MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

big pharma

Actually, the exact quote was slightly different: What we’re dealing with here is the big lie, being perpetrated by corrupt government officials on the payroll of Pharma” (the bold lettering is from the original). It comes from the pen of  who has featured on this blog before (see also here).

Strong words indeed! But not as strong as those of the title of his new article: BRING THE CRIMINALS TO JUSTICE. What were they directed against? They were in protest against the recent rulings of the British Advertising Standards Authority and the American FCT  out-lawing the advertising of bogus claims for homeopathy.

Alan V Schmukler continues his article as follows: “It’s time to hold these people accountable. There are laws in every country against officials taking bribes and malfeasance in office. Write to your legislators and demand that they investigate and bring these criminals to justice. Send them the links to hundreds of homeopathy studies, including disease prevention with homeopathy, at the end of this article.   Tell them that the regulatory agencies are protecting Pharma profits, not the public.

Meanwhile, let us insist that pharmaceutical drugs be labeled honestly, like this:

“This drug was tested by the same company that profits from it, and which company has been fined millions of dollars in the past for lying about test results. This drug does not cure any medical condition, but only suppresses symptoms which may ultimately make the patient sicker. This drug has already  killed or injured X  number of people.”

There are not many homeopaths who can render me speechless; I have been used to a lot. But this man almost did. Almost!

After recovering my self-control, all I want to say to this is: THANK YOU ALAN V SCMUKLER! Not only have you made me laugh harder than when I last watched ‘Faulty Towers’, but, more importantly, you have shown us how deluded some (or could this be ‘all’?) of the leading homeopaths really are.

PS

Alan, if you read this, perhaps you want to have a look a this post.

WHAT DOCTORS DON’T TELL YOU (WDDTY) is probably the most vile publication I know. It systematically misleads its readers by alarming news about this or that conventional treatment, while relentlessly promoting pseudoscientific non-sense. This article , entitled “MMR can cause skin problems and ulcers if your immune system is compromised” is a good example (one of a multitude):

The MMR vaccine can cause serious adverse reactions, researchers have admitted this week. The rubella (German measles) component of the jab increases the risk of infection from the rubella virus itself, and can cause serious skin inflammation and ulcers in anyone whose immune system is compromised.

The risk is highest among people with primary immunodeficiency diseases (PIDD), chronic genetic disorders that cause the immune system to malfunction.

Although the risk for people with compromised immune systems has been known, and is even included in the package inserts supplied with the vaccine, it was theoretical, say researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who say they have uncovered “genuine evidence of harm.”

The researchers analysed the health profile of 14 people—four adults and 10 children—who suffered some form of a PIDD. Seven of them still had the rubella virus in their tissues, suggesting that their immune systems were too weak to get rid of the virus in the vaccine. The virus can damage skin cells and cause ulcers, and makes the person more susceptible to the actual rubella virus, the researchers say.

People with a poor immune system already have compromised T-cells—which are responsible for clearing viral infections—and the MMR makes the problem worse.

END OF QUOTE

And what is wrong with this article?

The answer is quite a lot:

  1. The research seems to be about a very specific and rare condition, yet WDDTY seem to want to draw much more general conclusions.
  2. The research itself is not described in a way that it would be possible to evaluate.
  3. The sample size of what seems to have been a case-control study was tiny.
  4. The study is not properly cited for the reader to verify and check; for all we know, it might not even exist.
  5. I was not able to find the publication on Medline, based on the information given.

Collectively, these points render the article not just useless, in my view, but make it a prime example of unethical, unhelpful and irresponsible scaremongering.

 

During the last two decades, I have had ample occasion to study the pseudo-arguments of charlatans when trying to defend the indefensible. Here I will try to disclose some of them in the hope that this might help others to identify charlatans more easily and to react accordingly.

Let’s say someone publishes a document showing evidence that homeopathy is a useless therapy. Naturally, this will annoy the many believers in homeopathy, and they will counter by attempting to make a range of points:

  1. THEY WILL STATE THAT THERE IS EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY. For instance, proponents of homeopathy can produce studies that seem to ‘prove’ homeopathy’s efficacy. The facts that these are flawed or irreproducible, and that the totality of the evidence is not positive does hardly ever bother them. Charlatans are born cherry-pickers.
  2. THEY WILL SUGGEST THAT THE EXISTING EVIDENCE HAS BEEN MIS-QUOTED. Often they will cite out of context from original studies one or two sentences which seem to indicate that they are correct. Any reminders that these quotes are meaningless fall on deaf ears.
  3. THEY WILL SAY THAT THE PUBLISHED EVIDENCE WAS MISINTERPRETED. Often the evidence is complex and can therefore be open to interpretation. Charlatans use this fact and spin the evidence such that it suits their needs. Charlatans are spin-doctors.
  4. THEY WILL SAY THAT SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE IS OVER-RULED BY CENTURIES OF EXPERIENCE. The notion that millions of satisfied customers cannot be wrong is used frequently to distract from negative evidence. The fact that such experience can be due to a host of non-specific effects, the natural history of the condition or regression to the mean will not convince the charlatan.
  5. THEY WILL SUGGEST THAT THE AUTHOR IS PAID BY BIG PHARMA TO TRASH HOMEOPATHY. Whenever seemingly reasonable arguments have been exhausted, overtly irrational notions or blatant lies will come into play. The allegation that anyone criticising homeopathy is corrupt is one of the most popular such notion. The truth does not have a high value in charlatanry.
  6. THEY WILL SAY THAT THE CRITIC HAS NO TRAINING IN HOMEOPATHY AND IS THUS NOT COMPETENT. Equally popular is the claim that only trained and experienced homeopaths are able to judge over homeopathy. This pseudo-argument is most handy: experienced homeopaths are invariably believers, and the notion essentially claims that only those who believe in it can judge homeopathy. In other words, criticism of homeopathy is by definition invalid.
  7. THEY WILL SAY THAT THE CRITIC HAS PREVIOUSLY BEEN CRITICISED FOR HIS POOR RESEARCH. Similarly, homeopaths might claim that the critic is someone who is being criticised for being a very bad scientist; therefore, it would be a mistake to trust anything he or she says. Ad hominem is the name of the game!
  8. THEY WILL TRY TO RIDICULE THE CRITIC. Readers of this blog will have noticed how some commentators belittle their opponents by giving them laughable nicknames thus undermining their authority. The obvious aim is to make them look less than credible. Charlatans are like little children.
  9. THEY WILL CLAIM THAT IN OTHER AREAS OF HEALTHCARE THE EVIDENCE IS ALSO NOT CONVINCING. The ‘tu quoque’ fallacy is popular for distracting from the embarrassingly negative evidence in quackery – never mind that problems in the aviation industry are no argument for using flying carpets.
  10. THEY WILL POINT OUT HOW SAFE HOMEOPATHY IS COMPARED TO OTHER DRUGS. This is another form of the ‘tu quoque’ fallacy; it works very well for distracting from the problems with homeopathy and regularly convinces lay people.
  11. THEY WILL SAY THAT MEDICAL RESEARCH IS GENERALLY SO FLAWED THAT IT CANNOT BE TRUSTED. The fact that some medical research is less than rigorous is used here to claim that evidence in general is unreliable. The best solution is therefore to go by experience – a big step into the dark ages, but charlatans don’t seem to mind.
  12. THEY WILL REVERSE THE BURDEN OF PROOF. Homeopathy (or any other alternative therapy) may not have been proven to be effective, they claim, but it has not been proven to be ineffective. Therefore, they say, we must give it the benefit of the doubt. The facts that a) science cannot prove a negative and that b) we therefore should use those treatments that are supported by positive evidence is being ignored by charlatans.

These 12 pseudo-arguments are in my experience the most common defences of charlatanry. I am sure there are others – and I would be delighted if you did elaborate on them in the comments section below. Thanks!

This website tells us that ‘Stopain Migraine’ is the first topical product to effectively relieve migraine pain. It is a safe alternative to other migraine relief products that begins to work as soon as it’s applied. And the press release informs us that Troy Healthcare extended its Stopain line with a Stopain Migraine offering – a topical pain relieving gel that is massaged onto the back of the neck and behind each ear.

“Many of the women we shopped with told us they like that Stopain Migraine lacks systemic side effects and can be used in conjunction with other products – whether that’s natural remedies like peppermint essential oil, Epsom salts and ginger tea, or even prescription drugs or other over-the-counter products,” stated Anthony Cicini, VP Troy Healthcare.

Stopain Migraine begins to work as soon as it’s applied, can be reapplied after 30 minutes, and can be used up to four times daily, the company noted. It’s unique in that it can be used alone, or in addition to other ingestible migraine products to relieve migraine pain.

The homeopathic blend of ingredients follow the guidelines of The Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United State and is recommended by both by primary care physicians and OBGYNs, the company stated.

In addition to providing effective relief quickly, Stopain Migraine offers peace of mind for migraine sufferers, knowing the product is free from aspirin, acetaminophen and caffeine, has no known drug interactions and contains no dyes or preservatives.

Consumers can now find Stopain Migraine nationwide for the suggested retail price of $11.99

END OF PRESS RELEASE

Any evidence, you’d probably ask. A quick Medline search located this abstract:

OBJECTIVE:

To determine whether topical menthol 6% gel will relieve a migraine attack.

MATERIALS AND METHODS:

A single-center, open-label pilot trial of 25 patients with at least 1 year of diagnosed episodic migraine and <15 headache days per month. Patients treated one migraine attack with STOPAIN topical menthol 6% gel to skull base within 2 h of headache onset. Headache pain severity was assessed prior to and after gel application.

RESULTS:

Thirty-two patients enrolled and 25 completed the study. Prior to treatment, 7 patients had mild pain, 13 moderate pain, and 5 severe pain. Two hours following gel application, 7 (28%) patients had no pain, 7 (28%) mild pain, 6 (25%) moderate pain, and 5 (20%) severe pain. The majority of patients had similar pain intensity (8; 32%) or improvement (13; 52%). At 24-h, only two non-rescued patients still had mild headache. Of the 25 completers, 2 patients took rescue medication prior to the 2-h period, and an additional 10 patients rescued between 2 and 24 h.

CONCLUSION:

Study results showed a significant improvement in headache intensity by 2 h after gel application. This pilot study shows STOPAIN gel may be effective in treating an acute migraine attack.

A pilot study! I thought pilots were for testing feasibility, not effectiveness!

No control group! The observed effect is therefore not attributable to ‘Stopain’ at all!

But there is more! Iranian researchers published this RCT:

OBJECTIVE:

To investigate the efficacy and safety of the cutaneous application of menthol 10% solution for the abortive treatment of migraine.

BACKGROUND:

Peppermint and its active ingredient menthol have long been used for the treatment of various pain conditions including headache.

METHODS:

This is a randomised, triple-blind, placebo-controlled, crossed-over study conducted in the neurology Clinic of Nemazee Hospital, affiliated with Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Shiraz, southern Iran, from March 2007 to March 2008. The patients were recruited via local newspaper advertisements. Eligible patients were categorised into two groups and a 10% ethanol solution of menthol (as drug) and 0.5% ethanol solution of menthol (as placebo) were applied to the forehead and temporal area in a crossover design. Pain free, pain relief, sustained pain free and sustained pain relief end-points were measured by questionnaires using a visual analogue scale.

RESULTS:

The intent-to-treat population consisted of 35 patients (80% women, 20% men, mean age: 29.6 +/- 6.2) with 118 migraine attacks. In the intent-to-treat population, the menthol solution was statistically superior to the placebo on 2-h pain free (p = 0.001), 2-h pain relief (p = 0.000), sustained pain free and sustained pain relief end-points (p = 0.008). The menthol solution was also more efficacious in the alleviation of nausea and/or vomiting and phonophobia and/or photophobia (p = 0.02). In the per-protocol population, there was significantly higher number of patients who experienced at least one pain free/pain relief after the application of menthol rather than the placebo (p = 0.002). No significant difference was seen between the adverse effects of the drug and the placebo groups (p = 0.13).

CONCLUSION:

Menthol solution can be an efficacious, safe and tolerable therapeutic option for the abortive treatment of migraine.

Yes, you are quite right; this must be a different product. It contains just menthol and at a higher concentration than ‘Stopain’.

So what does ‘Stopain’ actually contain?  I must say that 6% menthol does not sound very homeopathic to me! The website of Troy Healthcare tells us that it has a total of 4 ingredients:

Mentholum 1X HPUS – 50.00%
Belladonna 3X HPUS – 1.33%
Iris Versicolor 6X HPUS – 1.33%
Sanguinaria Canadensis 6X HPUS – 1.33%

And what do the three homeopathically diluted ingredients do?

Is the term ‘homeopathic’ used here merely to attract a certain type of customer?

And why do they claim that ‘Stopain’ is effective when there is no evidence?

Or perhaps there is evidence and they haven’t published it?

And why do they claim that ‘Stopain’ is the first topical product?

Wasn’t a German topical menthol product marketed years ago?

Search me! I am not sure I know all the answers.

I hope someone from Troy Healthcare reads this and cares to explain.

It would be easy to continue this series on ‘tricks of the trade’ for quite a while. But this might get boring, and I have therefore decided to call it a day. So here is the last instalment (feel free to post further tricks that you may know of [in the comments section below]):

CRITICS DON’T UNDERSTAND

It is almost inevitable that, sooner or later, someone will object to some aspect of alternative medicine. In all likelihood, his or her arguments are rational and based on evidence. If that happens, the practitioner has several options to save his bacon (and income). One of the easiest and most popular is to claim that “of course, you cannot agree with me because you do not understand!”

The practitioner now needs to explain that, in order to achieve the level of expertise he has acquired, one has to do much more than to rationalise or know about science. In fact, one has to understand the subject on a much deeper level. One has to immerse oneself into it, open one’s mind completely and become a different human being altogether. This cannot be achieved by scientific study alone; it requires years of meditative work. And not everyone has the ability to go down this difficult path. It takes a lot of energy, insight and vision to become a true healer. A true Deepak Chopra is not born but trained through hard work, dedication and concentration.

Critics who disagree are really to be pitied. They fail to exist on quite the same level as those who ‘are in the know’. Therefore one must not get annoyed with those who disagree, they cannot understand because they have not seen the light.

My advice is to start thinking critically and read up about the NO TRUE SCOTSMAN FALLACY; this will quickly enable you to look beyond the charisma of these gurus and expose their charlatanry to the full.

RESEARCH IS BEING SUPRESSED

Some critics stubbornly insist on evidence for the therapeutic claims made by quacks. That attitude can be awkward for the alternative practitioner – because usually there is no good evidence.

Cornered in this way, quacks often come up with a simple but effective conspiracy theory: the research has been done and it has produced fabulous results, but it has been supressed by… well, by whoever comes to mind. Usually BIG PHARMA or ‘the scientific establishment’ have to be dragged out into the frame again.

According to this theory, the pharmaceutical industry (or whoever comes in handy) was so shaken by the findings of the research that they decided to make it disappear. They had no choice, really; the alternative therapy in question was so very effective that it would have put BIG PHARMA straight out of business for ever. As we all know BIG PHARMA to be evil to the core, they had no ethical or moral qualms about committing such a crime to humanity. Profits must come before charity!

My advice is to explain to such charlatans that such conspiracy theories do, in fact, merely prove is that the quack’s treatment is not effective against their prosecution complex.

CRITICS ARE BOUGHT AND CORRUPT

If  critics of alternative medicine become threatening to the quackery trade, an easy and much-used method is to discredit them by spreading lies about them. If the above-mentioned ploy “they cannot understand” fails to silence the nasty critics, the next step must be to claim they are corrupt. Why else would they spend their time exposing quackery?

Many people – alternative practitioners included – can only think of financial motivations; the possibility that someone might do a job for altruistic reasons does not occur to them. Therefore, it sounds most plausible that the critics of alternative medicine are doing it for money – after all, the quacks also quack for money.

My advice to potential users of alternative medicine who are confused by such allegations: do your own research and find out for yourself who is bought by whom and who has a financial interest in quackery selling well.

EVEN NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS AGREE WITH US

It is true, there are some Nobel Prize winners who defend homeopathy or other bogus treatments. Whenever this happens, the apologists of alternative medicine have a field day. They then cite the Nobel laureate ad nauseam and imply that his or her views prove their quackery to be correct.

Little do they know that they are merely milking yet another classical fallacy and that such regrettable events merely demonstrate that even bright people can make mistakes.

My advice is to check what the Nobel laureate actually said – more often than not, it turns out that a much-publicised quote is, in fact, a misquote – and what his or her qualifications are for making such a statement; a Nobel Prize in literature, for instance, is not a sufficient qualification for commenting on healthcare issues.

AS I ALRADY SAID: IF YOU KNOW OF MORE ‘TRICKS OF THE QUACKARY TRADE’, PLEASE POST THEM BELOW.

In part one, we have dealt with three common tricks used by quacks to convince the public to consult them and to keep coming back for more. It has been pointed out to me that some of these tricks are used not just by alternative practitioners but also by real physicians. This is, of course, absolutely true. A quack can be defined as “a person who dishonestly claims to have special knowledge and skill in some field, typically medicine.” Therefore real doctors can be real quacks, of course. I happen to have an interest mainly in alternative medicine; that’s why I write about these type of quacks (if it helps keeping you blood pressure within the limits of normal, I can tell you that I occasionally also published about quackery in mainstream medicine, for instance here).

Anyway, now it is time to continue this series of posts by discussing three further common deceptions used by quacks.

A CURE TAKES A LONG TIME

Imagine a scenario where, even after, several therapy sessions, a patient’s condition has not improved. Let’s assume the problem is back pain, and that it has not improved a  bit despite the treatments and the money spent on it. Surely, many patients in such a situation are sooner or later going to give up. They will have had enough! And this is, of course, a serious threat to the practitioner’s cash flow.

Luckily, there is a popular ploy to minimize the risk: the practitioner merely has to explain that the patient’s condition has been going on for a very long time (if, in the above scenario, this were not the case, the practitioner would explain that the pain might be relatively recent but the underlying condition is chronic). This means that a cure will also have to take a very long time – after all, Rome was not built in one day!

This plea to carry on with the ineffective treatments despite any improvement of symptoms is usually not justifiable on medical grounds. It is, however, entirely justifiable on the basis of financial considerations of the practitioners. They rely on their patients’ regular payments and will therefore think of all sorts of means to achieve this aim.

Take my advice and see a clinician who can help you within a reasonable and predictable amount of time.

IT’S DUE TO THE POISONS YOUR DOCTOR GAVE YOU

In the pursuit of a healthy cash-flow, almost all means seem to be allowed – even the fabrication of the bogus notion that the reasons for the patient’s problem were the poisonous drugs prescribed by her doctor who, of course, is in cahoots with BIG PHARMA. Alternative medicine thrives on conspiracy theories, and the one of the evil ‘medical mafia’ is one of the all-time favourites. It enables scrupulous practitioners to instil a good dose of fear into the minds of their patients, a fear that minimises the risk of them returning to real medicine.

My advice is that alternative practitioners who habitually use this or any other conspiracy theory should be avoided at all costs.

THINK HOLISTICALLY

The notion that alternative medicine takes care of the whole person is a most attractive and powerful ploy. Never mind that nothing could be further from being holistic than, for instance, diagnosing conditions by looking at a patient’s iris (iridology), or focussing on her spine (chiropractic, osteopathy), or massaging the soles of her feet (reflexology). And never mind that any type of good conventional medicine is by definition holistic. What counts is the label, and ‘holistic’ is a most desirable one, indeed. Nothing sells quackery better than holism.

Most alternative practitioners call themselves holistic and they rub the holism into the minds of their patients whenever and however they can. This insistence on holism has the added advantage that they have seemingly plausible excuses for their therapeutic failures.

Imagine a patient consulting a practitioner with depression and, even after prolonged treatment, her condition is unchanged. Even in such a situation, the holistic practitioner does not need to despair: he will point out that he never treats diagnostic labels but always the whole person. Therefore, the patient’s depression might not have changed, but surely other issues have improved… and, if the patient introspects a little, she might find that her appetite has improved, that her indigestion is better, or that her tennis elbow is less painful (some things always change given enough time). The holism of quacks may be a false pretence, but its benefits for the practitioner are obvious.

My advice: take holism from quacks with a pinch of salt.

“Conflicts of interest should always be disclosed.”

This is what I wrote in the ‘RULES’ of this blog when I first started it almost 4 years ago. Sadly, very few people writing comments observe this rule. Perhaps, I just thought, I did not observe it either? So, here are my conflicts of interest: none.

Not true!!! I hear some people say. But it is!

I have no financial interest in any ‘Big Pharma’ or  ‘TINY CAM’, and I get not a penny for writing this blog.

How do I pay for my living? Mind your own business… well, on second thought, even that must not be a secret: I get a small pension and have some savings.

Still not convinced?

Perhaps it’s time to define what ‘conflicts of interests’ are. According to Wikipedia, they can be defined as  situations in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial interest, or otherwise, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation of the individual or organization.

So, not having financial benefits from my current work does not necessarily mean that I have no conflicts of interest. The above definitions vaguely mentions ‘or otherwise’ – and that could be important. What could this mean in the context of this blog?

Well, I might have very strong beliefs, for instance (for instance, very strong beliefs that acupuncture is by definition nonsense [see below]). We all know that strong beliefs can corrupt motivation (and a lot more). And if I ask myself, do you have strong beliefs?, I have to say: Yes, absolutely!

I believe that:

  • good evidence is a prerequisite for progress in healthcare,
  • good evidence must be established by rigorous research,
  • we should not tolerate double standards in healthcare,
  • patients deserve to be treated with the best available treatments,
  • making therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence is wrong.

These strong beliefs might make me biased in the eyes of many who comment on this blog. In Particular, we recently had a bunch of acupuncturists who went on the rampage attacking me personally the best they could. However, a rational analysis of my beliefs can hardly produce evidence for bias against anything other than the promotion of unproven therapies to the unsuspecting public.

The above mentioned acupuncturists seem to think that I have always been against acupuncture for the sake of being against acupuncture. However, this is not true. The proof for this statement is very simple: I have published quite a bit of articles that concluded positively – even (WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?) about acupuncture for back pain! A prominently published meta-analysis of 2005 (with me as senior author) concluded:  “Acupuncture effectively relieves chronic low back pain.” (This of course was 11 years ago when the evidence was, in fact, positive; today, this seems to have changed – just like the NICE guidelines [probably not a coincidence!])

Conflicts of interest? No, not on my side, I think.

But what about the ‘other side’?

The unruly horde of acupuncturists (no, this is not an ad hominem attack, it’s a fact) who recently made dozens of ad hominem attacks against me, what about them?

  • They earn their money with acupuncture.
  • They have invested in acupuncture training often for long periods of time.
  • They have invested in practice equipment etc.
  • Some of them sell books on acupuncture.
  • Others run courses.
  • And all of them very clearly and demonstrably  have strong beliefs about acupuncture.

I think the latter point constitutes by far the most important conflict of interest in this context.

And this is where the somewhat trivial story has an unexpected twist and gets truly bizarre:

I have just leant that the same group of conflicted acupuncturists are now planning to publicly attack the panel of experts responsible for drafting the NICE guidelines. The reason? They feel that this panel had significant conflicts of interest that led them to come out against acupuncture.

Perhaps I should mention that I was not a member of this group, but I suspect that some of its members might have links to the pharmaceutical industry. It is almost impossible to find top experts in any area of medicine who do not have such links. You either gather experts with potential conflicts of interest, or you get non-experts without them. Would that bias them against acupuncture or any other alternative therapy? I very much doubt it.

What I do not doubt for a minute is that conflicts of interest are of major importance in these discussions. And by that I mean the more than obvious (but nevertheless undeclared) conflicts of interest of the acupuncturists. It seems that those with the strongest conflicts of interest shout the loudest about the non-existent or irrelevant conflict of interest of those who do not happen to share their quasi-religious belief in acupuncture.

Edzard Ernst – why he changed his mind! This is the title of a blog which I just found. It is such fun to read that I must show it to you in full [I added a few numbered footnotes in square brackets]:

BBC Radio 4 gave Professor Edzard Ernst a 15 minute slot to explain “Why I Changed My Mind’ on Wednesday 4th May 2016. It was repeated on 12th May 2016. He was interviewed by Dominic Lawson [1]. The programme demonstrates the lengths to which the BBC is prepared to go in order under undermine Alternative Medicine, and Homeopathy, in particular [2].

Lawson set the tone. Ernst, he stated, is hated by alternative health practitioners, the Prince of Wales tried to get him sacked, and he eventually lost his academic post because of the criticism he attracted for his work. Ernst was left to agree with this dreadfully unfair and unreasonable treatment [3]. So Ernst was then led to explain his ‘change of mind’ about homeopathy. As a friend and colleague of mine said,

“Ernst (says) that as a German, he was raised on Homeopathy, and later treated his patients with homeopathy. And it worked! But when he approached it ‘scientifically’, he concluded that it’s merely placebo.”

So let’s be clear. Ernst’s experience of homeopathy has  been that it does work [4], but that the science he has looked at does not demonstrate that it works. (Even this is wrong [5], but leave that for now!) So people do get better as the result of homeopathic treatment, but ‘science’, or at least Ernst’s science [6], does not understand why it should [7]. Ernst also said that he was convinced, at the time, that he was ‘helping patients’.

Lawson then asked his most difficult question (sic). If he knew that homeopathy worked, why did it work? Ernst’s response was that it was charlatanism and quackery, and was “quite puzzling’ really [8]. So as homeopathy worked, but science said it should not work [8], he went on to study this in his post at Exeter University.

Lawson, in the great tradition of BBC impartiality [2], (sic), continued to lead him on. “When did you decide that homeopathy was useless, delusional?”

Ernst said that when he ‘did the science’ it became clear that homeopathy is placebo.

Now, lets look at this word, placebo. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘the placebo effects’ as”

“A beneficial effect produced by a placebo drug or treatment, which cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself, and must therefore be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment”

So by using the term ‘placebo’ Ernst is once again saying the homeopathy has a ‘beneficial effect’ on patients who are ill [9]. Lawson did ask Ernst whether there was anything wrong using placebo if this brought positive benefits to patients. Ernst said that people got better anyway! (Is it really is a simple as this?) [7]

Lawson, now thoroughly convinced of Ernst’s arguments, asked his whether he thought homeopaths were lying. With some apparent grace, Ernst said that lying was a strong term, by the were ‘deluded’, and ‘treated homeopathy as a religion’.

Lawson came back, asking why there were lots of qualified doctors who believe in homeopathy, and whether they should they be struck off, or stopped from practising? No, said Ernst, they were just not thinking critically, and needed to be educated out of their delusions.

Presumably, for both Lawson and Ernst, using a medical therapy that worked and brought benefit to patients [7], but which science could not explain, should be restricted, if not banned altogether.

Lawson’s final question clearly demonstrated his impartiality. “Can we justify homeopathy, or any other kind of quackery? (My emphasis). “No”, said Ernst, predictably!

The BBC regularly broadcasts these kind of anti-homeopathy, anti-alternative-medicine programmes, with never an attempt to redress the balance [2]. They will never broadcast a programme that provides an alternative medical view. The BBC appears to be firmly in the camp of the conventional medical establishment [2], and committed to providing time to anti-homeopaths without any ‘right of reply’.

Why, for example, was there no question about the quality of the ‘science’ Ernst is associated with?  Certainly, his science has come under serious scrutiny. For instance, I blogged about “The contribution of Professor Edzard Ernst to disinformation about Homeopathy” in September 1915 [!!!]. This followed an assessment made by Professor Robert Kahn about the quality of Ernst’s science. This was his conclusion [10].

“I have never seen a science writer so blatantly biased as Edzard Ernst: his work should not be considered of any worth at all, and discarded.”

Kahn’s paper shows, in his view, how ‘science’ has been taken over by ideology, (or as I suggested the financial interests of Big Corporations like Big Pharma). He revealed that in order to demonstrate homeopathy is ineffective over 95% of scientific research into homeopathy has to be discarded or removed! [10]

There was, of course, no mention of this in the BBC programme! [11]

So if Ernst’s change of mind was ‘scientific’, it was based on bad science [12], the kind of science much discussed in this blog, bought science, cheque book science, the kind of science based on university faculties funded by the pharmaceutical industry [13]. Ernst’s funding dried up when his academic position had become untenable [14], and he lost the support of his financial backers [15]. As my friends and colleague said, in response to the programme:

“Ernst’s religion is Science, not the well being of the patients. I wonder how many listeners will
be influenced by him as he does come across as an experienced and rational man?” 

I agree with her assessment. Anyone can come over as an ‘experience and rational man’ when given an uncritical platform, such as this BBC programme proved to be. Certainly, Peter Fisher, the Queen’s homeopath, was one of his main critics. Why, Lawson asked Ernst, did homeopathy have ‘such a grip’ on the Royal Family? Ernst did not know, but he did know that “when they get really ill they do not go to a homeopathy, otherwise they would not get so old!”

At this point I began to wonder on what knowledge Ernst used to know how the Royal Family were being treated, and scientific basis his belief that their longevity was nothing to do with homeopathy? The question was never asked, so we will, I fear, never know! [16] [1] you can listen to the programme here

[2] a serious allegation for which no evidence is provided, and I suppose none exists

[3] this is the truth

[4] not true, my experience was that patients got better for which there are good, scientifically sound explanations that do not involve homeopathy

[5] no, it’s not

[6] the best available evidence today which has little to do with ‘my’ science; might this be a little attempt at an ad hominem?

[7] no, science does understand the phenomena involved well: placebo, regression towards the mean, natural history of the disease etc.

[8] a wilful misinterpretation of my words

[9] no, this is not what I said, homeopathic remedies are ineffective and the observed effects are due to other phenomena

[10] not Kahn but Hahn; and his criticism is laughable, see here

[11] the programme is a series of interviews with people who have changed their mind on an important subject; such questions do not belong there

[12] any proof for that other than Hahn?

[13] false and libellous allegation

[14] no, when HRH had filed his complaint; this is all described in detail in my memoir

[15] poor logic: if I had been funded by the ‘enemies of homeopathy’, my funding should have increased

[16] anyone who follows the news bulletins about the Royals will know where they go when seriously ill.

A recent comment to a blog-post about alternative treatments for cancer inspired me to ponder a bit. I think it is noteworthy because it exemplifies so many of the comments I hear in the realm of alternative medicine on an almost daily basis. Here is the comment in question:

“Yes…it appears that the medical establishment have known for years that chemotherapy a lot of the time kills patients faster than if they were untreated…what’s more, it worsens a person’s quality of life in which many die directly of the severe effects on the endocrine, immune system and more…cancers often return in more aggressive forms metastasising with an increased risk of apoptosis. In other words it makes things worse whereas there are many natural remedies which not only do no harm but accumulating evidence points to their capacity to fight cancer…some of it is bullshit whilst some holds some truth!! So turning away from toxic treatments that kill towards natural approaches that are showing more hope with the backing of trials kinda reverses the whole argument of this article.”

The comment first annoyed me a bit, of course, but later it made me think and consider the differences between conspiracy theories, assumptions, opinions, evidence and scientific facts. Let’s tackle each of these in turn.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

A conspiracy theory is an explanatory or speculative theory suggesting that two or more persons, or an organization, have conspired to cause or cover up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an event or situation typically regarded as illegal or harmful.

Part of the above comment bears some of the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory: “…the medical establishment have known for years that chemotherapy a lot of the time kills patients faster than if they were untreated…” The assumption here is that the conventional healthcare practitioners are evil enough to knowingly do harm to their patients. Such conspiracy theories abound in the realm of alternative medicine; they include the notions that

  • BIG PHARMA is out to kill us all in order to maximize their profits,
  • the ‘establishment’ is suppressing any information about the benefits of alternative treatments,
  • vaccinations are known to be harmful but nevertheless being forced on to our children,
  • drug regulators are in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry,
  • doctors accept bribes for prescribing dangerous drugs
  • etc. etc.

In a previous blog-post, I have discussed the fact that the current popularity of alternative medicine is at least partly driven by the conviction that there is a sinister plot by ‘the establishment’ that prevents people from benefitting from the wonders of alternative treatments. It is therefore hardly surprising that conspiracy theories like the above are voiced regularly on this blog and elsewhere.

ASSUMPTION

An assumption is something taken for granted or accepted as true without proof.

The above comment continues stating that “…[chemotherapy] makes things worse whereas there are many natural remedies which not only do no harm but accumulating evidence points to their capacity to fight cancer…” There is not proof for these assertions, yet the author takes them for granted. If one were to look for the known facts, one would find the assumptions to be erroneous: chemotherapy has saved countless lives and there simply are no natural remedies that will cure any form of cancer. In the realm of alternative medicine, this seems to worry few, and assumptions of this or similar nature are being made every day. Sadly the plethora of assumptions or bogus claims eventually endanger public health.

OPINION

An opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective.

The above comment continues with the opinion that “…turning away from toxic treatments that kill towards natural approaches that are showing more hope with the backing of trials kinda reverses the whole argument of this article.” In general, alternative medicine is based on opinions of this sort. On this blog, we have plenty of examples for that in the comments section. This is perhaps understandable; evidence is usually in short supply, and therefore it often is swiftly replaced with often emotionally loaded opinions. It is even fair to say that much of alternative medicine is, in truth, opinion-based healthcare.

EVIDENCE

Evidence is anything presented in support of an assertion. This support may be strong or weak. The strongest type of evidence is that which provides direct proof of the truth of an assertion.

One remarkable feature of the above comment is that it is bar of any evidence. In a previous post, I have tried to explain the nature of evidence regarding the efficacy of medical interventions:

The multifactorial nature of any clinical response requires controlling for all the factors that might determine the outcome other than the treatment per se. Ideally, we would need to create a situation or an experiment where two groups of patients are exposed to the full range of factors (e. g. placebo effects, natural history of the condition, regression towards the mean), and the only difference is that one group does receive the treatment, while the other one does not. And this is precisely the model of a controlled clinical trial.

Such studies are designed to minimise all possible sources of bias and confounding. By definition, they have a control group which means that we can, at the end of the treatment period, compare the effects of the treatment in question with those of another intervention, a placebo or no treatment at all.

Many different variations of the controlled trial exist so that the exact design can be adapted to the requirements of the particular treatment and the specific research question at hand. The over-riding principle is, however, always the same: we want to make sure that we can reliably determine whether or not the treatment was the cause of the clinical outcome.

Causality is the key in all of this; and here lies the crucial difference between clinical experience and scientific evidence. What clinician witness in their routine practice can have a myriad of causes; what scientists observe in a well-designed efficacy trial is, in all likelihood, caused by the treatment. The latter is evidence, while the former is not.

Don’t get me wrong; clinical trials are not perfect. They can have many flaws and have rightly been criticised for a myriad of inherent limitations. But it is important to realise that, despite all their short-comings, they are far superior than any other method for determining the efficacy of medical interventions.

There are lots of reasons why a trial can generate an incorrect, i.e. a false positive or a false negative result. We therefore should avoid relying on the findings of a single study. Independent replications are usually required before we can be reasonably sure.

Unfortunately, the findings of these replications do not always confirm the results of the previous study. Whenever we are faced with conflicting results, it is tempting to cherry-pick those studies which seem to confirm our prior belief – tempting but very wrong. In order to arrive at the most reliable conclusion about the efficacy of any treatment, we need to consider the totality of the reliable evidence. This goal is best achieved by conducting a systematic review.

In a systematic review, we assess the quality and quantity of the available evidence, try to synthesise the findings and arrive at an overall verdict about the efficacy of the treatment in question. Technically speaking, this process minimises selection and random biases. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses [these are systematic reviews that pool the data of individual studies] therefore constitute, according to a consensus of most experts, the best available evidence for or against the efficacy of any treatment.

SCIENTIFIC FACTS

Scientific facts are verified by repeatable careful observation or measurement (by experiments or other means).

Some facts related to the subject of alternative medicine have already been mentioned:

  • chemotherapy prolongs survival of many cancer patients;
  • no alternative therapy has achieved anything remotely similar.

The comment above that motivated me to write this somewhat long-winded post is devoid of facts. This is just one more feature that makes it so typical of the comments by proponents of alternative medicine we see with such embarrassing regularity.

I get comments of this nature all the time, sometimes by the dozen per day. As the argument is so very common, let me ONCE AGAIN explain what is wrong with it. Here are 10 very simple points for those who find it hard to understand the issue.

  1. My expertise is in alternative medicine and not in pharmacology. I know many pharmacologists who are competent to criticise aspects of pharmacotherapy and do so regularly. I do NOT consider myself competent to comment on pharmacotherapy.
  2. The fact that some things are not perfect in one area of health care (e. g. pharmacotherapy) does certainly not mean that one is not allowed to criticise shortcomings in other areas (e. g. homeopathy).
  3. As far as I can tell, it is not pharmaceuticals that ‘kill 100k a year’, but the issue is more complex: a sizable proportion of this tragic total is due to medical errors, for instance.
  4. The 100k figure seems to refer to the US where the vast majority of the population take pharmaceuticals but only about 2% of the population ever try homeopathy.
  5. Nobody seems to dispute that pharmaceuticals have beneficial effects beyond placebo; the general consensus regarding highly diluted homeopathics is that they have no effects beyond placebo.
  6. To judge the value of a therapy, it is naïve and dangerously misleading to consider just its risks. If we did that, aromatherapy would be preferable to surgery, reflexology would be better than chemotherapy and OF COURSE homeopathy would be better than pharmacotherapy. And if we then implemented this ‘wisdom’ into routine practice, we would hasten the deaths of millions.
  7. Any reasonable judgement of the value of any therapy must account for its documented risks in relation to its documented benefits. In other words, we must always try to weigh the two against each other and do a risk/benefit analysis.
  8. If a therapy is associated with finite risks and no benefits, its risk/benefit balance cannot possibly be positive. Where the benefit is non-existent or doubtful, even relatively small risks will inevitably tilt this balance in to the negative.
  9. This is precisely the situation that applies to homeopathy: its benefits beyond placebo are doubtful and its risks are fairly well documented.
  10. This means that homeopathy cannot be considered to be a therapy that is fit for purpose.

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