Can you see Florida?

by Jeanine Adinaro on May 18, 2010

in General Health

It's not just a vacation spot, it's a metaphor

It’s not just a vacation spot, it’s a metaphor

If you ask me to describe my hair color, I usually say something about it being sewer-rat brown. And like most girls sporting naturally light-brown hair, I have a) spent a lot of money and time trying to change its color b) have noticed my hair has gotten considerably darker as I have aged and c) have inexplicably heard a bunch of blond jokes that I think were supposed to refer to me, and all I could think was, “Dude, are you color blind? So not blond here.”

But a few weeks ago while doing an education event for Herbalogic, I just smiled sweetly, at the guy who wanted to share his full library of blonde-jokes with me. To my shock and amazement, he told me one that I hadn’t heard before. It went something like this:

Two blondes were sitting on their back-porch in Austin looking up at the full moon.  One said, “Ah, look at how beautiful the moon is.” The other blonde said, “Yeah. I wonder which is closer- the moon or Florida?” After some consideration, the first blonde replied with an air of authority, “The moon.” Surprised at her friend’s self-assuredness, the second blonde asked, “How do you know?” Her friend answered with the supreme confidence that comes with rock-solid logic, “Well we can see the moon. We can’t see Florida, can we?”

OK, it’s not particularly funny. But this joke got me to thinking about comments I regularly hear from people that go something to the effect of, “Herbs don’t work as well as drugs.” Really? “Well sure. If they did, there would be studies.” Um, about that…

It’s all a function of the economic landscape we currently live in. “Studies” (and by this word I am assuming that people are talking about double-blind random trials) are really expensive to design, run, and analyze. That tab either gets paid by private companies or by tax dollars in the form of grants from the NIH and the like. Private companies fund research studies if it will facilitate increased sales and profit. And there’s no sense in funding a study that will facilitate increased sales and profit for your competitors instead of you. For pharmaceutical companies developing new drugs, they are afforded protection by patent laws from funding their competitors’ sales. But since herbs have generally been in use for thousands of years, there’s nothing to patent.

Grants funded by tax dollars are a potentially feasible source of funding for studies designed to determine the efficacy of herbs. But again, even the process of designing a study sufficiently to apply for a grant and then make that grant proposal isn’t free. It’s the sort of undertaking that most likely belongs in an academic setting. But when it comes to Chinese herbs in the United States, major universities lack the cultural context to undertake such endeavors, and the small acupuncture schools are ill-equipped financially or experientially to tackle the problem.

I don’t have a simple solution to this problem. As I see it, the choices are a) completely change American culture to accept the possibility  that, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” i.e. that maybe there are things that work and work well even though they have not been the subject of exhaustive, controlled study (I’m not holding my breath on that one) or b) inspire enough cultural interest in Chinese herbs that suitably funded organizations take an interest in undertaking the sort of studies that will “prove” herbs work. In fact, in China, Taiwan and Japan, traditional Chinese herbs are a huge topic of study because they are culturally valued. It’s not far fetched to think that if Americans valued herbs similarly that studies would happen here.

So here’s my call to action for the day- if you think Chinese herbs are worthwhile, share that fact with people. Eventually, someone who is in some sort of position to decide what studies major universities are undertaken will hear you and listen. And when they do, feel free to tell them I have a background in math/statistics including biostats and would be more than happy to help out with that study design.

Photo by Scott Kirsner

Ellen P. May 18, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Great post. So true! So you!

Lee Abuabara May 19, 2010 at 10:35 am

I like your second alternative much better. The “more things in heaven and earth” is just encouraging people to believe in what they’re told without demanding evidence; we’ve already got all of that going on we need, I think! Educating people about the fact that food and drug tests are not magically and impartially funded, that there are interests behind what gets tested and how, and looking into how potentially more beneficial new therapies could get tested and validated, is much more helpful.

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