Field of Science

NCCAM and homeopathy

Some of those who read this blog might wonder if there are other examples of pseudoscience and quackery supported by NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) beyond the study on magnetic field therapy I pointed out back in June.

Unfortunately, there are lots of examples. I'm going to highlight a few more in the coming weeks, starting today. As I've written before, NCCAM is an embarrassment to NIH - it funds research that never would have made it through the rigorous review at other NIH institutes, and it is a waste of money. NIH should shut it down.

Today's example is a triple play: three grants all funded by NCCAM to the same investigator, Professor Iris Bell at the University of Arizona, who is a big fan of the homeopathy, a pseudoscience that I and many others have written critically about (see the Homeowatch site, for example).

The first one (grant R21AT003212) is called "Dilution and Succussion in Homepathic Remedy Dose-Response Patterns." This study, which should have been laughed out of the review panel, proposes to measure the effect of "succussion" on homeopathic remedies. Succussion is just shaking - you mix the stuff in, shake it up, and then dilute it. As I've explained before, homeopathic dilutions reduce the amount of "active ingredient" (usually an ingredient that doesn't provide any benefit anyway) to zero - literally so, because the dilution is so great that there is almost no chance that even a single molecule of the original substance remains, so all you have is water. Bell argues (as other homeopaths have recently) that the water retains a "memory" of the substance, and that this water still has a beneficial effect. There is no physical theory - and no evidence whatsoever - to support this claim, but there it is, right in the abstract of this grant. Dr. Bell hijacks the language of real science - clinical trials - to propose a randomized trial of various dilutions with "stirring only" versus 10, 20, or 30 succussions - that is, shakings. So NCCAM will fund a study that will compare several variants of a completely ineffective "potion." Dr. Bell isn't even going to test its effectiveness on a specific ailment - instead, she proposes to test how well subjects can "sniff" the different preparations. This is, frankly, ridiculous.

Grant number 2 to Dr. Bell is R21AT000388, "Polysomnography in Homeopathic Remedy Effects." This one will test the effects of two plant extracts on people's EEGs while sleeping (and compare them to a placebo). Both extracts will be given in 30c doses. "30c" means a dilution of 100 raised to the 30th power, or 1 followed by 60 zeros - in other words, the subjects will be given water that has a near 100% chance of containing not a single molecule of the plant extract (one of which comes from a coffee plant). The argument for using coffee is homeopathy's "Law of Similars" - that (quoting from the grant itself) "a substance that can cause symptoms in a healthy person can cure similar symptoms in a sick person." Luckily for the subjects, they won't actually get any coffee before bedtime, because the homeopathic potion won't contain any. Again, this should have been laughed out of the review panel.

Grant number 3 to Dr. Bell is 5K24AT000057 (and she has a 4th grant from NCCAM too), "Individual Differences in CAM Patient-Centered Outcomes", is already in its 8th year of funding. This doesn't have very specific aims, but instead supports "a program of research to understand the nature of global and multidimensional whole person healing patterns within homeopathy as a whole system of CAM."

None of this work should be funded with precious NIH research dollars. NCCAM undermines the credibility of all the terrific work going on in other institutes, and it drains precious funds from other studies where those funds would contribute to real science. Congress and NIH should shut it down.


  1. It is indeed worrying to see such waste of money on pseudo-scientific research grants -- especially in these times, when science funding is already heavily affected by economic decline, the dubious funding of the "war on terror" and high-level religious obscurantism opposing some areas of scientific research.

    I wonder what would be the next logical step in the "alternative science"(?) funding in US. Well, considering that most of the government officials brag about their Christian allegiance and implicitly their support for biblical superstitions, perhaps funding of Christian prayer studies should become a priority? Oh, wait, there were some recent studies showing that in fact intercessory prayer doesn't work. But at least those were funded by a quasi-religious foundation..

  2. Nice article. I linked to it in my recent post:


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