MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

cult

Homeopathy is a deeply puzzling subject for many observers. Perhaps it gets a little easier to understand, if we consider the three main perspectives on homeopathy. For the purpose of this post, I take the liberty of exaggerating, almost caricaturizing, these perspectives in order to contrast them as clearly as possible.

THE SCEPTICS’ PERSPECTIVE

Sceptics take a brief look at the two main assumptions which underpin homeopathy (like cures like and potentiation/dilution/water memory) and henceforward are convinced that homeopathic remedies are pure placebos. Homeopathy flies in the face of science; if homeopathy is right, several laws of nature must be wrong, they love to point out. As this is most unlikely, they reject homeopathy outright, usually even without looking in any detail at what homeopaths consider to be evidence in support of their trade. If sceptics are forced to consider a positive study of homeopathy, they know before they have seen it that its results are wrong – due to an error caused by chance, faulty study design or fabrication. The sceptics’ conclusion on homeopathy: it is a placebo-therapy, no doubt about it; and further investment into research is a waste of scarce resources which must be stopped.

THE BELIEVERS’ PERSPECTIVE

The believers in homeopathy know from experience that homeopathy works. They therefore feel that they have no choice but to reject almost every word the sceptics might tell them. They cling on to the gospel of Hahnemann and elaborate on the modern but vague theories that might support the theoretical assumptions of homeopathy. They point to positive clinical trials and outcome studies, to 200 years of experience, and to the endorsement of homeopathy by VIPs. When confronted with the weaknesses of their arguments, they find even weaker ones, such as ‘much of conventional medicine is also not based on good evidence, and the mechanism of action of many mainstream drugs is also not fully understood’. Alternatively, they employ the phoniest argument of them all: ‘even if it works via a placebo effect, it still helps patients and therefore is a useful therapy’. When even this fails, they tend to resort to ad hominem attacks against their opponents. The believers’ conclusion on homeopathy: it is unquestionably a valuable type of therapy regardless of what anyone else might say; research is merely needed to confirm their belief.

THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE ADVOCATES OF EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE (EBM)

The perspective of EBM-advocates is pragmatic; they simply say: “show me the evidence!” If the majority of the most reliable clinical trials of homeopathic remedies (or anything else) suggests an effect beyond placebo, they conclude that they are effective. If that is not the case, they doubt the effectiveness. If the evidence is highly contradictory or incomplete, they are likely to advocate more rigorous research. Advocates of EBM are usually not all that concerned by the lack of plausibility of the interventions they evaluate. If it works, it works, they think – and if a plausible mechanism is currently not available, it might be found in due course. The advocates of EBM have no preconceived ideas about homeopathy. Their conclusion on homeopathy goes exactly where the available best evidence leads them.

COMMENT

The arguments and counter-arguments originating from the various perspectives would surely continue for another 200 years – unless, of course, two of the three perspectives merge and arrive at the same or very similar conclusions. And this is precisely what has now happened. As I have pointed out in a recent post, the most thorough and independent evaluation of homeopathy according to rigorous EBM-standards has concluded that “the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered.”

In other words, two of the three principal perspectives have now drawn conclusions which are virtually identical: there is a consensus between the EBM-advocates and the sceptics. This isolates the believers and renders their position no longer tenable. If we furthermore consider that the believers are heavily burdened with obvious conflicts of interest, while the other two groups are by definition much more independent and objective, it appears more and more as though homeopathy is fast degenerating into a cult characterised by the unquestioning commitment and unconditional submission of its members who are too heavily brain-washed to realize that their fervour has isolated them from the rational sections of society. And a cult is hardly what we need in heath care, I should think.

It seems to me therefore that these intriguing developments might finally end the error that homeopathy represented for nearly 200 years.

Progress at last?

Preston Long’s book has featured on this blog before. It is truly an important contribution to the literature on chiropractic, and I recommend that anyone with an interest in the subject should read it. Harriet Hall wrote about it even if you think you’ve heard it all before, there are revelations here that will be new to you, that will elicit surprise, indignation, and laughter.

In a way, an even better ‘recommendation’ comes from someone who previously made numerous vile comments on my blog, Eugen Roth: In my opinion the close relationship that the author has with both Stephen Barrett and Prof Edzard Ernst makes this book just another part of the witch hunt against chiropractic which was initiated more than 50 years ago… In my opinion Prof Ernst and Dr Barrett have continued this witch hunt over many years and have now teamed up with the author to try and give credence to their misguided message. I have no ‘close relationship’ with Long, and his book is not a witch hunt; it is a factual and fascinating of chiropractic abuse, fraud and make-belief.

Chiropractors are in many ways not that different from other health care professionals. Most of them, like Preston Long, go into their profession with all the very best intentions; they study hard what is being taught at Chiropractic College; they pass their exams and set up a practice to earn a decent living. During their career, they subsequently treat thousands of patients, and many of them perceive some benefit. Those who don’t fail to return and are quickly forgotten. Over the years, chiropractors thus become convinced that their interventions are effective.

In several other ways, however, chiropractors differ from conventional health care professionals. The most fundamental differences, I think, relate to the facts that chiropractic is based on the erroneous dogma of its founding fathers, and that chiropractors fail to abide by the rules of evidence-based medicine and practice. Preston Long writes eloquently about many other rules which some chiropractors fail to abide to in addition.

D.D. Palmer, the ‘inventor’ of chiropractic, believed that all human illness was the result of ‘subluxations’ of the spine which impeded the flow of the ‘Innate’ and required correction through spinal adjustments. To his followers, this new approach to healing was the only correct one – one that could cure all health problems. When these assumptions were first formulated, more than a century ago, they might not even have appeared entirely ridiculous; today, in the face of an immense amount of new knowledge, they can easily be disclosed as pure fantasy and chiropractors who believe in Palmer’s gospel have become the laughing stock of all health care professionals.

Some chiropractors are therefore struggling to free themselves from the burden of Palmer’s nonsensical notions. But this struggle rarely is entirely successful. After all, chiropractors have been to Chiropractic College where they memorised so many falsehoods, were kept from numerous important truths, and failed to acquire the essential skills of being (self-) critical. As a result, most find it virtually impossible to completely recover from the ‘brain-wash’ they were submitted to at the beginning of their career. And even if some courageous innovators, one day, managed to expunge all the falsehoods, myths and bogus claims from their profession, the obvious question would still be, how would such a ‘chiropractic minus woo’ differ from physiotherapy?

Most chiropractors have very little inkling what evidence-based practice amounts to; the good intentions that once motivated them have long given way to the need to make money. They are unable to critically assess their own activities, and all the bogus claims they have been exposed to are thus endlessly and profitably perpetuated. The principles of medical ethics have remained alien to most of them. In fact, ‘evidence-based chiropractic’ is an oxymoron: either you abide by evidence – in which case you cannot possibly conceive the idea of adjusting spinal ‘subluxations’ – or you believe in the myth of ‘subluxations’ in which case your practice is not evidence-based. Long is right, I think, when he states: the most efficient way to protect against chiropractic mistreatment is to avoid chiropractors altogether.

Whenever someone dares to criticise their bizarre interventions, chiropractors react with anger, personal attacks, defamation or even libel suits. One argument that is voiced with unfailing regularity in such a context is the claim that the critic lacks the knowledge, insight and experience to be credible. External criticism is thus usually completely ignored.

Preston Long has been a chiropractor himself, and therefore his authority, inside knowledge and expertise cannot be undermined in this fashion. He knows what he is writing about and has been an eye-witness to most of the abuses he reports in his book. His comments are not criticism from the outside; they are thoughtful insights, hand-on experiences and first-hand accounts of fraud and abuse which originate from the very heart of chiropractic. It is this fact that makes this book unique.

Preston Long’s book provides a most valuable perspective on the education, training, thinking, misunderstandings, wrong-doings and unethical behaviours of chiropractors. He also gives valuable instructions on how we can protect ourselves against chiropractic abuse. It would be nice to think that Long’s outstanding and in many ways constructive criticism might contribute to a much-needed and long over-due reformation of chiropractic; but I would not hold my breath.

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.

A cult can be defined not just in a religious context, but also as a” usually nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease.” After ~20 years of researching this area, I have come to suspect that much of alternative medicine resembles a cult – a bold statement, so I better explain.

One characteristic of a cult is the unquestioning commitment of its members to the bizarre ideas of their iconic leader. This, I think, chimes with several forms alternative medicine. Homeopaths, for instance, very rarely question the implausible doctrines of Hahnemann who, to them, is some sort of a semi-god. Similarly, few chiropractors doubt even the most ridiculous assumptions of their founding father, D D Palmer who, despite of having been a somewhat pathetic figure, is uncritically worshipped. By definition, a cult-leader is idealised and thus not accountable to anyone; he (yes, it is almost invariably a male person) cannot be proven wrong by logic arguments nor by scientific facts. He is quite simply immune to any form of scrutiny. Those who dare to disagree with his dogma are expelled, punished, defamed or all of the above.

Cults tend to brain-wash their members into unconditional submission and belief. Likewise, fanatics of alternative medicine tend to be brain-washed, i.e. systematically misinformed to the extend that reality becomes invisible. They unquestioningly believe in what they have been told, in what they have read in their cult-texts, and in what they have learnt from their cult-peers. The effects of this phenomenon can be dramatic: the powers of discrimination of the cult-member are reduced, critical questions are discouraged, and no amount of evidence can dissuade the cult-member from abandoning even the most indefensible concepts. Internal criticism is thus by definition non-existent.

Like religious cults, many forms of alternative medicine promote an elitist concept. Cult-members become convinced of their superiority, based not on rational considerations but on irrational beliefs. This phenomenon has a range of consequences. It leads to the isolation of the cult-member from the rest of the world. By definition, critics of the cult do not belong to the elite; they are viewed as not being able to comprehend the subtleties of the issues at hand and are thus ignored or not taken seriously. For cult-members, external criticism is thus non-existent or invalid.

Cult-members tend to be on a mission, and so are many enthusiasts of alternative medicine. They use any conceivable means to recruit new converts. For instance, they try to convince family, friends and acquaintances of their belief in their particular alternative therapy at every conceivable occasion. They also try to operate on a political level to popularize their cult. They cherry pick data, often argue emotionally rather than rationally, and ignore all arguments which contradict their belief system.

Cult-members, in their isolation from society, tend to be assume that there is little worthy of their consideration outside the cult. Similarly, enthusiasts of alternative medicine tend to think that their treatment is the only true method of healing. Therapies, concepts and facts which are not cult-approved are systematically defamed. An example is the notion of BIG PHARMA which is employed regularly in alternative medicine. No reasonable person assumes that the pharmaceutical industry smells of roses. However, the exaggerated and systematic denunciation of this industry and its achievements is a characteristic of virtually all branches of alternative medicine. Such behaviour usually tells us more about the accuser than the accused.

There are many other parallels between a  cult and alternative medicine, I am sure. In my view, the most striking one must be the fact that any spark of cognitive dissonance in the cult-victim is being extinguished by highly effective and incessant flow of misinformation which often amounts to a form of brain-washing.

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