MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

bias

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A 2016 article set out to define the minimum core competencies expected from a certified paediatric doctor of chiropractic using a Delphi consensus process. The initial set of seed statements and sub-statements was modelled on competency documents used by organizations that oversee chiropractic and medical education. The statements were then distributed to the Delphi panel, reaching consensus when 80% of the panelists approved each segment. The panel consisted of 23 specialists in chiropractic paediatrics from across the spectrum of the chiropractic profession. Sixty-one percent of panellists had postgraduate paediatric certifications or degrees, 39% had additional graduate degrees, and 74% were faculty at a chiropractic institution and/or in a postgraduate paediatrics program. The panel was initially given 10 statements with related sub-statements formulated by the study’s steering committee. On all 3 rounds of the Delphi process the panelists reached consensus; however, multiple rounds occurred to incorporate the valuable qualitative feedback received.

The results of this process reveal that the Certified Paediatric Doctor of Chiropractic requires 8 sets of skills. (S)he will …

1) Possess a working knowledge and understanding of the anatomy, physiology, neurology, psychology, and developmental stages of a child. a) Recognize known effects of the prenatal environment, length of the pregnancy, and birth process on the child’s health. b) Identify and evaluate the stages of growth and evolution of systems from birth to adulthood. c) Appraise the clinical implications of developmental stages in health and disease, including gross and fine motor, language/communication, and cognitive, social, and emotional skills. d) Recognize normal from abnormal in these areas. e) Possess an understanding of the nutritional needs of various stages of childhood.

2) Recognize common and unusual health conditions of childhood. a) Identify and differentiate clinical features of common physical and mental paediatric conditions. b) Identify and differentiate evidence-based health care options for these conditions. c) Identify and differentiate clinical features and evidence-based health care options for the paediatric special needs population.

3) Be able to perform an age-appropriate evaluation of the paediatric patient. a) Take a comprehensive history, using appropriate communication skills to address both child and parent/ guardian. b) Perform age-appropriate and case-specific physical, orthopaedic, neurological, and developmental examination protocols. c) When indicated, utilize age-appropriate laboratory, imaging, and other diagnostic studies and consultations, according to best practice guidelines. d) Appropriately apply and adapt these skills to the paediatric special needs population. e) Be able to obtain and comprehend all relevant external health records.

4) Formulate differential diagnoses based on the history, examination, and diagnostic studies.

5) Establish a plan of management for each child, including treatment, referral to, and/or co-management with other health care professionals. a) Use the scientific literature to inform the management plan. b) Adequately document the patient encounter and management plan. c) Communicate management plan clearly (written, oral, and nonverbal cues) with both the child and the child’s parent/guardian. d) Communicate appropriately and clearly with other professionals in the referral and co-management of patients.

6) Deliver skilful, competent, and safe chiropractic care, modified for the paediatric population, including but not limited to: a) Manual therapy and instrument-assisted techniques including manipulation/adjustment, mobilization, and soft tissue therapies to address articulations and/or soft tissues. b) Physical therapy modalities. c) Postural and rehabilitative exercises. d) Nutrition advice and supplementation. e) Lifestyle and public health advice. f) Adapt the delivery of chiropractic care for the paediatric special needs population.

7) Integrate and collaborate with other health care providers in the care of the paediatric patient. a) Recognize the role of various health care providers in paediatric care. b) Utilize professional inter-referral protocols. c) Interact clearly and professionally as needed with health care professionals and others involved in the care of each patient. d) Clearly explain the role of chiropractic care to professionals, parents, and children.

8) Function as a primary contact, portal of entry practitioner who will. a) Be proficient in paediatric first aid and basic emergency procedures. b) Identify and report suspected child abuse.

9) Demonstrate and utilize high professional and ethical standards in all aspects of the care of paediatric patients and professional practice. a) Monitor and properly reports of effects/adverse events. b) Recognize cultural individuality and respect the child’s and family’s wishes regarding health care decisions. c) Engage in lifelong learning to maintain and improve professional knowledge and skills. d) Contribute when possible to the knowledge base of the profession by participating in research. e) Represent and support the specialty of paediatrics within the profession and to the broader healthcare and lay communities.

I find this remarkable in many ways. Let us just consider a few items from the above list of competencies:

Identify and differentiate evidence-based health care options… such options would clearly not include chiropractic manipulations.

Identify and differentiate clinical features and evidence-based health care options for the paediatric special needs population… as above. Why is there no mention of immunisations anywhere?

Perform age-appropriate and case-specific physical, orthopaedic, neurological, and developmental examination protocols. If that is a competency requirement, patients should really see the appropriate medical specialists rather than a chiropractor.

Establish a plan of management for each child, including treatment, referral to, and/or co-management with other health care professionals. The treatment plan is either evidence-based or it includes chiropractic manipulations.

Deliver skilful, competent, and safe chiropractic care… Aren’t there contradictions in terms here?

Manual therapy and instrument-assisted techniques including manipulation/adjustment, mobilization, and soft tissue therapies to address articulations and/or soft tissues. Where is the evidence that these treatments are effective for paediatric conditions, and which conditions would these be?

Clearly explain the role of chiropractic care to professionals, parents, and children. As chiropractic is not evidence-based in paediatrics, the role is extremely limited or nil.

Function as a primary contact, portal of entry practitioner… This seems to me as a recipe for disaster.

Demonstrate and utilize high professional and ethical standards in all aspects of the care of paediatric patients… This would include obtaining informed consent which, in turn, needs to include telling the parents that chiropractic is neither safe nor effective and that better therapeutic options are available. Moreover, would it not be ethical to make clear that a paediatric ‘doctor’ of chiropractic is a very far cry from a real paediatrician?

So, what should the competencies of a chiropractor really be when it comes to treating paediatric conditions? In my view, they are much simpler than outlined by the authors of this new article: I SEE NO REASON WHATSOEVER WHY CHIROPRACTORS SHOULD TREAT CHILDREN!

The Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan recently called homeopathy ‘bogus’. “They (homeopaths) take arsenic compounds and dilute it to such an extent that just a molecule is left. It will not make any effect on you. Your tap water has more arsenic. No one in chemistry believes in homeopathy. It works because of placebo effect,” he was quoted saying.

But what does he know about homeopathy? This was the angry question of homeopaths around the world when the Nobel laureate’s views became international headlines.

Nothing! Exclaimed the furious homeopaths with one voice.

If we want to get an informed opinion, we a true expert.

The Queen’s homeopath Dr Fisher? No, he has been known to tell untruths.

Doctor Michael Dixon, the adviser to Prince Charles who recently defended homeopathy? No, he is not even a homeopath.

Dana Ullman, the voice of US homeopathy? Heavens, he is a homeopath but not one who is known to be objective.

Alan Schmukler perhaps? He too seems to have difficulties with critical thinking.

Perhaps we need to ask an experienced and successful homeopath like doctor Akshay Batra; someone with both feet on the ground who knows about the coal face of health care today. He recently spoke out for the virtues of homeopathy explaining that it is based on the ingenious idea that ‘like cures like: “For example if you are suffering from constant watering eyes, you will be given allium cepa which comes from onions, something that causes eyes to water. Homeopathy works like a vaccine”. Dr Batra claims that the failure of allopathy (mainstream medicine) is causing the present boom in homeopathy. “With the amount of deaths taking place due to allopathic medicine and its side effects, we can see people resorting to homeopathy,” he said. “Certain children using asthma inhalers suffer from growth issues or develop unusual facial hair. Homeopathy avoids that and uses a natural remedy that treats the root cause,” he added.

The top issues treated with homeopathy, according to Dr Batra, are hair and skin problems. “A lot of ailments today effecting hair and skin are because of internal diseases. Hair loss in women has become very prevalent and can be due to cystic ovaries, low iron levels or hormonal imbalance due to thyroid,” explained Dr Batra. “We find the root cause and treat that, since hair loss could just be a symptom and we need to treat the ailment permanently. Allopathic medicines just give you a quick fix, and not treat the root cause, while we give a more long term, complete solution,” he added. Homeopathy is mind and body medicine: “A lot of people today are under pressure and stress. Homeopathic treatment also helps in relieving tension hence treating the patient as a whole,” said Dr Batra.

I bet you now wonder who is this fabulous expert and homeopath, doctor Batra.

He has been mentioned on this blog before, namely when he opened the first London branch of his chain of homeopathic clinics claiming that homeopathy could effectively treat the following conditions:

Yes, Dr Akshay Batra is the managing director and chairman of Dr Batra’s Homeopathic Clinic, an enterprise that is currently establishing clinics across the globe.

And now we understand, I think, why the Nobel laureate and the homeopathy expert have slightly different views on the subject.

Who would you believe, I wonder?

Consensus recommendations to the ‘National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health from Research Faculty in a Transdisciplinary Academic Consortium for Complementary and Integrative Health and Medicine’ have just been published. It appeared in this most impartial of all CAM journals, the ‘Journal of Alternative and Complementary Mededicine’. Its authors are equally impartial: Menard MB 1, Weeks J 2, Anderson 3, Meeker 4, Calabrese C 5, O’Bryon D 6, Cramer GD 7

They come from these institutions:

  • 1 Crocker Institute , Kiawah Island, SC.
  • 2 Academic Consortium for Complementary and Alternative Health Care , Seattle, WA.
  • 3 Pacific College of Oriental Medicine , New York, NY.
  • 4 Palmer College of Chiropractic , San Jose, CA.
  • 5 Center for Natural Medicine , Portland, OR.
  • 6 Association of Chiropractic Colleges , Bethesda, MD.
  • 7 National University of Health Sciences , Lombard, IL

HERE IS THE ABSTRACT OF THE DOCUMENT IN ITS FULL AND UNABBREVIATED BEAUTY:

BACKGROUND:

This commentary presents the most impactful, shared priorities for research investment across the licensed complementary and integrative health (CIH) disciplines according to the Academic Consortium for Complementary and Alternative Health Care (ACCAHC). These are (1) research on whole disciplines; (2) costs; and (3) building capacity within the disciplines’ universities, colleges, and programs. The issue of research capacity is emphasized.

DISCUSSION:

ACCAHC urges expansion of investment in the development of researchers who are graduates of CIH programs, particularly those with a continued association with accredited CIH schools. To increase capacity of CIH discipline researchers, we recommend National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) to (1) continue and expand R25 grants for education in evidence-based healthcare and evidence-informed practice at CIH schools; (2) work to limit researcher attrition from CIH institutions by supporting career development grants for clinicians from licensed CIH fields who are affiliated with and dedicated to continuing to work in accredited CIH schools; (3) fund additional stand-alone grants to CIH institutions that already have a strong research foundation, and collaborate with appropriate National Institutes of Health (NIH) institutes and centers to create infrastructure in these institutions; (4) stimulate higher percentages of grants to conventional centers to require or strongly encourage partnership with CIH institutions or CIH researchers based at CIH institutions, or give priority to those that do; (5) fund research conferences, workshops, and symposia developed through accredited CIH schools, including those that explore best methods for studying the impact of whole disciplines; and (6) following the present NIH policy of giving priority to new researchers, we urge NCCIH to give a marginal benefit to grant applications from CIH clinician-researchers at CIH academic/research institutions, to acknowledge that CIH concepts require specialized expertise to translate to conventional perspectives.

SUMMARY:

We commend NCCIH for its previous efforts to support high-quality research in the CIH disciplines. As NCCIH develops its 2016-2020 strategic plan, these recommendations to prioritize research based on whole disciplines, encourage collection of outcome data related to costs, and further support capacity-building within CIH institutions remain relevant and are a strategic use of funds that can benefit the nation’s health.

AND WHY DID THIS SURPRISE ME?

Well, I would have expected that such an impartial, intelligent bunch of people who are doubtlessly capable of critical analysis would have come up with a totally different set of recommendations. For instance:

  1. Integrative health makes no sense.
  2. Integrative medicine is a disservice to patients.
  3. Integrative health is a paradise for charlatans.
  4. No more research is required in this area.
  5. Research already under way should be stopped.
  6. Money ear-marked for integrative health should be diverted to other investigators researching areas that show at least a glimpse of promise.

Alright, you are correct – my suggestions are neither realistic nor constructive. One cannot expect that they will turn down all these lovely research funds and give it to real scientists. One has to offer them something constructive to do with the money. How about projects addressing the following research questions?

  1. How many integrative health clinics offer evidence-based treatments?
  2. Is the promotion of bogus treatments in line with the demands of medical ethics?
  3. If we need to render health care more holistic, humane, patient-centred, why not reform conventional medicine?
  4. Is the creation of integrative medicine a divisive development for health care?
  5. Is humane, holistic, patient-centred care really an invention of integrative medicine, and what is its history?
  6. Which of the alternative treatments used in integrative medicine can be shown to do more good than harm?
  7. What are the commercial drivers behind the integrative health movement?
  8. Is there a role for critical thinking within integrative health?
  9. Is integrative health creating double standards within medicine?
  10. What is better for public health, empty promises about ‘the best of both worlds’ or sound evidence?

MORE than £150,000 was spent by NHS Grampian on homeopathic treatments last year. Referrals to homeopathic practitioners cost £37,000 and referrals to the Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital cost £7,315 in 2014-15. In view of the fact that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos, any amount of tax payers’ money spent on homeopathy is hard to justify. Yet an NHS Grampian spokeswoman defended its use of by the health board with the following words:

“We have a responsibility to consider all treatments available to NHS patients to ensure they offer safe, effective and person-centred care. We also have a responsibility to use NHS resources carefully and balance our priorities across the population as well as individuals. We also recognise that patient reported outcome and experience measures are valued even when objective evidence of effectiveness is limited. Homeopathy can be considered in this arena and we remain connected with the wider debate on its role within the NHS while regularly reviewing our local support for such services within NHS Grampian.”

Mr Spence, a professional homeopath, was also invited to defend the expenditure on homeopathy: “When a friend started talking to me about homeopathy I thought he had lost his marbles. But it seemed homeopathy could fill a gap left by orthodox medicine. Homeopathy is about treating the whole person, not just the symptoms of disease, and it could save the NHS an absolute fortune. If someone is in a dangerous situation or they need surgery then they need to go to hospital. It’s often those with chronic, long-term problems where conventional treatment has not worked that can be helped by homeopathy.”

What do these arguments amount to, I ask myself.

The answer is NOTHING.

The key sentence in the spokeswomen’s comment is : “patient reported outcome and experience measures are valued even when objective evidence of effectiveness is limited.” This seems to admit that the evidence fails to support homeopathy. Therefore, so the argument, we have to abandon evidence and consider experience, opinion etc. This seemingly innocent little trick is nothing else than the introduction of double standards into health care decision making which could be used to justify the use of just about any bogus therapy in the NHS at the tax payers’ expense. It is obvious that such a move would be a decisive step in the wrong direction and to the detriment of progress in health care.

The comments by the homeopath are perhaps even more pitiful. They replace arguments with fallacies and evidence with speculation or falsehoods.

There is, of course, a bright side to this:

IF HOMEOPATHY IS DEFENDED IN SUCH A LAUGHABLE MANNER, ITS DAYS MUST BE COUNTED.

The randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial is usually the methodology to test the efficacy of a therapy that carries the least risk of bias. This fact is an obvious annoyance to some alt med enthusiasts, because such trials far too often fail to produce the results they were hoping for.

But there is no need to despair. Here I provide a few simple tips on how to mislead the public with seemingly rigorous trials.

1 FRAUD

The most brutal method for misleading people is simply to cheat. The Germans have a saying, ‘Papier ist geduldig’ (paper is patient), implying that anyone can put anything on paper. Fortunately we currently have plenty of alt med journals which publish any rubbish anyone might dream up. The process of ‘peer-review’ is one of several mechanisms supposed to minimise the risk of scientific fraud. Yet alt med journals are more clever than that! They tend to have a peer-review that rarely involves independent and critical scientists, more often than not you can even ask that you best friend is invited to do the peer-review, and the alt med journal will follow your wish. Consequently the door is wide open to cheating. Once your fraudulent paper has been published, it is almost impossible to tell that something is fundamentally wrong.

But cheating is not confined to original research. You can also apply the method to other types of research, of course. For instance, the authors of the infamous ‘Swiss report’ on homeopathy generated a false positive picture using published systematic reviews of mine by simply changing their conclusions from negative to positive. Simple!

2 PRETTIFICATION

Obviously, outright cheating is not always as simple as that. Even in alt med, you cannot easily claim to have conducted a clinical trial without a complex infrastructure which invariably involves other people. And they are likely to want to have some control over what is happening. This means that complete fabrication of an entire data set may not always be possible. What might still be feasible, however, is the ‘prettification’ of the results. By just ‘re-adjusting’ a few data points that failed to live up to your expectations, you might be able to turn a negative into a positive trial. Proper governance is aimed at preventing his type of ‘mini-fraud’ but fortunately you work in alt med where such mechanisms are rarely adequately implemented.

3 OMISSION

Another very handy method is the omission of aspects of your trial which regrettably turned out to be in disagreement with the desired overall result. In most studies, one has a myriad of endpoints. Once the statistics of your trial have been calculated, it is likely that some of them yield the wanted positive results, while others do not. By simply omitting any mention of the embarrassingly negative results, you can easily turn a largely negative study into a seemingly positive one. Normally, researchers have to rely on a pre-specified protocol which defines a primary outcome measure. Thankfully, in the absence of proper governance, it usually is possible to publish a report which obscures such detail and thus mislead the public (I even think there has been an example of such an omission on this very blog).

4 STATISTICS

Yes – lies, dam lies, and statistics! A gifted statistician can easily find ways to ‘torture the data until they confess’. One only has to run statistical test after statistical test, and BINGO one will eventually yield something that can be marketed as the longed-for positive result. Normally, researchers must have a protocol that pre-specifies all the methodologies used in a trial, including the statistical analyses. But, in alt med, we certainly do not want things to function normally, do we?

5 TRIAL DESIGNS THAT CANNOT GENERATE A NEGATIVE RESULT

All the above tricks are a bit fraudulent, of course. Unfortunately, fraud is not well-seen by everyone. Therefore, a more legitimate means of misleading the public would be highly desirable for those aspiring alt med researchers who do not want to tarnish their record to their disadvantage. No worries guys, help is on the way!

The fool-proof trial design is obviously the often-mentioned ‘A+B versus B’ design. In such a study, patients are randomized to receive an alt med treatment (A) together with usual care (B) or usual care (B) alone. This looks rigorous, can be sold as a ‘pragmatic’ trial addressing a real-fife problem, and has the enormous advantage of never failing to produce a positive result: A+B is always more than B alone, even if A is a pure placebo. Such trials are akin to going into a hamburger joint for measuring the calories of a Big Mac without chips and comparing them to the calories of a Big Mac with chips. We know the result before the research has started; in alt med, that’s how it should be!

I have been banging on about the ‘A+B versus B’ design often enough, but recently I came across a new study design used in alt med which is just as elegantly misleading. The trial in question has a promising title: Quality-of-life outcomes in patients with gynecologic cancer referred to integrative oncology treatment during chemotherapy. Here is the unabbreviated abstract:

OBJECTIVE:

Integrative oncology incorporates complementary medicine (CM) therapies in patients with cancer. We explored the impact of an integrative oncology therapeutic regimen on quality-of-life (QOL) outcomes in women with gynecological cancer undergoing chemotherapy.

PATIENTS AND METHODS:

A prospective preference study examined patients referred by oncology health care practitioners (HCPs) to an integrative physician (IP) consultation and CM treatments. QOL and chemotherapy-related toxicities were evaluated using the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale (ESAS) and Measure Yourself Concerns and Wellbeing (MYCAW) questionnaire, at baseline and at a 6-12-week follow-up assessment. Adherence to the integrative care (AIC) program was defined as ≥4 CM treatments, with ≤30 days between each session.

RESULTS:

Of 128 patients referred by their HCP, 102 underwent IP consultation and subsequent CM treatments. The main concerns expressed by patients were fatigue (79.8 %), gastrointestinal symptoms (64.6 %), pain and neuropathy (54.5 %), and emotional distress (45.5 %). Patients in both AIC (n = 68) and non-AIC (n = 28) groups shared similar demographic, treatment, and cancer-related characteristics. ESAS fatigue scores improved by a mean of 1.97 points in the AIC group on a scale of 0-10 and worsened by a mean of 0.27 points in the non-AIC group (p = 0.033). In the AIC group, MYCAW scores improved significantly (p < 0.0001) for each of the leading concerns as well as for well-being, a finding which was not apparent in the non-AIC group.

CONCLUSIONS:

An IP-guided CM treatment regimen provided to patients with gynecological cancer during chemotherapy may reduce cancer-related fatigue and improve other QOL outcomes.

A ‘prospective preference study’ – this is the design the world of alt med has been yearning for! Its principle is beautiful in its simplicity. One merely administers a treatment or treatment package to a group of patients; inevitably some patients take it, while others don’t. The reasons for not taking it could range from lack of perceived effectiveness to experience of side-effects. But never mind, the fact that some do not want your treatment provides you with two groups of patients: those who comply and those who do not comply. With a bit of skill, you can now make the non-compliers appear like a proper control group. Now you only need to compare the outcomes and BOB IS YOUR UNCLE!

Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant!

I cannot think of a more deceptive trial-design than this one; it will make any treatment look good, even one that is a mere placebo. Alright, it is not randomized, and it does not even have a proper control group. But it sure looks rigorous and meaningful, this ‘prospective preference study’!

The US homeopath Alan V Schmukler has been the subject of one post on this blog already. Here, to remind everyone, is his fascinating background again:

He attended Temple University, where he added humanistic psychology to his passions. After graduating Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa and President’s Scholar, he spent several years doing workshops in human relations. Alan also studied respiratory therapy and worked for three years at Einstein Hospital in Philadelphia. Those thousands of hours in the intensive care and emergency rooms taught him both the strengths and limitations of conventional medicine.

Schmukler eventually learned about homeopathy in 1991 when he felt he had been cured of an infection with Hepar sulphur, his very own ‘homeopathic epiphany’, it seems. He then founded the Homeopathic Study Group of Metropolitan Philadelphia and helped found and edit Homeopathy News and Views, a popular newsletter. He taught homeopathy for Temple University’s Adult Programs, and has been either studying, writing, lecturing or consulting on homeopathy since 1991. Today, he is Chief Editor of Hpathy.com and of Homeopathy4Everyone and says that his work as Editor is one of his most rewarding experiences.

Schmukler is clearly well-placed to comment on all aspects of homeopathy competently and with great vision. What he says must be taken seriously. And that includes his profound and well-researched opinions regarding homeopathy’s critics. The most recent article by Schmukler is entitled ‘WHEN THE GAME IS OVER’ and it discloses the truth and nothing but the truth about these critics and the worldwide conspiracy against homeopathy. Here is an excerpt from his revelations:

…we still find homeopathy being attacked as placebo, mostly by government officials, academics and the press. There are essentially two categories of critics. The first category consists of individuals who are totally ignorant of homeopathy and just repeating propaganda they’ve been exposed to. The second category is people who know that homeopathy works, but have a vested financial interest in destroying it. When you read about attacks on homeopathy, you have to ask yourself whether you are dealing with pure ignorance, or deceit. Those who deny homeopathy from deceit use the same tactics as those who deny global warming. Just as global warming deniers are financed by the petroleum industry, homeopathy deniers are financed by the pharmaceutical industry. They engage in the same tactics of misinformation using surrogates in academia, in the media and in government.

So here we have it!

Two categories of critics!!!

THE IGNORANT and THE CORRUPT!

I am so glad Schmukler did find this out through his research and said it with such clarity. It needed to se said! And I am surprised how simple it all becomes, once one has the guidance from someone in the know.

The opposition to homeopathy has nothing to do with evidence (and as evidence does not come into it, there is also no need to supply evidence for Schmukler’s statements, of course), as some might have speculated. Instead, it all is a huge conspiracy. Makes sense! Why did we not think of this myself?

I applaud Schmukler for putting the defence of homeopathy to a level which must be a new low.

In 1790, as Hahnemann was translating the Scottish physician’s, Cullen, ‘Treatise on Materia Medica’, he came across the passage where Cullen explains the actions of Peruvian (or China bark, [Cinchona officinalis]) which contains quinine, an effective treatment of malaria. Hahnemann disagreed with Cullen’s explanation that Cinchona worked through “a tonic effect on the stomach”. Therefore he decided to conduct experiments of his own to prove Cullen wrong.

Hahnemann thus ingested high doses of Cinchona and noticed that subsequently he developed several of the symptoms that are characteristic of malaria. This is how Hahnemann later described his experience:

I took for several days, as an experiment, four drams of good china daily. My feet and finger tips, etc., at first became cold; I became languid and drowsy; my pulse became hard and quick; an intolerable anxiety and trembling (but without rigor); trembling in all limbs; then pulsation in the head, redness in the cheeks, thirst; briefly, all those symptoms which to me are typical of intermittent fever, such as the stupefaction of the senses, a kind of rigidity of all joints, but above all the numb, disagreeable sensation which seems to have its seat in the periosteum over all the bones of the body – all made their appearance. This paroxysm lasted for two or three hours every time, and recurred when I repeated the dose and not otherwise. I discontinued the medicine and I was once more in good health.

Hahnemann repeated this experiment several times and eventually concluded that he had discovered something of great general importance: there seemed to be a similarity between the symptoms of a disease and the symptoms caused by the drug that is effective in treating that very disease.

After several more experiments, Hahnemann became convinced that he had, in fact, discovered a law of nature: similia similibus currentur (often translated as ‘like cures like’ yet meaning ‘like should be cured with like’). This became the basis of homeopathy and is, in fact, its definition.

In 1796, Hahnemann published his theory in an article entitled ‘Essay on a New Principle’. In 1806, he wrote a more detailed treatise ‘The Medicine of Experience’ and, in 1810, the first edition of his major work ‘The Organon’ followed. He continued to revise his ‘Organon’ throughout his long life, which thus saw a total of six editions (the last was only published well after his death).

Since Hahnemann’s days, several attempts have been made to reproduce Hahnemann’s quinine experiment. The results of the most rigorous of these replications have failed to confirm Hahnemann’s original findings: neither Cinchona bark nor its main ingredient, quinine, produce the symptoms of malaria in health individuals.

And what is the explanation?

The dose Hahnemann took contained about 400 to 500 milligrams of quinine. After ingesting it, he felt languid and drowsy (hypotension); he noticed palpitations (ventricular tachycardia), pulsation in the head (headache), redness in cheeks (rash), prostration through limbs (general weakness), thirst (fever) and cold fingers and feet with trembling which are indicative of an allergic reaction. One has to praise Hahnemann’s skills of (self-) observations. Unfortunately, his ability to interpret them correctly was, at least in this particular instance, wanting.

The most likely cause of his symptoms is, according to many experts who have analysed the case in much detail, an allergic reaction to quinine. Hahnemann described his symptoms accurately, yet he was mistaken in his interpretation of the event.

If this conclusion is correct – and I have little doubt that it is – the main assumption of homeopathy, the notion on which the entire school of homeopathy rests, is based on a misunderstanding.

A ‘RAZOR’ is an argument for “shaving off” unlikely or implausible explanations or arguments. Who would, in this context, not think of alternative therapies and the explanations provided for them? And who could deny that homeopathy, in particular, is crying out for its very own razor?

I am, of course, inspired by 4 existing razors:

Occam’s Razor: Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions is likely to be the correct one.

Hitchens’s Razor: What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice what can adequately explained by stupidity.

Alder’s Razor: What cannot be settled by experiment is not worth debating.

To those of my readers who fail to see the relationship to homeopathy, I offer the following explanations:

OCCAM

Homeopaths claim that the explanation for homeopathy’s mode of action is the ‘memory of water’ theory which is now supported, they say, by all sorts of basic science from water structure to nano-particles. Even if true [which it is not], this explanation relies on a whole series of further assumptions, for instance, about how nano-particles bring about any clinical outcome. The competing hypothesis is that the benefit experienced by patients after homeopathy is due to non-specific or context effects such as the placebo effect, the empathetic consultation etc. We have therefore one single hypothesis (i. e. homeopathy works via non-specific effects which is even supported by experimental data) against a myriad of postulates which are largely speculative. Occam’s Razor holds that the explanation with the least assumptions is likely to be correct.

HITCHENS

Homeopaths claim that their remedies are more than a placebo. To support their claim, they have no good evidence but rely on cherry-picking and misrepresenting the available data. Hitchen’s Razor suggests that, as long as they don’t come up with evidence, we can dismiss these claims without even attempting to prove the cherry-pickers wrong.

HANLON

Homeopaths have given us plenty of evidence (for instance, on this blog) for the fact that they often have a somewhat disturbed relationship with the truth. One might think that this is because they are maliciously trying to mislead us. According to Halon’s Razor, it is more likely that they are just stupid.

ALDER

Homeopaths regularly claim that, as long as there is no proof that homeopathy does not work, there must be an open debate about the issues involved and, as long as there are genuine debates and doubts, we must continue to make homeopathy available to all. Alder’ s Razor, however, suggests otherwise: there have been many tests of homeopathy; their results have failed to settle the matter in favour of homeopathy; therefore we can forget about the whole thing, stop debating it, and close the issue.

So, what about the razor promised in the title of this post? Here it comes; it is an attempt to synthesize the 4 razors above and apply them to homeopathy. I will call it (somewhat pompously) ‘Ernst’s Razor’ and I have tried to formulate it such that it can be applied to most other bogus treatments simply by exchanging one single word:

INSTEAD OF RELYING ON EVIDENCE, HOMEOPATHY’S SURVIVAL DEPENDS ON MULTIPLE ASSUMPTIONS, LIES, IGNORANCE AND STUPIDITY.

Recently I have focussed several posts on well-known homeopaths and proponents of homeopathy; they include 6 prominent defenders of this therapy:

Dr Peter Fisher, the Queen’s homeopath,

Dr Michael Dixon, GP, chair of the NHS Alliance, the College of Medicine  and holder of many other posts,

Prof Michael Frass, intensive care physician at the University of Vienna,

Christian Boiron, general manager of Boiron, the world’s largest homeopathic manufacturer,

Christophe Merville, lead pharmacist at Boiron,

Dana Ullman, US homeopath and entrepreneur.

This inevitably begs the question what these people might have in common. After some consideration, I think, there are the following common denominators (you might see others; if so, please let me know):

  1. Most have conflicts of interest, yet try to hide this fact as best as they can, a circumstance which could be seen as less than honest.
  2. Most are quick of accusing critics of homeopathy of dishonesty and harbour conspiracy theories of various kinds.
  3. Most seem unable to think critically.
  4. They never criticise each other, not even for demonstrably wrong remarks or actions.
  5. Most use fallacious arguments regularly.
  6. Most rely on cherry-picking their evidence.
  7. Most display anti-scientific tendencies, yet rely on ‘cutting edge science’ as soon as they can interpret it in favour of homeopathy.
  8. They seem to be unable to learn in the light of new evidence.
  9. They seem never able to change their mind about things related to homeopathy.
  10. This gives them a distinct flair of fanaticism and arrogance.
  11. Most seem to have an odd attitude towards medical ethics.
  12. Most try to mislead the public by claiming things which are evidently not true.

The last point is, in my view, the most striking, important and disturbing issue. I ask myself what reasons these individuals have to tell untruths and whether ‘telling untruths’ is the same as ‘telling lies’. The first part of this question seems to be answered by the fact that most have powerful conflicts of interest; that is to say their livelihood depends on misleading the public about homeopathy. But are they lying or telling untruths?

This is a potentially important difference, I think.

An untruth is a statement which is false. By contrast, a lie is a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive. So, are the untruths issued by the above-named homeopaths lies or untruths?

I would not dare to decide on the answer of this question…but hope my readers have some suggestions.

Anyone who has looked into the discussions around homeopathy for more than 10 minutes will have come across Dana Ullman (DU). Some 15 years ago, I had the pleasure to meet him in person during a conference in Boston. After the brief chat, I asked a UK homeopath who this bizarre person was. “Oh Dana!” he replied “Dana is alright.”

But is he? Let’s have a look at the evidence.

There are very few papers by DU listed in Medline, and most of these articles are simply opinion pieces. The opinions DU expresses there (or anywhere else) are usually not supported by good evidence; some of them are even outright dangerous. Here are a few quotes:

“…homeopathic care is cost effective…”

“…homeopathic medicines are effective…”

“…homeopathic medicine may play a useful role as an adjunctive and/or alternative therapy [for HIV infections]”

“[There are]…significant effects of homeopathic treatment in allergic patients.”

Occasionally, DU writes little essays full of utter nonsense, logical fallacies and falsehoods for HUFFPOST where he is nevertheless characterised in glowing terms: Dana Ullman, M.P.H. (Masters in Public Health, U.C. Berkeley), CCH (Certification in Classical Homeopathy) is “homeopathic.com” and is widely recognized as the foremost spokesperson for homeopathic medicine in the U.S.

Wikipedia, however, is more critical and cites the opinion of a judge who was presiding over a class action against a US homeopathic producer in which DU had been called as an expert witness: The Defendant presented the testimony of Gregory Dana Ullman who is a homeopathic practitioner. He outlined the theory of homeopathic treatment and presented his opinion as to the value and effectiveness of homeopathic remedies. The Court found Mr. Ullman’s testimony to be not credible. Mr. Ullman’s bias in favor of homeopathy and against conventional medicine was readily apparent from his testimony. He admitted that he was not an impartial expert but rather is a passionate advocate of homeopathy. He posted on Twitter that he views conventional medicine as witchcraft. He opined that conventional medical science cannot be trusted…Mr. Ullman’s testimony was unhelpful in understanding the purported efficacy of the ingredients of SnoreStop to reduce the symptoms of snoring. Although he is familiar with the theory of homeopathic treatment, his opinions regarding its effectiveness was unsupported and biased. The Court gave no weight to his testimony.

The Encyclopedia of Americam Loons is even more poignant and describes DU as: A master of cognitive dissonance and memory bias, Ullman seems clinically unable to grasp the possibility that he may be wrong. Combined with a lack of understanding of science or medicine – and the possession of certain marketing skills – what we end up with is rather insidious.

Anyone who has debated with DU will have to concur with the claim that he fails to understand science or medicine. If you don’t believe me, please read his recent comments on the post about Prof Frass on this blog where he excels in producing one fallacy after the next (if he were on a mission to give homeopathy a bad name, he would be doing a sterling job!).

Despite all this abysmal ignorance, DU has one undisputed and outstanding talent: the knack of getting on people’s nerves and thus driving rational thinkers to distraction. In this way he even managed to be headlined as an ‘idiot‘!

I find it tempting to agree with the many experts who have called him an idiot, a moron or a laughing stock but, for now, I will resist that temptation. On the contrary, I want point out that he is much more cunning and clever than we give him credit for: after all, he runs a thriving business and lives off the nonsense he produces. To my mind, this is not idiotic; devious and unethical surely, but not idiotic nor laughable!

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