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Clear it with SidneyHow our blog got its name >

Notes on journalism for the common good
by Lindsay Beyerstein

How our blog got its name

Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”

Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.

It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.

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Coffee Enemas, Aromatherapy, and Intercessory Prayer: Your Tax Dollars At Work

Why is the federal government spending millions on research into coffee enemas, aromatherapy, and intercessory prayer? Hint: It's not our exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Trine Tsouderos of the Chicago Tribune has a scathing report on The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), an ideologically motivated side project within the National Institutes of Health which has received over $1.4 billion in grants to study scientifically dubious alternative remedies:

Thanks to a $374,000 taxpayer-funded grant, we now know that inhaling lemon and lavender scents doesn't do a lot for our ability to heal a wound. With $666,000 in federal research money, scientists examined whether distant prayer could heal AIDS. It could not.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine also helped pay scientists to study whether squirting brewed coffee into someone's intestines can help treat pancreatic cancer (a $406,000 grant) and whether massage makes people with advanced cancer feel better ($1.25 million). The coffee enemas did not help. The massage did.

NCCAM also has invested in studies of various forms of energy healing, including one based on the ideas of a self-described "healer, clairvoyant and medicine woman" who says her children inspired her to learn to read auras. The cost for that was $104,000.

The Tribune reviewed 12 years' worth of NCCAM documents to write this story.

Tsouderos succinctly explains why the public should be outraged. NCCAM is wasting money investigating hypotheses that have little or no prior probability of being true--some of them claim mechanisms of action that are medically impossible. In real science, extreme longshot research proposals are less likely to get funded than proposals with a serious chance of getting results. Most of NCCAM research proposals couldn't compete with real medical research for regular NIH funding. At the same time, competition for medical research dollars is fierce, and the NIH's overall budget is projected to plateau and eventually shrink.

As regular readers may know, I've been active in the skeptics movement for many years. Tsouderos interviewed my old Skeptics Toolbox colleague and friend Dr. Wallace Sampson, who was characteristically acerbic in his assessment of NCCAM's research portfolio:

"Some of these treatments were just distinctly made up out of people's imaginations," said Dr. Wallace Sampson, clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University. "We don't take public money and invest it in projects that are just made up out of people's imaginations."

As Tsouderos notes, complementary and alternative therapies are a $34 billion industry and 40% of U.S. adults report using some kind of alternative remedy in the last year. Wouldn't it make sense to study these remedies, given that they're being used so widely? For all we know, some of them are dangerous. Besides, even debunking useless claims would be a service to consumers. The problem is that NCCAM exists to validate alternative medicine, not to assess it critically.

NCCAM is a political oasis for research that could not compete in mainstream science. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), one of the fathers of NCCAM, gave the game away when he lamented during a 2009 senate hearing that the center was disproving too many alternative therapies. "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," Harkin said. If Harkin were interested in applying science to CAM, as opposed to confirming his bias towards complementary remedies, he would be happy that useless treatments were found to be useless.

[Photo credit: opacity, Creative Commons.]


before anyone gets uppity, relative to this righteous criticism, remember we all live within this controlled medical industrial complex....which allows for all sorts of monopolized treatments + sweet partnerships with the insurance corporations, get the point....we all live in terribly-allopathic times, where those who control the questions ,control all the answers. As a mirror reversal, let's become over-educated in our study of all the systems of healing in the wisdom's past time for this awakening, maybe it's already too late as GMO-speaks and the FDA leans corrupted by the oligarchs, who also own the politicians,left and right.

While I agree that tax payer money should not be wasted on fruitless endeavors, there are far greater examples in the oligarchical world of Washington that this. Can you say Solyndra? Why don't we eliminate the FDA's strangle on treatment options. More people die each year taking prescription drugs than any illegal drug! Let the American consumer decide what is effective. There is a mammoth amount of 'Credible' research into non-synthetic substances that show far greater benefit that the 'Big Pharma' produced drugs. Socrates, the father of modern medicine said "Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food." It would behoove us all to heed his words and find the truth in how our body reacts to the substances we ingest. We are what we eat. Sadly, for millions of Americans, it consists of chemicals, preservatives, and genetically modified produce. Americans are proverbial cash cows for Big Pharma!

I would ask why so many are seeking alternative medicine cures in the first place- could it have something to do with the millions of uninsured people in our nation and the astronomical expense of seeking actual, real medical help?

Amazing that Harkin would fail so spectacularly to understand what science is supposed to do. And be so upset that at the very least his waste of dollars is debunking some of them.

For life to continue, in a relatively positive course, allowing society a means for satisfaction, we must study and document ALL theories and possibilities. They are endless, and these few which you cite may at first glance, seem silly. But is that only because we are living in financially difficult times? There must certainly be research completed in the past which was greatly beneficial, yet contested, within the scientific community? From imagination, from anecdotal evidence, from earlier research, there are many reasons why one pursues an answer. Let us not mock these efforts frivolously, instead, let us find a means to embrace all ethical research in a more cost-effective manner. For literally 99% of the beliefs and causes out there, for each one, there exists mocking naysayers. However, each one of these "alternative remedies" you cite, no matter how wasteful they may seem to some, there exists a study which will potentially drive, assist or dispute progressive research.

So far, I only see million, not billions... sort of a big difference...

First we had Rumsfeld whining that the CIA couldn't find Saddam's WMD. Then Baghdad Bob, insisting the American troops where no where near Baghdad. Now we have Harkin complaining, "Despite 200 years of people debunking snake oil, when they where not dying from either it, or not getting proper treatment, all the money I have helped the government throw at snake oil research hasn't shown that any of it works, save in really trivial cases!" I can't help but sigh in mild despair at two comments, which sum up the problem quit well, in a post that was about this article: grumpyoldfart, "I like Americans – When I stand next to one, I look quite smart." Jadehawk, "And which magical, New-Age-woo-free country do you hail from, smartass?"

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