Methodological Challenges in Alternative Medicine Research

By Eric W. Boyle.

Published by The International Journal of Science in Society

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As a systematic body of knowledge or practice, science has been a malleable tool in the history of alternative medicine. Advocates of alternative medicine have alternately dismissed and embraced the methodological and theoretical bases for scientific inquiry and analysis, while skeptics have employed their own scientific measurements and arguments to question therapeutic claims and challenge the methods and principles of alternative approaches to research and practice. This paper examines the use of different forms of scientific argumentation and evidence in the recent history of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), with particular focus on debates surrounding the creation of the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) at the National Institutes of Health in 1992 and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) in 1999. Congress established these institutions primarily to study unconventional therapies and disseminate information to the public, but the effort to meet such a mandate has generated controversy. While OAM and NCCAM leadership have vowed to apply existing, rigorous scientific standards to the study of CAM, thereby expanding the horizons of health care and biomedical science, CAM advocates have questioned whether science is applicable and critics have likened CAM research to dancing with a pseudoscientific dream. These competing arguments can be explained partly by the economic and professional interests involved in efforts to validate or invalidate unconventional therapies, but the recent history of CAM at NIH also indicates that the relationships between politics, science, and medicine are shaped by transcendent ideologies

Keywords: Politics of Science, Science and Alternative Medicine, Science and Government, Scientific Methodology

The International Journal of Science in Society, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp.1-8. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 769.767KB).

Dr. Eric W. Boyle

Postdoctoral Fellow, Office of History, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Washington, DC, USA

Eric W. Boyle earned his doctorate in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of California-Santa Barbara in 2007. After completing his Ph.D., he taught courses in the history of medicine as Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently a Stetten Postdoctoral Fellow at the Office of NIH History where he is examining the role played by the NIH in redefining and reshaping the relationship between mainstream medicine and its alternatives. His most recent article, “The Politics of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health,” was published in the January 2011 issue of Federal History.