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Qi Bono?
Obamacare and the New Age quacks

A selection of acupuncture needles.

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Kevin D. Williamson

The Republican-dominated Texas state board of education has done the right thing and voted to approve science textbooks incorporating the standard account of evolution, overruling the objections of critics who insisted on the inclusion of Biblically based alternative accounts and so-called creation science. One book remains under review.

There was a great deal of crowing among progressives, who gleefully pointed to the controversy as yet another example of knuckleheaded right-wingers’ waging their pitiless war on science. But embarrassing as the Texas textbook debate may be, there is a far more significant assault on science under way at the hands of our allegedly secularist friends, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, provisions of which are going to be used to pour billions of dollars into quack medicine of every description under the guise of “non-discrimination.”

Progressives love science — right up until the second they don’t.

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Thanks to the efforts of Senator Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), the Affordable Care Act includes a rule that insurers “shall not discriminate” against services provided by any licensed or formally recognized provider of health-care services, which means that such traffickers in pseudoscience as homeopathic healers, acupuncturists, herbalists, chiropractors, and the like will be covered under Obamacare, at least in states that recognize such quackery.

Acupuncture and chiropractic are popular, perhaps even more popular than the belief that the world is about 6,000 years old and that early man coexisted with dinosaurs. But their claims of efficacy have no more scientific support than does the Flintstones account of early human history.

Begin with acupuncture. The theory of acupuncture is that health problems arise from inhibitions of the body’s vital energy, known as qi, which can be relieved by applying needles to specific points in the body. Qi, so far as science can document, does not exist, and the anatomical points associated with traditional acupunctural therapy are, so far as science can document, of no special importance. This might lead one to conclude that it does not really much matter where an acupuncturist sticks the needles, which turns out to be exactly the case. This has been shown by comparing the results from “real” acupuncture treatments to “sham” acupuncture treatments, in which patients think they are receiving traditional acupuncture but are not. As the New England Journal of Medicine acknowledges in a surprisingly sympathetic account of the subject: “A meta-analysis in 2008, which involved a total of 6,359 patients, showed that real acupuncture treatments were no more effective than sham acupuncture treatments.”

The American version of qi is “innate intelligence,” which was discovered by magnetic healer Daniel David Palmer in the 19th century. Palmer founded the practice of chiropractic to help straighten out problems related to that innate intelligence. Like the practitioners of acupuncture, chiropractors work from the assumption that there are blockages of vitalistic energy. Never mind that this energy does not seem to actually exist, and that the blockages — “subluxations” — that they claim to detect are not detectable by conventional medical means such as X-ray examinations, we are assured that something real is going on here. It will not surprise you to learn that, like acupuncture, study after study after study has revealed that chiropractic confers no medical benefit but does involve some risk of injury. As the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management puts it: “Back and neck pain are the domains of chiropractic but many chiropractors treat conditions other than musculoskeletal problems. With the possible exception of back pain, chiropractic spinal manipulation has not been shown to be effective for any medical condition. . . . The concepts of chiropractic are not based on solid science and its therapeutic value has not been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt.”

The problem is that credentialing in pseudoscientific sham fields such as naturopathic medicine has nothing to do with medical benefit. As Dr. Stephen Barrett notes in his report on naturopathy, the U.S. Department of Education recognizes an accrediting agency for schools of naturopathic medicine, but: “As with acupuncture and chiropractic schools, this recognition was not based upon the scientific validity of what is taught but on such factors as record-keeping, physical assets, financial status, makeup of the governing body, catalog characteristics, nondiscrimination policy, and self-evaluation system.”

Educational accreditation leads to licensing, and licensing leads to eligibility for money under Obamacare. Senator Harkin’s provision forbids “discriminating” against practitioners recognized in the states, and, unfortunately, we have some pretty fruity states: California, Connecticut, Vermont, Utah, and a dozen others recognize naturopathic medicine, in spite of its mystical claims and utter lack of scientific support. Recognition of chiropractic has become well nigh universal.

If we cannot discriminate against “medicine” that “has not been shown to be effective for any medical condition,” what exactly can we discriminate against? Ask Senator Orrin Hatch (R., Utah). During the early stages of the health-care debate, Senator Hatch attempted to insert a provision into the law that would have put prayer therapy on the same footing as conventional medicine, with the support of John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. That failed because it was explicitly religious — as though qi and magnetic healing and chiropractic vitalism were less mystical than the Christian Science approach.

But anything with the word “Christian” attached to it spooks progressives. The issue for the Left isn’t the scientific method and good evidence, but excluding Christians of whatever stripe from the public square. Unfortunately, Christians have given them an unneeded assist by embracing intelligent design and other schools of intellectual fraud.

But the next time you hear a chorus of “Hooray, science!” from the Left, ask them why Barack Obama’s signature health-care program is going to recognize the worst sort of quackery and pseudoscience, with no more regard for the scientific record than the most fervid young-Earth creationist, swami, or snake-handler.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.



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