Josephine Briggs is the Director of the Nactional Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM; currently the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)), former senator Tom Harkin’s heavily subsidized heartchild devoted to studying woo. Now, at least in its infancy NCCAM applied rigorous scientific methods to their studies, which of course meant that little or no actual support for altmed quackery would be forthcoming. Harkin and others were predictably disappointed, and over the years the NCCAM appears, perhaps as a result of political pressure, to have adopted more “flexible approaches” – as one of the original Board Members, Barrie Cassileth, put it, “The degree to which nonsense has trickled down to every aspect of this office is astonishing ... It’s the only place where opinions are counted as equal to data.”
Although some of the previous directors of NCCAM have been pretty rigorous, with Briggs the political sponsors seem to have found the kind of leader they wanted all along. And Briggs appears to have no more than a half-hearted intention of letting reality determine NCCAM’s recommendations. For instance, one great thing about doing research on woo is that one can ignore the base-rate fallacy and credulously push any false positive one wants, and Briggs seems intent on trying that one.
Briggs’s favorite trick, however, is the false balance gambit, and she seems genuinely unaware of what the problem with that gambit from a critical-thinking related point of view might be. So, for instance, although she has been willing to listen to scientists and evidence, she also listens to homeopaths (and promotes a balanced assessment of their claims). It was apparently in response to a meeting with scientists that she produced a post on the NCCAM blog entitled “Listening to Differing Voices”, in which she distinguished between CAM advocates, on the one hand, and skeptics who reflexively dismiss CAM and want to eliminate it, on the other, “open-mindedly” concluding that hers is the only reasonable position between them, and pointing out that: “As I’ve stated before, our position is that science must remain neutral, and we should be strictly objective. There are compelling reasons to explore many CAM modalities, and the science should speak for itself.” The problem, of course, is that the science does, indeed, speak for itself, and has decisevly refuted the very hypotheses Briggs wishes to take seriously. Indeed, her response to data seems to have become reflexive: the continued refutation of altmed claims continue to be met with Briggs’s calls for “rebooting” the debate and a “nuanced and balanced” conversation.
And, heck, there is a good argument to be made that she is utterly incompetent at what she is trying to do – if by “what she is trying to do” we mean trying to determine whether treatments work rather than making savvy political moves (as in this, since this) Here, for instance, she discovers Bayesian probability and fails so miserably that it would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so sad because she is actually in a position of power and influence.
Indeed, Briggs has lent her imprimatur, along with those of the NIH and the federal government, to the formal celebration of quackery titled the “25th Anniversary Convention of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.” Moreover Briggs nominated Jane Guiltinan, former President of the AANP and Dean of Naturopathic Medicine for Bastyr University, to membership of the National Advisory Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NACCAM). Guiltinan, according to herself, “emphasizes the concepts of treating the cause of a problem, supporting the body’s own healing process and encouraging patients to create their own wellness even in the face of serious illness. Dr. Guiltinan uses nutrition, plant medicine and homeopathy [!] in her practice and believes that air, water, food, touch, love and laughter are some of the most powerful healing agents.” The NCCAM has previously nominated homeopath Brian M.Berman to their advisory committee.
Antivaxx sentiments are widespread in the altmed community, and one would think that NCCAM – if it were a responsible organization – would help defuse the antivaxx myths. Briggs has officially agreed to do this, but the NCCAM has abundantly failed to follow up on that promise.
Diagnosis: It could be argued that Briggs may not qualify as an outright loon, and that as a director of NCCAM she is put in something of an awkward position, but she is certainly a great facilitator of and legitimizer of quackery; given her position the only respectable stance would have been a staunch defense of reality, critical thinking and evidence. By hedging on those points she is really causing a lot of harm.
Addendum: Oh, the hell: Josephine Briggs is an advocate for anti-science and a loon. Her series – published as a supplement Science, no less – “The Art and Science of Traditional Medicine Part 1: TCM Today—A Case for Integration” (with contributions from a number of powerful quacks and pseudoscientists such as Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO and Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Executive Publisher of Science) is so fundamentally dishonest that we cannot give her the benefit of doubt anymore. It is, however, worth quoting the goal of the series (a series of issues, in fact):
“… we present a series of articles making a case for the integration of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) into modern medical practice. From the new WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy to the application of systems biology in studying TCM, we aim to highlight the potential for creating an integrated, network-based health care system. The next two issues will cover herbal genomics and highlight the importance of quality control, standardization, regulation, and safety for traditional therapies. An overview of indigenous medicines in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, and the Americas will also be provided.”
Notice what’s missing? That’s right. They will not consider the evidence or scientific foundation for TCM. Apparently that doesn’t matter. TCM is popular, and that’s enough, ostensible becuase if people want to use TCM then it works for them and we all create our own realities and energy flows and vibrations and so on and so forth.
Josephine Briggs is a disgrace to her profession, to decency and to civilization.