MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

fallacy

A special issue of Medical Care has just been published; it was sponsored by the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation. A press release made the following statement about it:

Complementary and alternative medicine therapies are increasingly available, used, and appreciated by military patients, according to Drs Taylor and Elwy. They cite statistics showing that CAM programs are now offered at nearly 90 percent of VA medical facilities. Use CAM modalities by veterans and active military personnel is as at least as high as in the general population.

If you smell a bit of the old ad populum fallacy here, you may be right. But let’s look at the actual contents of the special issue. The most interesting article is about a study testing acupuncture for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Fifty-five service members meeting research diagnostic criteria for PTSD were randomized to usual PTSD care (UPC) plus eight 60-minute sessions of acupuncture conducted twice weekly or to UPC alone. Outcomes were assessed at baseline and 4, 8, and 12 weeks postrandomization. The primary study outcomes were difference in PTSD symptom improvement on the PTSD Checklist (PCL) and the Clinician-administered PTSD Scale (CAPS) from baseline to 12-week follow-up between the two treatment groups. Secondary outcomes were depression, pain severity, and mental and physical health functioning. Mixed model regression and t test analyses were applied to the data.

The results show that the mean improvement in PTSD severity was significantly greater among those receiving acupuncture than in those receiving UPC. Acupuncture was also associated with significantly greater improvements in depression, pain, and physical and mental health functioning. Pre-post effect-sizes for these outcomes were large and robust.

The authors conclude from these data that acupuncture was effective for reducing PTSD symptoms. Limitations included small sample size and inability to parse specific treatment mechanisms. Larger multisite trials with longer follow-up, comparisons to standard PTSD treatments, and assessments of treatment acceptability are needed. Acupuncture is a novel therapeutic option that may help to improve population reach of PTSD treatment.

What shall we make of this?

I know I must sound like a broken record to some, but I have strong reservations that the interpretation provided here is correct. One does not even need to be a ‘devil’s advocate’ to point out that the observed outcomes may have nothing at all to do with acupuncture per se. A much more rational interpretation of the findings would be that the 8 times 60 minutes of TLC and attention have positive effects on the subjective symptoms of soldiers suffering from PTSD. No needles required for this to happen; and no mystical chi, meridians, life forces etc.

It would, of course, have been quite easy to design the study such that the extra attention is controlled for. But the investigators evidently did not want to do that. They seemed to have the desire to conduct a study where the outcome was clear even before the first patient had been recruited. That some if not most experts would call this poor science or even unethical may not have been their primary concern.

The question I ask myself is, why did the authors of this study fail to express the painfully obvious fact that the results are most likely unrelated to acupuncture? Is it because, in military circles, Occam’s razor is not on the curriculum? Is it because critical thinking has gone out of fashion ( – no, it is not even critical thinking to point out something that is more than obvious)? Is it then because, in the present climate, it is ‘politically’ correct to introduce a bit of ‘holistic touchy feely’ stuff into military medicine?

I would love to hear what my readers think.

Some of the recent comments on this blog have been rather emotional, a few even irrational, and several were, I am afraid, outright insulting (I usually omit to post the worst excesses). Moreover, I could not avoid the impression that some commentators have little understanding of what the aim of this blog really is. I tried to point this out in the very first paragraph of my very first post:

Why another blog offering critical analyses of the weird and wonderful stuff that is going on in the world of alternative medicine? The answer is simple: compared to the plethora of uncritical misinformation on this topic, the few blogs that do try to convey more reflected, sceptical views are much needed; and the more we have of them, the better.

My foremost aim with his blog is to inform consumers through critical analysis and, in this way, I hope to prevent harm from patients in the realm of alternative medicine. What follows, are a few simple yet important points about this blog which I try to spell out here as clearly as I can:

  • I am not normally commenting on issues related to conventional medicine – not because I feel there is nothing to criticise in mainstream medicine, but because my expertise has long been in alternative medicine. So commentators might as well forget about arguments like “more people die because of drugs than alternative treatments”; they are firstly fallacious and secondly not relevant to this blog.
  • I have researched alternative medicine for many years (~ 40 clinical studies, > 300 systematic reviews etc.) and my readers can be confident that I know what I am talking about. Thus comments like ‘he does not know anything about the subject’ are usually not well placed and just show the ignorance of those who post them.
  • I am not in the pocket of anyone. I do not receive payments for doing this blog, nor did I, as an academic, receive any financial or other inducements for researching alternative medicine (on the contrary, I have often been given to understand that my life could be made much easier, if I adopted a more promotional stance towards my alternative medicine). I also do not belong to any organisation that is financed by BIG PHARMA or similar power houses. So my critics might as well abandon their conspiracy theories and  focus on a more promising avenue of criticism.
  • My allegiance is not with any interest group in (or outside) the field of alternative medicine. For instance, I do not see it as my job to help chiropractors, homeopaths etc. getting their act together. My task here is to point out the deficits in chiropractic (or any other area of alternative medicine) so that consumers are better protected. (I should think, however, that this also creates pressure on professions to become more evidence-based – but I see this as a mere welcome side-effect.)
  • If some commentators seem to find my arguments alarmist or see it as venomous scare-mongering, I suggest they re-examine their own position and learn to think a little more (self-) critically. I furthermore suggest that, instead of claiming such nonsense, they point out where they think I have gone wrong and provide evidence for their views.
  • Some people seem convinced that I have an axe to grind, that I have been personally injured by some alternative practitioner, or had some other unpleasant or traumatic experience. To those who think so, I have to say very clearly that none of this has ever happened. I recommend they inform themselves of the nature of critical analysis and its benefits.
  • This is a blog, not a scientific journal. I try to reach as many lay people as I can and therefore I tend to use simple language and sometimes aim to be entertaining. Those who feel that this renders my blog more journalistic than scientific are probably correct. If they want science, I recommend they look for my scientific articles in the medical literature; I can assure them that they will find plenty.
  • I very much invite an open and out-spoken debate. But ad hominem attacks are usually highly counterproductive – they only demonstrate that the author has no rational arguments left, or had none in the first place. Authors of insults also risks being banned from this blog.
  • Finally, I fear that some readers of my blog might sometimes get confused in the arguments and counter-arguments, and end up uncertain which side is right and which is wrong. To those who have this problem, I recommend a simple method for deciding where the truth is usually more likely to be found: ask yourself who might be merely defending his/her self-interest and who might be free of such conflicts of interest and thus more objective. For example, in my endless disputes with chiropractors, one could well ask: do the chiropractors have an interest in defending their livelihood, and what interest do I have in questioning whether chiropractors do generate more good than harm?

“Dr” Brian Moravec is a chiropractor from the US; he has a website where he describes himself and his skills as follows: I attended Chiropractic College and I am a graduate of Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport Iowa. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree as well as my Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Palmer College, which is the first chiropractic college in the world and the origin of our profession. I also attend continuing education seminars designed to keep doctors current with regard to clinical chiropractic, technique and nutrition.

The key to overall health and wellness is to have a healthy nervous system and that is what I do as a chiropractor – I make sure that your spine is functioning at its best so that your nervous system functions at its best. When the nervous system is functioning at 100%, you are a healthier individual that experiences a higher quality of life and health. I know this to be true in myself, my family and my patients.

I go to great lengths to provide my patients with the best chiropractic care I can give. I work with my patients to design a treatment plan that will be effective for their particular condition and specific to their needs. We utilize manual and low force techniques (safe and effective for newborns to seniors), to correct sublaxations in the spine. Chiropractic adjustments remove nerve interference, which allows the body to perform at its best again. I also am available for consultations on nutrition and diet, dietary supplementation and how to minimize the wear and tear on your spine.

[Emphases are mine]

What he does not state is the fact that he also is a nifty e-mail writer!

To my great surprise, I received an e-mail from him which is far too good to be kept for myself. So I decided to share it with my readers; here it is in its full and unabbreviated beauty:

its interesting to see someone with your education, and is a self proclaimed “expert” on alternative medicine, promote so much misinformation with regard to chiropractic care.   fortunately you look old.  and soon will be gone.  I always refer to the few of you anti chiropractic fools left here as “dinosaurs”.   the proof is in the pudding my “friend”.  chiropractic works and will continue to be here for centuries more.   you and others with much much more power than you (the AMA for example) have tried to perpetuate lies and squash chiropractic.  you fail, and they failed, because whatever better serves mankind will stand the test of time.   you’re a dying breed edzard.  thank God.
yours in health,

brian moravec d.c.

I am encouraged to see that he recognises my education but do wonder why his upbringing obviously failed so dismally teach him even a minimum of politeness, tact, or critical thinking. It is disappointing, I think, that he does not even mention what he perceives as my lies about his beloved chiropractic. So sad, I am sure it would have been fun to debate with him.

Some time ago, I published a post entitled HOW TO BECOME A CHARLATAN. This prompted ‘THE NORWEGIAN ACADEMY OF SCIENCE AND LETTERS’ to invite me to give a lecture on the subject, a great honour, I am sure. Consequently, I have thought about this somewhat unusual subject quite a lot.

Obviously, my thoughts come from the perspective of someone who has researched alternative medicine for many years. Pseudoscientists seem to love alternative medicine and proponents of alternative medicine love pseudoscience. As a result, alternative medicine is densely populated by pseudoscientists.

But what is the characteristic of pseudoscience? Reflecting on this question, I found not one but several hallmarks (and for each of them, there are many posts on this blog which provide further explanations):

Based on these 12 hallmarks, one could create a simple score which indicates the likelihood of the presence of pseudoscience. In other words, it might be useful to consider pseudoscience in terms of a sliding scale. Some things in alternative medicine can be just a bit pseudoscientific, others quite a lot, while others again are hopelessly so.

The issue of pseudoscience is by no means just academic; it is very real problem and has many important, practical implications. The most important one probably is that, in health care (and other areas as well), pseudoscience can be harmful, even to the point that it costs lives of vulnerable patients who believe that everything masquerading as science can be relied upon.

A recent US study found that belief in conspiracy theories is rife in health care. The investigators presented people with 6 different conspiracy theories, and the one that was most widely believed was the following:

THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION IS DELIBERATELY PREVENTING THE PUBLIC FROM GETTING NATURAL CURES FOR CANCER AND OTHER DISEASES BECAUSE OF PRESSURE FROM DRUG COMPANIES.

A total of 37% agreed with this statement, 31% had no opinion on the matter, and 32% disagreed. What is more, the belief in this particular conspiracy correlated positively with the usage of alternative medicine.

Essentially, this implies that the current popularity of alternative medicine is at least partly driven by the conviction that there is a sinister plot by the FDA or more generally speaking ‘the establishment’ that prevents people from benefitting from the wonders of alternative treatments.

I think it was Woody Allen who noted that, just because you are paranoid does not mean that they are not following you. So, let’s look for evidence suggesting that the FDA or any similar organisation is suppressing alternative medicine.

A prime candidate is, of course, the often implicated, thoroughly evil ‘BIG PHARMA‘. I am not a fan of the pharmaceutical industry and I know few people who are. But where is the evidence for BIG PHARMA’s conspiracy against alternative medicine? In the many years of researching this sector, I have never come across a jot of evidence to support this notion. On the contrary, BIG PHARMA seems all to keen to jump on to the alternative bandwagon and make a few quick bucks from the gullibility of the consumer.

What about the rest of the medical establishment? All I see is that universities, hospitals, charities and other organisations in health care currently bend over backwards in order to accommodate as much alternative medicine as they possibly can get away with in view of the often embarrassing lack of convincing evidence for the treatments in question. Conspiracy against alternative medicine? I don’t think so.

The closer we look, the more we arrive at the conclusion that the conspiracy against alternative medicine is a myth and a figment of the imagination of those who religiously believe in alternative medicine. They seem to long for an explanation why their favourite therapy is not in even more wide-spread use. Cognitive dissonance seems to prevent them to consider that the lack of evidence has anything to do with this situation. Consequently, they prefer to invent a conspiracy theory.

And this is where an interesting question emerges, in my view: do people who believe that the FDA or other organisations prevent the public from getting more alternative medicine really need more alternative medicine, or do they perhaps just need an effective treatment for their paranoia?

One of the perks of researching alternative medicine and writing a blog about it is that one rarely runs out of good laughs. In perfect accordance with ERNST’S LAW, I have recently been entertained, amused, even thrilled by a flurry of ad hominem attacks most of which are true knee-slappers. I would like to take this occasion to thank my assailants for their fantasy and tenacity. Most days, these ad hominem attacks really do make my day.

I can only hope they will continue to make my days a little more joyous. My fear, however, is that they might, one day, run out of material. Even today, their claims are somewhat repetitive:

  • I am not qualified
  • I only speak tosh
  • I do not understand science
  • I never did any ‘real’ research
  • Exeter Uni fired me
  • I have been caught red-handed (not quite sure at what)
  • I am on BIG PHARMA’s payroll
  • I faked my research papers

Come on, you feeble-minded fantasists must be able to do better! Isn’t it time to bring something new?

Yes, I know, innovation is not an easy task. The best ad hominem attacks are, of course, always based on a kernel of truth. In that respect, the ones that have been repeated ad nauseam are sadly wanting. Therefore I have decided to provide all would-be attackers with some true and relevant facts from my life. These should enable them to invent further myths and use them as ammunition against me.

Sounds like fun? Here we go:

Both my grandfather and my father were both doctors

This part of my family history could be spun in all sorts of intriguing ways. For instance, one could make up a nice story about how I, even as a child, was brain-washed to defend the medical profession at all cost from the onslaught of non-medical healers.

Our family physician was a prominent homeopath

Ahhhh, did he perhaps mistreat me and start me off on my crusade against homeopathy? Surely, there must be a nice ad hominem attack in here!

I studied psychology at Munich but did not finish it

Did I give up psychology because I discovered a manic obsession or other character flaw deeply hidden in my soul?

I then studied medicine (also in Munich) and made a MD thesis in the area of blood clotting

No doubt this is pure invention. Where are the proofs of my qualifications? Are the data in my thesis real or invented?

My 1st job as a junior doctor was in a homeopathic hospital in Munich

Yes, but why did I leave? Surely they found out about me and fired me.

I had hands on training in several forms of alternative medicine, including homeopathy

Easy to say, but where are the proofs?

I moved to London where I worked in St George’s Hospital conducting research in blood rheology

Another invention? Where are the published papers to document this?

I went back to Munich university where I continued this line of research and was awarded a PhD

Another thesis? Again with dodgy data? Where can one see this document?

I became Professor Rehabilitation Medicine first at Hannover Medical School and later in Vienna

How did that happen? Did I perhaps bribe the appointment panels?

In 1993, I was appointed to the Chair in Complementary Medicine at Exeter university

Yes, we all know that; but why did I not direct my efforts towards promoting alternative medicine?

In Exeter, together with a team of ~20 colleagues, we published > 1000 papers on alternative medicine, more than anyone else in that field

Impossible! This number clearly shows that many of these articles are fakes or plagiaries.

My H-Index is currently >80

Same as above.

In 2012, I became Emeritus Professor of the University of Exeter

Isn’t ‘emeritus’ the Latin word for ‘dishonourable discharge’?

I HOPE I CAN RELY ON ALL OF MY AD HOMINEM ATTACKERS TO USE THIS INFORMATION AND RENDER THE ASSAULTS MORE DIVERSE, REAL AND INTERESTING.

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.

Several sceptics including myself have previously commented on this GP’s bizarre promotion of bogus therapies, his use of disproven treatments, and his advocacy for quackery. An interview with Dr Michael Dixon, OBE, chair of the ‘College of Medicine’, and advisor to Prince Charles, and chair of NHS Alliance, and president of the ‘NHS Clinical Commissioners’ and, and, and…was published on 15 November. It is such a classic example of indulgence in fallacies, falsehoods and deceptions that I cannot resist adding a few words.

To make it very clear what is what: the interviewer’s questions are in bold Roman; MD’s answers are in simple Roman; and my comments are in bold italic typeface. The interview itself is reproduced without changes or cuts.

How did you take to alternative medicine?

I started trying out alternative medicine after 10 years of practising as a general physician. During this period, I found that conventional medicine was not helping too many patients. There were some (patients) with prolonged headaches, backaches and frequent infections whom I had to turn away without offering a solution. That burnt me out. I started looking for alternative solutions.

The idea of using alternative treatments because conventional ones have their limits is perhaps understandable. But which alternative therapies are effective for the conditions mentioned? Dr Dixon’s surgery offers many alternative therapies which are highly unlikely to be effective beyond placebo, e.g. ‘Thought Field Therapy’, reflexology, spiritual healing or homeopathy.

But alternative medicine has come under sharp criticism. It was even argued that it has a placebo effect?

I don’t mind what people call it as long as it is making patients better. If the help is more psychological than physiological, as they argue, all the better. There are less side-effects, less expenses and help is in your own hands.

I have posted several articles on this blog about this fundamental misunderstanding. The desire to help patients via placebo-effects is no good reason to employ bogus treatments; effective therapies also convey a placebo-response, if administered with compassion. Merely administering placebos means denying patients the specific effects of real medicine and is therefore not ethical.

Why are people unconvinced about alternative medicine?

One, there are vested interests – professional and organizational impact on it. Two, even practitioners in conventional medicine do not know much about it. And most importantly, we need to develop a scientific database for it. In conventional medicine, pharmaceutical companies have the advantage of having funds for research. Alternative medicine lacks that. Have people who say alternative medicine is rubbish ever done research on it to figure out whether it is rubbish? The best way to convince them is through the age-old saying: Seeing is believing.

1) Here we have the old fallacy which assumes that ‘the establishment’ (or ‘BIG PHARMA’ ) does not want anyone to know how effective alternative treatments are. In truth, everyone would be delighted to have more effective therapies in the tool-kit and nobody does care at all where they originate from.

2) GPs do not know much about alternative medicine, true. But that does not really explain why they are ‘unconvinced’. The evidence shows that they need more convincing evidence to be convinced.

3) Dixon himself has done almost no research into alternative medicine (I know that because the few papers he did publish were in cooperation with my team). Contrary to what Dixon says, there are mountains of evidence (for instance ~ 20 000 articles on acupuncture and ~5000 on homeopathy in Medline alone); and the most reliable of this evidence usually shows that the alternative therapy in question does not work.

4) Apologists lament the lack of research funds ad nauseam. However, there is plenty of money in alternative medicine; currently it is estimated to be a $ 100 billion per year business worldwide. If they are unable to channel even the tiniest of proportions into a productive research budget, only they are to blame.

5) Have people who say alternative medicine is rubbish ever done research on it to figure out whether it is rubbish? Yes, there is probably nobody on this planet who has done more research on alternative medicine than I have (and DM knows it very well, for about 15 years, he tried everything to be associated with my team). The question I ask myself is: have apologists like Dixon ever done rigorous research or do they even know about the research that is out there?

6) Seeing is believing??? No, no, no! I have written several posts on this fallacy. Experience is no substitute for evidence in clinical medicine.

Will alternative medicine be taught in UK universities?

US already has 16 universities teaching it. The College of Medicine, UK, is fighting hard for it. We are historically drenched in conventional medicine and to think out of the box will take time. But we are at it and hope to have it soon.

1) Yes, the US has plenty of ‘quackademia‘ – and many experts are worried about the appalling lack of academic standards in this area.

2) The College of Medicine, UK, is fighting hard for getting alternative medicine into the medical curriculum. Interesting! Now we finally know what this lobby group really stands for.

3) Of course, we are ‘drenched’ in medicine at medical school. What else should we expose students to?

4) Thinking ‘out of the box’ can be productive and it is something medicine is often very good at. This is how it has evolved during the last 150 years in a breath-taking speed. Alternative medicine, by contrast, has remained stagnant; it is largely a dogma.

What more should India do to promote integrated medicine?

India needs to be prouder of its institutions and more critical of the West. The West has made massive mistakes. It has done very little about long-term diseases and in preventing them. India needs to be more cautious as it will lead the world in some diseases like the diabetes. It should not depend on conventional medicine for everything, but take the best for the worst.

To advise that India should not look towards the ‘West’ for treating diabetes and perhaps use more of their Ayurvedic medicines or homeopathic remedies (both very popular alternatives in India) is a cynical prescription for prematurely ending the lives of millions prematurely.

Today, Prince Charles celebrates his 65th birthday. He is one of the world’s most tenacious, outspoken and influential proponent of alternative medicine and attacker of science – sufficient reason, I think, to join the birthday-celebrations by outlining a chronology of his love affair with quackery. The following post highlights just a few events (there are so many more!) which I happen to find interesting. As I was personally involved in several of them, I have tried to stay as close as possible to the text published by journalists at the time (with links to the originals); this, I thought, was fairer than providing my own, possibly biased interpretations.

The origins Charles’ passion for all things alternative are not difficult to trace. The Royal family is famous for using homeopathy and other doubtful treatments while they are healthy, and for employing the very best conventional medicine has to offer as soon as they are ill. This pattern also applied to Charles’ childhood, and it is more than likely that this is how his weakness for alternative medicine and charlatans first started.

The young Prince Charles went on a journey of ‘spiritual discovery’ into the wilderness of northern Kenya. His guru and guide was Laurens van der Post (who was later discovered to be a fraud and compulsive fantasist and to have fathered a child with a 14-year old girl entrusted to him during a sea voyage). Van der Post wanted to awake Charles’ young intuitive mind and attune it to the ideas of Carl Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ which allegedly unites us all through a common vital force. It is this belief in vitalism (long obsolete in medicine and science) that provides the crucial link to alternative medicine: virtually every form of the otherwise highly diverse range of alternative therapies is based on the assumption that some sort of vital force or energy exists. Charles was so taken by van der Post that, after his death, he established an annual lecture in his honour.

Throughout the 1980s, Charles seems to have lobbied for the statutory regulation of chiropractors and osteopaths in the UK. In 1993, it finally became reality.

Osteopathy has strong Royal links: Prince Charles is the President of the GOsC; Princess Diana was the President of the GCRO; and Princess Anne is the patron of the British School of Osteopathy (statement dated 2011).

In 1982, Prince Charles was elected as President of the British Medical Association (BMA) and promptly challenged the medical orthodoxy by advocating alternative medicine. In a speech at his inaugural dinner as President, the Prince lectured the medics: ‘Through the centuries healing has been practised by folk healers who are guided by traditional wisdom which sees illness as a disorder of the whole person, involving not only the patient’s body, but his mind, his self-image, his dependence on the physical and social environment, as well as his relation to the cosmos.’ The BMA-officials were impressed – so much so that they ordered a full report on alternative medicine which promptly condemned this area as utter nonsense.

In 1993, Charles founded his often re-named lobby group that ended up being called the ‘Foundation for Integrated Health’ (FIH). It was closed down in 2010 amidst allegations of money laundering and fraud. Its chief executive, George Gray, was later convicted and went to jail. The FIH had repeatedly been economical with the truth. For instance, when it published a DoH-sponsored ‘patient guide’ that was entirely devoid of evidence, arguably the most important feature of such a document. They claimed evidence was never meant to be included. But I had seen a draft where it had been part of it, and friends have seen the contract with the DoH where “evidence” was an important element.

In 2000, Charles wrote an open letter to The Times (citing my work twice!!!) stating that…It makes good sense to evaluate complementary and alternative therapies. For one thing, since an estimated £1.6 billion is spent each year on them, then we want value for our money. The very popularity of the non-conventional approaches suggests that people are either dissatisfied with their orthodox treatment, or they find genuine relief in such therapies. Whatever the case, if they are proved to work, they should be made more widely available on the NHS…But there remains the cry from the medical establishment of “where’s the proof?” — and clinical trials of the calibre that science demands cost money…The truth is that funding in the UK for research into complementary medicine is pitiful…So where can funding come from?…Figures from the department of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter show that less than 8p out of every £100 of NHS funds for medical research was spent on complementary medicine. In 1998-99 the Medical Research Council spent no money on it at all, and in 1999 only 0.05 per cent of the total research budget of UK medical charities went to this area…

In 2001, Charles was working on plans to help build a model hospital that would tap into the power of alternative therapy. It was to train doctors to combine conventional medicine and alternative treatments, such as homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine and acupuncture, and was to have have up to 100 beds. The prince’s intervention marked the culmination of years of campaigning by him for the NHS to assign a greater role to alternative medicine. In a speech he had urged the NHS not to dismiss it as a “woolly cul-de-sac”. Groups interested in alternative medicine were delighted at the news. Teresa Hale, founder of the Hale Clinic in London, said: “Twenty-five years ago people said we were quacks. Now several branches, including homeopathy, acupuncture and osteopathy, have gained official recognition.” The proposed hospital, which was due to open in London in 2003 or early 2004, was to be overseen by Mosaraf Ali, who runs the Integrated Medical Centre (IMC) in London. He was also responsible for raising finance for its construction.

To the best of my knowledge, this hospital never materialised. This might be due to Mosaraf Ali falling in disrepute: Raj Bathija, 69 and from India, went for a massage at the clinic of Dr Mosaraf Ali and his brother Imran in 2005 after suffering from two strokes. However, he claims that shortly after the treatment, his legs became pale and discoloured. Four days afterwards, Mr Bathija was admitted to hospital, where he had to have both legs amputated below the knee due to a shortage of blood. According to Mr Bathija, Dr Ali and his brother were negligent in that they failed to diagnose his condition and neglected to advise him to go to hospital.

His daughter Shibani said: “My father was in a wheelchair but was making progress with his walking. He hoped he might become a bit more independent. With the amputations, that’s all gone.”

In 2003, Prince Charles’ Prince of Wales’ FIH has launched a five-year plan which outlined how to improve access to therapies.

In 2004, Charles publicly supported the Gerson diet as a treatment for cancer and Prof Baum, one of the UK’s most eminent oncologists, was invited to respond in an open letter to the British Medical Journal: …Over the past 20 years I have treated thousands of patients with cancer and lost some dear friends and relatives to this dreaded disease…The power of my authority comes with knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research. Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. I don’t begrudge you that authority but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life-threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies.

In 2005, the ‘Smallwood-Report’ was published, commissioned by Charles and paid for by Dame Shirley Porter, specifically to inform health ministers. It stated that up to 480 million pounds could be saved if one in 10 family doctors offered homeopathy as an alternative to standard drugs. Savings of up to 3.5 billion pounds could be achieved by offering spinal manipulation rather than drugs to people with back pain. Because I had commented on this report, Prince Charles’ first private secretary asked my vice chancellor to investigate my activities; even though I was found to be not guilty of any wrong-doing, specifically of violating confidentiality, all local support stopped which led to my early retirement. ITV later used this incident in a film entitled THE MEDDLING PRINCE.

In a 2006 speech Prince Charles told the World Health Organisation in Geneva that alternative medicine should have a more prominent place in health care. The Prince urged every country to come up with a plan to integrate conventional and alternative medicine into the mainstream. But British science struck back. Anticipating Prince Charles’s sermon in Geneva, thirteen of Britain’s most eminent physicians and scientists issued a widely quoted “Open Letter: Use of ‘Alternative’ Medicine in the NHS”. The letter expressed concern over “ways in which unproven or disproved treatments are being encouraged for general use in Britain’s National Health Service.” The signatories, who included three Fellows of the Royal Society, one Nobel Laureate (Sir James Black, FRS) and the son of another (Professor Gustav Born, FRS), cited the overt promotion of homeopathy by the NHS, including its official website. The Open Letter warned that “it would be highly irresponsible to embrace any medicine as though it were a matter of principle.”

In 2008The Times published my letter asking the FIH to recall two guides promoting “alternative medicine”, saying: “the majority of alternative therapies appear to be clinically ineffective, and many are downright dangerous.” A speaker for the FIH countered the criticism by stating: “We entirely reject the accusation that our online publication Complementary Healthcare: A Guide contains any misleading or inaccurate claims about the benefits of complementary therapies. On the contrary, it treats people as adults and takes a responsible approach by encouraging people to look at reliable sources of information… so that they can make informed decisions. The foundation does not promote complementary therapies.”

In 2009, the Prince held talks with the health Secretary to persuade him to introduce safeguards amid a crackdown by the EU that could prevent anyone who is not a registered health practitioner from selling remedies. This, it seems, was yet another example of Charles’ disregard of his constitutional role. In the same year, Charles urged government to protect alternative medicine medicine because “we fear that we will see a black market in herbal products”, as Dr Michael Dixon, medical director of Charles’ FIH, put it.

In 2009, Charles seemed to have promised that his London-based ‘College of Integrated Medicine’ (the name was only later changed to ‘College of Medicine’, see below) was to have a second base in India. An Indian spokesman commented: “The second campus of the Royal College will be in Bangalore. We have already proposed the setting up of an All India Institute of Integrated Medicine to the Union health ministry. At a meeting in London last week with Prince Charles, we finalized the project which will kick off in July 2010”.

In 2010, Charles publicly stated that he was proud to be perceived as ‘an enemy of the enlightenment’.

In 2010, ‘Republic’ filed an official complaint about FIH alleging that its trustees allowed the foundation’s staff to pursue a public “vendetta” against a prominent critic of the prince’s support for complementary medicines, Edzard Ernst. It also suggests the imminent closure of Ernst’s department may be partly down to the charity’s official complaint about him after he publicly attacked its draft guide to complementary medicines as “outrageous and deeply flawed”.

In 2010, former fellows of Charles’ disgraced FIH launched a new organisation, The College of Medicine’ supporting the use of integrated treatments in the NHS. One director of the college is Michael Dixon, a GP in Cullompton, Devon, who was formerly medical director of the Foundation for Integrated Health. The others are George Lewith, who runs a complementary medicine unit at Southampton University; David Peters, the chairman of the British Holistic Medical Association; and Christine Glover, a holistic health consultant. All are former fellows of the prince’s charity. My own analysis of the activities of the new college leaves little doubt that it is promoting quackery.

In 2010, Charles published his book HARMONY which is full of praise for even the most absurd forms of quackery.

In 2011, after the launch of his very own range of herbal tinctures Charles was harshly criticised. Consequently, a public row was re-ignited with Clarence House by branding the Prince of Wales a “snake oil salesman”. I had the audacity to criticise the heir to the throne for lending his support to homeopathic remedies and for selling the Duchy Herbals detox tincture.

In 2011, Charles forged a link between ‘The College of Medicine’ and an Indian holistic health centre. The collaboration has been reported to include clinical training to European and Western doctors in ayurveda and homoeopathy and traditional forms of medicine to integrate them in their practice. The foundation stone for the extended campus of the Royal College known as the International Institution for Holistic and Integrated Medicine was laid by Dr Michael Dixon in collaboration with the Royal College of Medicine.

In 2012, Charles was nominated for ‘THE GOLDEN DUCK AWARD’ for his achievements in promoting quackery; Andrew Wakefield beat him to it, but Charles was a well-deserved runner-up.

In 2013, Charles called for society to embrace a broader and more complex concept of health. In his article he described a vision of health that includes the physical and social environment, education, agriculture and architecture. Emphasising that his point is not to confront accepted medical wisdom, HRH suggests reasons for encouraging a wider perspective on health. Rather than simply treating the symptoms of disease, The Prince advocates a health service that puts patients at the heart of the process by incorporating the core human elements of mind, body and spirit. Explaining that symptoms may often be a metaphor for underlying disease and unhappiness, he calls for a scientific and therapeutic approach that understands, values and uses patient perspective and belief rather than seeking to exclude them.

In 2013, Charles’ Highgrove enterprise offered ‘baby-hampers’ for sale at £195 a piece and made a range of medicinal claims for the products it contained. As these claims were not supported by evidence, there is no way to classify them other than quackery.

By 2013, the ‘Association of Osteomyologists’ are seeking to become regulated in statute, with the help of Prince Charles as their patron. An Osteomyologist will treat both the symptoms and the root cause of a condition with the aim of alleviating symptoms and preventing reoccurrence whenever possible. Osteomyology encourages the skilled use of techniques including Cranial and Cranio-Sacral therapy.

In November 2013, Charles invited alternative medicine proponents from across the world, including Dean Michael Ornish, Sausalito, California, Michael Dixon, chair of College of Medicine, UK and Issac Mathai of Soukya Foundation, Bangalore, to India for a ‘brain storm’ and a subsequent conference on alternative medicine. The prince wanted the experts to collaborate and explore the possibilities of integrating different systems of medicines and to better the healthcare delivery globally, one of the organisers said.

I am sure that, in the future, we will hear much more about Charles’ indulgence in quackery; and, of course, we will hear more criticism of it. But I doubt that anyone can put it better that the late Christopher Hitchens who repeatedly wrote about Charles’ passion for anti-science:

“Once the hard-won principles of reason and science have been discredited, the world will not pass into the hands of credulous herbivores who keep crystals by their sides and swoon over the poems of Khalil Gibran. The “vacuum” will be invaded instead by determined fundamentalists of every stripe who already know the truth by means of revelation and who actually seek real and serious power in the here and now. One thinks of the painstaking, cloud-dispelling labour of British scientists from Isaac Newton to Joseph Priestley to Charles Darwin to Ernest Rutherford to Alan Turing and Francis Crick, much of it built upon the shoulders of Galileo and Copernicus, only to see it causally slandered by a moral and intellectual weakling from the usurping House of Hanover.”

And perhaps even better here:

We have known for a long time that Prince Charles’ empty sails are so rigged as to be swelled by any passing waft or breeze of crankiness and cant. He fell for the fake anthropologist Laurens van der Post. He was bowled over by the charms of homeopathic medicine. He has been believably reported as saying that plants do better if you talk to them in a soothing and encouraging way. But this latest departure promotes him from an advocate of harmless nonsense to positively sinister nonsense….The heir to the throne seems to possess the ability to surround himself—perhaps by some mysterious ultramagnetic force?—with every moon-faced spoon-bender, shrub-flatterer, and water-diviner within range.

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.

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