conflict of interest
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 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.).
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.
For those who know about the subject, this is an old hat, of course. But for many readers of this blog, it might be news: ‘Traditional’ Chinese Medicine (TCM) is not nearly as traditional as it pretends to be. In fact, it is an artefact of recent creation. The man who has been saying that for years is Professor Paul Unschuld, one of the leading sinologist worldwide and an expert who has written many books and journal articles on the subject.
During an interview given in 2004, he defined TCM as “an artificial system of health care ideas and practices generated between 1950 and 1973 by committees in the People’s Republic of China, with the aim of restructuring the vast and heterogenous heritage of Chinese traditional medicine in such a way that it fitted the principles–Marxist Maoist type democracy and modern science and technology on which the future of the PRC was to be built…[the Daoist underpinning for TCM] is incorrect for two reasons. First . . . TCM is a product of Communist China. Second, even if we were to apply the term TCM to pre-revolutionary Chinese medicine, the Daoist impact should be considered minimal.”
In a much more recent interview entitled INVENTION FROM THE FAR EAST which he gave to DER SPIEGEL (in German), he explained this in a little more detail (I have tried to translate his words as literally as possible):
What is being offered in our country to patients as TCM is a construct that was created in China on an office desk which has been altered further on its way to the West.
Already at the beginning of the 20th century, reformers and revolutionaries urged that the traditional medicine in China should be abolished and that the western form of medicine should be introduced instead. Traditional thinking was seen as backwards and it was held responsible for the oppressing superiority of the West. The introduction of Western natural sciences, medicine and technology was also thought later, after the foundation of the People’s Republic, to be essential for rendering the country competitive again. Since the traditional Chinese medicine could not be totally abolished then because it offered a living to many citizens, it was reduced to a kernel, which could be brought just about in line with the scientific orientation of the future communist society. In the 1950s and 60s, an especially appointed commission had been working on this task. The filtrate which they created from the original medical tradition was hence forward to be called TCM vis a vis foreigners.
There is little more to add, I think - perhaps just two brief after-thoughts. TCM is a most lucrative export article for China. So don’t expect Chinese officials to rid TCM of the highly marketable ‘TRADITIONAL’ label. And remember: the ‘appeal to tradition’ argument is a fallacy anyway.
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…
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.
This article was posted a few months ago. Then it mysteriously vanished without a trace; nobody knows quite why or how. Today I found an old draft on my computer, so I post the article again. It might not be identical with the original but it is close enough, I think.
Some time ago, Andy Lewis formulated a notion which he called ‘Ernst’s law’. Initially, I felt this was a bit o.t.t., then it made me chuckle, and eventually it got me thinking: could there be some truth in it, and if so, why?
The ‘law’ stipulates that, if a scientist investigating alternative medicine is much liked by the majority of enthusiasts in this field, the scientist is not doing his/her job properly. In any other area of healthcare, such a ‘law’ would be absurd. Why then does it seem to make sense, at least to some degree, in alternative medicine? The differences between any area of conventional and alternative medicine are diverse and profound.
Take neurology, for instance: here we have an organ-system, anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, etiology and nosology all related more or less specifically to this field and all based on facts, rigorous science and substantial evidence. None of this knowledge, science and evidence is static, but each has evolved and can be predicted to do so in future. What we knew about neurology 50 years ago, for example, was dramatically different from what we know today. Scientific discovery discoveries in neurology link up with the knowledge gathered in other areas of medicine to generate a (more or less) complete bigger picture.
In alternative medicine or any single branch thereof, we have no specific organ-system, anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, etiology or nosology to speak of. We also have few notions that are transferable from one branch of alternative medicine to another – on the contrary, the assumptions of homeopathy, for example, are in overt contradiction to those of acupuncture which, in turn, are out of sync with those of reflexology, aromatherapy and Reiki.
Instead, each branch of alternative medicine has its own axioms that are largely detached from reality or, indeed, from the axioms of other branches of alternative medicine. In acupuncture, for instance, we have concepts such as yin and yang, qi, meridians and acupuncture points, and there is hardly any development of these concepts. This renders them akin to dogmas, and there is no chance in hell that the combination of all the branches of alternative medicine would add up to provide a sensible ‘bigger picture’.
If a scientist were to instill scientific, critical, progressive thought in a field like neurology, thus overthrowing current concepts and assumptions, they would be greeted with open arms among many like-minded researchers who all pursue the aim of advancing their field and contributing to the knowledge base by overturning wrong assumptions and discovering new truths. If researchers were to spend their time trying to analyse the concepts or treatments of alternative medicine, thus overthrowing current concepts and assumptions, they would not only not be appreciated by the majority of the experts working in this field, they would be castigated for their actions.
If a scientist dedicated decades of hard work to the rigorous assessment of alternative medicine, that person would become a thorn in the flesh of believers. Instead of welcoming him with open arms, some disappointed enthusiasts of alternative treatments might even pay for defaming them.
On the other hand, if a researcher merely misused the tools of science to confirm the implausible assumptions of alternative medicine, he would quickly become the celebrated ‘heroes’ of this field.
This is the bizarre phenomenon that ‘Ernst’s law’ seems to capture quite well – and this is why I believe the ‘law’ is worth more than a laugh and a chuckle. In fact, ‘Ernst’s law’ might even describe the depressing reality of retrograde thinking in alternative medicine more accurately than most of us care to admit.
What do my readers feel? Their comments following this blog may well confirm or refute my theory.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is common and often difficult to treat – unless, of course, you consult a homeopath. Here is just one of virtually thousands of quotes from homeopaths available on the Internet: Homeopathic medicine can reduce Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptoms by lowering food sensitivities and allergies. Homeopathy treats the patient as a whole and does not simply focus on the disease. Careful attention is given to the minute details about the presenting complaints, including the severity of diarrhea, constipation, pain, cramps, mucus in the stools, nausea, heartburn, emotional triggers and conventional laboratory findings. In addition, the patient’s eating habits, food preferences, thermal attributes and sleep patterns are noted. The patient’s family history and diseases, along with the patient’s emotions are discussed. Then the homeopathic practitioner will select the remedy that most closely matches the symptoms.
Such optimism might be refreshing, but is there any reason for it? Is homeopathy really an effective treatment for IBS? To answer this question, we now have a brand-new Cochrane review. The aim of this review was to assess the effectiveness and safety of homeopathic treatment for treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). (This type of statement always makes me a little suspicious; how on earth can anyone truly assess the safety of a treatment by looking at a few studies? This is NOT how one evaluates safety!) The authors conducted extensive literature searches to identify all RCTs, cohort and case-control studies that compared homeopathic treatment with placebo, other control treatments, or usual care in adults with IBS. The primary outcome was global improvement in IBS.
Three RCTs with a total of 213 participants were included. No cohort or case-control studies were identified. Two studies compared homeopathic remedies to placebos for constipation-predominant IBS. One study compared individualised homeopathic treatment to usual care defined as high doses of dicyclomine hydrochloride, faecal bulking agents and a high fibre diet. Due to the low quality of reporting, the risk of bias in all three studies was unclear on most criteria and high for some criteria.
A meta-analysis of two studies with a total of 129 participants with constipation-predominant IBS found a statistically significant difference in global improvement between the homeopathic ‘asafoetida’ and placebo at a short-term follow-up of two weeks. Seventy-three per cent of patients in the homeopathy group improved compared to 45% of placebo patients. There was no statistically significant difference in global improvement between the homeopathic asafoetida plus nux vomica compared to placebo. Sixty-eight per cent of patients in the homeopathy group improved compared to 52% of placebo patients.
The overall quality of the evidence was very low. There was no statistically significant difference between individualised homeopathic treatment and usual care for the outcome “feeling unwell”. None of the studies reported on adverse events (which, by the way, should be seen as a breech in research ethics on the part of the authors of the three primary studies).
The authors concluded that a pooled analysis of two small studies suggests a possible benefit for clinical homeopathy, using the remedy asafoetida, over placebo for people with constipation-predominant IBS. These results should be interpreted with caution due to the low quality of reporting in these trials, high or unknown risk of bias, short-term follow-up, and sparse data. One small study found no statistically difference between individualised homeopathy and usual care (defined as high doses of dicyclomine hydrochloride, faecal bulking agents and diet sheets advising a high fibre diet). No conclusions can be drawn from this study due to the low number of participants and the high risk of bias in this trial. In addition, it is likely that usual care has changed since this trial was conducted. Further high quality, adequately powered RCTs are required to assess the efficacy and safety of clinical and individualised homeopathy compared to placebo or usual care.
THIS REVIEW REQUIRES A FEW FURTHER COMMENTS, I THINK
Asafoetida, the remedy used in two of the studies, is a plant native to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. It is used in Ayurvedic herbal medicine to treat colic, intestinal parasites and irritable bowel syndrome. In the ‘homeopathic’ trials, asafoetida was used in relatively low dilutions, one that still contains molecules. It is therefore debatable whether this was really homeopathy or whether it is more akin to herbal medicine - it was certainly not homeopathy with its typical ultra-high dilutions.
Regardless of this detail, the Cochrane review does hardly provide sound evidence for homeopathy’s efficacy. On the contrary, my reading of its findings is that the ‘possible benefit’ is NOT real but a false positive result caused by the serious limitations of the original studies. The authors stress that the apparently positive result ‘should be interpreted with caution’; that is certainly correct.
So, if you are a proponent of homeopathy, as the authors of the review seem to be, you will claim that homeopathy offers ‘possible benefits’ for IBS-sufferers. But if you are not convinced of the merits of homeopathy, you might suggest that the evidence is insufficient to recommend homeopathy. I imagine that IBS-sufferers might get as frustrated with such confusion as most scientists will be. Yet there is hope; the answer could be imminent: apparently, a new trial is to report its results within this year.
IS THIS NEW TRIAL GOING TO CONTRIBUTE MEANINGFULLY TO OUR KNOWLEDGE?
It is a three-armed study (same 1st author as in the Cochrane review) which, according to its authors, seeks to explore the effectiveness of individualised homeopathic treatment plus usual care compared to both an attention control plus usual care and usual care alone, for patients with IBS. (Why “explore” and not “determine”, I ask myself.) Patients are randomly selected to be offered, 5 sessions of homeopathic treatment plus usual care, 5 sessions of supportive listening plus usual care or usual care alone. (“To be offered” looks odd to me; does that mean patients are not blinded to the interventions? Yes, indeed it does.) The primary clinical outcome is the IBS Symptom Severity at 26 weeks. Analysis will be by intention to treat and will compare homeopathic treatment with usual care at 26 weeks as the primary analysis, and homeopathic treatment with supportive listening as an additional analysis.
Hold on…the primary analysis “will compare homeopathic treatment with usual care“. Are they pulling my leg? They just told me that patients will be “offered, 5 sessions of homeopathic treatment plus usual care… or usual care alone“.
Oh, I see! We are again dealing with an A+B versus B design, on top of it without patient- or therapist-blinding. This type of analysis cannot ever produce a negative result, even if the experimental treatment is a pure placebo: placebo + usual care is always more than usual care alone. IBS-patients will certainly experience benefit from having the homeopaths’ time, empathy and compassion – never mind the remedies they get from them. And for the secondary analyses, things do not seem to be much more rigorous either.
Do we really need more trials of this nature? The Cochrane review shows that we currently have three studies which are too flimsy to be interpretable. What difference will a further flimsy trial make in this situation? When will we stop wasting time and money on such useless ’research’? All it can possibly achieve is that apologists of homeopathy will misinterpret the results and suggest that they demonstrate efficacy.
Obviously, I have not seen the data (they have not yet been published) but I think I can nevertheless predict the conclusions of the primary analysis of this trial; they will read something like this: HOMEOPATHY PROVED TO BE SIGNIFICANTLY MORE EFFECTIVE THAN USUAL CARE. I have asked the question before and I do it again: when does this sort of ‘research’ cross the line into the realm of scientific misconduct?
If we ask how effective spinal manipulation is as a treatment of back pain, we get all sorts of answers. Therapists who earn their money with it – mostly chiropractors, osteopaths and physiotherapists - are obviously convinced that it is effective. But if we consult more objective sources, the picture changes dramatically. The current Cochrane review, for instance, arrives at this conclusion: SMT is no more effective in participants with acute low-back pain than inert interventions, sham SMT, or when added to another intervention. SMT also appears to be no better than other recommended therapies.
Such reviews tend to pool all studies together regardless of the nature of the practitioner. But perhaps one type of clinician is better than the next? Certainly many chiropractors are on record claiming that they are the best at spinal manipulations. Yet it is conceivable that physiotherapists who do manipulations without being guided by the myth of ‘adjusting subluxations’ have an advantage over chiropractors. Three very recent systematic reviews might go some way to answer these questions.
The purpose of the first systematic review was to examine the effectiveness of spinal manipulations performed by physiotherapists for the treatment of patients with low back pain. The authors found 6 RCTs that met their inclusion criteria. The most commonly used outcomes were pain rating scales and disability indexes. Notable results included varying degrees of effect sizes favouring spinal manipulations and minimal adverse events resulting from this intervention. Additionally, the manipulation group in one study reported significantly less medication use, health care utilization, and lost work time. The authors concluded that there is evidence to support the use of spinal manipulation by physical therapists in clinical practice. Physical therapy spinal manipulation appears to be a safe intervention that improves clinical outcomes for patients with low back pain.
The second systematic Review was of osteopathic intervention for chronic, non-specific low back pain (CNSLBP). Only two trials met the authors’ inclusion criteria. They had a lack of methodological and clinical homogeneity, precluding a meta-analysis. The trials used different comparators with regards to the primary outcomes, the number of treatments, the duration of treatment and the duration of follow-up. The authors drew the following conclusions: There are only two studies assessing the effect of the manual therapy intervention applied by osteopathic clinicians in adults with CNSLBP. One trial concluded that the osteopathic intervention was similar in effect to a sham intervention, and the other suggests similarity of effect between osteopathic intervention, exercise and physiotherapy. Further clinical trials into this subject are required that have consistent and rigorous methods. These trials need to include an appropriate control and utilise an intervention that reflects actual practice.
The third systematic review sought to determine the benefits of chiropractic treatment and care for back pain on well-being, and aimed to explore to what extent chiropractic treatment and care improve quality of life. The authors identified 6 studies (4 RCTs and two observational studies) of varying quality. There was a high degree of inconsistency and lack of standardisation in measurement instruments and outcome measures. Three studies reported reduced use of other/extra treatments as a positive outcome; two studies reported a positive effect of chiropractic intervention on pain, and two studies reported a positive effect on disability. The authors concluded that it is difficult to defend any conclusion about the impact of chiropractic intervention on the quality of life, lifestyle, health and economic impact on chiropractic patients presenting with back pain.
Yes, yes, yes, I know: the three reviews are not exactly comparable; so we cannot draw firm conclusions from comparing them. Five points seem to emerge nevertheless:
- The evidence for spinal manipulation as a treatment for back pain is generally not brilliant, regardless of the type of therapist.
- There seem to be considerable differences according to the nature of the therapist.
- Physiotherapists seem to have relatively sound evidence to justify their manipulations.
- Chiropractors and osteopaths are not backed by evidence which is as reliable as they so often try to make us believe.
- Considering that the vast majority of serious complications after spinal manipulation has occurred with chiropractors, it would seem that chiropractors are the profession with the worst track record regarding manipulation for back pain.
Some sceptics are convinced that, in alternative medicine, there is no evidence. This assumption is wrong, I am afraid, and statements of this nature can actually play into the hands of apologists of bogus treatments: they can then easily demonstrate the sceptics to be mistaken or “biased”, as they would probably say. The truth is that there is plenty of evidence – and lots of it is positive, at least at first glance.
Alternative medicine researchers have been very industrious during the last two decades to build up a sizable body of ‘evidence’. Consequently, one often finds data even for the most bizarre and implausible treatments. Take, for instance, the claim that homeopathy is an effective treatment for cancer. Those who promote this assumption have no difficulties in locating some weird in-vitro study that seems to support their opinion. When sceptics subsequently counter that in-vitro experiments tell us nothing about the clinical situation, apologists quickly unearth what they consider to be sound clinical evidence.
An example is this prospective observational 2011 study of cancer patients from two differently treated cohorts: one cohort with patients under complementary homeopathic treatment (HG; n = 259), and one cohort with conventionally treated cancer patients (CG; n = 380). Its main outcome measures were the change of quality life after 3 months, after one year and impairment by fatigue, anxiety or depression. The results of this study show significant improvements in most of these endpoints, and the authors concluded that we observed an improvement of quality of life as well as a tendency of fatigue symptoms to decrease in cancer patients under complementary homeopathic treatment.
Another, in some ways even better example is this 2005 observational study of 6544 consecutive patients from the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital. Every patient attending the hospital outpatient unit for a follow-up appointment was included, commencing with their first follow-up attendance. Of these patients 70.7% (n = 4627) reported positive health changes, with 50.7% (n = 3318) recording their improvement as better or much better. The authors concluded that homeopathic intervention offered positive health changes to a substantial proportion of a large cohort of patients with a wide range of chronic diseases.
The principle that is being followed here is simple:
- believers in a bogus therapy conduct a clinical trial which is designed to generate an apparently positive finding;
- the fact that the study cannot tell us anything about cause and effect is cleverly hidden or belittled;
- they publish their findings in one of the many journals that specialise in this sort of nonsense;
- they make sure that advocates across the world learn about their results;
- the community of apologists of this treatment picks up the information without the slightest critical analysis;
- the researchers conduct more and more of such pseudo-research;
- nobody attempts to do some real science: the believers do not truly want to falsify their hypotheses, and the real scientists find it unreasonable to conduct research on utterly implausible interventions;
- thus the body of false or misleading ‘evidence’ grows and grows;
- proponents start publishing systematic reviews and meta-analyses of their studies which are devoid of critical input;
- too few critics point out that these reviews are fatally flawed – ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’!
- eventually politicians, journalists, health care professionals and other people who did not necessarily start out as believers in the bogus therapy are convinced that the body of evidence is impressive and justifies implementation;
- important health care decisions are thus based on data which are false and misleading.
So, what can be done to prevent that such pseudo-evidence is mistaken as solid proof which might eventually mislead many into believing that bogus treatments are based on reasonably sound data? I think the following measures would be helpful:
- authors should abstain from publishing over-enthusiastic conclusions which can all too easily be misinterpreted (given that the authors are believers in the therapy, this is not a realistic option);
- editors might consider rejecting studies which contribute next to nothing to our current knowledge (given that these studies are usually published in journals that are in the business of promoting alternative medicine at any cost, this option is also not realistic);
- if researchers report highly preliminary findings, there should be an obligation to do further studies in order to confirm or refute the initial results (not realistic either, I am afraid);
- in case this does not happen, editors should consider retracting the paper reporting unconfirmed preliminary findings (utterly unrealistic).
What then can REALISTICALLY be done? I wish I knew the answer! All I can think of is that sceptics should educate the rest of the population to think and analyse such ’evidence’ critically…but how realistic is that?
According to its authors, this RCT was aimed at investigating the 1) specific effect of individualized homeopathic Q-potencies compared to placebo and 2) the effect of an extensive homeopathic case taking (case history I) compared to a shorter, rather conventional one (case history II) in the treatment of acute major depression. In particular the second research question is intriguing, I think – so let’s have a closer look at this trial.
The study was designed as a randomized, partially double-blind, placebo-controlled, four-armed, 2×2 factorial trial with a 6-week study duration. A total of 44 patients were randomized (2∶1∶2∶1 randomization: 16 homeopathic Q-potencies/case history I, 7 placebo/case history I, 14 homeopathic Q-potencies/case history II, 7 placebo/case history II). Because of recruitment problems, the study was terminated prior to full recruitment, and was thus underpowered for the pre-planned confirmatory hypothesis testing. Exploratory data analyses showed heterogeneous and inconclusive results with large variance. The mean difference for the Hamilton-D after 6 weeks was 2.0 (95%CI -1.2;5.2) for Q-potencies vs. placebo, and -3.1 (-5.9;-0.2) for case history I vs. case history II. Overall, no consistent or clinically relevant results between homeopathic Q-potencies versus placebo and homeopathic versus conventional case taking were observed. The frequency of adverse events was comparable for all groups.
The conclusions were remarkable: although our results are inconclusive, given that recruitment into this trial was very difficult and we had to terminate early, we cannot recommend undertaking a further trial addressing this question in a similar setting.
Alright, the authors encountered problems in recruiting enough patients and they therefore decided to stop the trial early. This sort of thing happens. Most researchers would then not publish any data at all. This team, however, did publish a report, and the decision to do so might be perfectly fine: other investigators might learn from the problems which led to early termination of the study.
But why do they conclude that the results were INCONCLUSIVE? I think the results were not inconclusive but non-existent; these were no results to report other than those related to the recruitment problems. And even if one insists on presenting outcome data as an exploratory analysis, one cannot honestly say they were INCONCLUSIVE, all one might state in this case is that the results failed to show an effect of the remedy or the consultation. This is far less favourable for homeopathy than stating the results were INCONCLUSIVE.
And why on earth do the authors conclude “we cannot recommend undertaking a further trial addressing this question in a similar setting”? This does not make the slightest sense to me. If the trialists encountered recruitment problems, others might find ways of overcoming them. The research question asking whether the effects of an extensive homeopathic case taking differ from those of a shorter conventional one seems important. If answered accurately, it could disentangle much of the confusion that surrounds clinical trials of homeopathy.
I have repeatedly commented on the odd conclusions drawn by proponents of alternative medicine on the basis of data that did not quite fulfil their expectations, and I often ask myself at what point this ‘prettification’ of the results via false positive conclusions crosses the line to scientific misconduct. My theory is that these conclusions appear odd to those capable of critical analysis because the authors bend over backwards in order to conclude more positively than the data would seem to permit. If we see it this way, such conclusions might even prove useful as a fairly sensitive ‘bullshit-detector’.
A most excellent comment by Donald Marcus on what many now call ’quackademia‘ (the disgraceful practice of teaching quackery (alternology) such as homoeopathy, acupuncture or chiropractic at universities as if they were legitimate medical professions) has recently been published in the BMJ.
Please allow me to quote extensively from it:
A detailed review of curriculums created by 15 institutions that received educational grants from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) showed that they failed to conform to the principles of evidence based medicine. In brief, they cited many poor quality clinical trials that supported the efficacy of alternative therapies and omitted negative clinical trials; they had not been updated for 6-7 years; and they omitted reports of serious adverse events associated with CAM therapies, especially with chiropractic manipulation and with non-vitamin, non-mineral dietary supplements such as herbal remedies. Representation of the curriculums as “evidence based” was inaccurate and unjustified. Similar defects were present in the curriculums of other integrative medicine programs that did not receive educational grants….
A re-examination of the integrative medicine curriculums reviewed previously showed that they were essentially unchanged since their creation in 2002-03…Why do academic centers that are committed to evidence based medicine and to comparative effectiveness analysis of treatments endorse CAM? One factor may be a concern about jeopardizing income from grants from NCCAM, from CAM clinical practice, and from private foundations that donate large amounts of money to integrative medicine centers. Additional factors may be concern about antagonizing faculty colleagues who advocate and practice CAM, and inadequate oversight of curriculums.
By contrast to the inattention of US academics and professional societies to CAM education, biomedical scientists in Great Britain and Australia have taken action. At the beginning of 2007, 16 British universities offered 45 bachelor of science degrees in alternative practices. As the result of a campaign to expose the lack of evidence supporting those practices, most courses in alternative therapies offered by public universities in Britain have been discontinued. Scientists, physicians, and consumer advocates in Australia have formed an organization, Friends of Science in Medicine, to counter the growth of pseudoscience in medicine.
The CAM curriculums violate every tenet of evidence based medicine, and they are a disservice to learners and to the public. It could be argued that, in the name of academic freedom, faculty who believe in the benefits of CAM have a right to present their views. However, as educators and role models they should adhere to the principles of medical professionalism, including “a duty to uphold scientific standards.” Faculty at health profession schools should urge administrators to appoint independent committees to review integrative medicine curriculums, and to consider whether provision of CAM clinical services is consistent with a commitment to scholarship and to evidence based healthcare.
One of the first who openly opposed science degrees without science was David Colquhoun; in an influential article published in Nature, he wrote:
The least that one can expect of a bachelor of science (BSc) honours degree is that the subject of the degree is science. Yet in December 2006 the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service advertised 61 courses for complementary medicine, of which 45 are BSc honours degrees. Most complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is not science because the vast majority of it is not based on empirical evidence. Homeopathy, for example, has barely changed since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is much more like religion than science. Worse still, many of the doctrines of CAM, and quite a lot of its practitioners, are openly anti-science.
More recently, Louise Lubetkin wrote in her post ‘Quackademia‘ that alternative medicine and mainstream medicine are absolutely not equivalent, nor are they by any means interchangeable, and to speak about them the way one might when debating whether to take the bus or the subway to work – both will get you there reliably – constitutes an assault on truth.
I think ‘quackademia’ is most definitely an assault on truth – and I certainly know what I am talking about. When, in 1993, I was appointed as Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter, I became the director of a pre-existing team of apologists teaching a BSc-course in alternative medicine to evangelic believers. I was horrified and had to use skill, diplomacy and even money to divorce myself from this unit, an experience which I will not forget in a hurry. In fact, I am currently writing it up for a book I hope to publish soon which covers not only this story but many similarly bizarre encounters I had while researching alternative medicine during the last two decades.
According to a recent comment by Dr Larry Dossey, sceptics are afflicted by “randomania,” “statisticalitis,” “coincidentitis,” or “ODD” (Obsessive Debunking Disorder). I thought his opinion was hilariously funny; it shows that this prominent apologist of alternative medicine who claims that he is deeply rooted in the scientific world has, in fact, understood next to nothing about the scientific method. Like all quacks who have run out of rational arguments, he resorts to primitive ad hominem attacks in order to defend his bizarre notions. It also suggests that he could do with a little scepticism himself, perhaps.
In case anyone wonders how the long-obsolete notions of vitalism, which Dossey promotes, not just survive but are becoming again wide-spread, they only need to look into the best-selling books of Dossey and other vitalists. And it is not just lay people, the target audience of such books, who are taken by such nonsense. Health care professionals are by no means immune to these remnants from the prescientific era.
A recent survey is a good case in point. It was aimed at exploring US student pharmacists’ attitudes toward complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and examine factors shaping students’ attitudes. In total, 887 student pharmacists in 10 U.S. colleges/schools of pharmacy took part. Student pharmacists’ attitudes regarding CAM were quantified using the attitudes toward CAM scale (15 items), attitudes toward specific CAM therapies (13 items), influence of factors (e.g., coursework, personal experience) on attitudes (18 items), and demographic characteristics (15 items).
The results show a mean (±SD) score on the attitudes toward CAM scale of 52.57 ± 7.65 (of a possible 75; higher score indicated more favorable attitudes). There were strong indications that students agreed with the concepts of vitalism. When asked about specific CAMs, many students revealed positive views even on the least plausible and least evidence-based modalities like homeopathy or Reiki.
Unsurprisingly, students agreed that a patient’s health beliefs should be integrated in the patient care process and that knowledge about CAM would be required in future pharmacy practice. Scores on the attitudes toward CAM scale varied by gender, race/ethnicity, type of institution, previous CAM coursework, and previous CAM use. Personal experience, pharmacy education, and family background were important factors shaping students’ attitudes.
The authors concluded: Student pharmacists hold generally favorable views of CAM, and both personal and educational factors shape their views. These results provide insight into factors shaping future pharmacists’ perceptions of CAM. Additional research is needed to examine how attitudes influence future pharmacists’ confidence and willingness to talk to patients about CAM.
I find the overwhelmingly positive views of pharmacists on even over quackery quite troubling. One of the few critical pharmacists shares my worries and commented that this survey on CAM attitudes paints a concerning portrait of American pharmacy students. However, limitations in the survey process may have created biases that could have exaggerated the overall perspective presented. More concerning than the results themselves are the researchers’ interpretation of this data: Critical and negative perspectives on CAM seem to be viewed as problematic, rather than positive examples of good critical thinking.
One lesson from surveys like these is they illustrate the educational goals of CAM proponents. Just like “integrative” medicine that is making its ways into academic hospital settings, CAM education on campus is another tactic that is being used by proponents to shape health professional attitudes and perspectives early in their careers. The objective is obvious: normalize pseudoscience with students, and watch it become embedded into pharmacy practice.
Is this going to change? Unless there is a deliberate and explicit attempt to call out and push back against the degradation of academic and scientific standards created by existing forms of CAM education and “integrative medicine” programs, we should expect to see a growing normalizing of pseudoscience in health professions like pharmacy.
I have criticised pharmacists’ attitude and behaviour towards alternative medicine more often than I care to remember. I even contributed an entire series of articles (around 10; I forgot the precise number) to THE PHARMACEUTICAL JOURNAL in an attempt to stimulate their abilities to think critically about alternative medicine. Pharmacists could certainly do with a high dose of “randomania,” “statisticalitis,” “coincidentitis,” or “ODD” (Obsessive Debunking Disorder). In particular, pharmacists who sell bogus remedies, i.e. virtually all retail pharmacists, need to remember that
- they are breaking their own ethical code
- they are putting profit before responsible health care
- by selling bogus products, they give credibility to quackery
- they are risking their reputation as professionals who provide evidence-based advice to the public
- they might seriously endanger the health of many of their customers
In discussions about these issues, pharmacists usually defend themselves and argue that
- those working in retail chains cannot do anything about this situation; head office decides what is sold on their premises and what not
- many medicinal products we sell are as bogus as the alternative medicines in question
- other health care professions are also not perfect, blameless or free of fault and error
- many pharmacists, particularly those not working in retail, are aware of this lamentable situation but cannot do anything about it
- retail pharmacists are both shopkeepers and health care professionals and are trying their very best to cope with this difficult dual role
- we usually appreciate your work and critical comments but, in this case, you are talking nonsense
I do not agree with any of these arguments. Of course, each single individual pharmacist is fairly powerless when it comes to changing the system (but nobody forces anyone to work in a chain that breaks the ethical code of their profession). Yet pharmacists have their professional organisations, and it is up to each individual pharmacist to exert influence, if necessary pressure, via their professional bodies and representatives, such that eventually the system changes. In all this distasteful mess, only one thing seems certain: without a groundswell of opinion from pharmacists, nothing will happen simply because too many pharmacists are doing very nicely with fooling their customers into buying expensive rubbish.
And when eventually something does happen, it will almost certainly be a slow and long process until quackery has been fully expelled from retail pharmacies. My big concern is not so much the slowness of the process but the fact that, currently, I see virtually no groundswell of opinion that might produce anything. For the foreseeable future pharmacists seem to have decided to be content with a role as shopkeepers who do not sufficiently care about healthcare-ethics to change the status quo.