up a center for astrology, or a department of biology so that they would open a center for creation research. What if the Koch brothers had a couple hundred million lying around and wanted to donate that money to a prestigious university to create chairs (a university position supported by an endowment) to “study” climate change, but had a few hand-picked climate change deniers they wanted in those positions?

The only respectable answer to any of those offers, regardless of how much money they would bring the university, is, “No thanks.”

What is clearly happening here is an attempt to put a giant thumb of the scale of science and medicine through money. That is essentially what has been happening with so-called alternative medicine for the last four decades. There is literally billions of dollars to be made selling fake medicine and medical services. Prior to around the 1980s selling fake medicine was considered health fraud and was largely opposed by the medical profession, scientists, and academia. This opposition was half-hearted, little more than occasionally shoeing away an annoying fly.

Over the last few decades, however, sellers of fake medicine have used their ill-gotten gains to change the game. They have used their influence to lobby state and federal governments for more friendly laws, to demand licensure and insurance coverage, and to water down consumer protections. They have marketed to the public to rebrand health fraud as “alternative” then “complementary” and now “integrative.” Make no mistake – these are essentially the exact same practices just under different labels.

Convincing a largely scientifically illiterate public and politicians was the easy part, but the real scandal is that they were able to work their way into the halls of science and academia. Academia should have been a bright line beyond which quackery and fraud could never penetrate. Sadly, it turns out all it took was a combination of apathy and some well-greased palms.

The Samueli Center represents the full realization of this phenomenon, the infiltration and celebration of rank quackery into medical academia. Here is the press release for the opening of the center, hitting just about every CAM trope with amazing efficiency:

The Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine, part of UC Irvine Health, is proud to offer an innovative, holistic approach to healthcare that is backed by the latest medical research.

What exactly is integrative medicine? It’s a philosophy that makes use of all therapeutic approaches, healthcare providers and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing. Integrative medicine:

  • Focuses on the whole person
  • Is informed by scientific evidence
  • Brings together conventional and alternative approaches in a coordinated way
  • Reaffirms the importance of the doctor-patient relationship

Our integrative approach to healthcare is aimed at prevention and balance. Instead of reacting to symptoms as they occur, we seek to uncover the root causes of illnesses and disease before they negatively impact your life.

This is nothing but the standard stream of lies and misconceptions proponents use to malign science-based medicine and promote their competitive brand. There is nothing “holistic” about alternative medicine. They are not informed by science, they do not focus on the whole person, and they do nothing to address root causes of illness or to treat preventively. That is all just marketing spin, and it is embarrassing that a medical center would promote such nonsense, no matter how much money was in it for them.

Despite the evolving marketing strategies, when you dig down you find the same list of pseudoscience and quackery that has been around for the last century. Their website is still a little vague on exactly what they offer, but they do include this:

Integrative medicine incorporates traditional Western medicine with alternative or complementary treatments such as acupuncture, massage, herbal medicine, biofeedback and yoga. As part of our focus on maintaining wellness and promoting health, we offer clinical services in acupuncture, naturopathy, herbal medicine, nutritional supplements and a therapeutic lifestyle program.

This, again, is the usual mix of either complete quackery, or lifestyle factors stolen from mainstream medicine and rebranded as “alternative.” Science-based nutrition and exercise is not alternative, and they don’t need to be “integrated” into medicine because they have always been there.

They combine that with things like acupuncture, which is based on magic and does not work. Acupuncture proponents have managed to fool naive academics by lying about the science and changing the rules as needed. Basically, they just don’t have their eyes on the ball because they don’t perceive what is actually happening. I know many academics who see the entire phenomenon as if it were massage – benign treatments to make patients feel better. But that is just the Trojan horse used to infiltrate hard-core quackery into mainstream medicine.

Naturopathy is a great example. It is an approach to medicine that basically uses anything not based on science. One of their favorite treatment is homeopathy, which again is based on magic and demonstrably does not work.

Herbal medicine is at least plausible, based largely on plant-based drugs. However, it is a poorly studied and regulated form of drug therapy – a wild west of medicine with little quality control. The regulations seem crafted to benefit the industry at the expense of consumers.

When confronted with claims of integrative medicine, you have to always ask yourself, what exactly are they integrating? If mainstream medicine, by its own standards, uses interventions which have been shown to be safe and effective, the only things left to integrate are treatments that have not been shown to be safe and effective. Some of these unproven treatments are also highly implausible, sometimes to the point that they are essentially magic potions and witchcraft.

The bottom line is that the University of California Irvine should be thoroughly ashamed of itself for compromising its own academic integrity. It is now the standard bearer for quackery in academic medicine. This happened through the usual combination of apathy, ignorance, and misguided ideology. I don’t know to what extent the decision-makers at UC Irvine believe the integrative propaganda, are unaware of what it actually means, or just don’t care – but none of those options speak well of them.

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.