Free Minds & Free Markets

Quacks and Flacks

The pitfalls of seeking a scientific foundation for alternative medicine.

In 1979, shortly after the United States established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China, a young Harvard Medical School student named David Eisenberg became the first American in decades to visit the country on a medical exchange program. As a Harvard undergraduate, Eisenberg had been fascinated by Chinese history and culture. Now he found the opportunity to learn about traditional Chinese medicine in Beijing exotic and intoxicating. In a sense, it was the logical next step after ransacking Harvard's libraries for information on Chinese medicine and studying under Harvard's John King Fairbank, known as "the dean of American Chinese scholars."

In China, Eisenberg not only enjoyed great massages, practiced Tai Chi, and became something of an ascetic; he also carefully studied the healing arts of acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy. In the early 1980s, Eisenberg would return to the country with a group of Western doctors, including his Harvard colleague Herbert Benson, to examine scientifically "the most fundamental and baffling element of Chinese medicine -- Qi, the concept of 'vital energy.'"

Thus began a medical career that, given the state of mainstream Western medicine at the time, might have seemed unimaginable or even impossible. Yet more than two decades later, Eisenberg is arguably the nation's premier academic doctor involved in the growing field of research into complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) -- sometimes also called "integrative medicine." In 2001 Eisenberg was named director of Harvard's new multimillion-dollar Osher Institute for Research and Education in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies. At a time when CAM programs are proliferating at the nation's top medical schools, Eisenberg now heads the flagship academic research institute devoted to this area. If traditional and complementary and alternative medicine can truly become "integrated" in a university setting, then Eisenberg will be the person to do it.

With CAM's increased prominence at Harvard, however, has come controversy. Skeptics have been watching the medical school and its affiliated hospitals closely for any sign that unproven CAM techniques are being vouched for as scientifically valid or otherwise promoted to the public. They've found several. For example, InteliHealth -- a subsidiary of Aetna that draws upon Harvard Medical School's expertise to provide online consumer medical information -- was recently caught referring patients to practitioners of homeopathy (a water-based therapy whose key premise, that solutions become more powerful through dilution, violates fundamental laws of physics and chemistry). The offending content was quickly revised -- and made much less promotional -- by the Harvard faculty.

Far more contentious is a controversy involving Eisen-berg's actions outside the context of Harvard Medical School. From 2000 to 2001, Eisenberg represented the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on a state commission charged with examining whether naturopaths, a group of alternative healers, should be licensed by the state as legitimate health practitioners. Regardless of one's position on the licensure of caregivers in general, the commission's experience shines a light on how CAM may eventually be legitimated. The commission members clashed heatedly over their work, eventually producing rival reports in January 2002. Afterward, fellow doctors serving on the commission accused Eisenberg of behaving in an equivocating and unscientific manner. As one complained to Harvard Medical School Senior Dean Daniel Federman, Eisenberg was "notably silent when the other two physicians characterized naturopathic claims as baseless and dangerous."

Eisenberg responded to written questions for this article with a brief statement of medical principles, asserting for example that "members of the Harvard faculty involved with the [Osher Institute] are neither advocates for or against the use of complementary and integrative medical therapies. Rather, they are advocates for the rigorous scientific evaluation of these therapies." In the end, Eisenberg did not sign either of the commission's rival reports, pro or con. But a majority of members, including two CAM practitioners and the Department of Public Health's Nancy Ridley (who appeared in Eisenberg's stead as the process wound down), endorsed the licensure of naturopaths. None was an M.D.

Two doctors and one Massachusetts state representative, on the other hand, signed a scathing minority report that rebuked the majority for disregarding scientific evidence about the potential dangers of naturopathic medicine. Signatory Dr. Peter Madras, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine, says of the commission meetings, "We were back in a proceeding that must have emulated the Tennessee courthouse at the time of the Scopes trial." Dr. Arnold Relman, professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School and the editor for 14 years of The New England Journal of Medicine, resigned from the commission in protest and was replaced by Madras. "It was stacked against the M.D.s on that commission from the word go," he says. "And David Eisenberg would not stand with us."

The problem isn't just Eisenberg, though. Naturopaths aren't just any alternative healers. They are notoriously suspicious of childhood vaccinations; the group's founder, Benedict Lust, rejected the germ theory of disease; their view of cancer, heart attacks, and many other such conditions differs markedly from that of mainstream medicine. By empaneling a special state commission whose majority then recommended the licensure of this group, the state of Massachusetts itself has lent legitimacy to their practices in the public eye, and has done so in the very center of modern medical and biotechnology research that is Boston and its environs.

True Believer?

In Eisenberg's case, the tension between scientifically examining CAM and believing in it can be traced back at least as far as his 1985 medical travelogue Encounters With Qi: Exploring Chinese Medicine, written with Thomas Lee Wright. The book contains numerous passages in which Eisenberg analyzes traditional Chinese healing methods and argues that Western and Chinese doctors alike "share the responsibility of applying rigorous scientific methods to the study of these techniques."

Thanks in part to Eisenberg, this argument has triumphed in medical schools nationwide. It is widely accepted today that due to their ever-growing popularity -- documented by Eisenberg in a much-cited 1993 New England Journal of Medicine survey -- non-Western medical practices such as acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine (traditional medicine from India), and many herbal remedies must be evaluated according to scientific standards.

That effort is not merely required for patient safety. If nontraditional but medically sound healing techniques can be incorporated under the scientific umbrella, the result could be a broad improvement of medical care. As Eisenberg has put it, "My hope is that when five or 10 universities have sustainable infrastructure for research, education, and responsible patient care in this area, we will forget the terms alternative and complementary altogether and simply provide the best available medicine, based on the best available information."

This is certainly a worthy goal. Yet other passages in Eisenberg's book suggest a thinker who appears less inclined to analyze exotic techniques and claims critically. Encounters With Qi abounds with startling accounts of mystical Chinese Qi Gong practitioners splitting marble blocks with their foreheads, allowing themselves to be run over by vehicles, and, most astonishingly, engaging in "external Qi Gong" -- a logical but radical extension of the basic philosophy of Chinese energy healing that supposedly allows for such paranormal feats as telepathy and psychokinesis (using the mind to move objects).

In one chapter of Eisenberg's book, young girls amazingly intuit the written content of sealed envelopes, leading Eisenberg to dub them "magical children." In several others, Qi Gong masters engage in Luke Skywalker feats such as moving objects and people without touching them. Unexplainable is the word Eisenberg uses to describe it all.

The likely truth is that Eisenberg was hoodwinked. His fellow Qi investigator Dr. Herbert Benson, who appears in Encounters With Qi and now directs Harvard's Mind/Body Medical Institute, says of external Qi Gong: "I've traveled to China to study this. I've seen nothing that defied physical laws." And since Eisenberg's writing, other skeptics, including the magician James Randi, have subjected various Chinese "psychic" children and Qi Gong masters to rigorous testing in controlled settings -- whereupon their paranormal abilities have promptly vanished.

If Eisenberg was aware of this, it didn't stop him from traveling to China with Bill Moyers for his 1993 television series Healing and the Mind, which depicted the activities of Qi Gong masters with little warning that they may be mere manipulators. Psychologist Barry Beyerstein and Dr. Wallace Sampson, editor of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, have written of Eisenberg's role in Moyers' series: "[He] continued to embrace the therapeutic effects of [traditional Chinese medicine] as enthusiastically as he had back in his student days when he accepted as real the kind of 'external Qi' that others have exposed as magic tricks."

Critical Defect

Will Eisenberg's complementary and alternative medicine program at Harvard succeed in setting research into exotic and nontraditional medical methods on a firm scientific foundation? There's certainly a great deal riding on the endeavor. Bernard Osher, a wealthy San Francisco philanthropist who co-founded Golden West Financial, gave Harvard a $10 million grant in the spring of 2001 to found Eisenberg's center.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online