The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was tacked forcibly onto the National Institute of Health after Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) thought more attention ought to be paid to beeswax.
As a curative agent, I mean. Those two, and others in charge of us, thought it would a fine idea if we paid to put alternative therapies to the test.
And they’re right: it is a good idea. Some potential palliatives can be dismissed immediately—for example, massive doses of arsenic to treat toenail fungus. But most cannot be brushed off without some evidence, because even the most ludicrous sounding treatment might be helpful.
Have a claim? Put it to a controlled test. Pass that test and all benefit. Flunk it, then admit defeat; or at least keep quiet and move on (which never happens, naturally).
The three treatments that have received the most exhaustive testing are acupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy. They have been subject to endless experiments, found wanting, but never found lacking proponents.
I worked for several years at Cornell Medical School’s Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine, where I read over a hundred papers that made extraordinary claims. The best evidence for the efficacy of any of these treatments is statistical. But the more experiments any treatment undergoes, the more its signal fades into the noise. You have to wear cheap statistical magnifying glasses to see positive effects.
However, I do not say, and it is not true, that these treatments have no benefit. They surely do. But so do sugar pills. But with chiropractic, there is a real, documented chance of physical harm. Acupuncture and homeopathy are harmless. The later is guaranteed to be.
In case you are one of the few people left who don’t know, a homeopathic “drug” is made in the following manner.
Water—somehow this is “pure” water, but how it’s made, we’re never told—is dosed, tea-bag style, with some substance, usually some plant extract. The doped water is successively diluted until the probability that even one molecule of the substance remaining is about equal to you having the ability to jump to the moon.
This is boasted of. The water—by a mysterious process unknown to anybody—is able to memorize that it once knew the substance. When you eat that water in the form of a pill composed of miscellaneous ingredients that were soaked in the diluted water, it is supposed to help your body fix itself by releasing vibrations.
It’s always vibrations!
Nobody knows how homeopathy works. Because it doesn’t. We know a lot of science with varying degrees of accuracy, and there are few things we know so well that homeopathy and most other complementary procedures are groundless. Yet some insurance companies still pay for these treatments.
The actuaries who investigate these therapies are good enough statisticians to know that the therapies don’t perform as stated (biologically, physically), but they also know that they work in the following way: some people who would otherwise see an expensive physician will chose a cheap complementary procedure instead.
Usually, these people needn’t have gone to a physician anyway. They have colds, minor aches and pains, or other maladies that will self correct.
If complementary procedures were just as expensive as standard ones, insurance companies would surely not cover them. But since they are cheaper, actuaries can estimate how many people will use a placebo therapy that would have instead gone to a physician. Perhaps oddly, if the number that would opt for, say, homeopathy (if it were covered) is large, then the insurance company will cover homeopathic treatments. This saves them money.
When the government takes over medical care, they will have to legalize these kinds of actuarial calculations. It must decide what will be paid for and what won’t. For example, if I set up shop as a quack—I cure with taps of my healing hammer–the government will have to legislate whether it will pay me. Just as insurance companies do now.
Therefore, if there is any rationality left in government, they will probably come to the same conclusions that insurance companies have, and they will fund homeopathic and other integrative therapies.
It’s worse. Governments cave more readily to special interests than do insurance companies. “You cover homeopathy? You should also cover wymen-centered Wiccan magick!” The actuarial tables will be tossed and votes will take their place.
Incidentally, Wiccan “cures” are cheaper than, say, new chemotherapies. And who are we to say which is better?
Just wait and see.
Note I’m traveling today and will be away from the computer.