Science Says, 'Good Riddance, Sen. Tom Harkin'

By Alex B. Berezow & Hank Campbell

Editor's Note: The following is a modified excerpt from the new book Science Left Behind.

Progressive Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) announced his retirement recently, foregoing a re-election bid in 2014. Science Insider, the policy news arm of the journal Science, wished him a fond farewell, calling him a "longtime champion" of biomedical research.

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This is exactly backwards.

In reality, Harkin has been one of the leading voices of alternative medicine, up to 95% of which is complete nonsense. His insistence upon funding woo, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) no less, has served to undermine biomedical research. Called the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), this joke of an organization was created -- and packed full of woo-loving cronies -- by Senator Tom Harkin.

As an example of the sheer idiocy that is funded by this organization, $1 million was spent determining if strategically placed magnets relieved chronic pain. Another $2 million bankrolled an "acupressure" study to determine if pushing on people's heads caused them to lose weight. And despite the fact that we all love Master Yoda, $350,000 was wasted to study the "chi" life force. Hard to justify, the study is.

The NCCAM was established in 1998. (Its predecessor, the Office of Alternative Medicine, was established in 1991.) Surely, we would think, after two decades of rigorous science-based research, the agency would have at least one major, revolutionary discovery to boast about. Alas, it does not. According to the Associated Press:

Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer. All proved no better than dummy pills in big studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The lone exception: ginger capsules may help chemotherapy nausea.

The cost to taxpayers for finding out that quackery is indeed quackery? As of 2009, a mere $2.5 billion.

Senator Harkin is not pleased by the results of his pet project, but not because his quack agency has become the poster child for government waste. Instead, as Michael Specter reports in Denialism, Harkin is upset because the center he helped establish ended up disproving alternative medicine, not validating it as he had hoped. This reveals such a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific method (the goal of which is to test -- not prove -- your favorite hypotheses) that one medical doctor referred to Harkin as a public health menace.

Using his power and influence to advance voodoo-like beliefs -- while bashing mainstream medicine -- is embarrassingly ignorant behavior from an allegedly enlightened, progressive U.S. senator.

Good riddance, Sen. Harkin. And take your magnets and hot rocks with you.

Dr. Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. Hank Campbell is the founder of Science 2.0. Follow them on Twitter @AlexBerezow and @HankCampbell. Parts of this article have been adapted from the book: Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.

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