MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

fallacy

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The love-affair of many nurses with complementary medicine is well-known. We have discussed it many times on this blog – see for instance here, here and here. Yet the reasons for it remain somewhat mysterious, I find. Therefore I was interested to see a new paper on the subject.

The aim of this ‘meta-synthesis‘ was to review, critically, appraise and synthesize the existing qualitative research to develop a new, more substantial interpretation of nurses’ attitudes regarding the, use of complementary therapies by patients. Fifteen articles were included in the review.

Five themes emerged from the data relating to nurses’ attitude towards complementary therapies:

  1. the strengths and weaknesses of conventional medicine;
  2. complementary therapies as a way to enhance nursing practice;
  3. patient empowerment and patient-centeredness;
  4. cultural barriers and enablers to integration;
  5. structural barriers and enablers to integration.

Nurses’ support for complementary therapies, the authors of this article claim, is not an attempt to challenge mainstream medicine but rather an endeavour to improve the quality of care available to patients. There are, however, a number of barriers to nurses’ support including institutional culture and clinical context, as well as time and knowledge limitations.

The authors concluded that some nurses promote complementary therapies as an opportunity to personalise care and practice in a humanistic way. Yet, nurses have very limited education in this field and a lack of professional frameworks to assist them. The nursing profession needs to consider how to address current deficiencies in meeting the growing use of complementary therapies by patients.

In my view, there are two most remarkable misunderstandings here:

  1. While it is undoubtedly laudable that nurses “endeavour to improve the quality of care available to patients”, it has to be said that such an endeavour does not require complementary medicine. Are they implying that with conventional medicine the quality of care cannot be improved?
  2. I fail to understand why the lack of good evidential support for most complementary therapies did not emerge as a prominent theme. Are nurses not concerned about the (lack of) evidence that underpins their actions?

Whenever a level-headed person discloses that a specific alternative therapy is not based on good evidence, you can bet your last shirt that a proponent of the said treatment responds by claiming that conventional medicine is not much better.

There are several variations to this theme. Today I want to focus on just one of them, namely the counter-claim that, only a short while ago, conventional medicine was not much better than the said alternative therapy (the implication is that it must be unfair to demand evidence from alternative medicine, while accepting a similar state of affairs in conventional medicine). The argument has recently been formulated by one commentator on this blog as follows:

“Trepanation, leeches for UTI’s, and bloodletting are all historical treatments of medical doctors…It’s hypocritical… to impute mainstream chiropractice to the profession’s beginnings and yet not admit that medicine’s founding and evolution was inbued with consistently scientific rigor.”

Sadly, some people seem to be convinced by such words, and this is why they are being repeated ad nauseam by interested parties. Yet the argument is fallacious for a range of reasons.

  • Firstly, it is based on the classical ‘tu quoque’ fallacy (appeal to hypocrisy).
  • Secondly – unless we happen to be historians – it is not the healthcare of the past that is relevant to our discussions. The question cannot be what this or that group of clinicians used to do; the question is HOW DO THEY TREAT THEIR PATIENTS TODAY?

As soon as we focus on this issue, it is impossible to deny that conventional medicine has made lots of progress and moved light years away from treatments such as trepanation, leeches, bloodletting and many others.

Why?

Why did we make such huge progress?

Because research showed that many of the traditional treatments were ineffective, unsafe and/or implausible (thus demonstrating that hundreds of years of experience – which alternative therapists rate so very highly – is of more than dubious value), and because we consequently developed and tested new therapies and subsequently used those treatments that passed these tests and were proven to do more good than harm.

By contrast, in the last decades, centuries and millennia, homeopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, paranormal healing etc. did make no (or very little) progress. So much so that Hahnemann, for instance, would pass any exam for  homeopathy today. (If you disagree with this statement, please post a list of those treatments that have been given up by alternative therapists in the last 100 years or so.) Come to think of it, it is a hallmark of alternative medicine that it does not progress in the way conventional medicine does. It is almost completely static, a fact, that renders it akin to a dogma or a cult.

But why? Why is there no real progress in alternative medicine?

Don’t tell me that there is no research, research funding, etc. There are now hundreds of studies of homeopathy or chiropractic, thousands of acupuncture, and dozens of paranormal healing, for instance. The trouble is not the paucity of such research but its findings! The totality of the evidence in each of these areas fails to show that the therapy in question is efficacious.

And there we have, I think, another hallmark of alternative medicine: it is an area where research is only acted upon, if its findings are in line with the preconceptions and aspirations of its proponents.

I find this interesting!

It means, amongst other things, that research into alternative medicine tends not to be used for finding the truth or establishing new knowledge; it is mainly employed for the promotion of the therapy in question, regardless of what the truth about it might be (this would disqualify this exercise from being research and qualify it as PSEUDO-RESEARCH). If the research findings are such that they cannot be used for promotion, they are simply ignored or defamed as inadequate.

You probably remember: the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) has issued a statement announcing that unsupported claims for homeopathic remedies will be no longer allowed. Specifically, they said that, in future, homeopathic remedies have to be held to the same standard as other medicinal products. In other words, American companies must now have reliable scientific evidence for health-related claims that their products can treat specific conditions and illnesses.

Now the AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF HOMEOPATHY (AIH) has published a rebuttal. It is hilarious and embarrassing in equal measure. Here it is in full (I have only omitted their references – they can be seen in the linked original –  and added footnotes in bold square brackets with my very short comments):

START OF QUOTE

November 30, 2016

The American Institute of Homeopathy applauds the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) goal of protecting the American public from false advertising claims, but in a recent circumstance we believe the FTC has overstepped its jurisdictional bounds and promulgated false information in what appears to be a bid to restrict health care choices [1] available to the American public.

In Response to the recent Enforcement Policy Statement1 and a Consumer Information Blog,2 both issued by the FTC on November 15, 2016, the American Institute of Homeopathy registers our strong concern regarding the content of the following inaccurate statements:

  1. “Homeopathy… is based on the view that disease symptoms can be treated by minute doses of substances that produce similar symptoms…”

Homeopathy is not based on a “view” or an opinion. It is based on reliable, reproducible, clinically acquired, empiric evidence [2] gathered through two centuries of corroborated data, assisted by thousands of practitioners worldwide [3], demonstrating the actions of different medicinal substances in living systems, aka: the science of homeopathy. In fact, the homeopathic scientific community were pioneers of the modern scientific method including the widespread adoption of blinded and placebo controlled studies in 1885 [4], decades before conventional medicine.3

Homeopathy is not based on a theory or on conjecture, but on principles that have been confirmed by long-studied clinical data, meticulously gathered and analyzed over many years [5].

  1. “Many homeopathic products are diluted to such an extent that they no longer contain detectable levels of the initial substance.”

While the dilution and succussion process of formulating homeopathic medicines does reduce the concentration (and the toxicity) of the original substances, detectable amounts of these materials remain quantifiable in the form of nanoparticles [6] dispersed throughout.4 Multiple independent laboratories, worldwide have confirmed that these nanoparticles persist,5 and that they are biologically active.6 Many other homeopathic products (particularly those sold OTC and described as “low potency”) have dilute amounts of the original substance [7] that remain chemically detectable by straightforward titration.

  1. “…homeopathic product claims are not based on modern scientific methods…”

This statement is false and misleading. The active ingredients within most OTC homeopathic products have hundreds or thousands of case reports from physicians who have used these medicines [8]. These reports of direct clinical experiences establish a collective, real-world dataset that demonstrates which conditions have been observed to respond to treatment. Such historical data is similar to the types of information used to demonstrate effectiveness for many conventional OTC medicines on the market today [9].

The Homeopathic Pharmacopeia Convention of the United States (HPCUS) maintains a formulary describing the appropriate manufacturing standards for homeopathic medicines [10]. Every homeopathic manufacturer member of the American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists in good ethical standing complies with both manufacturing and labeling standards set by the HPCUS. Consumers should be cautious when using any products that are not distinguished by conformance with “HPUS” on the label.

  1. “…the case for efficacy is based solely on traditional homeopathic theories…”

This statement is false. Neither homeopathy nor homeopathic efficacy is based on any theories. Efficacy for various homeopathic medicines has been established by scientifically reproducible clinical empiric research evidence [11] and cured patient cases followed over many years [12]. Homeopathy is an evidence-based medical subspecialty rooted in patient care.

  1. “…there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing the product’s efficacy.”

While this statement may have limited accuracy with respect to some OTC products, it is false and misleading with respect to most homeopathic medicines listed in the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States. Hundreds of state-of-the-art double-blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled studies, many in peer-reviewed journals, demonstrate the superior efficacy of homeopathic medicines in a wide range of conditions, including asthma,7 depression and anxiety,8 chronic illness,9 allergic rhinitis,10 hypertension,11 headaches/migraines,12 sepsis,13 mild traumatic brain injury,14 otitis media,15 cancer,16 and many other conditions [13]. The American Institute of Homeopathy maintains and continually updates an extensive database, available free to the public, with over 6,000 research articles [14].17

Multiple meta-analyses published in peer reviewed medical journals that conclude that homeopathic medicine effects are superior to placebo [15] and that additional study of this therapeutic system is warranted.18,19,20,21,22,23  To that end, we encourage the National Institutes of Health to reverse their current position of blocking funding for homeopathic trials.24

  1. “…marketing claims that such homeopathic products have a therapeutic effect lack a reasonable basis and are likely misleading…”

The conclusion of whether a product has a “reasonable basis” is entirely irrelevant if that product has demonstrable clinical effectiveness. The important question, when it comes to homeopathy, is whether it is effective in clinical settings, not whether it has a “reasonable basis” for how it works. The mechanism by which homeopathy works differs from conventional medicines [16], but this fact does not make these products “misleading”.

Several recent class-action lawsuits brought against homeopathic manufacturers confirm that marketing practices were neither deceptive nor misleading [17].25

The FTC’s inability to formulate a reasonable basis for why homeopathic medicines work should not enter into any governmental enforcement policy statement. The FTC is not a medical organization, lacks expertise in interpreting scientific research [18], and is not qualified to make any comment on the validity of any field of medicine. To be less misleading, the FTC should exclude opinions from its policy statements.

  1. “Homeopathy: Not backed by modern science”

Homeopathy, as a system of medicine, does not fall under the purview of the FTC. Therefore, the FTC has been reckless in expressing an opinion of this magnitude. In this situation, the FTC’s comments can only be construed as being prejudicially biased and intentionally discriminatory against homeopathy. Such statements cause unwarranted harm to public trust and damage to a respected traditional system of medicine in the United States [19].

The American Institute of Homeopathy strongly objects to the FTC’s characterization of the entire field of homeopathic medicine as being without scientific evidence of efficacy. These comments are unqualified and wholly lacking in merit. The release of this Enforcement Policy Statement serves only to align the FTC with several recently released scientifically fraudulent [20] reports by a variety of pseudoscientists [21] and lowers the credibility of this valued consumer protection agency.

This type of misinformation should be embarrassing to a government organization striving to be nonpartisan and objective. The FTC owes an apology to the American Institute of Homeopathy as well as the many consumer groups that look toward this agency for fair and accurate information.

END OF QUOTE

My comments:

1 In healthcare, choice must be restricted to treatments which demonstrably generate more good than harm.

2 The AIH seems to be unaware of the difference between the nature of evidence, anecdote and experience.

3 Fallacy – appeal to popularity.

4 The first randomized, placebo-controlled study of homeopathy was, in fact, published in 1835 – its results were negative.

5 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.

6 The nano-particle explanation of homeopathy is but a theory (at best).

7 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.

8 Fallacy – appeal to authority.

9 Really? Which ones? Examples would help, but I doubt they exist.

10 The proper manufacturing of nonsense must still result in nonsense.

11 See footnote number 2

12 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.

13 For all of these conditions, the totality of the reliable evidence fails to demonstrate efficacy.

14 In this context, only clinical trials are relevant, and their number is nowhere near 6,000.

15 Most of the independent systematic reviews fail to be positive.

16 The mechanism is well-known and is called ‘placebo-effect’.

17 Many class actions also went against the manufacturers of homeopathic preparations.

18 I assume they ‘bought in’ the necessary expertise.

19 Surely, the damage is only to the cash-flow of firms selling bogus products.

20 Really? Name the report you libel here or be quiet!

21 Name the individuals you attack in this way or be quiet!

I must say, I had fun reading this. In fact, I cannot remember having seen a document by an organisation of healthcare professionals which was so embarrassingly nonsensical that it becomes comedy gold. If one of my PhD students, for instance, had submitted such drivel, I would have had no choice but to fail him or her.

Having said that, I need to stress to the AIH:

FULL MARKS FOR AMUSEMENT!!!

 

Over on ‘SPECTATOR HEALTH’, we have an interesting discussion (again) about homeopathy. The comments so far were not short of personal attacks but this one by someone who called himself (courageously) ‘Larry M’ took the biscuit. It is so characteristic of deluded homeopathy apologists that I simply have to share it with you:

Ernst grew up with homeopathy [1], saw how well it worked [2], and chose to become a so-called expert in alternative medicine [3]. To his surprise, he met with professional disapproval [4]. Being the weak ego-driven person that he is [5], he saw an opportunity to still come out on top. He sold his soul in exchange for the notoriety that he now receives for being the crotchety old homeopathy hater that he has become [6]. As with all homeopathy haters, his fundamentalist zeal [7] is evidence of his secret self-loathing [8] and fear that his true beliefs will be found out [9]. It’s no different than the evangelical preacher who rails against gays only to be eventually found out to be a closeted gay [10].

There is not much that makes me speechless these days, but this comment almost did. There is someone who clearly does not even know me and he takes it upon himself to interpret and re-invent my past, my motives and my actions at will. How deluded is that?

After re-reading the comment, I began to see the funny side of it, had a giggle and decided to add a few elements of truth in the form of this blog-post. So I took the liberty to insert some reference numbers into Larry’s text which refer to my brief points below.

  1. This is at least partly true; our family doctor was a prominent homeopath. Whenever one of us was truly ill, he employed conventional treatments.
  2. I was impressed as a young physician working in a homeopathic hospital to see that patients improved on homeopathy – even though, at medical school, I had been told that the remedies were pure placebos. This contradiction fascinated me, and I began to do some own research into the subject.
  3. I did not ‘choose’, I had a genuine interest; and I don’t think that I am a ‘so called’ expert – after 2 decades of research and hundreds of papers, this attribute seems a trifle unfitting.
  4. The disapproval came from the homeopathy fans who were irritated that someone had the audacity to undertake a truly CRITICAL assessment of their treatments and actions.
  5. The amateur psychology here speaks for itself, I think.
  6. Yes, I am no spring chicken! But I am not a ‘hater’ of anything – I try to create progress by convincing people that it is prudent to go for treatments that are evidence-based and avoid those that do not generate more good than harm.
  7. This attitude is not a ‘fundamental zeal’, it is the only responsible way forward.
  8. This made me laugh out loud! Nothing could be further from the truth.
  9. My ‘true belief’ is that patients deserve the best treatments available. I have no fear of being ‘found out’; on the contrary, during my career I stood up to several challenges of influential people who tried to trip me up.
  10. This is hilarious – does Larry not feel how pompously ridiculous and ridiculously pompous he truly is?

This might be all too trivial, if such personal attacks were not an almost daily event. The best I can do with them, I have concluded, is to expose them for what they are and demonstrate how dangerously deluded the advocates of quackery really are. In this way, I can perhaps minimize the harm these people do to public health and medical progress.

A survey published in 2011 showed that one-third of Danish hospitals offered alternative therapies. In total, 38 hospitals offered acupuncture and one Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Light Therapy. The most commonly reported reason for offering CAM was “scientific evidence”.

Many readers of this blog might be amazed with both the high level of alternative medicine presence in Danish hospitals and the notion that this was due to ‘scientific evidence’. A recent article provides even more surprises about the Danish alternative medicine scene.

It revealed that 8 out of 10 Danes are interested in using some form of alternative medicine…Some 67 percent of Danes say the national healthcare system should be more open to alternative healing practices, such as homeopathy, acupuncture or chiropractic, and 60 percent would like to see these treatments covered by the public health insurance system. More than half of the 6,000 respondents believe alternative therapies can be just as effective as traditional medicine.

Charlotte Yde, the chairwoman at Sundhedsrådet, which is the umbrella organisation for alternative practitioners in Denmark, contends many Danes feel frustrated because they cannot freely discuss alternative treatment with their doctors. Alternative treatment researcher Helle Johannessen agrees that Danish doctors should openly discuss alternative medicine options with patients. “In other European countries doctors use alternative treatment to a much greater extent than doctors in Denmark,” Johannessen told DR. “[International experience] shows that some forms of alternative therapy can improve quality of life and reduce anxiety and nausea in cancer patients.”

This, it seems to me, is little more than a bonanza of fallacious thinking and misleading information.

  • The notion that popularity of a therapy has anything to do with its usefulness is a classical fallacy.
  • The notion that belief determines efficacy (More than half of the 6,000 respondents believe alternative therapies can be just as effective as traditional medicine.) or vice versa is complete nonsense.
  • The notion that many Danes … cannot freely discuss alternative treatment with their doctors is misleading: patients can discuss what they feel like with whom they feel like.
  • The notion that in other European countries doctors use alternative treatment to a much greater extent than doctors in Denmark is also misleading: there are many European countries where LESS alternative therapies are being paid for via the public purse.
  • Finally, the notion that that some forms of alternative therapy can improve quality of life and reduce anxiety and nausea in cancer patients – even if it were correct – does not mean that ALL alternative therapies are efficacious, safe, or cost-effective.

Who cares about Denmark?

Why should this be important?

Well, the Danes might care, and it is important because it provides an excellent example of how promoters of bogus treatments tend to argue – not just in Denmark, but everywhere. Unfortunately, politicians all too often fall for such fallacious notions. For them, a popular issue is a potential vote-winner. Within medical systems that are notoriously strapped for money, the looser will inevitably be optimal healthcare.

It would be easy to continue this series on ‘tricks of the trade’ for quite a while. But this might get boring, and I have therefore decided to call it a day. So here is the last instalment (feel free to post further tricks that you may know of [in the comments section below]):

CRITICS DON’T UNDERSTAND

It is almost inevitable that, sooner or later, someone will object to some aspect of alternative medicine. In all likelihood, his or her arguments are rational and based on evidence. If that happens, the practitioner has several options to save his bacon (and income). One of the easiest and most popular is to claim that “of course, you cannot agree with me because you do not understand!”

The practitioner now needs to explain that, in order to achieve the level of expertise he has acquired, one has to do much more than to rationalise or know about science. In fact, one has to understand the subject on a much deeper level. One has to immerse oneself into it, open one’s mind completely and become a different human being altogether. This cannot be achieved by scientific study alone; it requires years of meditative work. And not everyone has the ability to go down this difficult path. It takes a lot of energy, insight and vision to become a true healer. A true Deepak Chopra is not born but trained through hard work, dedication and concentration.

Critics who disagree are really to be pitied. They fail to exist on quite the same level as those who ‘are in the know’. Therefore one must not get annoyed with those who disagree, they cannot understand because they have not seen the light.

My advice is to start thinking critically and read up about the NO TRUE SCOTSMAN FALLACY; this will quickly enable you to look beyond the charisma of these gurus and expose their charlatanry to the full.

RESEARCH IS BEING SUPRESSED

Some critics stubbornly insist on evidence for the therapeutic claims made by quacks. That attitude can be awkward for the alternative practitioner – because usually there is no good evidence.

Cornered in this way, quacks often come up with a simple but effective conspiracy theory: the research has been done and it has produced fabulous results, but it has been supressed by… well, by whoever comes to mind. Usually BIG PHARMA or ‘the scientific establishment’ have to be dragged out into the frame again.

According to this theory, the pharmaceutical industry (or whoever comes in handy) was so shaken by the findings of the research that they decided to make it disappear. They had no choice, really; the alternative therapy in question was so very effective that it would have put BIG PHARMA straight out of business for ever. As we all know BIG PHARMA to be evil to the core, they had no ethical or moral qualms about committing such a crime to humanity. Profits must come before charity!

My advice is to explain to such charlatans that such conspiracy theories do, in fact, merely prove is that the quack’s treatment is not effective against their prosecution complex.

CRITICS ARE BOUGHT AND CORRUPT

If  critics of alternative medicine become threatening to the quackery trade, an easy and much-used method is to discredit them by spreading lies about them. If the above-mentioned ploy “they cannot understand” fails to silence the nasty critics, the next step must be to claim they are corrupt. Why else would they spend their time exposing quackery?

Many people – alternative practitioners included – can only think of financial motivations; the possibility that someone might do a job for altruistic reasons does not occur to them. Therefore, it sounds most plausible that the critics of alternative medicine are doing it for money – after all, the quacks also quack for money.

My advice to potential users of alternative medicine who are confused by such allegations: do your own research and find out for yourself who is bought by whom and who has a financial interest in quackery selling well.

EVEN NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS AGREE WITH US

It is true, there are some Nobel Prize winners who defend homeopathy or other bogus treatments. Whenever this happens, the apologists of alternative medicine have a field day. They then cite the Nobel laureate ad nauseam and imply that his or her views prove their quackery to be correct.

Little do they know that they are merely milking yet another classical fallacy and that such regrettable events merely demonstrate that even bright people can make mistakes.

My advice is to check what the Nobel laureate actually said – more often than not, it turns out that a much-publicised quote is, in fact, a misquote – and what his or her qualifications are for making such a statement; a Nobel Prize in literature, for instance, is not a sufficient qualification for commenting on healthcare issues.

AS I ALRADY SAID: IF YOU KNOW OF MORE ‘TRICKS OF THE QUACKARY TRADE’, PLEASE POST THEM BELOW.

In part one, we have dealt with three common tricks used by quacks to convince the public to consult them and to keep coming back for more. It has been pointed out to me that some of these tricks are used not just by alternative practitioners but also by real physicians. This is, of course, absolutely true. A quack can be defined as “a person who dishonestly claims to have special knowledge and skill in some field, typically medicine.” Therefore real doctors can be real quacks, of course. I happen to have an interest mainly in alternative medicine; that’s why I write about these type of quacks (if it helps keeping you blood pressure within the limits of normal, I can tell you that I occasionally also published about quackery in mainstream medicine, for instance here).

Anyway, now it is time to continue this series of posts by discussing three further common deceptions used by quacks.

A CURE TAKES A LONG TIME

Imagine a scenario where, even after, several therapy sessions, a patient’s condition has not improved. Let’s assume the problem is back pain, and that it has not improved a  bit despite the treatments and the money spent on it. Surely, many patients in such a situation are sooner or later going to give up. They will have had enough! And this is, of course, a serious threat to the practitioner’s cash flow.

Luckily, there is a popular ploy to minimize the risk: the practitioner merely has to explain that the patient’s condition has been going on for a very long time (if, in the above scenario, this were not the case, the practitioner would explain that the pain might be relatively recent but the underlying condition is chronic). This means that a cure will also have to take a very long time – after all, Rome was not built in one day!

This plea to carry on with the ineffective treatments despite any improvement of symptoms is usually not justifiable on medical grounds. It is, however, entirely justifiable on the basis of financial considerations of the practitioners. They rely on their patients’ regular payments and will therefore think of all sorts of means to achieve this aim.

Take my advice and see a clinician who can help you within a reasonable and predictable amount of time.

IT’S DUE TO THE POISONS YOUR DOCTOR GAVE YOU

In the pursuit of a healthy cash-flow, almost all means seem to be allowed – even the fabrication of the bogus notion that the reasons for the patient’s problem were the poisonous drugs prescribed by her doctor who, of course, is in cahoots with BIG PHARMA. Alternative medicine thrives on conspiracy theories, and the one of the evil ‘medical mafia’ is one of the all-time favourites. It enables scrupulous practitioners to instil a good dose of fear into the minds of their patients, a fear that minimises the risk of them returning to real medicine.

My advice is that alternative practitioners who habitually use this or any other conspiracy theory should be avoided at all costs.

THINK HOLISTICALLY

The notion that alternative medicine takes care of the whole person is a most attractive and powerful ploy. Never mind that nothing could be further from being holistic than, for instance, diagnosing conditions by looking at a patient’s iris (iridology), or focussing on her spine (chiropractic, osteopathy), or massaging the soles of her feet (reflexology). And never mind that any type of good conventional medicine is by definition holistic. What counts is the label, and ‘holistic’ is a most desirable one, indeed. Nothing sells quackery better than holism.

Most alternative practitioners call themselves holistic and they rub the holism into the minds of their patients whenever and however they can. This insistence on holism has the added advantage that they have seemingly plausible excuses for their therapeutic failures.

Imagine a patient consulting a practitioner with depression and, even after prolonged treatment, her condition is unchanged. Even in such a situation, the holistic practitioner does not need to despair: he will point out that he never treats diagnostic labels but always the whole person. Therefore, the patient’s depression might not have changed, but surely other issues have improved… and, if the patient introspects a little, she might find that her appetite has improved, that her indigestion is better, or that her tennis elbow is less painful (some things always change given enough time). The holism of quacks may be a false pretence, but its benefits for the practitioner are obvious.

My advice: take holism from quacks with a pinch of salt.

“When orthodox medicine has nothing more to offer” is the title of an article by Dr Elizabeth Thompson, a UK medical homeopath. The article was written years ago, but it is still an excellent example for disclosing the dangerously false and deeply unethical reasoning used by many alternative practitioners. The notion that all sorts of disproven treatments like homeopathy are justified when orthodox medicine has nothing more to offer is so very prevalent that I decided to do this post analysing it.

In the following, you see the most relevant sections of Dr Thompson’s original article (in normal print) and my brief comments (in brackets and in bold):

…Some people come when conventional treatments can no longer offer them anything to save their lives. This is a frightening time for them and although the homeopathic approach may not offer a cure at this late stage of their illness (Is she implying that, in some cases, homeopathy can cure cancer?), it can often offer hope of a different kind. (Surely, one does not need homeopathy for giving patients hope). Sometimes it helps people to outlive the prognosis given to them by months or even years. (A prognosis is not a precise time of death; it is based on statistics and therefore depicts a likelihood, not a certainty. Thus patients outlive their prognosis all the time regardless of treatments.) Sometimes it helps them need less (less than what? there is no control group and therefore the statement seems nonsensical) in the way of conventional medicine including pain killers and offers them continuing support despite progressive disease (is she trying to say that in conventional medicine patients with progressive disease do not get continuing support?).

As a doctor working in both conventional and complementary cancer care I have learned the importance of integrating these two perspectives (the integration of unproven therapies into EBM can only render the latter less effective). Ideally the doctor practising homeopathy would work as an integral part of a much wider team which would include family members, nurses, general practitioners, oncologists, surgeons, palliative physicians and other complementary therapists (the concept of a multi-disciplinary team for cancer is one from conventional medicine where it has long been routine). It is disappointing sometimes to see that other healthcare professionals can be unsupportive of a person’s desire to use complementary therapies and for some people the knowledge that the team is not working together can cause doubt and insecurity (for the majority of patients, however, it might be reassuring to know that their oncology-team is evidence-based).

Some patients come at the beginning of their diagnosis wanting to support their bodies with gentler (homeopathic remedies are not gentler, they are ineffective) approaches and help themselves recover from some difficult and powerful treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy (Why are they being told that alternative therapies are effective in achieving these aims when there is no good evidence to show that this is true? Isn’t that unethical?). As well as using homeopathic medicines (no good evidence of effectiveness!!!), the GHH also has experience in using Mistletoe which is given by injection and has been shown to stimulate the group of white cells whose numbers can be depleted during chemotherapy and radiotherapy (also no good evidence that it works clinically!!!).

Other patients come when they have finished most of their treatments but may still not be feeling well despite being given the all clear by their doctors (same again: no good evidence!!!)…

One wonderful aspect of the homeopathic approach is that it can be a very important opportunity to help someone re-evaluate their life and their health (We don’t need to prescribe placebos for that, this aim is better reached by employing a clinical psychologist).

Sometimes hurts in the past have never been healed and sitting with someone as they describe difficult experiences can be itself therapeutic. Combining this therapeutic listening time with substances from nature that gently stimulate the body’s own healing potential (where is the evidence for that claim?) can be an approach that through patient demand and research (what research?) we can demonstrate is really worth offering to many more people…

END OF QUOTE

 

This text shows in an exemplary fashion how desperate patients can be convinced to make dramatically wrong choices. If you read Dr Thompson’s text without my comments, it probably sounds fairly reasonable to many people. I can understand why patients and carers end up thinking that homeopathy or other disproven therapies are reasonable options WHEN ORTHODOX MEDICINE HAS NOTHING MORE TO OFFER.

But the claim of homeopaths and others that mainstream medicine has, in certain cases, nothing more to offer is demonstrably wrong. Supportive and palliative care are established and important parts of conventional medicine. To deny this fact amounts to a lie! The implied scenario where a patient is told by her oncology team: “sorry but we cannot do anything else for you”, does quite simply not exist. The argument is nothing else but a straw-man – and a vicious one at that.

Moreover, the subsequent argument of homeopaths, “as ‘they’ have given you up, we now offer you our effective homeopathic remedies”, is not supported by good evidence. In other words, one lie is added to another. To call this unethical, would be the understatement of the year, I think.

Homeopathy must be effective! It is used extensively throughout the world, not least India! If it were ineffective, as all these nasty sceptics insist, Indians would not use it in such large numbers.

How often have we heard this argument?

Take, for instance, statements from the ‘peer-reviewed’ literature such as this one: “At present, in India, homeopathy is the third most popular method of medical treatment after allopathy and Ayurveda. There are over 200,000 registered homeopathic doctors currently, with approximately 12,000 more being added every year.” Or take statements from UK homeopaths like this one: “It seems clear that homeopathy is there to stay in India. So next time you see or read some condescending and patronising rubbish about homeopathy in the media, know that in India, a country with a population of 1.2 billion people (that’s more than 20x the population of the UK) homeopathy is an integral part of the healthcare system and deeply respected by the people of that country.”

Yes, homeopaths have always loved to mislead the public with fallacies!

The appeal to popularity is, of course, a classic fallacy – but, in the case of homeopathy’s popularity in India, it is not just that; here is an intriguing aspect to the use of homeopathy in that country that shines a different light on the whole story.

Epidemiologists from Canada conducted semi-structured interviews of 175 Mumbai slum-based practitioners holding degrees in Ayurveda, homeopathy and Unani. Most providers gave multiple interviews. The researchers also observed 10 providers in clinical interactions, documenting clinical examinations, symptoms, history taking, prescriptions and diagnostic tests.

No practitioners exclusively used his or her system of training. The practice of biomedicine was frequent, with practitioners often using biomedical disease categories and diagnostics. The use of homeopathy was rare; only 4% of consultations with homeopaths resulted in the prescription of homeopathic remedies.

The authors concluded that important sources of health care in Mumbai’s slums, AYUSH physicians frequently use biomedical therapies and most refer patients with TB to chest physicians or the public sector. They are integral to TB care and control.

These data seem to suggest that the use of homeopathic remedies in India is far, far less than often claimed by apologists. Indian homeopaths seem to have much more sense than to use homeopathy for serious conditions. This is good news for Indian public health, in my view.

The story also shows how the ‘appeal to popularity’ is being misused for the promotion of homeopathy: not only is it based on poor logic but often also on false information.

“Conflicts of interest should always be disclosed.”

This is what I wrote in the ‘RULES’ of this blog when I first started it almost 4 years ago. Sadly, very few people writing comments observe this rule. Perhaps, I just thought, I did not observe it either? So, here are my conflicts of interest: none.

Not true!!! I hear some people say. But it is!

I have no financial interest in any ‘Big Pharma’ or  ‘TINY CAM’, and I get not a penny for writing this blog.

How do I pay for my living? Mind your own business… well, on second thought, even that must not be a secret: I get a small pension and have some savings.

Still not convinced?

Perhaps it’s time to define what ‘conflicts of interests’ are. According to Wikipedia, they can be defined as  situations in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial interest, or otherwise, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation of the individual or organization.

So, not having financial benefits from my current work does not necessarily mean that I have no conflicts of interest. The above definitions vaguely mentions ‘or otherwise’ – and that could be important. What could this mean in the context of this blog?

Well, I might have very strong beliefs, for instance (for instance, very strong beliefs that acupuncture is by definition nonsense [see below]). We all know that strong beliefs can corrupt motivation (and a lot more). And if I ask myself, do you have strong beliefs?, I have to say: Yes, absolutely!

I believe that:

  • good evidence is a prerequisite for progress in healthcare,
  • good evidence must be established by rigorous research,
  • we should not tolerate double standards in healthcare,
  • patients deserve to be treated with the best available treatments,
  • making therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence is wrong.

These strong beliefs might make me biased in the eyes of many who comment on this blog. In Particular, we recently had a bunch of acupuncturists who went on the rampage attacking me personally the best they could. However, a rational analysis of my beliefs can hardly produce evidence for bias against anything other than the promotion of unproven therapies to the unsuspecting public.

The above mentioned acupuncturists seem to think that I have always been against acupuncture for the sake of being against acupuncture. However, this is not true. The proof for this statement is very simple: I have published quite a bit of articles that concluded positively – even (WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?) about acupuncture for back pain! A prominently published meta-analysis of 2005 (with me as senior author) concluded:  “Acupuncture effectively relieves chronic low back pain.” (This of course was 11 years ago when the evidence was, in fact, positive; today, this seems to have changed – just like the NICE guidelines [probably not a coincidence!])

Conflicts of interest? No, not on my side, I think.

But what about the ‘other side’?

The unruly horde of acupuncturists (no, this is not an ad hominem attack, it’s a fact) who recently made dozens of ad hominem attacks against me, what about them?

  • They earn their money with acupuncture.
  • They have invested in acupuncture training often for long periods of time.
  • They have invested in practice equipment etc.
  • Some of them sell books on acupuncture.
  • Others run courses.
  • And all of them very clearly and demonstrably  have strong beliefs about acupuncture.

I think the latter point constitutes by far the most important conflict of interest in this context.

And this is where the somewhat trivial story has an unexpected twist and gets truly bizarre:

I have just leant that the same group of conflicted acupuncturists are now planning to publicly attack the panel of experts responsible for drafting the NICE guidelines. The reason? They feel that this panel had significant conflicts of interest that led them to come out against acupuncture.

Perhaps I should mention that I was not a member of this group, but I suspect that some of its members might have links to the pharmaceutical industry. It is almost impossible to find top experts in any area of medicine who do not have such links. You either gather experts with potential conflicts of interest, or you get non-experts without them. Would that bias them against acupuncture or any other alternative therapy? I very much doubt it.

What I do not doubt for a minute is that conflicts of interest are of major importance in these discussions. And by that I mean the more than obvious (but nevertheless undeclared) conflicts of interest of the acupuncturists. It seems that those with the strongest conflicts of interest shout the loudest about the non-existent or irrelevant conflict of interest of those who do not happen to share their quasi-religious belief in acupuncture.

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