Our Opinion: State support for junk science is a bitter pill

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James Randi raises the bottle of sleeping pills to his lips and drains it as if it were a shot glass. There are no paramedics on standby to rush the stage, and no one dials 911. Audience members smirk, chuckle and applaud.

It’s a routine Randi, a renowned skeptic and investigator, has honed to perfection, even performing it in a congressional hearing. The pill bottles contain a popular brand of homeopathic sleep aid. Randi suffers no ill effects from the massive overdose — the tablets don’t yield so much as a yawn.

The demonstration shows homeopathy, the practice of diluting a compound in water until there is no measurable trace of it left, to be ineffective. Yet the pills remain on the shelves at health-food stores and retail pharmacies, and some consumers still buy the overpriced placebos.

Four North Carolina lawmakers have introduced a bill that would give undue credibility to junk science like homeopathy by licensing “naturopathic doctors” and establishing a state regulatory board.

Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, filed the Enact Naturopathic Doctors Certification Act on Tuesday with no less than Senate Majority Whip Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, among its sponsors. Designated Senate Bill 258, it would create a seven-member board to license naturopaths, investigate complaints against them and administer disciplinary action.

SB 258 lists several forms of “alternative health care” — think “alternative facts” — that licensed naturopaths could practice under state approval. They include homeopathy, hydrotherapy and electromagnetic therapy, all of which the medical research community regards as pseudoscience.

Naturopathy has its adherents, sincere and well-meaning folks who believe crystals or magnets or homeopathic solutions have improved their health. Most physicians attribute this to the placebo effect and the power of positive thinking. If someone’s convinced himself an obscure regimen can effect a miracle cure, good luck changing his mind.

Purveyors of purported natural remedies should be allowed to sell to willing buyers, but the General Assembly shouldn’t give self-proclaimed healers a fancy certificate with a state seal. Lawmakers run the risk of legitimizing quackery and misleading patients into thinking a medical doctor and a naturopath are on equal footing.

As for complementary health care that integrates modern medicine with meditation, mindfulness and relaxation therapy, there’s no reason physicians already licensed by the N.C. Medical Board couldn’t offer such options to their patients.

Our state has too many occupational licensing bodies as it is. Once reserved for professionals like lawyers, doctors, nurses and teachers, the regulatory agencies have spread to encompass hundreds of vocations. They serve as a barrier to market entry that can be used to stifle competition while extracting annual membership dues to line state coffers.

Senate Bill 258 is a toxic tincture that would sanction junk science. It’s far more dangerous than downing a full bottle of homeopathic pills.