The 2,061st Meeting of the Society

September 6, 1996

When Congress Writes the Prescription

Voodoo Medicine at the National Institutes of Health

Robert L. Park

Professor, University of Maryland; Director of Public Information, American Physical Society

About the Lecture

Protection of an unsophisticated public from medical quackery was once considered an important responsibility of government. But in 1992 Congress mandated creation of an office of alternative medicine in the National Institutes of Health. This office has contributed to a surge of credulous media coverage for “alternative” therapies ranging from relaxation training and megavitamin regimes to aroma therapy, homeopathy, and faith healing. Americans are currently spending about $14 billion per year on therapies that are nothing more than ancient superstitions dressed up in new-age techno-babble. It is sufficient in most cases to show that the claims of alternative medicine violate accepted laws of physics.

About the Speaker

Robert Parks is professor of physics at the University of Maryland. The Korean War interrupted his preparation at the University of Texas for a career in law, and the Air Force decided to make him an electronics officer. After the war he decided the Air Force was onto something, and he entered the physics program at Brown University, where he studied with Harry Farnsworth, specializing in surface physics and earning a doctor of philosophy degree in 1964. After a stint with Sandia Laboratories, he became professor of physics and director of the center for materials research at the University of Maryland and rose to chairman of the department of physics and astronomy in 1978. Now he divides his time between the American Physical Society and the University of Maryland. He writes What's New, a weekly electronic commentary on science policy.


President Coates called the 2061st meeting to order at 8:22 p.m. on September 6, 1996. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2059th meeting and they were approved. Mr. Coates introduced Robert Park, Physics Department, University of Maryland, to discuss “When Congress Writes the Prescription: Voodoo Medicine at the National Institutes of Health”. In the last year alternative medicine has received a great deal of publicity. Among the publications and broadcast news programs carrying and featuring such stories are: The New York Times Magazine (30 July 1995), The Chronicle of Higher Education (12 January 1996 and 21 August 1996), U.S. News & World Report (5 February 1996), Washingtonian Magazine (February 1996), Time (24 June 1996), Life (September 1996), Wall Street Report and NBC Dateline. Contributing in part to this surge in media coverage of alternative therapies is the staff of the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine. This office was created by Congress in 1992 and is currently budgeted $14 million annually with a mandate to evaluate “unconventional medical practices” and alternative therapies that have not been, or might not be able to be, scientifically validated. The Office of Alternative Medicine is headed by Dr. Wayne B. Jonas, a homeopathist. The Chairman of the Advisory Board is James S. Gordon, author of “Manifesto for a New Medicine”. The Office has initiated funding for studies of: ayurveda (a traditional Hindu therapy), biofeedback therapy, homeopathy, “mental healing”, herbal medicine, shaman medicine, accupuncture, aroma therapy, hypnotic therapy, relaxation training, and megavitamin therapy. So far, proposals for studies of faith healing have not been funded. Protection of an unsophisticated public from quackery and fraud was once considered a responsibility of government. Now the government seems to be abetting the problem. Americans currently spend approximately $14 billion per year on alternative therapies that are nothing more than ancient superstitions dressed up in new-age techno-babble. The consumers of alternative therapies typically have had bad experiences with conventional therapy, are not acutely ill, prefer a holistic approach, and report that they do believe in the claims of the alternative therapies they are using. What's wrong with alternative therapies? The government policy, until the establishment of the Office of Alternative Medicine, was that acceptable treatments had to be provably safe and effective. It should be sufficient in most cases to show that the claims of alternative medicine violate accepted laws of physics, but certainly that in properly conducted double-blind tests they are either not effective or unsafe. Another problem is the potential inherent in the alternative therapies for perpetrating scams and frauds. While the supposed effect, such as “aura manipulation”, remains impossible to physically test or quantify, the possibility of fraud would seem to be obvious to everyone but the committed believer. But for the committed believer the absence of testability is viewed only in the positive aspect; the opponents of a therapy have failed to prove the therapy is valid. (Imagine the problems that will be presented in the first case of “aura manipulation” malpractice.) Likewise, opposition from conventional practitioners is regarded as evidence of bias motivated by a fear loosing patients, and the opposition thus becomes a validation of the therapy. For the supporters of a therapy, its failure in particular cases does not represent the failure of the therapy, but rather merely the failure of the patient to believe in the efficacy of the therapy. Ironically, for truly ineffective therapies this is true. More than two hundred years ago Benjamin Franklin observed the power of suggestion after witnessing a demonstration of Mesmer's magnet therapy. The psychological dynamics of alternative therapies reinforces the danger of fraud. Many alternative therapy patients are seeking a “guru” who will in turn command the faith of the patient. Many practitioners of alternative therapies realize and acknowledge that they are treating patients' psychological needs rather than their real physiological needs. To take the example of homeopathy, it is a practice about 200 years old based on inoculation and on the quinine treatment of malaria, the principle that “like cures like”. In order to ameliorate undesirable side-effects the cure is diluted while it retains its effectiveness. However, in homeopathy, the process of serial dilution is continued until it becomes essentially impossible for even one molecule of the original cure to remain in the treatment solution. Homeopathic theories account for this by positing that the solvent must “remember” the cure, storing it by means of bioelectricity or biophotons, or by invoking some supposed precepts of chaos theory. To quote Jennifer Jacobs, coauthor with Wayne Jonas of “Healing Homeopathy”, “a basic tenet of chaos theory is that very small changes can effect large systems.” Competent experimental scientists know from experience how easy it is to be fooled. They are constantly on the alert, or should be, for the flaws in experimental procedures that might give a misleading result. A widening public acceptance of alternative medicine measures the alienation and scientific naivete of many in our society. All of us should consider the implications of this fact. As educators our challenge is to speak of the “real” world with sufficient cogency, clarity and affection so that people will not seek relief in magic as a therapy Mr. Park kindly answered questions from the audience. Mr. Coates thanked the speaker on behalf of the Society, announced the speaker for the next meeting, restated the parking policy, and adjourned the 2061st meeting at 9:27 p.m. Attendance: 63 Temperature: 23.5°C Weather: partly cloudy Respectfully submitted, John S. Garavelli Recording Secretary