Science Fiction: After Spending Half a Billion Taxpayer Dollars, Alternative Medicine Gurus Still Can't Prove Their Methods Work. How Convenient

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HIGH ON A WINDSWEPT MOUNTAINSIDE in Northern India, an appropriate setting for dramatic discovery, a team of medical scientists from Harvard unpacks its equipment: notebooks, coils of tubing, and a black globular hanging thermometer. Once a makeshift laboratory has been assembled, the team turns to its research subject, a shaven-headed monk in flaming orange robes, and proceeds to wire his body with lightweight thermistors. The scientists have won special dispensation from the Dalai Lama himself to study this monk, an advanced practitioner of the sacred Tibetan technique known as tumo, in which true believers are said to dramatically increase their body temperatures through intensive meditation. Some tumo masters are rumored to have performed astonishing feats, such as steam-drying freezing wet sheets draped across their backs. On this day, however, the researchers register no such miracle. As they conclude their work, the monk, looking sheepish, explains through a translator that he simply couldn't meditate properly. He wasn't able to "turn the corner" and so failed to achieve the true "bliss consciousness" that tumo requires. The reason? Because of the invasive rectal thermometer inserted to measure the phenomenon.

This may sound like a joke, but it's closer to cutting-edge science. A documentary containing this scene was shown to me by Dr. Herbert Benson, the lead scientist in the tumo study and the director of Harvard's Mind/Body Medical Institute. A cardiologist by training who authored the 1975 bestseller The Relaxation Response, Benson is at the forefront of one of the most important medical movements in decades, the push to incorporate nontraditional or "alternative" healing methods into the canon of Western medicine. He is one of hundreds of researchers at dozens of medical schools studying these previously untested techniques, collectively referred to as "complementary and alternative medicine" or "CAM"--everything from meditation, acupuncture, and herbalism to radical procedures like chelation, colonics, and leech therapy. The goal is to determine which treatments hold legitimate medical value and which are mere superstition.

Though many techniques are centuries old, the American public's fascination with these treatments has lately boomed. Today, CAM is a rapidly growing $32 billion-a-year industry. As its popularity has mushroomed, so too has the medical community's interest in understanding it. As a result, a longstanding animosity between "alternative" practitioners and mainstream medical scientists has begun to thaw. Since the early 1990s, the National Institutes of Health has awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to researchers studying CAM treatments. Many more have embarked on their own studies at medical schools across the country. The money and attention mean that alternative medicine's mythic claims of healing are finally being put to the test. In theory, this should be good news for everyone: Mainstream medicine can assimilate whatever proves worthy, while practitioners of legitimate alternative and complementary techniques can finally gain the authority of scientific approval and respect after decades of slights and ridicule.

But in practice it hasn't worked out that way. After a decade of studies, the truth about CAM is proving much harder to pin down than anyone imagined. This uncertainty hasn't hurt proponents; indeed, it's probably helped them. They've made inroads at all the top medical schools. Philanthropic organizations have showered money on programs and scholarship to boost CAM's visibility. The simple fact that medical schools are taking it seriously has lent alternative and complementary medicine an air of legitimacy. But the benefit to traditional science is much less clear. While a few techniques have proven reasonably effective--meditation, acupuncture, music and massage therapy, and some herbal remedies--they're the exception. …