A four-year federal study of "alternative" or "unconventional" cancer treatments - treatments not normally endorsed by the medical profession - draws two conclusions, one expected, the other surprising. They tend to contradict each other.

The expected conclusion of the study by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment is that such treatments, including vitamin C, laetrile, various dietary plans, psychological approaches and other programs, are not obviously or dramatically effective. This is despite frequently extravagant claims made by their backers.Many treatments are little more than expensive quackery, yet people turn to them by the thousands every year. Many who do so have already run the course of available mainstream approches and seek out alternative treatments as a desperate last resort.

The unexpected part of the report says that government medical agencies and the medical profession generally ought to pay more attention to unconventional treatments.

It says a number of patients who use alternative treatments, particularly certain psychological approaches, do show improvement. However, this may be nothing more than people believing they are being helped, so they improve, at least temporarily.

What the OTC study suggests is that the medical profession treat unusual approaches with a little more seriousness. Especially lacking is peer review of such treatments and the compiling of information that prospective patients can examine before opting for alternative approaches.

Yet getting peer review is not easy. Many medical professionals don't want to work on such endeavors, considering it a waste of valuable time. Another problem is that backers of unconventional treatments sometimes refuse to participate in any scientific evaluation of their claims.

The problem with the OTC study is that it is basically contradictory. It seeks to be even-handed, to placate both sides even while admitting evidence is lacking that alternative cancer treatments generally are any good. One cannot have it both ways, which is what the federal study tries to do.