Audio & Alternative Medicine

A long, relaxing listening session can be good medicine. But I've never heard a doctor prescribe, "Listen to your favorite recording three times and call me in the morning." At least, not yet.

The National Institutes of Health is now funding studies of "alternative" healing techniques at major medical universities. According to the New York Times (January 31, 2000), the story begins with Senator Tom Harkin's amazement over the improved health of his former congressional colleague, Berkeley Bedell. Bedell began alternative therapies after a diagnosis of Lyme disease and prostate cancer. A few years later, Harkin says, Bedell was "a new man." Harkin began taking bee pollen for his allergies and became a believer. Then he opened up the NIH's governmental purse strings (which he happened to hold).

The result, in 1991, was the establishment of an Office of Alternative Medicine within the NIH—something akin to "setting up an office of deviltry within the Catholic Church," according to one observer. Established to disburse research money, the office was soon mired in applications from herbalists, acupuncturists, meditation therapists, massage therapists, and healers of all sorts. Not surprisingly, the scientific credentials of most proposers were low, and the office floundered in a sea of applications for new-age research.

Things changed in 1994, when legislation was passed allowing manufacturers of herbal medications to make claims about the reputed (ie, not scientifically documented) benefits of their products. The Office found a focus by funding studies of the herbal treatments now flying off the shelves at drugstores across the country. Criticism of "quackupuncture" still abounds within and without the NIH, but the enterprise is slowly gaining acceptance. Its annual budget grew, from $2 to $68 million, and so did its title: it's now the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

Why the resistance and criticism? One reason is physics-envy. For most of its history, Western medicine was more art than science. And for centuries, even its art wasn't very good. Steve Martin's sketch, "Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber," from the early days of Saturday Night Live, was not far off the mark: "Theodoric," his apprentice says, "your patient is weaker and growing ever more pale. What shall we do?" "That's easy. Bleed her some more!"

Martin was and wasn't joking. Take one of Theodoric's historical counterparts, Jan Baptista van Helmont, the 16th-century Dutch physician and alchemist: Were you a soldier stabbed in battle, you might visit van Helmont for some of his "weapon salve." Follow the instructions carefully: Apply the ointment to the knife—yes, the knife—that stabbed you. Van Helmont and others believed that nature was suffused with mystical influences and correspondences, such as one between your wound and the implement that caused it. For a long time, medical treatment was risky business.

By emulating physics and chemistry as much as possible, medicine stays on the sure path of science and keeps its distance from the dark days of Theodoric and van Helmont. Perhaps that's why some supporters of the NCCAM articulate such high intellectual standards. Dr. David Eisenberg, of Boston's Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, says NCCAM's studies must not only demonstrate, if possible, that any given alternative therapy works. They must also determine how they work within the framework of current biochemical and physiological knowledge.

Sound familiar? Substitute "exotic power cables" or "green magic markers" for alternative medicines, and these debates look like the ongoing feud between audiophiles and audio engineers. Many of the techniques, tweaks, and beliefs about components in high-end audio, the skeptics will say, don't make sense on the basis of modern physics.

But objectivists in audio and medicine alike take a risky position by holding the bar so high. After all, sometimes physics itself doesn't make sense. Ironically, physics tells us that nature sometimes does follow the ghostly logic of van Helmont, according to which events in one place (applying ointment to a knife) inexplicably influence events in another place (your festering wound).