MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

On 26/5/2015, I received the email reproduced below. I thought it was interesting, looked up its author (“Shawn is a philosopher and writer educated at York University in Toronto, and the author of two books. He’s also worked with Aboriginal youth in the Northwest Territories of Canada”) and decided to respond by writing a blog-post rather than by answering Alli directly.

Hello Dr. Ernst, this is Shawn Alli from Canada, a blogger and philosopher. I recently finished a critical article on James Randi’s legacy. It gets into everything from ideological science, manipulation, ESP, faith healing, acupuncture and homeopathy.

Let me know what you think about it:

http://www.shawnalli.com/james-randi-disingenuous-legacy.html

It’s quite long so save it for a rainy day.

So far, the reply from skeptical organizations range from: “I couldn’t read further than the first few paragraphs because I disagree with the claims…” to one word replies: “Petty.”

It’s always nice to know how open-minded skeptical organizations are.

Hopefully you can add a bit more.

Sincerely,

Shawn

Yes, indeed, I can but try to add a bit more!

However, Alli’s actual article is far too long to analyse it here in full. I therefore selected just the bit that I feel most competent commenting on and which is closest to my heart. Below, I re-produce this section of Alli’s article in full. I add my comments at the end (in bold) by inserting numbered responses which refer to the numbers (in round brackets [the square ones refer to Alli’s references]) inserted throughout Alli’s text. Here we go:

Homeopathy & Acupuncture:

A significant part of Randi’s legacy is his war against homeopathy. This is where Randi shines even above mainstream scientists such as Dawkins or Tyson.

Most of his talks ridicule homeopathy as nonsense that doesn’t deserve the distinction of being called a treatment. This is due to the fact that the current scientific method is unable to account for the results of homeopathy (1). In reality, the current scientific method can’t account for the placebo effect as well (2).

But then again, that presents an internal problem as well. The homeopathic community is divided by those who believe it’s a placebo effect and those that believe it’s more than that, advocating the theory of water memory, which mainstream scientists ridicule and vilify (3).

I don’t know what camp is correct (4), but I do know that the homeopathic community shouldn’t follow the lead of mainstream scientists and downplay the placebo effect as, it’s just a placebo (5).

Remember, the placebo effect is downplayed because the current scientific method is unable to account for the phenomenon (3, 5). It’s a wondrous and real effect, regardless of the ridicule and vilification (6) that’s attached to it.

While homeopathy isn’t suitable as a treatment for severe or acute medical conditions, it’s an acceptable treatment for minor, moderate or chronic ones (7). Personally, I’ve never tried homeopathic treatments. But I would never tell individuals not to consider it. To each their own, as long as it’s within universal ethics (8).

A homeopathic community in Greece attempts to conduct an experiment demonstrating a biological effect using homeopathic medicine and win Randi’s million dollar challenge. George Vithoulkas and his team spend years creating the protocol of the study, only to be told by Randi to redo it from scratch. [29] (9) I recommend readers take a look at:

The facts about an ingenious homeopathic experiment that was not completed due to the “tricks” of Mr. James Randi.

Randi’s war against homeopathy is an ideological one (10). He’ll never change his mind despite positive results in and out of the lab (11). This is the epitome of dogmatic ideological thinking (12).

The same is true for acupuncture (13). In his NECSS 2012 talk Randi says:

Harvard Medical School is now offering an advanced course for physicians in acupuncture, which has been tested endlessly for centuries and it does not work in any way. And believe me, I know what I’m talking about. [30]

Acupuncture is somewhat of a grey area for mainstream scientists and the current scientific method. One ideological theory states that acupuncture operates on principles of non-physical energy in the human body and relieving pressure on specific meridians. The current scientific method is unable to account for non-physical human energy and meridians.

A mainstream scientific theory of acupuncture is one of neurophysiology, whereby acupuncture works by affecting the release of neurotransmitters. I don’t know which theory is correct; but I do know that those who do try acupuncture usually feel better (14).

In regards to the peer-reviewed literature, I believe (15) that there’s a publication bias against acupuncture being seen as a viable treatment for minor, moderate or chronic conditions. A few peer-reviewed articles support the use of acupuncture for various conditions:

Eight sessions of weekly group acupuncture compared with group oral care education provide significantly better relief of symptoms in patients suffering from chronic radiation-induced xerostomia. [31]

It is concluded that this study showed highly positive effects on pain and function through the collaborative treatment of acupuncture and motion style in aLBP [acute lower back pain] patients. [32]

Given the limited efficacy of antidepressant treatment…the present study provides evidence in supporting the viewpoint that acupuncture is an effective and safe alternative treatment for depressive disorders, and could be considered an alternative option especially for patients with MDD [major depressive disorder] and PSD [post-stroke depression], although evidence for its effects in augmenting antidepressant agents remains controversial. [33]

In conclusion: We find that acupuncture significantly relieves hot flashes and sleep disturbances in women treated for breast cancer. The effect was seen in the therapy period and at least 12 weeks after acupuncture treatment ceased. The effect was not correlated with increased levels of plasma estradiol. The current study showed no side effects of acupuncture. These results indicate that acupuncture can be used as an effective treatment of menopausal discomfort. [34]

In conclusion, the present study demonstrates, in rats, that EA [electroacupuncture] significantly attenuates bone cancer induced hyperalgesia, which, at least in part, is mediated by EA suppression of IL-1…expression. [35]

In animal model of focal cerebral ischemia, BBA [Baihui (GV20)-based Scalp acupuncture] could improve IV [infarct volume] and NFS [neurological function score]. Although some factors such as study quality and possible publication bias may undermine the validity of positive findings, BBA may have potential neuroprotective role in experimental stroke. [36]

In conclusion, this randomized sham-controlled study suggests that electroacupuncture at acupoints including Zusanli, Sanyinjiao, Hegu, and Zhigou is more effective than no acupuncture and sham acupuncture in stimulating early return of bowel function and reducing postoperative analgesic requirements after laparoscopic colorectal surgery. Electroacupuncture is also more effective than no acupuncture in reducing the duration of hospital stay. [37]

In conclusion, we found acupuncture to be superior to both no acupuncture control and sham acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain…Our results from individual patient data meta-analyses of nearly 18000 randomized patients in high-quality RCTs [randomized controlled trials] provide the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option for patients with chronic pain. [38]

While Randi and many other mainstream scientists will argue (16) that the above claims are the result of ideological science and cherry picking, in reality, they’re the result of good science going up against dogmatic (17) and profit-driven (17) ideological (17) science.

Yes, the alternative medicine industry is now a billion dollar industry. But the global pharmaceutical medical industry is worth hundreds of trillions of dollars. And without its patients (who need to be in a constant state of ill health), it can’t survive (18).

Individuals who have minor, moderate, or chronic medical conditions don’t want to be part of the hostile debate between alternative medicine vs. pharmaceutical medical science (19). They just want to get better and move on with their life. The constant war that mainstream scientists wage against alternative medicine is only hurting the people they’re supposed to be helping (20).

Yes, the ideologies (21) are incompatible. Yes, there are no accepted scientific theories for such treatments. Yes, it defies what mainstream scientists currently “know” about the human body (22).

It would be impressive if a peace treaty can exist between both sides, where both don’t agree, but respect each other enough to put aside their pride and help patients to regain their health (23).

END OF ALLI’S TEXT

And here are my numbered comments:

(1) This is not how I understand Randi’s position. Randi makes a powerful point about the fact that the assumptions of homeopathy are not plausible, which is entirely correct – so much so that even some leading homeopaths admit that this is true.

(2) This is definitely not correct; the placebo effect has been studied in much detail, and we can certainly ‘account’ for it.

(3) In my 40 years of researching homeopathy and talking to homeopaths, I have not met any homeopaths who “believe it’s a placebo effect”.

(4) There is no ‘placebo camp’ amongst homeopaths; so this is not a basis for an argument; it’s a fallacy.

(5) They very definitely are mainstream scientists, like F Benedetti, who research the placebo effect and they certainly do not ‘downplay’ it. (What many people fail to understand is that, in placebo-controlled trials, one aims at controlling the placebo effect; to a research-naïve person, this may indeed LOOK LIKE downplaying it. But this impression is wrong and reflects merely a lack of understanding.)

(6) No serious scientist attaches ‘ridicule and vilification’ to it.

(7) Who says so? I know only homeopaths who hold this opinion; and it is not evidence-based.

(8) Ethics demand that patients require the best available treatment; homeopathy does not fall into this category.

(9) At one stage (more than 10 years ago), I was involved in the design of this test. My recollection of it is not in line with the report that is linked here.

(10) So far, we have seen no evidence for this statement.

(11) Which ones? No examples are provided.

(12) Yet another statement without evidence – potentially libellous.

(13) Conclusion before any evidence; sign for a closed mind?

(14) This outcome could be entirely unrelated to acupuncture, as anyone who has a minimum of health care knowledge should know.

(15) We are not concerned with beliefs, we concerned with facts here, aren’t we ?

(16) But did they argue this? Where is the evidence to support this statement?

(17) Non-evidence-based accusations.

(18) Classic fallacy.

(19) The debate is not between alt med and ‘pharmaceutical science’, it is between those who insist on treatments which demonstrably generate more good than harm, and those who want alt med regardless of any such considerations.

(20) Warning consumers of treatments which fail to fulfil the above criterion is, in my view, an ethical duty which can save much money and many lives.

(21) Yes, alt med is clearly ideology-driven; by contrast conventional medicine is not (if it were, Alli would have explained what ideology it is precisely). Conventional medicine changes all the time, sometimes even faster than we can cope with, and is mainly orientated on evidence which is not an ideology. Alt med hardly changes or progresses at all; for the most part, its ideology is that of a cult celebrating anti-science and obsolete traditions.

(22) Overt contradiction to what Alli just stated about acupuncture.

(23) To me, this seems rather nonsensical and a hindrance to progress.

In summary, I feel that Alli argues his corner very poorly. He makes statements without supporting evidence, issues lots of opinion without providing the facts (occasionally even hiding them), falls victim of logical fallacies, and demonstrates an embarrassing lack of knowledge and common sense. Most crucially, the text seems bar of any critical analysis; to me, it seems like a bonanza of unreason.

To save Alli the embarrassment of arguing that I am biased or don’t know what I am talking about, I’d like to declare the following: I am not paid by ‘Big Pharma’ or anyone else, I am not aware of having any other conflicts of interest, I have probably published more research on alt med (some of it with positive conclusions !!!) than anyone else on the planet, my research was funded mostly by organisations/donors who were in favour of alt med, and I have no reason whatsoever to defend Randi (I only met him personally once). My main motivation for responding to Alli’s invitation to comment on his bizarre article is that I have fun exposing ‘alt med nonsense’ and believe it is a task worth doing.

15 Responses to The ‘Amazing Randi, the ‘Philosopher’ and a bonanza of unreason

  • I think this adds to the body of evidence (as if we needed any more than what we have already) that shows that a certificate/diploma in philosophy offers little solid protection against unreason.

  • I read quite a lot of the material in the first link and it is very interesting.

    I’m not sure where Mr Alli obtained his qualification (if, indeed, he has one) but I am certain it did not cover logic and reason. I know it did not entertain elucidating the deficits in reasoning we call Logical Fallacies. Most assuredly, no science was covered because Mr Alli has no understanding of even the most basic scientific concepts an average high school student would understand.

    If one is to put aside the woeful writing, poor grammar, jumbled construction, incoherence, lack of threads, and ad hominems, the overall impression is that he has no idea what he is talking about.

    More bluntly, my conclusion is he is an idiot; a self-aggrandising, self-affectionate loon with an overly optimistic estimation of his intellectual capacities, or lack of. I think he believes he is a genius, though it is an opinion I do not share.

    • I concur; my feeling was that he should ask for his money back for the philosophy course he did.

      • He seems indeed to have some sort of philosophy diploma:

        In addition to running regular activities like wrestling and drawing, this York philosophy graduate gives life classes on a variety of subjects, including bullying and healthy relationships.
        Source: http://alumni.news.yorku.ca/2010/01/01/snowboarding-hills/

        I have never had all that much respect for philosophy, which I regard as some type of prescientific discipline, less awful than religion, but hardly worth practicing, except perhaps as a form of entertainment while drinking oneself into oblivion in a seedy bar (which is something I would not do willingly ^_^), and it seems that Shawn Alli illustrates that opinion beautifully.

        Serious doubts should be had about a university that organises courses named “Professional Studies”. Clearly, they’ll do anything to sell someone a course and make a dollar or two. They seem to treat their “diplomas” as some sort of novelty item ( http://alumniandfriends.yorku.ca/benefits/custom-framing/ ). I think a university like this deserves a spot in sitcoms, not in educational fora.

        Now, where can I sign up for a course in Unprofessional Studies?

        • as I suspected: the poor guy was cheated and should ask his money back.

          • In a world where cheating in childish games (FIFA) is taken more seriously than selling blatant and potentially life-endangering nonsense (Dr Oz) to millions of people, anything is possible. We need more people like James Randi, and more people like Edzard Ernst. A lot more.

  • While homeopathy isn’t suitable as a treatment for severe or acute medical conditions, it’s an acceptable treatment for minor, moderate or chronic ones (7).

    Unfortunately, homeopathists/naturopaths aren’t even qualified to distinguish the difference between severe/acute conditions and minor/moderate/chronic ones–nor are they able to confirm accurately whether they’re cured after they “treat” them because of the subjective/magical way they decide what’s wrong in the first place.

  • Just got an email from Alli:

    Thank you very much for your response Professor Ernst. It’s much better
    than most skeptical organizations.

    Sincerely,

    Shawn

  • First, as far as I know, Randi has always stressed that he is not a debunker and he does not exclude existence of supernatural phenomena.
    As to the Uri Geller and likes – I think it was Jonny Carson’s show, when James Randi instructed host, an amateur magician, How to deal with Uri Geller. And Uri Geller failed.
    I admire James Randi and other conjurers and mentalists for this type of work.
    But the most significant is his fight with “healers”. However I cannot say I am totally unbiased, because my Mom once brought me to a healer who told her that one of my father’s ex-girlfriends had cursed me while I was in mother’s womb, so I need to be baptised so that he could prefer ritual of exorcism. Which church, it did not matter although this charlatan told that girls like Russian Orthodox because of the amount of gold used in decorations…. I refused, because I did not believe in any god then, and still do not believe, so, for about a year, we did not talk about anything but my “impertinence” – my Mom insisted that I should lie to the priest, etc.
    Now I think that maybe I should have given in, just for the sake of curiosity, though these rituals of exorcism are often violent….

    • @Ieva
      “First, as far as I know, Randi has always stressed that he is not a debunker and he does not exclude existence of supernatural phenomena.” Right: he does not exclude existence of supernatural phenomena, he just wants somebody to show they exist under reasonably controlled conditions. So far no-one seems to have managed that.

  • Hi Dr Ernst, I’m new to your blog and found this article a wonderful example of the gulf between scientific and pseudo-scientific thinking. Alli clearly believes he is being profound and logical in his analysis but, as you have so effortlessly demonstrated, his exposition is woefully lacking in rigour. The writer appears unable to distinguish scientifically supported statements from mere assertions, opinions or wishful thinking.

    Although the visual appearance of Alli’s website could warn visitors that it shouldn’t be taken to seriously, I’m sure homeopathic blogs across the world are already eagerly referencing it as a primary source.

  • Another uninteresting addition to the tail-chasing Keystone cops of homeopathy.
    Other prominent members that come to mind are D.Ullman, John Bennet and G. Withoulkas.
    If only they were entertaining in their ineptitude.

  • To be perfectly frank, Alli comes across as an arse.

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