When drug companies decide what is ‘unscientific,’ medicine has gone awry and we need to ask, ‘What is the goal of science?’
One criticism traditional medicine has of chiropractic and natural health care is that it is “unscientific.” That is simply not true. Most of what chiropractors do in natural health care is scientific; it just has not been proven in a laboratory at the level we would like. What is the goal of science?
In many ways we are more scientific than traditional medicine because we keep an open mind and study our observations. There are a number of studies that show the benefit of chiropractic, but we always feel that we need more in order to be considered scientific.
A review of scientific method
When the medical profession discusses chiropractic and natural health care, they use the word “science” a lot. It might be useful to review scientific method here. First, you make an observation, then pose a testable question based on that observation. You state your hypothesis, then design and perform an experiment, collect data and draw a conclusion.
A lot of our information is based on observations or hypotheses, and that is not a bad thing. We communicate with each other and often find that many people are making the same observations. This is what the medical community dismissively calls “anecdotal.” Anecdotal information is, however, an important part of the scientific method when asking “What is the goal of science?” Anecdotal information is where the questions that eventually get tested in the laboratory come from.
Traditional medicine fails to be scientific because it ignores clinical observations out of hand. In fact, the majority of the observations that we in the natural health community work with are not even taken seriously. We would like to think that this is not because the medical “scientific” journals sell ads to drug companies. Financial pressure can dictate the editorial practices of a medical journal.
Drug company advertising and editorial
A recent study appearing in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2008 Apr 9; 8:11) looked at the amount of drug company advertising in individual journals and compared it to the content in the journal pertaining to nutritional supplements. The journals with the most advertising from drug companies had the fewest articles about nutritional supplements, and articles about supplements tended to be negative.
Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), publicly criticized his former publication, saying they were too dependent on advertising revenue to be considered impartial. One-third of the studies published in the BMJ are funded by the pharmaceutical industry. Smith estimates that between two-thirds to three-quarters of the trials published in major journals — Annals of Internal Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and New England Journal of Medicine — are also funded by the pharmaceutical industry.
Trials are so valuable to drug companies that they will often spend upwards of $1 million in reprint costs (which are additional sources of major revenues for medical journals). Consumers trust medical journals to be the impartial and “true” source of information, but money from big pharma influences both drug trials and medical journals.
As a result, we have multibillion-dollar corporations controlling our observations and our conversations about health — not very scientific. When something is labeled anecdotal, to the medical community it means it is unimportant. That is not necessarily true; it means a lot of people have made the same observation. The way information gets into the natural health community is very different from the way it gets into the medical community. For one thing, the information is not spoon-fed to us by the pharmaceutical industry.
What is the goal of science? Not research that specifically supports the drug model
In medicine, most research is focused on a single entity to treat a single disease. It fits the drug model nicely. Since the pharmaceutical industry buys advertising in all medical journals, funds medical schools and funds medical organizations like the American Pediatric Association, they have positioned themselves to be the ones who decide what is or is not true in our health care system.
It is a brilliant strategy; it keeps doctors from questioning drug therapies, and it sells drugs. Add that to the fact that six corporations control most of the media seen by the public, and that they rely on the pharmaceutical industry for advertising dollars, and there is a perfect storm for the control of information and the sale of pharmaceuticals.
Now that most of the research being done is available on the internet, natural health practitioners have the means to see if anyone has tested their observations. Studies are expensive, so most of the studies supporting natural health are small. Combining the “anecdotal” information from colleagues and one’s individual clinical observations, elegant and effective models for disease and strategies for treatment begin to emerge.
When medicine looks at some of the small studies, the comments center around two things:
1) the sample wasn’t large enough, and;
2) the results were not compelling enough to constitute a treatment.
But everyone in natural health care knows to combine therapies and the effects are often cumulative. For example, many asthmatics respond to magnesium supplementation. Some respond to taking vitamin C or another antioxidant. Most of us know that combining the two supplements increases favorable results.
You can’t really do that to any great extent with drug therapy because drugs have side effects and often harm the patient. They often work against each other. We don’t have that problem with vitamins and minerals; you will not harm the patient. Also, we are not treating a disease, we are correcting a deficiency. If the asthmatic is deficient in magnesium, symptoms will improve. Giving magnesium is not a treatment of the asthma; it is fixing infrastructure.
The science of natural health care revolves around identifying physiologic processes that have gone wrong and how they relate to the disease. Therapy revolves around improving physiologic processes. We don’t really treat disease; we improve infrastructure.
When you think about it, in natural health care we are much better at utilizing the scientific process than traditional medicine. We ask better questions. The questions medicine asks are things like, “Will Damnitol® reduce diarrhea in patients with Crohn’s disease?” One set of chemical reactions, one result. It sells Damnitol® but doesn’t really do much for finding the cause of the problem. In natural health care we ask: is Crohn’s disease due to incomplete digestion? Is it due to a parasite or bacterial overgrowth? Is it due to food allergies? We test our hypotheses with therapy. When our patients improve, we know we are on the right track. That is what the scientific method is all about.
Every patient is not the same
One thing that has become obvious to most of us is that a single disease can have different causes for different patients. Elaine Gottschall’s diet will help some Crohn’s disease patients, but not all. It shows us that one disease can have several mechanisms.
Finding errors in physiology and correcting them may produce results where medicine has failed so miserably. We are following scientific method, but studies are expensive and some things, even though they seem to hold up anecdotally, have not been proven.
Medicine will sometimes denounce this approach as unscientific, but it really is scientific when considering what is the goal of science. It is much more scientific than what MDs and the drug companies are doing. What is unscientific is to deny all observations that do not fit into your model of the disease. What is unscientific is to have science defined for you by a corporate entity.
PAUL VARNAS, DC, is a graduate of the National College of Chiropractic and has had a functional medicine practice for 34 years. He is the author of several books and has taught nutrition at the National University of Health Sciences.