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Ayurveda and NIH

Some of you may know that our beloved National Institutes of Health has a "National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine" (NCCAM). This was created quite recently and as far as I can tell, is a collosal waste of precious NIH funds. This is not a victimless crime - funds spent on NCCAM could instead be spent on real NIH research, improving the prospects for curing real diseases.
Instead, NCCAM is basically a booster for "alternative" practices that are mostly complete nonsense, and in some cases are (or should be) downright embarrassing to the NIH. My topic today is Ayurveda, which I blogged about last month when I was preparing to go to a scientific conference where one of the speakers was (to my surprise) planning to speak on Ayurvedic medicine. In preparing for that meeting, I happened upon the NCCAM page on Ayurveda, here. (Yes, that's a link to NIH.)
The NCCAM site on Ayurveda goes on for page after page explaining it, and it is clear that the NIH is trying to present Ayurveda in the best light possible. This is not what NIH should do - it should support scientific investigation of health claims, not provide advertising for "traditional" practices that are little more than superstition. Despite their attempt, they can't really sanitize Ayurveda - in trying to explain it, they delve into the ridiculous beliefs of Ayurveda such as their fundamental notion that everyone has three "doshas", and imbalances in these doshas cause basically all disease. Imbalances in the first dosha - so says the NCCAM website - can make a person susceptible to "skin, neurological, and mental diseases" or with a second dosha, to heart disease and arthritis, and the third causes diabetes, ulcers, and asthma. All the doshas can be upset by eating certain types of food.
You have to scroll way, way down on the page - to point 11 - to finally come to what should be point number 1: "Does Ayurveda work?" The answer is, simply, "No." Actually the entire page should be just that question followed by that answer. But here the NIH really lets the wheels come off, and NCCAM reveals its bias: it says "A summary of the scientific evidence is beyond the scope of this Backgrounder." What??? It then makes things worse by stating that "very few rigorous, controlled scientific studies have been carried out on Ayurvedic practices. In India, the government began systematic research in 1969, and the work continues." So they are trying to suggest that this needs more study - a common ploy of pseudoscience practitioners - and even that "research" is going on today in India.
Ayurveda is harmful. If you read even further down, even the NCCAM site admits this, but only indirectly. What it says is that many Ayurvedic "medications have the potential to be toxic." (No, they are toxic.) What are they - well, even NCCAM admits that they contain lead, mercury, and arsenic. Is this accidental? The NCCAM site would leave this question unanswered, but a web search quickly reveals that Ayurveda intentionally uses these metals and others in their "treatments." So the mercury, lead, and arsenic that are found in Ayurveda potions are in fact the main ingredient.
If you really want to read about Ayurveda, check a site that presents the evidence more objectively - or skeptically, such as quackwatch.com. Unfortunately, the NCCAM site is not objective. They support Ayurveda, and other "alternative" practices, because they seem to think their mission is to be a booster for these sham practices. I think NCCAM should be shut down, and fast.

Scientists speak out against homeopathy

Nature has had a number of articles recently about pseudoscience teaching in British universities, and how some scientists are speaking out against it. Recently a group of them have taken on homeopathy, which has a long-term following in Germany and England. It is also practiced here in the U.S., though not as much.
The latest from our friends in England is an open letter by a group of scientists, led by Prof. Gustav Born of Kings College London, asking that the National Health Service stop paying for homeopathy. (Wait - can you believe this? They pay for homeopathy! What an absolutely awful waste of money.) There are all kinds of reasons not to pay for homeopathy: first, it doesn't work. Second, it encourages people to believe in a system that is anti-scientific (and doesn't work).
Steven Novella (of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe) has a blog on this topic as well, which I recommend.
By the way, if you've not heard of homeopathy, here's the 25-cent summary. Practitioners of this hocus-pocus believe that incredibly minute amounts of substances can treat symptoms. The "substances" are usually something connected with the symptom - they have a (completely unfounded) belief that "like treats like"; in other words, something that causes a symptom can treat it. So a tiny amount of the oil from poison ivy (to make up an example) might cure itching. But the belief doesn't matter anyway, because the amount of dilution they use essentially guarantees that their potions are just water. They dilute their substances so much that - no kidding - there is on average less than one molecule of the substance per does. In other words, there's nothing in it. That doesn't stop them from selling their potions to whomever is willing to pay - including the British National Health service, regrettably. By the way, I'm using the word "potion" on purpose - this is really nothing more than witchcraft. But hey, some people believe in witchcraft too. It's just that the National Health Service doesn't pay for you to go to a witch for treatment.
Good luck, Prof. Born and colleagues! I hope you can educate your own public enough to stop the waste and fraud.

pseudoscience alert

Tomorrow I'm giving a talk at a conference of the IUBS (International Union of Biological Sciences), which normally would be just an interesting scientific meeting for me. The conference is on various approaches to improving global health - my topic will be the influenza virus. However, there's a guy in my session who is giving a talk on "Ayurvedic Biology" - to which my first reaction was, "what the heck is that?" I looked into it and wrote to the session chair and then the conference chair when I found out: Ayurveda is a bunch of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo that has been popularized by the Maharishi Yogi and by Deepak Chopra. These guys recommend that you take minerals such as lead, mercury, gold, silver, and arsenic to treat physical ailments - in other words, they recommend that you take poison. They also use incantations, amulets, spells, and mantras. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever behind this, it's just a tradition (they say) dating back centuries in India.
There are many websites explaining it, so here's one quote: "Patients are classified by body types, or prakriti, which are determined by proportions of the three doshas. The doshas allegedly regulate mind-body harmony. Illness and disease are considered to be a matter of imbalance in the doshas." From www.baskeptics.org: Chopra "claims that Ayurveda works because it corrects a distortion in consciousness... Chopra repeatedly asserts that 'for every thought there is a corresponding molecule. If you have happy thoughts, then you have happy molecules.'...Chopra also asserts that masters of Ayurvedic medicine can determine an herb's medicinal qualities by simply looking at it. Scientific study is therefore unnecessary."
These guys aren't kidding! So after much effort by the conference chair - who said it was too late to invite our Ayurvedic presenter, Darshan Shankar (who turns out not to be a Ph.D. or any other type of scientist, no surprise) - we think that the chair has convinced Shankar to give a more reasonable presentation, though it still mentions Ayurveda. I hope it works, but if not I'm going to have to get up at the end and say something to make it clear I don't believe it.
This is interesting because I've never been in a position like this before. I thought about simply refusing to speak, but the conference chair put in many hours basically re-doing Shankar's slides for him, so I feel like I have to go. But we don't know if Shankar will stick to the re-written script. I'll post a followup after the conference.

the Encyclopedia of Life

The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune had reports today about a major new effort online - to catalog every named species in a large, open website to be called the Encyclopedia of Life. This effort, inspired by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, will create a Wikipedia-style site that scientists can use to enter whatever they know about every species of life. It's both incredibly ambitious and admirably realistic - the Wiki format makes this possible as long as enough people contribute.
The new project is at www.eol.org, and it's funded by the Smithsonian Institution, the MacArthur Foundation, Harvard University, and Chicago's Field Museum. Each species will get its own web page, obviously. What remains to be seen is how committed the creators will be to fully open access to all the content - if it's truly shared by the whole world as they seem to be saying it will, then it will be a great resource.