Homeopaths can bear criticism only when it is highly diluted. Any critique from the ‘outside’ is therefore dismissed by insisting that the author fails to understand the subtleties of homeopathy. And criticism from the ‘inside’ does not exist: by definition, a homeopath does not criticise his/her own trade. Through these mechanisms, homeopaths have more or less successfully shielded themselves from all arguments against their activities and have, for the last 200 years, managed to survive in a world of make-belief.
As I will show below, I started my professional life on the side of the homeopaths – I am not proud of this fact, but there is no use denying it. When the evidence told me more and more clearly that I had been wrong, about 10 years ago, I began expressing serious doubts about the plausibility, efficacy and safety of using homeopathic remedies to treat patients in need. Homeopaths reacted not just with anger, they were also at a loss.
Their little trick of saying ‘He does not understand homeopathy and therefore his critique is invalid’ could not possibly work in my case – I had been one of them: I had attended their meetings, chaired some of their sessions, edited a book on homeopathy, accepted an invitation to join the editorial board of the journal ‘HOMEOPATHY‘ as well as a EU-panel investigating homeopathy, conducted trials, systematic reviews and meta-analyses, published over 100 articles on the subject, accepted money from Prince Charles as well as from the ‘ueber-homeopath’ George Vithoulkas for my research, and even contributed to THE INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF HOMEOPATHY. It would have not looked reasonable to suddenly deny my previously accepted expertise. Homeopaths thus found themselves in a pickle: critique from the ‘inside’ is not what they were used to or could easily cope with.
The homeopathic idyll was under threat, and a solution to the problem had to be found with some urgency. And soon enough, it was found. Homeopaths from across the world started claiming that I had been telling porkies about my training/qualifications in homeopathy: “Edzard Ernst has admitted that he has over the years lied or supported a lie about having homeopathic training. In reality he has had none at all! The leading so-called ‘expert’ and critic of homeopathy, Professor Edzard Ernst, has admitted that he has no qualifications in homeopathy. etc. etc. Diluting the truth to the extreme, they almost unanimously insisted that, contrary to my previous assertions, I had no training/qualifications in homeopathy. Thus, they began to argue, that I was an imposter and had insufficient knowledge, expertise and experience after all: Professor Edzard Ernst the leading ‘authority’ on homeopathy, and perhaps its most referenced critic, has no qualifications in homeopathy. William Alderson of HMC21 also claims that Ernst’s book Trick or Treatment? shows Ernst to be unreliable as a researcher into homeopathy. Opposition to homeopathy is based on propaganda, they stated. Others wrote that Edzard Ernst’ failure as a homeopath only proves he lacked some basic qualities essential to become a successful homeopath. He failed as a homeopath, and then turned a skeptic. His failure is only his failure- it does not disprove homeopathy by any way. Once he failed in putting a mark as a successful homeopath or CAM practitioner, he just tried the other way to become famous and respectable- he converted himself into a skeptic, which provided him with ample opportunities to appear on ‘anti-homeopathy’ platforms’ as an ‘authority’, ‘expert’ and ‘ex-homeopath’! Some went even further claiming that I had also lied about my medical qualifications.
These notions has been going around the internet for several years now and conveniently served as a reason to re-categorise me into the camp of the homeopathically unqualified pseudo-experts: ‘We believe that it is time to recognise that opposition to homeopathy is largely based on the opinions of individuals who are unqualified or unwilling to judge the evidence fairly’. I, by contrast, believe it is time that I disclose the full truth about ‘my double-life as a homeopath’. What exactly is my background in this area? Have I really been found out to be a confidence-trickster?
THE HOMEOPATHIC CLINICIAN
I graduated from medical school in Munich in the late 1970s and, looking for a job, I realised that there weren’t any. At the time, Germany had a surplus of doctors and all the posts I wanted were taken. Eventually, I found one in the only hospital that was run almost entirely homoeopathically, the KRANKENHAUS FUER NATURHEILWEISEN in Munich. Within about half a year, I learned how to think like a homeopath, diagnose like a homeopath and treat patients like a homeopath. I never attended formal courses or aspired to get a certificate; as far as I remember, none of the junior doctors working in the homeopathic hospital did that either. We were expected to learn on the job, and so we did.
Our teachers at medical school had hardly ever mentioned homeopathy, but one thing they had nevertheless made abundantly clear to us: homeopathy cannot possibly work; there is nothing in these pills and potions! To my surprise, however, my patients improved, their symptoms subsided and, in general, they were very happy with the treatment we provided. My professors had told me that homeopathy was rubbish, but they had forgotten to teach me a much more important lesson: critical thinking. Therefore, I might be forgiven for proudly assuming that my patients’ improvement was due to my skilful homeopathic prescriptions.
But then came another surprise: the boss of the homeopathic hospital, Dr Zimmermann, took me under his wings, and we had occasional discussions about this and that and, of course, about homeopathy. When I shyly mentioned what I had been told at medical school ( about homeopathy being entirely implausible), he agreed! I was speechless. Crucially, he considered that there were other explanations: “Our patients might improve because we look after them well and we discontinue all the unnecessary medication they come in with; perhaps the homeopathic remedies play only a small part”, he said.
THE INVESTIGATOR OF HOMEOPATHY
This may well have been the first time I started looking critically at homeopathy and my own clinical practice – and this is roughly where I left things as far as homeopathy is concerned until, in 1993, it became my job to research alternative therapies systematically and rigorously. Meanwhile I had done a PhD and tried my best to learn the skills of critical analysis. As I began to investigate homeopathy scientifically, I found that my former boss had been right: patients do indeed improve because of a multitude of factors: placebo-effects, natural history of the disease, regression towards the mean, to mention just three of a multitude of phenomena. At the same time, he had not been entirely correct: homeopathic remedies are pure placebos; they do not play a ‘small part’ in patients’ improvement, they play no part in this process.
As I began to state this more and more clearly, all sorts of ad hominem attacks were hauled in my direction, and recently I was even fired from the editorial board of the journal ‘HOMEOPATHY’ because allegedly I “…smeared homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine…” I don’t mind any of that – but I do think that the truth about ‘my double-life as a homeopath’ should not be diluted like a homeopathic remedy until it suits those who think they can defame me by claiming I am a liar and do not know what I am talking about.
This rather depressing story shows, I think, that some homeopaths, rather than admitting they are in the wrong, are prepared to dilute the truth until it might be hard for third parties to tell who is right and who is wrong. But however they may deny it, the truth is still the truth: I have been trained as a homeopath.
It is time, I think, to call an end to this series of articles on ‘drowning in a sea of misinformation’. Not that I have covered every contributor to and aspect of it. On the contrary, I could have carried on for another couple of weeks writing a post every day as I did during the last 15 days. But it was getting a bit boring – at least for me. So, for the last post, I have decided to briefly discuss politicians. In my view, they are crucially important in this context, as they create the general atmosphere and framework in which all the other mis-informers can thrive.
Peter Hain (Labour) is a campaigner for homeopathy and wants to see it widely used on the NHS. He was quoted as saying: “I first came to know about homeopathy through my son who as a baby suffered from eczema. He had it a couple of years but with conventional treatment the eczema was getting progressively worse and at the age of four he also developed asthma. We turned to homeopathy out of desperation and were stunned with the positive results. Since then I have used homeopathy for a wide variety of illnesses, but I rely on arnica as it’s excellent for treating the everyday bruises and shocks to the system we face. My view is that homeopathy and conventional medicines must remain side by side under the NHS to offer the best to patients”
Politicians who put anecdote before evidence do worry me quite a bit, I have to admit; by doing this, they provide us with strong evidence that they would be wise to keep their mouth shut when it comes to matters of science and medicine. But Hain is in good company: Jeremy Hunt (conservative), the current Secretary for Health, signed the following Early Day Motion in 2007: That this House welcomes the positive contribution made to the health of the nation by the NHS homeopathic hospitals; notes that some six million people use complementary treatments each year; believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients, including chronic difficult to treat conditions such as musculoskeletal and other chronic pain, eczema, depression, anxiety and insomnia, allergy, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome; expresses concern that NHS cuts are threatening the future of these hospitals; and calls on the Government actively to support these valuable national assets.
The wording here is remarkable, I think: “…believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients…” What is this supposed to mean? Health politics based on believe??? What it, in fact, implies is that there is merely belief but no evidence. Bravo! This looks like an own-goal to me.
And there are many, many more politicians who seem to prefer belief over evidence – not just in the UK but in virtually every country; our US friends would probably want me to mention Senator Tom Harkin who is responsible for spending billions of tax-payers’ dollars on researching implausible concepts with flawed studies. To make things worse, it is not just individual politicians who promote woo, as far as I can see, most political parties have a group of members promoting pseudo-science.
But why? Why do so many politicians misinform their voters about the values of unproven and disproven treatments? And I do not mean those members of parliament who nobody seems to be able to take seriously, like David Tredenick; I mean otherwise respectable politicians with real influence. Should they not be the first to insist on reliable evidence? Do they not have a mandate and an ethical/moral obligation to do so?
Call me cynical, but I have come to the conclusion that the answer is actually quite simple. Politicians need to be (re-)elected, and therefore they have to run with whatever subject is popular – and, like it or not, alternative medicine is popular. Politicians rarely take a reasonably long view on health care (in fact, very few understand the first thing about science or medicine); their perspective has exactly the same length as the current legislative period. They usually do not even attach much importance to alternative medicine; after all, it only amounts to a tiny fraction of the total health care budget.
Tony Blair (Labour) is as good an example as any other politician; in relation to homeopathy, he is quoted saying: I think that most people today have a rational view about science and my advice to the scientific community would be fight the battles you need to fight. I wouldn’t bother fighting a great battle over homeopathy – there are people who use it, people who don’t use it, it is not going to determine the future of the world, frankly. What will determine the future of the world however, is the scientific community explaining for example the science of genetics and how it develops, or the issue to do with climate change and so on.
Sounds reasonable? Almost, but not quite. Firstly, if people employ homeopathy to protect themselves from infectious diseases like malaria, typhus, TB, AIDS etc., or if people believe those charlatans who promote it as an effective cure for life-threatening conditions, we do have a serious public health issue at hand. Secondly, why should the vast majority of health care professionals bend over backwards to do their very best implementing the concepts of EBM, if homeopathy is being given a free ride to continue existing in a virtual universe of belief-based medicine? Thirdly, how on earth can scientists possibly explain “the science of genetics and how it develops, or the issue to do with climate change”, if they lack the skill, courage, power or honesty to adequately respond to harmful quackery masquerading as medicine?
It is not difficult to criticise politicians but what might be the way forward and out of this mess? Because of the central role they play in all this, I think that it would be important that those politicians who take up posts in science-based areas be adequately educated and trained in science. I know this may sound naïve, but I think it would be an essential step towards avoiding politicians regularly making fools of themselves, misinforming the public and misguiding important decisions which might affect all of us.
I have said it so often that I hesitate to state it again: an uncritical researcher is a contradiction in terms. This begs the question as to how critical the researchers of alternative medicine truly are. In my experience, most tend to be uncritical in the extreme. But how would one go about providing evidence for this view? In a previous blog-post, I have suggested a fairly simple method: to calculate an index of negative conclusions drawn in the articles published by a specific researcher. This is what I wrote:
If we calculated the percentage of a researcher’s papers arriving at positive conclusions and divided this by the percentage of his papers drawing negative conclusions, we might have a useful measure. A realistic example might be the case of a clinical researcher who has published a total of 100 original articles. If 50% had positive and 50% negative conclusions about the efficacy of the therapy tested, his trustworthiness index (TI) would be 1.
Depending on what area of clinical medicine this person is working in, 1 might be a figure that is just about acceptable in terms of the trustworthiness of the author. If the TI goes beyond 1, we might get concerned; if it reaches 4 or more, we should get worried.
An example would be a researcher who has published 100 papers of which 80 are positive and 20 arrive at negative conclusions. His TI would consequently amount to 4. Most of us equipped with a healthy scepticism would consider this figure highly suspect.
So how would alternative medicine researchers do, if we applied this method for assessing their trustworthiness? Very poorly, I fear – but that is speculation! Let’s see some data. Let’s look at one prominent alternative medicine researcher and see. As an example, I have chosen Professor George Lewith (because his name is unique which avoids confusion with researchers), did a quick Medline search to identify the abstracts of his articles on alternative medicine, and extracted the crucial sentence from the conclusions of the most recent ones:
- The study design of registered TCM trials has improved in estimating sample size, use of blinding and placebos
- Real treatment was significantly different from sham demonstrating a moderate specific effect of PKP
- These findings highlight the importance of helping patients develop coherent illness representations about their LBP before trying to engage them in treatment-decisions, uptake, or adherence
- Existing theories of how context influences health outcomes could be expanded to better reflect the psychological components identified here, such as hope, desire, optimism and open-mindedness
- …mainstream science has moved on from the intellectual sterility and ad hominem attacks that characterise the sceptics’ movement
- Trustworthy and appropriate information about practitioners (e.g. from professional regulatory bodies) could empower patients to make confident choices when seeking individual complementary practitioners to consult
- Comparative effectiveness research is an emerging field and its development and impact must be reflected in future research strategies within complementary and integrative medicine
- The I-CAM-Q has low face validity and low acceptability, and is likely to produce biased estimates of CAM use if applied in England, Romania, Italy, The Netherlands or Spain
- Our main finding was of beta power decreases in primary somatosensory cortex and SFG, which opens up a line of future investigation regarding whether this contributes toward an underlying mechanism of acupuncture.
- …physiotherapy was appraised more negatively in the National Health Service than the private sector but osteopathy was appraised similarly within both health-care sectors
This is a bit tedious, I agree, so I stop after just 10 articles. But even this short list does clearly indicate the absence of negative conclusions. In fact, I see none at all – arguably a few neutral ones, but nothing negative. All is positive in the realm of alternative medicine research then? In case you don’t agree with that assumption, you might prefer to postulate that this particular alternative medicine researcher somehow avoids negative conclusions. And if you believe that, you are not far from considering that we are being misinformed.
Alternative medicine is not really a field where one might reasonably expect that rigorous research generates nothing but positive results; even to expect 50 or 40% of such findings would be quite optimistic. It follows, I think, that if researchers only find positives, something must be amiss. I have recently demonstrated that the most active research homeopathic group (Professor Witt from the Charite in Berlin) has published nothing but positive findings; even if the results were not quite positive, they managed to formulate a positive conclusion. Does anyone doubt that this amounts to misinformation?
So, I do have produced at least some tentative evidence for my suspicion that some alternative medicine researchers misinform us. But how precisely do they do it? I can think of several methods for avoiding publishing a negative result or conclusion, and I fear that all of them are popular with alternative medicine researchers:
- design the study in such a way that it cannot possibly give a negative result
- manipulate the data
- be inventive when it comes to statistics
- home in on to the one positive aspect your generally negative data might show
- do not write up your study; like this nobody will ever see your negative results
And why do they do it? My impression is that they use science not for testing their interventions but for proving them. Critical thinking is a skill that alternative medicine researchers do not seem to cultivate. Often they manage to hide this fact quite cleverly and for good reasons: no respectable funding body would give money for such an abuse of science! Nevertheless, the end-result is plain to see: no negative conclusions are being published!
There are at least two further implications of the fact that alternative medicine researchers misinform the public. The first concerns the academic centres in which these researchers are organised. If a prestigious university accommodates a research unit of alternative medicine, it gives considerable credence to alternative medicine itself. If the research that comes out of the unit is promotional pseudo-science, the result, in my view, amounts to misleading the public about the value of alternative medicine.
The second implication relates to the journals in which researchers of alternative medicine prefer to publish their articles. Today, there are several hundred journals specialised in alternative medicine. We have shown over and over again that these journals publish next to nothing in terms of negative results. In my view, this too amounts to systematic misinformation.
My conclusion from all this is depressing: the type of research that currently dominates alternative medicine is, in fact, pseudo-research aimed not at rigorously falsifying hypotheses but at promoting bogus treatments. In other words alternative medicine researchers crucially contribute to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in this area.
It almost goes without saying that alternative practitioners contribute importantly to the ‘sea of misinformation’ about alternative medicine. Again, I could write books about this subject but have to refrain myself and therefore will merely put quick spotlights on several types of practitioners, mostly drawing from my own research on these subjects.
A survey of more than 9000 patients of U.K. non-medically trained acupuncturists showed that a considerable number had received advice from their therapists about prescribed medicines. Since these acupuncturists hold no medical qualifications, they are not qualified to issue such advice. It is therefore clear to me that the advice given is likely to be misleading. In 2000, we directly asked the U.K. acupuncturists’ advice about electro-acupuncture treatment for smoking cessation, a treatment which we previously had identified to be ineffective. The advice we received was frequently not based on current best evidence and some of it also raised serious safety concerns (Schmidt, K., & Ernst, E. Internet advice by acupuncturists—a risk factor for cardiovascular patients? Perfusion,2002, 15: 44-50. Article not Medline-listed).
Many chiropractors from the UK and other countries make unsustainable therapeutic claims on their websites. In 2002, at the height of the ‘‘MMR scare’’ in Britain, we conducted a study revealing that a sizable proportion of U.K. chiropractors advised mothers against having the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) jab for their children. A survey of the U.K. chiropractors demonstrated that an alarming percentage of the U.K. chiropractors fail to provide advice about the risks of spinal manipulation before commencing treatment. As these risks are, in fact, considerable, this behaviour amounts to misinformation and is an obvious violation of medical ethics.
With osteopaths, it is a very similar story; the main difference is that there are far less investigations than for chiropractors. This may be due to the fact that, in the US, osteopaths are not alternative but conventional clinicians with much the same training and skills as proper doctors. But in Europe, they are strictly alternative and make as many bogus claims as chiropractors. Systematic investigations are rare, but I only need to remind us of my recent blog-post where I pointed out that:
Most osteopaths treat children for a wide range of conditions and claim that their interventions are helpful. They believe that children are prone to structural problems which can be corrected by their interventions. Here is an example from just one of the numerous promotional websites on this topic:
STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS, such as those affecting the proper mobility and function of the body’s framework, can lead to a range of problems. These may include:
- Postural – such as scoliosis
- Respiratory – such as asthma
- Manifestations of brain injury – such as cerebral palsy and spasticity
- Developmental – with delayed physical or intellectual progress, perhaps triggering learning behaviour difficulties
- Infections – such as ear and throat infections or urinary disturbances, which may be recurrent.
OSTEOPATHY can assist in the prevention of health problems, helping children to make a smooth transition into normal, healthy adult life.
Encouraging evidence exists for some specific herbs in the treatment of some specific conditions. Yet, virtually no good evidence exists to suggest that the prescriptions of individualized herbal mixtures by traditional herbalists across the globe generate more good than harm. Despite this lack of evidence, herbalists do not seem to offer this information voluntarily to his or her patients. When we directly asked the UK herbalists for advice on a clinical case, we found that it was ‘‘misleading at best and dangerous at worst’’ . In other words, herbalists misinform their patients and the public about the value of their treatments.
Many non-medically trained homeopaths advise their clients against the immunization of children. Instead, these practitioners often recommend using ‘‘homeopathic vaccinations’’ for which no good evidence exists. For instance, the vice-chair of the board of directors of ‘‘The Society of Homeopaths’’ had a site with the following statements: ‘‘Homeopathic alternatives to children’s immunisation are now available.’’ ‘‘Our clinic offers alternative immunisation programmes for the whole family.’’ Such statements amounts to misinformation which puts children’s health at risk.
Other alternative practitioners
I have chosen the above-listed professions almost at random and could have selected any other type as well. Arguably, all alternative practitioners who employ unproven treatments – and that must be the vast majority – misinform their patients to some extend. The only way to avoid this is to say: ‘look, I am going to give you a therapy for which there is no good evidence – I hope you don’t mind’. If they did that, they would be out of business in a flash. It follows, I think, that being in business is tantamount to misleading patients.
And there is, of course, another way of misinforming patients which is often forgotten yet very important: withholding essential information. In all of health care, informed consent is a ‘sine qua non’. Alternative practitioners very rarely obtain informed consent from their patients. The reason seems obvious (see above). I would argue that not informing people when they should be informed is a form of misinformation.
In this context, it is worth mentioning an investigation we did in 2009: We obtained the ethical codes of the following bodies: Association of Naturopathic Practitioners, Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (UK), Ayurvedic Practitioners Association, British Acupuncture Council, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, European Herbal Practitioners Association, General Chiropractic Council, General Osteopathic Council, General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies, National Institute of Medical Herbalists, Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, Society of Homeopaths, UK Healers, Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners. We then extracted the statements from these codes referring to evidence-based practice (EBP). The results showed that only the General Chiropractic Council, the General Osteopathic Council and the General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies oblige their members to adopt EBP.
It seems that misinformation is an alternative practitioner’s daily bread. Without it, alternative therapists would need to confine their practice to the few treatments/conditions for which the evidence is positive. If they ever followed this strategy, they would hardly be able to earn a living.
A total of 256 newspaper articles were evaluated. We identified 80 articles in the German papers and 176 in the British; thus, the British reported on medical topics more than twice as often as German broadsheets. Articles in German papers were on average considerably longer and took a positive attitude more often than British ones. We identified 4 articles on alternative medicine in the German and 26 in the UK newspapers. The tone of the UK articles was unanimously positive (100%) whereas most 75% of the German articles on alternative medicine were critical.
This analysis, we concluded, suggested that, compared with German newspapers, British newspapers report more frequently on medical matters and generally have a more critical attitude. The proportion of articles on alternative medicine seems to be considerably larger in the UK (15% v 5%), and, in contrast to articles on medical matters in general, reporting on alternative medicine in the UK was overwhelmingly positive.
That was 13 years ago, and things may well have changed since then. My impression is that more critical coverage of alternative medicine has finally and thankfully begun to emerge. But, even if this is true, we still cannot be sure how misleading it is. In 2006, we therefore conducted another investigation aimed at assessing UK newspapers’ coverage of alternative medicine, this time specifically for cancer.
We searched the “Lexis Nexis” database for 3-month periods in 2002, 2003 and 2004 to retrieve all relevant articles. A total of 310 articles were thus found: 117 came from national and 193 originated from local newspapers. The UK press showed an increasing interest towards alternative medicine for cancer (in 2002, 81 articles; in 2003, 82 articles and in 2004, 147 articles). The most frequently mentioned alternative therapies were diets and supplements (17.7%). Articles mainly focused on alternative medicine as possible cancer treatments (44.8%), and 53.4% of all treatments mentioned were not backed up by evidence. The tone of the articles was generally positive towards alternative medicine. Promotional articles increased over the years, especially for cancer centres and clinics.
Our conclusion: UK national newspapers frequently publish articles on alternative medicine for cancer. Much of this information seems to be uncritical with a potential for misleading patients.
There is no doubt that, in recent months, some journalists have produced excellent articles on alternative medicine. Let me use this occasion to congratulate them for this achievement. Yet, at the same time, it is indisputably true that misleading journalism continues to cause harm on a daily basis. Vulnerable people are thus led to make wrong therapeutic decisions; in some cases, this will only cost money, in other instances, it may well cost lives. Today, I would therefore formulate a much more constructive conclusion: it is time, I think that, when writing about health and medicine, journalists constantly remind themselves that they have a responsibility towards public health and stop giving bogus treatments a free ride.
And finally, to make this more fun, I invite you the reader of this post to report the most misleading newspaper article about alternative medicine you have come across (and, if possible provide a link to it). I will try to be a shining example and start with my choice: I’ve seen herbal remedy make tumours disappear, says respected cancer doctor (THE DAILY TELEGRAPH 20 SEPT 2004) The sub-headline that followed was: Since I have been putting people on Carctol I have seen miracles. Carctol, it turns out, once we do some research, is a herbal mixture heavily promoted as an alternative cancer cure, which is not supported by any reliable evidence at all. I do wonder how many lives have been shortened by this article!
Where can someone turn to who wants reliable information on alternative medicine? Many consumers and patients who ask themselves this question might already be somewhat weary of the Internet; everybody should by now know that websites can be dangerously misleading and usually commercially driven. What about books then? People still tend to trust books; they are written by experts, published by responsible enterprises, and sold through respectable outlets. Surely we can trust books, or can’t we?
The first thing that strikes you when you look into the subject is the fact that there are thousands of books on alternative medicine. You only need to visit a major book shop in your high street and admire the rows and rows of these volumes. Since many years, I have been evaluating such volumes, for instance, for our journal FACT where we regularly publish reviews of new material. Through this and other work, I have gained the impression, that most of these books are not worth the paper they are printed on and constitute a major contributor to the misinformation bombarding the consumer in this area. But that was just an impression, hard data would be better.
In 1998, we assessed for the first time the quality of books on alternative medicine ( Int J Risk Safety Med 1998, 11: 209-215. [For some reason, this article is not Medline-listed]). We chose a random sample of 6 such books all published in 1997, and we assessed their contents according to pre-defined criteria. The findings were sobering: the advice given in these volumes was frequently misleading, not based on good evidence and often inaccurate. If followed, it would have caused significant harm to patients.
In 2006, we conducted a similar investigation which we then reported in the first and second editions of our book THE DESKTOP GUIDE TO COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE. This time, we selected 7 best-sellers in alternative medicine and scrutinised them in much the same way. What we found was revealing. Almost every treatment seemed to be recommended for almost every condition. There was no agreement between the different books which therapy might be effective for which condition. Some treatments were even named as indications for a certain condition, while, in other books, they were listed as contra-indications for the same problem. A bewildering plethora of treatments was recommended for most conditions, for instance:
- addictions: 120 different treatments
- arthritis: 131 different treatments
- asthma: 119 different treatments
- cancer: 133 different treatments
- etc. etc.
This experience, which we published as a chapter in our book entitled AN EPITAPH TO OPINION-BASED MEDICINE, confirmed our suspicion that books on alternative medicine are a major contributor to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in this area – and, as they are read by many people, a significant risk factor to public health.
Why do publishers allow such rubbish to be printed? Why do so many authors spend their time misleading the public with their dangerous half-knowledge? Why do consumers buy such overtly uncritical nonsense? I do not know the answers, I must admit. But I know that books of this nature do a disservice to everyone involved, including the few respectable aspect of alternative medicine which might actually exist.
Has the situation changed since 2006? We cannot be sure; there is, to the best of my knowledge, no hard data; and nobody has repeated our investigations. But my impression from regularly reviewing new books for FACT and other journals is far from encouraging. I fear that our ‘epitaph to opinion-based medicine’ might have been a little premature.
Can anyone think of celebrities promoting conventional treatments? Jane Fonda advertising blood pressure control? Brad Pit advocating early intervention after stroke? Boris Johnson making sure that diabetics check their metabolic control? Angelina Jollie suggesting that we all immunise our kids? Well, I cannot – not many anyway. But I certainly could list numerous VIPs doing their very best to promote quackery and anti-vaccination propaganda.
We may smile about such vain attempts to catch the lime-light, but the influence of celebrities on consumers’ behaviour might be huge and detrimental. It is difficult to estimate, and I am not aware of much reliable research data in this area. But my instinct tells me that, in the realm of alternative medicine, the ‘celebrity-factor’ is a very strong determinant of alternative medicine usage, and one that significantly contributes to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in this area.
With one of our research projects at Exeter, we wanted to identify reports on celebrities’ use of alternative medicine. We searched our department’s extensive data files, the Internet via the Google search engine, and the UK popular press via LexisNexis using the search terms “celebrity”, “alternative medicine” and “complementary medicine”. We considered articles published during 2005 and 2006 for inclusion in our study.
Using this strategy, we identified 38 celebrities using a wide range of alternative medicine interventions. Homeopathy, acupuncture and Ayurveda were the most popular modalities. The conclusion we drew from this investigation was that there may be many reasons why consumers use alternative medicine, and wanting to imitate their idols is one of them.
Some pro-alternative sites even boast with the fact that celebrities use quackery: Oprah is into it; so are Madonna, Uma and Gwyneth. No, it’s not a club for high-profile women with unique names. It’s alternative medicine. As ABC News describes, alternative medicine remains an option outside of “standard care” practices that physicians employ. But it has had a sweeping effect on the country, and celebrities have played a role in its popularity.
This, I think, indicates that celebrities are being used as a marketing tool for the alternative medicine industry. Both seem to feed of each other: the industry turns the celebrity endorsements into profit, and the celebrities turn the interest of the press into the all-important fame needed for remaining a celebrity. If a star displays her shapely back in a low-cut dress, nobody bats an eyelash; if, however, her back is covered with marks from today’s cupping-therapy, the press goes crazy – and, as a consequence, cupping therapy experiences a boost. The fact that there is no good evidence for this treatment becomes entirely irrelevant, and so is the fact that thousands of people will hence forward waste their money on ineffective treatments, some of them possibly even losing valuable time for curing a life-threatening disease.
Who wants such a pedestrian thing as evidence? We are in the realm of the high-fliers who cannot be bothered with such trivialities – unless, of course, they are really ill, in which case they will not consult their local quack but use the best conventional medicine on offer. Has anyone heard of a member of the Royal family being rushed to a homeopathic hospital when acutely ill?
In my experience, a VIP’s conviction in promoting quackery is inversely correlated to his expertise and intelligence. Prince Charles seems to want the entire British nation to be force-fed on quackery – anything from Gerson diet to homeopathy. He knows virtually nothing about medicine, but makes up for this deficit through a strong and quasi-religious belief in quackery. Scientists tend to laugh about his quest and might say with a slightly pitiful smile “but he is full of good will!”. Yet I am not sure that it is all that funny, nor am I convinced that good will is enough. Misleading the public about matters of health care is not amusing. And good will and conviction render quacks not less but more dangerous.
The WHO is one of the most respected organisations in all of health care. It therefore might come as a surprise that it features in my series of institutions contributing to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in the area of alternative medicine. I have deliberately selected the WHO from many other organisations engaging in similarly misleading activities in order to show that even the most respectable bodies can have little enclaves of quackery hidden in their midst.
In 2006, the WHO invited Prince Charles to elaborate on his most bizarre concepts in relation to ‘integrated medicine’. He told the World Health Assembly in Geneva: “The proper mix of proven complementary, traditional and modern remedies, which emphasises the active participation of the patient, can help to create a powerful healing force in the world…Many of today’s complementary therapies are rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies and the natural world…Much of this knowledge, often based on oral traditions, is sadly being lost, yet orthodox medicine has so much to learn from it.” He urged countries across the globe to improve the health of their populations through a more integrated approach to health care. What he failed to mention is the fact that integrating disproven therapies into our clinical routine, as proponents of ‘integrated medicine’ demonstrably do, will not render medicine better or more compassionate but worse and less evidence-based. Or as my more brash US friends often point out: adding cow pie to apple pie is no improvement.
For many years during the early 2000s, the WHO had also been working on a document that would have promoted homeopathy worldwide. They had convened a panel of ‘experts’ including the Queen’s homeopath Peter Fisher. They advocated using this disproven treatment for potentially deadly diseases such as malaria, childhood diarrhoea, or TB as an alternative to conventional medicine. I had been invited to comment on a draft version of this document, but judging from the second draft, my criticism had been totally ignored. Fortunately, the publication of this disastrous advice could be stopped through a concerted initiative of concerned scientists who protested and pointed out that the implementation of this nonsense would kill millions.
In 2003, the WHO had already published a very similar report: a long consensus document on acupuncture. It includes the following list of diseases, symptoms or conditions for which acupuncture has been proved-through controlled trials-to be an effective treatment:
Adverse reactions to radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy
Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever)
Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
Dysentery, acute bacillary
Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm)
Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
Induction of labour
Low back pain
Malposition of fetus, correction of
Nausea and vomiting
Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction)
Periarthritis of shoulder
If we compare these claims to the reliable evidence on the subject, we find that the vast majority of these indications is not supported by sound data (a fuller discussion on the WHO report and its history can be found in our book TRICK OR TREATMENT…). So, how can any organisation as well-respected globally as the WHO arrive at such outrageously misleading conclusions? The recipe for achieving this is relatively simple and time-tested by many similarly reputable institutions:
- One convenes a panel of ‘experts’ all or most of whom have a known preconceived opinion in the direction on has decided to go.
- One allows this panel to work out their own methodology for arriving at the conclusion they desire.
- One encourages cherry-picking of the data.
- One omits a meaningful evaluation of the quality of the reviewed studies.
- One prevents any type of critical assessment of the report such as peer-review by sceptics.
- If criticism does emerge nevertheless, one ignores it.
I should stress again that the WHO is, on the whole, a very good and useful organisation. This is precisely why I chose it for this post. As long as it is big enough, ANY such institution is likely to contain a little niche where woo and anti-science flourishes. There are far too many examples to mention, e.g. NICE, the NIH, UK and other governments. And this is the reason we must be watchful. It is all to human to assume that information is reliable simply because it originates from an authoritative source; the appeal to authority is appealing, of course, but it also is fallacious!
Imagine: you consult your doctor and he says: “I am so sorry, but I have bad news: the tests have shown that you have cancer”. You go home and feel as though someone has hit you with a sledge hammer. You cry a lot and your thoughts go round in circles. A complete nightmare unfolds; you sometimes think you are dreaming but reality soon catches up with you.
A few days later, you have an appointment with the oncologist who explains the treatment plan. You feel there is no choice and you agree to it. After the first chemotherapy, you lose your hair, your well-being, your dignity, your control and your patience – time to investigate what else there is on offer. There must be an alternative!
By then lots of well-wishers will have mentioned to you that the conventional route is but one of many: there are, in fact, alternatives!!! You go on the internet and find not just a few, you find millions of website promoting hundreds of solutions – anything from diets to herbal remedies, from homeopathy to faith-healing. All are being promoted as cures for your cancer, and all are free of those nasty side-effects which make your life hell at the moment. You think “there is a choice after all”.
Who would not be tempted by these options advertised in the most glorious terms? Who would not begin to distrust the oncologists who kindly but firmly insist that ‘alternative cancer cures’ are bogus? Who would not want to get rid of the cancer and the side-effects in one genial master-stroke?
Cancer patients yearn for hope and are extremely vulnerable to such influences. I do not know a single one who, faced with the diagnosis and all it entails, has not looked at the ‘alternatives’. This is why it would be so very important that the websites informing patients and their carers convey accurate and responsible information. But do they?
One of our research projects at Exeter had been aimed at assessing the quality of the websites advising patients on alternative treatments for cancer. For this purpose, we evaluated a total of 32 sites which cancer patients were most likely to consult according to pre-defined criteria – in other words, we assessed the most frequented websites for cancer.
Our results were shocking: many of these sites were of poor quality and most of them recommended a plethora of unproven treatments for cancer, most frequently herbal remedies, diets and mind-body therapies. In our estimation, at least three of them were outright dangerous and had the potential to harm patients.
The level of misinformation in this area is sickening. Patients are being sold false hope by the truck-load. Yet they deserve better; they deserve impartial information on their illness and the best treatment for it – cancer patients especially so. What they get instead is a total disgrace: commercially driven lies about ‘treatments’ which are not just unproven but which would, if used as instructed, hasten their death. Some alternative therapies have potential for palliative and supporting care, BUT NONE OFFER A CURE OR A REDUCTION OF THE TUMOR BURDEN OR A CHANGE IN THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE DISEASE.
One would have thought that, after losing their libel case against Simon Singh, chiropractors across the world might have got their act together and stopped claiming that their ‘bogus’ treatments are effective for conditions that lack both supporting evidence and scientific rationale. However, our investigation which was carried out in 2010, well after the libel action and the embarrassing defeat for chiropractors, sadly suggests otherwise.
It was aimed at determining the frequency of claims of chiropractors and their associations to treat a range of pre-defined conditions: asthma, headache/migraine, infant colic, colic, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain, whiplash as examples of indications not supported by sound evidence, and lower back pain as an example of a condition supported by some evidence.
For this purpose, we conducted a review of 200 websites of individual chiropractors and 9 websites of chiropractic associations from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States between 1 October 2008 and 26 November 2008. Our outcome measure was either direct or indirect claims regarding the eight above-named conditions.
We found evidence that 95% chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims regarding at least one of these conditions. Four of the 9 (44%) associations made justified claims about lower back pain. All 9 associations made unsubstantiated claims about headache/migraine. Unsubstantiated claims were also made about asthma, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain.
We concluded that the majority of chiropractors and their associations in the English-speaking world seem to make therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence, whilst only 28% of chiropractor websites promote lower back pain, which is supported by some evidence. We suggest the ubiquity of the unsubstantiated claims constitutes an ethical and public health issue.
Criticism regarding unsubstantiated claims have been raised even from within the profession of chiropractors (albeit very, very rarely); two chiropractors suggested that they are “evidence of a lack of professionalism and of quackery” that have evolved within a “tradition of dogma, fallacious reasoning, and unconventional attitudes about research and science”. I quite agree; instead of self-critical attitudes, chiropractors seem to develop a pathological state of denial.
The codes of ethics of chiropractors vary, of course, from nation to nation, but they tend to agree that information used must be factual and verifiable and should not be misleading or inaccurate. Unsubstantiated claims such as those disclosed by our investigation thus violate the rules of these codes. More importantly perhaps, they also misinform unsuspecting consumers and put public health at risk. This has now been going on for such a long time that it truly is embarrassing – not just for chiropractors (who seem to be immune to embarrassment) but to regulators and even to society at large who tolerates such abuse at the hands of the chiropractic profession.
Considering more recent events in the realm of chiropractic, it seems highly unlikely that the situation is going to improve any time soon. Misinformation in the name of maximising income , it often seems to me, is what chiropractic is really about.