MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

experience

Guest post by Pete Attkins

Commentator “jm” asked a profound and pertinent question: “What DOES it take for people to get real in this world, practice some common sense, and pay attention to what’s going on with themselves?” This question was asked in the context of asserting that personal experience always trumps the results of large-scale scientific experiments; and asserting that alt-med experts are better able to provide individulized healthcare than 21st Century orthodox medicine.

What does common sense and paying attention lead us to conclude about the following? We test a six-sided die for bias by rolling it 100 times. The number 1 occurs only once and the number 6 occurs many times, never on its own, but in several groups of consecutive sixes.

I think it is reasonable to say that common sense would, and should, lead everyone to conclude that the die is biased and not fit for its purpose as a source of random numbers.

In other words, we have a gut feeling that the die is untrustworthy. Gut instincts and common sense are geared towards maximizing our chances of survival in our complex and unpredictable world — these are innate and learnt behaviours that have enabled humans to survive despite the harshness of our ever changing habitat.

Only very recently in the long history of our species have we developed specialized tools that enable us to better understand our harsh and complex world: science and critical thinking. These tools are difficult to master because they still haven’t been incorporated into our primary and secondary formal education systems.

The vast majority of people do not have these skills therefore, when a scientific finding flies in the face of our gut instincts and/or common sense, it creates an overwhelming desire to reject the finding and classify the scientist(s) as being irrational and lacking basic common sense. It does not create an intense desire to accept the finding then painstakingly learn all of the science that went into producing the finding.

With that in mind, let’s rethink our common sense conclusion that the six-sided die is biased and untrustworthy. What we really mean is that the results have given all of us good reason to be highly suspicious of this die. We aren’t 100% certain that this die is biased, but our gut feeling and common sense are more than adequate to form a reasonable mistrust of it and to avoid using it for anything important to us. Reasons to keep this die rather than discard it might be to provide a source of mild entertainment or to use its bias for the purposes of cheating.

Some readers might be surprised to discover at this point that the results I presented from this apparently heavily-biased die are not only perfectly valid results obtained from a truly random unbiased die, they are to be fully expected. Even if the die had produced 100 sixes in that test, it would not confirm that the die is biased in any way whatsoever. Rolling a truly unbiased die once will produce one of six possible outcomes. Rolling the same die 100 times will produce one unique sequence out of the 6^100 (6.5 x 10^77) possible sequences: all of which are equally valid!

Gut feeling plus common sense rightfully informs us that the probability of a random die producing one hundred consecutive sixes is so incredibly remote that nobody will ever see it occur in reality. This conclusion is also mathematically sound: if there were 6.5 x 10^77 people on Earth, each performing the same test on truly random dice, there is no guarantee that anyone would observe a sequence of one hundred consecutive sixes.

When we observe a sequence such as 2 5 1 4 6 3 1 4 3 6 5 2… common sense informs us that the die is very likely random. If we calculate the arithmetic mean to be very close to 3.5 then common sense will lead us to conclude that the die is both random and unbiased enough to use it as a reliable source of random numbers.

Unfortunately, this is a perfect example of our gut feelings and common sense failing us abysmally. They totally failed to warn us that the 2 5 1 4 6 3 1 4 3 6 5 2… sequence we observed had exactly the same (im)probability of occurring as a sequence of one hundred 6s or any other sequence that one can think of that doesn’t look random to a human observer.

The 100-roll die test is nowhere near powerful enough to properly test a six-sided die, but this test is more than adequately powered to reveal some of our cognitive biases and some of the deficits in our personal mastery of science and critical thinking.

To properly test the die we need to provide solid evidence that it is both truly random and that its measured bias tends towards zero as the number of rolls tends towards infinity. We could use the services of one testing lab to conduct billions of test rolls, but this would not exclude errors caused by such things as miscalibrated equipment and experimenter bias. It is better to subdivide the testing across multiple labs then carefully analyse and appropriately aggregate the results: this dramatically reduces errors caused by equipment and humans.

In medicine, this testing process is performed via systematic reviews of multiple, independent, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials — every trial that is insufficiently powered to add meaningfully to the result is rightfully excluded from the aggregation.

Alt-med relies on a diametrically opposed testing process. It performs a plethora of only underpowered tests; presents those that just happen to show a positive result (just as a random die could’ve produced); and sweeps under the carpet the overwhelming number of tests that produced a negative result. It publishes only the ‘successes’, not its failures. By sweeping its failures under the carpet it feels justified in making the very bold claim: Our plethora of collected evidence shows clearly that it mostly ‘works’ and, when it doesn’t, it causes no harm.

One of the most acidic tests for a hypothesis and its supporting data (which is a mandatory test in a few branches of critical engineering) is to substitute the collected data for random data that has been carefully crafted to emulate the probability mass functions of the collected datasets. This test has to be run multiple times for reasons that I’ve attempted to explain in my random die example. If the proposer of the hypothesis is unable to explain the multiple failures resulting from this acid test then it is highly likely that the proposer either does not fully understand their hypothesis or that their hypothesis is indistinguishable from the null hypothesis.

A German homeopathic journal, Zeitschrift Homoeopathie, has just published the following interesting article entitled HOMEOPATHIC DOCTORS HELP IN LIBERIA. It provides details about the international team of homeopaths that travelled to Liberia to cure Ebola. Here I take the liberty of translating it from German into English. As most of it is fairly self-explanatory, I abstain from any comments of my own – however, I am sure that my readers will want to add their views.

In mid-October, an international team of 4 doctors travelled to the West African country for three weeks. The mission in a hospital in Ganta, a town with about 40 000 inhabitants on the border to Guinea, ended as planned on 7 November. The exercise was organised by the World Association of Homeopathic Doctors, the Liga Medicorum Homoeopathica Internationalis (LMHI), with support of by the German Central Association of Homeopathic Doctors. The aim was to support the local doctors in the care of the population and, if possible, also to help in the fight against the Ebola epidemic. The costs for the three weeks’ stay were financed mostly through donations from homeopathic doctors.

“We know that we were invited mainly as well-trained doctors to Liberia, and that or experience in homeopathy was asked for only as a secondary issue”, stresses Cornelia Bajic, first chairperson of the DZVhA (German Central Association of Homeopathic Doctors). The doctors from India, USA, Switzerland and Germany were able to employ their expertise in several wards of the hospital, to help patients, and to support their Liberian colleagues. It was planned to use and document the homeopathic treatment of Ebola-patients as an adjunct to the WHO prescribed standard treatment. “Our experience from the treatment of other epidemics in the history of medicine allows the conclusion that a homeopathic treatment might significantly reduce the mortality of Ebola patients”, judges Bajic. The successful use of homeopathic remedies has been documented for example in Cholera, Diphtheria or Yellow Fever.

Overview of the studies related to the homeopathic treatment of epidemics

In Ganta, the doctors of the LMHI team treated patients with “at times most serious diseases, particularly inflammatory conditions, children with Typhus, meningitis, pneumonias, and unclear fevers – each time only under the supervision of the local doctor in charge”, reports Dr Ortrud Lindemann, who also worked obstetrically in Ganta. The medical specialist reports after her return: “When we had been 10 days in the hospital, the successes had become known, and the patients stood in queues to get treated by us.” The homeopathic doctors received thanks from the Ganta hospital for their work, it was said that it had been helpful for the patients and a blessing for the employees of the hospital.

POLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS MORE IMPORTANT THAN MEDICAL TREATMENT? 

This first LMHI team of doctors was forbidden to care for patients from the “Ebola Treatment Unit”. The decision was based on an order of the WHO. A team of Cuban doctors was also waiting in vain for being allowed to work. “We are dealing here with a dangerous epidemic and a large number of seriously ill patients. And despite a striking lack of doctors in West Africa political considerations are more important than the treatment of these patients”, criticises the DZVhA chairperson Bajic. Now a second team is to travel to Ganta to support the local doctors.

Medical treatments with no direct effect, such as homeopathy, are surprisingly popular. But how does a good reputation of such treatments spread and persist? Researchers from the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution in Stockholm believe that they have identified the mechanism.

They argue that most medical treatments result in a range of outcomes: some people improve while others deteriorate. If the people who improve are more inclined to tell others about their experiences than the people who deteriorate, ineffective or even harmful treatments would maintain a good reputation.

They conducted a fascinating study to test the hypothesis that positive outcomes are overrepresented in online medical product reviews, examined if this reputational distortion is large enough to bias people’s decisions, and explored the implications of this bias for the cultural evolution of medical treatments.

The researchers compared outcomes of weight loss treatments and fertility treatments as evidenced in clinical trials to outcomes reported in 1901 reviews on Amazon. Subsequently, in a series of experiments, they evaluated people’s choice of weight loss diet after reading different reviews. Finally, a mathematical model was used to examine if this bias could result in less effective treatments having a better reputation than more effective treatments.

The results of these investigations confirmed the hypothesis that people with better outcomes are more inclined to write reviews. After 6 months on the diet, 93% of online reviewers reported a weight loss of 10 kg or more, while just 27% of clinical trial participants experienced this level of weight change. A similar positive distortion was found in fertility treatment reviews. In a series of experiments, the researchers demonstrated that people are more inclined to begin a diet that was backed by many positive reviews, than a diet with reviews that are representative of the diet’s true effect. A mathematical model of medical cultural evolution suggested that the size of the positive distortion critically depends on the shape of the outcome distribution.

The authors concluded that online reviews overestimate the benefits of medical treatments, probably because people with negative outcomes are less inclined to tell others about their experiences. This bias can enable ineffective medical treatments to maintain a good reputation.

To me, this seems eminently plausible; but there are, of course, other reasons why bogus treatments survive or even thrive – and they may vary in their importance to the overall effect from treatment to treatment. As so often in health care, things are complex and there are multiple factors that contribute to a phenomenon.

Have you noticed?

Homeopaths, acupuncturists, herbalists, reflexologists, aroma therapists, colonic irrigationists, naturopaths, TCM-practitioners, etc. – they always smile!

But why?

I think I might know the answer. Here is my theory:

Alternative practitioners have in common with conventional clinicians that they treat patients – lots of patients, day in day out. This wears them down, of course. And sometimes, conventional clinicians find it hard to smile. Come to think of it, alternative practitioners seem to have it much better. Let me explain.

Whenever a practitioner (of any type) treats a patient, one of three outcomes is bound to happen:

  1. the patient gets better,
  2. the patients roughly remains how she was and experiences no improvement,
  3. the patient gets worse.

In scenario one, everybody is happy. Both alternative and conventional practitioners will claim with a big smile that their treatment was the cause of the improvement. There is a difference though: the conventional practitioner who adheres to the principles of evidence-based medicine will know that the assumption is likely to be true, while the alternative practitioner is probably just guessing. In any case, as long as the patient gets better, all is well.

In scenario two, most conventional clinicians will get somewhat concerned and find little reason to smile. Not so the alternative practitioner! He will have one of several explanations why his therapy has not produced the expected result all of which allow him to carry on smiling smugly. He might, for instance, explain to his patient:

  • You have to give it more time; another 10-20 treatment sessions and you will be as right as rain (unfortunately, further sessions will come at a price).
  • This must be because of all those nasty chemical drugs that you took for so long – they block up your system, you know; we will have to do some serious detox to get rid of all this poison (of course, at a cost).
  • You must realize that, had we not started my treatment when we did, you would be much worse by now, perhaps even dead.

In scenario three, any conventional clinician would have stopped smiling and begun to ask serious, self-critical questions about his diagnosis and treatment. Not so the alternative practitioner. He will point out with a big smile that the deterioration of the symptoms only appears to be a bad sign. In reality it is a very encouraging signal indicating that the optimal treatment for the patient’s condition has finally been found and is beginning to work. The acute worsening of the complaints is merely an ‘aggravation’ or’ healing crisis’. Such a course of events had to be expected when true healing of the root cause of the condition is to be achieved. The thing to do now is to continue with several more treatments (at a cost, of course) until deep healing from within sets in.

Many of us want the cake and eat it – but alternative practitioners, it seems to me, have actually achieved this goal. No wonder they smile!

It has often occurred to me that some people use alternative medicine not as medicine but as something entirely different. A new investigation sheds an interesting light on this question.

The aim of this study was to explore how and why Australian men with cancer use complementary therapies (CTs) and how their significant others (SOs) contribute to the regular uptake of CTs. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 26 male cancer patients and 24 SOs. Participants were purposefully sampled from a preceding Australian survey investigating the use of CTs in men with cancer.

Three core themes were identified: men used CTs as (a) problem-focused coping (e.g., diet modification), (b) emotion-focused coping (e.g., meditation), and (c) meaning-based coping (e.g., prayer). Practicing CTs helped men to cope with physical, emotional, and spiritual concerns, although some men spoke of difficulties with practicing meditation to regulate their emotions. SOs were supportive of men’s coping strategies but were only rarely involved in men’s emotion-focused coping.

The authors conclude that CTs have the potential to facilitate coping with cancer, independent of any measurable physiological benefit. Our findings suggest that when clinicians engage in conversations about CTs use, they should consider the type of coping strategy employed by their patient. Such information may enhance the efficacy of some interventions (e.g., meditation) and also provide for an opportunity to discuss patients’ expectations concerning CTs.

If these findings are generalizable – I always have problems when researchers draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of two dozen patients – then it would seem to follow that alternative medicine is being used as some sort of ‘Ersatz’ religion. Religious coping strategies are effective in Spiritual growth that results in positive or negative situations. It is the perception of an individual’s relationship with God that brings meaning, purpose and emotional comfort when dealing with circumstances. Prayer, meditation, worship are all examples of religious coping strategies. Positive coping strategies associate with better mental health and negative coping strategies relate to poorer mental and physical health.

Leading researchers have split religious coping into two categories: positive religious coping and negative religious coping. Individuals who use positive religious coping are likely to seek spiritual support and look for meaning in a traumatic situation. Negative religious coping (or Spiritual Struggles) expresses conflict, question, and doubt regarding issues of God and faith. The effects of religious coping are measured in many different circumstances, each with different outcomes. Some common experiences where people use religious coping are fear-inflicting events such as 9/11 or the holocaust, death and sickness, and near death experiences.

I do not want to labour my point (that alternative medicine might be an ‘Ersatz’ religion) beyond reason. Nonetheless, I would be very interested to hear what my readers feel about it.

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

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

The epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confirmation bias

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

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

Avoiding cognitive dissonance at all cost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The delusional end-stage

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

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

Why does all of this matter?

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

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

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

We have probably all fallen into the trap of thinking that something which has stood the ‘test of time’, i.e. something that has been used for centuries with apparent success, must be ok. In alternative medicine, this belief is extremely wide-spread, and one could argue that the entire sector is built on it. Influential proponents of ‘traditional’ medicine like Prince Charles do their best to strengthen this assumption. Sadly, however, it is easily disclosed as a classical fallacy: things that have stood the ‘test of time’ might work, of course, but the ‘test of time’ is never a proof of anything.

A recent study brought this message home loud and clear. This trial tested the efficacy of Rhodiola crenulata (R. crenulata), a traditional remedy which has been used widely in the Himalayan areas and in Tibet to prevent acute mountain sickness . As no scientific studies of this traditional treatment existed, the researchers conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover RCT to test its efficacy in acute mountain sickness prevention.

Healthy adult volunteers were randomized to two treatment sequences, receiving either 800 mg R. crenulata extract or placebo daily for 7 days before ascent and two days during mountaineering. After a three-month wash-out period, they were crossed over to the alternate treatment. On each occasion, the participants ascended rapidly from 250 m to 3421 m. The primary outcome measure was the incidence of acute mountain sickness with headache and at least one of the symptoms of nausea or vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, or difficulty sleeping.

One hundred and two participants completed the trial. No significant differences in the incidence of acute mountain sickness were found between R. crenulata extract and placebo groups. If anything, the incidence of severe acute mountain sickness with Rhodiola extract was slightly higher compared to the one with placebo: 35.3% vs. 29.4%.

R. crenulata extract was not effective in reducing the incidence or severity of acute mountain sickness as compared to placebo.

Similar examples could be found by the dozen. They demonstrate very clearly that the notion of the ‘test of time’ is erroneous: a treatment which has a long history of usage is not necessarily effective (or safe) – not only that, it might be dangerous. The true value of a therapy cannot be judged by experience, to be sure, we need rigorous clinical trials. Acute mountain sickness is a potentially life-threatening condition for which there are reasonably effective treatments. If people relied on the ‘ancient wisdom’ instead of using a therapy that actually works, they might pay for their error with their lives. The sooner alternative medicine proponents realise that, the better.

Has it ever occurred to you that much of the discussion about cause and effect in alternative medicine goes in circles without ever making progress? I have come to the conclusion that it does. Here I try to illustrate this point using the example of acupuncture, more precisely the endless discussion about how to best test acupuncture for efficacy. For those readers who like to misunderstand me I should explain that the sceptics’ view is in capital letters.

At the beginning there was the experience. Unaware of anatomy, physiology, pathology etc., people started sticking needles in other people’s skin, some 2000 years ago, and observed that they experienced relief of all sorts of symptoms.When an American journalist reported about this phenomenon in the 1970s, acupuncture became all the rage in the West. Acupuncture-fans then claimed that a 2000-year history is ample proof that acupuncture does work.

BUT ANECDOTES ARE NOTORIOUSLY UNRELIABLE!

Even the most enthusiastic advocates conceded that this is probably true. So they documented detailed case-series of lots of patients, calculated the average difference between the pre- and post-treatment severity of symptoms, submitted it to statistical tests, and published the notion that the effects of acupuncture are not just anecdotal; in fact, they are statistically significant, they said.

BUT THIS EFFECT COULD BE DUE TO THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE CONDITION!

“True enough”, grumbled the acupuncture-fans and conducted the very first controlled clinical trials. Essentially they treated one group of patients with acupuncture while another group received conventional treatments as usual. When they analysed the results, they found that the acupuncture group had improved significantly more. “Now do you believe us?”, they asked triumphantly, “acupuncture is clearly effective”.

NO! THIS OUTCOME MIGHT BE DUE TO SELECTION BIAS. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT.

The acupuncturists felt slightly embarrassed because they had not thought of that. They had allocated their patients to the treatment according to patients’ choice. Thus the expectation of the patients (or the clinician) to get relief from acupuncture might have been the reason for the difference in outcome. So they consulted an expert in trial-design and were advised to allocate not by choice but by chance. In other words, they repeated the previous study but randomised patients to the two groups. Amazingly, their RCT still found a significant difference favouring acupuncture over treatment as usual.

BUT THIS DIFFERENCE COULD BE CAUSED BY A PLACEBO-EFFECT!

Now the acupuncturists were in a bit of a pickle; as far as they could see, there was no good placebo for acupuncture! Eventually some methodologist-chap came up with the idea that, in order to mimic a placebo, they could simply stick needles into non-acupuncture points. When the acupuncturists tried that method, they found that there were improvements in both groups but the difference between real acupuncture and placebo was tiny and usually neither statistically significant nor clinically relevant.

NOW DO YOU CONCEDE THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS NOT AN EFFECTIVE TREATMENT?

Absolutely not! The results merely show that needling non-acupuncture points is not an adequate placebo. Obviously this intervention also sends a powerful signal to the brain which clearly makes it an effective intervention. What do you expect when you compare two effective treatments?

IF YOU REALLY THINK SO, YOU NEED TO PROVE IT AND DESIGN A PLACEBO THAT IS INERT.

At that stage, the acupuncturists came up with a placebo-needle that did not actually penetrate the skin; it worked like a mini stage dagger that telescopes into itself while giving the impression that it penetrated the skin just like the real thing. Surely this was an adequate placebo! The acupuncturists repeated their studies but, to their utter dismay, they found again that both groups improved and the difference in outcome between their new placebo and true acupuncture was minimal.

WE TOLD YOU THAT ACUPUNCTURE WAS NOT EFFECTIVE! DO YOU FINALLY AGREE?

Certainly not, they replied. We have thought long and hard about these intriguing findings and believe that they can be explained just like the last set of results: the non-penetrating needles touch the skin; this touch provides a stimulus powerful enough to have an effect on the brain; the non-penetrating placebo-needles are not inert and therefore the results merely depict a comparison of two effective treatments.

YOU MUST BE JOKING! HOW ARE YOU GOING TO PROVE THAT BIZARRE HYPOTHESIS?

We had many discussions and consensus meeting amongst the most brilliant brains in acupuncture about this issue and have arrived at the conclusion that your obsession with placebo, cause and effect etc. is ridiculous and entirely misplaced. In real life, we don’t use placebos. So, let’s instead address the ‘real life’ question: is acupuncture better than usual treatment? We have conducted pragmatic studies where one group of patients gets treatment as usual and the other group receives acupuncture in addition. These studies show that acupuncture is effective. This is all the evidence we need. Why can you not believe us?

NOW WE HAVE ARRIVED EXACTLY AT THE POINT WHERE WE HAVE BEEN A LONG TIME AGO. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT. YOU OBVIOUSLY CANNOT DEMONSTRATE THAT ACUPUNCTURE CAUSES CLINICAL IMPROVEMENT. THEREFORE YOU OPT TO PRETEND THAT CAUSE AND EFFECT ARE IRRELEVANT. YOU USE SOME IMITATION OF SCIENCE TO ‘PROVE’ THAT YOUR PRECONCEIVED IDEAS ARE CORRECT. YOU DO NOT SEEM TO BE INTERESTED IN THE TRUTH ABOUT ACUPUNCTURE AT ALL.

As I write these words, I am travelling back from a medical conference. The organisers had invited me to give a lecture which I concluded saying: “anyone in medicine not believing in evidence-based health care is in the wrong business”. This statement was meant to stimulate the discussion and provoke the audience who were perhaps just a little on the side of those who are not all that taken by science.

I may well have been right, because, in the coffee break, several doctors disputed my point; to paraphrase their arguments: “You don’t believe in the value of experience, you think that science is the way to know everything. But you are wrong! Philosophers and other people, who are a lot cleverer than you, tell us that science is not the way to real knowledge; and in some forms of medicine we have a wealth of experience which we cannot ignore. This is at least as important as scientific knowledge. Take TCM, for instance, thousands of years of tradition must mean something; in fact it tells us more than science will ever be able to. Qi-energy, for instance, is a concept based on experience, and science is useless at verifying it.”

I disagreed, of course. But I am afraid that I did not convince my colleagues. The appeal to tradition is amazingly powerful, so much so that even well-seasoned physicians fall for it. Yet it nevertheless is a fallacy, I am sure.

So what does experience tell us, how is it generated and why should it be unreliable?

On the level of the individual, experience emerges when a clinician makes similar observations several times in a row. This is so persuasive that few doctors are immune to the phenomenon. Let’s assume the experience is about acupuncture, more precisely about acupuncture for smoking cessation. The acupuncturist presumably has learnt during his training that his therapy works for that indication via stimulating the flow of Qi, and promptly tries it on several patients. Some of them come back for more and report that they find it easier to give up cigarettes after consulting him. This happens repeatedly, and our clinician forthwith is convinced – in fact, he knows – that acupuncture is effective for smoking cessation.

If we critically analyse this scenario, what does it tell us? It tells us very little of relevance, I am afraid. The scenario is entirely compatible with a whole host of explanations which have nothing to do with the effects of acupuncture per se:

  • Those patients who did not manage to stop smoking might not have returned. Only seeing his successes without his failures, the acupuncturist would have got the wrong end of the stick.
  • Human memory is selective such that the few patients who did come back and reported failure might easily get forgotten by the clinician. We all remember the good things and forget the disappointments, particularly if we are clinicians.
  • The placebo-effect might have played a dirty trick on the experience of our acupuncturist.
  • Some patients might have used nicotine patches that helped him to stop smoking without disclosing this fact to the acupuncturist who then, of course, attributed the benefit to his needling.
  • The acupuncturist – being a very kind and empathetic clinician – might have involuntarily induced some of his patients to show kindness in return and thus tell porkies about their smoking habits which would have created a false positive impression about the effectiveness of his treatment.
  • Being so empathetic, the acupuncturists would have provided lots of encouragement to stop smoking which, in some patients, might have been sufficient to kick the habit.

 

The long and short of all this is that our acupuncturist gradually got convinced by this interplay of factors that Qi exists and that acupuncture is an ineffective treatment. Hence forth he would bet his last shirt that he is right about this – after all, he has seen it with his own eyes, not just once but many times. And he will doubt anyone who shows him evidence that says otherwise. In fact, he is likely become very sceptical about scientific evidence in general – just like the doctors who talked to me after my lecture.

On a population level, such experience will be prevalent in not just one but most acupuncturists. Our clinician’s experience is certainly not unique; others will have made it too. In fact, as an acupuncturist, it is hard not to make it. Acupuncturists would have told everyone else about it, perhaps reported it on conferences or published it in articles or books. Experience of this nature is passed on from generation to generation, and soon someone will be able to demonstrate that acupuncture has been used ’effectively’ for smoking cessation since decades or centuries. The creation of a myth out of unreliable experience is thus complete.

Am I saying that experience of this nature is always and necessarily wrong or useless? No, I am not. It can be and often is correct. But, at the same time, it is frequently incorrect. It can serve as a valuable indicator but not more. Experience is not a tool for reliably informing us about the effectiveness of medical interventions. Experience based-medicine is an obsolete pseudo-medicine burdened with concepts that are counter-productive to optimal health care.

Philosophers and other people who are much cleverer than I am have been trying for some time to separate good from bad science and evidence from experience. Most recently, two philosophers, MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI and MAARTEN BOUDRY, commented specifically on this problem in relation to TCM. I leave you with some extensive quotes from what they wrote.

… pointing out that some traditional Chinese remedies (like drinking fresh turtle blood to alleviate cold symptoms) may in fact work, and therefore should not be dismissed as pseudoscience… risks confusing the possible effectiveness of folk remedies with the arbitrary theoretical-metaphysical baggage attached to it. There is no question that some folk remedies do work. The active ingredient of aspirin, for example, is derived from willow bark…

… claims about the existence of “Qi” energy, channeled through the human body by way of “meridians,” though, is a different matter. This sounds scientific, because it uses arcane jargon that gives the impression of articulating explanatory principles. But there is no way to test the existence of Qi and associated meridians, or to establish a viable research program based on those concepts, for the simple reason that talk of Qi and meridians only looks substantive, but it isn’t even in the ballpark of an empirically verifiable theory.

…the notion of Qi only mimics scientific notions such as enzyme actions on lipid compounds. This is a standard modus operandi of pseudoscience: it adopts the external trappings of science, but without the substance.

…The notion of Qi, again, is not really a theory in any meaningful sense of the word. It is just an evocative word to label a mysterious force of which we do not know and we are not told how to find out anything at all.

Still, one may reasonably object, what’s the harm in believing in Qi and related notions, if in fact the proposed remedies seem to help? Well, setting aside the obvious objections that the slaughtering of turtles might raise on ethical grounds, there are several issues to consider. To begin with, we can incorporate whatever serendipitous discoveries from folk medicine into modern scientific practice, as in the case of the willow bark turned aspirin. In this sense, there is no such thing as “alternative” medicine, there’s only stuff that works and stuff that doesn’t.

Second, if we are positing Qi and similar concepts, we are attempting to provide explanations for why some things work and others don’t. If these explanations are wrong, or unfounded as in the case of vacuous concepts like Qi, then we ought to correct or abandon them. Most importantly, pseudo-medical treatments often do not work, or are even positively harmful. If you take folk herbal “remedies,” for instance, while your body is fighting a serious infection, you may suffer severe, even fatal, consequences.

…Indulging in a bit of pseudoscience in some instances may be relatively innocuous, but the problem is that doing so lowers your defenses against more dangerous delusions that are based on similar confusions and fallacies. For instance, you may expose yourself and your loved ones to harm because your pseudoscientific proclivities lead you to accept notions that have been scientifically disproved, like the increasingly (and worryingly) popular idea that vaccines cause autism.

Philosophers nowadays recognize that there is no sharp line dividing sense from nonsense, and moreover that doctrines starting out in one camp may over time evolve into the other. For example, alchemy was a (somewhat) legitimate science in the times of Newton and Boyle, but it is now firmly pseudoscientific (movements in the opposite direction, from full-blown pseudoscience to genuine science, are notably rare)….

The borderlines between genuine science and pseudoscience may be fuzzy, but this should be even more of a call for careful distinctions, based on systematic facts and sound reasoning. To try a modicum of turtle blood here and a little aspirin there is not the hallmark of wisdom and even-mindedness. It is a dangerous gateway to superstition and irrationality

Homeopaths can bear criticism only when it is highly diluted. Any critique from the ‘outside’ is therefore dismissed by insisting that the author fails to understand the subtleties of homeopathy. And criticism from the ‘inside’ does not exist: by definition, a homeopath does not criticise his/her own trade. Through these mechanisms, homeopaths have more or less successfully shielded themselves from all arguments against their activities and have, for the last 200 years, managed to survive in a world of make-belief.

As I will show below, I started my professional life on the side of the homeopaths – I am not proud of this fact, but there is no use denying it. When the evidence told me more and more clearly that I had been wrong, about 10 years ago, I began expressing serious doubts about the plausibility, efficacy and safety of using homeopathic remedies to treat patients in need. Homeopaths reacted not just with anger, they were also at a loss.

Their little trick of saying ‘He does not understand homeopathy and therefore his critique is invalid’ could not possibly work in my case – I had been one of them: I had attended their meetings, chaired some of their sessions, edited a book on homeopathy, accepted an invitation to join the editorial board of the journal ‘HOMEOPATHY‘ as well as a EU-panel investigating homeopathy, conducted trials, systematic reviews and meta-analyses, published over 100 articles on the subject, accepted money from Prince Charles as well as from the ‘ueber-homeopath’ George Vithoulkas for my research, and even contributed to THE INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF HOMEOPATHY. It would have not looked reasonable to suddenly deny my previously accepted expertise. Homeopaths thus found themselves in a pickle: critique from the ‘inside’ is not what they were used to or could easily cope with.

The homeopathic idyll was under threat, and a solution to the problem had to be found with some urgency. And soon enough, it was found. Homeopaths from across the world started claiming that I had been telling porkies about my training/qualifications in homeopathy: “Edzard Ernst has admitted that he has over the years lied or supported a lie about having homeopathic training. In reality he has had none at all! The leading so-called ‘expert’ and critic of homeopathy, Professor Edzard Ernst, has admitted that he has no qualifications in homeopathy. etc. etc. Diluting the truth to the extreme, they almost unanimously insisted that, contrary to my previous assertions, I had no training/qualifications in homeopathy. Thus, they began to argue, that I was an imposter and had insufficient knowledge, expertise and experience after all: Professor Edzard Ernst the leading ‘authority’ on homeopathy, and perhaps its most referenced critic, has no qualifications in homeopathy. William Alderson of HMC21 also claims that Ernst’s book Trick or Treatment? shows Ernst to be unreliable as a researcher into homeopathy. Opposition to homeopathy is based on propaganda, they stated. Others wrote that Edzard Ernst’ failure as a homeopath only proves he lacked some basic qualities essential to become a successful homeopath. He failed as a homeopath, and then turned a skeptic. His failure is only his failure- it does not disprove homeopathy by any way. Once he failed in putting a mark as a successful homeopath or CAM practitioner, he just tried the other way to become famous and respectable- he converted himself into a skeptic, which provided him with ample opportunities to appear on ‘anti-homeopathy’ platforms’ as an ‘authority’, ‘expert’ and ‘ex-homeopath’! Some went even further claiming that I had also lied about my medical qualifications.

These notions has been going around the internet for several years now and conveniently served as a reason to re-categorise me into the camp of the homeopathically unqualified pseudo-experts: ‘We believe that it is time to recognise that opposition to homeopathy is largely based on the opinions of individuals who are unqualified or unwilling to judge the evidence fairly’. I, by contrast, believe it is time that I disclose the full truth about ‘my double-life as a homeopath’. What exactly is my background in this area? Have I really been found out to be a confidence-trickster?

THE HOMEOPATHIC CLINICIAN

I graduated from medical school in Munich in the late 1970s and, looking for a job, I realised that there weren’t any. At the time, Germany had a surplus of doctors and all the posts I wanted were taken. Eventually, I found one in the only hospital that was run almost entirely homoeopathically, the KRANKENHAUS FUER NATURHEILWEISEN in Munich. Within about half a year, I learned how to think like a homeopath, diagnose like a homeopath and treat patients like a homeopath. I never attended formal courses or aspired to get a certificate; as far as I remember, none of the junior doctors working in the homeopathic hospital did that either. We were expected to learn on the job, and so we did.

Our teachers at medical school had hardly ever mentioned homeopathy, but one thing they had nevertheless made abundantly clear to us: homeopathy cannot possibly work; there is nothing in these pills and potions! To my surprise, however, my patients improved, their symptoms subsided and, in general, they were very happy with the treatment we provided. My professors had told me that homeopathy was rubbish, but they had forgotten to teach me a much more important lesson: critical thinking. Therefore, I might be forgiven for proudly assuming that my patients’ improvement was due to my skilful homeopathic prescriptions.

But then came another surprise: the boss of the homeopathic hospital, Dr Zimmermann, took me under his wings, and we had occasional discussions about this and that and, of course, about homeopathy. When I shyly mentioned what I had been told at medical school ( about homeopathy being entirely implausible), he agreed! I was speechless. Crucially, he considered that there were other explanations: “Our patients might improve because we look after them well and we discontinue all the unnecessary medication they come in with; perhaps the homeopathic remedies play only a small part”, he said.

THE INVESTIGATOR OF HOMEOPATHY

This may well have been the first time I started looking critically at homeopathy and my own clinical practice – and this is roughly where I left things as far as homeopathy is concerned until, in 1993, it became my job to research alternative therapies systematically and rigorously. Meanwhile I had done a PhD and tried my best to learn the skills of critical analysis. As I began to investigate homeopathy scientifically, I found that my former boss had been right: patients do indeed improve because of a multitude of factors: placebo-effects, natural history of the disease, regression towards the mean, to mention just three of a multitude of phenomena. At the same time, he had not been entirely correct: homeopathic remedies are pure placebos; they do not play a ‘small part’ in patients’ improvement, they play no part in this process.

As I began to state this more and more clearly, all sorts of ad hominem attacks were hauled in my direction, and recently I was even fired from the editorial board of the journal ‘HOMEOPATHY’ because allegedly I “…smeared homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine…” I don’t mind any of that – but I do think that the truth about ‘my double-life as a homeopath’ should not be diluted like a homeopathic remedy until it suits those who think they can defame me by claiming I am a liar and do not know what I am talking about.

CONCLUSION

This rather depressing story shows, I think, that some homeopaths, rather than admitting they are in the wrong, are prepared to dilute the truth until it might be hard for third parties to tell who is right and who is wrong. But however they may deny it, the truth is still the truth: I have been trained as a homeopath.

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