Having just finished reading an ‘satirical esothriller’ entitled ‘VIER FRAUEN UND EIN SCHARLATAN’ (it’s a good book but it’s in German, I’m afraid), I have been thinking more than usual about charlatans. A charlatan is defined as a person who falsely pretends to know or be something in order to deceive people. In the book, the charlatan character is deliberately exaggerated as a dishonest, immoral crook. I have met such people; in fact, I have met plenty of such people in alternative medicine. But I have to admit that, in my experience, there are other charlatans too; in particular, I am talking of ‘honest’ quacks who pretend to know while also being utterly convinced to know.
Come to think of the categories of charlatans, I think the matter is really quite simple: as far as I can see, in alternative medicine, there are essentially just two types.
This type of charlatan is the one we think of first when we mention the term. He (usually it’s a male) has a range of remarkable features:
- he is dishonest;
- he is entirely rational;
- he knows about evidence and has prepared all the necessary pseudo-arguments to belittle science vis a vis his followers;
- he is only interested in himself;
- he is immoral;
- he wants to make money;
- he employs all the means available to achieve his aims, including PR, advertising, branding, merchandising etc.
- he does not believe in his ‘message’;
- he systematically studies and exploits his target group;
- he does not live by his own rules;
- when he is implicated in harming a patient, he consults his lawyers;
- he is cynical;
- his ‘charisma’, if he has any, is well-studied and extensively rehearsed;
- when challenged, he sues.
This type is very different from the crook and would be deeply shocked by the crook’s behaviour and attitude. She (often it is a female) can be described as follows:
- she is convinced to be profoundly honest;
- she is deluded, often to the point of madness;
- she ignores the evidence totally and argues that science is just one of several ways of knowing;
- she feels altruistic;
- she thinks she is on the moral high ground;
- she is not primarily out to make money and might even offer her services for free;
- she does not seek fame;
- she is religiously convinced of the correctness of her message and wants to save mankind through it;
- her message is for everyone;
- she strictly adheres to her own gospel and thinks that those who don’t are traitors;
- when she is implicated in causing harm, she consults her ueber-guru;
- she abhors cynicism;
- her charisma, if she has any, is real and a powerful tool for convincing followers;
- when challenged, she feels hurt and misunderstood.
As I indicated already, this is a SIMPLE classification. Between the two extremes, there are all shades of grey. In fact, it is a continuous spectrum.
Why should any of this be important?
Charlatans of both types cause immeasurable harm, and it is impossible to decide which type is more dangerous. Our aim must be to prevent or minimise the harm they do. I think, this aim can best be pursued, if we know who we are dealing with. Identifying where precisely on the above scale a particular charlatan or quack is situated, might help in the prevention of harm.
Anyone who has read ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’ will know that I stood up for science more than once in my life. In fact, I strongly believe that this is what scientists ought to do, and I frequently get irritated to see that some of my colleagues seem to disagree [if not even we scientists can stick our necks out for science, how can we expect others to do it?]. Being thus convinced, I surprised myself recently when I was invited to do my bid for science – and declined to comply. Here is the story:
On 16 October, I received the following invitation by email out of the blue:
Hi Dr. Ernst,
My name is John Jackson. I am Executive Director of the Adolph Coors Foundation in Denver, the charitable arm of the Coors family (not the brewery).
I would like to invite your participation in a debate on integrative medicine which will be held Sunday evening, March 20, 2016, at the Hyatt Regency in Denver. The debate will be the keynote event of our Pioneers in Health conference. Your debate partner will be Dr. Andrew Weil. As our conference precedes Dr. Weil’s annual Nutrition and Health Conference, we expect excellent attendance of 700-800, possibly more.
The debate topic: “Fad or the Future: Will Integrative Medicine Play a Growing Role in the Future of Health Care?”
If you are willing to join us, we plan the following debate format: Opening statements with responses by each of you, questions put to each other, and responses by each of you to pre-submitted questions from the audience and, finally, closing statements. (Audience participation will be limited to questions submitted via an app, not by microphone.) We intend to invite a prominent journalist/business leader to moderate. Dr. Weil has recommended CNN’s health reporter but this has not been confirmed.
I have read numerous articles you have authored on this website and feel you would offer an excellent counterpoint to Dr. Weil. Indeed, Dr. Weil also feels you would be an ideal debate partner. I have also read your ground rules for debate (on this website). Dr. Weil and our foundation share your insistence on respect and politeness, whether it’s a blog post or a public debate.
In the interest of full disclosure, our foundation funds several institutions which are studying various “alternative” practices, including the recent study of the use of electro-acupuncture for hypertension on which you and others have commented. We have also funded a project involving Dr. Weil and the University of Arizona. You can read more about our interest in integrative medicine and who we fund at www.coorsfoundation.org.
Of course, if you agree to participate, we would cover your travel, meals and lodging expenses and are willing to negotiate a reasonable honoraria.
If you would like to discuss this further by phone, please feel free to give me a call. I can be reached in Denver at 303-388-1636.
Thank you, Dr. Ernst. I look forward to your response.
Adolph Coors Foundation
I have to admit, I was flattered and tempted in equal measure. This could be a great occasion to reach a large US audience and get a few important points across. But, at the same time, I had my doubts, and these doubts grew faster by the minute. There were several hints in this seemingly innocent email to suggest that there was more to this story than a straight forward invitation. Was this a set-up to give integrative medicine more credibility than it deserves?
Being uncertain, I asked several American friends for advice. They all seemed horrified and very strongly advised me not to accept the invitation. But I was still not entirely convinced – even if these people are a bit strange, even if it is a set-up, even if I do not ‘win’ the debate, it might be an interesting experience and I might learn (and earn!) something.
I clearly needed to find out more. I know Andrew Weil, of course, and I had seen him twice before in similar public debates. So I had no illusions that his charisma and slick rhetoric, combined with an audience full of admirers, would win the day. But I did not necessarily mind all that much; it could still be an occasion to make my arguments known and it might turn out to be a fascinating experience.
However, I certainly did not want to lend, through my presence, undue credibility to people or organisations who don’t deserve it. So, what about the organisers? What do the Adolph Coors Foundation stand for, and who are they?
One of my US friends alerted me to an eye-opening website. Other websites were even less complimentary and mentioned homophobic, racist, and anti-labor practices in relation to the funders. This made up my mind, and I wrote the following response to Jackson’s invitation:
Dear Mr Jackson,
as you may know, I do like a challenge. Therefore I was very tempted to accept your offer to debate with Andrew.
On second thought, however, I developed doubts that the event outlined in your email can be a fair debate of the issues around integrative medicine. The audience gathered for Andrew’s conference would be entirely on the side of their ‘guru’, and even the moderator would be Andrew’s choice. It is notoriously problematic to discuss scientific evidence with quasi-religious believers pretending facts were a matter of opinion.
I fear that a life debate in Denver would be akin to a discussion between an evolutionary scientist and a crowd of rampant creationists.
Since you know my blog, I suggest we conduct such a debate in writing there. This would have the advantage of a much wider, more diverse audience and provide the opportunity to check the evidence for any claims made by the discussants.
Meanwhile, I thank you for this invitation but, unless you can convince me that my fears are unfounded, I have to decline.
I was not at all sure whether to expect a response. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised that, on 25 October, the following email reached me:
Thank you for your response to our invitation. I apologize for the tardy reply. I have been travelling and generally avoid using my iPhone to respond to important emails. I have been burned once-too-often by the iPhone’s embarrassing auto-INcorrections.
Your hesitation about participating in the debate is totally understandable and, frankly, I would have been surprised if you had NOT asked for more detail.
Dr. Weil certainly does have a substantial following of loyal and passionate followers. And there will be a healthy contingent of them in the audience. Dr. Weil’s team estimates that 200-300 of those attending his Nutrition and Health Conference will also attend our conference, including the debate. That means the remaining attendees (400-500) will be those who sign up through our public portal which will be launched in a few weeks. Our marketing is targeting Colorado’s health community, including medical providers. We also expect our conference cosponsor, Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF), to attract attendees through their outreach efforts. AFPF is a grassroots organization that has virtually nothing to do with any kind of medicine, conventional or integrative. AFPF’s interest is promoting innovations in the delivery of health care (more health care choice) which will be the focus of a panel earlier in the day. For what it is worth, you are more than welcome to encourage your readers to attend. We plan to keep the conference fee very low (somewhere between $25 and $50), a figure that does not even cover the food and beverage costs. So, while I cannot guarantee applause for your debate points, I believe you will find our audience open to a wide range of perspectives on the future of integrative medicine.
With regard to the debate format and moderator, we believe the format is conducive to a healthy exchange of ideas. You both make opening statements, you both respond to each other’s opening statements, you ask each other questions, you both answer questions from the moderator and the audience and you both will be given equal time to offer closing statements. Our foundation — not Dr. Weil — will select the moderator. He recommended a health writer at CNN although he has not provided a specific name. If you want to suggest a name, please feel free. We may or may not choose a moderator that either of you recommend.
Long story short, the Coors Foundation shares your interest in having a robust debate on this topic. That is exactly why we tendered the invitation to you. We hope that you will reconsider your initial declination. Since we are nearing the date at which we will launch our registration portal and agenda, we respectfully request a response at your earliest possible convenience. If we have not heard from you by Wednesday, October 28, we will assume your initial decision stands and will extend the invitation to our second choice.
Thank you Dr. Ernst. We look forward to your reply.
Adolph Coors Foundation
I found it impossible to be convinced by Jackson’s arguments; on the contrary, some of my suspicions were confirmed, and I did a little further research – this time on the ‘Americans for Prosperity Foundation’. I found numerous websites about them and even a Wikipedia page. What I learnt in the course of my inquiries made my alarm bells ring loud and clear. I decided to sleep over it and then sent this email as my final response:
Dear Mr Jackson,
I am afraid your second email did not manage to change my mind.
It was important for me to learn about the co-sponsor of the event. I did some research on both your and the co-sponsoring organisations and found that I share virtually none of their views. I am reluctant to give credibility through my presence in Denver to two prominent right wing lobby groups.
Furthermore I am not at all convinced that the event is designed to generate a balanced debate. On the contrary, by your description of it, I might even fear for my personal safety after presenting facts which contradict or deride the opinions of large parts of the audience, the organisers and Dr Weil.
Lastly I am still convinced that factual issues around integrative medicine cannot be debated fruitfully by pretending they are merely matters of opinion. A debate in writing, where all the arguments can be checked for their evidential basis, would surely be much preferable. I find it regrettable that you do not even comment on my offer to conduct such a debate on my blog. The offer, however, still stands.
I thank you again for inviting me. I do like to stand up for science but, in this particular instance, I fear the costs would be too high.
So far, I have not had a reply, and I do not expect to receive one soon.
The whole affair is little more than a triviality, of course. Yet it raises at least two important questions, I think:
- Should we stand up for science wherever we can, or is the price occasionally simply too high?
- What are these mysterious links between alternative medicine in the US and the far right?
I would be most interested to hear your views.
I am probably more used to nonsensical statements by promoters of alternative medicine than the average person. But the ‘ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE ZONE’ just broke my BS-meter. Here are a few samples from their most remarkable website, all relating to homeopathy:
There has always been a debate whether allopathic treatment methods of the modern age are more beneficial or are the natural homeopathic treatment ways more reliable. The goal of healing the sick is the same in both these groups of treatment, but there is a strong contrast in the methods use, the ideology behind the treatment and the detailed theories. The following is a detailed comparison between homeopathy and Allopathy for those who wish to pick between the two:
Allopathic practitioners aim to target that part of the body that has been affected by a problem or disease and they do so by identifying the causing agent. On the other hand, in Homeopathy, doctors believe that emotional stress or psychological reasons make the body more susceptible to diseases and use more of a holistic approach of treatment.
Allopathic doctors make use of those medications which are produced by pharma companies or are man-made. On the other hand, Homeopathy uses natural supplements and cures such as herbs, dietary changes and other such ways to cure a disease. Allopathic doctors use an aggressive approach whereas homeopathic doctors consider one dose enough to treat a disease.
While on one hand, allopathic doctors consider surgeries to be very important for removal of tumors etc. or correcting problems inside the body, Homeopathic doctors almost never use surgery as a treatment method. Only when certain tissue in the body has become seriously damaged they practice this technique.
Allopathic surgeons heavily rely on surgical procedures in case of serious diseases which cannot be cured by medicines or any other approach. Homeopathic doctors try to treat each and every condition with a natural method or by recommending strong dietary changes.
Homeopathy is basically based on beliefs of German Physician Samuel Hahnemann whereas Allopathic system of treatment or cure of diseases is based on the principles of the ancient Greeks, for example Hippocrates. Allopathic is considered to be regular medicine in many countries such as US but Homeopathy is argued to be a natural and holistic way of cure.
Both these schools of medicine consider the other to be non-beneficial. Homeopathy thinks that allopathic medicines tend to make people even sicker in the long run whereas Allopathy doctors believe that Homeopathy only uses Placebo as its mechanism to cure people. Supporters of both schools are often seen defending their preferred method of treatment.
The ‘ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE ZONE’ also does not shy away from giving concrete medical advice on their website. Two examples will have to suffice:
HOMEOPATHY FOR SHINGLES
Compare to anti-viral medicines, homeopathy has proved more effective for shingles and chicken pox. It offers rapid and successful approach in treating this infection. People with weak immune system are more prone to get shingles. Homeopathy medicines influence the immune system efficiently from within and improve body’s healing capacity. The homeopathy medicines are also capable of defusing pain, discomfort in body due to shingle. It also refrain shingles from spreading.
HOMEOPATHY FOR PILES
The homeopathic treatment is considered much better than surgery because it corrects the problem from the root which is not the case in surgery. Homeopathy is considered very useful in the early cases of piles and can help in complete healing. However as the problem becomes complex, it can only help in the healing of the symptoms.
Both articles finish by giving a list of homeopathic remedies that are recommended for the two conditions.
So there we have it!
My BS-meter has just broken.
Who can I sue?
On this blog, we have already discussed the good news that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is considering whether advertisements for homeopathic products have any evidence to back the numerous claims that are being made for them. A meeting took place on 21 September, and now the first details are emerging.
Michelle Rusk, senior staff attorney in the FTC advertising practices division, said in this public hearing on over-the-counter homeopathic products that advertisements lauding the health benefits of medical products need to be based on competent, reliable, and rigorous scientific support.
“As a general rule, for treatment claims, we expect randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical studies—not in vitro studies, not animal studies, not anecdotal evidence, no matter how compelling it is,” she said. “Second, we expect the studies to be internally valid. That means well-designed, reliably conducted, using procedures accepted in the field of research. It also means that results are not just statistically significant but also strong enough to be clinically meaningful. Third, the evidence has to match the product and the specific claim.”
In the context of any form of health care, such statements would amount to mere platitudes: the fact that we cannot possibly tolerate double standards in medicine is almost too obvious to mention. In the realm of homeopathy, however, these words amount to a revolution!
Could it be that the days of bogus claims for homeopathic products are counted?
Could it be that consumers might soon be protected from unscrupulous entrepreneurs exploiting the vulnerable?
Could it be that, one day, we will have one standard only?
The ‘INTERNATIONAL CHIROPRACTIC PEDIATRIC ASSOCIATION’ (ICPA) is, according to their website, ‘a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance chiropractic by establishing evidence informed practice, supporting excellence in professional skills and delivering educational resources to the public. It fulfills this mission by engaging and serving family chiropractors worldwide through research, training and public education.’
It fulfils its mission by, amongst other things, tweeting links to other pro-chiropractic activities. It is via such a tweet that I recently found the Pathways to Family Wellness (PFW). This is a quarterly print and digital magazine whose mission is to support you and your family’s quest for wellness.
This sounds exciting, I thought, and decided to have a closer look. I found that, according to its website, the magazine ‘collaborates with consciousness leaders, cutting-edge scientists and researchers, families on their conscious path, holistic practitioners and dynamic non-profit organizations to bring the most current insights into wellness to our readers.’
The Executive Editor and Publisher of PFW is Dr. Jeanne Ohm. She has ‘practiced family wellness care since 1981 with her husband, Dr. Tom. They have six children who were all born at home and are living the chiropractic family wellness lifestyle. Ohm is an instructor, author, and innovator. Her passion is: training DC’s with specific techniques for care in pregnancy, birth & infancy, forming national alliances for chiropractors with like-minded perinatal practitioners, empowering mothers to make informed choices, and offering pertinent patient educational materials.’
My suspicion that this is an outlet of chiropractic nonsense is confirmed as I read an article by Bobby Doscher, D.C., N.D. on the subject of chiropractic treatment for children with neurological problems. The article itself is merely promotional and therefore largely irrelevant. But one short passage is interesting nevertheless, I thought:
Chiropractic Based on Scientific Fact
Since its beginning, chiropractic has been based on the scientific fact that the nervous system controls the function of every cell, tissue, organ and system of your body. While the brain is protected by the skull, the spinal cord is more vulnerable, covered by 24 moving vertebrae. When these bones lose their normal motion or position, they can irritate the nervous system. This disrupts the function of the tissues or organs these nerves control; this is called vertebral subluxation complex.
I thought this was as revealing as it was hilarious. Since such nonsensical notions are ubiquitous in the chiropractic literature, I am tempted to conclude that most chiropractors believe this sort of thing themselves. This makes them perhaps more honest but also more of a threat: sincere conviction renders a quack not less but more dangerous.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against systematic reviews. Quite to the contrary, I am sure they are an important source of information for patients, doctors, scientists, policy makers and others – after all, I have published more than 300 of such papers!
Having said that, I do dislike a certain type of systematic review, namely systematic reviews by Chinese authors evaluating TCM therapies and arriving at misleading conclusions. Such papers are currently swamping the marked.
At first glance, they look fine. On closer scrutiny, however, most turn out to be stereotypically useless, boring and promotional. The type of article I mean starts by stating its objective which usually is to evaluate the evidence for a traditional Chinese therapy as a treatment of a condition which few people in their right mind would treat with any form of TCM. It continues with details about the methodologies employed and then, in the results section, informs the reader that x studies were included in the review which mostly reported encouraging results but were wide open to bias. And then comes the crucial bit: THE CONCLUSIONS.
They are as predictable as they are misleading. let me give you two examples only published in the last few days.
The first review drew the following conclusions: This systematic review suggests that Chinese Herbal Medicine as an adjunctive therapy can improve cognitive impairment and enhance immediate response and quality of life in Senile Vascular Dementia patients. However, because of limitations of methodological quality in the included studies, further research of rigorous design is needed.
The second review concluded that the evidence that external application of traditional Chinese medicine is an effective treatment for venous ulcers is encouraging, but not conclusive due to the low methodological quality of the RCTs. Therefore, more high-quality RCTs with larger sample sizes are required.
Why does that sort of thing frustrate me so much? Because it is utterly meaningless and potentially harmful:
- I don’t know what treatments the authors are talking about.
- Even if I managed to dig deeper, I cannot get the information because practically all the primary studies are published in obscure journals in Chinese language.
- Even if I did read Chinese, I do not feel motivated to assess the primary studies because we know they are all of very poor quality – too flimsy to bother.
- Even if they were formally of good quality, I would have my doubts about their reliability; remember: 100% of these trials report positive findings!
- Most crucially, I am frustrated because conclusions of this nature are deeply misleading and potentially harmful. They give the impression that there might be ‘something in it’, and that it (whatever ‘it’ might be) could be well worth trying. This may give false hope to patients and can send the rest of us on a wild goose chase.
So, to ease the task of future authors of such papers, I decided give them a text for a proper EVIDENCE-BASED conclusion which they can adapt to fit every review. This will save them time and, more importantly perhaps, it will save everyone who might be tempted to read such futile articles the effort to study them in detail. Here is my suggestion for a conclusion soundly based on the evidence, not matter what TCM subject the review is about:
OUR SYSTEMATIC REVIEW HAS SHOWN THAT THERAPY ‘X’ AS A TREATMENT OF CONDITION ‘Y’ IS CURRENTLY NOT SUPPORTED BY SOUND EVIDENCE.
The search for an effective treatment of obesity is understandably intense. Many scientists are looking in the plant kingdom for a solution, but so far none has been forthcoming – as we have already discussed on this blog before (e. g. here, and here). One herbal slimming aid is currently becoming popular: Yerba Mate also called Ilex paraguariensis, a plant many of us know from teas and other beverages. Our review concluded that the evidence for it was unconvincing but that it merited further study. This was 10 years ago, and meanwhile the evidence has moved on.
The aim of a recent study was to investigate the efficacy of Yerba Mate supplementation in subjects with obesity. For this purpose, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial was conducted. Korean subjects with obesity (body mass index (BMI) ≥ 25 but < 35 kg/m(2) and waist-hip ratio (WHR) ≥ 0.90 for men and ≥ 0.85 for women) were given oral supplements of Yerba Mate capsules (n = 15) or placebos (n = 15) for 12 weeks. They took three capsules per each meal, total three times in a day (3 g/day). Outcome measures were efficacy (abdominal fat distribution, anthropometric parameters and blood lipid profiles) and safety (adverse events, laboratory test results and vital signs).
During 12 weeks of Yerba Mate supplementation, statistically significant decreases in body fat mass and percent body fat compared to the placebo group were noted significant. The WHR was significantly also decreased in the Yerba Mate group compared to the placebo group. No clinically significant changes in any safety parameters were observed.
The authors concluded that Yerba Mate supplementation decreased body fat mass, percent body fat and WHR. Yerba Mate was a potent anti-obesity reagent that did not produce significant adverse effects. These results suggested that Yerba Mate supplementation may be effective for treating obese individuals.
These are encouraging results, but the conclusions go way too far, for my taste. The study was tiny and does therefore not lend itself to far-reaching generalisations. What would be helpful, is a review of other evidence. As it happens, such a paper has just become available. Its authors evaluated the impact of yerba maté on obesity and obesity-related inflammation and demonstrate that yerba maté suppresses adipocyte differentiation as well as triglyceride accumulation and reduces inflammation. Animal studies show that yerba maté modulates signaling pathways that regulate adipogenesis, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and insulin signaling responses.
The review authors concluded that the use of yerba maté might be useful against obesity, improving the lipid parameters in humans and animal models. In addition, yerba maté modulates the expression of genes that are changed in the obese state and restores them to more normal levels of expression. In doing so, it addresses several of the abnormal and disease-causing factors associated with obesity. Protective and ameliorative effects on insulin resistance were also observed… it seems that yerba maté beverages and supplements might be helpful in the battle against obesity.
I am still not fully convinced that this dietary supplement is the solution to the current obesity epidemic. But the evidence is encouraging – more so than for most of the many other ‘natural’ slimming aids that are presently being promoted for this condition by gurus like Dr Oz.
What we needed now is not the ill-informed, self-interested voice of charlatans; what we need is well-designed research to define efficacy, effect size and risks.
Recently an interesting article caught my eye. It was published in the official journal of the ‘Deutscher Zentralverein Homoeopathischer Aerzte’ (the professional body of German doctor homeopath which mostly acts as a lobby group). Unfortunately it is in German – but I will try to take you through what I believe to be the most important issue.
The article seems to have the aim to defame Natalie Grams, the homeopath who had the courage to change her mind about homeopathy and to even write a book about her transformation. This book impressed me so much that I wrote a post about it when it was first published. The book did, however, not impress her ex-colleagues. Consequently the book review by the German lobbyists is full of personal attacks and almost devoid of credible facts.
A central claim of the defamatory piece is that, contrary to what she claims in her book, homeopathy is supported by sound evidence. Here is the crucial quote: Meta-Analysen von Kleijnen (1991), Linde (1997), Cucherat (2000) und Mathie (2014) [liefern] allesamt positive Ergebnisse zur Wirksamkeit der Homöopathie… This translates as follows: meta-analyses of Kleijnen, Linde, Cucherat and Matie all provide positive results regarding the effectiveness of homeopathy. As this is a claim, we hear ad nauseam whenever we discuss the issue with homeopathy (in the UK, most homeopathic bodies and even the Queen’s homeopath, P Fisher, have issued very similar statements), it may be worth addressing it once and for all.
This paper was the result of an EU-funded project in which I was involved as well; I therefore know about it first hand. The meta-analysis itself is quite odd in that it simply averages the p-values of all the included studies and thus provides a new overall p-value across all trials. As far as I know, this is not an accepted meta-analytic method and seems rather a lazy way of doing the job. The man on our EU committee was its senior author, professor Boissel, who did certainly not present it to us as a positive result for homeopathy (even Peter Fisher who also was a panel member should be able to confirm this). What is more, the published conclusions are not nearly as positive as out lobbyists seem to think: ‘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.’
The meta-analysis by Linde et al seems to be the flag-ship in the homeopathic fleet. For those who don’t know it, here is its abstract in full:
BACKGROUND: Homeopathy seems scientifically implausible, but has widespread use. We aimed to assess whether the clinical effect reported in randomised controlled trials of homeopathic remedies is equivalent to that reported for placebo.
METHODS: We sought studies from computerised bibliographies and contracts with researchers, institutions, manufacturers, individual collectors, homeopathic conference proceedings, and books. We included all languages. Double-blind and/or randomised placebo-controlled trials of clinical conditions were considered. Our review of 185 trials identified 119 that met the inclusion criteria. 89 had adequate data for meta-analysis, and two sets of trial were used to assess reproducibility. Two reviewers assessed study quality with two scales and extracted data for information on clinical condition, homeopathy type, dilution, “remedy”, population, and outcomes.
FINDINGS: The combined odds ratio for the 89 studies entered into the main meta-analysis was 2.45 (95% CI 2.05, 2.93) in favour of homeopathy. The odds ratio for the 26 good-quality studies was 1.66 (1.33, 2.08), and that corrected for publication bias was 1.78 (1.03, 3.10). Four studies on the effects of a single remedy on seasonal allergies had a pooled odds ratio for ocular symptoms at 4 weeks of 2.03 (1.51, 2.74). Five studies on postoperative ileus had a pooled mean effect-size-difference of -0.22 standard deviations (95% CI -0.36, -0.09) for flatus, and -0.18 SDs (-0.33, -0.03) for stool (both p < 0.05).
INTERPRETATION: The results of our meta-analysis are not compatible with the hypothesis that the clinical effects of homeopathy are completely due to placebo. However, we found insufficient evidence from these studies that homeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition. Further research on homeopathy is warranted provided it is rigorous and systematic.
Again, the conclusions are not nearly as strongly in favour of homeopaths as the German lobby group assumes. Moreover, this paper has been extensively criticised for a wide range of reasons which I shall not have to repeat here. However, one point is often over-looked: this is not an assessment of RCTs, it is an analysis of studies which were double-blind and/or randomised and placebo-controlled. This means that it includes trials that were not randomised and studies that were not double-blind.
But this is just by the way. What seems much more important is the fact that, in response to the plethora of criticism to their article, the same authors published a re-analysis of exactly the same data-set two years later. Having considered the caveats and limitations more carefully, they now concluded that ‘in the study set investigated, there was clear evidence that studies with better methodological quality tended to yield less positive results.’
It is most intriguing to see how homeopaths cite their ‘flagship’ on virtually every possible occasion, while forgetting that a quasi correction has been published which puts the prior conclusions in a very different light !
The much-cited article by Kleijnen is now far too old to be truly relevant. It includes not even half of the trials available today. But, for what it’s worth, here are Kleijnen’s conclusions: At the moment the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias. This indicates that there is a legitimate case for further evaluation of homoeopathy, but only by means of well performed trials.
If the homeopathy lobby today proclaims that this paper constitutes proof of efficacy, they are in my view deliberately misleading the public.
The Mathie meta-analysis has been extensively discussed on this blog (see here and here). It is not an overall meta-analysis but merely evaluates the subset of those trials that employed individualised homeopathy. Crucially, it omits the two most rigorous studies which happen to be negative. Its conclusions are as follows: ‘Medicines prescribed in individualised homeopathy may have small, specific treatment effects. Findings are consistent with sub-group data available in a previous ‘global’ systematic review. The low or unclear overall quality of the evidence prompts caution in interpreting the findings. New high-quality RCT research is necessary to enable more decisive interpretation.’
Again, I would suggest that anyone who interprets this as stating that this provides ‘positive results regarding the effectiveness of homeopathy’ is not telling the truth.
MY CONCLUSIONS FROM ALL THIS:
- Some systematic reviews and meta-analyses do indeed suggest that the trial data are positive. However, they all caution that such a result might be false-positive.
- None of these papers provide anything near a proof for the effectiveness of homeopathy.
- Homeopathy has not been shown to be more than a placebo therapy.
- To issue statements to the contrary is dishonest.
If you start reading the literature on chiropractic, you are bound to have surprises. The paucity of rigorous and meaningful research is one of them. I am constantly on the look-out for such papers but am regularly frustrated. Over the years, I got the impression that chiropractors tend to view research as an exercise in promotion – that is promotion of their very own trade.
Take this article, for instance. It seems to be a systematic review of chiropractic for breastfeeding. This is an interesting indication; remember: in 1998, Simon Singh wrote in the Guardian this comment “The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.” As a consequence, he got sued for libel; he won, of course, but ever since, chiropractors across the world are trying to pretend that there is some evidence for their treatments after all.
The authors of the new review searched Pubmed [1966-2013], Manual, Alternative and Natural Therapy Index System (MANTIS) [1964-2013] and Index to Chiropractic Literature [1984-2013] for the relevant literature. The search terms utilized “breastfeeding”, “breast feeding”, “breastfeeding difficulties”, “breastfeeding difficulty”, “TMJ dysfunction”, “temporomandibular joint”, “birth trauma” and “infants”, in the appropriate Boolean combinations. They also examined non-peer-reviewed articles as revealed by Index to Chiropractic Literature and conducted a secondary analysis of references. Inclusion criteria for their review included all papers on breastfeeding difficulties regardless of peer-review. Articles were excluded if they were not written in the English language.
The following articles met the inclusion criteria: 8 case reports, 2 case series, 3 cohort studies and 6 manuscripts (5 case reports and a case series) that involved breastfeeding difficulties as a secondary complaint. The findings revealed a “theoretical and clinical framework based on the detection of spinal and extraspinal subluxations involving the cervico-cranio-mandibular complex and assessment of the infant while breastfeeding.”
Based on these results, the authors concluded that chiropractors care of infants with breastfeeding difficulties by addressing spinal and extraspinal subluxations involving the cervico-cranio-mandibular complex.
Have I promised too much?
I had thought that chiropractors had abandoned the subluxation nonsense! Not really, it seems.
I had thought that systematic reviews are about evidence of therapeutic effectiveness! Not in the weird world of chiropractic.
I would have thought that we all knew that ‘chiropractors care of infants with breastfeeding difficulties’ and do not need a review to confirm it! Yes, but what is good for business deserves another meaningless paper.
I would have thought that the conclusions of scientific articles need to be appropriate and based on the data provided! It seems that, in the realm of chiropractic, these rules do not apply.
An appropriate conclusion should have stated something like THERE IS NO GOOD EVIDENCE THAT CHIROPRACTIC CARE AIDS BREASTFEEDING. But that would have been entirely inappropriate from the chiropractic point of view because it is not a conclusion that promotes the sort of quackery most chiropractors rely upon for a living. And the concern over income is surely more important than telling the truth!
An Indian chain of homeopathic clinics, Dr Batra’s, has just opened its first branch in London. The new website is impressive. It claims homeopathy is effective for the following conditions:
Hair loss? Are they serious? Have they not seen pictures of Samuel Hahnemann?
I decided to look into the psoriasis claim a little closer. This is what they state regarding the homeopathic treatment of psoriasis:
Research-based evidences speak clear and loud of the success of homeopathy in treating psoriasis.
A study published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, a conventional medical Journal, showed that psoriasis patients experienced significant improvement in their quality of life and reduction in their psoriasis symptoms with homeopathy. And this was without any kind of side-effects whatsoever. Of the 82 patients involved in the study that went on for 2 years, many had suffered psoriasis for as long as 15 years and had previously unsuccessfully tried conventional treatments.
At Dr. Batra’s we have successfully treated more than 25,000 cases of psoriasis with homeopathy over the last 35 years. Our safe and scientific solutions have brought smiles to many suffering patients of psoriasis. In fact, a study conducted by A.C. Nielson showed that as compared to general practitioners, specialists and local homeopaths, a higher than average improvement is seen at Dr. Batra’s in treatment of skin ailments.
To the reader who does not look deeper, this may sound fairly convincing. Sadly, it is not. The first study cited above was an uncontrolled trial. Here is its abstract:
Design Prospective multicentre observational study. Objective To evaluate details and effects of homeopathic treatment in patients with psoriasis in usual medical care. Methods Primary care patients were evaluated over 2 years using standardized questionnaires, recording diagnoses and complaints severity, health-related quality of life (QoL), medical history, consultations, all treatments, and use of other health services. Results Forty-five physicians treated 82 adults, 51.2% women, aged 41.6 +/- 12.2 (mean +/- SD) years. Patients had psoriasis for 14.7 +/- 11.9 years; 96.3% had been treated before. Initial case taking took 127 +/- 47 min. The 7.4 +/- 7.4 subsequent consultations (duration: 19.4 +/- 10.5 min) cumulated to 169.0 +/- 138.8 min. Patients received 6.0 +/- 4.9 homeopathic prescriptions. Diagnoses and complaints severity improved markedly with large effect sizes (Cohen’s d= 1.02-2.09). In addition, QoL improved (SF-36 physical component score d = 0.26, mental component score d = 0.49), while conventional treatment and health service use were considerably reduced. Conclusions Under classical homeopathic treatment, patients with psoriasis improved in symptoms and QoL.
It is clear that, due to the lack of a control group, no causal inference can be made between the treatment and the outcome. To claim that otherwise is in my view bogus.
I should mention that there is not a single controlled clinical trial of homeopathy for psoriasis that would support the claim that it is effective.
The second study is not listed in Medline. In fact, the only publication of an author by the name of ‘A C Nielson’ is entitled ‘Are men more intuitive when it comes to eating and physical activity?’. Until I see the evidence, I very much doubt that the study cited above produced strong evidence that homeopathy is an effective cure for psoriasis.
Dr Batra’s chain of clinics boasts to provide the best quality and the highest standards of services that percolate down to all levels in an organisation. Everyone in the institute and those associated with it strive for excellence in whatever they do. Measuring the degree of customer satisfaction was the fundamental concept on which this homeopathic institute’s commitment to become a patient-driven institution was built.
Nice words! SHAME THAT THEY HAVE DECIDED TO DILUTE THEIR TRUTH HOMEOPATHICALLY!