For regular readers of this blog, you know that I’m a progressive plus being a strong supporter of scientific evidence. I don’t spend a lot of time writing about politics, though I am a strong critic of the left when it comes to science. And it’s time call out a presidential candidate, who is not Donald Trump – Bernie Sanders embraces alternative medicine which is not good for health care.
Senator Sanders is a self-proclaimed “socialist” or social democrat, although I doubt he would compare economically to real socialists or social democrats in Europe. His brother, a Green Party politician in the UK, probably would make a real socialist. He fits the crunchy liberalism of the state he represents, Vermont. These are generally the progressives I criticize the most – generally anti-vaccine, anti-GMO and pro-alternative medicine.
Sanders has promoted GMO labeling, a policy that will lead to increased food costs for those who least deserve to pay more for food. For those of us who look only at science based evidence for claims, there is little difference between climate change deniers and GMO deniers.
Even though there is absolutely no evidence (unless cherry picking is your thing) that GMO foods are a health risk, individuals like Sanders push that trope to probably pander to his most liberal supporters. Or maybe Sanders embraces pseudoscience, because that’s his core belief. I’m beginning to wonder.
All about alternative medicine
Before we get into Sanders support of this field, let’s look at what constitutes “alternative medicine.” Sometimes called complementary and alternative medicine, they are practices that promote healing effects that do not originate from evidence supported by the scientific method. They are not a part of the biomedical sciences.
Alternative medicine has a lot of different names that seem to be based on one of the basic tenets of pseudoscience – confuse the issue by using scientific sounding verbiage. Holistic medicine. Natural medicine. Integrative medicine. They’re all reflections of the same basic pseudoscience – alternative medicine.
And the pushers of alternative medicine try to place pejorative descriptions to science-based medicine – Western medicine, Allopathic medicine, mainstream medicine, and other seemingly innocuous names. They try to make science based medicine out to be close-minded and corrupt.
The most popular (and by no means all inclusive) forms of alternative medicine are homeopathy, acupuncture, the vast majority of chiropractic procedures, naturopathy, and so many other pseudoscientific therapies.
I also contend that a vast portion of the anti-vaccine movement is based on alternative medicine – they believe that just the right combination of chiropractic and some home remedy will prevent diseases that vaccines do. Except without that mountain of evidence that support vaccines.
According to Dr. Fontanarosa, who wrote in JAMA, “There is no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking.”
In other words, there is a dichotomy – medicine is supported by scientifically based evidence, and alternative medicine is not. At the moment some therapy in “alternative medicine” is found to have clinical benefits that are supported by data published in real medical journals, then the scientific consensus will eventually support it as just plain “medicine.”
As opposed to the myth that the practitioners of science based medicine are close minded, which is actually contradicted by the open-mindedness to new clinical data that supports a change in practice, alternative medicine is close minded to almost all scientific evidence. Practitioners, who are well versed in the art of pseudoscience, mostly reject real science (including the scientific method) and are reluctant to embrace the data that invalidates their closely held beliefs.
Bernie Sanders embraces alternative medicine
Although Sanders avoids mentioning alternative medicine in his current campaign literature, his long history of support of alternative medicine is pretty clear. As Time magazine has reported, Sanders has adopted alternative medicine since he started his political career in Vermont.
An article in the journal Integrative Medicine (definitely an alternative medicine promoting journal ) bemoaned the fact that in 2015, the loss of the US Senate to the Republicans would lead to Bernie Sanders losing his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
What’s this got to do with alternative medicine you ask? The article states that “Bernie Sanders … is credited with inserting the licensed complementary and alternative medicine professions into the workforce Section 5101 of the Affordable Care Act. He’s also a strong advocate for vast expansion of access to integrative services across the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).”
The article is referring to a bill that Sanders sponsored in 2013 that would have increased availability of alternative medicine to veterans. It would do this by increasing funding for alternative medicine research and allowing their health care benefits to alternative medicine.
In other words, Sanders beliefs in quackery led him to add language to Obamacare to allow payment of alternative medicine, wasting good money for non-evidence based treatments. Worse yet, forcing the Veterans Administration, who is strapped for funds to provide healthcare to American veterans who fought in various wars, to pay for useless therapy.
I don’t know why Sanders thinks using scarce funds to support junk medicine is a wise use of taxpayer money, when it could be better used to fight real diseases and provide real therapies to people who need it. Maybe it relates to some of his core beliefs about health and disease.
The Time article describes his life-long adherence to a core belief that things like grief and suffering can lead to cancer. Stress isn’t good for general health, but there is simply no evidence that it leads to cancer. This overall belief that somehow the mind controls all aspects of one’s health is just frightening. Ok, maybe your mind controls your addiction to cigarettes, a known cause of cancer – but the mind isn’t directly involved with the cancer causing process, it’s the cigarettes.
Moreover, Sanders is supported by groups who have this “holistic” belief about health. The Super-PAC, National Nurses United, also suggest that some disease are linked to environmental and societal issues. The union’s executive director, RoseAnn DeMoro claims that “ultimately, all the ails of society present themselves in illness. Everything has a physical or emotional or psychological component.”
In other words, Ms. DeMoro is claiming that all diseases have some psychosomatic cause. This is a denial of everything we know about medicine, including germ theory, cell theory, biology of cancer, and on and on and on.
I don’t doubt being in a good frame of mind can help one through difficult medical conditions. For example, one could hypothesize that someone with a strong positive outlook can endure the harshness of cancer therapy over someone who is not. That doesn’t mean the positive outlook makes your immune system more powerful – just your ability to tolerate the therapy.
Maybe Sanders decided that once he began to run for president, he should disavow his crackpot ideas about medicine. Well, he hasn’t. As recently as November 2015, it was reported that Sanders praised holistic and alternative medicine at meeting of the Veteran’s Administration. Sadly, Sanders claims that “the increasing integration of Chinese medicine and yoga, for example, as bright spots in a largely dysfunctional American health care system.”
There’s a lot of problems with the American health care system. But adding in traditional Chinese medicine (neither traditional nor medicine) and yoga are not going to fix it. I contend it harms it.
In other words, Sanders wants to push quackery over real evidence based medicine. Is he claiming that cancers can be “alleviated” through natural means? Really? They can’t. Since there are hundreds of cancers, real science has given us the best evidence to attack each one of them. Many successfully. Some not so much.
Hillary Clinton too
That doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton gets off the hook on the alternative medicine issue either. The Clintons have a long history with Dr. Mark Hyman, who is like the thought leader of a type of alternative medicine called functional medicine. Again, according to the peculiar wizard of medicine, Orac, “functional medicine … is a form of highly dubious medicine that involves measuring all sorts of lab values and trying to correct them, whether it makes a difference or not.”
I’m not an advocate of the “lesser of two evils” approach to politics, but Clinton probably is the lesser. She is supportive of GMOs, though it’s laughable that left-wing environmental groups use the Monsanto shill and strawman attack against her. And she hasn’t pushed any legislation regarding alternative medicine when she was in the Senate.
Who is more pro-science?
I’m not even going to bother with Republicans here. They are generally climate change and evolution deniers. For me, that’s a non-starter scientifically. Hillary Clinton and Bernier Sanders, as far as I know, accept the fact of climate change and the fact of evolution.
The Republicans generally are vaccine deniers. Donald Trump, and the former candidate, Rand Paul, are notorious liars about vaccines. Again, another non-starter. And public statements from both have ridiculed the Republican junk science with regards to vaccines.
When comparing Clinton and Sanders, at least on scientific issues, Clinton wins, but not by a lot. Maybe some of you think that this is minor.
But here’s the thing – if a candidate denies one aspect of science, can he or she be trusted on any aspect?
Science matters in a lot of political decision that will be upcoming over the next decades. Abortion bans are filled with pseudoscience and junk medicine. Fracking and off shore oil drilling is the same. Is there science that supports nuclear energy as the cleanest alternative energy? Is the educational system built to produce the next generation of scientists and engineers?
I hate making science a “litmus test” for a political candidate. But I don’t vote for evolution deniers for the local school board. And yes, I ask, and I want a clear answer.
And I expect the same of presidential candidates. GMOs and vaccines are safe, and anyone prevaricating on those points is not qualified, in my opinion. And if you embrace alternative medicine, I’m just unconvinced that you can be trusted.
Yes, Clinton and Sanders are a billion levels above the typical right winger running for president with respect to science. But neither are perfect, with Sanders being slightly less perfect than the less perfect Clinton. And that matters, because I won’t embrace the Nirvana fallacy. Nope.
Although not specifically about alternative medicine, Senator Sanders issued a statement regarding the United States Senate not taking up a bill to block GMO labeling. Sanders stated the following:
Sanders has created a strawman argument as a proxy for an ad hominem argument against Monsanto, just to pander to his anti-science supporters. This statements moves him way down the list of scientifically acceptable candidates – still above your average Republican, but still bad.
The scientific consensus regarding GMO safety and productivity has nothing to do with Monsanto, the food industry, or anything else. And one more thing – if Sanders actually cared about people, he’d realize the damage GMO labeling will have to food prices for the poor.
So, Sanders relies upon a conspiracy theory rather than science – the net effect is reducing the ability of people to acquire food at a reasonable cost.
- Fontanarosa PB, Lundberg GD. Alternative medicine meets science. JAMA. 1998 Nov 11;280(18):1618-9. PubMed PMID: 9820267.
- Sampson W. Antiscience trends in the rise of the “alternative medicine” movement. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1996 Jun 24;775:188-97. Review. PubMed PMID: 8678416.
- Weeks J. End of a (Lucky) Era for Integrative Health Policy: Republican Wins Sweep Key Integrative Leaders From Powerful Committee Chairs … plus more. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2015 Feb;14(1):16-8. PubMed PMID: 26770126; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4566452.