MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

There are skeptics who keep claiming that there is no research in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). And there are plenty of SCAM enthusiasts who claim that there is an abundance of good research in SCAM.

Who is right and who is wrong?

I submit that both camps are incorrect.

To demonstrate the volume of SCAM research I looked into Medline to find the number of papers published in 2020 for the SCAMs listed below:

  • acupuncture 2 752
  • anthroposophic medicine 29
  • aromatherapy 173
  • Ayurvedic medicine 183
  • chiropractic 426
  • dietary supplement 5 739
  • essential oil 2 439
  • herbal medicine 5 081
  • homeopathy 154
  • iridology 0
  • Kampo medicine 132
  • massage 824
  • meditation 780
  • mind-body therapies 968
  • music therapy 539
  • naturopathy 68
  • osteopathic manipulation 71
  • Pilates 97
  • qigong 97
  • reiki 133
  • tai chi 397
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine 15 277
  • yoga 698

I think the list proves anyone wrong who claims there is no (or very little) research into SCAM.

As to the enthusiasts who claim that there is plenty of good evidence, I am afraid, I disagree with them too. The above-quoted numbers are perhaps impressive to some SCAM proponents, but they are not large. To make my point more clearly, let me show you the 2020 volumes for a few topics in conventional medicine:

  • psychiatry 668,492
  • biologicals 300,679
  • chemotherapy 109,869
  • radiotherapy 17,964
  • rehabilitation 21,751
  • rehabilitation medicine 21,751
  • surgery 256,958

I think we can agree that these figures make the SCAM numbers look pitifully small.

But the more important point is, I think, not the quantity but the quality of the SCAM research. As this whole blog is about the often dismal rigor of SCAM research, I do surely not need to produce further evidence to convince you that it is poor, often even very poor.

So, both camps tend to be incorrect when they speak about SCAM research. The truth is that there is quite a lot, but sadly reliable studies are like gold dust.

But actually, when I started writing this post and doing all these Medline searches to produce the above-listed volumes of SCAM research, I was thinking of a different subject entirely. I wanted to see which areas of SCAM were research-active and which are not. This is why I chose terms for my list that do not overlap with others (yet we need to realize that the figures are not precise due to misclassification and other factors). And in this respect, the list is interesting too, I find.

It identifies the SCAMs that are remarkably research-inactive:

  • anthroposophic medicine
  • iridology
  • naturopathy
  • osteopathy
  • Pilates
  • qigong

Perhaps more interesting are the areas that show a relatively high research activity:

  • acupuncture
  • dietary supplements
  • essential oils
  • herbal medicine
  • massage
  • meditation
  • mind-body therapies
  • TCM
  • yoga

This, in turn, suggests two things:

  1. It is not true that only commercial interests drive research activity.
  2. The Chinese (TCM and acupuncture) are pushing the ferociously hard to conquer SCAM research.

The last point is worrying, in my view, because we know from several independent studies that Chinese studies are often the flimsiest and least reliable of all the SCAM literature. As I have suggested recently, the unreliability of SCAM research might one day be its undoing: This self-destructive course of SCAM might be applauded by some skeptics. However, if you believe (as I do) that there are a few good things to be found in SCAM, this development can only be regrettable. I fear that the growing dominance of Chinese research will help to speed up this process.

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