Arnold Relman has died aged 91. He was a great personality, served for many years as editor-in-chief of ‘The New England Journal of Medicine’ and was professor of medicine and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. He also was an brilliantly outspoken critic of alternative medicine, and I therefore believe that he deserves to be remembered here. The following excerpts are from an article he wrote in 1998 about Andrew Weil, America’s foremost guru of alternative medicine; I have taken the liberty of extracting a few paragraphs which deal with alternative medicine in general terms.
Until now, alternative medicine has generally been rejected by medical scientists and educators, and by most practicing physicians. The reasons are many, but the most important reason is the difference in mentality between the alternative practitioners and the medical establishment. The leaders of the establishment believe in the scientific method, and in the rule of evidence, and in the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology upon which the modern view of nature is based. Alternative practitioners either do not seem to care about science or explicitly reject its premises. Their methods are often based on notions totally at odds with science, common sense, and modern conceptions of the structure and the function of the human body. In advancing their claims, they do not appear to recognize the need for objective evidence, asserting that the intuitions and the personal beliefs of patients and healers are all that is needed to validate their methods. One might have expected such thinking to alienate most people in a technologically advanced society such as ours; but the alternative medicine movement, and the popularity of gurus such as Weil, are growing rapidly…
That people usually “get better,” that most relatively minor diseases heal spontaneously or seem to improve with simple common remedies, is hardly news. Every physician, indeed every grandmother, knows that. Yet before we accept Weil’s contention that serious illnesses such as “bone cancer,” “Parkinson’s disease,” or “scleroderma” are similarly curable, or respond to alternative healing methods, we need at least to have some convincing medical evidence that the patients whom he reports in these testimonials did indeed suffer from these diseases, and that they were really improved or healed. The perplexity is not that Weil is using “anecdotes” as proof, but that we don’t know whether the anecdotes are true.
Anecdotal evidence is often used in the conventional medical literature to suggest the effectiveness of treatment that has not yet been tested by formal clinical trials. In fact, much of the mainstream professional literature in medicine consists of case reports — “anecdotes,” of a kind. The crucial difference between those case reports and the testimonials that abound in Weil’s books (and throughout the literature of alternative medicine) is that the case reports in the mainstream literature are almost always meticulously documented with objective data to establish the diagnosis and to verify what happened, whereas the testimonials cited by alternative medicine practitioners usually are not. Weil almost never gives any objective data to support his claims. Almost everything is simply hearsay and personal opinion.
To the best of my knowledge, Weil himself has published nothing in the peer-reviewed medical literature to document objectively his personal experiences with allegedly cured patients or to verify his claims for the effectiveness of any of the unorthodox remedies he uses. He is not alone in this respect. Few proponents of alternative medicine have so far published clinical reports that would stand the rigorous scientific scrutiny given to studies of traditional medical treatments published in the serious medical journals. Alternative medicine is still a field rich in undocumented claims and anecdotes and relatively lacking in credible scientific reports…
… Thus Weil can believe in miraculous cures even while claiming to be rational and scientific, because he thinks that quantum theory supports his views.
Yet the leading physicists of our time do not accept such an interpretation of quantum theory. They do not believe quantum theory says anything about the role of human consciousness in the physical world. They see quantum laws as simply a useful mathematical formulation for describing subatomic phenomena that are not adequately handled by classical physical theory, although the latter remains quite satisfactory for the analysis of physical events at the macro-level. Steven Weinberg has observed that “quantum mechanics has been overwhelmingly important to physics, but I cannot find any messages for human life in quantum mechanics that are different in any important way from those of Newtonian physics.” And overriding all discussions of the meaning of quantum physics is the fundamental fact that quantum theory, like all other scientific law, is only valid to the extent that it predicts and accords with the evidence provided by observation and objective measurement. Richard Feynman said it quite simply: “Observation is the ultimate and final judge of the truth of an idea.” Feynman also pointed out that scientific observations need to be objective, reproducible, and, in a sense, public — that is, available to all interested scientists who wish to check the observations for themselves.
Surely almost all scientists would agree with Feynman that, regardless of what theory of nature we wish to espouse, we cannot escape the obligation to support our claims with objective evidence. All theories must conform to the facts or be discarded. So, if Weil cannot produce credible evidence to validate the miraculous cures that he claims for the healing powers of the mind, and if he does not support with objective data the claims he and others make for the effectiveness of alternative healing methods, he cannot presume to wear the mantle of science, and his appeal to quantum theory cannot help him.
Some apologists for alternative medicine have argued that since their healing methods are based on a “paradigm” different from that of traditional medicine, traditional standards of evidence do not apply. Weil sometimes seems to agree with that view, as when he talks about “stoned thinking” and the “ambivalent” nature of reality, but more recently — as he seeks to integrate alternative with allopathic medicine — he seems to acknowledge the need for objective evidence. This, at least, is how I would interpret one of his most recent and ambitious publishing ventures, the editorship of the new quarterly journal Integrative Medicine***.
Integrative Medicine describes itself as a “peer-reviewed journal … committed to gathering evidence for the safety and efficacy of all approaches to health according to the highest standards of scientific research, while remaining open to new paradigms and honoring the healing power of nature.” The Associate Editors and Editorial Board include prominent names in both alternative medicine and allopathic medicine, who presumably support that mission. Yet the first two issues will disappoint those who were looking for original clinical research based on new, objective data. Perhaps subsequent issues will be different, but in any case it is hard to understand the need for Weil’s new journal if he truly intends to hold manuscripts to accepted scientific standards: there already exist many leading peer-reviewed medical journals that will review research studies of alternative healing methods on their merits. During the past decade or so, only a few such studies have passed rigorous review and have been published in first-rate journals. Recently, more studies have been published, but very few of them report significant clinical effects. And that is pretty much where matters now stand. Despite much avowed interest in research on alternative medicine and increased investment in support of such research, the evidentiary underpinnings of unconventional healing methods are still largely lacking…
The alternative medicine movement has been around for a long time, but it was eclipsed during most of this century by the success of medical science. Now there is growing public disenchantment with the cost and the impersonality of modern medical care, as well as concern about medical mistakes and the complications and side-effects of pharmaceuticals and other forms of medical treatment. For their part, physicians have allowed the public to perceive them as uninterested in personal problems, as inaccessible to their patients except when carrying out technical procedures and surgical operations. The “doctor knows best” attitude, which dominated patient-doctor relations during most of the century, has in recent decades given way to a more activist, consumer-oriented view of the patient’s role. Moreover, many other licensed health-care professionals, such as nurse-practitioners, psychotherapists, pharmacists, and chiropractors, are providing services once exclusively reserved to allopathic physicians.
The net result of all these developments has been a weakening of the hegemony that allopathic medicine once exercised over the health care system, and a growing interest by the public in exploring other healing approaches. The authority of allopathic medicine is also being challenged by a swelling current of mysticism and anti-scientism that runs deep through our culture. Even as the number and the complexity of urgent technological and scientific issues facing contemporary society increase, there seems to be a growing public distrust of the scientific outlook and a reawakening of interest in mysticism and spiritualism.
All this obscurantism has given powerful impetus to the alternative medicine movement, with its emphasis on the power of mind over matter. And so consumer demand for alternative remedies is rising, as is public and private financial support for their study and clinical use. It is no wonder that practicing physicians, the academic medical establishment, and the National Institutes of Health are all finding reasons to pay more attention to the alternative medicine movement. Indeed, it is becoming politically incorrect for the movement’s critics to express their skepticism too strongly in public…
There is no doubt that modern medicine as it is now practiced needs to improve its relations with patients, and that some of the criticisms leveled against it by people such as Weil — and by many more within the medical establishment itself — are valid. There also can be no doubt that a few of the “natural” medicines and healing methods now being used by practitioners of alternative medicine will prove, after testing, to be safe and effective. This, after all, has been the way in which many important therapeutic agents and treatments have found their way into standard medical practice in the past. Mainstream medicine should continue to be open to the testing of selected unconventional treatments. In keeping an open mind, however, the medical establishment in this country must not lose its scientific compass or weaken its commitment to rational thought and the rule of evidence.
There are not two kinds of medicine, one conventional and the other unconventional, that can be practiced jointly in a new kind of “integrative medicine.” Nor, as Andrew Weil and his friends also would have us believe, are there two kinds of thinking, or two ways to find out which treatments work and which do not. In the best kind of medical practice, all proposed treatments must be tested objectively. In the end, there will only be treatments that pass that test and those that do not, those that are proven worthwhile and those that are not. Can there be any reasonable “alternative”?
*** the journal only existed for a short period of time
It is not often that we see an article of the great George Vithoulkas, the ‘über-guru‘ of homeopathy, in a medical journal. In fact, this paper, which he co-authored with several colleagues, seems to be a rare exception: in his entire career, he seems to have published just 15 Medline- listed articles most of which are letters to the editor.
According to Wikipedia, Vithoulkas has been described as “the maestro of classical homeopathy” by Robin Shohet; Lyle Morgan says he is “widely considered to be the greatest living homeopathic theorist”; and Scott Shannon calls him a “contemporary master of homeopathy.” Paul Ekins credited Vithoulkas with the revival of the credibility of homeopathy.
In his brand new paper, Vithoulkas provides evidence for the notion that homeopathy can treat infertility. More specifically, the authors present 5 cases of female infertility treated successfully with the use of homeopathic remedies.
Yes, really! The American Medical College of Homeopathy informs us that homeopathy has an absolute solution that can augment your probability of conception. Homeopathic treatment of Infertility addresses both physical and emotional imbalances in a person. Homeopathy plays a role in treating Infertility by strengthening the reproductive organs in both men and women, by regulating hormonal balance, menstruation and ovulation in women, by escalating blood flow into the pelvic region, by mounting the thickness of the uterine lining and preventing the uterus from contracting hence abating chances of a miscarriage, and by increasing quality and quantity of sperm count in men. It can also be advantageous in reducing anxiety so that the embryo implantation can take place in a favourable environment. Homoeopathy is a system of medicine directed at assisting the body’s own healing process.
Imagine: the 5 women in Vithoulkas ‘study’ wanted to have children; they consulted homeopaths because they did not get pregnant in a timely fashion. The homeopaths prescribed individualised homeopathy and treated them for prolonged periods of time. Eventually, BINGO!, all of the 5 women got pregnant.
What a hoot!
It beggars belief that this result is being credited to the administration of homeopathic remedies. Do the authors not know that, in many cases, it can take many months until a pregnancy occurs? Do they not think that the many women they treated unsuccessfully for the same problem should raise some doubts about homeopathy? Do they really believe that their remedies had any causal relationship to the 5 pregnancies?
Vithoulkas was a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award in 1996. I hope they did not give it to him in recognition of his scientific achievements!
It is almost 10 years ago that Prof Kathy Sykes’ BBC series entitled ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE was aired. I had been hired by the BBC as their advisor for the programme and had tried my best to iron out the many mistakes that were about to be broadcast. But the scope for corrections turned out to be narrow and, at one stage, the errors seemed too serious and too far beyond repair to continue with my task. I had thus offered my resignation from this post. Fortunately this move led to some of my concerns being addressed after all, and they convinced me to remain in post.
The first part of the series was on acupuncture, and Kathy presented the opening scene of a young women undergoing open heart surgery with the aid of acupuncture. All the BBC had ever shown me and asked me to advise on was the text – I had never seen the images. Kathy’s text included the statement that the patient was having the surgery “with only needles to control the pain.” I had not objected to this statement in the firm belief that the images of the film would back up this extraordinary claim. As it turned out, it did not; the patient clearly had all sorts of other treatments given through intra-venous lines and, in the film, these were openly in the view of Kathy Sykes.
This overt contradiction annoyed not just me but several other people as well. One of them was Simon Singh who filed an official complaint against the BBC for misleading the public, and eventually won his case.
The notion that acupuncture can serve as an alternative to anaesthesia or other surgical conditions crops up with amazing regularity. It is important not least because is often used as a promotional tool with the implication that, IF ACUPUNCTURE CAN ACHIVE SUCH DRAMATIC EFFECTS, IT MUST BE AN INCREDIBLY USEFUL TREATMENT! It is therefore relevant to ask what the scientific evidence tells us about this issue.
This was the question we wanted to address in a recent publication. Specifically, our aim was to summarise recent systematic reviews of acupuncture for surgical conditions.
Thirteen electronic databases were searched for relevant reviews published since 2000. Data were extracted by two independent reviewers according to predefined criteria. Twelve systematic reviews met our inclusion criteria. They related to the prevention or treatment of post-operative nausea and vomiting as well as to surgical or post-operative pain. The reviews drew conclusions which were far from uniform; specifically for surgical pain the evidence was not convincing. We concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that acupuncture is an effective intervention in surgical settings.”
So, Kathy Sykes’ comment was misguided in more than just one way: firstly, the scene she described in the film did not support what she was saying; secondly, the scientific evidence fails to support the notion that acupuncture can be used as an alternative to analgesia during surgery.
This story has several positive outcomes all the same. After seeing the BBC programme, Simon Singh contacted me to learn my views on the matter. This prompted me to support his complaint against the BBC and helped him to win this case. Furthermore, it led to a co-operation and friendship which produced our book TRICK OR TREATMENT.
Dutch neurologists recently described the case of a 63-year-old female patient presented at their outpatient clinic with a five-week history of severe postural headache, tinnitus and nausea. The onset of these symptoms was concurrent with chiropractic manipulation of the cervical spine which she had tried because of cervical pain.
Cranial MRI showed findings characteristic for intracranial hypotension syndrome. Cervical MRI revealed a large posterior dural tear at the level of C1-2. Following unsuccessful conservative therapy, the patient underwent a lumbar epidural blood patch after which she recovered rapidly.
The authors conclude that manipulation of the cervical spine can cause a dural tear and subsequently an intracranial hypotension syndrome. Postural headaches directly after spinal manipulation should therefore be a reason to suspect this complication. If conservative management fails, an epidural blood patch may be performed.
Quite obviously, this is sound advice that can save lives. The trouble, however, is that the chiropractic profession is, by and large, still in denial. A recent systematic review by a chiropractor included eight cases of intracranial hypotension (IH) and concluded that case reports on IH and spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) have very limited clinical details and therefore cannot exclude other theories or plausible alternatives to explain the IH. To date, the evidence that cervical SMT is not a cause of IH is inconclusive. Further research is required before making any conclusions that cervical SMT is a cause of IH. Chiropractors and other health practitioners should be vigilant in recording established risk factors for IH in all cases. It is possible that the published cases of cervical SMT and IH may have missed important confounding risk factors (e.g. a new headache, or minor neck trauma in young or middle-aged adults).
Instead of distracting us from the fact that chiropractic can lead to serious adverse events, chiropractors would be well-advised to face the music, admit that their treatments are not risk-free and conduct rigorous research with a view of minimizing the harm.
The purpose of this paper by Canadian chiropractors was to expand practitioners’ knowledge on areas of liability when treating low back pain patients. Six cases where chiropractors in Canada were sued for allegedly causing or aggravating lumbar disc herniation after spinal manipulative therapy were retrieved using the CANLII database.
The patients were 4 men and 2 women with an average age of 37 years. Trial courts’ decisions were rendered between 2000 and 2011. The following conclusions from Canadian courts were noted:
- informed consent is an on-going process that cannot be entirely delegated to office personnel;
- when the patient’s history reveals risk factors for lumbar disc herniation the chiropractor has the duty to rule out disc pathology as an aetiology for the symptoms presented by the patients before beginning anything but conservative palliative treatment;
- lumbar disc herniation may be triggered by spinal manipulative therapy on vertebral segments distant from the involved herniated disc such as the thoracic spine.
The fact that this article was published by chiropractors seems like a step into the right direction. Disc herniations after chiropractic have been reported regularly and since many years. It is not often that I hear chiropractors admit that their spinal manipulations carry serious risks.
And it is not often that chiropractors consider the issue of informed consent. One the one hand, one hardly can blame them for it: if they ever did take informed consent seriously and informed their patients fully about the evidence and risks of their treatments as well as those of other therapeutic options, they would probably be out of business for ever. One the other hand, chiropractors should not be allowed to continue excluding themselves from the generally accepted ethical standards of modern health care.
Advocates of alternative medicine are incredibly fond of supporting their claims with anecdotes, or ‘case-reports’ as they are officially called. There is no question, case-reports can be informative and important, but we need to be aware of their limitations.
A recent case-report from the US might illustrated this nicely. It described a 65-year-old male patient who had had MS for 20 years when he decided to get treated with Chinese scalp acupuncture. The motor area, sensory area, foot motor and sensory area, balance area, hearing and dizziness area, and tremor area were stimulated once a week for 10 weeks, then once a month for 6 further sessions.
After the 16 treatments, the patient showed remarkable improvements. He was able to stand and walk without any problems. The numbness and tingling in his limbs did not bother him anymore. He had more energy and had not experienced incontinence of urine or dizziness after the first treatment. He was able to return to work full time. Now the patient has been in remission for 26 months.
The authors of this case-report conclude that Chinese scalp acupuncture can be a very effective treatment for patients with MS. Chinese scalp acupuncture holds the potential to expand treatment options for MS in both conventional and complementary or integrative therapies. It can not only relieve symptoms, increase the patient’s quality of life, and slow and reverse the progression of physical disability but also reduce the number of relapses and help patients.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with case-reports; on the contrary, they can provide extremely valuable pointers for further research. If they relate to adverse effects, they can give us crucial information about the risks associated with treatments. Nobody would ever argue that case-reports are useless, and that is why most medical journals regularly publish such papers. But they are valuable only, if one is aware of their limitations. Medicine finally started to make swift progress, ~150 years ago, when we gave up attributing undue importance to anecdotes, began to doubt established wisdom and started testing it scientifically.
Conclusions such as the ones drawn above are not just odd, they are misleading to the point of being dangerous. A reasonable conclusion might have been that this case of a MS-patient is interesting and should be followed-up through further observations. If these then seem to confirm the positive outcome, one might consider conducting a clinical trial. If this study proves to yield encouraging findings, one might eventually draw the conclusions which the present authors drew from their single case.
To jump at conclusions in the way the authors did, is neither justified nor responsible. It is unjustified because case-reports never lend themselves to such generalisations. And it is irresponsible because desperate patients, who often fail to understand the limitations of case-reports and tend to believe things that have been published in medical journals, might act on these words. This, in turn, would raise false hopes or might even lead to patients forfeiting those treatments that are evidence-based.
It is high time, I think, that proponents of alternative medicine give up their love-affair with anecdotes and join the rest of the health care professions in the 21st century.
Has it ever occurred to you that much of the discussion about cause and effect in alternative medicine goes in circles without ever making progress? I have come to the conclusion that it does. Here I try to illustrate this point using the example of acupuncture, more precisely the endless discussion about how to best test acupuncture for efficacy. For those readers who like to misunderstand me I should explain that the sceptics’ view is in capital letters.
At the beginning there was the experience. Unaware of anatomy, physiology, pathology etc., people started sticking needles in other people’s skin, some 2000 years ago, and observed that they experienced relief of all sorts of symptoms.When an American journalist reported about this phenomenon in the 1970s, acupuncture became all the rage in the West. Acupuncture-fans then claimed that a 2000-year history is ample proof that acupuncture does work.
BUT ANECDOTES ARE NOTORIOUSLY UNRELIABLE!
Even the most enthusiastic advocates conceded that this is probably true. So they documented detailed case-series of lots of patients, calculated the average difference between the pre- and post-treatment severity of symptoms, submitted it to statistical tests, and published the notion that the effects of acupuncture are not just anecdotal; in fact, they are statistically significant, they said.
BUT THIS EFFECT COULD BE DUE TO THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE CONDITION!
“True enough”, grumbled the acupuncture-fans and conducted the very first controlled clinical trials. Essentially they treated one group of patients with acupuncture while another group received conventional treatments as usual. When they analysed the results, they found that the acupuncture group had improved significantly more. “Now do you believe us?”, they asked triumphantly, “acupuncture is clearly effective”.
NO! THIS OUTCOME MIGHT BE DUE TO SELECTION BIAS. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT.
The acupuncturists felt slightly embarrassed because they had not thought of that. They had allocated their patients to the treatment according to patients’ choice. Thus the expectation of the patients (or the clinician) to get relief from acupuncture might have been the reason for the difference in outcome. So they consulted an expert in trial-design and were advised to allocate not by choice but by chance. In other words, they repeated the previous study but randomised patients to the two groups. Amazingly, their RCT still found a significant difference favouring acupuncture over treatment as usual.
BUT THIS DIFFERENCE COULD BE CAUSED BY A PLACEBO-EFFECT!
Now the acupuncturists were in a bit of a pickle; as far as they could see, there was no good placebo for acupuncture! Eventually some methodologist-chap came up with the idea that, in order to mimic a placebo, they could simply stick needles into non-acupuncture points. When the acupuncturists tried that method, they found that there were improvements in both groups but the difference between real acupuncture and placebo was tiny and usually neither statistically significant nor clinically relevant.
NOW DO YOU CONCEDE THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS NOT AN EFFECTIVE TREATMENT?
Absolutely not! The results merely show that needling non-acupuncture points is not an adequate placebo. Obviously this intervention also sends a powerful signal to the brain which clearly makes it an effective intervention. What do you expect when you compare two effective treatments?
IF YOU REALLY THINK SO, YOU NEED TO PROVE IT AND DESIGN A PLACEBO THAT IS INERT.
At that stage, the acupuncturists came up with a placebo-needle that did not actually penetrate the skin; it worked like a mini stage dagger that telescopes into itself while giving the impression that it penetrated the skin just like the real thing. Surely this was an adequate placebo! The acupuncturists repeated their studies but, to their utter dismay, they found again that both groups improved and the difference in outcome between their new placebo and true acupuncture was minimal.
WE TOLD YOU THAT ACUPUNCTURE WAS NOT EFFECTIVE! DO YOU FINALLY AGREE?
Certainly not, they replied. We have thought long and hard about these intriguing findings and believe that they can be explained just like the last set of results: the non-penetrating needles touch the skin; this touch provides a stimulus powerful enough to have an effect on the brain; the non-penetrating placebo-needles are not inert and therefore the results merely depict a comparison of two effective treatments.
YOU MUST BE JOKING! HOW ARE YOU GOING TO PROVE THAT BIZARRE HYPOTHESIS?
We had many discussions and consensus meeting amongst the most brilliant brains in acupuncture about this issue and have arrived at the conclusion that your obsession with placebo, cause and effect etc. is ridiculous and entirely misplaced. In real life, we don’t use placebos. So, let’s instead address the ‘real life’ question: is acupuncture better than usual treatment? We have conducted pragmatic studies where one group of patients gets treatment as usual and the other group receives acupuncture in addition. These studies show that acupuncture is effective. This is all the evidence we need. Why can you not believe us?
NOW WE HAVE ARRIVED EXACTLY AT THE POINT WHERE WE HAVE BEEN A LONG TIME AGO. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT. YOU OBVIOUSLY CANNOT DEMONSTRATE THAT ACUPUNCTURE CAUSES CLINICAL IMPROVEMENT. THEREFORE YOU OPT TO PRETEND THAT CAUSE AND EFFECT ARE IRRELEVANT. YOU USE SOME IMITATION OF SCIENCE TO ‘PROVE’ THAT YOUR PRECONCEIVED IDEAS ARE CORRECT. YOU DO NOT SEEM TO BE INTERESTED IN THE TRUTH ABOUT ACUPUNCTURE AT ALL.
It was 20 years ago today that I started my job as ‘Professor of Complementary Medicine’ at the University of Exeter and became a full-time researcher of all matters related to alternative medicine. One issue that was discussed endlessly during these early days was the question whether alternative medicine can be investigated scientifically. There were many vociferous proponents of the view that it was too subtle, too individualised, too special for that and that it defied science in principle. Alternative medicine, they claimed, needed an alternative to science to be validated. I spent my time arguing the opposite, of course, and today there finally seems to be a consensus that alternative medicine can and should be submitted to scientific tests much like any other branch of health care.
Looking back at those debates, I think it is rather obvious why apologists of alternative medicine were so vehement about opposing scientific investigations: they suspected, perhaps even knew, that the results of such research would be mostly negative. Once the anti-scientists saw that they were fighting a lost battle, they changed their tune and adopted science – well sort of: they became pseudo-scientists (‘if you cannot beat them, join them’). Their aim was to prevent disaster, namely the documentation of alternative medicine’s uselessness by scientists. Meanwhile many of these ‘anti-scientists turned pseudo-scientists’ have made rather surprising careers out of their cunning role-change; professorships at respectable universities have mushroomed. Yes, pseudo-scientists have splendid prospects these days in the realm of alternative medicine.
The term ‘pseudo-scientist’ as I understand it describes a person who thinks he/she knows the truth about his/her subject well before he/she has done the actual research. A pseudo-scientist is keen to understand the rules of science in order to corrupt science; he/she aims at using the tools of science not to test his/her assumptions and hypotheses, but to prove that his/her preconceived ideas were correct.
So, how does one become a top pseudo-scientist? During the last 20 years, I have observed some of the careers with interest and think I know how it is done. Here are nine lessons which, if followed rigorously, will lead to success (… oh yes, in case I again have someone thick enough to complain about me misleading my readers: THIS POST IS SLIGHTLY TONGUE IN CHEEK).
- Throw yourself into qualitative research. For instance, focus groups are a safe bet. This type of pseudo-research is not really difficult to do: you assemble about 5 -10 people, let them express their opinions, record them, extract from the diversity of views what you recognise as your own opinion and call it a ‘common theme’, write the whole thing up, and - BINGO! – you have a publication. The beauty of this approach is manifold: 1) you can repeat this exercise ad nauseam until your publication list is of respectable length; there are plenty of alternative medicine journals who will hurry to publish your pseudo-research; 2) you can manipulate your findings at will, for instance, by selecting your sample (if you recruit people outside a health food shop, for instance, and direct your group wisely, you will find everything alternative medicine journals love to print); 3) you will never produce a paper that displeases the likes of Prince Charles (this is more important than you may think: even pseudo-science needs a sponsor [or would that be a pseudo-sponsor?]).
- Conduct surveys. These are very popular and highly respected/publishable projects in alternative medicine – and they are almost as quick and easy as focus groups. Do not get deterred by the fact that thousands of very similar investigations are already available. If, for instance, there already is one describing the alternative medicine usage by leg-amputated police-men in North Devon, and you nevertheless feel the urge of going into this area, you can safely follow your instinct: do a survey of leg-amputated police men in North Devon with a medical history of diabetes. There are no limits, and as long as you conclude that your participants used a lot of alternative medicine, were very satisfied with it, did not experience any adverse effects, thought it was value for money, and would recommend it to their neighbour, you have secured another publication in an alternative medicine journal.
- If, for some reason, this should not appeal to you, how about taking a sociological, anthropological or psychological approach? How about studying, for example, the differences in worldviews, the different belief systems, the different ways of knowing, the different concepts about illness, the different expectations, the unique spiritual dimensions, the amazing views on holism – all in different cultures, settings or countries? Invariably, you will, of course, conclude that one truth is at least as good as the next. This will make you popular with all the post-modernists who use alternative medicine as a playground for getting a few publications out. This approach will allow you to travel extensively and generally have a good time. Your papers might not win you a Nobel prize, but one cannot have everything.
- It could well be that, at one stage, your boss has a serious talk with you demanding that you start doing what (in his narrow mind) constitutes ‘real science’. He might be keen to get some brownie-points at the next RAE and could thus want you to actually test alternative treatments in terms of their safety and efficacy. Do not despair! Even then, there are plenty of possibilities to remain true to your pseudo-scientific principles. By now you are good at running surveys, and you could, for instance, take up your boss’ suggestion of studying the safety of your favourite alternative medicine with a survey of its users. You simply evaluate their experiences and opinions regarding adverse effects. But be careful, you are on somewhat thinner ice here; you don’t want to upset anyone by generating alarming findings. Make sure your sample is small enough for a false negative result, and that all participants are well-pleased with their alternative medicine. This might be merely a question of selecting your patients cleverly. The main thing is that your conclusion is positive. If you want to go the extra pseudo-scientific mile, mention in the discussion of your paper that your participants all felt that conventional drugs were very harmful.
- If your boss insists you tackle the daunting issue of therapeutic efficacy, there is no reason to give up pseudo-science either. You can always find patients who happened to have recovered spectacularly well from a life-threatening disease after receiving your favourite form of alternative medicine. Once you have identified such a person, you write up her experience in much detail and call it a ‘case report’. It requires a little skill to brush over the fact that the patient also had lots of conventional treatments, or that her diagnosis was assumed but never properly verified. As a pseudo-scientist, you will have to learn how to discretely make such irritating details vanish so that, in the final paper, they are no longer recognisable. Once you are familiar with this methodology, you can try to find a couple more such cases and publish them as a ‘best case series’ – I can guarantee that you will be all other pseudo-scientists’ hero!
- Your boss might point out, after you have published half a dozen such articles, that single cases are not really very conclusive. The antidote to this argument is simple: you do a large case series along the same lines. Here you can even show off your excellent statistical skills by calculating the statistical significance of the difference between the severity of the condition before the treatment and the one after it. As long as you show marked improvements, ignore all the many other factors involved in the outcome and conclude that these changes are undeniably the result of the treatment, you will be able to publish your paper without problems.
- As your boss seems to be obsessed with the RAE and all that, he might one day insist you conduct what he narrow-mindedly calls a ‘proper’ study; in other words, you might be forced to bite the bullet and learn how to plan and run an RCT. As your particular alternative therapy is not really effective, this could lead to serious embarrassment in form of a negative result, something that must be avoided at all cost. I therefore recommend you join for a few months a research group that has a proven track record in doing RCTs of utterly useless treatments without ever failing to conclude that it is highly effective. There are several of those units both in the UK and elsewhere, and their expertise is remarkable. They will teach you how to incorporate all the right design features into your study without there being the slightest risk of generating a negative result. A particularly popular solution is to conduct what they call a ‘pragmatic’ trial, I suggest you focus on this splendid innovation that never fails to produce anything but cheerfully positive findings.
- It is hardly possible that this strategy fails – but once every blue moon, all precautions turn out to be in vain, and even the most cunningly designed study of your bogus therapy might deliver a negative result. This is a challenge to any pseudo-scientist, but you can master it, provided you don’t lose your head. In such a rare case I recommend to run as many different statistical tests as you can find; chances are that one of them will nevertheless produce something vaguely positive. If even this method fails (and it hardly ever does), you can always home in on the fact that, in your efficacy study of your bogus treatment, not a single patient died. Who would be able to doubt that this is a positive outcome? Stress it clearly, select it as the main feature of your conclusions, and thus make the more disappointing findings disappear.
- Now that you are a fully-fledged pseudo-scientist who has produced one misleading or false positive result after the next, you may want a ‘proper’ confirmatory study of your pet-therapy. For this purpose run the same RCT over again, and again, and again. Eventually you want a meta-analysis of all RCTs ever published. As you are the only person who ever conducted studies on the bogus treatment in question, this should be quite easy: you pool the data of all your trials and, bob’s your uncle: a nice little summary of the totality of the data that shows beyond doubt that your therapy works. Now even your narrow-minded boss will be impressed.
These nine lessons can and should be modified to suit your particular situation, of course. Nothing here is written in stone. The one skill any pseudo-scientist must have is flexibility.
Every now and then, some smart arse is bound to attack you and claim that this is not rigorous science, that independent replications are required, that you are biased etc. etc. blah, blah, blah. Do not panic: either you ignore that person completely, or (in case there is a whole gang of nasty sceptics after you) you might just point out that:
- your work follows a new paradigm; the one of your critics is now obsolete,
- your detractors fail to understand the complexity of the subject and their comments merely reveal their ridiculous incompetence,
- your critics are less than impartial, in fact, most are bought by BIG PHARMA,
- you have a paper ‘in press’ that fully deals with all the criticism and explains how inappropriate it really is.
In closing, allow me a final word about publishing. There are hundreds of alternative medicine journals out there to chose from. They will love your papers because they are uncompromising promotional. These journals all have one thing in common: they are run by apologists of alternative medicine who abhor to read anything negative about alternative medicine. Consequently hardly a critical word about alternative medicine will ever appear in these journals. If you want to make double sure that your paper does not get criticised during the peer-review process (this would require a revision, and you don’t need extra work of that nature), you can suggest a friend for peer-reviewing it. In turn, you can offer to him/her that you do the same to him/her the next time he/she has an article to submit. This is how pseudo-scientists make sure that the body of pseudo-evidence for their pseudo-treatments is growing at a steady pace.
Realgar, a commonly used traditional Chinese medicine, has – according to the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) – acrid, bitter, warm, and toxic characteristics and is affiliated with the Heart, Liver and Stomach meridians. It is used internally against intestinal parasites and treat sore throats, and is applied externally to treat swelling, abscesses, itching, rashes, and other skin disorders.
Chemically, it is nothing other than arsenic sulphide. Despite its very well-known toxicity, is thought by TCM-practitioners to be safe, and it has been used in TCM under the name ‘Xiong Huang’ for many centuries. TCM-practitioners advise that the typical internal dose of realgar is between 0.2 and 0.4 grams, decocted in water and taken up to two times per day. Some practitioners may recommend slightly higher doses (0.3-0.9 grams). Larger doses of realgar may be used if it is being applied topically.
Toxicologists from Taiwan report a case of fatal realgar poisoning after short-term use of a topical realgar-containing herbal medicine.
A 24-year-old man with atopic dermatitis had received 18 days of oral herbal medicine and realgar-containing herbal ointments over whole body from a TCM-practitioner. Seven days later, he started to develop loss of appetite, dizziness, abdominal discomfort, an itching rash and skin scaling. Subsequently he suffered generalized oedema, nausea, vomiting, decreased urine amount, diarrhoea, vesico-oedematous exanthemas, malodorous perspiration, fever, and shortness of breath.
He was taken to hospital on day 19 when the dyspnoea became worse. Toxic epidermal necrolysis complicated with soft tissue infection and sepsis were then diagnosed. The patient died shortly afterwards of septic shock and multiple organ failure. Post-mortem blood arsenic levels were elevated at 1225 μg/L. The analysis of the patient’s herbal remedies yielded a very high concentration of arsenic in three unlabelled realgar-containing ointments (45427, 5512, and 4229 ppm).
The authors of this report concluded that realgar-containing herbal remedy may cause severe cutaneous adverse reactions. The arsenic in realgar can be absorbed systemically from repeated application to non-intact skin and thus should not be extensively used on compromised skin.
The notion that a treatment that ‘has stood the test of time’ must be safe and effective is very wide-spread in alternative medicine. This, we often hear, applies particularly to the external use of traditional remedies – what can be wrong with putting a traditional Chinese herbal cream on the skin?? This case, like so many others, should teach us that this appeal to tradition is a classical and often dangerous fallacy. And the ‘realgar-story’ also suggests that, in TCM, the ‘learning-curve’ is very flat indeed.
Chinese and Ayurvedic remedies are often contaminated with toxic heavy metals. But the bigger danger seems to be that some of these traditional ‘medicines’ contain such toxins because, according to ‘traditional wisdom’, these constituents have curative powers. I think that, until we have compelling evidence that any of these treatments do more good than harm, we should avoid taking them.
Upper spinal manipulation, the signature-treatment of many chiropractors is by no means free of serious risks. Most chiropractors negate this, but can any reasonable person deny it? Neurosurgeons from New York have just published an interesting case-report in this context:
A 45 year old male with presented to his internist with a two-week history of right sided neck pain and tenderness, accompanied by tingling in the hand. The internists’ neurological examination revealed nothing abnormal, except for a decreased range of motion of the right arm. He referred the patient to a chiropractor who performed plain X-rays which apparently showed “mild spasm” (how anyone can see spasm on an X-ray is beyond me!). No magnetic resonance imaging study was done.
The chiropractor proceeded manipulating the patient’s neck on two successive days. By the morning of the third visit, the patient reported extreme pain and difficulty walking. Without performing a new neurological examination or obtaining a magnetic resonance study, the chiropractor manipulated the patient’s neck for a third time.
Thereafter, the patient immediately became quadriplegic. Despite undergoing an emergency C5 C6 anterior cervical diskectomy/fusion to address a massive disc found on the magnetic resonance scan, the patient remained quadriplegic. There seemed to be very little doubt that the quadriplegia was caused by the chiropractic spinal manipulation.
The authors of this report also argue that a major point of negligence in this case was the failure of both the referring internist and chiropractor to order a magnetic resonance study of the cervical spine prior to the chiropractic manipulations. In his defence, the internist claimed that there was no known report of permanent quadriplegia resulting from neck manipulation in any medical journal, article or book, or in any literature of any kind or on the internet. Even the quickest of literature searches discloses this assumption to be wrong. The first such case seems to have been published as early as 1957. Since then, numerous similar reports have been documented in the medical literature.
The internist furthermore claimed that the risk of this injury must be vanishingly small given the large numbers of manipulations performed annually. As we have pointed out repeatedly, this argument is pure speculation; under-reporting of such cases is huge, and therefore exact incidence figures are anybody’s guess.
The patient sued both the internist and the chiropractor, and the total amount of the verdict was $14,596,000.00 the internist’s liability was 5% ($759,181.65).