Friday, July 23, 2010

Open Letter to Dr. Josephine Briggs

Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.
Director, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Dear Dr. Briggs,

As you know, we've met twice. The first time was at the Yale "Integrative Medicine" Symposium in March. The second was in April, when Drs. Novella, Gorski and I met with you for an hour at the NCCAM in Bethesda. At the time I concluded that you favor science-based medicine, although you are in the awkward position of having to appear 'open-minded' about nonsense.

More about that below, but first let me address the principal reason for this letter: it is disturbing that you will shortly appear at the 25th Anniversary Convention of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP). It is disturbing for two reasons: first, it suggests that you know little about the tenets and methods of the group that you'll be addressing; second, your presence will be interpreted as an endorsement of those methods and of that group---whether or not that is your intention. If you read nothing more of this letter or its links, please read the following articles (they're "part of your education," as my 91 y.o. mother used to say to me):

Naturopathy: A Critical Appraisal

Naturopathy, Pseudoscience, and Medicine: Myths and Fallacies vs Truth

The first article is an introduction to the group to which you will be speaking; the second is my response to complaints, from that group and a few of its apologists, about the first article. It was a surprise to me that the editor, George Lundberg, preferred that I make my response a comprehensive one.

Thus the second article inevitably became the crash course---call it CAM for Smarties---that your predecessors never offered you, replete with examples of useless and dangerous pseudoscientific methods, real science being brought to bear in evaluating such methods, proponents' inaccurate or cherry-picked citations of biomedical literature, bits of pertinent but little-known history, the standard logical fallacies, embarrassing socio-political machinations, wasteful and dangerous 'research' (funded---unwittingly, I'm sure---by the NCCAM), bait-and-switch labeling of rational methods as "CAM," vacuous assertions about 'toxins' and "curing the underlying cause, not just suppressing the symptoms," anti-vaccination hysteria, misleading language, the obligatory recycling of psychokinesis claims, and more.

Please excuse me if this sounds preachy; I admit that it does, but understand that I'm writing in good faith. My own views of "CAM" did not dawn on me overnight, but were the result of years of research. My 'internship,' as it were, consisted of sitting on a state commission from the fall of 2000 until the spring of 2002, listening to AANP members (including at least one with whom you will share the podium), reading about 'naturopathic medicine,' and attempting (unsuccessfully) to engage its advocates in rational discussion. I began that task open to forming opinions based on whatever information became available; by its end it had become abundantly clear that the group is best characterized as a pseudoscientific cult, and nothing since has altered that opinion.

Regarding your presence at the convention being tantamount to an endorsement of 'naturopathic medicine,' this is so obviously true that it ought not be necessary to mention it. Previous experience, however, has taught me to expect an air of---please don't take this personally---utter cluelessness whenever I've raised such an issue. If you've read the second naturopathy article linked above, you already know that according to proponents,

The validity of naturopathic medicine is demonstrated by its support in government (including accreditation of its schools and NIH-funded research), on medical school Web sites, and in other parts of the public domain.

An appearance at their annual convention by the most important "CAM" administrator at the NIH surely has the political arm of the AANP licking its chops. NDs, as they call themselves, are currently licensed in 14 or 15 states and a couple of provinces, and aggressively seek licensure throughout the U.S. and Canada. They appear to wield political clout well out of proportion to their numbers, no doubt thanks in part to the legislative language that created the NCCAM's National Advisory Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NACCAM):

Of the 18 appointed members...Nine...shall be practitioners licensed in one or more of the major systems with which the Center is involved. Six of the members shall be appointed by the Secretary from the general public and shall include leaders in the fields of public policy, law, health policy, economics, and management. Three of the six shall represent the interests of individual consumers of complementary and alternative medicine.

Thus there have been 1-3 NDs on the NACCAM since its inception in 1999, although their numbers in general are, by any measure, miniscule: I reckoned there were about 2500 in the U.S. in 2003; the AANP now places that number at 6000. By comparison, there are about 800,000 MDs and 50,000 DOs in the U.S.

NDs claim to be well trained to practice what most people think of as family medicine or primary care medicine, although their version of training is chock full of pseudoscientific nonsense and lacks a true residency program. They began by purporting to use only "natural medicines," but in regions where they've become politically connected they've sought, and been granted, the license to prescribe numerous drugs. Predictably, they've recently begun to bump people off with such exotic choices as intravenous colchicine and disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (that pesky TACT drug), in addition to more folksy nostrums such as acupuncture, vitamin B12, and an "herbal tincture" for a teenage girl who would shortly die of asthma.

I see that your talk is titled "Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Promising Ideas from Outside the Mainstream." I imagine that it will cover some of the material that you covered at the Yale Symposium, where you used the similar phrase, “Quirky Ideas from Outside the Mainstream.” Without reading more into that word substitution than is warranted, let me assure you that there are no promising ideas emanating from naturopathy, even if there are plenty of quirky ones, e.g., inflating balloons in the nasopharynx to effect a “controlled release of the connective tissue tension to unwind the body and return it toward to its original design."

Regarding the implicit requirement of your office that you appear open-minded even to medical absurdities, you made that clear in your own account of our NCCAM meeting and of another that you'd had a few weeks earlier, involving a group of homeopaths and associated crackpots who called themselves "the leading scientists in the field":

Recently, I hosted two meetings with groups that represent disparate views of CAM research. These meetings have given me a renewed appreciation for the value of listening to differing voices and perspectives about the work we do.

My NCCAM colleagues and I know there are differing views of the value of doing CAM research. On one side, we have stakeholders who are staunch CAM advocates, and on the other side, we have CAM skeptics.

Each group has its own beliefs and opinions on the direction, importance, and value of the work that NCCAM funds. The advocates would like to see more research dollars
supporting various CAM approaches while the skeptics see our research investment as giving undue credibility to unfeasible CAM modalities and want less research funding.

As I've stated before, our position is that science must remain neutral, and we should be strictly objective. There are compelling reasons to explore many CAM modalities, and the science should speak for itself. (emphasis yours)

Certainly science must remain neutral in the face of not-yet-seen data from rigorous studies, but that is different from what you, in your dual roles as "CAM" Explicator-in-Chief and Steward of Public Funds, must remain. You typically face questions that are, for all purposes relevant to the NIH, to modern medicine, and to the American citizenry, already settled---whether by basic science, clinical studies, rational thinking, or all three. I've offered several examples in the two naturopathy articles linked above.

Consider homeopathy, a core claim of "naturopathic medicine" and the subject of your meeting with the "staunch CAM advocates." It makes no more sense for you to remain neutral on that topic than it would for the NIMH Director to remain neutral on exorcisms, or for the NCI Director to remain neutral on Krebiozen. Edzard Ernst, a one-time homeopath whose own portfolio of "CAM" investigations dwarfs the entire output of the NCCAM, puts it this way:

Should we keep an open mind about astrology, perpetual motion, alchemy, alien abduction, and sightings of Elvis Presley? No, and we are happy to confess that our minds have closed down on homeopathy in the same way.

Science and skepticism, moreover, are not distinct. Good science involves, first and foremost, skepticism. This is true for the design of any experiment, in which the primary goal is to attempt to falsify the hypothesis, and also for scientific thinking in general. Bruce Alberts, the editor of Science, discussed this in a 2008 editorial titled "Considering Science Education":

...society may less appreciate the advantage of having everyone acquire, as part of their formal education, the ways of thinking and behaving that are central to the practice of successful science: scientific habits of mind. These habits include a skeptical attitude toward dogmatic claims and a strong desire for logic and evidence. As famed astronomer Carl Sagan put it, science is our best "bunk" detector. Individuals and societies clearly need a means to logically test the onslaught of constant clever attempts to manipulate our purchasing and political decisions. (emphasis added)

I believe that you know all this at some level, but that your current job demands that you bend over backward to frame skeptics as extreme---distinguishing them from "neutral" scientists. Thus you, like many reporters, have placed skeptics of homeopathy or naturopathy at one end of a contrived belief spectrum, and "staunch CAM advocates" at the other. Please indulge me while I compare this version of 'neutrality' with others that exist in the popular domain:

  • Some people feel strongly that the moon landings were a collective hoax. Others feel just as strongly that they really happened.
  • Some people believe that the Holocaust didn't happen. Others believe that it did.
  • Some people believe that the variety of species on earth is a product of Intelligent Design (ID). Others believe in the theory of evolution by variation and natural selection.

This could go on and on, but you probably get the point. The last bullet is more pertinent to your tacit endorsement of the AANP than you might imagine. What follows is a representative view of herbalism offered by Thomas Kruzel, with whom you will also share the podium at the convention (he will discuss "Emunctorology"; don't ask). Kruzel is Past President of the AANP and the former Vice President of Clinical Affairs and Chief Medical Officer at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. He was selected Physician of the Year by the AANP in 2000, and Physician of the Year by the Arizona Naturopathic Medical Association in 2003:

Herbal Medicine: Naturopathic physicians have been trained in the art and science of prescribing medications derived from plant sources. The majority of prescription drugs are derived as well from plants but are often altered and used as single constituents. What makes herbal medicine unique is that plants have evolved along with human beings and have been used as non-toxic medications for centuries.

If there is any problem with herbal medicines it is that unless one knows how to prescribe them, they may not be effective. Herbal medications should be prescribed based on the symptoms that the person presents rather than for the name of the disease. Herbal medications are much more effective at relieving the patients symptoms when prescribed in this manner. When prescribed the medicines act with the body’s own innate healing mechanism to restore balance and ultimately allows healing to occur.

What’s nice about plant or herbal medicines is that because they are derived from the whole plant they are considerably less toxic to the body. The plant medicine has evolved to work in harmony with the normal body processes rather than taking over its function as many drug therapies do. Because of this herbal medicines may be taken for longer periods of time without the side effects so often experienced with drugs.

You are particularly impressed, I hope, by the magical, ID-like claim that "plant medicine has evolved to work in harmony with the normal body processes." Other curious assertions include the conflation of herbal medicine with the core claims of either homeopathy or the non-existent 'allopathy' (we can't tell which)---"...should be prescribed based on the symptoms..."---demonstrating that the author doesn't know much about even the fanciful methods for which he claims expertise; and the dangerously false statement that medicines "derived from the whole plant are considerably less toxic" (than are well-researched and precisely dosed "prescription drugs").

Dr. Briggs, please consider the possibility that you no longer must hide your considerable scientific prowess in order to be a good NCCAM Director. Your 'stakeholders' include not only very small numbers of naturopaths, homeopaths, and other fringe practitioners, but also far larger numbers of citizens who wonder about the validity of what those practitioners are peddling. It is to those citizens that you should be directing your efforts, which ought to begin with sober, objective, skeptical, scientific considerations of the various claims, the vast majority of which can, like balloons in the nasopharynx, be deflated in milliseconds by anyone with even a modest understanding of nature. They don't require clinical trials.

Things are changing elsewhere. My colleague Steve Novella has just written about substantial efforts to deny insurance coverage for homeopathy in the land of its birth, Germany. In the UK, homeopathy has been far more popular than it is here, even to the point of its being funded by the National Health Service. One of the "staunch CAM advocates" who reportedly attended your meeting by teleconference was Peter Fisher, Homeopath to the Queen. Yet both the British Medical Association and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee have seen through the ruse of pseudoscience that is homeopathy, the former declaring it "witchcraft" and latter making this statement:

The Committee concurred with the Government that the evidence base shows that homeopathy is not efficacious (that is, it does not work beyond the placebo effect) and that explanations for why homeopathy would work are scientifically implausible.

American citizens want and deserve, for their tax money, exactly that sort of definitive evaluation of such claims. Your first responsibility, Dr. Briggs, is to them---it is not to the AANP, other "CAM stakeholders," Tom Harkin, Orrin Hatch, or Dan Burton, and certainly not to the members of the NACCAM. Yes, we "skeptics see [the NCCAM] research investment as giving undue credibility to unfeasible CAM modalities," because the evidence is overwhelming that this is the case. We also see your appearing at conventions of pseudomedical pseudoprofessional organizations as giving undue credibility to unfeasible and dangerous claims.

Sincerely yours,

Kimball C. Atwood, M.D.
Skeptic

This letter has been cross-posted on Science-Based Medicine.

1 comment:

MedInformaticsMD said...

How did Dr. Briggs come to be the "Director, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health"?

Was she offered it, or did she seek it out?

If she was offered it, could she not have been refused it?

-- SS