A cult can be defined not just in a religious context, but also as a” usually nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease.” After ~20 years of researching this area, I have come to suspect that much of alternative medicine resembles a cult – a bold statement, so I better explain.
One characteristic of a cult is the unquestioning commitment of its members to the bizarre ideas of their iconic leader. This, I think, chimes with several forms alternative medicine. Homeopaths, for instance, very rarely question the implausible doctrines of Hahnemann who, to them, is some sort of a semi-god. Similarly, few chiropractors doubt even the most ridiculous assumptions of their founding father, D D Palmer who, despite of having been a somewhat pathetic figure, is uncritically worshipped. By definition, a cult-leader is idealised and thus not accountable to anyone; he (yes, it is almost invariably a male person) cannot be proven wrong by logic arguments nor by scientific facts. He is quite simply immune to any form of scrutiny. Those who dare to disagree with his dogma are expelled, punished, defamed or all of the above.
Cults tend to brain-wash their members into unconditional submission and belief. Likewise, fanatics of alternative medicine tend to be brain-washed, i.e. systematically misinformed to the extend that reality becomes invisible. They unquestioningly believe in what they have been told, in what they have read in their cult-texts, and in what they have learnt from their cult-peers. The effects of this phenomenon can be dramatic: the powers of discrimination of the cult-member are reduced, critical questions are discouraged, and no amount of evidence can dissuade the cult-member from abandoning even the most indefensible concepts. Internal criticism is thus by definition non-existent.
Like religious cults, many forms of alternative medicine promote an elitist concept. Cult-members become convinced of their superiority, based not on rational considerations but on irrational beliefs. This phenomenon has a range of consequences. It leads to the isolation of the cult-member from the rest of the world. By definition, critics of the cult do not belong to the elite; they are viewed as not being able to comprehend the subtleties of the issues at hand and are thus ignored or not taken seriously. For cult-members, external criticism is thus non-existent or invalid.
Cult-members tend to be on a mission, and so are many enthusiasts of alternative medicine. They use any conceivable means to recruit new converts. For instance, they try to convince family, friends and acquaintances of their belief in their particular alternative therapy at every conceivable occasion. They also try to operate on a political level to popularize their cult. They cherry pick data, often argue emotionally rather than rationally, and ignore all arguments which contradict their belief system.
Cult-members, in their isolation from society, tend to be assume that there is little worthy of their consideration outside the cult. Similarly, enthusiasts of alternative medicine tend to think that their treatment is the only true method of healing. Therapies, concepts and facts which are not cult-approved are systematically defamed. An example is the notion of BIG PHARMA which is employed regularly in alternative medicine. No reasonable person assumes that the pharmaceutical industry smells of roses. However, the exaggerated and systematic denunciation of this industry and its achievements is a characteristic of virtually all branches of alternative medicine. Such behaviour usually tells us more about the accuser than the accused.
There are many other parallels between a cult and alternative medicine, I am sure. In my view, the most striking one must be the fact that any spark of cognitive dissonance in the cult-victim is being extinguished by highly effective and incessant flow of misinformation which often amounts to a form of brain-washing.
The main aim of our systematic review was to estimate the prevalence of use of alternative medicine (AM) in the UK. Five databases were searched for peer-reviewed surveys published between 1 January 2000 and 7 October 2011. In addition, relevant book chapters and files from our own departmental records were searched by hand. Eighty-nine surveys were included, with a total of 97,222 participants. Surely, fact that this large amount of UK surveys had emerged in only about one decade, speaks for itself.
Most studies turned out to be of poor methodological quality. Across all surveys, the average one-year prevalence of AM-use was 41.1%, and the average lifetime prevalence was 51.8%. However, many of these investigations were flimsy. According to methodologically sound surveys, the equivalent rates were 26.3% and 44%, respectively. In surveys with response rates >70%, the average one-year prevalence was nearly threefold lower than in surveys with response rates below 50%. Herbal medicine was the most popular CAM, followed by homeopathy, aromatherapy, massage and reflexology.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that four crucial points about such surveys have been clearly documented:
1) The amount of surveys in AM is staggering.
2) They contribute very little worthwhile knowledge and mostly seem to be exercises in AM-promotion.
3) Their methodological quality is usually low.
4) The poor quality surveys systematically over-estimate the prevalence of AM-use.
I think it is time that AM investigators focus on real research answering important questions which advance out knowledge, that AM-journal editors stop publishing meaningless nonsense, and that decision-makers understand the difference between promotion dressed up as science and real research.
Even after all these years of full-time research into alternative medicine and uncounted exchanges with enthusiasts involved in this sector, I find the logic that is often applied in this field bewildering and the unproductiveness of the dialogue disturbing.
To explain what I mean, it be might best to publish a (fictitious, perhaps slightly exaggerated) debate between a critical thinker or scientist (S) and an uncritical proponent (P) of one particular form of alternative medicine.
P: Did you see this interesting study demonstrating that treatment X is now widely accepted, even by highly critical GPs at the cutting edge of health care?
S: This was a survey, not a ‘study’, and I never found the average GP “highly critical”. Surveys of this nature are fairly useless and they “demonstrate” nothing of real value.
P: Whatever, but it showed that GPs accept treatment X. This can only mean that they realise how safe and effective it is.
S: Not necessarily, GPs might just give in to consumer demand, or the sample was cleverly selected, or the question was asked in a leading manner, etc.
P: Hardly, because there is plenty of good evidence for treatment X.
S: Really? Show me.
P: There is this study here which proves that treatment X works and is risk-free.
S: The study was far too small to demonstrate safety, and it is wide open to multiple sources of bias. Therefore it does not conclusively show efficacy either.
P: You just say this because you don’t like its result! You have a closed mind!
In any case, it was merely an example! There are plenty more positive studies; do your research properly before you talk such nonsense.
S: I did do some research and I found a recent, high quality systematic review that arrived at a negative conclusion about the value of treatment X.
P: That review was done by sceptics who clearly have an axe to grind. It is based on studies which do not account for the intrinsic subtleties of treatment X. Therefore they are unfair tests of treatment X. These trials don’t really count at all. Every insider knows that! The fact that you cite it merely confirms that you do not understand what you are talking about.
S: It seems to me, that you like scientific evidence only when it confirms your belief. This, I am afraid, is what quacks tend to do!
P: I strongly object to being insulted in this way.
S: I did not insult you, I merely made a statement of fact.
P: If you like facts, you have to see that one needs to have sufficient expertise in treatment X in order to apply it properly and effectively. This important fact is neglected in all of those trials that report negative results; and that’s why they are negative. Simple! I really don’t understand why you are too stupid to understand this. Such studies do not show that treatment X is ineffective, but they demonstrate that the investigators were incompetent or hired with the remit to discredit treatment X.
S: I would have thought they are negative because they minimised bias and the danger of generating a false positive result.
P: No, by minimising bias, as you put it, these trials eliminated the factors that are important elements of treatment X.
S: Such as the placebo-effect?
P: That’s what you call it because you irrationally believe in reductionist science.
S: Science requires no belief, I think you are the believer here.
P: The fact is that scientists of your ilk negate all factors related to human interactions. Patients are no machines, you know, they need compassion; we clinicians know that because we work at the coal face of health care. Scientists in their ivory towers have no idea about patient care and just want science for science sake. This is not how you help patients. Show some compassion man!
S: I do know about the importance of compassion and care, but here we are discussing an entirely different topic, namely tests the efficacy or effectiveness of treatments, not patient-care. Let’s focus on one issue at a time.
P: You cannot separate things in this way. We have to take a holistic view. Patients are whole individuals, and you cannot do them justice by running artificial experiments. Every patient is different; clinical trials fail to account for this fact and are therefore fairly irrelevant to us and to our patients. Real life is very different from your imagined little experiments, you know.
S: These are platitudes that are nonsensical in this context and do not contribute anything meaningful to the present discussion. You do not seem to understand the methodology or purpose of a clinical trial.
P: That is typical! Whenever you run out of arguments, you try to change the subject or throw a few insults at me.
S: Not at all, I thought we were talking about clinical trials evaluating the effectiveness of treatment X.
P: That’s right; and they do show that it is effective, provided you consider those which are truly well-done by experts who know about treatment X and believe in it.
S: Not true. Only if you cherry-pick the data will you be able to produce an overall positive result for treatment X.
P: In any case, the real world results of clinical practice show very clearly that it works. It would not have survived for so long, if it didn’t. Nobody can deny that, and nobody should claim that silly little trials done in artificial circumstances are more meaningful than a wealth of experience.
S: Experience has little to do with reliable evidence.
P: To deny the value of experience is just stupid and clearly puts you in the wrong. I have shown you plenty of reliable evidence but you just ignore everything I say that does not go along with your narrow-minded notions about science; science is not the only way of knowing or comprehending things! Stop being obsessed with science.
S: No, you show me rubbish data and have little understanding of science, I am afraid.
P: Here we go again! I have had about enough of that and your blinkered arguments. We are going in circles because you are ignorant and arrogant. I have tried my best to show you the light, but your mind is closed. I offer true insight and you pay me back with insults. You and your cronies are in the pocket of BIG PHARMA. You are cynical, heartless and not interested in the wellbeing of patients. Next you will tell me to vaccinate my kids!
S: I think this is a waste of time.
P: Precisely! Everyone who has followed this debate will see very clearly that you are obsessed with reductionist science and incapable of considering the suffering of whole individuals. You want to deny patients a treatment that really helps them simply because you do not understand how treatment X works. Shame on you!!!
Today, one day after a homeopathic retailer made headlines for advocating homeopathy as a treatment of measles, is the start of WORLD HOMEOPATHY AWARENESS WEEK. This is an ideal occasion, I think, for raising awareness of the often lamentably poor research that is being conducted in this area.
We have already on this blog discussed some rather meaningless research by Boiron, the world’s largest manufacturer of homeopathic preparations. I concluded my post by asking: “what can possibly be concluded from this article that is relevant to anyone? I did think hard about this question, and here is my considered answer: nothing (other than perhaps the suspicion that homeopathy-research is in a dire state)”. Now a new article has become available which sheds more light on those issues.
With this prospective observational study, the Boiron researchers wanted to determine the “characteristics and management of patients in France consulting allopathic general practitioners (AGPs) and homeopathic general practitioners (HGPs) for influenza-like illness (ILI)”. The investigation was conducted in Paris during the 2009-2010 influenza season. Sixty-five HGPs and 124 AGPs recruited a total of 461 patients with ILI. All the physicians and patients completed questionnaires recording demographic characteristics as well as patients’ symptoms.
Most AGPs (86%), and most patients consulting them (58%) were men; whereas most HGPs (57%), and most patients visiting them (56%) were women. Patients consulting AGPs were seen sooner after the onset of symptoms, and they self-treated more frequently with cough suppressants or expectorants. Patients visiting HGPs were seen later after the onset of symptoms and they self-treated with homeopathic medications more frequently.
At enrollment, headaches, cough, muscle/joint pain, chills/shivering, and nasal discharge/congestion were more common in patients visiting AGPs. 37.1% of all patients consulting AGPs were prescribed at least one homeopathic remedy, and 59.6% of patients visiting HGPs were prescribed at least one conventional medication. Patients’ satisfaction with their treatments did not differ between AGPs and HGPs; it was highest for the sub-group of patients who had been treated exclusively with homeopathy.
The authors draw the following conclusions from these data: In France, homeopathy is widely accepted for the treatment of ILI and does not preclude the use of allopathic medications. However, patients treated with homeopathic medications only are more satisfied with their treatment than other patients.
This type of article, I think, falls into the category of promotion rather than science; it seems to me as though the investigation was designed not by scientists but by Boiron’s marketing team. The stated aim was to determine the “characteristics and management of patients…“, yet the thinly disguised true purpose is, I fear, to show that patients who receive homeopathic treatment are satisfied with this approach. I have previously pointed out that such findings are akin to demonstrating that people who elect to frequent a vegetarian restaurant tend to not like eating meat. Patients who want to consult a homeopath also want homeopathy; consequently they are happy when they get what they wanted. This is not rocket science, in fact, it is not science at all.
But what about the impressive acceptance of homeopathic remedies by French non-homeopathic doctors? It would, of course, be an ‘argumentum ad populum’ fallacy [which implies that ‘generally accepted’ equals ‘effective’] to assume that this proves the value of homeopathy. Yet this finding nevertheless requires an explanation: why did these doctors chose to employ homeopathy? Was it because they knew it worked? I doubt it! In my view, there are other, more plausible reasons: perhaps their patients asked for or even insisted on it; perhaps they felt that this is better than causing bacterial resistance by prescribing an antibiotic for a viral infection?
While I find this study as useless as the one I previously discussed on this blog, and while I fear that it confirms the all too often doubtful quality of research in this area, it might nevertheless contain a tiny item of interest. The authors report that “at enrollment, headaches, cough, muscle/joint pain, chills/shivering, and nasal discharge/congestion were more common in patients visiting AGPs”. In plain English, this strongly suggests that patients who decide to consult a homeopath are less ill than those who go to see a conventional doctor.
Does that mean that a certain group of individuals frequent homeopaths only when they are not really very sick? Does that indicate that even enthusiasts do not trust homeopathy all that far? Is that perhaps similar to out Royal family who seem to consult real doctors and surgeons when they are truly ill, while keeping a homeopath on stand-by for the rest of the time? These might be relevant research questions for the future; somehow I doubt, however, that the guys in charge of Boiron will ever address them.
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:
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.
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!