MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

It was 20 years ago today that I started my job as ‘Professor of Complementary Medicine’ at the University of Exeter and became a full-time researcher of all matters related to alternative medicine. One issue that was discussed endlessly during these early days was the question whether alternative medicine can be investigated scientifically. There were many vociferous proponents of the view that it was too subtle, too individualised, too special for that and that it defied science in principle. Alternative medicine, they claimed, needed an alternative to science to be validated. I spent my time arguing the opposite, of course, and today there finally seems to be a consensus that alternative medicine can and should be submitted to scientific tests much like any other branch of health care.

Looking back at those debates, I think it is rather obvious why apologists of alternative medicine were so vehement about opposing scientific investigations: they suspected, perhaps even knew, that the results of such research would be mostly negative. Once the anti-scientists saw that they were fighting a lost battle, they changed their tune and adopted science – well sort of: they became pseudo-scientists (‘if you cannot beat them, join them’). Their aim was to prevent disaster, namely the documentation of alternative medicine’s uselessness by scientists. Meanwhile many of these ‘anti-scientists turned pseudo-scientists’ have made rather surprising careers out of their cunning role-change; professorships at respectable universities have mushroomed. Yes, pseudo-scientists have splendid prospects these days in the realm of alternative medicine.

The term ‘pseudo-scientist’ as I understand it describes a person who thinks he/she knows the truth about his/her subject well before he/she has done the actual research. A pseudo-scientist is keen to understand the rules of science in order to corrupt science; he/she aims at using the tools of science not to test his/her assumptions and hypotheses, but to prove that his/her preconceived ideas were correct.

So, how does one become a top pseudo-scientist? During the last 20 years, I have observed some of the careers with interest and think I know how it is done. Here are nine lessons which, if followed rigorously, will lead to success (… oh yes, in case I again have someone thick enough to complain about me misleading my readers: THIS POST IS SLIGHTLY TONGUE IN CHEEK).

  1. Throw yourself into qualitative research. For instance, focus groups are a safe bet. This type of pseudo-research is not really difficult to do: you assemble about 5 -10 people, let them express their opinions, record them, extract from the diversity of views what you recognise as your own opinion and call it a ‘common theme’, write the whole thing up, and – BINGO! – you have a publication. The beauty of this approach is manifold: 1) you can repeat this exercise ad nauseam until your publication list is of respectable length; there are plenty of alternative medicine journals who will hurry to publish your pseudo-research; 2) you can manipulate your findings at will, for instance, by selecting your sample (if you recruit people outside a health food shop, for instance, and direct your group wisely, you will find everything alternative medicine journals love to print); 3) you will never produce a paper that displeases the likes of Prince Charles (this is more important than you may think: even pseudo-science needs a sponsor [or would that be a pseudo-sponsor?]).
  2. Conduct surveys. These are very popular and highly respected/publishable projects in alternative medicine – and they are almost as quick and easy as focus groups. Do not get deterred by the fact that thousands of very similar investigations are already available. If, for instance, there already is one describing the alternative medicine usage by leg-amputated police-men in North Devon, and you nevertheless feel the urge of going into this area, you can safely follow your instinct: do a survey of leg-amputated police men in North Devon with a medical history of diabetes. There are no limits, and as long as you conclude that your participants used a lot of alternative medicine, were very satisfied with it, did not experience any adverse effects, thought it was value for money, and would recommend it to their neighbour, you have secured another publication in an alternative medicine journal.
  3. If, for some reason, this should not appeal to you, how about taking a sociological, anthropological or psychological approach? How about studying, for example, the differences in worldviews, the different belief systems, the different ways of knowing, the different concepts about illness, the different expectations, the unique spiritual dimensions, the amazing views on holism – all in different cultures, settings or countries? Invariably, you will, of course, conclude that one truth is at least as good as the next. This will make you popular with all the post-modernists who use alternative medicine as a playground for getting a few publications out. This approach will allow you to travel extensively and generally have a good time. Your papers might not win you a Nobel prize, but one cannot have everything.
  4. It could well be that, at one stage, your boss has a serious talk with you demanding that you start doing what (in his narrow mind) constitutes ‘real science’. He might be keen to get some brownie-points at the next RAE and could thus want you to actually test alternative treatments in terms of their safety and efficacy. Do not despair! Even then, there are plenty of possibilities to remain true to your pseudo-scientific principles. By now you are good at running surveys, and you could, for instance, take up your boss’ suggestion of studying the safety of your favourite alternative medicine with a survey of its users. You simply evaluate their experiences and opinions regarding adverse effects. But be careful, you are on somewhat thinner ice here; you don’t want to upset anyone by generating alarming findings. Make sure your sample is small enough for a false negative result, and that all participants are well-pleased with their alternative medicine. This might be merely a question of selecting your patients cleverly. The main thing is that your conclusion is positive. If you want to go the extra pseudo-scientific mile, mention in the discussion of your paper that your participants all felt that conventional drugs were very harmful.
  5. If your boss insists you tackle the daunting issue of therapeutic efficacy, there is no reason to give up pseudo-science either. You can always find patients who happened to have recovered spectacularly well from a life-threatening disease after receiving your favourite form of alternative medicine. Once you have identified such a person, you write up her experience in much detail and call it a ‘case report’. It requires a little skill to brush over the fact that the patient also had lots of conventional treatments, or that her diagnosis was assumed but never properly verified. As a pseudo-scientist, you will have to learn how to discretely make such irritating details vanish so that, in the final paper, they are no longer recognisable. Once you are familiar with this methodology, you can try to find a couple more such cases and publish them as a ‘best case series’ – I can guarantee that you will be all other pseudo-scientists’ hero!
  6. Your boss might point out, after you have published half a dozen such articles, that single cases are not really very conclusive. The antidote to this argument is simple: you do a large case series along the same lines. Here you can even show off your excellent statistical skills by calculating the statistical significance of the difference between the severity of the condition before the treatment and the one after it. As long as you show marked improvements, ignore all the many other factors involved in the outcome and conclude that these changes are undeniably the result of the treatment, you will be able to publish your paper without problems.
  7. As your boss seems to be obsessed with the RAE and all that, he might one day insist you conduct what he narrow-mindedly calls a ‘proper’ study; in other words, you might be forced to bite the bullet and learn how to plan and run an RCT. As your particular alternative therapy is not really effective, this could lead to serious embarrassment in form of a negative result, something that must be avoided at all cost. I therefore recommend you join for a few months a research group that has a proven track record in doing RCTs of utterly useless treatments without ever failing to conclude that it is highly effective. There are several of those units both in the UK and elsewhere, and their expertise is remarkable. They will teach you how to incorporate all the right design features into your study without there being the slightest risk of generating a negative result. A particularly popular solution is to conduct what they call a ‘pragmatic’ trial, I suggest you focus on this splendid innovation that never fails to produce anything but cheerfully positive findings.
  8. It is hardly possible that this strategy fails – but once every blue moon, all precautions turn out to be in vain, and even the most cunningly designed study of your bogus therapy might deliver a negative result. This is a challenge to any pseudo-scientist, but you can master it, provided you don’t lose your head. In such a rare case I recommend to run as many different statistical tests as you can find; chances are that one of them will nevertheless produce something vaguely positive. If even this method fails (and it hardly ever does), you can always home in on the fact that, in your efficacy study of your bogus treatment, not a single patient died. Who would be able to doubt that this is a positive outcome? Stress it clearly, select it as the main feature of your conclusions, and thus make the more disappointing findings disappear.
  9. Now that you are a fully-fledged pseudo-scientist who has produced one misleading or false positive result after the next, you may want a ‘proper’ confirmatory study of your pet-therapy. For this purpose run the same RCT over again, and again, and again. Eventually you want a meta-analysis of all RCTs ever published. As you are the only person who ever conducted studies on the bogus treatment in question, this should be quite easy: you pool the data of all your trials and, bob’s your uncle: a nice little summary of the totality of the data that shows beyond doubt that your therapy works. Now even your narrow-minded boss will be impressed.

These nine lessons can and should be modified to suit your particular situation, of course. Nothing here is written in stone. The one skill any pseudo-scientist must have is flexibility.

Every now and then, some smart arse is bound to attack you and claim that this is not rigorous science, that independent replications are required, that you are biased etc. etc. blah, blah, blah. Do not panic: either you ignore that person completely, or (in case there is a whole gang of nasty sceptics after you) you might just point out that:

  • your work follows a new paradigm; the one of your critics is now obsolete,
  • your detractors fail to understand the complexity of the subject and their comments merely reveal their ridiculous incompetence,
  • your critics are less than impartial, in fact, most are bought by BIG PHARMA,
  • you have a paper ‘in press’ that fully deals with all the criticism and explains how inappropriate it really is.

In closing, allow me a final word about publishing. There are hundreds of alternative medicine journals out there to chose from. They will love your papers because they are uncompromising promotional. These journals all have one thing in common: they are run by apologists of alternative medicine who abhor to read anything negative about alternative medicine. Consequently hardly a critical word about alternative medicine will ever appear in these journals. If you want to make double sure that your paper does not get criticised during the peer-review process (this would require a revision, and you don’t need extra work of that nature), you can suggest a friend for peer-reviewing it. In turn, you can offer to him/her that you do the same to him/her the next time he/she has an article to submit. This is how pseudo-scientists make sure that the body of pseudo-evidence for their pseudo-treatments is growing at a steady pace.

15 Responses to Nine lessons for the budding pseudo-scientist.

  • Congratulations, and thankyou for being a beacon of sense for 20 years…

  • I would recommend to add kind of point 7.5:

    One method to save a PCT is subgrouping. Provided there are enough participants to start with, you are sure that you can find a few patients that experienced some improvement during the test. Build a subgroup of these people and describe it by the common properties. Maybe you must apply some imagination to hunt down common features: Young women a week before her menses and no longer than two weeks after adopting a new hairstyle, men of 60+ who wear brown shoes and would never use an electric shaver, something like this. If this group is big enough, say a minimum of 10 for verum and placebo group each, you may even forget to report about the rest of the participants and still have a convincing pseudo science test population.

  • When all else fails and you’re run out of excuses for failed RCTs and you know you’ve been rumbled, start a huge multi-year project to come up with a new, innovative way to categorise them so you can declare that they were, after all, all very positive.

  • You could also just rehash the subject and violate every known logical fallacy in an effort to try and equate science with philosophy and get it published in the nation’s paper of record–although I think you covered this perhaps in #3.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/28/the-enigma-of-chinese-medicine/

    Warning: The article contains vivid accounts of animal cruelty (although they aren’t represented as such).

  • These lessons has marvelously for anti GMO-activists as well!

    I believe a certain french team must have a particularly in depth study of each point … Excellent post!

    • However, let me remind you that in Dr. Ernst view:

      ……..” a researcher who has published 100 papers of which 80 are positive and 20 arrive at negative conclusions. His TI would consequently amount to 4. Most of us equipped with a healthy scepticism would consider this figure highly suspect.”

      Given that there are virtually zero positive studies (that is, that find a difference between GMOs and non-GMOs) in the entire literature, I start wondering about your healthy sceptisism.

  • You are usually an interesting judge of medical evidence but please do remember that the conventional medicine is in its infancy (we cannot cure even a cold yet),that what current medicine cannot measure cannot be judged only as negative(until we did see a laser in a beam ,Scientists then did not really go for it before that. The list goes on…A Scientist without some Holistic Metaphysics understanding is not complete enough and here are many Doctors like that. All moves in the world as all is made of atoms…so,some Complementary Medicines using vibrational ways,for example do work as much as some drugs that the Pharmaceutical Industries do ram in people’s mouths.) You are very intelligent…but…you must feel the Force…it will come if you open your mind…An Angel checking your progress…

  • Does healthy skepticism evaporate when scientific claims are well funded ?

  • LOL!. Ernt says:

    “The term ’pseudo-scientist’ as I understand it describes a person who thinks he/she knows the truth about his/her subject well before he/she has done the actual research. A pseudo-scientist is keen to understand the rules of science in order to corrupt science; he/she aims at using the tools of science not to test his/her assumptions and hypotheses, but to prove that his/her preconceived ideas were correct.”

    But, Ernst is a pseudoscientist:

    a) Bad and fraud reanalysis:

    http://www.jclinepi.com/article/S0895-4356(99)00226-7/abstract

    b) PLease, lets a view the big profile of Ernst in the Pubmed:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=Ernst%20E%5BAuthor%5D&cauthor=true&cauthor_uid=12492603

    1 to 20 of 1596. Whoa, 1596 papers!

    • in what way does that characterise me as a pseudo-scientist, in your view?

    • @antisektpik (is that supposed to be a humorous alias you are hiding behind or did you misspell?)

      Your inept attempt at an “ad hominem” attack on Professor Ernst failed totally and only reveals your own lack of scientific proficiency.

      If you search PubMed for ERNST E[Author] without quotation marks around the name, you will pick up ERNST EJ and ERNST EC and all the other blokes and ladies who share these letters. You will also pick up any letter, comment and whatnot of any kind from all these authors registered in the database.

      A more selective and proper search string could be: (“Ernst E”[Author]) AND “journal article”[Publication Type]
      This will get you 1150 hits.

      A scientist, researcher and professor who has been active for several decades is SUPPOSED TO HAVE produced this amount of work and his institution(s) should be extremely happy with this!
      The 1150 hits include at least 552 works which he has co-authored i.e. has assisted and facilitated the work of others. That is what a real professor should be doing all the time.

      Congratulations Ernst on an impressive carreer. Keep ‘em coming!

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