MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

fallacy

Believe it or not, but my decision – all those years ago – to study medicine was to a significant degree influenced by a somewhat naive desire to, one day, be able to save lives. In my experience, most medical students are motivated by this wish – “to save lives” in this context stands not just for the dramatic act of administering a life-saving treatment to a moribund patient but it is meant as a synonym for helping patients in a much more general sense.

I am not sure whether, as a young clinician, I ever did manage to save many lives. Later, I had a career-change and became a researcher. The general view about researchers seems to be that they are detached from real life, sit in ivory towers and write clever papers which hardly anyone understands and few people will ever read. Researchers therefore cannot save lives, can they?

So, what happened to those laudable ambitions of the young Dr Ernst? Why did I decide to go into research, and why alternative medicine; why did I not conduct research in more the promotional way of so many of my colleagues (my life would have been so much more hassle-free, and I even might have a knighthood by now); why did I feel the need to insist on rigorous assessments and critical thinking, often at high cost? For my many detractors, the answers to these questions seem to be more than obvious: I was corrupted by BIG PHARMA, I have an axe to grind against all things alternative, I have an insatiable desire to be in the lime-light, I defend my profession against the concurrence from alternative practitioners etc. However, for me, the issues are a little less obvious (today, I will, for the first time, disclose the bribe I received from BIG PHARMA for criticising alternative medicine: the precise sum was zero £ and the same amount again in $).

As I am retiring from academic life and doing less original research, I do have the time and the inclination to brood over such questions. What precisely motivated my research agenda in alternative medicine, and why did I remain unimpressed by the number of powerful enemies I made pursuing it?

If I am honest – and I know this will sound strange to many, particularly to those who are convinced that I merely rejoice in being alarmist – I am still inspired by this hope to save lives. Sure, the youthful naivety of the early days has all but disappeared, yet the core motivation has remained unchanged.

But how can research into alternative medicine ever save a single life?

Since about 20 years, I am regularly pointing out that the most important research questions in my field relate to the risks of alternative medicine. I have continually published articles about these issues in the medical literature and, more recently, I have also made a conscious effort to step out of the ivory towers of academia and started writing for a much wider lay-audience (hence also this blog). Important landmarks on this journey include:

– pointing out that some forms of alternative medicine can cause serious complications, including deaths,

– disclosing that alternative diagnostic methods are unreliable and can cause serious problems,

– demonstrating that much of the advice given by alternative practitioners can cause serious harm to the patients who follow it,

– that the advice provided in books or on the Internet can be equally dangerous,

– and that even the most innocent yet ineffective therapy becomes life-threatening, once it is used to replace effective treatments for serious conditions.

Alternative medicine is cleverly, heavily and incessantly promoted as being natural and hence harmless. Several of my previous posts and the ensuing discussions on this blog strongly suggest that some chiropractors deny that their neck manipulations can cause a stroke. Similarly, some homeopaths are convinced that they can do no harm; some acupuncturists insist that their needles are entirely safe; some herbalists think that their medicines are risk-free, etc. All of them tend to agree that the risks are non-existent or so small that they are dwarfed by those of conventional medicine, thus ignoring that the potential risks of any treatment must be seen in relation to their proven benefit.

For 20 years, I have tried my best to dispel these dangerous myths and fallacies. In doing so, I had to fight many tough battles  (sometimes even with the people who should have protected me, e.g. my peers at Exeter university), and I have the scars to prove it. If, however, I did save just one life by conducting my research into the risks of alternative medicine and by writing about it, the effort was well worth it.

Some time ago, we published a systematic review aimed at identifying what patients might hope for when they consult a practitioner of alternative medicine. The most common expectations that emerged from this research are listed here:

  • Less side-effects
  • Symptom relief
  • Cure of their disease
  • Cope better with their condition
  • Improve quality of life
  • Boost immune system
  • Prevention of illness
  • Good therapeutic relationship with a clinician
  • Holistic care
  • Emotional support
  • Control over their own health

In several ways, I think, these expectations are revealing; here I want to focus on one particular aspect, and ask the following question: To what extent are patients driven to see alternative practitioners simply because conventional medicine is letting them down? It seems to me that several items in the list above are an implicit criticism of mainstream medicine. This might get much clearer, if I re-phrase the points a bit: according to our findings, patients feel:

  • that conventional treatments have too many side-effects;
  • that they frequently fail to ease their symptoms;
  • that they often do not cure the disease;
  • that doctors do not enable their patients to cope with their condition;
  • that doctors care not enough about their patients’ quality of life;
  • that many conventional treatments neglect the importance of the immune system;
  • that prevention is not given the importance it should have;
  • that doctors are often no good at establishing good therapeutic relationships with their patients;
  • that doctors fail to realise that their patients are not just “cases” but whole human individuals;
  • that doctors are not providing enough emotional support;
  • that doctors fail to empower their patients to be in control of their health.

Some of these points will probably strike a cord with most of us. I for one know of many instances where conventional physicians have failed their patients most miserably. All too often, the failings of modern medicine are as obvious as they are inexcusable! I can fully understand that disappointed patients look for help and compassion elsewhere, and I am quite sure that the failings of modern medicine are an important motivator for people to try alternative medicine.

But looking elsewhere might not be the best approach for improving health care. Alternative practitioners may well be more compassionate than conventional clinicians but features like empathy, time and attention can never make good medicine, if they are not accompanied by effective therapies.

The conclusion is therefore simple: whenever we encounter one of the many failings of conventional medicine, instead of turning away in disgust, we ought to make sure that mistakes are corrected, lessons are learnt and improvements are found and put into practice. Our aim must be to generate progress, and it cannot be reached by opting for unproven or dis-proven treatments.

Yesterday, I received a letter from the editor-in-chief of the journal ‘Homeopathy‘ informing me that I have been struck off the editorial board of his publication. As the letter is not marked confidential, I feel that I can reproduce parts of it here:

Dear Professor Ernst,

This is to inform you that you have been removed from the Editorial Board of Homeopathy.  The reason for this is the statement you published on your blog on Holocaust Memorial Day 2013 in which you smeared homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine with a ‘guilt by association’ argument, associating them with the Nazis.

I should declare a personal interest….[Fisher goes on to tell a story which is personal and which I therefore omit]…  I mention this only because it highlights the absurdity of guilt by association arguments.

Sincerely

Peter Fisher Editor-in-Chief, Homeopathy

I do agree with Dr Fisher that guilt by association is absurd. However, I disagree with the notion that I used this fallacy in my post the full text of which be found here. After re-reading it several times, I still do not see that it employs a ‘guilt by association argument’. It merely recounts historical facts which are not well-known and therefore worth mentioning. Importantly, the post consits in essence of quotes from my previous publications on the subject. My motives for writing it could not have been clearer and are emphacised in the last paragraph:

So, why bring all of this up today? Is it not time that we let grass grow over these most disturbing events? I think not! For many years, I actively researched this area (you can find many of my articles on Medline) because I am convinced that the unprecedented horrors of Nazi medicine need to be told and re-told – not just on HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY, but continually. This, I hope, will minimize the risk of such incredible abuses ever happening again.

Perhaps a comparison might make it a little clearer why, in my opinion, Fisher’s is so utterly bizarre. Imagine an eminent researcher in the area of psychiatry who has been on the editorial board of a journal in his area for many years and contributed numerous articles to this journal. He then decides to research and subsequently write about the infamous Nazi past of German psychiatry. As a result, he is fired from his editorial board position because the editor feels that he has smeared the reputation of psychiatry.

I think most observers might find this odd and unjustified. Such a thing would not happen, I think, in a field with a mature research-culture. That it did happen in homeopathy might be interpreted as a reflection of the fact that homeopathy lacks such a culture.

So how precisely can we explain my dismissal? My article and my motives for writing it could have been thoroughly misunderstood – in my view, this is unlikely because I explained my motives in some detail both in the article and in the comments that follow the article. Here is my last of several posts clarifying my motives:

i am sorry that some have misunderstood the message of this blog and the reason why i wrote it.
i did certainly not want to engage in the GUILTY BY ASSOCIATION fallacy.
here is the truth:
i have had a research interest in nazi medicine and published about it.
in the course of these activities, i discovered that, contrary to what most people seem to assumue, alt med was involved as well. so i published this too many years ago.
this blog was simply and purely aimed at re-telling this story because it deserves to be re-told, in my view.
i regret that some people have read things into it which i did not intend.

Another explanation could be that Dr Fisher, who also is the Queen’s homeopath, lacks sufficient skills of critical thinking to understand the article and its purpose. Alternatively, he has been waiting for an occasion to fire me ever since I became more openly critical of homeopathy about five years ago.

Whatever the explanation, I think it is regrettable that the journal ‘Homeopathy’ has now lost the only editorial board member who had the ability to openly and repeatedly display a critical attitude about homeopathy – remember: without a critical attitude progress is unlikely!

Whenever I have the occasion to discuss with  practitioners of alternative medicine the pros and cons of their methods, I hear sooner or later the argument “WE TREAT THE ROOT CAUSES OF DISEASE !!!” This remark emerges regularly regardless of the type of treatment the practitioner uses, and regardless of what disease we might have been talking about.

The statement is regularly pronounced with such deep conviction (and almost audible exclamation marks) that I am inclined to conclude these practitioners fully and wholeheartedly believe it. The implication usually is that, in conventional medicine, we only treat the symptoms of our patients. Quite often, this latter notion is not just gently implied but also forcefully expressed.

I have often wondered where this assumption and the fierce conviction with which it is expressed come from. The answer, I have come to conclude after many years of having such debates, is quite simple: it is being taught over and over again during the practitioners’ training, and it constitutes a central message of most ‘textbooks’ for the aspiring alternative practitioner.

It is not difficult to find the actual origin of all this. The notion that alternative practitioners treat the root causes is clearly based on the practitioners’ understanding of aetiology. If a traditional acupuncturist, for instance, becomes convinced that all disease is the expression of an imbalance of life-forces, and that needling acupuncture points will re-balance these forces thus restoring health, he must automatically assume that he is treating the root causes of any condition. If a chiropractor believes that all diseases  are due to ‘subluxations’ of the spine, it must seem logical to him that spinal ‘adjustment’ is synonymous with treating the root cause of whatever complaint his patient is suffering from. If a Bowen therapist is convinced that “the Bowen Technique aims to balance the whole person, not just the symptoms“, he is bound to be equally sure that “practically any problem can potentially be addressed” by this intervention.

Let us assume for a minute that all these practitioners are correct in believing that their interventions are causal treatments, i.e. therapies directed against the cause of a disease. Successful treatment of any root cause can only mean that the therapy in question completely  heals the problem at hand. If we abolish the cause of a disease, we would expect the disease to disappear for good.

This, I think, begs a crucial question: ARE THERE ANY DISEASES WHICH ARE REPRODUCIBLY CURED BY AN ALTERNATIVE THERAPY?

I have contemplated it frequently and discussed it often with practitioners but, so far, I have not identified a single one.  I have no problem naming diseases which conventional medicine can cure – but, in alternative medicine, I only draw blanks. Even those alternative therapies which might be effective are not causal but symptomatic by nature. Honestly, I have not yet come across a single alternative treatment for which there is compelling evidence proving that it can produce more than symptom-relief.

But, of course, I might be wrong, over-critical, blind, bought by the pharmaeutical industry, dishonest or stupid. So, the purpose of this post is to clarify this issue once and for all. I herewith invite practitioners to name a disease for which there is sound evidence proving that it can be cured by their therapy.

The most common pronouncement regarding alternative medicine that I have heard over the years from consumers, health care professionals or decision makers with a liking of alternative medicine goes as follows: “I don’t care how it works, as long as it helps.”

At first glance, this argument seems reasonable, logic and correct; it would be foolish, perhaps even unethical, to reject an effective treatment simply because we fail to understand how its effectiveness comes about – this would not be pragmatic and it is not what we do in medicine: aspirin, for instance, was used and helped many patients long before we understood how it worked. However, once we consider the way this notion is regularly used to defend the use of unproven therapies, we see that, in this context, it is fallacious – in fact, if we dissect it carefully, we find that it  crams three large fallacies in one tiny sentence.

The first thing we notice is that the argument combines two fundamentally different issues which really should be separate  1) the mechanism of action of a therapy and 2) its clinical effectiveness. The matter gets clearer, if we discuss it not in the abstract, but in relation to a concrete example: BACH FLOWER REMEDIES (BFRs). I could have selected many other alternative therapies but BFRs seem fine, particularly as they have so far received no mention on this blog.

Similar to homeopathic preparations, BFRs are so dilute that they do not contain any active ingredients to speak of (they differ from homeopathic preparations, however, in that they do not follow the ‘like cures like’ principle). Several clinical trials of BFRs have been published; collectively, their results show very clearly that the clinical effects of BFRs do not differ from those of placebo. (This does not stop manufacturers selling and consumers buying them; in fact, BFRs are a thriving business.)

The principles backing up BFRs are scientifically implausible, and even BFR-practitioners would probably admit that they have no scientifically defensible idea how their remedies work. Scientists might add that a mechanism of action of such highly dilute remedies is not just unknown but unknowable; there is no way to explain how they work without re-writing several laws of nature.

The overall situation is thus quite clear: BFRs are not effective and there is no plausible mechanism of action.Yet it is hard to deny that many patients feel better after having consulted a BFR-practitioner (or after self-medicating BFRs), and those satisfied customers often insist: “I don’t care how BFRs work, as long as they help me.”

As previously discussed, symptoms can improve for a range of reasons which are related to any specific therapeutic effect: the natural history of the condition, regression towards the mean, placebo-effects etc. Only rigorously controlled trials can tell us whether the therapy or other factors caused the clinical outcome; our perception alone cannot identify cause and effect.

The fact that thousands of patients swear by BFRs, does therefore not constitute proof for their efficacy. The explanation of the apparently different impressions from experience and the results of clinical trials is therefore simple: the empathetic encounter with a therapist and/or a placebo-effect and/or the natural history of the condition are perceived as helpful, while the BFRs are pure placebos.

Back to the notion “I don’t care how this therapy works, as long as it helps” – it turns out to be based on at least three misunderstandings all tightly woven together.

Firstly, it was not the treatment itself that helped, but something else (see above). To imply that the treatment worked is therefore a fallacy.

Secondly, the reference to an unknown mechanism of action is aimed at misleading the opponent: it distracts  from the first fallacy (“the treatment is effective”) by super-imposing a second fallacy (that there might be a mechanism of action). Crucially it attempts to wrong-foot the opponent by implying: “you reject something useful simply because you cannot explain it; this is poor logic and even worse ethics – shame on you!”.

BFR-enthusiasts are bound to see all this quite differently. They will probably claim that a placebo-effect is also a plausible mechanism. “Surely” they might say “this means that BFRs are useful and should be widely employed”.

In proclaiming this, they turn the double-fallacy into a triple fallacy. What they forget is that we do not need a placebo to generate placebo-effects. An effective treatment administered with time, compassion and empathy will, of course, also generate a placebo-effect – what is more, it would generate a specific therapeutic effect on top of it. Thus the BFR are quite useless in comparison. There is rarely a good justification for using placebos in clinical routine.

In conclusion, the often-used and seemingly reasonable sentence “I don’t care how it works, as long as it is helpful  turns out to be a package of fallacies when used to support the use of unproven treatments.

I don’t suppose that many readers of this blog believe all things natural to be entirely safe, but the general public seems to be hard-wired victims of this myth: Mother Nature is benign, and herbal remedies must be harmless!

There are, of course, several reasons why supposedly “natural” herbal treatments can be unsafe. Plants extracts can be toxic, they might interact with prescribed drugs or they can be contaminated or adulterated.

The latter two terms describe similar but not identical phenomena: contamination means the accidental addition of substances which should not be present in an herbal remedy; and adulteration signifies the deliberate addition of ingredients. If the substances in question are not pharmacologically inert, their presence in herbal remedies can cause adverse effects.

Both contamination and adulteration break laws and regulations; both are therefore illegal. Sadly, this does not mean that such things do not happen.

We have recently published an overview of the existing knowledge in this area. For this purpose, we summarised the evidence from 26 previously published reviews. Our findings were interesting but far from reassuring: the most commonly found contaminants were dust, pollen, insects, rodents, parasites, microbes, fungi, mould, pesticides, and heavy metals. The adulterants invariably were prescription drugs such as steroids, anti-diabetic medications etc.

These substances were implicated in a wide range of serious adverse effects in the unfortunate patients who took the remedies in question: agranulocytosis, meningitis, multi-organ failure, stroke, arsenic poisoning, mercury poisoning, lead poisoning, caner, encephalopathy, hepato-renal syndrome, kidney damage, rhabdomyolosis, metabolic acidosis, renal failure, liver failure, cerebral oedema, coma, and intra-cerebral bleeding. Several patients did not survive.

To avoid such disasters, consumers need to know which types of herbal remedies are most frequently implicated; our review showed that these were foremost Chinese and Indian remedies. While herbal medicines from the US or Europe ought to comply with certain rules and regulations regarding their quality and safety, Chinese and Indian herbal mixtures frequently enter our countries illegally or are bought from dubious sources, for instance, over the Internet. It is this type of herbal remedy that we should be concerned about.

We have to ask whether the risks outweigh the proven benefits of Chinese or Indian herbal mixtures. The short answer to this question is NO. There is very little compelling evidence to suggest that these treatments are efficacious. In the absence of proven benefit, even small or rare risks weigh heavily.

If the risk-benefit profile for any medical intervention fails to be positive, there can only be one reasonable conclusion regarding the use of this therapy – and that is: DON’T DO IT!

Let me briefly pick up the issue about ad hominem attacks mentioned at the end of my last post.

One of the most striking feature of the debates about alternative medicine is, in my experience, the fact that, whenever the defenders of the indefensible ran out of rational arguments, personal attacks are rarely far. Personal or ad hominem attacks are fallacious arguments directly directed at a named individual which serve as substitutes for that individual’s arguments. In football terminology, they play the player instead of the ball.

After many years of being at the receiving end of this phenomenon, I have grown to be amused by it, not just amused, I have slowly started to appreciate it. Strange? Let me explain.

Initially, I have to admit, I was annoyed, sometimes livid when someone hurled a personal attack in my direction. At one stage, I even investigated whether my university did not have the obligation to legally protect me in such situations. Predictably, the answer was negative.

Later I considered on one or two occasions taking legal action myself. However, after just a minimum of reflection, I dismissed the idea: it is bad enough that the British Chiropractic Association sued my friend and co-author Simon Singh for libel, but under no circumstances did I want to display a similarly deplorable behaviour.

Eventually, I realised that an ad hominem attack often is an important signal indicating that the attacker is wrong, very wrong indeed. It is nothing else than an open admission by “the other side” that they have no more reasonable arguments, that they are resorting to unreasonable notions, and that they have lost not just the plot but also the debate. In other words, being personally attacked in this way is a compliment and an unfailing sign of victory – and, if that is so, we should be proud of every single ad hominem attack we get after a well-reasoned debate.

Even on this relatively young blog, we have already seen signs of such victories; most notably a chiropractor recently conceded defeat after a perfectly reasonable debate on the safety of spinal manipulation by stating that “Ernst is an infamous medical demagogue who speaks nonsense“. Yet this little outburst of chiropractic self-humiliation is nothing compared to plethora of similar statements elsewhere on the internet. The following list is the result of just ~10 minutes of searching; I took the liberty of copying a short quote from each site but enthusiasts will find much more revealing stuff, I’m sure.

http://harald-walach.de/2012/12/18/mausetot-durch-homoeopathie-edzard-ernst-und-der-grosse-killer-nix/

“…whether he [Ernst] has only written or also read them [the reviews he has published], is a matter of dispute between experts…”

http://www.truthwillout.co.uk/2010/03/the-trials-of-edzard-ernst/

“…he’s really just another dull academic who knows nothing about it.   The fact that someone decided he could have a title that makes it sound like he’s knowledgable [sic] is irrelevant, he remains a nobody in the field of complementary therapy, his own university don’t even seem to like him, just about everything he says is negative and no ordinary member of the public I’ve ever mentioned him to has heard of him at all, so although he’s beloved by a few hacks and a small platoon of cynics, the rest of the world could not give a toss.”

http://avilian.co.uk/2012/02/edzard-ernst-exposed-as-a-fraud-and-a-liar/

“Edzard Ernst Exposed as a Fraud and a Liar”

http://www.naturalmatters.net/news-view.asp?news=4136

“Edzard Ernst, Britains self proclaimed “first Professor of Complementary Medicine” is finding himself with a lack of funding and his unit is facing closure.

He is blaming his clash with Prince Charles, but why Professor Ernst thinks anyone wants to fund someone who claims to be a professor of CAM, yet spends all his time debunking CAM we will never know. Its a rather strange scenario we feel!”

http://www.homeopathytoday.org/tag/edzard-ernst/

“From time to time you may see news reports about “an expert” named Edzard Ernst who regularly offers commentary about the value of homeopathic medicine. Ignore any such references he makes on the subject. He has never received even an introductory education on the subject of homeopathy”

http://www.chiropracticlive.com/why-should-anyone-believe-what-professor-edzard-ernst-says-after-he-put-his-name-to-a-bbc-programme-he-now-describes-as-deception/

“Why should anyone believe what Professor Edzard Ernst says, after he put his name to a BBC programme, he now describes as “deception”.”

http://johnbenneth.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/i-challenge-edzard-ernst-and-the-evil-empire-at-exeter/

“EDZARD ERNST and the Evil Empire at Exeter”

http://theunhivedmind.com/wordpress2/?p=816

“Edzard Ernst, is not a credible source of information about the effectiveness of homeopathy”

http://community.wddty.com/blogs/adverse_reactions/archive/2007/10/05/Herbicide.aspx

“Prof Edzard Ernst (family motto: ‘I have not come to praise alternative medicine, I have come to bury it’) who has hardly said a good word for alternative medicine in all the years he has held the recently-created Complementary Medicine chair at Exter [sic]University. ”

http://campaignfortruth.com/Eclub/120107/CTM%20-%20confusedaboutalternativemedicine.htm

“the pharma-friendly gold standard that Ernst and his colleagues seem to worship”

http://www.chiropractorsforfairjournalism.info/The_Medical_GoodFellas.html

Edzard Ernst of the Medical School at the University of Exeter wrote his infamous 2010 study from England, “Deaths After Chiropractic: A Review Of Published Cases,” that once again raised the level of fear over chiropractic care when he noted that “Twenty-six fatalities were published since 1934 in 23 articles

It is hard to deny that these statements are amusing. But by far my favourite personal attacker is a German chap called Claus Fritzsche. He runs a website which, at one stage, seemed almost entirely dedicated to telling lies about me; and, what is best of all, he even took money for these efforts from several homeopathic manufacturers. Surely, apart from perhaps the Nobel Prize, this must be the nicest recognition, the sweetest feast of victory and greatest compliment any scientist might ever wish for.

So, ad hominem attackers of all ages, types, nationalities and persuasions, please keep them coming. I am unlikely to sue for libel; on the contrary, I will celebrate them for what they truly are: they are compliments for me, victories for reason and admissions of defeat for you.

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