MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

critical thinking

To a significant extend, this blog has always exposed untruths in the realm of alternative medicine – not just one or two, but hundreds. Obviously, some of them are more clear-cut than others. If, for instance, someone claims that acupuncture has been proven to be effective for a given condition, this many seem like a lie or untruth to you, like a misinterpretation of the evidence to someone else, or like the truth to a third person.

But there are some statements which are demonstrably false. These are often the most irritating lies, frequently forwarded by people who should know better and who nevertheless insist on not being truthful. Below I have listed a few, randomly-chosen examples upon which I have previously commented. For clarity, I have copied the quotes in question, linked them to my original posts, named the authors in brackets, and added a brief comment by myself in bold print.

I was at Exeter when Ernst took over what was already a successful Chair in CAM. (anonymous reviewer of my book at Amazon)

Anyone can check this fairly easily, for instance, in my memoir ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’, there was no pre-existing chair at Exeter.

Ernst’s leak of the Smallwood report (also front page lead in The Times, August 2005), (Dr Peter Fisher, homeopath of the Queen)

This was painfully investigated during a 13 (!) months inquiry which found that I did not leak this report. Again you find the full details in my memoir.

…homeopathic care is recommended for people who have been exposed (or think they have been exposed) to toxic substances… (Dana Ullman US homeopath)

As far as this statement implies that homeopathy is effective for treating intoxications, this is not only a lie but a very dangerous nonsense.

Homeopathy has a long history of being used successfully in veterinary practice for both domestic and farm animals. (UK Faculty of Homeopathy)

If this is to suggest that homeopathy is of proven effectiveness in treating diseases of animals, this is a lie.

Homeoprophylaxis, the homeopathic vaccine alternative, prevents disease through nosodes. (Lisa is the mastermind behind All Natural Ideas)

Homeoprophylaxis has never been proven to prevent any disease; this lie could kill millions.

There are essentially two categories of critics. The first category consists of individuals who are totally ignorant of homeopathy and just repeating propaganda they’ve been exposed to. The second category is people who know that homeopathy works, but have a vested financial interest in destroying it. (Alan Schmukler, US homeopathy)

This lie is quite funny in its transparent defamation of the truth, I think.

Homeopathy works like a vaccine. (Dr Batra, Indian homeopath)

Homeopathy does not even remotely work like a vaccine; in fact, it works like a placebo, if at all.

…UK invests 0% of its research budget on CAM… (Dr Michael Dixon, GP and advisor to Prince Charles)

There has always been a sizable budget for CAM-research in the UK.

Even cancer viruses have, on record, been put into vaccinations. There is no actual vaccine for cancer. The only reason to put cancer viruses in the mix is to create more cases of cancer. In this day and age, one of the most dangerous things you can do for your health is to get vaccinated… (US homeopath)

In this short quote, there are more lies than I care to comment on. The paranoia of the anti-vaccination brigade is astounding and endangers many lives.

A lie is a statement used intentionally for the purpose of deception. In alternative medicine, we encounter so many lies that one would need to continually publish volume after volume to expose just the most harmful untruths. The danger of these lies is that some people might believe them. This could seriously harm their health. Another danger is that we might get used to them, trivialise them, or – like Trump and co – start thinking of them as ‘alternative facts’.

I will continue to do my best to prevent any of this from happening.

 

This recently published report provides updated clinical practice guidelines from the Society for Integrative Oncology on the use of integrative therapies for specific clinical indications during and after breast cancer treatment, including anxiety/stress, depression/mood disorders, fatigue, quality of life/physical functioning, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, lymphedema, chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, pain, and sleep disturbance.

The practice guidelines are based on a systematic literature review from 1990 through 2015. The recommendations are as follows:

  • Music therapy, meditation, stress management, and yoga are recommended for anxiety/stress reduction.
  • Meditation, relaxation, yoga, massage, and music therapy are recommended for depression/mood disorders.
  • Meditation and yoga are recommended to improve quality of life.
  • Acupressure and acupuncture are recommended for reducing chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
  • Acetyl-L-carnitine is not recommended to prevent chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy due to a possibility of harm.
  • No strong evidence supports the use of ingested dietary supplements to manage breast cancer treatment-related side effects.

The authors conclude that there is a growing body of evidence supporting the use of integrative therapies, especially mind-body therapies, as effective supportive care strategies during breast cancer treatment. Many integrative practices, however, remain understudied, with insufficient evidence to be definitively recommended or avoided.

I have to admit that I am puzzled by this paper.

The first obvious point to make is that these treatments are not ‘integrative therapies’; they are alternative or complementary and I fail to see what is integrative about them.

The second point is that the positive recommendations are based on often poor-quality studies which did not control for placebo effects.

The third point is that the negative recommendations are woefully incomplete. There are many more alternative therapies for which there is no strong evidence.

The forth point is the conclusion implying that treatment supported by insufficient evidence should be avoided. I would not claim that any of the mentioned treatments is backed by SUFFICIENT evidence. Therefore, we should avoid them all, one might argue.

But these concerns are perhaps relatively trivial or far-fetched. More important is the fact that a very similar article been published in 2014. Here is the abstract:

Background

The majority of breast cancer patients use complementary and/or integrative therapies during and beyond cancer treatment to manage symptoms, prevent toxicities, and improve quality of life. Practice guidelines are needed to inform clinicians and patients about safe and effective therapies.

Methods

Following the Institute of Medicine’s guideline development process, a systematic review identified randomized controlled trials testing the use of integrative therapies for supportive care in patients receiving breast cancer treatment. Trials were included if the majority of participants had breast cancer and/or breast cancer patient results were reported separately, and outcomes were clinically relevant. Recommendations were organized by outcome and graded based upon a modified version of the US Preventive Services Task Force grading system.

Results

The search (January 1, 1990–December 31, 2013) identified 4900 articles, of which 203 were eligible for analysis. Meditation, yoga, and relaxation with imagery are recommended for routine use for common conditions, including anxiety and mood disorders (Grade A). Stress management, yoga, massage, music therapy, energy conservation, and meditation are recommended for stress reduction, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and quality of life (Grade B). Many interventions (n = 32) had weaker evidence of benefit (Grade C). Some interventions (n = 7) were deemed unlikely to provide any benefit (Grade D). Notably, only one intervention, acetyl-l-carnitine for the prevention of taxane-induced neuropathy, was identified as likely harmful (Grade H) as it was found to increase neuropathy. The majority of intervention/modality combinations (n = 138) did not have sufficient evidence to form specific recommendations (Grade I).

Conclusions

Specific integrative therapies can be recommended as evidence-based supportive care options during breast cancer treatment. Most integrative therapies require further investigation via well-designed controlled trials with meaningful outcomes.

I have harshly criticised this review on this blog in 2016. For instance, I voiced concern about the authors declaration of conflicts of interest and stated:

 

I know none of the authors (Heather Greenlee, Lynda G. Balneaves, Linda E. Carlson, Misha Cohen, Gary Deng, Dawn Hershman, Matthew Mumber, Jane Perlmutter, Dugald Seely, Ananda Sen, Suzanna M. Zick, Debu Tripathy) of the document personally. They made the following collective statement about their conflicts of interest: “There are no financial conflicts of interest to disclose. We note that some authors have conducted/authored some of the studies included in the review.” I am a little puzzled to hear that they have no financial conflicts of interest (do not most of them earn their living by practising integrative medicine? Yes they do! The article informs us that: “A multidisciplinary panel of experts in oncology and integrative medicine was assembled to prepare these clinical practice guidelines. Panel members have expertise in medical oncology, radiation oncology, nursing, psychology, naturopathic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, epidemiology, biostatistics, and patient advocacy.”). I also suspect they have other, potentially much stronger conflicts of interest. They belong to a group of people who seem to religiously believe in the largely nonsensical concept of integrative medicine

The just-published update has a different statement about conflicts of interest:

DISCLOSURES: Linda E. Carlson reports book royalties from New Harbinger and the American Psychological Association. Misha R. Cohen reports royalties from Health Concerns Inc., outside the submitted work. Matthew Mumber owns stock in I Thrive. All remaining authors report no conflicts of interest.

Is this much better than the previous statement? Was the previous statement therefore false?

I wonder.

What do you think?

I have repeatedly cautioned about the often poor quality of research into alternative medicine. This seems particularly necessary with studies of acupuncture, and especially true for such research carried out in China. I have also frequently noted that certain ‘CAM journals’ are notoriously prone to publishing rubbish. So, what can we expect from a paper that:

  • is on alternative medicine,
  • focusses on acupuncture,
  • is authored by Chinese researchers,
  • was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (JACM)?

The answer is PROBABLY NOT A LOT!

As if for confirming my prediction, The JACM just published this systematic review. It reports pairwise and network meta-analyses to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture and acupuncture-related techniques for the treatment of psoriasis. A total of 13 RCTs were included. The methodological quality of these studies was ‘not rigorous’ according to the authors – in fact, it was lousy. Acupoint stimulation seemed to be more effective than non-acupoint stimulation. The short-term treatment effect was superior to the long-term effect (as one would expect with placebo). Network meta-analysis suggested that acupressure or acupoint catgut embedding generate superior effects compared to medications. It was noted that acupressure was the most effective treatment of all the acupuncture-like therapies.

The authors concluded that acupuncture-related techniques could be considered as an alternative or adjuvant therapy for psoriasis in short term, especially of acupressure and acupoint catgut embedding. This study recommends further well-designed, methodologically rigorous, and more head-to-head randomized trials to explore the effects of acupuncture-related techniques for treating psoriasis.

And what is wrong with that?

EVERYTHING!

  • The review is of very poor quality.
  • The primary studies are even worse.
  • The English language is defective to the point of being not understandable.
  • The conclusions are misleading.

Correct conclusions should read something like this: Due to the paucity and the poor quality of the clinical trials, this review could not determine whether acupuncture and similar therapies are effective for psoriasis.

And then there is, of course, the question about plausibility. How plausible is the assumption that acupuncture might affect a genetic autoimmune disease like psoriasis. The answer, I think, is that the assumption is highly unlikely.

In the above review, most of the 13 primary RCTs were from China. One of the few studies not conducted in China is this one:

56 patients suffering from long-standing plaque psoriasis were randomized to receive either active treatment (electrostimulation by needles placed intramuscularly, plus ear-acupuncture) or placebo (sham, ‘minimal acupuncture‘) twice weekly for 10 weeks. The severity of the skin lesions was scored (PASI) before, during, and 3 months after therapy. After 10 weeks of treatment the PASI mean value had decreased from 9.6 to 8.3 in the ‘active’ group and from 9.2 to 6.9 in the placebo group (p < 0.05 for both groups). These effects are less than the usual placebo effect of about 30%. There were no statistically significant differences between the outcomes in the two groups during or 3 months after therapy. The patient’s own opinion about the results showed no preference for ‘active’ therapy. It was also clear from the answers that the blinded nature of the study had not been discovered by the patients. In conclusion, classical acupuncture is not superior to sham (placebo) ‘minimal acupuncture‘ in the treatment of psoriasis.

Somehow, I trust these conclusions more than the ones from the review!

And somehow, I get very tired of journal editors failing to do their job of rejecting papers that evidently are embarrassing, unethical rubbish.

In the US, some right-wing politicians might answer this question in the affirmative, having suggested that American citizens don’t really need healthcare, if only they believed stronger in God. Here in the UK, some right-wing MPs are not that far from such an attitude, it seems.

A 2012 article in the ‘Plymouth Harald’ revealed that the Tory MP for South West Devon, Gary Streeter , has challenged the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for banning claims that ‘God can heal’. Mr Streeter was reported to have written to the ASA demanding it produce “indisputable scientific evidence” to prove that prayer does not work – otherwise they will raise the issue in Parliament, he threatened. Mr Streeter also accused the ASA of “poor judgement” after it banned a Christian group from using leaflets stating: “Need healing? God can heal today!… We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness.”

The ASA said such claims were misleading and could discourage people from seeking essential medical treatment.

The letter to ASA was written on behalf of the all-party Christians in Parliament group, which Mr Streeter chairs. Here are a few quotes from this bizarre document:

“We write to express our concern at this decision and to enquire about the basis on which it has been made… It appears to cut across two thousand years of Christian tradition and the very clear teaching in the Bible. Many of us have seen and experienced physical healing ourselves in our own families and churches and wonder why you have decided that this is not possible. On what scientific research or empirical evidence have you based this decision?… You might be interested to know that I (Gary Streeter) received divine healing myself at a church meeting in 1983 on my right hand, which was in pain for many years. After prayer at that meeting, my hand was immediately free from pain and has been ever since. What does the ASA say about that? I would be the first to accept that prayed for people do not always get healed, but sometimes they do… It is interesting to note that since the traumatic collapse of the footballer Fabrice Muamba the whole nation appears to be praying for a physical healing for him. I enclose some media extracts. Are they wrong also and will you seek to intervene? … We invite your detailed response to this letter and unless you can persuade us that you have reached your ruling on the basis of indisputable scientific evidence, we intend to raise this matter in Parliament.”

Mr Streeter displays, of course, a profound and embarrassing ignorance of science, healthcare and common sense:

  • ‘Indisputable’ evidence that something is ineffective is usually not obtainable in science.
  • In healthcare it is also not relevant, because we try to employ treatments that are proven to work and avoid those for which this is not the case.
  • It is common sense that those who make a claim must also prove it to be true; those who doubt it need not prove that it is untrue.
  • Chronic pain disappearing spontaneously is not uncommon.
  • The plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence!

Personally, I find it worrying that a man with such views sits in parliament and exerts influence over me and our country.

Systematic reviews are aimed at summarising and critically evaluating the evidence on a specific research question. They are the highest level of evidence and are more reliable than anything else we have. Therefore, they represent a most useful tool for both clinicians and researchers.

But there are, of course, exceptions. Take, for instance, this recent systematic review by researchers from the

  • Texas Chiropractic College, Pasadena, the Palmer Center for Chiropractic Research, Palmer College of Chiropractic, Davenport,
  • Department of Planning, Policy and Design, University of California, Irvine,
  • VA Puget Sound Health Care System, Tacoma,
  • New York Chiropractic College, Seneca Falls,
  • Logan University College of Chiropractic, Chesterfield,
  • University of Western States, Portland.

Its purpose was to evaluate the effectiveness of conservative non-drug, non-surgical interventions, either alone or in combination, for conditions of the shoulder. The review was conducted from March 2016 to November 2016 in accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA), and was registered with PROSPERO. Eligibility criteria included randomized controlled trials (RCTs), systematic reviews, or meta-analyses studying adult patients with a shoulder diagnosis. Interventions qualified if they did not involve prescription medication or surgical procedures, although these could be used in the comparison group or groups. At least 2 independent reviewers assessed the quality of each study using the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network checklists. Shoulder conditions addressed were

  • shoulder impingement syndrome (SIS),
  • rotator cuff-associated disorders (RCs),
  • adhesive capsulitis (AC),
  • nonspecific shoulder pain.

Twenty-five systematic reviews and 44 RCTs met inclusion criteria. Low- to moderate-quality evidence supported the use of manual therapies for all 4 shoulder conditions. Exercise, particularly combined with physical therapy protocols, was beneficial for SIS and AC. For SIS, moderate evidence supported several passive modalities. For RC, physical therapy protocols were found beneficial but not superior to surgery in the long term. Moderate evidence supported extracorporeal shockwave therapy for calcific tendinitis RC. Low-level laser was the only modality for which there was moderate evidence supporting its use for all 4 conditions.

The authors concluded that the findings of this literature review may help inform practitioners who use conservative methods (eg, doctors of chiropractic, physical therapists, and other manual therapists) regarding the levels of evidence for modalities used for common shoulder conditions.

This review has so many defects that it would be boring to list them here.

The PRISMA guidelines  – I happen to be a co-author – state, for instance, that the abstract (the above text is from the abstract) should provide a structured summary including, as applicable: background; objectives; data sources; study eligibility criteria, participants, and interventions; study appraisal and synthesis methods; results; limitations; conclusions and implications of key findings; systematic review registration number. It is obvious that the review authors have omitted several of these items.

And that is just the abstract!  There is much, much more to criticise in this paper.

The most striking deficit, in my view, is the useless conclusion: the one from the abstract (the part of the paper that will be read most widely) could have been written before the review had even been started. It is therefore not based on the data presented. Crucially it does not match the stated aim of this review (“to evaluate the effectiveness of conservative…interventions”).

But why? Why did the authors bother to follow PRISMA? Why did they formulate this bizarre conclusion in their abstract? Why did they do a review in the first place?

I fear, the answers might be embarrassingly simple:

  • They only pretended to follow PRISMA guidelines because that gives their review a veneer of respectability.
  • They formulated the conclusions because otherwise they would have needed to state that the evidence for manual therapy is less than convincing.
  • They conducted the review to promote chiropractic, and when the data were not as they had hoped for, they just back-paddled in an attempt to hide the truth as much as possible.

If this were an isolated case, I would not have bothered to mention it. But sadly, in the realm of chiropractic (and alternative medicine in general) we currently witness a plethora of rubbish reviews (published by rubbish journals). To the naïve observer, they might look rigorous and therefore they will be taken seriously. The end-effect of this pollution of the literature with rubbish is that we get a false-positive impression about the validity of the treatments in question. Consequently, we will see a host of wrong decisions on all levels of healthcare.

The big question is: HOW DO WE PROTECT OURSELVES FROM THIS DANGEROUS TREND?

I only see one solution: completely disregard certain journals that have been identified to regularly publish nonsense. Sadly, the wider medical community is far from having arrived at this point. As far as I can see, the problem has not even been identified yet as a serious issue that needs addressing. For the foreseeable future, we will probably have to live with this type of pollution of our medical literature.

Dr Gabriella Day is a GP in England who describes herself and her beliefs as follows: “I began training in homeopathy as it is clear that for many conditions conventional treatment options are not effective and can have unwanted side effects. It seemed to me that there must be another way to help people suffering from symptoms such as these… I believe in whole person medicine. No illness exists in isolation. The human body is immensely sophisticated and complicated and we do not understand it fully. Therefore the illness cannot be separated from the person suffering the disease. This may be as simple as stress impairing the immune system to far more complex interactions. Homeopathic treatment seeks to match the underlying disturbance in the system and stimulate the body to correct itself.”

I do not know Dr Day, but she caught my attention recently when she published an article in THE HIPPOCRATIC POST (I had never heard of this publication before!). It is, I think, sufficiently noteworthy to show you some excerpts (the references [in square brackets] were added by me, and they refer to my comments below):

START OF QUOTES

…Homeopathy can be helpful for pretty much any condition [1], whether as the main treatment [1], as a complement to a conventional treatment [2] to speed up the healing process [1], or to lessen the side-effects of a pharmacological medication [1]. It can be helpful in the treatment of emotional problems [1], physical problems [1] and for multi-morbidity patients [1]. I find it an invaluable tool in my GP’s toolbox and regularly see the benefits of homeopathy in the patients I treat [3]…

There are many conditions for which I have found homeopathy to be effective [1]… There are, however, a multitude of symptomatic treatments available to suppress symptoms, both on prescription and over-the-counter. Most symptoms experienced by patients in this context result from the body’s attempt to eliminate the infection. Our immune systems have spent thousands of years refining this response; therefore it seems counter-intuitive to suppress it [4].
For these types of acute conditions homeopathy can work with the body to support it [1]. For instance, homeopathic Arsenicum album (arsenic) is a classic remedy for diarrhoea and vomiting that can be taken alongside essential oral rehydration [1]. And in influenza I’ve found Eupatorium perfoliatum (ague or feverwort) to be very helpful if the patient is suffering with bony pain [3].
…Unless it is clinically imperative for a pharmacological intervention, I will always consider homeopathy first [5] and have successfully prescribed the homeopathic remedy Nux vomica (strychnine) for women suffering from morning sickness [5]. Problems associated with breastfeeding such as mastitis have also responded well to the classic remedies Belladonna (deadly nightshade) and Phytolacca (pokeweed), while I have found Urtica urens (dog nettle) effective in switching off the milk supply to prevent engorgement when the mother stops breastfeeding [3].
…“heart sink” patients are clearly suffering from pain and discomfort, which is blighting their lives. This is understandably frustrating for them, for they know full well something is awry but there is no medical evidence for this… Homeopathy affords me another approach in trying to help these patients [1,3]. It doesn’t work for them all, but I’m frequently surprised at how many it does help [3].

Positive side-effects

The beauty of homeopathy is that it combines mental and emotional symptoms with physical symptoms [3]. When the right remedy is found it appears to stimulate the body to recognise how it is being dysfunctional and corrects this, with no suppression, just a correction of the underlying disturbance [3]. Thus homeopathy not only eliminates unwanted symptoms [1], it dramatically improves a patient’s overall well-being [1].
…homeopathy… enables me to reduce the number of painkillers and other drugs I’m prescribing [1,3]. This is particularly true for older multi-morbidity, polypharmacy patients [1] who are often taking huge amounts of medication.
Contrary to what most homeopaths will tell you, I believe homeopathic treatment does have side-effects – positive side-effects! [1] It fosters an enhanced doctor patient relationship [1]. The process of eliciting the relevant information to select a remedy enables me to better understand the patient’s condition and helps me to get to know them better [3]. And the patient, seeing that the doctor is interested in the idiosyncrasies and detail of their disease, finds themselves heard and understood [3]. In short, since training in homeopathy I enjoy my job as a GP and my relationship with patients so much more [3].
Dr Gabriella Day BSc, MBBS, MRCP, DCH, MRCGP, MFHom

END OF QUOTES

MY COMMENTS:

  1. statement without good evidence,
  2. Hahnemann was vehemently against combining homeopathy with other treatments and called clinicians who disregarded this ‘traitors’,
  3. statement of belief,
  4. wrong assumption,
  5. questionable ethics.

I have recently attempted to slip into the brain of lay-homeopaths and shown how illogical, misguided and wrong the arguments of such enthusiasts really are. Surely, the logic of a doctor homeopath must be better, I then thought. Once you have studied medicine, you have learnt an awful lot of things about the body, disease, therapy, etc., etc., I felt.

Judging from the above article, I might have been wrong.

Alternative medicine differs from conventional medicine in numerous ways. One important difference is that patients often opt to try this or that product without consulting any healthcare professional at all. In such cases, the pharmacist might be the ONLY professional who can advise the patient who is about to purchase such a product.

This is why the role of the pharmacist in alternative medicine is crucial, arguably more so than in conventional medicine. And this is why I am banging on about pharmacists who far too often behave like shop-keepers and not like ethical healthcare professionals. A new review addresses these issues and provides relevant information.

Pharmacists from the University of Macau in Macau, China conducted a literature review to extract publications from 2000 to 2015 that related pharmacist to alternative medicine products. 41 publications which reported findings from exploratory studies or discussed pharmacists’ responsibilities towards such products were selected for inclusion.

Seven major responsibilities emerged:

  • to acknowledge the use of alternative medicine products;
  • to be knowledgeable about such products;
  • to ensure safe use of such products;
  • to document the use of such products;
  • to report ADRs related to such products;
  • to educate about such products;
  • to collaborate with other health care professionals in respect to such products.

One point that is not directly covered here is the duty of pharmacists to comply with their own ethical codes. As I have pointed out ad nauseam, this would mean in many instances to not sell alternative medicine products at all, because there is no good evidence to show that they are generating more good than harm and thus are potentially harmful as well as wasteful.

Some pharmacists have realised that there is a problem. Some pharmacists are trying to initiate discussions about these issues within their profession. Some pharmacists are urging to change things. Some pharmacists are well-aware that healthcare ethics are being violated on a daily basis.

All this has been going on now for well over a decade.

And has there been any noticeable change?

Not as far as I can see!

Perhaps it is time to realise that not merely the sale of bogus medicines by pharmacists is unethical, but so is dragging one’s feet in initiating improvements.

 

“Highly diluted homeopathic remedies cannot possibly work beyond a placebo effect because there is nothing in them”. This is the argument, we often hear. It is, I think correct. But homeopaths have always disagreed. Hahnemann claimed that the healing power of his remedies was due to a ‘vital force’, and for a long time his followers repeated this mantra. Nowadays, it sounds too obsolete to be taken seriously, and homeopaths came up with new theories as to how their remedies work. The current favourite is the ‘nano-theory’.

This article explains it quite well: “… some of the most exciting findings have been in the world of tiny nano-particles.   Nano-particles are described as particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in size.  For an idea of scale, a nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.  A single atom is one-tenth of a nanometer, and subatomic particles are still smaller than that.  Quantum mechanics (the study of these very small particles) has shown that these tiny particles can and do have impact our macro world, and can be useful in everything from medical PET scans to quantum computing. But the breakthrough that I’m most excited about is the latest study around nano-particles which has shown that at the very highest prescription strength dilutions of a homeopathic substance (50M) there are still nano-particles of the original substance that exist.  Further, not only did researchers discover that these particles exist, but they showed that they had demonstrable effects when tests were run on homeopathic dilutions versus a control substance…”

Right!

So, the claim is that, during the process of potentisation of a homeopathic remedy, nano-particles of the original stock are formed. Therefore, even ultra-molecular dilutions are not devoid of material but do contain tiny bits of what is says on the bottle. This is the reason why homeopaths now claim WE WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG; HOMEOPATHY WORKS!!!

I Have several problems with this assumption:

  • The nano-particles have been shown by just 1 or 2 research groups. I would like to see independent confirmations of their findings because I am not convinced that this is not simply an artefact without real meaning.
  • Even if we accept the ‘nano-theory’ for a moment, there are numerous other issues.
  • What about the many homeopathic remedies that use stock which is not material by nature, for instance, X-ray, luna, etc.? Do we need to assume that there are also nano-particles of non-materials?
  • And for remedies that are based on a material stock (like arnica or nux vomica, or Berlin Wall, for instance), how do the nano-particles generate heath effects? How do a few nano-particles of arnica make cuts and bruises heal faster? How do nano-particles of nux vomica stop a patient from vomiting? How do nano-particles of the Berlin Wall do anything at all?

If the ‘nano-theory’ were true (which I doubt very much), it totally fails to provide an explanation as to how homeopathy works. This explanation would still need to be identified for each of the thousands of different remedies in separate investigations.

If nano-particles are truly generated during the potentisation process, it proves almost nothing. All it would show is that shaken water differs from unshaken water. The water in my kitchen sink also differs from pure water; this, however, does not mean that it has healing properties.

My conclusion: there is no plausible mode of action of highly diluted homeopathic remedies.

The ‘Daily Mail’ is not a paper famed for its objective reporting. In politics, this can influence elections; in medicine, it can endanger public health.

A recent article is a case in point, I think.

START OF QUOTE

Traditional Chinese medicines could help prevent heart disease and the progression of pre-diabetes, according to research. Some herbal treatments proved as effective in lowering blood pressure as Western drugs and improved heart health by lowering cholesterol, scientists found. Certain alternative medicines could lower blood sugar and insulin levels, too.

Chinese medicines could be used alongside conventional treatments, say researchers from Shandong University Qilu Hospital in China. Or they can be beneficial as an alternative for patients intolerant of Western drugs, they said in their review of medical studies over a ten-year period. Senior review author from the university’s department of traditional Chinese medicine said: ‘The pharmacological effects and the underlying mechanisms of some active ingredients of traditional Chinese medications have been elucidated. Thus, some medications might be used as a complementary and alternative approach for primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

It’s potentially good news for people living with diabetes, which is now a global epidemic and has proved a tricky condition to manage for many people. High blood pressure is very common too, affecting more than one in four adults in the UK,  although many won’t show symptoms and realise it. If untreated, it increases your risk of serious problems including heart disease, the number one killer globally.

The Chinese have used herbs for treating diseases for thousands of years and have become increasingly popular in Europe and North America, mainly as complement to Western medicine. But the researchers also warn that much of the research conducted have limitations and so their long-term effects are not proven.

Key findings  

Herbs for high blood pressure

The blood pressure-lowering effect of herb zhongfujiangya was found to be similar to that of oral anti-hypertension medication benazeprilm, which goes by the brand name Lotensin. Similarly, patients treated for eight weeks with herbal tiankuijiangya had a lower reading than those given a placebo. Herbal Jiangya tablets were found to ‘significantly lower’ systolic blood pressure, that is the amount of pressure in your arteries during contraction of your heart muscle compared to a fake treatment. The herb Jiangyabao also had a significant effect compared to a placebo, but just at night. But overall, compared to the drug Nimodipine, a calcium channel blocker, it worked just as well. Qiqilian capsules also proved more effective compared to a placebo.

Herbs for diabetes

The team report some Chinese medicines medications – such as xiaoke, tangminling, jinlida, and jianyutangkang – have a ‘potent’ effect on lowering blood sugar levels and b-cell function, which controls the release of insulin. Some remedies – such as tangzhiping and tianqi – might prevent the progression of pre-diabetes to diabetes, they note.

Herbs for cholesterol 

The researchers looked at research on dyslipidemia, the term for unbalanced or unhealthy cholesterol levels. They found that jiangzhitongluo, salviamiltiorrhiza and pueraria lobata, and zhibitai capsule all have a ‘potent lipid-lowing effect’.

Herbs for heart disease

Some traditional Chinese medicines such as qiliqiangxin, nuanxin, shencaotongmai, and yangxinkang, might be effective in improving function in patients with chronic heart failure, they wrote.

Limitations with trials

But Western scientists often reject Chinese medicine for specific reasons, warned Dr Zhao’s team. Chinese medicines are frowned upon because they do not go through the same exhaustive approval process as trials conducted domestically, they pointed out. Plus, one treatment can be made of many different ingredients with various chemical compounds, making it hard to pinpoint how their benefits work. ‘One should bear in mind that traditional Chinese medicine medications are usually prescribed as complex formulae, which are often further manipulated by the practitioner on a personalized basis,’ said Dr Zhao.

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Apart from the fact that this article is badly written, it is also misleading to the point of being outright dangerous. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that Chinese research is everything but reliable; there are practically no Chinese TCM-trials that report negative results. Furthermore, the safety of Chinese herbal preparations is as good as unknown and they are often contaminated with toxic substances as well as adulterated with synthetic drugs. Most of these preparations are also unavailable outside China. Moreover, Chinese herbal treatments are usually individualised (mixtures are tailor-made for each individual patient), and there is no good evidence that this approach is effective. Crucially, the trial evidence is often of such poor quality that it would be a dangerous mistake to trust these findings.

None of these important caveats, it seems, are important enough to get a mention in the Daily Mail.

Don’t let the truth get in the way of a sensational story!

Let’s just for a moment imagine what would happen if people took the Mail article seriously (is there anyone out there who does take the Mail seriously?). In a best case scenario, they would take Chinese herbs in addition to their prescribed medication. This might case plenty of unwanted side-effects and herb-drug interactions. In addition, people would lose a lot of their hard-earned cash. In a worst case scenario, they would abandon their prescribed medication for dubious Chinese herbal mixtures. This could cause thousands of premature deaths.

With just a little research, I managed to find the original article on which the Mail’s report was based. Here is its abstract:

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has more than 2,000 years of history and has gained widespread clinical applications. However, the explicit role of TCM in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease remains unclear due to a lack of sound scientific evidence. Currently available randomized controlled trials on TCM are flawed, with small sample sizes and diverse outcomes, making it difficult to draw definite conclusions about the actual benefits and harms of TCM. Here, we systematically assessed the efficacy and safety of TCM for cardiovascular disease, as well as the pharmacological effects of active TCM ingredients on the cardiovascular system and potential mechanisms. Results indicate that TCM might be used as a complementary and alternative approach to the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. However, further rigorously designed randomized controlled trials are warranted to assess the effect of TCM on long-term hard endpoints in patients with cardiovascular disease.

In my view, the authors of this review are grossly over-optimistic in their conclusions (but nowhere near as bad as the Mail journalist). If the trials are of poor quality, as the review-authors admit, no firm conclusions should be permissible about the usefulness of the therapies in question.

As the Mail article is obviously based on a press release (several other papers worldwide reported about the review as well), it seems interesting to note what the editor of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (the journal that published the review) recently had to say about the responsibility of journalists and researchers:

START OF QUOTE

…I would like to suggest that journalists and researchers must share equally in shouldering the burden of responsibility to improve appropriate communication about basic and clinical research.

First, there is an obligation on the part of the researchers not to inflate the importance of their findings. This has been widely recognized as damaging, especially if bias is introduced in the paper…

Second, researchers should take some responsibility for the creation of the press release about their research, which is written by the media or press relations department at their hospital or society. Press releases are often how members of the media get introduced to a particular study, and these releases can often introduce errors or exaggerations. In fact, British researchers evaluated 462 press releases on biomedical and health-related science issued by 20 leading U.K. universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer-reviewed research papers and the news stories that followed (n = 668). They found that 40% of the press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58%, 81%, and 86% of news stories, respectively, contained further exaggeration, compared with rates of 17%, 18%, and 10% in the news when the press releases were not exaggerated. Researchers should not be excused from being part of the press release process, as the author(s) should at least review the release before it gets disseminated to the media. I would even encourage researchers to engage in the process at the writing stage and to not allow their hospital’s or society’s public relations department to extrapolate their study’s results. Ultimately, the authors and the journals in which the studies are published will be held accountable for the information that trickles into the headlines, not the public relations departments, so we must make sure that the information is accurate and representative of the study’s actual findings.

END OF QUOTE

Sound advice indeed.

Now we only need to ALL follow it!!!

Quackademia is an apt term for the teaching or promotion of quackery in universities. Sadly, this is a serious problem, and we have therefore discussed it already several times (see here, here and here). If you have read my memoir, you know that I had my fair share of quackademia ‘hands-on’, so to speak. This article from Australia has more on the subject:

START OF QUOTE

Friends of Science in Medicine have complained that alternative practitioners who speak at events were then using the names and logos of universities on their promotional material. Edith Cowan University recently cancelled a workshop promoting pranic crystal healing — which claims to use crystals to energise and heal the body — after complaints from FSM that it had no scientific basis. The university also cancelled Brisbane-based nutrition author Christine Cronau, who was due to promote her low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet on June 25. In response to a website petition calling on the university to cancel Cronau’s seminar, ECU said it rejected the booking because “it does not align with our evidence-based approach to dietetics teaching and research”.

The talk has been moved to Murdoch University, which, despite being lobbied to cancel the booking, said in a statement this week that it would go ahead. Murdoch said it promoted critical thinking and learning through discussion, debate and exposure to alternatives points of view. “One way to achieve this is to welcome other voices on campus in the form of guest speakers or visiting lecturers,” the statement said. “The university takes a common sense approach to the debate of controversial issues and we encourage respectful and insightful debate of thought- provoking topics.”

FSM president John Dwyer said universities should review the content of external health seminars before they hired out their venues. “We don’t have an issue with free speech, but some of the material is just not scientific,” Professor Dwyer said. “Often universities don’t know about the nature of the pseudo-scientific events they are hosting.”

Cronau said she was disappointed ECU had cancelled her talk but her faith in common sense had been restored by Murdoch University. “My approach has actually become a lot less controversial, so I don’t know why it has generated such comments,” she said.

END OF QUOTE

I find this story interesting. It reveals several things:

  • Quacks love to infiltrate universities; this gives them a veneer of respectability, they think.
  • This discloses their schizophrenic attitude to the ‘scientific establishment’ in an exemplary fashion: they often are fiercely against science but, at the same time, they are only too happy to jump at opportunities of decorating themselves with scientific feathers.
  • Universities are run like businesses these days. They tend to take the money where they can get it. Issues like scientific credibility rarely figure high on the agenda.
  • When challenged, universities claim they are favouring free speech, open-mindedness and respectful debate.
  • This usually is but a lame excuse.

I remember protesting while at Exeter against a weekend course of pure quackery which the organisers were advertising under the logo of my university. My protest fell on deaf ears, and my peers pretended to favour free speech, open-mindedness and respectful debate. After I had retired, the University of Exeter even allowed quacks to infiltrate and made this surprising announcement: Our complementary therapists will be offering 15-20 minute taster sessions in our complementary therapies yurt. The therapy taster sessions on offer will include: shaitsu bodywork, reflexology, indian head Massage, seated back massage and much more. To take advantage of these free taster sessions just pop along to the yurt on the day of the festival.

But the Australian events also offer a glimmer of hope in this usually bleak situation. Sometimes our protests do have an effect! I therefore urge everyone to not give up. Quackademia is a pest, and for the sake of future generations, we must not allow it to infest our universities.

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