A common complaint about conventional, science-based medicine is that it is unduly influenced by commercial interests and agendas, especially the pharmaceutical industry or “Big Pharma.” There is no question that corporations who manufacture medicines, pet foods, and other products used or recommended by vets are interested in making money, and this colors their judgment. There are legitimate concerns about the influence of industry funding on research and how it impacts the quality and conclusions of the evidence we use to inform our practice. However, none of this automatically invalidates the research or the products of industry, it just gives us a cause for some skepticism and care in the judgments we make.
The implied, and sometimes even explicitly stated, corollary to this concern is that “holistic” or alternative medicine and its practitioners are somehow free from the financial motives that taint the practices of conventional veterinary medicine. I’ve addressed this myth before (Big CAM and the David and Goliath Myth), and I wanted to share a recent reminder that proponents of alternative therapies face exactly the same problem of financial motives and corporate influence.
The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) is having its annual conference this month (more about that in a subsequent post), and they have quite appropriately identified and thanked their sponsors on their web site. Let’s have a look at the list, shall we?
Rx Vitamins for Pets
A “Diamond” level sponsor of the keynote address.
This is a corporation selling a variety of vitamins and nutritional supplements. They have a representation at most conventional veterinary conferences, and they are actively recruiting paid veterinary student representatives to give out samples and literature. Sound like a pharmaceutical company?
The supplement line is supposedly invented by Dr. Robert Silver, a “holistic” veterinarian from Colorado, who is also an acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and homeopathy. Clearly, Dr. Silver is a “true believer” in alternative veterinary medicine
Diamond level sponsor of the Newcomer Social.
A division of the larger, international company Food Science Corporation, which makes a wide variety of nutritional products for human and animal use. Mom and pop operation? Pure labor of love? Hardly.
A Gold level sponsor.
One of the largest corporate manufacturers of veterinary and human nutritional supplements. And something I didn’t know, the company states on its web site that it is “a private, Christian-based, company…” and that “The real strength and prosperity of Nutramax Laboratories, Inc. comes from The Lord.” Faith-based medicine indeed.
A Gold level sponsor.
A company founded by Bill Bookout, a businessman and president of the primary veterinary supplement industry lobbying organization, the National Animal Supplement Council. The veterinary name behind its products is that of Dr. Ihor Basko, a career proponent of alternative therapies with many related books, videos, and products to sell.
Contributed $10,000 to support student chapters of the AHVMA at veterinary schools.
The veterinarian behind this obviously successful commercial firm is Dr. Michael Fox, an advocate for animal welfare and also a firm believer that modern, technological society and its products (including commercial pet food and pharmaceuticals) are physically and spiritually toxic. Despite his concerns about the rapacious behavior of corporations, he does endorse a variety of commercial pet foods and supplements.
So what does all of this mean?
1. Does the acceptance of commercial sponsorship mean that the AHVMA is the dupe or lackey of commercial interests and their medical recommendations are mere parroting of industry marketing? Of course not.
2. Does the fact that these companies and individuals make money selling and advocating for alternative health products mean their motives are purely financial and their advice can be automatically dismissed? Absolutely not.
3. Is it likely that people who are believers in alternative medical approaches write books, give lectures, and start companies selling alternative products because they truly believe in these things? Without a doubt!
So why is it so often assumed by these people that anybody working for a commercial pet food or pharmaceutical company is motivated by greed? While corporations are primarily driven by profit, and individuals are certainly subject to both the blindness of their own biases and subtle influences associated with their sources of income or research funding, the fact is that people practice science-based medicine and work for medical industries because they truly believe they are doing good for patients. The assumption of benign motives in alternative medicine and venal motives in mainstream medicine is pure self-serving prejudice, nothing more.
4. So are advocates of alternative medicine who complain about the influence of corporate money on conventional veterinary medicine total hypocrites? Absolutely!
They may not always be wrong, since such influence is a legitimate source of concern, but it applies every bit as much to the alternative medical industry as to conventional medicine. Big Supplement may be smaller than Big Pharma, but it is the same type of organism, with the same problems.
5. And are advocates of alterative medical approaches open-minded while science-based veterinarians are blind idealogues? Nonsense!
The people behind these corporate sponsors are, as far as I can see, all deeply committed true believers in the ideological, and often religious foundations of alternative medicine. They filter and interpret the evidence of science to confirm their pre-existing prejudices and assumptions and ignore whatever contradicts them. All human beings are prone to do this, of course. The very value of science and scientific evidence is that is diminishes the impact of these kinds of biases and blind spots. True open-mindedness and humility lies not in steadfastly seeing the world as we believe it is or should be but accepting that our vision is blurry and unreliable, and that we must be prepared to give up even cherished beliefs when the more reliable evidence of science shows us they are false.
The vital importance of faith, of belief in the unseen and untestable, to the ideology of alternative medicine is clear. Nutramax is a Christian company, Dr. Basko is a Zen Buddhist, and Dr. Fox is a pantheist, but all hold a strong belief that the true, most real, and most important aspects of reality cannot be seen, demonstrated, or scientifically investigated but must be appreciated through intuition, introspection, and individual spiritual practice. Is it surprising, then, that these same individuals reject the notion that what seems true to the individual in medicine should be rejected as false on the basis of scientific testing?
Faith-based medicine relies on the very same kind of faith behind all religious beliefs; namely that we must trust what we feel and believe more than what we can see, touch, or study by reason; we must trust ideas and beliefs more than observations and facts. There is nothing “open-minded” about such beliefs, so to claim that the science-based perspective is closed-minded by comparison is ludicrous. A philosohy founded on faith is, in most ways, far more dogmatic and blind to the possibility of being wrong than the scientific approach.
The title of this post was intentionally hyperbolic and inflammatory, and untrue, because I wanted to make what I think is the key point here: The motives of alternative medicine advocates and providers, ideological and altruistic or venal and greedy, are no different from those of science-based medicine advocates or providers. We all tend to live our values and ideologies, and we are all subject to ideological blindness and potential financial influence. The difference between what is true and what is false, what works in medicine and what does not, cannot be determined by looking at only the beliefs or incentives behind different approaches, though these factors do have some relevance. The ultimate answers must come from facts and objective study, and only science is able to provide this, however imperfectly.