ReasonTV just put out a new video called, “The Alternative Medicine Racket: How the Feds Fund Quacks,” Produced and edited by Todd Krainin. The video is a documentary about the rise of alternative medicine in the US, and is a must-watch for anyone interested in the issue.

The documentary does well what a good history documentary is supposed to do – put a topic into clear historical and cultural perspective. It is amazing how quickly we collectively forget how things were just a generation ago. Twenty to thirty years is apparently all that is necessary for clever marketing to completely change the way the public looks at an issue.

The origins of integrative medicine

Krainin starts appropriately by reminding the viewer of that historical context. A 1984 congressional report concluded that con artists selling “alternative medicine” were swindling the public out of 10 billion dollars a year. They preyed upon the old, the sick, and the desperate. The situation was considered a “scandal.”

In a short 20 years these same con artists committing health fraud would be funded by the federal government and would infiltrate every level of the medical establishment.

The story of how this happened revolves mostly around Senator Tom Harkin and the Office of Alternative Medicine he created. Harkin, convinced his hay fever was cured by bee pollen, wanted to “study” (meaning endorse and promote regardless of the evidence) “alternative medicine.”

The OAM begins with Joe Jacobs, who seriously wanted to study alternative treatments to see if they work. Harkin, however, had appointed an advisory council packed with quacks, including Deepak Chopra. Harkin had essentially put the foxes in charge of the hen house.

Jacobs did not last long at the OAM. He was replaced by Wayne Jonas, a homeopath (which is all that really needs to be said).

As we have documented here on SBM, the OAM has evolved over the years. It was elevated to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and recently rebranded to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health – one indication of the use of branding to change how the public thinks about such treatments.

Krainin goes on to discuss the role media played in making alternative medicine celebrities out of the likes of Chopra and Weil. We also see the role that the very gullible Bill Moyers documentary played in making new age quackery seem real.

The turning of the tide?

Krainin further documents what many of us hope is the beginning of the turning of the tide for alternative medicine. The NCCIH has spent billions of dollars and has failed to find a single cure hidden within the snake oil. When they do conduct well designed studies, they are invariably negative.

As we pointed out here at SBM at the time, Senator Harkin was not pleased by the negative outcomes. Here’s the money quote from him:

One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short. It think quite frankly that in this center and in the office previously before it, most of its focus has been on disproving things rather than seeking out and approving.

Harkin clearly does not understand science and how it is supposed to work, and clearly reveals his bias and his agenda in this short statement. In the six years since he said this, more billions of dollars have been spent with nothing to show for it.

A trailer for a really good movie

The documentary is short, less than 15 minutes, but it packs a powerful punch. Of course, the short format means that much was left out of the documentary. There is, for example, no mention of the champion of the supplement industry, Orin Hatch. In the comments Krainin acknowledges this, but with the short format he had to focus on a few key points.

A proper documentary of this massive swindle of the public and institutional failure at many levels would need several hours at least. The fifteen minute video almost feels like a trailer for this much longer documentary.

Perhaps, however, it is the perfect length (maybe even too long) for the current YouTube generation, what I like to call “short-attention-span theater.”

Like all good documentaries, this one will leave you feeling something. If you are not at least a little angry and dismayed at the end, then you weren’t paying attention, or you have already gone too far down the ideological rabbit hole to understand why you should be angry.

A hat tip to us

In an e-mail to the editors of SBM, Todd Krainin wrote:

I relied heavily on Science-Based Medicine over the course of my research. It’s a fantastic resource on an important and neglected topic.

He also said the same thing about CSI (the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry), which also publishes many articles on alternative medicine (many by SBM authors).

Essentially these are just different specific outlets of the broader skeptical movement specializing in medical pseudoscience. It shows, in my opinion, the importance of the skeptical movement in continuing to engage with the public over issues relating to pseudoscience. It is an important area of expertise.

In my opinion, the best indication of the need for those who have a dual expertise in medicine and in scientific skepticism is the ease with which alternative medicine quackery was able to infiltrate academia and the medical establishment.

Take a look at the documentary. Get a little angry (or maybe a lot angry) and let’s continue the conversation about how we can turn this ship around and start heading back toward a truly science-based medical establishment.




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 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 has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.