MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

charlatan

Do you think that chiropractic is effective for asthma? I don’t – in fact, I know it isn’t because, in 2009, I have published a systematic review of the available RCTs which showed quite clearly that the best evidence suggested chiropractic was ineffective for that condition.

But this is clearly not true, might some enthusiasts reply. What is more, they can even refer to a 2010 systematic review which indicates that chiropractic is effective; its conclusions speak a very clear language: …the eight retrieved studies indicated that chiropractic care showed improvements in subjective measures and, to a lesser degree objective measures… How on earth can this be?

I would not be surprised, if chiropractors claimed the discrepancy is due to the fact that Prof Ernst is biased. Others might point out that the more recent review includes more studies and thus ought to be more reliable. The newer review does, in fact, have about twice the number of studies than mine.

How come? Were plenty of new RCTs published during the 12 months that lay between the two publications? The answer is NO. But why then the discrepant conclusions?

The answer is much less puzzling than you might think. The ‘alchemists of alternative medicine’ regularly succeed in smuggling non-evidence into such reviews in order to beautify the overall picture and confirm their wishful thinking. The case of chiropractic for asthma does by no means stand alone, but it is a classic example of how we are being misled by charlatans.

Anyone who reads the full text of the two reviews mentioned above will find that they do, in fact, include exactly the same amount of RCTs. The reason why they arrive at different conclusions is simple: the enthusiasts’ review added NON-EVIDENCE to the existing RCTs. To be precise, the authors included one case series, one case study, one survey, two randomized controlled trials (RCTs), one randomized patient and observer blinded cross-over trial, one single blind cross study design, and one self-reported impairment questionnaire.

Now, there is nothing wrong with case reports, case series, or surveys – except THEY TELL US NOTHING ABOUT EFFECTIVENESS. I would bet my last shirt that the authors know all of that; yet they make fairly firm and positive conclusions about effectiveness. As the RCT-results collectively happen to be negative, they even pretend that case reports etc. outweigh the findings of RCTs.

And why do they do that? Because they are interested in the truth, or because they don’t mind using alchemy in order to mislead us? Your guess is as good as mine.

Systematic reviews are widely considered to be the most reliable type of evidence for judging the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions. Such reviews should be focused on a well-defined research question and identify, critically appraise and synthesize the totality of the high quality research evidence relevant to that question. Often it is possible to pool the data from individual studies and thus create a new numerical result of the existing evidence; in this case, we speak of a meta-analysis, a sub-category of systematic reviews.

One strength of systematic review is that they minimise selection and random biases by considering at the totality of the evidence of a pre-defined nature and quality. A crucial precondition, however, is that the quality of the primary studies is critically assessed. If this is done well, the researchers will usually be able to determine how robust any given result is, and whether high quality trials generate similar findings as those of lower quality. If there is a discrepancy between findings from rigorous and flimsy studies, it is obviously advisable to trust the former and discard the latter.

And this is where systematic reviews of alternative treatments can run into difficulties. For any given research question in this area we usually have a paucity of primary studies. Equally important is the fact that many of the available trials tend to be of low quality. Consequently, there often is a lack of high quality studies, and this makes it all the more important to include a robust critical evaluation of the primary data. Not doing so would render the overall result of the review less than reliable – in fact, such a paper would not qualify as a systematic review at all; it would be a pseudo-systematic review, i.e. a review which pretends to be systematic but, in fact, is not. Such papers are a menace in that they can seriously mislead us, particularly if we are not familiar with the essential requirements for a reliable review.

This is precisely where some promoters of bogus treatments seem to see their opportunity of making their unproven therapy look as though it was evidence-based. Pseudo-systematic reviews can be manipulated to yield a desired outcome. In my last post, I have shown that this can be done by including treatments which are effective so that an ineffective therapy appears effective (“chiropractic is so much more than just spinal manipulation”). An even simpler method is to exclude some of the studies that contradict one’s belief from the review. Obviously, the review would then not comprise the totality of the available evidence. But, unless the reader bothers to do a considerable amount of research, he/she would be highly unlikely to notice. All one needs to do is to smuggle the paper past the peer-review process – hardly a difficult task, given the plethora of alternative medicine journals that bend over backwards to publish any rubbish as long as it promotes alternative medicine.

Alternatively (or in addition) one can save oneself a lot of work and omit the process of critically evaluating the primary studies. This method is increasingly popular in alternative medicine. It is a fool-proof method of generating a false-positive overall result. As poor quality trials have a tendency to deliver false-positive results, it is obvious that a predominance of flimsy studies must create a false-positive result.

A particularly notorious example of a pseudo-systematic review that used this as well as most of the other tricks for misleading the reader is the famous ‘systematic’ review by Bronfort et al. It was commissioned by the UK GENERAL CHIROPRACTIC COUNCIL after the chiropractic profession got into trouble and was keen to defend those bogus treatments disclosed by Simon Singh. Bronfort and his colleagues thus swiftly published (of course, in a chiro-journal) an all-encompassing review attempting to show that, at least for some conditions, chiropractic was effective. Its lengthy conclusions seemed encouraging: Spinal manipulation/mobilization is effective in adults for: acute, subacute, and chronic low back pain; migraine and cervicogenic headache; cervicogenic dizziness; manipulation/mobilization is effective for several extremity joint conditions; and thoracic manipulation/mobilization is effective for acute/subacute neck pain. The evidence is inconclusive for cervical manipulation/mobilization alone for neck pain of any duration, and for manipulation/mobilization for mid back pain, sciatica, tension-type headache, coccydynia, temporomandibular joint disorders, fibromyalgia, premenstrual syndrome, and pneumonia in older adults. Spinal manipulation is not effective for asthma and dysmenorrhea when compared to sham manipulation, or for Stage 1 hypertension when added to an antihypertensive diet. In children, the evidence is inconclusive regarding the effectiveness for otitis media and enuresis, and it is not effective for infantile colic and asthma when compared to sham manipulation. Massage is effective in adults for chronic low back pain and chronic neck pain. The evidence is inconclusive for knee osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain syndrome, migraine headache, and premenstrual syndrome. In children, the evidence is inconclusive for asthma and infantile colic. 

Chiropractors across the world cite this paper as evidence that chiropractic has at least some evidence base. What they omit to tell us (perhaps because they do not appreciate it themselves) is the fact that Bronfort et al

  • failed to formulate a focussed research question,
  • invented his own categories of inconclusive findings,
  • included all sorts of studies which had nothing to do with chiropractic,
  • and did not to make an assessment of the quality of the included primary studies they included in their review.

If, for a certain condition, three trials were included, for instance, two of which were positive but of poor quality and one was negative but of good quality, the authors would conclude that, overall, there is sound evidence.

Bronfort himself is, of course, more than likely to know all that (he has learnt his trade with an excellent Dutch research team and published several high quality reviews) – but his readers mostly don’t. And for chiropractors, this ‘systematic’ review is now considered to be the most reliable evidence in their field.

Steve Scrutton is a UK homeopath on a mission; he seems to want to promote homeopathy at all cost – so much so that he recently ran into trouble with the ASA for breaching CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 and 3.3 (Misleading advertising), 3.7 (Substantiation) and 12.1, 12.2 and 12.6 (Medicines, medical devices, health-related products and beauty products). Scrutton happens to be a Director of the ‘ALLIANCE OF REGISTERED HOMEOPATHS’ (ARH) which represents nearly 700 homeopaths in the UK. On one of his websites, he promotes homeopathy as a treatment and prevention for measles:

Many homeopaths feel that it is better for children, who are otherwise healthy, to contract measles naturally. Homeopathy is less concerned with doing this as it has remedies to treat measles, especially if it persists, or become severe.Other homeopaths will use the measles nosode, Morbillinum, for prevention.Homeopaths have been treating measles for over 200 years with success.

The main remedies used for the condition, according to Scrutton, are the following: Aconite, Belladonna, Gelsemium, Euphrasia, Bryonia, Pulsatilla, Kali Bich, Sulphur, Apis Mel or Arsenicum – depending on the exact set of presenting symptoms.

At the very end of this revealing post, Scrutton makes the following statement: To my knowledge, there have been no RCTs conducted on either the prevention or treatment of Measles with Homeopathy. However, homeopaths have been treating Measles safely and effectively since the early 19th Century, and through many serious epidemics throughout the world.

Why would anyone write such dangerous nonsense, particularly in the position of a director of the ARH? There can, in my view be only one answer: he must be seriously deluded and bar any knowledge what sound medical evidence looks like. One of his articles seems to confirm this suspicion; in 2008, Scrutton wrote: What ‘scientific’ medicine does not like about homeopathy is not the lack of an evidence base – it is the ability to help people get well – and perhaps even more important, we can do it safely.

Intriguingly, the ARH has a code of ethics which states that members must not claim or imply, orally or in writing, to be able to cure any named disease and that they should be aware of the extent and limits of their clinical skills.

Could it be that a director of the ARH violates his own code of ethics?

I am sure, we have all heard it hundreds of times: THERE ARE IMPORTANT LINKS BETWEEN OUR DIET AND CERTAIN CANCERS. The evidence for this statement seems fairly compelling. Yet it also is complex and often confusing.

A recent review, for instance, suggested that fruits (particularly citrus) and vegetable consumption may be beneficial in the primary prevention of pancreatic cancer, the consumption of whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk and fortification of whole grains with folate may confer further protection. Red meat, cooked at high temperatures, should be avoided, and replaced with poultry or fish. Total fat should be reduced. The use of curcumin and other flavonoids should be encouraged in the diet. Another equally recent review, however, indicated that there is no conclusive evidence as an independent risk factor for isolated nutrients versus adoption of dietary patterns for cancer risk. Cancer colon risk derived from meat intake is influenced by both total intake and its frequency. The interaction of phenolic compounds on metabolic and signalling pathways seems to exert an inhibitory effect on cell proliferation and tumor metastasis and induces apoptosis in various types of cancer cells, including colon, lung, prostate, hepatocellular or breast cancer. A third recent review concluded that cruciferous vegetable intake protects against cancer of the colon, while a forth review suggested that the Mediterranean dietary pattern and diets composed largely of vegetables, fruit, fish, and soy are associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer. There was no evidence of an association between traditional dietary patterns and risk of breast cancer.

Not least based on these mixed messages from the scientific literature, an entire industry has developed selling uncounted alternative cancer-diets and dietary supplements to desperate patients and consumers. They promise much more than just cancer prevention, in fact, leave little doubt about the notion that cancer might be curable by diet. Here are just a few quotes from the thousands of websites promoting alternative cancer diets:

  • The Ketogenic Diet is believed capable of starving cancer cells to death, and thus capable of restricting tumour development.
  • a more alkaline body makes it difficult for tumors to grow.
  • Budwig diet: This diet was developed by Dr. Johanna Budwig who was nominated for the noble Prize sixth times. The diet is intended as a preventative as well as an alternative cancer treatment.
  • the Gerson Therapy naturally reactivates your body’s magnificent ability to heal itself – with no damaging side effects. This a powerful, natural treatment boosts the body’s own immune system to heal cancer, arthritis, heart disease, allergies, and many other degenerative diseases. Dr. Max Gerson developed the Gerson Therapy in the 1930s, initially as a treatment for his own debilitating migraines, and eventually as a treatment for degenerative diseases such as skin tuberculosis, diabetes and, most famously, cancer.
  • the concept of macrobiotics is much more than an alternative diet for cancer, or any other illness, but rather the ancient Chinese belief that all life, indeed the whole universe, is a balance of two opposing forces Yin and Yang.

Confused? Yes, I do worry how many cancer patients listen to these claims and pin their hopes on one of these diets. But what exactly does the evidence tell us about them?

A German team of researchers evaluated the following alternative cancer-diets: raw vegetables and fruits, alkaline diet, macrobiotics, Gerson’s regime, Budwig’s and low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet. Their extensive searches of the published literature failed to find clinical evidence supporting any of the diets. Furthermore, case reports and pre-clinical data pointed to the potential harm of some of these diets. The authors concluded that considering the lack of evidence of benefits from cancer diets and potential harm by malnutrition, oncologists should engage more in counselling cancer patients on such diets.

In other words, alternative cancer diets – and I mean not just the ones mentioned above, but all of them – are not supported by good evidence for efficacy as a treatment or prevention of any type of cancer. In addition, they might also cause harm.

What follows is obvious: cancer patients should take sound nutritional advice and adopt a healthy general life-style. But they should run a mile as soon as anyone suggests an alternative dietary cure for their disease.

Visceral Manipulation (VM) was developed by the French Osteopath and Physical Therapist Jean-Pierre Barral. According to uncounted Internet-sites, books and other promotional literature, VM is a miracle cure for just about every disease imaginable. On one of his many websites, Barral claims that: Comparative Studies found Visceral Manipulation Beneficial for Various Disorders

Acute Disorders Whiplash Seatbelt Injuries Chest or Abdominal Sports Injuries
Digestive Disorders Bloating and Constipation Nausea and Acid Reflux GERD Swallowing Dysfunctions
Women’s and Men’s Health Issues Chronic Pelvic Pain Endometriosis Fibroids and Cysts Dysmenorrhea Bladder Incontinence Prostate Dysfunction Referred Testicular Pain Effects of Menopause
Emotional Issues Anxiety and Depression Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Musculoskeletal Disorders Somatic-Visceral Interactions Chronic Spinal Dysfunction Headaches and Migraines Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Peripheral Joint Pain Sciatica
Pain Related to Post-operative Scar Tissue Post-infection Scar Tissue Autonomic Mechanisms
Pediatric Issues Constipation and Gastritis Persistent Vomiting Vesicoureteral Reflux Infant Colic

This sounds truly wonderful, and we want to learn more. The text goes on to explain that:

VM assists functional and structural imbalances throughout the body including musculoskeletal, vascular, nervous, urogenital, respiratory, digestive and lymphatic dysfunction. It evaluates and treats the dynamics of motion and suspension in relation to organs, membranes, fascia and ligaments. VM increases proprioceptive communication within the body, thereby revitalizing a person and relieving symptoms of pain, dysfunction, and poor posture.

Fascinating! Sceptics might think that such phraseology is a prime example of pseudo-scientific gobbledegook – but wait:

An integrative approach to evaluation and treatment of a patient requires assessment of the structural relationships between the viscera, and their fascial or ligamentous attachments to the musculoskeletal system. Strains in the connective tissue of the viscera can result from surgical scars, adhesions, illness, posture or injury. Tension patterns form through the fascial network deep within the body, creating a cascade of effects far from their sources for which the body will have to compensate. This creates fixed, abnormal points of tension that the body must move around, and this chronic irritation gives way to functional and structural problems.

Imagine an adhesion around the lungs. It would create a modified axis that demands abnormal accommodations from nearby body structures. For example, the adhesion could alter rib motion, which could then create imbalanced forces on the vertebral column and, with time, possibly develop a dysfunctional relationship with other structures. This scenario highlights just one of hundreds of possible ramifications of a small dysfunction – magnified by thousands of repetitions each day….the sinuvertebral nerves innervate the intervertebral disks and have direct connections with the sympathetic nervous system, which innervates the visceral organs. The sinuvertebral nerves and sympathetic nervous system are linked to the spinal cord, which has connections with the brain. In this way someone with chronic pain can have irritations and facilitated areas not only in the musculoskeletal system (including joints, muscles, fascia, and disks) but also the visceral organs and their connective tissues (including the liver, stomach, gallbladder, intestines and adrenal glands), the peripheral nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system and even the spinal cord and brain….

Visceral Manipulation is based on the specific placement of soft manual forces to encourage the normal mobility, tone and motion of the viscera and their connective tissues. These gentle manipulations can potentially improve the functioning of individual organs, the systems the organs function within, and the structural integrity of the entire body….Visceral Manipulation works only to assist the forces already at work. Because of that, trained therapists can be sure of benefiting the body rather than adding further injury or disorganization.

By now, we are all wondering how Barral was able to dream up this truly fantastic panacea. Reading on, we learn that it was not ‘dreamt up’ at all – it was developed through painstaking research and rigorous science:

Jean-Pierre Barral first became interested in biomechanics while working as a registered physical therapist of the Lung Disease Hospital in Grenoble, France. That’s where he met Dr. Arnaud, a recognized specialist in lung diseases and a master of cadaver dissection. Working with Dr. Arnaud, Barral followed patterns of stress in the tissues of cadavers and studied biomechanics in living subjects. This introduced him to the visceral system, its potential to promote lines of tension within the body, and the notion that tissues have memory. All this was fundamental to his development of Visceral Manipulation. In 1974, Barral earned his diploma in osteopathic medicine from the European School of Osteopathy in Maidstone, England. Working primarily with articular and structural manipulation, he began forming the basis for Visceral Manipulation during an unusual session with a patient he’d been treating with spinal manipulations.

During the preliminary examination, Barral was surprised to find appreciable movement. The patient confirmed that he felt relief from his back pain after going to an “old man who pushed something in his abdomen.”

This incident piqued Barral’s interest in the relationship between the viscera and the spine. That’s when he began exploring stomach manipulations with several patients, with successful results gradually leading him to develop Visceral Manipulation. Between 1975 and 1982, Barral taught spinal biomechanics at England’s European School of Osteopathy. In collaboration with Dr. Jean-Paul Mathieu and Dr. Pierre Mercier, he published Articular Vertebrae Diagnosis.

With all this serious science, we are, of course, keen to learn about the studies of VM published in peer-reviewed journals. Amazingly, there seems to be an acute shortage of that sort of thing. You can buy many books by Barral, but to the best of my knowledge, there are no studies of VM by Barral or anyone else in medical journals. My own searches resulted in precisely zero papers, and Medline returns not a single article of Barral J-P on VM, osteopathy or manipulation.

This is odd, I must say!

Could all this important-sounding scientific (some might say pseudo-scientific) text be a complete fake? Where are the ‘COMPARATIVE STUDIES’ mentioned above? Could it be that VM is nothing more than a rip-off for gullible half-wits?

I really cannot imagine – after all, VM is even being taught at some universities! And one could never make all this up; that would be dishonest!!!

I hope my readers can point me to the proper science of VM and thus put my suspicions to rest.

Continuing on the theme from my previous post, a website of a homeopath (and member of the UK ‘Society of Homeopaths’) caught my attention. In in it, Neil Spence makes a wide range of far-reaching statements. Because they seem rather typical of the claims made by homeopaths, I intent to scrutinize them in this post. For clarity, I put the (unaltered and unabbreviated) text from Neil Spence’s site in italics, while my own comments are in Roman print.

The holistic model of health says all disease comes from a disturbance in the vitality (life force) of the body. The energetic disturbance creates symptoms in the mind, the emotions and the physical body. Each patient has their own store of how this disturbance in vitality came about and each person has individual symptoms.

What is a ‘holistic model of health’, I wonder? Holism in health care means to treat patients as whole individuals which is a hallmark of any good health care; this means that all good medicine is holistic.

Holism and vitalism are two separate things entirely. Vitalism is the obsolete notion of a vital force or energy that determines our health. ‘Disturbances in vitality’ are not the cause of illness.

We will attempt, as far as possible, to treat the whole person and to change the conditions that created your susceptibility to cancer.

Much of the susceptibility to cancer is genetically determined and cannot be altered homeopathically.

Using Homeopathy to treat people with cancer

Homeopathic treatment can help someone with cancer. It can also be helpful for people who have a history of cancer in their family or have cared for a relative or friend with cancer. There are a number of methods of using homeopathic remedies to help people with cancer.

There is no good evidence that homeopathic remedies are effective for cancer patients or their carers.

Constitutional treatment: Treat the person who suffers the illness. A constitutional homeopathic remedy suits your nature as a person and its symptom picture reflects the unique expression of your symptoms. It can arouse the bodyʼs natural ability to heal itself and this can have profound benefits. It is appropriate if your vitality is strong.

There is no evidence that constitutional homeopathic treatments increase the body’s self-healing ability.

Stimulate the immune system to fight cancer: Remedies can be used to help the body fight the cancer, using specific homeopathic remedies called nosodes. A second treatment may be used to support the weakened organ. This method is most useful for people who are not using chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

There is no evidence that nosodes or other homeopathic remedies have any effect on the immune system ( – if they did, they would be contra-indicated for people suffering from auto-immune diseases).

Support the failing organs and the functions of the body that are not working: Remedies can be used to support weakened organs; to help with appetite; to help sleep and to treat sleep disturbances; to reduce the toxic symptoms; to help the body eliminate toxins. These treatments are helpful to people undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

For none of these claims is there good evidence; they are pure fantasy. The notion that homeopathy can help eliminate toxins is so wide-spread that it merits a further comment. It would be easy to measure such a detoxifying effect, but there is no evidence that it exists. Moreover, I would question whether, in the particular situation of a cancer patient on chemotherapy, a hastened elimination of the toxin (= chemotherapeutic agent) would be desirable; it would merely diminish the efficacy of the chemotherapy and reduce the chances of a cure.

Treat the pain: Homeopathic remedies can be very effective in aiding pain control. Remedies such as calendula can be effective in situations of intractable pain. If the cancer is at the terminal stage, remedies can be used to increase the quality of life. These remedies are palliative and can assist the patient keep mentally and emotionally alert so they can have quality time with loved ones.

Where is the evidence? Pain can obviously be a serious problem for cancer patients, and the notion that calendula in homeopathic dilutions reduces pain such that it significantly improves quality of life is laughable. Conventional medicine has powerful drugs to alleviate cancer pain but even they sometimes do not suffice to make patients pain-free.

Homeopathy in conjunction with other therapies

When a patient chooses to use chemotherapy or radiotherapy to treat their cancer the homeopath will prescribe remedies to support the body and ease the side-effects. Remedies can also be very useful after surgery to encourage the body to heal and allow greater mobility at an early stage.

Again no good evidence exists to support these claims – pure fantasy.

Other therapies can complement homeopathy but the homeopath will advise that you do not use every therapy just because they are available. It may be better to choose two or perhaps three main approaches to improving your health and ensure each one has positive effects that suit you very well.

Is he saying that cancer patients are best advised to listen to a homeopath rather than to their oncology-team? Is he encouraging them to not use all possible mainstream options available? If so, he is most irresponsible.

Each person will have different needs. It is always appropriate to change your diet. Nutritional and dietary advice is of the utmost importance to support the bodyʼs healing process. Cancer has many symptoms of disturbed metabolism and a poor diet has often contributed to the disturbance in the body that allowed the cancer to flourish. It is essential to remedy this situation. Nutritional advice puts you back in charge of your body; with good homeopathic treatments this provides the basis for improving your health.

Dietary advice can be useful and is therefore routinely provided by professionals who understand this subject much better than the average homeopath.

CONCLUSION

The thought that some cancer patients might be following such recommendations is most disturbing. Advice of this nature has doubtlessly the potential to significantly shorten the life and decrease the well-being of cancer patients. People who recommend treatments that clearly harm vulnerable patients are charlatans who should not be allowed to treat patients.

Web-sites have become a leading source of information on health matters. This is particularly true in the realm of alternative medicine. Conventional health care professionals often know too little about this subject to advise their patients, and alternative practitioners are usually too biased to be trusted. So many consumers turn to the Internet and hope that it offers information which is reliable. But is it?

American pharmacists published a study evaluating the quality of on-line information on herbal supplements. They conducted a search of 13 common herbals – including black cohosh, echinacea, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, green tea, kava, saw palmetto, and St John’s wort – and reviewed the top 50 Web sites for each using a Google search. Subsequently, they analysed clinical claims, warnings, and other safety information.

A total of 1179 Web sites were examined in this way. Less than 8% of retail sites provided information regarding potential adverse effects, drug interactions, and other safety information; only 10.5% recommended consultation with a healthcare professional. Less than 3% cited scientific literature to support their claims.

The authors’ conclusions were worrying: Key safety information is still lacking from many online sources of herbal information. Certain nonretail site types may be more reliable, but physicians and other healthcare professionals should be aware of the variable quality of these sites to help patients make more informed decisions.

Having conducted my fair share of similar research (e.g. here or here or here or here), I can only concur with these conclusions. When it comes to health care, the Internet is a scary place! In the realm of alternative medicine, it is dominated by people who seem not to care much about anything other than their profits.

But what can be done to change this situation? How can we protect the public from Internet-charlatans? How can one control the Internet? I wish I knew! But there are nevertheless means of directing consumers to those sites which do offer reliable information. Kite-marking high quality sites might be one way of achieving this. This task would, of course, be huge and difficult, but in the interest of public safety, governments and other official institutions should consider tackling it.

A recent interview on alternative medicine for the German magazine DER SPIEGEL prompted well over 500 comments; even though, in the interview, I covered numerous alternative therapies, the discussion that followed focussed almost entirely on homeopathy. Yet again, many of the comments provided a reminder of the quasi-religious faith many people have in homeopathy.

There can, of course, be dozens of reasons for such strong convictions. Yet, in my experience, some seem to be more prevalent and important than others. During my last two decades in researching homeopathy, I think, I have identified several of the most important ones. In this post, I try to outline a typical sequence of events that eventually leads to a faith in homeopathy which is utterly immune to fact and reason.

The epiphany

The starting point of this journey towards homeopathy-worship is usually an impressive personal experience which is often akin to an epiphany (defined as a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization). I have met hundreds of advocates of homeopathy, and those who talk about this sort of thing invariably offer impressive stories about how they metamorphosed from being a ‘sceptic’ (yes, it is truly phenomenal how many believers insist that they started out as sceptics) into someone who was completely bowled over by homeopathy, and how that ‘moment of great revelation’ changed the rest of their lives. Very often, this ‘Saulus-Paulus conversion’ relates to that person’s own (or a close friend’s) illness which allegedly was cured by homeopathy.

Rachel Roberts, chief executive of the Homeopathy Research Institute, provides as good an example of this sort of epiphany as anyone; in an article in THE GUARDIAN, she described her conversion to homeopathy with the following words:

I was a dedicated scientist about to begin a PhD in neuroscience when, out of the blue, homeopathy bit me on the proverbial bottom.

Science had been my passion since I began studying biology with Mr Hopkinson at the age of 11, and by the age of 21, when I attended the dinner party that altered the course of my life, I had still barely heard of it. The idea that I would one day become a homeopath would have seemed ludicrous.

That turning point is etched in my mind. A woman I’d known my entire life told me that a homeopath had successfully treated her when many months of conventional treatment had failed. As a sceptic, I scoffed, but was nonetheless a little intrigued.

She confessed that despite thinking homeopathy was a load of rubbish, she’d finally agreed to an appointment, to stop her daughter nagging. But she was genuinely shocked to find that, after one little pill, within days she felt significantly better. A second tablet, she said, “saw it off completely”.

I admit I ruined that dinner party. I interrogated her about every detail of her diagnosis, previous treatment, time scales, the lot. I thought it through logically – she was intelligent, she wasn’t lying, she had no previous inclination towards alternative medicine, and her reluctance would have diminished any placebo effect.

Scientists are supposed to make unprejudiced observations, then draw conclusions. As I thought about this, I was left with the highly uncomfortable conclusion that homeopathy appeared to have worked. I had to find out more.

So, I started reading about homeopathy, and what I discovered shifted my world for ever. I became convinced enough to hand my coveted PhD studentship over to my best friend and sign on for a three-year, full-time homeopathy training course.

Now, as an experienced homeopath, it is “science” that is biting me on the bottom. I know homeopathy works…

As I said, I have heard many strikingly similar accounts. Some of these tales seem a little too tall to be true and might be a trifle exaggerated, but the consistency of the picture that emerges from all of these stories is nevertheless extraordinary: people get started on a single anecdote which they are prepared to experience as an epiphanic turn-around. Subsequently, they are on a mission of confirming their new-found belief over and over again, until they become undoubting disciples for life.

So what? you might ask. But I do think this epiphany-like event at the outset of a homeopathic career is significant. In no other area of health care does the initial anecdote regularly play such a prominent role. People do not become believers in aspirin, for instance, on the basis of a ‘moment of great revelation’, they may take it because of the evidence. And, if there is a discrepancy between the external evidence and their own experience, as with homeopathy, most people would start to reflect: What other explanations exist to rationalise the anecdote? Invariably, there are many (placebo, natural history of the condition, concomitant events etc.).

Confirmation bias

Epiphany-stuck believers spends much time and effort to actively look for similar stories that seem to confirm the initial anecdote. They might, for instance, recommend or administer or prescribe homeopathy to others, many of whom would report positive outcomes. At the same time, all anecdotes that do not happen to fit the belief are brushed aside, forgotten, supressed, belittled, decried etc. This process leads to confirmation after confirmation after confirmation – and gradually builds up to what proponents of homeopathy would call ‘years of experience’. And ‘years of experience’ can, of course, not be wrong!

Again, believers neglect to question, doubt and rationalise their own perceptions. They ignore the fact that years of experience might just be little more than a suborn insistence on repeating one’s own mistakes. Even the most obvious confounders such as selective memory or alternative causes for positive clinical outcomes are quickly dismissed or not even considered at all.

Avoiding cognitive dissonance at all cost

But believers still has to somehow deal with the scientific facts about homeopathy; and these are, of course, grossly out of line with their belief. Thus the external evidence and the internal belief would inevitably clash creating a shrill cognitive dissonance. This must be avoided at all cost, as it might threaten the believer’s peace of mind. And the solution is amazingly simple: scientific evidence that does not confirm the believer’s conviction is ignored or, when this proves to be impossible, turned upside down.

Rachel Roberts’ account is most enlightening also in this repect:

And yet I keep reading reports in the media saying that homeopathy doesn’t work and that this scientific evidence doesn’t exist.

The facts, it seems, are being ignored. By the end of 2009, 142 randomised control trials (the gold standard in medical research) comparing homeopathy with placebo or conventional treatment had been published in peer-reviewed journals – 74 were able to draw firm conclusions: 63 were positive for homeopathy and 11 were negative. Five major systematic reviews have also been carried out to analyse the balance of evidence from RCTs of homeopathy – four were positive (Kleijnen, J, et al; Linde, K, et al; Linde, K, et al; Cucherat, M, et al) and one was negative (Shang, A et al). It’s usual to get mixed results when you look at a wide range of research results on one subject, and if these results were from trials measuring the efficacy of “normal” conventional drugs, ratios of 63:11 and 4:1 in favour of a treatment working would be considered pretty persuasive.

This statement is, in my view, a classic example of a desperate misinterpretation of the truth as a means of preventing the believer’s house of cards from collapsing. It even makes the hilarious claim that not the believers but the doubters “ignore” the facts.

In order to be able to adhere to her belief, Roberts needs to rely on a woefully biased white-wash from the ‘British Homeopathic Association’. And, in order to be on the safe side, she even quotes it misleadingly. The conclusion of the Cucherat review, for instance, can only be seen as positive by most blinkered of minds: There is some evidence that homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebo; however, the strength of this evidence is low because of the low methodological quality of the trials. Studies of high methodological quality were more likely to be negative than the lower quality studies. Further high quality studies are needed to confirm these results. Contrary to what Roberts states, there are at least a dozen more than 5 systematic reviews of homeopathy; my own systematic review of systematic reviews, for example, concluded that the best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice.

It seems that, at this stage of a believer’s development, the truth gets all too happily sacrificed on the altar of faith. All these ‘ex-sceptics’ turned believers are now able to display is a rather comical parody of scepticism.

The delusional end-stage

The last stage in the career of a believer has been reached when hardly anything that he or she is convinced of resembles reality any longer. I don’t know much about Rachel Roberts, and she might not have reached this point yet; but there are many others who clearly have.

My two favourite examples of end-stage homeopathic delusionists are John Benneth and Dana Ullman. The final stage on the journey from ‘sceptic scientist’ to delusional disciple is characterised by an incessant stream of incoherent statements of vile nonsense that beggars belief. It is therefore easy to recognise and, because nobody can possibly take the delusionists seriously, they are best viewed as relatively harmless contributors to medical comedy.

Why does all of this matter?

Many homeopathy-fans are quasi-religious believers who, in my experience, have degressed way beyond reason. It is therefore a complete waste of time trying to reason with them. Initiated by a highly emotional epiphany, their faith cannot be shaken by rational arguments. Similar but usually less pronounced attitudes, I am afraid, can be observed in true believers of other alternative treatments as well (here I have chosen the example of homeopathy mainly because it is the area where things are most explicit).

True believers claim to have started out as sceptics and they often insist to be driven by a scientific mind. Yet I have never seen any evidence for these assumptions. On the contrary, for a relatively trivial episode to become a life-changing epiphany, the believer’s mind needs to be lamentably unscientific, unquestioning and simple.

In my experience, true believers will not change their mind; I have never seen this happening. However, progress might nevertheless be made, if we managed to instil a more (self-) questioning rationality and scientific attitudes into the minds of the next generations. In other words, we need better education in science and more training of critical thinking during their formative years.

What is ear acupressure?

Proponents claim that ear-acupressure is commonly used by Chinese medicine practitioners… It is like acupuncture but does not use needles. Instead, small round pellets are taped to points on one ear. Ear-acupressure is a non-invasive, painless, low cost therapy and no significant side effects have been reported.

Ok, but does it work?

There is a lot of money being made with the claim that ear acupressure (EAP) is effective, especially for smoking cessation; entrepreneurs sell gadgets for applying the pressure on the ear, and practitioners earn their living through telling their patients that this therapy is helpful. There are hundreds of websites with claims like this one: Auricular therapy (Acupressure therapy of the ear region) has been used successfully for Smoking cessation. Auriculotherapy is thought to be 7 times more powerful than other methods used for smoking cessation; a single auriculotherapy treatment has been shown to reduce smoking from 20 or more cigarettes a day down to 3 to 5 a day.

But what does the evidence show?

This new study investigated the efficacy of EAP as a stand-alone intervention for smoking cessation. Adult smokers were randomised to receive EAP specific for smoking cessation (SSEAP) or a non-specific EAP (NSEAP) intervention, EAP at points not typically used for smoking cessation. Participants received 8 weekly treatments and were requested to press the five pellets taped to one ear at least three times per day. Participants were followed up for three months. The primary outcome measures were a 7-day point-prevalence cessation rate confirmed by exhaled carbon monoxide and relief of nicotine withdrawal symptoms (NWS).

Forty-three adult smokers were randomly assigned to SSEAP (n = 20) or NSEAP (n = 23) groups. The dropout rate was high with 19 participants completing the treatments and 12 remaining at followup. One participant from the SSEAP group had confirmed cessation at week 8 and end of followup (5%), but there was no difference between groups for confirmed cessation or NWS. Adverse events were few and minor.

And is there a systematic review of the totality of the evidence?

Sure, the current Cochrane review arrives at the following conclusion: There is no consistent, bias-free evidence that acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy or electrostimulation are effective for smoking cessation…

So?

Yes, we may well ask! If most TCM practitioners use EAP or acupuncture for smoking cessation telling their customers that it works (and earning good money when doing so), while the evidence fails to show that this is true, what should we say about such behaviour? I don’t know about you, but I find it thoroughly dishonest.

The very first article on chiropractic listed in ‘Medline’ was published 100 years ago in the ‘California State Journal of Medicine’ without the author’s name. It is a beauty! Here I take the liberty of re-publishing it in full.

Some people are really so terribly modest that it is a mystery how they can live, or even be willing to live, in a world so filled with pushing braggarts and rampant commercialism. For example, note the list of things that E. R. Blanchard D.C., (graduate chiropractor), intimates that he can cure:

“Adhesions, anemia, asthma, appendicitis, blood poison, bronchitis, backache, biliousness, catarrh, constipation, chills and fever, diabetes, dropsy, dizziness, drug and alcohol habits, diarrhoea, deafness, eczema, eye diseases, female diseases, gallstones, gravel, goitre, hay fever, indigestion, lumbago, locomotor ataxia, malaria, nervousness, neuralgia, paralysis, piles, pneumonia, rickets, ruptures, rheumatism, St. Vitus’ dance, suppressed or painful menstruation, scrofula, tumors, worms, bed wetting and other child’s diseases, leucorrhoea, or whites, stricture, emissions, impotence and many other diseases.”

This is almost as long a list as that compiled by the wealthy and admired Law brothers in connection with what they say they can cure with the wonderful Viavi, that prize of all fakes!

One hundred years later, it seems to me, not a lot has changed:

A review of 200 chiropractor websites and 9 chiropractic associations’ claims in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States was conducted between. The outcome measure was claims (either direct or indirect) regarding eight reviewed conditions, made in the context of chiropractic treatment. The results demonstrated that 190 (95%) chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims.

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